Spotlight on Keith Rathbone

Welcome to another edition of Historians Under the Spotlight – an occasional interview series which offers a snapshot from academics’ lives: their passions, interests and reading suggestions. You can catch up with previous posts here.

This month, our spotlight is being trained on Keith Rathbone (Macquarie University, Sydney) guest editor of the latest French History Virtual Special Issue on the subject of ‘the politics of the body in modern France’. You can access the VSI here.

In a nutshell, what is your research about?

I am a scholar of physical culture, education, and sports in France in the twentieth century. I look at physical cultural life to better understand the interplay of power between ordinary people, local authorities, and the state. My first book, Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, Agency and Everyday Life examines the Vichy state’s attempts to promote physical education and sports in order to rejuvenate French men and women during the Occupation. Through this cultural lens, it illuminates the central paradox of state power during the Vichy Regime. The state organized a centralized physical cultural programme meant to control and discipline French men and women. However, these activities instead empowered individuals and sporting associations to create spaces for individual expression, protect entrenched business enterprises, preserve republican institutions and organize sites for mutual aid and assistance.

What was it that first got you interested in researching French history?

Alice Conklin’s class at Ohio State on French history from the Third Republic to the present made me want to be a historian. She was so passionate about the past and she assigned us all kinds of great interesting texts like Kaplan’s The Collaborator and Tintin au Congo. She later let me take a graduate level course with her in my last year of my undergraduate degree and helped me get into graduate school. Her mentorship and example have helped me immensely.

In the length of a Tweet, what is your Virtual Special Issue about?

This virtual special issue illuminates the importance of histories of the body to French history (and vice-versa). It focuses on four great articles (and one of mine) that showcase the range of thematic and disciplinary approaches to studies of the body since the 1990s.

What are the main insights you hope people will take away from the VSI?

I hope that people will have a better sense of the importance place that the body plays in our historical subject’s experience of the world. In this collection, I tried to show how French historians not only consider the bodies of their subjects through representation, but also at times reimagine how their historical subjects might have experienced and responded emotionally to the world. Each of the articles considered the degree to which bodies were shaped from above through prescriptions on bodily behaviour, but they all also looked at how people challenged and even upended those expectations. Importantly, these studies did not focus on the Parisian, male, white subject, since the historiography of the body has been driven by and is at its sharpest when looking at the body on the margins.

What new thing(s) did you learn in the course of putting together the VSI?

I was so thrilled to discover the great span and depth of French history work on the body. These articles are really just the tip of the iceberg. They’re all also excellent history as well, full of compelling characters, and incisive in their approaches to broader questions of such as the racialization of bodies, the debate over appropriate femininity, and the interplay between the individual body, security and the nation.

What advice would you give to other people contemplating guest editing a VSI?

If you want to guest edit a VSI, you need to give yourself lots of time to think about the VSI’s field and the article’s complementarity. It’s also hard – the editors of my introduction would agree – to keep yourself to around 1500 words. In thinking through a host of articles together, I kept coming up with different places where they touched and had to limit myself to a few key topics.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

I particularly enjoy working with students; seeing students develop as people and as scholars. I know many of us have similar stories – but I really do enjoy keeping in touch with undergraduates and graduates and seeing how their lives develop and what insights and lessons they draw from my classes.

The research and the networking with colleagues is really just the icing on the cake. The over-professionalization of history, its increasingly politicization in the public debate, and the lack of good jobs for brilliant colleagues have been frustrating. 

What one change would you most like to see in Academia in the next five years?

I would like to see an increased focus in universities on hiring permanent positions in the humanities, a diversification of the profession beyond the global north, and an increased emphasis on smaller and more democratic research and writing grants. (One can always dream, right?)

What are you working on now/next?

I am writing a biographic microhistory on the French, North African Jewish swimmer Alfred Nakache. His history – a cracker of a biography alone – provides a way to better understand the workings of anti-Semitism in French society and government during the interwar and war years.

Quick fire questions:

Which French place/space would you most like to be able to go to right now?

Toulouse! I just got back from Paris and I have about two more weeks of archival research to do in the South.

Favourite archive or library?

The BNF for a big archive – the FSGT for a small one – and Toulouse Olympique for a very small archive outside of the capital.

Favourite century?

The twentieth century for studying – the twenty-first for living.

Éclair or saucisson?



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