Or think of it, perhaps, like this.
“Monogamy is sanctioned by our religion but goes beyond our religion… Monogamy does not only go with the western Caucasian race, the Europeans and the descendants, beyond Christianity, it goes beyond Common Law. It is one of the elementary distinctions – historical and actual – between European and Asiatic humanity… [and] one of the pre-existing conditions of our existence as civilized white men… Strike it out, and you destroy our very being; and when we say our, we mean our race – a race which has its great and broad destiny, a solemn aim in the great career of civilization.”
Thus spake Putnam’s Monthly, the prominent and progressive American literary magazine, in an editorial from 1855 entitled, simply, “The Mormons.” It’s a passage that makes easy sense of US Representative Justin Morrill’s use of polygamy and its counterfeited religiosity to argue against Utah statehood in 1856: “Under the guise of religion,” he said, “this people has established and seek to maintain and perpetuate, a Mohammedan barbarism revolting to the civilized world.” A Mohammedan barbarism: the phrase catches nicely the interwovenness of Mormon depravity in the eyes of their scandalized countrymen. From the perspective of good Protestant America the Mormons were a people whose wild extravagances of belief, which they chose to name “religion,” had made them deviants, and whose marriage-defiling deviancy made them dubious white people – figured again and again as Mohammedan, Indianlike, Asiatic, sultanic – whose very presence threatened nothing less than the civilizational health of the nation.
One name for this circuitry, this feeding of faltering belief, disturbance in the field of kinship, and racialization into mutual ratification, is, for me, the biopolitics of secularism, where “secularism” names not the extirpation or overcoming of something called “religion” but the disciplinary calibration of proper belief (of what gets to count as religion) according to its adherence the panoply of orchestrated norms condensed into the political sociability of imperial liberalism. This is secularism as, in effect, the racializing metaphysics proper to liberal empire. This is why nonmonogamy for Mormon detractors at Putnam’s and elsewhere, is so vividly a racial crime and not only queer perversity; it is also why Native kinship structures mark for the same US state not only backwardness or depravity but heathenishness, a misfiring religiosity. (We do well to attend to the ways that violence against the Ghost Dance, for instance, was explicitly offered as an effort at religious suppression.) In my own work, one useful way to recognize secularism as this kind of biopolitics has been to mark the early Mormon response to these layered accusations, each and all promising a frightening decline in the metrics of viable life. For in the teeth such scandalized appraisals of the Mormon menace, the Saints would position themselves again and again in feverish identification with the governing hierarchies of the racial state: with men over women, with white over black. This was a phenomenon made particularly clear during Brigham Young’s tenure as the leader of the church, with his shuttering of the Female Relief Society, his strenuous disavowals of female authority, and his proscriptions against African American priesthood authority, which would mark the faith for more than a century. Confronted with imputations of deviance, the Saints hurried to declare themselves more committed even than the fallen Gentiles (i.e. the fallen American populace) to the defining hierarchies of national life. Call it homonationalism in advance of homosexuality – or what I name in my book Make Yourselves Gods, the Mormons’ protohomonationalism.
Homonationalism, in other words, names for us a grammar of liberal power under the aegis of imperial biopolitics, which allows us to see how erotic errancy, racialization, and misfiring devotionality travel along a circuit, in a flexible economy of interaction keyed to capacity, incapacity, and securitization in its varied modes. It enables us to think secularism, again, as a biopolitics, and not in the guise it often appears: as, we might say, one of the sententious stories liberalism likes to tell itself, about itself.
This is part of what makes Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim as hugely generative – and generative especially for thinking the historicity of biopolitics – as I think it is. For there, Puar reads Palestine not as a state of exception, but as something considerably more potent.
As I read it, Palestine emerges rather as a theater of biopolitical experiment, in which control societies test out, through varying styles of life-halting or -inhibiting violence, the modes of regulation proper to surplus populations.
I take this to be a turn of great consequence, across a wide critical terrain. It is so inasmuch as it sutures the project of biopolitical critique to a canny understanding of the political economy of global capital, in an era marked both by precipitously decelerating growth and by an environing climate crisis. We might put it, in ultra-compressed terms, like this: If historians of capital like Giovanni Arrighi are correct, and so too are the climate scientists, then we are speeding toward a moment in which vaster and vaster swaths of the planetary life will be, from the purview of capital and its states, surplus, in need of securitized management and optimization. In this way, I think, The Right to Maim tells the story of the biopoliticized life of a religious minority as a mapping-out out of future trajectories for imperial liberalism in the season of the Long Downtown: a glimpse, that is, and a harrowing one, of the shape of power in the world to come.
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