A Topography of Excesses
Essay published on Artalk Revue, June 2018.
A Topography of Excesses
Bodies, Spaces, and Counter-Curses
Marking the Body of the World
Colonialism leaves curses. They are everywhere, crisscrossing the body of the world like so many scars: embedded in each brick of a border wall, haunting the stolen artifacts in museums, encapsulated in a gynecological examination chair. Layers of scar tissue covering wounds that have not really healed; a septic infection always threatening to destroy its host. The curses of colonialism mark bodies — from the metaphorical bodies of knowledge it expropriates and appropriates, to the literal bodies whose very existence is inextricably tied to the history that saw — and, importantly, continues to see — Western powers kidnap, enslave, exploit, and rape for their own benefit. These curses reverberate throughout fabric of the world, rippling everything in their path. They trick the gaze, positioning obscurity into a fabricated state of non-existence, transparency the only ubiquitous — yet unacknowledged — presence.
Unravelling colonial curses requires one to dig deep into wounds, confronting the fury of a fever that has never truly subsided. It is a practice of reveling in the rich tones of obscurity, and rejecting the misleading ease of transparency. It means, at times, leaving words unpronounced, negative spaces confronting the weight of a curse that seeks to spell the world in the colonizer’s tongue. The impulse to render colonized others transparent is, as philosopher Édouard Glissant (1990) reminds us, fundamental to the enduring domination and hegemony of the West; it is through its insidious mechanisms that the bodies of colonized others are judged as incapable, unintelligent, primitive — condemned to a role of eternal subjugation, simultaneously excessive and lacking; too many, too much.
A Biopolitical Topography, or How Lack Becomes Excess
During a series of lectures at the College de France, French philosopher Michel Foucault outlined the concept of biopower as “a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that has, if you like, taken control of life in general – with the body as one pole and the population as the other” (2003, p.253). He identifies biopolitics as a form of governance that seeks to approach life and its emergence as a primary arena for the exertion of power. In so doing, Foucault argues that biopolitics plays fundamental role in ushering modernity (1976, p.143), situating its emergence in the West during the 18th century (2009, p.01). Foucault’s outline finds resonance in the work of philosopher Giorgio Agamben (1998), who reframes the idea of a homo sacer — an accursed figure under Roman law within the space opened up by a conceptualization of biopolitics. Building upon an analysis of the emergence of concentration camps during World War II, Agamben offers the idea of ‘bare life’ as a liminal space, “a zone of indistinction and continuous transition between man and beast, nature and culture” (ibid., p.109).
The theorizations of both Foucault and Agamben centre the emergence of biopolitics within the confines of Modern Europe — a historicization challenged, though perhaps not always directly, by the body of post- and decolonial theories that scholars across the Global South have been building since the mid-twentieth century. The establishment of a regime that manages bodies, populations, and the economies that emerge around them (Murphy 2012; 2017) was the foundational mechanism driving the colonial project, as remarked by Argentinian philosopher Maria Lugones (2006), Puerto-rican sociologist Ramón Grosfoguel (2011), Nigerian feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyěwùmí (1997), or African-American studies scholar Alexander Weheliye (2014), amongst others. The wide-ranging scope of the colonial/biopolitical project becomes clear in the documentation practices of the 16th and 17th centuries, which sought to create a database of knowledge about invaded lands and colonized subjects (Piso and Marcgrave, 1648). It is present in the coding of gendered and racialized bodies as inferior, a foundational tenet for the development of biology and medicine, as well as Linnaean taxonomic terminology (Schiebinger 2000). It still resonates in the surveillance of blackness, starting with the establishment of chattel slavery, and re-enacted in the present through the theatrics of airport security, and the collection of census data, amongst other technologies (Browne 2015). Though the construction of the White, Western, cis-male body as the archetype for the human, all other bodies are concurrently constructed as abnormal; taxonomized, documented, classified, and ultimately produced as diverging, inadequate, monstrous entities — illegible, yet hyper-visible (Browne 2015).
Art, as much as science, has been historically involved in this process. The imagery produced by painters Albert Eckhout or Jean-Baptiste Debret — who travelled to Brazil in the 17th and 19th century respectively — was designed to advance and sediment a specific perception of the land and its inhabitants in the European imaginary. Both artists were brought to the colony as part of the domination efforts of different European powers — Eckhout along the entourage of Johan Maurits von Nassau, governor of Dutch Brazil, and Debret as painter for the Portuguese royal family during the time when the court was relocated to Brazil to escape from Napoleon. Their work contributed to an emerging taxonomy of colonized subjects that depicted them as deviant from the white, European norm, simultaneously lacking the civilizational attributes of Europeans, and embodying the excesses of sexuality and subversion in their very flesh (Brienen 2006). The biopolitical governance of settlers over the bodies of the colonized is thus cemented as a necessary civilizing endeavor, a solution to an attributed primitivism. The mission of colonization, this narrative claims, is a benevolent one, for it is only through the acceptance of European domination — cultural and social, but also sexual — that colonized subjects can aspire to attain proximity to the exceptional humanity embodied by whiteness.
The body of the colonized is turned into a topography of excesses: too numerous, too sexual, too much, too alien; a disruptive terrain, the embodiment of European anxieties towards racialized and gendered others. In response, disciplining boundaries must be constructed; an architecture of cages capable of containing the overspills of excess that threaten hegemonic order. In order to be tamed, these bodies — our bodies — need to measured, classified, read, and archived; made transparent. The curse lives on.
An Architecture of Cages
Curses are difficult things to shake off. They cling to bodies like superglue; even when we think we’ve managed to get rid of them, a strange texture on the skin reminds us that stray particles still remain. The biopolitical regime established by colonization does not end with a so-called independence; capitalism, the natural successor of colonialism, takes no prisoners in its perpetual hunger for disposable bodies and cheap — preferably free — labor.
Cages meant to contain the excesses of colonized others may appear under a myriad of shapes, from visa application forms to medications. Their governing logic, however, remains the same: that those bearing the mark of coloniality must be kept separate, kept in positions of subjugation. As much as colonizing discourse attempts to conceal them through the artifices of scientific objectivity or rule of law, the cages show through. On July 11th 2017, BBC host Victoria Derbyshire interviewed philanthropist Melinda Gates and United Kingdom Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel on her #VictoriaLIVE segment (Gates and Patel 2017). The topic of discussion was birth control, particularly the initiatives led in the Global South by the Gates Foundation — co-chaired by the philanthropist and her husband — and the UK government. Birth control, Gates and Patel argued, is a pivotal issue for fighting poverty in the Global South, for it allows women in these regions to continue their educations, to contribute to the local economy, and to better provide for smaller, planned families. Patel, additionally, asserts that population growth in the “developing world” doesn’t only have a negative impact in local economies; most significantly, she argues, it also puts undue pressure on the United Kingdom’s resources and leads to increases in the flow of migrants into the country.
The rhetoric employed by Gates and Patel, which positions poverty as a direct result of population growth rather than a desired result of colonialism and capitalism, is far from new. Thomas Malthus remains perhaps its most famous advocate; similar ideas have, however, been proposed by a wide array of scholars and public figures, such as biologist Paul Ehrlich (1969) — who blamed environmental collapse on overpopulation and pointed out frequently, and with barely disguised contempt, the excesses of populations in the Global South. Another advocate was activist Margaret Sanger, whose crusade for the right to birth control in the early 20th century in the United States was animated by the perception that many of the problems that afflicted poor, racialized women were results of unregulated fertility (Roberts 1997). Most recently, in their bid for the 2017 election, German far right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) designed campaign posters with the slogan “Neue Deutsche? Machen wir selber” — “New Germans? We make them ourselves” — pasted over the image of white pregnant women — in a reformulation of the eugenist policies adopted by the National Socialist regime, and enacted through programs such as the Lebensborn. Furthermore, activist group Women in Exile has denounced, over the past years, how migrant and refugee women who wanted to remove contraceptive implants have had their requests denied by German doctors. The cages are there, in each word pronounced to frame colonized bodies as excessive, as incapable of control and civility; in each call for immigration control; in each targeted birth control initiative.
Scholars Kalpana Wilson (2012) and Laura Briggs (2002) stress that population control policies implemented in the Global South need to be understood as continuations of the colonial/imperial project, in that they pathologize the sex and reproduction of colonized subjects for the benefit of colonizers. In the rhetoric of humanitarian aid presented by Patel and Gates, surveillance and intervention on the fertility and sexuality of colonial subjects are framed as necessary and beneficial. They are described as strategies for the empowerment of women and girls, devised to effectively introduce this demographic into the (low paid) workforce of the Global South. A similar rhetoric is also used to police and justify how people of color living in the so-called ‘developed world’ are disproportionately targeted by sterilization programs and population control policies, as documented by scholars Dorothy Roberts (1997), Angela Y. Davis (1983), Elena Gutiérrez (2008), and Anne Hendrixson (2004).
The metaphorical cage has long been a literal one, often built by those who claim to be allies — as so clearly illustrated by how white U.S. feminist activists Margaret Sanger and Katherine McCormick supported, both financially and politically, the unethical and exploitative medical trials carried out on Puerto Rican people that led to the development of the birth control pill (Arellano and Seipp 1983; Marks 1999). These were carried out within a context that saw the poverty and food shortages that troubled the island as direct results of overpopulation; the trials took place amongst a myriad of other U.S.-led initiatives that sought to control birth rates through sterilization and other contraceptive efforts (Arellano and Seipp 1983). The dehumanization of colonized others is clear in how McCormick, a scientist herself, argued that in order for the pill project to be successful, they needed a “cage of ovulating females” to experiment on (ibid., p. 107). Puerto Ricans, subjected to U.S. colonial domination, become, in this rhetoric, no more than bodies — bodies of excess; the small island, philosopher Paul B. Preciado (2013, p. 177) remarks, “the invisible factory behind the Playboy mansion and the white liberated middle-class American housewife.”
And so the architecture of cages persists, always reshaping itself. This year, startup Microchips Biotech — financed by the Gates Foundation — is set to launch a wireless, birth control microchip implant. The device can be turned on and off by a proprietary app, and is expected to remain active for sixteen years — as opposed to the three years of currently available implants. The chip, Bill Gates clarifies, is being designed with the developing world in mind, more so than Western audiences — the rationale being that in such regions, access to this contraceptive would mean a “form of reproductive justice,” rather than merely a “lifestyle choice.” (Basulto 2014). Cages reformulate themselves: the research for this device is part of the wide-ranging birth control program pushed by the Gates Foundation in the Global South, as described by Melinda Gates and Priti Patel in their BBC interview, much like the one pushed in Puerto Rico in the 1950s.
Reveling in Excess, Breaking Down Cages
Though its curses are ubiquitous, the power of coloniality has never gone unchallenged. Colonized peoples have long learned to weave our own narratives, perpetually insubordinate; insolence is a strategy for survival (Vieira de Oliveira 2018). In my own artistic work, I explore the notion of excess as a space where bodies that fail to conform to Eurocentric, White taxonomic and biometric standards meet; a space where the surveillance of colonized bodies can be disrupted, and where queer sexualities can flourish. In the spoken word performance “Incantations from a Queer Future” (2018) I approach the act of pronouncing words as a form of weaving magic. This multilingual site-specific performance switches between Portuguese, Spanish and English, to unravel a series of demands, rejections, and reflections on the biometric classification of bodies; the impossibility of national borders; the violence of colonial hierarchies; and the generational narratives of migration that have been integral to the fragmentation of my own identity. As a performer, I become a trickster-witch figure, switching between worlds and languages. I attempt to weave connections between worlds that feel impossible to reconcile: the illiteracy and undocumentation of my ancestors; their oral knowledges, passed down and eventually lost to the hunger of modernity; the unstable existence of my own body within the confines of fortress Europe, dependent on the fragility of a few pieces of paper, and the whims of immigration offices.
The performance deliberately explores the use of languages, words, and practices that are obscure to Western audiences. Through the act of pronouncing words and talking about experiences that might be unintelligible to some, I weave an intersectional space of excesses into existence; by rejecting demands for transparency, I explore a detachment from the colonial gaze. Reveling in excesses, I believe, allows new timelines to emerge; it allows us access to multiple realities and futures that visualize the collapse of technologies supporting coloniality and capitalism; it speaks to the notions of commonality that are foundational to anti-colonial struggles; it enunciates queer identities that reject existences confined by white, heteropatriarchal norms and institutions.
This performance — as well as my overall work — offer, of course, but small contributions to the broader and ongoing project of decolonization. Artists dealing with intersecting issues like migration, race, nationality, gender, sexuality or ability have long understood the importance of commonality, refusal, and re-narration in the construction of decolonizing practices. The rejection of white, hetero, cis-patriarchy is, after all, not merely an act of distancing oneself from attempts at creating definitions of the human that place colonized others in a condition of subjugation, but also an affirmative act, one that in rejecting this universalizing gaze allows multiple ways of being and knowing to emerge. It is through these refusals that excess can be reclaimed, and from these re-narrations of reality that new timelines emerge where our bodies — bodies of excess — may be re-envisioned, in our own terms. In her essay “Biohack is Black,” Argentinian-Brazilian artist Fannie Sosa (2017) reminds us that strategies of decolonial refusal enacted by enslaved African communities were, in fact, practices of biohacking through which the Black body reinvented itself into a cyborg as an act of resistance:
If we are talking about cyborg capacities and biohackers, we could for example talk about Black women* forced to birth yearly offspring for 20 years, birthing in the field and continuing to work on the field, still dancing to drums and receiving orixás that safeguarded their health. […] We can mention Mammies that lived until 125 years old to tell the story of how they protected their 30 plus year forcibly extracted breast milk: when breast feeding the master’s children they called upon loa to slow down the oxytocin and prolactin release, so coming back to their own lactating children they still had some of the thick milk that was otherwise destined to strengthen white babies. We must talk about the Jim Crow laws that allowed a person to buy their freedom after 15 successful pregnancies, pushing folx to develop dances, foods, and prayers that would strengthen and flexibilize the pelvic floor.
Sosa’s artistic work continues this examination; in the video “Cosmic Ass,” she investigates the relationship between twerking (and other pelvis-centric dance traditions) on fertility and contraception, and discusses their relation with the experience of Blackness, ancestral knowledges and bodily autonomy. The artist also holds “Twerkshops” where participants are encouraged to encounter pelvic movement as a acts of pleasurable resistance; she remarks that the events “have a lot of different functions. One of them is transmitting this sacred movement that is therapeutic and medicinal, but I think my main goal is to create and sustain community” (Sosa 2016). Sosa’s work, though undeniably rooted in an profound engagement with the curses and wounds enacted by coloniality, focuses on pointing toward new, revolutionary pathways. Her utter rejection of the respectability politics that so often plague hegemonic feminism (and which, she remarks in “Cosmic Ass,” often lead to a dismissal of twerking as a valid feminist practice) revels in the excess attributed to Black bodies. In Sosa’s work, a space of excess becomes a space of intersectionality; a terrain where the intricate connections between racism, ableism, and cis-hetero-patriarchy can be teased out and examined, and from which practices of rejection and resistance can emerge.
Similar themes surface in the work of French-Guyanese-Danish new media artist Tabita Rezaire, who in the installation “Sugar Walls Teardom” examines the often ignored racist history of gynecology. J. Marion Sims, considered by many to be the ‘father’ the field, developed his techniques by experimenting on Black enslaved women’s bodies held in medical plantations (Dudley 2012). Sims chose women who were already suffering from vesicovaginal fistulas — an abnormality in which the bladder becomes connected to the vagina and leads to urinary incontinence, amongst a number of other problems. Fistulas most often were the result of excessively long labor during childbirth — a situation often brought about by the harsh conditions in which enslaved folks were subjected to in the first place. Sims did not use anesthesia, and performed as many as 30 procedures on one of his subjects, known as Anarcha. Rezaire grapples with this painful history in “Sugar Walls Teardom,” remarking that “Black womxn’s wombs have been central to the biomedical economy […] Biological warfare against Black womxn is still pervasive in today’s pharmaceutical testing, forced sterilizations, contraceptive experiments, among other malicious health practices” (Rezaire 2017) and demanding from the viewer a critical reflection on the exploitation and consumption of Black bodies and Black suffering for the benefit of others; the installation consists of a pink gynecological chair, flanked by a screen in which a video essay is playing. It draws a powerful image — the psychedelic colors and the intense 90s aesthetic of the video, the bright, cheerful pink of the chair and surrounding walls tracing a deep contrast with the the history of suffering they hint towards.
Yet, the installation also pays homage to Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and countless other Black womxn, celebrating the womb as a “the original technology.” Her work — like that of Sosa — points toward futures built through community and exchange, and where pleasure and joy are fundamental revolutionary strategies to break down the curses of colonialism. In a 2016 communication to Juan Villoro Ruiz, Zapatista Spokesperson Subcomandante Galeano remarked that “the arts look into the deepest recesses of the human being, and rescue its essence […] Unlike politics, art concerns itself not with readjusting the machine. Instead, it does something more subversive and disquieting: shows the possibility of another world. (Comandante Galeano 2016). Bold, yet gentle and caring, decolonial practices embody the most exciting and disruptive potentials of art: those of education, of healing, and of a communal visualization of alternative, counter-hegemonic, contextual futures. Let us revel in our excesses; let us, together, become witches, and monsters, and cyborgs.
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