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  • Exclusion as Language and the Language of Exclusion: Tracing Regimes of Gender through Linguistic Representations of the “Eunuch”
  • Shane Gannon (bio)

In the British India of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a particular figure emerged: the eunuch. Found in several Sanskrit and Pali texts that were translated into English for the express purpose of enabling British colonial governance in South Asia, this specter seemed to haunt the colonial imaginary; this apparition, largely defined by exclusion, frequented legal texts and, consequently, troubled British notions of masculinity and sexuality as well as the relationship between the two. In a context where the colonial administrators articulated a wish, often absent in practice, to rule peoples identified as “Oriental” through their own laws and thus to position themselves against the imagined despotism of the previous rulers, they needed to understand what these local legal codes were. As part of this project, several translators rendered books that the British conceived of as important to the task at hand into English. Through this process, this monstrous—a term many colonial writers used to designate what characterized any unnatural creature—spectacle materialized and haunted the literature.

This article explores the literary figure of the “eunuch” as a symptom of the translation process. By rendering these ostensibly legally and socially significant texts into English, the translators filtered them through a framework of intelligibility that constructed this figure as a depository of social meaning. That is, the use of the word “eunuch” mapped unarticulated notions onto a legal and social topography through the process of rendering the writings into English. Conceptions of masculinity and sexuality were anchored through the process of interpreting the indigenous texts. These two ideas of masculinity and sexuality also represent larger colonial processes. For instance, by privileging particular notions of masculinity through these translations, subtle colonial ideologies were uttered, such as labeling those who did not conform to particular modes of masculinity—forms determined by British [End Page 1] masculine ideals—as weak, cowardly, and unable to rule. Similarly, those who deviated from particular standards for sexual behavior were deemed to be immoral, licentious, and—insofar as they deviated from the predominant two-sex model valued in Europe—socially deviant and abhorrent. Moreover, these understandings were imposed onto the imperial milieu through legislation.

Thus, the rendering of the various Sanskrit and Pali terms as “eunuch” is not simply an exercise in literary curiosity but also has significant historical consequences. First, the category of “eunuch” emerged as a social group that ostensibly predated the arrival of the British in South Asia and, therefore, served as a site that represented indigeneity. Its representation was a loaded one, containing associations with conceptions of colonial masculinity, sexuality, and the plethora of meanings attached to these attributes. This sort of figure has served as evidence for the historic existence of the hijra—complete with origins for their contemporary sexual representation—in the works of many scholars.1 Yet the social groups that fell under the rubric of “eunuch” were diverse and complicated: priests of the goddesses Bahuchara and Huligamma, hermaphrodites, castrated men who served in the royal courts and zenana (harems) of the houses of wealth in India, those whom the colonial writers identified as mukhanna (effeminates), as well as other various castes and social groups.2 Thus, social diversity in the South Asian context was compressed, if not collapsed, with the “discovery” of the literary figure of the eunuch. In other words, the translators reduced a complicated and diverse social group to a single one: that of the eunuch. Those thought to be part of this group, considered at the time to have been deficient males and often referred to in the recent scholarly literature as a “third gender,” were not men or women but are thought to be a varied and historically real group that crossed sexual, gender, and even biological categories.3 [End Page 2]

Second, not only did such a translation construct a category of personhood, but it also defined this figure under the governing gaze of law: the constructed entity was defined by its legal sanction. Since eunuchs were defined mostly in terms of exclusion, their treatment as a legal category was based on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1535-3605
Print ISSN
1043-4070
Pages
pp. 1-27
Launched on MUSE
2010-12-26
Open Access
No
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