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Sutura: Gendered Honor, Social Death, and the Politics of Exposure in Senegalese Literature and Popular Culture


This dissertation explores the ways in which sutura--a Wolofized Arabic concept that can mean discretion, modesty, privacy, or protection--mediates the production of the boundary between gendered life and ungendered death in Senegalese literature and popular culture. In the ethics of the Wolof caste system, the order of slavery, and local Sufism, the unequal distribution of sutura produces a communal "inside" of those who possess a refined, ideal form of life and humanness, and an abject "outside" comprised of subjects who possess a bare form of life that is exposed to social and moral death. While sutura is one of several concepts that constitute the Wolof code of honor, it serves as the very membrane between the state of honor and the state of shame. The inherent lack of sutura attributed to subjects like the slave and the griot reproduces their permanently shamed state, and sutura's transgression exposes the previously honorable, high-status subject to a publicly visible dishonor, a death-like state worse than physical death.

The gender hierarchy is one of the many overlapping hierarchies that comprise Wolof society, thus entangling the possession of a legible gender with the possession of sutura in the production of normative humanness and virtuous life. This study tracks this entanglement in its investigation of the production of ungendered, socially dead subjects in contemporary Senegalese culture, revealing that inclusion in the honorable community of the nation is predicated on the possession of a gendered legibility mediated by sutura. The chapters are organized around media scandals that exemplify this dynamic and suggest that contemporary figures of bare life--rogue wives of Sufi sheikhs, maids, prostitutes, gay/trangendered men--are abjected through a mechanics inherited from older Wolof ethical orders. However, as the novels and video melodramas that I foreground as a counterpoint reveal, the ethics generating those mechanics are contested. Indeed, the ethics of sutura are challenged by various liberal-secular, feminist, and Muslim ethical orders currently vying for dominance in the Senegalese public sphere. The new regime of exposure that has taken hold of the media in the wake of the mass democratic movements of the 1990s provides a stage not only for unprecedented scales of abjection via the generation of moral panics, but also for popular contestation of that abjection and the production of new inclusive humanisms. In the midst of the raging pro-sutura versus anti-sutura debate, I propose that a recasting of sutura within a progressive Muslim ethos would disarticulate sutura from social hierarchies, thus enabling the formation of an ethics of communal care and protection that could still be coded as Wolof and Muslim.

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