Extra/Ordinary Bodies: Interrogating the Performance and Aesthetics of “Difference”
Grand Hyatt Atlanta in Buckhead | Atlanta, Georgia | November 16-19, 2017
Historically, bodies have been divided into categories that separate the normal from the abnormal, the natural from the monstrous. In Generatione Animalium, Aristotle describes terata (monsters) as defective beings because they disrupt the order of nature. Subsequent approaches to defining our world, and by extension the human body, continued throughout the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, and into our present understanding of scientific, racial, and moral difference. These “extraordinary bodies,” as Rosemarie Garland-Thomson calls them, have persistently been understood as aberrations that produce either fear or marvel. She says, “Because such bodies are rare, unique, material, and confounding of cultural categories, they function as magnets to which culture secures its anxieties, questions, and needs at any given moment.”
A focus on extraordinary bodies also provides an entryway into a discussion of aesthetics. In our culture, bodies that fall outside heteronormative ideals of beauty, health, and behavior are marked as “other” and regularly oppressed by cultural and social institutions. For example, scholar Kathleen Lebesco has argued that fat bodies are revolting bodies, bodies that actively rebel against normative cultural assumptions, challenging patriarchal and economic power structures. Additional examples of these kinds of bodies include people of color, undocumented immigrants, queers and queers of color, indigenous peoples, disabled people, and the poor. For these individuals, performance has the potential to destabilize—or rewrite—existing cultural power structures and establish alternative narratives of embodiment.
Unquestionably, the most commonly accepted way of understanding different subjectivities is through the physical aspect. However, there are multiple approaches to the concept of “the freak” (or any other category of otherness) beyond the physical, which include the social, political, cultural, and moral dimensions that define the monstrous, grotesque, deformed, disabled, disproportionate, socially deviant and/or morally excluded. We especially invite proposals that consider how extraordinary bodies speak to larger issues and movements of our time, including: #blacklivesmatter, undocumented immigration, refugees and displacement, and queer and transgender rights.
For scholars of theatre and performance history, a study of the body provides avenues through which to (re)interrogate historical practices, as well as our own acts of (re)assembling the past. In theatre and performance, we witness a proliferation of popular and critical discourses that appropriate the other, turning the “extraordinary body” into a lucrative figure. This conference sought to explore and engage difference, resisting those constructions of difference that appropriate cultural capital for the benefit of an academic and cultural discourse. For these reasons, a focus on the extra/ordinary body also called for consideration of normalization, normativity, and normate bodies.
This theme cracked open the spaces of discomfort produced when we speak about difference and otherness in theatre and performance studies. How can we interrogate these spaces: stage them, claim them, theorize them, promote them, and celebrate them? How do uncomfortable words like freak, fat, illegal, sick, crip, queer, and abnormal function as ways of describing bodies of excess or deficiency? How have these descriptions of the human body divided people into hierarchies of power and exploitation? In what ways have these definitions changed over time and what repercussions do they carry today? How do different bodies get (re)presented in performance and how does scholarship play a role in the dissemination of these practices and aesthetics? How have theatre and performance been influenced by these images and restrictions of the human body and what can an exploration of difference do to create an epistemology of otherness?
2017 Conference Program Chairs
Jimmy A. Noriega, The College of Wooster
Jen-Scott Mobley, East Carolina University
Analola Santana, Dartmouth College
2017 Conference Program Committee
Patrick Anderson, University of California San Diego
Faedra Chatard Carpenter, University of Maryland
Catherine Cole, University of Washington
Laura Edmondson, Dartmouth College
Gad Guterman, Webster University
Rena Heinrich, University of California, Santa Barbara
Ric Knowles, University of Guelph
Carrie Sandahl, University of Illinois Chicago
Karen Shimakawa, New York University
Harvey Young, Northwestern University
Jill Stevenson, Marymount Manhattan College, ex officio