/ 13 September 1996

Private acts and public rituals

Last week’s Body Politic conference in Johannesburg radically altered the image of the crusty old academy, writes JAMES SEY

THE Department of Psychology at Wits University and Unisa recently co-hosted an intriguing two day event at the atmospheric old Wits Medical School building in Hillbrow, Johannesburg. Dubbed The Body Politic, it is the second annual gathering of young academics and workers in the human sciences which goes some way towards radically altering the notion of what constitutes legitimate objects of critical, intellectual, even scientific interest in the crusty old academy.

The idea that infoculture is rapidly becoming bodiless, that our technology is leading us into a post-corporeal world order which is surely and hopefully the last post, has become almost commonplace. Another quite different millennial obsession has arisen alongside the interest in disembodied forms of interaction such as the Internet. This could be characterised as an obsession with the difference of the body and it’s heavily influenced by the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault on knowledge, power and sexuality.

This renewed interest in the body has been fuelled by two modern social currents — the growing legitimacy of gay and lesbian claims on identity as well as experimentation with other forms of sexuality and sexual experience (such as S/M). South African responses to the millennial questions of the body in society have taken rather unique turns, as the Body Politic conference showed, whatever the origins of this renewal of attention on the possibilities of our corporeality. The nature of the gathering though, might make it more accurate to refer to it as an event, rather than a conference.

The more conventional academic input brought together papers from academics as far afield as Scotland and California, many of them focused on issues of sexual and racial identity. Alex Butchart from Unisa’s Health Psychology Unit synthesised many of the participants’ intellectual concerns and theoretical methods in his plenary address. Butchart focused on the tendency of the human sciences to employ power as a means of producing their objects of inquiry. He used the pertinent South African example of medical science “fabricating” an object called “the African Body” — which draws a network of power and knowledge relations around it. Other papers discussed such disparate and surprising fields as rave culture, androgyny and the behaviour of people in elevators! Far from trivialising the important social and political questions surrounding the millennial body, these novel approaches and areas of inquiry opened up debate and ideas around what qualified as a legitimate object of academic study. Questions of sexuality, however, constantly ran through the academic aspects of the event. While the academics debated issues of child abuse, homosexuality and research method, something rather more subversive was going on at a tangent to the ivory tower talkshops.

A major current of the event swirled around the issue of transgression: if the body is millennial, apocalyptic even, what qualifies as taboo behaviour, as deviant thinking? This issue implies the obvious social and political response to the flouting of taboos — censorship. It’s a response familiar to the art community with the notorious debate around the vagina-shaped ceramic ashtray. This debate was revisited at Body Politic, yet with a neat twist, a discussion group was led by young artist Kaolin Thompson herself. Perhaps more significant than the well-worn terms of the debate, even though a parliamentary intervention still seems excessive, was the fact that this was the only occasion at which the young, white, female art student was given a public forum to respond. Understandably, she seemed hurt, baffled and perhaps excited that it was so easy to wind people up.

Censorship and taboo were also issues for the exhibitors, artists and booksellers occupying the central space at the medical school venue. Dominated by a giant banner made by controversial artist Steven Cohen reading “Give us your children — what we can’t fuck we eat” the space also featured a Cohen installation, the preserved head of a human foetus on a dinner plate; literature on the body and perversity from the guru of South Africa’s counter- cultural bookdealers, Paul Wessels of Deep South Distribution and a table of very earnest paedophilic literature. The tenor of this space tied very neatly in with Kevin Bishop’s academic presentation on “inter-generational sex versus child abuse”. Child abuse being the criminalising of acts of intergenerational sex, the latter being accepted more readily without being criminalised in countries like Holland.

The question of paedophilia seemed to sum up both the potential and the limitations of the Body Politic event: it was limited by the academic framework, where the shock value and transgression of work like Cohen’s was contained in a calm intellectual milieu; but also had great potential because extreme experiences like a serious sexual interest in children could find a platform for serious expression and an approach which didn’t immediately consign it to the realm of the sick and perverted.

Indeed, the centrepiece of the event expressed exactly this paradox. Vasili Kapetanakis aroused, if that’s the right word, the most attention when he arrived in “genderfuck drag” (which turned out to be a wedding ,dress) to have his penis publicly pierced. The author of the operation was Eddie, a diffident, pony-tailed 50-something, whose hands trembled alarmingly as he told the assembly in hushed tones that body-piercing was on the up and up in South Africa. Vasili, on a pre-recorded tape, narrated a sequence of slides showing his strict Greek upbringing and eventual coming-out.

It was a touching explanation of what supposedly led him to this strange public ritual in, ironically, a medical lecture-hall. The lights dimmed and a spotlight focused on Vasili’s groin. He delicately lifted the hem of his dress to reveal his genitals, already somewhat modified by a large and shiny scrotal clamp.

Incongruously, the hem of the dress went into his mouth as Eddie approached with the piercing needle. The hushed crowd craned necks and flashbulbs popped as the needle went through the urethra and the ventral surface of the glans penis. An eerie single trickle of blood, absurdly bright, trickled down the shaft and across the scrotal clamp. The ring, a Prince Albert piercing, was through. The event over. Warm applause.

Beyond the piercing as a modification ritual, with all the solemnity of a secular ceremony, its immediate impact lay in making the private public.

Interestingly, no one was shocked enough to walk out. What difference it made to Vasili we could not tell, nor could he really tell us.