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Language(s) of 'empowerment': reflections on agency, desire and politics

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ABSTRACT: The ‘empowered’ woman has captured the imagination of the development state, in astonishing ways, that brings under its purview a rather exploitative understanding of ‘power’, a sense of ‘agentic power’ that is aimed to be brought, for her to be ‘rescued’ from her powerlessness. Based on the belief that she is always already “excluded” and disempowered, the discourses of ‘empowerment’ aim to “include” her in enclosing her life within the nation state. How and why does this ‘woman’ become apparently a significant ‘entity’ for the ‘developed’ (and developing) nation, and what is the (critical) nature of this ‘empowered’ woman subject that remains the import of this work. Whether she is ‘excluded’ and necessarily shaped for a troubling kind of ‘inclusion’ seeks to question the problem of a simple exclusion and inclusion of the woman as ‘disempowered’ and ‘empowered’. The paper also opens up the presence of ‘desire’ in the woman, indicating to the dispassionate, detached recourse taken by development in ‘empowering’ the women’s lives. Can we understand lives of empowered women through the prospect of attached, ‘passionate’ desire of, in relationships, a relationship which is apparently emphasized by development organizations, to be able to encounter ‘productivity’ in development work, however a relationship which is always conceptualized in an absence of ‘desire’? What would be that space in the (developmental) relationship which acknowledges the ‘touch’ of desire in a woman’s everyday living and seeks to ask the question, what is woman’s desire or the desire of woman in development? In other words, can one begin to see the ‘relationship’ that gets forged between development (worker/activist/researcher) and women, leading to the complex (psychoanalytic) understanding of ‘desire’ (however only to be betrayed as the principle of ‘lack’ in the woman already established by the ‘masculine’ standard). In that sense, the paper is an attempt to conceive a relationship between psychoanalysis and politics, to ‘re-think’ empowerment in the “outside”; the ‘outside’ that is relegated to ‘woman’, to relocate ‘desire’ in the woman’s touch and body that is only understood as an absence, lodging an understanding to create a meaning of the ‘feminine’ in the psychoanalytic and the political, perhaps to rehabilitate a feminine sense of ‘empowerment’ from the ‘hegemonic’, that empowerment has become in the contemporary. Keywords: empowerment, agency, subject, desire, politics
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
Language(s) of ‘empowerment’: reflections on agency, desire
and politics1
Gurpreet Kaur
ABSTRACT: The empoweredwoman has captured the imagination of the development
state, in astonishing ways, that brings under its purview a rather exploitative
understanding of ‘power’, a sense of ‘agentic power’ that is aimed to be brought, for her
to be ‘rescued’ from her powerlessness. Based on the belief that she is always already
“excluded” and disempowered, the discourses of ‘empowerment’ aim to “include” her in
enclosing her life within the nation state. How and why does this ‘woman’ become
apparently a significant ‘entityfor the ‘developed’ (and developing) nation, and what is
the (critical) nature of this ‘empowered’ woman subject that remains the import of this
work. Whether she is ‘excluded’ and necessarily shaped for a troubling kind of
‘inclusion’ seeks to question the problem of a simple exclusion and inclusion of the
woman as ‘disempowered’ and ‘empowered’. The paper also opens up the presence of
‘desire’ in the woman, indicating to the dispassionate, detached recourse taken by
development in ‘empowering’ the women’s lives. Can we understand lives of empowered
women through the prospect of attached, passionate desire of, in relationships, a
relationship which is apparently emphasized by development organizations, to be able
to encounter ‘productivity’ in development work, however a relationship which is always
conceptualized in an absence of ‘desire’? What would be that space in the
1 The title is borrowed from Asha Achuthan’s paper, “Languages of Consent…” whose ideas have inspired
me to look at ‘development’ with a sharp feminist critique. This paper will carry the debt of the
contributions made by Anup Dhar for being the teacher, mentor, and friend. Most of the ideas are his
formulations reworked within my sphere of work. I have to acknowledge the presence of my friend,
companion, Bhavya Chitranshi, with whom discussion and ideas have always taken newer forms and this
paper is a reflection of our thinking together in many ways.
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
(developmental) relationship which acknowledges the ‘touch’ of desire in a woman’s
everyday living and seeks to ask the question, what is woman’s desire or the desire of
woman in development? In other words, can one begin to see the relationshipthat gets
forged between development (worker/activist/researcher) and women, leading to the
complex (psychoanalytic) understanding of ‘desire’ (however only to be betrayed as the
principle of ‘lack’ in the woman already established by the ‘masculine’ standard). In that
sense, the paper is an attempt to conceive a relationship between psychoanalysis and
politics, to ‘re-think’ empowerment in the “outside”2; the ‘outside’ that is relegated to
‘woman’, to relocate ‘desire’ in the woman’s touch and body that is only understood as
an absence, lodging an understanding to create a meaning of the ‘feminine’ in the
psychoanalytic and the political, perhaps to rehabilitate a feminine sense of
‘empowerment’ from the ‘hegemonic’, that empowerment has become in the
Keywords: empowerment, agency, subject, desire, politics
The paper poses a problem to the essentially established nature of the ‘empowered’
woman, to the standard narrative of a linear movement from powerlessness to becoming
‘empowered’, to the simplistic understanding of ‘power’ which values ‘power within’ the
woman with a notion to rescueher. Criticism to this has been made before, to point out
to the problematic character of the ‘instrumentality’ of the vision of the ‘empowerment3.
However, my attempt here is to show the complicated, historical and political critique of
‘development’, which follows to create a ‘practice’ of empowerment that gets naturalized
in the life of the subject, by way of socially ordering her life in neo-liberal times. But
2 Chakrabarti, Dhar, Cullenberg (2016) who present the idea of “constitutive inside” and “constitutive
outside” of the “global capitalist hegemony”, I will come to this further ahead.
3 Kabeer (1999) points out to the gap between the official development discourse- between policy setting
agendas and ‘feminist’ advocacy which seeks to place empowerment at the ground level. This gap either
makes ‘empowerment’ viewed as an end in itself which calls for women as “politically weak winners and
powerful losers”, leading to a “zero-sum game” or making ‘empowerment’ as instrumentalist giving pay-
offs for the family and children welfare and economic well- being, where of course the ‘feminist’ edge of
the argument gets lost.
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
what gets displaced in the process is the question of desire, i.e., the question of
woman, with her body, experience of touch, and anxiety. The woman is forgotten in a
model which values the ‘masculine’ standard, in empowering her she is asked to become
the ‘same’ model, because she is regarded as the ‘lacking’ other (in development) and
also the ‘lack’ (in psychoanalysis). How will her ‘desire’ ever get encountered in such
systems of ‘sameness’, how will development acknowledge the existence of ‘desire’ as
fundamental to understanding the ‘feminine’, when her being is only reduced to
becoming masculine? This is the moment where I intend to introduce (Lacanian)
psychoanalysis which inaugurates ‘sexual difference’, the sexed subject, the subjective
radical subject, the model of two (p and q) as compared to the One (p and ~p;
hegemonic and the lacking other) of development. That it inaugurates the fundamental
(subjective and incommensurate) sexual difference between the masculine and feminine
(and therefore p and q) makes it the model of two 4 (more on this ahead). The
psychoanalytic invocation which establishes the two, however, finally also makes the
woman a substitute signifier of the ‘p’, of the masculine, of the phallic signifier, as
having or being the phallus, “leaving the feminine languishing in and as the “dark
continent” ” (Dhar 2009: 179). Thus, psychoanalysis inaugurates the ‘woman’ and her
desire but only within the phallocentric libidinal economy, to be haunted by the phallic
symbolic order. Thus, in the paper I attempt to open the psychoanalytic entry into
development, only to move beyond it, to reach at the critical, political and
transformative axis.
The problem, in an another sense, is to open up the veiled ‘subject’ who is
seemingly ‘un-veiled’ by discourses of empowerment but at the same time in fact
cloaked in the hegemony and complexity of the ‘veil’ that unveils. That is to say that, the
discourses of development includes the women in its fold because of the underlying
assumption that the woman is always already excludedfrom development and hence
4 Dhar (2009:173) further explains this quoting an example from Zizek (1998) of a British advertisement
of the “frog and the beer bottle”, where when a girl kisses a frog and he becomes a handsome young man,
but when the vice versa happens the girl becomes a beer bottle. This portrays the representation of the
subjective (sexual) difference as opposed to the biological difference between man and woman. This also
shows the ‘sexuated’ difference between the frog and the beer bottle, between the man and the woman,
“where we unconsciously come to occupy two modes-of-being-within-language” (p. 170)
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
needs inclusion. However, in the garb of including women and empowering them,
development foregrounds women only, always as the lacking, lagging “third world
(other) women”, as the ~p, which is then needed to beempoweredto become the
standard of p. At the same time, another end of the hegemonic discourse forecloses the
possibility of the existence of the woman, who is perhaps the ‘desiring’ woman subject,
the inassimilable, inappropriated reality, the “World of Third”, the foreclosed Other,
who/what cannot be processed, or assimilated and is also buried into the realm of the
“outside”. So then, development perhaps foregrounds the empowered woman as the
disempowered, lacking other. Development imagined in the language of empowerment
further forecloses questions of desire; and at the same time psychoanalysis, even though
instituting the model of two-ness, falls back on the “transcendental phallus” within the
system of Language and puts ‘woman’ with her desire (of the phallus) as the “outside”,
as the absolute/‘unknown’ Other (Dhar 2009: 179).
Perhaps the attempt is then to understand this psychoanalytic relationship of
lackand the developmental relation with the ‘lacking’ other, to stumble upon the
possibilities that the ‘desire’ of the foreclosed Other, the World of Third, can show us
how to define the critical, political route to transformation, in the reversal of ‘power’.
This (outside) ‘space’ reminds us of the woman’s desire, through her bodily touch, which
has remained “constitutively outside” (untouched by) the field of development and as
the unspoken and the unspeakable (of the field of psychoanalysis), constitutive and
elusive outside of language, the rem(a)inder of the woman’s (desire) of/in, rendering her
as the “dark continent”. Does it also perhaps remind us of the feminist political which
foregrounds the feminine body (touch, like the two lips) in marking the Woman, not as
‘erasure’ but as a potential, radical, multiple site of articulation of one’s touch, desire.
What will be the relations thus between the psychoanalytic and political in
development? The paper therefore, intends to outline this “outside” in the narrative of
‘empowerment’ through ‘desire’ and to position ‘desire’, to understand the relation
between (development), psychoanalysis and politics, by opening up the psychoanalytic
‘of’ development in the ‘empowered’ woman and encountering ‘politics’ as displaced in
the reversal of ‘power’ dynamics.
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
Is the ‘empowered’ woman the “object of desire” of development within the
nation state and also a “desiring” subject? The question of ‘desire’ in development asks
whether the empowered woman will move between development’s desire of/for
women, with the woman as the ‘object’ of empowerment (especially with the shift from
considering women as passive recipients to them now being put forth as the ‘agents’ of
development) or the desire of the ‘womansubject (or subject of woman), which is kept
“outside”, occluded like the mysterious unknown. It can be true to say, then that
‘empowerment’ works as a trap for women, to keep the desiring subjectivity of the
woman ‘outside’ the structure of ‘development’, outside of the structure of ‘One’. But
does the psychoanalytic invocation of the structure of the ‘twowith the theory of
(sexual) difference, and the foreclosed Other, inaugurate desire outside of the outsided-
ness, or does it continue to be irked by the structures of the One? Is the ‘empowered’
woman then ‘born, constituted, in the secreting of her own ‘desire’, the desire of the
woman which is put ‘outside’, that which emerges as the “unknown”?
The paper will then trace three sections, the first section will talk about how a
sense of agency is articulated, a central concept put down in understanding
‘empowerment’ by mainstream as well as alternate (feminist) development literature as
well as some feminist texts too. I will try to critically delineate the ways in which ‘agency’
is made sense of, within the paradigm, making visible the conceptualization of creating
‘power within’ in women’s lives. In this critique, I would place the problem of inclusion
and exclusion, to build ground for conceptualization of Lacanian Foreclosure, in the
further section. In the following section, I will write about the experiences in the field
which inaugurated the question of desire for me in the lives of women through an
anecdotal narrative which talks about the encounter of touch, body, desire. This paper is
then about remembering the ‘empowered’ women who have shown what is (or is not)
‘empowerment’, through their living struggles, ‘conflicts’ within themselves, and
unconscious affect. It is remembering about the woman’s desire which is brushed upon
in my contact with her. In the next section, I discuss the politics of psychoanalysis,
inaugurating the notion of desire (present pervasively in the lives of women) understood
as a signifier of ‘lack’. Positing an Irigarian critique of such a conception, where the
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
touch of the woman and her body is absented in the standard accounts of work with
women, showing the distance that perhaps development and also psychoanalysis marks
with women’s body and desire, development in marking the woman perpetually
‘lacking’, by always desexualizing her being and psychoanalysis by making the woman
(m)Other as a consistent ‘lack’ (as lacking the signifier of desire, the ‘phallus’).
Finally, will feminist politics allow for a space to ask the question of the woman’s
desire, which will lead me to ask questions and place the ambivalence that I face when I
encounter desire and touch in understanding empowered women’s lives in rural
villages? And what gets inaugurated first, the psychoanalytic or the political in the
moment of encounter with desire, and what can lead us to the critical, political and
transformative of ‘empowerment’?
I. “Sense of agency- the ‘process’ of empowerment”
Naila Kabeer (1999) builds on the conception of empowerment through opening up the
perspective of ‘choice’. She lays down that the central concept to understand
‘empowerment’ is ‘power’ and the “ability” to make choices, which makes one
‘empowered’ or ‘disempowered’ (disempowered in the moment when one is denied
‘choice’). Further, she clarifies that to be ‘empowered’, disempowerment is a necessary
condition, because one can be very powerful but not necessarily ‘empowered’ because
they were never disempowered in the first place. These choices she says are further
determined by resources (pre-determined), agency (process) and achievements
(outcomes). Resources (she mentions primarily material resources) which can enable
the function of choices are also governed by rules and norms of the family, market, state
and community in the ‘allocation’ of resources, governing distribution and exchange on
the basis of relationships embedded within these conduits (p.3). The next dimension
which Kabeer defines as fundamental for empowerment, is ‘agency’, the ability to make
decisions, to be able to define one’s goals and actions, with meaning, motivation and
purpose, she refers to it as ‘power within’. She also differentiates between a positive and
a negative sense of agency; ‘power to’ and ‘power over’ respectively. The former refers
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
to one’s ability to make one’s decisions, life term choices, and goals and to be able to act
those even in the face of opposition; the latter refers to the capacity of an actor to
impose goals against one’s wishes. However, she also says that in contexts like South
Asia, power doesn’t necessarily require agency to function, it can work in the absence of
agency because of societal norms and rules just like a young girl can be married off
without her consent etc. Further, she expands ‘agency’ with the help of Sen,
Resources and agency together constitute what Sen refers to as capabilities, the potential that
people have for living the lives they want, of achieving valued ways of ‘being and doing’. Sen uses
the idea of ‘functionings’ to refer to all the possible ways of being and doing that are valued by
people in a given context, and of ‘functioning achievements’ to refer to the particular ways of
being and doing that are realized by different individuals (Sen, 1985). It is only when the failure to
achieve one’s goals reflects some deep-seated constraint on the ability to choose that it can be
taken as a manifestation of disempowerment. (Kabeer 1999: 3-4).
Sen (1999) further goes on, to build a connection between women’s well- being and
agency, where the pursuit to achieve women’s well- being is intrinsically linked to
women’s sense of agency relating it further to the role of ‘responsibility’, to be able to
achieve an agentic well- being. He elucidates this by putting forth the analogy and
thereby the difference between a ‘patient’ and an ‘agent’, signifying the importance of a
‘responsible’, ‘independent’, ‘acting’ individual. “Understanding the agency role is thus
central to recognizing people as responsible persons: not only are we well or ill, but also
we act or refuse to act, and can choose to act one way rather than another. And thus we-
women and men-must take responsibility for doing things or not doing them” (Sen,
1999: 190).
Furthering the ‘act’ of agency, he pursues its importance by laying emphasis on
women’s agentic role for the welfare of the family (men and children) and community.
He points out that this influence in the woman’s status gives a higher valuation of her
being and promotes “freedom” from ‘absolute deprivation’. “Freedom in one area (that
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of being able to work outside the household) seems to help to foster freedom in others
(in enhancing freedom from hunger, illness and relative deprivation)” (Sen 1999, p.194).
He points out the (re)productive role that agency of a woman plays in promoting child
survival and reducing fertility rates which goes beyond ‘female well- being’ and further
enhances the social, economic and political action in women’s life. These ‘achievements’
or ‘outcomes’ correspond to Kabeer’s model of resources, agency and achievements and
further adds the position of ‘freedom’ in the conceptualization of ‘agency’,
empowerment and development in women’s lives. That is, what both Kabeer and Sen
perhaps seem to be saying is that ‘agency’ is the will/ability to act, as ‘active agents’,
developing on their ‘power within’ women. However, for Sen, the responsibility of the
‘woman’ lies on how ‘well’ she can ‘act’ for her empowered status and acquire a
productive well- being and for Kabeer, agency is a “meditative” process to reach an
achieved outcome.
Deveaux (1994, 1999) poses a feminist critique of Foucault’s theories of power in
order to generate an articulation of ‘agency’ of women to reach empowerment. To build
change ‘within’ the personal, private, she emphasizes the importance of a space of
‘resistance’ and ‘agency’ of women amidst structures of power that Foucault elucidates.
She critiques Foucault for being primarily a structuralist, in missing out the cultural and
contextual connotations of femininity and the active ‘agency’ of women. She stresses the
need to pay attention to the “inner processes” (p.245, Italics original) of women, with
which they make sense of the ‘freedom’ or choice in relation to the external processes of
power and domination. And according to her, Foucault fails to identify these ‘subjective’
processes which form the understanding of women’s agency. She further critiques
Foucault’s position by the lack of subject’s understanding of oppression, thereby closing
any understanding of empowerment and agency of women. Even though Deveaux
criticizes Foucault’s theory of power and pushes for the (feminist) idea of resistance in
comprehending the notions of agency and empowerment, it somewhere aligns with the
understanding of the above thinkers in placing the thrust on the ‘inner processes’ within
the women. It also assumes the woman as a ‘conscious’ subject with a transparent
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understanding of her oppression and marginality, curtailing the sophisticated
understanding that Foucault generates of ‘power’.
The above formulations see woman as a category, an ‘identity’ working towards
agency, underlining the ‘liberal’ notions of choice, emphasizing the ‘internal’ power
within. It interiorizes the ‘problem’ of women’s marginality providing her with the
‘alternative’ of ‘choice’ and as if the oppression of women could be addressed through
exercising one’s choice with ‘responsibility’, missing the larger structural point that
choice is ‘not available’ to all. The ‘experience’ of the woman gets naturalized assuming
that escape from her oppression lies ‘within’ her, losing out on both the complexity of
experience, structures as well as the formation of a subjecthood which is complex,
fragmented, embodiment of ‘desire’ and non-linear.
The problem with the current modules of ‘gender trainings’ that aim to sensitize
women on ‘gender’ and create awareness about their patriarchal lives are illustrative of
this problematic understanding and entry into women’s lives. To view women within
‘conscious’, identitarian frameworks and to enhance their ‘power within’, is to bring in
an unsophisticated feminist critique. The women’s movement and development
interventions in India have in that sense largely failed to identify with the post-
structuralist and French feminist work that understands the women’s lives through
(unconscious) fragmented subject positions. She is not one woman, she is multiple,
relegated as the ‘unknown’ outside but also unknown to herself, oppressed and also the
oppressor and women sitting together as a group cannot and will not change much, of
themselves or the community, unless her contradictory subject positions configure. Will
we ever manage to ask the question, of what is the challenge that feminist politics would
pose to the “mainstream/malestream” (Achuthan, 2009), when development policy
created in World Bank enters the rural households of women in the ‘third world’?
The fundamental point also, to remember here is that all this understanding is
however mediated through the principle of the patriarchal, masculine and capitalist. A
genealogical analysis of the movement of agency and empowerment shows us the shift
which happened from ‘welfare’ (however problematic but held the feminist promise of
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equality) approach towards women to the ‘efficiency’ model (in the 1980’s and 1990’s),
where (reproductive) ‘productivity’ of women became the central point and women
‘acquired’ the status of “active agents”. With the buzz around ‘population control’,
reproductive productivity of women gathered valence and women’s education,
employment and economic (later social and political) decision making became
important empirical markers for women to perform the roles of ‘agents’ (agential
‘lacking’ third world others) specifically through “increase in child survival and reducing
fertility rates”. John (1996) shows this through the World Bank report on Gender and
Poverty (1991), which uses the findings of Shramshakti report (1988) (on the conditions
of women in informal labor), to say that “there is general consensus” among researchers,
activists and government departments in India, that women must be seen “efficient”
economic actors, to reduce poverty. The World Bank, she says, takes the
recommendation of Shramshakti report to provide economic access to women and shifts
the argument made for the immense ‘exploitation’ of women in the informal labor
sector, to that of ‘efficiency’ (p.3074).
Achuthan (2009) points to the problematic nature of agency as a ‘pure’ form of
empowerment of women, which perpetrates patriarchal forces rather than contending
What is economic empowerment? If paid work outside the home fosters freedom from hunger
and illness, this would be the language not only of pure
empowerment/emancipation/independence but also of productivity and power, the clout hitherto
wielded by the sole male breadwinner being undercut by the female contributor to household
income. And it remains a fact that this working woman, while challenging patriarchal structures,
yet remains deeply embedded within, and supportive of, them. Through the normative
responsibility that this typical motherhood brings, she empowers patriarchal family structures in
the very moments that she asks for a voice within them. Her agency is never unmediated through
contexts. All while this is being read in terms of gender empowerment measures. This could be
taken to mean that agency has here been imperfectly achieved, that a further consolidation of
capability or improvement of context will help this goal. One would, however, in critiques of the
liberal position, work with the notion of the impossibility of pure agency or a secure subject from
which it may flow. (Achuthan, 2009:31)
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
She further situates the critique in the problematic nature of ‘inclusion’ of women in
every development policy, to seemingly make women visible everywhere5, to fill in their
otherwise excluded ‘absence’. She calls this ‘inclusion’ of women as a ‘space of
invisibility’ granted by discourses based on ‘systemic exclusions’, to which they must
participate only in ‘silence’. “Women, then, have not been left behind. They have been
re-produced in development as womanrepository of the patriarchal feminine and
lost to women. Needless to say, ‘women’ here stands in for poor women in what we
could still unfashionably call the third world” (Achuthan, 2009: 21-22).
Achuthan further asks the question whether the hegemony of development is in
an over determined relationship with the gender regimes in the third world. “Or that
development is the overarching apparatus through which gender is organized? Or that
gender regimes are the nodal signifier around which development as hegemonic
formation is organized?” (ibid.42).
This is a point where I would also like to place the problem of ‘inclusion’/
‘exclusion’ as Achuthan mentions, and complicate this problem, in “rewriting the logic
of inclusion/exclusion and inside/outside as foregrounding-foreclosure: that is the
foreclosure of world of the third through foregrounding the third world” (Chakrabarti et
al 2016, p. 282). The authors demonstrate the problem in terms of capital’s assignment
of subject positions of the “meek laborer” (pre-capital) and the “revolutionary laborer”
(non-capital) (Callari 2016 as quoted in Chakrabarti et al 2016, p.283). That is to say
that the foregrounding of the ‘empowered’ woman but in actuality, as the
disempowered 6, lacking woman, the “meek laborer” who follows and learns the
5 Perhaps then we must be wary of, what Spivak (2003) calls, the “euphoria” of the political activist, to
bring ‘empowerment’ in women’s lives, the cost of what is ‘lost’ in this “euphoria” of empowerment is
huge. She emphasizes that women’s lives are undergoing a larger “virtual systemic change” translating
into an “abstract average knowledge power”, that is data, which is signaling to a much bigger change
rather than only women’s oppression (p.613, Italics mine).
6 If one would remember the conceptualization that Kabeer (1999) makes of empowerment for which
‘disempowerment’ is a necessary frame of reference. However, the irony is that ‘disempowerment’
becomes the ‘only’ essentialized frame of reference and the woman always is the ‘lacking’ other.
Also when World Bank and the United Nations formulates policy to attend to poverty in the ‘third world’,
it is based on the attribution that women are the worst sufferers of ‘poverty’ with little access to economic,
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
language of gender training7 to become the empowered leader ‘didi’, and to be shown off
to the world as they increase their numbers. It corresponds with what the authors call
the ‘subject position’ of pre-capital, or pre-developed third world’ here. This work
however, shows the contradictory and foreclosed subject positions, which show the
nature of cracks within the empowered, collectivenarrative. Foreclosure then occurs
through the foregrounding of the ‘pre’, lacking, meek, under-developed, to eliminate
certain (revolutionary, unconscious) facets of being and living of the ‘third world’ other
into the ‘outside’ incessantly.. Who/what then, will become the ‘radical’, “revolutionary
empowered Other, resisting the ‘hegemony’ of ‘development’ (yet ‘foreclosed’), as the
‘non-developed’, perhaps the subject who enters through the ‘desire’ of empowerment?
The authors intend to move beyond asking the question of ‘who’ of
inclusion/exclusion, but rather asking the “what, how and why”. The ‘who’ will only lead
us to the ‘World Bank’s’ understanding of the included/excluded woman and never
inaugurate the question of the “subject/political” (ibid. p.284). Perhaps then the
question is not to uncover the ‘power within’ the empowered woman, rather to ask what
constitutes the structures of subject, power, desire in the empowered woman. Because
the usual politics of development foregrounds the woman as ‘disempowered’ and
empowers her in the name of her ‘inclusion’, and as Achuthan has already mentioned,
which is only complicit, systemic exclusion, with the World Bank deciding the terms of
the ‘who’ of inclusion. Chakrabarti et al (2016) helps us to ask the next question, ‘what if
the woman is always already empowered, and if we can see the radical nature of
subject’s ‘desire’, in the ‘foreclosed’, “revolutionary (empowered) Other”, in the
subjecthood of the women’s hegemonic reality. To begin to look at the foreclosed desire
political, legal, social resources due to prejudice and their ‘disempowerment’, prescribing this as the
‘feminization of poverty’.
7 In one of the conversations with women during my stay, one woman called me ‘bechari’, (translating to
being helpless) however she said it in a sense of affection and care, not perhaps as a description of me. But
the immediate response of another woman walking along was “We have learnt in gender training to ‘not’
call any woman ‘bechari’”. And the same woman who had called me that immediately reverted. There
have been many instances where the ‘gender trained’ women have spoken to each other in terms of filing
cases of violence against each other, even in light hearted conversations. It somewhere shows how ‘gender
training’ modules misses the complexity of Language which not only represents ‘nouns’ or ‘identities’ but
creates subjects. It also shows how and what ‘empowered’ women ‘gains’ as meaning from gender training
modules, do they become a ‘masculine’, gender trained woman, who can beat men and file cases against
them, or make any ‘meaning’ of it?
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
of the empowered woman is to move beyond the demand of inclusion/exclusion of the
World Bank (which ‘empower’ the woman within the hegemonic of patriarchy) and to
begin work at the site of the ‘subject’s’ self- transformation and community construction
(ibid.). We will attempt to open up the nature of foreclosure and desire in the last
section however, what one is trying to put forth in this critique of existing discourses is
that the understanding of a psychoanalytic subject in the making of empowered women
is crucial for enabling a critical and radical understanding of ‘empowerment’.
II. A narrative of a ‘woman’ ~ an opening to desire
For this section, my intention has been to remember the women I stayed with, who
enabled and allowed an understanding of empowerment that is informed by their
desire, by their struggle in life, by their politics of a transformative future (however
problematic). They showed me that even though they were the lacking other
foregrounded by development, their unconscious affect (through desire, envy, conflict)
and subject positions demonstrated what remained foreclosed. The following narrative
is of a woman who presumed the role of mother in the relationship that we formed
together in following her life. In her struggles, as I tried to understand her, she opened
up the space of (unconscious) desire in her story of empowerment. The ‘desire’ that I
still struggle to mark, which seems inarticulable, inassimilable, but was as if misplaced
in the usual narrative of her empowerment. I still remain uncertain, whether to mark
this as the desire of empowerment, the desire of being the mother, the desire to ask if
she is ‘desirable’, the desire of my desire or the desire to desire me.
She is a middle-aged woman who has played the role of the ‘Sanghsathi’/
‘Karyakarta’ (Community Resource Person) for the last 8-10 years in Narmada Mahila
Sangh (NMS)8. She lives in the village of Gomtipura, Kesla block, district Hoshangabad,
8 NMS (Narmada Mahila Sangh) is a federation of women which houses women from the Self- help
groups of five blocks in two districts- Hoshangabad and Betul, Madhya Pradesh. It is a linear
‘institutionalized’ structure which was created after the SHG model began to take shape and took control
of the numbers of the women. SHG’s, further quantified and become an ‘institutional’ space for women in
becoming the medium of ‘instruction’ of empowerment. The woman spoken here about is from the
Sukhtwa location, Kesla Block, Hoshangabad district.
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Madhya Pradesh. She is the mother of two sons and draws a little income by doing this
work for the federation (NMS). Her work basically involves initiating the numberof
new SHG’s9, to monitor existing SHG’s in her cluster (a group of villages which is
accorded to each of these workers under their supervision), to attend to official
federation and exposure visits, to plan meetings with outsiders, visitors (sometimes
researchers) for funding or other development organizations, to tell them about their
work and narrate their accounts of ‘success’ and change. She is a woman of limited
resources, with her husband hardly managing menial wages. He sometimes earns as a
daily wager, sometimes through their black smith work but mostly he is just idle as they
do not have any agriculture possibilities. They belong to the government category of
OBC10. She lives with her aging mother-in-law and her sisters-in-law in shared but
separated households.
When I used to visit their house11, she would usually be running around from
morning till evening, to complete the housework, and if she had to go for a meeting in
the nearby village, walking 3kms to 10kms, she would have to rush even faster. I would
often accompany her to these meetings and try to walk ‘with’ her, even though it was
very difficult for an urban sedentary woman like me. I would often be told in these
walking journeys that because I walk slowly they couldn’t walk faster so as to be able to
9 SHG (Self Help groups) a characteristic feature of the new age development patterns, which involves
groups of women in saving and credit systems, now also involving bank linkages with loan facilities. The
SHG’s are now also being appropriated by the government programme of NRLM (National Rural
Livelihoods Mission) which provides these groups of women further loan benefits with less/no interest
rates. “The SHG is the ‘foundation’ on which we stand and without it we will be nowhere”, is often
narrated in women’s group meetings.
10 She had told me “hum lohar hain, OBC mein aate hain” (We are blacksmiths, come under the OBC
category of government reservations). It is important how they described their caste through the
occupation and then the government category, to understand the ‘caste’ implications which played a very
important role in the functioning of the Sangh.
11 As I asked these questions that I pose here, I stayed for close to five months in a block called Kesla,
Hoshangabad district, Madhya Pradesh. The attempt was to understand the ‘patterns’ of empowerment
developed by ‘intervention’ organizations in the area for many years. My stay involved closely following
lives of some women who were ‘trained’ in the processes of ‘empowerment’ and would also struggle to
‘remain’ empowered. My engagement remained in slowly entering the space of the federation, their
activities, practices, the lives of women involved, to understand its functioning processes, its structure, its
engagement with the economic, the state, the development sector and the lives of other women within
themselves, who were said to be apparently ‘together’ and ‘empowered’.
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
remain with my pace, to remain with me. I often used to wonder whether I walk ‘with’
them or rather they walk withme.
Early years
She was the youngest among five brothers and sisters. She was one and half years old
when her father passed away and she hardly remembers her father’s face. They were
very poor, her mother and elder sister used to work as daily wage laborers to be able to
survive. Most of the times, they used to eat Mahua (a local plant used to make alcohol,
also consumed as oil or as fruit), to fill themselves with something. However, she said
that she didn’t have to suffer so much, as she was the youngest in the house; her sisters
always took pains to feed her and school her. Her sisters never studied but they made
her study. The older brothers were never a support to their mother, with no concern
about how things were being managed in the household. When their eldest sister got
married, she mentions that her mother had begun to feel helpless and alone in
managing the house and children. She says, “Maa ke liye beti ka bahut sahara hota
hai”12, also pointing to the longing that she used to always feel for a daughter. She talks
about both her sisters with great sense of gratitude and anguish for the pains that they
took to make her life better than theirs.
They never made me feel’ or experience our poverty, kept me in all proper conditions, no matter
how they stayed. That time when I used to study, I would think that I will become a teacher in a
school. When I was in class 8th, I got a supplementary in two subjects and I had to repeat those
exams. But my older brother didn’t let me go for the exams and neither did he let me repeat the
grade. I used to cry a lot, and ask them to let me study, but they didn’t agree. I felt my dream to
become a teacher was lost. I felt a great pain in my inability to fulfill my dream and I used to feel
suffocated inside myself. It used to pinch me that my mother (and my sisters) suffered so much
to make me reach here, and now there’s no meaning left of their struggles. I used to always feel
miserable for my mother. This one time, my elder brother had a huge fight with my mother and
he threw all her stuff outside the house and asked her to leave. I left with her and for one year we
both lived in a small cow shed space near the village. My brothers or their wives never intervened
as to why our mother was being thrown out, someone who did everything for them. But by that
12 “The daughter is a huge support to her mother”
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time I also had gathered courage and will, to take care of my mother on my own, and we started to
live separately and stayed like that for almost a year. I used to feel very saddened by the condition
of my mother, she never got any happiness in her life, neither from her husband nor her
She remembers her marriage as a time when she struggled and labored only because she
was a woman, ‘bought’ in through marriage. She recalls her early years into the married
household as filled with deep distress and only labor. She was married into a family of
13-14 members and she had to work all day without any support. She had to also take
part in agricultural activities which she had never done before and had to then learn.
Her husband and other members of the family were not concerned with her pain or
sorrows, but only bothered that she should be able to do their work. She remembers that
in the first year she used to cry a lot and long for her mother, but there was no one who
could understand her pain; she was very lonely. One day, when her husband was going
to the woods to get firewood, she asked him to burn her in the same wood. When her
first child was born, she had to do all the household labor, even when she felt physically
weak after delivering her son. Her father-in-law was very violent and abusive and hurl
on her with mother and sister abuses. One day she said she got very angry and answered
him back saying,
I never saw my father, my mother and sisters are everything to me, so never abuse me in the
name of my mother and sister. You can beat me if we have done something wrong but don’t abuse
me. Even then, my husband never stood up for me to tell my father-in-law that he shouldn’t abuse
me. He was least bothered about my sons, about their (medical) expenses or their well- being, he
even said that they are your children; you have to bear for them. I used to beg for medical help
when my children would get ill. That was the time I realized that I will have to do everything on
my own, and take care of my children and move forward with my own ‘will’.
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The Years in-to ‘development
In 2001 PRADAN13 initiated setting up of SHGs in our village and that was the first time I came
out of my house and heard stories of other women suffering like me; it gave me strength to bear
my own pain. I felt that if other women can manage and survive, so can I. This moment was an
‘opportunity’ for me to learn, progress, and to build my children’s future. By joining the SHGs we
started to get trainings, learning new information and started going to other villages to help other
Once we had to go to Chitrakoot for a training session, I was ready to leave in the morning, when
my husband said that if ‘you are going, do not come back to my house’. It was another shock for
me, as I had nowhere else to go; I couldn’t go to my mother as she was old and had nothing left
with her. I said I will not go, but I told my husband that from now on, I will not step out of the
house; you will get everything that is required to run the house - water, fuel, fodder. I didn’t even
go out for doing labor work. Ultimately, then, my husband reconciled and asked me to take over
the work and go out. I did everything that I could do to teach my children, get them what they
needed. It was a struggle that continued from my early years till today. I have gathered a lot of
strength from the women of SHGs to move ahead, even amidst struggles. I have reached that
stage where whatever my children ask of me, I will never turn back, that is the power of women.
Today, my husband has become subservient to me; he waits for me to return back home and he
supports me in the household work. It took 15 years to change him but it was not easy. I couldn’t
become a teacher in a school but today I think I have become a kind of a teacher only, where I
educate other women about being a part of SHGs, of new information and benefits and policies
that they could avail. ‘I am’ someone for them, for these women.
Once, when we had a discussion around our fears, she said that the biggest fear in her
life is of being oustedfrom her family. She also works as a ‘paralegal’ worker for the
Sangh, where she has been ‘trained’ to help other women, who are confined and
troubled by the incidents of violence (sexual, domestic), marital problems, to obtain
13 PRADAN (Professionsal Assistance for Development Action) is the development organization in this
area which initiated development projects and SHGs in this area and set up a federation structure,
Narmada Mahila Sangh (NMS).
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
legal aid. From filing police complaints to providing psychological “counseling”14 to the
survivors, to supporting women through the legal process, the ‘paralegal’ workers get
trained to ‘help’ other women in abusive and violent relationships. This process is
however dangerous, as they always have the threat of being raped, violated, or killed.
The community (men) carry the clout of disturbing the familial lives of these other
women (who are being provided support) and that of the community. In the same
conversation, another woman had said that we always have a ‘sword’ hanging over our
She fears that anyone can come to her house and say things to her husband.
I know that I am not doing anything wrong, but one never knows how the other person receives
the situation. We go outside, sit among men, there’s always a fear that lurks around inside that if
someone goes and says something to my husband he will stop me from going outside. I always
have to be cautious when I am going out; people make all kinds of comments. People do not
understand what we do.
Self and Other
My relationship with her was of love and care. She cared for me like a daughter and
slowly her need to become like a mother to me, increased. She would often say that she
always longed for a daughter. She had posited her ‘desire’ of a daughter in different
‘daughterly’ figuresthe daughter of her sister-in-law who died young, another
development practitioner, who was a woman close to my age and worked with her in the
two years that she stayed, and now in me she found another daughter. She would often
fondly narrate instances of Suman15 when she stayed with her, what they would do, what
she meant for her and how much she remembers her. She had begun to call me ‘beti’ or
‘modi16 with love and affection. The prospect of desire had never opened for me until
14 They use the term counseling as they have been ‘trained’ in the paralegal trainings, to ‘counsel’ or
support the survivor of rape, sexual violence. However what that could imply in a complex way is unsure
except that it means to help and support the survivor to release emotional turmoil and distress and also
sometimes to aid in ‘testimony’.
15 Name changed- the female practitioner
16 Modi meaning daughter, called locally.
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
before that one night I stayed with her. We had spent the day in a town bazaar and I had
bought some gifts for her as it was the beginning of the year. Even though she wouldn’t
take it from me, because I was ‘her daughter’, I insisted that she kept those. While I
insisted, I found deep care, compassion, and perhaps a sense of guilt in her eyes. Later
in the evening, when she was cooking for the night and I had intended to stay with her,
we both sat near the chulha and she said to me, “I feel bad that I can’t give you anything
(gifts). I wish I had money then I could also buy you things”. When I heard her words I
felt a deep sense of guilt that I made her feel this way. I ended up exposing my class
‘privilege’ no matter how much I tried to under-weigh it. I felt that I had made a big
mistake in the expression of my care towards her. However, in that moment, I tried to
comfort her by saying that “You always do so much for me, can’t I give you this much”.
She just smiled and said nothing. I could sense the motherly love in her eyes that she
carried for me. She was making daal-baati17 that night for dinner, because I had come
and also as it was New Year’s Eve.
We kept talking till late on the cold winter night, even though she was used to
sleeping early after being tired by the day’s work. She told me stories about the work she
had been doing, the journey of learning and growing as part of the Sangh, of the legal
cases that she has handled as a ‘paralegal’ worker. We both were to sleep on the same
cot18 and her husband on the adjacent cot. We were also, of course, sharing the blanket.
In the middle of the night as and when I would shift sides, she would hold me tightly
from the waist and say “soja meri beti”19. After a point she clutched me tightly with her
legs around me, and I could not sleep. I wanted to let go of this (m)Otherly grasp but the
bodies were too intimately tied up. I just lay straight, trying to avoid the grasp, keeping
my eyes shut. I felt scared that a motherly grasp (affection perhaps) would turn into a
17 A food locally enjoyed by most people here.
18 The thought of sharing the cot and being in proximity of another woman and her touch had begun to
scare me. In my stay over 5 months, I had become quite attached to some of these women of the Sangh
and they would often ask me to come and stay with them, but I would keep avoiding it, because of this fear
of ‘closeness’, of ‘touch’. This has perhaps been my struggle with ‘desire’ and an intimate touch, because as
I have never been touched by the (m)Other, I fear touch acutely.
19 Sleep my daughter
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‘desiring’ body, and that ‘desire’ would hysterically leak open from the touch that held
I am reminded of Lacan’s notion of desire here,
Lacan is crucial about the phallus is that it remain veiled- we don’t actually know what it is. As
such it doesn’t have the status of an object. It is only the fact that it is veiled that makes it so
potent a signifier of desire, because by being veiled it suggests both that there is something there,
but that it is not clear what it is…the hysteric uses the veil to stimulate desire, knowing full well
that if the veil is removed, desire is completely extinguished. “it is not worth your while opening
my hysteric bodice, because you will not find the phallus there, but if I put my hand to my bodice,
it is so that you may designate, behind my bodice, the phallus, namely the signifier of desire”
(Seminar V, p.11)20
Is the woman probably asking, che voi (what do you want?)21. What did she veil in her
touch, the touch of that one night that became unforgettable? What is the veil that is
unveiled in the face of development policy but yet remains veiled in the (unconscious)
fears and desire that the woman carries? What is the form, nature, shape of that veil of
desire that unfolds in the form of love, care and touch in the dead of the night?22 The
veil that ‘forecloses’ secretly the ‘desiring’ woman.
20 As quoted in -
21 What do you want from me? Can you contain my desire? Can you contain my touch? You are here to
‘empower’ me, but you are scared of me, of my desire. I am the ‘lack’, then how could you not endure my
‘touch’. I am the ‘excess’ of the ‘lack’ that you also carry, I am the excess that is veiled in ‘lack’.
22 stay with me
talk to me
the darkness wont scare you
I will take care of you
the night will give us 'space'
the day has only labour to give
we can talk
in the 'space' of darkness
when night falls
you have come from far
to know about me
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In the morning when we woke up, she wouldn’t let me get up early, but I insisted.
She was ecstatic like a young mother about her new born child, to have me around her.
And every time I would see her like this, I would feel anxious. I didn’t know how to not
feel ‘mother-ed’ by her23. What was the relation between my anxiety of the (m)Other
and her touch? Between mother who is the signifier of ‘lack’ in psychoanalysis and the
‘third world’ woman who is the representative of lackingin development.
I could not face her for a very long time. She wanted me to stay with her. I had to
refuse because the urge of my anxiety was very huge. In my thoughts she had become
the despised (hysteric) woman, who I wanted to escape. She said that I have become
quiet and closed. I didn’t know how to deal with this turmoil and perhaps all my
knowledge and empathy had failed me to confront this state of being. Perhaps the
woman wanted to become ‘one’ with me, in her bodily collapse into me (diffused and yet
dispersed, Irigaray, 1985). Had I (the researcher, the woman) become the signifier of
desire for her? Was the relationship with the woman signifying of the fundamental,
ontological non-relation’ of being24?
or to know about yourself
so then stay in the night
in the dark with me
the darkness will give us secrets to share
desires to be led
in be-ing in the dark
I can share with you
the ghosts of my be-ing
my 'empowered' being
I will tell you what it means
to continue living in the violence
of living and surviving
23 She even said once, that she had been looking for me like a cow looks for her lost calf in a confused
24 The non-relationship gives, dictates the conditions of what ties us, which is to say that it is not a simple,
indifferent absence, but an absence that curves and determines the structure with which it appears. The
non-relation is not the opposite of the relation, it is the inherent non-logic (a fundamental antagonism)
of the relations that are possible and existing (Zupancic 2016, p.89).
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
How have we then understood this foreclosed reality of woman’s desire
mediating through the touch of bod(y)ies? What and how have we buried this notion of
‘desire’, that it buries itself in the touch of an(other) body?
What one had conceived of as reality is a fiction, a world of fantasy (as in Lacan), a delusive
appearance of things (as in Marx). It is in fact a “delusional cover” for that which has been foreclosed.
What has been foreclosed, on the other hand, is real. What has been foreclosedclass and, by default,
world of the thirdis a necessary but disavowed fragment of reality and could be the ground for
subject formation. But such subject formation grounded in the Lacanian real or the foreclosed is not
obvious or automatic, because the crux of the hegemonic is premised on the interminable “keeping at
bay,” “putting to burial,” or keeping in a crypt the foreclosed (Abraham and Torok 1986). (Chakrabarti
et al, 2016: 286; Italics mine)
The delusion of the ‘empowered’ woman, in that sense, deludes her desire from
emerging and remaining foreclosed, to which the authors refer to as “ground for subject
formation”. However, the caveat remains in the foreclosed ‘desire’ as the (unconscious)
secret of the empowered woman, secreted by the hegemonic of development through
investing in the empowerment of woman. The ‘crypt’ of desire seeks thus to ask and
complicate the question of psychoanalysis and politics. As the woman talks to me
through her desire, it gives me a glimpse of a ‘desire’ unnamed, a touch that disturbs me,
that makes me anxious. Why is there anxiety about her touch, does the ‘secretof desire
make me feel extreme anxiety? Because perhaps we are scared of the foreclosed desire
which has remained a secret? Or of the ‘hegemony’ of the structure which plays the role
of secreting out woman’s desire?
III. Thoughts on touch, desire and politics
Perhaps with an understanding of desire as a foreclosed secret of the woman, will we
move beyond the ‘lack’ assigned to her, keeping her ‘outside’ the universal? Will her
touch transform anything in us, for us? “Disregarding desire, one constructs a reality
that is real tight, that is no longer self-external. One paves the way for the conception of
a self-enclosed society build on the repression of a named desire” (Copjec, 1994: 14). In
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
this section, I will attempt to open up touchand ‘desire’ through Irigaray and Lacan
with an attempt to draw, where and how lackand foreclosure act upon/through desire
and how can one go beyond the lack, maybe through the metaphor of the “two lips” that
Irigaray provides.
For Irigaray (1985), the woman touches’ herself all the time, without any
mediation as her genitals are formed as such in the form of “two lips” in continuous
contact with each other. “Thus within herself she is always two- but not divisible into
one(s)- that caress each other” (p.24).
Woman's genitals are simply absent, masked, sewn back up inside their "crack." This organ which
has nothing to show for itself also lacks a form of its own. And if woman takes pleasure precisely
from this incompleteness of form which allows her organ to touch itself over and over again,
indefinitely, by itself, that pleasure is denied by a civilization that privileges phallomorphism. …
The one of form, of the individual, of the (male) sexual organ, of the proper name, of the proper
meaning ... supplants, while separating and dividing, that contact of at least two (lips) which
keeps woman in touch with herself, but without any possibility of distinguishing what is touching
from what is touched. (Irigaray, 1985: 26)
Does Irigaray help us to locate ‘touch’ in the most intimate, closest part of the woman’s
body, the two lips which are not One but/and are always in touch. The diffused and yet
scattered nature of women’s pleasure makes her desire the “remainder” of the truth of
desire because as Irigaray says, it is ‘improper’ to talk/speak of desire, the woman’s
Is it this “incompleteness of formor “lack a form of its own”, this negation of
pleasure, by the model(s) of One, also of development that dis(mis)places the desireof
woman altogether. Lacan sees this ‘lack of form’ in the woman as “not having” (lack-ing)
the phallus (Dhar, 2009), which constructsthe sexual difference (constructivist), the
model of two-ness, the two fundamentally in difference (beings), constructed within (the
‘given’ phallic order of) language (as opposed to the “essentialist” understanding which
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
also marks the (development) masculine as the essence and woman as the ‘lacking
other) (ibid.178). This model denies woman ‘an essence’, she is not-whole because the
system of phallus is the ‘point de capiton’, and ‘not having’ the phallus constitutes lack
in her subjectivity. So, even in the inauguration of differenceit slides within the
essentialist nature of phallic subjectivity making the Phallus always already within a
given standard. This constitutive subjectivity of the woman placed in lackattributes
her, in psychoanalysis as the “absolute/unknown” as opposed to the third world ‘lacking
other’ of development. The universal of the masculine puts the feminine “outside” of this
universal (ibid. 179).
Irigaray opposes this model of “phallomorphism”, which denies woman’s own
‘touch’ to herself, placing her as the “outside”. She contends that because woman is put
under erasure within the systems of One and also sexual difference, there is no
possibility left to distinguish between “what is touching from what is touched”, between
touching and what is always already touched (the two lips), between the universal
masculine desire and the particular feminine touch.
Further, desire is also put as the signifier of ‘lack’, which lies in the idea of the
signifier of the phallus, repressed, unconscious, as the impossible object of desire
(Hirvonen, 2016). “Its signified is lack and, thus, it is the signifier of lack, hole, and
absence” (p.206). Desire moves from one signifier to another, to find the possibility to
fill the ‘lack’, only to fill the subject with ‘lack’. Would this desire take us to the ‘woman’
subject, the meaning of which, Irigaray presents, not through ‘lack’ but as meaning in
the “contiguous” touch-ing upon.
One would have to listen with another ear. as if hearing an “other meaning” always in the process
of weaving itself, of embracing itself with words but also of getting rid of words in order not to
become fixed, congealed in them. For if "she" says something, it is not, it is already no longer,
identical with what she means. What she says is never identical with anything, moreover; rather,
it is contiguous. It touches (upon). (Irigaray, 1985:29)
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
Perhaps what Irigaray points out to is the nature of ‘desire’, to the nature of ‘woman’, to
the nature of the ‘multiple’ in the woman. She seems to be asking us to remain closely to
the feminine touch, a “touching upon”, to be able to begin to reach desire. Perhaps she is
attempting to take us beyond ‘lack’ and remaining intimately close to the feminine
‘body’ marking the meaning of desire of the woman with her “contiguous touch”. Did the
woman in the night’s dead wanted to ‘touch’ me to be ‘heard’? To ask me, “What is my
desire”25? To be also asked, “Am I desirable”? To be ‘touched’? Does she ask me, if I can
read her desire? Her incomprehensible, inassimilable, foreclosed, desire. What is it to
be touched in the ‘nakedness’ of bodies, asking something that development can never
imagine to be asked for, as it is too occupied with the appearances, representations,
identities. Will (territorialized) development always fail to notice, what Deleuze and
Guattari call the ‘flows of desire’, the flows through which action and thought can be
proliferated, expanded, transformed.
How will we move beyond the logic of ‘lack’ to the logic of ‘finitude’? (Moi, 2004
as quoted in Dhar, 2009) How will we move beyond the logic of One, the logic of two-
ness to the logic of multiple, ‘multiplicity’ that Irigaray is perhaps suggesting in the
touch of the feminine body. “We haven't been taught, nor allowed, to express
multiplicity. To do that is to speak improperly. Of course, we might-we were supposed
to?-exhibit one "truth" while sensing, withholding, muffling another” (Irigaray 1985,
210). How will the woman’s desire as the remainderalso remind us of the reminder of
her secret desire? They have wrapped us for so long in their desires, we have adorned
ourselves so often to please them, that we have come to forget the feel of our own skin.
Removed from our skin, we remain distant. You and I, apart(ibid. 217-218). Does the
woman who sleeps with me point to the “unspeakable” (‘foreclosed’) limit of desire
(language) in her touch and also to the “unspoken” (hegemonic) of language of
development? (Dhar 2009: 181-182).
So to inaugurate psychoanalysis in development is to enter through (sexual)
difference, the difference of/within the two, however also by reinstating the prejudice of
25 To desire is to answer the question ‘What does the Other desire?’ (Lacan)
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
One, through the given-ness of the phallus. To inaugurate psychoanalysis is to open up
‘desire’ as the ‘lack’ (of woman), desire signified as ‘lack’, in the inability to reach the
impossible object, the phallic signifier. So perhaps the ‘desire’ of woman will be ‘lack’
and to revolve within this ‘lack’, of ‘not having/being’ the phallus. While Irigaray helps
us move beyond, outside the ‘lack’ by placing the feminine touch, the question that one
wants to ask, can the “outside” where the woman is relegated in psychoanalysis be
transformed through the (critical) political? How will the critical, political,
transformative take us to desire, to the revolutionary woman Other; the critical political
which addresses difference as ‘difference’ and works around the transformation.
Can development begin to be that ‘space/place’ where psychoanalysis and politics
emerge, the desire of the subject and the desire of transformation? Would
‘empowerment’ absolve itself from the ‘trap’ of the excluded inclusion, from the
“delusional lid” of the disempowered third world? How will the real, foreclosed, woman
(with her desire) ‘emerge’? With the inauguration of desire’ in development both in
terms of the subject’s intimate and transformative making, will development become a
psychoanalytically-political space or a politically-psychoanalytic space? Will the location
of ‘feminist politics’ transform in the understanding of (foreclosed) subject-positions
(with)in desire, touch, body or will it side with the idea of subverting within the
‘complicit’ powers? What will be the politics which will keep alive the intimacy of desire,
struggles and yet ‘politicises’ the field of subject(s) of development? Achuthan (2009)
writes, “women can interrupt the performative production of ‘woman’ as a universal,
while yet attempting a becoming” (p.6). The psychoanalytic in desire and the political of
desire, will perhaps interrupt the inclusive-ness of empowerment as such, creating
‘empowerment’ as a rethought “outside” of/in the discourse of development. This work
perhaps is an effort, in asking the question of the desire of woman, to opening up the
possibility of raising the question of the psychoanalytic (in development) and (feminist)
political in the empowerment of woman subject(s).
CUSP / Vol.1 / No.2 / 2016 Gurpreet Kaur
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(Un)doing Marxism from the Outside Anjan Chakrabarti, Anup Dhar, and Stephen Cullenberg The essay’s focus is on the outside. The urgency of rethinking an outside to (global) capitalism stems from the need for critical reflection on two sets of ideas incumbent upon the South: one set marked by globality and the other marked by a continuum of terms such as “local,” “third world,” and “pre-capital.” Such a critical reflection takes the essay to a rethinking of the given script of Marxism from the outside, reengaging with advanced Marxian reflections on questions of “hegemony” and psychoanalytic exegeses on questions of “foreclosure” (verwerfung). Interrogation of extant theorizations on hegemony and foreclosure lead both to more abstract considerations on the Lacanian symbolic and the real and also to apparently more concrete reflections on “global capitalism” and its outside: the “world of the third.” Other than defamiliarizing the given script of capitalist development, this has the potential to open up new avenues to think of politics and subject. Key Words: Class, Foreclosure, Hegemony, Third World, World of the Third Anjan Chakrabarti, Anup Dhar & Stephen Cullenberg (2016) "(Un)doing Marxism from the Outside" in Rethinking Marxism, 28:2, 276-294
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This article discusses a possible dialogue between Marxism and psychotherapy based on the letters between Louis Althusser and Jacques Lacan, exchanged between 1963 and 1969. This dialogue forms the ground for a dialogue between what has come to be known as the “critical tradition” and the “clinical tradition” which, in turn, becomes the ground for imagining what could be called “psycho-social studies”. From the letters, this article explores three thematic angles: the angle of the “old” as Foucauldian askesis; the angle of the “beyond” as Marxian/Freudian theoretical form, or, put another way, the angle of the “break” as internal transition from ideology to science; and the angle of the “forbidden” as the Lacanian Real. In doing so, the article reflects on how these three angles could create conditions and conduits for a dialogue between post-metaphysical understandings of Marxism and psychotherapy. Copyright © 2014 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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This paper looks at the question of ‘sexual difference’ within psychology and considers what Lacan does with this question. Thereafter it looks at what the perspective of ‘critical psychology’ can do with Lacan’s understanding of sexual difference. In this sense, this paper is a defense (focusing on the promise) and a critique (focusing on the problem) of Lacan. Section I of the paper is an extension of the Lacanian take on sexual difference into the space of psychology, a space driven hitherto by either the biological, or the rather conservative understanding of sexual difference. Section II tries to show how Lacan, in spite of some brilliant insights - insights that give to psychology a distinct spin - could not exit the game, for he is foiled again and again by the ferocious two-fisted red-blooded Phallus. However, to look at the question of sexual difference, one first needs to look at the question of the ‘subject’ in general, and the ‘sexed subject’ in particular; and it is on the question of the subject that psychology and Lacanian psychoanalysis would have to part ways, for there is a “fundamental incompatibility between Lacan’s work and psychological views of the individual subject”.