Empty bodies

Principal Supervisor: Name: Dr Julia Dobson
Department: SLC (French)
Tel: 0114 222 2877

Email: j.dobson@sheffield.ac.uk

Co-supervisor: Name: Professor Mary Vincent
Department: History
Tel: 0114 222 2566
Email: m.t.vincent@sheffield.ac.uk

Description of proposed project

The proposed studentship will develop MHS’s wider theme, ‘Locating the Human’, by examining how people recognise and understand what is human (or not) when confronted with simulacra of the human body. Such simulacra take a variety of forms, from shop mannequins to theatrical puppets, anatomical models and religious statues—to name only some—but they are customarily displayed and/or deployed within some mode of performative framework or discourse. Such uncanny encounters provide important insight into constructions of human agency, and the investment in discourses of embodiment that underpins the ‘location’ of subjectivity. Constructions of agency may be deliberately enhanced by performative techniques such as lighting, animation and/or voice. Making an ‘empty body’ move or speak further problematizes the boundaries between human and non-human, bodily and non-bodily. It will also elicit a sense of the uncanny (Jentsch (1906), Freud (1919)). Indeed, Jentsch’s primary example of an uncanny encounter was with waxworks and automata that elicit dread in the face of their inscrutable status. Whilst robotics engineers look to avoid Mori’s ‘uncanny valley’ (1970), theatrical and religious practitioners may, seek to evoke uncanniness in order to construct specific discourses of embodiment.

The theatre is traditionally privileged as a form and experience in which spatial and temporal proximity to a represented character (as projected subject) underpins dramatic identification and catharsis for the audience; however, such projections have often elided the material presence of bodies on stage. Yet the body-doubling involved in the ambiguously simultaneous presence of actors and characters, coupled with its complex interaction with mise en scene, provides a striking framework through which assumptions about relationships between the matter of the body and the construction of human subjectivity or agency can be addressed. From puppet to automaton, performing objects have featured strongly in avant-garde moments in the history of C20th theatre and contemporary performance witnesses a resurgence of performing objects as complex and transgressive sites through which to articulate crises in embodiment. There has been a marked trend towards the co-presence of performing objects with human bodies on stage – strategies of engagement include troubling hybrid human forms (Ilka Schonbein, Ulrike Quade) or the provocative confusion as to the ’liveness’ or not of human actors and hyperrealist mannequins alike onstage (Gisèle Vienne).

In the Baroque religious culture of southern Europe, highly detailed physical representations of holy figures are paraded around the streets in dramatic evocations of Biblical and devotional scenes. Some of these statues are imbued with physical properties: they are believed to sweat, bleed, or move. Others have enhanced emotional significance. The tears of the Virgin Mary, for example, move on-lookers to shed tears themselves, even though those running down the statue’s cheeks are usually pearls. The exhibition of these simulacra thus demands a response on the part of those watching, both an emotional empathy that it itself dependent on a particular understanding of the human state and a questioning as to what is actually being displayed. Is this a body or not? Ideas of the human and the non-human are thus in flux among the audience, who will respond in different ways and with different degrees of certainty as to what it is they are seeing.

The central research questions of this study address the location of agency and human subjectivity. What does the historical, aesthetic and ideological construction and reception of ‘empty bodies’ reveal about contemporary constructions of embodiment, anxiety and subjectivity? How do audiences / observers make sense of these ‘empty bodies’? Such research questions around ‘empty bodies’ have diverse applications: in addition to the performing objects and religious icons discussed above, one could consider the role of anatomical waxworks that dominated both medical schools and popular displays from the eighteenth to the twentieth century and the female classical nudes —known as Venuses— that became popular fairground attractions (and could allow collaboration with the National Fairground Archive). The timely consideration of assistive robots and digitised representations of the human anatomical form would also be fruitful ground for enquiry, though this would involve additional supervisory input.

Additional Information

Julia Dobson has supervised 2 successful PhD candidates and has another 2 in progress. She has examined doctoral theses at UCL, Cambridge and Edinburgh.

Mary Vincent currently has 4 primary supervisions (1 MPhil, 3 PhD) and 2 secondary supervisions (both PhD). She has previously supervised 2 successful PhD theses as primary supervisor and 3 as secondary supervisor. She has acted as external examiner for PhDs at the LSE, RHUL, Glasgow, Bradford, NUI (Maynooth), the University of Adelaide and the EUI (Florence).