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The Human Body and World War II

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In this blog post, Hannah Simpson (DPhil English, St Cross College) describes the proceeding and the outcomes of the conference 'The Human Body and World War II', supported by TORCH thought the AHRC-TORCH Graduate Fund 2017-2018.

“War”, Elaine Scarry claims, is “the most radically embodying event in which human beings can ever participate.” The Human Body and World War II conference, held in the English Faculty in March 2018, aimed to interrogate this claim. Myself and my fellow organisers Patrick Burley (University of Oxford) and Megan Girdwood (University of York) were curious as to the potential for a genuinely interdisciplinary medical humanities conversation to stimulate fresh academic discussion on a sensitive topic.

Our speakers were drawn from a broad range of disciplines, including History of Medicine, Psychiatry and Psychology, English Literature, Bioengineering, Gender Studies, Neuroscience, German, Italian and French Studies, Social Anthropology, Art History, Theology, Film Studies, and Biomedical Communications. Over the two-day event, they interrogated together how and which kinds of bodies were enlisted, co-opted, represented, erased, and commemorated during World War II, and how these practices and perspectives altered cultural and artistic representation of the body in the war’s long aftermath. We were overwhelmed not only by the breadth and quality of the scholarship that our registrants brought to the conference, but also by their willingness to cross disciplinary borders to engage with each other’s work. Thus, the traces of Vichy ideology in Samuel Beckett’s work came into conversation with the historical and contemporary practices of Nazi and American homosexual ‘conversion therapy’, the promotion of Japanese civil air defence fashion with Keith Douglas’s eroticised war poetry and battlefield sketches, and the task of emergency mass Normandy burial with Theodor Adorno’s textual treatment of the Jewish body. We were grateful to all our speakers for proving our initial hunch correct: the medical and the humanities disciplines, brought into mutual influence on each other, have the potential to reveal startling new perspectives on this global conflict.

Our keynotes did much to model this productive mode of interaction. Dr Roderick Bailey (Wellcome History of Medicine, University of Oxford) presented his new research on Special Operations plastic surgery disguise for British spies during the war, managing en route the tricky feat of making Jeff Goldblum’s appearance in The Fly (1986) bizarrely relevant to academic discussion. Professor Laura Salisbury (Medicine and English, University of Exeter), compared the psychiatric and psychopathologic understandings of wartime ‘waiting’ with Virginia Woolf’s, Elizabeth Bowen’s, and Samuel Beckett’s post-war literary work. Ceyda Oskay (Royal College of Art, London) helped break the ice with a pre-conference creative workshop based on the collage artwork of Hannah Hoch, and Dr Leo Mellor (English, University of Cambridge) closed the event with a screening of Humphrey Jenning’s propaganda documentary A Diary for Timothy (1945), featuring a script written by E. M. Forster and voiced by Michael Redgrave.

  We’d like to offer our sincere thanks to TORCH for offering funding for graduate student travel bursaries, which helped ensure the attendance of some truly exceptional young scholars.

You can look out for special issues of Twentieth-Century Literature, Medical Humanities, and the Journal of War and Culture Studies based on the conference papers, all forthcoming in 2020.

by Hannah Simpson