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.

Puar’s main argument relates to disability and debility as not being at odds with each other. Rather, they are necessary in an economy of injury that “claims and promotes disability empowerment at the same time that it maintains the precarity of certain bodies and populations precisely through making them available for maiming” (xvii). In this context, assemblages of disability, capacity and debility are elements of the biopolitical control of populations that foreground risk, prognosis, life chances, settler colonialism, war impairment, and capitalist exploitation. In addition, “debilitation is not a by-product of the operation of biopolitics but an intended result, functioning both as a disruption of the non-disabled/disabled binary—as an in-between space—and a supplement to disability, that which shadows and often overlaps with disability (xvii).

The Right to Maim argues that debilitation and the production of disability are in fact biopolitical ends unto themselves, with moving neither toward life or toward death as the aim. In this context, debility breaks the binary between abled and dis/abled bodies, and where debility and disability constitute each other. Puar also puts in conversation the disability, trans and reproductive rights discourses. Other binaries that Puar urges us to think about relate to the connection between rights and justice. She argues that as an affective assemblage, sexuality entails an axis of signification and an axis of forces that defy configurations that produce monoliths (118). She urges us to think about homonationalism and sexuality through assemblages that open up a different trajectory or plane of territorialization.

Puar’s activist scholarship breaks binaries between theory and practice. The book raises important questions about agency, activism and community when thinking about disability and debility within the context of Gaza. Disability cannot be separated from colonial and structural violence, and the ways in which war and settler colonialism are central in producing debility. Debilitation here is a biopolitical end point unto itself.

(Photo credit: Wissam Nassar, Washington Post)

The destruction of infrastructure in Gaza was intensified in the second intifada with the destruction of the airport. This act of destruction on the part of the Israeli State has material and symbolic meanings and ramifications as it maintains Gaza as a prison closed off from land by Israel and Egypt, sea (very limited access for boats to fish), and even air as no flights are allowed in or out. That is why the collective weddings, art workshops, and kites flown over the border with Israel in the recent Great March of Return are important to analyze not only because they break the siege over Gaza, but because they refuse to normalize practices that produce docile citizens and form acts of resistance that insist on movement and life.

(Photo credit: Mondoweiss)

The siege is part of a punitive measure to punish Palestinians in Gaza for electing Hamas in 2006. By this, the Israeli state is refusing to allow them to become “safe and sovereign citizens”, and keeps itself “safe” from them as they form the ultimate “threat” to its existence. By using infrastructural violence (134) and the interfacing of physical enclosure and virtual high-tech enclosures, an asphixatory regime of power is achieved (135). The target here is not just life but resistance itself, and the intensification of policing and control thus happens through, and not despite, “disengagement” and disinvestment, not through checkpoints but through choke points (135).

Puar poses two important questions in relation to how much resistance could be stripped without actually exterminating the population, and how productive, resistant and indeed creative are the affects of such attempts to squash Palestinian vitality, fortitude and revolt (136). She argues that debilitation—indeed, deliberate maiming—is not merely another version of slow death or death-in-life or of a modulation on the spectrum of life to death (137). Rather it is a status unto itself, a status that triangulates the hierarchies of living and dying that are standardly deployed in theorizations of biopolitics. Maiming in this context is required and is not merely a by-product of war, of war’s collateral damage and is used to achieve the tactical aims of settler colonialism (143).

(Photo credit: Wissam Nassar, Washington Post)

According to Puar, the Israeli state manifests an implicit claim to the “right to maim” and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to  scientifically authorized humanitarian economy (128).  She demonstrates the limitations of the idea of “collateral damage” that disarticulates the effects of warfare from the perpetration of violence.  She notes that the policy of maiming is a productive one, through the profitability of what she calls a speculative rehabilitative economy.

Puar’s book opens up interesting lines of inquiry concerning the political economy of the Israeli occupation. Most importantly and as Puar states, no just society could be created in Israel on the backs of the displacement of the Palestinian people and with the exclusive vision (and practice) of the Jewish nature of the state. Yet the analysis of Israel’s welfare state could be expanded to analyze the complex contradictions embedded in the initial vision for establishing a Socialist state in 1948 and the continued erosion of that vision especially with the introduction of broad neoliberal measures in the 1990s. Puar refers to Weizman’s work that differentiates between settler-colonization (1948), occupation (1967) and apartheid (1992; post Oslo Accords) (123). All three levels have been present and working to reinforce each other since the creation of Israel in 1948 as manifested in land confiscation and zoning laws (among others). The recent change to the “nation state” law says that Jews have a unique right to national self-determination and puts Hebrew above Arabic as the official language of the Israeli state. This renders problematic the status of Palestinians who hold Israeli citizenship and constitute over 20% of the population of the country. Although the Israeli Declaration of Independence vowed to develop land for all its people, in practice this right has been privileged for the last seventy years to Jewish citizens and is now enshrined in law. Also on questions of political economy, the idea of debt analyzed in chapter 3 could take into account the system of control of tax collection that the Israeli government maintains over the Palestinian Authority.

 (Photo credit: Isis Nusair, “Nation State Law is Apartheid”, August 11 demonstration in Tel-Aviv)

In the discussion on abortion in chapter three, the analysis could further problematize the connection between abortion as part of eugenics and maintaining a perfect Jewish Israeli nation and women’s rights to have control over their bodies. In addition, the analysis of Tel-Aviv as the “queer secular progressive” and Jerusalem as Jewish religious risks being too binary. Both cities have different histories of contested politics and construction of place and space as illustrated in the symbolic and religious significance and representation of Jerusalem as the “eternal capital of Israel” and the recent move of the American Embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. This also applies to the analysis of Ramallah vs. the rest of the West Bank. This analysis could take into account the politics of constructing political and urban centers in light of Israeli occupation and settler colonial policies. Finally, Puar states that Palestinian Queers for BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) link colonization, apartheid, and occupation and claim that anti-occupation activism is queer activism. Interested scholars could expand on this to provide more background on LGBTQ+ Palestinian activism – and not only within the context of BDS. This is crucial to counter debility with agency and resistance on the part of Palestinian queers and other members of society more generally.

In conclusion, Puar makes connections between the “here” and “there” when talking about the US’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She argues that reclaiming disability as a valuable, empowering difference may be more possible than when debilitation is caused by practices of global domination and social injustice (92-93). She continues to make connections between the “here” and “there” when describing the Black Lives Matter, the Palestinian Solidarity Movement, and the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline to protect sacred grounds and access to water movements. These movements are anchored in the lived experiences of debilitation, implicitly contesting the right to maim, and imagining multiple futures where bodily capacities and debilities are embraced rather than weaponized (xxiv).


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