Talking Bodies 2017

Last month I attended the third biennial Talking Bodies conference, a four-day extravaganza of knowledge, activism and art. I attended the last one in 2015 as my first ever conference, and this time I got to present a paper. I cannot describe how supportive the environment is, the organiser, Emma Rees, creates such a safe and empowering space from the offset. Emma opened the conference by stating that we live in dangerous and turbulent times in which gatherings like Talking Bodies that create a queer space become even more important. Talking Bodies is a pocket of resistance, reframing the world that we’re in. It prepares the intellectual ground for resistance and change. As an international conference with over 110 speakers from 25 countries, there is a lot to learn and tonnes to discuss. Luckily there were plenty of tea breaks where we could all natter. Residential delegates also had time during (delicious vegetarian) meals and the occasional visit to the local pub. Things were learned, perspectives were given and connections were made.

 

My paper was called ‘Trans Identities: Essentialist and Anti-Essentialist Perspectives’ and I spoke about the ways in which trans and cisnormative conceptions of sex and/or gender may each be read as essentialist/anti-essentialist based on theoretical context and stance. For instance, for people like Janice Raymond in the 80s (boo hiss) gender confirmation surgery was a tool of patriarchal oppression that enforced essentialist gender norms (she also said that trans women were not real women, and a bunch of other awful stuff). However, we could also view surgery as a tool of embodiment, one that contradicts the naturalised notion that biology is destiny, instead foregrounding personal identification as that which is essential.  Lal Zimman discusses the potential for language to be a key aspect of embodiment, stating, “conventional associations between gender and the body can be broken, particularly when it comes to the embodiment of trans people, which might lead a speaker to refer to a woman’s penis or a man’s vagina” (Zimman in Zimman, Davis and Raclaw 2014: 15). This is in alignment with Judith Butler’s discussion of both sex and gender being social constructs and that there is no inherent link between the two (1990). Rather, as trans theory states, it is personal identification and lived experience that defines a person’s gender and sex. As I made sure to emphasise, there are a number of differing and sometimes conflicting stances regarding these issues in trans scholarship and politics, however, trans theory’s focus on inclusion and its prioritisation of the personal means that all stances are accepted. I used Elliott DeLine’s 2009 novel Refuse to provide examples of how these varying stances may be witnessed in literature, discussing how the protagonist, Dean, sometimes shows conflicting opinions regarding his own stance on sex/gender and gender confirmation surgery. Basically, it’s all very complicated, everyone has different ideas of what it means and how identity relates to it, but it all comes down to each individual’s personal identification and how they choose, if at all, to relate to it.

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I’m going to try to summarise the papers and plenaries I attended. I frantically scribbled many notes, and tweeted tonnes on the talkingbodies2017 hashtag, which is a really useful resource for seeing what was going on in all of the panels – something that was really useful considering how hard it was to pick which ones to attend. Due to the speedy nature of my note taking, there may be the occasional mistake or misunderstanding, if you notice anything, please let me know. So, in no particular order (because my notes very quickly lost any semblance of organisation):

 

Jodie Clark – The Body as Locus For Social Change

This paper questioned whether we can conceptualise the body as a new way to create the social – retheorise the body as the locus as social change. It asked how we imagine the social structures that we don’t like – whereas the usual discourse is about challenging or subverting these structures, Clark asked if instead we could imagine new ones. Using a range of previous criticism, from Irigaray, Foucault and Butler, Clark offered a discussion of her participant research and how linguistic choices have an impact on the way body and society are conceived of, particularly in times of trauma. She searched for the ways that the body shows up in texts/conversations and how we can understand the interaction between self and body. Ultimately, doing identity differently makes it difficult for people to exist comfortably in a conforming environment.

 

Karen O’Donnell – False Binaries: The Soul and the Digital

O’Donnell discussed the fallacy of digital dualism, in which the digital = virtual, and the corporeal = real. She spoke about how religion and the digital have come to interact, and the way in which Christianity’s relationship with the body has evolved. In the medieval times, the body was seen as the location of sin, as something that was bad and weak. However, since the rise of the internet, the body is seen as necessary, and online disembodiment as bad. The Cartesian notion of body and soul has seemingly reversed. However, O’Donnell pointed out that there is a history of separating body and identity, or body and soul, discussing Henrietta Lacks, a working class African American woman who, in the 50s, died of cancer. Without permission, doctors took her cancer cells and performed tests. Her cells were the first to survive more than 48 hours outside of a body and as such were a medical anomaly. Those cells have been reproduced ever since, named HeLa cells, and have been used to produce numerous vaccines, in gene mapping, in cancer and AIDS research, in cosmetic testing, etc. all without her identity being acknowledged. They removed her identity and abstracted her body. The distinction of the corporeal and ethereal is not a result of the digital, and in fact, the body is always present online, bodies are what type, move cursors, and provide the ability to be online in the first place. Even online, it is not possibly to be disembodied – but it can make it easier to ignore embodiment.

 

Daniel Nield – Kicking Old Habits in the Habit

Dressed in the drag nun attire of The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, Nield discussed the feminine as the signifier for penetrability, and Grayson Perry’s idea of ‘the default man’. He noted that the fetishisation of muscles, tight clothes and macho gym culture on the gay scene is seemingly paradoxical because it is the embodiment of ultra-male impenetrability in order to attract penetration. He discussed how once, when a workman came to fix his bath, in spite of being ‘obviously gay’ he retreated into the ‘default man’, he felt guilty about his queer expressions because socialisation has taught us that to not be masculine is to be ‘other’. In retreating to ‘default man’ he was checking himself. He noted that I society now to be passive=bad=penetrable, and that Christianity has forgotten the penetrated God, the Christ who was penetrated with nails and a spear, who calls out for help and in doing so outs self as other. Christianity has made God ‘default man’.

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Reisa Klein – Social Media and the Body as Resistance: Online Discourses on Tatting as Self-Care after Breast Cancer

Klein spoke about the regulation and deregulation of female bodies and the ways in which women are becoming increasingly responsible for taking care of their own health and wellbeing. Her research involved a discourse analysis of popular and medical websites, tattoo sites and social media. She looked at the ways that post-mastectomy tattoos are discussed. The medical discourse very much focusses on recreating realistic nipples – this frames the return to health as a return to normative codes, and it reframes a time for healing as a responsibility to erase scars and regulate women’s bodies. However, the tattoo/social media discourse focussed on decorative mastectomy tattoos that subvert social norms and biomedical narratives. These tattoos are still usually very feminine (flowers, etc.) but they rearrange femininity on the body – they reinscribe bodies through chosen scars.

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Yekki Song – Performing Femininity in Female Body Building

Song spoke about her ethnographic study describing how during her time as a body builder at competitions she was asked to ‘ham up’ her femininity due to her short hair. Female body building competitions started in 1978 and were judged on the same things as the male competitions. These competitions have been seen as either an act of feminist resistance, or as another way to judge female bodies. In the 90s it began to be seen as potentially gender subversive, in that the muscularity that is traditionally seen as masculine was paired with breast augmentation and highly feminine outfits. However since then a number of different categories have been introduced – ‘body building’, ‘physique’, ‘figure’, and ‘bikini’ – they each judge on different things, with the first two having a focus on muscularity, and the latter two on more  ‘hyper sexualised, hyper female’ criteria. During her own competing she had no trouble with the diet and work outs, but did struggle with the ways she was asked to ‘perform femininity’ – she had to train herself to embody femininity through choreography. She was also told that she would stand out because she’s ethnic (which limited which shows she could perform at and have a chance at winning) and was told to leverage her ‘otherness’ and ‘exoticness’. She also discussed the fact that it is a very expensive hobby (training, clothes, makeup, hair, etc.) and that there is not much money in competing. As such, the way in which many BBs make money is through online sponsorship and through endorsing products through their social media, therefore selling a lifestyle and a body that even they don’t maintain all the time – the bodies you see in shows are only maintained for two weeks and involve being v. dehydrated. She spoke about how many competitors are former eating disorder sufferers, and that they have recoded their habits to be socially acceptable. Competitors bond over the shared struggle of being hungry and tired all the time, and the ways in which having no fat padding your body means that your bones press in uncomfortable ways.

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Emma Sheppard – Kinked and Crippled: Chronic Pain and BDSM

Sheppard discussed her phenomenological study of how people with chronic pain experience pain in a BDSM context. Chronic pain is described as that which lasts over 8 weeks at a time, however, it can last considerably longer. As such, expressions like ‘no pain, no gain’ have no meaning. Pain is seen as a symptom that has no inherent meaning, and it is typically equated with negativity, suffering and medicine. Sheppard described how people talk about pain, but struggle to hear about it, how people are supposed to hide their pain because pain makes us abject or other. Within BDSM there is an active engagement with pain, there is choice and control about when/where/how/how long pain happens. It is also a space where a person’s reaction to pain can be uncontrolled – you can yell and cry in a way that you can’t elsewhere, sometime that she describes as an active reclaiming of self.

 

Rosie Hodson – Exploring Symbolic Interactionism Within a BDSM Community

Hodson’s paper spoke about the way in which people choose to act and react based on their perceptions of themselves and others. She carried out an ethnographic study in which she undertook life-history interview with people of numerous ages, genders, relationships, sexualities, and roles. She described how her own identity and presentation became important to the research process; looking, as she described ‘like an innocent 12-year-old’, wasn’t initially conducive to people’s openness. However, because she was a member of the community, she was able to use her contacts as backers, which helped introduce her to new people, allowing people to feel safe to engage in interviews. She spoke about how her involvement on the scene meant that the power divide between researcher and participant was reduced. As interviewee’s perceptions of Hodson changed, so did their response to her.

 

Rosie Nelson – Monosexist Perceptions of the Bisexual Body

Speaking about the ways in which bisexuality is invisible, considered to be a phase, or ignored entirely in the media, Nelson described the difficulty of engaging with a physicality of bisexuality. Whilst there are different levels of privilege within monosexuality, with heterosexuals having more than gay men and lesbians, bisexuals are typically entirely excluded. She described the difficulty of portraying bisexuality – one study (Hayfield?) found that heterosexuals and bisexuals can each identify what a straight or gay woman may look like, but not what a bisexual person may look like. Bisexuals may try to mix gay and straight markers, but as yet there is not easy visible identity, and consequently bisexuals experience a lack of cultural intelligibility that can be damaging to their mental health (suicide rates are considerably higher for bisexuals than any other sexuality). Cultural intelligibility may be achieved through the discussion and reinforcement of bisexual identity, adequate bisexual recognition in TV and film, establishing better bi-scholarship outside of lesbian and gay studies, and starting bisexual health outreach initiatives. In her closing comments Nelson spoke about the common exhaustion of having to continuously reinforce identity rather than just having it accepted.

 

Jez Dolan – Queering Abstraction: Extracts from the Golden Field

Dolan is an artist who investigates queer identity, language, and secrets. His paper spoke about how reliance on depiction of figurative sexual embodiment might be selling queer identities short in art, something that abstractionism may be the answer for. During his presentation, he showcased some of his own art alongside pieces by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. He noted that a lot of ‘gay’ art focussed on explicit m/m relationships, and that they were usually white and European. Alternately, he suggested, queer art is that which doesn’t have sexuality as the gravitational centre. Working with Sedgewick’s ideas on gaps on resonances, things that don’t/can’t signify monolithically. Dolan spoke about queer art as being a mesh of possibilities, as being art that doesn’t automatically present information to the viewer, and as such they must spend time with it. He stated that we must fight hate with the effective use of history and fact, and that we all have a duty not to be silent.

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David Griffiths – Peeing Standing Up and the Surgical Search for a ‘Normal’ Penis

Speaking about the contemporary history of intersex in the UK, Griffiths specifically addressed the variation of hypospadias, in which the urinary opening is not at the tip of the penis, something that occurs in 1 in 250 boys. This is fundamentally a cosmetic difference that is medicalised and then ‘fixed’. Griffiths described three norms that drive surgery: ‘The performative penis’ – (19c) in which the importance of peeing standing to male experience was foregrounded, linked to the importance of social performances of masculinity. ‘The psychological penis’ – (20c) wherein sex became identity and a rhetoric of psychological wellbeing was foregrounded with emphasis on restoring ‘normal’ masculinity. And, ‘the perfect penis’, wherein in order to be ‘normal’ the penis has to be ‘perfect’ in both look and function, something that is largely judged on the ability to perform heterosexual sex, and, of course, pee standing up. Surgery is often recommended very soon after birth and is framed as something that is inevitable. These surgeries have no standard technique and concentrate on the urethra, ignoring things like glans sensitivity, among other complications. As such, these ‘corrective’ surgeries are geared towards creating a penis that can shoot semen straight, and ignores anything other than the ability to perform hetero sex.

 

Daisy Butcher – ‘Vagina dentata ain’t no passing craze!’: Manifestations of Vagina Dentata in Ancient Mythology and Contemporary Monsters

Traditionally, vagina dentata has been used to represent the witch/whore/terrible mother. It is a space where the phallus enters alive and leaves dead. The vagina is inverted from a pleasure and birth, and becomes dangerous for the phallus and babies. In mythology, the ‘hero’ is usually the one who knocks out the teeth and returns woman to femininity, as such it centres around the male invasion of the female body. With vagina dentata it is the women who have the ability to damage male power, they victimise the phallus and reverse sexual violence. Female genitalia is reinvented as a vice or trap. The entrapping feminine (rather than the penetrated) kills off men’s heirs rather than nurturing them. Vagina dentata has the ability to penetrate and emasculate. Traditionally this may be seen in the figure of the vampire, with her red lips and pointy white teeth. However, a more recent example is the killer plant, or the Demogorgon in in Stranger Things, something that poses a particular threat to teens and children. Vagina dentata is scary and dangerous to men, but she always loses, she’s always killed.

 

Mariana Fernandes – The Possibility of Integrating Queer Pedagogy in a Fine Art Curriculum

Fernandes undertook practice based research in which they looked at queer pedagogy and the impact that mainstream education has on student identity formation. They foregrounded the importance of affirmative ethics from within the institution wherein there is a demystification of the majority in order to better include minorities. Whereas feminism was classically shaped by a more dictatorial solidarity that required no questioning, Fernandes argued that queer theory is more based in respect, equality and broader negotiations between groups. Regarding fine art pedagogy, Fernandes noted that art is a visual representation of identity and self-expression, as such it was crucial to equip students with a broad curriculum and to emphasise the importance of dialogue. During the first month of teaching Fernandes set up introductory tasks such as writing exercises in which anonymous secrets were made into a poem, a space was created in which assumptions and privilege could be questioned, they found out about student interests, building the rest of the curriculum upon this, and they taught students how to give good constructive feedback and how not to hurt others. Current social politics leaves minorities vulnerable, and as such we must activate strategies of ethical change.

 

Jennifer Dyer – Understanding Parental Advocacy of Gender Creative Youth

Dyer spoke about the importance of advocacy for gender creative kids (defined in this research as 3-23), as strong parental support dramatically reduces the risk of self-harm and suicide. Whilst there has been research on trans identity, there has been no national research (until now) on advocacy for trans kids. Dyer’s project with nine other parents of gender creative youth is looking at which advocacy methods work and how they may be used in this context. The study uses both participatory action research with parent advocates and key allies, and critical media analysis of representations of transgender youth. Some of the key issues that have been found so far are the erasure of non-binary/gender creative identities, wherein the pathologisation of trans identities and the notion of a ‘medical fix’ reinforce the binary. Another issue is that of ‘mother blame’, where a child’s identity is blamed on the mother, something that furthers the stigma of both raising a gender non-conforming child, and of womanhood more generally. Through the ‘Gender Creative Kids Canada’ facebook group, Dyer et al advocate for trans and gender diverse children and families. Dyer discussed the parental need for help with the constant negotiation with power structure, such as schools and drs, etc. This group allows people to share information between families. Parental advocacy can be framed through the lens of children needing protection and children’s vulnerability. Allyship means affirming childhood autonomy, asserting a child’s right to know their own gender. Children, parents and allies need information, education, support (from family, school, peers, etc.), and contact with other trans people.

 

Helen Mitchell – When you’re lost for words … get a tattoo! [Plenary]

Mitchell spoke about tattoo renaissance narratives and cultural exchange of tattoos in New Zealand. NZ has a specific cultural history of tattooing which colours the discussion in ways that it may not in other countries. What are the specific function a tattoo may fill? Is it the appropriation of a surface decoration, or, the appropriation of culture? Some may get one to reclaim the self (e.g. over mastectomy scars to reclaim the feminine self). Mitchell looked at what motivates people to get tattoos, especially women, and specifically in NZ where 22% of women and 17% of men have them. She noted that academic literature on tattoos tended to be gender blind, that there was little relation between tattoo and wearer, and little investigation into the reasons people get them. She looked at the tattoo community, tattoo narratives, and codes of language. She questioned how tattoos relate to certain cultural groups, and looked at tattoos of emotional and cultural meaning. Mitchell also investigated the change in status of tattooists – they are now generally more educated, have art and design backgrounds and have portfolios of work. This was held in contrast to previous associations of tattooing with gangs and in the branding of criminals (Japan, Russia, etc.). She mentioned that apprenticeships are seen as a way of not only learning, but paying your dues and showing respect to tattooing community. The new tattoo culture has transitioned from back streets to high streets, and whilst it is more popular, very few people get tattoos for no reason – most people have both profound and impulsive reasons. Mitchell spoke about the development of a cross cultural blend as the globalisation of tattoos has developed, and the cultural exchanges that happen at tattoo conventions. However, she also mentioned how in NZ, the moko, a sacred tattoo that Maori women wear on their chin, is exempt from this exchange – it is specifically cultural, and most non-Maori tattoo artists will refuse to do them. Mitchell’s research included photographing and interviewing people about the meanings of their tattoos.

 

Debalina Banerjee – Of Cognition, Erotica and Cerebral Palsy: Body, Beauty and Disability in Margarita with a Straw

Speaking about the Hindi film, Margarita with a Straw, Banerjee discussed its depictions of femininity, sexuality, disability, and sensuality. She asked, if woman is already ‘other’, what becomes of the disabled body? In society physical attractiveness has become standard, and as such the disabled body is even more othered for not upholding the aesthetic. Whereas a disabled man = the ‘wounded male’, disabled women are seen to suffer a lack of womanhood, as being unable to care for family or be sexual. It is also commonly assumed that disabled people are also mentally/intellectually inferior, all of which leads to the infantilisation of disabled people.  This film, which Banerjee showed some illustrative clips from, rejects all of this, it shows vibrant women who defy assumptions of disability, gender and sexuality. [On a side note, I’ve bought the DVD].

 

Esther De Dauw – Wonder Woman and the Female Combatant

De Dauw discussed ideas of doing gender and femininity in superhero narratives. She noted that female heroes usually have different powers to male heroes. Males usually have lots of musculature, even when it isn’t part of their powers (e.g. Magneto), with the implication that men, no matter what their power, have an additional strength. Female superheroes, on the other hand, are slim with no muscles, they tend to have point and shoot powers that allow them to pose like a photoshoot. Discussing the evolution of Wonder Woman, De Dauw noted that during WW2, Wonder Woman said that her power came from her womanhood and encouraged women to exercise and get involved in the war effort. During this time WW was in the army, but as a secretary – she fought Nazis, but not on the front. After WW2, Wonder Woman returned home, and we rarely saw her at work. In 1968-1973 she lost her powers, and instead owned a boutique and worked as a private eye. Furthermore, in the first 30 years WW was very thin, her strength was assigned to her because of her Amazon heritage, however, in the 80s, when body building became popular, she got muscles. De Dauw also showed some examples of how WW changed according to head writer in recent years, particularly the difference between Gail Simone’s 2010 beefcake WW who mixed fem and masc signifiers (confident, front-on poses), and the 2011 slim-line WW with uncertainty on her face, breasts at the centre of the image and ass highlighted by placement of lasso.

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Alex Tankard – Rebuilding Disabled Bodies: Captain America Films and Fanworks

Tankard addressed the social model of disability within the Captain America films, looking at how society places bodies that don’t fit the mould defined by the power structure. Steve Rogers (Captain America) is introduced as a valuable person trapped in a ‘defective’ boy – one that his transformation into CA frees him from. Steve’s original body is deemed worthless by the military, he is constantly 4F-ed out of enlistment, however, once he has a superhuman body, he uses it to fight facism. Tankard discussed how, although Steve consented to the body modification that made him CA, this was in an oppressive context – we constantly see Steve being bullied and rejected. The film highlights the ableism that led to Steve giving his consent. This is particularly important with the narrative context of WW2 as it shows eugenics happening in the USA, not just Nazi Germany. Looking at actual information from WW2, we can see that disability is often constructed in context – Tankard noted how one man was rejected from WW2 enlistment for being too tall, wherein height restrictions were based on trench warfare – as such, we see how society constructs which bodies are viable, and which don’t belong. In contrast, the Winter Soldier is an example of what might have happened to Steve if he had been transformed in the Soviet regime rather than the ‘land of the free’. Tankard highlighted the similarities between the WS’s narrative, and Frankenstein’s monster, wherein first we are introduced to the terrifying monster, and then the monster’s POV shows them to be a victim, humanising them. Both are the result of forced modification, have a lack of autonomy and are not allowed personal bonds. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier’s identity is kept separate to his pre-modification identity (Bucky Barnes, Steve’s childhood friend), there is a separation of the disabled and able Bucky, and we see him trying to return his able-bodied self by being put back into cryogenic storage until he can be magically fixed. Tankard also noted the ways in which fan works explore much more nuanced takes on this narrative, showing a breadth of identities, exploring autism, eugenics, PTSD, and ongoing life with impairment in a way that the canon does not.

 

Carolyn Hunter & Nina Kivinen – Becoming an Author: Bodies, Gender and the Multiplicity of Selves [Plenary]

Focussing on children’s authors, Hunter and Kivinen spoke about how authors deal with the profession of writing. One thing that was raised during the research was authors questioning if they could define themselves as such if they didn’t make enough money to earn a living. They also found that some writers want to separate themselves from the text, don’t want people to know anything about them, use a pseudonym, and don’t want self to affect readings of their work. Others, however, perform the author, self-marketing, using social media and attending festivals, primarily because marketing isn’t done as much by publishers any more. They discussed how writing for children is often seen as women’s work, as historically it was a form of income when no others were available, and now means that you are able to work from home and around childcare. However, first a book must be written, and only then can it be sold, which has no guarantees and is therefore not a certain income. Furthermore, writing is often seen as a hobby and therefore people are asked to do thing (like festivals) for free. This also often reinforces gender issues and ideas of ‘women’s work’. Something crucial that they noted is that often there are ‘books for children’ and ‘books for boys’, a separation of genders. Also, they noted that there is constant negotiation with editors/agents to fight for visibility and diversity, as it is not seen to be ‘sellable’.

 

Garjan Sterk – National Identities, Academia and Not Having a Vocabulary

This was an account of Sterk’s personal experience of her research when there isn’t necessary language available in Dutch to discuss the topic. In the Netherlands, there isn’t a concept of ‘race’ in language, and as such there is no concept of racism. Race in NL is not a scientific concept; therefore it doesn’t exist and no words are needed (it isn’t science, therefore it’s unnecessary). Instead of ‘race’, NL used ‘ethnicity’, when ended up covering everything that was a bit different, it was always the ‘other’, as the dominant group didn’t have ethnicity. There are the terms ‘autochtonen’, which means ‘from here’, and ‘allochtonen’, which means ‘not from here’. Allochtonen started as a neutral concept based on place of birth, but became politicised. Initially it was a divide between Western and Eastern origins, with people from developed countries being considered able to look after selves without benefits. However, it became an issue of visibility, to be allochthonous became synonymous with everyone who is of colour, with a different accent, etc. Without having the language available to discuss the more nuanced issues of race, identity, etc. it becomes impossible to fight oppression.

 

Treena Orchard – Invoking Multiple Voices, Using the ‘Axial Embodiment’ Approach to Explore Layers of Lived Experience in HIV-Positive Women and Men’s Body Maps [Plenary]

Orchard’s research seeks to mine visual data of self-drawn body maps with greater vigour and considers the role of art in the production of health/healing. This project questioned how gender and people’s ideas about their bodies affected their adherence to HIV med. She used critical medical anthropology, art therapy, postcolonialsm, and body politics. Body mapping is an art based approach to research that combines visual arts, narratives, and the therapeutic process. It began in South Africa as a reaction against the high HIV death rate, particularly of women, and was used in order to remember the people and to shame the government into making the medication available. Many of Orchard’s participants were from marginalised backgrounds (sex-work, structural violence, addiction). Orchard mentioned the ritualization of taking medication (at specific times, before/after meals), the constant monitoring by drs (blood), and how patients are often dehumanised, spoken about as viral loads and how their health varies from the ‘norm’. Body maps are created in very specific ways to include particular types of information, such as a person’s history, identity, personal slogan, journey map, etc. Using axial embodiment to analyse these means considering horizontal and vertical analytical levels, considering ideas of movement and relativity. It destabilises the idea that there is a singular normative and complete corporeality, and is instead based in lived experience. This study ultimately aimed to be therapeutic.

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Aysegul Sah Bozdogan – The Asexual Body and its Meanings

Bozdogan argued that asexuality is a subversive tool to rethink social concepts. It is commonly assumed that sex is the only way to connect to people. Asexuality is an absence of sexual desire, as such asexuality is constituted outside of the sexual subject, heterosexual or not. People are assigned identity according to their sexual organs and who they are sexually attracted to (het, bi, gay), but this does not consider the asexual body. Society is unable to give any meaning to a lack of link between body and desire, and as such the asexual body is considered not to function at all. In considering the invisibility of the asexual body and why it has been invisible for so long, Bozdogan spoke about Foucault and Butler. Foucault’s notion of subjectification constructs the subject as ‘doer’, however, the asexual subject is an ‘undoer’. Butler questions what is considered human/not human, a binary of inside and outside of constructs of humanity, where asexuality is ‘outside’ to all sexual identities. Subjects are constructed through the states of ‘to desire’ and ‘to act’, meaning that it is difficult to perceive a subject without these. Therefore, asexuals cannot become intelligible, because they are not yet a subject. Asexuals subvert subject/object dualism, as there is no object of desire. Bozdogan notes that asexuality may be used as a tool for struggle, freedom of sexuality is usually seen as a freedom to act, however, currently it ignores the freedom to not do. She discussed whether asexuality has a place in queer theory, with inclusion being based on it still being about sexuality and freedom of expression. The argument that there is no place is based on queer theory being ‘sex positive’ [by which I think she meant, ‘sex active’], and as such there is no sense in working together. However, the freedom of not doing is still doing something. Asexuality faces the struggle of ‘not doing’ and how society perceives this, and as such, asexuality can meet queer theory in struggle.

 

Katie Meyerscough – The Woman Who ‘Pretended’ to be Black

Noting that race is ascribed and changes over time, Meyerscough entered this research asking: who gets to define race? And, who gets to assign race? Scientifically, race doesn’t factor into anything, however, socially, it has a huge impact. She noted that indentured servitude eventually became race and the USA adopted the hypodescentist ‘one drop rule’, wherein anyone of mixed race was considered to be black. She noted that race is constantly being recreated, for example, America made ‘Hispanic’ a racial group on the census. Meyerscroft stated that if Dolezal hadn’t been exposed, she would have continued to be accepted as black. However, the question of white privilege and whether Dolezal could just become white again [yes], means that she doesn’t share the same oppression that black people do.

 

Nick Cherryman – ‘Ugly As Fuck’. The Martha Stewart Lifestyle: Or, how Does Tranimalism Drag Sashay away from Gender?

Tranimal drag has no guiding aesthetic voice other than ‘it works’, and, according to Matthew Anderson, epitomises the ‘dirty, vicious, available drag queen’. Unlike other drag, tranimalism has even more ironic distance, it creates a visual shock of non-recognition, the viewer is not immediately sure what they’re looking at. Butler’s work on drag makes both sex and gender integral to drag performance. However, Cherryman notes, tranimal drag ignores gender altogether, whilst simultaneously embracing gender by its refusal to engage with it in traditional ways. It rewrites the rules of drag performance. By not drawing attention to gender, it draws attention to a lack of gender, and therefore to gender through the lack thereof. Cherryman describes it as performative poststructuralism. Tranimal acts are so distorted that you often cannot tell the performer’s physical assignment, and therefore gender stops mattering, it’s reduced to pure performance – social concepts of reading gender are removed. Ultimately, it renders the reading of gender impossible and useless.

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Zsófia Anna Toth – Mae West, the Great Female Impersonator and Comic Giant

Women are not seen as producers of humour, and if they are, they’re not seen as feminine, it is more a comic performativity of such. Comedy is seen as appealing to the intellect, therefore denying women comedy is denying their access to intellect – they are there to be looked at, not listened to. Mae West was seen as a strong phallic presence, not viewed as masculine, but she was never actually very feminine. Her sexuality was questioned throughout her career, and her sensuality became a source of power. She rejected passivity, and used aggressive femininity to cover her masculinity. She was seen as sexual, but not sexy, a comedy exaggeration of womanhood. A comic exaggeration of the vamps of the time like Garbo. Toth noted that femme fatales are usually considered to be phallic women, and in comedy, female comedians are separated into good girls vs. gargoyles.

 

Lea Sophie Schiel – The Subversive Potential of Sexual Performances

This ethnographic research aimed to discover whether sex performances performed live on stage have subversive potential. Having attended shows, Schiel opened this paper with a descriptive narrative of one of her visits to the Moulin Rouge in Amsterdam. As the only woman there, people stared at her, her body was not read as an audience member, she became a part of the show for the male audience.  Schiel asked whether live sex is more obscene than porn, noting that attending means becoming a part of the scene, the public sphere becomes an obscene space. Mainstream sex shows are a space created for men; they are commercial and act as a form of entertainment rather than sexual titillation. It raises intersectional issues of ‘perversity’, rich white male ‘perverts’ are more accepted than black female ‘perverts’. When sex is performed live in public, each audience member may react differently, this becomes a part of the performance. The different reactions show different frames of reference of what sexuality means (e.g. teens laughing, vs. men masturbating). Whilst these shows have subversive potential, most of them cater for the male gaze, reinforcing heterosexual and patriarchal norms.

 

Vrushali Deole – Indian Rituals and Mythical Representation: Powerful Media to Articulate Sexual Identity

Deole noted that there are endless possibilities of gender in Indian myths. Gods and goddesses sometimes change gender for sexual or erotic reasons, sometimes gods go through gender deviance as a form of punishment, sometimes through divine blessing. Within these myths there are numerous variations of gender configuration. Deole argued that myths are a key to change ideology and cultural mind sets, highlighting how Hindu gods each have varying forms and therefore there is a cultural basis for altering bodies. However, she noted, Hinduism also believes in rebirth and karma, and as such, having a queer son is often attributed to having bad karma. She described India’s Sakhi-Bekhi Sect, a group of people who are ‘born in the wrong gender’, and the third gender Hijras, highlighting the stark comparison between a historical awareness of alternative identifications in mythology and culture, and the current harsh reality afforded to those who identify as such today, wherein they are ostracised and denied work and education.

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Krystina Osbourne – “My Mode of Reading is Masturbatory”: Towards a Genre of Autoerotic Fiction

Autofiction is a blend of autobiography and fiction that places importance on the relationship between private and public, citing Chris Kraus, Osbourne noted that ‘the process of fictionalisation is selection’. She highlighted the fact that simply addressing the topic of masturbation in a text doesn’t make it autoerotic, and that there has been a dominant narrative of female masturbation in texts. Autoeroticism allows women to subvert phallocentrism and foreground the subjectivity of female experience. The common narrative usually addresses a narrator’s first experience of masturbation, trapping it in adolescence and making it sound like it’s no longer done. Sexual fantasies that fuel masturbation are often seen as more subversive than sexual acts [because there is no performance of sexuality, just personal gain?]. Osbourne argues that there is a need to engage with the feminist potential of autoerotic fiction, that female authors should write themselves into a text, that self-expression is an art. She quoted Charlotte Roche in Wetlands – ‘us women still don’t have a language for our lust’.

 

Melissa Tanti – ‘How to Get Away with Rape’: Early Research Findings in the Making of a Documentary Film [Plenary]

Despite witnesses and victim impact statements, rape prosecution is still lacking. Tanti’s study looked at how rape cases in Canada are tried, how they are processed differently to other violent crimes and how this upholds rape culture. She noted that the women are often put on trial, and that sentencing reflects a system that validates violence against women. Sexual assault is the most under-reported crime, although 27,000 are reported in Canada a year, this is estimated to only account for about 6% of occurrences, of which 0.3% of perpetrators are held accountable. In her research, Tanti listened to how 911 calls are processed, noting a level of hesitation that doesn’t exist in other crimes. It was often the case that police were not dispatched straight away and that the victim would have to convince the operator that it was an act of violence (because rape is seen as a type of sex). There was a level of scepticism that the victim had to overcome first in order to receive help. In Canda, only 16/18% of police officers are women, there is an overall lack of visible minorities, and there is a high attrition rate of female colleagues. Not only does this indicate that there is something going wrong in the culture of the police force, but it also means that the first people on the scene of a crime are usually a group of white men, something that likely affects rape reporting. Crime scenes themselves are often not treated in the same way that other violent crimes are, there is usually little collection of evidence, some reports show that women have been sent home immediately after and aren’t asked for evidence until the next day. Furthermore, all physical evidence is collected from the victim, not the attacker, putting the burden of proof on them. The responsibility is always placed with the woman – ‘don’t get raped’, and as a result there is no outrage about sexual violence. Procedures for investigating rape are not mandatory, and investigators rarely search for links. This is a particular problem because most rapists are repeat offenders – normally at least six times. If it does make it to court, the victim must deal with the male gaze of the courtroom, with courts being lines with photos of old white judges, the power dynamics of the gown and wigs, and the basic and degrading fact that witness boxes don’t even have seats. Increasingly it is the case that survivors are suing rapists for damages in civil court – the benefit of this is that there is a larger chance of the defendant being found liable because you only have to prove a balance of probability, not ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’. In civil court, the defendant has to defend themselves, but in the criminal court they have the right to remain silent. However, this essentially decriminalises sexual violence. The overall aim of this research, and the resulting documentary, is to make sure that rape is viewed as a violent crime, not a sex act.

 

Charlotte Jones – Risks, Exposure and the Struggle to be Heard: Speaking Out about Sexual Violence in HE

Jones is working on a sponsored project that aims to enhance staff ability to support victims of sexual violence. The relationship between speaker and audience is disclosure, however, disclosure can be exposure and the opening of self to further danger. Once something is disclosed it is ‘out there’ and no longer able to be contained. As such, reciprocity is key, wherein the speaker and listener understand the message that is meant to be received. The fear of a lack of reciprocity can lead to self-silencing. As such, it is important that the audience must be both willing and capable, that listening is not passive but affirming, that they are aware of how to listen to the silences, absences and body-language, that they know how to meet the speaker’s efforts half way, that they are not an observer, but a participant in the exchange. Intentionality and agency are foregrounded, Victims are often ‘responsibilised’ for speaking out and then surviving/healing. Within Higher Education, this support can take place within student services, stuff must be ready and equipped to receive a disclosure. Marginalised groups need to be at the centre of this change. Jones spoke about a double-bind that universities face, in that, in order to properly support victims and combat rape culture they need to research the figures and encourage victims to come forward, but in doing so, they open themselves to accusations of high rates of campus violence – having a reported low rate of campus violence doesn’t necessarily mean that the figure is low, it may just mean that people do not come forward and are therefore not supported.

 

Hanna Etholén – Bodies Without Desire: Unpicking Heterosexual Scripts in Women’s Erotic Autofiction

Etholén aimed to unpick how female sexual desire is described or expressed in autoerotic fiction. Autofiction is a hybrid genre between fact and fiction, so she aimed to look at how women describe their own sexualities, particularly in light of how some forms of sex/romance are privileged. She looked at books written by women, narrated by female characters and that discuss sexuality. In discussing heterodoxy, Etholén noted that normative scripts of heterosexual relationships hinder female sexual desire, expressions of female desire come to represent what men want of them, something also seen in porn. She noted that female narrator’s expressions of desire usually only happen when they are alone, however then they learn to funnel it into the male’s desires [this links to Osbourne’s discussion of masturbation narratives being framed as something that occurs in teen years only]. Narrators are often unable to articulate their desire, what they want and why, until they engage with ‘the right way to desire’, i.e. for a man. Whilst there are sites for expressing female desire in culture, there doesn’t seem to be in autoerotic fiction.

 

Esther Raventós-Pons – Beya and the Imprint of Trauma in the Body

Beya is a graphic novel about a girl who is kidnapped and forced into sex work. It was based on the stories of 100 women who were saved from sexual slavery. In the course of this narrative, the victim, Beya, alienates herself from her body to survive, something that is reflected in the comic’s composition, the fragmented 2nd person narrative and use of repetition. Rape, in the same way of torture, leads someone to experience the body in a new way that alienates self from body, creates a duality of self. Disassociation, therefore, is a mental escape when no other form of escape is possible. The genre is able to capture trauma of body in a way that traditional novels cannot. The graphic panels fracture time and space, they create a rhythm of unconnected moments, images represent the trauma, and emotional impact is delivered through imagery clues like frame size and colour, etc.

 

Bethan Archer – (Un)Dressing Rape Culture in Young Adult Fiction

Discourses of rape may be both productive and determinative in the rewriting of rape myths. Archer notes that clothes and make up often build a part of these myths, and that women are held responsible for their own appearance, speech, thoughts AND how other people may perceive her. She highlighted that most popular television dramas not include rape, even if it’s just in the back story to justify a character’s response to something. There is a rape glut in current popular culture. She notes that over half of YA books are read by adults, and that these texts are a key way of transmitting norms. They aim to get young people reading, and authors are often trying to ‘lend a hand’ to adolescents who may experience such things. Referencing a number of key themes she found in the novels she studies, Archer spoke about the paradoxical nature of red as a colour of both love and danger, life and death. She tracks the use of red lipstick and nail-varnish through the texts, analysing their impact. She found that make-up can be often be used as armour in these texts, something that disrupts the traditional associations of softness.

 

Sian Lewis – Sexual Harassment on the London Underground

Lewis found that public transport is often missed out of discussions of street harassment, and noted its state as an intermediary space between the public and the private. Figures show that one in ten women experience sexual harassment on the underground, but it is estimated that only 10% of women actually report it, meaning the figures are much higher. The current focus on getting people to report harassment puts the onus on the victim, whereas it should be that the services build protection in. In her study, Lewis spent a year on the circle line collecting data, and did participant interviews. She researched the flaneur, a predominantly male figure, and the female prostitute in the city, noting that in the 19c, any woman who was alone on the street was seen as a sex worker, a narrative that is still seen in victim blaming. The flaneur is unobserved, but the flaneuse, the female counterpart, is subject to the male gaze, as all women are observed. Lewis noted that the underground is a social space, but with very little interaction. It is a space in which a newspaper/book/phone/headphones become signifiers that you are not looking to interact. Lewis’ study also looks at how this understanding of the underground as a social space may impact or aid harassment.

 

 

So, that is a summary for all of the talks that I had legible notes for. As you can see, it was a fascinating, diverse and ultimately important conference. I can’t wait for Talking Bodies 2019!

 

P.s. As I say, these summaries are from my hastily scribbled notes at the time, if you notice any errors, please let me know and I’ll sort them immediately.

All or Nothing

It’s a well-known issue in diet advice that the ‘all or nothing’ approach won’t work – it’s a short-term fix that will eventually backfire. People tackle this in different ways, some build a ‘treat’ into every day, some people save up calories for a cheat day, some people (like the Rock), save themselves for a mega blow-out every few months. It’s all about whatever makes it practical and sustainable for each individual.

I absolutely fail at this. I am 100% all or nothing. This trait has permeated throughout my entire life – I’ve justified it regarding my thesis, I have a really terrible memory so if I step away from it for more than a day, I have to re-read everything in order to get back into the swing; it takes me a while to warm up into writing, so if I only gave myself an hour or so, I’d get nothing done – etc. However, I’ve noticed that it’s taken over other areas of my life – I won’t read a book unless I can finish it in one or two sittings, I won’t watch a programme unless I can binge watch it; I can’t watch random episodes, even if it’s a show I’ve seen before, I have to start at the beginning and see the whole thing through. It’s an issue.

The PhD takes over your life – I’ve joked that if in my viva they ask me to prove it’s all my own work, I’ll just point them at the three years of social media flailings about my thesis. (Personal update – it turns out that if you go outside, eat well and do occasional exercise, the world doesn’t feel as though it’s ending). So, in accepting that the thesis is bound to take over your life, the next step is probably to understand how thesis-related behaviours do the same.  I used to be able to watch TV and do homework, I used to be able to listen to music and read a book, I used to watch random bits of telly rather than streaming specific programmes, I used to read a couple of chapters a night. The focused dedication of the PhD seems to have rewired my brain into a new set of habits. Ones that I’m not certain are entirely healthy.

I’ve isolated the issue, so what’s the next step? Forcing myself to watch regular telly? Making myself read novels even if it’ll take me a week or two to finish them? Trying to fit work into random spare hours? I don’t really know yet – if anyone has any suggestions let me know.

In other news, my abstract for Talking Bodies 2017 was accepted – yay! That happens in April. I’m almost halfway through my final chapter – hoping to have it mostly done by Friday. Then it’s just the intro, conclusion and editing. It was my birthday last week, my best mates came up north for four days, we saw Fantastic Beasts, hobbited our way round some excellent ruins, and engaged in an all or nothing approach to cake (emphasis on the ‘all’).  After they left I had to crack on with some teaching bits and bobs, and now I’m back to the chapter.

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Paddle-boards and Drafting Chapters

It’s been over a month since my last post. Whoops. In that time I have written about half of my third chapter, visited family and friends, fixed my car, been on my first plane, been on my first hot holiday, relearnt how to swim, gone snorkelling, gone paddle-boarding in Mallorca, popped back up north, driven south to visit more friends, had my car fixed again, been paddle-boarding in Exeter, learnt about low G.I. foods, oh, and did I mention, written half of my third chapter.

This time last year I was gearing up for my transfer viva that allowed me to continue my PhD. I had written a rubbish draft of an intro that no longer reflects my thesis and I was throwing a paddy about having to do a gantt chart. As it happens, the hoop-jumping annoyance of the RF2 was well worth it. I’ve stubbornly stuck with the chapter plans that I made for it, something that gave me the direction I needed. I still disagree with comments made by some of the examiners, but that did give me the stubborn push to further defend my argument, even if it really shook my confidence at the time. I’m so grateful for my lovely friends, they really got me through that when I thought about quitting. Not that I actually would have, I never quit anything, but I fully thought about it.

Anyway, this chapter. It’s about society and violence – the way in which identity violence (where a person’s identity is denied or mocked) and physical violence are enforced and perpetuated by an essentialist and transphobic society. I struggled with the theory section – I have far fewer notes on this theme than I did for the previous two. I was a bit worried that it would be too similar to the previous chapter about essentialism where I spoke somewhat about society. This chapter also seemed to be the most obvious – society is shit and therefore: violence; but actually, as I’ve taken some time to scuttle about between ideas I’ve managed to come up with some points to work on. I’ve managed to hit my word count for that section, although it definitely needs some heavy editing.

The other issue I had for this chapter was that I wasn’t entirely certain which books I’d be analysing. Initially I thought that Sassafrass Lowrey’s Roving Pack would be included, but as I went back through it I realised it would work better in the next chapter about trans community and visibility. I’m currently writing about Imogen Binnie’s Nevada, which was one of my favourites, and I think it’s going ok. I’ve ordered another book which might be useful, but if not I’ll have to have another peruse through my shelves.

I’m still down south at the moment, and stretching out my trip for another couple of weeks – I’ve got my PhD stuff with me, so I’ve been working. I just happen to have also been to the pub and out paddle-boarding considerably more. Also there’s a new baby in the family that I need to go an celebrate and certainly never hold.

Oh, I also had an abstract accepted for a special edition of a narratology journal. I’m looking forward to working on that. If my book doesn’t arrive in time I’ll probably switch to that paper and finish this chapter at a later date. And I need to read the papers submitted to the book I’m editing.

My plan at the moment is to have my thesis drafted by Christmas – finished in two and a half years, eeep. That means I’ll have six months to edit it and read over any new publications. Starting to get a bit worried about the job situation too, so I might look into some further qualifications/experience.

 

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Cafes, Drafts, Escapes.

I have finished the second chapter! Well, for a given value of finished. I haven’t written the conclusion. I’m contemplating leaving all of the chapter conclusions until the very end – give myself some space from each chapter before I try and summarise the main points. Is this a good idea?

I spent most of last week in various cafes with my laptop. I’ve definitely found that working outside helps me concentrate, I tend to get very distracted at home. Although I also found that in doing that I left myself very little personal time. By the time I got home each night I didn’t have the time or energy to make a proper dinner and I definitely didn’t have time to go to the gym. I’m pretty sure that’s just weakness from not having been in full-time employment for the last year and a half.

I do feel pretty accomplished right now. I’ve written this chapter in two months, give or take, and I feel like I can finally see myself progressing. So much of what I did in first year felt like treading water. I never felt like I was really achieving anything and I felt so buried by it all. It’s all coming together now though. Those months of research, tears and spider diagrams are adding up to something that (I think) makes sense.

Having said that, though, I reread some bits of my first chapter yesterday – I’m borrowing from it for a paper I’m writing – and it’s a bit embarrassing how bad it is. Three months ago I was proud of it. Shows what a bit of time and space can do for the writing process, I suppose. I’m not going to edit it again, though. I want to try and bash out all of my chapters ASAP and then go back to them all. Editing is easier to dip in and out of when I’m teaching, so the more I can get done during the holidays, the better.

This week I’m hopnig to get this paper drafted and I’ve got a meeting with my supervisors before heading away for the whole of June – trekking down south via various people’s houses and ending up in Exeter before I head abroad for a week. I’m taking my work with me, of course, and plan on seeking out some hidey-holes to start drafting my next chapter in. Work/Life balance? I think it’s going well.

 

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Voices And Timelines

The chapter is taking shape. I had a meeting with my supervisors just after my last post, they seemed happy but wanted to spend some more time with it before giving further feedback. The chapter is very theory-heavy, and I sent it rather late in the day. They agreed that the layout I discussed in the last post was absolutely the one to run with. It always seems the way that after spending weeks or months hammering away at something, the solution happens in a sudden flash at the last possible moment.

We also discussed the PhD in general, how I’ve found teaching and what I might teach in the next academic year. I’ve loved teaching, in spite of the hours of lesson planning, the actual time with the students is great. I’m planning on creating some of my own module plans at some point, possibly next summer, just so I have the experience and also so I have something concrete to offer when I start job hunting. We also spoke about my doing some lectures, which is a bit scary, but also really exciting. I’ve enjoyed all of my teaching experiences so far, and I always enjoy presenting papers at conferences, so I feel like lecturing would be a cool combination of the two.

We met again the week after to discuss the chapter in more detail. There are a few niggles here and there that I can bash into shape – it is very much a first draft at the moment. I also sent an additional bit of writing I’d done in the week – some literary criticism of one of the chapter texts. I bloody love lit crit, it’s very much my natural habitat. We did discuss some issues, though – because my chapters are very theory based, sometimes the real-world applications, which is something my theory and I focus on, mean that the analysis can seem similar to what I was discussing in the previous chapter. It was good to have that highlighted this early on as it allows me to better streamline and explain my work.

I’ve been continuing with the chapter since then. I’ve done some more analysis of the first text and started some for the second, just to mix things up a bit. I try to bob back and forth between texts as I write as it helps me make connections and discoveries – something obvious in one text might reveal something more hidden in another.

The speed with which this chapter is progressing has surprised me. My first chapter took me almost a year and it’s still not really finished. This one is moving much faster – partly due to closer deadlines, but also, I think, because I’ve found my voice. It’s something people are always talking about with the PhD – finding your voice, locating in an appropriately academic position, but still having yourself in there. I like things to make sense, I like my writing to be accessible. Judith Butler, for example, is crazy smart, and her work is oftentimes amazing, but bloody hell, if I never have to plough my way through one of her books again it’ll be too soon. Surely the point is people can understand what you’re saying? Anyway, that seems to have sped things up. One of the comments my supervisors made was that sometimes I can hammer a point home a little too heavily – which is fair. It’s usually a point I don’t really care about and therefore don’t spend much time trying to pick apart – which is something I need to work on.

A question I’m working through at the moment is whether or not to try and complete in three years. I’m only funded for three years, and I think I could probably just about manage it if I really pull my socks up over summer. On the other hand, the cost of the write-up year is about a third of the cost of council tax for a year – so, if I don’t immediately get a job, which I probably won’t, I’d be more financially stable if I dragged the PhD out for four years. How much does completion time really matter? Does anyone know?

 

A photo posted by Emma (@emma_spud) on May 16, 2016 at 4:14am PDT

 

Also, I did some mandatory health and safety training for the workplace and was alerted to the existence of these little riser things – happy spines make for happy academics,

 

Achievement? How long’s a piece of string?

I didn’t blog last week for no reason other than it slipped my mind. My teaching prep felt impossible and took me way longer than it should have which meant that I was then rushing to get in all of the reading I had planned for this conference paper. I’m actually really enjoying being really busy – it helps keep me focussed, it’s cut down on my procrastination and subsequent sense of under-achievement. But for weeks like last week and the week before, it feels like I’m running to keep up. Which leads me nicely on to the fact that I’ve taken up running (again).

I mentioned in my previous post that exercise is helping me remember that my body is more than a vehicle for my brain and a handy prop with which to hold books. But in taking up running, or jogging really…probably somewhat closer to a moderately paced lumber, I’ve realised again how taking up a new exercise is like doing the PhD. Especially if you work in fits and starts like I do. I mentioned this in my PhD Plank Challenge post back in March – but what do you know, nothing has changed and I keep on making the same discoveries. Essentially it’s about working your way up slowly from complete incompetence to a sustained and regular achievement. I seem to get stuck about half way every time I try. I like the initial sense of accomplishment – whether that’s completing a certain amount of time spent running, or writing 500 words every day. The bit where I struggle is when the initial high has worn off, but you still haven’t quite built up that sense of take-it-for-granted-habit. You sink back into the mentality of ‘well, I was really good yesterday, so it doesn’t really matter if I have a little break today, I totally deserve it’, which is fine, until the next day where you think ‘I’m still kind of recovering from doing so well the day before yesterday, and it’s ok because I’ll do brilliantly tomorrow when I’m really well rested’. Newsflash. It isn’t going to happen. You’ll wait until something comes up and makes you get your arse in gear, whether thats a deadline or the fact that your jeans don’t fit.

The other thing that hinders this development of a constant sense of achievement is the fact that in the PhD accomplishment is pretty hard to measure. It would be easy to say ‘do 500 words a day or you’ve failed’ – but then what about days where you’re reading texts – should you have to finish a whole book or you’ve failed? Or maybe half a book? But what if the book is really complex and each page takes ages to pick apart? Well, in which case, surely you can measure it by hours worked? 9-5, right? Like a job. But realistically, are you actually properly working for those hours? Or are you making yourself feel like you’re working simply because you’re at your desk and there’s a book somewhere in the vicinity? This is, again, where I think pomodoro is handy – you can keep track of exactly the amount of time you’ve been properly working. Saying that, I can’t remember the last time I actually used pomodoro.

Something that I’m finding really handy is having an external source of accountability – in my case it’s working in the living room with my new housemates, both of whom are also PhD candidates. We tell each other off for procrastinating and help each other brain storm. This is something I would have found massively helpful when I started and I’m so grateful to have it now. I can’t express enough how important it is to have a sense of community during the PhD – whether that’s having other PhD mates, or working up at uni in a post-grad suite, or keeping in contact with other PhD victims online via hashtags like #phdchat #phdlife #acwri etc.

This week I’m teaching my students about career prospects, which is hilarious seeing as my current life plan is to stay in education for as long as possible and then hope that it sorts itself out.

This book was ok I guess #phdchat #book #phdlife #thesis #posits #notes #writing #study

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Teaching: As easy as installing an oven.

This week has flown by. I think it’s been pretty productive. At the beginning of the week I was finalising teaching preparation before attending the lecture/workshop on Wednesday. The 2 hour lesson was actually fab, I don’t think that the undergrads really appreciate how interesting the module leader has made it. He discusses the topic for a while and then sets a task for them to discuss in groups. He, the other seminar tutor and I go around the class and talk about their thoughts. He does this a few times during the lecture and the two hours go really quickly.

My seminar class is on Thursday morning. Most of my students turned up, which is always a good start. We were discussing four poems. I split the room into two groups and gave them two poems each to look at. We then came together and discussed them. Most of the students seemed to engage really well. They came up with some fab ideas. I’m looking forward to working with them this term.

This week my housemate and I rearranged the living room into a PhD hub. She found another desk in the cellar that we’ve cleaned up and moved various bits of furniture around to accomodate. I work at the dining table with her on the other side of the room at the desk. We’ve been challenging each other to write 500 words a day, and for two out of the three days we’ve hit target. The day we didn’t was due to the furniture moving and the fact that we had to collect and install a new oven as ours went kaput. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I managed to do it without blowing us up.

I’m meeting my supervisor tomorrow to discuss my first chapter. I’ve got just over 6000 words written, so I’m about a third of the way through. My aim is to have it finished by December so I can move onto the next chapter after new year. The chapter is about passing and crossing in two texts – Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues and Renee James’s Transition to Murder. They both deal with the topic in different ways. Jess in Feinberg’s text transitions to male, having top surgery and taking testosterone. They find it relatively easy to be read as cisgender, however, in doing so they feel as though they’ve lost their sense of self and therefore decide to stop taking the hormones and remove their beard. It is only then that Jess finds an authenticity of self in embracing the liminal, in living as what they describe as ‘a he-she’ – something that allows them to embody all aspects of their gender identity.

Bobbi in Transition to Murder, who I’ve spoken about before, transitions to female and from very early on in the text voices the fact that she’ll likely never pass as cisgender. She struggles with this during the novel, mostly due the the reactions of the public who are alternately unwelcoming, hostile or explicitly violent. Bobbi’s strong support network, her friend and therapist, her boss, and the trans community group she’s a part of are her real saving grace at that point. As the novel progresses Bobbi grows in confidence, she embraces her own sense of femininity and finds ways in which to be happy and places where her skills are admired.

Both texts highlight the dangers of passing and crossing, but both also show that embracing one’s own sense of embodiment is one of the most important things a person can do. However, it should also be noted that both of these texts feature white, working class protagonists who have, to varying extents, an existing support network when they transition. The ability to embrace an identity that society may frown upon is very much based in a certain level of privilege. My other chapters have novels by trans women of colour, so I’ll be interested to see if the same themes arise.

Today I’m getting on with this week’s teaching prep. And then I’ll probably try and edit what I have so far of my chapter into something resembling sense so I can discuss it tomorrow.

Scrolling Through Past Emma’s Open Tabs

You know when you go away for a while and when you come back everything feels strange in it’s familiarity? The haphazard way that you made your bed before you left. The one pair of socks that you left on their airer hanging stiffly because you forgot to buy fabric conditioner. Little piles of mess pushed to the corners of the room because you couldn’t be bothered to tidy them away when you still needed to pack, and was that really the time, and you needed to be on the road in ten minutes.

Today I opened my computer for the first time since I went away. Tabs and open windows greeted me. A half finished report, university guidelines, PDFs, a finished chapter that I was liberating quotes from. It’s been in the back of my head that I have work to do, a presentation to make, a report to edit, a chapter to start, but somehow the urgency that only seems to visit in waves has ebbed. I can’t tell if it’s an arrogance of assumption that I’ll just get it done, or if my mood is taking another dip.

While I was away I thought a lot about what it means to me to be a PhD student. I began to notice that when I introduce myself to new people I always take the time to emphasise that it’s a PhD I’m doing at uni. I use it almost like a justification – oh, I don’t have a job because I’m doing a PhD; I don’t have a house because I’m up North for a bit writing my thesis; what do I want to do with my life? Oh, well, when I finish my PhD I’ll probably go into lecturing if I can find a job, and what about you?

I’ve always based my self-worth on my academic achievements; I’ve never been pretty or handy or particularly eloquent, but I can write a bloody good essay. I tend to downplay my PhD, I say that reading is the only thing I’m good at (true), that I have no idea what else I’d do with my life (also true). So what does it mean when I base my self-worth on something that I then downplay?

I think that the reason I’ve begun to notice all of this is because of how insular and independent the PhD is. At undergrad and masters level you have a constant stream of deadlines. You write essays and get feedback. If you’re lucky, you get praise which then acts as validation. We’ve all been well lectured on the dangers of external validation, but that tends to come in the form of ‘you don’t need a partner to be happy’ and ‘you don’t need instagram likes to believe you’re pretty’. I imagine that gaining an internal sense of validation is an important part of becoming a functional adult human, I just have no idea how to go about that. Suggestions on a post-card.

Next week’s blog will definitely be about having achieved something work-wise.

Conference Countdown

[Today’s post edited to reflect the reveal of Caitlyn Jenner’s chosen name and pronouns]

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that rather than doing any actual work I was writing a conference abstract instead. It turns out that it was a really good use of time because it was accepted! I’ll be presenting at the Trans Studies Now conference on the 12th June down in Brighton. So now I just have to actually write the paper.

The paper is on the theme of passing in post-90s trans-authored literature. I’ll also be using Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk on The Danger of a Single Story in which she suggests that oftentimes any existence outside of the Western, white, middle-class, cisgender male is narrowed down to a single narrative. This dominant portrayal of a single aspect of a certain group’s identity leads to the dehumanisation of that group. She states that if you ‘show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again […] that is what they become’ (Adichie, 2009). In the case of trans individuals, they become the story of transition. As has been seen with the coverage of Caitlyn (née Bruce) Jenner in the media, in the Katie Couric interview of Carmen Carrera, in Louis Theroux’s Transgender Kids documentary and numerous other examples, the main concern is always transition, always to do with physical change, always to do with an adherence to binary gender.

Rumours of Jenner’s transition have been appearing in the media for months, there has been a deluge of discussion on physical changes and sartorial choices. The In Touch Weekly magazine cover that photoshopped make-up onto a picture of Jenner was particularly reviled by trans activists (and anyone with a shred of decency) as being transphobic and highly inappropriate. Trans activist and pioneer Kate Bornstein said in response ‘DAMN IT. BRUCE JENNER IS BEING BULLIED, AND PUBLICLY SHAMED FOR  NO OTHER REASON THAN BEING TRANS‘ (2015). This cover not only highlighted the inherent transphobia of a media that believes that being trans is shameful, something that should be exposed, but also foregrounded the obsession with transition even, in this case, when transition hadn’t [yet] been declared.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie suggests, ‘It is impossible to talk about the single story without talking about power […] How they are told, who tells them, when they’re told, how many stories are told, are really dependent on power‘ (2009). In this case, the trans story is being told by the cisgender patriarchy.

Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person‘ (Adichie, 2009)

It is due to the prominence of this single story narrative that I chose to focus my thesis on trans-authored texts. Trans theory is based in lived experience, embodiment and in the acceptance of a huge range of gender identities, all of which are elements of trans that the dominant narrative ignores. What if Caitlyn Jenner, rather than transitioning, was simply exploring a new element of her expression of self? Why is it that society is so concerned with transition? Perhaps it’s because whilst trans unsettles identity categories previously considered to be unquestionable the notion of transition still somewhat upholds the gender binary. This is something I found during my MA when I looked at both trans- and cis-authored texts. The cis-authored narratives were far more rooted in a strict transition from one gender to the other, whereas trans-authored texts tended to embrace more flexible, liminal gender identities – as famously seen in Leslie Feinberg’s Stone Butch Blues in the character of Jess who transitions from female to male before embracing a non-binary identity.

There’s a huge potential for academic work in the comparison of trans- and cis-authored texts but ultimately until trans-authored texts have been discussed on their own merit, until those non-dominant narratives have been explored, until the single story has been transcended and multiple experience has been accepted by culture at large, that comparison has the potential of focusing on how trans people ‘differ’ to dominant cis narratives, rather than foregrounding the diversity of trans experience and the failure of cis-normative culture to understand a range of identities previously ignored.

This started as a blog post at 5:30 in the morning, but now I think it might make its way into the actual paper. This is something I’ve found really useful about writing the blog, not only does it help motivate me and give me some sense of accountability, but it also helps me articulate my thoughts. I usually get really bogged down with trying to get my academic writing perfect and this causes no end of writer’s blog and panic-induced procrastination, but allowing myself a non-formal space to quickly chuck ideas at seems to break through the block and gives me a sense of achievement from which to springboard into my actual writing.

Last week while I was still at Mum’s I read another two and two half books (I got half way through one and realised it wasn’t relevant, the other is in my handbag waiting to be finished). This week will be focussed on writing this paper before heading back down south to Brighton via Gloucestershire and Exeter.