Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible: The Body in Third World Feminisms

Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible: The Body in Third World Feminisms

by Anirban Das


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This book works at the intersection of two related yet different fields. One is the heterogeneous feminist effort to question universal forms of knowing. The second field follows from this conundrum: how does one think of the body when s/he speaks of embodiment? 'Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible' engages the forefront of contemporary thought on the body, while remaining mindful of the requirements of a feminist approach.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780857285690
Publisher: Anthem Press
Publication date: 10/01/2012
Series: Anthem Studies in Development and Globalization
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 234
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Anirban Das holds a PhD in Philosophy from Jadavpur University, Kolkata, India. He is currently a Fellow in Cultural Studies at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, India.

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Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible

The Body in Third World Feminisms

By Anirban Das

Wimbledon Publishing Company

Copyright © 2010 Anirban Das
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-84331-342-7




There is no obvious connection between the body as a category and the categories of power and ideology. The obscurity of this connection is the symptom of a not so hidden assumption regarding the 'body'. A belief – that the body is only a concrete, immediate presence in three dimensional space – prevents the understanding of the links between the body and the ostensibly abstract notions of power and ideology. This book does not rest content with the knowledge that power and ideology are as palpably concrete as any other formation. Nor does it constrain itself to the insight (acquired through decades of painstaking critical scholarship now available in monographs, articles and commentaries) that the body is always and already mediated through categories of meanings and power. If mediations of power and ideology produce the body as something unmediated, then some form of ideological work has to be performed in order to produce this leap from the mediate to the immediate, to make the shift from the abstract to the concrete. This book tries to trace the itineraries of this work. It tries to observe and make visible the processes at work in producing the concreteness of the body from the abstract workings of meanings. One way of doing this is to describe different concrete modes of producing the category of the body through differentiating it from other categories like death and sexual difference. I try to do that in the following chapters. In the present chapter, I indicate certain ways of conceiving power and ideology that make it possible to speak of their role in producing the 'body'. The ideas of power and ideology I thus deploy are counter-intuitive yet, as I hope to show, possible logical extensions of the classical enunciations of these notions.

In philosophical parlance, reification (or hypostasis) is the process in which abstract categories seem to be concrete. If one is ready to question the security of the division between seemingness and real existence, reification may very well be used as a category that makes sense of the production of concreteness from abstraction. As would probably be evident from the later sections, I have such a use of reification in mind when I try to describe the production of the 'body' through deployments of power and ideology. There is here a congealment, a transformation which is akin to the processes of commodity fetishism at work. This association will appear later in the chapter. For now, it is sufficient to point at the possibilities opened up by the use of my approach to the question. One such possibility is that of addressing the problem of embodiment of knowledge. Is embodiment to be thought of as a positioning of knowledge processes in the body, where the body is extraneous to those processes? If not, there has to be some commensurability between the register of the body and the register of knowledge. Reificatory processes let one think of such transformations across registers.

To think about 'embodied knowledges' as ways of knowing that might be part of the move to resist dominant modes of thinking, one has to think through the very important category of hegemony. Thinking about 'knowledge' and ways of knowing in terms of hegemony indicates a concern with the relations of power that act in the process of knowing. To speak about 'power' or fields of force active in the processes of knowledge is to question the notion of a value-free neutral knowledge as a 'view from nowhere'. As such, to go into an analysis of power relations in a discussion on knowledge would seem to be an act of pre-supposing one's conclusion – assuming what one has to prove – of the implication of power in knowledge. In this chapter, what I am dealing with is the multiple ways in which processes of power may act between two or more spaces. This conceptual exercise is needed to unravel the workings of power in processes that seem to avoid hierarchy and avowedly work in a neutral setting. To discern the gradients of hierarchy operating in confirmedly disinterested spaces like that of knowledge, one has to forge tools perceptive enough to sense the different and complex ways in which differentials of power can work. One has to remember that this conceptual excursus, of making oneself aware of the complexities of the hegemonic process, is necessary but not sufficient to affirm the workings of these processes in the ways of knowing. This encounter with hegemony is but a prequel to a countering of hegemony. Such a countering may not take the form of a charting of counter-hegemonic moves. Instead, it might call for a responsibility in the face of the violence of violations. I will go back to these questions at the end of the book.

Power and ideology are concepts that purportedly belong to two different theoretical narratives. These two narratives, as the received wisdom in humanities disciplines goes, do not meet. Foucault, thinking in terms of power, seems to be suspicious of using ideology as a productive theoretical category. For a Zizek on the other hand, the notion of power only serves to blunt and dissipate the theoretical rigor and effectivity of the tensions in ideology critique. In this chapter, I argue that the two can productively be used to complement each other. But for that, each of the notions has to be thought of in a certain register. Not that these registers are novelties that I invent to articulate the conjunction of the two categories. As I hope to show, these axes were there – necessary to the very structure of the notions – in the classical articulations of these concepts. Yet, as is the wont of many categories, even attentive later enunciations often passed by these registers. The ontology of the subject is the register where I see the notions of power and ideology interacting to produce 'hauntology', the displaced ontology of the specter. This in its turn enables one to think of possibilities of change in the repetitive structures of the subject, a politics that takes into account the relations of power and the working of ideologemes in performative enunciations.

The question of the body emerges at this juncture. 'Body' and 'subject', evidently, are not interchangeable categories. The 'subject' is often treated as disembodied in the philosophical literature. The 'body' is oftener treated either as an object of intervention or as the passive receptacle – the object that contains – of the subject/soul/mind. These notions of the body and the subject are parts of a theoretical structure that I intend to interrogate. As already stated, I tend to figure ways in which the universality of knowledge claims – claims that pre-suppose a clear distinction between the body and the mind or the subject and the object – could be questioned. As such, my intentions are to probe the possibilities of thinking the body and the subject together. The thinking of this embodied subject makes possible a certain way of relating power and ideology. If one perceives the coming together of power and ideology in the making of the subject in a specific configuration, that perception itself succeeds in relating the subject to the body. Thus, a rigorous working out of the concept of the embodied subject needs to address the notions of power and ideology.

In the post-Foucauldian era, use of the concept of ideology has become unfashionable. The term has connotations of intentions and a secure identity, which the notions of shifting micropolitics of power have seemingly bypassed. Yet, at least since Althusser and Raymond Williams, ideology as a concept has been made more nuanced to address the problems of the 'dissolution of the subject'. It has the added advantage of being able to address the ways in which subjects act as if they were securely intended. I thus try to employ an ontological notion of power in conjunction with the acting of ideology as a 'necessary fiction'. This enables me to think of the inevitability of lines of power in the constitution of the embodied subject as well as the functions of ideologemes in that constitution. That, in its turn, lets one think of an ethico-politics that takes the power-ladenness of ones being into account while attempting to mark the traces of a beyond; shying away from a pessimism of eternal subjecthood to an all-embracing Power as well as from a hasty optimism of reversing the present order too easily by wishing away the effects of power in a future utopia.

The keywords for this chapter would be power, ideology and embodiment. Ideology, in the second section, is the term that lets one think about power in its embodiedness. Ideology in the modular form of religion is a process where the reified force-relations take the body of the fetish. This body, thus not only material, has the ghost's spectral corporeality. It haunts as it becomes. But what is the dynamic of the process through which idea is materialized and matter (of the body) gets haunted by the spirit? A structure of iterability is presupposed in this 'hauntology' of the body. A structure that gets displaced as it becomes. It gives place to the 'other' deep within it. The making up of the self by the other is the flip side of the metaphor of eating. Eating that has the strong and undeniable element of violence in its logical organization. Is violence then a constituent of the body, of the intendedness of the body to the other? Is it constitutive of the responses of the self to the other and vice versa? Before going into all that in details at the end of the book, we have to start with the notion of 'power' as understood in this book. That constitutes the first section.

Question of Power – The Hierarchical Constitution of Subjects

My objective ... has been to create a history of the different modes by which, in our culture, human beings are made subjects. (Foucault 1982, 208)

Following Althusser ..., I understand by ideology a practice producing subjects. (Mouffe 1979, 171)

Foucault's work cannot work on the subject-constituting register of ideology because of its tenacious commitment to the sub-individual and, at the other end, the great aggregative apparatuses (dispositifs). (Spivak 1999, 252)

When Raymond Williams was preparing an extended version of his Keywords (with the subtitle "a vocabulary of culture and society") in 1983, he did not include the word 'power' in his list of words. Michel Foucault's collection of interviews and some of his shorter pieces, Power/Knowledge (the pair of words that would almost disastrously be metonymic later for the entire oeuvre of Foucault) were already published in 1980. English translations of his other writings having some bearings on the notion of power had also been published by then (Discipline and Punish in 1975 and The Will to Know: History of Sexuality I in 1976). More than two decades later, it is now impossible for anyone to prepare a "record of an inquiry into a vocabulary: a shared body of words and meanings in our most general discussions, in English of the practices and institutions which we group as culture and society" (as Williams had characterized his book, 15) without the word 'power'. And the uses of this word in the humanities and the social sciences have overwhelmingly been Foucauldian. Yet the meanings that have accrued to the word have been multiple and in no sense unambiguous. At least two notions – one implying a relationship of hierarchy to which one is subjected, the other as the gaining of an enablement – have constituted the poles between which these meanings vacillated. In Foucault, these two notions occur together, entwined with each other, inseparable. He himself has spoken of the notion of power in relation to subjecthood –

... it is not power, but the subject, which is the general theme of my research.

[W]hile the human subject is placed in relations of production and of signification, he is equally placed in power relations which are very complex. ... We had recourse only to ways of thinking about power based on legal models, that is: What legitimates power? Or we had recourse to ways of thinking about power based on institutional models, that is: What is the state?

It was therefore necessary to expand the dimensions of a definition of power if one wanted to use this definition in studying the objectivizing of the subject. (Foucault 1982, 209)

In this study of the formation of the 'subject', the split nature of power that simultaneously limits and enables is often alluded to – "Power is exercised only over free subjects, and only insofar as they are free" (221).

In a slightly different yet a related context, Etienne Balibar (1991) had spoken of the dual meaning of the subject – the subjectum and the subjectus – "in the equivocal unity of a single noun" (38). Referring to Heidegger's notion that Cartesian cogito has been determined and conceived of as a subject (subjectum) – in the sense of cogito inaugurating the "sovereignty of the subject" –, Balibar perceives Heidegger to be at fault. Balibar interprets this move as a "projection of a transcendental category of the "subject" upon the Cartesian text," (36) a projection which the text does not support. Balibar traces the source of such a perception of the subject – "as the originarily synthetic unity of the conditions of objectivity (of 'experience')" (36) – to Kant. Next he asserts that for Descartes, unlike Kant, the ego (cogito) is there as a 'substance' or as substantial, and not as a transcendental subject. According to Balibar, the name of subjectum (the Greek hypokeimenon) cannot be applied to the ego cogito. Instead, he speaks of the possibility and the necessity of asking the question of the sense in which the human individual "composed of a soul, a body, and their unity" (35) is the subjectus of a divine sovereignty. The notion of the subjectus, as Balibar affirms (depending on the theoreticians of absolute monarchy and medieval political theology), is the same as that of the subditus – "the individual submitted to the ditio, to the sovereign authority of a prince, ... itself legitimated by the Word of another Sovereign (the Lord God)." (36)

Balibar thus delineates the differences between the notions of the subjectus and the subjectum and traces a conceptual dynamic (whereby the former is forgotten in favor of the latter in the thinking of the transcendental subject of philosophy, at least since Kant) that rejects the substantiality and the phenomenality in the being of the Subject. Yet, as Balibar argues, the subject cannot fully avoid this enigma of personhood in which the subject is situated – "[a]fter the subject comes the citizen." (38) He goes on to the conceptual and phenomenal making of the 'citizen' to show how this subject called the citizen also can and must act simultaneously as a constitutive element of the state and as an actor of a permanent revolution against the state. Balibar characterizes this phenomenon as a paradoxical unity of a universal sovereignty and a radical finitude. He describes Foucault's attempts at delineating the transition from a world of subjection to that of rights and disciplines as a "materialist phenomenology of the transmutation of subjection, of the birth of the Citizen Subject." (55) Foucault's notion of power bears the mark of this duality acting in the figure of the citizen subject where repression and production, hierarchy and the making of equality, constitute and mask each other. This entwinement of the sets of opposed categories make this view of power relevant to our discussion of the relations between a universal knowledge and the particular (or situated and embodied forms of) knowledges. This ambiguous unity is also what relates this discussion to the name of Marx who did indeed investigate hierarchies working in equalities.

What is Power, then?

[P]ower is a relation between forces, or rather, every relation between forces is a 'power relation'. (Deleuze 1988, 70)

And what is force? Deleuze speaks initially of two qualities that characterize force. One is that force is already and always a relation, it exists in relation to other forces, its sole object and subject is force. The second is that violence is not the sole constituent of force and the relation between forces far exceeds violence. But the substantive definition of power/force comes a bit later –

... force defines itself by its very power to affect other forces (to which it is related) and to be affected by other forces. To incite, provoke and produce ... constitute active affects, while to be incited or provoked, to be induced to produce, ... constitute reactive affects. (Deleuze 1988, 71)


Excerpted from Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible by Anirban Das. Copyright © 2010 Anirban Das. Excerpted by permission of Wimbledon Publishing Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction; 1. Body, Power and Ideology [Introduction; Question of Power – the Hierarchical Constitution of Subjects; Ideology and Spectral Embodiment]; 2. Thinking the Body: Metaphoricity of the Corporeal [Introduction; The Body, Thingness and Ideologies; Actuality and (Im)Possibility: Descartes/Foucault/Derrida; ‘The Woman in the Body’ – Metaphors of Embodiment; Beyond Performativity: Universals and Other Generalities]; 3. Thinking the Body – Negotiating the Other/Death [Introduction; Medicine: Making up the Normal; The Body in Death: Beyond the Post/Modern; Dying and the Dasein: Towards an Ontology of Death; From Ontology to Ethics: Embodying Death]; 4. Thinking the Body – Beyond the Topos of Man [Introduction; The Woman in Ontological Difference; Property Talks: the (Non)Space of the Name; Figuring Sexual Difference: Multiple Singularities; Yashobati’s Story – Maya in a Trace-Structure]; 5. Violence and Responsibility: Embodied Feminisms [Introduction; Third World Feminisms: The Politics of Location and Experience; Eating Others – an Inquiry into the Notions of Iterability and Responsibility]; In Conclusion: Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible

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‘Expansive, rigorous and lucid, 'Toward a Politics of the (Im)Possible' offers a significant contribution to ongoing debates on the body, gender and identity. Through a series of meticulous and ambitious readings, the book brings together theoretical work and a sense of location in unique ways.’ —Udaya Kumar, Professor, Department of English, University of Delhi

'Anirban Das’s work is an important contribution to contemporary discussions on the post-colonial subject. It views some of the vital questions that confront the third world, especially its women, from a wide range of theoretical perspectives deeply analyzed and philosophically nuanced.' —Franson Manjali, Professor, Centre of Linguistics and English, Jawaharlal Nehru University

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