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October 3, 2005

'Bodies in the Making' conference probes fascination with body modifications

By Scott Rappaport

The UCSC Institute for Advanced Feminist Research (IAFR) will present a three-day conference on body modification, October 14-16. The conference will explore our culture’s fascination with body modifications that range from tattooing, piercing, and cutting, to anorexia, plastic surgery, organ transplants, and life-extension technologies.

City University of New York sociology professor Victoria Pitts will deliver the keynote address, "Beauty, Body Image and Psychosocial Power."

"Bodies in the Making: Transgressions and Transformations," will include five panels featuring presentations from 11 UCSC professors, six professors from other campuses, and four community members: a surgical nurse, a transsexual author and actress, a photographer, and a psychoanalyst.

"Our purpose is not to medicalize, pathologize, or moralize," noted IAFR director Helene Moglen, who holds a UC Presidential Chair in Literature and who is coordinating the conference with Nancy Chen, UCSC professor of anthropology, and Katharine Norwood, the IAFR’s assistant director. "We will be considering the personal and social meanings of practices that, while extremely varied, are also intriguingly related.”

"The conference is for academics and nonacademics," Moglen added. "The papers presented will be relatively short and designed for a general audience. We expect there to be lots of discussion and disagreement. This is an open event and we hope that community members will attend.”

The conference will begin at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, October 14, at the Porter Sesnon Gallery with presentations about the photographs and performance art of Hannah Wilke, whose work will be exhibited. From the 1970s until 1993, Wilke produced art that examined the body and its representation--culminating with a stark, moving series of photographs of her face and body during her struggle and eventual death from cancer.

City University of New York sociology professor Victoria Pitts will deliver the keynote address, "Beauty, Body Image and Psychosocial Power" on Friday evening at 7:30 p.m. at the Stevenson College Event Center. Pitts will draw on insights from her forthcoming book, Surgery Junkies: The Cultural Boundaries of Cosmetic Surgery, as well as her previous work, In the Flesh: The Cultural Politics of Body Modification (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).

Moglen said that the conference emerged from the recognition that in the 21st century, the body is experienced less as a fixed entity than as a changeable product and a project of technological, medical, and artistic invention. “There is a paradox at the heart of these body modification practices,” Moglen noted. “On one hand, they are experienced as self-expressive and liberating; on the other, they can be seen as socially determined, economically driven, and culturally enmeshed.”

The conference will include a panel on cosmetic surgery and the culture of tattooing. University of Kentucky professor Virginia Blum, the author of Flesh Wounds, will present a paper on cosmetic surgery in extreme-makeover reality shows. Richard Roullard, a local surgical nurse, will discuss his volunteer work in Asia with the organization Interplast, which serves clients who have no other access to plastic surgery. Aleshia Brevard, a local transsexual author and actress, will describe her production of her own transgender identity through surgery and tattooing, and Santa Cruz photographer Kelley Richardson will show and discuss her photographs, which document tattoo culture in Santa Cruz.

A second panel will explore the relation of body and mind from cultural and historical perspectives. UCSC sociology professor Gabriela Sandoval will analyze the practice of self-cutting among Latina youth, while University of Washington anthropology professor Lorna Rhodes will consider the implications of self-cutting among men in maximum security prisons. Psychoanalyst Sheila Namir will address issues of bodily integrity and subjectivity from both sides of the psychoanalytic couch, and UCSC anthropology graduate student John Marlovits will draw on his research in Seattle to explore the cultural politics of public psychiatry and psychopharmacology.

During a panel on Saturday afternoon, Sharon Kaufman, professor of anthropology at UC San Francisco, will speak about organ transplants and life-extending medical practices; UCSC history of consciousness professor Donna Haraway will analyze the constitutive ties between human and animal bodies; Moglen will reflect on the processes of aging and trans-aging; and Maria Frangos, a UCSC graduate student in literature, will examine televised narratives of body modification and the quest for identity in reality TV.

Participants in the final panel on Sunday will explore intentional and unintentional body modification practices that are the result of war, torture, organ transplantation, and prosthetic technology. San Francisco anthropologist Steve Kurzman will examine armaments, bodies, and prostheses in the context of the war in Iraq, suggesting how that war affects our concept of bodies at home. UCSC anthropology professor Nancy Chen will also trace the circulation of cadaver bodies from prisons to plastination factories to exhibits such as the "Universe Within," a display of actual human bodies that has been touring the country to record crowds.

"Body modification is a phenomenon that spans generations,” Moglen observed. "We are looking at these issues through a cross-generational lens and we expect to have a large cross-generational audience. It is clear that people of all ages have a lot to teach--and learn from--one another.”                              

For more information and a complete schedule with event locations, go to the IAFR web site or call (831) 459-3882. Two related art exhibitions will also run in conjunction with the conference: "The Rhetoric of the Pose: Rethinking Hannah Wilke" at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery and "Narrative Bodies" at the Porter Faculty Gallery, both running from October 5 to December 3. For details go to:


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