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The Languages of Sexual Violence: Anupama Mohan

February 11, 2013

Guest post by ANUPAMA MOHAN

I teach a big word in my critical theory classes: phallogocentrism. It is the idea that our societies are centred by the phallus and language (logos) and is a word that often scares, perplexes, and disturbs my students, but I unpack it using an example. In English, the word seminal, which means something important and path-breaking, derives from “semen” and in contrast, the word hysterical or hysteria, which is a word that has for long been associated with peculiarly female physical and mental disorders (and often used for recommending women’s confinement), derives from “hystera” or the womb. What does such loading of the language – what a 20th century Russian thinker, Mikhail Bakhtin, called the formation of the verbal ideological world  – in terms of the perspective, validation, and supremacizing of one gender over the other do to/in our varied lives? Think of the word vanilla that, at least since the 1970s, has meant the ordinary and bland: its etymology derives from the Latin word for vagina (vaina) or “little vagina” for the pods of the plant that reminded someone of women’s genitals. The word porcelain – a thin, fragile kind of clay – too comes from the word for “cowrie shell” whose Italian links to porcella or young sow (a female pig) for someone recalled the shape of a piglet’s orifice. One more: the word amazon which refers to a legendary race of female warriors and has come to mean a strong woman derives possibly from many sources: from the Classical Greek a-mazos or breastless to the Iranian *ama-janah or “virility-killing” – a meaning that interprets the idea of women’s strength as both a mutilation of her physical self and/or as a threat to men.

When I raise these examples in my classes, it is like a curtain has lifted, and students are as much thrilled by the process of becoming unfamiliar with familiar expressions as they are disturbed by their inability to articulate what all of this means. For my students, many of whom identify wholly with America’s self-representation as the land of opportunity and the golden land, the assurances of neoliberal logic have swamped out all issues of gender other than when violence pops up in the occasional spectacular case of rape (such as the Steubenville incident recently) or, as is more pervasive, in the fairly routine occurrence of domestic abuse for some faraway cousin or relative. To such students, phallogocentrism is the revelation of a darkness tucked away into the folds of a world which blankets their lives with certitude and (relative) comfort. When I teach the word/idea, I have to try hard to beat down first their sense of incredulity at the hidden or embedded nature of the linguistic layers of our “real” worlds (a Ripley’s Believe It or Not way of looking at life), and then, more programmatically, their tendency to dismiss phallogocentrism as a freak, eccentric aspect of language, more a curiosity than a conspiracy, more theory than practice. To some students, though, the insight into the ways in which social structures build, shape, and systematize status quo occurs through this introductory jolt to the ways in which they find their very bodies written into the scripts that they have spoken all their lives. For many of my students, the learning of critical theory, then, is often the first step to the unlearning of their privileges, and the denaturalisation of those sacred ideas and words that had seemed to them natural, universal, and normative.

I begin this piece with the anecdotal evidence of my teaching in the US partly to draw attention to an idea that requires to be confronted by all of us in and out of India who are trying to come to terms with the brutal rape and murder of the 23 year old in Delhi, and partly, to suggest that nothing short of a full educational overhaul will truly address the endemic gender violence in India’s society. Much has been written about the specific nature of the gender violence that is both explicit and implicit in Indian society in various ways. The patronizing, protectionist discourse of women’s purity which is often evoked in the speeches of Indian demagogues is itself a powerful illustration that (at least for Hindu India) the most resonant images of “woman” are to be found in her idealization as goddess or devi (Lakshmi, Durga, Parvati, Sita, and others) or in her appendiciary roles as mother, sister, daughter, and wife. This is the “best” face of Indian political discourse surrounding women’s space in the public domain; the worst is, of course, the kind of logic that shifts the blame on to the woman – to her inappropriate clothing, to the influence of Chinese food on Indian male palates, to her family’s loss of control upon her movements outside the home, and so on. Rightly, such “analyses” have been lampooned, bitterly satirized, and publicly castigated in what is a historic first – for the language in which our leaders speak to us in India has rarely come under the kind of scrutiny that it should.

Indeed, if the fight against sexual violence in India has to have any real teeth, it has to first own up to the fact that the languages we employ in our everyday life betray our entrenchment in the very same violence that we seek to dismantle. Every time one of us uses the word “seminal” (or seminar and dissemination) without a sense of its history or when we talk of paurush as a positive ideal to which India as a whole must aspire while discarding “effeminate” ways (not to mention the deep, abiding fear and abhorrence of napunsakta – the pejorative term used to actively marginalize and dismiss a range of trans- identities), we endorse that hierarchy between male and female, that tilt of the world and that swerve in history and myth, whose brute logic ends in an evening on a bus. One must recognize that the natures of our patriarchal lives have been streamlined by male values: this in itself means nothing if we do not also understand at the same time that such values undergird, buttress, and provide the daily logic for our achievements and our collective sense of what is valuable, precious, and worth living for. The knowledge of the ways in which our lives have thus been moulded is the first step in denouncing a language that has become a leash by which we have long been led.

Phallogocentrism structures and provides shape and form to our lives and the fight against patriarchal values that mark women as naturally, inherently unequal by simultaneously proclaiming her fairer and weaker, devi and ma, the keeper and flouter of maryada (honour) has to be extended to the very language in which such ideas gain an identity. This, of course, cannot be the only way or indeed, the dominant way; but the focus in India upon the very language of political change has been a refreshing new way of identifying what many activists and educators have long believed to be a crucial front on which any kind of social reform must be imagined: that of language. The destruction of gender inequality must begin with the deconstruction of the language in which such inequality takes shape and keeps a hold on our lives.

So, how do we take the war to phallogocentrism? We begin, I think, by first acknowledging it as part of our everyday practices. Many people have been recently talking about “rape culture,” a phrase that disturbs me even as I recognize that what is being indicated is “phallogocentric culture” where the lingam is worshipped, women keep fasts for men’s welfare or for being blessed with a (good) husband, hide their faces, menstruation, pregnant bellies, abortions, and indeed, run the gamut of their social lives from one threshold to the next and the next, hiding various parts of themselves, physical and emotional. The focus on women as worthy of respect because they are mothers, sisters, and wives is almost always a ploy to constrain women within social identities where their “roles” are defined by and understood in relief from the normative male paradigm. This doesn’t mean that mothers, sisters, and wives are bad things to be, but it does point to the fact that in these roles, women are safest, most worthy, and most valuable to our societies. So, in this sense, to understand the reach, sweep, and depth of patriarchal role formations is to take the battle beyond challenging and subverting the language of phallocracy, or the absolute dominance of men.

In academic critical discourses, the idea that our privileges define how we live our lives rather than merely being an effect of our lives is by now a commonplace. In our daily lives, though, such knowledge is all but absent: for how else does one account for the rampant use in song, film, and much literature of a word like bitch as a synonym for woman, or the popularity of such ideas as Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus when academic culture has, since at least the 1950s, burst the bubble on theories of essentialism? How do we connect the dots in what is a vast cross-stitch pattern that orders our world for us? Given that patriarchy is ubiquitous, are we doomed to regurgitating power hierarchies in our everyday communication? Not quite: languages that fight the biases of gender are in our very midst and we have to seriously commit ourselves to such language far more pervasively than we have.

We have to spread the word – and I use “we” as expansively as possible, for this is an ongoing struggle that encompasses all of us who consider ourselves a part of any society, any community, and it is a struggle not just in deed or law or action, but also in the very language in which any “real” change to women’s lives can be implemented. The questions of sexual inequality are the questions of human inequality, and we cannot call ourselves developed nations, enlightened societies or even civilization if the very grain of our beings is marked by the inferiorization and subjection of those who ought to be equals. Such questions are intimately, although never primarily, tied to language where we can find many such itineraries of control that pass male privileges as human rights. The fight against social inequality must be fought also in our recognition of the ways in which our very languages can be so loaded, and therefore, to use words with caution, with accuracy, with compassion.

Patriarchy is essentially an arrangement of power relations. Such an arrangement uses phallogocentirc language to assert men’s (natural, moral, physical) superiority over women but it often also uses the language of praise or female adoration that is just as imprisoning. In such a system, our most cherished values are configured around what have (with some notable exceptions) traditionally and historically been male pursuits. E.g., when I ask my students how they imagine the idea of strength, almost all of them envision being strong as reflected in being able to fight, lift weights, physically attack or repel an attack, and being in the military. When I ask them if they think being able to deliver a child should count as a paradigm for thinking of strength, they look flummoxed, even amused because how can what women naturally do and men cannot be a universal paradigm? And yet, that is exactly how patriarchal paradigms work by masking and parading male values, needs, and desires as human values, needs, and desires. Thus, it is, for instance, that while the history of the use of various forms of anesthesia to cope with injury goes as far back as ancient Greek, Roman, and Arab societies where the first subjects were men wounded in war, the first use of caudal anesthesia (epidural) upon a woman in labour occurred only as recently as 1942, for why would what “Nature” has intended for women require any other way to be? Thus, it is also possible for rape to be both a matter of honour/dishonour on the basis of which wars can be fought and families dismembered and the node of jokes that pass from father to son to brother and lover (think of the highly popular “balaatkaar” joke in 3 Idiots to ask oneself why would rape be funny in the same culture where rape is also a tool of war, revenge, and dishonour).

So, is some utopian fantasy towards matriarchy the answer? I would aver, not. When trying to understand social systems, one must approach the idea of matriarchy with a similar sense of its structuring principles: as an arrangement of power relations. Indeed, historically in matrilineal systems of Kerala’s Nair society, men were often treated poorly, insofar as they were considered merely the tools for procreation or as paramours for women that could afford the lifestyle. In the practice of ozhimuri, for instance, the Nair woman signalled the end of a relationship by putting on the threshold of her house a small box containing areca-nut and betel leaves (and perhaps some money) to bid goodbye to an old lover, and to announce the assumption of a new one. So, one way to recognize that our societies work with the logic of privilege is to understand also that should women who violently exerted their power have dominated the world, we might have been having the same conversation – only this time with different victims and oppressors. Read in this way, matriarchal societies can also become gynocratic – e.g., what of the emotional loss of the man who finds himself fallen out of love with by the woman and her family? And although rape of man by woman may not exist (because “we” have defined rape as penetrative), there can certainly be emotional violence, suffering, and ostracism for men in such social frameworks. The burdens of patriarchy while most obviously fall upon women also mark the lives of many men who too suffer, in different degrees and ways, within the constrictions of an unbending masculinity. A revolution towards a matriarchal society that merely upends the logic of patriarchies without questioning or challenging absolute class divisions may merely replicate power hierarchies in its own way. What we have to make possible, then, is the ability to envision a social system that is not predicated on the erasure or marginalization of the (female) body and women’s voices, and that is not some compensatory, revanchist fantasy of a New World that lets us escape from the only world we all have – this one.

The reform of patriarchy – in sweeping ways – is quite possibly our best hope for a more equitable, less violent, less saddening world. The reduction in many men’s sense of entitlement in the world and the rise in many women’s sense of their own place and space in the planet is a daily project full of thousands of ethical choices, scrupulous words, and collective actions. In our everyday lives and practices, we will have to turn upon ourselves the strong light of self-reflection and self-criticism. In the languages we use, in the songs we sing, the rituals we follow, the colours we clothe our children in, the parks and gardens that our men enjoy and women shrink from, and the hierarchies we take for granted, we have to recognize that invisible hand of historical Time which sifts, arranges, and distributes rights to some and duties to others. That invisible hand is not the literal hand of God, although much religion would have us believe it is so; instead, the weight of that hand, like the scythe of the grim reaper, is the sum total of our beliefs in whose thrall we live out our lives and scarcely wonder at the injustice of it all.

In this sense, the dismantling of phallogocentric culture and expression must transform into a way to understand how normalized it has become to think in male terms about the “human” condition. We already have such words as “mankind” or manushya and the universal pronoun “he” that help institute the male-centric view as the dominant view. The fact that “PC” or politically correct language is sniggered at and satirized, even as it is upheld as a ball-and-chain around our collective necks, suggests how hard it is to fight violence in language because for so many people (especially many men, although never all), such violence is normal. And yet, it is in language that the struggles for legitimacy and identity have been so powerfully waged: the reclamation of “queer,” “black,” “Dalit” for the purposes of anti-homophobic, anti-racist, and anti-caste politics as well as the formation of languages that are sensitive to and affirmative of people with physical and mental challenges are powerful examples of the ways in which we have sought to transform our social practices, our scientific discourses, and the very shape and form of our laws to align with the vision of an equal society. PC can become a mockery of the goals of gender equality and we have to guard against its own involutions. Instead, that impulse to find an expression, a language that is sensitive to gender, and a spirit of questioning that challenges received coinages – these are attitudes to nurture. Invariably, language that challenges gender biases meets with resistance, dismissal, and contempt, but those of us who believe that language is constitutive (and not merely reflective) of our everyday realities, realize that to speak and write sensitively, ethically is a gift, a responsibility, a promise.

There can be no abiding social reform that is not holistic and that does not build upon men and women’s conciliary and collective friendships: equality in the work-place, in the public domains, in opportunity and access, in education, and in familial structures – these are all important, non-negotiable goals for any modern society, and are not just goals for women’s movements. Indeed, if the removal of gender bias in language could alone propel us into a society where women’s rights and freedoms were realized, then the speakers of modern Persian, which has no gendered expression, ought to find in Iran a women’s utopia. Similarly, speaking Tamil, which too is free of gender biases, ought to make Tamil Nadu a land of equality for all women. The issue of language clearly is no stand-alone issue; it is tied in with other equally important aspects of civic life, but as we get embroiled in one cause after another, we run the great risk of forgetting the means by which our ends are to be gained, the words in which our deeds are sought to be forged. The commitment to ethical language is the commitment to imagine collectively our songs of freedom. In our words, we must create the equality we want to see in the world.

(Anupama Mohan is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Nevada Reno. She is the author of Utopia and the Village in South Asian Literatures (2012) and Twenty Odd Love Poems (2008) and has written on topics in women’s studies and critical race studies.)

 

28 Comments leave one →
  1. Ammu Abraham permalink
    February 12, 2013 1:01 AM

    “A revolution towards a matriarchal society that merely upends the logic of patriarchies without questioning or challenging absolute class divisions may merely replicate power hierarchies in its own way. What we have to make possible, then, is the ability to envision a social system that is not predicated on the erasure or marginalization of the (female) body and women’s voices, and that is not some compensatory, revanchist fantasy of a New World that lets us escape from the only world we all have – this one.”
    How can there be a revolution towards a matriarchal society? As the writer says, a more equal world cannot be achieved only by linguistic deconstruction. And revolutions come about when the old is already in a state of advanced pregnancy with the new.
    I feel that people do not understand ‘patriarchy’ as historical social systems, undergoing changes, in dynamic relation with other structures or elements of society. Whatever replaces it cannot possibly be ‘matriarchy’, because the human reproductive system itself has been moving away from the crucial role of the womb, isn’t it? Sexuality and reproduction seem to be getting increasingly delinked. What might that mean for the structure of the family, which is really the basis of patriarchy so far? Surely not matriarchy.
    Whatever it is, it shall transcend both.
    My favourite Utopia has been where we have mutated, become ‘ardhanaris’, and lay eggs which can be carried in appropriately advanced pouches, while we leave for the stars. Eggress ?,to the universe.

    • Anupama Mohan permalink
      February 12, 2013 8:53 AM

      Ammu, you make an excellent point about the need to understand patriarchal systems as non-monolithic and dynamic: if, in fact, patriarchal control were only an evil empire, then our project of resistance and opposition would be far simpler than it has been so far. I raised the discussion of matriarchy not to suggest that a revolution of such a kind is impending, but to point out that it is no point calling “men” evil or to alienate all men by tarring them with one brush, but to suggest that each one of us ought to be capable of understanding the larger system through the smaller patterns. One way by which we remain dupes of power is by being so enmeshed in the everyday, in the little things (precious as those are, for sure) that we miss rising from the micro- to get some sense, howsoever tenuous, of the macro-, the larger patterns, the bigger questions in the field. I am reminded of Mani Kaul’s 1980 film title starring Bharath Gopi – “Satah Sey Uthta Aadmi” – “rising from the surface.”

  2. February 12, 2013 2:05 AM

    An illuminating article.
    Thank you for this.
    Although I had stopped using the word seminal decades ago after learning of its root, words such as hystera being behind hysteria and gynocracy came as a revelation.
    And it is so useful to be reminded of the importance of educating oneself of politically correct (PC) language. That “PC” has become something of an object of derision — mostly on the part of conservatives and their fellow-travellers — is all the more reason for paying attention to the words we use.

  3. Swaralipi permalink
    February 12, 2013 3:15 AM

    Excellent article. I am reminded of Douglas R. Hofstadter’s essay “A person paper on purity in language” that I regularly use in my classes. I guess we need something ‘outrageous’ as that essay to jolt us to realization how we comply to a sexist language everyday, and as ‘walkerjay’ points out, we need to realize how PC is often an object of derision and often labelled as the rant of “fanatic libbers”.

  4. February 12, 2013 8:13 AM

    While I’m very sympathetic to the idea that we must move away from patriarchy etc, the idea that patriarchy is reinforced by language that is implicitly, rather than explicitly, sexist is absurd. It is a variant of that genetic fallacy. From wikipedia (as good as source of definitions as any): “The genetic fallacy, also known as fallacy of origins, fallacy of virtue, is a fallacy of irrelevance where a conclusion is suggested based solely on something or someone’s origin rather than its current meaning or context. This overlooks any difference to be found in the present situation, typically transferring the positive or negative esteem from the earlier context.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genetic_fallacy

    Bear with me. The word “space” has many meanings for many people. To an astronaut it is the place where all the planets are. To a typographer, it refers to the distance between characters in a font. To an architect it is the distance between walls and so on. It is easy to understand what each individual is talking about, in context because we are aware of the common origin of these different meanings.

    When people use “gay” as a disparaging adjective, it re-enforces the idea that homosexuality is “bad” because it is explicitly invoking homosexuality to deliver an insult. Upon hearing the word used in this manner, the listener is made aware of the fact that the speaker regards gay-ness as a bad thing.

    On the other hand, few people, outside academia, are aware of the origins of “seminal” or “hysterical”. These words have, with time, become words with standalone meanings not linked by visible metaphor to anything, as should be evident by your students reactions. So when I say “this book is seminal” as a praise, I am not re-enforcing the idea that male-ness is good, because in the mind of the listener (and the speaker) there is no link between male-ness and the word “seminal”, until their critical studies teacher introduces the idea to them. Now there is a link, and I’m not the least bit surprised that your students or swaralipi proceed to stop using it*.

    So while doing away with explicitly sexist, casetist etc language (bitch, untouchable) is a worthy goal, trying to get rid of “implicitly” sexist language is silly at best, a destroyer of useful words at worst.

    Furthermore, the entire enterprise of trying to “clean up” language should be treated with caution. There is good reason to believe that language follows ideas, rather than the other way around. “Gay” was introduced as a respectful alternative to the pejorative “homosexual”. It has now become a pejorative in it’s own right, meant to describe excessively “effeminate” or emotional or sentimental behavior. Society will not necessarily change just because language does,

    *In other words this link has been created by the act of studying it, rather than because it exists aforehand.

    • February 12, 2013 8:47 AM

      Example of the genetic fallacy: The railways were introduced in India by the British to transport troops, and so the railways should be done away with. Such an (intentionally) absurd claim ignores the fact that railways are no longer used to transport British troops but currently provide affordable transport to millions of poor and middle class Indians.

      Similarly, the idea that words like “seminal” or “hysterical” should not be used because they have their roots in gender ideals is wrong because it ignores the fact that such words are currently gender-neutral.

      • Charu permalink
        February 12, 2013 8:06 PM

        Navin, I don’t think the author suggests anywhere what we should or should not do with words that remind us of the gender bias in language. Whether we use seminal or hysterical is up to us (clearly, the word seminar is not going out the daily dictionaries of academics for a long time) but she recommends that we use it with some knowledge of the history of that word. I work with LGBTQ students on campuses in India and one of the things we often have to deal with are students who have no idea that the western world has taken the word gay or queer and given it a positive bent. The boys and girls I meet are as much in fear of gay or queer (if they have heard of queer) as they are of homosexual and other bigger, more accurate words. So, language is important, because what seems a fallacy to some is not to others. Society will not change *only* because we have changed our languages, I agree; but society will not change lastingly if our everyday language is the only thing that refuses to change when so much else is transforming.

    • Param permalink
      February 12, 2013 6:54 PM

      I think this critique is very interesting; I have three university degrees from top schools in the humanities, and not having studied critical theory of language, I must confess I had overlooked the etymology of words such as seminal. A slightly more subtle although provocative point is even after we link seminal with semen, isn’t it a bit of a jump to link to a horrible rape crime as fluidly as it is done here, although I am in full agreement with the spirit of the article. I can think of other words or expressions in English that refer to the egg. That brings me to the point that this guest blog is on English whereas the spirit of the article alludes to non-English cultures. However I am in full agreement with the spirit of the article and I did really enjoy reading it.

  5. Anupama Mohan permalink
    February 12, 2013 8:45 AM

    I should add here that this article emerged from a fascinating discussion on a Facebook page called Society of Painted Dented Ladies of India where many people weighed in on the idea of violence in language and resistance through language. My thanks to all those who posted and helped extend and nuance the original point.

  6. February 12, 2013 11:13 AM

    Very well researched article. I’m a Masters student researching on portrayal of women in contemporary erotic literature and language and the question of (re)presentation forms an integral part of it. It would be great if I could get in touch with Ms.Anupama Mohan? Her insights should be very useful for my dissertation. Thanks!

  7. Vandana permalink
    February 12, 2013 11:26 AM

    Appreciate your perspective completely. Talking of language, your article, if simplified for all to understand, would take your lesson far to those who need it most, who may never see a college. These are the kind of thoughts that can lead to attitude change and subsequently, language change, etc. We have to ingrain it deeper through whatever language accessible.
    Between patriarchy and matriarchy, there is lack of space for reform. To suggest a new system in the diversity that exists, is to hope for the best.
    US english and culture has evolved after 300+ years of freedom from British colonisers. And, must remember, their origins were the same! India or all the kingdoms that existed then, were up against an ideology that had nothing in common with unless we go back to when the continents were still together!
    India’s third generation is still dealing with the aftermath, particularly on all minority issues. And languages in India! English in addition to all others is not simplifying the issue of finding a meeting ground for the extremes we have in our emerging system.
    The gap between SES and education levels is increasing in geometric proportions and adding to the pre-existing circus.
    Language is one specialized perspective needed here. But we need a whole working “family plan” and several decades for system changes to sink and settle.

  8. Trivikram permalink
    February 12, 2013 1:00 PM

    Eye opening indded atleast the part about the phallogocentrism. While I am not too well informed to comment about the other issues, I sure must point out that it makes a lot of sense. Great work madam ! I envy your students.

  9. February 12, 2013 2:36 PM

    I don’t believe there is much new in this article today. All this is passe. If you want root cause for crimes against women, don’t look at power structures, patriarchy and relationships and language. Almost all well meaning post-modernists and feminists ignore what criminologists and related professionals say why crimes against women happen. No article I read addressed them. It’s too conspicuous, by its absence. Is science a taboo for feminists?

  10. February 12, 2013 9:07 PM

    Could you expand on the claim that Tamil is free of gender biases? Or provide some reference? Thanks!

  11. Charu permalink
    February 13, 2013 12:46 AM

    I don’t think the author suggests anywhere what we should or should not do with words that remind us of the gender bias in language. Whether we use seminal or hysterical is up to us (clearly, the word seminar is not going out the daily dictionaries of academics for a long time) but she recommends that we use it with some knowledge of the history of that word. I work with LGBTQ students on campuses in India and one of the things we often have to deal with are students who have no idea that the western world has taken the word gay or queer and given it a positive bent. The boys and girls I meet are as much in fear of gay or queer (if they have heard of queer) as they are of homosexual and other bigger, more accurate words. So, language is important, because what seems a fallacy to some is not to others. Again, for me the article was not so much about “cleaning up” language but to end certain kinds of amnesias. The process of learning links between words, ideas, beliefs, and convictions is what we call education – one cannot blind oneself to it. The fact that the railways are being used for transportation etc. today ought not make us forget that its origins lay in British colonization of India. Those two kinds of awareness don’t cancel each other out; each reinforces the other. So, in that sense, I disagree with the fallacy theory. Society will not change *only* because we have changed our languages, as the writer points out; but society will not change lastingly if our everyday language is the only thing that refuses to change when so much else is transforming.

    • February 13, 2013 8:43 AM

      Fair enough, if true. Some of the commentators do disavow words (see walkerjay).

  12. February 13, 2013 5:52 AM

    Reblogged this on Forty Two.

  13. Anupama Mohan permalink
    February 13, 2013 11:44 AM

    Thanks for the questions and comments, friends. I’m not sure if I will address them all here, but I’ll try. I think Charu’s explanation that the article tries to provide a rationale for discussing certain kinds of amnesias (as well as certain kinds of continuities and valorizations) latent in language is an important point. I do also understand Navin’s position: context is absolutely vital for discussing language and ideas. And yet, the search for origins – of words as well as ideas – is often a search really for paternity: think of all these TV shows like Jerry Springer or Maury as a modern-day counterpart to the age-old question of origins that is in the story of Oedipus. Even if one is not from the west, there is no denying that paternity, DNA testing and all that is part of that larger power structures which valorize male values/things/pursuits over others. (Here, I wish I could share Vasu’s naive triumphalism that criminologists might have solutions for gender violence as if such professionals were not themselves part and parcel of systems that he too hastily dismisses – “power structures, patriarchy, relationships and language” – but I can’t, though I can certainly understand the impulse for fast-track answers and pat resolutions.)

    The knowledge that language retains traces of various usages and meanings is, I think, an enabling knowledge. I don’t think seminal or hysterical gender-neutral terms at all: in fact, I’d put the question for WHOM are these words neutral (or fallacious)? Is the word “nigger” neutral to Black people of the world? And yet, isn’t there a well-known work by Conrad titled The Nigger of Narcissus. Today if you use that word outside of an academic context (where you’re discussing Conrad, say,), you are likely to jeopardise communication or more, depending on where you find yourself. In a similar vein, when Gandhi sought to use the phrase “ram-rajya” to stand for an ecumenical modern India of his imagining, his re-coinage of that Hindu idea reached out powerfully to the majority of people who understood what he referred to, but for millions others, that phrase remained alienating. Why? Because, try as he might, Gandhi couldn’t – at the snap of a recoinage – wrench “ram-rajya” free of its (exclusively) Hindu resonance and valency, and so as a symbol, the word remained fraught, unconvincing, and limited. In general, I am very skeptical about theories of fallacies (I agree with Charu here): the affective and intentional fallacies have long been discarded by readers and scholars for whom the text cannot be only words on a page, or utterance only a result of the here and now. When we learn of the ways in which words change meaning, acquire (and lose) primacy, undergo transformations, we get an insight into the very nature of the realities that those words represent for us. The knowledge that seminal/hysterical form a kind of oppositionality of value empowers us to use those words with caution and accuracy – the point I made. I still use the word “seminal” in my classes when I craft a sentence like, “Grundrisse is Marx’s seminal work” – and I try to keep up that strong connection between Marx’s maleness, and the great power he holds for us as an extraordinary intellectual, a reputation and career that was enabled in large part because of the many privileges attendant upon being a white, European man of the 19th c.

    PS: Linguists discuss gender-neutrality in language in very nuanced ways (natural vs. acquired neutrality, etc.), which was outside the ken of this article. But here is a resource that you might want to check: http://www.academia.edu/1846083/The_Historic_Role_of_Gender_in_Language
    If you ask in Tamil, “enga poren?” (or where are you going?) nothing in that phrase betrays the gender of the addressee (as, say, in Hindi – “kahan jaa rahi ho?”). Similarly, “avar” as a third-person pronoun remains genderless, and so on. Tamil shares such features with Oriya, Bengali, and Assamese. In Hindi, you can find ways of expressing genderlessly (“aap kahan jaa rahey hain?”) but it renders the language formal, and changes mood/tone etc. In any case, the historical use of gender is a cognate idea of this mini-essay, but its central idea is the way in which language is part of what we call gender violence. On the surface, a fairly commonplace notion, but actually, so fraught, so knotty.

    Param:the links between the words we use in everyday discourse (and I chose my focus as English and Anglophone deliberately – but I tried to provide, cautiously, examples such as the loaded usage of such words as manushya and napunsakta [Sanskritic words to be found in many Indian languages] for what are seen as certain universal values, and normative moral judgements) and the crimes against women aren’t impossible links. They are certainly NOT causal or direct links, but rather embedded or latent, making it harder to unearth them and then theorize about them in a logical, convincing way. But those links are there and when we look for them, we often find multiple narratives for what seemed like really simple, self-evident, transparent words. For a word-person, the processes by which language shapes the realities that it is itself shaped by are fascinating on their own; for people interested in finding holistic answers to gender violence, language/s must too become an important platform on which to diminish the power and reach of such violence.

    Since someone asked for it, there is a lot of critical work that has been done on sexual representation and the “dirty”/”obscene”: some references are – Foucault’s History of Sexuality; Catherine MacKinnon’s Only Words; Antony Grey’s Speaking of Sex; Judith Butler’s Excitable Speech (which critiques MacKinnon); Dianne Chisholm’s “The Cunning Lingua” and Robert Scholes’ “Uncoding Mama.” I didn’t mean for this mini-essay to become pedantic or academic, but the ideas in here have been the stuffing of some great scholarly work that is worth following up.

    Thanks, all, for the opportunity to clarify and nuance. Anupama

    • Param Chopra permalink
      February 13, 2013 1:29 PM

      Thank you Anupama. It is always a joy to read you; you have the rare facility to turn complex ideas into fun reading. I do agree about the centrality of language in changing popular attitudes, although of course word roots do not always pop-up first in my mind when I think of the power of language. But that might be my blind side. However I do agree that any aspect of language needs to be considered in a holistic understanding and reformation of gender relations in North India.

      Could you please point me to a good text on identifying the processes with which post colonial Indian identities were established, in English, etc. Something that looks at this in focused way. I am working on the psychological legacy of the colonial state in India.

  14. Charu permalink
    February 13, 2013 1:33 PM

    Thanks, Anupama, for that thoughtful and meticulous response. I see some of the larger links you were trying to make, and you are correct to suggest that on the one hand, the focus on origins of words and their genealogies of use can appear to be fun and games (like those paternity shows where so much of audience response is to laugh and mock) and on the other hand, such word-games codify a deeper reality. The example of Gandhi was startling for me because I never really thought of ramrajya in that way (goes to show how much privilege obscures your thinking processes if you are in a majority) and will think further on this. I have read some Foucault but I must say that your explanations are much clearer and much less overdetermined! Thanks very much for the stimulating discussion in general.

  15. Anupama Mohan permalink
    February 13, 2013 11:30 PM

    Param: It’s a vast topic, and I may be misreading your question (“in English” – do you mean in the language English or in the arena of English studies as itself a colonial legacy with which some kinds of postcolonial scholarship has engaged?) but perhaps a good beginning is Gauri Vishwanathan’s Masks of Conquest and Sara Suleri’s The Rhetoric of English India (esp. since you are also working with colonial India). This will pave the way for some of the more intensive (and tedious) discussion in Homi Bhabha (who combines the psychoanalytic perspective with colonial discourse analysis, although I have to say, that his focus on the Anglophone alone – esp. in the Indian context, such an unconvincing move – makes one impatient with some of the theorizing). I would also check out the writings of Subaltern Studies and Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee and Ashis Nandy for more specific studies of the colonial state apparatuses and their bequeathals to the modern nation-state. As always, the more macro- theorizations of Simon Gikandi, Aijaz Ahmed, and Gayatri Spivak remain of relevance. Hope helpful, Anupama.

    Charu: thanks for pointing out the “fun and games” aspect of logocentric studies. As a teacher, I feel torn between using the fun approach to etymology in class (in order to break down big words) and the more serious purpose (that I can’t always bring to the fore) of unpacking origins and genealogies. But one keeps at it.

    • Param Chopra permalink
      February 14, 2013 3:01 AM

      Thanks Anupama, for your generous response; not just the names but also for situating some of them such as Bhabha in the extensive post colonial discourse, despite my confusing use of ‘English’. I like Spivak because I like Derrida’s contextual meaning, as I am also working on an auto novel. I should look at some of these scholars, especially the younger ones and from what you said about Bhabha, he might be exactly what I am looking for (discourse and psychoanalysis of the Anglophone). I am interested in how language can reform identity, past and memory through the act of producing and consuming it. This links up with Giambatista Vico’s work on knowledge as creation, which is closer to Derrida than the subalterns, who by definition are reductive. As an aspiring novelist I cannot reduce human life to a category such as subaltern. One only has to read the life of a Balzac or a Naipaul or almost anyone who took the givens of her life and turned them into improbable realities. I also have a soft spot for existentialism, and that too is far from the subaltern, I find, though one might be fooled to think otherwise. There is a self-contradiction lurking in the idea of the subaltern – as in pinning someone as a subaltern. Take Balzac again, who insisted that an individual’s nobility must be measured by his efforts and not the accident of birth and Naipaul claimed that he was a new man. In their shifting positions in society and their private sense of destinies, at what point were they subalterns in the world of letters, let’s say, and when do they become the elite. This point has some of the flavour of your original blog as in multiple narratives of a single term. There is also the point – who decides the axis of meaning. It might just be a problem of categorization, as pigeon-holing scholars as subaltern commits the same fallacy that essentializing real people by the same name does. I would imagine that Derrida and Spivak herself would imagine that subalterns operate within a very narrow context of resisting nationalist and colonial historiographies.

      Param

  16. Sylvia permalink
    February 16, 2013 1:23 AM

    This is a terrific post and I learned so much from it. If I had heard of the word phallogocentrism, I too would have felt removed from it, seeing no real relevance for it in my life. But Anupama’s descriptions have made me look closely at the languages we use in daily life, the songs we sing, and the kinds of things we praise women for. These sentences in particular have stayed with me:

    Patriarchy is essentially an arrangement of power relations. Such an arrangement uses phallogocentirc language to assert men’s (natural, moral, physical) superiority over women but it often also uses the language of praise or female adoration that is just as imprisoning. In such a system, our most cherished values are configured around what have (with some notable exceptions) traditionally and historically been male pursuits. E.g., when I ask my students how they imagine the idea of strength, almost all of them envision being strong as reflected in being able to fight, lift weights, physically attack or repel an attack, and being in the military. When I ask them if they think being able to deliver a child should count as a paradigm for thinking of strength, they look flummoxed, even amused because how can what women naturally do and men cannot be a universal paradigm? And yet, that is exactly how patriarchal paradigms work by masking and parading male values, needs, and desires as human values, needs, and desires.

    I want to add here that as a young girl growing up in India, I was very much the apple of my father’s eyes but now I also realize that the things that I was praised and rewarded were subtle ways of controlling my sometimes wayward desires. My mother praised me when I dressed conservatively or made chapatis but she was disapproving when I tried to learn how to ride a cousin’s motorbike (because it is “unfeminine” to ride a bike). Similarly, when I went to church, both my parents approved but if I followed hard rock, they were disapproving. When you are a child, you don’t really think how all these small things add up, but as a adult now and after reading Anupama’s piece, so much is beginning to make sense. I love my parents more than anything in the world but I have also begun to see how different society is to girls and boys. Thanks Anupama for this wonderful read – and keep writing!

  17. Aloy Buragohain permalink
    March 4, 2013 7:16 PM

    Sensitive article. I congratulate the author. But I observe certain contradictions:

    (a.) Quoting the author – (1.) “…academic culture has, since at least the 1950s, burst the bubble on theories of essentialism…”.

    (2.) “we cannot call ourselves developed nations, enlightened societies or even civilization if the very grain of our beings is marked by the inferiorization and subjection of those who ought to be equals. ”

    In (1), the author criticizes essentialism but in (2.) highly normative essentialism, overlooking the fact that the ideas of “development”, “civilization”, etc cannot possess absolute criteria. Moreover, the entire essay has a highly normative (“ought to be”) undertone which belies the very principles of post-structuralist thought, and hence, contradicts itself.

    (b.) The author emphasizes on achieving accuracy in understanding of meanings of words in language. But is objective”accuracy” ever possible within a post-structuralist framework? Let us take the example of the word “patriarchy”. It has been derived in a very particular social milieu where male (patriarchy : rule by fathers) domination was and is prevalent during a definite time-frame. One can never say in affirmative what were The Original power relations in society. Sometimes, women can be more “patriarchal” than men. Therefore the very word “patriarchy” is not representative of “accurate” meaning. Hence, achieving absolute objectivity in language is a flawed notion.

    (c.) Quoting the author – “… This doesn’t mean that mothers, sisters, and wives are bad things to be, but…”. This article would have been able to garner greater academic appreciation from the reader if the author had gone a step ahead and affirmed that if a feminist society in its wholeness is to be established the notions of “mother”, “sister’, and “wife” must be altered completely, if not obliterated. If Beauvoir’s “Independent Woman” is to be made a reality, the very dualistic relation between the meanings of “a woman” and “a man” must be changed, as in our so-called “patriarchal’ world, a woman is defined not by virtue of her own being, but by her relation to a man, irrespective of whether that man is her brother, father, or husband. Therefore, if one’s attempt is to link feminist understanding of society to linguistic sensitivity, she/he must choose the absolute and revolutionary option of a society founded upon an individual. Or the cyclical process of gender dominative by one gender or the other would not terminate.

    • Anupama Mohan permalink
      March 5, 2013 5:57 AM

      Aloy, thanks for the thoughtful response. I should clarify that my approach to gender violence (as perhaps to most things in life) remains (to continue with a lexicon you initiated) a kind of post – poststructuralist structuralist thinking: which means that I am less interested in gaps and fissures per se, and more in what patterns and attitudes one can glean once an ethical recognition of gaps, fissures, and invisibilities is in place. Thus, for instance, the poststructuralist debunking of any “ultimate” kind of accuracy (certainly, a metanarrative, as you rightly say) is of less pragmatic value for me than the recognition that in light of the knowledge that language is constitutive of our various realities, how do I stabilize some *frames* for thinking through identifications (not identities – there is a difference, no?) like “woman” “black” “Other” etc. in order to “do” something with them. The “ought to be” tone is, thus, connotative and not denotative; it was meant not as the shorthand of a pedant/academic but rather compresses for me an important move away from the comforts of stable identities (as if such identities were never dislodgeable), on the one hand, and on the other, the aphasias of trauma, such as the kind many of us struggle(d) with in the wake of the violence wrought upon the young girl, the incident which occasioned this piece. All progressivist thinking that is not dissolved by a paralyzing self-knowledge assumes upon itself an imperative and it is in that spirit that some of this short essay seeks to work.
      By that same token, although civilization and modernity remain fraught ideas, the essay doesn’t (and neither do I want to) suggest that normative visions of these phenomena need dominate. In fact, although it is quite true that some visions dominate and become normative, the recogntion of the historical nature of such visions remains a useful check for individuals (and possibly whole societies), and helps us to denaturalize what appear as eternal givens.
      Finally, you make an important point about the need for a feminism (a new humanism?) that accepts individuals as individuals – I agree. In practice, of course, individuals are defined by various social roles – whether they accept these or not – and are often gridlocked into those roles. It is those locks that I want to grease – whether an individual woman wants to be known as an entrepreneur or an entrepreneur’s wife is, in an egalitarian society – howsoever remote that may seem to us today – up to her. It seems more important to me that the conditions by which she need not have to choose one over the other in order to articulate/vindicate her individuality, those conditions are what we have to work towards.
      In this sense, the ability to step away from the eye of action and to rethink one’s co-ordinates is, I think, an ethical habit to nurture – it is difficult to do this in a culture that fetishizes the Dabangg style of living or the thrills of e-culture. But it’s not impossible – indeed, as a teacher, I work hard at shoehorning moments of reflection and quiet into the most exhilarating of narratives, the most self-evident of words (such as hysterical or queer or Dalit etc.). By doing so, one of the benefits (neither the only nor the ultimate one) is an ability to shake the boxes in which “simple” words and their self-evident meanings operate, and to understand such boxes as arrangements and organizations of thoughts that are themselves historical, patterned, even ideological. The question is not whether such an enterprise “ought to be” considered valuable – I have no doubt it is valuable. The question is how to make it a habit, a commitment to which one is scrupulously dedicated without falling either into inaction, inertia, cynicism, or despair.
      For all it augurs, it has become easier (not easy) in 2013 in India for many boys and girls to follow non-conventional careers such as dance, landscaping, and baking, partly because these “hobbies” have become professionalized (although, not necessarily free of neoliberalist logic). It may not be too fond to hope that we can work towards a social collectivity premised upon responsibility and hospitality among genders, castes, and classes as a defining feature of interpersonal relationships. Such a task – or collection of tasks – entails both contradictions and intersections, and as a scholar and a civic subject, I wouldn’t want to shy away from either.

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