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?

The Right to Maim proffers an answer to these questions. In Puar’s own words: “indigenous populations in central colonial states represent the vanishing point of national time, a futural gesture that is driven by a presumptive origin manufactured through the genocide of native populations. Inclusion in (national) invocations of collective futurity is thus consent to genocide” (2017: 85). In this schema, blackness and indigeneity are both ontologically incongruent with futurity. Carceral racism (in its variegated guises) produces premature death in bodies always already demarcated by debility. Although the central aim of the book was hardly to provide an answer to my very particular question and I wonder whether any claim to sovereignty by Palestinians would be prima facie rejected by Puar as submission to racialised notions of the human, I would contend that Puar’s greatest accomplishment in The Right to Maim is precisely that – it manages to intervene in a dizzying array of important theoretical debates, contribute to a diverse body of scholarship ranging from critical disability studies to political economy, and continually expand the remit of critique. In other words, it often supplies surprising answers to questions you may be asking and poses new questions to the answers you might have hoped you already had.

At its core, The Right to Main is a disruption or perhaps more accurately a dissolution. In the first instance it disrupts common sense (both liberal and critical) understandings of disability. By mobilising the concept of ‘debility’ – an amalgam of bodily injury and social impairment, brought about by (settler) colonialism, racialised capital and the entrenched machinations of whiteness – Puar highlights the inadequacy of the glib liberal discourse of ‘disability rights’. For Puar, debility and debilitation must be untethered from (even as they remain implicated in) disability. The latter is an identification usually attributed to physical injury that is overdetermined by “white fragility” and that cannot be disarticulated from neoliberal modes of governance (2017, xiv) while the former signify the “slow wearing down of populations” (2017, xiv) populations that are systemically denied access to resources or indeed the hope that “things may get better”.

The second dissolution, and of more immediate salience to those of us working in critical IR, is that meted to the biopolitics/necropolitics binary, which Puar triangulates by opening up a space in between, what she calls the ‘right to maim’. Puar complicates the conventional understanding of the operative modality of neoliberal governmentality along four quadrants: making live, making die, letting live and letting die. To these four quadrants, she adds a “a critical axis”, averring that debilitation or the practice of “deliberate maiming” is not merely another version or derivative of slow death or ‘death in life’ but rather a “a status unto itself” one that cannot be plotted on the spectrum of life to death (2017, 137).

If slow death is primarily viewed through the prism of “let die” or “make die”, maiming functions according to a different vector, that of “will not let die” and what Puar calls its “supposed humanitarian complement” – “will not make die” (2017, 139). Maiming dissimulates as “let live” so that it can be perceived as a tactic for the preservation of life, but actually targets any possibility for dissent and resistance by a permanent incapacitating that remains invisible or incalculable within the rubrics of “collateral damage”. Maiming is disambiguated as the preferred Israeli Defence Force (IDF) policy with respect to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and as a practice that from the vantage of the occupied is a fate worse than death.

For a discipline obsessed with war, death, security and collateral damage (evinced in ridiculous frameworks such as the Correlates of War project, which maintains that for violence to be recognised as war, at least 1,000 people must be killed), The Right to Maim presents a wholesale challenge. Indeed, if “we consider the taking of human life the primary and dominant characteristic of war” as David Singer and Melvin Small impel us to, then Israel 48 is largely defined by an absence of war, as the Israeli state never intends to kill civilians (Puar, 2017: 142). A purposeful engagement with The Right to Maim thus entails a re-thinking of our foundational concepts of war, violence and security. Scholars working in critical security studies must become attentive to the interstices of biopolitics and necropolitics – a space that Puar argues cannot be theorised without a concomitant grappling with the global operations of power that work through race, gender, dis-ability and sexuality. Puar’s (re)centring of race in the operation of biopolitics has profound consequences for our understanding of the (international) security landscape today. The sovereign imperative of ‘will not let die’ enables an effective critique of less lethal but no less destructive forms of violence and expunges them from our (liberal) imaginary as necessarily “less bad”. ‘Ethical violence’ is at best a non-sequitur and at worst a shambolic (if useful) antinomy.

In the final analysis and since no review would be worth its salt without an element of critique, here goes. Whilst The Right to Maim upends our taken-for-granted assumptions about a host of concepts and categories, not least violence and capacity, certain sections occasionally come across as a little synoptic, leaving the reader wanting more excavation, more teasing out and more unpacking. Or to put it slightly differently, the text is most valuable as an impressive synthetic deepening of insights generated in a wide range of fields. Also, as far as I am concerned, it did not quite justify its Deleuzian framework, which felt bitty and more abstruse than elucidatory. Admittedly, some of the current theoretical apparatus draws on Terrorist Assemblages but I remain unconvinced how our understanding of settler colonialism in general and Palestine in particular was enriched by resort to the grammar of ‘assemblage’. Nonetheless, for an iconoclastic text that convincingly shatters our myths as critical scholars working on intersectionality, race, gender, and disability studies, I suppose a less than fully fleshed out Deleuzian framework is a small price to pay.


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