Introduction: Relation, Exception, and the Horizons of Critique in Jasbir Puar’s Work

This Social Text Periscope dossier offers reflections on Jasbir Puar’s work from Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times to The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability. With The Right to Maim’s release occurring on the tenth anniversary of Terrorist Assemblages, the time seemed to us ripe not only to assess the import of the former, but also to attend to the larger critical arc provided by Puar’s scholarship. Thus, we’ve invited seven scholars to reflect on the impact, applicability, and issues that have arisen from Puar’s work, with a primary focus on The Right to Maim. We would like to thank Liat Ben-Moshe, Sara Farris, Macarena Gómez-Barris, Amber Jamilla Musser, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Fred Moten, and Helga Tawil-Souri for their time and contributions to this dossier. This introduction lays out a few of Puar’s larger contributions to critical theory, humanistic discourse, and critical race, gender, sexuality, and disability studies.

Subjectless Critique

Both books provide a synthesizing examination of the very terms that define the law and liberalism: justice, rights, and community (and its relationship to identity formation). In particular, in mapping the relationship articulated across liberalism with whiteness, formations of identity (specifically disability), and most importantly, state violence, Puar offers a sustained reconsideration of biopolitical control societies, their ambit and domain, and their multivalent modes of operation. At the center of Puar’s contribution is thus a broad reworking of discourses of identity away from celebration and towards a deep consideration of how the subject and identity become imbricated with technologies of control, population management, and what we imagine to be bios (the good life). In other words, Puar contends with the limits of minority discourses with the broader tendency to overemphasize the subject. By grappling with identity in relation to biopolitics, Puar has greatly contributed to a larger project that has come to be known as “subjectless critique,” as articulated by Kandice Chuh and David Eng, Jack Halberstam, and José Muñoz. And with this move, which both focalizes yet moves beyond the subject, she further centralizes questions of state violence.

For example, in Terrorist Assemblages Puar gives us a paradigmatic account of the valorization of certain queer subjects within a structure of liberal power she names “homonationalism,” which proffers to those few queer subpopulations eager and eligible for it the beguiling promise of an “innocuous inclusion into life.” In Puar’s rendering, these gestures of selective inclusion work, in essence, as alibis–the self-legitimizing cover stories of a liberal power keyed to imperial disequilibrium, racialized hierarchy, biopolitical optimization, and the extraction of value from the planet’s proliferating surplus populations. Terrorist Assemblages teaches us, in all, to see the imperial consolidation ghosted inside seemingly benign practices of queer inclusion.

Puar furthers this larger project in The Right to Maim, with an attention to disability’s relationship to identity, community, and other axes of social difference. Here, she turns away from discourses of disability empowerment since such claims are “perhaps more tenable when disability is perceived or felt as the result of an unfortunate accident or a misfortune.” This dominant understanding of disability enables disability to become “bodily experiences that can be capacitated through a reorganization of resources, of white privilege and class and economic mobility.” By solely focusing on disability as identity and empowerment, we do not focus on how disability is “a product–not byproduct but a deliberate product–of exploitative labor conditions, racist incarceration and policing practices, militarization, and other modes of community disenfranchisement” (65).

Amber Jamilla Musser’s contribution notably traces Puar’s contribution to theories of racialization. Musser highlights the import of affect and sensation for theorizing race and subjectlessness. In particular, she deploys Puar’s work to consider how brownness as a category opens up ways to produce solidarity and to trace forms of migration and militarization within the notion of race.

Subjectless Critique & the Transnational

In order to reexamine discourses on identity and the subject, Puar relies on the transnational. Her analyses move us away from a US-centric project of the liberal inclusion of minority bodies by foregrounding the problems with American empire and exceptionalism. Among the first and most broadly-conceived books to holistically consider the transnational turn within queer theory, Terrorist Assemblages provides a keen intervention in US nationalist discourses of protectionism. There, Puar critically articulates how liberalism and homonationalism overlap, expanding how we discuss queerness, race, and gender globally. Puar offers subtle revisions of this earlier work in the last two chapters of The Right to Maim, particularly as she unpacks the function of homonationalism well beyond the parameters of queerness in order to think in fresh and expanded ways about homonationalism as assemblage. The Right to Maim offers a more expansive and trenchant examination of the violences of liberalism, as weaponized by not only US empire but also its allies. Puar’s newest book carries this contention deftly across the ADA, trans activism, and the biopolitical turn in disability studies. The last two chapters then offer explicit critiques of the Israeli state and its use of the right to maim in order to debilitate Palestinian populations as opposed to enacting the right to kill.

Our contributors take up this turn to the transnational. Fred Moten’s contribution considers the difficulties and necessity of contending with the entwinement of blackness, indigeneity, and Palestine. Moten deploys Puar’s work to think of blackness in relation to the transnational, Ferguson in relation to Gaza, to grapple with ongoing histories of state violence. J. Kēhaulani Kauanui further articulates relationships across Israeli occupation and settler colonialism. Similar to Moten, she notably turns to the transnational to grapple with Zionism and settler colonialism as state projects. And Sara Farris turns our attention to the internationalization of homonationalism, noting the rise of gay Islamaphobic politicians and politics throughout Europe and asking after the specific economic conditions that sustain such developments.

Relationality

In its generous breadth, Puar’s scholarship thus helps us to reconsider some central terms for critical theory: biopolitics, control society, empire, and affect, amongst others. All of these terms indicate a reformulation of what can be understood as the larger relational turn, which attempts to delineate alliances across and in spite of the particularities of difference. In this vein, The Right to Maim renegotiates Puar’s relation to the concept of intersectionality. Together, assemblage and intersectionality offer productive tensions to help us further reconsider the transnational and relational.

When going back to some of Kimberlé Crenshaw’s works on intersectionality, one finds a similar engagement with the ways activists and neglected populations negotiate institutions and organize around them. Crenshaw notably focused on domestic violence shelters and legislation concerning immigration and women. Puar’s reliance on assemblage similarly indexes differences in how politics operate today. Both Puar and Crenshaw utilize quasi-ethnographic approaches to activism that bring to the fore how activists are working in their current moments. For Crenshaw, the way people organized within the context of Clarence Thomas’s confirmation, amidst the misogyny and violence targeted at Anita Hill, indicates a political moment that intersectionality sought to understand. For Puar, the assemblage becomes the primary means to understand the BLM and BDS movements. We highlight these historical differences to indicate that Puar’s work does not provide a “better” intersectionality but rather a different index to how we organize today. This is not simply to state we have evolved from intersectionality. After all, Black feminist theory continues to be at the forefront of political and theoretical projects. Further, as Crenshaw has reminded us, it’s all about retrenchment. Rather, Puar’s relationship to intersectionality and reliance on assemblage respond to our current moment and the need to attend to shifts in organizing that additionally force us to rethink the place of the subject, her identity, control, and our relationality to others.

Puar’s theorizations offer forms and gradations within violence that emerge through close attention to the state and activism. In the postscript of The Right to Maim, Puar discusses how “becoming disabled is not a before-and-after event but an ongoing navigation with quotidian forms of blockage that draw populations in and out of debilitating and capacitating experiences” (161). Her focus on the temporal and spatial articulations of violence pluralizes our very understanding of violence into violences. By doing so, The Right to Maim helps us contend with differences and questions surrounding the relational turn in feminist and queer theory–a turn that someone like José Muñoz reminds us can turn into a “crypto-universalism.”

And Puar’s new work also sustains, along with these fortifications against the subtle incursions of a crypto-universalism, an ever-widening conceptual horizon. We see this perhaps most vividly in the cautionary implications of The Right to Maim, which seem to us to argue against the impulse to consider Palestine a zone of exception. In Puar’s bracing account, Palestine is neither exception nor unacknowledged rule but, more precisely, a sort of laboratory: an experimental theater for modes of power adapting themselves to emergent conditions within the empire of liberalism. It is a scene in which thick and entangled varieties of optimization–beyond the famous make-live / let-die diacritic–are in essence tried out, calibrated in relation to a Palestinian world figured as disposable, expendable, surplus population. Palestine is in precisely this sense less an exception than a preview of the future, inasmuch as this decades-long downturn, this era of secular stagnation, guarantees that huger and huger swaths of the globe will become surplus population in the years ahead, unassimilable to economies shedding labor with dizzying techno-assisted rapidity, and so requiring of liberal regimes new strategies of control, new techniques of extraction, new imaginaries of optimization.

Our contributors grapple with Palestine as both a situated example requiring immediate response and an exemplar for tracking biopower’s evolution. Helga Tawil-Souri’s contribution forces us to grapple with the immediate and ongoing effects of state violence in Palestine. She takes this opportunity to highlight the violence of the Israeli state which Puar helpfully delineates. In addition, Liat Ben-Moshe grapples with Puar’s work for disability studies and activism. In particular, she asks us to avoid replacing disability with debility; rather, she critically pushes for the need to consider disability and debility together. And Macarena Gómez-Barris considers the wide utility of Puar’s theorizations for thinking about biopolitics in the extractive zone, pairing up the bulldozer and the tank as two of the signature means of optimizing incapacitation in struggles from Palestine to Chiapas to Baltimore to Guatemala.

And so, as we continue to contend with a larger relational project in concert with the framings of global political economy (as indicated by notions like the undercommons, multitude, precarity, and intimacies), debates over forms of violence will be critical as we account for multiple forms of state violence: native dispossession and genocide, trans misogyny, carceral state power, and enslavement, to name a few. There are tensions, in other words, that can be ignored through the impulse to relate to others. Puar’s work helps us demarcate forms of violence to help ground the relational turn that we are so reliant upon today. Her focus on the right to maim within and through the production of disposable populations by the Israeli state is her primary way of grappling with not only a focused analysis of state violence, but also how such violence relates to other ongoing struggles. In her discussion of the maiming of Palestinian populations, she focuses our attention on how other forms of violence (like the state’s economic reliance on migrant labor from the Philippines and other nations, to take a near example) facilitate Israel’s larger settler colonial project. One can only imagine how such an attention to the forms of violence might help us think relationally across histories and geographic spaces.

From Terrorist Assemblages to The Right to Maim, Puar has articulated and parsed out forms of violence and the ways we organize and activate within, against, and beside such invocations by state entities. Puar’s books aren’t just “getting better” (à la Dan Savage, as discussed by Puar in her first chapter), but they are getting deeper into the bitter realities of liberal logics that inspire us to activate our own right to claim.

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Peter Coviello

Peter Coviello is a professor of English at the University of Illinois-Chicago and the author of three books: Intimacy in America (2005), Tomorrow’s Parties (2013)--a finalist for Lambda Literary Award in LGBT Studies and honorable mention for the Alan Bray Memorial Book Prize--and, most recently, Long Players: A Love Story in Eighteen Songs, appearing in 2018 from Penguin Books. His next book, Make Yourselves Gods: The Unfinished Business of American Secularism--A Mormon Story, will appear from the University of Chicago Press in 2019.


Hentyle Yapp

Hentyle Yapp is an assistant professor at NYU's Department of Art and Public Policy. He is also affiliated faculty with the Department of Performance Studies, Disability Council, and Asian/Pacific/American Institute.