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Biomedicine in museums

The materiality and sensuousness of fat

By February 23, 2011No Comments

Very interesting stuff for our forthcoming exhibition on obesity — the planned special issue on the materiality of fat edited by Christopher E. Forth at the University of Kansas for the Journal of Material Culture in 2012.

“The Materiality of Fat” is inspired – but in no way limited – by the problem of “obesity” as the master pathology of the moment. In today’s world, where warnings of the “obesity epidemic” are front-page news, it is hard to avoid the problem of fat. Too much of this substance is regularly cited as unhealthy and unattractive, and a major source of “disgust.” Scholars and activists who critically engage with fat stereotypes usually emphasize the visual concerns of size and beauty, but accord less attention to fat as a material substance with tactile and olfactory properties that are capable of generating ambivalent reactions independently of physical corpulence. Even though fat people are regularly lampooned as sweaty, sticky, and smelly, as well as large and ugly, the materiality of fat as a problematic substance has rarely been the focus of serious historical, anthropological, or literary analysis. The materiality of fat cannot be discounted if we are to approach stereotyping as the complex multisensory phenomenon that it is.

Given that fats are frozen oils, and therefore closely related substances, this collection inquires into the spectrum of practices and meanings enabled by the physical properties of fatty and oily matter as well as the various social and cultural responses that such substances have elicited. Rather than demanding a focus on “obesity” per se, it seeks articles addressing the “material entanglement” between human embodiment and animal/vegetable fats and oils, assessing the various ways in which the qualities of the latter have become enmeshed in a range of cultural locations. This cross-disciplinary collection welcomes the contributions of anthropologists and archaeologists as much as classicists, historians, and scholars studying art, literature, and religion.

Possible topics include anointing and smearing; the phenomenology of fat embodiment; theories of abjection and disgust; materiality and the senses; magic, divination, and illumination; harvesting and employing human fat; symbols of fertility and decay; fats and oils in medical discourse and practice, etc.

Interested authors are invited to submit ~250 words abstracts to Christopher Forth ( by 15 March. If this special issue proposal is accepted, authors will be asked to submit final submissions of no more than 8,000 words each by mid-February 2012.

Thomas Söderqvist

Author Thomas Söderqvist

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