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Body Politics

In the Age of Cybernetic Systems What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive?

The biopolitics that Puar chronicles is not bent on elimination but rather on producing and measuring excess in order to extract value from it, in order to incorporate and use whatever remains in a project of ever-expanding control and validation of Israeli state legitimacy.

In The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability (2017) Jasbir K. Puar offers a master class in discourse analysis. Moving through and beyond a Foucauldian script, a keen and generative observer of how power circulates in a world where the practices of settler colonialism find renewed life and common cause with digital directives and the invitation of the algorithmic. In her effort to “excavate[] the chunkiness of power,” Puar provides a razor-focused yet wide-angled view of seemingly disparate events, positions, policies, and practices that work together to produce and secure the common sense of the Israeli security state. By casting genealogical light upon fine-tuned acts of violence against, and incorporation of Palestinians who are figured to exceed the circle of common sense, The Right to Maim illuminates the elusive mechanics of Israel’s program of “rehabilitation through the debilitation of Palestinian life and land” (xxi). There are many lines of argument to recommend and to learn from in Puar’s work—the through lines of gender and sexuality, her sharp critiques of economy and policy, her ability to trace logics of power across domains, and her sense of how the battles lines are being drawn against a queer humanity. The one that animates my comments here is Puar’s line of inquiry into what might be called the metaphysics of compatibility that fuel, justify, and obscure physical acts of deliberate debilitation. My questions are meant as an extension of Puar’s deft and capacious framing of the “practice of rendering populations available for statistically likely injury” (xviii).

The practice of rendering certain populations perpetually debilitated is carried out by individuals. But the conditions that make this practice possible cannot be reduced to the decisive action of any single actor even as they serve the agenda of those in power. The conditions, in other words, are discursive and possess an ontic status that is, by and large, atmospheric. A power that is largely invisible, utterly pervasive, and decidedly destructive. Such power, to paraphrase Wendy Brown, is ominous precisely because it cannot be located in a single individual, group, institution, or “headquarters that presides over its rationality.” Such biopower is not an ‘it.’ It is not a thing but 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 the conditions for populations to be subsumed into its spectacle. Puar’s work is an exposé of the highest order, honing in on the rub of neoliberalism, how its rhetoric of human rights “that maintains the precarity of certain bodies and populations precisely through making them available for maiming” (xvii). Her book stands as nothing less than a detailed blueprint of an unholy capacitation machine that disables in the myriad ways of squeezing value out of a vulnerable population.

Integral to this work of discourse are “technological platforms,” which according to Puar, include “new media, prosthetic technologies, biomedical enhancements [that] mediate bodily comportments, affects, and what is recognized as bodily capacity and bodily debility.” Throughout The Right to Maim, there is a running commentary on such developments as the militarization of reproduction by the Israeli state then manifests itself in the development of assisted reproductive technologies (112) and the encouragement of posthumous reproduction through the legal conceit of a “biological will”—all as a counter to the specter of Palestinian proliferation. Such technologies are also bound up on what she calls the “liberal eugenics of lifestyle programming” (13)—how the categorical demands of health, agency, and choice reproduce members of a population whose definition of what constitutes health, freedom, and choice serves the crass designation of certain subjects that are worthy of rehabilitation and certain subjects that are not (16-17). “Technology,” insists Puar, “acts as both a machine of debility and capacity and as portals of affective openings and closures.” In contrast to the epistemic styles and ontic investments under scrutiny, Puar “engage[s] technology and slow death as they modulate debility and capacity without relying on conventional and straightforward political cants of a rational public sphere, autonomous political actors, and the binary of resistance/passivity.” (2)

Here I want to pull out a strand of Puar’s argument in order to elicit more elaboration on the difference that technology makes here—on one hand, in the actualization of biopolitical fantasies of control and in resistance to them and, on the other hand, in her own reconsideration of the Foucauldian frame and its cursory recognition of settler colonialism. What difference, in other words, does the algorithmic difference make?


“During the second intifada,” writes Puar, “there were reports that the IDF were using ‘high-velocity’ fragmenting bullets that created a ‘lead snowstorm’ effect in the body—scattering the bullet throughout and creating multiple internal injuries—leading to high rates of crippling injuries. Dumdum bullets, which are banned under international human rights law, are difficult to extract after they have entered and exploded outward in the body and usually guarantee those hit will ‘suffer for life.” (130-31). These bullets are designed to optimize, upon impact, their integration into their host bodies. So whatever survival is possible it will be ever accompanied by the origin story of debilitation, present in the projectiles systematically considered and engineered for maximum futurity.

The design imperative of these bullets runs through the history of military forays into terminal ballistics as well as through systems approaches that assumed dominance in the decades following WWII. The design of these bullets, in other words, was born of the cybernetic imaginary and, in particular, “Operational Research” (OR), a kind of totalizing approach to engineering systems “the fundamental problem of management” born of Cold War strategies and the Rand Corporation. In framing all of nature—organic and inorganic—in terms of system, OR honed in on the problem of complexity in general: how to visualize it, how to measure it, how to generate it, how to manipulate it. In 1958, for example, Stafford Beer defined OR as “the organization of unthinkable systems.”  Moreover, the systems approach of OR could “be used by any political system or private enterprise” or in any system that existed mathematically. As such, OR was also a “revelation” in which mathematical formalization could be extended into previously uncharted territories—beyond the basics military planning and anti-aircraft ballistics into business, government, society, industrial design, mental health, and biology.

The design of these bullets and their brutal intent captures something about the non-linear mechanics of the biopolitical assemblage that Puar chronicles, specifically, how the physics on the ground corporealize the metaphysics that animates the Israeli security state—as above so below. This logic of correspondence manifests in the obstruction of medical care; in the asymmetrical assault on infrastructure and mobility; in the bombing of hospitals and medical personnel; in the economic targeting of a Palestinian middle class; in digital tactics of containment that “modulate[] calories, megawatts, water, telecommunication networks, and spectrum and bandwidth allocation” (134). “This interfacing of physical enclosure and virtual high tech enclosure,” writes Puar in a genealogical key, “is what I take to be the epitome of an asphixatory regime of power” (135).

In her brilliantly conceived last chapter, Puar lays bare how this discourse takes effect, how a metaphysics of the right to maim corresponds with the physics of maiming as “the primary vector through which biopolitical control is deployed in [the] colonized space” of Gaza (136). So below as above. For what Puar demonstrates so convincingly is the integration of discipline and control—a production of order that is also, simultaneously, a regulation of disorder and its potentiality. Again, I am utterly convinced of this insight and want to pick up on a thread in Puar’s argument about the kind of subjects—both human and nonhuman—produced in the aftermath of the turn to predictive algorithms, systems theory, informational neuroscience, and biometric medicine.

So, for example, in her discussion of how disability rights obscures the violence of socio-economic systems and “the production of debilitation as an active practice of exploitation” (70), Puar addresses the “It Gets Better” campaign and the phenomenon of pinkwashing. Puar pinpoints the kind of human being imagined and decided upon in this version of aspirational humanitarianism. (Puar, here, is also demonstrating how certain figurations of queer theory are complicit in neo-liberal versions of redemptive capacitation; a striving for homeostasis by way of internalizing the culture that contains you—becoming the kind of human neo-liberalism has always wanted you to be). What is the relationship between neoliberalism with genres of conversion that tell secular tales of psychological and political liberation; conversion with its relentless focus on overcoming the present in the name of the future; a story of I was once that and I am now this that glosses over and even negates a rigorous account of how an initial precarity and desperation was, perhaps, preordained and, perhaps, perpetual? I was once marginalized and now I own up to the blessings of neoliberal progress and accept, into my heart, the spirit of racial privilege and the responsibility to promote that spirit in the face of the heathen masses, without and within. It would be fascinating to hear the author elaborate on how the conversion narrative, in general, secures a false consciousness at the heart of liberal sentiment. To what degree has conversion served to secure inalienable rights and a political order of injurious perpetuity in the religious traditions at play in this theater of cruelty—Judaism, Islam, and Christianity? In terms of the latter, how might conversion be considered in light of the increasingly intimate ties between American evangelicals and Israeli policy makers? What role does this virulent evangelical genre play in machinations of the Israeli security state? How might a comparative history of the ontology of conversion be a way to further pry open the metaphysics of this particular formation of secularism? Might there be resources within Judaism or Islam that would cut differently than the affirmation of neo-liberal subjectivity?

There is a desire here, built into this liberal subject for whom it gets better, part mystical and part masochistic, to correspond with the promise of future freedoms, to submit to forces of incorporation. Although there are many histories one could write about the making of this subject, the desire at stake in Puar’s account of various iterations of crip and homo-nationalism as well as in Israeli security directives, is one that has been wholly naturalized “in and after the cybernetic turn.” For when this desire is operationalized, systems of all kinds are privileged for their self-organizing capacities and their ability, by way of negative feedback loops, to incorporate the excess that they generate in a perpetual act of securitization. Abjection becomes the necessary fuel of this capacitation machine.

From New York to Gaza, disabled bodies driven by an elaborate assemblage that retains its right to maim as a first principle, as a founding metaphysics.

To be clear, Puar is explicit in stating that this intensification of control did not originate in Israeli settler colonialism but rather is vividly on display in this particular theater of cruelty (144).

Gaza residents, like the discourse that envelops them, do not move through the world according to the binary of life and death. A project of dehumanization has robbed them of this seemingly natural distinction. As Puar notes in a pointed aside, the ethics animating this particular situation assume that “Palestinians are not even human enough for death” (141).

In a subtle reframing of Foucault’s notion of biopolitics so as to better address the realities of colonial occupation, Puar writes that “deliberate maiming is not merely another version of slow death or of death-in-life or of a modulation on the spectrum of life to death. Rather, it is a status unto itself, a status that triangulates the hierarchies of living and dying that are standardly deployed in theorizations of biopolitics.” (137) (Deliberate maiming is also a PR strategy, the self-congratulatory directives of not to let die serving to cloak otherwise callous acts of brutality in the hue of humanitarian conscience).

The biopolitics that Puar chronicles is not bent on elimination (144) but rather on producing and measuring excess in order to extract value from it, in order to incorporate and use whatever remains in a project of ever-expanding control and validation of Israeli state legitimacy. “Debilitation,” writes Puar, “is extremely profitable economically and ideologically for Israel’s settler colonial regime” (145).

How might we use Puar’s robust accounting of power to begin to address the cybernetic incursions and digital colonizations that are crucial to developing modes of control “in other times and places” (144)? How might we learn from her portrait of a tactical and unprecedented intelligence that re-envisions the human according to biometric frames “in which bodies [and brains] figure not as identities or subjects but as data.” How do we better understand those worldviews and practices that leave no room for nonproductive excess—for whom everything that exceeds the system may, eventually, be coded and made consummate as so much information to be processed (13)?

Which is to say that the biometric vision of the human must be seen in light of its history, its affordances, and its effects; in light of its perverse fantasizing; in light of its massively institutionalized capacities to transform a personinto a socially productive concept. For once the human has been reduced, in theory, to an information processing device, chock full of neurons processing information and data points waiting to be assayed, the human is then animated by the same logic that animates the birds and the bees, weather systems, business organizations and military exercises, the systemic splay of bullets, demographic predictions, and the statistical truths that justify the right to maim. But as Puar so aptly demonstrates in her exacting account, despite the fact that the  deliberate strategy of maiming imagines a future that may secured by isolating the potential of future resistance and eviscerating it in the present, a different imagination of human incapacity might serve to counter the epistemics and politics debilitation. For even as “‘Resistance itself’ becomes an implicit target of computational metrics: How to measure, calculate, and capture resistance?” Puar insists that the ontological status of resistance—that which exceed the system—remains elusive (152).

For to conceive of excess otherwise, suggests Puar, would constitute a naïve embrace of the metaphysics of this modernity and the pitch of the powerful that only certain modes of critique are legitimate, only certain futures are possible, and only certain populations are worthy of being a part.

In the Age of Cybernetic Systems What Like a Bullet Can Undeceive?

The biopolitics that Puar chronicles is not bent on elimination but rather on producing and measuring excess in order to extract value from it, in order to incorporate and use whatever remains in a project of ever-expanding control and validation of Israeli state legitimacy.

Political Theologies of Debilitation

As Puar illustrates, debility ensures future sources of profitable capacitation in the name of liberal democracy and liberal rights bearing subjects. I am interested in what can be gained by attending to religion in this constellation, with the goal of further elaborating the dialectic of material and belief that engenders debility.

Racialization and the Maiming of Psychic Life

The emplacement of fear and terror in the soul is what I am calling the maiming of psychic life. It is this sense of injury that extends Puar’s moving account of the violence suffered by Palestinians as they are transformed into a debilitated population to what secular sovereign power enacts on Muslims, Arabs, and “Muslim-looking” bodies writ large.

Empire, Biopolitics, Secularism

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.

Temporality, Asphyxiation, Debilitation

I am struck by the resonance of this notion of asphyxiation, of debilitation as asphyxiation, which makes sense not just to think about debilitated populations in the United States and Palestine/Israel, but also other populations too, in spaces ruled, albeit in different ways, by the logics of neo-liberal capitalism and biopolitical security.

Tracing Debility and Webbing Resistance to State Violence through Crip Epistemologies

Using Puar’s line of analysis, we can trace how debilitating trauma can become a tool of the nation-state that creates racialized “mad people”: unruly, distressed, unbecoming, disposable in the eyes of the nation-state, yet necessary in their precarity and correct-ability.

Author’s Response

“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.

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