The disappearing body and feminist thought

Presented at conference organized by  Department of English (Delhi University)  February 14, 2011. The title of the  conference was “Postfeminist Postmortems?  Gender, Sexualities and Multiple  Modernities”.

Cross-posted on Critical Encounters

To paraphrase Anthony Appiah’s famous and oft-quoted question – Is the post of postfeminist the post of postmortem? That is, as in postmortem, does “post” mean definitively over, after, having transcended, gone beyond? To those who would answer “yes”, those privileged young women who float through their empowered lives in the wake of over a century of feminist struggles but disown their own heritage, to them I can only say – I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy. Or – not for a long time yet, baby.

But my answer to that question is “no”. I understand the post of postfeminism in the sense that Laclau and Mouffe understand their postmarxism. That is, post-feminist as indicating “having passed through” that body of thought; having lived through, experienced, feminist theory and politics in such a way that the terrain one now inhabits has been decisively transformed; but also post-feminist in the sense that in the course of this passage new objects have been configured that the old feminism could not have seen, or recognized.

It is in this kind of postfeminist moment that I locate my presentation today.

One of the key contributions of feminist theory is the making of a distinction between “sex” and “gender”, a distinction that has subsequently been developed differently by different strands of feminist thought. The initial move was to use the term sex to refer to the biological differences between men and women while gender indicated the vast range of cultural meanings attached to that basic difference. This initial distinction and the classic quote that illustrates it – One is not born but one becomes a woman – has been inflected in various ways. These different variations theorized the cultural constructions around the biological body, but stopped at the limits set by the biological body as a given natural object.

In this talk I will focus on a specific understanding that problematizes the body itself, and emerges simultaneously and in parallel streams, from the philosophical work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler on the one hand, and from the field of feminist science studies on the other. However, I will touch only very briefly on the former since Foucault’s and Butler’s body of work is quite familiar to this audience. The understanding from this perspective challenges the very given-ness of “biological sex” itself.  The body here, is not a simple physical object but rather, is constructed by and takes its meaning from its positioning within specific social, cultural and economic practices.

The body in early modernity and in non-Western cultures

I will take a moment here to note that the establishment of the rigid nature/culture divide and the relegation or location of some aspects of human life to “nature” occurs at a particular moment in human history, as Bruno Latour reminds us, at the inception of the constellation of features that we term modernity. Thus, neither prior to the 16th C in Europe, nor until the early 19th C in India, was it self-evident that bodies are naturally entirely one sex or another, that hermaphroditism is a disease, or that desire naturally flows only between different sexes.

One is reminded here of the poets of the Bhakti movement in India who expressed a kind of desire for God that travels through and refigures the body. The focus of their desire was to attain the loss of maleness as power and of femaleness as sexualized powerlessness. AK Ramanujan suggests that “the lines between male and female are continuously crossed and recrossed” in the lives of the Bhakti saints. Their demystifying of body and sexuality seems to desexualize the body by focusing precisely on it, by celebrating its autonomy, by dismantling the codes and conventions that “sex” the body. Thus, Bhakti saints turn away from sex in this world, but not from fear or hatred of sexuality, but because their sexual passion is invested so entirely and dismebodiedly in the chosen deity as lover. Ramanujan points out that when women saints like Lalla Ded of Kashmir and Mahadeviyakka of Karnataka threw away their clothes, they are offering us the recognition that modesty, like clothes, is “a way of resisting and enhancing sexual curiosity, not of curbing it. It is this paradox that is exposed when clothes are thrown away…By exposing the difference between male and female, by becoming indifferent to that difference, [they are] liberated from it.”

One of the processes that is inaugurated with colonial modernity in India is the construction of the normative male and female body and normative male and female behavior by modernizing nationalist elites.

Consider some work on cross-dressing in theatre in India, at the moment of its delegitimization by the discourses of modernity. Rimli Bhattacharya’s study of Bengali theatre shows that arguments about gender verisimilitude were made in order to end the practice of men playing women’s roles – i.e. that they didn’t look feminine enough. But Rimli shows how alongside arguments about the unsatisfactory portrayal of women by men, lay a pervasive “undercurrent of uneasiness about boys dressing up as girls/women” for entirely the opposite reason. For instance, an article on Bengali drama, while commenting on the choric dance of female companions in jatras by young boys, spends some time being critical of their unattractiveness as female figures, their “deformity” and “discordant voices”, but concludes with the entirely opposite fear – “…they imitate all posture and gesture calculated to soil the mind and pollute the fancy.”

Bal Gandharva (1885-1967), legendary male actor whose roles included those of Subhadra and Shakuntala

That the perceived “naturalness” of gendered appearance is a product of socio-historical circumstances is clear too from Kathryn Hansen’s work on theatre in western India, which demonstrates that female impersonation, far from appearing unnatural, in fact fashioned “a widely circulated standard for female appearance and modified code of feminine conduct.”  Female viewers indeed, were instructed to model themselves on the transvestite actor. The new nationalist bourgeois woman was to learn how to be a proper woman by watching the production of appropriate femininity by the male actor.

This scholarship is of course, but a tiny part of a vast field of work that tracks the ways in which the fluid identities and practices of pre-colonial societies were rendered legible by colonial modernity.

The philosophical and sociological interventions in Europe of the 20th C then, that problematize the natural body, are occurring some centuries after that body has been definitively produced in Europe.

Questioning “sex”

Michel Foucault  offered us the critical move of splitting Sex and Sexuality. Sex is not the natural or biological ground on which various kinds of knowledges are added. There is no such biological foundation. Rather, the very idea that sex is this – that it is fundamental, natural, given – is the historical effect of a discursive regime of sexuality. In Foucault’s words, “We must not make the mistake of thinking that sex is an autonomous agency which secondarily produces manifold effects…On the contrary sex is the most speculative, most ideal and most internal element in a deployment of sexuality organized by power in its grip on bodies and their materiality, their forces, energies, sensations and pleasures.”

Judith Butler adds a third term to Foucault’s pair of sex/sexuality, the notion of gender. Performance is the mediating term between sex and gender – gender is the performance of sex. That is, sex is constructed through a ritualized repetition of norms. Butler specifies that we should understand the term “constructed” in terms of the “constitutive constraints” that produce intelligible bodies and their obverse, abject bodies. Butler thus links the performativity of gender to the materiality of bodies. (Not “merely performance” as opposed to something “real”). Bodies are forcibly materialized over time – there is a reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects it names. Butler thus suggests a “radical discontinuity” between sexed bodies and culturally constructed genders. What is characteristic of this position is that it holds that the category of “woman” does not exist prior to the thinking about it. Gender is something that is constructed through relations of power, and through a series of norms and constraints that regulate what will be recognised as a “male” body and a “female” body. Through such norms, a wide range of bodies are rendered invisible and/or illegitimate – these become abject bodies.

“Real” bodies and feminist science studies

The question will be asked – is everything “only discourse” then? What about “real” bodies? This is where we come to feminist science studies. The point here is precisely that the multiplicity of “real” bodies is rendered invisible or illegitimate through the functioning of hegemonic legal and cultural codes. To suggest only a few instances – infants born with no clear determining sexual characteristics, eunuchs, or men and women who have characteristics that are “non-masculine” or “non-feminine” respectively. All these have to be disciplined into normalcy (through methods ranging in severity from cosmetic to surgical intervention), or declared to be abnormal or illegal. Our very language, held implacably as it is in the grip of a bipolarity of gender, falters in attempting to refer to such bodies.

Take for instance, a revealing letter to the medical columns of a Sunday paper from “A grieving mother”, who seeks advice about her 18 year-old son whose sudden depression she traced to the fact that “his nipples and breasts are bulging out, which disgust him.” The doctor’s reassuring reply is that nearly 30 percent of men have “suffered” from what is termed “gynecomastia” at some time or the other. In some cases, the cause could be tumors or malnutrition, but this is rare. The most common cause of “gynecomastia”, says this doctor, is simply this – “pubertal”, due to the fact that breast tissue, normally dormant in boys, is “super sensitive to the minuscule amount of circulating female hormones.” The doctor says that once the “rare causes” have been ruled out by an endocrinologist, either the condition is self-limiting, or if it is not, may require surgery. In other words, nearly a third of the male population can have “breasts”, and if it is not due to rare endocrinological causes, the condition is perfectly normal. It seems to have no other ill effects than causing “disgust”, but nevertheless, it is pathologized (“gynecomastia”), and surgery is recommended precisely when other serious illnesses are ruled out.

From the 20th c the hormonal conception of the body has become one of the dominant modes of thinking about the root of sex differences. Nelly Oudshoorn points out that the hormonal conception of the body in fact allows for the possibility of breaking out of the tyranny of the binary sex-difference model, that is, if bodies can have both female and male hormones, then maleness and femaleness are not restricted to one kind of body alone. However, the biomedical sciences have preferred increasingly, to portray the female, but not the male, as a body completely controlled by hormones. In this process, a clear nexus has emerged between the medical profession and a huge, multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry. All sorts of “disorders” in women – such as the aging of the skin, depression, menstrual irregularities – are prescribed hormonal therapy.  This pathologization clearly extends to male bodies that react to the “minuscule amounts” (as the doctor in the letter above firmly qualifies), of female hormones circulating in them.

Or consider a startling study in the USA of intersexed infants (babies born with both ovarian and testicular tissue or in whom the sex organs were ambiguous) which showed that medical decisions to assign one sex or the other were made on cultural assumptions rather than on any existing biological features. That is, the parents “wanted a girl/boy” (with all the cultural expectations that “being a girl/boy” involves); or the tissue available could be fashioned either into a satisfactory clitoris or a small penis, and surely to live as a man with a small penis is to be avoided at all costs, hence the decision to make the child into a girl. And so on.  Thus, a baby might be made into a female or male but then still require hormonal therapy all her life to make him/her stay in her surgically assigned gender.  It is also crucial to know that inter-sex people are perfectly healthy and can live long lives, even being capable of reproduction. So the only reason to shape them into the either/or pattern is cultural, not “biological”.

Again, “gender verification” tests for the Olympic games were suspended in 2000 after enough evidence had emerged that “atypical chromosomal variations” are so common that it is impossible to judge “femininity” and “masculinity” on the basis of chromosomal pattern alone.  In other words, maleness and femaleness are not only culturally different, they are not even biologically stable features at all times.

The recent experiences of South African athlete Caster Semenya and Indian athlete Santhi Soundarajan, both disqualified after winning for failing “gender tests” raise a host of questions about this biological body that is considered to be simply available in nature. Feminist scholars of science studies have directed our attention to developments in biology that show that genetic (chromosomal), hormonal and genital (visible physical characteristics of penis/vagina) sex are not necessarily linked. That is, it is not the case that if one has female genitals one necessarily has preponderantly female chromosomes and female hormones. Most bodies marked male and female in this world would not pass “gender tests” if the congruence of these three factors is being examined. Thus, women, like Castor Semenya and Santhi Soundarajan, who have all the physical attributes of women, but who have some presence of Y chromosomes, are excluded from women’s competitions on the grounds that they are “not women” but of course, as Bronwyn Davies points out, it is not concluded from this that they “are men”.

This question is particularly complicated in the field of competitive sports, because the reason that women undergo gender testing and men do not, is that having male characteristics is assumed to be an advantage in physical activities. Thus “real” women would be facing the unfair advantages that “not women” have on the field. Several questions arise here of course. First about the “fairness” of competitive events that assume “male bodies” to be the norm. But more fundamentally, about how the decision is taken to term some natural advantages as legitimate (e.g. height in basketball, American swimmer Michael Phelp’s particular body proportions that may in fact be a disease called Marfan Syndrome, but which enable him to cut through watwer more easily than “normal” men) and some others as not. Why is Phelps celebrated and Semenya vilified, is Emily Cooper’s question in a perceptive paper.

Helen Stephens wins at the 1936 Olympics

Another story from the war zone of the sports field, a story so improbable it can only be true – In the 1936 Olympics, Polish sprinter Stella Walsh, known as the fastest woman in the world, was beaten by American Helen Stephens, who set a world record. After the race, a Polish journalist protested that no real woman could run so fast, and Olympic officials performed a “sex test” on her, in which she was found to be a woman. 44 years later, Stella Walsh, who had become an American citizen, was shot to death in a parking lot. The autopsy of her body revealed that Stella in fact, who had run slower than Helen, had been a man.

How do other kinds of non-normative bodies trouble the stable boundaries of the biological body assumed to occur in nature? The body marked disabled, for instance – Anita Ghai posits an insightful distinction between the “male gaze” (much theorized by feminists) and the “stare” in the context of the disabled female body: “If the male gaze makes normal women feel like passive objects, the stare turns the disabled object into a grotesque sight. Disabled women contend not only with how men look at women but also how an entire society stares at disabled people…”  So de-sexed is the disabled female body considered to be, says Ghai, that in North Indian Punjabi families, where girls are not allowed to sleep in the same room as their male cousins, disabled girls are under no such prohibitions. The assumption that sexuality and disability are mutually exclusive “denies that people with deviant bodies experience sexual desires…”

Deviant male bodies too, face disciplining procedures and marginalization – the gay male body, the effeminate male body, the aged male body.

The point is that we are not clearly bounded male and female bodies with only a few abnormal people not fitting the bill. When a child is born, it is usually the presence or absence of a penis that dictates gender assignment. But children who don’t have penises do sometimes have internal male reproductive organs and XY chromosomes. Because females are defined in terms of lack of penis rather than presence of vagina and uterus/ovaries, it is quite common for children who are genetically male to be raised as female. Even more fascinating is the discovery of recent biological research that hormones to some extent are produced by gendered activity rather than the other way around. That is aggressive interludes produce increased androgen and periods of non-aggression – nurturing of infants or of the elderly and so on – a reduction in androgen. We must encounter then, the radical suggestion that male or female reproductive capacity does not have any necessary implication for the subjectivity or subject positions that any individual can take up.

Such a feminist position rejects the idea that scientific facts about the body simply exist to be discovered. Rather, scientific facts are deeply embedded in society and culture. “Sex” itself is constructed by human practices, of which Science is one.

Emily Martin draws our attention to the fact that science, far from simply describing natural phenomena, is in fact an interpretive exercise. Her study of scientific accounts of the process of human reproduction demonstrate how they cast the Egg and the Sperm into roles drawn from socially normative notions of heterosexual romance in the contemporary western world.  The egg is passively transported, is swept, or drifts along the fallopian tube, waiting for the active sperm to take the initiative and make her fulfil her raison’d’etre. Once released from the ovary, says a standard text-book, the egg will die “unless rescued by a sperm”.  “It is remarkable,” says Martin, “how ‘femininely’ the egg behaves and how ‘masculinely’ the sperm” (1996: 106). Even when new research suggested that the sperm’s motion is not strong enough to propel it forward, and that it is in fact, drawn towards the egg’s surface where it is held fast by the adhesive surface of the egg, this did not lead to a more interactive view of their relationship. Martin points out that instead, either the “aggressive sperm metaphor” continues to be deployed, or another cultural stereotype comes into play, that of woman as an aggressive and dangerous threat. Biology itself, says Martin, offers us an alternative model that could be applied to the egg and the sperm, the cybernetic model “with its feedback loops” and “flexible adaptation to change”, thus enabling a reading  of the egg and the sperm interacting on more mutual terms (1996: 112).

In this context, let us consider a literary re-creation of the journey of the sperm towards the egg by an early modern feminist writer in Malayalam, Lalitambika Antarjanam. In a short story (1960), she envisages the egg as the female Deity, towards which thousands of anxious sperms yearningly travel, a journey in which only one will find self-fulfilment. The narrative is in the exalted, trembling voice of one sperm. This account too, draws on local cultural resources – Mother-goddess worship in Kerala – and is explicitly a creative exercise, reworking the roles that modern science attributes to egg and sperm. Here the womb is the sanctum sanctorum of the deity; the egg, maternal feminine energy with magnetic power. What is of course striking in comparing the two narratives, is that modern scientists, as much as the creative writer, use equally emotive and locally relevant cultural metaphors to describe a ‘natural’ process

Male bodies and masculinities

Masculinity has of course, been theorized for a while now in different ways.  In The Intimate Enemy Ashis Nandy made the by now well known argument that pre-modern Indian society was marked by fluid gender identities, a fluidity erased by masculinist British imperial ideology. His reading of Gandhi as a figure embodying sexual ambiguity, his “masculinity” and his political style incorporating key elements of the feminine, has become very influential.  Sudhir Kakar, a practising psychoanalyst, argues that the hegemonic narrative of Hindu culture as far as male development is concerned “is neither that of Freud’s Oedipus nor of Christianity’s Adam. One of the more dominant narratives of this culture is that of Devi, the great goddess, especially in the inner world of the Hindu son.”  However, unlike Nandy, he does not see this as a sign of fullness and completion, or of fluidity, but as a fantasy that produces particular forms of misogyny. The most salient feature of male fantasy in India, he argues, is the composite figure of the sexual mother (who inspires rage) and the unfaithful mother (who inspires dread). This mother “pervades Gandhi’s agonizings but also looms large in clinical case histories, myths and in popular narratives.”  While across patriarchies a common response is to view women as dangerous antagonists to be subdued, Kakar says the “defensive mode” of Indian male fantasy takes a specific form – that of “desexualization, either of the self or of the woman”, the former through celibacy and ascetic longings, and the latter through transforming the woman into either a maternal automaton or “androgynous virgin.” Kakar suggests that a sublimated form of femininity may be more acceptable in masculine identity in India than in some other cultures, including the greater acceptability of bisexuality amongst men.

An interesting reading of feminized masculinity in Hindu culture is offered by Anuradha Kapur’s study of the transformation of Ram from Tulsidas’s gentle, boyish, androgynous body whose feet were wounded by the grass in the forest and who cried bitterly at Sita’s abduction, to the hyper masculinized, aggressive Ram of the Ramjanmabhoomi movement.

Consider also Fatima Mernissi’s work comparing the writings of 12th century Islamic scholar Imam Ghazali on sexuality with the writings of Freud. For Freud, coming from the western Christian tradition, civilization is a war against sexuality, while Islamic theory views civilization as the outcome of satisfied sexual energy. She shows that while both Ghazali and Freud see female sexuality as destructive to the social order, Ghazali argues this through an understanding of the active nature of female sexuality, while Freud makes his argument through an understanding of female sexuality as passive. What Mernissi enables us to see is that while both views come from specific parochial traditions, Freud, writing against the background of the newly emerging powerful paradigm of Modern Science in Europe, was able to present his views as a universal explanation of the human body as such.

Reconstituting Flesh-and-Blood in discourses around Surrogacy

New developments in reproductive science have made it possible to separate three different aspects in the biological experience of ‘motherhood’. Three different women could potentially perform what I term the key ‘mother functions’ – providing of genetic material (the egg donor), gestating the foetus for nine months (the surrogate or ‘gestational mother’), and rearing and bringing up the child (the ‘social mother’). The understanding of what constitutes ‘flesh-and-blood’ has, in this discourse, been narrowly circumscribed into ‘genes’ and ‘DNA’.

Inter-racial commercial surrogacy works on the ‘scientific’ argument that circulates in this field that since the ‘genetic matter’ of the embryo is provided by the contracting couple, the child is ‘biologically’ theirs and it will ‘look like’ them. This is important because the whole point of choosing surrogacy as opposed to adoption, is to ensure one’s ‘own’ offspring.

However, the inconclusiveness of DNA is also well-known, though always produced in popularly circulating narratives, as an exception. In DNA matching, it is accepted that a negative result proves exclusion, but a positive result only provides a “high statistical probability” that the DNA belongs to the same person, or in the case of paternity tests, that the alleged father is indeed the biological father.

Also, it turns out that people may store specific bits of relevant DNA in specific parts of their body, not in every cell necessarily. Thus, there have been at least two reported cases of accidental DNA profiling suddenly ‘proving’ that a mother was unrelated to the children she had borne through ‘natural’ sexual reproduction and to whom she had given birth.  This happened because the relevant DNA was not stored in the particular tissue that had been tested. There could well be more such instances if DNA of mothers and their children were routinely tested which they usually are not, because the biological relationship of a woman to a child comes rarely under question.

Documented incidents of black parents giving birth to white (non albino) babies, white parents giving birth to black ones, and black parents having twins, one black, one white, are all reported in the media as “medical mysteries”, or the mystery is “solved” by using the scientific terminology of “recessive gene” and “dominant gene”.

Feminist historian of science Helen E Longino goes further, and casts doubt on the authority of biotechnology to pronounce on Life. She concedes that biologists have expanded their ability “to read and reproduce the text of the DNA molecule”, but as she puts it, “knowledge of the grammar and syntax of a language does not explain instances of its acquisition and use…[W]e are very far from knowing what traits are correlated with what sets of gene sequences, and far from understanding how genes are activated” (1995:196). According to Longino, the alternative reading has always been possible that genes are causally effective only in the context of “complex and delicately timed interactions within the cell and organism.” That is, the presence of a gene in a cell tells us nothing; the question is, how do some gene sequences selectively get activated by the cellular material in which it is located. The question is shifting, as she puts it, from gene action to gene activation, which makes the cellular processes in which genes are involved, much more decisive than was thought (1995: 206).

Other feminist historians of science too have drawn our attention to the fallacy involved in anointing DNA as the master molecule and blueprint for human characteristics. Other feminist historians of science have drawn our attention to the fallacy involved in anointing DNA as the master molecule and blueprint for human characteristics. Ruth Hubbard, for instance, says that scientists have endowed DNA with a “mythic potency”, but this ideological framework dismisses other biological, (not to mention social, political, and economic) factors that contribute to make us what we are. The complexity of gene interactions and biological systems are thus reduced to simplistic readings. Judith Roof reminds us that the famous double helix of the DNA “is only a component of a gene, and a gene is only a part of a chromosome, and a chromosome is only one of many in the sum total of a human genotype, and a genotype is only partly responsible for how individuals turn out”, and yet DNA, the “secret of life itself” as Watson and Crick put it, has come to stand for it all.

What is most revealing is the diametrically opposing arguments that are used with two different kinds of parents. One – parents commissioning a surrogacy are told that in scientific terms, the baby is not related to the surrogate mother in any way. In such cases, the understanding of “biological” is restricted to DNA and genes, and doctors and pharmaceutical companies term the surrogate as merely an oven, not related biologically to the child in any way, contributing nothing to the foetus but a room to grow in, like a test-tube.

The second kind of parent is a woman carrying a foetus for herself to raise, created through the fusion of sperm with another woman’s egg, ie. a gestational mother who intends to be the social mother too. Such a woman has to be reassured that women who give birth to donor egg babies are the biological mothers. She must be reassured that the expensive and complicated procedure she is undergoing will in the end give her her “own” baby. In this context, pharmaceutical companies and doctors expand the understanding of “biological” and insist that genes are only a small aspect of how a child will turn out, because as the foetus grows, every cell in the developing body is built out of the pregnant mother’s body, and therefore she is the child’s real biological mother.

One would imagine that once science has intervened in the ‘natural’ and ‘biological’ process of human reproduction, the entire process falls completely out of the net of the ‘natural’. On the contrary. We find that the authority of Science operates, not to erase, but to reconstitute the boundaries of ‘the natural’. In other words, the nature/culture divide that is the founding myth of modern thought remains un-assailed, except that new notions of ‘natural’ and ‘biological’ are being put in place by Science, the sole discourse with the monopoly on defining the ‘natural’.

Now you see it now you don’t?

It is important to note in conclusion that feminist politics in India has confronted the limits of biology not only through theory and philosophy but through political challenges on the ground.

We can discern the tracks of two journeys made by the term “gender” in India, especially in the period since the 1990s. One journey is towards the congealing of the term and its stabilization, and the second, towards the dissolving of gender identity and the category of “woman” as such.

The first trend, arising from the governmentalizing drive of the state, has attached gender to development, so that gender is stabilized and looped right back to become a synonym for women – that is, “women” as they are located in patriarchal society. Government policies use gender and women interchangeably, using “women” to regulate development. Essentially this means using women’s specific skills and experience produced by their location within patriarchal society (that is, precisely by the sexual division of labour), to make development programmes successful. Thus – women are responsible with money, hence “gender”-linked micro credit schemes; rural and tribal women are responsible with natural resources, so key roles for them in Joint Forest Management programmes. There is much talk of “gender equity” without ever addressing the sexual division of labour.

Making gender a component of development, depoliticises feminist critique, both of patriarchy as well as of development and of corporate globalization. Feminism is harmlessly transformed by the term into “women’s empowerment”, an ally of the project of governance.

The second trend, dissolving gender, arises most notably from the politics of caste and sexuality. The politics of caste insistently poses a question mark over the assumed commonality of female experience, thus challenging the identity of “woman”, the supposed subject of feminist politics; while the politics of sexuality throws into disarray the certainty of recognizably gender coded bodies, the male-female bipolarity, the naturalizing of heterosexual desire and its institutionalization in marriage. Both trends offer serious challenges to the women’s movement in India; the first threatening to domesticate, the other to dissolve, the subject of its politics.

I argue that the more productive journey is the second one; it is when feminist politics engages seriously with the challenge offered by the second trend, that “women’s movements” remain within view of a feminist horizon.

What this means is that even as we see the body dissolving, its physicality is reaffirmed. We experience the world in embodied ways. If the body we inhabit is marked male, that has one kind of effect; if female, another kind of effect; if Black, or Dalit, or disabled, yet other effects. These effects are structural, material, phenomenological and psychological simultaneously. The business of life is the living out of these identities, either reaffirming the worth and value of the subjectivity we experience, or rejecting it and actively seeking another, or others. Once we recognize the full implications of the idea that the nature/culture division was constituted at a particular historical conjuncture – the institution of a particular constellation of modernity in a few countries in Europe – we may at last be liberated from the tyranny of the “natural”.

15 thoughts on “The disappearing body and feminist thought”

  1. You know this whole debate on which exact measure of the X or Y chromosome you must have to definitively put you in a particular gender category, and how much margin of error is allowed or commonly tolerated by society is reminiscent of the debate on race in the Americas. Apparently in most Latin American countries, where the long colonial history of racial mingling has produced a controversial but widely used category of mestizo, even a drop of lightness in one’s skin or a tint in the eyes or hair qualifies one as mestizo. One can then escape to a limited extent the discrimination reserved for conventionally dark skinned Blacks. In North America on the other hand, since whiteness is so culturally dominant, even a hint of Blackness – springy hair or slightly browner skin or a broad nose that may point to a single Black ancestor puts you in the Black category. Look at Obama for instance. The fact that his mother was completely Caucasian figures nowhere in his classification as Black. It seems like a different order of paranoia altogether, this obsession with the purity of the white race, whereas no such purity is required to classify you as Black. It’s quite similar with men playing women which while more common, also seems to have the power to excite more fear because the culturally valued category of maleness gets diluted, mixed up. With women dressing as men, while it was traditionally frowned upon, the easy acceptance of women wearing trousers today attests to how much more easily the category of femaleness can be tampered with, as long as a confident masculine identity is preserved as the norm.


  2. Really enjoyed the article and will use it in class. I loved the “Now you see it, Now you Dont” usage! Very cinematic. Heres a book I have read parts of. Its quite engaging and relates to what you are arguing through cinema.

    The Cinematic Life Of The Gene by Jackie Stacy

    Book Description:

    What might the cinema tell us about how and why the prospect of cloning disturbs our most profound ideas about gender, sexuality, difference, and the body? In \”The Cinematic Life of the Gene,\” the pioneering feminist film theorist Jackie Stacey argues that as a cultural technology of imitation, cinema is uniquely situated to help us theorize \”the genetic imaginary,\” the constellation of fantasies that genetic engineering provokes. Since the mid-1990s there has been remarkable innovation in genetic engineering and a proliferation of films structured by anxieties about the changing meanings of biological and cultural reproduction. Bringing analyses of several of these films into dialogue with contemporary cultural theory, Stacey demonstrates how the cinema animates the tropes and enacts the fears at the heart of our genetic imaginary. She engages with film theory; queer theories of desire, embodiment, and kinship; psychoanalytic theories of subject formation; and debates about the reproducibility of the image and the shift from analog to digital technologies.

    Stacey examines the body-horror movies \”Alien: Resurrection\” and \”Species\” in light of Jean Baudrillard\’s apocalyptic proclamations about cloning and \”the hell of the same,\” and she considers the art-house thrillers \”Gattaca\” and \”Code 46\” in relation to ideas about imitation, including feminist theories of masquerade, postcolonial conceptualizations of mimicry, and queer notions of impersonation. Turning to \”Teknolust\” and \”Genetic Admiration,\” independent films by feminist directors, she extends Walter Benjamin\’s theory of aura to draw an analogy between the replication of biological information and the reproducibility of the art object. Stacey suggests new ways to think about those who are not what they appear to be, the problem of determining identity in a world of artificiality, and the loss of singularity amid unchecked replication


  3. Thanks for the comments, all of you.
    Ranjani -the cinematic life of the gene!! Will certainly read this book.


  4. Thanks for writing this, Nivedita. While read the following passage, I was reminded of something:

    “Female viewers indeed, were instructed to model themselves on the transvestite actor. The new nationalist bourgeois woman was to learn how to be a proper woman by watching the production of appropriate femininity by the male actor.”

    No new insight to add. I just remembered that a similar process happened in the whole, fraught process of Sadir becoming Bharata Natyam. E Krishna Iyer was a key figure in the “revivalist” discourse around devadasi dance and the need to reclaim indigenous cultural practices. His performances in drag were key moments in this transformation and re-invention. As a brahmin male, not only was he re-inscribing this dance on a more “respectable” body (as opposed to the bodies of the devadasis), but also the possibility of performing a ‘respectable’ femininity by upper caste female dancers.

    This is what Janet O’Shea has to say in her book “At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage” about E Krishnya Iyer’s role:

    “This cross-gender and cross-class mimicry appears, initially, to contradict the perceived femininity of bharata natyam. However, Iyer’s project helped to establish bharata natyam as a respectable, feminine activity by refiguring discourses of gendered reform and revival. He therefore established a pathway through which the dance form could intersect with a revised version of proper womanhood, remade through metropolitan nationalism……. In this conjoining of revivalism and reform, Iyer paved the way for the establishment of the middle-class female dancer’s subject position by replacing the participation of courtesan practitioners with the depiction of devadasi practice…… laid the groundwork for upper-caste women to replace devadasi practice with the revised concert form, claiming subject positions for themselves by representing amd remaking courtesan practice. Iyer, and those who came to the urban stage after him, iconicized devadasis as emblems, not agents, of tradition.”


  5. This is about Nivedita’s observations about “Islamic theory of sex”. I wonder if it provides a reality-check about the experiences of the Muslim societies across the world. Much of the problem arises from her excessive reliance on Fatima Mernissi’s “Beyond the Veil :”Male-Female Dynamics in Modern Muslim Society,” which focuses on the male-female relationship in the present Moroccan society. It may be noted that the context of the Moroccan society does not necessarily represent Islam or the world Muslim experience, if there is one. Mernissi analyzed the Islamic sexual morality in a chapter entitled as “The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality.” A major part of her discussion deals with the comparison between the views of Freud and Ghazali on female sexuality. Mernissi has summarized her conclusion as follows: “The irony is that Muslim and European theories come to the same conclusion: women are destructive to the social order for Imam Ghazali because they are active, for Freud because they are not.” Mernissi’s view that in Islam women are sexually more active than men and that Islam does not tolerate love between husband and wife cannot be substantiated from the original Islamic sources, the Qur’an and the authentic sunnah.

    Apparently there are several conceptual problems and contradictions in the thesis. Your reliance on Fatima Mernissi has certainly led you to make many generalizations about Islam, Gazali and women.


  6. Seethi, first, I have not written about “the Islamic theory of sex” or used that phrase anywhere. I have drawn attention to a non-western culture’s understanding of female sexuality, which is quite different.
    Second, you’re wrong in thinking that the Mernissi reference is drawn from Beyond the Veil. It is in fact the argument she makes in precisely the article you cite -‘ the Muslim concept of active female sexuality’ – which you dont seem to have read at all, really. This article has nothing to do with Morocco’s specificities, and is an account of Islamic scholar Imam Ghazali’s views, which she compares to Freud’s. Your claim that in “Mernissi’s view in Islam women are sexually more active than men” – is the crudest misreading of her argument possible. What she is doing is provincializing Freud as it were, by counterposing his understanding to another, equally patriarchal view, except that Imam Ghazali could not claim universalism for his position which Freud being European and claiming science, could.
    As for your claim that Mernissi’s views “cannot be substantiated from the original Islamic sources, the Qur’an and the authentic sunnah” – clearly that is a matter of debate, because Mernissi is at least as much of an authority on this as you are, if not a greater one.
    Finally, I have made no generalizations about either Ghazali or Islam, merely cited a particular scholar’s reading of another, which exposes the universalist pretensions of Freud.
    I wonder what the anxiety really is that lies behind your systematic misreading of my few lines on Mernissi and of Mernissi herself.


    1. @Nivedita…forget about my comments…You seem to be too much upset about my “systematic misreading of ” a few lines..I am sure, you will take a little more time to understand what is really happening in Muslim societies.

      At least I don’t need a Mernissi to understand my ‘lifeworld’ (certainly not Habermassian) that comfortably accomodates and engages several issues that many of the so-called feminists have ‘appropriated’ over a period of time. I started reading about Gazali from the writings of Vakkom Maulavi about 28 years back..and from there I tried to understand Gazali from the “horse’s mouth” .

      Sorry for being cynical about the issue in question. Yet, frankly speaking, I have great appreciation for your scholarship and contiue to take interest in reading your writings.


  7. Dear Nivedita ,
    Thank you for this thought provoking piece. I know that it is a bit late to join the discussion- nevertheless, I will join it so as to supplement some of your thoughts on the construction of normative male and female bodies in colonial modernity, with examples from the history of performance in Kerala. K. Sreekumar, in his book on the history of Malayalam Song and dance drama, registers the presence of female impersonators till 1930s. Sreekumar’s biography on the most important female impersonator of the times- Ochira Shivaprasad Velukkutty alias Kuyilnadam Velukkutty (Koyal-voiced Velukkutty) – shows how he fashions codes for the performance of femininity and in turn generates immense confusion regarding gender verisimilitude. Velukkutty, he records, has been molested, attacked and at times even examined by the audience to know whether he is actually a woman! In fact, Velukkutty along with his contemporary Sebastian Kunhu Kunhu Bhagavathar becomes the first celebrated ‘couple’ in the history of entertainment in Kerala. In his male counterpart’s words Velukkutty is described as an exemplary performer, performing women’s virtues, emotions and beauty like no woman ever can. On a note similar to that of Kathryn Hansen, Sajita Madathil in a recent work on a Women’s history of theatre in Malayalam, shows how Velukkutty fashions a performative register for the early actresses in Malayalam theatre. An interview with Mavelikkara Ponnamma, one of the first actresses of the Malayalam stage is extremely insightful. When approached to enact the role of Vasavadutta in the play Karuna, a role performed and immortalised by Velukkutty, Ponnamma was hesitant since she felt she can never reach the perfection of Velukkutty’s performance. Ponnamma recieves a letter from Velukkutty (by then ill and bed-ridden), encouraging her to perform the role. She seeks his blessings and says, “ I received his blessings. Even my voice changed. I became Velukkutty.. and then Vasavadutta”.
    In other words, having a woman’s body was not sufficient to perform women on stage, but it was a highly coded practice, which could be accessed only through the codes developed by Velukkutty and similar female impersonators. Many actresses of Ponnamma’s generation narrate the centrality of Velukkuty’s performance in developing their own acting styles.


  8. Bindu, that’s fascinating. You and Aniruddh (above, on E Krishna Iyer enacting femininity in Bharata Natyam), have added complex new layers to our understanding. Thank you to both.


  9. Thus, there have been at least two reported cases of accidental DNA profiling suddenly ‘proving’ that a mother was unrelated to the children she had borne through ‘natural’ sexual reproduction and to whom she had given birth. This happened because the relevant DNA was not stored in the particular tissue that had been tested. There could well be more such instances if DNA of mothers and their children were routinely tested which they usually are not, because the biological relationship of a woman to a child comes rarely under question.

    I do not why this is being brought up here: This phenomenon of so called genetic chimeras seems to be reasonably well established, and has nothing to do with the author’s point of defining “biological” relationships in surrogacy. Indeed, the genotype is only one of the determinants of the phenotype, but in as much as it is a determinant, chimerism as a phenomenon does nothing to contradict its validity as one.


  10. Circe does not understand what arguments about “genetic chimeras” have to do with “biological relationship” arguments in the field of surrogacy, but nevertheless s/he confidently reasserts “unquestionable scientific facts” to apply a firm closure to all my labour.
    I rest my case!
    (Just by the way, “genetic chimera” is precisely one kind of “scientific” argument of the sort I have referred to in my post, that seeks to explain away every instance of failure of “genetics” assumptions, as an exception, or a medical mystery, or a “condition”- in this case, chimerism.)


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