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Institute of Advanced Study

IAS/University College Fellow's Public Lecture

Speaker: Professor Sander Gilman

Date: 18 October 2011

Time: 6.15pm

Venue: Room 201, Elvet Riverside Building, New Elvet

Title: “Stand Up Straight”:  Posture and the Meanings Attributed to the Upright Body

When I was at university in the early 1960s there were a number of characteristics that we were taught defined the uniqueness of human beings: language, the opposable thumb and the use of tools, consciousness, emotions, and, last but not least, upright posture.  Over the past decades, more and more of these qualities (correctly or not) have been shown to be shared with any number of animals from the primates to the anteater.  Only upright posture has been maintained as the quality that defines the human, indeed, has come to be the defining attribute that draws the evolutionary line between the earliest human beings and their predecessors.  

The talk will focus on a set of interlinked claims about posture in modern culture. Over the past two centuries it has come to define a wide range of assumptions in the West from what makes human beings human (from Lamarck to Darwin) and beyond to the efficacy of the body in warfare (from Dutch drill manuals in the 17th century to German military medical studies of soldiers in the 19th century).  Dance and sport both are forms of posture training in terms of their own claims.  Posture separates 'primitive' from 'advanced' peoples and the 'ill' from the 'healthy.' Indeed an entire medical sub-specialty developed in which gymnastics defined and recuperated the body (from Swedish and German Sports to Krankengymnastik to modern Gym Culture).  But all of these claims were also part of a Western attempt to use posture (and the means of altering it) as the litmus test for the healthy modern body of the perfect citizen.  Focusing on the centrality of posture in two oddly linked moments of modern thought - modern Zionist thought and Nationalism in early 20th century China - in terms of bodily reform, I shall illustrate how all of the earlier Western claims about posture (and the body of the 'sick Jew" as well as the 'sick man of Asia') brings all of the earlier debates together to reform unhealthy posture.

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