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Shapes of Freedom: A Conversation with Elizabeth A. Povinelli


Kim Turcot DiFruscia: Liberalism’s “work” on the body is at the heart of your thought. In your book The Empire of Love (2006), you make a conceptual distinction between “carnality” and “corporeality.” How do you pose the sexual body through that distinction?

Elizabeth A. Povinelli: Empire of Love makes a distinction between “carnality” and “corporeality” for a set of analytical reasons: to try to understand materiality in late-liberal forms of power and to try to make the body matter in post-essentialist thought. If we think with Foucault then we understand that objects are object-effects, that authors are author-effects, that subjects are subject-effects, and that states are state-effects. And if we think after the critique of metaphysics of substance—say, with Judith Butler—then we no longer think that the quest is to find substances in their pre-discursive authenticity. Instead, we try to think about how substances are produced. I believe we are now accustomed to thinking like this. But something paradoxical happened on the way to learning about object-effects and learning how to critique the metaphysics of substance: the world became rather plastic and the different “modalities of materiality” were evacuated from our analysis. It left some of us with questions like: How can we grasp some of the qualities of a material object that is nevertheless a discursive object? How can we talk about subject-effects and object-effects without making materiality disappear or making its different manifestations irrelevant to the unequal organization of social life? How can we simultaneously recognize that discourse makes objects appear, that it does so under different material conditions, and that the matter that matters from discourse is not identical to discourse? Of course, this is a slippery path; the peril is that we will fall back into metaphysics of substance.

“Corporeality” would be the way in which dominant forms of power shape and reshape materiality, how discourses produce categories and divisions between categories—human, nonhuman, person, nonperson, body, sex, and so forth—and “carnality” would be the material manifestations of that discourse which are neither discursive nor pre-discursive. When we talk about sexuality, but also about race and the body, I think this analytic distinction matters. In The Empire of Love, I first try to show how it matters and second how difficult it is to speak about those material matters without falling back into a metaphysics of substance. For instance, in the first chapter, “Rotten Worlds,” I track how a sore on my body is discursively produced, and how the multiple discursive productions of this sore are simultaneously a production of socialities and social obligations. Sores are endemic in the indigenous communities in which I have been working for the last twenty-five years or so in northern Australia. If I put my trust in the people whom I have known better than almost anybody else in my life, I would say that my sore came from contact with a particular Dreaming, from a particular ancestral site—which is actually not ancestral because it is alive. But this belief—or stating this belief as a truth—isn’t supported by the world as it is currently organized; or, it is supported only if they and I agree that this truth is “merely” a cultural belief. But if the sore is thought of as staphylococcus or as anthrax or as the effect of the filthiness of Aboriginal communities, as it has been by physicians in Montreal or Chicago or by Darwin, then this thought meets a world which treats it as truth, as fact. These ways of examining the sore would fall under the concept of corporeality: How is the body and its illnesses being shaped by multiple, often incommensurate discourses? How are these discourses of inclusion and exclusion always already shaping and differentiating bodies, socialities, and social obligations—mine and those of my indigenous colleagues?

And yet the concept of corporeality is not sufficient. Whether the sore is an eruption of a Dreaming or the effect of poor health care and housing and structures of racism, it still sickens the body—and depending how one’s body has been cared for, or is being cared for, it sickens it in different ways and to different degrees. Over time, sores such as the one I had on my shoulder, as discussed in Empire of Love, often lead to heart valve problems, respiratory problems, and other health problems for my indigenous friends. In other words, no matter what the sore is from a discursive point of view, no matter what causes it to appear as “thing,” the sore also slowly sickens a body—a material corrodes a form of life. And this slow corrosion of life is part of the reason why, if you are indigenous in Australia, your life runs out much sooner than non-indigenous Australians. And if the state provides you rights based on longevity—think here of the stereotype of the old traditional person—but you are dying on average ten to twenty years sooner than nonindigenous people, then the carnal condition of your body is out of sync with the apparatus of cultural recognition. But this body-out-of-sync is a more complex matter than merely the discourse that has produced it, nor is it going merely where discourse directs it. Carnality therefore becomes vital to understanding the dynamics of power. I would say that Brian Massumi and Rosi Braidotti are engaged in similar projects. But my theoretical, conceptual interlocutors are a more motley crew: American pragmatism, Chicago metapragmatics, Foucault, Deleuze, late Wittgenstein, Heidegger and his concept of precognitive interpretation, what Bourdieu borrowed and turned into doxa. All of these folks are in a conversation in two important ways: first, they assume the immanent nature of social life, and second, they are interested in the organization and disorganization, the channeling and blockage, of immanent social life. I take for granted that an otherwise exists everywhere in the world, but my question is: What are the institutions that make certain forms of otherwise invisible and impractical? And one answer takes me to the corporeal and the other to the carnal.

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