The Right to Maim: A Reply

In the concluding post in our symposium on The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,  a reply from Jasbir K. Puar who is Professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. The Right to Maim received the Alison Pipemeier best book award in feminist disability studies from the National Women’s Studies Association. Puar is also the author of award-winning Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), which has been translated into Spanish and French and was expanded and re-issued for its 10th anniversary (2017).


Thank you for this opportunity to dialogue with International Relations scholars and for taking the time to read The Right to Maim. It is always an enormous privilege to engage new and unexpected audiences and I am grateful to Nivi Manchanda, Cynthia Weber, Darcy Leigh, Rahul Rao, Isis Nusair, and Sankaran Krishna for their thoughtful responses. Special thanks to Ali Howell for curating this forum in The Disorder of Things, and for organizing a roundtable on the book at the recent Journal of Millennium Studies conference that took place at the London School of Economics in October 2018. These scholars raise so many points of discussion that it would be impossible to be exhaustive so I will address the most salient points. To begin, while the responses have focused largely on the material that makes up about the last third of the book on Palestine/Israel, The Right to Maim is first and foremost about American empire, and therefore continues the inquiry about the violent global effects of U.S. exceptionalisms that I began in Terrorist Assemblages. In linking Palestine to a broader thesis about U.S. empire, I contend that it is impossible to address contemporary manifestations of U.S. exceptionalism without examining the ideological and material legitimization that Israel provides for U.S settler colonialism. It is therefore crucial that Palestine is neither produced as an external object to the United States nor exceptionalized as a site disconnected from other locations of settler colonialism and biopolitical population management more generally. While The Right to Maim could be read as intellectual solidarity scholarship, I prefer to situate it as a form of accountability to the field of American Studies.

From my perspective one of the main contributions of The Right to Maim is the insistence that the work of debilitation through maiming entails a break or schism of sorts in theorizations of both settler colonialism and biopolitics. The now infamous phrasing of Patrick Wolfe’s that settler colonialism is a structure, not an event, proposes that settler colonialism effaces its violence through this convenient misreading of structure as an event, as a by-gone occurrence that will not happen again and cannot be rectified nor repaired. This “benevolent” mistaking of process for product is a hallmark of the violence of modernity. The Right to Maim adds to Wolfe’s formulation, as Leigh and Weber note, that this co-dependent foiling between structure and event—between space and time—also works to erase the on-going event-ness of settler colonialism, events (such as illegal Israeli settlements) that continue to reiterate formative injuries. Maiming, I argue, is a form of settler colonial performative reiteration–the event-ness of the structure–producing an affective renewal of settler subjectivity and entitlement and the reaffirmation of the settler/colonized binary. Can we therefore think of settler genocide as a process of perpetual maiming, as the reiterative force of the “will not let die” vector of biopolitics? This does not negate Wolfe’s assertion that the goal of settler colonialism is disappearance via the twin mechanisms of frontier homicide and coercive assimilation. Rather I argue that debilitation triangulates this twin mechanism, thickening our understanding of what genocidal elimination consists of: genocide as perpetual maiming, whereby another modality of the elimination of the native occurs through the debilitation of the native, and where killing resistance itself, rather than bodies alone, becomes the optimal goal.

Insofar as these are frameworks attending to the violence of nation-state formations, maiming is endemic to the United States and Israel but also settler societies such as Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. My experience of presenting facets of this work in spaces in these nations suggests that biopolitical maiming and the debilitation of the native is as relevant to those locations as it is to Palestine. This interconnectedness loops back to Rao’s note regarding Kashmir and the tactical use of pellet ammunition to blind insurgents, such that the spectacle of maiming is hardly proprietary to Gaza. The de-exceptionalizing of Palestine foregrounds links with Puerto Rico, Flint Michigan, New Orleans, and other locations where the “natural disaster” is not only the opportunity for a business plan; disaster is the business plan. Further to this de-exceptionalizing of Palestine is the fact that the occupation, like settler colonialism, may not necessarily end, but it is being distributed. The occupation continues along a post-Oslo trajectory of being further outsourced, the routes of capitalist profit increasingly entangled, through construction and disaster reconstruction projects; corporate saturation and debt enclosure; and the networked uses of drone technology and forms of state surveillance and repression long perfected on Palestinians. This distributed occupation is how the occupation attempts to be normalized, in bits and pieces, into other locations, as connected technologies of rule and immiseration. The global proliferation of modalities of control is one reason why Palestine is not singular, not exceptional, rather an exemplary concatenation of tactics that are recognizable elsewhere.

In relation to these reflections on what the book does geopolitically, I do not see the book traversing from Global North to Global South locations, as Leigh and Weber suggest (and in fact it might be necessary to think of Israel and Palestine itself configured through and complicating North/South). Rather this is a study of parallel and intertwined exceptionalisms manifest through US empire, and therefore “[beginning] from the Global South” would reiterate the violent epistemological severing that maintains the North/South binary in the first instance. In that respect I think the book operates less out of an occupier/occupied binary that “hardly critiques the occupied” (This claim, as it reads, is a bit obscure to me, but I take it that the query is regarding more attentiveness to internal contradictions, akin to the ones flagged by Isis Nusair, regarding power brokers and complicit actors such as the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, local elites, and diasporics) and more through these distributed assemblages of biopolitical control. What biopolitics offers is one way of apprehending relationships between different state projects and their relations between emerging world orders, eschewing comparative frames in order to comprehend relational scales and networks and regimes of intensification. The “make live” vector of biopolitics is an increasingly narrow consolidation of whose life and what forms of non-life are worthy of not only the conditions of flourishing but even basic protections. Biopolitics situates relations of living and dying in their specificity to understand how and where the hinge of humanness is conferred or denied.  Similarly, in regards to Leigh and Weber’s concern about what they infer is the decline of homonationalist states and the rise of anti-liberal, illiberal, and right-wing governments, to reiterate what I have written elsewhere: homonationalism is not a descriptor, rather a hermeneutic that asks how and why “how well do you treat your homosexuals” emerges as an arbiter of the capacity for national sovereignty, for governance and self-determination. Homonationalism therefore is not an attribute of any one state or states; rather it is the field within which demarcations of nation-states as “progressive,” “gay-friendly’’ “tolerant,” and “homophobic” have salience in the first place. Rather than assess “how homonationalist” a state is, I find it more fruitful to think through the co-constituted existence of liberal progressive ideals of queer rights, tolerance, and freedom alongside and working through homophobia, violent repression, and ostracization, and to query how these two supposedly opposite poles are used to alternately laud and demonize different populations. In fact, we might think of homonationalism and authoritarianism as often operating in a tandem formation that is only seemingly contradictory.

In this regard, and to address Manchanda’s methodological concerns, it might be helpful to disarticulate “assemblage” from its Deleuzian philosophical associations and look instead to its deployment in critical race studies, queer theory, and disability studies, for example, the work of Amber Musser, Alex Weheliye, Arun Saldahna, to name a few.   I think of The Right to Maim as far less wedded to Deleuze and Guattari than Terrorist Assemblages. The rendering of “control societies” is usually attributed to Deleuze and bound by the techno-optimism conveyed in his interviews, but I have found Foucault’s “regimes of security” to be a much more thorough grounding of how assemblages work. This rethinking of Foucault, via critical race theorists, is how I have learned about control societies and the workings of affect, modulation, and how power works and is resisted on biopolitical scales.

I think The Right to Maim is invested in what assemblage does as opposed to what it is; in the “doing of assemblage” more so than “resort[ing] to the grammar” of it (a grammar that is admittedly heavy in the pages of Terrorist Assemblages). What the maiming vector exposes is the liberal conceit at the heart of biopolitical thought, that “letting live” is always a gift in contradistinction to the sovereign right to kill, or the “make die” quadrant. This liberal conceit is not opposed to unconcealed authoritarian spectacles of maiming; rather the two are often convivial, in part because the former is insidiously encased in rhetorics of democracy and humanitarianism. Maiming is a form of value extraction from populations that would otherwise be disposed; and/or, maiming is the mark of the disposability of a population. This vector therefore animates a two-dimensional diagram with equal quadrants into a three-dimensional assemblage whereby quadrants are unequal, constantly shifting and folding in and out of each other, and pierced by maiming which unendingly reorganizes relations of living and dying. I also see the book capacitating the mutually reinforcing analyses of intersectionality and assemblage. To reiterate what I have said elsewhere, that a privileging of assemblage theory over the workings of intersectionality reiterates the teleological undergirding of Deleuze’s discipline-to-control mapping, and is insufficient for comprehending how discipline, control, and sovereign power work in concert.

This doing of assemblage connects to Sankaran Krishna’s astute observation that the work of the “third” term stalking the “dialectics of the binary” is to unravel “all that is gained and lost by a preoccupation with the dialectics of that binary.” Krishna’s analysis of the binary operations of security and anarchy lays bare the costs of effacing the inevitable third term that not only haunts the binary; the elision of the third makes the binary possible. A generative reading of the third also enacts a subjectless critique, one that is not dismissive of subject formation nor argues against subjects–say, the subject of disability–but asks what are the material conditions that are disavowed—settler colonialism for one–or haunting the emergence of the sovereign subject that is bound to settler futurity. I propose that debility is the invisible third term that haunts and shadows the rights-bearing subject of disability. Debility therefore is not an identity formation and does not supplant disability; rather it is that which is repressed in order for disability to become legible as an identity. As Krishna’s review emphasizes, debility and disability are supplementary, not opposing, relations; while they hail overlapping populations, they cannot replace nor encompass each other. That disability identity is solicited through rhetorics of empowerment and pride in rights discourse even as expressions of maiming and debilitation are central to economies of violence and exploitation is not a contradiction of liberalism, rather the constitution of liberalism. Following the lead of numerous disability studies scholars, activists, and exhortations from what is increasingly called “southern disability studies,” the argument put forth in The Right to Maim is an immanent critique, one that surfaces within the more marginalized recesses of the field.

Rao observes that I unwittingly reconstruct another analogical comparison in the process of deconstructing one, that of the “pariah” as a “placeholder for social abjection.” Indeed, analogy works through categorical figurations that efface intersectionality. As Rao points out, “the new pariah” is a reduction that produces a teleological fantasy of the liberation of some subjects who now preface the liberation of the “next in line” while simultaneously “function[ing] as a stable ground for the analogy, thereby reiterating their subordinate status even if they have in fact achieved some degree of emancipation.” The work of analogy that is both conducive and reiterative, and this process of unmooring from referents, is perhaps linked obliquely to the queries Manchandra poses about Afro-Pessimism and connections between conditions in the U.S. and those in Palestine. In tracing the emergent solidarity configurations between Black Lives Matter and the struggle for Palestinian liberation, my interest is less about comparing or collapsing specificities of space and corporeality, especially as doing so effaces the presence and histories of Black Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. What Ferguson to Gaza organizing organizing makes clear is that the Palestinian solidarity movement in the U.S. is becoming increasingly multi-racial, with Black-Palestinian solidarity at the core of this growth. In a response to The Right to Maim titled “blackpalestinian breath,” Fred Moten writes that “the new, co-constituting assemblage of Ferguson, Gaza…requires us to ask what it would mean to recognize, but also to embrace and enact, the exhaustion of the state solution.” The solution for the state—killing and maiming—manipulates the hinge between injury and death, in each case weaponizing death as the ultimate assault on life. As we have seen in recent months in Gaza during the Great March of Return, where at least 6,392 Palestinians have been shot in the lower limbs, injuring with impunity is rationalized as the use of minimal force. Cloaked as a humanitarian praxis, not-killing is a liberal panacea in a resource-deprived and infrastructurally decimated context where the distinction between injury and disability collapses, and the euphemism “permanent injury” denotes the extralegal of disability. For Moten, and with him I concur, beyond networked, shared, or resonant conditions of “Ferguson, Gaza,” all of which do exist, what is collectively at stake is no less than the failure of nation-state governance writ large.

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One thought on “The Right to Maim: A Reply

  1. Pingback: The Right to Maim: A Reply from Jasbir K. Puar — The Disorder Of Things – sexuality and space

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