In Defense of a More Deliberately Corporeal Feminism

“The body is the inscribed surface of events.” – Michel Foucault

If you haven’t yet, I recommend the previous blog posts in this (de facto) series. I think it’s a nice overview of the recent evolution of my thoughts and formulations on the topic of feminisms, feminist theory and a move toward genealogical critiques of the exercises and techniques of power over bodies.

  1. Brief Thoughts on Intersectionality + A Project Proposal
  2. Excerpts that I Cut out of an Essay for Political Theory: On Ontology, Structure and Resistance
  3. What Do I Mean by Feminism?: Clarifying a Fundamental Misunderstanding
  4. Rethinking the Ontological Basis of Feminisms

On Race and Discourse

Discourse, on its face, might seem “theoretical” but it has very practical, material effects. If you really want to be a challenge to hegemonic discourse on race, then you must challenge the notion of race = phenotype/genotype. Race is discursively constructed.  Race is a discourse. Race is one form of inscription on our human, social bodies. And discourses have materiality. Race, as we understand it, is the effect of myriad discourses re: nature/culture, civilization/savages, Western Self/Other.

I have noticed also, that along some critical race theorists and anti-racists, the logic of power is overestimated. People talk as though White Supremacy is this unilateral hegemony with a unified logic. Perhaps, paying attention to the intentions of the bodies thru which power is exercised in the form of racism is distracting us from understanding the power relations that mold our subjectivities as marked bodies within a network of power relations. In other words, this inordinate focus on white individuals detracts from us apprehending a full picture of the society in which we are situated, and our subjective situatedness. There’s also a subtle reification of the idea that only whites are afforded individuality and personhood, while people of color are an essentialized, typified mass whose exceptions serve the function of defining and excluding the Other. To quote Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak: “The putative centre welcomes selective inhabitants of the margin in order to better exclude the margin.”

Bodies, Biopower, Juridical Subjects:

Early this morning, I took a bath and read half of Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body: Race, Reproduction and the Meaning of Liberty. Roberts’ discussion of Buck v. Bell (1927) in this text has me thinking about how sexed/racialized/(dis)abled/classed bodies are codified. Carrie Buck was a poor white woman, the daughter of a woman marked “feeble-minded.” In turn, she was marked as such. And, when Carrie Buck was raped (in the Virginia Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded) and impregnated, she was deemed “sexually depraved,” as a way to say that the rape did not happen. (Here, rape culture manifests at the convergence of classism, misogyny, and ableism- and more widely, racism.) Why? On the basis of her “hereditary feeble-mindedness” passed down through her “poor white trash” mother (misogyny, classism and ableism.) Thus, on this basis of biological determinism (which masked racism, classism, misogyny, ableism- remember, power and its effects are prohibitive, generative, just as it conceals, masks and effaces power’s logics) the state of Virginia sterilized Carrie Buck. The VA Colony for Epileptics and Feeble-Minded furnished a testimony in court saying that Carrie Buck’s daughter was “mentally below average.” The ruling Buck v. Bell (1927) rejected arguments that forced sterilization violated constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. Buck v. Bell also codified biological determinism, the basis of eugenics programs- especially forced sterilization, which became legal in 30 states.

Seventy-two years later, in 1989, South Carolina arrested 48 impoverished pregnant women whose prenatal tests showed they smoked crack and forcibly sterilized them. All but 1 of the 48 impoverished and pregnant women who were arrested and forcibly sterilized in 1989 in South Carolina were Black. This followed a long history of the US state and federal governments sponsoring and condoning the forcible sterilization of low-income women, women of color, and people deemed “mentally inferior” or “mentally below average” (here we see biopolitical administration- the construction of quantitative metrics of the ‘normality’ of human bodies within public health and other arenas where juridical power was previously not easily exercised).

As part of a general program of genocide, First Nations women were forcibly sterilized under US state and federal law. And in Puerto Rico, a de facto territory of the US, the US government funded the medical testing and sterilization of Puerto Rican women in what was termed colloquially as “la operacion.” By contrast, a white American woman would be turned away if she sought to be sterilized. Doctors would use the “120” formula as a basis for rejecting white women’s requests. Multiply her age by the number of children she has. By that basis, a white woman with 3 kids would not be eligible for voluntary sterilization until she was 40 years old. However, there was an element of classism, because the 120 formula was only applied to white women of means- who had access to medical care; whereas, women of color- especially Blacks and First Nation women- and poor white women were forcibly sterilized in hospitals, mental asylums and jail cells.

This is one example of why I advocate for a more overtly corporeal feminism- one that formulates oppressions as inscriptions/marking of human bodies. “Woman” as subject of feminism is insufficient for a full-bodied analysis and redress of gender/class/race/ability-based crimes and systemic injustices.

Related Texts:

  1. Hartman, Saidiya V. “Seductions and the Ruses of Power.” Callaloo: A Journal of African-American and African Arts and Letters (Spring 1996), 19(2):560.
  2. Irigaray, Luce. Sexes and Genealogies. Trans. Gillian C. Gill. Ithaca: Cornell Unviersity Press, 1993
  3. Cixous, Hélène and Catherine Clément and Betsy Wing (Translator) and Sandra M. Gilbert (Introduction). The Newly Born Woman. University of Minnesota Press. June 1986.
  4. Sawicki, Jana. Disciplining Foucault: Feminism, Power, and the Body. London: Routledge. 1991
  5. Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault, trans. Donald F. Bouchard and Sherry Simon, ed. Donald F. Bouchard (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977)

5 Comments

  1. Thanks for letting me take an hour to relive my Berkeley days. I almost feel like I know what “deconstruct” and “corporeal” and “hegemonic” and “discourse” mean again!

    All of that said – little confused about how you went from eugenics/Buck V Bell/Angela Davis to “This is one example of why I advocate for a more overtly corporeal feminism- one that formulates oppressions as inscriptions/marking of human bodies.” #justsayin

    1. Hey Jess!

      Hehe. I appreciate you reading and commenting. I could clarify a bit to make the connection between eugenics and a need to a more overtly corporeal feminism more apparent. Thank you for your feedback. :)

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