It is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Gender Trouble by the feminist philosopher of gender, sexuality, and governmentality, Judith Butler. When Gender Trouble came out in the United States, it hit the stands like a hit; it transformed and unraveled the modalities through which ontologies and epistemologies of gender came to be. This was especially the case with the trouble, the disturbances, the turbulence that Gender Trouble carried along with it. Gender Trouble's thematics sometimes syncopated against familiar habits of belief that were and are carefully nursed and held to one's heart, upending them in sometimes unexpected ways. The concept of “performativity,” for instance, generated a buzz, partly because it unhinged and reoriented several fail-safe, deeply felt materialized beliefs, such as the ontological immutability of gender cohering resolutely and unremittingly in and through an inveterate notion of the biological (belief certainty in the sense that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might intend as the unnoticed grounding of one's sense of and use of language itself laid in so deeply that it disappeared from immediate purchase). Gender Trouble also asked us to address the seemingly intransigent separations between interiority and exteriority and the obdurate artifice of an “interior core” (psyche, soul, etc.), which, because it was constituted as a priori, meant that people believed it lay beyond being touched or constituted by any social, economic, or political exigencies, “regulations,” or “disciplinary practices” and thus “preclude[d] an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject.”
Nagarī nagarī phirā musāfir ghar kā rāstā bhūl gayā
Kyā hai merā kyā hai terā apnā parāyā bhūl gayā—Mirājī, Tīn rang1
[I]t can be demonstrated that no translation would be possible if in its ultimate essence it strove for likeness to the original. For in its afterlife—which could not be called that if it were not a transformation and renewal of something living—the original undergoes a change.—Walter Benjamin, The Task of the Translator
It is the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of Gender Trouble by the feminist philosopher of gender, sexuality, and governmentality, Judith Butler. When Gender Trouble came out in the United States, it hit the stands like a hit; it transformed and unraveled the modalities through which ontologies and epistemologies of gender came to be. This was especially the case with the trouble, the disturbances, the turbulence that Gender Trouble carried along with it. Gender Trouble's thematics sometimes syncopated against familiar habits of belief that were and are carefully nursed and held to one's heart, upending them in sometimes unexpected ways. The concept of “performativity,” for instance, generated a buzz, partly because it unhinged and reoriented several fail-safe, deeply felt materialized beliefs, such as the ontological immutability of gender cohering resolutely and unremittingly in and through an inveterate notion of the biological (belief certainty in the sense that the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein might intend as the unnoticed grounding of one's sense of and use of language itself laid in so deeply that it disappeared from immediate purchase). Gender Trouble also asked us to address the seemingly intransigent separations between interiority and exteriority and the obdurate artifice of an “interior core” (psyche, soul, etc.), which, because it was constituted as a priori, meant that people believed it lay beyond being touched or constituted by any social, economic, or political exigencies, “regulations,” or “disciplinary practices” and thus “preclude[d] an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject.”2
On the book's thirtieth anniversary, the trouble generated in the wake of Gender Trouble's publication continues to reverberate in South Asia. However, the trouble it ferries along is somewhat different in South Asia than in the United States. In South Asia, Gender Trouble is often companioned by other texts that Butler has written—most often Bodies That Matter, but also Precarious Life and Frames of War.3 I have brought Butler's other writings into this conversation, for a moment, because of what I want to go on to speak of—which is that Butler's work, landing unpredictably and sometimes in unanticipated places, has been picked up extensively and voraciously precisely because the particular subtleties with which she engages and tussles are necessary and/or amenable to the political circumstances that are extant in, swirling around in the times and places where those texts have been read. Vulgarly stated, readers grab onto moments in Butler's monographs because they are suggestive or provocative and direct those who encounter them to patterns of critique that torque what is or has already been in place. Readers also feel them out because feminist ideas, postcolonial philosophical arrays, arrangements, and commitments present at the time, already in situ, share Butler's insights, and so are particularly hospitable to what she brings. In other words, it is not just the case that Gender Trouble ships in something unforeseen; rather, Gender Trouble makes sense, is persuasive, in precise places, at specific times in South Asia, because feminists reading her are already circulating similarly pressing themes, reservations, and queries, even if they may be drawing on, or leaning on, different philosophical proclivities, tendencies, and lineages than Butler.
For a scholar such as I, whose lives and audiences jostle between South Asia and the United States, Butler's insights synced in both directions. Simply stated, Gender Trouble modulated with insights that were familiar to me as someone whose work resided in South Asia and its ways of habitation, even as it may have brought in something unforeseen because my two geographies were enmeshed in each other.
The rest of this essay is composed of a montage of the scenes in which Gender Trouble may be found along its way. The first mise-en-scène, my work on Miraji, about whom I was writing as Gender Trouble came out, overlays the United States and South Asia. I turn to Miraji, as a theorist of gender and translation, to attune us to, or signpost, modes of reading Gender Trouble along its route. The mise-en-scènes of the other scenarios are classrooms from the north and then the south of the subcontinent, and the last homes in on a photographic series from the oeuvre of a renowned feminist photographer, installation artist, theorist, philosopher, Sheba Chhachhi. These scenes are punctuated by a historical interlude. The essay culminates in an epilogue in which I gather in what I have juxtaposed to suggest some closing provocations that may enable us as readers to comprehend what it is that we glimpse in or about the scenes presented here.
One may think of the rest of this essay, in which I will turn to the subcontinent featured in different keys, as laying claim to the pedagogies in or through which Gender Trouble either finds itself or is translated, pedagogies that, as the poet Miraji suggests in my epigram, inescapably, unavoidably go amiss, in the best ways possible.
Pedagogies of a text that has landed in places that might not have been envisioned as its routes or destinations engender philosophical reflections enable theories to go a-wandering, tethered every once in a short while, and in a slender fashion, to an author—in this case, Judith Butler.4 As the wayfarer, Gender Trouble wends it paths, and its messages, through the scenes I proffer here, what is picked up by the various constituencies that voice it, and re-authorizes/animates it in a cornucopia of registers. In the process, as both Walter Benjamin and Miraji, writing about translation in the same era, point out, Gender Trouble becomes something other than itself. As I gathered material on Gender Trouble in South Asia, I came to see, as I signaled earlier, that its phrases, its sentences entered the places and times I will go on to speak about in ways that were akin to some of the minutest of the multitude of interventions: The “what,” the message, is wrought through where and when the text lands, how it is picked up, who takes it in hand, opens it, reads it, thinks it, inherits it, holds it.
Scene 1: Miraji and I
I am a scholar of South Asia, teaching queer theory in the 1990s, writing about sexuality since the 1980s, engaged in the movements around HIV/AIDS (doing work in prisons) in the 1980s, and Gender Trouble was my text when it hit the stands. I was a biologist, a scientist, a historian of science writing about movements and poetics, trained in continental philosophy, and for me, there was nothing immutable about the biological, nothing true about it, except assignations of truth value, held in melancholia. Butler gave me my language—partly because Gender Trouble was so committed to tracing rigorously nuanced philosophical lineages.
When I wrote my dissertation on the Urdu modernist poet Miraji (1912–49), Butler, as I gestured to earlier, worked for me in two ways. The first pertained to Miraji himself and the South Asian feminists I found my home with, and those scholars who composed primarily in Urdu, as well as the putative South Asian addressees to whom I imagined I sent my work, whether or not it landed on their doorstep, whether they were diasporic, mobile, or housed on the subcontinent. Here, Butler's interventions found a domicile because, as I will go on to show, what she asked us to look at made so much sense precisely because people were already thinking in the ways she laid out.
And then there were those other readers, primarily US based, some in my department and others who were in area studies. At the time I first began writing, few of those colleagues or teachers believed that gender/sexuality, in the ways in which Miraji addressed them, which I will reconnoiter shortly, had much intellectual heft or in fact value—even as the feminist scholars whom they may have been reading, such as Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, as well as a host of others in South Asia, were reaching for questions such as mine that spoke to or brokered the friability of gender and sexuality under colonial and precolonial conditions of possibility or subsidence. Butler served such readers to politically attuned gender senses, even if they struggled hard to refuse what she had wrought.5
Miraji was an unusual literary figure for early and mid-twentieth-century South Asia, in that he torqued both poetry and prose. His lyric was exquisitely synaesthetic, promiscuously, playfully inventive. Miraji's essays, on “world” poets whom he happened upon while he was casing library shelves, as well as those on his own contemporaries, had entirely shifted the scapes and sensibilities, reoriented the blueprints for Urdu critical and commentarial analytic and diagnostics.
My musings in my own research on gender/sexuality and poetics could be said to begin with Miraji's mediations on gender, from the 1930s to the 1940s, whether he came at these through poetic nuance or through his renaming. Miraji, or Sana Ullah Daar, adopted the takhallus of Mira, a woman, a bhakti poet who dallied, in verse, with a cowherd god. The juxtaposition of Miraji's name and his gender, as well as not just his sexuality, which was up for grabs, but also his verse: all of them dancing with each other comported with what desire meant when gender refused to stay in place. He sang to a man as a woman who was also a man; or scribbled verse to a woman as a man who was also a woman; or shifted wholly over into a female “I,” signing in a woman's name though you lived as a man; or emptied out gender altogether by rescinding the “I” entirely, which was a grammatical opportunity if one created, as Miraji did, in Hindustani. To get to the heart field of Miraji's poetic practice, its slant, or complexion, where, for him, fancy, contemplation, and feeling partnered in a philosophical, metaphor-laden tango, I had to grapple with Miraji's gender play—which was suggestive of what throwing down the gauntlet before something very particular, the ontological assurance of gendered and sexualized subjectivity, might entail. This was something Butler would have found sympathy with, conducive to the currents and vortexes of her politico-philosophical meditations and mediations.
However, what Miraji did was not entirely innovative. Breaching the protocols of gendered assignation was not just a familiar feature of South Asian lyric, but a necessary one through which one could reach for love, for mystical union. Lyricists staked their being on it, for it was not a small thing to contravene well-hewn conventions that were one's firmly grounded daily habitus; this then pointed to a deeply understood sense that one's gender was not natural, it was to be taught, inculcated, tempered through convention, inhabited as such, and therefore was possible to shed. Many poets writing both as men and as women (and signature and author did not need to cohere) wrote as women, as a gopi, one woman in the conclave of cowherds with whom Krishna danced, flirted, frolicked because that was the itinerary through which, as his lover, desire for Krishna could be reached for and felt most acutely.6 Poets signing as either a man or a woman composed, sang as women; neither stance had to tally up with how they lived out their everyday sexuality. But for centuries, writing as a woman longing, or as a man waiting, patient and grieving, yearning or in anticipation, was par for a lyric's course. We don't really know, often, who the putative authors were, but we know who they composed as or through, who they signed as, entreating, imploring, coveting. The entire tropological grammar of love's palette showed us that gender and sexuality, however certain they may or may not have been in social and political life, should be sloughed off, discarded when peeling it off was called upon.
Miraji followed upon these practices closely. What was striking and different from what had been commonly accepted in earlier times was that Miraji spun conventions in a modernist vein. For him, messing around with gender was not just an aesthetic device, however crucial it may have been for poets of an earlier time; it was now a profoundly political matter. A historical exegesis, which I will lay out later on in this essay, will give a more extensive sense of where Miraji's intuitions of exigency may have emanated from. But meanwhile . . .
Miraji felt strongly that colonialism had inflected every nuance of daily speaking, the ways in which we came to be ourselves, the ways in which we rummaged for our everyday small resistances, and he directed his essays and lyric to unpacking these (they were his addressees). His interventions were deeply politico-philosophical and slowly unfolded the grammars of colonial legislative mandates. Some of these mandates were aimed at education policies that vilified earlier lineages of lyric and substituted other writers in their place. Miraji took this on by forging forebearers, kinship, lineages for modernism through the women writers he scrounged out in libraries, and he culled for his own project those deemed inimical to a colonially mandated school or university curriculum. His essays on women poets from Europe such as Sappho, the Brontë sisters, but also Japanese and Korean women lyricists, were on those he believed either had not been given their due or had been actively condemned, consigned to historical waste; these were also writers who were unlikely to appear in school textbooks.
Each essay was composed as a translation in which Miraji became the women on whom he mused, folded himself through them, into them as they folded themselves into him. Many of these essays ended in conversations conducted in lyric, with the poet who was being translated swapping verse with male as well as female South Asian poets who shared their sensibility. For Miraji, shifting into women's voices, sharing (hamdardī) their sexuality, as was the case with Sappho, tuning himself into women who in prior generations had paced those paths shunned by colonial pedagogical policy directives in South Asia, was political work (kām kāj).7
What Miraji did was to turn gender into a compositional lexicon, which breached biological gender/sexuality, while at the same time re-enfleshing word through the metaphorical grammar, idioms, and iconography of verse so that even when it was spun into the somatic, flesh, sinew, feeling, it refused a return to an ontologically based faith in gender's confident fixity: precisely what Butler urged in her monograph. Becoming women, inhabiting, living in their grief, their histories, their small or encompassing pleasures, suggested byways out of colonial hegemonies. Even more acutely so if those had insinuated, through law, through paper, through education the belief that gender and sexuality were ontological, were a priori, biologically determinate. His maqsad, his aim was nothing less than to lead the writers of his time through to the other side of colonial incursions that had gutted their voices.
In other words, Butler may well have written Gender Trouble for Miraji. In taking something along pathways that had not been drawn up for it, translating poets into worlds where they may never have properly belonged so that they and their lyric became something other in anomalous times and places, while shedding any simple return to an original, even as the process of doing so was deeply about sharing soul-pain: Miraji's hamdardī provides us venues to perhaps understand what Gender Trouble might become when it was wrenched away from the contexts for which it was written. It was not that the poets Miraji translated gifted something “new” or unexpected to his compatriots. Rather, it is something else entirely that the usual rumblings about bringing texts from the “outside” fail to begin to grasp. The text becomes other than itself, its “origins” left aside, but in a kind of dialectic with its new worlds of habitation.
Even as what Gender Trouble raised fitted easily, or perhaps in a nuanced fashion, into the South Asian contexts I have elaborated, it had another kind of life in the US context. In the United States, Gender Trouble authorized me to raise the questions that were instrumental to appreciating and probing what Miraji had inaugurated, which area studies scholars in the United States were uncomfortable naming. And as someone who shared the world that my US readers did, Butler's interrogations asked those interlocutors to interrogate their own attachments to gendered ontologies.
My own “relationship” or kinship with Gender Trouble was forged through my life in the United States in the 1990s. That was then, but what of those who live in and work on the subcontinent now?
Scene 2: Delhi: South Asia in the Present
Communicating with faculty who have been teaching Gender Trouble for many years, integrating the text into undergraduate and graduate classes on aesthetics and sexuality, gave me some insights.8 Though Gender Trouble was located in Euro-America, and perhaps because of that, students and faculty felt that the monograph augmented their own lingua franca, the grammar and vocabulary through which they could parse sexuality and desire. Gender Trouble was often accompanied by Bodies That Matter. For faculty teaching Butler, they believed that Butler's interventions were akin to those of Laura Mulvey, whose work, on the scopophilic, the erotic mandates of visual phallocentrism in Hollywood cinema, re-scripted how readers viewed visual theory. Just as with Butler's Gender Trouble, Mulvey's “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,”9 though curtailed somewhat by its geographic limitations, provisioned compelling modalities of investigation, vectors along which critical questions could route to suit the situations in situ, at hand. And certainly in the case with Gender Trouble, as it was also with Mulvey's essays, in situ South Asian feminist theory modulated what was received, the texts from the outside, as it were, mobilized synergistically, or even symbiotically with what was already flowing through, sitting in political tandem, syncopating with them.
When faculty cover Gender Trouble, they begin by asking students what they know of it. Curiously but not unexpectedly, the sorts of students who attend classes in which Gender Trouble might be taught inevitably come with some idea, however odd, of performativity as a “key word.” Students are asked to explore what they have tucked into their notebooks or phones of the various permutations of the word “performativity,” how Butler expanded her discussion in Bodies That Matter to respond directly to rather strange assumptions by readers that, as Butler explains in her preface, performativity seemed to lend itself to readings that imagined gender as composed out of what one pulled willfully (and by so-called choice) out of one's closet each day. The result denuded performativity of all of the lineaments of power, all the materiality in the “acts and gestures” of the “gendered body”—it was as though people got stuck in words like fabrications, forgetting that a fabricator is a maker of things. When one begged the question of the ontological status of particular ways of imaging and imagining being, all the materiality of the conditions of production seemed to dematerialize—not at all what Butler had written but at the heart of deep resistance to “troubling” habits, which had become so entrenched that letting them go would feel like a little death.10 I will come back to this when I turn, later on, to the how of why Gender Trouble made sense in the South Asian context.
In the early days of teaching Gender Trouble, one of the immediate ramifications of asking students to delve into performativity, even in this naive fashion, before they turned to the text, was that they immediately began to “denaturalize” gender. They unglued themselves from fixations on the biological, asked about the ways in which “conditioning” was constitutive and gender not a priori, and challenged various gendered expectations—of falling uneasily into stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. This despite all the South Asian feminists who had critiques akin to Butler's; perhaps her status as an outsider proffered an additional vantage at a time when gender was being reconsolidated through state initiatives? Trans folk, hijras, aravani, kinnara as feminized began to show up for them, appearing out of, from palimpsests of repetition. So, when it was first taught (this changed dramatically as the trans movement gained rapid momentum), Gender Trouble led students back to what they knew, in the guise of murkily occluded presences—trans folk were, after all, everyday fare—in plain sight, among themselves in dorms and academic buildings, on streets, in homes. Now, with the efflorescence of South Asian trans theorists speaking and writing, and the trans rights bill installed (in however problematic a fashion), Gender Trouble becomes an invaluable counterpoint. In other words, students, then and now, held onto some sense of the materialized challenges that Gender Trouble threw up.
Faculty used Bodies That Matter not as a rewriting of Gender Trouble that would enable students to grasp what they found elusive. Rather, Bodies became a mode to help students see how a theorist may respond to readers who did not quite articulate with her text in the ways in which the text demanded; Bodies That Matter also lent itself to a further exploration of “hetero.” And, more explicitly, the charge that Bodies drew forth enunciated something vital—that is, that it was precisely the constant need for repetition that pointed to the unpredictability of sedimentation—and so the business of materializations and their conformities with the regulatory force of convention that both was established through and commanded reiterations of gendered habits were always unfinished business. Bodies became a pedagogical intervention that sent students back to Trouble, and to this particular passage that seemed to voice what they believed to be almost prescient for them. Because Butler apostrophized, many students felt as though her own intellectual biography presaged their own, her sentences became theirs to hold, inserted into their intellectual and political cubbyholes.
Perhaps trouble need not carry such a negative valence. To make trouble was, the reigning discourse of my childhood, something one should never do precisely because that would get one in trouble. The rebellion and its reprimand seemed to be caught up in the same terms, a phenomenon that gave rise to my first critical insight into the subtle ruse of power: The prevailing law threatened one with trouble, even put one in trouble, all to keep one out of trouble. . . . For that masculine subject of desire, trouble became a scandal with the sudden intrusion, the unanticipated agency, of a female “object” who returns the glance, reverses the gaze, and contests the place and authority of the masculine position.11
Faculty, sympathetic to their students’ urgencies, began traversing Gender Trouble by turning to this early section on trouble—almost as though it were a missive scribbled on the back of a notebook—to speak to the trouble that troubling gender engendered: this was their opening salvo to a reading of Gender Trouble. The contingent of students who were likely to take a course in which Gender Trouble was taught were more liable to be in trouble. At Jawaharlal Nehru University, they came with questions about the stability of regulatory apparatuses; many more politically vociferous trans and Dalit students were likely to be in classes; students from the northeast of India who faced racism in Delhi wanted to know how to read gender and racialization and capital. To that end, faculty asked students to grapple with what Butler's insights on “trouble” might portend for them.
What Butler provokes in the foregoing quote was so apt for these students.12 They were and are students who constantly invited trouble by getting into trouble. They took Butler's perspicacity on gender and tendered them in other keys. These students understood that their presence was troubling. Their very presence troubled those who wanted them gone, whether those were state operatives, or ordinary people passing them by on the street, or landlords who turned them away from rentals. Students looking back at those who harassed them saw through the “subtle ruse[s] of power” with clear-sightedness.
For students such as those at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the earlier paragraph, scrawled and cut out along with South Asian feminist texts and those organic political analytics in searing texts such as Rohith Vemula's that could be said to collaborate with their own concerns, became their mantra.13 They took Butler with them to sites outside the classroom, using her to ask questions not just about the naturalization of gender but also about the naturalization of the law of academia, of institutions, of the nation-state. For them, the openings provided by the instability that repetition called up, as suggested by Butler, gave them the breaches through which they could conduct political interventions. In so doing, these students troubled those who had attempted to sell them the paradox that making trouble for them would keep trouble away from the doors of others—and they did this by ceaselessly getting into trouble, by generatively troubling the status quo.
Scene 3: Sri Lanka, Departments of English
These departments, much like their counterparts in India, were engaged in teaching texts that brought trouble to the forefront of the classroom. They were also departments for which, given the country's long history of war and violence, Frames of War became a text that had to follow Gender Trouble and Bodies That Matter.
Frames of War, when it was taught alongside Gender Trouble at the University of Colombo, overlapped with the culmination of decades of war (1983–2009) between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and the Sri Lankan state in the south, a war that followed upon the brutal killings and expulsion of Tamil civilians. Scholars and activists, because they already cognizant of them, went on to siphon several themes from the monograph Frames of War. Grief and who could or could not grieve, how grief could or could not show itself, where one was allowed to fall into grief and where not, what the conditions on the ground, including the circulation of representations, enabled or foreshortened: these were so central to what Butler teased out and spelled out and so seminal to activists and scholars during this fraught time. Precisely because the flesh and matter of violence anchored what Butler laid out, her questions set off durable and nuanced discussions in Sri Lanka. In Frames, Butler rehearses some of the ideas she introduces in both Bodies That Matter and Gender Trouble. But because in Frames they are so immediately pertinent to the Sri Lankan situation, they appear to be in a simpler, more accessible form there, so Frames offers a very useful vantage point to discuss the other two as well. However, faculty I spoke to about teaching Butler's work in Sri Lanka all said that they always had students first read Gender Trouble even when they taught Frames of War.
In communicating with faculty from departments in Sri Lanka, I found them voicing a consistent plaint. When they taught Gender Trouble, they felt that they were hampered by what they thought of as a peculiar conundrum that they did not face with Frames: their students found performativity through Google searches and fought any attempt to nuance it, even when pressed.14 Performativity seemed to have turned into a commodity artifact—something that could be harvested safely and carried away to be bartered for intellectual capital without any serious commitment to Butler's very subtle arguments. Performativity, then, was a concept-metaphor in the sense that Gayatri Spivak invites, but one that could also be easily mined and circulated without a robust sense of what performativity also brought with it, the labor of Butler's engagements. This, for many faculty, was to its detriment.
I would argue otherwise. For me, it drew the fascination that it garnered precisely because it was so politically solvent in the context of the colonial legacies ensconced in the history of contemporary South Asia. Toward the end of this short rumination, when I turn, as I have already indicated, to Sheba Chhachhi's installation Ganga's Daughters to address this in the context of art practice, I will go on to play out what Sheba's photographs of ascetic women attest—another form through which performativity sees its shaping.
But Back to Performativity—Scene 4: Colonial Renditions
As so many feminist scholars of South Asia have shown, Sharmila Rege, Gayatri Spivak, Lata Mani, Mrinalini Sinha, Anjali Arondekar, Neloufer de Mel, and Kumari Jayawardena among them, the architecture of colonial governance was managed and mandated through gender and sexuality. The usual fail-safe analytics that scholars refer back to focus on a particular trajectory—white men saving brown women from brown men—which became the effective immanent direction, or even exhortation, for incursions by colonial administrators into the everyday lives of colonial subjects. Some of these “interventions” included the “out-lawing” of so-called age-old customs such as Sati, or child marriage.15 The sleights of hand that produced and ceded “custom” and customary law for each religious community as a supposedly authentic carryover from a putatively indefinite past were, as expected, hidden from view, as were other colonial jurisdictional imperatives that installed “immutable,” prefigured gendered sexuality.16
At stake was something else tucked into these as well: shifts in the quotidian routines and protocols of gender through the refiguration of property in the most capacious sense of the idea of property. Some of these vagaries came about because colonial jurisprudence was underwritten by Blackstonian conventions reviving neoclassical, neo-Roman legal principles, which installed primogeniture, routed property (often held in common) through those believed to be “men” and through the eldest “male” offspring, denuding those who had been designated as “women” or trans of the right to inherit, hold onto the property they had, and adopt across communities at will.17
Gendered conceptualizations organized under the auspices of religious regulations, euphemistically nominalized as “personal law,” allied with caste were also reformatted in their wake.18 Communities where decisions were made collectively were now handed over to men, and these changes were coded as returning to “true” custom, or religious practice.19 In instances of inheritance—whether the inheritance was convened under customary, personal, or civil law—gendered subjects had to produce marriage certificates or birth certificates to show that they were the correct beneficiaries of fathers and husbands; mothers, of course, had no legal jurisdiction.20 In almost all transactions concerning property, from rental agreements and financial transactions to identification documents, one was expected to include a father's or husband's name as proof of self, to validate one's claim to that property. In other words, heterosexuality was constituted as a regulatory passageway routed through male heads of household or collectives, the only legitimate form of property through which property could be properly, legally transacted. Installing heterosexuality as a matrix for everyday life was given heft by the 1860s sodomy statute. Poets and writers whose lyric sang of desire that was far from heterosexual understood that the statute would totally upend the everyday forms through which sexuality was lived and scripted. The sodomy statute would allow for the criminalization of genres of expression that were now deemed anomalous.”21 During this period, too, trans communities of various configurations were decreed criminal tribes and shorn of rights to claims pertaining to property.
Every one of these instances had at its heart essentialized notions of what came to be gender/sexuality—lodged in bodies, in intrinsic moralities, in fixed ideas of the psyche, the true internal core—that provided the fodder in support of colonial regulations. Crudely put, in order to ensure that colonial projects of intervention to “save” women perpetuated what was anticipated and intended, women first had to be refigured as nonfungible beings, wed into heterosexuality, properly installed and instated as such, and the processes that did so—that is, the intent of the projects and procedures of intervention, which had actually spawned the subjects they then demarcated for progress—obfuscated.22 These procedures, then, as Butler also shows us at many turns in the text of Gender Trouble, and so effectively and in such a rigorous enunciation in the small segment from Gender Trouble given next, engendered exactly what they had decreed, authorized, and certified.
Scene 5: South Asian Legacies
[A]cts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences that suggest, but never reveal, the organizing principle of identity as a cause. Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means. That the gendered body is performative suggests that it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality. . . .
The displacement of a political and discursive origin of gender identity onto a psychological “core” precludes an analysis of the political constitution of the gendered subject . . .
If the inner truth of gender is a fabrication and if a true gender is a fantasy instituted and inscribed on the surface of bodies, then it seems that genders can be neither true nor false, but are only produced as the truth effects of a discourse of primary and stable identity.23
The effects of colonial mandates had a long arm, a reach whose contours we can clarify if we telescope them through the evocative philosophico-political choreography kindled by the quote I gleaned from Gender Trouble. What was left in the aftermath of colonial procedure making was a paradox, an awareness that gender was not “localized” in a primordial “self,” “the self” was not the “cause of desire, gesture and act” while at the same time “displacing the political and discursive origins of gender onto a psychological core.” The everyday of gendered proclivities, of gendered habits were simultaneously understood as “produced by political regulations and disciplinary practices,” and ontic. In other words, colonized denizens saw full well, as Butler suggests, that “words, acts, gestures, and desire produce[d] the effect of an internal core or substance, but produce[d] this on the surface of the body, through the play of signifying absences,” through colonial regulations that expected them to pull out papers for every minor pursuit in which their religion, gender, class, caste were laid bare in quill pen or print, duly attested by a reliable witness—as though those revealed the veracity of some profound interior being. While at the same time, in constantly fudging the lines, fabricating papers that proved their status and who they were said to be, so many living and managing during those times, as they now also do, recognized that truth was produced as an after-effect, authenticity was where jugaad could be effectively tooled, and was an artifact that could be efficaciously forged. This was true of sexuality as well.
However, at moments of crisis, and instances when state organs (under the current regime, for example) installed regulations imagined as welfare provisions, such as the beti badhao, beti padhao (save the girl, educate the girl, which also encouraged marriage as one of the routes through which “girls” found their place), the ontic prevailed over denaturalized understandings of what gender and sexuality were. In responding to these provisions in newsprint and public conversations, even some who fought them seemed to succumb to a faith in the truth of gender and sexuality, as though these were “real,” as though that realness somehow resided in an innate self that had to be carefully curated and cultivated into a better version of itself.
In the section I have culled, Butler becomes one venue in South Asia through which to recoup the performative from the ontic. What do I mean? “[A]cts, gestures, and desire produce the effect of an internal core or substance . . . Such acts, gestures, enactments, generally construed, are performative in the sense that the essence or identity that they otherwise purport to express are fabrications manufactured and sustained through corporeal signs and other discursive means.”24 In the South Asian context, denuding these fabrications of their fabricatedness, so that the multifarious means by which they were produced and upheld and maintained disappeared from view, instated the ontological status of the body. This was precisely where the labor of colonization lay. But because, as Butler also proposes, the belabored labor of repetition itself, performed over and over, shows us its friability, the tentativeness of the production of the truth of essences (installed as gender/sexuality), and so her work offers one way through the spoor that colonialism left in its wake.
So, for young students and scholars, wrestling with the paradox of ontology and performativity, Butler's articulation of performativity, even if wrested away from the context of the arguments that give it its weight and gradations, can be gleaned for the grammar, the lexicon to tackle their present. Performativity is one path along which to see both what colonialism decreed and what it could not completely overcome, the fluxes that were the hallmark of the requirement for repetitions that then enabled other counter-materializations and facilitated an analytic that bared the Gramscian hegemonies tucked into colonial legislation. To quote Butler again:
That this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled. Indeed, it is the instabilities, the possibilities for rematerialization, opened up by this process . . . the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law.25
In other words, young people trying their hand at an analytic took so easily to performativity because it revealed their own situation to them—and this was given heft because Butler echoed what South Asian feminists and mothers and grandmothers were saying: “that regulatory law could be turned against itself.” And certainly, as I have shown in the case of Miraji, and Sheba will through her photographic account, performativity as the mode through which familiar habits were upended, shorn away, was a familiar genre of practice. Butler's positions were sympatico with what was circulating already. Through this synergy, students noticed and noted the lineaments of their conundrum, and saw a way through it, and understood that despite all their attachments to gendered and sexualized essentialisms, they also had the tools to analyze these attachments and seize the means for speaking back.26 Seeing through the naturalization of regulatory mechanisms, of everyday habituations “called into question” the “force” of what had transmuted into custom, “spawning” something askance.
It should be clear by now that under current conditions, where virulent violence is the order of the hour in many regions of South Asia, performativity can still serve as one of many vectors for a political analytic. The semantics and semiotics that bankroll aggression against communities—whether they are Tamils in Sri Lanka, Muslims in Sri Lanka and India, Dalits, laborers, indigenous constituencies, or trans folk in both places—rely on the same marshaling of ontological truisms that are familiar features of colonial regulatory regimes.
Scene 6: The Culmination: Ganga's Daughters by Sheba Chhachhi
“The act of making a photograph, especially working in collaboration with the subject as I do, is a performative act - the camera/photographer ‘calls into being’ the subject, in the Bakhtinian sense; the image produced offers an enactment of the self, particular to that encounter, while drawing on a previous repertory of performance. The women ascetics not only play with the performance of gender, but enact for the householder, domesticated woman the possibility of another form of female identity.”—Sheba Chhachhi, email communication, April 23, 2020
When I started to commune with the photographer, sculptor, feminist theorist, and installation artist Sheba Chhachhi to let her know that I was writing about Gender Trouble in South Asia, she responded—did you know that the photographs I took of “women” ascetics over several years resonated with and found an affinity with the arguments in Gender Trouble?
These were portraits, performative in the sense that Sheba explains, in which photographer and subject syncopated, and the camera called someone who was before it into presence in ways that suited the subjects, “drawing on” earlier iconographic repertoires. They were taken over ten years, while Sheba traveled with women who had given up their domestic subsistence, lived previously under the jurisdiction of men, or lost their station or locale in the sociopolitical arrays that they may have once enjoyed or enjoined, to enter into something else, another kind of compact with their compatriots. These women came from a whole host of variegated circumstances, they were women in trouble, women who were trouble: some felt they had a calling, some were fleeing violence, many were destitute, some had been abandoned or lost as young girls, left at sites of large festivals or melas (fairs) or at railway stations and adopted by sadhus (ascetics), and many were widows. They all came to the banks of the River Ganga (Ganges) for an initiation ceremony performed during large religious gatherings such as the Kumbh Mela and enacted their own death rites, rites that cut them off from the seven generations preceding them. In other words, they acted out the death rituals for seven generations. These rituals expunged, stripped away all the markers of femininity, everything that bound them to family, gotra (community), village, town. They divested themselves of, were shorn of the entire social and economic apparatus of belonging, embedded, held, and repeated in clothes, hair, ornaments, name, family, lineage, caste, gender.27
This flow of photographs (figures 1–4) documents the stages that transformed women into ascetics.
The understanding fleshed out the rituals we see here—that everything the women wore and had been told about themselves could be shed so that these women no longer belonged, in fact were no longer “women” in any sense of the social, economic, or political meaning of the word—was what Sheba Chhachhi believed portrayed Butler's philosophical description of performativity in one key.28 Being was (or perhaps was composed in) a series of actions, and releasing oneself from those actions divested one of all sense of what it meant to be a “woman” in either an ontological or, in this case, even a relational sense. Initiates became androgynous, though Sheba did feel that their somatic grammar was still semimasculine. These ascetics were no longer wives, daughters, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, they had no literal place of residence, nor did they have attachments to place in the world, in any of the more symbolic, metaphorical, or allegorical senses. The compact between the photographer and the women who collaborated with her was performativity in another key.
In the series of Sheba's lyrical photographs, the women are caught in situ, in the process of disrobing, and then being rebirthed as “of the river,” dressed in new unbleached cotton, flowing around them as they fold themselves into cloth denuded of color. In black and white, shadows the only link newly fashioned ascetics have to the ground, stretching out to grasp or merely brush the edge of another; the black and white tones render the initiation as and through poetic visual gesture.
Old names flowed away as water along the river's banks, along with the accoutrements that fell away, and ascetics-in-making were anointed with new ones. Names such as Giri and Puri, as a suffix, signified very particular or distinct clusters within the Shaivite fold. When new names were those of rivers, as they often are, they designated or folded into affiliations within a religious subculture. Some names such as Ma, Mai, Pagli, Khepi, however, were generic, pleated into the idea of “universal mother” as opposed to any one particular social and biological mother so they did not belong anywhere in particular, but belonged everywhere instead.
These ceremonies, in which older practitioners blended in with much younger ones in Sheba's portraits, were held both for ascetics who came to renew their vows of release as well as for new ones who refashioned themselves.
After their initiation, the initiates were introduced as such within the religious community gathered at the Kumbh Mela, to akhadas, where they were accepted as having a place in a loosely configured grouping, one which gave them the rights to protection; one might think of this as the trace or shelter of the cloth. These women lived in a separate encampment at the mela, the māi vāDā, where donations were shared. While there were leaders amongst this temporary sorority, individual women, most often in pairs would travel out on their own, following and tracing their own path.
The ascetics whom Sheba chronicled were of several kinds—among them were those who were bound to goddesses and who had a wild androgynous femininity, hair grown out into dreadlocks, wrapped in the dark red cloth of blood, while the Shaivites wore saffron. One set of Sheba's photographs tracks or trails one specific leader, Mira Puri, as she grows ever more powerful and more androgynous over the years, acquiring male ascetic symbols of power along her path: a stick, a turban, and a throne. Most, when asked to tell their story, would start with opening sentences that could well have come from any generic hagiography of saints—“I was born under a Banyan tree. . . . ” With these sentences, ascetics cued their life course through the iconographic echoes that could be plotted into a tale that was anyone's and no one's simultaneously. The ascetic remaking of selves, Sheba believed, could be considered yet another kind of performativity—in being anyone's and no one's at all, it was one that had resonances with and was torqued through the metaphysical or divine.
It was as though these portraits fitted into another text as well, Gender Trouble that spoke with, or jived with, danced along with, Sheba's feminist theoretical analytics that had birthed her inquiry. The theoretical syntax that Sheba picked up on in Gender Trouble met what ten years of her photographs chronicled in the decade before Gender Trouble was published, affirming the enquiry of the artist into indigenous forms of feminism, filtered through her camera's eye.
When bits of text fall to us, bequeathed to us as part of our legacy, or tucked away to mark a book we are reading, we happen upon them as we turn those pages once more. And we understand them as our inheritance. In the same way, it would not be out of place to imagine, as Miraji did for this translations, that Gender Trouble has become one of the corpus that is, in its own way, South Asian, both as our heritage and as a monograph for our present.
When Anjali Arondekar and I envisioned the special issue “Area Impossible” for GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies,29 we wanted to push certain entrenched habits of intellectual and political labor that queer scholars and activists subscribed to in the United States to their brink, to their breaking point. We wanted to ask such writers to saunter on beyond their own horizons and to dig out the efficacies of belief-faith, for that is really what they are, that anchored their theoretical ruminations to their place.30 Those habits included citationality and, more specifically, how scholars and activists from the Global South, if and when these were called upon by queer writers in the United States, transformed the routinized paths along which questions were posed by those in the United States, not merely as evidentiary matter but as theory text.31
In this essay, I have switched the compass of citationality—such that what is at hand is how Gender Trouble is absorbed into South Asia. This could be considered, playing off Anjali's and my original endeavor, the geopolitics of pedagogy in the Global South. Gayatri Spivak, in her monograph Outside in the Teaching Machine, speaks of translation as reading.32 Turning to the poet Miraji as a theorist, we might want to recoin Spivak and imagine all reading, as Miraji did, as practices of translation in which pedagogical promises reside. Spivak suggests that we “surrender to the text” as we translate.33 Leaving aside Spivak's rather militarized metaphor, this essay asks instead, how might a text fall into its readers, so that there could be a playful call and response, kash ma kash (tug and pull, back and forth in Urdu) between Gender Trouble and those who read it, a call and response that transposed (i.e., translated) Gender Trouble into new, unexpected conditions under which it was read and in which it performed its pedagogical services. Given the colonial history of European texts arrayed to coerce and cozen those who were “taught” by those very texts to become compliant, complicit with colonialized modes of being in South Asia, that a text from “abroad” is pushed and pulled apart, put to use by its subjects in ways not always presaged by its writer or even its readers, is of utmost urgency.34
In fact, Gender Trouble is very amenable to this sort of refashioning. Butler's archive of resources in Gender Trouble is mainly gleaned from Euro-America. However, the challenges that Butler throws out among them, the analytics she opens up as a method for questioning the gendered/sexualized self one lives in, analytics that include interrogating contemporary fields of power and investigating the critical genealogies of their own legitimating practices, are, as we can see from the scenes in this essay, amenable to a much broader based deployment.35
So, perhaps the point of what Gender Trouble has become in South Asia, the trouble it has brought with it, is that for it to be viable, it had to be misplaced ever so slightly, gently towed away from some of its own references and maybe away from its own addressees, those that blueprint its arguments. And as with the women Miraji translated to bring into the fold of colonial Urdu, Gender Trouble transmuted into the places in which it landed. The messages, the envois, it carried, which were folded into its sentences, and nuanced potentialities, wended their ways, insinuating their robustly articulated politico-theoretical nuggets into surprising contexts.
We are too accustomed to teaching and reading texts as fairly autonomous objects (even when we teach them as necessary to the contexts in which they ride) whose integrity ought not to be breached (even when those texts are turned to virulent ends in ways their signatories may never have foretold). However, as I have shown over the paths my essay has journeyed, it is likely that the only way that Gender Trouble may have become what it did in South Asia was if it were mined in snippets, read in bits and pieces, and those taken up, as though they were axioms scribbled down, into new politico-philosophical regimes. But the other thing to keep in mind is that those axioms only made sense under circumstances where versions of them were already familiar, circulating as theory and story from scholars and activists on the ground, so that Gender Trouble entered and took its place among extant fields of South Asian citationality. The conditions of hospitality had already been set up when Gender Trouble arrived.
Gender Trouble is about gender and sexuality, but also something else—a series of carefully poised reorientations, bequeathing a sensibility to guide us along paths where we scrutinize again what we have come to live in as commonplace truisms. It asked for everyone who encountered it to parse how we have come to be what we imagine we are. These are pedagogical interventions into what, for wont of more apposite language, we may term “philosophico-political selfhood.” So, we can consider the scenarios I have described in this essay as instantiations of the geopolitics of pedagogy from the vantage point of the Global South: methods of reading and integrating a text that itself proposes efficacious methods of and for theory-practice from another place and time. Perhaps we should also then think the many renditions of Gender Trouble, in whatever configurations they show themselves, through two simultaneous mobilizations, the philosophical shaped through the pedagogical and the philosophical drawing out the pedagogical. This is why Gender Trouble can be thought of, under these circumstances—speaking along with South Asian feminist analyses that were making the rounds and underwriting what readers saw—as propounding a pedagogical practice, which taken in these new contexts alerts us to philosophical political routines of governance and of living.
I began to write this essay when Delhi was burning and people were being killed and I was visiting camps to hold the hands of women who had lost everything and seen such horror that all they needed was a touch. Judith Butler, whom I wrote to at the time, was wonderful, supportive, and tender; I could not have done it without her emails, nor could I have perhaps survived, what I now think was COVID-19, without the daily demand I placed on myself to put word into fingers, one laborious phrase at a time. Vinayak Chaturvedi's comments and encouragement, Anjali Arondekar's always bone-straight suggestions, and two reviewers shaped this version. I thank Deborah Johnson, Anindyo Roy, Anil Menon, Pervin Saket, Kavita Philip, Steven Kossak, Anjali Arondekar, Neloufer de Mel, Robert Crusz, Brinda Bose, Shohini Ghosh, Sabeena Gadhihoke, Ajantha Subramanian for, as always, helping me think snippets into fully formed notions; Anannya Dasgupta for being the friend who fed me and cared for me, laughed, and shared ideas and took me in to live with her in Chennai; K. Srilata, who, along with Anannya, gifted me lyric. Many engagements with Nima Lamu over the years attuned me to horrendous details of racism against students from the northeast of India. I am enormously grateful to the scholars and students I corresponded with who gave me the gist and meat of the essay and for whom Gender Trouble matters, and to Sheba Chhachhi, who allowed me to speak about her work and made the suggestions that shifted how I looked, again and askance, at what seemed so settled. I thank My partner and wife for helping me to really see things for what they are with the confidence to write them as such, as she always does, and the love that sustains me, and, finally, Devi.
This is the manuscript version in my possession: “Wandering from town to house, a wayfarer / misplaces the road that gathers him home / That which was once mine/and your belongings, / both foresworn from memory / Mine and yours no longer known.”
Though I cannot cover this in the brief space of an essay, area studies was so committed to new criticism (in a post-McCarthyish fashion) that it could not and would not look at the political economies under which particular renditions of gender/sexuality assumed their fixed shapes.
Dating is a complex issue with South Asian materials, augmented by many composers singing in the voice of and signing as those who had gone before. See
Correspondence, February 4, 2020. Given the current situation in South Asia, I have chosen not to use any names and to leave out department and university designations, unless I have been given explicit permission in cases in which the material is not likely to invite unwarranted attention. Giving the name of a department can quite easily lead one to a fairly accurate surmise of who the faculty were, and the results are likely to be dire.
Geeta Patel, Risky Bodies and Techno-Intimacy: Reflections on Sexuality, Media, Science, Finance (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017); Sharmila Rege, “Caste and Gender: The Violence against Women in India” (Working Paper RSC 19/17, European University Institute, Florence, 1996), http://hdl.handle.net/1814/1432 (accessed October 14, 2020).
Butler, Gender Trouble, vii.
Communication with students, February 1, 2020.
Sharmila Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2006); “My Birth Is My Fatal Accident: Rohith Vemula's Searing Letter Is an Indictment of Social Prejudices,” The Wire, January 19, 2019, https://thewire.in/caste/rohith-vemula-letter-a-powerful-indictment-of-social-prejudices (accessed October 22, 2020).
Correspondence, February 15, 2020; email correspondence, February 18 and 21, 2020. I have changed some of the language here.
Lata Mani, Contentious Traditions: The Debate on Sati in Colonial India (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Mrinalini Sinha, Colonial Masculinity: The “Manly Englishman” and the “Effeminate Bengali” in the Late Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).
Indrani Chatterjee, Family and History in South Asia (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004); Neloufer de Mel, Women and the Nation's Narrative: Gender and Nationalism in Twentieth Century Sri Lanka (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001); Mani, Contentious Traditions; Kumkum Sangari and Sudesh Vaid, eds., Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial History (New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1989); Sinha, Colonial Masculinity; Kumari Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World (London: Zed Books; New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1986).
Greta Olson, Mirjam Horn-Schott, Daniel Hartley, and Regina Leonie Schmidt, eds., Beyond Gender: An Advanced Introduction to Futures of Feminist and Sexuality Studies (New York: Routledge, 2018); Geeta Patel, “Gender and Sexuality,” in The Encyclopedia of Postcolonial Studies, eds. Sangeeta Ray and Henry Schwarz (Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell), 642–47.
Rege, “Caste and Gender”; Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender.
Veena Oldenburg, Dowry Murder: The Imperial Origins of Cultural Crime (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
Patel, “Gender and Sexuality”; Seema Alavi, The Sepoys and the Company: Tradition and Transition in Northern India: 1770–1830 (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1995); Durba Ghosh, Sex and the Family in Colonial India (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014); Rege, Writing Caste, Writing Gender; Jayawardena, Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World.
Geeta Patel, Lyrical Movements, Historical Hauntings: On Gender, Colonialism and Desire in Miraji's Urdu Poetry (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2002); Frances Pritchett, Nets of Awareness: Urdu Poetry and Its Critics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
Butler, Gender Trouble, 2–5.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 136.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 136.
Butler, Bodies That Matter, 2.
Of course, all of this begs the following questions: If performativity was so familiar, why did Butler's work find such avid purchase? When many South Asian feminists also sought refuge, or perhaps politically edgy solace in strategic essentialisms (pace Gayatri Spivak), where did they displace performativity?
All the photographs in the essay are courtesy of Sheba Chhachhi and copyrighted to her. The series here sequence the process of the transformations of the women.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 2–5.
Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel, eds., “Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22, no. 2 (2006).
Ludwig Wittgenstein, On Certainty, trans. Denis Paul and G. E. M. Anscombe (New York: Harper & Row, 1969).
Anjali Arondekar and Geeta Patel, “Area Impossible: Notes towards and Introduction” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 22, no. 2 (2016): 151–71.
Gayatri Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine (New York: Routledge, 1993), 180.
Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine, 183.
Butler, Gender Trouble, 2–5.