Thursday, April 24, 2008

What Time Is It? It's Senior Thesis Time

Actually, it's past senior thesis time. I advised two wonderful honors students, read five other theses (also real labors of love -- my Zenith students never fail to impress me when they put their hearts into something), awarded a prize or two (or six, depending on who and what you are counting), and I have two more comments to write. Then I am done for this year. And of course, just as we send this group off into the sunset, the juniors start poking their heads around the doorjam and saying, "Professor Radical -- I'd like to talk about my idea for a thesis?"

It's the time of year that I am full of gratitude: gratitude for students who did their work with integrity and shared it with me, gratitude that a new group has enough faith in my powers of whatever to give it a whirl despite my obvious flaws, and gratitude -- well....

That I wasn't Aliza Shvartz's tutor at Yale!

You knew I had to get around to this story eventually, didn't you? I am proud to say, as a former member of the editorial board of the Oldest College Daily, that the Yale Daily News report on this strange event is still the best and least sensational account of Aliza's senior art project -- which may or may not have happened -- a performance piece for which she claims to have inseminated and aborted herself repeatedly. Yale says it didn't happen; Aliza says it did, although initially (apparently) she said it didn't and then she changed her mind. What we can infer is that she doesn't appear to have any politics whatsoever, since the project was all about her feelings and experiences as she turned her body inside out, but not about abortion per se.

All the same, incoherent and weird as this seems from the sparse and contradictory information that has leaked from meetings where Yale officials are ripping their hair out, subsequent media coverage has just been too bizarre. FOX quotes NARAL communications director Ted Miller's opinion that Shvartz's project "is offensive and insensitive to the women who have suffered the heartbreak of miscarriage" (since when has miscarriage been a critical issue for NARAL?); and National Right to Life Committee President Wanda Franz's view that the Yale senior is "a serial killer."

As FOX says: We Report. You Decide. Just like on Tenured Radical.

Perhaps in an attempt to be helpful, Discover Magazine suggests that Yale test the installation (which never got installed) for Shvartz's DNA, while the New York Times helpfully notes that it could also be tested for the presence of hormones only produced during pregnancy. Oh, let's not and say we did. Maybe instead Yale could gift some DNA testing to some poor schmuck on death row somewhere, now that the Supremes have decided that death by lethal injection is not cruel after all.

Sigh. Such a mess. The Chronicle of Higher Ed has some pretty good coverage, although click here if you want to read ninety-six ways to call someone you don't know, and know almost nothing about, a sicko. However, in yet another moment where women become responsible for all the moral outcomes of reproduction, no one but the OCD is interested in pursuing the question that first popped into my head (after, I admit, "What was her advisor thinking?") which was -- where and how did she collect the alleged sperm? As Yale Daily News reporter Martine Powers explained,

"The 'fabricators,' (nice touch, Martine - sift through these articles, and you will see that I am not the only person who thinks there was no sperm) or donors, of the sperm were not paid for their services, but Shvarts required them to periodically take tests for sexually transmitted diseases. She said she was not concerned about any medical effects the forced miscarriages may have had on her body. The abortifacient drugs she took were legal and herbal, she said, and she did not feel the need to consult a doctor about her repeated miscarriages. (Really? Perhaps because the doctor would have told her she was completely insane. Just a thought. And anyway, she had an advisor in the Art department for that kind of conversation!)

Shvarts declined to specify the number of sperm donors she used, (ok, I'm thinking you loiter around Tang Cup practices, ask for volunteers, plastic cups are right there and can be rinsed out) as well as the number of times she inseminated herself....Pia Lindman, Schvarts' senior-project advisor, could not be reached for comment Wednesday night."

Well, I'll just bet that Professor Lindman was not available for comment. I would have been at home, cell phone at the bottom of the toilet tank, heavily medicated and wishing I had really insisted on those weekly tutorial meetings after all. And my guess is that the next time she is available for comment she will be working somewhere else. Yale -- otherwise known as Oligarch in these pages -- does not take kindly to having been made a fool of.

But my other thought is -- if Shvartz is not deranged, which she might be (it is also worth noting that academics at all levels who are otherwise sane are capable of telling giant, improbable whoppers, so it's hard to know) -- maybe the "abortions" were never the "performance" in the performance art at all -- maybe it's the rest of us responding to it that is the actual art! Now, how radical would that be?


Sisyphus said...

maybe the "abortions" were never the "performance" in the performance art at all -- maybe it's the rest of us responding to it that is the actual art!

This was how I had been reading the art piece --- although the excerpts of her own descriptions I've seen were not clear at all. Creating and manipulating a media scandal, as she has done, would be more interesting than a mere meditation on bodies and blood, which as people have pointed out, has been done before.

Bardiac said...

It's a student art project, and doesn't seem to have been especially well thought through (I would say "conceived," but I won't go there). There's potential for some serious theoretical or political commentary, but I haven't seen her do that, which would seem an important part of a senior thesis, to me.

On the other hand, as Sisyphus notes, if the art is about media and media manipulation, then she's done an amazing job. But she hasn't quite articulated it in an amazing way.

anthony grafton said...

Great post, radical. Thanks for your praise of the whole senior thesis thing, my favorite part of this strange calling--but that may be because I have never supervised one that involved "fabricators" in the present sense . . .

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