Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Nearly everyone talking about this is an idiot

In theory, most of you by now have heard the name Aliza Shvarts. She is an art student at Yale University whose somewhat controversial senior project has garnered a bit of attention on the internets. If you're interested, the whole narrative, as played out mostly in the Yale Daily News, is worth reading. If my senior project link is read as #1, the narrative plays out as such:

#2, Yale says she made it up.
#3, Shvarts calls Yale's statement "ultimately inaccurate."
#4, Shvarts gives her own explanation of her project.
#5, Yale says "admit publicly that you made it up, or you can't display your project."
#6, Shvarts refuses to do so.
#7, By the way, a bunch of people think that Shvarts is really gross, and her adviser is a bit of a weirdo, but the whole thing doesn't seem to be scaring the freshmen off.

In my mind, there are two big problems with this, one of which has been well-covered over at Short Schrift. To this reader, Shvarts' own essay on her project (Link #4) hedges her claim. Shvarts refuses to state publicly (at least to Yale's satisfaction) that her project is a fiction, but only because she has never really claimed anything otherwise. Her essay describes her experiences as "exist[ing] only in its telling," and describes that telling as "a myth," and "copies of copies of which there is no original." (Or a simulacrum, for those of you who are keeping score.) She emphasizes that she never claims that any conception has ever taken place, but that "[i]n a sense, the act of conception occurs when the viewer assigns the term 'miscarriage' or 'period' [to the blood Shvarts claims to be displaying]."

It is worth pointing out that the actual exhibition is absolutely immaterial to Shvarts' project. It doesn't matter if the installation is ever seen. We have seen it already.

My second big problem, is actually with the public, and not with Shvarts. I first read about Shvarts' project in The Chronicle of Higher Education (thank you academic journalism!), and by the time I finished reading their description of her project, I believed that it was largely fictional. I was amazed that so many people were willing to accept at face value the claim that someone could impregnate themselves and induce miscarriage several times using "herbal abortafacients" within a period of only nine months. (Apparently, a number of medical experts at Yale agree with me, and kudos to Jezebel for calling bullshit back on Thursday.)

What does it say about public knowledge of reproductive function that almost none of the discussion of Shvarts' project has focused on its implausibility? Sure, like Short Shrift, I wish that Shvart's project was a little more Nietzsche and a little less sanitized, ivory-tower, pseudo-provocation, but ultimately people, she sold you the big lie and you bought it.

That's worth talking about, and that means that Shvarts' project is a success.

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