Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Suzannah Biernoff, senior Lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Visual Culture in the Department of History of Art writes about her current research activity.

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Dr Suzannah Biernoff

Hi Suzannah. What was your route to Birkbeck?

I moved to London from Sydney in 1998, after finishing my PhD. Before taking up a lectureship at Birkbeck in 2007 I taught on the Visual Culture programme at Middlesex University and at Chelsea College of Art and Design.

What’s your current topic of research?

My most recent publications have examined attitudes towards disability and disfigurement during and after the First World War. My book, Portraits of Violence: War and the Aesthetics of Disfigurement, is due out with the University of Michigan Press early next year. Wellcome funding has made it possible to publish open access articles in journals including Social History of Medicine, Visual Culture in Britain and Photographies.

I wanted to use visual sources as much as possible – from medical photographs and life drawings to prosthetic masks, photo albums and images in the illustrated press – sources that complicate and at times contradict the written record. As a historian of visual culture I am also interested in how people viewed the disfigured face. Cultural prohibitions against staring, expressions of pity or disgust, and later in the century the visual thrill of the horror movie: all of these ‘ways of seeing’ are part of the story, as much as the material evidence of injury, masking and repair.

I have recently been awarded a Birkbeck Wellcome Trust ISSF mid-career fellowship to begin a new project on images of facial difference within European and North American popular culture, film and visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries. I am interested in how people have responded to unusual or extraordinary faces; the cultural mechanisms of normalisation; and strategies of defiance and re-interpretation (for example, where the damaged face is re-imagined as beautiful, or where artists use disfigurement as a creative or symbolic device). As well as artistic representations of the face, my sources include public health images, advertisements, medical photographs, coffee table books, film and fashion photography.

Why did you choose this topic? What inspired you?

In autumn 2002 I went to the Strang Print Room at UCL to see a small exhibition of Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI servicemen with facial injuries. In western art, the face is a primary marker of identity and humanity, and its violation or absence often represents the limits of the human. Tonks’ portraits are almost unbearably intimate studies. They record men before and after reconstructive surgery: almost certainly in pain, physically and emotionally exposed, but stoical. A surgeon himself, as well as a professor of anatomy and drawing at the Slade School of Art, Tonks managed to reveal something new about the depths of the human face and the ways in which images – and institutions – can shape the way we see. He once wrote that he wondered what the body must look like to someone without his knowledge of anatomy. I wonder if his ability to look without horror or embarrassment at the men he drew allows us to see them differently as well.

What excites you about this topic?

I’ve always liked the idea that the things we take most for granted, the things that feel inevitable and personal – our bodies, emotions or sensations – have a history. My current project focuses on the human face, which has tended to be overlooked in histories of the body.

Each chapter of Portraits of Violence revolves around a particular image or set of images:

  • Nina Berman’s 2006 World Press Photo winning portrait Marine Wedding is discussed alongside Stuart Griffiths’ photographs of British veterans of the Iraq War;
  • Henry Tonks’ drawings of WWI facial casualties are compared to the medical photographs of the same men in the Gillies Archives; the production of portrait masks for the severely disfigured is approached through the lens of documentary film and photography;
  • and in the final chapter the haunting image of one of Tonks’ patients at the Queen’s Hospital reappears in the first-person shooter game BioShock, provoking an exchange on a players’ discussion forum about the ethical limits of realism.

What is challenging about the research?

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen's Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Photograph of Henry Tonks in his room at the Queen’s Hospital, Sidcup, 1917

Like most researchers working on issues of stigma and appearance within the humanities, my approach is informed by a social model of disability, according to which beauty, normality, acceptability and ugliness are in the eye (and cultural imagination) of the beholder. One of the strange things about disfigurement as a topic is that people (both experts and popular writers) have tended to assume that the object of study is self-evident. We think we know what we’re talking about when we refer to disfigurement. In fact there are no sources – historical or contemporary – that define this problematic term. The sociologist Heather Laine Talley observes in her book Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance that the concept of disfigurement has ‘no static intelligibility, no objective point of reference, no stable shared meaning’ (2014, p. 14).

This problem with definitions presents a challenge for historians. If we understand ‘disfigurement’ – and stigma generally – as negotiated and context specific, then the idea of a history of disfigurement is a bit misleading. Really, one would need to ask why and how facial or bodily difference becomes disfigurement within particular social interactions and cultural contexts. In the early twentieth century – the period I’ve looked most closely at – these contexts include the fear and censorship of facial war injuries, and the lingering stigma of syphilis, but the symbiotic relationship between war and medicine had a role to play as well. 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, and disfigurement a treatable condition.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

Appearance plays a crucial role within social hierarchies. Like gender, class and race, the way we look is a powerful determinant of social mobility and physical capital. In this respect, there are clear parallels between the civil rights and feminist movements, and more recent developments in disability rights and ‘face equality’.

Despite the inclusion of serious disfigurement in the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) in 1995, there is a widespread perception among disability scholars and campaigners that the norms of acceptability are becoming narrower: that society (at least in the developed and increasingly globalised world) is becoming less tolerant of people who look different from a prevailing idea of normality.

Although disfigurement is not an illness – or even, in most cases, a functional impairment – it is widely perceived as having and requiring a medical solution. Understanding the social, political and historical contexts of ‘disfigurement’ is important both from the perspective of the medical humanities, and for scholars, artists, activists and policy makers working in the field of disability studies and advocacy.

What kind of a research environment is Birkbeck to work in?

One of the things I love about working at Birkbeck is that I teach students with such diverse interests and backgrounds. Each year I run an MA option called Exhibiting the Body, on medical museums and the historical intersections between art and medicine. Over the years my students have included nurses, GPs, painters and performance artists, a game developer, a medical photographer, and the curator of Barts Pathology Museum. There have been some memorable debates along the way on topics ranging from 19th-century freak shows to the ethics of displaying human remains.

As a teacher, being able to draw on a wide spectrum of personal and professional perspectives makes for an incredibly rich classroom experience. In the humanities we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinarity at the level of research, but often overlook the benefits of teaching students in a multidisciplinary environment.

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Discover our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine of the Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies writes about her current research activity.

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Dr Silke Arnold-de Simine

Hi Silke. What is your current topic of research?

My current project is on the notion of ‘challenging heritage’: I am interested in the ways in which ‘challenging’ or ‘difficult heritage’ is interpreted and managed in different cultural and national contexts. My focus is on the question of how personal and cultural memory relate to each other in modes of engagement framed as affective and experiential encounters with the past, most importantly but not exclusively in (memorial) museums and heritage sites that favour immersive strategies and aim to produce empathy in visitors.

In this context I interrogate preconceived assumptions of what the relationship between affect/emotion, experience and comprehension (and consequently action) is supposed to be; just because we have ‘felt’ and experienced something, does it mean we are any closer to understanding it? Key questions are:

  • the role of interactive media forms (from the oral to the performative and digital) in this process
  • how memory practices and performances are negotiated among groups of stakeholders
  • and how supposedly very different modes of relating to the past (trauma, nostalgia) complement and inform each other in unexpected ways as audiences engage with historical interpretations.

One of my case studies is a comparative analysis of commemorative projects around the First World War Centenary.

Why did you choose this topic?

Living between (at least) two cultures (Silke is originally from Germany, but now lives in South-West London) drew my attention to how collectives relate to shared pasts in very different ways: they do not only choose to remember and forget different bits or tell different stories about shared events, they also have very different modes of engaging with the past.

What excites you about this topic?

Its topicality and relevance to current memory politics, people think of memory as predominantly being about the past but in actual fact the way we relate to the past is mostly about how we want to live in the present.

What is challenging about the research?

The most challenging element of the research I am doing is that it is situated between subject and research areas, which means that I am often trespassing on other people’s turfs. I have to engage with a broad spectrum of research methodologies, increasingly not only quantitative but also qualitative methodologies, so I am constantly forced to step out of my comfort zones.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

I have worked with practitioners from various walks of life – artists, museum curators, theatre people – in order to get closer to the audiences which have a vested interest in the role cultural memory plays in all our lives. I think my research can offer a self-reflective perspective on the modes of memory we all engage in every day and identify how we can mobilize strong affective responses as catalysts that help to transform unprocessed affect into emotional thought (and when I am very hopeful) also into actions.

What misconceptions are there around your discipline or area of research?

When I tell people that I work on First World War Commemoration they often think that I am a historian and that I actually work on the First World War. Some are rather disappointed to learn that I am first and foremost interested in the way contemporary societies relate to the First World War and how they narrativize the past in the here and now.

My focus on cultural memory is also difficult to explain, most people associate memory with the ability of an individual to recall experiences and events through which they have lived. However, the concept of cultural memory provides a conceptual framework that helps to interrogate how smaller or larger groups (families or nations) ‘remember’ and keep memories alive beyond the lifetime of the actual memory bearers.

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Discover Our Research: Meet the academics

As part of Birkbeck’s Discover our research activity, Dr Heike Bauer of the Department of English and Humanities writes about her current research activity.

Dr Heike Bauer

Dr Heike Bauer

What is your current topic of research?

I’m working on an AHRC-funded book, The Hirschfeld Archives: Violence, Death, and Modern Queer Culture. It examines how attack and persecution shaped the development of a collective sense of same-sex identity in the first half of the twentieth-century

Why did you choose this topic?

The book addresses a gap in the scholarship: the realization that, while we know of many lives which have ended tragically as a result of legal persecution, violent attack or the inability to cope with heteronormative social and emotional pressures, we know surprisingly little about the traumatic impact of these deaths on the shaping of modern queer culture.

I have come to this realization via a chance encounter in the archive. In my previous book, English Literary Sexology, I explored the emergence a modern vocabulary of sex – words such as homosexuality and heterosexuality – and how the new ideas were transmitted from German science into English literary culture.

It was during the completion of this project that I first came across the work of Magnus Hirschfeld (1868-1935), a hugely influential Jewish doctor and reformer. He is best known today for his homosexual rights activism, foundational studies of transvestism and opening of the world’s first Institute of Sexual Sciences in Berlin in 1919. I found, however, that Hirschfeld was also a chronicler of hate and violence against people who were figured to be, in his words, ‘different from the others’ because of their gender or sexual desire.

He wrote, for instance, about the trial and death of Oscar Wilde, and how it affected the men who identified with Wilde; and he collected the first statistical figures on female and male homosexual suicide, arguing that persecution and social denial played a significant role in why (some of these) people felt their lives were unliveable. The realisation that these writings have yet to be explored was the starting point for The Hirschfeld Archives.

What excites you about this topic?

This is the first study to examine narratives about queer death, suicide and injury for the insights they provide into how such suffering was understood at the time. There is a thrill – as well as a sense of responsibility – in working with texts and images that have been overlooked or forgotten.

What is challenging about the research?

Arguing that negative experiences, as much as affirmative politics and subculture formation, shaped modern queer culture, the book addresses a critical paradox: that despite political gains and related social transformations, queer lives all too often remain precarious, subject to attack and rejection, because they do not fit real and imagined norms about what it means to live in a certain time and place, and in a body whose gender and desires challenge powerful but often difficult-to-bring-into-view social norms. The challenge in presenting this research is to make sure that it cannot be misconstrued: just because there is violence in queer history does not mean that queerness equates misery. You might be surprised about how important it is even today to be clear about this point.

What is your favourite thing about your work?

The history of sexuality is today a thriving academic field. I come to it from a feminist perspective and a background in literary and culture studies. I enjoy being able to test and develop my ideas in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines. My most recent book, for example, a collection of essays entitled Sexology and Translation: Cultural and Scientific Encounters Across the Modern World, brings together literary scholars, historians, translation scholars and experts in gender studies who work on sexual cultures in Europe, Peru, Asia, and the Middle East. It is a real privilege to be part of such collaborations. I similarly enjoy working with my PhD students, and supporting the development of projects that can make a real intervention in existing scholarship.

What are the potential impacts of your research on everyday life?

The humanities are vital to making sense of the world, laying bare the often hidden norms that govern society, and critically and creatively expanding not only what (we think) we know, but also how we know it, and to what the effect. In terms of my own project, there are obvious benefits to developing a better understanding of LGBTIQ history. As part of the AHRC Fellowship, for instance, I discussed my research with health professionals in a workshop on violence in queer and trans lives. But as the research comes to a close, I think it’s fitting to turn around the question and also consider the impact of everyday life on my research. Discussing work-in-progress with non-academic audiences has been a vital part of the development of this project, challenging me to be clearer about the claims I made, and reminding me that the sorrows and joys of queer history are very much alive today.

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