Scroll Top

Bodies Beyond Rights

Photo of a group of transgender women celebrating someone's birthday

This piece attempts to think about how bodies are produced and circulate in moving registers and discourses, chiefly around the question of representation. Even when addressing stereotypes, I attempt to look philosophically and perhaps politically at what they say about the body.

The recent NALSA Judgment of the Supreme Court that recognized the ‘third gender’ made another body legible to the law. The transaction between this body and the law occurred on grounds of the powerful testimonies of the subjects in question. This testimony brimmed with the self-evident objectivity of the pain of the traumatized body made abject by law. It was the affective flows of this body in pain that rendered this body accessible and translated its psyche to the Court which knew very little about the subjects whose lives were in question while the law sought new inscriptions. In fact, the very materiality of the law has to be understood in terms of its strategic action upon and with the body. The body is the site where the law undergoes a redirection.

Elizabeth Grosz writes of how there have been two broad approaches to theorizing the body in twentieth century radical thought – one derived from Nietzsche, Kafka, Foucault and Deleuze which she calls ‘inscriptive’ and the other, more prevalent in psychology, especially psychoanalysis and phenomenology, which she calls the ‘lived body’. The former conceives of the body as the surface upon which law, morality and values are inscribed, a social, public body; and the latter refers to the lived experience of the body, the body’s psychic or internal description, taking the body schema or imaginary anatomy as its object. The body can, therefore, be regarded as a ‘hinge or threshold’, placed between a psychic and a more socio-political exteriority that ‘produces interiority through inscription of the body’s outer surface.’ While the judges deliberated on this marginalized body, the judgment shows something more universal about the body – this body that is the hinge between the psyche and the social.  However, while all bodies are perhaps flesh, organs, nerves and skeletal structures, only some bodies are recognized as bodies before the law. This is because bodies are bodies only as much as they are intelligible to the norms of recognition, i.e., the body must conform to the norm of the body else it is not recognized as a body. It is on this axis of intelligibility that precarity is distributed. The subject-body that entered the court to ask for its rights, hitherto made abject by law, sought to address itself as a livable life. That the violence on its body, the damage to the psyche must no longer not count, that infrastructure is put in place that it too could live and that its loss be grieved.

Various norms coalesce – those around bodies, sex and gender, the natural and the normal, the familial and the social – to form the volatile collectivity that is the subject-body. The discursive construction of the subject-body is always relative to these categories and their norms, and changes in one effect the other. The queer body, for example, has to often answer questions not only about its transgressions, sexual or gendered, but to their naturalness, their healthiness, their impact on the social et al.

Intelligibility is precarious. It’s not that a muscular mustachioed man after having performed masculinity well for thirty years of his life can the next day, wear a sari and go to work. Precarity opens up new ways of imagining lives. A boy from a collective of queer students read me as intersex because I had a conversation with him about how pronouns are incapable of addressing the instability of our genders. Instead of denying that I am intersex, I wanted to think about what such a position could offer to queer politics. For example, if one’s genitalia have been damaged by surgery, then the time of the touch changes, you see a lover’s hand touching, but one doesn’t feel it, it is seen rather than sensed, the time of the touch stretches away from the moment of contact. Not only does this allow us to rethink sex outside its pornographic focus on the genitalia, but it reveals how we have been trained into reacting to each other’s bodies, even in the intimate. One of my life’s biggest struggles has been to give the appropriate hug to straight men who otherwise might think I am hitting on them (all men are constantly ‘worried’ that they are being hit on). And then I discovered the ‘bro-hug’ – slight extension of the arm, 45 degree inclination of the body into the shoulder, and two pats on the back. I cannot but here underline that transgressions come with punishments and struggles; not all struggles are rewarding and there are limits to the body. I have to fight in the metro to enter through the bi-gendered surveillance system. I was once stopped from entering my own department because I was wearing a sari. Cars slow down as they approach a feminine body on a late night walk. And I am constantly fetishized, as a sexual object, as someone who is ‘so brave to fight these battles,’ as some radical molecule floating in the university in ‘gorgeous saris,’ etc etc.

The body is both corporeal and symbolic. As much as menstrual blood is ‘real,’ it must be signified in all cultures. It was the symbolic that was challenged in the Supreme Court, the symbolic that arranges bodies into heteronormative frameworks. In as much as the ‘third gender’ now coexists with male and female, the challenge was also limited as precarity remains unevenly distributed to those who still fall outside these categories and that categorisation remains unchallenged. A transman I know had to fight for over an hour with the census guy sitting in his house because the latter didn’t allow the former to sign the ‘other’ category, as the census guy argued that the transman is actually a tom boy and everything will change as he grows up and marries. The symbolic is far more difficult to rupture and the law and the symbolic should not be confused with each other. In order to address the body, the psychic and the social both need to be transformed, impossible as this call may be.

Cover image: BBC | A section of India’s transgender people are celebrating the court’s ruling.