Alexandra Roginski – Researcher Spotlight

Alexandra Roginski and Between Pleasure and Productivity: A History of Self-improvement from Phrenology to Physical Culture
From the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, social media posts about lockdown life brought into relief the double-edged sword of popular practices that condition body and mind. While many individuals found solace in yoga and meditation or dived further into biohacking, the ‘wellbeing’ departments of large organisations eager to maintain staff productivity also issued instructive information about sleep and even offered free exercise classes.

 I investigate these tensions in historical context through archives, books, magazines and ephemera held in the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales) that relate to diet, physical conditioning, popular psychology and yoga. Spanning from the mid-nineteenth century and the rise of liberalism until the mid-twentieth century (when the counterculture bloomed), this project considers several groups. I examine the physical culture schools of the 1920s and 1930s, the clients of charismatic phrenologists who adapted the discredited science to servicing large organisations such as Woolworths, and the subscribers of mail-order booklets that blended new psychological knowledge with dietary advice and esoteric ideas about mind control over infirmity. Applying methods from cultural history and collective biography, I ask what conditions influence how a person assembles different forms of knowledge about body and mind cultivation, the pleasures and liberation that these practices offer, and the forms of authority that practitioners and institutional clients muster through their dissemination.
A cover of the popular magazine issued by Sydneysider Walter Withrow and his school of physical culture during the 1920s.
Dr Alexandra Roginski is a research fellow at Deakin University and the 2021 CH Currey Memorial Fellow in Australian History with the State Library of New South Wales. She explores practices and ideas of the body, both in relation to past settings and present-day legacies. Her PhD (ANU, 2019) explored the social and cultural history of popular phrenology and forms the foundation of a book titled Science and Power in the Nineteenth-Century Tasman World: Popular Phrenology in the Antipodes (contracted to Cambridge University Press). She has also written extensively on the cultural heritage practice of repatriation, and in 2021 was a research fellow on a project investigating ‘conspirituality’ in the age of Covid-19. @AlexRoginski @conspiritualaus
Alexandra Roginski. Photo by Joy Lai, State Library of NSW