I'm starting a new blog, apart from my personal one, because I need a different venue to talk about some of my more research geared interests. I hope that I might find some common readers, but I also hope to bring people to this blog who might not care about my silly musings about life and ducks.
Today I've been questioning my topic for my PhD thesis, indeed even questioning whether or not there's enough to say in it for a PhD. My advisor said rather astutely that I really could sum up the whole thing in one paragraph and that I need to find someway to create a narrative, to find links that grow up organically and contribute to an overall purpose or meaning. Part of me wants to scrap the whole idea altogether and start over, and it is a possibility, but for right now I have a presentation to give on next Tuesday about it and so I do have to push on a little while longer. Maybe there's something there, maybe not.
My advisor mentioned something that did strike me, the development of the Red Cross after the Battle of Solferino in Italy in the 1850s. A Swiss businessman Henry Dunant witnessed the battle and was appalled at how the injured were left to die slowly and painfully on the battlefield. The scene affected him a great deal and it not one was the beginning of the Red Cross but also the Geneva Conventions. I need to read the book that Dunant wrote. This is an interesting moment because it was a point when the mutilated body made a significant impact on the world, a point when it could no longer be ignored. The Geneva Conventions are politically interesting to me too because they state that an injured soldier is neutral and protected; in injury he loses all political meaning.
Is this a point of departure that I could actually use? I don't know.
Here are some of my questions:
How did the mutilated war body alter perceptions of bodies in general? How did that affect culture? How are mutilated bodies depicted in culture? How does the body, or its missing parts, become mere things, losing all subjectivity and objectivity? How was the body depicted as a thing and not a meaningful object? How did people, including nurses as well as artists, approach these broken bodies?
My final question is who cares? Does this even matter? Is this worth writing about? I don't even know.
Here is an abstract that I wrote for a conference. Maybe this has more to it to explore. I'll definitely write the paper for it, but I don't know if it can be part of a larger thesis.
Abstract: “Like Socks to be Mended: the Broken War-body as Thing in Post-World War One Art and Literature”
In Mary Borden's fragmented war memoirs The Forbidden Zone, she uses the metaphors of daily, household items to describe the transportation of and attendance to wounded soldiers at the field hospital near the hellish landscapes of the French trenches. Bundles of laundry to be mended, loaves of bread pulled out of the oven: human subjects reduced not only to objects but to things. During wartime the body is in a constant metaphorical movement; it becomes a receptacle of meaning, filled and emptied of political, social and cultural significance as the physical form is damaged, mended, or destroyed. As a volunteer nurse on the First World War front, Mary Borden’s job was to mend the broken body, to shift it from one metaphorical realm to another and successfully restore its political significance, its ability to stand and fight as a symbol of the state.
While the irreparable body may continue to act as an object of meaning as casualties are tallied and considered in peace negotiations, on the battle front its form is reduced to thing: a thing to be walked upon and tripped over, to be mended, to be used as a shield against bullets, or merely to be discarded as rubbish. In light of Bill Brown’s “Thing Theory” I wish to discuss how the war-body is often portrayed in culture as a paradoxical thing, “baldly encountered” yet “not quite apprehended.” As I explore WWI-era modernist art and literature, specifically Mary Borden and German artist Otto Dix, questions of how the arts grapple with the disturbing and abject body-as-thing, as discarded object, will be examined. In turn I also hope to explore how the body-as-thing affects our understanding of the body-as-self, the body as meaningful subject and object, and how the body moves from one metaphorical realm to another.
I kind of like this. I hope it is at least good enough to go to this conference in Edinburgh.