Issue 14.2 | 2017 / Guest edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli

Representation, Visibility, Legibility: The ‘Queer’ Subject in Contemporary India

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The issue of representation is therefore key in conceptualising the “queer”—or indeed, any—subject, where the subject is rendered legible within mainstream discourses. Since the practice of representation relies on an identifiable subject as the bearer of rights, the representation of any particular subjectivity is necessarily normativising, in the sense that the subject is made intelligible within pre-determined and sanctioned modes of understanding. Hakan Seckinelgin argues that practices relating to the reality of an individual’s life must be translated into a “politically intelligible” identity so that the subject, in order to be a political actor, can be rendered legible.[9] At the same time, any articulation of an identity that makes it fit into a pre-established, sanctioned category—where it can be recognised by state mechanisms—leads to what Ratna Kapur terms the “flattening out” of the (sexual) subject.[10] In such a process, heterogeneity is necessarily denied in order to identify a homogeneous subject—the individual or group—as the subject of rights.

Representation therefore requires the visibility of the subject and their necessary legibility according to state processes. James C. Scott’s work points to the role of simplification and legibility in processes of governance, where the modern state has erased undisciplined forms of knowledge in its demands for legibility through an ongoing project of standardisation and uniformity.[11] In the quest for knowledge that claims universality (at the expense of local knowledges that make no claim to universality, which, nonetheless, inform certain elements of state knowledge),[12] the state transforms complex realities into simplified categories, where such simplification is in fact different from the reality to which such abstractions allude. Scott argues further that the modern state attempts—through its officials—to create a population with “standardised characteristics” that are easiest to assess and manage.[13] Thus legibility not only reduces disorder but also creates the population that it names: he writes that categories “that may have begun as … artificial inventions … can end by becoming categories that organize people’s daily experience precisely because they are embedded in state-created institutions that structure that experience.”[14] Scott points to the way in which subjects are brought into being through state mechanisms, where homogeneity and visibility are necessary to identify different subjects. At the same time, the presence of various local knowledges within techniques of statecraft point to the incomplete nature of the dominant ideology, which fails to grasp, or indeed represent, the complexity of local subjects and situations. The suppression of difference, of heterogeneity, reveals a separation between complex practices of real life and the politically legible actor; moreover the act of categorisation, in this case relating to the “queer” hijra subject, might fail to be comprehensible for those collated under such a label. The enshrining of the term “TG” or “transgender” within state discourses and state-created institutions has become a category through which individuals order their own lives and experiences, precisely because it is a sanctioned category for identification and recognised by the modern state as a identity to which certain rights are tied. This can be evidenced through the 2014 Supreme Court judgment and its focus on defining who counts as “transgender,” as well as increased identification with the term “transgender” following the judgment.

Two issues relating to representation have thus been raised. First, the issue of a lack of representation among “queer” subjects where “queer” has a pre-determined meaning and set of behaviours in the Indian context, and second, problems relating to representational practices themselves. I have discussed a lack of representation in relation to hijra identity, where the hijra subject is rendered legible in relation to specific facets of their identity (particularly gender and sexual practice), with the result that a “queer” approach has, until now, been unable to sufficiently translate the hijra subject according to their own modes of understanding and being. However, I wish to address the second issue of the problems relating to representational practices and question whether it is possible to keep the radical potential of the term “queer” within these practices of representation.

If identifying queer subjects within pre-determined modes of categorisation leads to simplification and homogeneity, any approach adopted by public discourses should take into account both the failure of pre-determined categories themselves and the potential for heterogeneity and unintelligible forms of subjectivity. Homi K. Bhabha writes that what is “theoretically innovative and politically crucial” is developing narratives beyond original subjectivities, demanding that we investigate the processes, the in-between spaces, in which self-hood is configured and knotted together from various strands, histories, and spaces.[15] The idea of moving beyond original subjectivities—such as those designated “queer” in the Indian context—might also be supported by taking into account Jack Halberstam’s work on the notion of “failure.” For Halberstam, “failure,” “unbecoming,” and “not knowing” may offer “more creative, more cooperative, more surprising ways of being in the world,”[16] critiquing heteronormative conceptions of space and time. If “failure” allows subjects to escape disciplining (hetero-)norms, Halberstam’s argument that an investment into counterintuitive modes of knowledge (akin to the non-universal knowledges described by Scott) that provide a form of resistance and propose different relations to knowledge[17] can be useful in re-conceptualising the paradoxical nature of representational practices that simultaneously identify and fail to identify various subjectivities. If the subject itself, in terms of identifying and maintaining an identity, is inherently bound up in an ongoing process of “failure,” then this acknowledgment can inform an approach that attempts to maintain the radical and inclusive potential of the term “queer” within mechanisms that demands identities be articulated in a legible and simplified way.

In relation to hijra identity, ‘failure’ and heterogeneity are concepts that are evident in identity-construction. While hijras do not appear to interpret their identities in relation to a discourse of failure, their ability to acknowledge the porous nature of categories for identification and to exploit the potential benefits of different strategic identifications demonstrates an understanding by hijras of the processual nature of identity construction. Hijras often make strategic identifications that benefit them as individuals or as a collective, identifying their caste, religion, or gender as different in varying situations (both temporal and spatial). In addition, they deliberately create ambiguity around different facets of their identities, failing to correct non-hijras identifications of themselves as belonging to a particular gender, caste, or religion. Located outside of traditional networks of belonging (religious, kin, and caste networks), hijras are seemingly less bound within strict, mutually exclusive categories, allowing for more flexible identification with multiple subject positions. Hijras appear to acknowledge the processual and iterative features of identity construction, aware of the failure of categories to contain or represent hijra subjectivity in its totality and in turn, the failure of subjectivity itself. In this way, hijras’ own identities are bound up with an ongoing process of failure, informing and complicating representational processes associated with queer, and indeed all, identities. Analysing hijra identity thus provides an avenue for the potential ways in which the radicality of the term “queer” can be retained, by considering the preservation of heterogeneous identifications and notions of failure within any particular identification. Maintaining the radicality of “queer” is significant, in order to complexify its use as an identity category and as an identifiable subject for rights-based discourses and to problematize representational practices more generally.

Representation is inherently contradictory, serving on the one hand to secure benefits for “queer” subjects, and on the other to render invisible heterogeneous forms of “minority sexualities,” such as various forms of hijra identity, in contemporary India. It is crucial to rethink ways of representation that allow for inclusivity and heterogeneity, rather than homogeneity and the closing down of difference. Appreciating the multiple and complex ways in which subjects are configured, the possibility of unintelligible subjectivities, and the constant limitations of pre-determined modes of intelligibility are necessary, in order to maintain heterogeneity within public discourses and state mechanisms that demand simplification. Approaches being developed through conversations between queer studies and studies of religion, gender, and sexuality in India shape the theorisation of the normative “queer” subject of academic study and representation should be a significant issue in such discussions, as part of the move towards identifying “minority” sexualities and focusing on rights and strategies to benefit such subjects. The gaps between the normative “queer” subject—the metropolitan, socially affluent, English speaking subject—and the wider range of apparently “queer” subjectivities represented as part of the wider “LGBT” collective in India—the rural, poor, regionally different subject—suggest that greater care and reflexivity must be shown in addressing positionality and the language of self-identification, in order to engage more fully with the envisioned “queer” subject: the subject whose limits, actions, and presence cannot be known, or be recognisable, in advance.

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  1. Hakan Seckinelgin, “Global activism and sexualities in the time of HIV/AIDS”. Contemporary Politics 15: 1 (2009): 103-118, 109. [Return to text]
  2. Ratna Kapur, “Out of the Colonial Closet, But Still Thinking ‘Inside the Box’: Regulating ‘Perversion’ and the Role of Tolerance in De-radicalising the Rights Claims of Sexual Subalterns,” NUJS Law Review 2: 3 (July-September 2009): 381-396, 384. [Return to text]
  3. James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998). [Return to text]
  4. Ibid., 313, 340. [Return to text]
  5. Ibid., 81-2. [Return to text]
  6. Ibid., 83. [Return to text]
  7. Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture, (Abingdon: Routledge, 1994), 1-2. [Return to text]
  8. Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2. [Return to text]
  9. Ibid., 11, 23. [Return to text]