Giving a queer account of the self and culture

By Andy Silveira

Judith Butler in Giving an Account of Oneself states that, “the I has no story of its own that is not also the story of a set of relation –or set of relations –to a set of norms.” She implies that “I,” the narrating self, emerges from a “matrix of social intuitions,” which appropriate moral norms and are conditioned by those norms. Though there is a structure of address which precedes the “I” or the narrating self, the structure of address is also reiterated and determined through each invocation of the “I”[1].

The narrating self gives an account of itself to the other within the structure of the address. No account of the self is possible outside the structure of the address. Even if the account is addressed merely for the self alone, there is the transference of the self as an other. Thus, every account presumes an other. Adriana Cavarero suggests that the “I” is not solipsistic and closed upon itself, but that it derives its meaning by virtue of the “you” that it addresses. Within this structure of the address, the “I” encounters the “you” in a domain of exposure, visibility, and appearance and thereby constitutes its own singularity. The “I” desires the “you” as an other, which is distinct and unique, such that despite the similarity, there is a difference. Commenting upon Cavarero’s theory of recognition, Butler makes two observations. First, our fundamental dependency upon the other exists through our desire of recognition and second, there is a singularity in our account which is not the same as the other’s. Butler further mentions  that, insofar as “the fact of singularizing exposure, which follows from bodily existence, is one that can be reiterated endlessly, it constitutes a collective condition, characterizing us all equally, not only reinstalling the ‘we,’ but also establishing a structure of substitutability at the core of singularity.”

The self is constituted through the dialectical relation between the ontological subject and narrating subject. Mead draws a distinction between the “I” and the “me” – where in a moment of reflexivity the “I” seeks to incorporate the “me” in the next iteration of the self. The “me” becomes the object of the “I”’s deliberations.

It is as we act that we are aware of ourselves. It is in memory that the “I” is constantly present in experience. We can go back directly a few moments in our experience, and then we are dependent upon memory images for the rest. So that the “I” in memory is there as the spokesman of the self of the second, or minute, or day ago. As given, it is a “me,” but it is a “me” which was the “I” at the earlier time. If you ask, then, where directly in your own experience the “I” comes in, the answer is that it comes in as a historical figure. It is what you were a second ago that is the “I” of the “me”(174).

For Mead, the self emerges through the iterations of the “I” and “me” which constitute an interiority. Experience, memory and awareness are entangled with the working of language and discourse. The “I” seems to be an activity of the self which asserts itself within a discursive structure.  Also, Mead’s “I/me” is an iteration of the self which is located within social and historical determinants.

We are individuals born into a certain nationality, located at a certain spot geographically, with such and such family relations, and such and such political relations. All of these represent a certain situation which constitutes the “me”; but this necessarily involves a continued action of the organism toward the “me” in the process within which that lies. The self is not something that exists first and then enters into relationship with others, but it is, so to speak, an eddy in the social current and so still a part of the current (182).

Mead locates the self within a social process that is defined and shaped by symbolic interaction. Several external, geographical, temporal and spatial determinants constitute the self within a matrix of relationships and thereby enable its formation. Thus the self, according to Mead, is constituted within a “situation” and is contingent upon time, place and purpose. This also implies an inability of having any fixed notion of the self as it is constantly within a process of constitution.

For Butler, on the other hand, each one has the ability to objectify one’s experiences in order to transform them into objects of reflection and redefinition. The conception of oneself is fictive in character.  Contrarily for Mead it is not fictive in so far as each one has the capacity to make an object of oneself as a real person. For both Butler and Mead, consciousness represents a state of internal responsiveness where it is regarded in relation to itself as subject or “I.” Consciousness is also dependent on external social relations where the self is an object of the other and oneself or “me.”

There are different aspects to theorizing the self. First, there is an assumption that the self has an essence, which is located within a particular temporality and sociality. Through the discursive act of narration, the self constitutes an identification that falls short of and exceeds any iteration of the self. This leads to a subject which is “conceived in terms of an ever dissolving, failing iteration.” (Green, 35) Second, following Green’s argument, even if it were possible to locate a subject or collectivity as a failing iteration, it is impossible to pursue any sustained notion of the self without reifying it. Third, the self is opaque to itself and so there exists a rupture in giving an account of itself (Butler 69). Hence the self can only give a partial account of itself.

In talking about the self another question that emerges is how one gives a queer account of the self. How has sexuality been used in the formation of the modern self? For Foucault, discourse constitutes a sexual subject and his or her desires. Knowledge and power are embedded in discourse which leads to the formation of identities, practices and desires. He argues that society operates through a polyvalence of discourses with manifold relations of power where individuals are vehicles of power, not as its agents but as one of its prime effects.

Foucault’s conception of bio-power is useful in understanding how power gets manifested in society and individuals. Prior to the seventeenth century in the west, sovereign power exercised itself through the right of life and death over its subjects. It consisted in the power to seize life or privileges away from its subjects through the “right of death”. However, starting in the seventeenth century, bio-power has manifested itself through the discipline of the body, where the human body is treated like a machine, and through the regulation of population, which focuses on the reproductive capacity of the human body. Bio-power is punitive as well as a pedagogic power that governs the strategies of knowledge, authorities and practices of intervention that are desirable and legitimate.

Another related notion to bio-power is Paul Rabinow’s notion of bio-sociality. Bio-sociality examines the emergence of new groupings around new biological identities. Sarah Gibbon and Carlos Novas state how new knowledge and techniques associate with contemporary sciences to constitute a network through which individuals identify themselves, relate to others, create new social forms and engage in the artifice of modifying nature (Gibbon 4). Factors such as “hype, hope and contingency” merge with “life and capital, science and technology, knowledge and power” and reshape “how humans understand themselves or their relations to others, their experiences of health and illness and how local, national and global economies are being reorganised in this process (5).” Unlike bio-power, bio-sociality is a way in which individuals form relations around certain determinants of selfhood.

Bio-power/bio-sociality and Indian law

Queer[2] articulation in India enters the realm of policy with reference to the discussion surrounding Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. Drafted by Lord Macaulay in 1861 in British India to control and regulate the Indian subject, Section 377 served as a ‘locus of oppression’ against sexual minority groups (Narrain 255). Though this law has hardly been used to prosecute cases of consensual adult male sexual relationships, it has become the basis for police violence and discrimination against homosexuals in society.

Section 377 reads as:

Unnatural offences: Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation— Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

The Naz Foundation Trust (NFT), an Indian activist group, filed a public interest litigation in the Delhi High Court in 2001, claiming that this section violated the constitutionally-guaranteed protection of equality, privacy and freedom of expression. As well, the NFT sought to exclude consensual adult sex in private. On 6th September 2003, the Government of India sent its response to the Naz petition through an affidavit, refusing to consider the petition on the grounds that it had no locus standi in the matter. The government asserted that, “Section 377 applied to cases of assault, where bodily harm is intended or caused and deletion of the said section can well open flood gates of delinquent behaviour and be misconstrued as providing unbridled license to the same.” As no one had been prosecuted in the recent past under that section, it seemed unlikely that the Section would be struck down as illegal. The NFT then appealed to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court stated that the NFT had the standing to file a public interest litigation, and asked the Delhi High court to reconsider it. On July 2, 2009, the Delhi High Court overturned the Section 377 on the grounds that it violates fundamental rights of human citizens, thus decriminalizing private sexual acts between consenting adults.

This case reveals how sexuality is deployed within the Indian state through Indian Law, through a strong heteronormative bias “wherein ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are defined in clearly procreative terms, with inability to procreate rendering the marriage itself suspect” (Narrain 65). Thinking of Foucault’s notion of the ‘deployment of alliance’ as it might pertain to the Indian context, reveals how the system of marriage (including kinship ties, and transmission of names and possessions), along with its mechanisms of constraint, is “built around a system of rules defining the permitted and the forbidden, the licit and the illicit” (106) and thereby ties sexuality and alliance with family and procreation. The government’s response in 2003 indicates its virulent homophobia, which suppresses any demand of the queer rights movement. The government’s response characterised itself as articulating and reflecting public morality, protecting women and children and curtailing delinquent behavior. The government’s role through its political, economic and legal power, exercised bio-power by curbing visibility of homosexuals and in order to foster “the solidity of the family institution” (Foucault 147).

The emergence of the queer movement in India began in the late 1980’s with the establishment of a gay magazine Bombay Dost in Mumbai and a lesbian collective Sakhi in Delhi. These in turn led to the emergence of a number of queer groups in other metropolitan cities and smaller towns such as Akola, Gulbarga and Trichy. In India, the category of MSM (men who have sex with men) emerged within the context of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. There are several categories included in the MSM groups: (a) on the basis of gender, such as the Akwa hijras (those preparing for castration after rites between guru and chela), Nirwan hijras (castrated and joined hijra ‘gharanas,’ leaving their biological families), all of whom are transgender groups; (b) on the basis of sexual behaviors, groups such as the Kothis (Indian effeminate men who are penetrated), Panthis (patners of Kothis), gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders; (c) on the basis of traditional identities based on practices of gender and sexual non-conformity, such as Jagappas and Jogtas (Hindu male temple prostitutes) in North Karnataka and Maharastra, and shivshaktsis and ganacharis in parts of South India; (d) and on the basis of their vulnerability due to their work place situations, such as male sex workers, masseurs, boys at dancing bars, gym boys and hotel boys (Kavi 392; Narrain 5).

There was, and still is among certain queer groups, a reluctance to associate with an identity based on sexual acts. Unlike in the west, where there were distinct identity groups formed on the basis of sexual acts, the MSM in India consider same-sex behaviour as “masti (mischief). These men, in giving an account of their sexual acts, do not consign themselves to an identity that is internal or unique to their notion of who they are. Rather, these MSM emerge as deliberating subjects within a scenario where the formation of identities, based on sexual performativity, is external and has to be negotiated at an epistemological distance in how they come to know and identity themselves.

Although the MSM in India are aware of the ideological claim that identities are formed based on sexual performativity, they seek to oppose it, and furthermore, to spawn new identities by “conflating gender and sexual orientation from older hijra cultures (genderized males in ethno-religious cults),” here referring to the Kothis (Ravi 394). This reflects two of Butler’s claims: first, that “the performance of gender subversion can indicate nothing about sexuality and sexual practice” (1999, xiv) and second, that performativity is not a singular act, but a repetition and a ritual, which achieves its effects through its naturalization in the context of a body (xv).

What is understood as the essence of the Kothi identity is a sustained set of embodied acts, such as the gendered stylization of the body and choice of sexual roles.The Kothis, who adopt feminine modes of dressing, speech and behavior, tend to be from non-English-speaking, middle, lower-income and working-class backgrounds. In the case of Kothis, acts are coupled with language and economic determinants to constitute an identity, which in turn serves as an interior semblance of the self.

The formation of identities which foreground a particular category, namely, sexual desire, acts as a locus of power through its ability to redefine the “universal” or the “marginal” narrations of the self via identity politics.  What is considered as normal or abject, and what is spoken or silent, are dependent on contextual discourses. The fact that sexuality is foregrounded in a privileged relation to other constructs depicts the way power percolates into knowledge and truth. Identities come into being within a site where several critical nodes of culture, such as language, gender, politics and sexuality are contested.

Virtual/Real Identities

Another interesting impact on the formation of queer subjectivities in the Indian scenario is the impact of the internet[3]. Online environments are a virtual arena for the rapid exchange of electronic information, which promotes a new kind of sexual practice known as “cybersex” (Wakeford 132). There is a flow of information and contact through virtual space, which in turns breaks into real space. Sexual pleasure experienced in interactive chat rooms enable users to experience newer forms of sexual gratification, without in any way encountering a real person. Chat rooms and gay-related websites such as planetromeo.com, gay.com, manjam.com, gaydar.co.uk have been instrumental in sharing information and providing emotional support, thus engendering virtual communities. These virtual communities provide a kind of “third” space where people conglomerate, away from the first and second spaces of home and work (Rheingold 23). Particularly for the queer community, the virtual chat rooms are a third space away from the “real” world. With the advent of the Internet and cellular technology, there has been a considerable shift in cruising trends in public spaces within cities from the “real” space to “virtual” space and back to the ‘real’ space.

Within the virtual world, there is a possibility of forming volatile and fluid identities that enjoy the privilege of anonymity. The online-persona may permit misrepresentation and also sustain fantasy and deception. Certain online self-presentations are free from constraints of the gendered body due to the flexibility of self-presentation. Changing the online description, particularly in chat rooms, in order to increase chances of being selected as a chat partner, enables the formation of a multiple fluid selves. For many queers, virtual space has provided affirmation that was not available to them in real spaces, either due to personal attributes or social barriers such as class and caste. Such fluidity and anonymity has led to a “discourse of openness” which enables people to share their non-heterosexuality in different situations and with different people (Laukkanen 87).

How online narratives of the self actually affect self-identity and in turn lead to formation of online queer-identities, is worth investigating. Queer websites like gaybombay.org, orinam.net, prathibimb.com have initiated significant online sharing of experiences, such as coming out stories and stories of self-realization that they are not alone, and have led to group meetings and formation of politically active groups which contribute to the queer “community” in real space. Certain queer communities have distinct online identities through their political and performative roles in maintaining a particular status and position. Stated and implicit norms of interaction, the ideals of the core-group, and the group’s political stand on particular issues all characterize the online identity of the group. How a group shares information with in-group members and permits out-group members to claim a social identity with a context reflects the dynamics that operates between members in a group.

Parmesh Shahani’s Gay Bombay states how media and technology have fostered the discourse of homosexuality within the public space in India. In the 1990’s the major trends in the English language print media such as “the tabloidification of news” and the popularity of the “Page 3 culture” carried information of several gay celebrities consumed by the masses and this brought about visibility of other sexualities that challenged heteronormativity (94-95). Shahani explains that the entry of cable industry in 1991 and private radio channels in 1993 initiated the discourse of homosexuality within Indian households through several programs. Following this, the liberalization of the telecommunication sector in 1992 enabled rapid connectivity within the queer community. With the financial independence of many queers through the Information Technology revolution in the 1990s, there was greater confidence among queers to live their preferred life-styles (100).

Emergence of bio-socialities

Through each of the changes that were taking place within the social sphere, a new group of people who earlier had no agency in defining “the sensible,” had now begun to assert themselves. Reading Kollias’ application of Jacques Rancière’s political philosophy to queer politics, the notion of Rancière’s “demos” is helpful in understanding how the self comes to terms with otherness. The “demos” designates those who have no part in “the distribution of the sensible” as they have “no qualifications for being taken into account.” This moment of politics that begins, when a group of people find their own voice and challenge the established order’s categorisations and classifications, is a moment of disagreement and upheaval. Concurrently, a mass of people who “have no part in anything” begin to voice a certain inequality against them within a particular society. This claim for a redistribution of rights through the articulations of their selves challenges and seeks to negotiate an equality which transcends the earlier given classifications of society.  There is a disidentification with the earlier system, and a re-classification under a different subject space, where people “who have no part” are able to collectively negotiate a new kind of inclusive politics. Rancière’s notion of the “ochlos” refers to a group “obsessed with unification” as it desires to incorporate the whole society into one entity despite divisions and differences. Both the demos and ochlos seem to be at loggerheads within society as they have two apparently contradictory demands.

In India new bio-socialities such as non-government organizations, lawyer groups, online-groups and communities based on sexual identities were formed and began demanding a change in Indian Law. With the formation of these bio-socialities, which were ultimately responsible for the amendment of Section 377 of the IPL in the Delhi High Court, a new demos, based on sexuality, asserted its claim challenging the heteronormativity of Indian society. Through active social and political participation of several Kothi, Hijra, Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender and Transvestite, Queer groups, they declassified themselves from the heternormative social order and identified themselves through their own sexual identities and preferences.

Though there were several attempts by the ochlos, particularly the role played by the government and the police who sought to safe-guard the interests of the heterosexual patriarchal Indian state, there were several debates in different spheres to reach a consensus. The predominant question, as to what comprises the self and how one gives an account for it from the perspective of different diacritical markers, contests the inability to give an essential static definition of the self. In India, where religion, regional, caste and class status play a role in the constitution and implementation of laws, the queer community would continue to be a demos.  There would continue to be hierarchical institutions, both governmental as well as private, that hold power and help sustain and reproduce certain kinds of identities. Given the complexity of Indian society and politics, there is policing at several levels along several registers. Todd May concedes that the police order assumes the status of inequality even in a democratic society, as certain people dominate the lives of others by giving orders (May, 5).

The way transsexual discourse in India emerges through voices from particular geographic locations attests to the manner in which transsexuals negotiate their own identity among other identity groups and resist the ochlos or police order at the points at which they are denied that equality. The transsexuals or transgender persons in India, who differ from the hijra community, find themselves positioned among the demos in Indian society. Ashwini Suthankar identifies some areas where transsexuals have to tackle such biases such as the manner in which the state condones and sympathizes with the perpetrators of violence against transsexuals and excuses it as “trans panic,” on seeing marginal and abnormal bodies, the commercial interests of the medical and pharmaceutical establishment when they sanction a transsexual surgery, and the marriage laws which only favour heterosexual couples.

Along with the various bio-socialities such as communities based on sexual identities and online groups, are those individuals who have “come out” as gay, lesbian or bi-sexual and who negotiate their queer lives within the spaces of their homes, work places and cruising areas. Social relations at home or work, which might turn these places into spaces of violence, strive to regulate behaviour, identity and practice. For such individuals, everyday places of interaction become battlegrounds for negotiation of sexuality, especially in the face of disparaging comments, heterosexual biases and homophobic actions. Most hetero-normative places of interaction in India share a common distaste for non-heterosexual behaviours and manifest themselves through acute rejection, cynicism, fear and even violence through political and social injunctions. In such instances, the ochlos is not the police order or some governmental body, but the very people these individuals have lived and co-habited with. Often a large number of openly queer people in India belong to the disenfranchised individuals in society who hardly have access to economic privileges[4]. The way power gets manifested in these relationships through social regulation and economic control also constitutes the manner in which sexuality is lived and practiced within these spaces. Within a heterosexist setup a sense of shame gets associated with the collective identity of the family of an openly queer person because it violates the norms which make heterosexuality seem natural or right.

Any notion of the self is in a state of flux and is contingent upon “relations that are specific to particular spaces and through the space-specific practices through which these relations become enacted” (Browne 4). By queering the self and diffusing the locus of power within normative discourse, there is a possibility to create newer forms of articulation and action. Such a step enables a plurality of identities to emerge.  Identity is recognized and performed through repeated acts which stabilize a certain notion of the self. Though the self is in a fluid continuum process of becoming, it has to constantly negotiate itself with its own identity as well as with otherness.

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[1] While commenting on Foucault’s account of himself, Butler points out “the limits of the phenomenological conception of the self.” His account is that of a “subject with a history,” and not that of a “founding subject,” which constitutes “the founding act” by which “the history of reason emerges.”

[2] The term Queer is used by some theorists such as Arvind Narrain, Gautam Bhan and Alok Gupta, as well as activists in India who work around issues of gender and sexuality to critique heteronormativity. Unlike in the West where, historically, it was used as a derogatory term, queer has not had the same tinge of infamy within the Indian context and has been adopted to challenge hegemonic heterosexual spaces. It also engages with a larger world view that recognizes and critiques complex systems of class, caste, gender, sexuality, race and religion. Among other things, queer is also used to refer to people who challenge or contest hetero-normativity.

[3] On the 15th of August 1995, Videsh Sanchar Nigam Limited (VSNL) launched the Gateway Internet Access Service for providing public Internet access. For three years it was the sole internet service provider (ISP) in the country and had 7,00,000 users by March 1998. However, after the government allowed private ISPs into the market the number of users increased to 3.7 million in 2000 and 18.5 million in 2004, and 45 million in mid-2006( Shahani, 98).

[4] Though the hijras in India have a long history and tradition in Indian culture, they have been totally neglected and deprived of any state benefits. The kothis of the early twentieth century differ from the urban kothis of today who challenge the normativity of heterosexuality (Ravi, 395). Most of the hijras and kothis belong to the economically and culturally impoverished sections of the community (Narrain, 2005, 5; Ravi, 395).