Saturday, March 13, 2010

Michelle-Obama-Arms


I am now ABD. In academic parlance, that means "All But Dissertation" - i.e. I have been disciplined and thereby proven my worth for doing research and writing a dissertation. In other words, I am now a Ph.D. candidate. About a year ago I realized that ABD is in fact an official qualification, higher than an M.A. So that, I am the letters B.A., M.A., ABD, can now legitimately be attached to my name. For years I thought this whole ABD thing was just another hoop that we had to jump through - but I guess it actually counts for something. And so, technically, I could walk away from this thing and still teach (albeit as a lecturer not professor... whatever). But, after over a year of stressing over my prospectus and thinking I-have-no-idea-what-I'm doing, I-don't-have-the-smarts-to-do-this, I'm-never-going-to-pull-this-off... I finally know what I'm doing and can't wait to get started on it! And better still, my committee loves it too... which is, in itself, so worth all the pain.


Since I've haven't been posting much lately, and I'm still trying to physically and mentally recuperate, I thought a good way to start-up again might be to post the oral presentation I made before my committee. It gives a good idea of my project, without getting into the varied intricacies of it.

Since one's prospectus is never filed, there is never an official acknowledgments page that goes with it. So, I'm going to acknowledge some folks here. First obviously my advisor. You can never get away with crap with her - she demands the best of you. And if you don't deliver, she WILL let you know. But everyone that works with her knows this. With me, though, I demanded so much patience from her. Just yesterday, we were having a conversation about how I have higher expectations of, and am therefore the most mean to and demanding of, those I am close to. I said my parents and my partner (at any given time) experience this the most - and she added, "and your advisor." Damn... maybe I put her through stuff that I wasn't even aware of. She yelled at me once... pretty fiercely. And I was hurt and mad... but she got my out of a funk that had me stuck in a writing slump (yes, I know that rhymes...)... and most importantly, she didn't drop me as she well could have. For that and everything else, I love her!


And then, of course, there's my parents, my ex, and the person in my department I got close(r) to this year... they let me cry, they let me vent, they gave me ideas, they said it was ok if I wanted to come back/go back home but it would be better if I kept fighting... and for that and everything else, I love them too!!

So, what does any of this have to do with the title of this post? I love... I want... and now that I'm ABD, I can work towards more important things, like developing Michelle-Obama-Arms.

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Good afternoon everyone and happy International Women’s Day. I’d like to thank you for being present here today and especially for taking the time of read my work, despite all that this campus has been put through in the past few weeks. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Denise for being uncommonly patient with me as I worked through my prospectus and for not dropping me as quickly and as long ago as she rightfully could have. Thank you...

So, about my project. To state it concisely, and as should be evident in my prospectus, my project is about the erotics of violence. The path that brought me to this has been somewhat circuitous. If I had to trace back to its origins, I’d identify three moments through which my project emerged. The first was when I was introduced to Hortense Spiller’s Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe. Here, the phrase “before body there is flesh” compelled me for the first time to seriously reflect on the possible differences between body and flesh. As I was doing so, a few weeks later, I had the opportunity to listen to Prof. Sherene Razack’s talk at an Ethnic Studies departmental colloquium where she spoke of how, in thinking about the deaths of aboriginal peoples in Canada, she was haunted by a boot-print found on the body of an Aboriginal man who was found dead a few hours after a police arrest. Her talk was built around the possible significance of this boot-print in the context of colonial violence. As I contemplated how these two moments might fit together – i.e. my reading of Spillers as well as Prof. Razack’s talk – I found myself constantly returning to Bartholomew’s image from Bhopal, rethinking its significance through the ideas posed by Spillers and Razack, and wondering too about what this image might have to offer to their work.

Thus put together, I began to recognize that what was driving my ideas was an interest in the productivity of the body in enactments of violence. That is, I wondered about the significance of the fact that the body is a predominant site for enactments of violence. And also I was interested in what might be revealed by focusing on the techniques through which violence in enacted upon the body. As I delved into my sites of interest then – i.e. Partition, Nandigram and Bhopal – I noticed that while postcolonial studies does in fact read the body as a crucial site of political formation, it is almost always signified through the ideas of culture and nation. And moreover, while the body is viewed as always gendered, it is primarily the female body that appears to be addressed – this is an effect, I believe, of the ways in which the figure of the woman is instituted in the realm of the cultural.


Reading postcolonial studies texts along side the work of scholars such as Allen Feldman and Elaine Scarry, I began to think about how one might write a postcolonial studies project that attempts to avoid a reification of power in the “edifices of domination” and contemplates, instead, the fictiveness of formal narrative that authorize it. Hence the assertion in my proposal that what I am interested in focusing on is the act of violence. And if Nietzsche is correct, and I presently concur, that “there is no “being” behind the doing, acting, … the doing is everything,” then, how might we think about subjects of violence as not already constituted but as produced in the act? And furthermore, how might we address them prior to, or in the initiating moment of the act?

This is the question that ultimately drives my project. Returning to my sites of interest, it does concern me that in cases of violence lives get written into, and sometimes out of, existence through certain privileged signifiers. And while I recognize the imperative and the productivity of these endeavors to illustrate the ways in which political formations are imbued with power and how that power circulates through and across various bodies and populations, I do wonder whether this can be written of in ways that reflect the larger violences that found their very existence. That is, I wonder how we might write violence so as to make it reflect the ontoepistemological contexts through which subjects are instituted and which mark their always already subjugated existences?

From this perspective, it is my belief that the lives that am I concerned with in my project are those that signify an imminent excess; that is, these existences are seen to exceed what is proper and useful in modern subjectivity – or, in other words, they exceed what is comprehended by the ethical order. It is for this reason that I see George Bataille’s formulation of the Human as offering something analytically valuable.


For Bataille, the Human is a descriptor that circumscribes both humanity and animality. Or, in other words, the Human is constituted through both, the negation of, and an always imminent transgression into, animality. The Human Other then, is that whose existence is always already described as excess. In Bataille’s work, this position is marked by the racial and sexual subaltern. In the context of my work however, subalterity is determined not through the usual colonial and racial constructs, but I re-describe it through the new Color Line as described by Sylvia Wynter, as that which separates the “developed” from the “underdeveloped.” This reframing enables me to complicate Bataille’s work so as to make his formulation of the Human and its Other productive for post-colonial contexts.

There are two more crucial steps which help lay-out my project. Here too, I follow Bataille’s guidance. For Bataille, the being that emerges through the negation of all excess, that is by holding all excess in ban, is SERVILE MAN. The accursed domain, then, describes all that lies in excess of SERVILE MAN. The act wherein the ban is negated, servility is transgressed and existence expands into the realm of the accursed – Bataille refers to as the erotic. Yet, he also argues that such an act is propelled by the horror and desire engendered by the object of the act. Indeed, it is acts such as these that he describes as violence produced by “a fleeting movement of animal excitation.”

I therefore propose that since racial and sexual subalterns always already signify an imminent return to animality, to excess, that their bodies are signifiers of the erotic. And it is this erotic signification that provokes both an (ethical) revulsion and a (human) attraction. This may be said to constitute the scene of engulfment, where engulfment represents the dread that the object-of-violence-in-waiting might envelop, or devour, the agent-of-the-act-in-waiting. Extending Bataille’s argument then, I propose that, in this scene of engulfment, violence produced as an effect of the erotic refers to both the transgressive act as well as to the object of violence itself. In fact, it is my contention that the object and the act mutually constitute each other as erotic. Thus, my proposal is based on the idea that representations of violence, in attempting to bring order to disorder, or to make known the unknowable, isolate the erotics of violence. Yet, violence always already bares traces of it.

In my prospectus, I provided a brief overview of the work of scholars such as Scarry, Feldman and Michael Taussig in order to demonstrate how attention to the body can reveal the illusions of power as produced through spectacles of violence, and also to contemplate the possibilities of heeding the erotic as embedded within their texts. But to follow the erotic, per Bataille’s work, requires, in my opinion, the generation of separate ontological descriptors that address the moments of humanity and animality. I therefore introduce for my project the framework of body and flesh, where body is the ontological descriptor of SERVILE MAN and flesh describes existence corresponding to the accursed domain. The erotic, I suggest, traffics in these two moments of body and flesh.

That is, the erotic is constituted when SERVILE MAN transgresses the primordial negation and surrenders to the desire of, or returns to, the organic excess, his filth, the biological material associated with animality. But furthermore, to re-iterate, violence as a function of the erotic refers not only to the transgressive act, but also an incitement to violence by the erotic object. Thus, in the context of my work, the raced and gendered thing, onto which the erotic is imputed, is always already ontologized as flesh. Consequently, as noted in my prospectus, I contend that violence as an effect of the erotic is that whereby the body, in surrendering to the desire for flesh, becomes flesh.

To clarify, further, consider Sylvia Wynter’s work on “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being…,” where she suggests that the “coloniality of power” has, over time, established Man and his Other, through descriptors such as rational/irrational, selected/dysselected, developed/underdeveloped and thus deserving/undeserving. My distinction between body and flesh poses a similar ontological distinction. Except, however, this distinction while acknowledging the difference instituted between contemporary Man and his Others, also insists on its volatility. That is, body provides an account of a certain form, or moment, of developed existence – one associated with humanity – and flesh describes otherness, or more precisely, existence that exceeds what can be comprehended by body. Yet, existence described as flesh can only be negated, not annihilated. Indeed the form of existence captured by flesh is always already imminent in that captured by body. What can be annihilated then is the actual life that becomes associated with flesh. And ultimately it is this life that is of primary concern to my project.

To recap: my project asks, how might we write an account of violence that heeds the ontoepistemological context through which postcolonial subjects are instituted? In an attempt to answer this question, I suggest that we focus on the act of violence, through which the agent and the object emerge as subjects of violence. Here, I pose racial and sexual subalterns as signifiers of erotic excess, so that their bodies incite violence as erotic transgression. And in order to apply this proposed logic to my sites of interest – i.e. Partition, Nandigram and Bhopal – I suggest a methodological framework that uses body and flesh to describe the two ontological moments of humanity and animality, respectively.


I’d like to conclude as I did in my prospectus by asserting that my work intends to provide neither a generalized nor a universalized account of violence. On the contrary, it hopes to determine how violence might be engaged in its very singularity, so that the bodies and lives that violence is done to are retained as such, and not swept away, effaced, by grandiose narratives that reify power for themselves and the edifices from which they emerge.

In his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Banjamin writes: “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins. And this enemy has not ceased to be victorious.” I do not pretend to be this historian. Yet, my work is driven by these words… “even the dead… .” My dissertation hopes therefore to be a crawl towards their spirit.

Thank you.

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11 comments:

yssi said...

whoot congrats on your newly accomplished abd status! but more importantly, best of luck in your pursuit of michelle obama arms :)

manong danny said...

hey what article/work did you use by sylvia wynter & the color line?

承合 said...

thx u very much, i learn a lot

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