Embarrassing Bodies

This post was contributed by Dr Emma Curry, an ISSF Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of English and Humanities, who organised the Embarrassing Bodies conference on  17 June 2016.

We live in a particularly self-conscious age. In recent years, the rising popularity of the ‘selfie’ has signalled our increased interest in curating our own image. This renewed self-attention means that moments where we fail to live up to our perfected public image have also become heightened: the popularity of the hashtags ‘#awkward’ and ‘#fail’ on Twitter and other sites indicate our need to highlight and process our moments of social misconduct, or the embarrassing slips we witness in others.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Mr Mac’, unknown author (1886) © Aviva

Like many aspects of modern life, this preoccupation with the particularities of ‘awkward’ behaviour is one which found itself accelerated in the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary records John Stuart Mill’s use of ‘self-conscious’ in 1834 as the first deployment of the term in its modern sense, whilst ‘embarrassment’ comes a little earlier, in the latter part of the eighteenth century. With individuals moving in ever-larger social circles and the potential for bodily faux pas heightened, ideas of ‘embarrassment’ began to attract growing attention from writers and artists of the period. This can be witnessed in such diverse instances as Charles Darwin’s work on the physiology of embarrassed bodily responses like blushing; the emerging definition of the ‘self’ and ideas of ‘self-consciousness’ in early formations of Victorian psychology; and the scenes of comic humiliation in the writing of Charles Dickens, where characters are forever tripping or slipping or saying the wrong thing.

On 17 June, over 50 researchers and members of the public came together to explore some of these instances of nineteenth-century embarrassment, and to think about the ways in which this particular emotion continues to shape our relationships to our sense of self, to our bodies, and to each other. 

Embarrassed Victorians

The conference opened with a keynote talk from Paul White (Cambridge), who considered how embarrassment spreads across nineteenth-century discourse, surfacing in literary and scientific texts. He described embarrassment as enjoyably ‘readable’, and considered how writers of the period position the embarrassed bodies of their characters as intriguing social texts. This talk was followed by Philippa Lewis’s (Bristol) fascinating discussion of the emotion in a European context, in which she considered the medicalization of shyness in France in the latter part of the nineteenth century. By exploring shyness as a literary device and as a matter of public health, Philippa traced the curious tension between the individual and the social in the expression of this particular emotion, a question we returned to throughout the day.

The next panel focused upon embarrassment’s relationship to nineteenth-century science. Alison Moulds (Oxford) delivered a fascinating discussion of the doctor/patient relationship in the nineteenth century, considering the ways in which male doctors became acutely aware of and embarrassed by their own bodies when dealing with female patients’ ailments. This was followed by Ryan Sweet (Exeter), who made us giggle with comic depictions of animals stealing wigs, whilst sensitively exploring the Victorians’ complex and conflicting responses to the problems of the ageing and prostheticized body. Rosie White (Royal Holloway) then took us through the embarrassing aspects of being a naturalist in the nineteenth century, describing the snobbery from other scientists, the need to use discrete measuring tools when out and about, and the embarrassment of being caught ‘with all your implements about you’.

Self-Consciousness in Literature and Art

Following lunch (which thankfully didn’t seem to involve any awkward silences), we returned fortified to our second panel, which explored the complexities of self-consciousness as represented in literary texts. Amelia Worsley (Amherst College) began by turning to the early part of the nineteenth century to analyse the ‘poetics of awkwardness’, in the work of Wordsworth and other Romantic poets. During this period autobiographical poetry became a useful space for self-reflection. Mike Davis (UWE) then moved to the work of George Meredith, considering the fascinating overlap between evolutionary theory and early forms of psychology in the later part of the century, and the ways in which Meredith’s representation of individual will and emotional intelligence might challenge some of Darwin’s formations. This paper was followed by Hao Li (Toronto), who charted the subtle, shifting overlaps between constructions of consciousness, self-consciousness, and self-awareness in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Finally, Royce Mahawatte (Central St Martins) considered the literary handling of embarrassment in the writing of R. J. Culverwell, a doctor who wrote on men’s sexual health. Royce gave a fascinating exploration of the curiously Gothic construction of the male body in Culverwell’s work, and considered the ways in which embarrassing topics seem to attract and indeed encourage narrative during this period.

Embarrassing Bodies

‘Hush!’, James Tissot (1875)

We next turned to visual representations of embarrassment. Stephanie O’Rourke (St Andrews) opened the discussion with a beautifully detailed examination of French artist James Tissot’s paintings ‘Hush!’ and ‘Too Early’. She drew attention to the blank spaces surrounding the embarrassed individuals in Tissot’s work, describing them as charged focuses for the ‘conspicuous awkwardness’ of the scenes depicted. Her paper was followed by Eva Kenny (Princeton), who delivered an intriguing exploration of Darwin’s representation of blushing in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, and his attempts to define the limits of embarrassment in physiological terms. David Russell (Oxford) considered ‘Embarrassing Ruskin’, describing the many and various ways in which the art critic John Ruskin was considered to be an embarrassing man by his contemporaries. David highlighted how embarrassment might in fact be a useful imaginative force in Ruskin’s writing, with uncomfortable experiences used to shape his art criticism and to link intellectual and physical experiences.

Awkward Academics

For our final discussion panel we returned to the present day, to think about the ways that embarrassment shapes modern life, particularly within universities. Joe Moran (Liverpool John Moores) discussed his experiences as a shy academic, and explored the various senses in which research can reward these inclinations towards introversion and reflection. Francis O’Gorman (Leeds) described his propensity for worrying, and considered how academia can encourage but also allow individuals to work through some of these modern neuroses. Both Joe and Francis also considered the positive potential of shyness and worrying to act as counterbalances to certain aspects of academic life, suggesting that they might provide an important challenge to recent professional trends for extended working hours, increased commercialisation, and the need to create a public portfolio. It was refreshing and heartening to hear two such distinguished academics speak so openly about their personal relationship to their work in this discussion, and to the everyday, embodied processes of teaching and research.

In the run-up to the conference, participants had contributed their embarrassing academic moments on Twitter, and as the Q&A session progressed it became comfortingly clear that imagined hierarchies, fear of saying the wrong thing, and a hyper bodily self-awareness when teaching or presenting were experiences common to everyone, no matter how senior their position. Amidst ever-increasing workloads and the intellectual pressures of modern academic life, it was suggested that acknowledging and nurturing our ‘embarrassing’ bodies is now becoming more important than ever.

Following the discussion, the delegates retired to a well-earned wine reception, where no doubt more embarrassing moments were shared (or indeed created!). I would like to thank all of the speakers, delegates, and everyone who contributed to the discussion on Twitter for helping to shape such a fascinating and thought-provoking day, and the Wellcome Trust for their generous funding of this event. I hope we can share our embarrassing moments again in the future, and continue to make light of rather than fear the ‘awkwardness’ that poor Ruskin’s friends found so excruciating.

This event was in association with Birkbeck’s Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies and was funded by a Wellcome Trust/Birkbeck ISSF Grant.

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