Chewing Demosthenes’ Pebbles: Embodied Experience Making the Scientist’s Persona, ca.1830-1910

Josephine Hoegaerts


This paper argues for an embodied approach to the scientist’s persona, using ‘experience’ as its focal point. Rather than noting that embodied experiences influenced scientists’ practices and identities amidst (or despite) ideals of objectivity, I want to draw attention to the ways in which personal, embodied experiences were celebrated in nineteenth century science, and presented as primordial for the practice of competent research.

I am focusing on those scientists involved in the study of the voice in order to do so. Because the physical workings of the voice are largely hidden inside the body, fields such as laryngology and phoniatry developed a number of touch-based, experiential scientific practices before and alongside tools of visual observation. These non-visual practices were very closely connected to researchers’ sensations of their own bodies, and connected to their identity (as a middle-class amateur singer, a hoarse professor, a stammerer, e.g). As scientific disciplines studying the voice developed over the century, personal ‘experience’ (understood both as particular practices and notions of personal background and identity) was increasingly brought forward as a unique source of understanding and expertise. This resulted in a highly diverse field of experts on the voice, in which otherwise non-elite researchers could participate and even rise to fame. They did so because, and not despite, their physical and social impediments.

Studying the experiential practices and memories brought forward by this network of experts allows me to look at the construction of their scientific personae from an intersectional perspective. A focus on the nineteenth century notion of ‘experience’ and its inclusion in scientific discourse allows us an insight into the various constituent elements of a ‘persona’ built within the context of a particular field, and drawing liberally on aspects of identification that do not always fit the classic categories of gender, class, age, health, etc.


experience; gender; voice; laryngology; speech impediments; observation

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