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Shanon Fitzpatrick: Body and Nation

FitzpatrickShanon Fitzpatrick is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Classical Studies at McGill University in Montreal, where she researches the United States in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the relationship between America and the world, and the histories of transnational networks. She is co-editor with Emily Rosenberg of Body and Nation: The Global Realm of US Body Politics in the Twentieth Century (Duke University Press, 2014) and is currently working on her first monograph, Pulp Empire: Cheap Magazines and the Global Production of American Mass Culture

What was the process of developing this book and its thematic focus? How did you select the contributors?

Body and Nation developed out of reading, research, and teaching that Emily Rosenberg and I were doing in the Department of History at UC Irvine when I was a graduate student. I was working on a section of my dissertation that was about fitness and eugenics in global media circulations and Emily was examining the history of the “American Look” in the Cold War. So we were both pretty much swimming in images of posed and exposed bodies—bodybuilders, athletes, leggy fashion models. At some point, we started to think more in-depth about what all these bodies might be saying about American identity and how American power has worked in the world. In particular, what did it mean that so many of these important or iconic American bodies (and images of bodies) circulated transnationally and played roles in international relations? We decided that we would do a collaborative volume on the global realms of U.S. body politics in the twentieth century.

We wanted to bring scholars from both American Studies and U.S. international history to gather around this theme of Body and Nation. To find contributors, we drew up lists of possible contributors, looked over meeting programs, and attended conference talks in order to find works in progress that promised to help take the volume in exciting directions. We found a diverse group of established and emerging scholars excited about participating in trans-disciplinary conversations, and after that it became a question of who had the time to come on board.

To enhance the volume’s coherence and collaborator aspects, we organized conference panels among some of the authors early in the project. We hosted a double-session at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society of Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR). After the panel, we recognized that themes threading through multiple works that we hadn’t previously considered, and this helped us organize our conceptualization of the project.

What was the most difficult part of editing this collection? How did it differ from writing and publishing your own monograph?

The most difficult part of editing this collection, and the main difference from single-authored work, was that it involved risk. Waiting to receive all of the authors’ first drafts was exciting and a little scary because, while we valued each contributor’s individual perspective, we also wanted to ensure that the chapters were part of the same conversation, similar in length and detail, and accessible to readers in multiple disciplines.

Another challenge was timing. Since we were organizing works by twelve contributors, every deadline along the way produced a deluge of work; editing, revising, indexing, emailing, and securing permissions all ate up big chunks of time at once. There were entire weeks where I did not look at my own research.

Yet even as editing a collection posed its own challenges, I think that it ultimately made me feel more personally connected to fields outside of my specialty (e.g. Asian American studies, military history) and to other scholars. It also exposed me very quickly to diverse writing and revising styles. Editing a volume lets you watch how other people refine arguments, respond to reviewers, or pare down sections—essential aspects of writing that usually occur behind-the-scenes.

Did working on the topic and organizing these individual essays change the way you approach your own research?

Absolutely. Working on Body and Nation as I was finishing my dissertation shaped the questions I formulated in my own research and expanded my understanding of how my main “areas” of research—U.S. history, foreign relations, transnational studies, and media history—were intertwined with each other and with other academic sub-fields.

I’ll elaborate with an example. My dissertation and now monograph-in-progress examines Macfadden Publications, a huge American media company whose fitness and true story magazines attracted a global readership in first half of the twentieth century. Working on Body and Nation made me attend more closely to the transnational material history of what I call America’s “body-centric” media. My enduring interest in the way that non-elite cultural circulations shaped discursive connections between bodies and the U.S. nation in domestic and global contexts is a product of my engagement with Body and Nation.

Because our book highlights specific bodies that, in different ways and in different places, attained national iconic status or came to signify American-ness, it also forced me to think about the larger forces and structures through which some bodies and bodily representations (and not others) achieve visibility, significance, and mobility within America’s expansive culture industries. This led me to argue in my own research that many of the bodies that became highly visible signifiers of modern America—within Macfadden Publications and in other media—were often exceptionally mobile bodies that co-signified affiliations beyond the nation (e.g. connections to immigrant diasporic groups, transnational racial imaginaries, or sexual communities).

What initially drew you to studies of the body as a political or imperial category of analysis? What do you see as the future of the subfield of embodiment studies in the academy?

The body as a site of political and imperial analysis has been at the center of a wave of incredibly important theoretical and historical scholarship about identity and power. Originally associated with Michel Foucault, the concepts of biopolitics and biopower have fueled creative and incisive scholarship in the humanities and social sciences. So what we aimed to do with Body and Nation was to create a collection that brings this so-called “bodily turn” into conversation with U.S. international and transnational history. We see this as a critical intervention into both U.S. history and biopolitical scholarship because America, seen in a global frame, has played a critical role in managing mobile human populations, projecting body-centric media images, shaping embodied identity formations through politics and culture, and waging wars and national security campaigns that monitor, mediate between, and destroy bodies. We argue that thinking about biopolitics and relations produced through or represented via certain bodies and their looks, behaviors, and interactions should be important to all historians of the nation and international relations.

At the same time, we think that the close archival research, multi-sited analyses, and attention to the relationships between state and non-state actors that characterize the work of scholars in the field of “America and the World” has a lot to offer theorists of embodiment. The essays in Body and Nation see bodies not just as categories of analysis or sites where power operates, but also as primary characteristics of historical actors with specific agendas, needs, and desires that have shaped the past and the present. There still remains a lot of work to be done in bringing theoretical scholarship on the body and archival research on specific historical figures and events into dialogue in order to produce deeper understandings of the transnational and transactional dimensions of biopolitics.

What advice do you have for grad students and junior scholars turning their dissertations into manuscripts, looking to publish their first books, or contributing to edited collections?

I know that many scholars are advised against taking part in edited collections because they are too time-consuming and less likely to be reviewed than monographs—but I had a really positive experience working on Body and Nation. My work as a contributor and editor allowed me to work and form relationships with many senior and emerging scholars, and I think that the experience is helping me convert my dissertation into a richer monograph with greater reach to more audiences.

Contributing to an edited volume made me refine my arguments and position my scholarship more broadly. As co-editor, I also saw similar trends unfold in other contributors’ projects. Being part of a conversation with projects-in-motion and people who actually talk back (as opposed to one-sided scholarly conversations with books already written) was a really great experience for me, and one that I recommend to grad students and other junior scholars. I also credit Body and Nation with allowing me to more easily navigate the process of getting a book contract for my first monograph, which I did earlier this year. The book gave me an understanding of all of the steps that a manuscript needs to go through before publication (so many!) and allowed me to glimpse the perspectives of editors, reviewers, and marketers, who are all essential to the publishing process.

What surprised you while contributing to/editing this book?

After Body and Nation was finished, I felt really done with the volume. It had taken a long time to complete, and I was happy when it was finally over. So I guess what has surprised me most is that within a few weeks of publication, I was back to thinking about topics and scholarship that I wished we could add to the collection. Several times a week I encounter an article, or a book chapter, or a news story that I think would add another important dimension to Body and Nation and to our historical understanding of the global realms of U.S. body politics. For instance, I was talking to a colleague this week about media images of warzones and the politics of humanitarian aid. That would make a great chapter. An undergraduate student in my research seminar is doing a project on how Pakistani American youth cultures have used the internet to circulate alternative media representations of America’s drone warfare. That would make a great chapter. In June, I am part of a conference panel on LGBT issues in U.S. foreign relations. I bet the papers I hear would make great chapters. I didn’t think I would ever say this, and certainly not so soon, but maybe Body and Nation will need a sequel.