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

One way to make sense of the uneven distributions of privilege underpinning discourses and categories of exceptionality is to take seriously the notion of ‘debility’ that lies at the heart of Jasbir Puar’s new book The Right to Maim (hereafter RTM). Puar articulates her understanding of debility in relation to the categories of disability and capacity, with which it forms a ‘mutually reinforcing constellation’ (xv). Debility names the condition of bodies that are not recognised, or may not identify, as disabled, but nonetheless suffer a lack of capacity, in part by being denied access to legibility and resources as disabled. Building on the work of disability activists and scholars such as Mia Mingus, David Mitchell, Sharon Snyder, Nirmala Erevelles and others, Puar thinks through the divergent and contradictory ways in which experiences of incapacity might be made sense of. In a particularly insightful discussion, she suggests that incapacity is more likely to occasion the claiming of an empowered disability identity when it is ‘perceived or felt as the result of an unfortunate accident, or a misfortune, as an exceptional circumstance for which the body impacted is in no way to blame’ (65). Here, ‘disability’ can be managed through the reorganization of resources, including racial, class and other forms of privilege, to become ‘an exceptional attribute of an otherwise fortunate life’ (xix). In contrast, debility describes the kind of incapacity that is the product ‘of exploitative labor conditions, racist incarceration and policing practices, militarization, and other modes of community disenfranchisement’ (65). Here, incapacity is endemic, normative, banal and quotidian, rendering less meaningful an identity politics around the category of ‘disability’. As Puar asks provocatively, ‘Is a young black man without a diagnosed disability living in the United States who is statistically much more likely than most to be imprisoned, shot at by police, or killed by the time of adulthood actually a referent for what it means to be able-bodied?’ (74). Similarly, the collective punishment of impaired mobility imposed on entire populations by practices of settler colonial occupation and apartheid produce endemic forms of debility that may well diminish the difference between the disabled and the able-bodied (111). ‘Debility’, then, ‘exposes and sutures the non-disabled/disabled binary’ (xv). Rather than seeking to expand the terrain of disability, Puar mobilizes debility ‘to illuminate the possibilities and limits of disability imaginaries and economies’ (xvi) and, more particularly, ‘the constitutive absences necessary for capacitating discourses of disability empowerment, pride, visibility, and inclusion to take shape’ (xvii). For Puar, ‘disability and debility are not at odds with each other’, but are ‘necessary supplements 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’ (ibid). Thus, disability and debility do not simply mark divergent affective experiences and theorizations of incapacity from different social locations, but are placed in a mutually constitutive relationship to one another.

Readers of Puar’s ground-breaking Terrorist Assemblages will recognise in this move something analogous to the claim in that earlier book that the selective incorporation into US nationalism of a gender-/race-/class-sanitized queerness is made possible by the quarantining of its more destabilising aspects in the figure of the monster-terrorist-fag who remains the ultimate Other. In RTM, Puar argues that the visibility and social acceptance of disability relies on and engenders the obfuscation and proliferation of debility (xv-xvi). Both books share a preoccupation with the question of what happens after liberal rights are bestowed, when putative thresholds or parameters of success are claimed to have been reached. As Puar asks, ‘what happens when “we” get what “we” want?’ (xviii)—the scare quotes foregrounding RTM’s unrelenting attention to the class, gender and especially racialized dimensions of this ‘we’. Puar poses this question in relation to disability, trans and reproductive rights regimes in successive chapters of RTM, paying attention also to the fraught relations between these different discourses. The insights that she generates by putting them into conversation with one another, while also bringing critical ethnic, indigenous, postcolonial, posthumanist and animal studies perspectives to bear on them, are far too rich and entangled to permit a comprehensive summary in a brief review such as this. My own current preoccupations provoked reactions that, while at first glance might appear tangential, are nonetheless inspired by Puar’s always trenchant analysis of how categories and analytical insights sometimes come into being at the expense of other forms of social experience.

Chapter 1 of the book draws out the complicated and contradictory relations between trans and disability rights discourses. On the one hand, trans bodies may resist alliances with disability organizing in order to avoid the stigmatization and pathologization that may be reiterated by such affiliation, but also because dominant discourses compel the fabrication of trans bodies as productive neoliberal subjects as a condition for their enfranchisement. On the other hand, trans persons often depend on access to medical care from the very institutions that enforce gender normativity, in order to realise themselves as trans in the first place (35-36). Puar expertly outlines the ways in which these dilemmas manifest themselves in struggles over disability and trans law. In a particularly important section describing the legislative measures that sowed the seeds of what chapter 2 will describe as ‘crip nationalism’, she draws our attention to the exclusion of ‘gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments’ from the definition of disability deserving of state support provided by the American Disabilities Act (ADA) (37). While this might appear to have been motivated by a concern for depathologization, Puar demonstrates that it was driven by moral panic discourses that sought to deny disability protections to politically unpopular groups, effectively making gender normativity the price for the conversion of (certain forms of) disability from a socially maligned status to one deserving of liberal acknowledgement and inclusion (38).

In the course of mapping the fraught relations between trans and disability discourses, another social category emerges in the argument almost subliminally, as a heuristic device rather than an explicitly acknowledged subaltern subject position. Puar relies for her legislative history of the ADA on the work of Adrienne L. Hiegel, whom she quotes as arguing that the ‘Act carved out a new class of untouchables…in identifying the sexual “deviant” as the new pariah, using the legal machinery of the state to mark as outsiders those whose noncompliant body render them unfit for full integration into a working community’ (38). The term ‘pariah’ recurs no less than eight times in chapter 2. Here, Puar initially draws the term out of the work of Mitchell and Snyder, who use it to describe the trajectory of crip nationalism as entailing the transformation of (some) disabled persons from the status of ‘social pariahs’ to that of objects of care (77, 78). Puar is critical of their argument in a number of important respects, drawing attention to the manner in which this transformation is predicated on the geopolitical production and uneven distribution of debility. What interests me here is that she then deploys the term ‘pariah’ as a sort of placeholder for social abjection in the development of her own argument in the remainder of the chapter (79, 80, 84, 92).

Why draw attention to what is, to all intents and purposes, an innocuous deployment of an extremely widespread usage? The English word ‘pariah’ is etymologically derived from the name of the Paraiyar caste, a social group occupying the lowest rungs of the caste hierarchy in southern India and Sri Lanka. I have often wondered at the manner in which terms such as ‘untouchable’ and ‘pariah’ that name specific social locations in a South Asian context, have become unmoored from those locations to circulate as metaphors for abjection. What does the circulation of such terms do to their original referents, particularly when effected by works of critical theory that are themselves deeply invested in the analysis of social abjection? In a useful discussion of the complexities of analogical reasoning in social justice contexts, Janet R. Jakobsen has persuasively argued that analogical statements of the kind ‘queers are the new Jews’ or ‘queers are the new blacks’ rely for their intelligibility on the stability of the ground of the analogy (antisemitism and anti-blackness respectively) and might also unwittingly reinforce and reproduce that stability. This is why Jakobsen concludes that ‘the internal structure of analogy…makes it particularly effective as a tool to iterate dominations across categories and much less effective in attempts to avoid such (re)iterations.’ Building on Jakobsen’s argument, I would argue that the suggestion that any social group has a claim to being the new untouchables/pariahs/dalits paradoxically assumes both that the prior occupants of this category have moved on and that their status remains relatively unchanged (therefore, familiar) so as to function as a stable ground for the analogy, thereby reiterating their subordinate status even if they have in fact achieved some degree of emancipation.

In pointing this out, my aim is not correction or censure. Rather, I want to take a leaf out of Puar’s own exemplary practice of thinking through how recognition and intelligibility are often achieved at the expense of other forms of social life (where ‘expense’ might be the result of effacement, disavowal, neglect or sheer obliviousness). Indeed I offer this observation as an opportunity, a point of departure, to insert caste—a relatively unacknowledged category outside work not explicitly on South Asia—into the febrile mix of subject positions that are so powerfully and productively brought into conversation with one another in RTM. This would not be difficult: much of what Puar says about the racialization of debility would apply mutatis mutandis to the experience of caste subordination. But there might also be interesting differences, even deliciously ironic ones. In 2014, the Supreme Court of India delivered a landmark judgment affirming the right of trans subjects to a gender identity of their choice and directing the state to regard them as a class of ‘socially and educationally backward’ citizens thereby entitling them to avail of constitutional guarantees of affirmative action insofar as public employment and education are concerned. Given that Indian law and social policy have historically evaluated ‘backwardness’ through the prism of caste, this latter move relied on an analogy (relatively undertheorised in the judgment) between caste subordination and transness. If the ADA once excluded trans (and other) persons from disability coverage thereby relegating them to the status of ‘pariahs’, Indian law has sought to include them by analogising their experiences with those suffered by groups to whom the status of pariah originally attached.

Central to the argument of RTM is an unrelenting focus on the production of debility. Debility, Puar repeatedly tells is, a deliberate product, rather than by-product, of the efforts of warring and working machines. As she puts it, ‘certain bodies are employed in production processes precisely because they are deemed available for injury—they are, in other words, objects of disposability, bodies whose debilitation is required in order to sustain capitalist narratives of progress’ (81). If the work machine debilitates primarily through the production of populations available for injury, the war machine does so by targeting populations to be injured (128). Puar illustrates this argument with reference to Israel’s occupation of Palestine which, she argues, implicitly claims a ‘right to maim’ and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control. Israel operationalizes the right to maim through a shift from traditional methods of dispersing populations to a policy of shooting to cripple, principally by firing at protesters’ knees, femurs and vital organs. The policy keeps the death toll relatively low in comparison to injuries—thereby drawing less condemnation and allowing Israel to masquerade as a practitioner of humanitarian warfare—while nonetheless debilitating the Palestinian population and pre-empting further resistance. Puar’s argument has elicited vicious accusations of antisemitism. Insidious, predictable and tiresome as these attacks are, I suggest that they could very easily be rebutted with the recognition that while Israel may be a particularly visible example of the arrogation of the prerogative to maim, it is not exceptional. An identical argument could be made of other regimes such as India in Kashmir, where an occupying army debilitates a resistant population through a policy of systematic blinding effected through the use of ‘pellet ammunition’.


credit: Getty Images

Puar’s focus on maiming makes an important theoretical contribution to Foucauldian conceptions of power. If sovereign power oscillates between the polarities ‘make die’ and ‘let live’ and biopower between those of ‘make live and let die’, the right to maim ‘implicates all of the other vectors at once—make die and make live (because in some cases debilitation can be harnessed into “compliant” disability rehabilitation), as well as let live and let die, a version of slow death, a gradual decay of bodies that are both overworked and underresourced’ (139). At other junctures in the argument, Puar works to distance maiming from slow death (‘debilitation—indeed, deliberate maiming—is not merely another version of slow death or of death-in-life or of a modulation on the spectrum of life to death’, 137), arguing, importantly, that it is both slow and intensive, ‘an accelerated assault on both bodily and infrastructural fronts’ (139). In staking out this new theoretical and ontological terrain—neither life nor death, but something else—Puar wisely keeps at bay the grotesque but irrepressible and unanswerable question: is this worse than death?

What of resistance in all this? From the overwhelmingly collective nature of debilitation imposed by settler colonial occupation, principally in the form of a generalised containment of the mobility of all Palestinians, emerges the slimmest of silver linings: the possibility of ‘conviviality’ between the able-bodied, the disabled, and the debilitated (160). Citing the experiences of members of a community-based rehabilitation group in the West Bank, Puar leaves us with a moving image of disability activism that is also necessarily anti-occupation activism, featuring the use of wheelchairs on the ‘frontlines…try[ing] to protect people behind them, thinking that maybe the IDF wouldn’t shoot at them’ during confrontations (160). There is a kind of cruel optimism in that ‘maybe’. But ‘From Ferguson to Palestine’, how else to carry on?


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