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Body Parts Abstracts

Peggy McCracken, “The Wild Man’s Penis: Gendered Anatomy and Becoming Human.”

This presentation focuses on a fourteenth-century literary text, Tristan de Nanteuil, that recounts the story of a child raised by animals in the forest (I’ll explain the story). The text includes unusually prominent and explicit references to gendered anatomy and it uses these references to mark animal/human difference. Yet gendered body parts are not unique to humans; moreover, this text also represents a number of successful gender performances by women who impersonate knights, suggesting that gender identity is not defined by anatomy. What is the role, then, of gendered anatomy in this text? I will explore the values that representations of the wild man’s penis ground and promote, and I will argue that the tensions represented in this medieval text may make visible tensions that subtend theoretical understandings of the relationship between gender, humanity, and animality.

Michelle Voss Roberts, “Body Parts: How Comparative Theology Assists a Feminist View of the Human Being.”

The modern West has long been constrained by series of hierarchical dualisms in which the human being is seen as spirit/flesh or mind/body. Intercultural and interreligious comparison can provide imaginative paradigms that break out of the anti-body and misogynistic implications of this system. In this talk, Lalleshwari of Kashmir and Mechthild of Magdeburg, two premodern women theologians, help us to dismantle dualisms and to talk meaningfully about the body in the plural: body parts. They invite us to a subtle and complex vision of the human being that is as close to each person as their own breath.

Banu Subramaniam, “Global Citizenship? Genomes, Nations, and the Politics of Belonging.”

Recent developments in genetics have opened up new epistemologies into human histories. In keeping with the theme of “Body Parts” of this symposium, “genes” have come to represent a “material” historical account of human ancestry. Genetic studies on human migrations and diversity suggest global genealogical relationships often unacknowledged within national histories. How should we understand these relationships within the confines of nation states? How do these new genealogical understandings support or disrupt national histories? This talk examines the case of genetic histories of the peoples of India. It will explore the contentious history of race, caste and science in India and how genetic studies complicate and obfuscate the relationships of our understandings of our “genetic” natures and cultures. How then should we view the liberal subject that transmutates through genetic and cultural migrations?

Darla Thompson, “Technologies of the Body: Iron Collars, Chain Gangs, and Enslaved Black Women in Antebellum Louisiana.”

Ranging in time and focus from the initiation of the New Orleans women’s chain gang in 1813 through the early 1860s, I discuss how the chain gang, jails, Louisiana penitentiary, and plantations operated as a broad assemblage of racialized and gendered spaces for the control and containment of enslaved women’s laboring bodies. Iron collars with projecting spikes or upward prongs with bells were prominently used to control slaves on plantations and in urban areas. Through their materiality, iron collars, used to visually mark women as runaways, convicts, or sexual transgressions, also shaped the movement of women’s bodies by becoming a punishing physical extension. Enslaved women and girls convicted of crimes under the Black Code could be sentenced to whipping and labor in an iron collar on a plantation with three branches for years. Enslaved women who were not convicted of crimes, but were captured runaways from throughout the South, were put on New Orleans chain gangs in order to ensure that they were not “idle,” and in order to subject them to a form of punishment considered more humiliating than imprisonment in jails or “the lash.” These “chain gang negresses” worked alongside enslaved men digging ditches, building and repairing levees, and cleaning markets. Enslaved women incarcerated in the state penitentiary (a rarity in the pre-Civil War South) were sent to build roads alongside incarcerated male (slaves and “free” men of color) convicts. Drawing on a diverse set of resources, I piece together the histories of women whose laboring bodies served a multiplicity of functions across these different spaces of confinement, in order to reproduce the infrastructure of slavery.

Bernadette Wegenstein, “The Cure: the History and Culture of Breast Cancer.”

From early diagnosis to the full treatment of breast cancer — The Cure, Bernadette Wegenstein’s current feature documentary about breast cancer, follows four patients and their medical staff at a top U.S. breast care clinic. Through these patient stories the film recounts the transformation of breast cancer from the first disfiguring radical mastectomy in the late 19th century to today’s patient-driven medicine, where cancer meets the beauty industry, and where the loss of the breast is celebrated as sacrifice and rebirth. The talk will include clips from the character-driven Cinéma Vérité documentary The Cure, currently in production, as well as theoretical remarks on the the breast as a symbol of femininity, ultimately a phallic symbol—that which decides hierarchy, power, life, and death. The talk explores how the breast defines female identity from Saint Agatha, whose breast sacrifice became a symbol of female power in Sicily to the modern woman who becomes involved in a variety of reconstructions and procedures after a mastectomy.

E. Frances White, “Something Out of Kilter: Black Women’s Breasts, the Missing Link and Black Feminist Resistance”

Pendulous, flaccid, distended—19th and early 20th century scientists and explorers consistently used such words to describe African women’s breasts as if something was somehow out of kilter.  This talk explores the anxiety projected onto Black women’s breasts as such men probed the similarities and differences between African and European women.  I pay particular attention to the development of a dominant discourse on South African women’s bodies, noting that southern Africa played a special role in westerners search for the “Missing Link” between man and ape.  The paper ends with the counter-discourse of feminists to dominant depictions by such 21st century South African feminists as Zanele Muholi, Pumla Gqola and Desiree Lewis.


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