Classics and the Sensory Turn: Placing the Body

Classical studies is currently experiencing a turn towards the sensory and the sensual. An aspect of this changing focus is the prominence of the body and the recent dynamism evident in its study. ‘Civilised Bodies? Classical Sculpture and Civilisation from Antiquity to the Present Day’ was a workshop held at UCL in June 2015. The conference ‘Music and the Body in Greek and Roman Antiquity’ was held at Newcastle University in July 2015. The conference ‘The Classical Body Split Open: Corporal Obscenity in Antiquity’ was held at the University of Edinburgh in October 2015. Another workshop, ‘Multitudo: A Multisensory, Multilayered and Multidirectional Approach to Classical Studies’, was held at Roehampton University in November 2015. In February 2016 the conference ‘Physiognomy and Ekphrasis: The Mesopotamian Tradition and its Transformation in Graeco-Roman and Semitic Literatures’ will take place at the Freie Universität Berlin. In June 2016 the conference ‘Classical Reception and the Human’ will take place at the University of Patras.

It has been exciting to observe these events emerging and to think in a general sense about how they inform or challenge our understanding of the discipline of classical studies, and how they correspond, interconnect, and diverge within a sub-field more specifically. The desire for an increased dialogue and discussion about the body from various parts of the academy has generated a plethora of questions: Why has this change occurred now? Is this a new or renewed focus? How is the sub-field interacting with other aspects of classical studies like ancient medicine, gender studies, feminist theory, postcolonialism, etc? How has the increased dialogue about the body changed the field of classical studies, and has it altered our use of language?

This curiosity has been intensified because of the the conference I am organising with Dr Laurence Totelin, ‘Bodily Fluids/Fluid Bodies in Greek and Roman Antiquity’. This will be held at St Michael’s College, Cardiff University, 11-13th July 2016. The idea for the conference originated from a panel on Bodily Fluids presented at the Classical Association Conference 2015 at Bristol University that myself, Laurence Totelin and Caroline Musgrove (University of Cambridge) participated in. Defining our research within the category of Bodily Fluids generated some probing questions: how were bodily fluids, and those who exuded them, received in ancient society? How were internal bodily fluids perceived, and how did this perception alter if such fluids were externalised? Do these ancient conceptions complement or challenge our modern sensibilities about bodily fluids? How were religious practices determined by attitudes towards bodily fluids, and how did religious authorities attempt to regulate or restrict the appearance of bodily fluids?

Bodily fluids themselves are understudied, and in some cases, completely ignored: they remain taboos that propriety prevents scholars from discussing. Our conference aims at breaking the silence and creating an open dialogue about fluid bodies and bodily fluids in antiquity, including blood and menstrual blood, sweat, tears, phlegm, bile, urine, sperm, and milk. The conference reaches beyond fluids produced by the body to refine the definition of the ancient body, in its beginnings, limits, and (gendered) emissions. Does the body end with the skin, or is it a more fluid entity that can leak, transpire, and trickle? How prevalent are metaphors of fluidity in descriptions of the ancient body? How do fluids function within descriptions of conception? How are bodily fluids an indication of gender and sex?

The conference features two key-note speakers, Professor Helen King (Open University) and Dr Rebecca Flemming (University of Cambridge), two internationally-renowned authorities in the fields of gender history, medical history, and history of the body. Prof. Helen King will give a paper entitled ‘Opening the Body of Fluids: Taking In and Pouring Out in Renaissance Readings of Classical Women’. Dr Rebecca Flemming will give a paper entitled ‘One-seed, Two-seed, Three-seed? Reassessing Ancient Theories of Generation’.

The conference covers antiquity defined in its widest sense, both spatially and temporally, with participation from scholars working on periods ranging from pharaonic Egypt to the early Byzantine period as well the reception of classical antiquity. A wide variety of disciplines will be represented, including classics, ancient history, Egyptology, Byzantine studies, archaeology, medical history, philology, and art history. Methodologies have been inspired by scholarly work on the history of the body, the history of sexuality, and gender, feminist, and queer history.

The conference meets a scholarly need in providing a vital and energetic forum for the discussion of bodily fluids and fluid bodies, bringing together early-career academics, research students, and more established scholars in order to exchange knowledge and ideas. The conference brings a significance to the study of the body in antiquity through a new and ground-breaking approach which has not been taken before; no project, conference or publication has considered intrinsically bodily fluids from antiquity. We hope that the conference will add a further exciting dimension to what is an innovatory and exciting period in the study of the ancient body. You are welcome to attend the conference in person, or you can follow the conference through the website and Twitter (Victoria Leonard@tigerlilyrocks and Laurence Totelin@ltotelin).


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