Write-up of Onscenity’s “Bodies” Conference (I)

Out and about today (OK: yesterday) at a challenging/brilliant conference – one more under the Onscenity banner – entitled Bodies: Flesh, performance, media, disgust and desire . Introducing the conference, Prof Feona Attwood points out how “bodies” are not much considered academically, despite the fact that we are more and more able to change bodies. This throws up a range of issues: On the one hand disapproval, including a feminist disapproval of body-centricity: on the other, an ability to take control, which both creates opportunity and challenge.

Sleeping Bodies: Enchantment, Failure, Passivity

First sesh was a fascinating kick-off from Meredith Jones, who teaches at the University of Sydney, Australia, with an analysis of how contemporary culture is obsessed with activity and has lost sight of a more feminine power implicit in passivity.

Her work is shifting from work looking at cosmetic surgery to what she considers in many ways its antithesis – sleep (and passivity).

“Makeover culture” – which reaches its height in cosmetic surgery – is inherently interventionist and active. It is intimately intertwined with capitalism and neo-liberalism: glorifies becoming as opposed to being, and places everyone in a state of permanent potential, as opposed to learning to be. Good citizens of makeover culture are wide awake performing never ending makeovers of themselves and their environment.

Paradoxically, this culture of activism may actually have been encouraged by feminist thought. Women are subject to an oppressive imperative to “do”…and this is often supported/collaborated in by feminism.
Sleep is therefore the antithesis of this. Though there are attempts – e.g., google sleep pods – to incorporate sleep into the makeover culture…helping people to be better workers by having better sleep.
Meredith’s start point is the power implicit in failure/passivity

“Failing, losing, forgetting, unmaking, undoing, unbecoming, not knowing may in fact offer more creative more surprising ways of being in the world.”

Judith Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Embracing failure or shutting down – pausing , going backwards, going sideways – has capacity to be viewed as a feminist activity.

New dynamic sleep

Despite this, we are even seeing the beginnings of medical intervention in this area. Ideas of “good sleep” – a single 8-hour block – are determined by the post-industrial world. In the past, one would expect to sleep from dusk til dawn in two lengthy blocks with a waking period of maybe 2 hours in the middle, used for a range of recreational and contemplative activities.

Nowadays, that two hour block is medicalised as “middle of the night insomnia”.

Again, in the Middle Ages, while poor families slept communally, the bedroom in affluent houses was a place of meeting and discussion. Valued guests would be invited to share the bed (non-sexually): by contrast, as individualisation has grown in western culture, so solo sleep has been more valued.

Sleep has historically been seen as transformative: Sleeping Beauty and Snow White go to sleep in a hostile world and emerge, as young and beautiful as before, but empowered. In other words, the Princess is utterly inert, sleeps away the difficult and dangerous part of : passivity makes her a central steady object around which the world shifts.

This is a very feminine power connected to stasis.

In the contemporary world sleep is increasingly represented – in films like Inception or Avatar – no longer as a state of unconscious, but as a place inside of which much of the action happens. Mostly male protagonists become heroes during sleep. When women enter zones of unconsciousness, they become objects, fetishistic, even. Men become actors.

Sleep is in a process of being masculinised: being turned into a commodity and revisioned as a neoliberal subjectivity. There is a tug in contemporary culture between sleep is masculine or feminine.
At the same time, there are counter-trends springing up in opposition that challenge and resist this point of view. Two pieces of contemporary culture are cited: SHU Blue Hour lullaby and Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty”

Many feminist retellings of Sleeping Beauty are reworkings that make the heroine recover agency
Julia Leigh’s “Sleeping Beauty” does the opposite. From the start, the heroine embraces a “wilful passivity” – e.g., being paid to be a medical test subject – which she takes on as a means to earn her living.

A fascinating session which, insofar as it has echoes of my own (currently on-hold) project, “Galatea speaks” …and one that will defo be followed up. Much brought up in the discussion is the issue of how problematic this passivity in a sexual context can be.

jane xx


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