Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Rebecca M. Herzig, keynote speaker for Thinking Gender 2015

…surfaces and underpinnings, the spectacular and the boring, are inextricably intertwined.  The boundaries of ‘serious’ bioethical concerns, and of medical ‘necessity,’ are continuously remade, symbolically and materially, in relation to the trivial and the superfluous.  --Rebecca M. Herzig, Plucked
Rebecca M. Herzig’s (2015) most recent book, Plucked: A History of Hair Removal, begins by examining the American public’s reaction to the reports of abuse of detainees held in the Guantánamo Bay internment facility.  The reports detailed, among other things, “forced shaving” of the detainees, done in order to humiliate them.  Herzig notes that the public’s reaction to the reporting of this particular type of abuse was to either ignore it, or to point to it as a way to illustrate that the conditions were, as one commentator put it, “nothing to be ashamed of” (Herzig, 2015, p. 2).  
Herzig uses some of the questions arising from the public’s reaction as a starting point for her book.  In it, she asks, how have dominant American beliefs about visible body hair changed over time?  What has driven these changes?
She focuses on hair, as the “liminal object par excellence,” in that it how we treat hair “tends to magnify other processes of political inclusion and exclusion, whether in terms of race, sexuality, nationhood, gender or ability: where you decide the line should be between self and other” (as reported on the News website for Bates College, December 2014). 
Reviewers have praised both Herzig’s style of writing, and the more substantive contributions of the book.  As a review by the Economist noted, "Humanity has used an impressive array of tools to remove hair.  This is, biologically speaking, pretty strange.  Most of earth's mammals possess luxuriant fur.  Only one seeks to remove it.  Rebecca Herzig's delightful history explains why: smooth skin is a cultural imperative."
Prior to Plucked, Herzig wrote Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America, published by Rutgers University Press in 2005.  In it, she explored the rise of an ethic of self-sacrifice in science, in order to “explain why, given the existence of other, less painful alternatives, so many scientists chose to align themselves with this ethos and considers ... some of the lasting ramifications of this decision" (p. 7).  Weaving together the Protestant doctrine of salvation, the physical suffering of the polar explorers, and the martyrdom of the early radiologists, Herzig created a picture of the many ways in which modern scientific inquiry has reflected and often reinforced cultural notions of gender and race.   
Herzig’s work has also looked specifically at how science has treated the subject of race.  In 2009, she co-edited, with Evelynn M. Hammonds, The Nature of Difference: Sciences of Race in the United States from Jefferson to Genomics (published by the MIT Press).  Chapters focus on important historical documents regarding race, including how the definition of race has changed over time, a 1950 UNESCO declaration that race is a social myth, and 2005 report of the discovery of a genetic basis for skin color. Regarding the book, Dr. Sandra Harding wrote, "Have the sciences finally provided the necessary evidence to conclude that we have arrived at 'the end of race' as a useful biological category? Hammonds's and Herzig's splendid introductions plus these original documents produce a profound and surprising meditation on the impossibility of resolving today's intellectual and political debates on this topic within familiar conceptual frameworks. This collection provides rich resources for rethinking basic assumptions in even progressive thinking about race.”
A historian of science whose research focuses on the relationship between tech, race, and gender in the U.S., Herzig currently serves as the Christian A. Johnson Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Bates College and Chair of the Women and Gender Studies program at Bates College.  She will be presenting the keynote speech on April 23 at 2:45 pm in the Grand Horizon Ballroom of Covell Commons at CSW’s annual Thinking Gender conference.  Her talk is titled, “Body Modifications: Violence, Labor, and the Subject of Feminism.”
--Skye Allmang
Skye Allmang is a graduate student researcher at the UCLA Center for the Study of Women
More info on this year's Thinking Gender: http://www.csw.ucla.edu/conferences-1