Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Lawrence Cohen: The Gender of the Number, the Gender of the Card

On March 5th, Lawrence Cohen, renowned cultural anthropologist and professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley, will be speaking on “The Gender of the Number, the Gender of the Card: On the (Im)materiality of Governance and Biometric Identity in India.” CSW Associate Director Rachel Lee invited Prof Cohen to speak in CSW's Life (Un)Ltd. series because his work is important to her own research and pedagogical interests. “I regularly teach Cohen’s 1999 essay, 'Where It Hurts,'” she says. This essay addresses the topic of “Indian women from the Chennai slums who sell one of their kidneys in order to get their family out of debt. He argues that when 'bioethicists' focus merely on the voluntariness of the transaction—i.e., the exchange of a body part for a monetary sum—they miss the broader structures compelling these women to 'have to' sell their tissues, structures that include gendered relations within the family and the perpetuity of debt. He also wrote a memorable essay titled 'Operability,' which among other topics addressed the non-normativity of hijra politicians—their lack of biological children—as counterintuitively increasing their political capital precisely at a time when the corruption of Indian government officials was linked to their practices of nepotism.” She went on to note that "the subjects that he addresses range widely, though most of his work is characterized by a multifaceted engagement with ethics, pedagogy, politics, kinship, and a body part (the transplantable kidney) or bodily fluid (semen, milk, blood).”

Prof Cohen has published widely on subjects including: biocapital in human organ transplantation and trafficking, the socioeconomics and political capital of castration for hijras in North India, reading differing levels of male homosocial desire in secret literatures circulated during the Hindu festival of Holi in Banaras, and most recently thinking about the social similarities between the twin figures of the Buddhist guru and gay men through the idealization and fallibility of devotion. 

Trained in the fields of comparative religious studies, medicine and anthropology Cohen’s work centers on discourses of health, aging, gender and sexuality in India, equally immersed in the fields of transnational feminist and queer studies, and public health. Indeed, Cohen’s writing reflects a deep knowledge of and engagement with South Asian religious traditions and literatures, at times invoking the Ramayana and Mahabharata epics in his discussions of devotees’ devotion to gurus and the demonstration desire, and political and social power in public spaces through gender role inversion during the male penetration happy festival of Holi. Cohen has spent much time in India through research and fellowships, including time in Delhi and Simla, the urban cities of Banaras, Lucknow, Allahabad, the metropolis Calcutta, Mumbai, Chennai, and Bangalore, and the rural regions of states-Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. While urban North India is often the local setting of his field research, Cohen’s work is comparative and transnational in scope as seen in his first monograph No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things (1998).

Hailed as groundbreaking for both Cohen’s interdisciplinary methodology and non-linear narrative structure, No Aging in India juxtaposes the rise of discourse around Alzheimer’s disease and mental degeneration in the United States against an understanding of the senile parent as representative of the “bad family” in discourses of aging in Banaras. Reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, Current Anthropology, Anthropological Quarterly, Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Sociology of Health and Illness, Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology, Contemporary Gerontology, Journal of Contemporary Asia, Pacific Affairs, Choice, Biblio, and The Statesman. Moving medical anthropology in new directions Cohen “was able to take the best of locality-based ethnographic practice and apply it in a transnational comparative mode.”[1] 

No Aging in India was also praised the ways in which “the text has a near-global perspective” yet “maintains a high level of intimacy’ (a trademark of Cohen’s writing also seen in his numerous articles on sexuality and various gender identities in urban north India). Author of Cultural Anthropology in a Globalizing World and The Endangered Sex: Neglect of Female Children in North India, Barbara D. Miller remarks that Cohen’s examination of the absence of framing aging as disease in India “provides a richly documented view of what is there, especially of how people talk about things like Westernization and nuclear families as “bad things.”[2] Joseph S. Alter author of Gandhi’s Body: Sex, Diet and the Politics of Nationalism aptly praises Cohen’s book when he writes, “In its attention to ethnographic detail, its transnational crosscutting of themes, its nonreductive comparative framework, and its critical, antirelativistic analysis of things Indian, [No Aging in India] is a superb piece of scholarship. Cohen has magnified our awareness of what the problems of growing old are, clearly articulated the important issues which are at stake…part of the problem is that aging in India, as a modern construct, has fractured ways of being human along class, caste, generational, and gendered lines.”[3] No Aging in India has won the 1998 Victor Turner Prize, the 1989 AES First Book Prize, and Honorable Mention for the 1999 Wellcome Medal.

Currently, Cohen is working on two projects: India Tonite “which examines homoerotic identification and representation in the context of political and market logics in urban north India” and, The Other Kidney “engaging the nature of immunosuppression and its accompanying global traffic in organs for transplant” which will be the subject of his upcoming talk.[4] While Cohen is particularly interested in how the body is understood meta-epistemologically, stretching the boundaries of ethnography through the interdisciplinary lens of religious studies, cultural anthropology, sexuality studies and science studies, his work also comments on the role of the ethnographic researcher as interpreter and translator of differential understandings of the body. His upacking of the representation of castration as differentially applied to and reenacted by hijras, jankhas, and academics in one of his early essays demonstrates Cohen’s attentiveness to the stakes of theorizing “third gender” and the ways academic cultural capital often translates to metropolitan academics from the global north making a living as gatekeepers. As he continues thinking about the various flows of capital produced on, through, by and about the body (and its various parts) in India and elsewhere it will be exciting to see how Cohen connects his discussions of gender, human organ trafficking, bioavailability and biopower to the ways knowledge is being produced. “With his more recent work focusing on the governmentality of the clinic and the database, I’ll be eager to hear how this focus intersects with discussions of gender and sexuality.” said Lee. “Cohen’s lecture will enrich the CSW Life (Un)Ltd research group’s exploration of biopolitics and tissue economies as they are wedded to contexts of postcolonialism, gender and sexuality.”

 Jacob Lau is a doctoral student in the Department of  Gender Studies at UCLA.

[1] Van Willigen, John, “No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s , The Bad Family, and Other Modern Things by Lawrence Cohen,” Medical Anthropology Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Dec., 1999), 507.
[2] Miller, Barbara, “No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, The Bad Family, and Other Modern Things by Lawrence Cohen,” Pacific Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 1, (Spring 2000), 133.
[3] Alter, Joseph S., “Aging, in India, for Example (Cohen’s No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things),” Current Anthropology, Vol. 41, No. 2, (April 2000), 304-5.
[4] Cohen, Lawrence, “”

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