Communication and Construction of Monstrous Embodiment
June 15-16, 2012

Saturday, 29 October 2011

A Hallowe'en Treat: Surgeon's Hall Museum, Edinburgh

If you happen to be in the Edinburgh area this weekend, we recommend that you stop in to the Surgeon's Hall Museum to explore their fantastic collections and exhibits. It is their last open weekend this year, which is appropriate, since today and tomorrow are potentially the best possible days for exploring an exhibit about pathological anatomy, or the history of surgery, or Sherlock Holmes and his real-life counterpart, Charles Bell. They will still be open during the week, which means you are also welcome to visit on Hallowe'en itself. The museum is open from 12-4 Monday to Friday, and the weekend openings should start again in April.

The Surgeon's Hall Museum, Edinburgh
The Surgeon's Hall Museum also runs many special events and lectures in the stunning William Playfair building, so if you are local or planning a trip to the area, you might consider exploring their website to see whether they have anything exciting coming up (recent examples include the Pathology: A Day in Medical Detection event in October, while November and December feature tours on the history of medicine pre-anaesthesia and a talk on Scottish anatomists). You can also follow them on Twitter for updates and some fantastic links about the history of medicine.

If you aren't in Edinburgh, that doesn't mean you can't partake of the fun: come to the conference in June where we will be organising an opportunity to explore this amazing museum.

Have a deliciously monstrous Hallowe'en!

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

A Grotesque Aesthetic? The Anatomia Collection

Joseph Maclise, Pl.III "Dissection of the
Neck and Thorax, Heart and Blood Vessels"
Surgical Anatomy (1856).
We would like to draw your attention to an absolutely fabulous resource provided absolutely free by the University of Toronto - perfect for researchers in the medical humanities, or anyone with an admiration for exquisite anatomical art. Please indulge yourself and explore The Anatomia Collection: 4500 anatomical plates from the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, digitised and free to the public. The plates range in date from 1522-1867, and are fully indexed using medical subject headings (MeSH).

If you have perused our blog thoroughly, you might already have noticed that the gorgeous sketch depicting the face and skull of conjoined twins which we have selected as our header image is a section of a plate from Joseph Maclise's Surgical Anatomy (1856), all of the plates from which are available through the Anatomia Collection. This particular image was chosen not simply because of what it represented, but because Maclise's style itself, in this plate as throughout his body of work (pun fully intended), seems designed to elicit a highly sensual reaction.

His sketches often depict the hooks, strings, and instruments used to expose successive layers of flesh, vessels, and organs, remnants of the intrusion of medical probing which are typically erased from anatomical sketches. And also unlike many medical sketches, which hide the faces of their subjects, or else strip them of their identity, Maclise's "dissected figures", to quote the collection's description of the text, "seem almost life-like, with real faces, usually of young men with fair hair."

Joseph Maclise, Pl. 2 "Arteries, Veins, and
Nerves of the Thorax and Neck" in Richard Quain's
Anatomy of the Arteries of the Human Body (1844)
The description goes on to suggest that, "endowed with great dignity, the figures resemble the romantically noble heroic figures in his brother's paintings" (his brother being the artist Daniel Maclise). The assertion that Maclise endows his figures with dignity and romantic nobility is not necessarily untrue, but a scan through his work will reveal bodily contortions that seem more indicative of violent ecstasy, even torture, scattered throughout the romantic heroes. Amongst these evidently "life-like" figures also rises the gaunt, unavoidably lifeless face of one man, who simultaneously evokes images of decay, even of intense starvation.

Maclise's detailing of the feathered hair clinging to skin even as it is pulled apart to reveal each layer beneath, of the instruments that rip and tear as much as they slice, leaving ragged flaps as a grotesque frame, all of this casts a reflection of the dissected corpse on the page (or screen) onto the body of those observing it. As much as some images may evoke dignity and heroics, Maclise's overall style draws attention to a grim sensuality of dissection that is absent from many medical sketch. As he exposes the mystery of muscles and bones and blood vessels, his drawings render the subject/body monstrous; twisted, tortured, ecstatic, open bodies intimately tied to the living observer through an evocation of shared sensuality.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Peter Hutchings on Horror Film

Passionate about horror film and monsters? We have more resources for you, once again by one of our distinguished keynotes. Peter Hutchings is a Professor of Film Studies at Northumbria University and author of numerous books, articles, chapters, lectures, papers and projects concerning film, horror, monsters and numerous others. For example, his book The Horror Film considers the genre itself and the reasons behind its success with worldwide audiences, potential academic marginalization, controversies and difficulties in defining the genre itself. He explores various issues like vampires, serial killers, sounds, performances, race, class, gender, slashers and post-slashers and offers new perspectives on this fascinating genre. Another useful resource is his Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema, which follows the evolution of horror film from the early 20th century to present day, offering us a glimpse into zombies, werewolves, vampires, ghosts as well as actors, artists, directors, make-up artists and numerous others whose visions helped shape horror film. If you are interested in his thoughts on genre, take a look at his article on Genre Theory and Criticism available online. Reflecting on his own work and his newest book in preparation on British horror, Hutchings has stated:
Presenting yourself as a specialist in horror has occasionally caused eyebrows to be raised. But for all the disreputability associated with it, horror has been a significant aspect of commercial film production since the 1930s and is an especially notable presence in British film history. Looking at horror with an unprejudiced eye reveals an area of creative activity that is vital and unpredictable and which raises important questions about cultural values and hierarchies.
He concludes by reflecting on horror as a genre, which he considers inexhaustible and ''one of the most internationalized of genres which can potentially shed light on contemporary debates about the globalization if culture''. If you are interested in this fascinating field of research, you might also enjoy his article Uncanny Landscapes in British Film and Television (open access!), where he discusses Britishness, abandoned landscapes, savage, pagan and ancient landscapes and numerous others! And finally, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to write to us!

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fourth Plenary Speaker: Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

Earlier in the month we wrote a blog post about Rosemarie Garland-Thomson's fantastic new book, Staring: How We Look. We are therefore very honoured to be able to announce today that Prof. Garland-Thomson, Professor of Women's Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, will be attending the conference in June as the fourth plenary speaker, joining Prof. Margrit Shildrick, Dr. Peter Hutchings, and Prof. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. Together, these four speakers bring with them research expertise in all areas that the conference hopes to explore.

Video is copyright Emory University, 2010
Prof. Garland-Thomson's work has explored the extraordinary body in different contexts and from a variety of perspectives, from historical and cultural conceptions of freakery to contemporary reactions to and constructions of disability. Her most recent work explores our conflicted engagement with the impulse to look, and she has also put together a short video briefly discussing some of these ideas. This year (2011-2012) she also stands as a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Once again, we as the conference organisers would like to thank everyone who has responded so positively to the event and given their support, whether it be as keynote speakers or future delegates (we have already received some fascinating abstracts)! We are both excited and honoured to be involved in this project, and we cannot say how much look forward to working with you all.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The Monster in the Machine

Those of you focusing on the Early Modern period may already be familiar with Zakiya Hanafi's The Monster in the Machine: Magic, Medicine, and the Marvelous in the Time of the Scientific Revolution (Duke University Press, 2000), but for those of you who aren't, you may find it interesting. Hanafi explores the evolution of sacred monsters into monstrous automata in early modern Italy, but her discussion touches on a conceptualisation of monstrosity that spreads far beyond these regional and chronological specifics. Particularly interesting is her discussion of the relationship between the monstrous body and the monstrous automaton, in which both rely on an understanding of monstrosity not as, to use her own words, "any specific thing", but as "a category that becomes constituted in different ways according to different cultural and historical contexts".

Henri Maillardet's Automaton at
The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia
The discussion of a historical relationship between monstrum and automaton raises interesting questions regarding notions of the sensualised or de-sensualised monster, especially regarding Hanafi's description of mechanised monstrosity itself:
"What makes an automaton monstrous is not the arrangement of its parts (although the automaton is often formed to represent a monster, a highly significant convergence). That is to say, that disposition of its limbs is not what makes it rare and extraordinary; that is not what makes it a monstrum. Rather, it is the fact that matter formed by artificial means and moving of its own volition would seem to be endowed with spirit... The horror and fear provoked by appearances in nature of monstrous births moved over into the horror and fear provoked by our own artificial creations"
Such an idea of the monstrous automaton seems inherently disembodied and yet intrinsically tied to a kind of artificial embodiment. Interestingly, it also seems to cast out once again the role of the senses in not only the reaction to the monstrous, but also in the conceptualisation of monstrosity. Although it may not necessarily have been an intentional directive of the text, in exploring the bonds between the development of monsters and the scientific revolution in Italy Hanafi draws attention to a sterilisation of the monstrous which is characteristic of many categories of monstrosity across cultural and historical boundaries.

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body

If you are passionate about the fascinating field of medieval monstrosity and the female body, take a look at Sarah Allison Miller's Medieval Monstrosity and the Female Body, recently published in the Routledge Studies in Medieval Religion and Culture series. The work reflects a growing interest in the monstrous within Medieval Studies, exploring the critically and philosophically challenging monstrous female bodies which resist reductive or simplistic conclusions. It is precisely this complexity that is highlighted in Andrea Schutz's review of the work published in The Medieval Review:

Women are the monsters of origins, the monsters without whom no one exists. Where most studies of medieval teratology give voice to the monster as other, Miller argues that the monstrous female body is not other at all, but the matrix of the normative body, which must then forever deal with its own contributions to and participation in female monstrosity. As such, monstrous female bodies offer a continuous resistance to being read simply or uniformly; characterized as unstable and read as danger, women's bodies force the readers into acknowledgment of the instability and danger of those same readings.

As Schutz points out, the very beginning of Miller's book sets a premise for seeing the female body ''as a thing which transgresses the very constructions which make bodies monstrous", resulting in a female body imbued with meaning rather than devoid of it. Miller applies Jeffrey Jerome Cohen's monster thesis "the monster always escapes" ("Seven Monster Theses", Monster Theory: Reading Culture) to "show that the stable readings required by normative medieval theory are themselves frustrated by the very bodies defined as monstrous."
Exploring virgins, motherhood, gynecology, monstrous births, theology and numerous others, the work present a useful and fascinating contribution to feminist critique, monstrosity and Medieval Studies.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Rhetoric of Monstrosity

Kathryn M. Brammall's article 'Monstrous Metamorphosis: Nature, Morality, and the Rhetoric of Monstrosity in Tudor England' (usually accessible through various institutions / universities) offers an interesting analysis of the rhetoric of monstrosity and reasons behind a surge of interest in monsters and monstrous births emerging in mid-Tudor England. Brammall highlights the importance of early modern attitudes towards monsters themselves, 'precisely because they materialize in so many different contexts'. She particularly focuses on mid-Tudor England, where the social, political and religious challenges were ''partially responsible for the increasing interest in monsters'', resulting in numerous tracts detailing monstrous births. Furthermore, Brammell offers a succinct analysis of those tracts, their veracity and the complex political and religious context of such accounts. Monstrous births were freuqently seen as signs of God, resulting in numerous interpretations and speculation. Brammell highlight the example of Ponet who interpreted monsters by connecting them to problems in contemporary England:

The first monster, a conjoined twin with two heads and two partially joined bodies, was in Ponet's estimation a symbol of the succession of one legitimate ruler, Edward VI, by two distinct governors. It was possible to interpret the division in two ways: as that between Catholic and Protestant or that between English and Spanish, whose respective representatives were Mary and Philip. Either interpretation was acceptable to Ponet, since each served his main purpose: the denunciation of the queen. The confusion caused by both the return to Rome and the Spanish marriage -Ponet suggested, resulted in a divided populace, one in which two parts were thrust together without reason or justice. The division inevitably emasculated the body politic.

Apart from Ponet's interpretation, Brammell also focuses on ballads describing various monsters, where the authors ''interpreted the individual physical deformities in terms that focus the reader's attention on universal sin'', firmly rooted in the reality of Tudor England.
Ultimately, writers of this period relied heavily on the rhetoric of monstrosity and images of monstrous births to confront what they considered to be sinful and corrupt in their society. Transgressing and blurring boundaries between inner and outer, physical and psychical ''deformity'', the period's writings on monsters remain a fascinating and contradictory field of inquiry.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Medieval Monsters Illustrations

Medieval art, literature, folklore and imagination was populated with various anthropomorphous creatures, beasts, sirens, werewolves, demons, dragons, griffins, hybrids, ogres, vampires and numerous others, which reflected a fascination with unusual, challenging and anomalous bodies.
If you are interested in this imaginative world of wondrous beings, take a look at the British Library's Medieval Monsters illustrations accompanied by short descriptions as well as an interesting slideshow. These images reflect the wide variety of creatures that populated the medieval imagination and offer a glimpse of the rich and varied monstrous embodiments of the period.

Here is an illustration from the site featuring sirens, accompanied by the following text:
In most Bestiaries, these animals are interpreted in relation to Christian morality: the creatures themselves were not as important as the moral truths revealed in their explication. Sirens, for instance, were said to have the upper body of a human and the lower body of a bird or fish (or even a combination of the two); they sang beautiful songs to lull sailors to sleep, and then attacked and killed them. The moral: those who take pleasure in worldly diversions will be vulnerable to the devil.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Encountering Unexpected Bodies

For a discussion on extraordinary bodies, freak shows, monsters and staring, check out Rosemarie Garland Thomson's concise and informative article 'Staring at the Other' which traces unusual embodiments from ancient times to present day. The article highlights the shifting terminology attached to these unexpected bodies (monsters, freaks, prodigies, disabled) dependent on socio-historical context as well as the nature of people's interest in them (manifested usually in the phenomenon of 'staring'), ranging from adoration, hostility, reverence and repulsion. Reflecting on freak shows and the changing meanings surrounding the anomalous form, Thomson writes:

Freaks were spectacular public displays of novelty that entertained viewers who gladly paid to stare. Droll and fascinating freak figures were created from the unusually embodied by way of exaggeration, irony, and theatrical staging. What we now consider the medical dermatological condition of vitiligo, for example, was parlayed into the act of Spotted Boys. Giants and Midgets appeared juxtaposed together to highlight their differences. Fat Ladies titillated with cute diminutive stage names such as Dolly Dimples. The ordinary microcephalic black man became the exotic Missing Link dressed up in an ape suit. Spears and loincloths transformed albino twins into Wild Men of Borneo. Amputees became Armless Wonders by cutting out paper dolls, penning calligraphy, and drinking tea with their toes. The freak show validated curiosity and authorized public staring at bodies that departed from the ordinary by embellishing differences to make money.

The article ends with an examination of contemporary discourses surrounding monstrous embodiment, contextualized with the advent of technology, progress of medicine and the 'potent medium of television spectacle' which aimed to place these bodies back into the spotlight.
Is the wondrous freak gone altogether in our society? How can a historical approach to extraordinary embodiment inform our modern sensibilities? Thomson tellingly concludes that the unexpected bodies have been 'edited out of the human community like textual errors in the path of automatic spell checkers.'
If you are interested in this scholar and her landmark works in the field of disability studies, visit her official page featuring many helpful links and videos!

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Horror and the Monstrous Feminine

For an exploration of the monstrous feminine and horror, take a look at Barbara Creed's 'Horror and the Monstrous-Feminine: An Imaginary Abjection'. Most of you will be able to access this text through your university / institution.
This fascinating article explores horror films, experiencing 'the abject', horror sub-genres and various socially-constructed notions of the horrific mediated through images of the monstrous body, blood, vomit, pus and excrement. In Barbara Creed's words:

The horror film abounds in images of abjection, foremost of which is the corpse, whole and mutilated, followed by an array of bodily wastes such as blood, vomit, saliva, sweat, tears and putrefying flesh. In terms of Kristeva's notion of the border, when we say such-and-such a horror film 'made me sick' or 'scared the shit out of me', we are actually foregrounding that specific horror film as a 'work of abjection' or 'abjection at work' - in both literal and metaphoric sense. Viewing the horror film signifies a desire not only for perverse pleasure (confronting sickening, horrific images, being filled with terror / desire for the undifferentiated) but also a desire, having taken pleasure in perversity, to throw up, to throw out, eject the abject (from the safety of the spectator's seat).

Creed offers succinct readings of films such as the Exorcist, Carrie and Alien, as well as the mythological female monsters such as the Sphinx and the Medusa, mediated through concepts like the phallic mother, castration anxieties, female fetishism and numerous others.
Finally, Creed considers the central ideological project of popular horror films to be the 'purification of the abject', bringing about the confrontation with the abject' like the corpse, bodily wastes, the monstrous-feminine in order to eject it and 're-draw the boundaries between the human and non-human.'
If the above-mentioned concepts of blood, gore, monstrosities and 'ejecting the abject' touch upon your areas of interest, this text might prove inspiring indeed!