Academic Absurdity of . . . Maybe All Time

I let my previous regular notices of “Academic Absurdity of the Week” go dormant quite a while ago, because it was just too easy, and was also getting redundant. And repetitive. And tedious. But a news item out the last few days compels a brief revival, with an academic absurdity to end all absurdities.

In my regular scan for headlines for the Saturday Week in Pictures gallery, I came across this:

Huh? Might have to delve into this story further, since it involves the intersectionality (heh) of two liberal bastions—academia and Hollywood. The details, as told by People magazine, are rather. . . well, you decide:

A California university professor died suddenly during a BDSM bondage session at the home of a Hollywood executive. Dr. Doran George, 48, was found dead in the home of Skip Chasey, an executive for Hollywood agency William Morris Endeavor on Nov. 19, 2017. . .

The room included padded floor tiles, a ladder back chair, a metal cage, a padded examination table and a St. Andrews cross, according to the autopsy report.

George — who was born Duncan Gilbert but changed their name and did not use gendered pronouns — was wrapped “head to toe in plastic wrap and gaffer’s tape, with small breathing holes at the nose and mouth,” the autopsy report stated. The professor was also wearing a “locked metal chain around [their] neck.”

The Hollywood Reporter had more graphic detail:

According to the Los Angeles Coroner’s narrative, George arrived at the Chasey residence at approximately 2:30 p.m. Chasey told police that at 4:00 p.m., the two went down to the dungeon and embarked on an elaborate bondage ritual that involved Chasey outfitting George in a “locked metal chain around his neck and a penile chastity gage [sic].” Chasey then proceeded to mummify George “from head to toe by plastic wrap and gaffers tape with small breathing holes at the mouth and nose.”

At 6:20 p.m., Chasey noticed that George was “not reacting properly.” Upon closer inspection, he realized George was not breathing at all. He then placed a call to 911 and, according to the coroner’s report, began cutting all of the plastic and tape off of George’s body. Paramedics arrived to find George lying face-up on the ground, naked save for the heavy chain and padlock around his neck and chastity cage on his penis. (A chastity cage is a device which locks around a flaccid penis, preventing erections; only the master holds the key to unlock it, giving him control over when the wearer can get an erection.)


Now, I don’t think we should care that much about how two consenting adults get their freak on in private, and we should leave to law enforcement and the courts to judge whether something here crossed a line. But I got curious about the academic work of the victim, Professor George. He/they/whatever apparently taught at UCLA, but none of the news stories mentioned what department he was in or what subject he taught. Naturally, a check with UCLA reveals he was in LGBTQ Studies, which I didn’t know was a discrete field of higher education. I was able to find his/their/whomever’s Ph.D dissertation easily enough, and here is the title and complete abstract—it’s long, but you really do need to see the whole thing, not to believe it:

A Conceit of the Natural Body: The Universal-Individual in Somatic Dance Training


Under the influence of regimens broadly known as “Somatics,” late 20th century contemporary dancers revolutionized their training. They instituted biological and mechanical constructs of the body as the logic for dance classes, claiming to uncover a “natural” way of moving. By doing so these dancers saw themselves as rejecting preceding models such as Graham technique and ballet, which they felt treated the body as an instrument trained to meet the ideals of an aesthetic tradition. Convinced of the importance of their intervention, practitioners of Somatics initially worked with meager resources forging transnational alliances of pedagogies and aesthetics. Yet by the end of the 20th century, the training had found its way in the worlds most venerable dance education programs. A handful of choreographers, who initially experimented with Somatics in a small community, ultimately ascended within a transnational circuit of large concert houses. Educational institutions consequently saw value in Somatics, and implemented its pedagogy based on the conceit that focusing on the natural body provides dancers with the greatest facility for performance, while fueling broad creative possibility in choreographic processes.

In contrast with Somatic rhetoric, this dissertation traces how dancers used the idea the idea of nature to tackle changing social circumstances. A conceit of the natural body endured throughout the last 4 decades of the 20th century even while its ideological underpinnings underwent change, visible in shifts seen in studio procedures, the look and aptitudes of the dancing body, and the modalities of concerts. Dancers constructed what they saw as essential bodily truths by combining scientific metaphors, with non-Western practices that they represented as ancient and mystical. Through this combination they felt they retrieved lost corporeal capacities that they believed were still evident in children, animals and supposedly primitive societies. By the 1970s, a community of practitioners had synthesized what they felt was a comprehensively inclusive body that engendered an anti-hierarchical collective dance culture. Somatics therefore lined up with other subcultures of the era that turned to nature in search of personal authenticity as a source for liberation. Bodily “truth” purported to resist outdated gender ideals and authoritarian training, an idea that fueled the rapid transnational uptake of Somatics. As the approach established itself in Britain, Holland and Australia, it disseminated and naturalized key principles of American post-war liberalism; dancers across the network believed they were reclaiming an inherent right to individual creative freedom by displacing modern and classical aesthetics with dance based on the natural functioning of anatomical structure. In the 1980s, artists largely jettisoned the emphasis on collectivism; yet as they became entrepreneurs in line with the new economic culture of staunch individualism, the rhetoric about nature endured. Using signature choreography, and emphasizing the uniqueness of different Somatic-informed pedagogies, they pursued careerism, even as they often contested rampant conservative cultural agendas. Despite the political critique launched in the 1980s, by the close of the 20th century, Somatics had achieved institutional status, embodying new corporate ethics. The creative autonomy that dancers had won in previous decades now recalibrated itself through demands made upon artists in education and the professional field to prove capitalism is constituted by boundless innovation despite diminishing arts resources in an age of austerity. Throughout all these changes Somatics continued to cultivate a canonical body as an invisible category of nature, which purportedly accounted for ontology, yet marked difference and enacted exclusion from its supposedly universal purview.

I am sure you can get a job somewhere slinging lattes after studying this kind of thing. Whatever it is.

Now the real untold scandal about this kind of “academic” inquiry is that most faculty in the universities—even most liberals in the social sciences and humanities—know this kind of “scholarship” is a joke, and they do their best to treat it with benign neglect, because who wants to be called a bigot at the faculty meeting or curriculum review committee when historic victims demand recompense. But at some point this kind of farcical “scholarship” is going to become such an obvious embarrassment that it can’t continue.