- The Impersonal Is PoliticalAdrienne Rich's The Dream of a Common Language, Feminism, and the Art of Biopolitics
I have come to believe … that female biology—the diffuse, intense sensuality radiating out from the clitoris, breasts, uterus, vagina; the lunar cycles of menstruation; the gestation and fruition of life which can take place in the female body—has far more radical implications than we have yet come to appreciate. Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications. The feminist vision has recoiled from female biology for these reasons; it will, I believe, come to view our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny. In order to live a fully human life we require not only control of our bodies (though control is a prerequisite); we must touch the unity and resonance of our physicality, our bond with the natural order, the corporeal ground of our intelligence.—Adrienne Rich, Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution
In her critical prose from the 1970s through the 1980s, Adrienne Rich insistently proposes women's bodies as the ground of feminist practice. As the above passage suggests, this ground is neither unequivocally good nor neutral but profoundly ambivalent, caught between the poles of emancipation and bondage. This ambivalence stems from the fact that Rich approaches the body biopolitically, understanding it not as a natural given or as a purely social construction but rather as the space where biology and society, or biology and politics, become indistinguishable. Such indistinguishability has particularly strong implications for feminism. In a social context in which women are delivered over to their bodies as if the latter were simultaneously a dead weight to be overcome and a resource to be exploited, feminist praxis necessarily entails accounting for and responding to the gap that opens up between the potentials of women's bodies and the actual forms [End Page 178] available for the exercise of those potentials, or, to be more precise, it means responding to the gap between the female body as resource for patriarchy and capitalism and the female body as power of emancipation and self-determination.
The body constitutes not only the subject of Rich's biopolitical feminism but also its object, insofar as the gap between actuality and potentiality—between the limits of sedimented forms of bodily existence ("Patriarchal thought has limited female biology to its own narrow specifications") and the surplus of possibility inhering in bodily potential ("our physicality as a resource, rather than a destiny")—implies a body to come: a future body, a body after patriarchy, a body open to experiments in living otherwise. In a well-known passage regarding creative power, Rich asserts that "if the imagination is to transcend and transform experience it has to question, to challenge, to conceive of alternatives, perhaps to the very life you are living at that moment. You have to be free to play around with the notion that day might be night, love might be hate; nothing can be too sacred for the imagination to turn into its opposite or to call experimentally by another name" ("When We Dead Awaken," 43). Poetry experiments with life; it reconfigures forms of living by renaming experience, that is, by intervening into the linguistic fabric through which we represent our bodies to ourselves and, in doing so, constitute ourselves as particular kinds of subjects. In other words, poetry is political because it redefines what a body can do, by activating the surplus of potentiality inhering in bodies as their constitutive excess.1
Rich does not reduce women's poetry to an effect of the body, but she does insist on the gendered and sexed body not only as the condition of possibility of women's poetry but also as the theater of its activities. It is in this sense that I would consider Rich a biopolitical thinker and her poetry a biopolitical art. In the contemporary humanities, the term biopolitics tends to signify power exercised over life itself. In the introduction to this issue, we contested the problematic simplicity of this definition, which elides the affirmative dimension of biopolitics. Foucault does not articulate biopolitics as a seamless system of...