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.

Back, back again.

In my last post I did mention that I tend to be a bit ‘all or nothing’, and I have definitely shimmied gleefully into the ‘nothing’ zone for this blog for a while. But I have been busy while I’ve been away. I’ve written two papers for publication (well, one was for a competition and has already been turned down – but it’s written!). I’m basing my Talking Bodies conference paper on one of the above, so that’s sort of half-done-ish. I’ve been teaching on two modules. I popped to Exeter for a LGBT+ History Month event, that I probably should have blogged about but didn’t. And I quit sugar for the whole of February for Cancer Research (spoiler: it nearly ended me).

So, that final chapter I mentioned? Still not finished. But I feel good about the things I’ve worked on in its stead. I’m giving a lecture this week, and am hoping to wrangle the TB paper into shape, but after that, I’ll go back to this chapter and get it hammered out. The two papers I wrote were based on previous chapters, so that’ll help when it comes to editing the thesis.

I also had an interview for a student services role, that I didn’t get, but was a good experience. They gave me some handy feedback on stuff I can improve for next time – like using the STAR technique to answer questions – which is basically creating a narrative of what you’ve done, when, how, and the effect it had. I did it for a couple of questions, but for others it seemed obvious – apparently it’s good to do it anyway. Lesson learned.

I’ve sent a poem off to an excellent new lit mag – Salomé – that I’m keeping my fingers crossed for. And I’ve tentatively been working on another short story a bit at a time. I’ve also made some time for reading and crafts in my life so I don’t go completely crackers. Getting a little better at that whole work/life balance thing. Now I only work 6 days a week.

I’m starting to get the post-PhD panic – when will I finish? Will I have any publications? Will I be able to get a job?

I’ve been looking online at the jobs coming out and the list of things they require seems to grow every week – but I suppose all we can do it work hard and try to diversify our skill sets as much as possible. I’m lucky in that my field (trans theory and literature) is starting to become fairly popular, I’m able to teach on literature and creative writing courses, and I’ve got a solid amount of teaching experience behind me at this point. I am worried, though. I think most people in academia are these days. But I really bloody love it, I love my students, I love my classes, and I love my research. Fingers tightly crossed.

 

SO! I’m writing this paper, getting back on top of my thesis and pushing through the last month of teaching (and then all of the marking in the world). That’s the plan.

 

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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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Perceptions and Reality

Remember how I mentioned that I’d written my weakest chapter yet? Turns out my supervisors think it’s my strongest. It really goes to show how unreliable our own perceptions can be when we’re in the midst of things. I met with both of my supervisors to discuss chapters two and three; it was actually really helpful to look at both at once. I think it gave all of us a feel for how the whole thing is coming together.

I’m working on my final chapter now, I’m only a thousand words in. I’m looking forward to having a full draft of the thesis put together so I can go right back to the start and make sure it all flows smoothly. I’m also interested to see how far I’ve come since writing that first chapter. I know the first couple will probably need to be entirely overhauled. I feel like I’ve learnt so much in the past few months, things have really started to click. I want to make sure that my first chapters are as strong as the last and reflect all of the things I have learnt. Aiming to have things finished by Christmas gives me a really solid chunk of time to edit the whole thing and get it as strong as it can be.

I’ve submitted that narratology paper – I’m not holding my breath on it being published, it’s not my field and I’m not massively confident on the way I’ve situated my work. It was really helpful to write it though – it made me consider my thesis and my stance from a new perspective, one that has really helped me clarify my thinking.

I wrote and submitted an abstract for Talking Bodies 2017 – I bloody loved TB15, and I’m really looking forward to attending again. I’d be thrilled if they accepted my abstract.

On a slightly negative note, however… I’ve been doing some lectures with a colleague on gender and feminism to second-year undergrads. I’ve had a bit of feedback and apparently they’ve found us a bit intimidating and as such haven’t enjoyed the lectures as much as they could have. This is obviously really disappointing as we put a lot of work into it and wanted to do something a bit different and thought provoking. We obviously pitched it a bit wrong – maybe too emphatically. But it’s good to know for the future. I’m doing the final lecture of three on Monday and have toned it right down, I’ve added in some discussion activities, so hopefully they’ll feel more like they can speak with us rather than being intimidated. I’ve found it really interesting to see the difference between my Creative Writing students and these English and History ones – I pitched it at about the same level in the lecture as I do with my CW lot – that is, lots of energy and enthusiasm – whilst the CWs seem to really enjoy it and get quite bolshy back and spark lots of conversation, the E/H lot seem to be much more reserved. It’s a good thing for me to know at this stage in my career where I’m still learning as I go. I really hope they enjoy Monday’s lecture more. It all comes back to how your personal perceptions of something don’t necessarily meet up with the external.

To finish on a high, though. I wrote a short story for the Off The Shelf short story competition and came second! I was so thrilled. There were some properly brilliant writers there, and the winner was fantastic. It was lovely to meet other local writers too.

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SexGen Conference

Last week I attended a SexGen seminar ‘Trans Studies: Reflections and Advances’ organised by Dr Sally Hines at the University of Leeds. It was an amazing afternoon with six speakers who are prominent in the field. I fangirled. A lot.

I took the train to Leeds in the morning, giving myself a couple of hours to walk to campus and inevitably get lost. I don’t really know what I was expecting, but the reality of Leeds was not it. It’s big. Not necessarily directionally, but height-wise. The buildings are tall and closely packed. There’s lots of impressive architecture, statues and sculptures. It was lovely, but imposing. I definitely want to go back and properly explore.

I made it to campus in about twenty minutes. That was the easy bit. The campus itself is insane. It’s possibly bigger than the town I grew up in. I followed the concept of ‘when in doubt, keep walking straight’. After twenty minutes of muttering to myself, storming about, staring at maps and the information that had been emailed to us, I eventually came across the right building. It was fancy.

Usually in gender studies type conferences, we get shunted to the back of a slightly dingy tower block or squeezed into a large-ish seminar room. For this seminar, we were in the Great Woodhouse Room. There was plush carpeting and a cabinet of trophies. The tea and coffee were fair trade. I’d stepped up in the world for a brief moment. Having arrived early, I engaged in awkward small talk with the other people who had managed to find the right room in the right building in the insane campus. I met some really lovely people who study properly interesting things.

The afternoon was opened by Dr Hines and our first speaker was Prof. Surya Monro. Her paper was called ‘Beyond gender Binaries: Issues of liminality, categories, and equalities’. She noted that her concept of ‘beyond the binary’ was rooted in the works of Sandy Stone and Kate Bornstein. She spoke about the expansion of gender categories, the elasticity of gender binaries, and concepts of gender pluralism and a gender spectrum in community groups. Her work is on citizen frameworks and she’s currently working on a book called Transgender Citizenship, which sounds interesting. In the questions there was a discussion of the potential differences between gender pluralism and a gender spectrum. It was noted that pluralism allows a way to link essentialist and anti-essentialist identities within a community group, whereas a spectrum may be problematic in that it is inherently fluid and some people embody fixed identities. Another comment was that, as language shifts, people continue to negotiate their own identities – an identity once negotiated is by no means fixed. This led to a discussion of differentiated models of citizenship and position theory, both of which I need to look into.

The next speaker was Dr Katharine Johnson, who I saw at the Trans Studies Now conference in Brighton last year. Her paper, ‘Trans matters: Exploring the now and then of trans studies’ look at how the field has evolved in the last twenty-odd years. She noted that trans theory emerged from two camps, clinical and socio-cultural. She referenced Susan Stryker’s work on trans subjectivity and Sedgewick’s critique of the clinical and socio-cultural – we can ask new questions and find new places to begin. She asked: how arechildren able to understand themselves as gender uncertain and how can we support young people in ethical ways? In the questions it was aked how Judith Butler became the main voice regarding concepts of gender performativity, rather than Kessler and McKenner, or Zimmerman, who were working at the same time. It was noted how we, as gender theorists and trans theorists are always trying to define ourselves in relation to Butler – something I had to struggle with in the opening to my thesis and again in this new chapter.

Unfortunately Sally Hines was unable to present her paper on the day, but luckily Dr Francis Ray White was able to jump in with their fab paper ‘Teaching Gender, being Non-Binary’. They reflected upon their experience of teaching gender and being non-binary, discussing how and when it is possible to be non-binary. Francis changed their name and pronouns, ‘coming out’ as non-binary, however, for two years, little changed; students still used female pronouns. They had to repeatedly come out, it didn’t seem to stick – there was a persistent non-recognition of non-binary identity. They noted that in coming out as non-binary trans there was no physical reveal to mark the change – there was no ‘after’ to demarcate anything. They tried to shed as many markers of femaleness as possible, but this never seemed to be read as ‘not female’. As such, their gender presentation was read less as ‘not-female’ and more as lesbian feminist, as ‘the typical female academic who teaches gender studies’ – that cliche produces a specific way of being viewed as female. Gender studies is almost always taught by women, which further places Francis as female in the students’ minds. Assumptions and cliches have worked against their legibility as non-binary, and undermines the autheticity of their trans identity. As such they have worked towards teaching students about non-binary pronoun use and finding ways to identify self as non-binary, even in non-gender studies classes – they acknowledged that this was largely possible due to their job safety as a department head. During questions, Jay Prosser discussed how the autobiographical narrative has changed – there is no ‘becoming’, there is just a coming out – it shows how ther personal narrative has changed – as in Juliette Jaques’ book (who was also in attendance). It was also discussed how the term non-binary is problematic in that it is still in relation to the binary, the term ‘genderqueer’ was highlighted as it used to be the more popular term.

After a tea break we had a paper from Dr Meg John Barker, ‘Non-Binary Gender So Far…’. they described their work as ‘anti-self-help’ – locating problems in the world, not in the self (which I love). They noted that Western psychology is predicated upon the binary gender system and considered it self-evident. As such, in mainstream psychology binary gender is taken for granted and added to all research questions, whether or not it bears any relevance to the study at hand. They noted that studies have shown that M&F in one culture show more similarites than M&M/F&F from separate cultures – showing that gender isn’t all that important for single location studies. They discussed Sandra Bem’s work on androgyny, noting their shift from the eradication of gender in the 70s to the proliferation of gender in the 90s – which would ahve the effect of undoing the supposed ‘naturalness’ of the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’. They also discussed the movement between lexis – genderqueer, non-binary, enby. They noted that both sex and gender are non-binary at all levels (chromosomes, etc), adn that gender is psychosocial.They also discussed the diversity issues of the majority of non-binary images, if you google non-binary, you’ll see a lot of young, white, thin, able-bodies fashion conscious people.

Prof. Stephen Whittle gave a paper called ‘The End of Gender: Invalidating the Trans-identity and the need to be someone’. He describedhimself as primarily an activist and lawyer, non an academic (despite his massive output). When discussing non-binary and the law, he stated “well, it’s fucked”. He noted that many people who identify as non-binary often transition in a binary way due to availablibity and that every trans person, when you look at what they’ve gone through is due to the construction of gender being natural. We don’t know what gender babies are, we just make a guess. As a child, his daughter didn’t want to “do” female gender because it was too restrictive and as such refused to be gendered. He noted how in the 90s the main focus of trans theory was discussing the construction of gender, how to challenge binaries and to get rights rcognised. He stated that we can all do gender in lots of ways in certain spaces, but we cant in other spaces because it’s unsafe – why do we ‘get away with it’ [pass]? – parimarily for safety reasons. He discussed the impact that access to information has on the understanding of personal and global identities, citing how India had no open trans men before the internet – many hijras, but not the other way round – since the internet has proliferated, there are now 20 support groups for trans men in India. He discussed how we don’t yet have a framework for the legal protection of non-binary people – he said that we’ve deconstructed gender, but haven’t reconstructed it for legislation at all – so we’re just ‘fudging it’. He finished by stating that the non-binary movement must be inclusive of those they assume to be stably gendered, because not everyone is, even if they present as though they are.

Dr Jay Prosser was the final discussant, he opened by asking, to what extent is non-binary new and to what extent is it continuous? He noted that there are diverse ways of being non-binary, but also ways to go back to old trans theory and show continuity. He had previously experienced non-binary as an interrogation of trans and asks why is it a term that’s emerging now? What is it about this moment? He highlighted the close proximty between theory and praxis, not just about academia, but within social contexts too – in the 90s there was not the closeness between academia and praxis, so why now?

This series of questions led to a discussion between Prosser, Whittle and the audience. Whittle noted that the increase in non-binary identities may have evolved from policy making in the 1990s that he was involved with that dismissed the term ‘trans children’ and replaced it with ‘gender variant’ – this was because if you start staing ‘trans youth’ you make them think that to be legitimated they must transition; by using ‘gender variant’ it allows them space to work it out. He noted that transition had always been about putting people in boxes – goal driven.

A few other notes from this discussion that aren’t long enough for their own paragraph:

  • It was noted that there has been a snowballing of the existance of trans communities, whereas previously it had been hard to get diverse voices, now, online and face-to-face communities are more prevalent.
  • Trans theory has proliferated through online spaces.
  • There is more than one history that has led to this point.
  • The asexual movement was before the non-binary one and created a space, particularly online.
  • Gender is just like race – it’s a power structure to control people.
  • The internet can also be negatve in that it can be reactionist/regressive – e.g. the bathroom acts in America – those people would not have had a voice if not for the internet.
  • There are bot good and bad sides of the internet, therefore we must use it cleverly.
  • We think of non-binary as being plural and trans man and trans woman as being fixed and singular – this ignores the various ways that those identities can be expressed.
  • Who can access non-binary identities is due to cultural capital.

This was a fascinating and invigorating afternoon. It got me thinking in new ways and revisiting old ideas from new angles. It has also made me worry a bit though. Whilst both of my supervisors are brilliant, neither of them work specifically within trans theory. I’m a bit concerned that if I do something ridiculously stupid, or miss something really obvious, it might not be caught until the viva. On the other hand, having them read my work means that I know that my ideas are accessible to those outside of the field. Still might need to bribe a trans theorist to skim my work at some point if possible though.

 

This week I really need to crack on with this chapter, finish reading a linguistic-y pronoun-y book and probably start marking my first years’ essays. AGH.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A photo posted by Emma (@emma_spud) on Mar 24, 2016 at 4:37am PDT

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Time Flies

I was talking to my lovely housemate about how it was already nearing the end of January. How? She’s in the third year of her PhD and teaching on two modules this term. She said that last year flew from January through to Christmas and that she can’t believe that it’s all come round again. For me, time didn’t start thundering out of control until October when I started teaching. January to April was mostly spent getting my head in order, and then I just did lots of reading. Reading is pretty hard to quantify in an objective manner, so it really felt like I hadn’t achieved anything.

I now have a chapter, a module of lesson plans and 2 round of marking under my belt (I finally finished that last five essays). So that feels like something. Of course, I still feel woefully behind on my personal targets. I really need to get this chapter edited and sorted and sent back off to my supervisors. I wanted to have started my second chapter by now really. Not least of all because there is an AMAZING conference in America in September that is currently accepting abstracts. I feel like it’d be a bit of a copout to send something based on this chapter as I’ve already done a paper on it and have an article based on it being published. So. Need to get my thinking cap on IN A BIG WAY. And soon. Really soon.

I’m going to spend the next three days editing my chapter and finishing my lesson plan for Thursday. On Friday I’m helping in a workshop and then heading straight off for the weekend with my besties down South to finally do our Christmas.

Next week I will definitely write that abstract.

A photo posted by Emma (@emma_spud) on Jan 24, 2016 at 5:52am PST

 

What A Difference A Year Makes

This time last year I wrote my first post. It was about how I had spent the prior four months feeling woefully out of my depth and struggling with depression. I’m pleased to say that this post will be vastly different.

I often feel as though I’m achieving very little in any given week, and in all honesty, when I started contemplating this post last week I felt as though I’d achieved very little in the last year and a half. However, I’m feeling slightly more positive today, admittedly after a truly disgusting amount of caffeine and some rather frantic procrastination cleaning.

On paper, these are my achievements of my PhD so far:

  • Very rough introduction drafted.
  • Almost complete chapter drafted.
  • RF1 passed.
  • RF2 passed.
  • Five conferences attended, two spoken at.

I had initially, naively hoped to have the intro and first chapter entirely finished and the second chapter started by now. I absolutely did not factor in the amount of time and energy that goes into teaching, even when it’s only one module a term; that’s something I’m going to need to take into account this year.

Whilst my achievements may be fewer than I would have liked, they are ultimately overshadowed by my state of mind. This time last year I felt utterly worthless and genuinely considered quitting the PhD. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing and no idea how to work it out. All of the motivational posts on pinterest couldn’t help me shake the notion that things would never get better and that I had little or nothing to offer to life, let alone academia. Luckily, that same sense of helplessness meant that I couldn’t work out a different direction to take, and so I carried on plodding along. Eventually my spider diagrams and half-digested journal articles started to click together in my brain and I gradually came up with some plans and ideas.

Although I hated them at the time, the things that pushed me through that block were the Rf1 and RF2 – hoop-jumping paperwork and presentations that make you explain and justify your project. For the RF2 I had to provide a chapter plan; at the last minute I chucked one down on paper, believing that it was just there so that I had something to say, but it stuck and gave me the structure that I needed to push on with my thesis. I could never have gotten to that point, however, without the months of reading and hopeless spider-diagramming that at the time felt utterly useless.

One of the turning points last year came in March, when I watched James Hayton’s video on surviving the PhD – which I blogged about at the time.. It gave me a new perspective on what the PhD actually is, ‘the entrance qualification to the world of professional academia‘ rather than the culmination of your academic achievements to date. It means that, of course you have no idea what you’re doing, you’ve never done anything like this before.

Another thing that helped me was attending conferences. Meeting other people who share your interests and worries, listening to people who are passionate about their work and having people get excited about yours is an invigorating experience that boosts your energy. Submitting abstracts and writing papers is also great for creating firm deadlines and helping you articulate thoughts that you might otherwise leave until later (forget).

Less tangible things that I have achieved this year are things like making amazing new friends, getting out of my comfort zone more often (attending conferences, talking to new people, talking in front of people), traveling, learning to ski, learning yoga, getting fit, getting healthy (or at least healthier). All of which have attributed to my increasing sense of wellbeing. Of course, I still have slumps, but I’m more able to deal with them. The sense of utter despair has dissipated, and when it starts to creep back in, I’m more able to knock it back.

My aims for the year ahead are to write a couple more chapters, try and get at least one paper published (publish or perish), and to travel more. I’m hoping that I get better at teaching, I think I did ok last term, but I want to do the very best by my students. Ultimately I’d like to happy, or, at the very least, moderately stable.

Feminist Research Methodologies Conference

Friday saw the culmination of almost a month’s worth of work. I presented my paper on trans and feminist theoretical interactions (available to read here) at the Feminist Research Methodologies Conference at Sheffield Hallam University. It seemed to be received pretty well, a few people asked for my slides. I had started to regret spending so much time on something that probably wasn’t going to go into my thesis, but the conference gave me a boost. Everyone needs an excuse just to do a bit of research into something they’re interested in rather than something practical. I also got to meet other people interested in my area, which is always nice.

The conference itself was brilliant. I was astonished by the sheer range of speakers – different universities, different areas, vastly different topics and opinions. It was a really well put together day. And it was bloody amazing being in a room full of feminists.

Another person on my Panel, Ben Vincent, presented on their research into transfeminism beyond the binary. They mentioned the importance of trans women openly being a part of the feminist movement. A key point they made was the policed access to feminism experienced by those who identify as non-binary or at the intersection of non-binary and woman, particularly if they are assigned male at birth. They defined non-binary as a family of identities and reflected upon the difficulty of occupying gendered spaces and receiving medical care as a non-binary person. It was a fascinating talk and their research looks really interesting. I’m hoping to pick their brains in the future.

After the conference a friend and I attended a Kathryn Wiliams gig in Sheffield cathedral, which was lush. You just can’t beat cathedral acoustics. I think the main thing that I miss about attending church is the reverberation of clear notes in high stone rafters.

kathryn

The plan for this week is to get back into writing my chapter. It’s due at the end of the month and I’m away for at least two weekends, not to mention lesson planning and marking. I’m also working on a short story for publication, the deadline for which is also at the end of the month. It’s going to be a bit of a squeeze getting everything done in time. But that’s good I suppose. Better than being bored witless.

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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Feminism and Shoulder Stands

This week’s teaching went much better I think. They seem to be more productive when I ask them to work in pairs than in groups. I think it’s because they each get more of a chance to talk about their ideas, rather than leaving it to the more verbose members of the class. I’ll definitely be bearing that in mind for future lesson planning. I’m not doing any teaching this week as they have a library workshop, but I’ll be offering the spare hours towards tutorials closer to the essay deadline.

Productivity-wise I haven’t been great this week. My lesson planning took longer than I thought it would and I gave myself a day off on Friday that seemed to extend through the whole of the weekend except for a couple of hours of reading on Sunday. I really need to crack on with a conference paper that I’m presenting at the end of the month. I wrote and submitted the abstract in ten minutes and honestly didn’t think I’d get chosen to speak. That showed me. The conference is on feminist research methodologies and I’m going to present on transfeminism. I think my plan is to give a bit of an overview, as most people outside of my research area won’t know much about it. I’ll probably talk about previous interactions with mainstream feminism and the future possibilities of the two working more closely together. I haven’t done a terrific amount of work on transfeminism, so I’m mostly doing lots of reading at the moment, which is nice. Just got my fingers crossed that I can get it done in time…I don’t have much choice really.

I saw my supervisor this week to talk about my first chapter. She seemed pretty pleased with my progress. We’ve agreed that I’ll get the draft to her and my director of studies by the end of November and have a big meeting in the last week of term to discuss it. This means that November is going to be pretty manic as I’ll be working on the conference paper until the end of this month probably.

In other news, my yoga classes are progressing. We started on shoulder stands on Friday, which I just couldn’t for the life of me do. I’ve been practicing every day and I think I’m vaguely getting there. I’m probably doing it wrong, but I’m still counting it as a personal win. When doing the PhD you tend to forget that your body isn’t just a handy piece of transport apparatus for your brain. Having something like yoga and morning gym sessions with my housemate is helping me remember that it’s all connected. My brain actually works better when my body is working too. Not that it makes getting up at 6:30 any easier.