The Distinguished Visiting Scholar in Theory, Politics & Gender was established by Trent University’s Dr. Elaine Stavro with the goal of providing the Trent and Peterborough community with opportunities to converse with scholars who are doing exciting work in the humanities and the social sciences. This year, renowned historian Philippa Levine will be giving a talk on the relationship between nakedness and British colonialism in the Victorian era. The talk is called Naked Truths: Bodies, Knowledge and the Erotics of Colonial Power, and it will take place at Market Hall on Thursday, September 27 at 7:30pm. Following her presentation, Levine will be available for book signings and questions.
Levine stumbled upon the concept of nakedness as primitive while she was researching the nineteenth century scientist Thomas Huxley, who was the grandfather of Brave New World author Aldous Huxley. She was intrigued by a letter written by Huxley in the late 1860s requesting photos of naked indigenous people from the British Colonial Secretary. The Secretary’s response was that it would be no problem, and yet photos of naked people was an unusual request and occurrence in the Victorian era.
This got Levine thinking about the prevalence of using nakedness as a marker for primitiveness. She found that this stereotype of indigenous people being naked was not only something that occurred during colonialism, but that it still exists today. Examples of this can be found everywhere from pictures in National Geographic to memes on the internet. Of course, indigenous societies are not always naked, and this stereotype of nakedness belies an “us versus them” motive that intentionally segregates the “uncivilized” from the “civilized”.
Nakedness is not only applied to indigenous societies. Women also feel the brunt of this concept. For example, the recent Slut Walk protests emerged as a statement that wearing little clothing does not signify sexual deviance and furthermore that it does not justify rape. There has been this idea that if you are naked, or nearly naked, you have no shame; indigenous societies have no shame because they are barbaric and do not know better, and certain women have no shame because they are sexually deviant. This has been further manipulated to portray certain societies and people as naked even when they are not. Nakedness becomes a way of proving that one kind of person is less civilized than another, and therefore must be treated accordingly.
Levine’s background makes her the perfect candidate for exploring these topics. She received her doctorate of history in the UK, taught at the University of East Anglia, and then accepted a fellowship in women’s studies in Australia. She moved to the United States in 1987, and taught in California before accepting her current teaching position at the University of Texas at Austin. Levine is the author of several books, including the textbook The British Empire: Sunrise to Sunset.
When Levine discusses her vocations as an author and historian, she uses words such as fun, playful, joy, and pleasure. She believes that being able to write for a living provides an incredible freedom and that writers have a responsibility to use that freedom in exciting and creative ways. For Levine, it is a privilege to be a writer and she only takes on projects that make her heart thump because otherwise, she doesn’t see the point in it.
Fortunately for us, Levine’s passion for writing has resulted in groundbreaking discourse. For example, a past project explored the reasons historians have ignored women in studies and writings on decolonization. She has written extensively on a range of topics pertaining to history and filled in the gaps where she found women had been left out. She believes this is proof that while women’s history has made leaps and bounds, there are still fields of study that are lacking in gender analysis.
Levine admits that she is her own worse critic when it comes to her books and that she therefore cannot claim having a favourite. However, in terms of enjoyment, her favourite project was her book Prostitution, Race and Politics: Policing Venereal Disease in the British Empire. Levine says that this book was a rich learning experience for her and that part of the joy of being a writer is the learning experience one acquires while doing research. She sums this thought up nicely when she describes research as a writer’s playground.
Levine may describe her writing job as a privilege, but on September 27th, it will be the audience members at her talk who will be the privileged ones. She has a “fantastic story” to tell, which will serve as an example of how indigenous cultures have pushed back against the label of nakedness. This will be a far cry from a dry lecture; Levine is as passionate about teaching as she is about writing. In Levine, this comes across as a different form of nakedness than the one she will be discussing. Levine’s nakedness lies in her ability to channel her creative side into works that are visible for all to see.