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Habits of Living Thinkathon — Day 2 Live Blog: On Technology and Affective Indian Feminism(s)

Posted by Alok Vaid-Menon at Sep 27, 2012 12:40 PM |
The Habits of Living Thinkathon (Thinking Marathon) is being hosted by the Centre for Internet and Society in Bengaluru, India, from September 26 to 29, 2012. The event brings together a range of multidisciplinary scholars and practitioners. The workshop aims to generate a dialogue on the notion of surrogate structures that have become visible landmarks of contemporary life, and produce new conceptual frameworks to help us understand networks and the ways in which they inform our everyday practice and thought.

Saumya Pant from the Mudra Institute of Communications, Ahmedabad begins the day with a controversial and important talk "For the Love of Child? The Economy of Desire in Cases of Transnational Surrogacy". Pant invites us into the taboo world of international couples travelling to India to receive a child from a surrogate mother. After Oprah featured a story on Indian commercial surrogacy mothers, India has seen a surfeit of foreign couples looking for a — comparatively inexpensive — surrogate mother. Surrogate mothers must be between 20 to 45 years old, married, and have at least one child. They stay in carefully regulated spaces and are provided with vitamins, extravagant meals, and access to a television. Inspired by Sara Ahmed’s theory of affective economies, Pant is interested in privileging the narratives of the Indian surrogates themselves. What motivates them to participate in this emotional journal of ten months?

Inspired by transnational feminist analyses, Pant concedes that one’s privilege in the world system is always linked to another women’s oppression and exploitation. However Pant wants to push and tease out this analysis — asking us to re-imagine the agency and affectual relations that mediate these surrogacy interactions. Pant shows how emotions actually do things in these interactions. Emotions circulate and create relationships of attachment between child, surrogate mother, commercial parents. This affect is not permanent, rather it is ephemeral. Pant traces these circulations of economies of hope and love and shows how Indian surrogate mothers position themselves as a 'giver' — in the most non-capitalist sense of the idea — to construct and experience surrogacy as a legitimate choice.

Pant’s project raised serious issues of methodology for the participants. One participant felt that in the turn to affect theory, we neglect the very real experiences of pain and exploitation that are apparent in these interactions. All in attendance re-iterated the importance of understanding how women perceive their own bodies, versus the various theories that govern how they should see their bodies. Others discussed how this project presents a useful opportunity to tease out the ‘body’ from the ‘bodily.’

Indeed, it seems as if Pant has stumbled on a very compelling research project — one which raises serious questions of (post)colonialism, citizenship, tourism, ethics, among others. I’m particularly intrigued by exploring the possibility of the Indian surrogate mother as a Global South queer figure. Much theorising in Western queer scholarship (especially explorations in queer temporality) has positioned ‘queerness’ as opposed to ‘reproduction.’ The surrogate mother calls this framing into question – how is reproduction mapped differently on bodies of women of color in the Global South? How can we imagine queer ways of actually participating in reproductive economies?

Gita Chadha from Mumbai ended the day by sharing her perspective on Thinkathon themes from her background in Feminist Science Studies. Chadha begin with raising her concerns with the metaphor of surrogacy — what does it mean to use a metaphor that is derived from such a potentially traumatic and embodied situation of women? Chadha outlines a brief history of the development of South Asian Feminist Science studies and then follows this summary by asserting that there are three major relational cognitive-affects of modernity that we continue to produce in postmodern times: the self system, the truth system, and the community system. For Chadha, the wholeness of these categories is contested in contemporary times with the digital turn: the self becomes hyphenated, the truth becomes destabilised, and the community fractured.

Coming at this digital moment from a feminist background Chadha reminds us how feminist positions on technology have shifted from viewing women as victims of technology to women as active claimants of technology. She then highlighted the particular challenge of Indian feminists who discuss issues of technology in negotiating their relationship to Western scholarship, including Dona Harraway. After reviewing this genealogy, Chadha argues that currently the real and the virtual in a sense serve as surrogates for each other and deliver a sense of self, a notion of truth(iness), and experience of community.

Chadha concludes by applying this feminist epistemology to the Pink Chaddi Campaign — a recent expression of ‘collective rage’ put forth by Indian women tired of the State’s regulation of the public space. Chadha draws our attention to the way that digital media was central to this campaign. While some critical feminist voices felt that the use of the chaddi in this campaign undermined the seriousness of the issue of violence against women, Chadha asks us to see how truth and community shift and are mediated by technology in these campaign spaces.

Chadha’s framework allowed participants to talk about how what gets lost in science is the technology of science itself – how science valorises one scholar at the cost of collaborative processes. Once again questions of the efficacy of the visual domain arise. What does it mean to prioritise the visual within the affective turn? What also emerges is the ability to assert a truth with limited knowledge.

I find Chadha’s commitment toward feminism as a particular epistemological/theoretical perspective (versus simply a mode of activism) very important. Discussions in media/digital theory often assume a de-gendered subject and Chadha does good work in bringing in the critical question of gender difference within our discussion of theory and networks.