Queer Dharma and Docile Bodies

Queer Dharma and Docile Bodies: A Response to Zach Walsh’s “Mindfulness Under Neo-Liberal Governmentality: Critiquing the Operaton of Biopower in Corporate Mindfulness and Constructing Queer Alternatives”

Zack: quoting your paper: “In Buddhism and Cultural Studies”, Edwin Ng (2016) advances one step further, experimenting with mindfulness as an ethico-political practice that transgresses the limits of neoliberal governmentality. He examines how ethical self-cultivation and vipassanā meditation can “defuse normative modes of subjectivity and catalyse the transformative processes of un-becoming.”
I agree with Ng’s argument about mindfulness and ‘unbecoming.’ I argued so myself in a blog article called “Conduct Unbecoming: Trans*Queer Dharma.”

But I challenged Ng on the question of Foucault’s notion of “docile bodies” and how the practice of meditation produces “docile bodies” (Discipline and Punish). Bodies that are subjected to a particular physical discipline—silent, still, emotionless, expressionless—produce “docile bodies”. This is precisely what I identify as ‘anti-queer’. (Ng did not respond to the challenge but he was probably just busy.)

The best and most recent example I can find is a tweet from a twitter friend ‘gaynycjew’ who posted this video as an expression of queer ‘nirvana’. Just in case there are some who can’t read the tweet, I quote it here, as it was written, in ALL CAPS:

“MY GAY ASS IS FOREVER SLAYED. I’M HAVING A GAY SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCE, GAY NIRVANA. I AM NOW THE GAY BUDDHA.” My queer response to her tweet was “Oh Honey, I am forever your disciple, sweet Ananda to your Gay Buddha. Namaste, fags!”

 

To create a ‘queer dharma’, I must start with Queer Embodiment, an ethnography of queer bodies, how the body is ‘queered’ by movement, by voice, by speaking, by clothing and other cultural markers of queer identity and expression.

If one were to observe a person sitting in meditation in loose ‘sensible’ clothing, one would have no way of knowing if that subject was queer. Identifying Queerness requires queer expression: movement of the hands, the eyes, the postures and gestures of the body in relation to other queers and/or straight people. It requires queer vocalization, queer slang, ‘fag’ dialect, identifying queer categories applied to self and others; queer clothing markers (cross-gender or just loud and non-conformist), queer emotional excess otherwise known as “drama” and “flaming”—whether jouissance, rage or desire—queer sexual desire, queer desire for other-genderedness, queer responses to dominant culture and sub-culture; music, dance, visual arts, and so forth, all the features of culture.

Meditation produces a ‘docile body’ that does not exhibit any marker of difference, except perhaps the most obvious racial or stereotypical gender presentation; but even then one does not know if that Black meditator is a ‘queer’ Black meditator, or that ‘woman’ is a cis or trans or queer woman. That can only be ascertained by voice, movement and speech, self-identification and group affiliation and cultural expressions.

If there is going to be a Buddhism or a Meditation regime that works for me at all (and I doubt there ever will be) it must take into account Queer Embodiment, my queer body, how the Queer Body signifies, how it speaks; how it is not docile, it is not quiet, it is not still, it is not devoid of culture or sub-cultural affiliation. Queer Embodiment resists docility, fights against it tooth-and-nail. In Queer politics, “Silence = Death” and in queer dharma, “Silence = Erasure.”

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5 thoughts on “Queer Dharma and Docile Bodies

  1. Hi Shaun, lovely reflection and thanks for engaging my work. I don’t see what you’ve written above as a challenge, but rather as an affirmative step forward in dialogue. The praxis-ideal of #makingrefuge that I sketch in the article (and in others elsewhere, both past and forthcoming) is an attempt to bypass the limiting frame of mindfulness (as practiced in both traditional and modern secularized versions) where queer bodies are largely unwelcome. The lines of inquiry I draw from Ahmed’s queer phenomenology hint at the queering of mindfulness (and it’s relation to ethics etc…) that I’m developing under the banner of #makingrefuge, as a collective project. I value your voice, so thanks for sharing it. The project requires this kind of shared practice and collective discourse 😉

  2. Greetings Shaun,

    Just to chime in…

    First, to be honest, I’m not busy. I’m just struggling with precarity as many precarious academics are. I’m in a transition in my life and not quite inside or outside academia. So I’ve really cut back on engaging in certain kinds of exchanges that would put further emotional burden on emotional labour I’m already struggling to muster, with financial-material insecurity and associated mental health and relational difficulties. And my work is also gravitating more towards non-academic audiences. So it is a matter of caring for the exertion of my limited capacities and resources.

    Second, I don’t usually respond to misattribution/projections on my thinking, especially when I do not actually say it in any of my writings. I have not used Foucault’s work to describe meditation as producing docile bodies. I may have referred to works by others that do so, but I don’t actually say this myself. In fact, my book (and papers and commentaries that developed from it) was a concerted attempt to move away from that “paranoid” deployment of F’s work to a more “reparative” one, to evoke Sedgwick’s terms.

    I just had a quick search of the PDF. The word “docile” only appears twice in my book. One is in a paragraph where I present an overview of how F’s oeuvre has been received. The other one is in the concluding chapter where I mention the docile, compliant academic subject produced by the managerial mechanisms of a neoliberal university.

    However, I did spend considerable time unpacking F’s thinking on limit-transgression and its relation to embodied un/becoming. This is in the first part of Chapter Five and the second half of Chapter Seven.

    So if I didn’t or don’t respond, it is because it is not a good use of emotional and intellectual effort to respond to non-issues that come from misreadings or nonreading of what I have actually done. It is tiring.

    Like, for example, I just saw again a mindfulness person responding with the same old counterclaim “Buddhism doesn’t own mindfulness, it is just a basic human trait”, when their interlocutor mentioned me and my insistence on *historicising* how mindfulness today came by way of Asian Buddhist heritages.

    Isn’t it telling that whenever those mindfulness proponents are faced with this sort of concerns—and despite the fact that I have *repeatedly* stated in several commentaries that I am not interested in claiming Buddhist proprietorship over mindfulness; this is not the function of historicisation anyway, if one cares to pay attention to it, especially one’s own historical situatedness—I think it is telling that they keep falling back on an appeal to what is effectively “we are all just human beings” (which is a sort step away fro All Lives Matter and all that).

    Racialised, marginalised subjects would know very well, what repeated appeals to an ahistorical, (false) universalist ideal of “the human” does. There is not such thing as an ahistoricised figure of “the human”. If anything, an ahistoricised figure of “the human” has been a pivot for—the hegemonic idea of “the human/common humanity” is arguably built upon—historical instances of racial violence, gender violence, ableist violence, animal violence, ecological violence….

    But I trust you already understand this and would be in agreement. As you say here:

    “Meditation produces a ‘docile body’ that does not exhibit any marker of difference, except perhaps the most obvious racial or stereotypical gender presentation; but even then one does not know if that Black meditator is a ‘queer’ Black meditator, or that ‘woman’ is a cis or trans or queer woman. That can only be ascertained by voice, movement and speech, self-identification and group affiliation and cultural expressions.

    If there is going to be a Buddhism or a Meditation regime that works for me at all (and I doubt there ever will be) it must take into account Queer Embodiment, my queer body, how the Queer Body signifies, how it speaks; how it is not docile, it is not quiet, it is not still, it is not devoid of culture or sub-cultural affiliation. Queer Embodiment resists docility, fights against it tooth-and-mail. In Queer politics, “Silence = Death” and in queer dharma, “Silence = Erasure.””

    I appreciate your position and aspirations for engaged dharma. I find points of resonance in reading your posts (admittedly only occasionally; whenever something catches my attention/gets shared on social media). You’re welcome to read my writings to find out what I’ve actually said or not, to find points of resonance.

    In solidarity and #meowfulness
    ed

    1. I apologize for any confusion Edwin, but I didn’t say that YOU said or referenced ‘docile bodies’ in any of your works. I’m saying that I SAID,* ME*, I’m saying that meditation practices are a kind of physical regime that produces ‘docile bodies.’ I know that you used Foucault quite a bit in your dissertation, because I read it, cover to cover (excellent by the way). And you say that you are trying to use Foucault in a ‘less paranoid’ more ‘reparative’ way. I appreciate that. But I am counterposing my reading of Foucault to your reading of Foucault, that when anyone talks about contemplative practice as a mental activity of ‘deconstructing subjectivity’, but fails to account for it as a force of power on the body, as an embodied discipline that produces ‘docile bodies’, is missing something huge. Especially for queer bodies that are silenced, stilled, and thereby erased, at least in terms of sexuality, gender and cultural expression. As a queer scholar, a critique that fails to account for queer embodiment as resistance to the performative docility imposed by the regime of meditation, has missed a gigantic (for me) phalanx of critique.

  3. Ah yes, I see. There are many others who have taken that angle to examine the production of docile bodies by the mainstreaming of meditation. There’s plenty to engage with in that respect, you should be able to find plenty. I choose not to. An examination of limit-transgression via embodied un/becoming is the approach I took—does this miss the point of docile bodies, or is rather an attempt to locate within the matrix of power demanding docile bodies openings for resistance with the transgressive body?

  4. “does this miss the point of docile bodies, or is rather an attempt to locate within the matrix of power demanding docile bodies openings for resistance with the transgressive body?”
    —Only if the transgressive body is acting transgressive. Transgression requires action so that the body signifies as transgressive. If I were sitting in a meditation hall with 50 people and I got up and started singing “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor, while skipping around the room and waving my hands in the air, that would certainly be transgressive. I would be shut down immediately by the meditation instructor, possibly carried out of the hall by the police. Ok? So that’s what I mean by the force of meditation as a regime for producing docile bodies. You don’t ever get to do that sitting in meditation posture. It’s not allowed or discussed. You can’t even imagine such a thing, except as a momentary desire for revenge against the covert heteronormativity of meditation regimes. The body of the meditator does not signify as transgressive because the movements of transgression are violently foreclosed, silenced, subdued, unspeakable, unthinkable under the regime of meditation. Meditation is a state of physical and mental acquiescence to *what is*, while transgression is active resistance to *what is* and a fierce attempt to enact *what is not*, in particular, *what is not allowed.* Queer transgression, moreover, is a brazen attempt to ACT-UP, to unleash power, a radical push-back against anything that subjugates queer bodies to a regime of repression, silence, conformity, docility, and erasure. In order to signify as transgressive, queer bodies will move, act, speak, and dramatize an excess of desire, to unleash a counter-power that overwhelms the foreclosure of meditation and busts its doors down.

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