Mentalités and Body Politics: Aspects of Our Pandemic Global Microhistory

By Weiao Xing (@WeiaoX)

In early January 2020, a newsletter disclosed an unknown pneumonia spreading through Wuhan, China.[i] This understated report failed to lade me with extreme anxiety on an otherwise ordinary day in Cambridge. Many of my peers did not anticipate any interruption to our annual schedule of international trips, but lockdowns and travel restrictions were looming. The infectious virus, later named as COVID-19, fermented an ongoing crisis that enveloped the world within months. It marks an unusual epoch when the globalised world has suddenly become suspended with immobility.

My opening narrative imitates a common writing style in global microhistory. But this time, instead of the ordinary in the past, we appear as protagonists of the historic pandemic. Our daily life unexpectedly changed, revealing a shared experience under emergent regulations worldwide. This association is inherent to recent historiographical reflections upon global microhistory. In 2011, historian Francesca Trivellato explored how studies of Italian microhistory could inform work in global history.[ii] This micro-macro attempt transcends the original local, religious, and linguistic focus of microhistory, where a specific case is analysed for its larger implications. As an approach in progress, global microhistory has reverberated through world-leading history journals including Annales and Past & Present, inviting further debates in historiography.

This methodological consideration enables us, more as agents than as witnesses, to cast our lives into the pandemic crisis. One noticeable impetus of this micro-macro interaction comes from the history of mentalities. Often written as mentalités, this term signals a collective focus, distinct from the colloquial use of ‘mentality’ to mean mental character. The French plural form indicates its origin from the Annales school: Marc Bloch, the co-founder of the school, appealed for collective attitudes and representations over individual ones by examining them in the social substrate. Connecting collective thought and its socio-cultural milieu, this angle forms a shared root among different interpretations of mentalités.[iii]

Amid the pandemic, the concept of mentalités offers a category, gathering our emotions, viewpoints, and ideologies in response to the crisis. In our current daily lives, mentalités might evoke, for example, the widespread melancholy induced by social distancing. We group ourselves according to attitudes towards medical science, public health, government regulation, and international relations. Mentalités among groups vary, and mentalités within a group flow. As is elucidated by historian Peter Burke, these mentalités are more ‘everyday thought’ or ‘practical reason’ than scholarly theories.[iv] Differences in mentalités shed light on why societies diverge in comparable situations, such as the pursuit or regression of cosmopolitanism in a time with heavily reduced mobility.

Moving from this mental and conceptual approach, our encounters with the world under pandemic are also realised through our bodies. Potentially infected by the coronavirus, our bodies, disciplined by epidemic governance, tell another aspect regarding power relations.[v] Often used by scholars of gender studies and social historians, the term ‘body politics’ showcases how political status, power, and order regulate the human body, especially through sexual and racial lenses.[vi] Studying ‘body politics’ thus explains the sexism towards female medical workers and the increasing housework for women working from home. It also touches the new ‘Yellow Peril’ – Asians were once accused of the initial epidemic outbreak.

Besides, bodies are subject to systemic regimes such as government regulations for keeping individual behaviours in an accepted order.[vii] During the pandemic, our social spheres and the physical range of our movements have heavily shrunk, while body politics penetrates our everyday lives. Travelling becomes tough. Our bodies are restricted with immobility at home or overseas, where they are regulated by quarantine and isolation. The wartime discourse haunts, at times, mobilising us for public health campaigns from mask-wearing to testing and vaccination. To monitor the spread of the virus and local outbreaks in a timely fashion, our trajectories are tracked, reported, and surveyed. These policies generally aim at the life and health of the human body – bodies are strictly restrained for the sake of bodies. However, this process is not always spontaneous, and body politics illustrates these compulsive and responsive regulations as well as the hidden, complex relations of power.

This story of mentalités and body politics only depicts a few aspects of the ongoing crisis. As our perceptions of the virus and its influence on communities across the globe deepen and differ, so do historiographical attentions. Historians have queried themes covering human-animal relations and epidemic governance, topics in vogue in environmental history and the history of medicine. Considering global microhistory illuminates the sense of living in history and testifies to some facets of this micro-macro interaction. It nourishes our contemporary understanding and will potentially contribute to multiple narratives and interpretations required for the history of this pandemic.[viii]

Special thanks go to Zoe Jackson and Yijie Huang for their suggestions.

Image: ‘The cosmetic closure, Cambridge, April 2020’ (Photo taken by the author)

[i] ‘Pneumonia of Unknown Cause – China’, WHO, 5 January 2020, sec. Disease outbreak news.

[ii] Francesca Trivellato, ‘Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History’, California Italian Studies 2, no. 1 (2011).

[iii] André Burguière, ‘La notion de mentalités : Une invention ou une filiation ?’, in L’École des Annales : Une histoire intellectuelle (Paris: Odile Jacob, 2006), 71–98.

[iv] Peter Burke, ‘Strengths and Weaknesses of the History of Mentalities’, in Varieties of Cultural History (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997), 162–82.

[v] Michel Foucault, ‘Les corps dociles’, in Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975), 137–71.

[vi] Georgina Waylen et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Gender and Politics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 162–65.

[vii] Nadia Brown and Sarah Allen Gershon, ‘Body Politics’, Politics, Groups, and Identities 5, no. 1 (2017): 1–3.

[viii] Being Unprepared (for Our Own Times): In Conversation with Prof. Homi K. Bhabha & Prof. Margaret MacMillan (Oxford: TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities, 2020).

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