This forum reflects a panel on The Right to Maim that took place in late November 2019, now nearly two years ago, but also a lifetime ago. I thank Ali Altaf Mian, Peter Coviello, Rachel Feldman, Mayanthi Fernando, John Modern, and Heike Peckruhn, all of whom took such care in engaging the text and adding so much dimension by foregrounding religion, theology, and the deconstruction of secularisms. Then as with now, their comments are so probing, generative, and revelatory. With her typical panache Mayanthi Fernando notes that the secular is a “minor analytic hovering throughout the text,” and for this reason and more, it is so enriching and illuminating to learn from Religious Studies scholars. A special thanks to SherAli Tareen who enthusiastically and generously organized both the panel and collected these responses. A mere 20 months ago, we could not have fully anticipated the unrelenting state sanctioned maiming and killing that has taken place since the beginning of the pandemic. In one sense, maiming is a spectacular phenom of the apex of sovereign power of the biopolitical state. Consider the targeted shooting of the lower limbs of the Great March of Return protestors in Gaza, the blinding of Kashmiri insurgents with pellet bullets, a similar ocular wounding of hundreds of protestors during the Chilean uprisings in 2019, and the assault on journalists, medics, and protestors that took place during Black Lives Matter rallies in France, the U.S., and Lebanon.
In another sense, the ubiquity of maiming—its diffuseness, its everyday-ness—is backgrounded against the privilege of claiming to be in crisis, a narrative usually deployed through the withering carcass of American exceptionalism. As Ali Altaf Mian notes, the most scathing, but sometimes subtle, demographic disciplining in our epoch is the use of the pernicious logic, “the right to maim.” That subtly is variable, but Mian’s phrasing “demographic disciplining” is apt and haunting, and the “maiming of psychic life” that he draws our attention to is yet another inchoate register of violence. Whether happening through torture, rape, neglect, dispossession, or the ineffable atmospherics of trauma, we are endlessly subjected to this demographic disciplining. Not being able to breathe, whether due to the thick air of forests burning settled over the west coast, years of tear gas exposure at Aida refugee camp—the most tear gassed place in the world—or the dying Covid patient unable to see loved ones one last time: “I can’t breathe” indeed indexes the multi-scalar entrenchment of maiming that has no start nor end.
I appreciate that the lexicon of maiming is both too literal—the language, after all, is derived not only from state policy, but also deployed by those subjected to such policies—and at the same time too metaphorical, in that it can refer to manifold maligning aspects of the state, any encounter with war, with violence, with disenfranchisement, with exclusion, with poverty. But the sovereign right to maim is central to the workings of herd immunity whereby many must get sick or die in order for the very few to live abusively well. Maiming is not a one-off event, nor a structure, but a biopolitical circuitry through which bodies are positioned and reposition into relations of living, dying, and maiming. This circuit is recursive, in that the settler state freshens itself, undergoes an affective renewal of settler subjectivity that refracts the structure of settler colonialism to the genocidal event and its iterations, its event-ness. The devastatingly disproportionate COVID deaths of Black, Native, and Latinx populations has only emboldened white nationalism, riddled with performances of immunity, indeed biophysically fostered by and fostering the immunity of whiteness.
If settler colonialism is a structure and not an event, as Patrick Wolfe has (infamously) claimed, it is a structure that manifests what Fred Moten calls “genocide through perpetual injuring,” a genocide whereby killing resistance itself, rather than bodies alone, becomes the optimal goal.
It is the delineation of the “perpetual” that establishes the temporality, the longevity, the ongoing-ness of maiming and thus a definitive analytic conundrum: When does maiming start? How does it end?
The perpetual might explain why Heike Peckruhn’s response was written shortly before the onset of the pandemic but reads as emanating from pandemic times, if there is really indeed such a temporal metric for the majority of the world. Such a timelessness—when was this written?—alerts us to the elongated temporalities of debilitation. Deconstructing the US “border crisis,” Peckruhn highlights the twinned mechanism of vilification and humanitarianism that produces dangerous migrants cum pitied immigrants-in-need, drawn together through an ableist framing of immigration that injures in order to rescue. Peckruhn writes: “Even interventions sympathetic to migrants…capacitates a racialized “mad people”: … disposable in the eyes of the nation-state yet necessary in their precarity and correct-ability as they may benefit the survival of capitalist systems of the security of the nation-state within an economy that continues to degrade, debilitate, and disable.” Here, Peckruhn shows us that the biopolitical transit of debilitation is dense, self-reinforcing, difficult to arrest. Again: when does maiming start? How does it end? Peckruhn points us to the liberatory potentials of “crip epistemologies” that foreground mutual aid and care webs that disrupt, interrupt these circuits of debilitation, of state violence. Indeed, critical disability studies and crip theory should be the center of social reproduction theory and the renewed interest in the politics of care that the pandemic has engendered, especially since the intersections of disability, race, class, gender and debility have always most acutely illuminated the costs of reproducing one’s capacity for productivity. While the radical potentials of crip theory may broach some thresholds when applied to “conflict zones”—those with ongoing war, military occupation, and sanctions—where the violence of the state is often explicitly encoding in a literal “shoot to cripple” policy, her reflections nonetheless suggest that an intrinsic part of the violence of forced migration and displacement is to foreclose the claim to belonging, to community, to sustainability. (For more on disability in war and conflict zones, see Disability Under Siege.) Harsha Walia makes this point forcefully in her latest book Border and Rule when she points out that the production of borders serves to fracture the possibilities for international working-class solidarities. The potential for the crip care web itself—that is, the alternative paths to the vilification/humanitarian pact—is not only the response to state violence, but also becomes itself the target of state violence.
The inconclusiveness of where maiming begins and ends is not the only limitation of the paradigm. Mayanthi Fernando notes that secular biopolitical frames that privilege the polarities of life and death pose a similar problem of the reification of what life is, what death is, and where it becomes, as Fernando writes “difficult to distinguish between living and dying.” She asks, “Is it worth trying to think beyond the biological body and secular time that biopolitics—both as practice and analytic—takes for granted?” Indeed, it is not only worth trying, it is imperative to do so, because this bio-exceptionalism is the heart of liberalized biopolitics. When Fernando writes of how the “risk of death is linked to spiritual health,” she is referring to a metaphysics of militant resistance that defies the liberal, democratic notions of the value of life that would dismiss such risks as irrational or indicative of a Freudian “death drive.” Risk-Death-Spirit, inextricably interwoven.
Fernando draws attention to non-secular “frames that don’t rely on the secular temporality and ontology of capitalism and colonialism, the spiritual, the divine, of soul-choking, problematizing the limits of non-secular epistemological horizons.” Mian similarly calls for a dismantling of “secular sovereign power” while Rachel Feldman flags alternative horizons in the liberatory potential of “Queer theology, liberation theology,…eco-theologies” With vivid detail, Feldman describes the impact and import of Donald Trumps’ rise to crusader figuration in Israel, a sign of the “messianic times.” Pondering the connection between the liberal right to maim and Israel’s own messianic premise, Feldman asks “What are the theological underpinnings of Israel’s biopolitics of debilitation?” Thinking through settler colonial complicities between the “liberal beacon” of Israel and the U.S. in theological terms, Feldman outlines what she calls “racialized political theologies of liberal empire.” Messianic desires that fuel “providential theories of empire,” are not incompatible with neoliberalism. Debility is driven yet simultaneously obscured by secular neoliberalism, but Feldman notes that both the U.S. and Israel are “forged from messianic timelines and biblical racial theory” fueled by the Judeo-Christian belief of being the “Chosen People.” Christian-Zionist discourses in the U.S. and religious nationalism in Israel therefore both have stakes in “divinely sanctioned conquest.” More broadly speaking, John Modern asks about a “comparative history of the ontology of conversion.” The roles of conversion and theological conquest in settler colonialism and empire are a reminder that while the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” is not a religious one, rather fundamentally territorial, it is a nonetheless a theologically driven occupation. Feldman thereby makes a similar turn as Fernando, arguing that it is necessary to “hijack[ing] back…Jewish theology” through a “dedicated decoupling of Judaism from Christian colonialism, racialization, and white supremacy.”
It is also worth asking which biological body is iteratively recentered within secular biopolitics; in this regard Fernando gestures to the problem of human exceptionalism; Peckruhn hails indigenous sovereignty and land back struggles that “decenter[ing] anthropocentric modes of activism.” In his recent book A More than Human Biopolitics Joseph Pugliese proffers an interspecies, ecological biopolitics, one where human temporalities, corporealities, and spatializations are notable only for their interface with other ecologies and ecosystems. It occurs to me that reading Fernando, Peckruhn, and Pugliese together, one finds the porosity of non-secular forms of life and non-life, the divine, the devotional, the spiritual, the fluidity of the bios. This seems ever more pertinent in this age of Covid where the determination to “contain” the virus leads to the continual invocation and restaging of desires for the impossible, a hermetically sealed human body.
This more-than-human biopolitics, in Modern’s terms, is not an “it” or a “thing,” rather an “unbounded menagerie of ideas and techniques and belief-practices that, precisely because of tensions between component parts, serves the same ethereal master code and creates conditions for populations to be subsumed into its spectacle.” I pause at the word “because”—well because, no far-out contradiction is beyond the purview of biopolitical deployment. This is clear, for example, in the shift in siege tactics from Gaza 2014 to Gaza 2018 from incidental to intentional injuring entailed that global audiences absorbed and assimilated a spectacle of maiming heretofore passing under the radar of civilian casualties. Modern furthermore focuses on the “difference that the algorithmic difference makes” by noting the ammunition used in 2018 was “born of the cybernetic imaginary” that “fram[ed] all of nature—organic and inorganic—in terms of system.” Cybernetics carries forth a “biometric vision of the human” that is driven by an “elaborate assemblage that retains its right to maim as a first principal” which has everything to do with the logistical governance of the blockade of Gaza, but not only Gaza—Kashmir being perhaps the most obvious parallel.
Modern importantly connects the biopolitical settler state to the logic of cybernetic organization writ large that informs manifold institutional operations, from government to business to health to academia; the unthinkable becomes unthinkable when organized with other unthinkables. For Modern, the “metaphysics of the right tomaim corresponds with the physics of maiming,” or differently stated, “the physics on the ground corporealize the metaphysics that animates the…security state.” His focus on cybernetics implicitly addresses the important issue of exceptionalism raised by Peter Coviello, an accusation that dogs any work on Palestine. If only Palestine was an exception. Coviello recognizes Palestine as one exemplary “theater of biopolitical experience…[wherein] the modes of regulation proper to surplus populations are tested and honed.” Debilitation in cybernetic terms is the intentional production of excess in order to subjugate it. This excess is not a by-product of a system but generated by that system precisely in order to incorporate, redirect and therefore manage it, a “perpetual act of securitization” (Modern). The quality of this excess, exhorts Modern, is abjection, “the necessary fuel of this capacitation machine.” The question, then, is where and how this excess yet absorbable abjection transduces into the militant force of resistance to occupation that is unassimilable into the cybernetic system. We saw this resistance in May 2021 when an unprecedented uprising in all compartmentalized parts of Palestine—48, Jerusalem, The West Bank, and Gaza—rose up in an unchoreographed yet ricocheting multiplicity of anti-colonial revolt.
Coviello’s 2019 conviction that “we are speeding towards a moment in which vaster swaths of the planetary life will be, from the purview of capital and its states, surplus” could not have been more prescient. What the management of the pandemic normalizes, both in national and in global terms, are increasing levels of state-generated disability and debilitation, both in terms of “wider swaths’ of surplus but more perniciously, in geopolitical terms, through acquiescence by middle and ruling classes of the saturation of debility that is elsewhere: the global South, the rural, the disposable workers, the uninsured. Only a world thoroughly driven by ableist structures and fantasies hails the success of a vaccine that minimizes deaths and hospitalizations while millions of people with underlying conditions, disabilities, and immune-compromised systems are pressured in the rush to return to normal [a normal not available to many] to risk contracting long Covid, exposing again how the right to maim is an operating logic of global governance. Fernando queries the global linkages of “debilitation and asphyxiation” beyond the US and Israel/Palestine and flags the transnational connective tissue of the “slow death of debt,” what Jackie Wang calls “carceral capitalism” and what Christopher Harker details in his recent book on Palestine, Spacing Debt. These networked technologies of rule and immiseration—the uneven spatial production of debt and health, mobility and access, weapons of containment and securitization—are in a sense the architecture of an occupation that is distributed. This distributed occupation is how the occupation attempts to be normalized, in bits and pieces in other locations. As Kareem Rabie explains in Palestine is Throwing A Party and the Whole World is Invited, the shift from state structures to the entrenchment of “neoliberal globalization” effectively proffers economic integration as a political resolution. This integration affords the global proliferation of modalities of control and is one reason why Palestine is not singular, not exceptional, rather an exemplary concatenation of tactics that are recognizable in many elsewhere/heres. Rather than an archaic form of colonialism that is often projected as bygone, Palestine, as Coviello remarks, shows us “the shape of power in the world to come,” a shape that has long been known by many. This is ever more pertinent after the recent May 2021 uprisings in Palestine. “Carpet bombing,” “mowing the lawn” air raids on Gaza, and the extermination of entire family lineages–a mode of generational maiming not unlike forced sterilization–train a global audience to both witness and participate in what Denise Ferreira da Silva astutely (and chillingly) calls “the ethical indifference with which racial violence is met.” Da Silva describes an ethics whereby racial subjects are brought into being precisely for their annihilation and subsequent rehabilitation, akin to the cycle elaborated by Peckruhn. (For more on cycles of disaster capitalism in Gaza, see the special issue, “Palestine and the Pandemic,” edited by Danya M. Qato in the Journal of Palestine Studies.)
As a last point I want to return to the temporal with Mian’s incisive remarks about the “maiming of psychic life” whereby the “pernicious logic of ‘the right to maim’ extends to the realm of the invisible.” Though Mian focuses on the aftermath of 9-11, I believe this formulation exemplifies the experience of living with the projection of future violence—anticipatory violence—in the “realm of the invisible.” Arguing that “the psyche is always already present in every mise en scène of ‘the right to maim,’” Mian astutely complicates a distinction between physical disabilities and mental and cognitive disabilities, noting their entwinement for colonized populations. He writes that “sovereign power creates not only the physical experience of debility—which is only sometimes registered as disability—but it also occasions a cut in the psyche, the emplacement in the soul of a certain fear that these limbs of mine are still game for bullets and blows.” “Still game” is not the discourse of “trauma” and PTSD so often ascribed to populations as a form of diagnostic colonization, pace Frantz Fanon in his tremendous work on medicalization in A Dying Colonialism. “Still game” is yet another temporal form akin to the “perpetual.” In this sense, histories of targeted injuring—maiming—are both histories of violence waiting to be written and projections of future violence of our pandemic worlds. To the first, these are histories that emerges anew when we shift our attention from death as the ultimate loss of life to state and corporate practices of injuring and maiming that demand critical reorganizations of vitality. It is an analysis that understands the hinge between injuring and killing to be instrumentalized if not tactically deployed. To the second, it is the future violence because the exponential planetary growth of the non-lethal weapons industry (see Paul Rocher) suggests the use of injury as a tactic of crowd control will become more common and more vicious, driven by the lucrative expansion of capitalism via the industries to mine debilitated populations for profit in the most violent, exploitative, and least supportive manners. The lethal/non-lethal and numerous other in-between designations are another site where the hinge between injury and death is flexed; non-lethal does not mean not-disabling. (For an examination of these issues as they relate to psychoanalysis and Palestine, see Stephen Sheehi and Lara Sheehi’s forthcoming book, Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine. Saiba Varma’s excellent book The Occupied Clinic: Militarism and Care in Kashmirlooks at similar issues regarding the entanglement of care and harm under occupation.)
A synergetic convergence from all respondents emerges around desires to create more livable lives for the future as well as the present. Modern asks after a “different imagination of human incapacity [that] might serve to counter the epistemics and politics of debilitation.” Following Fred Moten, I take this to mean the refusal to capitulate to “the enforcement of a certain incompleteness,” through the “enactment of a healthy incompleteness arrayed against order and its terms.” Consistent with the interest in a liberatory non-secular politics, Feldman provocatively asks, “Can theology itself provide exits from the epistemological cage of the West?” while Fernando points to “a politics of care—of care as justice.” And Peckruhn, calling for “moral imagination, spiritual resilience, and political courage,” demands that “access is put forth in terms of life, not rights-based access to service.” Whether through a robust re-envisioning of non-secular modes of living, embracing imaginaries of healthy incompleteness, care webs as justice, or an expansive conceptualization of access, the authors provoke new horizons of thought, politics, and vitality.