Public Lecture– ‘Disfigurement: A Cultural Anatomy'
Thu 31/03/16 6:00 pm
Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck, University of London) speaking on facial injuries of
Dr Suzannah Biernoff (Birkbeck, University of London) will present a public lecture on
'Disfigurement: A Cultural Anatomy' as the opening event of the conference 'Effaced
from History?: Facial Difference and its Representation from Antiquity to the Present
Day'. This lecture is presented in association with the Centre for Modern History, the
University of Winchester.
‘Disfigurement’ is usually thought of as a physical attribute, something visible,
definable, and more or less treatable. In fact, to quote Heather Laine Talley, the term
has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning …’
This paper will plot an alternative approach: a cultural anatomy of disfigurement that
acknowledges the negotiated nature of appearance, and the role of facial difference in
politics, law, art, literature and popular culture. Reimagining disfigurement as a cultural
formation means locating it within a history of ideas, representations, material practices
and ways of seeing. The face itself – often overlooked in histories of the body – would
necessarily come into focus as a site of historical inquiry.
In contexts of war and violence, disabled bodies and disfigured faces are especially
burdened with meaning; they become symbols of nationhood and allegories of loss.
Thanks to the large number of facial casualties returning home from the battlefields of
WWI, plastic surgery – described by the pioneering surgeon Harold Gilles as a ‘strange
new art’ – became a recognized medical specialism. Part of the ideological project of
post-war reconstruction, the work of facial ‘repair’ occupied artists as well as surgeons.
This paper will consider the legacy and durability of some of these ideas and the
coincidence of art and medicine in contemporary images of facial war injury.
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