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Comparative Literature
Cornell University

Curriculum Vitae


Naked Agency posits that rethinking agency and the forms that it takes remains a persistent issue in a world of increasing precarity. The project takes at its starting point the African contexts wherein the threatening exhibition of genitals constitutes the ultimate weapon mature women wield in desperate circumstances to punish their male targets the way warriors wield their deadliest weapons. Given its cultural potency, this most powerful female gendered act, known as “genital cursing,” has been documented since the 14th century. However, despite its proliferation in contemporary Africa, it is insufficiently analyzed; hence the necessity to explore this retributive act. In tracking the figure of genital cursing in trans African cultural productions, I argue that given that the effectiveness of genital cursing depends on an ahistorical mode of recognition, it can be misread when deployed against postcolonial authorities and in a global world of shifting interpretative frameworks.

The new theoretical framework that emerges from this study is what I call “naked agency,” which names a space between nakedness and power and privileges the dialectical movement between positions of victimhood and power. The concept offers a way out of the facile opposition between mere victims and sovereign subjects that informs much of African studies.

Naked Agency moves beyond the African context to make broader claims about the kinds of oppositional politics that develop in the biopolitical frame. Thus, in writing the unrecognized history of women and their potent forms of political intervention, the project engages the concept of biopolitics in two important ways, enrich the trend that I call “the secularization of nudity” and displace the dark side of biopolitics.

Recent philosophical conceptualizations of nakedness seek to rethink it outside dominant Judeo-Christian accounts of it as vulnerability, destitution, and shame for the unclothed person, which are informed by the fall in the Garden of Eden. In highlighting the subversive aspects of nakedness in socio-political settings, these reconceptualization efforts, however, take the North Atlantic world as the source of their empirical data for reflections that may be uncritically perceived as universal. Thus, my contribution is to enrich these reflections by calling attention to other contexts.

I see these subversive readings of nakedness as in direct conversation with work done by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their accounts of new weapons in the biopolitical frame. Anti-globalization and capitalism activists, queer, feminists, and environmentalists, a group that certainly leans to the “left,” have consistently deployed exposure for political dissent and have thus been read in ways that unsettle the “dark side” of biopolitics—thanatopolitical, necropolitics, horrorism. Heeding the call by Hardt and Negri, I highlight how genital cursing expands current theorizations of biopolitics by foregrounding the agentive possibilities that may inhere in vulnerability and precarity. I propose that naked lives and exposed bodies can still be constituted to defy necropolitical forms of power. As a concept, “naked agency” thus shares similarities with affirmative biopolitics.

Naminata Diabate is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Cornell University. A scholar of sexuality, race, biopolitics, and postcoloniality, Naminata’s research primarily explores African, African American, Caribbean, and Afro-Hispanic literatures, cultures, and film. Her recent writing has appeared in journals and collections of essays such as The Journal of the African Literature Association; Development, Modernism and Modernity in Africa; Oral and Written Expressions of African Cultures, and The Ethnic and Third World Literatures Review of Books. Her forthcoming essays include: “Genealogies of Desire, Extravagance, and Radical Queerness in Frieda Ekotto’s Chuchote Pas Trop” (Research in African Literatures) and “Women’s Naked Protest in Africa: Fieldwork in Comparative Literature” (Fieldwork in the Humanities). Currently, she is working on two book manuscripts: “Naked Agency: Genital Cursing, Biopolitics, and Africa,” and “Same-Sex Sexuality and Mediality in Africa and Its Diaspora.”

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