I have indeed finished my philosophy essay, wonder of wonders.
Let me know if you find any gaping errors [if you so choose to read it] or inconsistencies or typos or whatever, or give me suggestions or comments :] Of course, I'm handing this in tomorrow so if I don't get a chance to correct things in time... well, so be it then. But, you know, I'll probably check my email and make some last-minute changes.... if necessary. [This is not something I usually do].
Didn't bother to make the outline work, this time. I'll just tell my professor it wasn't working. I did try, after all....

sexism, individualism, slavery, privilege, oppression

onwards! )
The philosophy of Kantian Ethics is said to have "acquired the reputation of being ... excessively demanding in its requirements" (O'Neill, 47). Certainly it appears to dictate the ways in which humans, individually and socially, should act. In this paper, however, I shall demonstrate that Kantian principles are restrictive not on actions but on the moral thought that precedes them, and rightly so. In order to do this, I will first describe the Kantian perspective on the relationship between inclinations (particularly sympathy) and principles, and how each should be considered when making moral decisions. I will then assess the strengths and weaknesses of this perspective.

read more )
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
( Jul. 11th, 2009 02:20 pm)
Dreamwidth, for the unacquainted, is a blogging/journalling/social networking service. Here are some of its features:
  • It's completely opensource
  • no ads regardless of account level.
  • You can customize layouts to a great degree with layers and styles in the advanced customization area for free
  • You can import the content of your journal from some other livejournal-based sites, and hopefully this service will be expanded to importing from other services as well. The importing process is very easy and painless, and you can choose to import your comments, icons, profile, etc, as well.
  • You can crosspost to another journal (every time you update, you can also update at livejournal or some other livejournal-based sites) -- with a paid account, you can post to more than one journal, but still..
  • The differences between account levels are listed in detail here.
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  • It's new (launched in May 2009) so the userbase is still in its growing stages, but a lot of the people are .. real/creative/exciting. Less spam/robots and many active communities, I think. On the downside, there aren't as many potential friends or communities out there, I guess. Also, some communities are just placeholders and haven't started up yet.
  • The support system is really awesome, and they take suggestions seriously :)
  • This diversity statement might lure you.
How would you describe India’s encounter with the West? How did Indians adapt, accept, transform or reject ideas that came to them through the colonial experience?

Liberalism, as a political ideology, has become rather cemented in the popular consciousness of western society. Its origins can be traced to several debates over morality and politics that were happening in Europe in the nineteenth century. From Europe liberalism spread to the colonies, such as in South Asia, where the middle and upper classes in particular became much influenced by it. Although liberalism continues to be, as Richard Bellamy terms it, “‘a notoriously elusive notion’” (Metcalf, 28), it has nevertheless impacted and continues to impact Indian politics very significantly. With the industrial revolution came a more modern form of capitalism, and this capitalism changed colonialism so that it became a more all-encompassing form of imperialism. Liberalism operates within the imperialist framework, and as such carries with it idealized visions of society that clearly support a capitalist economy. Because the colonies were a necessary part of capitalism (and continue to be in their postcolonial, yet neo-colonized, form), they were excellent places to carry out liberal programs of reform. As such, “liberalism.. developed a coherence [in India] it rarely possessed at home” (Metcalf, 29). This suggests that Indian society, irrevocably changed by colonialism, is nothing but a reflection of liberal ideals. However, Indian history is marked by the struggle, nationalist and otherwise, to maintain or create an identity “posited... on a difference with the ‘modular’ forms of the national society propagated by the modern West” (Chatterjee, 5). Hence, it is important to recognize that modern India is shaped both by the impact of colonialism as well as the resistance to it.

One of the prominent markers of liberal ideology in the nineteenth century was the “hierarchical classification of all societies” (Metcalf, 31). Societies that had been colonized, like India, needed to be colonized because they were lesser or lower than western societies, and were “unfit for liberty” (Mill, 4). They were composed of “a rude people.. unable to practice the forbearance which [civilized society] demands” (ibid.). Because of this, despite John Stuart Mill’s advocacy of a representative form of government, in such societies “a civilized government, to be really advantageous to them, will require to be in a considerable degree despotic” (ibid.). This argument allows for the modeling of Indian society on British terms, since it proves that “what has been found good for others.. [will also] be good for them” (Mill, 3). The reform movement of the early nineteenth century operated under the assumption that ‘traditional’ Indian society was full of barbaric customs. The liberal impulse to classify, separate and define aspects of colonial societies led to an invention of these ‘traditional’ customs, very different from actual experience. In this vein, “the conception of tradition that Rammohun [Roy] contests, [along with other reformers, whether of the Indian or British elite,] and the orthodoxy defends, is one that is specifically ‘colonial’” (Mani, 89). One such aspect of Indian society that has been reinvented is caste. As Nicholas Dirks explains, “colonialism in India produced new forms of society that have been taken to be traditional, and [so] caste itself as we now know it is not a residual survival of ancient India but a specifically colonial form of civil society” (Dirks, 59). The western education imparted to an increasing Indian middle class in the nineteenth century onwards upheld these colonial conceptions of Indian society, and, because of this, the notions that Indians themselves had of their society changed greatly over time.

The struggle to understand the ‘real’ nature of Indian society, therefore, is complicated by colonialist discourse, ingrained in the minds of postcolonial peoples. Once it becomes understood that colonialism has recreated Indian mentality, the hope is that the damage caused by it can be revoked by ‘returning’ to a pre-colonial, inherently superior India - not only superior to the colonial remodeling and caricature of it, but also to any forms of western society. It is here that the nationalist strain of elitist historiography emerges. This historiography paints the nationalists as an “indigenous elite [who] led the people from subjugation to freedom” (Guha, 38). The hope of nationalist historiography is that nationalism has freed India from its colonial past, so that its ancient, unbreakable ‘core’ can reassert itself. Nationalism was marked by a “strong resistance to allowing the colonial state to intervene in matters affecting ‘national culture’” (Chatterjee, 6) or the ‘inner domain’ of Indian politics. Even as colonialism conquered and changed the political and economic aspects of Indian society (thought of as the outer domain), there was a drive to protect and preserve “the spiritual.. ‘inner’ domain bearing the ‘essential’ markers of cultural identity” (ibid.).

The problem with this concept of the inner and outer domains of Indian society is that it clings to the hope that there is, in fact, an essential Indian identity that was not and cannot be conquered. The project of finding an identity in a postcolonial world becomes infinitely more complex and frightening once it is realized that India can never be the ‘same,’ if there was even ever a single, definitive form of pre-colonial society. For that matter, admitting that India has been changed not only politically but also socially (and that the political and social are and have always been interwoven) would mean admitting that, in a sense, colonialism succeeded. This would contradict all principles that nationalist resistance supposedly upholds. On the other hand, as Ranajit Guha shows, there is still evidence from subaltern historiography that Indian society has always resisted and continues to resist imperialism, (Guha, 40-41). Nevertheless, by adhering to standards necessitated by a capitalist, liberal global order, India is also submitting to imperialism. Perhaps the first step towards true ‘freedom’ for the postcolonial world is to recognize the impact of imperialism. However, it is also necessary to realize that there is no ‘inherently superior,’ and ‘pre-colonial,’ form of society that can be reverted to. A truly free postcolonial identity must transcend the competition of societies that places them somewhere on a scale from inferior to superior - a scale created by the liberalist notion of a hierarchical classification of societies.
How do religion and politics intersect in Modern South Asian history? Has religion become more or less important for politics? Why?

The drive to possess and articulate a particular nationalist identity has intensified with the advent and decline of British colonialism, and the formulation of a new imperialist order. The newly formed nations of South Asia have had to be “imagined into existence,” as Partha Chatterjee reiterates (Chatterjee, 4). With this imagined and constructed nationhood comes the need to construct a popular national identity. Just as a modern nation state has clearly demarcated borders, a national identity too is composed of clearly demarcated ideologies. One of the repercussions of nationalism has been the politicization of religion in South Asia. Religion is used as a particular form of ideology in the process of national identity construction. This process consists of the redefinition of religion as separable from other aspects of community life. It also involves the assigning of ‘particular’ qualifiers, or ideologies, to ‘particular’ religions. For example, Hindutva nationalism combines certain political ideologies with a Brahminical vision of Hinduism. However, Hinduism is in reality a very fragmented religion. The moralities (Ilaiah, 8-9), lifestyles (6) and even languages (13-14) of the upper castes are completely different from the scheduled castes and OBCs. By separating religion from other aspects of lived experience and defining it in a fixed, static sense, it becomes politicized. Because of this, religion has become increasingly more important for South Asian politics over time.

In South Asia the process of identity formation has been greatly complicated by its colonial history. It is precisely because of the confusion of postcolonial ‘freedom’ that nationalist identities are being created, and felt as necessary. There is a desperate need to free South Asia from its colonial legacy, and the only way to do so, it seems, is to find an identity of its own that proves the failure of colonialism. Hence, South Asian identities, once they are found, must prove to be inherently superior to, and unchanged by, western identities and the impact of colonialism. For example, Gandhi “tried to define India as the antidote to the West, as the spiritual fullness that would supplement the ‘lacks’ in the West” (Hansen, 79).

The concept of a national identity presumes that a country or state must consist of people who are somehow inherently similar to, and thereby bound to, each other. However, as earlier mentioned, the lived experience of the people in the different nations of South Asia contradicts this idea. The people in India are separated across great caste, class, sex, and urban/rural divides, for example. The idea that all castes are spiritually bound together by a single, cohesive religion - Hinduism - contradicts the fact that, as Kancha Ilaiah illustrates, the dalitbahujans have never been part of Hindu upper caste society. They do not even identify as Hindu at all (Ilaiah, x-xi). The new, politicized form of Hinduism, however, insists that India is or should be a nation of people whose identity is shaped by their religion.

Interestingly, though, the very idea of “Hinduism as a unified religion, Hindu culture as a distinct cultural zone, and ‘Hindu’ as a well-bounded cultural category are.. products of scholarly and administrative interventions by orientalist scholars, missionaries, and colonial administrations” (Hansen, 65). Even as nationalism seeks to emancipate nations from their colonial pasts, it succumbs, perhaps because of its very nature, to colonialist notions of identity and society. Moreover, if Hinduism is not really a distinct cultural zone or religion, how can and why should the ‘true citizens’ of India be bound together by it? The project of unification and nationalization still continues, with the desire to create homogeneity; however, in the interest of this nationalist agenda, India is being divided into majorities and minorities, and the minorities are being suppressed and exploited. The homogeneity that is created for one newly defined ‘community,’ based on a certain ‘religion,’ occurs at the cost of other ‘communities.’

A question that arises at this point is whether there can be a return to a society that presumably existed at some point, whether during the pre-colonial or colonial era or both. It is thought that in this society religion was not given very much importance at all, since it was a much broader term that could not be separated out from other cultural mores, customs, family ties and rites, etc. This is emphasized by Katherine Butler Brown in her examination of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb’s religiosity. As she explains, Aurangzeb’s acts of personal piety that would in turn affect the public perception of him, such as his personal strictness regarding music, had “no wider implications for public policy” (Brown, 101) and did not indicate an increasing Islamisation of the state. However, is it possible for religion to ever become separated from politics again?

Possibly, even though South Asian society has been irrevocably changed by its colonial history, along with the general passing of time, postcolonial identity can be shaped in different ways. Instead of a nationalist agenda, it may be helpful to look to actual lived experience. And perhaps the politics of the people were “far from being destroyed or rendered virtually ineffective.. by the intrusion of colonialism[;] it continued to operate vigorously in spite of the latter, adjusting itself to the conditions prevailing under the Raj and in many respects developing entirely new strains in both form and content” (Guha, 40). This can only be discovered through exploring history from a subaltern perspective. And perhaps this lends possibility for a future that does not consist of carefully bordered nation states, tentatively and dangerously poised in the global power structure. In such a society, the people of South Asia would not have to subscribe to oppressive nationalist identities that deny them their history and reality.
Towards An Empowering Love

Sirena Selena and The Color Purple are novels that explore the relationship between love, power and voice. Both critique unequal power balances in relationships. Both are also, however, optimistic about possibilities for love. Despite the oppression that the characters in Sirena Selena and The Color Purple have experienced in their lives, the chance to express their voices empowers them.

In The Color Purple, Celie heals and frees herself by writing all her secrets out in the form of letters - first to God, and then to her sister, Nettie. As she grows braver with her writing, she also begins to articulate some of her thoughts directly to people around her. Shug Avery helps her a great deal with this. Celie learns early on the impact of speaking honestly to people, and giving them reasons to trust her. When Harpo first becomes involved with Sofia, and then marries her, Celie is jealous because Sofia is such a strong, fiery woman who is able to speak her mind and does not allow Harpo (or any man) to dominate her. Celie reacts by telling Harpo, when he worries about how Sofia does not ‘mind’ what he says, that he should beat her, just as Mr. ___ beats Celie into submission. However, Celie cannot rest easy with the knowledge that she has enabled the domestic abuse that ensues in Harpo and Sofia’s relationship. When Celie finally tells Sofia that she, in a way, gave Harpo permission to beat Sofia, and apologizes, she finally gains some peace of mind. As she says, “I sleeps like a baby now” (Walker, 44).

Celie’s relationship with Shug Avery is very different from that of her (initial) relationship with Mr. ___ because she is able to tell Shug her thoughts and secrets. Being able to trust Shug gives her the same sort of peace of mind that confessing to Sofia did. The very act of being able to articulate her feelings and jealousy of Sofia, and being able to laugh with Sofia about it, helped her to understand herself better. It frees her from some of her more basic levels of guilt and repression. When Celie remembers and retells her traumatic childhood memories of being raped by her stepfather to Shug, she is freed on another level. This newly gained freedom boosts her confidence and she is able to stand up to Mr. ___ more, and then she finally leaves him entirely. This sparks Mr. ___’s own self-reflective journey and liberates him as well, because he too realizes his own repressed feelings and anxieties. Celie’s liberation is quite powerfully demonstrated when she refuses to remarry Mr. ___ even now that he has changed his views and his treatment of her so greatly. She loves Shug, and she speaks out about what she, Celie, wants. Just as Celie understands that she cannot force Shug to stay with her and love her in the same way forever, she also refuses to force herself, or allow herself to be forced, to love Mr. ___ or anyone else in any way she does not want to. This is her healing journey.

Sirena Selena in many ways is a more realistic, and in some ways more pessimistic, portrayal of love/relationships and life in the modern world. Mayra Santos-Febres critiques the ways in which we, as a modern, capitalistic society, think of love. The economic structure of society promotes power inequalities, and with these power inequalities come institutions that enable competition among individuals, as well as alienation from each other. Marriage is a tool used to acquire social status and power, and construct the appearance of security, and even love. Hugo Graubel, Martha Divine, Sirena Selena, Solange and many other characters in the novel all suffer from loneliness, and yet they cannot perceive this in each other because their economic differences prohibit them from easily being able to relate to each other. For example, Sirena Selena perceives the opportunism that Solange has cultivated. However, she does not completely perceive the underlying loneliness that has hardened Solange. This loneliness has hardened Solange not only figuratively but quite literally - as Solange hears and feels Hugo saying to her, “‘You don’t have leche anymore, Solange’” (Febres, 130).

The power inequality between Hugo and Sirena removes the chance for any real route to love or safety. The only way for Sirena to survive is to maintain the pretense that she can control Hugo through seducing him. Her music and her art become vital tools to her survival - this is why, when she cannot remember the bolero properly when she is with Hugo, she becomes so unnerved, and realizes that she cannot remain with him. If she remained, she would risk the danger of loving him, and that would mean learning to love, to speak, and “to speak she would have to let go of who she really is, who it took her so much work to become. And if she goes out there and doesn’t come back? Who would she be then?” (Febres, 206). Sirena and Hugo’s relationship was created out of their power inequality - he seduced her with his money and the promise of luxury. Her only asset was the thrill she evoked in him, the possibility that she might be “the one,” and that she could cure his eternal loneliness. However, Hugo did not depend on Sirena. If his interest waned, all that he would suffer would be his loneliness. On the other hand, Sirena would be homeless, jobless and just another loca, so to speak, in a city full of crazed men who could very easily take advantage of her again. The security of Hugo’s position, and the strength that money has given him in a society that values monetary wealth, guarantees that he does not have to worry about these issues.

Despite its portrayal of dreams that are left unsatisfied (in the characters of Sirena, Hugo and Solange in particular), Sirena Selena is also optimistic about love, particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between Migueles and Leocadio. Leocadio, delicate and small, but lionhearted and fierce, realizes the ambiguities of gender roles early on as he interacts with, befriends and grows to love Migueles. He realizes that he can love Migueles, and that he is not being forced to. Leocadio realizes that he wants to love Migueles, and that Migueles will not force him to do things he does not want to do. The power relationship between them is ever-shifting, ever-changing. It is never static, and it is never oppressive. As Leocadio puts it, “If they want to be the ones who lead, let them. If they want to be the ones who snuggle against the chest, let them snuggle. But they can’t toy with you, they can’t coax you into a corner, making you scared, afraid” (Febres, 209). Migueles and Leocadio have found a love that grows out of their friendship and mutual understanding and respect of each other. This kind of love does not require dependence or enslavement. This kind of love creates safety for both Migueles and Leocadio.

Love can only empower individuals when it grows out of a relationship where a power difference is not tolerated. Rather, when a difference exists, it must negotiated, and the power balance must shift and change constantly. Though this kind of love may be difficult to arrive at, it is not impossible, as both The Color Purple and Sirena Selena affirm.


Santos-Febres, Mayra. Sirena Selena. Trans. Stephen Lytle. New York: Picador, 2000.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. San Diego: Pocket Books, 1982.
Sirena Selena: A Discourse On Choice

A black feminist text creates the chance for dialogue about oppression. A feminist text becomes so because it addresses the need for change. Feminism struggles against oppression based on the sex and/or gender that either people themselves identify with or that society chooses to label them with. A truly feminist view does not enforce a gender/sex binary or classification on individuals; rather, it struggles against the marginalization of individuals by their supposed classification. For this reason, a feminist text does not need to address only the experience of those who are supposedly ‘real’ women - it allows for new interpretations of gender, sex and sexuality, including fluid notions of identity. One of the most important aspects of feminism is that it allows for individuals to choose their identities. This can only happen when people are liberated from socio-economic and political factors that inhibit their rights to choose. The merging of feminist thought with dialogues on racism brings about such ideologies as black feminism. A black feminist text, therefore, also addresses conceptions of race and color, as brought about by colonialism and slavery. Black feminist texts bring the experiences of people who have been marginalized to the center. This enables a restructuring of society and deconstructions of power inequalities. Most of all, by opening up possibilities for freedom, a black feminist text lends hope to people.

Sirena Selena, by Mayra Santos-Febres, is a novel about desire and survival. For the gay community, survival is a very real and predominant question, particularly in a world where homosexual acts are either legally prohibited or same-sex desire is not officially recognized and respected. Much of the gay community who come out openly are cast out of their homes. In countries that are controlled by an increasingly globalized capitalism and imperialism, there is very little or no support for those who are outcast, and they become victims to poverty and oppression. The only recourse in such a circumstance is taking to the streets, or hustling. And because hustling is a mechanism of survival, locas, or gay men, cannot afford to love. As Balushka Bolshoi, a drag queen in Puerto Rico and friend of Sirena, says, “Love is bad in this life. It’s bad for anyone, but for a loca, it’s death” (Febres, 110). The only form of ‘love’ that can exist is carefully planned and orchestrated seduction, and the dream of desire.

In her novel, Febres also questions the idea of progress through capitalism. It is the West-oriented power structure that has transformed Caribbean ‘free’ societies into neocolonial societies. Because of this neocolonial relationship, Caribbean societies have no choice but to become capitalist in nature, and depend on (as well as strengthen) western economies. In such a climate, the poor and marginalized people in society become even more adversely affected. The only way to succeed is to aspire to “a future of luxury and happiness” (214) and the only way to get such a future is to rehearse and plan a way to attain it. As such, Sirena’s dream is to get out of the streets, to move up, to always have lots of money. It is her businesswoman’s blood that will help her attain this. This will give her security in a society where security is defined by money.

Sirena Selena is a fifteen-year-old boy who looks like a girl, an androgynous woman who seduces men (and women, and people in general) with her enchanting voice. Her beautiful voice masquerades her struggle, her existence as yet another orphan on the streets. She uses her art to maintain the illusion of power and desire, but how different is this illusion from the illusion that Solange, wife of the business magnate Hugo Graubel, cultivates? Both characters strive for security, a guarantee that they will acquire an eternally high status position in society. When Solange marries Hugo, she gives “a grateful kiss for this stranger whom she married, whom she distrusts” and acquiesces to him “not a cent more than is necessary for her father to buy a debt-free death” (130). Similarly, Sirena cultivates a “distance, to avoid breaking the spell of her illusion” (174) from the guests at the hotel after her show, as well as Hugo. Both of these women have built up their appearances as women - hiding the anatomy Sirena was born with, hiding the leche, shapelessness and ‘sighing adolescence’ Solange had. This is necessary because they do not have the freedom to choose their own identities - they must shape their identities in accordance with their plans for success and ascension in society.

The similarities in the experiences of Sirena Selena and Solange bring up new questions about marginalized communities, as well as the marginalization of individuals in neocolonial societies. Just as the ‘free’ Caribbean societies are shaped by capitalist economies they did not have the freedom to choose, the characters in Sirena Selena are also shaped by identities that they are not given the freedom, time or space to choose and manipulate for their own happiness. Sirena Selena contributes to the discourse on choice that is explored by black feminist texts.
ajnabi: cartoonic photomanip of my face (with some body) against a colourful patterned background (Default)
( Apr. 28th, 2009 07:44 pm)
The Father: Enacting the Desire for Power

While watching Mount Holyoke College’s production of The Father, by August Strindberg, I was struck by the complex array of emotions and feelings evoked. One moment that particularly impacted me was one almost at the the end of Act Two, when the Captain realizes that he has never been able to forgive the woman in Laura. Though the mother in her was his friend, the woman in her was his enemy. This moment captures the tension inherent in the Captain’s character -- he is at once fierce and violent in his desire to be masculine, and also fragile, more delicate than a child. Meredith Collins, who played the Captain, portrayed this duality very powerfully.

In this scene, the Captain finally breaks down in front of Laura, and it is his childlike behaviour that enables her, too, to soften. It brings out the “mother” in her. The Captain wants Laura to appreciate and love him, and not to battle with him. He wants confirmation that he is and can continue to be the man of the house. Laura, however, feels under-appreciated too, and she will do anything to be free of the Captain’s control. Both of them wish to control Bertha, their daughter. They acknowledge to each other in this scene that it is only the child that is keeping them together. But now it seems that even Bertha cannot keep them together, for Laura has made the Captain wonder whether she is truly his daughter. His paternity is threatened, and with this the entire stability of his existence. He begins to realize just how broken his and Laura’s marriage has become.

The Captain and Laura both want control. They both want to make the important decisions in the house. Both feel trapped by the other. However, they both also love each other, and want to be loved by the other. Though the Captain seems, for the most part, to be a misogynist, typical for his time, he also really wants his wife to be happy. And Laura too, though she resents the Captain’s controlling nature, wants her husband to be happy. She hopes that he will see that she is worth something too, and that her having authority does not reduce his manhood. He feels that he has no authority in his house, and Laura having any authority is a direct threat to everything he is supposed to be.

Hence, the obstacles standing in the way of the Captain’s and Laura’s desires, or objectives, are each other. Though the central problem in the play is whether to send Bertha to town or to keep her at home, she is not much of an obstacle, for she lives in fear of both of her parents. The Captain, however, also faces an obstacle in his own personality. He has to face his lifelong fear of being rejected and forgotten. This is his fragility, and the source of his humanity. Despite his raging and screaming fits, and loud, frightening behaviour, he is surprisingly malleable. He is fierce and grimaces a great deal, and often forces people to listen to him just by shouting at them. However, his fierceness is not all-encompassing; it masks the overwhelming fear he has inside him. Therefore, his shouting fits appear more as childish tantrums than efforts at coercion and control. In this scene, the Captain’s true nature is revealed when he clutches Laura much as a child clutches its mother. Laura is gentle with him when he agrees to remain the child under her sway, but the moment he becomes the man again, she is put back in her trap and so cannot be the gentle mother, and becomes the woman.

In this scene at the end of the second Act, I began to believe that the Captain and Laura would forgive each other, because they were both able to admit to the other that they wanted control. It seemed that they began to see each other more as human beings. However, they succumb to the idea that one of them must go down in their struggle, and so their war rages on. When Laura produces evidence she can use to prove her husband’s insanity, it does become inevitable that one of them will go down. It was surprising and heartbreaking to see how these two characters, so real, could not realize how much they loved each other. They were at war, and they would not rest until one of them had won the battle.
Redefining Categories

People of color are easy targets for oppression. For one thing, they are considered minorities in the US, at least according to various statistical data. Minorities by their very definition are thought of as outsiders. They are small groups who have accumulated due to immigration, etc, in a society that is defined by its majority, the “real” people of the nation. People of color face much antagonism because of this “minority” status that is imposed upon them. The mainstream argument is that the people who have been in a place the longest are the “true” citizens of that nation/society. However, the status of European descendants as the white “majority” and Native Americans as the “minority” contradicts this idea. For that matter, Africans were brought via the Middle Passage to the United States at the same time as Europeans were immigrating there. Similarly, women are thought of as minorities even though they constitute half of the population.

Evidently, the majority construct has a great deal to do with white/male power and privilege. Being the majority means being the ones in power. Being part of the majority means that your voice counts more than the voices of the minorities do. The categorization of people into several small ‘minority’ groups is a political device used to cement their oppression. The categories that people are put into are no longer simply names, but rather divisive labels. By emphasizing their “otherness,” people are made to feel as though they are outsiders whose rights are inherently of “lesser” value. Minorities are pitted against each other in the struggle to find their identity in a hierarchy of levels of “American-ness”. Ultimately, the feeling is that we are inherently wrong, and no matter what we do, we will never be American, or right, enough. As June Jordan says in her “Poem About My Rights” (1980), we are stigmatized and oppressed for being “the wrong age the wrong skin the wrong gender identity” (Jordan, 2020).

Can this majority/minority dichotomy be broken or changed? In the film, A Place of Rage (1991), directed by Pratibha Parmar, Angela Davis criticizes the systematized grouping of people into various minority groups. She also proposes a reconstruction of the term “majority,” saying that she is not a minority within a minority. Rather, she belongs to a majority within a majority. After all, the various “minorities,” predominantly people of color, as well as white women and the lower economic section of the white ‘American’ population, together form a new majority -- a majority of oppressed people. So perhaps if we see ourselves as linked together by our oppression, we can work together to overthrow the system that has attempted to divide us so strategically.

It seems that the ultimate goal of many activists is to form a united movement working cohesively to overthrow a capitalist, imperialist, racist, sexist and heterosexist system of power and privilege. Hence, a new majority of oppressed people would work together to destroy institutions of oppression. However, is it possible for people to connect across various differences and work towards a single common goal? The fragmentation of progressive moments, such as the women’s movement, would suggest otherwise. Some groups, such as lesbian separatists, believe that they cannot work together with men to achieve their liberation. The Combahee River Collective is opposed to this idea, saying that “we do not have the misguided notion that it is [men’s].. biological maleness.. that makes them what they are. As Black women we find any type of biological determinism a particularly dangerous and reactionary basis upon which to build a politic” (CRC, 277). They believe that institutions of oppression intersect, and therefore they must all be addressed and deconstructed at once. Race, class and sex are all forms of oppression that Black women face every day, and it is unproductive and often impossible to segregate their problems. How can these two rather opposing strategies for attaining liberation even begin to coincide? And if they do not, can the overall movement working towards liberation still survive and succeed?

I have been trying to answer this question. I am still continuing to do so. It seems that to answer it, I must investigate the nature of categories and divisions. Are divisions and labels necessarily harmful to understanding oneself and society, and creating change? The creation of minority groups retrogressive in this regard. Is this the only categorization that can occur, however? My initial reaction to categorization of any kind is to rebel against it. This is primarily because I have grown up feeling as though I am constantly assaulted by categories (white, black, Indian, Asian, American, lesbian, straight, queer, female, male, etc). However, I also notice that many people identify with categories and labels for themselves. Often these identity constructs intersect, or even contradict each other, and sometimes they don’t. Often they change over time. I have begun to understand my own identity in terms of intersectional categories (queer, female, person of color, etc). I approach categories with reluctance, wondering if we use them only because we cannot escape them, or because they have been implemented by an oppressive system. Can we can use them to liberate ourselves, as well?

Perhaps, instead of looking at the various groups within the women’s movement as fractions working against each other and bringing the entire movement down, I can understand them as working towards different objectives which do intersect at several points. In their statement, the Combahee River Collective cites Michelle Wallace articulating the difficult work that Black feminists, “ ‘being on the bottom,’ ” would have to do: “ ‘We would have to fight the world’ ” (CRC, 278). While this is true in a larger sense, perhaps the categorization and fractionalization of the women’s movement actually helps achieve this overall objective. Feminists -- women of color and white women -- fight the world, but, in having several disagreements on precisely how to fight the world, actually end up fighting it with many different tactics. Though this may seem to be an unproductive, confusing way to achieve change, perhaps it is actually one of the most radical ways in which change can happen -- by accepting that liberation would not mean a sort of mundane “world peace” or the absence of conflict, but rather constant work towards making our lives, the majority’s lives, better.


A Place of Rage. Dir. Pratibha Parmar, 1991.

Jordan, June. “Poem about My Rights.” Norton Anthology, 2nd Ed.

Smith, Barbara, ed. Homegirls: a Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table - Women of Color Press, 1983.
In order to understand the nationalist struggle in South Asia, it is important to understand that South Asian history was remade and reshaped by European colonialism. The nationalists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries operated within a framework of colonized discourse surrounding their national identity. Anti-colonial protest took the form of a nationalist movement geared towards gaining economic and political self-determination for South Asia. However, the underlying struggle was one of discovering South Asian identity: what did, and does, it mean to be South Asian? To answer this question, it is necessary to discover precisely how colonialism has impacted South Asian society. Because of the enormous influence of colonialism and Eurocentric ideologies of modernism, it is difficult to piece together a coherent understanding of the nature of pre-colonial South Asian society. It is difficult to understand precisely what changed, and how. Yet, in order to overthrow the British colonialists, the nationalists needed to understand and realize those changes. This was pivotal to creating a unified, successful nationalist movement.

The formation of the Indian National Congress was an important step in the evolution of the nationalist struggle. Although it did not act as a political party as such until much later, it functioned as a body of evolving political consciousness. Later, leaders like Dadabhai Naoroji were much criticized for advocating cooperation with the British government and stressing parliamentary action as a way to improve India’s situation (Hay 88). However, in response to this criticism of the Moderates and earlier leaders of the Congress, Gandhi stressed the importance of the preparatory work done by leaders such as Naoroji, Gokhale and A.O. Hume (Parel 14). During the late 1890s, when Moderate ideology was being formulated, the only well-known critics of British colonialism were people such as Naoroji. These leaders were English-educated and trained in the modern system of government, etc. Because of Naoroji’s upper-class standing in society and the opportunities he had been given (Hay 87-88), he was able to express his growing awareness of the economic and political problems with British rule in India. However, for the same reasons, his analysis was limited to intellectual discourse. His solutions, therefore, remained well within the boundaries of parliamentary action. Nevertheless, as Gandhi reiterates, it was Naoroji who first popularly articulated the economic drain of wealth from India to England (Parel 15). He entreated the British to make “foreign rule self-supporting, either by returning to India, in some shape or other, the wealth that has been, and is being, drawn from it, or by stopping that drain in some way till India is so far improved in its material condition to be able to produce enough for its own ordinary wants and the extraordinary wants of a costly dominant rule” (Hay 92). He would not advocate the violent (or otherwise) overthrow of the British government, for “[he knew] that it [was] only in British hands that her [India’s] regeneration [could] be accomplished” (Hay 90).

This first wave of nationalist consciousness was of a very basic nature: it functioned thoroughly within the dichotomies established by modernism. Thus, Naoroji saw British colonialism as being morally beneficial to Indian society because of the abolition of supposedly widely prevalent backward traditions such as sati and child marriage, and the emphasis on “higher political knowledge and aspirations” (Hay 89). The only problem with colonial rule was the economic and political drain of wealth, which was thought of as entirely separate from the inner domain of tradition, culture and the home (Chatterjee 120). Interestingly, however, Naoroji does express criticisms of some of the social transformations wrought by colonialism on Indian society. In his essay, “The Moral Impoverishment of India,” he says that “the Europeans are not the natural leaders of the people. They cannot enter into their thoughts and feelings... the Europeans are and make themselves strangers in every way” (Hay 95). This seems to point at a deliberate lack of social understanding on the part of the British; or rather, a lack of interest in the Indian people. It also suggests that the British were changing the structure of Indian society as well by creating a divide between themselves and the Indians, but also between the English-educated Indians and the masses. Naoroji goes on to remark on an unfortunate side-effect of English education: “The thousands that are being sent out by the universities each year find themselves in a most anomalous position. There is no place for them in their motherland” (Hay 96). This train of thought is interesting because it hints at the growing perception of the all-encompassing influence of colonialism on South Asian society, and the connections between the social, political and economic spheres of influence of modernist ideology. Indian society was being irrevocably changed by colonialism.

Gandhi began to perceive the changes occurring in Indian society because of colonial rule more clearly and consistently. In Hind Swaraj, he expresses his concern over “the stability.. of the ancient civilization of India.. which represents the best the world has ever seen. The British Government in India constitutes a struggle between the Modern Civilization... and the Ancient Civilization” (Parel 7). He advocated a return to the “ancient civilization” of India, rather than adopting modern methods of industry and violence. This could be achieved by developing the rural economy and artisan industries in a traditional fashion, by living a simple life devoid of luxuries, and by performing active work with one’s hands and feet (Parel 68-69). Gandhi perceived the “ancient civilization” of India as being thoroughly different from European modern civilization.

Constructing South Asian identity and political history becomes far more difficult and complicated, however, when one encounters similarities between “modern civilization” and “ancient civilization”. B.R. Ambedkar criticized Gandhi’s ideas about India’s “ancient civilization” when he encouraged Hindu untouchables to change their religion. He addressed untouchables in a poem, asking, “Why should you remain in a religion that does not let you enter its temples? ....does not let you get water to drink? ...does not let you become educated? ....that bars you from good jobs?” (Hay 326). In saying, “Those who say God exists in all beings and yet treat men as animals are hypocrites. Don’t associate with them,” (Hay 327) Ambedkar directly challenges Gandhi’s idealistic vision of Hinduism. In this poem, he recognizes the connections between class oppression and organized religion; he also recognizes that the “ancient civilization” of India was not a perfect society. Ambedkar here directly challenges the nationalist drive to preserve the perceived spiritual core of Indian society.
In this sense, many nationalists, including Gandhi, were still operating within the inner/outer dichotomy. As Partha Chatterjee explains, “the world was where the European power had challenged the non-European peoples and... subjugated them. But, the nationalists asserted, it had failed to colonize the inner, essential, identity of the East, which lay in its distinctive, and superior, spiritual culture” (Chatterjee 121). For Gandhi, the spiritual essence and superiority of Indian society extended to the economic and political practices; however, his analysis was problematic because of direct contradictions that could also be seen, as Ambedkar’s poem displays. Although Gandhi criticized the mainstream tendency of Indian society to adopt western practices, his ultimate solution fell directly in line with “the crucial need.. to protect, preserve, and strengthen the inner core of the national culture, its spiritual essence” (Chatterjee 121). Gandhi, as well as many other nationalists, recognized the encroachments that colonialism had made or was trying to make upon this spiritual essence. Therefore, the drive to protect it became all the more fervent.

Anti-colonial resistance was most marked by the frenzied need to create a unified movement centered around a particular ideology of nationalism. For this to occur, it was necessary for the people of South Asia to have a very clear idea of who they were and how they functioned and would function as a nation. The movement became focused around the hope that a pre-colonial identity had existed, and that it could be recreated. The problem with this analysis of Indian or South Asian identity was that it functioned as a desperate need to prove that colonialism had not hampered the spiritual essence of Indian civilization, frozen but carried over from a pre-colonial era. Gandhi’s solution ultimately fails because it assumes that the inner domain of Indian society has remained so untouched by modernity and capitalism as to make reverting back to that pre-colonial era possible and beneficial. Moreover, the nationalist leaders themselves were influenced by colonialist interpretations of Indian tradition. This is why the difficulty in understanding South Asian identity politics persists even in postcolonial literature and scholarship. Neither was pre-colonial Indian society an uncivilized society full of barbaric traditions as colonialist discourse has painted it; nor was it a peaceful egalitarian society as Gandhi perhaps envisioned it. As Nicholas Dirks emphasizes, “colonized discourses were necessarily predicated on colonial ones” (Dirks 74). The very notion that South Asian identity existed so precisely and uniformly is a notion created by “the ‘invention’ of the modern nation state in eighteenth-century Europe” (Dirks 59). The question of South Asian identity remains very relevant; in the light of past events such as Partition, how useful or beneficial is it to construct one’s identity around ideologies of nationalism?
Love ≠ Possession

Lately I have noticed that I am deeply afraid of losing control. This is especially true in my relationships with other people. I need to know, for certain, what the other person’s intentions are, what or how s/he feels about me, etc. I need to maintain my feelings about him/her. Even though I reveal so much about myself openly, it is in this presentation itself that I mask my vulnerability. It frustrates me immensely when another person’s words affect me deeply. I see myself as different. I see my self-deprecation as a mask for my actual feelings of superiority or condescension towards other people. Deconstructing this inferior/superior dichotomy is dangerous, for it makes me vulnerable to new ways of existing; fluid ways of existing. It seems to me that the need to control one’s relationships with other people, as well as to have a very strict, dichotomized worldview, is a part of the legacy of colonialism. Colonialism persists in the renovated form of imperialism and capitalism, and with it persists the ideology of control.

One of the symptoms of this ideology is the way in which we generally think of love. ‘True Love,’ as opposed to ‘infatuation,’ ‘lust’ or ‘limerence,’ is that which is achieved in a relationship with the one for you, the one you will commit to a monogamous relationship with. Marriage is the epitome of such a relationship built on ‘true love,’ for in a truly ‘good’ marriage you shall never love anyone else but your one true love, who you will commit to as long as you live. I find this notion of ‘true love’ problematic. It is structured around possession. For what better way to be in control than to know that you have this one person who will never ‘love’ anyone but you, who will never ‘run off’ to anyone else?

In Kindred, by Octavia Butler, Rufus Weylin pulls Dana, a woman many generations his successor, into his time whenever his life is in danger. Dana is controlled by him - the threat of his death brings her to him, and ultimately she realizes that the only way for her to leave him and his time permanently is to kill him. Dana tries to impress on Rufus that she will never accept him as her master or her lover, but as he grows older she realizes that her power over him is decreasing rapidly. Rufus keeps her tied to him, just as he keeps Alice tied to him. Rufus thinks of Alice and Dana as “one woman.. two halves of a whole” (Butler, 257). As Alice puts it, “He likes me in bed, and you out of bed, and you and I look alike if you can believe what people say” (229). Rufus is terrified of either Dana or Alice leaving him. His idea of love is to keep both of the women he loves firmly anchored in his time, in his house, to be gentle with them so long as they don’t resist. And then, later, to apologize, to try to placate them with gifts and leniency. Dana explains this, saying, “In other words, he was sorry. He was always sorry. He would have been amazed, uncomprehending if I refused to forgive him. I remembered suddenly the way he used to talk to his mother. If he couldn’t get what he wanted from her gently, he stopped being gentle. Why not? She always forgave him” (218).

Although in Kindred it is easily apparent how destructive Rufus’ “love” is, this model of love is eerily similar to the one which is generally accepted today. Although modified and made more sophisticated, our current model of love is still structured around control and possession. Just as Rufus was terrified of Dana leaving him, I too am terrified of being deserted by the ones I love, or have loved. Rufus manipulates Dana through his display of emotional weakness, confusion and the fact that he can pull her back to his time. He threatens others on the Weylin plantation to make sure Dana will stay with him. For example, he gets Dana to ask Alice to come to him quietly, so that he will not have to rape her as violently, so that it will look like Alice consented. Is this so different from the ways in which we try to make sure that we will not be left alone, either? I have hurt myself in desperate effort to win back people I loved. And the common language of ‘love’ supports this structure of possession, too. That we cannot live without knowing that our lovers will never leave. Perhaps Butler means to emphasize this correlation - that much of this idea that love is possession is yet another extension of slavery. I listen to people talking about how relationships must be built on mutual respect, but this talk evaporates as soon as you hear about someone ‘cheating’ on his/her lover. Is monogamy the only way to go? Is it mutual respect if you cannot tolerate your lover loving anyone else?

A rather different model of love is presented in The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Firstly, there is the classic model of patriarchy that black society too has learnt to adopt. It is common for men to beat their wives into submission, and women who do what they like are called whores and such. Harpo is deeply disturbed because Sofia does not submit to him (rather, she beats him up if he tries to hit her). Celie tries to tell Harpo that “Sofia love you. She probably be happy to do most of what you say if you ast her right. She not mean, she not spiteful. She don’t hold a grudge” (Walker, 66). Harpo is confused, and says, “The wife spose to mind” (66). Celie knows this very well - after all, she does whatever Mr. ______ asks her to do, and more, because she has learnt early on in her life to stay out of trouble. In many ways she is jealous of Sofia, but she does not truly begin to realize her full potential until Shug Avery, Mr. ______’s lover, comes to stay with them. Celie falls in love with Shug. She is amazed at how Mr. ______ does not order Shug around; how she comes and goes as she pleases, unfettered by public opinions of her. Shug denounces the politics of respectability that constrain society, black and white and everything in between.

Celie is shocked by how easily Shug embraces sex and other ‘sinful’ feelings. In response, Shug says, “I is a sinner. Cause I was born. I don’t deny it. But once you find out what’s out there waiting for us, what else can you be?” (200). Celie worries that God does not approve of sex, but Shug says, “Oh... God love all them feelings. That’s some of the best stuff God did. And when you know God loves ‘em you enjoys ‘em a lot more. You can just relax, go with everything that’s going..... Listen, God love everything you love - and a mess of stuff you don’t. But more than anything else, God love admiration” (203). Shug awakens Celie to a whole new world, a world full of life - and Celie begins to love herself. She leaves Mr. ______, and she starts up her own business making pants. However, it is when Shug leaves Celie, going off with a younger man, that Celie begins to think about what love means. Eventually she realizes that her love for Shug is not bound to controlling her and making sure Shug stays with her forever - it is boundless. As Celie says, “Who am I to tell her who to love? My job just to love her good and true myself” (276).

I long to see love in the way that Celie learnt to see it. Is it possible to move past equating love with possession and control? Or are we inevitably doomed to the rut of strict definitions, pathological fear and insecurity? I wonder if there is a way for me to feel secure in my love of life; for exploring life, the world, everything. Like Butler, I too question how much society has evolved and progressed since the period of slavery, and if so, whether the ‘progress’ we have achieved is at all good for us. However, Walker’s novel presents a more hopeful, optimistic outlook. I would like to believe that it is possible to emerge out of the slavery that still oppresses us. To do this I must become aware - as Assata Shakur says, “People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave” (Shakur, 262).


Butler, Octavia E. Kindred. Boston: Beacon Press, 2003.

Shakur, Assata. Assata, An Autobiography. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2001.

Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. San Diego: Pocket Books, 1982.
Reinterpreting Religion: The Achievements of Colonialism

It was difficult for the colonialists to understand the more community-oriented structure of South Asian society. In Britain, as in much of Europe, society was moving much faster towards a more individualized society. This was directly beneficial to a capitalist economic system. For that matter, the pursuit of India by the East India Company and, later, the British crown was not humanitarian in nature. These factors inhibited the British from ever gaining a broader, all-encompassing understanding of the religious, social and state practices of Indian society, and how they had evolved and continued to evolve over time. For the colonialists, South Asian life was a foreign concept. It was inconceivable to the British that an empire could be managed when laws were perpetually changing on a case-to-case basis. Bernard Cohn accurately depicts the ‘mystery’ of governance in South Asia when he says, “In a society with multiplex relationships, ties cannot be severed summarily as people must continue to live together... the effort in a panchayat was to find a solution which would not sever ties but maintain them” (Cohn, 617). The process of ‘maintaining ties’ could be difficult and endless; however, this was preferable to marking a particular individual as an outcast.

However, it was not beneficial to the colonialists to allow the Indian people to maintain their strong community ties. In order to rule and profit off of a large population, it is much more helpful if there are many internal tensions among the people. If they are divided, isolated and alienated from each other, they can be forced to submit to an overarching structure of empire. The first step towards cementing this political and economic agenda was to change Indian social structure. Today, societal relations and interactions mirror and enhance economic and political structure. While much of the world was being colonized, this compliance with a certain global structure was being established. Whether the colonialists were altogether conscious of their decisions at all times, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, is questionable. Nevertheless, they acted according to their own history and evolving traditions. The main motive of the East India Company was economic profit, and it was obvious that in order to profit off Indian trade, the Indian people would have to be somehow repressed. This paper deals specifically with the ways in which religion was reinterpreted by the colonialists in order to control the people and restructure Indian society.

The colonialists viewed religion as directly affecting and controlling the social interactions of Indian people. The effect of this was that “officials could insist.. that brahmanic and Islamic scriptures were prescriptive texts containing rules of social behaviour.. they could institutionalize their assumptions as Warren Hastings did in 1772, by making these texts the basis of personal law” (Mani, 90-91). This is a typical example of how the colonialists needed to codify, and therefore bind by law, whatever traditions they perceived among the Indian people. This would inhibit the people’s capacity for self-governance. If they were subject to overarching laws that controlled their behaviour, it would be very difficult for them to break free of colonial rule. Hence, the predominance given to religious scripture would help cement the economic and political motives of the colonialists.

One example of the enforcement of the codified, colonial understanding of religion has to do with the issue of sati. Lata Mani extensively discusses in her article Contentious Traditions the colonial discourse surrounding this issue. This discourse is an example of how religion became the primal factor in controlling and structuring society. The colonialists inferred that “ ‘Religious’ action is.. synonymous with passive, unquestioning obedience” (Mani, 93). For if religion could be interpreted consciously, it could not serve as a controlling force. In this way, the colonialists did not impose their religion (Christianity) on the Indian people so much as reinforcing their understanding of the “truths” of the indigenous tradition. This has affected contemporary understandings of Hinduism, as well as world religions in general, to a drastic extent. Much of the discourse surrounding sati deals with the moral obligations of the colonialists to eradicate injustices in Indian religion. However, this morality debate is specifically designed to deflect from the fact that the colonialists were actually not concerned with the ‘barbaric’ traditions of the Indian people. The statistics on sati support this idea. As Mani shows, most satis committed were in the Bengal region, and even then, there were not as many cases of sati as the discourse would like to promote. Sati was propagandized to a large extent, and this helped consolidate colonial rule by promoting confusion in the Indian community (which persists even now). Lata Mani emphasizes that sati is in no way a practice that should be ignored or pardoned, but for the British it was merely a tool that would convincingly prove that colonial rule was beneficial for South Asia. Giving religious scriptures predominant importance would also support this premise, for it would suggest that Indians were submissive, unintelligent creatures who were blindly obedient to traditions that made no sense.

The predominance that religion (and religion in a very specific, colonially reinterpreted fashion) was given had far-reaching impacts. For example, what we understand now about Hindus and Muslims, and the tensions between the two groups, is much influenced by our colonial history, and the way in which it has shaped our thought. In Katherine Butler Brown’s article, Did Aurangzeb Ban Music? she questions the ways in which we currently think of religion. Aurangzeb, the last great Mughal emperor, is often thought of as a despotic, fanatically religious Muslim ruler. Among other claims, he is said to have destroyed many Hindu temples and banned music. These claims are attributed to his religion, or what is understood to be his fanatical disposition. After much investigation into the discourse surrounding Aurangzeb, Brown discovers that Aurangzeb did not in fact ban music, and whatever piety he seemed to present was “deliberately constructed to serve political ends” (Brown, 109). She goes on to say that “the face Aurangzeb needed to show the world was clear-cut; pious but reasonable, someone whose commitment to the strictures of Islamic orthodoxy was demonstrated in his personal renunciation of music, which was pursued with integrity and fairness to those affected. Privately, however, his beliefs were altogether less black and white” (Brown, 109). It is difficult for us now to understand the destruction of temples and banning of music as part of a political rather than religious agenda, because so much of what we understand about religion has been impacted by colonial discourse. Religion is a powerful tool; it can be used to oppress as well as liberate people. Though the colonialists may have started out in a more “innocent” vein while attempting to understand the structure of Indian society, their reinterpreted, codified version of Indian religions ultimately benefited their rule, and not the Indian people.

Today it is difficult to understand what the motives of colonialists were. There has been a lot of investigation into whether Europeans had any humanitarian motives at all. The legacy of colonialism persists in the somewhat renovated form of imperialism - hence there is still a great reluctance to see the colonialists, or the western powers, as having no humanitarian interest in their colonies whatsoever. However, it is quite obvious that even as early as the fifteenth century, European mercantilists were trying to control as much land as possible, so that their countries would indisputably become the most powerful, wealthy nations in the world. The impersonal, uninterested, detached view that they had of the ‘natives’ they encountered only cements this truth: “The women of this country, as a rule, are ugly and small of stature... All these people are well-disposed and apparently of mild temper. At first sight they seem covetous and ignorant” (da Gama reading, 3). This outlook did not change much even as India became the “jewel in the crown” of the British Empire. It was not out of curiosity or interest that the Europeans colonized distant lands; it was out of economic power interests. Their actions were driven by this primary incentive throughout colonial history. This was why, even though there was not a “master plan” of conquest, the British always needed to act in the interest of keeping their control of South Asia stable and indisputable. This was why social structure in South Asia needed to be reinterpreted and reinforced on colonial terms.
On Empowerment

I am obsessed with doing the “right” thing. It is important to be the stronger, better person, to succeed, to win. As a woman, I must prove that our oppression has made us the stronger, better sex. As a queer woman, I must prove that freeing ourselves of labels makes us more real. We recognize our potential, not like all of you who emulate the straight, white, liberal ideal. As a queer woman of colour, I must prove that having intersectional, cross-cultural identities enables us to see the bigger, wider, broader picture. I must make my specific struggles universal; we must make our specific struggles universal.

Empowerment sometimes feels like finding a tremendous layered cake, with all those pretty flowers and icing. However, as Marita Bonner says, it is “like the richest chocolate; stuffed costly chocolates that make the taste go stale if you have too many of them” (Bonner 4). It’s necessary to become empowered in a certain sense. Perhaps being empowered means using words like “lovely” a lot, writing poems about trees, or remarking on the endless ecstasy of living. Or perhaps it means engaging in endless discourse on the possibility of existing between extremes, understanding one another as human beings, giving ourselves time and space to heal etc. Either way, it’s important to figure it out, to have it all laid down. Perhaps we should have a Constitution for empowerment.

Often in conversations, I find myself seeing too many subtexts. When my friend says she doesn’t understand why black people don’t like being called negroes, I become irritated. I have ignored subtle racism (and homophobia, and sexism) too long. She continues, saying “negro” means “black” in Spanish, so what’s the big deal? I tell her that it isn’t the literal meaning of the word, but the historical context. Colonialists called the colonized slaves negroes for so long; it is no longer a word that just means black. At the same time as I am saying this, I notice that she is becoming affronted; I wonder if I’m being too forthright.

The problem with becoming empowered is that you cannot become empowered in isolation. In her poem, “For Saundra,” Nikki Giovanni addresses the question of being militant, and whether it means “hating” everyone, everything, the world. Her neighbour thinks she hates too much, so she decides to write a green tree poem, or maybe a blue sky poem. Unfortunately, there are no green trees and blue skies around her. Green trees and blue skies aren’t accessible to everyone. For that matter, even when they are accessible, you may not be allowed to revel in them. There’s so much to do, so many places to be.

Nikki Giovanni asks whether it’s possible to be “poetic” in a world where poetry isn’t allowed, or isn’t accessible to most people. She says, “perhaps these are not poetic/times/at all” (Giovanni, “For Saundra”). Perhaps they weren’t then - it isn’t a time to be poetic now, either. Not in that sense of the word. I sometimes wonder if I could ever be like Rene Descartes, sitting by a fire, remarking on the nature of being, and whether we are something more than our bodies. I think I would become lonely by a fire, and I would miss talking to people. I would become distracted by the internet, the phone, school, homework, obligations. Is that what it means to be poetic, though? “Crafting” words by a fire, sitting on a hilltop, briefly skimming water with my fingertips?

I don’t think I could write about briefly skimming water with my fingertips, and how angelic I feel. I don’t feel angelic. The angels are white, anyway, aren’t they? And they’re usually not sexual, and they’re wise. I need to deconstruct the ideal, the angelic. I need to prove that we can be material, real, bodily people. There isn’t endless time, so why restrict ourselves? I have to empower myself. I have to be the poster girl for militant feminism.

While watching The Souls of Black Girls, I felt horribly guilty for thinking Jada Pinkett Smith (the whitened, thinned version of most of the black girls in the film) was the most attractive, the most beautiful. I didn’t like what she was saying, but I couldn’t help thinking that aesthetically she was superior to the others. I decided to contemplate Regina King instead. She was darker-complexioned, and she was quite attractive too. I was about to congratulate myself for thinking someone darker-skinned and rounder could be attractive. But she was all made up too. The girls and women in that film were made up so they could be televised. Who wants to see you on television when you’ve just gotten up, splashed a bit of water on your face and rushed to class, barely brushing your hair?

The problem with becoming empowered is that you still have to be something. Something very definite, something very precise. So that people will understand just what it is you’re trying to say. You can’t contradict yourself. It doesn’t make sense to admit your hypocrisy. It makes sense to prevent it. Marita Bonner wrote about having to be silent, afraid, because if you tried to be white, you would be perceived as a “feminine Caliban craving to pass for Ariel” (Bonner, 5). However, being black meant speaking in “staccato squawks” and “champing gum”. Being loud and noisy, being ignorant and uneducated. What does it mean to exist in between? How do you decide which way to dash in the catnip field full of mice and baby chicks? (Bonner, 3). You must have an agenda; otherwise you are nothing.

Marlene Nourbese Phillip addresses this need to have an agenda, a motive, in her poem, “Discourse on the Logic of Language”. The poem can be read in many different ways. Mourning the loss of family, a home, much as in Odetta’s song, “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. I was particularly struck by the way in which Phillip’s poem can be seen as having sexual undertones. It struck me then how rooted western culture is in stripping apart and categorizing different kinds of love. As though love, like sex, can be broken down, in a reductionist fashion. Perhaps that is why I feel so lost in my own searches for love -- I am looking to put the parts together again, but I can’t find them, and they seem to be too far apart.

The problem with becoming empowered is that you cannot be both soft and hard, forgiving and cruel. You cannot change your mind over and over. You have to be self-sufficient; you have to rely on yourself, not others, for love. I’ve been thinking about this problem a lot lately. It’s somewhat like the problem of how to write - with detachment or with feeling? How is it possible to exist in between when the world has been structured according to rules of all or nothing at all? You can be hated for being a revolutionary, while being admired by those who long to be revolutionaries. You can assimilate yourself into white, straight, upper class society, never crossing the invisible lines. How is it possible to evolve, though? How is it possible to be white, black, brown, grey, straight, gay, queer, feminine, masculine, co-dependent, independent, pressured and pressuring? And yet, unless I subscribe to these particular modes of empowerment, I am unempowered.


Bonner, Marita. “On Being Young - a Woman - and Colored.” In Frye Street & Environs: The Collected Works of Marita Bonner. Ed. Joyce Flinn, Joyce Occomy Stricklin. Boston: Beacon Press, 1987.

Gates Jr., et al. 2nd ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2004. 2096-2097.
Giovanni, Nikki. “For Saundra.” The Norton Anthology of African American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis

Phillip, Marlene Nourbese. “Discourse on the Logic of Language.” In She Tries her Tongue, Her Silence Softly Breaks. London: Women’s Press, 1993.

Odetta. “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child”. The Best Of The Vanguard Years (1999).
Deterministic Fallacies

In India it is common for two men who are friends to express affection through embraces and holding hands. This is very different from the behaviour of men in the west, where such displays of affection seem to be considered expressions of homosexuality. Observing these cultural differences in perceptions of affection and sexuality, I wondered whether sexuality could be easily quantified, and whether it was scientific to attempt to ‘determine’ it. During my research I started by attempting to understand the biological basis of sexuality. However, I soon realized that there was an ideological problem with biology in itself, and that I could not merely present ‘informational’ statistics that somehow explained sexual preference. I have come to realize that the current “scientific” establishment, far from giving us “objective truths” and “facts” about the world and ourselves, has always existed and functioned within a particular socioeconomic context. (Lewontin 8). Therefore, most scientists only give us those “truths” which serve the interests of the society in which they function, which the society needs to uphold in order to justify its structure.

There are a few scientists who strive to understand the problem of this inherent bias in scientific research, though. Through their analyses, I have come to understand that the traditional “scientific” establishment functions by proposing deterministic theories of understanding biology, genetics, social interactions and behaviour. In this paper I will describe and counter the deterministic theories of sexuality widely prevalent today. I will also present new possibilities for understanding sexual behaviour which stem from a dialectical understanding of human society and the rest of the world.

To understand the inherent fallacies present within popular theories of sexuality, it is first important to understand determinism as a broad system scientists operate within. The most dogmatic form of determinism, perhaps, is biological (and genetic) determinism. Biological determinism relies on principles of reductionism. Reductionists look at both the physical world and human societies as the sum of their individual parts. To understand why humans behave as they do, biological determinists argue that “human lives and actions are the inevitable consequences of the biochemical properties of the cells that make up the individual; and.. these [properties] are in turn.. determined by the.. genes possessed by [the] individual” (Lewontin 5-6). For the purposes of this paper, I will discuss the theories of human sexuality that are founded on principles of biological determinism.

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The Internet: Demon or God?

Recently there has been an immense upsurge in the number of ‘social networking’ communities that exist online. I happen to frequent one of these communities, livejournal.com. Much of my life in the past few years has been virtual, though I have always had somewhat conflicted feelings about my virtual activities. I have met a number of interesting people online and transcended paranoid fears about associating with axe-murderers, paedophiles and stalkers. However, I have never had a stable, intimate, long-term friendship with any of the people I have met online, and I don’t really expect to. I am drawn to various aspects of the internet: the immense plethora of information available, the possibilities for making connections with people all over the world, and the aesthetic possibilities, to name a few. In this essay I will assess the promise of community that the internet offers. I will also analyse the relationship between the function and structure of the internet as a technological tool.
There are several different ways of analysing the uses and misuses of technology. Neil Postman argues that technology significantly impacts the ways in which humans interact with each other. The Critical Art Ensemble (CAE) further elaborates on this view in relation to the internet, saying that information exchange over the internet is a highly antisocial form of interaction. Online interaction is regimented by capitalist economies to repress and quell community ties.

According to CAE, individuals in communities share far more than information exchange; they also share cultural (and, historically, geographical) ties. This is impossible over the internet, especially when communities on the internet are designed to facilitate casual conversation and temporary entertainment, rather than long-term friendships. It is also impossible to truly know someone without being in their physical presence. This is an issue that is hotly debated by many people who use the internet, especially of the younger generation, but it must be admitted that there are certain barriers that come up in a relationship which never develops in the physical world. Much of the knowledge we get about other people comes from their body language, the way they act with other people and in different situations, their family and social environments, and even their voice and tone. Although this is somewhat improved by voice and video chat technology, there is still much left to be desired.

CAE also argues that interaction on the internet is heavily stifled because “if people feel that they are under surveillance, they are less likely to act in a manner that is beyond normalized activity” (CAE). Because information exchanges on the internet, as well as the structure of the internet itself, are controlled by governments and large corporations, whatever a person does or says on the internet can be found out (even years later.) The probability may vary depending on the situation, but there is a certain amount of surveillance that a person is subjected to online. However, I would argue that despite the threat of surveillance, people often express themselves a great deal more on the internet than they do in real life. Often they exaggerate or lie about themselves, but in many cases they actually feel more comfortable talking about their beliefs online than they do offline. However, in a particular online community a person may feel compelled to tailor the way s/he expresses him/herself in order to fit into the community.

Another rather dangerous characteristic of the virtual world is that it conditions people to become jaded and sated with information. Because there is so much information available - false, true and everywhere in between - people often no longer tend to care very much about information they receive online. People can say anything online, and this is taken to an extreme. It is not wise to get involved if someone posts a suicide note on an online community, for example. There is not only no way to know the truth of the person’s situation, but there is also an element of distrust and wariness that is cultivated online. Because of the heavy propaganda about criminal behaviour online and the (comparatively fewer) incidences of such behaviour actually occurring, people are trained to ignore any information that may lead them to become emotionally involved in a situation they cannot know enough about. This contradicts the fact that there are also various friendships (in a sense) that develop online. However, overall we are taught to be wary online, so in this way CAE’s hypothesis is true. However much we express ourselves, we are taught to value it only as individual expression, independent of social forces. Ultimately, it does not matter what someone says online, because there is no way of verifying it. In a climate where there is a great deal of individual emotional expression (sometimes much exaggerated or distorted), this becomes a necessary attitude, at least to some extent. In turn, this leads to the alienation of individuals from each other on the internet. This alienation is typical of a repressive capitalist structure.

However, is the internet doomed to perpetuate capitalist repression and alienation? Postman argues that the problem with technology is that we become tools of our tools (3). Furthermore, each form of technology has an ideological bias - its form, or structure, dictates its function (7). As CAE explains, the internet arose out of a military strategy the US government designed during the Cold War to keep authorities in contact with each other even if they were in different geographic locations. CAE questions whether technology that was created out of authoritarian, imperialist needs can ever be truly beneficial in a humanitarian sense. This example reiterates Postman’s view that technology has an ideological bias. It is important to consider the structure of any tool in order to determine its function in the world.

Postman also believes that “once a technology is admitted [into our society], it does what it is designed to do. Our task is to understand what that design is - that is to say, when we admit a new technology to the culture, we must do so with our eyes wide open.” (7). CAE too continues with this argument with respect to the internet, saying, “While a small part of the net may be used for humanistic purposes and to resist authoritarian structure, its overall function is anything but humanistic. In the same way that we would not consider an unregulated bohemian neighbourhood to be representative of a city, we must also not assume that our own small free zone domains are representative of the digital empire.” Thus Postman, and CAE to some extent, believe that a certain technology’s ideological bias influences it to such a degree that it changes our entire conception of social interaction, humanity, information exchange and so on. Technology changes the ways in which we look at things, and because of this we have little or no control over it.

While it is true, as I have discussed earlier, that people’s ideas of social interaction, community and information exchange are being heavily altered and shifted because of the internet, I do not believe it is impossible to guide change in a particular direction. Although it is also true that the internet was primarily designed for autocratic purposes, this is better understood from a form-follows-function approach (rather than the function-follows-form approach that Postman advocates.) The corporations that now control the structure of the internet (Microsoft, for example) are continuing to structure it in ways that will aid capitalist oppression. This is the purpose, or the function, that they have in mind. It is from this function that the particular structure of the internet arises. If, hypothetically, the internet had been designed for humanitarian, anti-capitalist purposes, it would likely be extremely different from what it is today.

Postman is quite pessimistic about the possibility of changing the ideological bias of a particular technology. According to him, this bias prevalent in a technology’s structure will always play itself out, and it is naive to assume that this bias can be destroyed easily. The problem that I find with this analysis is that although Postman advises careful awareness of technology’s bias, he seems to consider the ideological bias supreme and immutable. CAE, too, believes that the internet’s structure dictates its function, and this cannot be remedied. Therefore, we must be vigilant and cautious when dealing with technology. Postman argues against what he describes as the “technophiles’ ” arguments, who would argue that if the internet was used only for certain purposes, its structure could be changed (7). However, at the same time he does not seem to advocate complete reversal of a technological society. This makes his analysis problematic. He does not have a solution to the problem he presents - he advocates scepticism and cautiousness, but at the same time he believes that a technology’s biased structure allows it to take on a life of its own, becoming autonomous, and so it is impossible to predict and guide the change that it provokes.

I disagree with Postman’s analysis of technology as autonomous. It is, after all, human beings who create technology. To believe in technology as autonomous is to attach a non-materialist, godlike status to it. Today our lives are heavily impacted by the existence of the internet, and it seems impossible to consider a life without it. Perhaps instead of either destroying the internet entirely or resigning to its ‘autonomous’ control, it would be better to analyse the various functions the internet has carried out since its inception, and to understand how these functions have determined its structure. I do not believe it is impossible to change the structure of the internet because as the functions of the internet change, so too will its structure. However, I do agree with CAE that the internet is only a particular technology symptomatic of a pancapitalist culture. In order to change the function (and thereby the structure) of the internet, it is doubly important to change the economic system of capitalism that has become a global hegemony. CAE believes that it is impossible to change a system only through online communication. I believe this is true - it is important to recognize the limitations of the internet as a social tool, but this does not mean its promises of community and interaction across geographic barriers are altogether voided.

In a society where the internet functions as a humanitarian tool, people will recognize that they do not need to escape online to find friends. People will communicate online, but that will not be their sole and most important lifeline. Online communities will advocate unpretentious interaction rather than focussing on casual conversation, dating personals, cheap entertainment and passing time. In such a society the internet will be available to anyone, and there will not be a divide between people who have supreme amounts of superfluous gadgets and people who cannot imagine the world of the internet because they have to fight for daily survival. I do not believe that this is impossible; this sort of ‘idealism’ is necessary to sustain and provoke social change.


Critical Art Ensemble. Utopian Promises - Net Realities.
Throughout this course, reading about the ways in which brain processes give rise to mental functioning, I have been wondering whether reducing complex mental states to a given area or a certain level of chemicals present in the brain denigrates the value of our mental worlds. While doing my research for my final paper, I began to explore determinism, the most popular method used by scientists. I have realized that deterministic and reductionist analyses do not give rise to “objective truths” of how physical phenomena give rise to mental states or characteristics. However, I do agree with the basic materialist view that there is a real physical world that we live in. I think I disagree with Frith, though, who suggests that our brains make us feel that we are isolated and cut off from the rest of the physical world. I am just beginning to understand how humans, as well as other animals and forms of life, interact and change their environments, as their environments also change them.

I do find much of what I have read in this course extremely valuable. I have read many differing viewpoints on the mind/brain dichotomy. Most neuroscientists fundamentally disagree with this dichotomy. However, in looking at chemical, hormonal and other biological processes as linear cause-and-effect chains, their understanding of neurology becomes limited. I think it is important to realize that we are not fixed and made immutable by material elements (genes, chemicals, DNA etc.) I would like to study more about the intricate biological processes that occur in the human body, including the brain, so that I can understand and prove that we are not “limited” by our biology; rather, we can control our biology just as it controls us. I think that is the only way to truly break the dichotomy between self and material biology (the body, the brain etc.)
My research paper deals with the topic of sexual preference and biology. However, when I was researching this topic, I realized that there was an ideological problem with biology in itself, and that I could not merely present ‘informational’ statistics that somehow explained sexual preference. I have come to realize that the current “scientific” establishment, far from giving us “objective truths” and “facts” about the world and ourselves, has always existed and functioned within a growing capitalistic, often religious, oppressive socioeconomic context. I do not think that this means that science has nothing to offer us, though. I think instead it is important to strive to use the scientific method, but at the same time to realize that all of us, whether children or esteemed Nobel Prize winners, have biases that are shaped from the moment that we are born, and that keep changing through our lives, but which we still must strive to recognize at every point. This does not mean that we have to give way to a postmodernist relativism, where openmindedness becomes extreme. Instead, I think we should consciously create a balance between objective and subjective realities, and understand the complexities and layers of meaning involved. I realize that many scientists have tried to break free of their social constraints. However, there have not been enough who have truly tried to create a better society. It is in settling, and giving up on change, that we accept, rationalize and justify oppression. Scientists must always aim to understand human beings and the natural world better, and if they truly do so, they will recognize their limitations and biases. If instead they reduce, oversimplify, dichotomize and suppress, they will only reinforce oppression.

One of the primary reasons I am interested in understanding sexuality is because I have struggled, and continue to struggle, to understand it my whole life. I think being cross-cultural puts me at an advantage, but it is also a disadvantage. In trying to understand sexuality, I am able to analyze and observe aspects of both western and eastern culture. I am also able to observe the increasing globalization of capitalism and western values and imperialism. At the same time as I protest this hegemony, I identify fiercely with elements of western ideology and culture.
Sexual oppression, suppression and alienation became very important to me when I started realizing that I had to conform to an established way of expressing any sexual or romantic desires I had. In a way, these projects are my form of resistance to the intense alienation I feel when people see my rather overtly expressed desires as teenage confusion, hormones, confusing love and friendship (which apparently need to be separated), selfishness, exhibitionism, pent-up sexual needs, acting out and other generalities and stereotypes. But I do not see this resistance as yet another form of childish rebellion. I think it’s time to protest rather than suppress, to exhibit rather than ignore. I see and know that a lot of people are suffering in this world, and much of that suffering is social, personal and personal. I refuse to see these social and personal needs as somehow less necessary than physical needs, because I see the physical and social/emotional as being interdependent. They cannot exist separately. Therefore, I refuse to submit to or create a hierarchy of oppression.

the problem with determinism

Reductionists look at individual parts in order to understand a whole system.

The problem is that specific parts of a system do not simply add up to create the system. Rather, they interact with each other, and change each other and themselves, in order to create a system. Elements that combine together to form a compound exist as the whole compound and lose their individual properties. Individual properties are not meaningless, as they are necessary to create the whole, but they do not define the whole, since they have become intermingled with other individuals’ properties.

For example, in this context, reductionists would look at interactions between electrons of different atoms in different molecules of a single cell to explain how a whole organism works. The interactions between different cells, and different organs, and in fact different organisms and between the organism and other objects present in their surroundings, are not considered, or in any case are denigrated. Genetic inheritance is given primary importance - often a godlike status. This is biological determinism.

Cultural determinism, while it seems like a better idea at first, completely shuns biology and maintains that an individual is born a blank slate and from the first moment that they are born they are environmentally created and their identities determined. Some cultural determinists predict individuals’ behavior exclusively as a result of economic climate, including all or most aspects of death, disease etc. Others look at the individual as greater than the social, but claim that it is or will be possible to predict exactly how a person will turn out because of forces in their social environment. Hence, the environment is seen as independent and immutable, and the individual is helpless.

Interactionism often seems like a step above both biological and cultural determinism, since it presents the hypothesis that an individual’s genotype gives rise to a particular phenotype as an accumulation of both genetic, biological factors as well as environmental factors. Therefore, the same genotype raised in different environments will create different organisms. Here too, though, the environment and biology are seen as factors that work independently of the organism’s choices and actions, and that the organism is shaped in a very specific, fixed way by them.
Determinism in all its forms looks at people as slaves to their biology or environment, quite passive participants in their life experiences. To contextualize the deterministic argument, a woman who currently identifies as a lesbian is a lesbian, and she is a lesbian because either she was born with a gene that codes for homosexuality or was exposed to a particular hormone “too much” or “too little” (biological determinism), or her environment in some way caused her homosexuality (cultural determinism), or because of an interaction between biological and environmental forces she became a homosexual.

The problem with deterministic theories is that they categorize people into strict, immutable boxes and labels. A person who changes is probably not the real thing (and “the real thing,” apparently, is someone whose desire remains constant throughout their life) or is in some way temporarily deluded. Scientists will nevertheless try to search for a pattern that will reveal her one, true identity. Of course, in a world that is dominated by an exploitative, oppressive, conservative worldview, it is very difficult for a person to exist freely and choose their identities, so this will only make determinists’ arguments sound even more plausible. But determinism can never quite succeed completely in explaining away the increasing oppression that people feel, either as communities or individuals.

This cartoon exemplifies the inherent ridiculousness of classifying gender and sex into specific, fixed categories. Whichever way you go about trying to solve this problem, there are messy complications involved. There are individuals who do not satisfy the physical requirements for being either male or female (genitalia or otherwise.) There are also individuals who do fulfill the physical requirements but not the socio-cultural, patriarchal roles of either the male or female gender. And in the end, no matter how many boxes are created, an individual’s sex or gender may change over the course of their lifetime. This is not such a ludicrous idea, actually. As Anne Fausto-Sterling says in her book Sexing the Body, “I don’t mean that a penis drops off or an ovary dissolves, but that one’s physique, one’s anatomical function, and how one experiences one’s sexual body change over time” (242). There are also social or environmental influences involved in how one perceives their sexual body and sexual desires, of course, and these too change over time. As discussed in the book Not in Our Genes, “Organisms do not simply adapt to previously existing, autonomous environments; they create, destroy, modify, and internally transform aspects of the external world by their own life activities to make this environment. Just as there is no organism without an environment, so there is no environment without an organism” (273).

The flexibility and plasticity of a person’s gender and sex experiences in their lifetime is also supported by evidence of the plastic nature of the brain. Fausto-Sterling discusses this in great detail, saying, “environmental signals stimulate the growth of new brain cells or cause old ones to make new connections.” When a person is born, their brain is incompletely developed, and, in fact, their brain never becomes “completely developed,” thus always allowing for change and regrowth. For example, one way in which the brain makes a neural connection more permanent is by myelination, or the production of a myelin sheath around individual nerve fibers. The human brain is incompletely myelinated at birth, and major myelination continues throughout the first decade of life. However, it is not completely myelinated at this point, either. In fact, there is a two-fold increase in myelination between the first and second decades of life, and an additional 60% increase in myelination between the fourth and fifth decades of life. This opens up the plausibility for diverse and changing gender-related experiences throughout life.

Because of the intricate web of multitudinous interactions and changes involved – within an individual’s specific nervous system and within an individual’s system in response to external stimuli or experiences or other individuals – it is impossible to look at a human being’s persona, or their sexuality in this case, as deriving simply from one gene or one over-generated hormone, or as a fixed, immutable constant. An individual is not immutably structured either by environment or by biology – environments change, and so do individuals, and individuals actively change environments, as environments do individuals. And this in turn impacts biology. Therefore, it would be much more apt to say, as Not In Our Genes concludes, “Thus, it is our biology that makes us free.” (290) ← Interpenetration of organism and environment
Frith: Chapter Seven, How The Brain Creates Culture, and the Epilogue, Me and My Brain

One of the issues that most intrigued me, particularly about the epilogue, was the discussion of free will and our perception of ourselves as free agents, altruism and how these help us construct the society in which we exist and function.

I am not sure how perceiving ourselves as distinct and separate from the natural and physical environment of the world helps us maintain a society in which we live. I am reminded of discussions I have been part of in my philosophy class about human beings’ relationship with the natural environment. It is interesting to me that before the onset of civilization, particularly western civilization and its impact over the rest of the world (through colonialism, imperialism, industrialization and capitalism), several societies (considered ‘primitive’ and which now exist only in several tiny pockets of the world) were more animistic in their worldview. Native Americans, for example, viewed (and some still continue to view) human beings as part of the natural order and the rest of life on earth.

I would think that understanding how we are impacted by and depend upon the natural environment as well as each other help us to function together as a whole. It seems that if we truly viewed ourselves as so entirely distinct from the rest of the world we would fall apart. Perhaps this is the reason for problems of environmental destruction and social problems. It seems that especially in a western world, we are becoming more and more individualistic, alienated and isolated from each other and even from ourselves..

Frith says that if we knew we were not making deliberate choices, we would fall apart. However, I think this depends on how we define ‘deliberate.’ In the Ramachandran readings there was a discussion of the concept of ‘free won’t.’ Also, we do have some choices which cannot be dismissed as an inevitable reaction to a stimulus. When Frith discusses altruism, he seems to imply that we inevitably punish those who take advantage of a situation. However, I would like to understand why people take advantage of a situation at all. It is very possible that we have been historically and culturally trained to function in a specific way in such models such as the ‘common good’ game. He is also puzzled over why we would behave altruistically towards strangers, and suggests that we do so because of a greater chance of our species surviving. However, it is not just our species but ourselves. In order for human beings to live and function, we need to rely and, yes, depend on one another. It helps us individually as well - we cannot survive completely on our own. I think there are reasons why all life forms exist in some groups or other - even less social animals, like cats, rely on each other to some extent (and not just for reproduction.)

Frith leaves me puzzled and confused, but I am also beginning to understand the limitations of a ‘scientific’ analysis that aims to achieve absolute, irreversible fact, and of scientists who do not recognize and acknowledge their biases, and who instead oversimplify rather than understanding how bias in fact (as Frith briefly implies) can help us better relate to each other, though in a somewhat different way than he suggests.
hello everyone,

i’ve really enjoyed hearing what everyone has to say about the pieces on the sexuality of latinas. i especially agree with r. and re. about the interplay of Spanish and English used in some of the pieces. i wasn’t so especially struck by the use of the word ‘mujer’ in a letter to my mother, maybe because that piece didn’t really strike me as much as the others in general. but i do think that perhaps mujer and woman both have double meanings.. and according to Claudia Colindres Americans are closer to eradicating sexism than Latinas.. well, she does say sexism exists in the u.s. but i think overall she sees it much more in the latina culture. anyway, i get a sense from the way she uses ‘mujer’ that it is the mujeres who are more subjugated and oppressed, not the women.. this reflects back to how she says latina women are stuck in their oppression more than American women. i think this represents how even in the way language is used the cultural divide is so evident..

(you can skip over this part because it’s sort of a digression if you like)

one thing that really did strike me about that piece, though, is this:

(colindres) is talking about how with her American friends, “when we talk about growing up they say that their mothers always placed themselves, and their needs first” (page 78). this is more of a personal significance that i just have to write out because it means so much to -me-, maybe it won’t make any sense to anyone else, but..

i’m now thinking of how all my life i always accused my mother of putting herself before me when i was angry. and i was using my father’s words, because that’s among several things he would tell me about what a hypocrite and selfish person my mother was since i was little.
anyway, not to go into the whole sob story mode, but i’m thinking of how my father is one of the most progressive men i know, and not just because he is my father, but because he has encouraged me to read feminist literature, he was more accepting about my sexuality than my mother was at first, and he always talked to me about patriarchy and male violence and oppression of women. i never felt like i was undervalued as a girl child. this was especially significant to me because, even if this seems like internalized racism or something, he is Indian and he comes from a family that isn’t that well-off and certainly wasn’t when he was growing up. and he is very different from his family in that regard because he was the one who went to Princeton and etc.

but reading this made me suddenly realize that a lot of what my father’s progressive views hold true in theory, but not in practice. that is, he theoretically is anti-chauvinistic male oppression, but sexism is so inherent in culture (and i think it is no less inherent in American culture, really, and in some ways it is more inherent here) that it is in some ways much harder for a man to break free of the system.

it is in some ways similar to how my parents have become more settled in their ways as they grew older. well i am not so sure of that with my mother, and that is a significant point because i think that as women we face oppression every day, and we continue to do so. it was difficult for my mother to assert herself as an American woman who my father refused to actually teach hindi in a proper manner and who liked living in india much better than the u.s., who refused to take the patronizing tourist approach or whatever.

anyway i realize this is getting incredibly long-winded but the point is my father was so quick to pinpoint my mother for not putting me, her child, or our ‘family’ first before herself. actually i think she sacrificed a lot for us, for him, for me, but anyway. it took me a long time to even start realizing this. but it really says something about how difficult it is to break free of a sexist structure, and how men because of their privilege are so much more blind to the oppression they carry on inflicting on women. maybe this is just an extreme correlation but somehow it makes sense to me, it doesn’t make me hate my father or anything, like Claudia Colindres said about her father, it just makes me realize how thoroughly entrenched men too are in the history of female oppression, and how it takes active conscious resistance to not follow through with that, and it doesn’t always work out quite so easily. i am now beginning to understand too why despite my father’s theories about women’s freedom to control themselves and their bodies and reassert their dignity, he was worried about what the neighbours would say about my boyfriend, and why he was so concerned about any sexual expression i might have at all. (i know this also relates to the dangers of certain cultural environments, but it also makes me reflect on how even if you have radical ideas, you may feel that the only way to survive is to put them aside in certain environments.. and that may be the truth in some cases.)

(/end digression)

i was very interested in the bathroom scene with Lydia in ‘my summer of the future’ by Julia alvarez too. i was also interested in the subtext of the political tension between the u.s. and (uh, i couldn’t quite figure out what country was being referred to, i know this means my knowledge of political history really sucks. i thought it was cuba, though.. maybe..?)

i kind of agree with Simone that Lydia isn’t exactly that defiant in her nakedness, but i think there is a moment there that she doesn’t quite fully realize where her nakedness, her body, a part of her consciousness asserts herself as a woman or a girl growing into a woman (almost grown into in lydia’s case) is a very powerful form of resistance -- as in draupadi (which i haven’t read, but perhaps i should take up my father’s age-old suggestion to read mahasweta devi now!), but in draupadi’s case she actively uses her body as a form of resistance. i think there is something very powerful about nakedness, yes, but..

this kind of relates to the poem ‘down there’ by Sandra Cisneros. i was very unnerved by the imagery of menstrual blood that was so extensively used in the latter part of the poem. i was kind of laughing and totally siding with Cisneros about all the ugly things about men’s habits, and i saw where she was going maybe, to say, well, how can you say we - who don’t do all of these stupid ugly things that have become so normalized for you - are ugly, that our menstrual cycles are ugly etc?

but i am not sure whether reclaiming bodily fluids, smells and socially perceived ‘ugliness’ is really so much of resistance as rebellion for rebellion’s sake.. i don’t know, i am very confused here. on the one hand i realize that i have been socially conditioned to be uncomfortable with the idea of menstrual blood smelling good (because it so obviously doesn’t to my socially brainwashed/conditioned mind and, to that extent, my body and senses) and nakedness being ok (i am not exactly very used to nudity, or even cleavage/thigh exposure for that matter, to say nothing of butt exposure..) to a lesser extent..

so i was just wondering, to what extent are these social norms useful? i think it is unfair and symptomatic of sexism to normalize men’s dirty habits when female naturalness is condemned, even when women are the ones who take care of themselves and their hygiene etc so much better generally.. (and bear in mind that i am talking in social stereotypes here), but on the other hand are those dirty habits really normalized? i think though they are normalized in a sense, it’s not like we say ‘ok, go ahead and pick your nose in front of me. you can delight in your nose-picking, i don’t care.’

so i’m wondering if there is any use in reclaiming menstrual blood. i know i’m being an awful hypocrite about this -- i certainly felt like one when i was talking about this poem to a friend who’s a lot more prudish and conventional than i am, perhaps, and so i felt more comfortable expressing my reticence and disgust even at the poem... even in exaggerating my reactions, actually, to fit into her conventional reaction expectation, i guess -- but i don’t know. i don’t really think this is just artistic license being used or misused or something, i do think Cisneros wrote that poem not “for art’s sake” but to say something about society and sexism. but nevertheless, it leaves me very confused..

ok, lastly, (i promise i’ll end after this..) i absolutely love Federico y elfiria. admittedly i did need to consult wordreference.com (best dictionary i’ve come across online so far for languages) quite a bit especially since my Spanish has gotten rusty and i only had two years of intensive beginning Spanish to begin with.. but i don’t know, maybe it was because of some possible similarities between Indian and latina culture (?) or because i adore Spanish so much (and kept thinking of my lovely Spanish teacher in high school), but i didn’t feel very alienated at all really from the bilingualism in the story.

i was very amused/familiarized by the constant embarrassment/hesitance to really directly say ‘he came’ [in the sexual descriptions] or such, and also the way Federico justified his thoughts. and yet i liked Federico in a way. i felt a sort of perhaps patronizing (or should i say matronizing?) instinct towards him or something, but i didn’t pity him exactly.. i understood him i think more than i thought i would.. i love the way Tafolla writes, how she is a separate narrator without a very easily identifiable point of view.. i did like Elfiria too, i especially liked the part where Federico’s fainting and can’t deal with all this new - and very necessary and real - information about pregnancy and bodily desire and whatnot, and can’t bear public humiliation (and primarily thinks of that, at that..) and elfiria actually forgets about her pains for a moment and says to the nurse, “Cuidamelo.” (which i believe means “I’ll take care of it,” though perhaps Patty can correct me on that?) and she does. This really does say something about how superficial the power that men so desire and seize for themselves is.. and how superficial and alien to the very visceral nature of life that power is. men have the power to destroy life, but they do not have the power to create or heal life (or take care of it.) men have the power to make economic arrangements, but they don’t have the power to suffer from those economic arrangements. (and by this i don’t mean all individual men, i mean the historical trend of male oppression that’s still being kept up to a very large extent.) and i think there is power in suffering.

i think all of these stories are about the power that is experienced in suffering. because i think suffering gives you the power to heal and transform and change things. that much is evident in all of these stories. even in Federico and elfiria it’s Elfiria in the end who tells him to forget about all these things [this whole complex federico’s having about whether Elfiria is a good girl, and whether she can have sex and enjoy it even if she’s married and has a family and is respectable and ‘good’] and come to bed. she does assert herself, she’s the one who takes care of things. she’s the one who keeps things together when he’s losing his head. i kind of sympathize with Federico because he’s so much a victim of a system he’ll never escape from, and the sad thing he’s going to have the power to destroy, but i also think the great thing is that women do have their power too, and they’re learning to use it.
warnings: overidentification with pwd, universalist ideas about art, ableism about emotionality and intelligence

Oliver Sacks, An Anthropologist On Mars: Prodigies

I find Prodigies an interesting analysis of an autistic savant’s behaviour and life (as well as a discussion of savantism in general.) One thing I especially like about this section, as well as Sacks’ writing in general, is that he seems genuinely interested in his patients’ lives. He wants to find out who Stephen is, as a person. I think he tries to transcend the limitations of neuropsychiatric structure.

I was particularly drawn to reading about Stephen because so much of his life was about his art (and later his music too.) I started thinking about my own art and how I feel about myself as an artist, and how I think of art politically and socially. I’ve never been technically astute - definitely not even close to a lot of traditional Indian artists, to say nothing of autistic savants like Stephen. I struggle with copying a photograph (or drawing a self-portrait.) However, I do consider myself an artist. I believe that anyone can draw - perhaps not in such accurate detail as Stephen can, unless perhaps they work very diligently their entire lives or happen to be savants in that respect too - but I do believe that anyone can draw. That is, anyone has the potential to draw, to be creative as well as to be technically astute (though that depends on other cognitive developments sometimes.) And I think reading Prodigies and especially the last part, where Sacks defines creativity, was problematic in this respect.

Sacks thinks of art as separate from person to a large extent - he mentions that some artists’ lives ‘mirror’ their art, but most have lives that are very different from their art, and some have vile, incoherent, painful or tragic lives even though their art is sublime. However, is ‘sublime’ aesthetic detail art? This evidently relates to the debate about art for art’s sake, or aestheticism, versus art for meaning, out of social context, for people. This debate also influences notions of creativity. Is creativity “a flow of inner life,” as Sacks says, or is it the ability to express one’s thoughts and communicate with other people? I find it deeply disillusioning that people will often think art is good just because it is too complex for them to relate to or understand, or that certain artists’ reputations and fame automatically mean that their art is good. The art that I love is the art that speaks to me - and not because I feel it should speak to me (as Evie, Stephen’s music teacher, told him what certain pieces of music should elicit images of) but because it speaks to me. I would have liked to know what Stephen’s “egocentric” thoughts about those musical pieces were. This reminds me of when, a year and a half ago, I had the Rorschach test administered for the third time or so. (The Rorschach test is still used very largely in India; I don’t believe it is used here anymore.)

I decided to just express whatever came into my head upon examining the ink blots. I have a rather peculiar (and overactive) imagination, though I love it. I came up with the most bizarre interpretations of the ink blots. At the end of the test, my counsellor laid out the slides in front of me and told me what they were supposed to represent, and asked me whether they looked like what they were supposed to be at all. I thought this was odd, and my psychiatrists disapproved, but it strikes me that this was exactly what Evie was doing with Stephen. I find it odd how normalizing people both enhances the isolationist, individualist nature of (Western) society as well as deprecates the unique, valuable perceptions of an individual.

I think Sacks tried to be more humanistic in his approach to understanding Stephen, but too many of his ideas ended up being generalized stereotypical notions that most neuropsychiatrists have. I don’t know enough about Stephen, but I was struck by how plastic his personality was, and how that plasticity must have reflected the plasticity his brain underwent. Perhaps as certain cognitive developmental facilities in his brain were slowed, others rapidly increased (like his technical abilities.) Perhaps Stephen was intelligent in technical matters, but he was not an intellectual, as Sacks seems to say. But I would not say that Stephen could never have those intellectual and emotional capacities. I thought that he probably already did express emotional and intellectual faculties - just in ways that “normal” people wouldn’t be able to grasp. He could not communicate, perhaps, as easily as “normal” people, but then even us normal people have a hard time communicating. This should help us appreciate the diverse and complicated nature of communication.