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

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

"Freaky" terminology in Google's Ngram Viewer

Just a short post today about something that one of the conference organisers has been playing around with in liu of facing actual work. If you've encountered Google's Ngram viewer before then perhaps you have already thought to input the various words typically associated with the extraordinary body throughout history to see what you get. If not, then we'd like to share the following:

This graph represents the use of different terminology over time (from 1700 - 2000) as found in Google Books' digitized collection (click on the image for the full size, click on the in-text link for the details of search criteria or to run your own).

Breaking that down into labels which might, historically, have been associated with, or at least which now tend to be associated with historical/cultural conceptions of, extraordinary bodies - namely "monstrous," "deformed," "disabled," and "freak" - suggests some surprising trends in usage.

Below are a series of related breakdowns.

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Sins Invalid: Disability and Sexuality

This post is going to be a two-for-one deal, to make up for the fact that we've still not gotten quite back into our usual routine of 2-3 posts each week.

First, we would like to draw your attention to a project based in San Francisco but which is thankfully reaching its way across America and the Atlantic - Sins Invalid. The project itself is a performance-based initiative which  "incubates and celebrates artists with disabilities," according to the website's description, "centralizing artists of color and queer and gender-variant artists as communities who have been historically marginalized from social discourse."

What is even more exciting is that they are currently in the final stages of production on a 41 min film that reflects the project itself: Sins Invalid: An Unshamed Claim to Beauty. The film is designed to, as they phrase it, "serve as an entryway into the absurdly taboo topic of sexuality and disability," a notion which pertains particularly to the aims of the conference, so naturally we are very excited to see the final result! The project is still looking for funding through a kickstarter campaign in order to complete the last details of production, and they offer incentives depending on your donation. As with any Kickstarter fundraising scheme, your donation only goes through if they reach their goal, and we certainly hope they do, so please check out their campaign and their website, and if you're lucky enough to be in the area, seek out one of their performances!

The second piece of news we have is more relevant for those of you in the Edinburgh area (or who might be in the Edinburgh area at some point). The Surgeon's Hall Museum will be open 12-4pm on weekends once more starting 31 March and lasting all the way until October. We can very much vouch for the quality of the museum, and it is well worth a visit. It could be a fantastic Saturday day-trip; not enough day-trips feature pathological anatomical specimens, and the team behind Sensualising Deformity thinks it's time to change that!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Call for Papers Extension

We have been incredibly blessed to receive a wealth of truly fascinating paper proposals over the last two and a half months. However, we must admit that when it comes to examples of academic brilliance, we are greedy, and so to maximise the number of proposals that we get to pour over, we have decided to extend the deadline for the call for papers to 16 February 2012.

"Sirenomelius, front and rear view", Human Monstrosities,
Hirst and Piersol (1893). Wellcome Library Collection.
We would like to take this opportunity to encourage everyone who reads the blog, has submitted a proposal, or follows us on Facebook or Twitter to pass the word along to anyone else who might be interested - they now have an extra two weeks to work on an abstract!

As before, abstracts should be submitted to, and the full call for papers can be found here. We also have a page devoted to outlining specific strands of discussion that we hope to develop - here. Even if you are unable to submit a proposal or attend the conference, we encourage you to contact us or continue following the blog updates as it is our long-term goal to link this wide-reaching community of researchers together by mailing lists and other means once the conference itself has passed.

For the time being, we very much look forward to yet more brilliant paper proposals in the coming weeks!

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Freakery and "Aesthetic Traces"

If you happen to be interested in "freaks," freakery, and its relationship to nineteenth-century medical "monsters", we'd like to draw your attention to a fascinating article published in 2005 in the Disability Studies Quarterly, Sheila Moeschen's "Aesthetic Traces in Unlikely Places: Re-visioning the Freak in 19th-Century American Photography". The article, which is open access, offers an intriguing reading of the role that photography played in the creation and presentation of extraordinary bodies in the nineteenth century; Moeschen denies that fictive division which might separate the objective medical photograph from its public side-show counterpart, typically deemed to be more deliberately titillating. Instead, she suggests,
"The two traditions form a reciprocal relationship that illuminates their representational and political imbrications. The historical persistence to delineate between a medical and artistic "aesthetic" reveals a disconcerting bias towards privileging the power and credibility of the empirical realm over the artistic."
Moeschen points to the role that "sensation" played in separating the clinical photograph of medical monstrosity from the "freak portrait", evoking perhaps a distinction between the sensational props and posing of the visual construction of freakery with the potentially sensualised medical photographs which are marked by their nudity in order to reveal the anomalous body more fully to the viewer.

The article focuses on what Moeschen calls the "performative trace," which she sees as characterising the construction of both medical and sensational photographs of individuals with extraordinary bodies, creating "an alternate frame around these subjects that explicitly signals the perceptual and cognitive apparatuses ascribed to performance." She notes that
"The performative trace becomes another presentational "mode" employed, ironically in the case of the medical profession, to disarm these unusual bodies, endowing them with a quality of the ephemeral that ultimately promotes uncritical fascination; it promotes a kind of fetishistic voyeurism and illicit titillation."
The instability which this theatrical element introduces into these photographs is, for Moeschen, a deliberate strategy on the part of both medical and sideshow photographers to manipulate the "cultural and ideological value" of their subjects.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Welcoming 2012 (a wee bit late)

We are back! Hello, and happy new year, and our deepest apologies for such a long silence. It had been our intention to post a little bit over the holidays, but like most holiday goals we fell short and were lost in a well-spiced mulled-wine abyss for much longer than we expected.

However, to kick off the year we'd like to draw attention to a kind of companion post which ties in surprisingly well to our last post of 2011. This article by Susan Dominus was brought to our attention recently and seemed rather appropriate given the news we brought you around Christmas time of the successful birth of conjoined twins Jesus and Emanuel in Brazil.

Dominus' article, (and warning, it is quite a long-winded one), focuses on conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan in British Columbia, Canada, who, as craniopagus conjoined twins, raise quite a different question regarding subjectivity and separation. In many ways, the interest isn't any different from the traditional obsession with conjoined twins' shared experience and exactly how far it extends - experiments exploring shared sensation never seem to change much beyond the pinching and prodding of first one twin and then the other. However the notion of a thalamic bridge does seem to offer a uniquely complex set of questions regarding Krista and Tatiana's development and the prospects for their future identity.

The article also raises and glosses over some of those aspects of life as conjoined twins which have historically always seemed to hover in the shadows. While she specifically refers to the family's refusal to subject the twins to unnecessary medical study (“If one of them needs it for their health, by all means, they can do what they need to do,” said their step-grandfather... “But I’ll be damned if you’re going to poke and prod and experiment on them”), she also makes extensive reference to the response of the medical community to the discovery of the supposed thalamic bridge.

Similarly, the article appears to emphasise the girls normality, almost going so far as to suggest an absence of any spectacular element in their public lives (“Guests might have looked for a half-second longer than they ordinarily would, but they invariably smiled at the sight of the girls’ evident glee, just as they would at any other two small children”) and yet refers not only to the fact that the girls have been the subject of a documentary (on the National Geographic channel, to be precise), but also rather glossing over the family's pursuit of a reality television show.

This endeavour seems to be inspired by talent manager Chuck Harris, who in this interview is titled a “freak wrangler, manager and talent agent ”, and who refers to himself as  “the conductor of a symphony of wackos... When you need something strange and eye-popping and nobody knows where to look, I’m the guy to find it for you.”

While the idea that the twins may share more than just physical sensation is a fascinating one, and no one seems to deny that it poses brand new implications for understanding subjectivity and a sensed embodiment, their labelling on the part of one neuroscientist as “a new life form” and their engagement with a self-identified “freak-wrangler” seem to raise some unfortunately more familiar ghosts of the past.