Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa
Duke University Press, 2020
Interviewed by Iana Robitaille
Naminata Diabate is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. She earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Texas at Austin in 2011, with portfolios in African and African Diaspora Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies. Dr. Diabate was awarded the 2012-14 Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Diversity Fellowship by Cornell’s Department of Comparative Literature. Her work takes up questions of postcoloniality, biopolitics, sexuality and pleasure, and performances of resistance. Naked Agency: Genital Cursing and Biopolitics in Africa, published this March, is Dr. Diabate’s debut monograph. The book examines the proliferation and reproduction of mature women’s naked protest across the African continent and through a variety of cultural genres. She recently spoke with Iana Robitaille about the project’s conception and development. This interview is published in two parts. Part One is below; read Part Two by visiting Texas Studies in Language and Literature on Facebook.
IR: In your introduction, you define ‘naked agency’ as “both a concept and a reading praxis.” How did you come to discover naked agency as an analytic?
ND: ‘Naked agency’ emerged unexpectedly as a theoretical framework. When I set out to investigate mature women’s defiant self-exposure, I was mainly interested in understanding the proliferation of this gesture—in news media and other sources—in contemporary African cities. My initial point of departure was the novel, but the paucity of internationally circulating fiction on the gesture posed a challenge. I therefore shook off the tyranny of the text and began exploring other cultural products: narrative and documentary film, autobiography, visual art, and socio-media material. From these investigations it became clear that the gesture and its effects are far from simple.
When a woman decides or is made to decide to strip naked in protest, she perhaps navigates a host of seemingly contradictory feelings—desperation, joy, disappointment, shame, exhilaration, triumph. (We already find ourselves on complex terrain with the term “decide” and its many valences.) This insight emerged, for example, from my reading of the 1995 short documentary Uku Hamba ‘Ze (To Walk Naked), which depicts the 1990 female naked protest in South Africa. The protest and its manifestations reveal a cycle of contestation, exploitation, and misreading that may differ from the women’s original plan. In this cycle, the agency of the women, their targets, and other stakeholders—including the filmmakers and myself as a scholar—are simultaneously co-constitutive, instrumentalized, precarious, and triumphant. Such a dynamic of openness and fluctuation lies at the core of most instances of defiant disrobing.
It is this movement that I seek to capture with the putatively oxymoronic term ‘naked agency,’ whereby “naked” is formulated as exposure and vulnerability and “agency” as the ability to act or react intentionally. Rather than pin down naked protest as the terrain of any stable meaning and feeling, I suggest we think of it as a shortcut that requires the decipherment of deeper cultural and societal accounts of what counts as nakedness, privacy, violence, shame, power, and desperation.
IR: Can you elaborate on what stands to be gained from ‘naked agency’ as a “reading praxis”? ND: As an interpretive praxis naked agency provides multiple advantages, at the level of the phenomenon of defiant disrobing itself and at the disciplinary levels of Comparative Literature and African Studies. One is the freedom to trace news and representations of mature women’s collective defiant disrobing across various sites. This interdisciplinary approach, which I call “open reading,” provides a deeper account of the dynamic cycles of power and vulnerability mentioned above.
A case in point: the three iterations (1994, 1996, and 2007) of Bruce Onobrakpeya’s visual artwork Nudes and Protest. In 1994, Onobrakpeya created a plastography to stage how elderly women of the Niger Delta express their grievances against unrestrained rule and mismanagement of natural resources. The artwork was prescient: 2002 saw dramatic protests in the Niger Delta against multinational oil companies, and women’s threats to strip naked brought the events to international attention. Each of Onobrakpeya’s subsequent versions offers an alternative illustration of the protest, the second (1996) of seemingly more fearful women, the third (2007) a bolder palette and more active female figures. Of course, it is possible to read each of these texts on its own terms (since I discovered them over years as they became available online). But by reading “openly,” I am able to bring the works into dialogue to showcase both the artist’s maturing relationship with nudity and the threat of contestation within Nigerian petroculture.
IR: On the topic of archive, yours is particularly impressive in both its geographic and its generic scope. In your project, you document dozens of naked protests of Francophone and Anglophone sub-Saharan Africa in the past century. But as you’ve mentioned, you also read representations across documentary and narrative film, news and social media, visual art, and literature. Can you elaborate a little bit on your methodology and the importance of drawing on such a wide body of material?
The choice of a wide body of material was my way of sidestepping several challenges, some of which I mentioned earlier. These include the lack of a rich archive in any one genre and site, the paucity of fictional texts, and the need to broaden the contours of Comparative Literature. A practice documented since medieval times in the Mali empire, the aggressive disrobing of mature women continues today to provoke intense debates in newspapers, pictorial arts, oral tradition, narrative film, documentaries, novels, and autobiographies, as well as on social media (e.g., YouTube, Facebook, listservs, and personal blogs). Yet, no single genre or site provides sufficient data to do justice to this important gesture.
IR: If it opens the door for increased and widened scholarship on naked protest, Naked Agency also addresses what you see as several inadequacies in the extant scholarship. What are some of these lacunae within the field?
ND: The first weakness (which spans literary criticism, anthropology, political science, and sociology) is an impulse to uncritically uphold hypersexualized images of disrobing women as sovereign subjects. This postcolonial “romanticization framework,” as I call it, is often anxious to correct disempowering images in local and global media by overemphasizing African women’s agency. Though necessary and novel, this approach and its chosen terms—“genital cursing,” “female genital power”—suggest historical and social fixity and overlook the temporariness of resistant disrobings. In contrast, “naked agency” names a complex and unstable gesture and its effects—open strategies with positions that are constantly subjected and emerging.
Another impulse is the foregrounding of only the women’s reactions, whereas Naked Agency attends also to those of the women’s targets and other stakeholders. My reading of female ritual cursing during the September 2001 Gambian presidential elections is one such case. Days after news of the women’s ritual became public, religious leaders from multiple denominations vehemently condemned the women and the rituals as “public indecency,” “anti-Islamic,” “backward,” “irreligious,” “anti-society and anti-cultural,” “vile and repugnant.” The leaders all called for the arrest and trial of the women and urged the government to clamp down on this event to dissuade its recurrence. Although not the designated targets of the women’s ritual, these actors became major stakeholders whose reactions deserve attention. This attention highlights the women’s unmistakable determination to employ a uniquely controversial ritual and, I speculate, that the acerbic attacks may have a dissuasive effect on future rituals of this kind. IR: You repeatedly stress the instability, or “temporariness,” of female agency in such enactments of nakedness. I am therefore curious to think about naked agency as it relates to questions of embodied futurity. To what extent may the female bodies in these instances be sites for speculative resistance? What room does a contingent naked agency leave for speculation, or does it leave room only for speculation—“for deliberating on political subjectivity,” as you put it?
ND: I am amazed at the connection you have established between naked agency and futurity and interested in your notion of speculative resistance. For me, resistance is always already speculative—an unending march of flow and counter-flow, of force and counter-force. In that account of resistance, I inscribe myself within a Foucauldian framework that understands power not as a stable entity but rather as a set of open strategies. In that sense, power and its supposed opposite are co-constitutive. Neither power nor resistance belongs uniquely to the strong or the weak. Just as the weak resist, so do the strong.
To read Part Two of this interview, visit Texas Studies in Language and Literature on Facebook.