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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 21, 2007

Obermann Humanities Symposium Tackles Obscenity

More than 40 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously tried to define obscenity by saying, "I know it when I see it." The quote is memorable because it so ironically encapsulates the subjectivity involved in defining something that can include issues of gender, sexuality, race and violence.

The University of Iowa's 2006-07 Obermann Humanities Symposium, "Obscenity: An Interdisciplinary Discussion," will provide an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural dialogue that will analyze this notoriously vague yet apparently perennial concept in an historical and global context. Organized by Loren Glass, an assistant professor of English at the UI, the symposium runs March 1-4.

"Obscenity polarizes public opinion," said Glass, who is currently working on a book titled "The End of Obscenity: Vulgar Modernism and Literary Value" (forthcoming, Duke University Press). "Advocates of free speech tend to default to first amendment fundamentalism, assuming that any restriction on sexual expression is unconstitutional and undemocratic; advocates of censorship tend to default to puritanical morality, assuming that any expression of sexuality outside of marriage is sinful and should be suppressed." This polarization has produced some odd bedfellows: academic libertarians and pornographers on one side and radical feminists and Christian evangelicals on the other.

The symposium will feature scholars from a variety of disciplines and organizations, including Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Tim Miller, an acclaimed performance artist and activist who successfully sued the federal government after his National Endowment for the Arts grant was rescinded. Panel topics range widely, from Japanese manga and stand-up comedy to images of Abu Ghraib and Beowulf.

John Durham Peters, F. Wendell Miller Distinguished Professor Media History and Social Theory at the UI, will give the opening night keynote address, "Obscenity, Offense, and Monotheistic Jealousy" at 7 p.m. March 1 at the Old Capitol, with a reception to follow. Other keynote speakers include:

* David Levi Strauss, Bard College: "Breakdown in the Gray Room: Reconsidering the Images from Abu Ghraib," 1:30 p.m. March 2, Art Building West Auditorium

* Michael Taussig, Columbia University: "The Obscene in Everyday Life," 7:30 p.m. March 2, 101 Becker Communication Studies Building

* Linda Williams, University of California Berkeley: "Hard Core Art Film: The Contemporary Realm of the Senses," 1:30 p.m. March 3, Iowa Room, Iowa Memorial Union

* Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University: "I'm Offended," 3:30 p.m. March 3, Iowa Room, Iowa Memorial Union

* Nadine Strossen, New York University and the ACLU: "Defending the F-Word: FREEDOM!" 7:30 p.m. March 3, Shambaugh Auditorium, Main Library

In association with the symposium, Tim Miller will give a performance, "Sex/Body/Self," at 9:30 p.m. March 2 in 101 Becker Communication Studies Building.

An exhibition at the North Exhibition Hall of the Main Library, "Making No Compromise with the Public Taste: An Exhibition on Obscenity," will open Feb. 26.

At 5 p.m. March 1, Glass will be joined by Linda Williams, John Peters, and Obermann Center Director Jay Semel on WSUI's live radio program, "Know the Score."

A group exhibition, "Obscenity: Works on the Wall," organized by students in the Intermedia Department, is on display at the Eve Drewelow Gallery in the Art Building Feb. 19-23.

Several films will be screened at the Bijou in conjunction with the symposium:

* "Disco Dolls in Hot Skin 3-D" 11:59 p.m. Feb. 24, $7

* "This Filthy World" 7 p.m. Feb. 27, free

* "F*CK" 9 p.m. Feb. 27, free

* "Censorious!" 5 p.m. March 3, free

* "Pink Flamingos" 11:59 p.m. March 3, $7

Free online registration is required for the symposium at

The Humanities Symposium is funded by the Obermann Center for Advanced Studies, the C. Esco and Avalon L. Obermann Endowment, and the Office of Vice President for Research. The purpose of the Obermann Humanities Symposium is to explore any important humanities topic and to highlight UI scholars and scholarship. The mission of the Obermann Center is to provide an environment and resources conducive to reflection and writing and to the exchange of ideas. Scholars from a broad range of disciplines and institutions interact with one another and with the public to create and disseminate new knowledge and to establish a diverse and vibrant intellectual community.

For a full schedule, visit

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

CONTACTS: Media: Nicole Riehl, 319-384-0070,; Program: Jennifer New, 319-335-4360,; writer: Jennifer New