Andrea Abi-Karam’s most recent book is Villainy, published by Nightboat Books last year. Jasbir K. Puar is a member of the Social Text Collective and the author, most recently, of The Right to Maim (Duke UP, 2017). Here the authors discuss resonances in their work and the current political moment.
Andrea Abi-Karam: I first read The Right to Maim in 2018 while on tour with Sister Spit in California and the Southwest. We ended up driving through a couple of internal border patrol checkpoints with a van full of eight QTPOC performers and, as nerve-wracking as that was, it’s minor in relation to the checkpoints and Israeli state infrastructures that exert violent containment and infrastructural control over the people of Palestine down to the amount of water and gigabytes of data households are allotted per day, and now of course blatant denial of the COVID-19 vaccine. This state sanctioned choking—as you write, the systemic maiming of infrastructure—in tandem with physical maiming of the Palestinian people by Israeli soldiers, of eyes, knees, etc. is an entire biopolitical reframing of those who have been deliberately maimed. This cementing of a permanent maimed state, or biopolitical status, from which escape from Israeli occupation is not possible, has intergenerational effects, as we now know that trauma can be woven into our bodies at the cellular level. And of course the Israeli state is counting on this effect as it seeks to choke out future resistance before it begins.
In EXTRATRANSMISSION, I investigate the US military’s role in the War on Terror and expose the long-term effects of traumatic brain injuries as the War on Terror’s both signature and invisible injury. The US military sends soldiers abroad to do its dirty work and then brings them home, and the biopolitical context that follows is the need to develop new treatments by the medical-industrial complex and the non-profit industrial complex towards an attempt at recovery. Looking at maiming through this lens, if maiming is the signature injury of Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and part of that maiming is infrastructural, how can/does healthcare respond when the home to return to has been violently occupied? What are the conditions that need to exist in order to recover from maiming, if this is even possible?
Jasbir K. Puar: I am reminded of the first time I read the phrase “signature injury” in EXTRANSMISSION; I think it was during the year or so following the beginning of the Great March of Return in Gaza and the explicit targeting of limbs as a form of crowd control. The newspapers routinely had images of rows of Palestinian men with amputated legs, in wheelchairs, and bandaged and on crutches and I was perturbed by the preponderance of injury and the anthropological gaze of trauma and humanitarian crisis. I thought, oh, the limb has become a signature injury, through a carceral assemblage of the “humanitarian” use of non-lethal weapons, the media focus on disaster capitalism, and the tactical attempt to contain resistance. Signature injuries form dividual economies—they conceptualize the body part not as dismembered from an individual body, but as an element in a network of debilitation. One tallies the number of limbs or knees wounded at the end of the day—this is from reports of soldiers inflicting these wounds. This is not just in Palestine, of course. Afghanistan still has the world’s highest number of amputees, for example. The concept of signature injury resonates with the use of pellet bullets to blind insurgents in Kashmir, or the concussion as an acceptable outcome for becoming a football player.
The signature injury is intended to inscribe and prescribe the colonizer’s control over the colonized, but it also spectacularizes such that other injuries—such as gender-based violence, which waxes and wanes in relation to political uprising, or the lack of resources for Gazans with disabilities that are not war injuries—recede as concerns, at least as fundable humanitarian concerns.
Kader Attia has a beautiful take on “Repair as Resistance,” the title of a recent exhibition of his on violence, war, and injury. Attia means repair not as a rehabilitation or recovery to normative wholeness but as a right to an “incomplete wholeness” (Fred Moten), meaning the losses due to maiming–which are not just bodily, but to the fabrics of the social, work spheres, domestic spaces, and to the capacity for resistance—cannot be left ungrieved. I understand repair in this context to be a form of militant resistance–not necessarily resilience, nor healing, but a kind of refusal of the terms dictated by trauma. Kind of like in EXTRATRANSMISSION, there is a refusal to return to the original trauma to work it through, and instead there are ferocious claims to rage and rightfulness. And language. What you do so beautifully in that book is develop a militant poetics of refusal and adamancy.
It is imperative to acknowledge the violent conditions of apartheid in Palestine and the severe restrictions on mobility. At the same time, I am increasingly less able to return from Palestine relieved to be back in the US. Historically we can see checkpoints and the US Mexico crossing as part of a global network of “border imperialism”—such a helpful framing from Harsha Walia, who argues that one main point of borders is to fractionalize the potential solidarities of the international working class. We can also note the technological connections, which include Israeli weapons manufacturer Elbit building the US Mexico wall; police training exchanges not just between the US and Israel but other locations as well; the use of Safariland tear gas canisters on the migrants crossing from Mexico and against the protestors in Gaza.
We can acknowledge forms of relational privilege while still understanding that the occupation is distributed, meaning that there is an exemplary concentration of control tactics in Palestine—but not only Palestine—and these infrastructures of surveillance, security, and militarization are everywhere, increasingly so. I’m also thinking here of Kareem Rabie’s recent book on “economic” instead of political “solutions” that are proliferating in Palestine post-Oslo and that amount to development and real estate projects that foster an aspirational neoliberal prosperity that attempts to absorb or assimilate anti-colonial resistance.
AAK: I am endlessly fascinated and disturbed by the signature injury. I’m thinking about how weapons technology creation and exchange between the US and Israel produces mirrored injuries across proximal and distal battlefields. I’m glad you brought in Fred Moten’s “incomplete wholeness” and cast my attention towards Kader Attia’s work. Where Attia says repair, I would say Fusion—once the signature injury occurs there is a loss of the prewar / previous self. I think of this as a kind of death. What happens after is the reckoning, the mutation towards an entirely new way of survival, the fusion of a revised composite of body and self in the aftermath of the signature injury.
Shooting to maim binds coloniality to the oppressed’s body permanently—every day in the fractured shell, a reminder of being a colonial subject. The visual proliferation of an overtly maimed population, like in Afghanistan, serves as a constant warning of the visceral cost of potential resistance. In the case of Afghanistan, the US (re)builds healthcare infrastructure (via negligent subcontracting) and thus the injury and “rehabilitation” is caused by the same hands. Following the signature injury, the new assemblage of self (fusion) creates new possibilities within debility that don’t rely on harmful infrastructures and instead form new sutures of solidarity. I am thinking about the vicious and various forms of the signature injury across varying levels of visibility and invisibility. EXTRATRANSMISSION focuses on the invisible injury of the TBI and the ensuing memory loss, disintegration of the former self, loss of the ability to connect, loss of ability to serve, forgetting of the original drive to fight. When returning to one’s prewar life is no longer possible since it no longer exists. And then what happens after. If the dividuation economy applied to the signature injury of amputations is the daily tallying of the number of limbs severed—how are invisible injuries tallied? Can the brain be separated from the individual in the same way as the limb? To what extent can we separate memory from individual? Where does the invisible injury, which to me isn’t spectacular, fall in relation to the hyper-visible signature injuries? Fanon writes that colonization affects the brains of the colonized—and in the War on Terror we see TBIs show up in the service of colonialism. Fanon also writes, in The Wretched of the Earth, that truth protects the colonized by fracturing the colonizer’s invented version of the truth. Part of the colonizer’s imposed truth includes exploiting the spectacular (disaster capitalism) and also singularizing spectacular violence to enforce a systemic short-term memory that removes the violence from its insidious pattern.
JKP: When we are talking about fusion and repair, and their differences and overlaps, we are gesturing, I think, to concomitant but distinct temporalities. I am remembering a sharp formulation from Alison Kafer, who writes about the “before” and “after.” She notes that those who can demarcate a before and an after of the pandemic are already marked as bodies worthy of care and protection, whether of state or via capital or institutional or all of those. Kafer is interested in “crip temporalities,” a frame I don’t feel so comfortable with because of the ways it reinscribes the colonial harm of shoot to maim policies even though it is meant to be a radical reframing of the cripple. I can’t imagine this US-based imperial lexicon resonating in Palestine or Afghanistan, though perhaps I am being very stubborn here. But noting that what has been dubbed “pandemic time” is what “crip time” has always been—which is a refusal but also the impossibility of inhabiting hyper-productive capitalist time—helps to think about fusion and repair as varied relations to the past, to memory, to time and to settler colonialism as a recursive structure. Fusion marks what one has to become in the wake of a signature injury, a relation of grief as you point out, a mourning of a prior self. But insofar as so many signature injuries happen in the context of braid-ations of debilitation—I think of debility not so much in terms of gradation but “braid-ation”—there is no whole prior self that is lost. I think that is what Moten means by “genocide as perpetual injury.”
So what is a signature injury in the context of debility? It does mark a before and after, a temporality of radical rejiggering of becoming—how else would it surface as a signature, something that is markedly there that wasn’t there before? But at the same time signature injuries are to some extent biopolitically preordained. It’s what a certain body is known for, what it is expected it will receive and assimilate, even before it happens to the body. So then you ask other questions: what and where is the “real” wound? Is it the moment of maiming, or the necropolitical context within which that maiming is inflicted? And of course, there’s never really one real wound. There is just the compounding of wounds that must be sublated in order for the signature injury to mark the subjugated body. I am thinking here of Lawrence Ralph’s recent writing on police violence towards and torture of Black people in Chicago, all of which is normalized and disappeared until a disability can be proven. And his argument here is that the state-driven categorization of disability functions here to codify certain injuries while normalizing others. This is of course not unlike my argument about disability and debility—he is working through these connections as well. But I think he takes it a bit further, by showing us how the that the state in this context, where police face zero repercussions, relies on disability to adjudicate harm.
One crucial element of signature injury is that it is collective, and as you say, mirrored. I have been thinking lately about maiming as a form of global governance. It may or may not be spectacular—your references to Fanon on the colonization of the mind, mental disabilities, and TBI also reminds me of Catherine Malabou’s work on brain plasticity and how trauma rematerializes the brain the way a TBI does. Can the brain be dividuated as a target? Yes, I think it absolutely can. I think of the right to maim not only as literal practices of corporeal annihilation but perhaps more importantly as a tactic attempting what I call “stripping resistance.” Fanon’s chapter in A Dying Colonialism on Medicalization as Colonization lays out the contradictions of trauma for the colonized subject as it pertains to diagnosis, control, pathologization. What is at stake in deeming an entire occupied population “traumatized?” Or in accepting that characterization, while at the same time attending to the very real debilitating effects of maiming? Ali Altaf Mian also draws out an important connection between psychic and physical maiming, in some sense blurring the two, noting that there is always psychic maiming, an “emplotment of fear in the soul” in every “mise-en-scene of maiming” and that the body of the colonized is always and forever “still game.” That the “disability to come” that is often cast in parlance as a facet of aging is in fact an ontological certitude of violence. This goes to your query about how invisible injuries are tallied. I would say they are less tallied than ontologized. To be honest I’m not sure I feel fusion in your work. I just finished reading Villainy—which is thunderous and magnificent—and was struck by what happens to bodies, the images and language that come forth—scraping, stapling, patching, tacking, taping, splintering, wiring, cutting, piecing, fissuring. Corporeality is a kind of unbecoming as you say, an endless process of rupture and suture, making flesh and skin and psyche do otherwise. Much more radical than cyborg, because there is no posthuman reconciliation of any sort, rather the ongoing tending to scars. To return to your prior question about whether recovery from maiming is possible, I think your work offers us something far more profound, a determined reconstruction that refuses the structures of violence that give rise to signature injuries—as you write, “MY POWER WILL BE MARKED UPON MY SKIN FOREVER.” (47) I also love these lines: “YOU ARE JUST A BODY WITH BROKEN SEAMS/ TRYING TO HOLD TOGETHER UNTIL THE NEXT STRIKE” (56).
AAK: The idea of maiming as biopolitical opens up questions about what happens in the aftermath of invisible and visible injuries or trauma. Scars adhere to the pre- and post- signature injury self, together, along the braid, and inescapably exteriorize traumatic events. I look to poetry as a way to make the truth public and to embrace the visibility of scars survived as necessary, no matter how dangerous. A huge part of my practice emboldens the process of aggressive exhibitionism—a deep dive into what happens personally and collectively when sexual and political desires, and the scars these fights leave, are made public. I’m committed to a practice of documentary poetics in which the I / writer cannot be extricated—that the I is always implicated in the work. I believe that the poet’s work is to uncover the truth and then reveal it, and in the context of documentary poetics this includes research and translating data into language for a wider audience. In my practice, as you pointed out, I seek to create a poetics of militancy, abolitionism, and vengeance.
JKP: I am aware of the recent twentieth anniversary of September 11th, and wonder how you experience a pre- and post- 9/11. I had just started my job as assistant professor in gender studies at Rutgers, and the alienation from my purported feminist colleagues was profound—they just didn’t get it. Neoliberal multiculturalism broke for me at this moment, and this breakage inaugurated what in retrospect was a series of disaffiliations with the university. You were a wee person on September 11th, and your work reflects a conditioning of this world, rather than the pivot I made. I’m also of course thinking about the ongoing debacle in Afghanistan. The force and carnage with which empire recycles itself is devastating.
AAK: In your framing about the before and after, and the need to repair or fuse, I’m reminded of the immediate post 9/11 insistence on a “new normal.” A US security state that Joseph Masco writes on in his book Theatre of Operations, where “the politics of shock are central to the conceptualization of the national security state as a distinctly American form of power.” This engorged version of the US security state rationalizes its existence in opposition to a “permanent, imminent danger.” This forward, eternal stretching out of time under a so-called constant threat of terrorism feeds the growth of the US security state (surveillance, military, prisons, weapons) and injects fear into everyday life with nothing to protect you from the strategically imagined threat except for the US security state. This post-9/11 “new normal” is another manifestation of the weaponizing of shock (disaster capitalism). Applying “braid-ation” to this example, the US security state wasn’t made anew after 9/11—it built upon and amplified structures (Department of Defense, CIA, National Security Council) established in the Cold War Era under the 1947 National Security Act. I would argue that the braid accumulates more threads through time and that they are woven in and tied on to the threads that have long already existed. This continual and swelling braid of the US security state is a part of what Moten means by “genocide as perpetual injury.”
JKP: Yes, “swelling” is an excellent further elaboration of braidation in terms of history, temporality, and I would add, generations. I think of Denise Ferreria da Silva here, too, in terms of the legacies of enslavement and colonialism, and how temporal (History) and spatial distinctions (Geography) work to obscure variegated relations of harm, cause, and effect.
AAK: Returning to our discussion of if there is a prior self to lose after injury—I understand your use of braidation to mean that there can be no clean breaks (gradation) between traumas. Even if memory is lost due to TBI, the body continues to remember for you. In the framework of Achille Mbembe’s necropolitics and postmodernism, under settler-colonialism and global capitalism there was never a whole self to begin with, and so it cannot be lost. In bringing in your line, “But at the same time signature injuries are to some extent biopolitically preordained” with Jackie Wang’s Carceral Capitalism, I think that signature injuries are both biopolitically preordained and precisely calculated (just like someone’s credit score before they’re born). I love that you brought in Catherine Malabou’s work. Did you know that I studied neuroscience (biology with a specialization in neuroscience) as an undergrad? Malabou’s work finds that external traumatic events distort the limbic system, universally, undergirding the idea of the signature injury as collective. Returning to our discussion on the potential destruction of the pre-injured self, I find Malabou’s term “destructive plasticity,” the creation of a new self via destruction of the former self in the wake of trauma, useful. Even in extreme cases of memory loss due to TBI, people often retain some of their long-term memories, making the total erasure of the former self incomplete, with some threads enduring attachment to the new self.
But how can the hybrid self continue to survive under occupation? In Fanon’s chapter “Medicine and Colonialism” he outlines the colonizer’s process of setting up healthcare infrastructure as a method of entrapment and control over the colonized. The maiming of healthcare infrastructure is one of many versions of the collective signature injury; as Fanon would say, it’s a way to assert the colonizer’s power over occupied territory with the abusive logic of “you need us.” We see this framework play out in Palestine daily as Israel continues to control and choke the flow of medical supplies across the border, bomb hospitals, and target respected physicians and their entire families—particularly surgeons. This version of maiming is, as you say, “stripping resistance”—if those who resist survive the clash the intended lack of healthcare may still clinch their demise as they are unable to access the resources required to recover from physical wounds. Ultimately, the maiming of HC infrastructure raises the stakes of taking part in the resistance. As you write in The Right to Maim, “It is not only the right to kill but also the right to maim that is being exercised as the domain of sovereignty. What kind of sovereignty is enacted as the right to maim, to target both bodies and infrastructure for debilitation? This element of biopolitics entails targeting for death but not killing” (139).
Earlier, when you brought up the football player and how concussions are an accepted aspect of that profession, I thought about how American football is in the service of American nationalism and how sports are cemented in as pillars of patriarchy. The sports bro is not so far from the military bro, or the tech bro, or the cop—they all operate as cogs of interconnected systems (sports-nationalism, military-industrial complex, prison-industrial complex, technocracy, gentrification, etc) that hold US Empire as a power player of global capitalism. What you share about the challenges of returning to the US after being in Palestine links back to these henchmen who create a hostile home environment for the targeted other and highlights the constant beam of gender-based violence. I’m reminded of the current flurry of anti-trans bills in state legislatures that aim to criminalize the pursuit of gender self-determination by trans teens across the US through the criminalization of their parents and health care professionals who care for trans teens, in addition to putting metaphorical razor wire between genders on sports teams. This blatant repudiation of transness has already forced increased migration across US state lines for trans teens and their families in search of accessible trans healthcare.
I can’t think about migration without then thinking of borders and “border imperialism,” the hard (cement, metal, razor wire) and soft (digital surveillance, policy) structures that divide people and resources from one another. I think about how the US Mexico border isn’t a complete material structure, but that sections of the wall that do exist force migrants into the hottest most dangerous parts of the desert in hopes they don’t survive the trek. Villainy tackles the “tightening entanglements” of borders and surveillance in response to the 2017 Muslim Ban. In the logics of disaster capitalism, corporate interests hear “border crisis” and think “payout” as seen in the opportunistic expansions of private prison mega-corporations such as GEO Group and CoreCivic in building detention centers and walls in Israel/Palestine and US/Mexico. Private prisons have been profiting from immigration since the 1980s—but following 9/11 is when business boomed and profits soared through the detention of “terrorists.” Villainy provides a cartography of the slide between terrorist and villain—and in turn how collective villainy can be weaponized for abolition. When you think of grief, do you think of debility?
JKP: For some reason I have this question resounding as “When you think of debility, do you think of grief?” Both questions are generative ones, because they point us to the economy of which losses and injuries are deemed worthy of grief. But I think you are asking as well about how debilitating grief can be. One thing I really love about Villainy is the explicit claim to the right to grieve in the messy and unpredictable ways that grief takes over the body. The Ghost Ship fire—to lose thirty-six comrades at once—you give expression to something so singular but something that is a shared singularity, insofar as grief transforms, solicits the potential of “unbecoming a singularity” (5). The demand to privatize grief, to individuate it, to treat it like toxicity, these pressures I think are central to why grief can be so debilitating. We are in that moment now, too, where post-pandemic fantasies of returning to normal demand stuffing our grief away, like jamming clothes into a too-small suitcase. There is a combustive quality to Villainy, a life-drive element that means that grief can be not only debility but capacity too. You write “there’s something powerful about sinking into yesterday’s wounds &/ letting it all light up” (91). But capacity how? And what is the collective responsibility of that debility-capacity merry-go-round? Collective villainy indeed.