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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On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.


My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading

‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’

Below is a slightly expanded text of a ten-minute speech I gave at the Oxford Union for the proposition ‘This House Believes Britain Should Be Ashamed of Churchill’. The bits in square brackets are things I didn’t have time to say, or hadn’t thought of saying at the time, or reflections on what happened later. Shoulda coulda woulda: that’s what blogs are for. 

In April 2016, Boris Johnson (while still mayor of London) wrote a curious article for the Sun. The article was timed to coincide with a visit to the UK by President Obama, who was widely expected to appeal to the British people to vote to remain in the European Union in the upcoming referendum. As a leading spokesperson for the Leave campaign, Boris wanted to pre-empt Obama. He tried to do this by invoking Churchill in two ways. First, he drew attention to one of Obama’s first acts upon entering the Oval Office, when he returned a bust of Churchill to the British embassy in Washington. Speculating on why Obama might have done this, he suggested—with more than a hint of Trumpian Birtherism—that this might have been ‘a symbol of the part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire—of which Churchill had been such a fervent defender.’ See, Obama’s grandfather had been arrested and tortured for his alleged participation in the Mau Mau insurgency in Kenya, which began during Churchill’s postwar premiership. Having tried to discredit Obama by reminding us of his dislike for Churchill and the British empire, Boris then invoked Churchill in a more positive vein as a symbol of the struggle against dictatorship in Europe who might similarly inspire the efforts of Leavers in their own struggle against the dictatorship of the European Union. In this strange little article and its intersecting oppositions—Boris v. Barack, Leave v. Remain, Churchill v. the empire—we have all the ingredients that might explain why this House, in 2018, is being asked to consider whether to express shame in a long dead British Prime Minister.

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