Thoughts on the Oldenburg ‘Selfhood’ Conference

The Stormtrooper is making a portrait or is it a self portrait?

Prof. Dr. Dagmar Freist’s stimulating three-day conference on self-fashioning/self-cultivation, Praktiken der Selbst-Bildung im Spannungsfeld von ständischer Ordnung und gesellschaftlicher Dynamik, brought together researchers at different stages of their careers from all over the world and working in and across many disciplines. It was very exciting to be exposed to diverse ways of working, new theories of artifacts, material culture, and new research questions. Although there were diverse takes on subjectivity, Bourdieu and Foucault came up a lot. Some people drew freely from both; others stuck principally to one or the other. I think I am right in saying the Foucauldians tended to find Bourdieu’s notion of habitus and the way society functions to be rather too prescriptive. I have read and enjoyed both Bourdieu and Foucault; this may suggest that I am an unprincipled opportunist. In any case, it is clear I need to think more about points of agreement, disagreement, and any potential for reconciliation.

I am not going to attempt to summarise the German papers, since my German is not as good as I would like (although it’s certainly better than it was 3 days ago!), and I wouldn’t be able to do them justice. So, here are my brief summaries from memory of a few of the papers given in English.

Mikael Alm (Uppsala) is looking at a corpus of papers written in the 1770s in response to an essay competition for a new national dress for Sweden. They show fascinating divisions of society—some into four estates (noble, clergy, burgers, peasants), others into a combination of classes and estates. One essay was more-or-less entirely concerned with political class, basically dividing people into the rulers and the ruled. For me, what was interesting is where women would fit in to the proposed social orders. The clergy presumably excluded women at that time, and it made me wonder about the other groups—especially since one of the classes were government bureaucrats (again, a group traditionally excluding women). Apparently women were a problem for these ways of thinking. Did they have the same status as their husbands? Their fathers? Or did they stand outside the social order altogether?

The final day, Saturday, was the day set aside for studies of arts and materiality. The keynote address (Prof. Dr. Hans Peter Hahn) was on the function of things in society, I think principally informed by anthropology.

Dr. Ulinke Rublack (Cambridge) gave an excellent paper on an early modern rival to Imelda Marcos: ‘Leather as Matter of Distinction in Hans Fugger’s Material World’. She suggested an alternative title could be ‘How the Oxford Shoe Got Its Holes’. The Fugger family may be familiar to early music lovers as the sometime patrons/clients of Orlandus Lassus, Andrea Gabrieli, Philippe de Monte and others. I had thought they were a banking family, but apparently they were traders. Hans was not the head of the family, or of the family business, and his role in the business has been overlooked historically. It seems his main function was to build and maintain an extensive network. He had well over 200 regular correspondents with whom he exchanged gifts. He needed to look the part, which meant he had to keep his footwear in good condition. It needed to be fashionable and durable yet comfortable—familiar challenges to many of us today. Each pair of shoes was made to order, and sometimes when they arrived they didn’t fit and had to be adjusted–the leather stretched more, perhaps, or a few careful slashes added. But the point is that Hans Fugger attended to every detail of his appearance.

Prof. Beverly Lemire (Alberta) is engaged in fascinating research on the global trade in printed cotton and the response (I’m tempted to say ‘typically insular response’) to the arrival in Britain of these beautiful fabrics. In ‘Fashioning Early Modern Socieies: Indian Cottons, Material Politics and Consumer Innovation in Tokugawa Japan and Early Modern England’ Lemire described how English fabric-related guilds (woollen guilds, weavers) tried competing with the new cotton fabrics but printing on wool is not a successful endeavour so their final response was to lobby for a ban from British shores, and to oppose it in the most violent way imaginable. Women wearing this cotton in public could literally have the cotton ripped from them, and the women were often beaten; some protestors threw sulphuric acid at women wearing printed cotton; and there is one tragic account of a women wearing printed cotton being set on fire while walking across a square; she burned to death. It seems incredible now, but actually women’s bodies are still sites of political argument and control—sometimes related to clothing, as in the ‘keep your face uncovered/ban the burqa’ arguments which restrict every woman’s right to wear what she wants, as in the cover-your-hair/wear-a-burqa-or-you-don’t-leave-the-house policies of conservative Islamist governments (under the Taliban, women in Afghanistan were beaten if they didn’t wear a burqa, and even beaten for pursuing an education), and sometimes related to women’s right-to-choose, as in the new law coming into force in Virginia this week which will force all women wanting to have an abortion to have a transvaginal ultrasound; they are not asked to consent to this procedure. (In a transvaginal ultrasound, the doctor or ultrasound technician inserts a thick-ish probe into the woman’s vagina and moves it around to get a picture of the uterus, fallopian tubes and ovaries. It’s an uncomfortable experience even when consent is given and the procedure is medically-necessary. Since Virginia’s law will apply even if the woman does not want an ultrasound, it is effectively state-sanctioned rape of women. The party sponsoring these medically-unnecessary laws claims to be in favour of small governments that stay out of people’s way. In reality, they are getting in to women’s bodies.)

The thing that really struck me about Rublack and Lemire’s papers is just how far material goods traveled and how international trade was. People may conveniently forget about, say, the Atlantic slave trade (European-made goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to the Americas, sugar, chocolate, cotton and other luxuries from the Americas to Europe), or colonialism, and instead think of the international trade in consumer goods (by which I mean sugar, chocolate etc—not enslaved people) as a recent thing, but it’s not at all.

A second point I’ve been pondering (and I asked about a few times!) is the sound of clothing and shoes. We can often guess the gender of a person from the sound of their walk because of the gendered shoe and clothing practices of our times. Women are more likely to wear heels than men, and women are more likely to wear jangly jewelry than men. (In my teenage years when I had a few prized ‘Goth’ clothes, one of my favourite items was a skirt with bells on. And now, one of my suit jackets has beaded cuffs that make a clicky noise when I rest my forearms on a desk. Noisiness was something I hadn’t considered when I bought the jacket.) So, did the sound of clothing and footwear differ according to gender or perhaps status? Dr Rublack had come across a letter or note in which servants were required to wear soft-soled shoes indoors because they were not to be heard as they went about their work. And one conference delegate mentioned to me that a clergyman had complained of the noise of wooden shoes (worn by lower-classes) on the cobbles outside the chapel. That would be an interesting topic to look at in the future, perhaps. Maybe I should put some thought into the soundscape of certain streets in early modern Rome.

Image credit: Photo titled ‘The Stormtrooper is Making a Portrait, Or Is It a Self-Portrait’ by Kristina Alexanderson (kalexanderson) on Flickr.

Update: Virginia’s Governor did not make it compulsory to have a TV ultrasound before abortion.