CM Roundtable VI on Indian Sex Life

Posted by sepoy on May 05, 2020 · 60 mins read

For the sixth issue of CM Roundtable (CMRT), we are delighted to host a conversation on Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought. The CMRT is a series that presents multiple, in-depth reviews of an exciting new book. We thank each of our distinguished panelists for engaging in this public dialogue. You can also download the Roundtable as an e-book.

ISL cover

Table of Contents

Sexuality, Objectification, Social World

Kelvin Ng is a graduate student in Yale’s History Department focusing on the history of imperialism and anti-imperialism in the early-twentieth-century Indian Ocean circuit. ⤴ TOC

In the original 1949 publication of The Elementary Structures of Kinship, long considered a foundational text in structuralist anthropology, Claude Lévi-Strauss maintains that the prohibition against incest, manifest in the exchange of women as an expression of the principle of reciprocity, forms the founding condition for culture as such, functioning as a culturally invariant “elementary structure” of social life. China and India, in particular, were of conceptual import to Lévi-Strauss’s formulation of restricted and generalized exchanges, both marking the exterior limits of transformations in the original structure of reciprocity: the former typifies the coexistence of restricted exchange among the peasantry and generalized exchange in the aristocracy, whereas the latter undergoes a dual transformation from generalized exchange toward hypergamy among the higher castes and toward restricted exchange among the lower castes.

It was this traffic in women, as Gayle Rubin cogently argues in her pioneering 1975 essay, that underpinned Lévi-Strauss’s theories of universal structures, forming the central premise of modern social scientific understandings of social relations. More radically, as Butler suggests in Undoing Gender, forms of gendered difference were now enshrined as the very condition for elementary exchange, signification, and communicability itself: “Suddenly, [women] were fundamental. Suddenly, no human science could proceed without us.”1 Lévi-Strauss’s anthropological writings, in that regard, was both agent and artifact within a genealogy of modern social thought across diverse disciplinary fields—philology, sociology, ethnography, political economy—whose structuralist legacy remains keenly felt across several schools of postwar continental philosophy: the Symbolic in Lacanian psychoanalysis, structure and sign in Derridean deconstruction, as well as the French feminist theory of Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, and Luce Irigaray.

In the preface to the second edition of Elementary Structures, published in 1966, one however finds Lévi-Strauss’s open acknowledgment that his structuralist account of universal kinship was reliant on insufficient and secondary sources on China and India, whose social, historical and cultural contexts was that which “a cursory comparative approach cannot fully grasp.” In that regard, many scholars of differing disciplinary provenances, in refuting the implicit Eurocentrism of canonical social theory, have attempted to demonstrate the great variability, contingency, and transformability of laws, norms and structures across cultures. Certainly, as Anjali Arondekar observes, the historiography of sexuality in the context of South Asia has dwelled within the hermeneutical forms of loss, recuperation, and historical recovery; historical observations about the colonial construction of social categories (prostitution, polygamy, sodomy, unnatural sex) implicitly lapse into normative arguments about cultural alterity (the hijra, the devadasi, the tawa’if) in the anthropological sense. While not without its political exigencies, this particular postcolonial critique nonetheless poses a pressing question: why does the critique of the history of colonial violence and the foundational ethnocentrism of Western thought remain reliant on the exclusion of the non-West from modern intellectual history, as both the epistemological limit and ontological other of European reason?

Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton UP, 2020), in kind, inaugurates an altogether different set of methodological and historiographical questions. Endeavoring to historicize the colonial origins of modern social science, Mitra argues that the seemingly objective practices, methods and categories of thought—both formal (sexual taxonomies, social customs, caste difference, civilizational development) and functional (positivist empiricism, ethnographic observation, aggregation and comparison)—were instead essential to the objectification of the social world they purported to describe. In constructing an “intellectual history of sexuality in the making of new modes of social analysis,” Mitra traces the foundational and pervasive role of deviant female sexuality in the formation of new practices of knowledge productive of the social as such—both in a qualified sense with reference to “Indian society,” but with broader transnational implications for modern social thought writ large—as an immanently knowable object.

A project of such theoretical gravity necessarily demands a radical rethinking of the conditions of historical knowledge altogether: what appears to us as the pre-given realm of the social (and, concomitantly, its naturalized subjects), following Mitra, is itself borne out of laborious processes of objectification, description, classification and translation, produced and deployed at a certain historical moment. Here, the production of the prostitute as a social fact across diverse fields of social thought—an endeavor dependent on establishing categorical equivalence between particular cultural practices within universalist scientific schemes of civilizational progress—is accomplished through the work of translation, both as the linguistic rendering of scientific terminology between English, Bengali, Hindi and German, as well as the broader transmutation of new conceptual formations across geographies.

Mitra’s productive staging of these seemingly disparate archival and theoretical formations—the ethnographic and philological writings of John McLennan, Max Müller, Lewis Henry Morgan and Henry Maine on one hand, and the medical and sociological works of Gyanendrakumar Maitra, Santosh Kumar Mukherji, Nripendra Kumar Basu and S.N. Sinha on the other—recalls Gayatri Spivak’s injunction to “to approach the language of the other not only as a ‘field language,’” or as “objects of cultural study by the sanctioned ignorance of the metropolitan migrant,” but as the “irreducible work of translation.”2

Indeed, scholars of colonized spaces—especially of subaltern groups and silenced histories—have long debated the “applicability” of European thought and philosophy on supposedly local realities, and whether the incorporation of these spaces into the universal purview and pretensions of social theory may reinstate a colonizing epistemology; one might recall here the “mode of production” debates around Marx’s applicability to capital-labor relations in colonial India, the Subaltern School’s famous rejoinders to Gramsci’s notion of hegemony or Foucault’s account of power, or—most germanely—questions around whether U.S. queer theory as a counterhegemonic traveling formation is commensurable with different locations, archives and histories.

Yet, as scholars of transnational history have insisted, such histories are often more entangled than not. Mitra’s monograph resists the historiographical tendency to sequester (supposedly universal) social theory from (supposedly local) social history as analytically separate issues, instead arguing that the emergence of social thought has material and colonial origins, as well as index transnational and multilingual epistemologies. The emergence of social theory is itself inextricably embedded within a social history of colonized subjects, many of whom attempted to establish a range of institutional and ideational structures around the study of society. Mitra’s work, ultimately, poses the question: what forms of intellectual history, critical inquiry, and ethical work may emerge, not simply when the category of the universal (i.e. Western thought) is expanded and revised by the particular (i.e. local histories), but more importantly—to slightly stretch Marx’s method of rising from the abstract to the concrete—when concrete social forms (the “lived contours of social life”) and conceptual abstractions (the “cold hands of social science”) are dialectically read as mutually constitutive historical tendencies and countertendencies?3

Most importantly, Mitra’s monograph urgently prompts a critical archival hermeneutics that renders visible the material structures of intellectual life. A number of stellar article- and monograph-length studies of sexuality and colonialism, in recent years, have turned to the archives of legal regulation and state policing in order to recover the prostitute (as well as other marginalized sexual subjects, such as the sodomite, the hijra or the tawa’if) as social actors embedded within certain reified realms (law, commerce, religion). The political stakes inherent in these analytic strategies of recuperation seem immediately apparent: those who were hitherto considered as objects of colonial discipline are recast as subaltern subjects with agential capacity, hidden transcripts or subversive politics. Yet, these accounts, in implicitly accepting the sociological typologies of their archives at face value, read the social lives of these historical subjects as always-already enunciated within the register of subalterneity, ineluctably instilling the arkhé of the colonial archive as originary, sovereign, and authoritative.

Mitra’s methodological approach to conceptual history, on the other hand, takes seriously the function of the archive as authority-making (rather than solely authoritative); in other words, the very definitional fluidity of the prostitute remains an epistemological problematic that necessitates historicization. Mitra’s use of conceptual history, here, builds on both Foucault’s method of genealogy (in “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History” and The Order of Things) as well as Reinhart Koselleck’s use of Begriffsgeschichte to read the sociohistorical life of concepts (Futures Past); indeed, it bears noting that despite the now-requisite (and yet mostly cursory) citations of Foucault in most recent studies of sexuality, Mitra remains among the few scholars who take seriously the anti-foundationalism central to Foucault’s genealogical inquiry.4 What this opens up, in terms of analytic possibilities, is a far more capacious engagement with the conceptual history of the prostitute within social life. It is precisely in disentangling the figure of the prostitute from the conventional archival register of sex work, public health or colonial law—and reading the performativity of the Contagious Diseases Acts beyond its self-representation as a bounded archive of sexual commerce or health regulation—that one might begin to engage with varied forms of social life replete with ambiguities, multiplicities and contradictions.

Mitra’s engagement with the figure of the prostitute, here, is of particular conceptual import for historians of sexuality more generally, not least because the category of the prostitute has been endlessly trafficked as a concept-metaphor across multiple sites and spaces of empire: in my own research on sodomy and unnatural vice in British Malaya, for instance, forms of homosocial intimacy and association embodied by Chinese male migrants became invariably narrated in the register of “male prostitution”–with the 1924 report of the Singapore Venereal Diseases Committee explicitly regarding sodomy not as an “alternative” to prostitution but a “sequel” to it–testifying to the resilience and fluidity of the figure of the prostitute in colonial knowledge writ large.5 Indeed, with a view toward the modularity and reproducibility of colonial forms (or what Thomas R. Metcalf terms “imperial connections” emanating outward of British India toward the Straits Settlements, Mandatory Iraq, and British East Africa), Mitra’s work provides the productive starting point for further scholarship on how disciplinary ideas of female sexual deviance came to be transmuted, translated, refined or reproduced in a transoceanic republic of letters encompassing indentured laborers, émigré nationalists, left internationalists, and religious reformers.

More fundamentally, Mitra’s critical hermeneutics prompt a series of important methodological questions: what are the epistemic and material conditions enabling the “prostitute,” the “sodomite,” the “hijra”–or, to engage in a historical account of the present, the “homosexual,” the “gay” subject, the “queer” subject, the “trans” subject—to emerge as subjects in the archive as such? What is the discursive field within which these subjects are made immanently knowable and conceptually productive? How were such figures translated and trafficked as concept-metaphors and as distinct objects, and what kinds of social and political claims do they enable? Instead of subsuming the archive and its archived subjects into our conceptual taxonomies, classificatory regimes, and historiographical narratives–to make legible, for instance, forms of sexual desire embodied by indentured Chinese miners in the Witwatersrand, Muslim courtesans in Lucknow, and early British feminists in Victorian Southhampton and Plymouth as a particular type of historical subjectivity indexed by the “prostitute”–Mitra’s conceptual history opens up precisely the possibilities of multiple, overlapping, and contradictory desires rather than foreclosing them. Back to the Table of Contents⤴

Desire, Temporality, Historiography

Tara Suri is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Princeton working on the socio-legal life of the rhesus macaque as a particular biomedical commodity exported from South Asia over the twentieth century. ⤴ TOC

At one point in Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, Partha Chatterjee elaborates Gandhi’s critique of civil society via an example from Hind Swaraj:6

Parliament, for instance, he calls ‘a sterile woman and a prostitute,’ the first because, despite being a sovereign institution, it cannot enact a law according to its own judgment but is constantly swayed by outside pressures, and the second because it continually shifts its allegiance from one set of ministers to another depending on which is more powerful.

As I read and reread Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life over the fall, I kept thinking of this moment in Chatterjee’s field-transforming history of anti-colonial thought. Ajay Skaria and Ashwini Tambe have insightfully explored how Gandhi’s engagement with prostitution marks out one of the limits in his vision for national sovereignty.7 Mitra’s transnational history of sexual sciences in India points to the epistemic conditions underpinning that engagement, to the emergent forms of knowledge production whereby women’s sexuality became conceptually naturalized for working through the “moment of maneuver.” I see Indian Sex Life as a returning to, and an opening up of, the question immanent to Chatterjee’s text: how the specter of deviant female sexuality suffused both the problematic and the thematic of the colonial world.

In the face of the avowed newness of global intellectual history, Mitra’s exploration of this question insists on the contributions of postcolonial studies and Gender and Sexuality studies. Mitra asks how focusing on the concept history of deviant female sexuality in India unsettles methodological assumptions structuring these fields, especially histories of sexuality. Mitra makes these interventions by first foregrounding the hermeneutic preoccupations in the field–particularly, the tension between the desire to assert archival presence and the recognition of the epistemic limits structuring archival knowledge itself. While scholars like Mary John and Janaki Nair have long called for analyses that refuse presumptions of a “conspiracy of silence” and consider the will-to-knowledge around sexuality in India, the tension remains.8 Anjali Arondekar frames the agonistic relationship between acknowledgments of hermeneutic impossibility and continued longing for recovering presence-from-absence as the “theoretical form” of “archival desire.”9

Taking up Arondekar’s interventions in Indian Sex Life, Mitra explicitly turns away from dwelling on absence towards charting excess. The move focuses her analysis on the generative power of concepts and processes that have named and marginalized forms of sexual practice as “deviant.” The move enables her to consider the various disciplinary forms deploying notions of deviant female sexuality–government surveys, philological inquiries, autopsy reports, Bengali sexological tracts–as productive of modern social thought. Widening the ambit of social theory reasserts the place of postcolonial feminist scholarship–and its attention to investments in sexuality as a site of the governance of racial, caste, and religious difference–in the history of ideas. By showing how these texts apprehended social life through an overdetermination of the prostitute, Mitra shows how the prostitute has emerged as a subject of feminist historical inquiry. I understand Mitra’s efforts to trace the colonial “desire to discover the true reality of the prostitute and emplot her in time…” as also gesturing at the contours of historiographical desire.10

For me, tracing this desire to emplot-in-time draws together analytic engagements with temporality across studies of sexuality and South Asia. Queer theorists have been attentive to the hegemonic orderings of time that produce the abjection and backwardness of those who do not conform to its heteronormative logics. Their focus resonates with, and sometimes draws on, the preoccupation with temporality that emerged from subaltern studies critiques of modernization theory and Marxist mode-of-transition narratives. Scholars of South Asia have elaborated how the temporal positioning of native society was a key feature of colonial rule. Geeta Patel has in turn critiqued the tendency to search for alternate temporalities as evidence of resistance. In Indian Sex Life, Mitra’s genealogy of the desire to emplot-in-time presents deviant female sexuality not as a natural site of alterity but as a normativizing temporal concept.

Mitra demonstrates how European and elite Bengali social analysts converged and diverged in translating deviant female sexuality into an index of “Indian social lag.”11 The analysis of women’s sexuality became a way to rationalize colonial and upper-caste Hindu male social visions through historical time. It became a way to narrativize Mughal rule as a period of “degradation.”12 It naturalized caste as marking evolutionary distinctions in sexual behavior. It pathologized abortion as an effect of backward social structures. It rendered sexual difference as a temporal difference in the capacity to manage “primitive instinct.”13 It idealized a future nation of upper-caste conjugal monogamy that would contain women’s promiscuity.

Mitra’s focus on disciplinary form draws out the complex workings of time through which deviant female sexuality cohered as concept. Chapter titles indicate the different kinds of temporal reasoning at play in the quest to know Indian society through the “epistemological horizon” of the prostitute.14 And Mitra’s analysis makes the reader “confront the mood and feeling” of such reasoning.15 We follow the philological turn to ancient origins, the repetitive accumulation of description in bureaucratic files, the looping logics guiding the dissection of bodies for evidence, and the concern with lineage in theorizing societies’ sexual development. It was through these forms, we see, that notions of Indian deviant female sexuality generated material force and became embedded in the temporal ordering of the imperial world.

The book’s attention to the relationship between sexuality, empire, and temporality has implications for conceptualizing power and normativity across literatures. On the one hand, strands of queer theory have been critiqued for historically neglecting how the temporalities of western (white) subject-formation are linked into the globally-stratified management of populations marked by race, caste, gender, and religion. On the other, studies of how colonial governmentality operated through the temporalized management of populations sometimes risk neglecting what Foucault identified as the juncture between body and population: the imaginary point of sex.

The postcolonial feminist historiography has engaged the interstices of such approaches and anticipated their future directions, with texts like Mrinalini Sinha’s Colonial Masculinity analyzing the production of masculine subjectivities to theorize the structure of the “imperial social formation.” Indian Sex Life builds on this tradition in accounting for the normative temporal force of deviant female sexuality. Mitra’s analysis of “epistemic doubling,” whereby Indian women’s sexuality was at once crucial to comprehending the backwardness of the colonial world and also to developing stagist models of universal human development, is in itself a double move.16 It re-centers the role of knowledge production about sexuality in the making of colonial governance. Simultaneously by demonstrating the transnational reach of the idea of deviant Indian female sexuality in knowledge production, it centers colonial India in the history of sexuality.

This centering has methodological implications that involve and exceed the important work of connecting different regimes of knowledge production. As Mitra profoundly argues, the transnational history of the concept of deviant female sexuality provincializes accounts of the “heterosexual/homosexual definition as the singular motor that drives the making of modern sexuality.”17 Throughout the text, the reader sees how universalizing this binary as historical motor occludes other concepts that structure the time of modern sexuality. Mitra shows in contrast how “the prostitute is the critical site in the articulation of deviance and the normalization of heterosexual monogamy in colonial South Asia.”18 This argument refuses to offer up South Asia, as Arondekar and Patel have put it, as “spatial fodder for the queer mill.”19 Rather, Mitra demands that we rethink where and how we read for histories of normativity.

Twenty five years ago, Ann Stoler asked whether Foucault’s strategic unities could even “exist … without a racially erotic counterpoint.”20 Mitra now asks us to consider how different forms of social theory became possible through the concept of deviant Indian female sexuality. What histories and connections in turn become possible through Mitra’s own theorization? What might it mean, for instance, for histories of American family law to place their engagement with Maine’s pronouncement that societies progress from ‘status to contract’ alongside his milieu’s deployment of Indian sexuality as “key empirical referent”? Conversely, how might the conceptual work of gender and sexuality be foregrounded in the historiography of liberalism and empire? And how might considering the conceptual trajectories of deviant Indian female sexuality reframe understanding of Foucault’s appeal to a non-western ars erotica? What other normative orderings of time and space become visible when histories of sexuality are disaggregated from histories of the hetero/homo binary? These are just a few of the questions that Indian Sex Life inspires.

Back to the Table of Contents

Disciplines, Men, Colonial Episteme

Dr. Charu Singh is the Adrian Research Fellow in the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge University working on the critical genealogy of the “scientific temper” in twentieth-century South Asia. ⤴ TOC

Indian Sex Life is a difficult, challenging, and vitally important text. The book demands a collective intellection, a bringing together of our intellectual resources about themes and historiographies as varied and wide-ranging as sex, sexuality, desire, caste, communalism, sati, abortion, law, progress, philology, positivism, Indology, forensics, medical jurisprudence, ethnology, evolutionary theories, taxonomy, legal surveys and questionnaires, textual compilation and translation, etymology, and the comparative method. This unruly list indicates the exceptional reach of the sciences of society that Durba Mitra studies, which is closely reflected in the extraordinary ambition of her book.

The book urges an urgent renewal of our archival hermeneutics through a “different practice of reading” across “transnational, multilingual epistemologies.”21 Reading Indian Sex Life demands precisely such a practice of reading and writing intellectual history. The book demands of its reader an openness to a transversal reading across archives of philology, legal sociology, forensic science, medical jurisprudence, ethnology, and popular literature such as the kind Mitra undertakes in each chapter. In most historiographies–and especially in the history of science–each of these chapters would probably form individual monographs. The book resists easy closures to how modern forms of knowledge declare themselves and their constitutencies.

Indian Sex Life is an unlikely, experimental genre in writing intellectual histories of modern South Asia. It is not social history, nor a history of science. It rests on both these well established genres of history and transcends them to offer a concept history and a history of epistemology. The book also demands a different kind of reading because of the rigorous separation between text and citational apparatus. As much intellectual work happens in the endnotes as in the main body of text. Readers interested in the book’s own formidable intellectual genealogy will find themselves roving between text and citation with some regularity. (They will also wish hopelessly against the publishing standards of the day that the South Asian edition uses footnotes!)

The book’s signal contribution to the history of sex and sexuality will of course make it a landmark text. I offer a reading at a slightly different slant. In the complex, contingent and dependent origins of the ‘social’ and the ‘prostitute’ that Mitra lays out, what lessons are there for historical method in the history of science in South Asia? My contribution to this collective reading that the book so richly deserves is posed as a few questions that all its readers may want to stay with: In this text, what is the colonial episteme, and what is the place of the sciences within it? What are the genealogies through which concepts like the ‘prostitute’ emerge in this episteme and what methods can be used to track them? And finally, what is the authority of science, and “scientism” in this book?

To sketch out the importance of these questions in the following discussion, I will focus on the first chapter (“Origins”) and Mitra’s analysis of philology with attention to how she construes this science and its colonial career. To most readers of Indian Sex Life, this may seem like an unlikely focal point, but my aim is to draw out the significance of Mitra’s own description of her project: “Across these texts,” she says, “one finds the history of an emerging civil society in a colonised space–an epistemic history embedded in a social history of colonised men who sought to study society through a range of emerging disciplines.”22 This attention to what the disciplines become in the hands of colonised men is exemplary. It helps us chart the ‘origins’ and specific circulations of ‘social science’ concepts like the ‘social’, ‘religion’, ‘science’ and the ‘natural’–which historians regularly take for granted. Equally, in linking the ‘philology of sex’ at every stage to (social) science, Mitra poses the analytical challenge of interrogating philology’s history but also the history of ‘aspirations to science’ and even ‘scientism’, as equal parts of this project.

So, what is the colonial episteme and what is the work that it does in Indian Sex Life? Mitra initially follows Ronald Inden’s description of the foundation of a colonial episteme through the “epistemological procedures” of the Indological study of Hinduism. In this argument, Indology selected and canonised a set of ancient Hindu texts that produced a timeless essence of Hindu society. Such texts came to be regarded as exemplary and essential to any study of India, past or present. The colonial episteme for Mitra is thus marked by such “widely influential interpretative practice”, but it is crucially also where the intersection of philology and scientistic interpretation at the site of ancient Sanskrit texts created “exclusionary models for Indian social futures.”23 The origin of the concept of the prostitute is charted in its formulation as ancient female sexuality, as it was compared with other ancient sexualities, equated with modern forms of scientific knowing, translated from multilingual terms, and mapped onto primitive sexuality within universalised schemas of social evolution. These varied movements and consolidations of the concept within the colonial episteme is crucial to the analysis in the following chapters.

Philology is studied in a novel way here, and revealed to perform foundational work within the colonial episteme. Conceptual equivalences are created through a range of strategies–by equating concepts across texts, through comparison, and by producing analogies, lists, taxonomies and typologies. Historians of science may give pause, for in the history of specific disciplines some of these moves equal anachronisms, but here, such philological work gives access to the epistemic history embedded in the social history of colonised social analysts. The “colonial episteme” allows us to see that the philology of sex operated in systematic and unsystematic ways. Its workings are most clear in the final case addressed in the chapter.

The polyglot émigré and prolific writer Chandra Chakraberty (b.1881, active 1910-1970) used a combination of “medical and physiological terminology, explanatory modeling from physics and biology, detailed comparative philology, and narratives of social evolution based in ethnology and race science.”^[Ibid., 59] Mitra argues that the claim to scientific authority and expertise was made in a way that “his narratives seem to devolve into a kind of free association, where biological sciences, physics, anthropological terminology, sexual sciences, and ancient Sanskrit and comparative philological categories all blend together.”24 By the early twentieth century, this appeared to be a widespread interpretative and narrative strategy in the works of a transnational network of Bengali public intellectuals, doctors, and social scientists. Mitra argues that it was a practice of reading/writing that seemed prevalent enough to “no longer seem so piecemeal or aspirational in its claims to science.”25 The work of the colonial episteme is evident in the ‘science’ and scientism in such social analysis, and the long shadows of this episteme well into our times.

In closing, I want to draw attention to an aspect of Indian Sex Life that might fall out of view in so rich, complex, and multilayered a text. Mitra describes her method as “multilingual source reading”, motivated by the desire to write “histories of transnational, multilingual epistemologies” and to “shift focus away from solely the colonizer’s understanding.”26 Contrary to the current moment in South Asian historiography, nowhere is there a mention of the “vernacular.” My sense is that the decision to use ‘Bengali-language’ in its stead is not an accidental omission but a reflexive choice. What might such a choice offer for an epistemic history? In my reading, such avoidance of a presumed vernacular/English dichotomy does not reproduce even implicit epistemic hierarchies. It may also offer a better approach to global history which otherwise instantiates precisely such hierarchies. Is to do epistemic history then, to relentlessly question how language, concept and episteme fundamentally relate in South Asia?

Back to the Table of Contents⤴

Figure That Has Haunted

Dr. Malini Sur is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University working on agrarian borders, urban space and environment in South Asia. ⤴ TOC

Durba Mitra’s Indian Sex Life probes the study of female sexuality showing its pivotal role in shaping historical knowledge and modern sociological enquiry in India. Combining archival depth with sociological rigor, Mitra dexterously establishes how female sexual deviance was foundational to generating social theory in British India. She meticulously traces the diverse representations of deviant female sexuality–in philological texts and criminal laws, sociological taxonomies and medical diagrams, and circulating prints and photographs. Yet, each of these treated women’s predicaments and bodies into specimens of scientific scrutiny that framed the study of sexual excess and transgressions. While women’s sexuality relegated societies to a primitive past, its control and regulation signalled a developmental pathway towards the future.

In the early part of the book, Mitra shows how a Hindu sexual science for Indian society was required for maintaining social order and family and kinship structures. This arena came to be constituted entirely by male philologists and public intellectuals. Where philology redefined women’s sexuality through marriage and prostitution, as the primary terrain for establishing political authority, Criminal law reinforced social categories to enable and justify colonial interventions into Indian social life. British administrators and Bengali male intellectuals in the 19th and 20th century ensured that such women were the markers of a temporal and civilizational index.

The prostitute framed specific social and penal horizons; the British colonial state assumed that if only it could decode the prostitute, administrators could would gain deep insights into Indian society. Produced as a social fact, the repetitive invocation for the prostitute by colonial administrators including judges and doctors served to flatten diverse social and sexual practices prevalent in British India. By the 20th century, the prostitute framed the sociology of the city–the city of Calcutta–a thriving port city by then, probably tainted and dubious like other port cities. In this city, the prostitute–primarily narrated through the male testimony came to shape discourses about the widely prevailing Hindu polygamy. Mitra counter-narrates so called “autobiographies” written by the women, showing how in intending to expose social hypocrisy these books normalized exclusion in ways that reasserted patriarchal monogamy.

It was after all the ubiquity and recurrence of the figure of the prostitute in the old files in archives–across South Asia, United Kingdom and the United States–that inspired Durba to trace a genealogy of Indian social thought. This book is a powerful narration of how prostitution as a concept and the diverse practices that such figures came to embody drove the rigours of intellectual life and penal reform in the colony. In provocatively asking why exhaustive and repetitive details of women lives and violent deaths came to be narrated in the archive, she shows how experts aggressively reclaimed these women’s lives, and deaths, for their own purposes. Combining circulatory reason with a speculative sociology of Indian sexuality, specialists mapped and remapped women’s anatomies to feed into social typologies; they they once again read these typologies back into women’s anatomy.

In the rapidly changing colony of British India, women’s lives and predicaments were uneven. And so were their location as criminal and indentured subjects. For instance, as Mitra establishes, debates about abortion in India were vastly different from the 19th century Christian discourses on the sacredness of life prevalent in Western Europe and America. In British India, discourses about abortion were driven criminal law that foregrounded abortion as an Indian perversion that resulted from social custom and sexual practices that transgressed the bounds of monogamous marriage. No less problematic was the female indentured labourer. By linking laborious migration of the indenture system as a humanitarian response that would save women from both sexual shame and caste exclusion within their own communities, British officials marked the system of women’s indenture as freedom. Ultimately, the sentencing mandates for women convicted of crimes of abortion and infanticide pushed them towards long journeys cramped in the underbelly of ships, moving from one colony to another–from one location of bodily bondage to another set of complex governmentalities.

The themes that this book raises through the subject of the transgressive female subject has haunted colonial imaginations of the unruly and uncivilized native. This imagination transcends the Indian subcontinent. Registers of female subversion connects the dots across colonial and settler geographies precisely during the 19th and the 20th centuries that Mitra so powerfully unravels. In Australia–where I currently teach and write–the body of the female convict shipped from Britain (incarcerated for stealing a few sholas of hay and grain and sometimes for prostitution) contributed indentured labour to build the colony. These women’s labour, bodies and sexuality were transformed into a site of complex negotiations on morality and law.

In the city of Parramatta, in Sydney’s western region where Western Sydney University is situated, old settler architectures intersperse the newly built environment of an emergent business district. Parramatta’s sandstone and brick enclaves–the female factory, the orphan school and the prison–bear testimony to the complex lives and labors of women convicts as workers, servants and farmhands, and their location as political subjects who moved between the registers of repulsion and citizenship. They are figures that haunt colonial and post-imaginations of sexuality, race, property and migration.

I carry books that inspire me to class. I often read out passages from them. Sometimes the students are silent, but as we progress, they break into spontaneous and lively discussions. A good book, such as this one with a tactile ochre cover will exchange many hands. It will excite students to think about a region they are not familiar with. It will encourage them to think across disciplines and time. It will help them to travel to unknown places. It will most definitely provoke new discussions on old topics.

Mitra has written a book where people and places leap out from the pages of history. Her writing has inspired me to rethink the history of Calcutta where I was born and raised; it has also stimulated me to re-read the complex racial and moral landscape that women convicts navigated in Australia.

The questions that Mitra’s book raises and brilliantly answers will stand the test of time. The themes that she compellingly explores will haunt our imaginations of the present. Female bodies and sexualities stand at the axis of the relationship between order/disorder, freedom/indenture and citizen/ migrant. These relationships persist in shaping the lives of impoverished women and their border-crossings. Their bodies, movements and scars–like the pages of this book–will tell us stories that are yet to come.

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A Response

Dr. Durba Mitra is Assistant Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard University, working on the history of sexuality, the history of science and epistemology, and gender and feminist thought in South Asia. ⤴ TOC

My thanks to Kelvin Ng, Tara Suri, Charu Singh, and Malini Sur for these thought-provoking engagements with my book, Indian Sex Life. I am honored to have these scholars read and think with my work. Writing this book was a lonely endeavor, as writing tends to be. I found it especially challenging to dwell in deeply violent ideas of women’s sexuality present in the source materials of this book. In my writing, I meditated on painful pasts that appeared and disappeared in a wide range of archives in order to track a history of concepts that controlled and erased Indian women’s sexuality in the service of modern social theory.

I documented the pervasive presence of a contempt for women that appeared across archives of modern social thought. These source texts, written by British colonial administrators and Indian intellectuals, are stripped of all feeling. Men abstracted the nuances and intimacies of social life in the service of a sterile language of scientific objectivity. At points, I was overwhelmed by the exclusionary logic of these foundational archives of social knowledge. Colonial administrators and Indian social analysts deployed and reimagined a repertoire of ideas in novel ways to create new models of Indian society based in the control and erasure of women. These patriarchal theories of Indian social progress, based in the control and erasure of female sexuality, continue to endure today, long after the formal end of colonialism.

To find then–on the other side of book publication–an inclusive community of readers as caring, ethical, and engaged as Ng, Suri, Singh, and Sur is remarkable. Their reflections from multidisciplinary perspectives—including transregional histories of colonialism, gender and queer studies, the history of science, and anthropology—help me clarify questions that remain in this project and inspire me to think further about how scholars might come together to reimagine the history and future of modern social thought.

I hope that Indian Sex Life will be read, as it has been by colleagues here, as a provocation and proposition: a provocation, in challenging how scholars have naturalized the subordination and the erasure of women’s sexuality in modern social theory; and a proposition, for how we might think collectively across disciplines about the project of decolonizing modern social thought rooted in the study of the colonial world. In other words, I see Indian Sex Life as one step towards creating a sustained engagement with what Charu Singh in her essay here describes as collective intellection. As I think of the book now with these scholarly reflections, I believe a collective intellection is critical in this moment for envisioning a radically different future for the study of society. In these reflective essays, I have found a set of generous, open-minded readers, and a model for thinking together in a time of profound uncertainty.

Kelvin Ng writes that the history of sexuality requires we not only question the patriarchal subordination of women, but “the conditions of historical knowledge altogether: what appears to us as the pregiven realm of the social.” Challenging how modern social theory conceptualizes “the social” necessitates new methods that develop “critical archival hermeneutics that render visible the material structures of intellectual life.” Ng lays out the reach of the argument in Indian Sex Life through a reading of the structuralist thought of Claude Levi-Strauss and feminist critiques of social theory from Gayle Rubin and Judith Butler. He reveals how modern structuralist theories of society, and influential feminist critiques that followed, built on a long tradition of colonial knowledge that used exemplars from the colonized world, and colonial India in particular, as “the epistemological limit and ontological other of European reason.”

Yet modern social theory was not solely the project of colonial administrators and European and American social theorists, but also was the basis for intellectual life and anti-colonial politics for colonized Indian men. Ng narrates how this history of the foundational place of deviant female sexuality reveals how “[t]he emergence of social theory is itself inextricably embedded within a social history of colonized subjects, many of whom attempted to establish a range of institutional and ideational structures around the study of society.”

Tara Suri asks me to think further about how the temporality of female sexuality is a critical yet vexed problem for both colonial histories of disciplinary knowledge and sexuality and queer theory, in parallel but distinct ways. These fields have both left unresolved the problem of deviant female sexuality. It is telling that these distinct fields of inquiry, the history of colonial knowledge and the history of sexuality, have been reticent to address the history and problem of the “excesses” of women’s sexuality, especially when we know that normative ideas of female sexuality pervade the archives of modern Euro-American life as well as a wide range of colonial pasts. Suri reads Indian Sex Life as a proposition that poses “deviant female sexuality not as a natural site of alterity but as a normativizing temporal concept.” This engagement with the temporal paradox of deviant female sexuality highlights how my work builds on a rich body of South Asian feminist scholarship on questions of caste domination, communal violence, and gendered power.

Suri’s essay also helps me reflect on how I continue to learn from the unique insights and methodological innovations of Black feminist scholars who center Black women’s sexuality, and the erasure of Black womanhood, in the history of the modern subject. As Suri shows, in its focus on the foundational place of female sexual deviancy in racial understandings of sexuality in the colonized world, Indian Sex Life “centers colonial India in the history of sexuality,” a history that reveals the “transnational reach of the idea of deviant Indian female sexuality in knowledge production.” Suri asks: “What other normative orderings of time and space become visible when histories of sexuality are disaggregated from histories of the hetero/homo binary?” For me, Suri’s question speaks to the urgent need for more scholarly work that foregrounds intellectual histories of women’s sexuality in the making of racism, forced labor and migration, enslavement, and colonialism.

Charu Singh suggests that Indian Sex Life defies norms in bringing together archives and disciplines that would not be traditionally read together, especially in her own field, the history of science. As she notes, “the book demands of its reader an openness to a transversal reading across archives.” Indeed, the book is purposefully transgressive in its reach across different fields of knowledge. That is because the book is not a history of one particular field of knowledge, nor is it about the objectification of women in already-constituted social science disciplines. Rather, it is a history of how ideas of deviant female sexuality, often named through the category “prostitute,” are foundational to the very making of the study of social life itself. These disciplinary transgressions betray who I am: a feminist scholar committed to interdisciplinary feminist inquiry. At the end of her essay on the foundational place of Indology in the Indian social sciences, Singh notes that “nowhere is there a mention of the ‘vernacular.’” She asks: “What might such a choice offer for an epistemic history?”

Scholarship on modern South Asian history has utilized the concept of “the vernacular” in powerful ways to write multilingual histories that account for the translation and transmutation of historiographical and scientific ideas across geographies. Particularly for the history of science, the translation of specific and formal scientific ideas across geographies and languages makes the vernacular a productive concept. The word vernacular is a seventeenth-century term etymologically rooted in the Latin term “verna,” meaning a home-born enslaved person, gendered female. In other words, it is a concept based in gendered histories of domesticity and enslavement. Using such a gendered term to describe these patriarchal social theories gave me pause. My project certainly reveals the multilingual intellectual history of the control, subordination, and erasure of female sexuality and desire in modern social thought, a history of concepts that move and transform across languages and regions. Yet it is my commitment to anti-foundational feminist and queer methods that ultimately led me to move away from the use of the term “vernacular” for the history of sexuality and modern social thought.

Finally, Malini Sur meditates on how “the transgressive female subject has haunted colonial imaginations of the unruly and uncivilized native” in the long history of the woman convict banished to Australia. I am moved by how Sur finds echoes of this history of deviant female sexuality in her lived experience in the contemporary colony of Australia. The traces of this long history of the control of women’s sexuality shapes the landscape that surrounds Sur in Sydney today, in the skeletal remains of carceral institutions, from the women’s factory, to the orphan school, to the prison. Colonial imaginaries of female sexuality form a shadow over Australia’s landscape, as institutions dedicated to the incarceration of women, the forced migration of indentured people, and the erasure of Aboriginal peoples continue to haunt everyday life.

This history of the control of female sexuality extends across geographies, from histories of indenture to South Africa, to the forced migration of women to Europe, the Malay colonies, and the Caribbean, to the exile of convict women in Australia. In Ng’s reflection, this history of sexuality and modern social thought “provides the productive starting point for further scholarship on how disciplinary ideas of female sexual deviance came to be transmuted, translated, refined or reproduced in a transoceanic republic of letters encompassing indentured laborers, émigré nationalists, left internationalists, and religious reformers.”

Taken together, these scholars think across disciplines to imagine the reach of this project across diverse geographies and fields of knowledge. I thank my colleagues for their generous engagements with Indian Sex Life and hope we continue to think together about the urgent work of collective intellection in this moment of crisis.

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  1. Judith Butler, Undoing Gender (New York: Routledge, 2004), 208. 

  2. Gayatri Spivak, Death of a Discipline (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 9; 13. 

  3. Durba Mitra, Indian Sex Life, 22. For Marx’s method of rising from the abstract to the concrete, see “The Method of Political Economy” in the Introduction to the Grundrisse. 

  4. Mitra, 216n15. 

  5. The Proposed Re-introduction of State Regulation of Vice in Singapore (and also a note concerning Hong Kong), 1924, 3AMS/D/40/01, The Women’s Library at the London School of Economics, London, United Kingdom. 

  6. Partha Chatterjee. Nationalist thought and the Colonial World: a derivative discourse (London: Zed Books, 1993), 90. 

  7. See Ajay Skaria, “Only one word, properly altered: Gandhi and the question of the prostitute.” Economic and Political Weekly Vol. 41, No. 49 (Dec. 9-15, 2006): 5065-5072, and Ashwini Tambe, “Gandhi’s ‘Fallen’ Sisters: Difference and the National Body Politic,” Social Scientist, Vol. 37, No. 1/2 (Jan. - Feb., 2009): 21-38. 

  8. Mary John and Janaki Nair. A Question of Silence? The Sexual Economies of Modern India. (London: Zed Books, 2000), 1. 

  9. Anjali Arondekar. For the record: on sexuality and the colonial archive in India. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), 6. 

  10. Durba Mitra. Indian Sex Life: Sexuality and the Colonial Origins of Modern Social Thought (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020), 18. 

  11. Ibid., 175. 

  12. Ibid., 55. 

  13. Ibid., 164. 

  14. Ibid., 67. 

  15. Ibid., 21. 

  16. Ibid., 134. 

  17. Ibid., 8. 

  18. Ibid., 218. 

  19. Anjali Arondekar, and Geeta Patel (eds.) Area Impossible: The Geopolitics of Queer Studies. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016). 155. 

  20. Ann Laura Stoler. Race and the Education of Desire: Foucault’s History of Sexuality and the Colonial Order of Things. (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 7. 

  21. Mitra, Indian Sex Life, 4, 22. 

  22. Ibid., 56, emphasis added. 

  23. Ibid., 26. 

  24. Ibid. 

  25. Ibid., 61. 

  26. ^Ibid., 22.