International Conference – A Hairy Affair: The Material Poetics of Hair
(Graduate School Language & Literature, LMU Munich, July 9–11, 2020)
Rapunzel lowers her plaited hair 20 cubits deep, so that her prince can climb into her hermetically sealed tower. Donald Trump’s signature quiff – a piece of interwoven fabric with no evident beginning and end – is treated as a metaphor for his relationship to truth and politics. Samson defeats the Philistines oppressing the Israelites in the Old Testament with his superhuman strength: the origin of his invincibility lies in the vigour of his hair as long as it is not cut. “Don’t touch my hair!”: The Afro is claimed as a symbol of resistance and black pride against the imperative of assimilation to the norm of whiteness. The contemporary hair industry entangles hyper-feminized and neo-imperialist imaginaries with transnational structures of exploitation that range from Chinese hair factories and Hindu temples through Youtube hair tutorials to the multinational company Great Lengths International that sells ‘natural’ hair extensions on the promise of extracting an “ethnic surplus value” (Hage 1998) from the depigmented hairy remains of women from the Global South (Berry 2008).
Hair figures, at once, as the subject of manifold social struggles and the object of multiple forms of exploitation. It holds a ‘defiant’ inclination – it creates op-position –, but it also remains steadily threatened in this potentiality: hair is fundamentally characterized by its precarious and mutinous materiality, which subverts conventionalized dichotomies between the passive and the active. Interweaving a wide-ranging variety of discourses in literature, art and film, hair has imposed itself as an urgent topic in recent academic research and discussion. In African-American Studies the focus rests on hair as a signifier of resistance that promotes the articulation of a politicized black aesthetics and thus defies the global colour-line imposed by white supremacy and colonialism (Hallpike 1972, Caldwell 1991, Kelley 1997, Banks 2000, Byrd/Tharps 2001). Research in Gender Studies, in turn, emphasizes the sexualized codification of head and body hair along the lines of imposed conformity and processes of individuation (Fisher 2010, Roebling 1999/2000, Rycroft 2020, Sagner et al. 2011, Möhrmann/Urbani 2012, Wernli 2018). Literary studies, for their part, have concentrated on the encoding of different hair colours, particularly in relation to anthropological and historical stereotypizations of blond or red hair (Junkerjürgen 2009/2017, Biehahn 1964, Goller 2009, Krause 2015). In addition, the institutionalized act of cutting hair by the ‘literary’ figure of the hairdresser has come into focus (Williams 2016, Herzog 1996).
However, hair does not just represent a nodal point of divergent forms of knowledge production. Nor is it a passive projection surface for various practices of symbolic inscription. On the contrary, it serves in its very materiality as a mediator of aesthetic reflection and formalization. Not just since Ludwig Tieck’s “braid-novella” or “Zopfnovelle” (Füllmann 2008) Die Gesellschaft auf dem Lande does hair belong to the key metaphorical repertoire of aesthetic and narrative forms: whether knotted, cut or curled, braided, shaved or covered; head and body hair figure as a discursively overloaded site of poetological reflection, narrative composition or experiments in literary genre. One of the basic premises of this conference is that hair constitutes an interface between body aesthetics and issues of plot and narrative synthesis. Particular attention is paid not only to neatly ‘coiffed’ discursive formations or to hair’s narrative entanglements, but also to the poetological quality of hair as a disruptive literary factor. Just as hair turns in Racine’s Phèdre into a symptom of the crisis of the choreography of staged appearance (cf. Vogel 2018), Hedda Gabler’s dramatic ruin is triggered by her repeated attempt to burn the hair of her competitor Thea Elvstedt.
‘Hair’ appears as the site of violent narrative cuts, lyrical excess and dramatic knotting, which, in turn, sheds light on the grotesque and uncanny dimensions of hair, that seem intimately tied to its specific materiality. Whether thin, thick, curly or shaved, hair – due to its status as dead matter that reaches beyond the flesh – threatens the integrity of body and text. An accumulated vitality seems concentrated within the dead substance of hair and this peculiar interim state of living-deadness inscribes it with an inherent negativity or resilience: it appears as abjectified human detritus fallen off from the body, as endowed with a ghostly presence, or bearing an uncanny agency. This spectral materiality and excessive vitality ultimately also form the platform on which politico-economic, media-historical or psychoanalytical discourses about hair take shape: be it the analogization between hair’s biological structure and commodity fetishism (cf. Berry 2008), or the superimposition of hair and vagina, the material quality of hair connects different discursive fields and reveals their intersections.
The conference seeks to interrogate the poetics, practices and functions of hair in literature and in other media. The (poetological) usage of hair’s excessive materiality as well as its function as an operator within discourses of resistance and opposition is therefore of particular interest. Contributions to the following (but not exclusively) subject-areas are welcome for the conference:
- aesthetic, narratological, genre-specific and form-related aspects of hair
- mediality of hair
- interdisciplinary and comparative perspectives: staging of hair semantics in film, music and the arts
- cultural practices of forming hair: cutting, washing, smoothing, shaving, waxing …
- practitioners of hair: wig makers, hairdressers and barbers
- locales of hair: hairdressing salons, bathrooms, waxing studios….
- relationship between head and body hair: hairstyle and vagina, etc.
- commercialization of hair: hair as a commodity, hair in global supply-chains and in postcolonial geographies
- splitting hairs: the oppositional or resilient materiality of hair
- the op-positional materiality (‘Gegenständlichkeit’) of hair: relationship between material and resistance, op-positional aesthetics, hair as subversion or excess
- discursive-material hair practices and forms of subjectification
Scholars in literary and cultural studies, as well as researchers from various disciplines – such as Art, Media studies, Anthropology and Social sciences – who are interested in the poetics and materiality of hair, are invited to apply to present a paper. Proposals from junior researchers are particularly welcome. A publication of the contributions is planned.
The conference is organized by the Class of Literature of the Graduate School Language & Literature and will take place July 9–11, 2020 at LMU Munich; confirmed keynote lectures by
Professor Emma Tarlo (Goldsmiths University of London) and Assistant Professor
Seán Williams (University of Sheffield).
Please send your paper proposals (max. 300 words, talk time: 20 min) in English or German together with your biographical information by February 29, 2020 to: