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Fragments for a History of the Legal Body

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Organizer: Julie Stone Peters

Co-Organizer: Jesús R. Velasco

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Our era knows, perhaps better than any, that law’s construction of the human body matters: to our identities, freedom, subsistence, and much more. Law tells us what body parts we may display and what we must hide, whether we are alive or dead, whether our bodies are male or female, when our bodies must be locked up, what parts of our bodies we can and can’t sell, what we may and may not do with our organs, our embryos, our wombs. This session explores the history of this legal body. There is no dearth of work on the history of the body generally, most notably perhaps the three-volume Fragments for a History of the Human Body that Zone Books published several decades ago. But—despite the long shadow of Foucault—very little of it looks at law, at least with any specificity. Exploring the historical legal body, in all its heterogeneity, can remind us that juridical constructions of the body are neither obvious nor inevitable, while telling us something about how ours came into being.

We invite submissions that deal with an event, encounter, practice, concept, text, image (etc.) in which the body appears as either an object of legal regulation or an agent of legal expression. How have legal regimes interpreted, represented, constructed, regulated, or deployed the body in live events, texts, or other media? How, specifically, has the body acted as an agent of legal meaning or an expressive instrument? What conception of the body underwrites these instantiations (sacred site? property? instrument? machine?) How did modern legal constructions of the body come into being? What bodily-juridical concepts or practices might we, for good or ill, have lost sight of?

In the seminar, we’re hoping to share work that reveals something we didn’t previously know about law’s construction and deployment of the body. While we welcome submissions that explore “the body” or “bodies” generally (for instance, the construction of identity categories through conceptions of bodily difference), we especially welcome submissions that focus on a particular body part, problem, or mode with a degree of specificity and concreteness. And while we welcome submissions that focus primarily on literary, philosophical, or visual representations of the body, we’re especially interested in those that look at legal practices, events, or texts as modes of representation: trials, legal decisions, procedures, rituals, institutional practices, encounters (etc). It is our hope that this session will constitute the beginning of a larger collective project on the history of the legal body.

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