Self, Autonomy, Authority and Law: The Challenge of ‘Leaky Bodies’

The unity, integrity, health and prospects of collectives such as states, nations and societies are often imagined in terms of the individual human body. Already for Plato, the just person with an orderly soul mirrors and promotes the justly ordered society and vice versa. Feminist authors have pointed out that the ‘citizen’, ‘hero’, ‘leader’ and other ideal types of the human invariably assume an idealised masculine form, and that some of the central characteristics of these types include impossible levels of invulnerability, inviolability, bodily closure, atomism and self-reliance. In the heroic moral code of honour that we associate with war, international relations and nation-building, the body is wounded and feminised when its borders are breached. Intact, closed-off borders are its natural or at least desired state. Yet, a certain masculine fragility or vulnerability always lurks beneath the surface as a further weapon in the arsenal for retaining patriarchal power relations inside collectives. Thus, masculine vulnerability and permeability can sometimes be conceded, but then always as the justification for renewed reinforcement of the state as manly; thus, the male construct is forever in flight from and in disavowal of (his knowledge of) his own ultimate vulnerability, interdependency and natality.

My paper and broader research project contribute to the STIAS collaboration by critically investigating the parallel on a symbolic, imaginary level between the inviolable male body in flight, and the nation state, as well as the effect such an imaginary has upon our notions of legal authority, modelled closely on concepts such as personal autonomy and sovereignty. Against these over-familiar and therefore largely invisible constructions of the nation as impossibly (phantasmagorically) masculine, I want to explore alternative symbolisms that dare to dream of collective identities more closely imagined along the contours and shapes of typical female bodies. Here I will follow the lead of thinkers such as Lorraine Code (who in my view tries to ‘feminise autonomy’ in order to return it to something more human and realistic), Margrit Shildrick who explores the normality of ‘leaky bodies’, Christine Battersby on the normality of bodies ‘that bleed with other potential selves’ and Rosalyn Diprose and Morny Joy who look at erotic generosity through a feminist lens. To help me with the translation of these insights into legal terms, I will draw on the work of Jennifer Nedelsky, ‘Law’s Relations: A Relational Theory of Self, Autonomy and Law’ (2011).

This project forms part of the STIAS long-term project Boundaries and Legal Authority in a Global context within the Crossing Borders research theme.

Project leader(s):
  • Louise du Toit (Department of Philosophy, Stellenbosch University)

Leave a Reply