Ratna Kapur: Gender, Alterity, and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fish Bowl

Edward Elgar, London, 2018, 328 pp, ISBN: 978 1 78811 252 9

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    To make her point, Kapur employs the case of the popular Bollywood movie Dostana—more evidence of her ability to weave together seemingly disparate archive sources together to articulate her argument—to make the case for the kind of happy queer subject that has public sanction (2018: 72–75). In the movie, two upper middle class straight Indian men pose as gay to secure the lease on a penthouse apartment in downtown Miami. Her argument about the normalizing function that portals like this offer for precarious desire is powerful—the protagonists are liberal enough to not worry about being seen as gay, especially since they are only performing and gay men in this imagery have exquisite, expensive tastes (the recognizable, happy queer model). Equally powerful is her argument that the film purposefully invokes the consumer citizen in an emerging global market, where, sexuality aside, the cosmopolitan queer is known for their particular economic participation. Not only is such model queerness acceptable, its acceptance is repatriated back into the market: Dostana was one of the highest-grossing films of the year. Both the portrayal and the commercial response to this movie makes one think of Sudahanshu Saria’s movie LOEV, set in Mumbai, about relatively unhappy and complicated queers who, despite their pleasure in unattainable market rewards (e.g. an open-top rental car for a road trip, luxury hotel rooms paid for by their company), refuse to perform normativity through their choices. The economic and personal proclivities of the two protagonists—best friends, one openly gay and in a relationship, the other a normative banker visiting from the U.S.—are explored more critically, with little or no attempt to pinkwash its subjects, and its market appeal mirrored this subjectivity. Although the movie was well received in international film festivals, its grit and the story of these “unhappy queers” was not a commercial success: it released mostly only to niche audiences, and took almost two years after it was made to be released online (although not in India) on Netflix.

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    This form of radical social critique emerging from expansive self-positivity rather than from paranoid reflexivity has been adapted by many contemporary spiritual philosophers (e.g, Buddhist writers like Pema Chodron, Tchich Nhat Hanh) and is increasingly becoming popular in radical contemporary writing (e.g. Ysra Daley-Ward, Sharanya Manivanan, Nayyirah Waheed). It is however, much less popular is critical academic scholarship, whose call for the radical at the individual level still is primarily subsumed in the acceptance and activation of anger’s potential. The reclaiming and compassionate theorizing of anger is important and necessary (e.g. Sara Ahmed’s breathtaking concept of the feminist killjoy) and nobody can read Fish Bowl and ignore the theoretical work of a similar anger (after all, it is a book about the frustration with liberal rights and a radical call to walk away from its agenda). But alongside this in the Fish Bowl is Kapur’s work to reclaim and re-valorize what might otherwise be associated with non-radical affect (2018: 229)—kind self-inquiry (i.e., the internal work required to attain wholesome freedom), and self recognition (i.e., the spiritual inroads needed to recognize the core of advaita, or the recognition of the self as the other).

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    Even if this suggestion to turn to one’s self might be useful in the case of gendered alterity—the main focus of Kapur’s book—it might be more problematic for other kinds of economic and ethnic inequalities. How would one, for example, “completely displace human rights” (2018: 221) by just turning inwards when stacked against hierarchical institutions like education and employment in a decidedly capitalist world? How could we ignore the problems of the potential alternate register that might encapsulate a “class blind” or a “race blind” future? Further, what good would further self-correction be if not met with structures that recognize or value this revolutionary progress? These are not questions meant to disable the power in these alternate registers, but instead to offer the duality of violence they can inherently hold within them.

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    A fine example of this kind of radical voice is Chani Nicholas, a critical queer astrologer whose website (chaninicholas.com) offers a “feminist guide to the universe” offering tools for self-work while consciously locating it within the oppressive structures it operates within. Similarly, the work of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel (2015), a Zen Buddhist priest of color offers routes to expansive self-exploration or “tenderness” by constantly acknowledging the powerful structural challenges that systemic oppression pose: a journey from, in Manuel’s words, “wounded tenderness” to “liberating tenderness.” No doubt the self might, as Kapur argues, “continually exist and be experienced by the subject notwithstanding the employment of construct to such experience” (2018: 221), but, as writers similarly committed to the engagement and exploration through the self counter, even such realization by the self does not free it from the gaze and non-dual perspective employed by those interacting with it, or the structures within which this self is embedded.

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    For example, despite positioning herself as different from other kinds of human right critics, Kapur’s strategy reveals some ambivalence. At different parts of the book, Kapur reminds the reader that the call is both to turn one’s back on human rights (as a source of freedom) and to work alongside human rights (given that it continues to offer governing structures). Similarly, in parts of the book, it is unclear who the subject of this emancipation is, and on whose behalf this freedom is being sought. Kapur uses the advaitic metaphor of the snake and rope to offer transcendence of the distinction between the self and the other (or, the advaitic recognition of the self as the other), and to engage in the process of “self reflection” and “error correction” (2018: 12). Together, metaphoric transformation (2018: 11) of the object and non-object rests on the self scrutiny (presumably, on the part of the perceiver who sees the rope as there, and as a snake), and a turn inwards (presumably, both by the perceiver who needs to see that the snake is only there because she is being seen, and by the snake herself who is seeking freedom). Further, if freedom rests in the introspective process that expands awareness both in that a snake (a western threat) is actually just a rope (a non-threat), and in that the snake is only there at all because the perceiver sees her there (2018: 11)—this sounds like freedom for the perceiver, not the snake (if the snake was there at all).


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I thank Kathryn McNeilly for thoughts and comments on earlier drafts. This review was especially enriched by conversations with Peter Goodrich, Alejandra Azuero Quijano (who introduced me to the work of Zenju Earthlyn Manuel), and my Appa (who was my first source of initiation to Sankara’s advaita).

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Correspondence to Swethaa S. Ballakrishnen.

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Ballakrishnen, S.S. Ratna Kapur: Gender, Alterity, and Human Rights: Freedom in a Fish Bowl. Fem Leg Stud 27, 109–114 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10691-018-9395-y

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