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The Body and the French Revolution: Sex, Class and Political Culture Hardcover – 1 Jul 1989


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Amazon.com: HASH(0x98f45e7c) out of 5 stars 1 review
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0x98f4a39c) out of 5 stars After all we can all relate to having a body. 11 Aug. 2000
By Flora Mather - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
Innovative in its approach, Dorinda Outram's, The Body and the French Revolution challenges many of the more traditional histories. She takes the body as the central focus of her book and the way that people perceived and constructed the world of experience in which they lived at a time of profound upheaval. Her choice of the body may at first seem unusual and not at all the way that histories are written. This is her central point. For although the body proves to be an enduring social referent, powerfully, provocatively persistent in contemporary society, it has, she argues, become trivialised. In this sense it has been lost to the crowds of modern politics and is deprived of the public authority it once possessed. The French Revolution has been recognised by all as a hugely significant juncture for modern history, with much debate as to its exact role and meaning. It was an intensely physical experience due largely to the period that preceded it politically and the violence of its immediacy. The period of absolutism saw the concentration of public power in the very public body of the king. With his execution, Outram argues, this power became dispersed throughout the public sphere that underwent dramatic expansion. Coupled with the high incidence of death for political reasons the body became charged with political meaning. Outram therefore sets out to explore the possibility of integrating a history of the body with 'big history'. This big history is not only that of the French Revolution but also that of modern political developments that led to war in 1939 and the destruction of millions of those deemed outside of the norms of society. Perhaps a little subtle for the undiscerning eye, this book provides a subtext of fascism - the dark face of modern history. Although it is not always at the fore, Outram masterfully allows it to haunt throughout, at the fringes of the reader's mind. Quite a lot of theory occupies the first few chapters, which can be difficult going for the uninitiated! An introduction to the writings of Foucault and Elias is certainly helpful. However the book certainly rewards perseverance and the story really picks up at the point of giving greater meaning to many of the icons of the French Revolution which are often cited but never interpreted. Using embodiment, Outram casts the French Revolution in a dramatic light occupied by actors and audience as the historical participants. The imagery of theatre is important in understanding the political importance of the spectacle. This is most clear with the scene of the guillotine, where the execution of the condemned was made political by the very publicness of its display. Naturally the with the body as the site of all gender discussion, Outram's history tackles this area in a fresh way. It is good for those wary of feminist texts but interested in the area of body politics. The case study of Madame Roland is certainly colourful and while not necessarily conducive to sound conclusions, makes for interesting reading. This chapter in particular though is hampered by quotations in French. This can prove most frustrating, especially when told that the following extract is of vital significance. The preservation of the original language is to the detriment of the non-French-reading audience. Moreover, Outram's book as a piece of cultural history is thoughtful and well argued. It seeks and largely succeeds in rescuing the French Revolution from the 'chronological tyranny', (p. 34), that it has so oft been subjected to. As such, it also rescues the reader from enduring such an experience, so oft the case when encountering traditional histories! The significance of this is to reinstates the relevance of the French Revolution as a history that still impacts on the contemporary socio-political landscape. Reading Outram reinforces the notion that the revolutionaries of 1789 weren't just dusty relics with powdered wigs and velvet coats in a dead world. She restores the life and imagery of the period, conveying the reality of experience. Through this we can see that they were confronted with issues that still deeply affect us today both corporately and individually, in how we construct body images and approach such experiences as death. For after all, we can all relate to the experience of possessing a body, it is at the same time, the most private of our experience and public of our roles.
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