At least since 11 September 2001, politicians, military leaders and social critics have increasingly asserted that we are living in a ‘state of exception’ or ‘state of emergency’. In response, the concept has come under scrutiny from scholars across the disciplines. Much of the academic literature on states of exception has been either theoretical or has focused on top-down analyses of states and their expressions of collective power. This anthology aims to complicate this discussion by shifting focus to individual bodies—thus changing the scale and the subject of analysis. This shift is provocative and persuasive. The essays cover a remarkable array of topics ranging from fitness to AIDS to plastic surgery, unpacking the ways in which states of exception are both normalized and literally embodied in the flesh of individual citizens. The introductory essay by Hannah Ahlheim sets up two major issues that run through the collection: exploring the relationship between the normal and the exceptional and addressing the issue of who defines and polices the boundaries of these categories. Ahlheim relies heavily on Foucault’s theory of governmentality, which has been productive for social scientists seeking to understand the ways in which state power regulates populations through regulating their bodies. Predictably, as is the case with much Foucaultian scholarship, scientific knowledge, and especially medical discourse, is a central thread running through the essays. However, the essays effectively complicate and expand conventional categories of both health and expertise, offering an interesting meditation on the category of sickness in the modern world. I was especially struck by productive intersections between aesthetic and medical categories in several essays, illustrating ways in which beauty norms and definitions of health are intertwined. Most strikingly, Annelie Ramsbrock’s discussion of plastic surgery explores the fine line between ugliness and sickness, as medical debates raged over the appropriateness of surgical intervention to correct current ‘ugliness’ as well as future distress and (mental) illness. Several authors addressed the ways in which states take advantage of exceptional situations in order to gain or standardize knowledge. For example, Christoph Kopke’s essay on linkages between starvation research completed in Nazi concentration camps and nutritional research in the early Federal Republic explores one of the most egregious (though by no means unusual) cases of career continuity in the field of nutrition across the caesura of 1945; it also usefully suggests the larger implications of this continuity, as ‘states of exception’ during wartime become seamlessly integrated into normal ‘everyday life’ in West Germany’s economic miracle. As a historian, my primary complaint is of a lack of historical specificity. Although the concept of modernity is central to all of the essays, it is unclear what sort of modernity each author is referring to. Although the title references the twentieth century, the bulk of the essays either focused on the post-1945 years or on ‘industrial modernity’ more loosely, reaching back to the nineteenth century. The Cold War seems a central framework for the collection—Ahlheim’s introduction frames the collection through Naomi Klein’s influential discussion of the ‘Shock Doctrine’, a concept derived from her analysis of early Cold War brainwashing experiments—and several essays invoke it, yet none of the contributions unpack this context. Perhaps more importantly, most contributions individually lacked adequate historicization. The significance of the Second World War for post-war hunger discourse, or of student protest for understanding self-improvement discourse, is at best implicit. Indeed, the 1970s and 1980s emerge as a key moment in debates over the state of the modern body in essays analysing discourse around burnout (Bernhardt), self-improvement (Eitler), obesity (Martschukat) and the AIDS epidemic (Bänziger and Ҫetin). Although several authors hint at the relevance of the global economic crisis of the 1970s, this larger context remains ephemeral and largely unconnected to essays’ particular topics. Although the collection successfully invokes a wide and provocative array of ‘exceptional bodies’, actual bodies themselves remain surprisingly absent from many of the contributions, and some of the most successful pieces focus on body imagery rather than real bodies. Relatedly, although much related scholarship has noted the importance of both women and children as non-normative and hence inherently exceptional figures, gender and generation were surprisingly undertheorized. Finally, as is always the case with ambitious anthologies like this one, I would have appreciated some attempt to link the essays together or draw out common themes. As it stands, the wide range of topics, approaches and time-frames made direct comparisons and connections difficult to make, though potentially quite productive. For example, the parallel rise of anti-obesity movements, popular experiences of workplace burn-out and struggles to resolve the body of the Junkie suggest fascinating new ways of understanding the transition to a post-Fordist economy in relation to body discourse and bodily experience. In conclusion, I very much enjoyed reading this excellent anthology. The uniformly well-written essays all effectively engaged with a shared theoretical framework, and, taken as a whole, contemporary relevance is obvious and striking. From current discussions of impending nuclear war to the global ‘war on obesity’ to the growing anti-immunization movement among middle-class Americans, themes of this collection can be found in newspaper headlines on a daily basis. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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