Two criticisms of contemporary leftist social and political theory reoccur. The first condemns the current obsession with identity politics and recognition, arguing that such a focus has merely lead to fragmentation, disorientation and a loss of solidarity (even while admitting that the left's earlier, uniform focus on class may have masked important differences of 'race', sexuality and gender). The second, (though related to the first) denounces political theory as moving further and further away from 'real world' material concerns of the impact of oppression and inequality on the land, homes, and bodies of the marginalized. Textual deconstruction may destabilize logocentrism in the academy, but it hardly has an immediate material impact on the lives of those struggling with injustice.
In The Empire of Love, anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli demonstrates that critical political philosophies of the present need not remain mired in these two problems. Instead, Povinelli shows (1) the interconnectedness of struggles as seemingly disparate as those of American gays and Austrialian indigenous peoples, without making such interconnection mere superstructure to a single, base productive variable such as economics, and (2) that these struggles affect the physical embodied reality of both groups, as well as the author herself. Empire is material, but materiality is not only about economic relations; it is about the governance of flesh as well -- how bodies move, where they can be, how long they will live. Likewise, anti-imperial struggle does not merely consist in recasting texts and theories in a new light but also involves practices of living differently. In other words, Ponvinelli brings (post)colonial theory back to the level of the visceral, the physical, the sometimes gruesome.
At the heart of The Empire of Love is a Foucaultian-inspired study of how colonial practices in liberal settler societies such as Australia, Canada and the United States have fundamentally depended on a certain conception of the intimate self. Central to colonial governance has been the claim that subaltern peoples have not (or cannot) manage the balancing act between demands for individual autonomy and social bondage. The result is that such peoples get caught between the binary divide of what Povinelli terms 'autological' (individual freedom) and 'genealogical' (social constraint) imaginaries. The precise intersection of these two fields produces localized 'intimate events.' While keeping her eye on the intimate events at the intersection of these binaries (rather than the binary constructs themselves), Povinelli also usefully distinguishes between corporeality and carnality, allowing for a grounding in the material. Corporeality is a social product, "a juridical and political maneuver". Carnality, by contrast, is "flesh as a physical mattering forth of these maneuvers... In other words, the flesh may be an effect of these discourses but it is not reducible to them." (7) The ethical norms about the governance of love, sociality and the body that flow from these binary concepts and the intimate events they produce on carnal flesh circulate in liberal settler colonies and determine how life, death, rights, recognition, goods and resources are unevenly distributed across lines of ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
In order to demonstrate these theoretical points, and to sufficiently ground her work in concrete practices rather than reified concepts, Povinelli turns her attention to communities of Aborigines living on the northwest coast of Australia as well as communities of gay men living in the United States. Tracking these two communities and their counter-hegemonic practices of intimacy, kinship, social bondage and sexuality supplies the bulk of the text. Structured as a long introduction with three separate essays, the four parts of the book relate to interconnected themes but can be read independently as well.
The first essay centers around a tropical ulcer Povinelli herself developed while working with Australian indigenous peoples in 2000 and subsequently carried with her through white settler Australia, the United States and Canada. The ulcer serves as a fascinating, unconventional, and vivid point of reference for the author to unpack ideas on intimate contact and the biopolitics of (neo)colonial governance...