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Vital Forms: Bodily Energy in Medicine and Culture, 1870-1925

Oakley, Catherine (2016) Vital Forms: Bodily Energy in Medicine and Culture, 1870-1925. PhD thesis, University of York.

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This thesis explores a conceptual understanding of the body as an economy of “energy”. It examines the range of real and imaginary practices that this understanding inspired, and the ways in which bodily energy was defined, discussed and culturally represented in Britain and the US across the period 1870-1925. Drawing selectively on a wide range of primary sources – scientific writing, popular science periodicals, newspaper commentaries, literary fiction and silent film – it identifies pervasive preoccupations with corporeal functionality and vitality, and considers these in relation to key social, cultural and economic changes. Employing a cultural materialist approach, and including marginal texts and little-studied archival materials in its enquiry, this study integrates cultural and scientific forms to illuminate the ways in which literary and filmic texts intersected with medical and commercial designs for the ideal body of late nineteenth- and early twentieth- century capitalism: energized, productive, appetitive and youthful. Prevailing critical approaches both in the history of medicine and in literary studies of this period have predominantly been defined by an interest in narratives of “degeneration”. This thesis identifies discourses surrounding the regulation, restoration and rejuvenation of bodily energy as projects of corporeal “regeneration”, and scrutinizes the ideological and creative characteristics of the materials in which they were expressed. Part I considers discussions and representations of fatigue, neurasthenia and idleness as categories of “arrested” energy, alongside interventionist strategies such as electrotherapy and Taylorism, which sought to liberate the body’s productive potential. Part II examines the discursive formation of old age as a state of “expended” energy, together with corresponding interests in the medical and cultural possibilities of “rejuvenation”: the restoration of the body’s youthful vigour. This interdisciplinary approach, combining elements from the History of Medicine, Labour History, Cultural Studies, Literary Studies, and Film Studies, facilitates distinct contributions to each of these areas. In addition, synthesizing materials from each field sheds new light on an expansive network of interlinked and mutually-illuminating discourses relating to bodily energy, the full extent of which has, until now, been largely obscured by a more conventional scholarly adherence to disciplinary boundaries.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Related URLs:
Academic Units: The University of York > English and Related Literature (York)
Identification Number/EthosID: uk.bl.ethos.707490
Depositing User: Dr Catherine Oakley
Date Deposited: 12 Apr 2017 14:59
Last Modified: 19 Feb 2020 13:07
URI: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/id/eprint/16647

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