This post is in relation to the Gender and Domination course in OOPS.

When approaching the issue of domination and its many forms, one must not overlook that violence is a structural element of domination. However diverse in character different forms of domination may be, they all rely on some account regarding violence and the nature of the individual. Chiara Bottici’s Bodies in Plural draws from Spinoza’s holistic ontology, anarchism and psychoanalysis to provide us with a non-dualistic account of subjectivation. This account allows us to think of a crossing over between transindividuality and intersectionality. Being a woman, then, is not a state of affairs; it is a narrative. More precisely, it is a transdividual narrative, which allows us to think intersectionally among the various ways of being a woman. Such narratives, again as different as they may be, all share in some way or another an underlying experience of violence, physical or otherwise.

We may turn to the example of Julia Pastrana, a woman born in the mid 19th century with a rare genetic condition, who participated in public circus exhibitions as “the ape woman”. Beyond the many tragic aspects of her life, it is astonishing how much adoration and hate her body still raised even after her death. She was mummified along with her premature deceased son, and their bodies continued touring around Europe. Eventually the bodies disappeared, and then reappeared in the 1920’s and continued to be exhibited until 1970 when they were withdrawn from public display. Nonetheless, a few years later the mummies were stolen, the baby’s body torn apart and given away to mice. Julia’s arm was ripped off from her body. Her remains now lie in a concrete tomb to prevent further dismemberment. 

Sexy Barbie © PommeGranny | Flickr
Sexy Barbie © PommeGranny | Flickr

A similar account of the female body plundered is displayed in Kim Ki Duk’s movie Beautiful. It is a shocking yet critical movie that deals with the fascination and desire for domination that beauty, specially female beauty, exercises over people. It tells the story of a stunningly beautiful woman whose beauty becomes a curse. Her beauty makes her noticeable everywhere she goes. She is chased by men, hated by women, harassed, and raped. She cannot trust anyone since her relationships are forcibly and at all times traversed by the urge of the other to dominate her beauty. The movie shows her increasingly desperate and lonely. She tries to mutilate herself, to gain weight, then to become anorectic to rid herself of her image, all in vain. She is raped in her sleep by one of her admirers, to which she responds with a trauma-fueled shooting spree ending in her own death. Her death, however, does not mean the end of the obsession others have over her body. The final sequence of the movie shows her dead body, splayed beautifully upon the medical examiner’s table, being once more violated. It is a difficult movie, but one that carefully poses the same questions of domination and physical violation that we find in Pastrana’s life, as well — which unfortunately is not a piece of fiction like Duk’s film.

Docility may seem more shocking and inexplicable if we fail to see the subtle and yet incredibly strong ties of servitude that are constitutive of various narratives. La Boétie, in his Discourse of Voluntary Servitude starts by claiming that all men are equal in nature, all are originally free. Society as a whole relies on a social organicism built upon bonds of mutual recognition and fraternity. Recognition and fraternity are lost once men lose — or allow themselves to lose — this primordial state of freedom and equality. Tyranny is then the usurpation of one’s property or production and the use of religion for self-protection and to train people in obedience and servility. Considering the text to be one of the many influences of anarchism, it is remarkable that La Boétie not once mentions the communitarian aspect of property or production. Why do men voluntarily give up their freedom and subject themselves to the rule of the tyrant, whose power only exists insofar as the subjects grant it? For freedom, even though it defines human nature, is not an individual good: either all are free, or no one is. In fact the Discourse shifts many times from the individual to the communitarian. This is no mere coincidence since its departure point is precisely this loss of originary freedom, which is constitutive of the individual’s nature but can only be preserved collectively.

Why do people so easily resign their natural disposition to be equal and free, asks La Boétie? Because custom is stronger than nature, he answers. “Environment always shapes us in its own way, whatever that may be, in spite of nature’s gifts”[1]. Custom anesthetizes men. Under a framework of originary freedom, custom “is why men born under the yoke and then nourished and reared in slavery are content, without further effort, to live in their native circumstance”[2]. To think of habit as the major reason for servility is to greatly overlook the central role played by violence: the brutality, the terror, the constant reminder of one’s unworthiness. If we think of the individual not as a state of affairs, as I said before, but as a transindividual narrative, equality is never given from the start. We all exist already within narratives traversed by servitude, more or less explicit, more or less violent. Violence which is not one but many, and in its many forms can also create bonds of solidarity.

[1] La Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, p 55.

[2] La Boétie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, p 55.