I recently attended the Body Modification Conference Mark II held at Macquarie University. On the second day of the conference, "The Today Show" did a piece on the conference. Karl Stefanovic, Tracy Grimshaw and co spent the next ten minutes laughing and spluttering about the "wacky" conference and its "freaky" subject matter. From memory there were a number of dismissive statements about the so called incomprehensible abstract titles, questions about the relevance to students today along the lines of "what are we teaching our children at University?", and outrage expressed that we could be wasting tax payers money on funding such an event. The presenters laughed nervously throughout. Pardoxically many of the questions raised in their guffawing outrage required a genuine and legitimate response. Why isn't there help available for people who go through life believing that they would be more themselves if they had one leg instead of two? Why is it that we live in a culture where even to mention the words "my smell" evokes horror and terror by its utterance alone? Their discomfort revealed a real anxiety, I believe, about their own inability to address any of these issues with the seriousness and consideration they deserve. On a deeper level, it revealed a cultural anxiety about the issues of body modification. So why is it not acceptable to have a forum for seriously discussing this topic?
Not only were the titles of the papers mentioned mis-quoted, the purpose of the conference was completely mis-understood and its content mis-represented. No member of the coordinating committee of the conference was consulted to comment or provide any information nor did any of the presenters attend the conference to find out what it was about.
In short, it was an exercise in ignorance and anti-intellectualism of the highest "Breakfast Show" order. As viewers, we were presented with the view that we should not take the topic of body modification seriously because we do not WANT to take this seriously. And we should attack anybody who does, because WE have decided that it is not knowledge worth knowing.
Later that day the participants of the conference gathered in one of the lecture theatres to discuss the piece as well as the editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian. I was there during the discussions and at the conference throughout.
What was discussed was the possibility of a response and it led to some really interesting debates about the status of education in Australia, the politics of education and the role of Humanities, the motives and tactics for an effective response were raised and discussed. Many believed that any response was a waste of time. But a strong contingent believed that it is not just necessary but crucial to engage with popular culture and take it seriously, particularly when it takes such an active stance of ignorance and an intention "not to know".
I want to say that the conference was one of the most enlightening and insightful intellectual experiences I have had. The breadth of perspectives and the level of discussion and quality of research was far greater than I had expected. We live in a culture, as Meredith Jones clearly and elegantly described in her presention, where "becoming is more desirable than being". We are presented with demonstrations of self-improvement from many quarters, and this "makeover" culture describes a broad set of current cultural concerns and desires. There are not many appropriate forums for discussing the immense effects and changes that go with these sweeping cultural changes. The conference was one of these. It was an appropriate and relevant forum for bringing together people from all over the world to present and stimulate discussion that will help us to understand and perceive this phenomema from a range of different perspectives and to engage in its complexity. The presenters and program makers of breakfast shows have a choice. They too, could offer a forum for discussing these issues and if it is expressed in a style that is relevant for its genre, then that's OK too. But there is no reason whatsoever to undermine other peoples efforts to understand because of their own ignorance and lack of desire to know or to simply to ask. No excuse at all.