Excerpts From: The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability
Excerpts from Jasbir Puar
The intensification of the writing of this book, and the formulation of "the right to maim," its most urgent political theoretical contribution, began the summer of 2014. This was the summer police shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the summer of Operation Protective Edge, the fifty-one-day Israeli siege of Gaza.
Organizers , protesting these seemingly disparate events began drawing connections, tracing the material relationships between the Israeli occupation of Palestine and the militarization of police in Ferguson, from the training of U.S. law enforcement by the Israeli state to the tweeting of advice from Palestinians on how to alleviate tear gas exposure. Descriptions of the militarized containment of civilians in Ferguson echoed those of the settler colonial occupation of Palestine. It was not long before the "Ferguson to Gaza" frame starting taking hold as an organizing rubric.
Ferguson-to-Gaza forums sought to correlate the production of settler space, the vulnerability and degradation of black and brown bodies, the demands for justice through transnational solidarities, and the entangled workings of settler colonialism in the United States and Israel. The comparisons, linkages, and affective resonances between Ferguson and Gaza were not perfectly aligned, and they did not always yield immediate alliances. But these efforts were convivial in their mutual resistance to the violent control of populations via targeted bodily assaults, and reflected desires for reciprocating, intersectional, and co-constituted assemblages of solidarity.
One striking aspect of the connective tissue between Ferguson and Gaza involved security practices mining the relationship between disability and death. Police brutality in the United States toward black men and women in particular showed a definitive tendency to aim for death, often shooting numerous bullets into an unarmed, subjugated, and yet supposedly threatening body--overkill, some might call it. Why were there seemingly so few attempts to minimize the loss of life? The U.S. security state enacted powerful sovereign entitlements even as it simultaneously claimed tremendous vulnerability. The police were merely "doing their job," a dangerous, life-threatening one. This calculation of risk is the founding rationalization for the impunity of "the right to kill" wielded by U.S. law enforcement.
The might of Israel's military--on of the most powerful in the world--is built upon the claim of an unchanging ontological vulnerability and precarity, driven by history, geopolitics, and geography. Alongside the "right to kill," I noted a complementary logic long present in Israeli tactical calculations of settler colonial rule--that of creating injury and maintaining Palestinian populations as perpetually debilitated, and yet alive, in order to control them. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have shown a demonstrable pattern over decades of sparing life, of shooting to maim rather than to kill. This is ostensibly a humanitarian practice, leaving many civilians "permanently disabled" in an occupied territory of destroyed hospitals, rationed medical supplies, and scarce resources. This pattern appeared again during Operation Protective Edge; the number of civilian casualties was reported daily and justified through the logic of collateral damage, while the number of injuries was rarely commented upon and never included in reflections of the daily toll of the siege.
Shooting to maim in order not to kill might appear as minor relief given the proclivity to shoot to kill. Why indeed were so many unarmed black victims of police brutality riddled with scores of bullets? But oscillations between the right to kill and the right to maim are hardly haphazard or arbitrary. The purportedly humanitarian practice of sparing death by shooting to maim has its biopolitical stakes not through the right to life, or even letting live, but rather through the logic of "will not let die." Both are part of the deliberate debilitation of a population--whether through the sovereign right to kill or its covert attendant, the right to maim--and are key elements in the racializing biopolitical logic of security. Both are mobilized to make power visible on the body. Slated for death or slated for debilitation--both are forms of the racialization of individuals and populations that liberal (disability) rights framework, advocating for social accommodation, access, acceptance, pride, and empowerment, are unable to account for, much less disrupt.
Fast forward to the summer of 2016, was the fourth day of Black Lives Matter protests going on in New York City, as well as in many other locations across the United States. During the previous week, the police shootings of Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, had galvanized protests all around the country. The shooting and killing of five police officers during a Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas had only amplified the lines of battle between civilians and law enforcement. The June 12 shooting in an Orlando queer club magnified a homo-nationalist discourse that posits Muslim homophobes as the primary danger to queer liberals of all colors, resulting in increased policing of LGBTQ pride events during the summer. Bombings by ISIS in the previous month had targeted Nice, Istanbul, and Dhaka. Protesters started gathering at Standing Rock to fight Dakota Access Pipeline. There were more shootings of bodies to come.
From Chapter 1: Bodies With New Organs
"Transgender rights are the civil rights issue of our time." so stated Vice President Joe Biden just one week before the November 2012 election. Months earlier, President Barak Obama had publicly declared his support for gay marriage, sending mainstream LGTB organizations and queer liberals into a tizzy.
It was an unexpected comment for an election season, and nearly inaudibly rendered during a conversation with a concerned mother of Miss Trans New England. Yet Biden's remark encoded in the rhetoric of recognition, seemed logical from a well-established civil rights era teleology: first the folks of color, then the homosexuals, now the trans folk. Biden's proclamation could be one genesis of the "transgender tipping point," a term coined by Time magazine in June 2012 to delineate a plethora of (positive) media representation of transgender people.
Indeed, a slew of antidiscrimination laws were passed under Obama's presidency; a national debate emerged about women's colleges and the presence of trans students; accessibility to gender-neutral bathrooms was lauded and also abhorred; Orange Is the New Black brought Laverne Cox and other trans actors to widespread public attention; and Bruce Jenner came out as Caitlyn. There were also unprecedented numbers of trans women of color, mainly black trans women, murdered during this same tipping point periodization.
The narrative of the tipping point feeds into the post-civil rights era story about the linear progression of the bestowal of rights. What happens to conventional understandings of "women's rights" in this telos? The "transgender question" puts into crisis the framing of women's rights as human rights by pushing further the relationships between gender normativity and access to rights and citizenship.
I could note, as many have , that failing an intersectional analysis of these movements, we are indeed left with a very partial portrait of who benefits and how from this according of rights, not to mention their tactical invocation within this period of liberalism whereby, as Elizabeth Povinelli argues, "potentiality has been domesticated."
As Jin Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton argue, "It is necessary to interrogate how the uneven institutionalization of women's, gay, and trans politics produces a trans-normative subject, whose universal trajectory of coming out/transition, visibility, recognition, protection, and self-actualization largely remains uninterrogated in its complicities and convergences with biomedical, neoliberal racist, and imperialist projects."
In relation to this uneven institutionalization, Haritaworn and Snorton remark that trans of color positions are "barely conceivable." The conundrum here, as elsewhere involves measuring the political efficacy of arguing for inclusion within and for the same terms of recognition that rely on such elisions. Desires for trans of color positions to become conceivable necessarily deploy their bare inconceivability to critique and upend that which seems conceivable.
Biden's remarks foreshadow the steep cost of the intelligibility of trans-gender identity within national discourses and legal frames of recognition. Does his acknowledgment of transgender rights signal the uptake of a new variant of homo-nationalism--a "trans (homo) nationalism"? Or is transgender identity a variation of processes of citizenship and nationalism through disciplinary narrativization rather than a variation of homo-nationalism?
In either instance, such hailings, I argue, generate new figures of citizenship through which the successes of rights discourses will produce new biopolitical failures--trans of color, for one instance. Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura call the "production of transgender whiteness" a "process of value extraction from bodies of color" that occurs both nationally and trans-nationally.
Thinking of this racial dynamic as a process of value extraction highlights the impossibility of a rights platform that incorporates trans of color positions, since their inconceivability is a precondition to the emergence of the rights project, not to mention central to its deployment and successful integration into national legibility. Adding biopolitical capacity to the portrait, Aizura writes that this trans citizenship entails "fading into the population...but also the imperative to be "proper" in the eyes of the state: to reproduce, to find proper employment; to reorient one's 'different' body into the flow of the nationalized aspiration for possessions, property [and] wealth."
This trans (homo) nationalism is therefore capacitated, even driven, not only by the abjection of bodies unable to meet theses proprietary racial and gendered mandates of bodily comportment, but also b the concomitant marking of those adjected bodies as debilitated. The debilitating and abjecting are co-substancing processes.
Jasbir Puar: "Paradigmatic Critic of Intersectionality "
"The claim to intersectionality as the dominant feminist method can be produced with such insistence that an interest in exploring other frames...gets rendered as problematic and even produces woc [women of color] feminists invested in other genealogies as 'race-traitors."
There is, though one critic who is named repeatedly in black feminist scholarship that guards intersectionality: Jasbir Puar. Puar is often figured in both scholarly and popular work as the 'paradigmatic critic of intersectionality.' Carastathis, for example, treats Puar's work as "the most influential critique of intersectionality," and Patrick Grzanka calls Puar one of intersectionality's most committed critics.
Puar reveals that scholars who pose questions about intersectionality's critical limits, or who "explore" other analytics, are often marked as traitorous. To have one's work deemed criticism is to feel as though one has been been removed--excommunicated, even--from the boundaries of black feminism precisely because one is imagined as inflicting harm on the very intellectual, political, ethical, and creative terrain that black women have labored to carve out.
Excepts From Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality
by Jennifer Nash
Finally, some "pro-intersectionality" scholars insist that critiques of intersectionality are so commonplace, so "standard," that they need not be cited at all. Devon Carbado for example, examines "standard criticisms" of intersectionality that permeate feminist conversations about intersectionality. This list includes the following:
1. Intersectionality is only or largely about Black women, or only about race and gender.
2. Intersectionality is an identitarian framework.
3. Intersectionality is a static theory that does not capture the dynamic and contingent processes of identity formation.
4. Intersectionality is overly invested in subjects.
5. Intersectionality has traveled as far as it can go, or there is nothing more the theory can teach us.
6. Intersectionality should be replaced by or at least applied in conjunction with (fill in the blank)
The only "critique" that warrants engagement with the work of a specific scholar is the sixth, about which Carbado notes:
"This brings me to the final criticism, which is not a criticism at all but rather a suggestion (against the backdrop of the preceding criticisms) that scholars should replace intersectionality with, or at least apply the theory alongside, some alternative framework. Among the candidates that advocates of this view have marshaled to perform this work are "co-synthesis" (Kwan 1997); "inter-connectivity" (Valdes 1995, 26); "multidimensionality" (Valdes 1998; Hutchinson 1999, 9; Mutua 20006b, 370); and most recently, "assemblages" (Puar 2007). Proponents of these theories implicitly and sometimes explicitly suggest that each has the inherent ability to do something-discursively and substantively-that intersectionality inherently cannot do or does considerably less well."
Carbado's approach to describing intersectionality's critique-simply listing a set of widely circulating criticisms without reference to specific scholars-suggests that these criticisms are so familiar that they are simply truisms. If each "criticism" references a rich body of debate within the field of intersectionality studies, Carbado elides those debates, instead presenting each as a way in which intersectionality is done by critics.
Though these scholars offer varied descriptions of critique, all have positioned their scholarship as a way of protecting intersectionality from the dangerous and destructive task of the critic, as a project of speaking on behalf of intersectionality. In other words, these texts perform the prevailing narrative that marks black feminist theoretical engagement, one marked by a problematic villain who systematically undoes intersectionality, often with questionable intellectual motives. In this account, the critic is ubiquitous, omnipresent, powerful, and dangerous, and the task of black feminist theory is to rescue (something I take up more in the next chapter).
Yet, despite the contention that the critic is ubiquitous, that intersectionality is quite literally under siege, the texts share a lack of specificity about the figure of the critic as each presumes the critics' omnipresence yet refuses to name specific critics, or to attach particular critical labor to particular scholars. There is, though, one critic who is named repeatedly in black feminist scholarship that guards intersectionality: Jasbir Puar. Puar is often figured in both scholarly and popular work as the paradigmatic critic of intersectionality. Carastathis, for example, treats Puar's work as "the most influential critique of intersectionality," and Patrick Grzanka calls Puar one of "intersectionality's most committed critics." In his cogent analysis of intersectionality and black feminism, James Bliss describes Puar's scholarly contributions as critiques:
"Over the past decade, Jasbir Puar has offered a field-defining series of critiques of intersectionality through her explication of assemblage theory...Puar critiques intersectionality as, first, anachronistically located in and of regimes of discipline; second, collusive with the post-911 national security state; and, finally, regressively attached to identity...my interested lies in what falls outside of Puar's description of her critique of intersectionality: namely, an anxiety that manifests as hostility toward the project of a radical Black feminism. "
What critical readers of Puar have caught in her several interventions on intersectionality is a tendency to align Black feminism with state violence generally, and the post-9-11 US imperial project specifically, something far different from an anxiety about the political stakes of leaving intersectionality behind...While not at all limited to Puar, it is this animating desire to displace Black women and Black feminist theorizing that troubles the turn to assemblage theory."
Here, Puar's engagement with assemblage as an alternative conception of theorizing relationality, subjectivity, and sensation is imagined less as a generative intervention and more as a practice of unsettling intersectionality. Indeed, in Bliss's retelling of Puar's contributions, Puar is figured as largely invested in dismantling intersectionality, a project that "manifest as hostility toward the project of a radical Black feminism." Similarly, Tiffany Lethabo King reveals that Puar's work is "one of the most well circulated critiques in the humanities and notes that "without trying to, Puar's non-post-intersectional critique is immensely effective at encouraging people to consider transcending and moving past intersectionality. Puar is not only the analytic's key critic but also foundational to a larger devaluation of intersectionality.
I attend to scholars' preoccupation with Puar as critic not as part of a project of rescuing Puar from the title of "critic" but to integrate both what it means that her work has come to stand for a set of practices that undermine intersectionality, that her name has come to signal myriad scholarly attempts to unsettle intersectionality, and what it means that the critic is imagined to be a ubiquitous figure, and yet the only critic regularly cited is Puar. While some insist that attention is given to Puar because she has offered, in Amy L Brandzel's words, "one of the most thorough critiques of intersectionality," my provocations here are designed to ask about the institutional politics that have made it such that Puar's work stands for a critique of intersectionality. What is it about both Puar and black feminist theory that has enabled the notion of Puar as the critic to circulate and flourish? What role does Puar-as paradigmatic critic-play in enabling the intersectionality wars to flourish?
Puar's status in the literature on intersectionality as the critic is particularly surprising because of her own uneasiness surrounding intersectionality, and her desire to think anew about relationality in ways that intersectionality may not (or may) be able to accommodate. Indeed, it is crucial to read Puar's engagement with intersectionality twice-first in Terrorist Assemblages and then, later, in "I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess." Terrorist Assemblages ends by setting assemblage, the analytic Puar champions, against intersectionality. Puar writes:
As opposed to an intersectional model of identity, which presumes that components-race, class, gender, sexuality, nation, age, religion-are separable analytics and can thus be disassembled, an assemblage is more attuned to interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency... We can think of intersectionality as a hermeneutic of positionality that seeks to account for locality, specificity, placement, junctions. As a tool of diversity management and a manta of liberal multi-culturalism, intersectionality collides with the disciplinary apparatus of the state-census, demography, racial profiling, surveillance-in that "difference" is encased within a structural container that simply wishes the messiness of identity into a formulaic grid.
Here, Puar offers an account of intersectionality that underscores its collusion-or potential collusion-with the state, the fact that it is (or can be) enmeshed with logics of counting, numeracy, measurement, and fixity.
In "I Would Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess," though, Puar carefully traces her ambivalence about how intersectionality has come to be deployed in the space of institutionalized women's studies. She writes,
"But what the method of intersectionality is most predominantly used to qualify is the specific 'difference' of 'women of color,' that has become, I would argue, simultaneously emptied of specific meaning on the one hand and overdetermined in its deployment on the other. In this usage, intersectionality always produces an Other, and that Other is always a Woman of Color (woc), who must invariably be shown to be resistant, subversive, or articulating a grievance.
The critical question she poses about intersectionality and its usages center on its dominance in women's studies, its place as the prevailing method, and the fact that questioning intersectionality results in precisely what has happened to Puar, the placement of the theorist (and her frameworks) as "traitorous." Here, what Puar performs is less critique than a critical inquiry surrounding intersectionality's circulation and institutionalization.
Why, then are Puar's ambivalent engagements with intersectionality's racial and institutional politics forgotten in the service of representing her work exclusively as damning critique? How can we make sense of how a scholar's idea's change, shift, transform, and are presented differently? In other words, how can we track the evolution or shift of Puar's work on intersectionality from Terrorist Assemblages to "Cyborg" with a deep recognition of the fact that our collective scholarly endeavors are rooted in larger disciplinary conversations that might result in different presentations in our ideas or shifts in our thinking? While my endeavor here can only be speculative, it is worth noting that one of intersectionality's only named critics--and the analytic's imagined preeminent critic--is not black and is often positioned as either a nonblack feminist, an anti-black feminist, or a queer theorist (rather than a feminist). The practice of re-inscribing Puar as intersectionality's quintessential critic, then, has the potential effect of shoring up the notion that intersectionality and "black women" are synonymous, and that intersectionality's critics are outsiders both to the analytic and to black feminism.
Here, I want to linger in a consideration of the fact that Puar's status as critic--as the critic is secured and sutured through both her body and her imagined identity. In so doing, I trace how a potent "critique" of intersectionality might be argued to flourish precisely because it was articulated by a nonblack woman of color feminist, and I ask how black feminists have constructed Puar as the paradigmatic critic because of her imagined status as an outsider to black feminism (a status that is conferred not simply because of her scholarship but because of certain readings of her imagined identity).
My consideration of Puar's status as outsider to black feminism unfolds along-side how my own work gets described as "critique." Our respective " critical projects are differently described, circulated, and received in the field. While some of my earlier work, particularly my article "Rethinking Intersectionality," is described as a "critique" of intersectionality, it is largely understood as emerging in and through an affection for black feminism (and for black women's intellectual production), a fact that might be tethered to my own scholarly work but also to the ongoing collapses between racially marked subject's bodies and their objects of study. When, for example, Brittany Cooper describes my work, she situates it as a black feminist critique of intersectionality, one that, then, emerges from "inside" the imagined location where intersectionality was born. My location as a black feminist, and as a black woman (and, of course, these two identities are often collapsed), means that my critique of intersectionality are imagined as practices of love and affection rather than hostility, and are thus treated with a kind of generosity.
I understand my own treatment--one marked by a sense that the work I do is animated by an investment in black feminism--as markedly different than how Puar's ambivalent engagement with intersectionality is received. Indeed, the notion of Puar as an outsider to black feminism has been echoed by larger critiques of her work as anti-black: on critique of Terrorist Assemblages noted that the book has an "anxious intent to sidestep blackness," positioning Puar as a stranger to the intellectual and political projects of black studies. Egbert Alejandro Martina notes, "For Puar, intersectionality is a stand-in for an unacceptable radical Black feminist politics. Beneath the terrorist is the queer, and beneath the queer is the Black, a mode of being to monstrous even for Puar to pretend to encounter in good faith," and suggests that underpinning Puar's questions about intersectionality is a larger "hostility" toward black feminism. Puar's status as nonblack feminist, as someone outside of the tradition from which intersectionality emerged, can deepen the conception of intersectionality's critiques as particularly problematic because they are born beyond the critical practice of black feminism and are motivated by hostility and animus.
If Puar's critiques are imagined to emerge from a non-location in black feminism, she is also often positioned as an outsider to the feminist project itself, with her roots in queer theory underscored. Lynne Huffer, for example, notes that Puar "shifts her focus away from intersectionality to queer assemblage...In doing so, she directly challenges the unquestioned stability of the subject implicit in feminist intersectionality theory. Rather than reify an imagined distinction between feminist theory and queer theory, I ask how Puar's imagined location within queer theory, a tradition that is still often described as outside of feminist theory, amplifies the conception of her "critique" as formed by an outsider, and thus makes intersectionality particularly and problematically vulnerable.
Puar is treated as not just a queer theorist but also a queer of color theorist, part of a vibrant cohort of interdisciplinary scholars who have considered "social formations as the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and class, with particular interest in how those formations correspond with and diverge from nationalist ideals and practices." If black queer studies "throws shade on the meanings of queer," queer of color studies, in Jafari Allen's words, "takes seriously Third World or women of color feminist politics of, for example, Chandra Talpade Mohanty, Chrystos, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Norma Alarcon, Chela Sandoval, and others who consistently made connections in their scholarship, artistry, and activism, with state practices and sites within and beyond their own ethnic or racial borders.
Indeed, queer of color critique has insisted on the centrality of woman of color feminisms--particularly black feminism--to queer theory, and thus emphatically placed scholars like Lorde, Anzaldua, and Moraga in the queer canon. Roderick Ferguson and Grace Hong write: "Much of what we now call "women of color feminism' can be seen as queer of color critique, insofar as these texts consistently situate sexuality as constitutive of race and gender.... Women of color feminism and queer of color critique reveal the ways in which racialized communities are not homogenous but instead have always policed and preserved the difference between those who are able to conform to categories of normativity, respectability, and value, and those who are forcibly excluded from such categories." For Ferguson and Hong, women of color feminists--including Lorde--are queer theorists whose work indexes a commitment to "set about creating else to be," and whose theoretical contributions examine the intimate relationship among race, gender, and sexuality. Yet it is crucial to underscore that queer of color theory often claims its intimacy with black feminist theory through a retrospective gaze rather than through engagement with contemporary black feminist scholarship. Queer of color theory's citational trajectory is primarily tethered to black feminist work from the 1970s and early 1980's, and it sutures the (queer of color) present to an earlier moment in black feminism's past, not to black feminism's unfolding present. Indeed, queer of color theory often moves sideways to intersectionality, insistently not engaging it and embracing seemingly anti-identitarian analytics generated by black feminists "earlier" than Crenshaw and intersectionality. By sideways, I refer to a citational practice that does not reject intersectionality itself, and while situating other scholars--particularly Lorde--as intersectionality's early (or perhaps earliest) practitioners. I term this "reading sideways" because I argue that this strategy produces a new genealogy that neither rejects or accepts intersectionality but instead sidesteps it entirely.
Reading sideways, then, is a performance of ambivalence made manifest through silence. Puar is located in a queer of color tradition that embraces black feminism, but only black feminist work from an earlier historical era than intersectionality. It is this location as a queer of color scholar, as part of a tradition that has sidestepped intersectionality, that also allows black feminists to position Puar as an outsider to intersectionality, a critic who might be easily represented as having an investment in rendering intersectionality vulnerable.
In revealing that the critic is rarely named--and, when she is, is often Puar--I seek to suggest that black feminists produce the critic rather than expose the critic. Indeed, while the critic is regularly described by black feminists as an omnipresent threat, she is actually one scholar who is relentlessly cast as an outsider to intersectionality and to black feminist theory, a framing of her work that requires a refusal to engage her scholarship on intersectionality's complex institutional locations and racial politics. The figure of the critic is then, an imaginative projection of black feminist defensiveness, a figure that animates and justifies the defensive affect even as that figure is a fantasy, rather than an actual threat. The constant production of the threatening critic makes the labor--the moral thrust --of black feminism abundantly clear: to rescue black feminist territory, to protect it from these outsiders who neither understand nor value the intellectual and political labor of black feminism.