This mud body
Robyn Maree Pickens
”This mud body is clear epiphany”
Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-73)1
In a park Antoine Roquentin sits on a bench before a chestnut tree. His eyes, perhaps falling down the scaly bark to the base of the tree, plunge into a garish tree root surfacing near his feet. Wriggling in his consciousness, the root metamorphoses between snake, claw, suction pump, sea-lion skin, bruise, small black pool and stump.2 His own consciousness melts; his borders of self become flanges that he throws away. This is his (abridged) experience:
The chestnut tree pressed itself against my eyes…The soft sound of the water in the Masqueret Fountain flowed into my ears and made a nest there, filling them with sighs; my nostrils overflowed with a green, putrid smell.3
How long did that spell last? I was the root of the chestnut tree.4
…bloomings, blossomings everywhere, my ears were buzzing with existence, my very flesh was throbbing and opening, abandoning itself to the universal burgeoning, it was repulsive.5
His eyes are pressed upon, his ears flowed into, filled, and his nostrils are overflowed. Roquentin’s membrane of self is permeated to the extent that he became, he was, the root of the chestnut tree. He opened or was opened to the ‘universal’, yet this, what could be termed a revelatory experience, is one Roquentin rejects. The short half sentence ‘it was repulsive’ has the effect of a snake bite.
For Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin, the revelatory experience, the rupture of self as a discrete, unified and bordered entity into oneness, cannot embrace rapture. As the encapsulating document of Sartre’s existentialism, Nausea (1938), of which Roquentin is the bearer, there can be no value of a revelatory experience of ecstatic oneness in a world that is construed as meaningless and absurd. Necessarily a product of its historical and ideological time, existentialism, as revealed in this philosophical novel, is a record of Sartre’s atheist positioning that there was no God, and therefore no overarching meaning. For the ambit of this essay however, Roquentin’s rejection of the revelatory experience is notable not only for this rejection, nor for the degree of violence attending it, but as an exemplar of a peculiarly western atomisation and separation of self from the rest of the living world.
… I knew perfectly well that it was the World, the World in all its nakedness which was suddenly revealing itself, and I choked with fury at that huge absurd being.6
Sartre’s repugnance and ‘fury’ towards existence and of melding with it, as voiced through Roquentin, informs key intersecting ideas explored in this essay. In agreement with many eco-feminists and environmental philosophers,7 I suggest that it is this (western) separation from (the rest of) nature—in concert with ideas and projects of individual freedom and self-determination—which have brought all of us to the brink of ecological collapse.
If an existent, within the western narrative of separation, is alienated from belonging with the whole of life, it follows that they may thrash about in an attempt to reintegrate (with the whole), and that these attempts may infringe on the welfare of other existents. In this essay I examine the western construction and enactment of self in relation to those necessarily made other—for the projects of self to succeed—by tracking through feminist and eco-feminist critiques, mana wahine (Māori feminist discourses) and environmental philosophy.
Feminist theory brings the analysis of gender to the relationship between existents, noting that historically, it has been men who have claimed selfhood, and the associated remit to unfurl their project of self at the expense of women. The key contribution of eco-feminism was to draw attention to the anthropocentrism of both patriarchal and feminist discourses of subjectivity. Non-western and indigenous peoples call for, and reclaim, the sovereignty to define and inhabit non-western and indigenous lived realities, by challenging racism, legacies of colonisation and continuing imperialism (globalisation), in which the west acts as self by positioning ‘the rest’ as other. These concerns are shaped in Aotearoa New Zealand by mana wahine (theory) for the constitution of mana wahine conceptual and embodied realities of being and existence. As many of these analyses contend, and the lens through which they are drawn on here, the construction and enactment of self as white, male and property owning, sitting apart from (the rest of) nature on a metaphorical park bench, unfolding their project of selfhood at the expense of ‘others’, may no longer be acceptable, nor indeed tenable.
In real life, away from the park bench, Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were intellectual and lifelong companions. Given this closeness, it can be said that de Beauvoir borrowed Sartre’s binary, of a sovereign self requiring an objectified other, as ‘conceptual scaffold’ for her magnum opus The Second Sex (1949).8 It can equally be said that de Beauvoir extended or activated Sartre’s binary theory by applying it as a tool of analysis to examine the marginalised position of women in The Second Sex. Women were the second sex, de Beauvoir claimed, because they had been coiled in objectivity; an objectivity hung in the sky through conceptual positioning: myths, religious doctrines, ideology, literature, science, and brought to bear in daily life by apparatuses stemming from these ideologies: law; state wardship (legal representation by male relative); the inability to vote; the institution of marriage, and prohibition against seeking a range of employment. As a substantive and propositional text, de Beauvoir argued that the emancipation of women would be achieved if they were permitted (and could self-galvanise) to enter into all spheres of life historically unopened to them.9 In order to do this they had to become a subject, a Self. De Beauvoir was not so much questioning the foundations on which the entire western project of being, freedom and the realisation of self was based, but that the franchise be extended to women as well as men.
One binary begets another. To elucidate the categories of self and other, in relation to men and women, and their positioning and potentiality of enacting projects of self, de Beauvoir correlates an additional binary pairing: transcendence and immanence. In a straightforward mapping, self corresponds with transcendence, and other with immanence. Although de Beauvoir acknowledges that categories of self/other, men/women, transcendence/immanence are constructions and that in reality men and women are simultaneously self and other, and transcendent and immanent,10 it is nonetheless the efficacy of these constructions, the very tangible institutions and apparatuses stemming from them, that limit the potential of women to act in the world as a transcendent self. In this vast work by de Beauvoir there is one sentence in particular that keens this lament:
It is a terrible frustration not to be able to imprint the movements of one’s heart on the face of the earth.11
For de Beauvoir the only way women can attempt to live out what lies in their hearts is by becoming a transcendent self. Only by co-opting male privilege can they hope to realise themselves fully. It is worthwhile outlining what is meant by transcendent and immanent, and the conditions on which such realisations of self entail, as The Second Sex is widely recognised as the foundation stone on which the ‘second wave’ of feminism was built.
A transcendent self is sovereign, essential, endowed and endowing with full subjectivity. Transcendence is “pure Idea, One, All, absolute Spirit.” By contrast, as one might expect, an immanent other is objectified, inessential, othered—or engaged in a project of resistance to this state. Immanence in de Beauvoir’s framing is the “mud of the earth”; “limited body”; “useless, awkward, absurd.” Echoing Sartre’s repugnance of existence, immanence—as code for embodiment—is “absolute evil.”12 A transcendent self is a “being-for-the-self” and an immanent self a “being-in-life.” Where transcendence is open; immanence is closed.
Drawing further on the language used throughout The Second Sex to describe conditions of transcendence and immanence, a transcendent self is one who originates, creates, acts, goes beyond, clears, forges, changes, appropriates, annexes, fights, progresses, consumes, builds, cures, asserts and destroys. Characterised as a hitherto ‘he’, he further reigns, dominates and masters. This sovereign subject “appropriates the world’s treasures,” “annexes the world itself” and “change[s] the face of the earth.”13 As a bearer of “profound immanence and far-off transcendence,”14 the immanent other, she, is “riveted to her body like the animal.”15 She “merely maintains the species and cares for the home.”16 She has no list of active verbs. Her realm is her animal condition and the “indistinct forces of life.”17 Where the list of active verbs attributed to the male transcendent self open onto endless possibilities, to a potentiality too vast to name, immanence is locked into repetition and stasis. She is defined by marriage, motherhood, housework and domestic labour. For de Beauvoir motherhood is not perceived as a creative act or a project of self, but as maintenance. She provides “children and bread:” in the act of procreating she is only perceived as maintaining the species, not as fundamentally enacting a project beyond the sphere of the family.18 The historical privilege of the transcendent male self has been the permission, indeed the expectation, to go beyond the confines of repetition, stasis and family life; towards the whole sphere of life.
For this transcendent self to enact itself in the world—to know itself as Self and to indeed recognise itself as such—it follows, according to this western binary construction, that there must be an Other as conceptual palimpsest and actual subordinate. The appetites of self, the resources involved in its realisation, it can be posited, are so expansive—they include the right to change the face of the world—that the attempt necessarily overreaches. It is with this framework in mind that an examination of the conditions necessary for the unfolding of the project of self as provided by de Beauvoir come into focus.
The two key determinants de Beauvoir identifies are “an indefinitely open future” and the “subjugation of Nature and Woman.”19 Clearly the latter determinant, specifically the category of Woman, is the target of de Beauvoir’s emancipatory project. The category of Nature is not addressed. In addition to the existence of the future and the condition of subjugation (displaced from women), de Beauvoir names tools, or technology, as essential, while the presence of violence occupies an ambiguous position.20 The project of unfurling oneself as Self towards transcendence or freedom is therefore predicated on the future, on subjugation, tools, violence, and indeed the right of the self to freedom and self-determination in spite of the aforementioned pre-requisites. This is the framework de Beauvoir endorses in The Second Sex for women to, in a similar vein as men, embark on their project of realising themselves as Self.
In subsequent decades, amidst increasing pollution and the threat of a nuclear winter, the category of Nature (belatedly) began to be addressed by western activists and theorists. De Beauvoir and contemporary liberal feminists were criticised by eco-feminists amongst other groups, for failing to conceive of the lives of other beings, including animals and the earth itself.21 To recall, de Beauvoir describes the immanent condition of women as, (to contract and rephrase), the absolute evil of the awkward mud body commingling with the earth. It is both a description and an invocation. By renouncing the body, the animal condition, the closed stasis of family life, women like men, could aspire to realise their project of self. Where, however, men had ‘othered’ women, women could only ‘other’ their own bodies (although indigenous, colonised and queer peoples could possibly argue otherwise). In so doing, eco-feminists argued that women who followed this course were colluding with the western project of freedom and self-determination, in which existents act as if unencumbered by the earth.
To be unencumbered by the earth is to be separate. In turn it is this separation, and the alienated state it implies, that furnishes the bearer with the conditions requisite for the enactment of oppressive relations. Rather than abdicate from the body, from the mud of the earth, eco-feminists such as Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva advocate that men be pulled down from the skies and share in the responsibility of “this dailiness, this burden, this immanence.”22 Although a sound theoretical proposition, perhaps even a necessary one, the gap between theory and practice in this instance is particularly wide. For it involves the relinquishing of self as sovereign: it involves divesting from power.
Eco-feminists theorised on the premise that the oppression of women and nature occurred simultaneously, arguing correspondingly that liberation must be sought for both nature and women23 It is important to note, however, that this analysis arose within a western framework and cannot necessarily be applied unilaterally. Huey-li Li makes the point that in Chinese culture the respect shown towards nature is not transmitted seamlessly to Chinese women.24 In this instance, there is no inherent connection linking the subjugation of women to the subjugation of nature, nor vice versa.
With historical acts of formal colonisation, and continuing acts of colonisation via globalisation,25 western imperialism does seep beyond its borders to impact on the conceptual and lived realities of those who the west has treated as ‘Other’. That is to say, western imperialism — the spread of western legal and economic structures — carries within it such conceptual underpinnings as man, woman, the self as individual, ‘progress’, and ideas around land use, amongst many others. The historical legacy of an open future in which certain selves are entitled to pursue transcendence at the expense of subjugated others (women, nature, indigenous and non-western peoples) using tools, technology and violence, has indelibly informed historical legacies of colonisation and contemporary globalisation. As indigenous women, including advocates of mana wahine have identified, it is within such frameworks that indigenous and Māori women have been doubly othered.26
In her highly influential book Decolonizing Mythologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, (1999) Linda Tuhiwai Smith encapsulates the experience of colonisation and the effects of its ensuing legacies as:
…the stripping away of mana (our standing in our own eyes), and an undermining of rangatiratanga (our ability and right to determine our destinies).27
Naomi Simmonds (Ngāti Raukawa) asserts that in pre-colonial times, the roles and interrelationships of men and women were complementary,28 implying that the western binary of a male self presiding over a female other was not the guiding principle in whānau (family), hapū (family groups) or iwi (tribe) relationships. Mauri, or the life force held within all beings, as Smith writes, was not gendered.29 Aspects of a complex cosmology such as these were impacted on through the impositions and processes of colonisation. To address historical and continuing injustices experienced by Māori in Aotearoa New Zealand, an ever developing body of knowledge is drawn on to theorise and structure change. Stemming from Kaupapa Māori (a theoretical framework based on Māori knowledge), mana wahine, or Māori feminist discourse, arose to counter the marginalised position of Māori women in general New Zealand society, and in whānau, hapū and iwi contexts.30 Key contributors to mana wahine theory include: Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou), Leonie Pihama (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Māhanga, Ngā Māhanga ā Tairi) and Jessica Hutchings (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Huirapa and Gujurat India).
Mana wahine is a theoretical space to effect conceptual and tangible change for Māori women marginalised by colonisation. As a Pākehā31 woman I am very aware that it is perhaps not ethical for me to include mana wahine theory here. In writing from a relative position of privilege, it may be as Linda Tuhiwai Smith states, that one/I may unwittingly “perpetuate otherness further.”32 On the other hand, to not recognise this body of knowledge and the importance of its cultural and political change-making risks a whiteout.
Mana wahine is oriented towards the “revival of culture”: from decolonisation to tino rangatiratanga (absolute sovereignty).33 To these ends the project encompasses the theoretical-scape of mana wahine as distinct from white feminisms.34 Given these motivations, mana wahine is necessarily informed by Te Tiriti o Waitangi35 and central constituents of Te Ao Māori: wairua (spirituality), whānau, whakapapa (genealogy) and atua wahine (female ancestral gods). The interrelationship of these concepts manifests in daily life through practices of kaitiakitanga (guardianship), caring for Te Taiao; for the whole environment in which one lives.
In contradistinction to the liberal feminist flight from nature, mana wahine asserts oneness with the earth. It is from Papatuanuku, from the earth-as-mother, and from her first descendent Hine-ahu-one, that Māori women “earth our mana wahine.”36 As Jessica Hutchings writes:
It is through this relationship defined through whakapapa that Māori women are seen as land. …we establish our identity as being land, not merely people of the land…37
This conceptual framework informs the strong sense of obligation Māori women have to act as kaitiaki (guardians) in such instances where the opportunity and web of interrelationships have not been destroyed by colonisation. In an article by Hutchings on mana wahine responses to genetic engineering, the word ‘obligation’ appears multiple times. It is not, she writes, a choice, but an activity that must be carried out.38 Without unduly inflecting, romanticising, or instrumentalising mana wahine theory, the interconnections charted between all beings offer a stark contrast to the western separation of being into individual units at a remove from other living beings. Where possible in Māori communities, these interconnections are lived through practices of kaitiakitanga.
At the base of a chestnut tree Antoine Roquentin sits. Near his foot, at the point it has surfaced, a tree root plunges down into the earth. Fine hairs at its growing tip fossick for water and nutrients. These are sent up in vessels as high as the crown. Or stored for anchoring. The tree exhales, Roquentin breathes in.
In unpacking ideas of western separation from the rest of nature it would not be an ethical project to uncritically perpetuate such a conception. Environmental philosopher Freya Mathews tracks the enunciation of this separation to Greek philosophers of the classical period.39 Engaged in the search for an inviolable truth, philosophers including Plato developed a process in which the exterior world was transposed onto the inner screen of the mind.40 The thought-images produced in this metaphorical darkroom were fixed (at least until next challenged), and from this and subsequent thought-images, a body of theory came to be articulated. This body of theory and the process of acquiring it became the means of structuring existence. Theory, then; ideas that create literature, law and land use, owe their existence to a succession of quasi fixed thought-images developed in a metaphorical darkroom rather than a life lived directly in the continual flux of nature.
Trapped, in a box of their own construction, the western yearning for freedom and projects of self-determination become perceptible. What makes entrapment insidious is that the box itself becomes invisible: it comes to stand in for reality when it is only a fragmentation. Mathews describes this separated self as autistic:41 the existent bears an inarticulable trauma. It is perhaps only in this light that projects of self which have infringed on the lives of other human and nonhuman existents can be framed, but not excused. Only a ‘mutilated’ being, to draw on Lévi-Strauss’s description,42 wandering around the frayed edges of its own estranged self, whether at home or in other lands, could assume the imperiousness required for the subjugation of other beings.
An infinitely open future is not open. The self is manifestly not separate. Enmeshed in a web of interrelationships and dependencies, the self is not entirely, nor solely, a self. Focus then shifts to the quality of relationships between beings and to the values that animate them. It has been suggested that the perception and positioning of being as separate from the rest of life causes a kind of originary inarticulable trauma that the bearer may not even be aware of. This insensible lack manifests itself through projects, characterised in a false-positive sense, as enactments of freedom and self-determination. The magnitude of the alienation sets in motion actions of power-over (others), which are framed as regrettable, justified or laudable by those near to power. For actions of power-over to continue, power-over must hold value. If power was not invested in power, in the overlapping subtle and overt forms in which it manifests, it could not continue.
If a self was not solely a self — if this being felt a belonging to the rest of life, as a part of a larger, interconnected whole — might the singular rigidity of self fade? As the spectre of self waned, might also the insistence on ‘freedom’ and ‘self-determination’ at the expense of others fall away? In such a conception could power hold any value?
He has forgotten his name before the tree. At midday with the sun high he felt arms that were possibly his pulled up with crooked elbow branches. And fall. Resting now on the surfaced tree root, the earth-buried movement of liquid borrowing new veins to rise again. Eyes become leaf stomata that see rain fall. Rising, falling, rising. This water body. This mud body.
About the author
Robyn lives in Oamaru. She is a fan of cross disciplinary writing/media platforms and contributed to Enjoy’s Third Occasional Journal, The Dendromaniac.
Jelaluddin Rumi (1207-73), “Asylum,” in The Soul of Rumi: A New Collection of Ecstatic Poems, trans. Coleman Barks, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 118.
These are most of the terms used to describe the stump in Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea  (Melbourne: Penguin Group, 2010), 182-193.
See for example as theoretical underpinning in Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Eco-feminism (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1993) and Freya Mathews, “Why Has the West Failed to Embrace Panpsychism?” in Mind That Abides: Panpsychism in the New Millennium, ed. David Skrbina (Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 2009), 341-360.
Judith Thurman, “Introduction,” in Simone de Beauvoir  The Second Sex, trans. Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (New York: Vintage, 2011), 11, accessed 10 July 10, 2015, https://nashvillefeministart.files.wordpress.com/2014/06/1949_simone-de-beauvoir-the-second-sex.pdf
Ibid., 98, 726.
Whilst de Beauvoir urges each existent to take individual responsibility for their actions she nonetheless expresses regret that girls are not permitted to act violently (“conquering actions…and violence in particular is not permitted to her.”) [Ibid., 397]. And “[v]iolence is the authentic test of every person’s attachment to himself, [sic] his passions, and his own will; to radically reject it is to reject all objective truth…an anger…that does not exert itself in muscles remains imaginary.” [Ibid., 398].
See especially 224-229 in Maria Mies, “Self-Determination: The End of a Utopia?” in Eco-feminism, ed. Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1993), 218-229.
Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, “Introduction: Why We Wrote This Book Together,” in Eco-feminism, edited by Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva (Melbourne: Spinifex, 1993), 12.
Richard T Twine, “Ecofeminisms in Process,” Ecofem (2001): 9, accessed May 2, 2015. http://richardtwine.com/ecofem/ecofem2001.pdf
Note this publication appears to no longer exist.
Trade agreements abolishing environmental and labour laws and agricultural policies in countries of the so-called global ‘South’.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Mythologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 1999), 151.
Naomi Simmonds, “Mana Wahine: Decolonising Politics,” Women’s Studies Journal 25 (2011): 13, accessed July 26, 2015, http://www.wsanz.org.nz/journal/docs/WSJNZ252Simmonds11-25.pdf
Jessica Hutchings, “Mana Wahine me Te Raweke Ira: Māori Feminist Thought and Genetic Modification,” Women’s Studies Journal 19:1 (2005): 48-50. Simmonds, “Mana Wahine,” 17.
New Zealander of non-indigenous descent.
Linda Tuhiwai Smith quoted by Hutchings, “Mana Wahine me Te Raweke Ira,” 50.
Hutchings, “Mana Wahine me Te Raweke Ira,” 50, 55.
The Treaty of Waitangi, 1840.
Hutchings, “Mana Wahine me Te Raweke Ira,” 55.
Mathews, “Why Has the West Failed to Embrace Panpsychism?” 344.
Plato’s Theory of Forms is a “florid” example. Ibid., 343.
Claude Lévi-Strauss, “psychologiquement mutilé” in Patrick Wilcken, Claude Lévi-Strauss: The Poet in the Laboratory (London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010), 3.