Issue #53 Shapes of Freedom: A Conversation with Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Shapes of Freedom: A Conversation with Elizabeth A. Povinelli

Kim Turcot DiFruscia

Issue #53
March 2014

Kim Turcot DiFruscia: Liberalism’s “work” on the body is at the heart of your thought. In your book The Empire of Love (2006), you make a conceptual distinction between “carnality” and “corporeality.” How do you pose the sexual body through that distinction?

Elizabeth A. Povinelli: Empire of Love makes a distinction between “carnality” and “corporeality” for a set of analytical reasons: to try to understand materiality in late-liberal forms of power and to try to make the body matter in post-essentialist thought. If we think with Foucault then we understand that objects are object-effects, that authors are author-effects, that subjects are subject-effects, and that states are state-effects. And if we think after the critique of metaphysics of substance—say, with Judith Butler—then we no longer think that the quest is to find substances in their pre-discursive authenticity. Instead, we try to think about how substances are produced. I believe we are now accustomed to thinking like this. But something paradoxical happened on the way to learning about object-effects and learning how to critique the metaphysics of substance: the world became rather plastic and the different “modalities of materiality” were evacuated from our analysis. It left some of us with questions like: How can we grasp some of the qualities of a material object that is nevertheless a discursive object? How can we talk about subject-effects and object-effects without making materiality disappear or making its different manifestations irrelevant to the unequal organization of social life? How can we simultaneously recognize that discourse makes objects appear, that it does so under different material conditions, and that the matter that matters from discourse is not identical to discourse? Of course, this is a slippery path; the peril is that we will fall back into metaphysics of substance.

“Corporeality” would be the way in which dominant forms of power shape and reshape materiality, how discourses produce categories and divisions between categories—human, nonhuman, person, nonperson, body, sex, and so forth—and “carnality” would be the material manifestations of that discourse which are neither discursive nor pre-discursive. When we talk about sexuality, but also about race and the body, I think this analytic distinction matters. In The Empire of Love, I first try to show how it matters and second how difficult it is to speak about those material matters without falling back into a metaphysics of substance. For instance, in the first chapter, “Rotten Worlds,” I track how a sore on my body is discursively produced, and how the multiple discursive productions of this sore are simultaneously a production of socialities and social obligations. Sores are endemic in the indigenous communities in which I have been working for the last twenty-five years or so in northern Australia. If I put my trust in the people whom I have known better than almost anybody else in my life, I would say that my sore came from contact with a particular Dreaming, from a particular ancestral site—which is actually not ancestral because it is alive. But this belief—or stating this belief as a truth—isn’t supported by the world as it is currently organized; or, it is supported only if they and I agree that this truth is “merely” a cultural belief. But if the sore is thought of as staphylococcus or as anthrax or as the effect of the filthiness of Aboriginal communities, as it has been by physicians in Montreal or Chicago or by Darwin, then this thought meets a world which treats it as truth, as fact. These ways of examining the sore would fall under the concept of corporeality: How is the body and its illnesses being shaped by multiple, often incommensurate discourses? How are these discourses of inclusion and exclusion always already shaping and differentiating bodies, socialities, and social obligations—mine and those of my indigenous colleagues?

Aboriginal activists protested outside Parliament House in Canberra on Australia Day, 1972. The police eventually attempted to dismantle violently the tents that made up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, an event which attracted the media, and an outraged public expressed its disgust to the federal government.

And yet the concept of corporeality is not sufficient. Whether the sore is an eruption of a Dreaming or the effect of poor health care and housing and structures of racism, it still sickens the body—and depending how one’s body has been cared for, or is being cared for, it sickens it in different ways and to different degrees. Over time, sores such as the one I had on my shoulder, as discussed in Empire of Love, often lead to heart valve problems, respiratory problems, and other health problems for my indigenous friends. In other words, no matter what the sore is from a discursive point of view, no matter what causes it to appear as “thing,” the sore also slowly sickens a body—a material corrodes a form of life. And this slow corrosion of life is part of the reason why, if you are indigenous in Australia, your life runs out much sooner than non-indigenous Australians. And if the state provides you rights based on longevity—think here of the stereotype of the old traditional person—but you are dying on average ten to twenty years sooner than nonindigenous people, then the carnal condition of your body is out of sync with the apparatus of cultural recognition. But this body-out-of-sync is a more complex matter than merely the discourse that has produced it, nor is it going merely where discourse directs it. Carnality therefore becomes vital to understanding the dynamics of power. I would say that Brian Massumi and Rosi Braidotti are engaged in similar projects.1 But my theoretical, conceptual interlocutors are a more motley crew: American pragmatism, Chicago metapragmatics, Foucault, Deleuze, late Wittgenstein, Heidegger and his concept of precognitive interpretation, what Bourdieu borrowed and turned into doxa. All of these folks are in a conversation in two important ways: first, they assume the immanent nature of social life, and second, they are interested in the organization and disorganization, the channeling and blockage, of immanent social life. I take for granted that an otherwise exists everywhere in the world, but my question is: What are the institutions that make certain forms of otherwise invisible and impractical? And one answer takes me to the corporeal and the other to the carnal.

When I think about sexuality and race I think about them through this dual materiality. I think about sexuality and race primarily as corporeal regimes. And when I think of them as corporeal regimes, then the question for me is, what are the discourses that shape and reshape the flesh and its affects? This is where the civilizational division between the autological subject and the genealogical subject comes into the picture. Your body and mind might be female, but this discursive fold is apprehended differently than my female friends in Australia because, striated through gender, sexual, and racial difference is another discursive division of late liberalism: the divide between the autological subject and the genealogical subject.

KTD: To say that the autological/genealogical divide is the configuration of institutional power prior to the sexual divide seems confrontational to feminism …

EP: Certainly in The Empire of Love, but also across my writings, I have kind of stubbornly refused to say how my work relates to feminism. In fact, Empire of Love begins in a somewhat confrontational way, not exactly with feminism, but with sexuality, sexual theory, and queer theory. I say that I am not interested in sexuality or the woman question or for that matter the race question in the abstract. I am interested in them only insofar as they are what organizes, disorganizes, and distributes power and difference. Of course, I think this makes me a feminist—and certainly a queer! But when I think about what organizes, disorganizes, and distributes power and difference, I am led to a set of more intractable issues, below a certain field of visibility as defined by identity categories. And these issues cut across liberal forms of intimacies, the market, and politics. These concrete formations of liberal power took me to the division of the autological subject and genealogical society rather than to the sexual division.

KTD: Is it because you feel that the sex/gender question is a liberal question?

EP: What I find a liberal question is not the sex/gender question but the organization of “identity” (whether sex, sexuality, gender, or race) on the basis of a fantasy of self-authorizing freedom. By self-authorizing freedom I mean the bootstrap relationship between the “I” of enunciation and the “I” enunciating—what do I think, what do I desire, I am what I am, I am what I want. And the trouble with this form of bootstrap performativity is not merely that it is a phantasmagorical figure of liberalism but that it continually projects its opposite into the worlds of others. What is projected is the equally phantasmagorical figure of the genealogical society—society as a thing that threatens to control and determine my relation to myself. Thus “freedom” and its “threat” are co-constituted. The freedom of the autological subject, on which demands for same-sex marriage or self-elaborated gender identity are based, is always pivoted against fantasies of communities lacking this performative form of freedom. And just to be clear, I do not believe that there are actually genealogical societies and autological societies. Instead, there is a demand that one give an account of what she is doing in terms of this discursive division. In other words, the division of the autological subject and genealogical society is not about differences in the world. It is about a differential spacing of the world. Thus, sex/gender, sexuality, and other forms of difference aren’t liberal per se. They become liberal when they are organized through this late-liberal division and become legitimate vis-à-vis this division.

KTD: Why did you choose love and intimacy as the place from which to discern these liberal processes of legitimation?

EP: When liberals experience themselves as facing an instance of a so-called morally repugnant form of life, they insist that not all forms of life should be allowed to exist—or to be given the dignity of public reason. Too much difference is said to lie outside reasonable disagreement. The political theorist Michael Walzer’s work is exemplary of these approaches, for instance.2 This is an irresolvable limit internal to liberalism’s account of itself. In Cunning, I was interested in how recognition projects this internal liberal tension between public reason and moral sense onto the subject of recognition and says to her, “You figure out how to be different enough so we can feel you are not me, but not so different that I am forced to annihilate you and thereby fracture the foundation of my exceptionalism.”

In Empire I became more interested in the discursive content of the liberal governance of difference rather than merely its interactional dynamic, and in the dispersed sites of liberal governance. This is why I ask, how do we practice our deep, thick everyday lives so that we continually perpetuate the way that liberalism governs difference, even when we seem to be doing nothing more that kissing our lover goodbye? Every time we kiss our lover goodbye within liberal worlds, we project into the world the difference between the autological subject (the recursive ideology of the subject of freedom, the subject that chooses her life), and the genealogical society (the supra-individual agency threatening to condition our choice). The intimate event is an anchor point because it seems to me to be the densest, smallest knot where the irrevocable unity of this division is expressed. What do I mean by an irrevocable unity? In the intimate event the subject says two things simultaneously. On the one hand, the subject says, “This is my love, nobody can choose it for me, I am the author of my intimacy.” Love is thereby treated as uniquely and unequivocally autological.

Forget Marx—the only thing that we have that is really ours is love! But at the same time, the subject also thinks, feels, evaluates love in terms of its radical, unchosen quality: “Love happens, I fall in love, I hope it happens to me,” like I were struck by lightning. And the intimate event is an unavoidable anchor point. Even those people who might say that they will not love, that they hate love, that they do not want to love, must have to have a relationship to love.

KTD: We understand that liberalism needs love to be projected in social forms of constraint such as marriage, but why is this particular metaphysical, almost magical ideology of love needed?

EP: In love, the subject paradoxically realizes that she is never only autological; that “something” like a lightning strike has to happen to her which is out of her control, whether this event comes from the outside or from an inside so internal that it might as well be outside. Love is where the autological subject expresses herself most profoundly and where genealogical constraint expresses itself more purely. It is right there that you can see the liberal division that organizes social life collapse into itself and then explode outward. Paradoxically, it is in the moment the divide collapses in the intimate event that the differences between civilizational orders seem clearest to liberal subjects. The moment the liberal subject of love, the liberal subject in love, experiences her inability to author the event of love, she insists there is a vast and insurmountable difference between societies of freedom and societies of social constraint. One is tempted to become a psychoanalyst to explain this. And no wonder it seems metaphysical. But it comes from within and sets up specific social orders.

A Land Rights demonstration parade took place at Parliament House, Canberra, 1972. Photo: National Library of Australia/Ken Middleton.

KTD: Social orders such as the ones set up by identity politics?

EP: Yes. One of the reasons why I wanted to write The Cunning of Recognition (2002) was to start to push back against the seductions of identity. I started graduate school in the eighties with a background in philosophy. A while after, I went to Australia on a fellowship and the indigenous friends I made there needed an anthropologist. Under the Land Rights Act, a piece of legislation that allowed indigenous Australian’s to sue for the return of their land, indigenous groups had to be represented by an anthropologist and a lawyer. I had no intention of becoming a lawyer! So I left aside my “great” books and entered graduate school at Yale in anthropology. This was in 1986, at exactly the moment when the field, like many other disciplines, was reflecting on its enmeshment in worlds of power, including colonialism and imperialism. And then the book Writing Culture came out. So huge fights were breaking out, with people accusing other people of racism, colonialism, homophobia, objectivism, scientism. One response to these charges was the collapse of the object of study into the identity of the studier. Many tremendous studies have come out of this maneuver. But what was lost was how the critique of power might impact at a deeper, richer level with immanent forms of social obligation beyond given articulations of identity. The threat was that everyone became merely what identity-form existed, and in the most deracinated of ways. No one is merely the given form of identity. Every identity is shot through with unnamable networks of deep unspecifiable, unnamable obligation. And these nonreferential forms of obligation were abandoned. The task isn’t to think about oneself or one’s personal history, but instead to remain in the obligations that we find ourselves responding to, while at the same time understanding the arts of governance that disrupt and contain and redirect these immanent modes of obligation.

KTD: In your last book, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011), as well as inThe Empire of Love, you specify that you are interested in late-liberal formations of power. Can you explain the relationship of late liberalism to neoliberal modes of governance? How is the distinction useful politically?

EP: I have gone back and forth between reserving the phrase “late liberalism” for the liberal governance of difference that began to emerge in the late 1960s and early 1970s as liberal governments responded to a series of legitimacy crises coming from anticolonial, anti-imperial, and new social movements, and using the same phrase to refer to the internal and external conditions and dynamics of contemporary European and Anglo-American governance as two of its key pillars, neoliberalism and multiculturalism, emerged in the 1970s and are now undergoing significant stress. My vacillation is symptomatic of the absolute need to distinguish these two modes of governance, to never let either out of the sight of the other. From a political point of view of collective and legitimate action, the neoliberal governance of economies and the multicultural governance of difference were always about the conservation of a specific form of social organization and distribution of life and goods. How can this be when these two forms were new twists in liberal capitalism? How could they be conserving older forms of social organization and be a new form of social organization at the same time?

What interests me is the conservation of differential powers as capitalism was understood as liberation from the market and liberal values were liberated from liberalism. How are these changes conditioned by events inside and outside Europe and the Anglo-American region? How are the consequences of these changes reflected in the forms and affects of liberal governance? What forms of liberal economic and social governance are emerging as the center of economic vitality shifts from the US and Europe to Asia and South America? What is liberalism becoming as nondemocratic forms of capitalism are a central engine of the global economy; nonelected “technocratic” governments are proliferating in Europe; social protest and massive youth unemployment are ubiquitous; secular and religious imaginaries compete on the street; and slums proliferate as the major form of social dwelling in the south and suburbs become ghettos in the north?

KTD: You wrote about Genet’s Querelle de Brest in “Notes on Gridlock: Genealogy, Intimacy, Sexuality.”3 If we cut ourselves from thoughts on identity, recognition, or deliberative democracy, how can an experiment in the ethics of radical loneliness similar to Querelle’s still maintain roots or connections in these obligations?

EP: Lee Edelman, and Leo Bersani, who has written so provocatively about Genet, thinks the queer against the common, the communitarian.4 The queer for them refers to the practices or events of radical social, psychic, and epistemological disruption. They understand the queer to be located in (or to be) the unclosable gaps that open in discourse, psyche, and epistemology—say, between rhetoric and grammar. In these spaces, all forms of normality are shattered and no new hegemonic forms have yet emerged. So, queering would be the shattering of a given sociality, identity, or community without the desire or promise of a new sociality, identity, or community. In Bersani’s way of putting it, queer moments are moments in which the self is liquified.

Querelle de Brest (1947), frontispiece of an unidentified edition of the book.

Honestly, I personally find these spaces, these moments, exhilarating. But I worry that a blanket valorization of these moments of liquification, shattering, and dissolving dangerously under-theorizes the unity of such shattering. What are the consequences of this kind of shattering if you are indigenous in Australia, when your life is already shattered, is shattering all of the time, and not because you are Querelle perusing the docks but because the liberal structures, said to recognize your worth, are instead constantly shattering your life-world? Thus, I think queer theory needs to do two things. First, yes, it needs to define queer on the basis of the shattering of subjectivity and the sheering of normativity, but also, second, it needs to demonstrate how this shattering is not itself a unified phenomenon. Indigenous friends of mine might live in zones of liquification, but their “queerness” is of a very different sort than my queerness. My liquifications might well help enhance my life, whereas theirs might not.

KTD: So do you wish to add a little incommunicability?

EP: And stir? Well. I wish to understand the goods and harms of incommunicability itself and to understand how these goods and harms are always already socially distributed. So, some groups seek to be incommunicable—or incommensurate—while others are structurally located within the incommensurate spaces of late liberalism. Their logos are made noise, made incommunicable, even if they are trying to communicate. And you see how different this is from Querelle’s queer cultivating of an incommunicable self. And if queer theory doesn’t acknowledge this difference, it flattens the social field. I love Genet’s Querelle, but one must understand that the benefits and harms of living a shattered life are socially distributed. Again, this is why I am interested in both corporeality and carnality. One can celebrate Querelle’s life on the docks. One can celebrate the docks in New York in the seventies. One can celebrate the various otherwises that emerge in indigenous communities. But what is it to live these various forms of life from a carnal point of view? What are the outcomes for bodies and assemblages of bodies?

KTD: In “What’s Love Got to Do with It?,” you wrote about how “violence against women” is used as an excuse for genealogizing indigenous communities.5 Can you explain how you understand this resort to violence and sexual violence in liberal arguments?

EP: Let me answer that question by first providing a certain intellectual history to how I think about violence. At the University of Chicago there was a group called the Late Liberalism Group. The members were Michael Warner, Saba Mahmood, Lauren Berlant, Candace Vogler, Elaine Hadley, Rolph Trouillot, Patchen Markell, and myself. One of the things we were puzzling about was how to think about violence diagonally to liberal accounts of violence. How do we refuse the way liberalism divides violence and nonviolence? How do we penetrate violence, acknowledge it outside of definitions of violence engendered by liberal arts of governance? That was the framework within which I began to think about violence, which is such a sticky matter. Violence is not—any more than the queer—an ontological category that we can define and then correlate to objects in the world according to how well they fit the definition. Violence is organized by liberal discourses, such as the autological/genealogical divide. And one of the ways I try to angle into violence is by moving away from violence and thinking about care, and how forms of what constitutes care have shifted in late liberalism. For one thing, there is a shift in the location of care—from the Keynesian state, which provided a minimal level of care, a minimal level of vitality, to those most in need, to the current neoliberal state, which removes this cellar of care and shifts the responsibilities of care from the state to the individual. Foucault began teasing out this shift in Naissance de la biopolitique (1979). He argued that neoliberalism is not laissez-faire anymore. It is not about leaving the market alone. It is about aggressively expanding the logic of the market to all aspects of life so that market principles actually become human principles that organize life, government, intimacy, and so forth. Thus, in neoliberalism, “caring for others” involves removing the social resources of care and inserting market evaluations and values. The arts of governance use the same word across the shift—“care”—but the social organization of care has changed dramatically.

Anton Weber Junior, Untitled, 1960. The doll pictured here is by artist and puppeteer Martha Khun-Werber.

This shift makes certain statements impractical and infelicitous. Certain statements do not have practical traction in the world. Why don’t we think that removing social welfare is a form of state killing? Especially when the neoliberal state says that its way of “caring” will make life unviable for many. “Life is going to get much worse,” we are told, “but just wait and then things will get better.” Why do we think of this as care and not as state abuse? How long are we willing to give late-liberal forms of care-as-enervation before we are willing to call them a form of killing? But even if we did name this form of care as a form of abuse, our statement could not do anything practical in the world if all the social fields of that world—intimacy, market, child rearing, and so forth—are organized around the same late-liberal model of care.

When it comes to the difference between, say, feminists who oppose violence against women, and Querelle, who craves violence as a form of de-subjectification, we must be extremely careful to differentiate the social grounds of these desires. Take, for example, how violence against women was used as a justification for attacking Afghanistan. One reason it was difficult to mobilize a counter-discourse was that opposing the government’s protection of women was treated as if it were support for violence against women, as if these were two sides of the same coin. Of course, violence against women is not acceptable. But if we turn away from the problem of violence and look at the social grounds and purpose of violence, we see something quite different. Take another example. We are currently witnessing a radical federal intervention in indigenous governance in Australia. A government report noted the horrific conditions of life in indigenous communities in the Northern Territory. The report stated that in the worst cases these horrific conditions have led to child sexual abuse—more or less than anywhere else? Nobody knows. And the report didn’t say. Nor did it quantify its claim about child sex abuse. But the conservative federal government stoked a sex panic to legitimate a late-liberal reorganization of social welfare and a seizure of indigenous lands. It sent troops into indigenous communities to take control of community affairs. It is hard to explain how, in such a short interview, but the federal government and its policy supporters were able to convince the public that the cause of this sexual abuse was traditional indigenous culture. As a result, the government was extremely successful in disrupting hegemonic alliances on the Left, because the only question that could be asked or answered became, are you for or against indigenous child sex abuse? Of course, it is not about that, but there was no escape. No matter what you say and no matter how you say it, you are read in relation to the sex panic. When you say it is a sex panic used to justify a governmental intervention, people answer, “So you are for sexual abuse of children!” Exactly like violence against women and the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan. So these are the kinds of liberal and neoliberal imaginaries of violence and care against which we need to think.

KTD: Violence and sex!

EP: Yes. So the question for me is, like sex, how do you tackle the problematic of violence without already acceding to the terms that liberalism sets for what is violent and what is nonviolent, even as liberalism itself shifts forms—classical laissez-faire liberalism to Keynesian liberalism to neoliberalism?

Jean Cocteau, Orphée Aux Yeux Perlés [Orpheus with pearl eyes], 1950. Drawing.

KTD: Clearly the agency/constraint, individual/society question is not a pertinent question for anthropology to ask. What is a good question, according to you?

E.P.: If we take the example of this federal intervention in Australia, we see clearly how shifts occur in the definitions of both the agency/constraint and individual/society division. Liberal recognition first stated that it cared for indigenous people by enclosing them in culture. But the form of “culture” liberalism recognized was genealogical. Members of Aboriginal communities were cared for through culture, but this was culture as determination and as opposed to subjects of freedom. The recent federal intervention has conserved this division, even as it has inverted the value of genealogy. The federal intervention maintained the distinction between the people of freedom and the people of cultural determination. But now indigenous culture is the cause of indigenous pathology rather than the cure for it.

So a good question for me would be one that opened a new line of thinking, such as, how might we rethink the spaces of the otherwise in terms of obligation and care, or exhaustion and persistence?


See, among others, Brian Massumi, “Introduction: Concrete is as Concrete Doesn’t,” in Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 1–22; and Rosi Braidotti, Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).


See, among others, Michael Walzer, Politics and Passion: Toward A More Egalitarian Liberalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004).


Public Culture vol. 14, no. 1 (2002): 215–238.


See Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994); and Leo Bersani, Homos (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996).


Social Analysis vol. 49, no. 2 (Summer 2005): 173–181.

Interviews & Conversations, Philosophy, Bodies, Sexuality & Eroticism
Liberalism, Love, Violence
Return to Issue #53

A longer version of this interview was originally published as “A Conversation with Elizabeth A. Povinelli” in the second volume of Tran-Scripts, an interdisciplinary online journal in the Humanities and Social Sciences based at the University of California, Irvine.

Elizabeth A. Povinelli is Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Her works include Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (2011), The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality (2006), and The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism (2002).

Kim Turcot DiFruscia is a Ph.D Candidate and Lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Université de Montréal. Her research interests include the political experience of management, the history of corporate subjectivation, human resource management, and psychological governentality under late liberalism.


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