Research and Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVIII, Number 1, June 1995

From the Editors

Body is at once the contained and the container--as the universe, the human form, or the core of a text. To think of body is to assume its boundaries, the starting point for understanding differences, meanings, and connections to all within and without.

The researched body is a reverse creation. Flesh is made word, form becomes image, matter is converted to formula. In this issue we see familiarly inspiring ways in which scientists have long read some of the most enduring problems of the body: shape, size, motion, reproduction, intelligence. At the same time, body has become one of the most important themes for analyzing perennial issues of the humanities, questions of value and meaning. The boundaries of bodies become the places where inner meaning is registered or imposed.

Rudolf Raff, creator and director of Indiana University's prestigious Indiana Institute for Molecular and Cellular Biology, explains some part of recent interest in "body plans"--a theme that engendered an exciting international conference in Bloomington last year. Molecular geneticists, studying the invisible script for the visible body, now have the technological capability to unravel the course of evolutionary change in the distant past. With these skills Raff can provide a story about the deception of body surfaces. Animal bodies that superficially resemble one another may have greatly differing evolutionary histories.

Phantoms of a past also betray the body surfaces that Eva Cherniavsky examines in popular representations from novel to Hollywood film. Cherniavsky's research well illustrates the vast new terrain of the modern study of literature, ranging from published novels and diaries of nineteenth-century women to Hollywood films to our daily bombardment by media images. The topic of "body" has been an especially productive one for new literary criticism, and Cherniavsky through it can show troubling echoes of an American past in popular stereotyping by race and gender.

For historian and medievalist Dyan Elliott, the humanist's fascination with "body" as subject and object turns upon a world wonderfully counterposing body and spirit, the corruptible and the eternal. In the European Middle Ages the body was often seen as an incarnation, almost an imprisonment of the soul by the flesh. So powerful is the body that in trying to deny its needs and desires, would-be saints placed ever more emphasis on the body's control.

For humanists, both the substance and the surface of body reveal inescapable features of our understanding concepts such as gender. Reluctantly artist Bonnie Sklarski has moved small human figures into her daunting landscapes. The deep, primeval gorges she has long painted are now peopled with scurrying forms. As she has turned, or rather returned, to Western art's fascination with the body, she, too, has found the boundaries of the body the first area of concern and attention: male bodies commanding, angular, elongated; female bodies softened and almost shimmering as in her recent sketches. For Sklarski, however, body is plastic enough that time--the eternal opposing the ephemeral--becomes her principal concern of embodiment.

Contemplation of the body, its representations and its variations, has long provided a natural point of departure for those who study humans. Until recently a more than rhetorical convenience dictated the focus on "man." The traditional research agendas of science, social science, and the humanities neglected female bodies and female experience. In this issue one of the surprising benefits of a more comprehensive view of "body" is the pathbreaking work of anthropologist Kevin Hunt. Language, toolmaking, and erect posture: these are considered the triple success of distinctively human emergence in the ancient African savannas. Watching present-day chimpanzees, Hunt patiently turned his attention to the neglected gatherers, the females standing and reaching to gather food. Hunt's research thus contributes to new hypotheses about the course of early hominid evolution. IU kinesiologists Beverley Ulrich and Dale Ulrich provide other new evidence linking cognitive development and bipedal locomotion. Their work with developmentaly disabled infants illustrates as well the practical benefits of the open, inclusive environment of a research university.

The sheer fun of the nourished research imagination and its unexpected payoffs emerges in Professor James Farlow's calculations and speculations about the activities of big, fierce bodies that once roamed the earth. From his painstaking study of Tyrannosaurus rex teeth and measurements of their bones and every structural aspect of their body bulk, Farlow can tell us just how realistic is the cinematic world of Jurassic Park. Just how fast can a dinosaur move? How densely populated with prey does its territory need to be to insure the dinasaur's survival? How far and how hard does a dinosaur fall? Thus far, and maybe mercifully, the mechanics of T. rex mating--the gendered dinosaur body--are an aspect of the predator's body not subjected to Farlow's calculus.

The research university's enriched atmosphere nurtures vastly different inquiries. The problems gender and representation pose to sanctity or to filmmaking find audiences amid those who use or teach state-of-the-art DNA sequencing to fill the gaps in our understanding of vertebrate and invertebrate evolution. It is surely this tolerance and appetite for many perspectives that allow everyday ideas like body to take new and useful direction in research.

P. Sarita Soni
Professor of Optometry
Special Assistant for Research
Office of Research and the University Graduate School

Ann G. Carmichael
Associate Professor of History
Special Assistant for Research
Office of Research and the University Graduate School