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  • Evolutionary Fantasy:The Sciences of Society and the Concept of the Prostitute
  • Shunyuan Zhang (bio)
Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought
Durba Mitra
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 296 pp.

Durba Mitra's skillfully crafted monograph Indian Sex Life presents the emergence and evolution of an epistemological project that tethers women's sexuality to "the development of colonial social science, claims to scientific expertise, and new social theories on the progress of Indian society" (5). From the height of British colonial rule in the mid-nineteenth century to the rapid growth of anticolonial nationalist movements in the first decades of the twentieth century, the book documents the century-long transnational knowledge production between British colonial officials and Bengali elites, the "social analysts," in Mitra's term, that mapped women's sexuality onto diverse social practices, making it an essential object of modern social analysis and key to understanding Indian society's evolution towards modern civilization. This new episteme and foundation of the sciences of modern Indian society ontologized women's sexuality as primitive and deviant so that in all the above sentences, "women's sexuality" can simply be replaced with "deviant female sexuality" outside the control of Hindu patriarchal monogamous marriage, or the "prostitute." Indian Sex Life is thus a history of the prostitute. Or rather, it is a genealogy of the concept of the prostitute, a critical exploration of its "definitional fluidity" through attending to the "performative aspects of texts" (Sedgwick [1990] 2008: 3) produced in disciplines and fields as diverse as philology, criminal law, forensic medicine, ethnology, and popular literature.

Concept history, which is "a methodological approach to source criticism" (216n15), requires a different reading strategy of the archives that asks about the categories and terms of objectification inherited from the seemingly neutral methods and practices of modern social science. Thus, the prostitute in this book is not taken as social fact or a given identity, whose voice is waiting to be recuperated. Instead, she is a concept, "a named boundary constantly in flux between legitimate forms of social relations recognized by the state in civil law and the secret realm [End Page 315] of sexual transgression outside of Hindu monogamous marriage" (77). Indian Sex Life looks at this very domain of transgression and how its classification contoured the "reorganization of normative social life around upper-caste marriage" (7), facilitating scientific justification for discrimination and violence based in gender, caste, race, religion, and conjugal behavior.

Each chapter presents one field of knowledge and the distinct performative aspect of its texts—origins, repetition, circularity, evolution, and veracity. Chapter 1 focuses on Indology and how premodern texts such as the Kamasutra were taken as originary guides for the scientific study of modern Indian social life as well as a universal science of sexuality. Chapter 2 looks at colonial legal survey reports, where the concept of the prostitute was invented, enumerated, repeated, and sedimented as a legal idea and social fact that shaped new modes of colonial governance and transformed multiple fields of knowledge, including forensic science, the focus of chapter 3. As another constitutive part of the emerging mode of social scientific description, forensic medical accounts followed a circular form of reasoning between anatomical description of women's bodies, speculative deviant typologies (e.g., Kulin Brahman polygamous wives of Bengal), criminal acts (e.g., abortion), and even the natural landscape (e.g., native tree branches), which secured an inevitable connection between criminality and deviant female sexuality. Chapter 4 presents social evolutionary theories where the concept of the prostitute and the primitive sexual instinct she was made to embody was critical to making Indian society commensurate with the universalist scheme of social evolution based in patriarchal monogamy. The final chapter turns attention to popular texts and the ways in which they consolidated the veracity of the previously presented epistemological project through first-person testimonies.

At work throughout the diverse domains of knowledge and their performative acts was a cross-disciplinary and transnational citational apparatus among European, American, and Bengali social analysts, which not only accomplished a closed circularity of reasoning that merged biased fantasy into positivism, for instance by linking Sanskrit epics to scientific...


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pp. 315-317
Launched on MUSE
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