This two-day conference will explore the interconnections between bodies – understood as physical, organic entities – and politics – taken in its most practical, concrete dimension. How may bodies be used/staged/physically modified to benefit political activism or political actions? On the contrary, what impacts may policies or political decisions have on citizens’ bodies?
Two main forms of relations between bodies and politics, both referring to a wide range of topics and to ongoing scholarly debates in the English-speaking world, will therefore be considered for study during this conference. First, bodies are frequently used in contexts of political mobilization and protest as individual and collective tools to convey a specific political message. Secondly, bodies are the targets and recipients of political actions; they are subject to governmental rules whose impact may be either positive (when they protect, defend or exalt bodies) or negative (when they dominate, oppress or persecute them). Analyzing situations in which individual and collective bodies rule or are being ruled should help identify a variety of body expressions in politics and of political influences on the body.
1. Political bodies:
The history of progressive or conservative social movements suggests that it might be fruitful to study more closely the public display of human bodies in demonstrations, as well as its visual and symbolic impact. Throughout time, various forms of political activism have included some sort of physical occupation of actual or symbolic places. Whether it be in marches, sit-ins, die-ins, cheerful parades, or camps; in social, anticolonial, antiracist, feminist, LGBT, or pro-life struggles, the different parts of the body – the limbs, the voice, the face – have been used as tools instrumental in conveying a political message. Demonstrations, such as the Gay Pride, have celebrated and glorified the material dimension of the body while some radical forms of protest, like the hunger strikes of suffragettes or Irish prisoners, have relied on a more visceral, organic, and dangerous/lethal use of the body. Why have such forms of protest been repeatedly used in democratic confrontations?
It may be useful to consider the material dimension of these forms of political activism in the long term, or the records that we have of such mobilizations. How can historians examine actions like the physical occupation of a place, beyond slogans or numbers? The representations of politically active bodies are crucial in terms of collective memory. When the photographs of the 1848 Chartist demonstrations in Kennington Common were discovered in 1977, historians of social movements were keen to count the bodies in the pictures and to study their language, in order to assess the extent of people’s commitment to the cause.
The notions of physicality and duration could also be central to the study of practices in which an individual’s own flesh serves a public claim for identity. Bodies then bear the marks of chosen identity (through tattoos, piercing or implants) and turn out to be the instruments of a construction or deconstruction of the self that goes beyond biological determinism and against norms of physical appearance (as in gender roles, in distortions of masculinity and femininity, or even sexuality in the case of trans-identity).
Protest is not the only context in which the body may be used as a political instrument; it may also be instrumentalized by political figures in office or campaigning for office. The bodies of politicians, monarchs, presidents, ministers or candidates have always received special attention and care, and often been staged in public representations (Henry VIII’s physical force was celebrated in Holbein’s portraits; Franklin D. Roosevelt’s illness was concealed in official photographs; Barack and Michelle Obama’s healthy lifestyle has been promoted in the media). Political figures’ appearance, shape, dress and style, diet, biological life – including their sex lives – have been scrutinized by the media, which are keen to put political discourse to the test of body language.
2. Bodies as targets of politics:
Studying bodies also raises fundamental philosophical, moral and legal questions. The primary notion of individual rights asserts the necessity of protecting bodies against murder or arbitrary imprisonment. The concept of Habeas Corpus, which frames Anglo-Saxon law, has long been invoked by militants and prisoners (including in more contemporary places of incarceration, such as Guantanamo) and cannot be ignored in studies on the interconnections between bodies and politics. The protection of the body has been at the heart of legal, ethical and moral reflections, including recent ones on women’s right to control their bodies, abortion rights, or medical assistance in dying. How are these issues expressed in public, legal or political debates, and how are they represented in visual culture?
It may also be useful to consider the body as the main object of interest in the political field. Power would then be understood as a hold on bodies, a « biopower » (Foucault) or the « governing of bodies » (Fassin & Memmi). Exploring how working bodies have been subjected, or even alienated, in the capitalist mode of production, or how workers have been regulated and socially controlled, especially recently with the emergence of new « gray zones » of employment, seems particularly interesting here.
However, citizens are also asked to match certain norms and conform to politically determined customs outside of work. It would be worth reflecting upon the management of idle bodies, which can be the recipients of social pressure through the normation of leisure activities or can be celebrated as the ultimate « art of living » and used as a social critique (as Stevenson does in An Apology for Idlers). What can be said about sick, disabled, aging, dying, dependent bodies, which are submitted to all sorts of control, stigmatization, and even repression?
We welcome proposals adopting an empirical and historicizing approach of the interconnections between bodies and politics; proposals relying on case studies; and proposals using a trans-disciplinary approach.
Proposals and questions should be sent to CIMMA2016@hotmail.com
Organizing committee: Sonia Birocheau, Karine Chambefort, Mélanie Grué, Guillaume Marche