Our body, our first territory, is unknown to us. We are not encouraged to get to know it. We are not taught about its parts, especially girls, especially genitals. And because everything is so internal, it is hard to see, to understand its cycles. When adulthood starts and processes like menstruation arrive, confusion comes too. It is a shocking moment; I remember I cried. You know it is the start of something polemical. You know you should feel shame. But you do not know why.
Our bodies live in a dilemma. They are our home, our communication vessels, our means of expression, but on the other hand, they are our cage. Their aspect positions us in certain corners of society, and society expects a certain behaviour from them.
[…] how the body can be for women both a source of identity and at the same time a prison.
“Caliban and the Witch”
Patriarchy is a social, political, and economic system in which (cis) men hold power and authority. Out of the 200,000 years humans have existed, only an estimate of between 4,000 and 12,0002 years have been lived in accordance with this system. Frederick Engels’ theory is that when agriculture was born, so was the concept of property, parallel to the concepts of marriage, family name, and heritage. And due to the biological differences between male and female reproductive organs, where people with uteruses are the ones capable of producing offspring, the position of socioeconomic and political power went to men. Since the female body is the impregnated subject, the only way to have control over her body is by appropriating it. This way it is ensured that the heritage will go to the “right” owners.3
For a small percentage of humanity’s time on Earth, patriarchy and capitalism have been the socio-political-economic systems under which a large number of humans (including me and my ancestors) have lived. In Caliban and the Witch, Silvia Federici speaks about the beginning of capitalism, which developed after feudalism, and which promotes gender and economic inequality. In this analogy, Caliban4 represents the proletariat, and the Witch represents women. The metaphor demonstrates the tight links between gender and class inequality.
In her work, Silvia Federici, who is a feminist activist and scholar with extensive research on the medieval witch-hunts in Europe and their relationship to the surge of capitalism, places the body at the center of political activism: the body as a ground of confrontation and resistance. Several of the references I point out throughout this thesis share this belief and, through their own creative means, join the feminist5 movements.
“[T]he political lesson that we can learn from Caliban and the Witch is that capitalism, as a social-economic system, is necessarily committed to racism and sexism.”6 And this is a belief that anti-racist activists also emphasize. In the conversation “Against Racism: A Constant Fight”7 political activist Angela Davis, writer of Women, Race, and Class, could not stress more how important it is to create new systems that substitute global capitalism.
Marginalized groups are the system’s main victims when it comes to the politics of the body. Women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, Indigenous peoples, the differently abled, senior citizens, and religious minorities, among others, do not fulfill the body requirements that are needed to survive in our capitalist, colonialist, patriarchal society. Like Rosi Braidotti would say, we are not all the Vitruvian man.8 People are judged by their bodies: abilities, aesthetics, reproductive capabilities. Your anatomy will determine which activities you get to perform. All the myths human has created to support its belief systems have rules around the body. There are strict customs on how to behave, move, sit, walk, eat, look.
There is something we have lost in our insistence of the body as something socially constructed and performative.
“In Praise of the Dancing body – Beyond the Periphery of the Skin”,
Judith Butler discusses the idea of performativity in gender. In a conversation at the Dance Discourse Project in San Francisco 2013, she correlates our day-to-day life to the performances happening on stage, only to remind us how far the stage extends. She compares performance art, where the body is “the canvas”, to our daily morning rituals when applying multiple chemical products to our bodies. She poses the question “Can you even have a gender without being a body artist?”10 to reveal the irony behind our activities.
Our whole lives (for some of us even before being born) we have been assigned a gender in accordance to our biological sex: male or female. From the beginning of our existence, we are told which roles we have to fulfill: if born with a uterus, the role of nurturer; if born without, the role of provider. This is a tradition, which fortunately is starting to disintegrate, that can be attributed to the imposition of cisheteropatriarchy.
The majority of the world is patriarchal. There are only some matriarchal communities left in a couple of Indigenous cultures. It is hard to imagine a different world, but similar to all the other social configurations human has created, it is a myth, and myths can be rewritten.
1 Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2004, p. 16.
2 Its beginning is unclear.
3 Schulte, Elizabeth. “Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State”. Socialist Worker, 12 May 2008, https://socialistworker.org/2008/05/12/origin-family-private-property. Accessed February 2021.
4 A Shakespearean character: half-human, half-monster.
5 Including queer, anti-racist, environmental, and body-positivity movements.
6 Federici, Silvia. Caliban and the Witch. Autonomedia, 2004, p. 17.
7 CCCB. “Against Racism: A Constant Fight | Angela Davis”. Youtube, conversation with activists Basha Changuerra, Jeffrey Abé Pans, Marra Junior, Isabelle Mamadou, 2020, https://youtu.be/hU5vqr46G-E. Accessed December 2020.
8 Kaaitheater. “WOWMEN!20 | Rosi Braidotti on Posthumanism”. Vimeo, conversation with philosopher Laurent De Sutter, 2020, https://vimeo.com/395428847. Accessed March 2020.
9 Federici, Silvia. Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism. PM Press, 2020, p. 119.
10 CounterPULSE. “Dance Discourse Project #16 | Judith Butler”. Internet Archive, conversation with Julie Phelps, 2020, https://archive.org/details/DanceDiscourseProject167182013. Accessed May 2020.