In The Empire of Love anthropologist Elizabeth A. Povinelli reflects on a set of ethical and normative claims about the governance of love, sociality, and the body that circulates in liberal settler colonies such as the United States and Australia. She boldly theorizes intimate relations as pivotal sites where liberal logics and aspirations absorbed through settler imperialism are manifest, where discourses of self-sovereignty, social constraint, and value converge.
For more than twenty years, Povinelli has traveled to the social worlds of indigenous men and women living at Belyuen, a small community in the Northern Territory of Australia. More recently she has moved across communities of alternative progressive queer movements in the United States, particularly those who identify as radical faeries. In this book she traces how liberal binary concepts of individual freedom and social constraint influence understandings of intimacy in these two worlds. At the same time, she describes alternative models of social relations within each group in order to highlight modes of intimacy that transcend a reductive choice between freedom and constraint.
Shifting focus away from identities toward the social matrices out of which identities and divisions emerge, Povinelli offers a framework for thinking through such issues as what counts as sexuality and which forms of intimate social relations result in the distribution of rights, recognition, and resources, and which do not. In The Empire of Love Povinelli calls for, and begins to formulate, a politics of “thick life,” a way of representing social life nuanced enough to meet the density and variation of actual social worlds.
About the Author
Elizabeth A. Povinelli is a Professor in the Department of Anthropology and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Columbia University, where she is also Codirector of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture. She is the author of The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism, also published by Duke University Press. She is a former editor of the journal Public Culture.
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The Empire of LoveToward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality
By Elizabeth A. Povinelli
DUKE UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2006 Duke University Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneRotten Worlds
Montreal, 6 August 2000. I am quite sick; definitely sicker than I was in the Sydney airport last week, more nauseous in the day, and then there are these night sweats. I am sitting in a conference on globalization and multiple modernities, but I cannot concentrate on the conversation. I am too busy monitoring my body, waiting to see if these new antibiotics kick in and hoping the diarrhea set off by the previous antibiotics abates. As I sit here, I wonder if this entire medical fiasco is the result of my following too assiduously medical instructions or religiously ignoring them over the last sixteen years, placing too much trust in the local knowledge of my indigenous friends and family in Australia. Yesterday I went to a Montreal clinic on instructions from the physician I saw in the University of Chicago Hospital emergency room, where I had gone right after landing in the United States. "Have a doctor in Montreal change the dressing I've put on your shoulder," he said. And so I did. But along with changing the dressing, the Montreal physician switched my medication from Septrim (co-trimoxazole: Septrim, Bactrim) to Novopen, a semi-syntheticpenicillin with a host of other popular brand names: Pen-vee K, Beepen-K, V-Cillin K, Nadopen-V. As a result, I can no longer tell if the infection or the antibiotic cocktail is causing my nausea and night sweats. As my body erupts, I wonder whether I have placed too much trust in people whom I have known longer and more intimately than almost anyone else in my life. In wondering, an affective separation emerges, if only as a slight fissure, between them and me.
When the Montreal physician pressed me for more details about the origin of the sore, I told him the somewhat incoherent medical narrative about "sores" that I had standardized during the sixteen years I had been working, on and off, year after year, in northern Australia. I gave a similar narrative to the Chicago doctor when he asked me where and how I had acquired this sore. It went something like this: I am an anthropologist. The sores are endemic in the indigenous communities I visit. They seem to appear and disappear with the seasons, more when it is hot, humid, and wet, less in the cool dry season. They are not obviously related to any previously existing cut or abrasion. This sore on my shoulder, for instance, did not seem to have been caused by any previous cut. Sores just "bubble up" like volcanoes from under the skin, or, using the language of my Emiyenggal-speaking friends in northwest Australia, like pumanim, fresh water springs that bubble up from the ground. Sometimes they stay hidden inside you, growing and growing. We call those blind boilers, or just "boilers" in creole and tenmi in Emiyenggal. Adults get both kinds. Kids get them, too. Babies can be covered with them, as if the sore were a bad case of chicken pox. Some boilers grow so large and hang on so tenaciously that they require a hospital stay, invasive surgery, and skin grafts. My indigenous friends are pretty cavalier about them. But so are most of the non-indigenous nurses and doctors whom I have met in various indigenous communities. Over the years, they have told me that the sores are "just" streptococcus or "just" staphylococcus. One doctor, many years ago, told me he thought the sores were a strain of leishmaniasis, caused by sand fly bites, but not to worry about it. Worry has its own social distribution-it might be needed elsewhere.
New York Times: Hundreds of American troops in Iraq have been infected with a parasite spread by biting sand flies, and the long-term consequences are still unknown, Army doctors said Friday. The resulting disease, leishmaniasis, has been diagnosed in about 150 military personnel so far, but that is sure to climb in the coming months, the doctors said. All have only the skin form of the disease, which creates ugly "volcano crater" lesions that may last for months, but usually clear up by themselves. None have developed the visceral form that attacks the liver and spleen and is fatal if untreated.
The Montreal physician was quite curious about the sore on my left shoulder. And he became as cautious after seeing it, asking me a series of questions. "Where did you get this sore?" "Who cut into your shoulder like this?" "Why are you on Septrim?" "Is it helping?" Answering the last question was easy enough, and I was brief in my reply. "No. The sore is unchanged and I am desperately ill." The questions of why I was on Septrim, how my shoulder came to look like this, and the origins of the sore would take more time. I described the carnival scene in the Chicago emergency clinic when the bandage I had placed over the sore in Australia was removed. I described how the physician recoiled from me, literally, and shouted to the nurses to bring protective goggles, gowns, and a pair of forceps-as if I were about to give birth to the Andromeda strain.
Or perhaps the up-to-date reference for this young physician would be Ebola, as if I were about to dissolve in my own bloody juices from a virus picked up in a remote part of the world. I told the Montreal doctor, "I couldn't tell if he was freaked out because the flesh was necrotic or because I seemed so blasé about that fact." "He didn't seem to believe me that these sores are commonplace where I work, though I labored hard to convince him that they were no big deal and could be cured with a few shots of penicillin." To be honest, I had told the Chicago emergency room physician, "I think I just need a few shots of penicillin, I think it's penicillin, or in the tablet form, maybe something called amoxa-something. I know it rhymes with Bob Dylan." The imprecision of my pharmacological language was one index of the deep recess of everyday life in which these sores fester for many indigenous and non-indigenous residents in northern Australia. Familiarity breeds this nervous system. "You think," the Chicago doctor repeated, nonplussed. Not surprisingly, he did not give me penicillin or amoxicillin. Instead, he cut into my shoulder for what felt like an hour, took a culture from the core, and packed the hole with a "wick" to allow the fluids to drain out. (As he put it, he "packed it like a gunshot wound." As the assisting nurses put it outside his earshot, he packed it "like a ghetto wrap.") He then gave me a prescription for Septrim. He had wanted me to stay in Chicago until the culture came back, but I insisted I had a plane to catch.
Do you always take antibiotics that rhyme with Dylan, the Montreal physician asked. "Yes, why is that?" He didn't answer me, asking instead whether I had ever been given Septrim before-in Australia. "No. Why?" He answered me this time. "Because Septrim doesn't kill subcutaneous anthrax." It was his hunch that anthrax was dispersed throughout pastoral northern Australia and that anthrax spores were the cause of the sore on my shoulder. If the Chicago doctor had no immediate referent for this sore, the Montreal doctor did. Opening one of his textbooks, he explained to me that he had heard about these kinds of sores on people working in the cattle and sheep industry.
I have to admit that in the beginning I thought it was cool to have anthrax, to have had anthrax all along without knowing it. I told everyone, including, later that same week on a phone in a Montreal airport terminal, my older sister, who is a microbiologist. She wisely cautioned me not to shout this information too loudly before passing through customs. This was a year before my girlfriend and I had watched the Twin Towers collapse from my studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn; before anthrax was mailed to media offices along the East Coast and to members of Congress; and, in the shadow cast by these attacks, before international terrorism became an articulation point between the medical and legal subject of anthrax. Anthrax Man was just a comic figure, Judge Dredd, spun from the heavy metal band, Anthrax. In August 2000, my Chicago doctor would have been hard-pressed legally to constrain my movements, not knowing what it was that I had. The Montreal doctor, believing I had anthrax, did not have "international terrorism" as an immediate or self-evident referent. I appeared before them, and was treated by them, as a woman making perhaps a foolish but nevertheless a sovereign choice about how to treat her own body and its health. It was my body, my health, as long as it was not a public menace.
Even after these events, I made jokes about anthrax being passé, or got furious that, when the professional classes in the United States acquired anthrax, vast arrays of governmental and discursive resources were immediately mobilized, but the treatment of the same in poor indigenous communities is apparently left to a dedicated few health activists. Of course, this is not fair. Middle-class postal workers were most often at risk. Besides, what I noticed had been noticed long before. The differences between ordinary and extraordinary illnesses are dependent on a biosocial spacing-often organized as a geophysical distribution of ordinary and exceptional bodies and of ordinary and exceptional life, death, and rotting worlds. The geographical component of this biosocial spacing of environmental harm presupposes and constitutes the connection between race, class, and health, but these presuppositions in turn lean on legal, medical, and social distinctions between intentional harms and unintentional or unconsidered harms. Intentionality-whether personal or corporate-is one of the key legal pivots in tort law that distinguishes ecological pollution such as that found in poor Australian Aboriginal communities and in poor African American neighborhoods from ecological terrorism as it was practiced or threatened after September 11, 2001.
As for my sore, the Novopen that the Montreal doctor prescribed did not rid me of the infection, whatever its biological cause. Just as the largest sore began to heal, satellite sores emerged around the central infection. By this time, I was heading back to Darwin, and so I decided to put my faith in local doctors. Perhaps their casual, deeply familiar approach to these sores was just the remedy I needed. As I predicted, the doctor in Darwin laughed, at times uproariously, as he listened to my stories, especially the anthrax punch line. "It's not anthrax. Just tell them it's a bad case of streptococcus or staphylococcus." "But what is it, really?" I asked the doctor. "I've never taken a culture, but I'm sure it's just staph," he said. He explained that he, too, had been shocked when first witnessing one of these sores soon after his arrival in Darwin from Sydney. All his medical colleagues had reassured him that they were just staphylococcus or streptococcus and easily treated with penicillin. He found, over time, this diagnosis to be true; and so, while not cavalier about the sores, he was no longer shocked by them. "O.K.," I said, "but how do I get them? Doesn't there have to be a pre-existing abrasion to get staph?" He replied, "You can't see every little pinprick you get on your body. Who knows, maybe a mosquito bit you on your shoulder and you scratched. The real reason you get sores, though, is because you're living in an Aboriginal community and they're filthy places. You can't break the cycle of infection in those places. If you give Aborigines antibiotics, they start them and then they leave them on the shelf to rot."
By the time I arrived in Darwin, I had already come to think that the sores were just a bad case of staphylococcus or streptococcus, or some nasty combination of both. Right after my conversation with the Montreal physician, my Chicago doctor left a message on my home phone machine saying that my sore had cultured for staphylococcus. And while I was still in the United States, a friend who had co-written an early textbook on HIV/AIDS prevention looked up anthrax on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Web site. It noted that once anthrax seeps into an environment it is hard to get it out-and expensive to do so. Schooled by HIV/AIDS activism, she observed that the incentive for a government or a business to diagnose a contaminated environment was small, because they would then have to clean it up for a poor black population or justify not cleaning it up. She also pointed out that the CDC said a doctor had to culture specifically for anthrax and that culturing anthrax was not especially easy, and certainly not routine. Even so, the anthrax theory, if interesting for a moment, seemed a bit far-fetched. The Chicago tests had come back with staphylococcus. The CDC described anthrax as having a telltale black scab. My sore, and all the sores I had ever had or seen, were volcanoes of rotted flesh, filled with greenish-yellowish squish, and without a scab. Moreover, the signs that dotted fences on the pastoral properties I routinely passed in northern Australia listed tuberculosis and drucellosis as the diseases of record, not anthrax. Tuberculosis I knew about. I had watched a Belyuen brother of mine die of it in 1987. And I am regularly tested for it because of its circulation in Aboriginal communities.
In any case, by the time I left Darwin, I had more than enough stories for my friends at Belyuen. I tucked them away in the backpack of my brain and headed across the harbor. They enjoyed my stories, as I had expected, and we shared them with other family and friends up and down the coast. I soon stopped caring what the biological agent of these sores was as long as they went away with the right treatment. Besides, in September 2000, the CDC were reporting that there were no long-term effects from having subcutaneous anthrax, so if it was anthrax, who cared? And if it was staphylococcus, or a bit of streptococcus, so what?
This is an essay about that "so what." In it, I show how discourses of the autological subject and the genealogical society create attitudes of interest and disinterest, anxiety and dread, fault and innocence about certain lives, bodies, and voices and, in the process, form and deform lives, bodies, and voices. Recent innovations in research, theory, and method in medical anthropology and science studies are, of course, the necessary conditions for what I am doing here. But this essay is not a medical anthropology of tropical ulcers or a science studies account of the social life of rotten things. My object is neither the medical sciences nor the medical subject, but a broader dynamic of discourses and practices that is continually shaping and directing bodies and voices in settler colonies such that some appear as coherent and others incoherent and such that the source of this coherence and incoherence seems to reside inside these various subjects and their social formations.
The sore is, on the one hand, simply a means by which I can make visible the various levels, modes, and forms by which these discourses of autology and genealogy saturate social life, allowing some voices to be heard, others dismissed, and allowing some bodies to be treated or left untreated. On the other hand, the sore is a challenge to this and any study seeking to grasp discourse in its materiality. Where, after all, is this sore? Whose is it? What is its biosocial nature? Are discourses of autology and genealogy obligated to this sore, constitutive of it, or merely in an accidental proximity to it? This is the question: In a post-essentialist theory how do we make the body matter? To answer this even partially, I track how modes of address and their material anchors presuppose and constitute the autological subject and genealogical society as if they were different in kind even though these subjects and social worlds are in fact thickly emotionally, socially, and discursively conjoined. And I track how these practices of address meet, order, and deform a multitude of material anchors -i.e., how they enflesh worlds; how they depend on previous enfleshments of the world; and how they apprehend this enfleshment both in the sense of the ability of these discourses to grasp the importance, significance, or meaning of this flesh and in the sense of the ability of these discourses to create a feeling of anxiety or excitement that something dangerous or unpleasant might happen in the vicinity of this flesh.
Excerpted from The Empire of Love by Elizabeth A. Povinelli Copyright © 2006 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Empires of Love: An Introduction 1
1. Rotten Worlds 27
2. Spiritual Freedom, Cultural Copyright 95
3. The Intimate Event and Genealogical Society 175