Web Roundups

Monthly Web Round-up: Bodies/borders

Frontpage news over the past month has repeatedly returned to the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair, in which prominent French politician and development affairs guru Dominique Strauss-Kahn (DSK) was arrested after being accused of sexually assaulting a hotel worker in New York City. The accusation, emerging at the end of May, sparked an international scandal that many speculate will impact the outcome of the 2012 French presidential elections (in which DSK is a rumored candidate). As July neared, questions about the “credibility” of the hotel worker — who is simultaneously accuser, victim, and sole witness — arose and quickly began to multiply.

Anthropologists might consider the DSK affair as a lens by which to contemplate bodies and boundaries, or, bodies out of place. The unnamed hotel laborer (UHL), a female asylum-seeker from Guinea, asserted publically that DSK’s body had violated the borders of her own body, transgressing boundaries of physical space as well as crossing the bounds of appropriate conduct. But the legitimacy of this claim remains tenuous. In spite of an initially aggressive stance taken by the State of New York to prosecute the case, at the start of July, officials admitted publically that their hold on the case was slipping. They indicated that their capacity to prosecute rested on the credibility of the accuser, and implied that when evidence arose highlighting the UHL’s own status as a body-out-of-place, her credibility waned. Chief among the counts against UHL’s character are newly emerging indications that she had falsified accounts of trauma in order to obtain asylum status in the US, and, that she is intimately involved with an man who is currently detained in an Arizona detention center for immigration violations – both instances that link UHL to bodily transgressions of national boundaries.

The confluence of biopolitical angles in the case have already been highlighted in various online portals. Laurie Essig reviews the power dynamics of case from one feminist perspective in the Chronicle of Higher Education opinions blog; meanwhile, pro-immigration regulation bloggers have seized the case of “evidence of yet another refugee scam”. In this context, we might ask, what have anthropologists said about transgressions between the boundaries of two human bodies? About bodies that transgress political boundaries? Since Mary Douglas, at least, we have been very aware of the profanity of the out-of-place. Does the profanity of UHL as a body-out-of-place trump the profanity of DSK’s alleged transgression? Below is a list of links that might help us to speak to these questions.

On the web:

• A great new feature by Emily Channell on the blog Canonball reviews and summarizes academic feminist literature. The first edition looks at Emily Martin’s “The Woman in the Body” (2001), and thoughtfully reminds us of the ways that women’s bodies are fragmented in popular imagination.

• On the Anthronow blog, Joshua Reno observes that protests of drone surveillance of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border echoes similar patrolling of bodies and politicized space deployed by the US government along the Mexican and Canadian borders.

• Christopher B.R. Smith’s article from April of this year looks at the ways that bodies are pathologized by association with drug addiction, with implication for socio-spatial patterns.

Donna Haraway has troubled the notion that bodies are consummate entities; in particular, her chapter titled “The Biopolitics of Post-modern Bodies” explores ideas about bodily boundaries. Examining metaphoric collapsing of immune system defense with biopolitics, she makes a case for challenging the popular wisdom that absolute boundaries exist, and that essential differences between self and other may be more complicated than they appear – not only in postmodern political theory, but in biology as well.

• Similarly, several scholars have looked at the ways that bodies out of place are medicalized in order to pathologize. For example, Penny Richards has written in Disability Studies Quarterly about the ways that medical diagnoses were used to mark some bodies as fit or unfit to enter the United States during the late 19th and early 20th century migration waves. Meanwhile, UHL has not been thus far medically pathologized; however, the evidence working in her favor is that which carries the authority of science – the medically derived physical detritus of sexual contact.

• Kathleen Coll, professor of gender studies and a lecturer in anthropology at Stanford, has written extensively about Latina migrants organizing as bodies out of place in the Bay Area (e.g. her 2010 book, Remaking Citizenship), and has more recently been working along with these interlocutors to call for labor rights for domestic workers (who, along with agricultural workers, are excluded from federal labor law protections). Like UHL, domestic laborers earn their wages in arenas that trump the traditional binary of public/private while reinforcing gendered roles, and are frequently are marked racially and linguistically in ways that code them as bodies out of place. Coll has been working for a California Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, has engaged undergraduates in research on this topic, and has written about unfolding developments in domestic labor rights. A recorded symposium about domestic labor organizing is available for listening online.

• A 2006 book by Anthony Good takes an ethnographic look at how expertise is established in asylum cases; a recent article by Sophia Rainbird about encounters between service workers and asylum-seekers in the UK raises similar points (Community Development Journal (2011)). Both help us to complicate the questions of “credibility” raised about UHL.

• Anthropological writings about refugees within Guinea (e.g. Refugee Survey Quarterly (2006) 25 (2): 69-80) provide deeper context.

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