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On Bodily Encounters, Transformations and Conversations @ IRWGS

by Daniel da Silva, 2018-19 IRWGS Graduate Fellow

On Bodily Encounters, Transformations and Conversations @ IRWGS

This semester, the Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality hosted a series of talks concentrated on the body in different ways. The first speaker in the series, Eli Clare, spoke in September about the body, cure, disability and natural worlds. Kadji Amin was invited in November as the last speaker for the fall semester, investigating trans crossings of embodied borders, the speciated, and racialized differences. These two talks are fitting bookends for the first half of the BODILY series, each taking on the ways in which the body is thought and made through processes of differentiation—from normal and natural, to human and non-human, white and other, to name just a few positionings and crossings.

Clare showed the ways in which cure and its ideologies of normative and ableist bodies and health are propped up by projections of normal and natural that are often not part of the body-mind experience of disabled people. This insists on the disabled body as damaged or broken, and needing of restoration. Clare offered:

For some of us, even if we accept disability as harm to individual bodies, restoration still doesn’t make sense, because an original non-disabled body doesn’t exist. How would I, or the medical establishment, go about restoring my body? The vision of me without tremoring hands and slurred speech, with more balance and coordination, doesn’t originate from my body’s history. Rather it arises from an imagination of what my body should be like, some definition of normal and natural.

Clare marks restoration as the vector through which the fictions of a natural and normal world are revealed; a move that points to an original body-mind and world that has never existed as such for some.

What if we leave those fictions aside, then, and consider how we make space and accessibility for bodies in their differences? The promise of cure and the push for restorative medical practices mark the disabled individual as the site of the problem, and Clare highlighted how disability activists have “for decades said loudly and clearly, ‘Leave our bodies alone. Stop treating us as broken.’” He spoke of disability as a matter of:

Social justice—disability residing not in paralysis but in stairs without an accompanying ramp, not in blindness but in the lack of Braille and audio-recorded books. Disability itself doesn’t live solely in depression or anxiety but rather in a whole host of stereotypes and damaging material realities, not in dyslexia but in teaching methods unwilling to flex, not in lupus or multiple sclerosis but in the belief that certain bodily conditions are a fate worse than death.

Clare’s focus removes the problem from our bodies and locates it within the world.

Beyond restoration to an original healthy and gender affirmed body, the November BODILY talk with Kadji Amin showed how body modification has also entailed racialized and inter-species trans crossing, using examples from the first half of the twentieth-century. Focusing on trans and transing as an object of study, and not as a methodological move, Amin’s talk offered historical examples of tranimality—trans crossings of human bodies with non-human animals—to achieve specific ends of improving and rejuvenating white bodies. Amin’s examples touched on the testicular grafting performed by Serge Voronoff, procedures using animal glandular secretions, and human simian crossings in fiction as in the French novel Nora (Felicien Champsaur, 1929), and even the life events of Lily Elps, which were fictionalized in the film The Danish Girl (2015). Amin marked these crossings of human and non-human animals, existing in sci-fi representations, in medical records, in literature and other material forms, as a site of racialized intersections, serving as a “transing of the historical ontology of race” that puts white claims to animality over blackness in dialogue with Euro-humanist boundaries between man and animal.

Amin’s fascinating trans history acts as both method and object, as Amin noted that his work uses the “history of science to rethink the field of trans study.” Amin underscored how the term transgender emerged in the 1990s to demedicalize transsexuality, noting how gender identities that emerge out of medical narratives have fundamentally shaped how we imagine trans. His talk on the forms of trans that interface with medicine, with medical science, and with trans crossings beyond the human body amplifies a history of trans-speciation within trans studies, and points to “endocrinology as a different origin point than Freud” for a history of trans and transing.

These two bookends, Clare and Amin, hold between them discussions of our bodies as sites of activism and of inquiry, of modification and of self-care, as points of access, of intimacy, and as sites of differentiation that require rethinking. Rather than definitive answers, what these talks have offered is a gathering place for new questions, potentials, and desires. The Spring 2019 semester promises to continue the push for openings and reimaginings, with additional BODILY events featuring Amitava Kumar (Vassar College), Jordy Rosenberg (UMass Amherst), and Julietta Singh (University of Richmond), a Theory Salon with Denilson Lopes (Universidade Federal Rio de Janeiro), an IRWGS Conversation on Trans, more Graduate Colloquia and Writing Retreats, and further posts for events outside the Institute in our Out & About Blog.

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The Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality is the locus of interdisciplinary feminist and queer scholarship and teaching at Columbia University.

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