Debility’s Shadow in Extractive Zones

In a recent presentation at Pratt Institute, Jasbir Puar noted that she often works with shadow terms, or third terms that hides behind two oppositional and binarized concepts. Puar went on to explain that she borrowed the idea of a shadow term from David Eng, who often used a third concept to theorize the space between the conscious and subconscious aspects of social and political life. Central to Puar’s book The Right to Maim is the concept of debility, which negotiates between the overdetermined legal categories of capacity and disability to contend with biopolitical injury and its assignation to collectively violated populations within occupied territories. Puar specifically invokes it to underscore the violent frameworks of legality that assume the Israeli state’s biopolitical right to injure and debilitate Palestinians.

Reflecting on the generative notion of shadow terms with regard to my own thinking, I would say that Puar’s commentary allowed me to see how I have long sought out conceptual idioms that wade through the binarized language of social theory. Even the language of coloniality and decolonization does not fully escape the dualized logics of monocultural knowledge production. How does the concept of debility offer another way, or what Walter Mignolo and Arturo Escobar refer to as the “decolonial option,” to address the violent work of the state upon occupied territories? Given the narrow sliver between life and death that is the designation of most global Indigenous peoples within occupied territories, what can debility illuminate?

In the condition of extractive expansion, we might consider how Puar’s insights help us further life and death dialectics within territories earmarked for commodity conversion. As I elaborate in The Extractive Zone, extractive capitalism names the ongoing expansion of the colonial condition that is increasingly militarized and continually steals and appropriates from resource-rich regions. Given that biodiverse areas overlap with majority Indigenous territories, resource-rich sites depend upon Indigenous elimination (Wolfe) in the accumulation of surplus based upon mining, petroleum, hydroelectricity, monocultural pine plantations, and spiritual tourism.

Though I focus on the long resource-plundering of South America, my book more broadly points to the excavation and emptying out of social and ecological life as a planetary condition that accelerated after the 1970s to dizzying levels by the 1990s and 2000s. From a southern perspective, then, we might consider how Puar’s language, here in the era of intensification and within planetary racialized geographies, diagnoses the predicaments of what it means to live and die in the shadow or sombra of sovereign power, dissecting the discourses of occupation and harm, especially at the intersections of disability studies, critical ethnic studies, queer theory, and the Global South.

Indeed, the entire planet, in the eyes of global capital, has continually been mapped as an extractive zone. Racialized spaces of occupation like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Palestine and Sioux, Mayan-Quiche, and Mapuche territories have already experienced apocalyptic outcomes. These cross-cuttings of colonialism’s imprint might be referred to in Puar’s language as the geopolitics of racial ontologies. Unlike the extractive view that normalizes commodification, the geopolitics of racial ontologies locate us in space and time in particular economies of dispossession (to also reference the important phrasing of editors Chandan Reddy, Jodi Byrd, Jodi Melamed, and Alyosha Goldstein in their recent Social Text issue by the same title, 2018). For me, Puar’s identification of the work of occupying states leads us to the next step, enabling us to ask: what ontologies of being invert the geopolitics of racialized extraction? What forms of refusal, of resistance, of embodied, earthly, and local modes proliferate rather than reduce life to the extractive view?

To think with Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim allows me to suggest that the precarity of racialized corporality is one of the only obstacles to state / corporate sovereignty. In the Americas performance archive, for instance, Guatemalan Regina José Galindo’s embodied aesthetics reveals this by demanding accountability from the ravaging machine. In La Sombra (2017), or The Shadow, the short performance video that Galindo screened at Documenta 14, she continues to show how the racialized gendered body is both haunted by and resists state impunity. In one long take where Galindo is exhausted, and barely outruns the military tank that literally chases her down for miles. The tank and the bulldozer recall Palestinian erasure and the “counter-terrorist” infrastructure that maims both land and bodies. Making and presenting this video at Kassel, Germany, Galindo took up the opportunity to bring attention to the histories of European fascism and their connection to the global weapons industry that continually expand coloniality / imperialism in the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East.

Like Galindo, I’m obsessed with the bulldozer and the tank as twin symbols of dystopic developmentalism and as the prototypical weapons of violent amnesia within the paradigm of war. It is no coincidence that these machines litter Palestinian territories, Baltimore, Trump’s inaugural parade, Chiapas during the Zapatista uprising, and other spaces of intimidation, state terror, and cleared memory. You can also find the tank and the bulldozer in the background of many scenes within the recent Al Jazeera documentary Defiance of the Mapuche (2017).

Discussing the pressing concerns of the Mapuche and injured embodiment is essential. In the narrow view of the state, the Indigenous Mapuche figure is both the terrorist in the militant refusal of dams and monocultural plantations, and the Indigenous body becomes the site of injury by the occupying state. In other words, territorial acquisition requires an infliction of incapacity upon occupied peoples. As one mother narrates about her activist son in the film, though he physically survived a military assault, thirty bullets remain in his body. To enable him to walk, a rod was inserted through his fractured pelvis. Another young Mapuche woman relates how the last thing she wanted was to lose her eye as hundreds of other Indigenous land and water defenders have amidst the constant spray of rubber bullets and tear gas canisters directed at Indigenous activists. As with the Palestinian perpetual confrontation with the Israeli army, we might think of what it means to become incapacitated in this context. This is the unseen shadow side of growth capitalism and the maiming logic of neoliberal extractivism.

Being in conversation with disability studies, then, offers me further insights about how to focus and elaborate upon embodied modes of being and living, modes of doing and moving otherwise that insist upon other relational formats. In my own work I privilege the role of art and activisms alongside anti-extractive social movements as a way to repossess, re-occupy, and reimagine. And in conversation with Puar, I want to think more deeply about how these movements or geo-choreographies are always contained not only by the death space of extractive zones, but also by the mass debilitation of racialized bodies that global capitalism demands. Following the cue of the artists and activists and through enlivened dialogic theoretical encounters, we must continue to think and make work that ends occupation.

Macarena Gómez-Barris

Macarena Gómez-Barris is author of Where Memory Dwells: Culture and State Violence in Chile (2010), The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (2017), and Beyond the Pink Tide: Artistic and Political Undercurrents in the Americas (2018). Her new book project is At the Sea’s Edge: On Coloniality and the Oceanic. Her essays have appeared in Antipode, GLQ, and Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, as well as in numerous other venues and art catalogues. She is founder and director of the Global South Center, a transdisciplinary space for experimental research, artistic, and activist praxis, and chairperson of the Department of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute.