Week 11 (Julia): How can performativity appear?

Reading Mahmood’s examination of the complexities of the pious relationship that Egyptian Islamic women have with their bodies and minds in the context of a nonliberal culture deepened and enriched Butler’s analysis of agency, embodiment, performativity and a queered feminist politics of resistance as examined in her “Introduction” to Bodies that Matter. These readings answered Haraway’s call out for the need for “modern critical theories” which investigate how “meanings and bodies get made”. The conversation between Mamood and Butler is part of a project dedicated to building “meanings and bodies that have a chance for life” (Haraway, 580). This particular conversation built up my own understanding of the meanings that make bodies, expanding (once again) and complicating (as always) my conceptions of anthropology.

Butler’s “Introduction” contextualizes Foucault’s “The Order of Things” as existing with the heterosexual matrix in which sex, as a normative project, is forcibly reiterated through citational practices aimed at ordering human life. While Foucault claims that the process of ordering requires the production of “the other”, Butler elucidates how the production of bodies that matter necessitates having abject bodies. As Butler states, “This exclusionary matrix by which subjects are formed thus requires the simultaneous production of a domain of abject beings, those who are not yet ‘subjects,’ but who form the constitutive outside to the domain of the subject” (3). Butler continues to explain the abject as designating “precisely those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject, but whose living under the sign of ‘unlivable’ is required to circumscribe the domain of the subject” (3).

This notion of abject bodies living in an unlivable space might have a curious and complex relationship to last week’s discussion of biopolitics. In one sense, as Butler explains, our trajectory of coming into and moving through life is wholly formed through our capacity to be assigned an a priori normative sexual designation that we are coercively compelled to continually animate through forcible reiteration throughout our lives. Hence, the forcible reiteration of one’s assigned sexual identity enables subjectivity – enables one to “live” as human. As Rose and Rabinow explained in “Biopolitics Today”, like health, gender must entail embodying a mode of subjectification, a site in which people are compelled to work on themselves, “under certain forms of authority, in relation to truth discourses, by means of practices of the self”. Accordingly, sex performativity is done “in the name of their own life and health, that of their family or some other collectivity, or… in the name of the life or health of the population as a whole” (197). Accordingly, could we replace Rose’s biological citizenship with sexual citizenship, and Rabinow’s biosociality, with sexedsociality.

But what of these abject sexed bodies that Butler discusses? Can they be put into biopolitical space?

As Butler states, abject bodies – those that are not assigned the status of the subject, those that reside in the unlivable uninhabitable spaces of social life – densely populate our social life and are essential to carving out the domain of subjectivity. However, these abject bodies are allowed to live only unlivable lives. Their unlivable lives work as moving specimens for the rest of the population to inspect, showcasing and animating the real and deadly ways in which human life comes to matter exclusively through the performativity of sexed bodies. In this sense, abject bodies are evidential matter displaying what the consequences are for not embodying sex as a mode of subjectification (I am reminded here of Tylor’s obsession with museum displays of “primitive specimens”). Hence, it is only when an abject body decides to work to embody the normativity of sex that one is awarded the classification of human subject/citizen. My underlying deliberation here is to query what exactly it means to live in a space of unliveability. Where would this body fit in relation to the lively or vital body? Is living unliveably akin to living in a state of undeadness? What relationship does this body have to animation? What does it mean to require specific bodies to live in unliveability? Is this biopolitics? Does this queer biopolitics? Or is this something else altogether?

Sorry if I am on the wrong track with these queries!

Moving on to Mahmood’s text! I liked the way that Mahmood debunked the tendency for some feminist theory to locate human agency in moral autonomy. I was particularly engaged by the way that Mahmood unhinged Butler’s alignment of agency with resistance by situating it as that which can also be activated through experiences of pain and suffering. Kelly’s response is extremely helpful to me in working through and examining questions of agency as they are investigated in these two texts and as they relate to the role of the anthropologist.

To add a few thoughts to this subject, I would like to examine Mahmood’s reference to Butler’s notion of agency as “largely thought of in terms of the capacity to subvert norms (especially heterosexual norms)” (211). I think this use of “capacity” is really important to unpack. I find myself wondering: what of subjects who subvert norms because of some kind of perceived incapacity? I am thinking quite literally here about subjects labeled as mentally incapable. These subjects are cast as the antithesis to social norms while also embodying the antithesis to agency. These subjects also happen to be – presently and historically – women, people of colour, disabled and economically disenfranchised people. Hence, people who resist social norms (intentionally or because of their bodies/class) in substantial ways are more likely to be considered as lacking agency, as incapable of having agency. Accordingly, is Butler alignment of agency with capacity perhaps a resistance to this legacy of considering those who subvert social norms to be mentally incapable? If so, what are the politics of doing this? And on the flipside, is the disavowel of social norms always an enactment of agency? For instance, is a person categorized as mentally disabled enacting agency when she does something “socially inappropriate”? If the answer is “no”, is agency essentially a normative concept (in that there always has to be some kind of communicable, translatable intentionality to it)? I have no answers, but I feel that the relationship between agency and in/capacity is important for me to think about, especially in relation to how I would go about examining bodies and meanings through an anthropological framework.

I found Mahmood’s elucidation of the relationship between performativity and piety very interesting. What I found particularly meaningful was Mahmood’s elucidation of the way that “action does not issue forth from natural feelings but creates them” (214). Hence, the body becomes an instrument for tuning the mind. Accordingly, performativity is orchestrated as a way to compose the desired psychological alterations. What I found myself asking though, in reference to both Butler and Mamood’s texts were: what of those bodies who are unable to reiterate certain performative acts, those whose “gestural capacities” (Mahmood, 215) are markedly variable from the norm? How are they to accomplish embodying compulsory gender norms? For instance, what of the physically disabled woman? What is her relationship to the heterosexual matrix? What is her relationship to the female sex? Does her disability make her sexually abject?

In “(Re)Fusing the Amputated Body” Shriempf locates the intersections and disconnects between feminism and disability studies as a prime site of inquiry for addressing the particular forms of inequity that disabled women experience. In this piece, Shriempf details the story of Ellen Stohl, a paraplegic woman who appeared in a seven page spread of the June 1987 issue of Playboy. Stohl, who became paraplegic after a car accident, was strategically shot to appear completely able-bodied in all of the pictures. In citing her reason for wanting to be in Playboy, Stohl discusses how she felt like she was treated as a child and not as a woman after the accident and wanted to experience the privilege of being objectified (her sentiments not mine). Stohl gave further background telling of how men do not approach her if she is in her wheelchair. However, if she is sitting on a barstool, Stohl claims that she is often “ripped off and asked to dance” (56). In a sense, Playboy was a way for her to feel like a woman again, something she could only access through appearing ablebodied.

My point in bringing all of this up is to note that Stohl’s capacity to enact the citational practices required for embodying compulsory heteronormative womanhood was curtailed by her disability. Accordingly, performativity as Butler (and perhaps also Mahmood) examine it, may only be available to able-bodied woman unless both the concept of the body and performativity is extended to incorporate non-human components. Hence, what Stohl’s story elucidates is how she could, in some instances, accomplish compulsory gender norms exclusively through strategically utilizing visualization technologies which enabled her to cite and reiterate norms. This of course brings me to Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges” as both the camera and the barstool were visual tricks which worked as an airbrush of sorts, erasing Stohl’s disabled parts and enhancing her abled parts. Visualization technologies provided an optical illusion that Stohl embodied normative notions of sex. It did this through creating a mirage of an ablebody – that is, a body that can engage in these normative performative practices. Consequently, visualization technologies were partial to giving Stohl’s body an ablebodied meaning. And Stohl used visualization technologies as a resource for normative reiteration.

Haraway’s article is of paramount importance here in relation to cultivating an anthropological grasp of embodiment because it begs questions like: how is performativity embedded in visualization technologies? How are ways of looking performative acts that encompass ways of being in the world? To what extend are visualization technologies a part of our bodies? How are meanings and bodies envisioned? What are the technologies that constitute these visions? How can we use visualization practices to make bodies outside of the norm appear? How can we use visualization technologies to give these bodies a chance for life?

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