The Indian Woman is Agamben’s Sacred Man

There is something profoundly bewildering about the schizophrenia of India’s treatment of a woman- a stubborn irreconcilability to the multiple manners in which she is constructed, portrayed and engaged with. She is devi (goddess), earth, mother, carer, breeder- delicate and pure; but also seductress, whore, temptress, tainted- bleeding and foul.

A baffling mix of personal experiences of reverence and contempt,  esteem and distaste, respect and derision constantly obfuscated my attempts to successfully characterise the nature and place of the woman in India.

Until, that is, I met Agemben and his sacred man. Agamben’s theory of the ambivalence of the sacred brilliantly illuminates the contradictory nature of the treatment of the homo sacer or the sacred man. The homo sacer is he who can be killed but not sacrificed- a banned creature who is simultaneously sacred and impure, sacrosanct and denounced. He is a singular embodiment of the pure and the impure, simultaneously auspicious and inauspicious, and condemned to a life of eternal vulnerability in his position as one whose killing cannot be sanctioned.

There could not be more apposite a conceptualisation. The Indian woman is Agamben’s sacred man. All at once, she is august and damned, hallowed and cursed, divine and repugnant, virtuous and obscene.

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Eyes won’t drop

She’s as vile as vile can be

Gaze averted

Long skirted

She’s a regular devi

The chilling reality that this contradictory, antithetical construction of the Indian woman translates to is a permanent state of incertitude- of being and remaining forever violable, rapeable, killable without reproach. It is this position of vulnerability that forms the foundational basis for protest and resistance against gender based violence in India. And from the ambivalence that frames this vulnerability, spring two unique formulations of the Indian woman in protest.

The first manifests itself through campaigns like Slutwalk (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SlutWalk) and the Pink Chaddi Campaign (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pink_Chaddi_Campaign). Where the Indian woman brazenly declares herself as sexual, material, carnal and provides her physicality, her venereality as the site for resistance and protest. Where the materiality of her body is not stifled or concealed, nor subtly alluded to, but front and centre of the revolution. Where her impurity is acknowledged and embraced, and then its characterisation as impure challenged.

The second construction  of the Indian woman is the very inverse of the first. It plays instead on the veneration of the Indian woman- her sanctity, righteousness and virtue. It appeals to the good and pious in potential perpetrators, beseeches them to reach deep into their moral rectitude and see women for the divinity they embody. The Abused Goddesses Campaign is the ultimate portrayal of this, depicting various Indian goddesses as powerless victims of abuse:

Goddess 1 Goddess 2 Goddess 3

Since my first exposure to these images, and profoundly more after my dalliance with Agamben, I have developed a strong discomfort with the latter construction of the Indian woman. Aside from its valorisation and fetishisation of victimhood, it serves to produce the good Indian woman, pious and worthy of protection, and its antithesis- the impure woman. It retains the element of uncertainty and susceptibility in its blatant appeal to potential perpetrators, dispensing with any focus on women reclaiming control of their own bodies and destiny. A venerated woman remains a vulnerable one.

Agemben has shown me that our accursedness will be our ultimate release. It is only through a visibalised, unapologetic performance of our physicality, our bodily materiality that we can liberate ourselves. Our impurity is our salvation.

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This revolution had best not be televised- Tinder and the zoe-fication of intimacy

First, a disclaimer: My intention here is not to homogenise the universe of individuals and their respective intentions, interests and interactions on Tinder. Nor is this meant to be some sanctimonious diatribe against particular attitudes or approaches towards intimacy. It is an attempt to employ some of the deeply compelling concepts I have recently been exposed to in order to make sense of a phenomenon that has come to be a curious part of my almost daily reality- to understand my particular experience of Tinder.

The nature of the beast:

Tinder is conceptually brilliant- it is an application that allows you to view and ‘match’ with potential romantic prospects in your immediate vicinity. These matches occur when two users have mutually expressed an interest in each other, based exclusively (well, almost) on an assortment of upto 5 pictures one is allowed to upload. Once matched, the Tinder-ers are able to exchange messages, and it is essentially up to them to take it from there in whatever direction they please.

Now this is the peculiar part. That direction, almost inevitably, has sounded something like ‘so will you sit on my face tonight or tomorrow night?’. The montage of screenshots below are but few of the more colourful conversation starters I have been treated to on Tinder.

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Agamben’s bare life:

This work has had an almost feverish hold on my imagination since my first exposure to it. Agamben, in his conceptualisation of sovereign power, distinguishes between zoe, or bare life, and bios, or political life. Zoe is essentially animal life, stripped of all political and social meaning, organism rather than citizen, representing the simple fact of living common to all creatures. Zoe, as I imagine it, eats, fucks and dies; rather than savours, makes love, and is mourned. Bios, on the other hand, represents life in society, with its associated political and social significance. The sovereign exercises its power through the production of bare life, through its monopoly over determining it’s people’s place between the realms of zoe and bios, nature and culture.

Agamben’s powerful framework has most often been used to understand the relationship between the state (or other articulations of the sovereign) and various entities- individuals, citizens, people. This blog seeks to explore if, much like an entity, a concept can be reduced to bare life- if an institution can be hollowed out, stripped of its broader socio-political meaning and significance, and rendered zoe.

The Zoe-fication of intimacy:

Mediated through Tinder, the complex, layered, poignant institution of intimacy is diminished to its most base, feral core- intercourse. This deeply involved experience is diluted to a politically, emotionally and socially bankrupt version of itself, singularly preoccupied with fornication. The sovereign here is the vulgar hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, pervading every aspect of our lived realities. On Tinder, we make sense of intimacy in the same way we have come to engage with every other element of our existence- in a commodified, transactional manner. In what is slowly becoming the only way we are capable sensing, being, interacting.

Tinder is the ultimate capitalist caricature- a virtual shopping mall for intimacy. Every element of its aesthetic is an exaggerated effort to make the experience appealing to the unidimensional neoliberal subject- the consumer. Individuals are relieved of their multiple intricacies and unabashedly marketed through reductionist imagery. The tone of this objectified, commodified aesthetic is so potent, so pervasive that it appears to extend its insidious influence into the limited space ostensibly open for human self expression- the description section. A curious majority of individuals on Tinder do not appear to self-identify as dancer, dreamer, cynic, misanthrope, hedonist, but as 6 ft 5, currently bearded, bendy. The very logic of Tinder is so firmly oriented towards transacting on coitus rather than facilitating meaningful connections that proximity forms the centrepiece of its mechanism. On Tinder, intimacy is, and only aspires to be zoe sans bios – quick, convenient, mechanical sex.

Liberation a la Tinder

But this dispiriting narrative does not do justice to my Tinder story. There is something deeply empowering about entering the realm of commodified sleaze with eyes wide open. Of being able to identify and declare yourself as a sexual being, and voluntarily, intentionally exposing yourself to a space designed for unapologetic, transactional physicality. There is a strong emancipatory potential to such witting, wilful vulnerability, of a blatant rejection of stifling public morality and social control, of an impenitent insertion of self into a realm of uncertainty- of experiencing liminality. Liminality (Alves, 1993) is a time of transition, a space characterised by social ambiguity, unsettled and unsettling. It is an experience achieved only through a transgression catapulting its subject into a social limbo. Within a liminal space, a state of communitas emerges, delivering individuals from the oppressive shackles of social norms and constituting a direct challenge to traditional human identities. Communitas liberates individual identities through a form of empowerment that is derived from an individual’s exposure to the uncertainty and insecurity inherent to entering a liminal space.

My time on Tinder has constituted a venture beyond the realms of the normative- an infraction of the what is demanded of a decent, middle class Indian girl. Tinder has served as my sexual rite of passage- allowing me to reclaim when, where and how I am, and am perceived as, a sexual object. My Tinder-aided communitas facilitated not a well harmonised merging of my multiple identities as daughter, Indian, student, sister, partner, but rather the emergence of an additional distinct, transcendent identity that rejected the insistence on conformity and reconciliation. My sexualness, an element of my identity I could not previously so much as isolate, was resolutely returned to my singular control. Tinder, in all of of its commodified obscenity, hosted my personal sexual revolution.

References:

Agamben, G. (1998) ‘Part two: homo sacer’, in Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, pp. 71-115.

Alves, J. (1993). ‘Transgressions and transformations: initiation rites among urban Portuguese boys’ in American Anthropologist, December 1993, 95(4), pp. 894-928.