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Somatic Material Culture

(Anthropology 52421)


This seminar explores forms of material culture that go into or onto the human body and practices that treat the body itself as material culture. In other words, it focuses on: (1) what I call "embodied material culture", meaning substances that are made to be ingested into the body (food, alcohol, and drugs) and become part of the person; (2) objects worn on the body (clothing, jewelry, armor, etc.) that constitute what Terry Turner called "the social skin"; and (3) forms of body modification through which people treat their physical being as a material object for creative expression or augmented utilitarian performance. The latter forms of modification would include such practices as tattooing, painting, piercing, scarification, plastic surgery, circumcision, gender reassignment surgery, skin bleaching, cranial shaping, foot binding, neck stretching, tooth shaping, body building, fasting, prosthetic enhancement, sports training, skill and body technique learning, and so forth. All of these forms of "somatic material culture" and their associated practices have a prominent role in the inculcation, expression, and performance of identity, although they operate in different ways. They also have a wide range of social and economic functions and consequences. The class will examine the comparative history/prehistory and ethnography of these forms of somatic material culture, looking at them through the lens of semiotics, practice theory, phenomenology, consumption, and other approaches as a way of assessing their cultural, social, and economic significance. Readings include theoretical statements, comparative analyses, and detailed empirical studies of historical and contemporary cases. For reasons of time limitations, this class focuses exclusively on the living body. However, I would also include the numerous treatments of the post-mortem body practiced around the world (funerary corpse treatment, body-part decoration and display, etc.) as part of the theme of somatic material culture, and this area would be equally appropriate for research papers.



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