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Biophobia Symposium: Roundtable

Thursday, May 11, 2023 at 10:30am to 4:30pm

Savage Hall, 200

The keynote of the day:

"Biophilia Now: Time for Imagining Alternatives to Techno- and Bio-Orientalism" by Rachel Lee, Professor of English, Gender Studies, and the Institute of Society and Genetics, UCLA.

Are you attending in person? If so, you must rsvp here.  Space is limited.

We encourage in-person participation but for those who are unable to make it, please see virtual registration below.

The title of this lecture draws inspiration from what feminist historians call the Wages for Housework movement. Despite their express slogan around “wages,” the utopian desire carried forward by Selma James and Maria dalla Costa involves less the free-market payment for raising kids, caring for the elderly, tending to the sick, preparing food, etcetera, and more an almost unimaginable “time for what we will.”  This “time for what we will” is not already blocked out for usefulness—e.g., to serve one’s side hustle--or even for rest and recovery from the depletions of neoliberal capital.  Rather, it bespeaks an unassigned time to fritter away, to dally and daydream, and to fantasize about what might happen in the idyll of becoming (non-pejoratively) idle.  Significantly, Wages for Housework construed this “time for what we will” as what is owed to—rather than simply granted to or contractually specified as compensation for—reproducers (aka reproductive laborers).   The danger for the status quo in this demand—this “time for what we will”--lies in its holding space to proliferate plural and counterfactual (i.e., postwork) imaginings of present society.

Humanities scholar Rachel Lee points to artwork choreographed around smelling, singing, and sensorily dwelling in and around loss, grief, and toxic landscapes as, counterintuitively, positive sketches for types of actions that might be indulged in--and which might save lives--if we could entertain and flex our daydreaming (rather than doom-scrolling) muscles.   Rather than ask how do we heal from resurgent biophobia and its catalyzing of anti-Asian violence, this talk proposes the plural and oftentimes conflicting imaginings of Chang Rae Lee, Anicka Yi [and possibly also  “the Daniels”—aka Kwan & Scheinert) as hopeful alternatives to the toggle between techno-orientalism and bio-orientalism characterizing our post-/still- Covid-19 moment.

Bio: Rachel C. Lee, Professor of English, Gender Studies, and the Institute of Society and Genetics, UCLA, is the author of The Exquisite Corpse of Asian America: Biopolitics, Biosociality and Posthuman Ecologies (2014), editor of The Routledge Companion to Asian and Pacific Islander Literature (2014), and a founding editor of Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience.  Currently, Lee is PI on Oral Histories of Environmental Illness: a collection of 80+ interviews of individuals who have, treat, or advocate on behalf of those with “contested illnesses” (e.g. multiple chemical sensitivity, chronic Lyme, mold-related fibromyalgia, heavy-metal intoxication, chronic fatigue and the like).

Thursday, May 11, 10:30 a.m.

Keynote: "Biophilia Now: Time for Imagining Alternatives to Techno- and Bio-Orientalism" by Rachel Lee, Professor of English, Gender Studies, and the Institute of Society and Genetics, UCLA.

Session 1 “Sensoria” 1:00-2:30 p.m.

  • Katie Yook (Curator, NY): “Sensoria: Evoking the Intangible”
  • Se Young Au (Artist, CA):Olfaction, Embodiment, and Perception”
  • KimSu Theiler (Artist, NY):“Orientally Challenged”
  • Skye Jin (or Jette Hye Jin Mortensen) (Artist, Writer, Curator, Copenhagen): “Hidden Epigenetic Trauma & Art as Site for Healing and Ritual"
  • Jung Joon Lee (Rhode Island School of Design, Society for the Humanities fellow at Cornell University): discussant 

Session 2 “Transnational and Transmedial Approach to the Body Issues” 3:00-4:30 p.m. 

  • Walter Byongsok Chon (Ithaca College): “Theatricalized Bodies on the Post-Dramatic Stage”
  • Bonnie Chung (Cornell University): “The Songs of Two Islands of East Asia: Collaborative Listening and Counterarchival Impulses in Green Island (2016) and The Mermaid from Jeju (2019)”
  • Abel Song Han (Cornell University): “Healing with Poison and Metaphor: On Bio-mimesis Horror”
  • Paul McQuade (Cornell University): "A Dreamed Biology: Soni Kum’s ‘Morning Dew’ and Jayro Bustamante’s ‘La Llorona’”
  • Jomy Abraham (Visiting Scholar, Cornell University): “Walking with their Dead: Biophobia and Public Protests of Farmers in India”
  • Jun Matsuda (Visiting Scholar, Cornell University): “Police/Military Violence and Biophobia: The Intersectionality of "Asian Bodies" and Colonialism”

About the Biophobia Symposium

Aversion to certain groups or statuses of the body is not just an emotion but a richly social, cultural, and political phenomenon, as it, by invoking bodily responses, functions to patrol social boundaries and norms, such as righteousness and cleanliness. The feeling’s immediacy to the body is the basis of its social power. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion(2014), Sara Ahmed situates disgust (“bad taste”) in the colonial context where the colonized bodies were subject to the imperialist politics of “what gets eaten,” and are, at the same time, regarded to stoke the “fear of contamination” to the European white bodies. Ahmed’s politicizing of negative emotions still holds strong relevance, especially regarding the recently exacerbating hate crimes based on gender, race, ethnicity, religion, health condition, and political orientation, which often tag along a profound sense of disgust and essentialist rhetoric on body types. Notably, the #IAmNotAVirus campaigns against the anti-Asian hate crimes entailed by the recent pandemic exemplify how the feelings of terror and disgust effectively turned Asian bodies into a composite of a submicroscopic agent, the “origin” of the disease, and the repugnant bodies.  

This symposium proposes biophobia (aversion to bodily matter) as a critical framework to unravel the complex relationship between negative emotions and post/colonial body politics in Asian and transnational contexts. Biophobia, as a composite word, embodies an acute connectivity between body issues and the public anxiety that is often symptomatic of a given society’s constraints over the notions of the healthy and the normal, which has proved to be a global phenomenon. Accordingly, while the symposium’s case studies and materials come from Korean and diasporic Korean cultural situations, biophobia helps recognize the inter-disciplinary, inter-regional, and inter-medial facets of disability studies that identify and questions the notion of healthiness as a product of the dynamics between political, institutional, medical, and cultural entities. 

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Asian Studies, East Asia Program, Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies, South Asia Program, The Society for the Humanities

University Themes



East Asia program, Einaudi, asianstudiescal, cosochum, fgsscal



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Soyi Kim

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