Maiming, debility and the proliferation of the ‘pariah’

TDOT’s Rahul delivers the fifth post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim. Previous posts in the symposium can be found here.


Over the past few months, I have been intrigued by media reports of the imminent arrival of something called ‘Day Zero’ in the city of Cape Town. The term refers to the day when water in the city’s reservoirs is projected to fall below 13.5% of capacity, as a result of three successive years of poor rainfall. On this day, the city’s municipal taps will be switched off, forcing its four million inhabitants to line up for a daily water ration of twenty five litres at designated collection points. As rain has fallen, the day has been pushed back, from April to May to June to July, and now to 2019. Global media interest in this story has been suffused with a kind of horrified fascination with Cape Town’s predicament as a harbinger of ‘our’ collective future. While it is possible that the discourse of municipal emergency has engendered a consciousness of the finitude of water and a culture of conservation among Capetonians, there is something vaguely troubling about the register of exceptionalism in which the story has been reported and about the very framing of Day Zero as spectre of an unprecedented apocalyptic future. Even at the height of the crisis, this second whitest of South African cities has enjoyed something that many cities in the global South do not: a round the clock supply of domestic water. For millions of inhabitants of the world’s slums, where a single tap may be shared by thousands of people and where life itself is temporally organised around the vagaries of an erratic municipal water supply, many days are already Day Zero.

cape town

credit: Rodger Bosch/AFP

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Settler Colonial Sovereignty: Some implications of Jasbir Puar’s conception of the sovereign right to maim

The fourth contribution to our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim comes from Darcy Leigh and Cynthia Weber. Dr Darcy Leigh currently teaches decolonial and queer legal perspectives, as well as interdisciplinary ‘widening access’ programming, at the University of Sussex Law School. She has previously been a Teaching Fellow and/or Research Assistant at the universities of Edinburgh, Ottawa and Alberta. Dr Leigh has also worked as a facilitator, researcher and/or consultant with decolonial higher education projects Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning and the Akitsiraq Law School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in Scotland. Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.


State sovereignty, as a central analytical category in the field of International Relations (IR), has been too often uncontested (Walker, 1993). In spite of a wave of critical sovereignty studies in the 1990s (Ashley, 1988; Bartelson, 1995; Weber, 1995; Biersteker and Weber, 1996; Walker, 1993), with few exceptions those debates largely skirted or ignored altogether how state claims to sovereignty are woven through and require specific relationship to race and sexuality (Doty, 1996; Peterson, 1999; Weber, 1999). Only very recently have IR scholars come to recognize the centrality of sexuality and race in sovereign state formation (Anievas, Manchanda & Shilliam, 2015; Agathangelou et al 2008; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Leigh, 2017; Manchanda, 2015; Rao, 2012, 2014; Richter-Montpetit, 2007, 2015, 2016; Sabaratnam, 2017; Shilliam, 2015; Weber, 2016). More recently still, IR scholars are beginning to recognize the centrality not just of sexuality and race, but also of settler colonialism and disability (Beier, 2005, 2009; Crawford, 1994, 2007; Howell, 2011, 2018; Leigh, 2015; Shaw, 2008).

Jasbir Puar’s challenging and provocative new book, The Right to Maim, pushes these discussions further, demonstrating the inextricability of state sovereignty from settler colonialism as configured through racialized and sexualized relations of debility, capacity and disability. In so doing, Puar contests the function and meaning not only of sovereign statecraft, but also of settler colonialism.

In this short piece, we focus on the implications of Puar’s reworking of sovereignty and settler colonialism.

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The right to maim: the interstitial existence between biopolitics and necropolitics

This is the third post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim, by TDOT’s very own Nivi. Previous posts in the symposium can be found here.


I came to Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility| Capacity| Disability just as I was wrapping my head around Afro-pessimism, and specifically the claim by some of its proponents (see for instance this interview with Frank Wilderson) that any meaningful comparison (and by extension abiding solidarity) between Palestinians and black populations is – at its crux – misguided. This comes from the belief that the “regime of violence that subsumes Black bodies is different from the regime of violence that subsumes hyper-exploited colonial subalterns, exploited workers and other oppressed peoples.” I found this provocative, but also deeply unsettling: does the condition of ‘blackness’ preclude worthwhile parallels from being drawn with those suffering under a brutal settler colonial occupation with no respite in sight? Indeed, does the mass incarceration of black bodies in the US not face its equal in Gaza – the world’s largest open-air prison, as the common refrain is wont to remind us – or is ‘blackness’ antithetical to humanity whilst ‘indigeneity’ can still be, albeit conditionally, enfolded within humanity?

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Spectrums of Debility and Resistance

The second post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s Right to Maim is by Isis Nusair, who is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and International Studies at Denison University. She is the co-editor with Rhoda Kanaaneh of Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel, and translator of Ramy Al-Asheq’s book of poetic prose Ever Since I Did Not Die. She is the writer and director with Laila Farah of Weaving the Maps: Tales of Survival and Resistance; a one-woman show based on research with Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian refugee women.  Her upcoming book is titled Permanent Transients: Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan and the USA. She is currently conducting research on the narratives of crossing of Syrian refugees into Germany. Isis previously served as a researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability makes an important contribution to our thinking about the connection between debility, capacity and disability. The book challenges binary thinking and offers a continuum when thinking about dis/ability. Puar argues that capacity, debility and disability exist in mutually reinforcing constellation and are often overlapping or coexistent, and that debilitation is a necessary component that both exposes and sutures the non-disabled/disabled binary (xv).

Puar’s analysis emphasizes how intersectional and interdisciplinary approaches should shape our understanding of state sovereignty and the importance of examining the intersection of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability in the production of power structures in society. Her analysis of debility not only links the social, economic, political and environmental conditions in which people live but the ways these power structures manifest themselves in the global north and south.

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Anarchy, Security, Hierarchy: Reading IR with Jasbir Puar

The first post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim is by Sankaran Krishna who teaches politics at the University of Hawai`i at Manoa. His latest essay (“Manhunt Presidency: Obama, Race and the Third World”) will be published in the journal Third World Quarterly in 2019.


Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (Duke, 2017) sensitizes us to how binary categories organize our thinking and our disciplines –and often do so in ways that obscure important ethical issues. In this brief essay, I first adumbrate Puar’s thesis in her remarkable book and then take a critical look at the role that a certain binary – anarchy/security – plays in constructing the discipline of IR in specific ways, and end with some speculations on what the introduction of a third term, hierarchy, does to re-center issues of inequality, domination, racism and violence in the study of our world.

To peremptorily summarize Puar, she argues that the western discourse of disability rights is a quintessentially “white” political, economic, social, cultural and racial formation. Disability rights are fought for by and accrue primarily to affluent or middle-class citizens of western, developed societies even as these societies are themselves –through their military, economic, political, social and other interventions- responsible for much of human and planetary pain.

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The Right to Maim: A Symposium

Alison Howell is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University – Newark, where she is also affiliated to Women’s and Gender Studies, the Division of Global Affairs, and Global Urban Studies. Her research examines the global politics of science and technology, especially as it relates to the uses and abuses of medicine in war and (settler) colonialism. She is currently co-authoring a book with Melanie Richter-Montpetit, under contract with Oxford University Press, titled Race and Security Studies.


I’m delighted to provide an opening introduction to the Disorder of Things symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim.

Clearly, Puar’s vast body of work has already had a significant impact on International Relations. Recently published in a tenth anniversary edition, Terrorist Assemblages offered IR students and scholars a set of concepts including homonationalism, which continue to help us to develop deeper understandings of the queer politics of global racial violence and imperialism. The Right to Maim is no less bold in its interventions, yet again re-shaping our understandings of topics at the heart of much IR research, including war, security, (settler) colonialism and capitalism. It also offers altogether new avenues for research.

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Radicals for a Sensible Foreign Policy

James Gillray - Promised Horrors of the French Invasion - Burke, French Revolution, caricature, Gillray

Authoritarianism is globally resurgent. Of that there can be no doubt. The demagoguery club welcomes its latest initiate in the person of Jair Bolsonaro, who promises a “cleansing never seen before in the history of Brazil” against left activists and the ‘communists’ of the Workers’ Party. On social media, a factoid circulates: over half the world’s population now lives under far-right or reactionary regimes.[1] The electoral pattern is by turns terrifying, stupefying, and paralysing. Observers link the new authoritarian populism to anxieties over open borders and open markets, commonly translating into a virulent hatred of migrants and minorities. The limits of socio-economic ‘legitimate concerns’ are discernible not only in the bloody trail of political assassination and domestic terrorism, but in the paranoid fantasies of fascism’s new fanbase: Lula is a certified paedophile, Hillary Clinton is a sex-trafficker, George Soros is a trans rights master-puppeteer, gender theory is Ebola dispatched by Brussels, that sort of thing. It becomes harder with each day to dismiss aficionados of Infowars and Stormfront as mere gadflies on the conservative rump. Are they not more like its ideological engine? Under such conditions, the melancholy science of Theodor Adorno and company retains a certain appeal.

It seems obvious that the new authoritarians are nativist, nationalist, and isolationist. Their ad hoc collaboration predicts the end of liberal global governance (the reputed ‘rules-based international order’), the better to return to 19th century categories. But as Quinn Slobodian has succinctly argued, the current coalitions of the right do not favour direct retreat so much as a new kind of segregated interdependence: territorialised identity politics married to an international division of labour:

“Like Hong Kong and Singapore, these zones would not be isolated but hyper-connected, nodes for the flow of finance and trade ruled not by democracy (which would cease to exist) but market power with disputes settled through private arbitration. No human rights would exist beyond the private rights codified in contract and policed through private security forces… The maxim would be: separate but global.”

To be sure, the alt-reich do not wholly share this ‘free trade’ agenda, but here too paradoxical forms of internationalism are at work. Even in the 1930s, fascists believed in exporting domestic policy, aiming at the establishment of an organicist world order – what the Italian corporatist philosopher Arnaldo Volpicelli called “an internationalist doctrine after so many assertions and celebrations of ultra-nationalism”. Today, identitarian movements coordinate across borders: Nigel Farage lectures to the Alternative for Germany; the professional troll Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (with the faux-everyman ‘Tommy Robinson’ as his alias) enjoys the largesse of America’s extreme conservatives; sieg-heiling half-wit Richard Spencer flounders in his own attempt at a grand European tour. The extent to which xenophobes and neo-fascists desire a new ordering principal for the world is a matter for debate. But the otherwise unstable and provisional national coalitions of the right are strikingly aligned on several fronts, from an indistinct and wildly ahistorical ‘western chauvinism’ to the preeminence afforded to the heterosexual family and its unreconstructed father figure to a penchant for anti-semitic conspiracy tropes. Reactionary international theory is back. Continue reading