Grammar and Knowledge of Colonized Bodies

Throughout this week’s readings, the authors all demonstrate how bodies become not only sites of contestation for broader negotiations over race, citizenship, gender, and immigration, but are also used, through their subjugation and control, to mobilize U.S. imperialist and colonialist endeavours. Power is exerted not only over bodies, but through them as well, and they become conduits of justification for a whole range of agendas. In addition, the language used to talk about bodies, as well as languages used to render bodies knowledgeable or visible, also has tremendous implications for how they are controlled and manipulated.

As shown in Erman’s article on Isabel Gonzalez, the litigation that unfurled over the physical movement of her body within the nation indicate how a body can spark larger debates of citizenship and rights, extending beyond Puerto Rico to other disenfranchised communities within the US. As Erman writes, “Gonzalez’s claim to membership in the U.S. empire-state implicated, and thus threatened to unsettle, doctrinal balances involving gender, race, and immigration” (5). Thus, her body became a place where a variety of discourses were deployed. In the case of the Briggs piece on Puerto Rico, the bodies of prostitutes “became the battleground –symbolic and real—for the meaning of the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico” and therefore “women’s bodies became a significant idiom in which colonial relations were negotiated” (51, 70).  The US’s role in incarcerating, monitoring, “sanitization”, policing, regulating, and exerting power over the bodies of women by extension provided a platform for how they handled Puerto Rico at large. For as Briggs shows, Puerto Rican bodies (sexual, social and political bodies) became symbolic of Puerto Rico at large, and the diseases that prostitution yielded was linked with the “ontological state of being Puerto Rican” (59). The “sanitization” policies of Puerto Rican prostitutes became a colonial project that helped to justify, through the control of bodies, domination within the territory.

Another key component of this week’s readings is the importance of racialized and gendered rhetoric as serving colonialist agendas, especially in the realm of controlling and depicting colonized bodies. In Rafael’s article on the surveillance and census projects conducted in the Philippines, a “grammar of classification” was used to not only align the colonized bodies as knowledgeable within a US framework, but also to create “disciplined agents actively assuming their role in their own subjugation and maturation” within the assimilation process (188). The act of simplifying identities within fixed and confined categories and forcing people to check and categorize themselves is, as Rafael shows, an act of colonialism. In doing so, identity and bodies become ahistorical and abstract, a violence both subtle and immense. The colonized subjects become objects in this process to be understood, classified, and brought to light in a manageable and data-friendly manner. Languages of science also crafted colonial health policies throughout Puerto Rico in Briggs article, where “sanitization” was justified and upheld. These scientific discourses “celebrated the arrival of the United States as a benevolent event that made Puerto Ricans healthier” (55).

In the case of the Philippines and US census reports, Rafael discusses how nationalist dramas served as a means of challenging the ways in which bodies were represented through the surveys. By naming and personifying larger entities and performing them (such as a mourning nation acted by a woman), names “became hieroglyphics as it were, for recalling the nation’s history and redrawing its moral boundaries” (214). In the article, photography was also challenged by Briggs as a site of classifying bodies as objects needing to be understood and rendered knowledgeable in addition to the census. As someone interested in photography, the question I leave with is how might photography also be used as a medium, similar to the nationalist dramas, to re-imagine subjectivities and histories through bodies and portraits?  Is this possible? Or, is the medium of photography too objectifying to ever serve as a revolutionary tactic? As Susan Sontag writes, “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder –a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” Is this always the case?


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