Last week I attended my first academic conference – Talking Bodies, at the University of Chester. As I mentioned last week, I was a bit nervous. I was excited to hear the talks, but rocking up to a room of a hundred and fifty really clever strangers filled me with a whooshing sense of unbalance and white noise. I really needn’t have worried. The emails we’d been receiving from the organiser, Emma Rees, had all been very friendly and rather informal, the names in the abstract booklet and conference programme were all without titles – meaning everyone was on an even field, doctorate or not; and its very nature as an interdisciplinary conference meant that everyone was a beginner in at least some of the things being discussed, leant the conference a very relaxed and friendly atmosphere. Everyone was excited to hear about everyone else’s work, people had to flip coins to decide which panel to attend and fervently stalk the speakers from the other panels to hear about their research too. It was everything I had idealistically (and naively) imagined academia to be – lots of interesting and interested people getting together, geeking out and drinking tea.
Whilst Chester is only a couple of hours from where I am in Sheffield, registration for the conference was at 8:30am on the Tuesday, meaning that I would have had to leave at a disgusting hour of the morning. As such, I decided to shimmy along on Monday afternoon and stay in a B&B. Emma had kindly organised a tapas meal at a local restaurant on the Monday night for anyone who arrived early and so I got to meet thirty or forty people before the conference started which made the prospect of the next day far less intimidating.
The conference was billed as ‘an international, interdisciplinary conference on identity, sexuality and representation’. It covered sexuality, feminism, history, literature, performance, embodiment, race, queer, film, dance, poetry, art, sex, etc., etc., etc. Things were discussed and theorised that I had never really thought about before. It was fascinating. I went to bed every night with my head full of ideas, my notes full of exclamation points and my stomach full of delicious vegetarian feasts. There’s already a twitter hashtag for TalkingBodies2017, so I’m guessing everyone else felt the same.
Before I left I’d planned on making this a blog post on all I’d learnt, but as I came away with thirty pages of notes (FRONT AND BACK), I’m not going to do that. I’ll just do a little teaser of what I garnered from each talk I attended instead. In no particular order (because my notes are shuffled in such a way as to make a magician proud):
- Krystina Osborne – Is Masturbation Having a Moment? – Female masturbation is rarely portrayed and when it is, it isn’t very diverse. The media has promoted the idea that female masturbation rarely features in literature, however Coffey’s 1973 Marcella would disagree, as would Caitlin Moran and Lena Dunham’s more recent texts. Iringiray spoke of the ‘power of discourse and the subordination of the feminine’ (1986, p.77), something that may be linked to the recent UK ban of porn featuring female ejaculation, essentially banning ‘visible’ female pleasure.
- Jessica Day – Hauntological Orgasms and Heterotropic Spaces – Female orgasm is invisible, and may be read through Derrida’s notion of hauntology in which the invisible and unmeasurable is made visible. Aim of deconstructing phallocentric discourses of female pleasure and the heterosexist production of orgasm on screen in which the erect penis is at centre stage and male ejaculation the finale. Also of note is Jagose’s Orgasmotology (2013) which discusses theories of faking orgasm.
- Plenary with Anna McNay and Leena McCall – #EroticCensorship: The Case of Leena McCall’s Portrait of Ms Ruby May, Standing – This painting was famously removed from display due to its apparent indecency, but was replaced with another nude, so what was the difference? Anna suggested some possibilities: Ruby’s direct gaze meant that she wasn’t a passive subject; she was half dressed, so not a ‘classic nude’ – she’s choosing to reveal herself; she has pubic hair, which has been censored throughout history – perhaps because pubic hair is a sign of developed adulthood and is therefore linked with sexuality. McCall is painting a series that shows how women choose to represent themselves erotically. She is exploring ways to represent women without feeding into the male gaze and does so through collaborating with the subject, talking with them, having them pick the post, outfit and props, etc. She delineates the difference between the erotic and pornographic as being that the erotic is intellectually stimulating, whereas the pornographic is not.
- Michael J. Harrison – Analysing the Intersection of Sexuality and Disability in Javier Maria’s A Heart So White – There’s a negative cultural association of disabled women and sexuality, either dismissing them as asexual or fetishizing and exploiting low self-esteem. Basing body image on external influences (the media) is an impediment to self-identity and leads to a need for external validation – self-affirmation is the only healthy choice. In the text the fragmentation of the body due to only being viewed through video recordings leads to dehumanisation; however in taking an active role in this exploitation (filming herself) the protagonist is disproving the common theory that disabled women are asexual.
- Raluca Parvu and Minhea Panu – Bourgeois Sex Fantasies – Lacan suggests that there is an anxiety related to us being creatures of language, that we are born with a lack (castration and fear of) that we try to fill through desire. Desire is mixed with the anxiety of what others want us to be, therefore fantasy creates a scenario that allows transcendence from fear. Freud suggested that the female body is a threat to the male body as it is the threat of castration. Her threat is that she enjoys her castrated body and therefore doesn’t have the fear of castration and is consequentially freer than the male. The mother is the least threatening form of woman, however, ‘fit mums’ on Instagram are a reclamation of sexuality and desirability therefore potentially reinstating the threat.
- Hanna Etholén – Embodiment of Ideal Hetero-Femininity in Erotic Novels – Bodies are inscribed by cultural practices and therefore there is no such thing as an unmarked body. Novels use conventions similar to mainstream heterosexual porn – women pleasing men; female desire often described as combined (desire and shame); women’s sexual pleasure is subordinate to the desires of their partner; orgasm as ultimate sign of pleasure. Hetero-femininity is produced through reiterations, culture lacks the conventions to express feminine desire and therefore women express their desires through culturally prescribed femininity.
- Gul Dag – The Mind Modified: Analysing Cybernetic Reformations in George Alec Effinger’s ‘Madrîd Audran’ Series – Cyber punk may be described as encompassing 1980s technology and the collapse of western civilisation as a penalty of placing technologies in the hands of ungovernable companies and the struggle between biology and technology. Halberstam and Livingston look at cyborg bodies, the post-human body. The texts feature a world in which body mods and personality mods are available – these act to downgrade the natural body as less effective. New bodies and minds are sold to those with the capital to afford them meaning that the body becomes an overt political symbol. Cybernetic additions are consumer products and therefore status symbols meaning that body mods no longer indicate deviancy.
- Esther De Dauw – Iron Man and the Artificial Body – The Ironman suit as artificial masculine body. In the 60s Tony Stark’s weakness (alcoholism and playboy tendencies) were a sign of the middle-class man weakened by comfort and stability. Post 9/11, masculinity is in crisis – corrupted by femininity and luxury. Woman has generally been made to signify excess, therefore Stark’s wealth and excess is a sign of femininity. It is when he is cut off from this excess that he creates the Ironman suit and becomes the ultimate self-made man. The ideal male body has changed in the last 30 years which is exemplified in the changing shape of action figures. The media has glorified the ‘steroid body’ without understanding it to be steroid. Bodybuilders are manufactured masculinity and Ironman is literally manufactured, but not with time and drugs, with money and intelligence which means that the ‘Ironman’ body is for sale and you just need to be rich enough and clever enough to get it.
- Sian Bride – Lesbians and Tattoos: Cesare Lombroso and the Deviant Body – Lesbian history has been erased, as has that of the tattooed woman. Tattoos were brought to the UK by sailors and it was only when aristocratic women got tattooed that it became noticed, up until then it was seen as working class and particularly favoured by prostitutes. Tattoos highlight the boundaries of the body, in Derridean terms they are and/or, both inside and outside the skin and may additionally therefore be linked to hymen theory. Lombardo popularised the body-centred social scientific study of aberrant behaviour and thought that lesbians were masculine and less evolved. Women are seen to represent nature and men, culture. Tattoos are the inscription of culture on the body and may therefore be a method of embodying male power in society.
- Gina Snooks – Ink: Entangling Flesh and Spirit – I (th)ink therefore I am. Tattoos may be an embodied life narrative, as Gloria Azandula states ‘we are the shapers of our flesh’ and this can be done with tattoos. The meaning of a tattoo is never exhausted, it can always be read a new way and can change over time. A tattoo without the body is just ink; the skin is implicated in the dynamic performance of ink – the link of spirit and body. Bordo states that the spiritual and corporeal are distinct. The ‘self’ is a rational and disembodied subject unaffected by its history and experiences – however, tattoos show that you are bodies, they link mind, body and soul. They are a sign of taking an active role in shaping oneself as enfleshed spirit.
- Judy Hayden – Disney’s Tangled Bodies – Traditionally, fairy tales are a teaching tool, today, Disney is for kids and it is what teaches them. The messages in Disney are therefore important. Tangled opens with Rapunzel being trapped into doing housework. In Beauty and the Beast, whilst she denies Gaston this is because she wants the romance from her books, and she ultimately ‘wins’ by being obedient to her father and then later the Beast; additionally the Beast blames his anger on her at one point and embraces classic victim blaming archetypes. In Disney, women ultimately need men in order to achieve anything of significance. Women often achieve success through coy manipulation (fluttering eyelashes). There is also the issue of agency, in Tangled Rapunzel doesn’t tell her own story, it’s narrated by male character, Flynn. Typically Disney films end in marriage which ultimately reduces the heroine to sex object.
- Marzia Mauriello – Imagining Miss Trans: An Anthropological Investigation of Transgender Beauty Contests in Naples – The contests started in the 70s because a trans woman was kicked out of Miss Italy. The shows promote trans visibility and investigate what gender means in relation to beauty. It means however that the body comes to represent the core of trans individuals and the notion that a beautiful body leads to the satisfaction of self. Although the competition reiterates a narrative of promoting visibility and trans rights, not many of the contestants seem to fully engage with this idea – the contests themselves are sponsored by a trans escort agency and the prize is a year’s free subscription. The competitions don’t foreground a certain type of trans (surgery or not), however there is a sense of rivalry between transsexual and transgender individuals. Due to the difficulty of finding work as a trans person in Naples, many turn to prostitution and therefore forgo surgery as they can make more money as liminally gendered.
- Chris Greenough – Alyce in Genderland: Intersex, Gender and God – Alyce is an interviewee who identifies as intersex by who lives life as male, Jerry, and only presents as female online. Alyce doesn’t want to transition because at 60 she feels it’s too late and also because as a Catholic she feels it would be arrogant to change God’s plan. Alyce and Jerry are very separate beings, going so far as to eat different foods, and wanting different bodies. They could not both be content with whichever body they had. Trinity theory may be applied to intersexuality, in which both genders and a liminal space between them are all embodied. Bodies are not ‘other’ to what God is – intersex is the image of God, both male and female rather than beyond them. Feminist and queer trinities mean that one can be all three, or one of the three at a time and still be the real self.
- Gabriel S. Estrada – Nádleehí: The Transgender Navajo Body in Drunktown’s Finest – Indigenous methodologies encompass three types of sovereignty: visual sovereignty (raheja) – native media that upholds political, spiritual and cultural independence (native writers/directors); sovereign erotics (driskill) – activist reclamation of two-spirit/native LGBTQ lives, roles and trans bodies; theological sovereignty (talamantez) – traditionalist spirituality (outlawed for 100+ years – see 1978 American Indian Religious Freedoms Act). Navajo culture is matrilineal/matriarchal, women own the houses and motherhood means strength; therefore contrary to Western arguments regarding trans, FtM is less common because it would mean losing social position, whereas MtF gains social position.
- Terri-Jane Dow – Following the Rules – Reinforcing the gender binary is harmful to both women and men. Advertising such as Veet (not shaving your legs makes you a man) and Snickers (if you’re emotional you’re a woman) reinforces these roles and makes overtly negative their transgression, however small. Female bodies are required to move within specific aesthetics or they’re seen as other – as evidenced by the gender testing of sportswomen. Additionally, the furore around Bruce Jenner is indicative of a culture in which masculinity is equally as guarded; although Jenner has made no official statement his supposed ‘femininity’ is causing a great deal of concern. This all acts to show that what is representative of the feminine is damaging to both women and men in the same way. Beauty is seen as a signifier of success and makes for an easy way to target successful women.
- Crow Dillion-Parkin – Hashtag Be Real – The body confidence campaign (#bereal) is a government initiative to improve people’s self-esteem. If the government want us to be more body confident, we have to question their motivation – it’s because we are not as economically powerful as we could be due to lack of body confidence (people stay off of school and work some days due to lack of self-esteem to face the world). Research shows that women’s body confidence doesn’t improve with age meaning that it’s a lifelong problem. The very definition of beauty means that if everyone is beautiful then no one is beautiful. Is Descartes has said ‘I am therefore I think’ instead, it would have created more of an embodied link between the mental and physical self.
- Sally Atkin – Talking through Children’s Bodies – Capitalism and official portraiture promotes the notion is clean, smiling ‘fake’ children. The photographs are highly controlled and manipulated to preserve and emulate the ‘norms’ of behaviour. There is an emphasis on ‘best clothes’, boys are often brought in wearing miniature suits, however girls are never brought in wearing mini business suits, however, there are sexualised clothes for young girls – gender begins at birth. Parents choose children’s clothes that represent idealised parental styles, parents are performing their gender for them. Official portraits are usually displayed and therefore usually try to be more ‘perfect’ and to the ‘norm’ than usual.
- Justin Hunt – (Comedown with me) Nobody Here is Doing It – Culture is on a comedown from the AIDs pandemic. A comedown is the psychological and physical withdrawal from drugs, generally perceived to be negative; it is the loss of a high with elements of the high still remaining. A comedown is a queer position between high and loss. Gay men became that target of and sign of AIDs, meaning there was a crisis of signification and a collapse of the gay male body of/as AIDs. The high was the spinning up and out of meaning, i.e. AIDs panic and the comedown is the post-AIDs body, which is after but not without. The ‘undetectable’ HIV patient embodies a presence that is absent, a present marked by a lingering sense of past. Being undetectable doesn’t strip the taboo however. The abject body of HIV as the permeable body, death as a living condition. A chill out is where people recover from excesses, come down from drugs together, keeping the party going while calming down together, which means that the drugs aren’t the main event. AIDs narratives are focussed on excesses (sex and drugs); the high of AIDs led to new forms of bodies and staying alive, the chill out allows us to come to terms with the high and the past high.
- Hazel Monforton – Reclaiming the Mother: A Room of One’s Own, To the Lighthouse and Women’s Genealogy – The mother is often a site of excesses of masculine control. According to Luce Iringiray matricide appropriates the mother’s body whilst denying her subjectivity. A key theme is the mother daughter relationship – the relation between woman and mother, and mother and daughter are distinct but related, and is therefore linked through genealogy. The mother is past, but she is not yet past. Woolf’s believed that women’s relationships with other women were an ‘unexplored dark cave’, an attempt to connect with a female precursor made invisible by the patriarchy.
- Sandra Mills – Altered Bodies and gender Transformations in Angela Carter’s The Passion of New Eve – The book reworks patriarchal norms and is feminist revenge toward the male sex. It rewrites the biblical narrative of Eve’s creation. Within the text gender is plural, fluid and open to transformation, willing or otherwise. Eve (formerly Evelyn) is the embodiment of the perfect female form, however they see themselves as monstrous. Eve/Evelyn is both victim and violator within the text. Gender is shown to be artifice and performance. The text plays with Kristeva’s ‘the abject’ which is based on notions of disturbed identity, system and order, and does not respect borders, positons and rules.
- Sonja Boon – Dusting for Fingerprints: Bodily Traces, Embodied Memories and the Forensic Self – How bodied self (physical) and embodied self (social) diverge. In the 1870s early fingerprint specialists believed that criminality was biological and looked into race differences. This meant that individuality was linked with the body and therefore ‘truth’ emanates from the body. The ‘cell(f)’ is located on the skin as bodied self, whereas the ‘self’ happens to skin as the embodied self. Rachel Afi Quinn (2010) discusses the malleability of racial identities and how ‘brow’ is a liminal space. The brown self is a chameleon self, understood as numerous races, different in each gaze. Brown is the reality of the skin and the ambiguity of features, Autoethnography is important because you can make yourself more vulnerable than you could ever ask a participant to do; you can talk about embodiment with others but you can only experience it yourself. Embodied genealogy of being mixed race means that you have multiple pasts.
- Emma Sheppard – Feel the Pain: The Unexpected Side-Effects of Asking Personal Questions – Chronic pain is pain that lasts longer than six months. Experiencing pain is said to make us human, but being in pain makes us non-human. Chronic pain must be lived with and normality must be performed. Langdridge (2007) and Scarry (1985) have discussed pain as an attack on the phenomenological self. Pain destroys the experience of the self because pain is an experience; however, sufferers of chronic pain must establish the ‘self’ in spite of this. Pain doesn’t have a linguistic reference, therefore metaphor is used, such as the numeric pain scale used by doctors. Sheppard is looking into the meaning of pain by interviewing suffers of chronic pain who also engage in BDSM – what does pain mean to them and is consenting pain different? How is pain felt and experienced depending on context?
I went to a few other talks, but they were more based on art and performance and I can’t really summarise them without describing the whole shebang.
All of these summaries are just what I took from each talk, not necessarily the purpose of each talk. If you’re interested in any of the ideas in particular you should look the presenters up – I know a number of them are bopping about on twitter – check out #talkingbodies2015 too.
I still need to write my 1000 words for my supervisors, but other than that I think I’m just going to spend this month reading.