“What is biopolitics in the twenty-first century, especially as informed by the ongoing structure of settler colonialism?” (Jasbir Puar, The Right to Maim, 137)
The political logics and practices of managing life-forms as populations-to-be-governed rapidly change with emergent technologies and trends. Perhaps “the twenty-first century” is too nebulous a temporal frame to diagnose what is becoming of biopolitics since 2000; yet, twenty years into this century—and going through the evental assemblages of 9/11 and COVID-19—there are enough emergent forms of management to necessitate moving beyond Foucault. This is precisely what Jasbir Puar accomplishes in The Right to Maim. However, her moving beyond Foucault does not leave him behind, as if the critique he pioneered can be so easily thrown into the dustbin of theoretical disposability. Puar brings Foucault along while ameliorating his limitations, most incisively moving beyond his refusal to account for “colonial occupation in his formulation of biopolitics” (137).
For Puar, colonialism is neither “a bygone event” nor merely an externalization of European totalitarianism. She asks us to consider “colonialism as a structure”—a “complication of the temporalities and processes” of violent occupations and illegal settlements (138-139). The point is that sovereign power and biopolitical tactics work hand-in-hand to take things out of the hands of vulnerable bodies. The very policies and policing that make bodies vulnerable also transform them into populations-to-be-managed. Puar complexifies Foucault’s invocation of the life-death dichotomy, suggesting that the most scathing, but sometimes subtle, demographic disciplining in our epoch is the use of the pernicious logic, “the right to maim.” Sovereign power manifests itself not only in the politics of letting live and letting die; rather, it manifests itself as “slow but simultaneously intensive death-making, as targeting to maim is an accelerated assault on both bodily and infrastructural fronts” (139).
Puar’s reference to “the ongoing structure [and following her, I would add, process] of settler colonialism” in this essay’s epigraph refers precisely to empire’s “intensification and amplification” of life—life as the capacity of human and infrastructural bodies to make worlds. This extension of colonialism happens through making certain figures of life serve as targets of “neglect, damage, and speculative rehabilitation,” relations and ontologies that are then fed into the ordinary—state and non-state—distributional nodes of biopolitical sovereign power (139). The maimed body thus becomes the ontic reality, the empirical situation, that justifies the incessant implementation of further control tactics, often garbed in the discourse of humanitarianism.
With reference to debility and the body, Spinoza haunts The Right to Maim. While neither cited nor analyzed by Puar, the attention to maiming evokes Spinoza’s insight that the body’s capacity for world-making increases and decreases in relation and in response to other bodies. Spinoza puts forth the idea that while certain debilitating or enabling bodies can move on from the scene of a body’s agency, their affective labor leaves behind its debilitating or enabling traces (“the mind will still be able to regard them as if they were present” (Ethics, IIP17C). I invoke Spinoza because he helps us to attend to the psychic life of maiming: 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.
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. In our post-9/11 context, the maiming of Muslim psychic life most noticeably happens through the affective machinery of suspicion, which is produced through widespread, ready apparatuses of surveillance. Thus, the maiming of psychic life is at once an instrument for and an effect of the production of Muslim bodies as a distinct racialized population-to-be-managed.
By proposing the idea of maimed psychic life, I am not negating the psychosomatic implications of physical injuries caused by, for example, “plastic bullets” or “high-velocity fragmenting bullets” that occasion a “‘lead snowstorm’ effect in the body” (130). Rather, I suggest that the pernicious logic of “the right to maim” extends to the realm of the invisible, and that the psyche is always already present in every mise en scène of “the right to maim.”
Simply put, the biopolitical tactics of sovereign power also target the psyche. The gaze, image, and diction of “security” work to maim Muslim psychic life. The inassimilable Muslim body destabilizes the exploitative, racializing impulses of neoliberal empire.
The maiming of psychic life in turn provokes a certain desire to fit in, a desire to belong, on the part of some Muslims, so that their illiberal selves can be mainstreamed into normative citizenship. Zahid R. Chaudhary has analyzed how this desire sets in motion the challenges but also privileges of “sacrificial citizenship,” a form of “impossible and abyssal” belonging to whiteness and liberalism that demands the sacrificing of cultural difference. Thus, the psychic maiming of Muslims that surveillance enacts relates to neoliberal notions of self, agency, and social transformation, implying that if Muslims are to become American, then they must possess liberal selves and find their place within America’s racialized hierarchy of social privilege and mobility (Muslims are thus encouraged to climb this hierarchy through identification with whiteness).
Yet, sometimes the very apparatus through which we diagnose racialization serves as a device that maims the psyche. For example, when I have discussed or presented on the biopolitical management of Muslims as a form of American racialization, students and colleagues alike have pushed back, asking: “But Muslims are not a race, are they?” “But how is the racialization of Muslims any different from that of Jewish-Americans, Asian-Americans, or Latino-Americans?” These remarks signal the key problems with racialization as an analytic to grasp the depth of control tactics that underlie the management of Muslims in the modern West. Here are some problems to note:
- “Racialization” here appears as a critical paradigm that can contain all demographic differences through race-as-representation
- The hyphenation of these groups with American betrays a certain assumption about nationalism as an ever-increasing integrationist project
- Most problematically, such questions use the logic of racism to reify Muslims as one species and Latino-Americans, for example, as another species, foreclosing the idea of porous borders between these various forms of naming
Yet, by reading Puar I am inclined to remain skeptical about any critical diagnostic that reifies race by invoking racialization, since the latter discursive apparatus consolidates contemporary biopower. Puar questions, and she allows us to question, the very modes of power through which the “racialization of Muslims” achieves a certain compulsory normative intelligibility.
In this response to The Right to Maim, I have suggested that perhaps we should view the maiming of psychic life as a part of Puar’s simultaneous attention to multiple scales of being and becoming—from the facticity of the body and its differing potentialities to the affective dimensions of ordinary interactions to structural political processes. With this attention, Puar constructs a theoretical framework that is especially helpful for analyzing the multipolar territories in which Muslims and “Muslim-looking” bodies are managed but also in which they respond to and navigate their management, sometimes reinforcing identity, but at other times elaborating and embodying a difference that de-territorializes, or at least disrupts, the very scene of their control and occupation.
To conclude, I find it productive to think that there isn’t a racialization that happens and an unrelated analytical project that gazes at this racialization. Rather, the disciplinary production of knowledge about Muslim racialization might itself be an instrument of the disciplining apparatuses of biopower. Yet, in a way related to how Puar thinks about becoming trans, as opposed to having become trans, we might ask: What alternative strategies are Muslims embodying to resist the capture, to de-territorialize the occupation, and to elaborate becoming Muslim without recourse to liberal notions of identity or racial capitalism?