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Body Politics

Rethinking Biopolitics: A Forum on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability

Among the central achievements of this book is the way it conducts an intersectional analysis that takes the conceptual glue of the triangular encounter of debility, capacity, and disability to put into conversation the study of race, religion, queer studies, disability studies, and the study of colonial power.

I want to begin by registering my profound thanks to Danube Johnson for hosting this forum on the Political Theology Network and for her excellent editorial work and support that made this forum possible. I must also thank Jasbir Puar for her intellectual generosity in allowing us to engage her important work, and all contributors to this forum: Peter Coviello, Rachel Feldman, Mayanthi Fernando, Ali Altaf Mian, John Modern, and Heike Peckruhn, for their time and for their tremendously generative reflections. The essays in this forum conduct detailed and often probing examinations of The Right to Maim; in this introduction therefore I will limit my comments to a very brief description of the book’s central argument and overall conceptual architecture. Building on her now classic Terrorist Assemblages, in The Right to Maim, Jasbir Puar examines the conceptual and political work that “disability” performs “as a register of biopolitical population control” in colonial and settler colonial spaces and contexts. The title of the book, The Right to Maim, refers to “a right expressive of sovereign power that is linked to, but not the same as, “the right to kill.” As Puar further explains: “The right to maim exemplifies the most intensive practice of the biopolitics of debilitation, where maiming is a sanctioned tactic of settler colonial rule, justified in protectionist terms and soliciting disability rights solutions that, while absolutely crucial to aiding some individuals, unfortunately lead to further perpetuation of debilitation” (XIX). At its heart, The Right to Maim seeks to disrupt the very binary of disability and capacity by proposing debility as a category that signals biopolitical control and regulation, and that moves bodies towards neither death nor life, but to forms of “slow life” that exceed the very living/dying pendulum. In what ways does the discursive, institutional, and political work performed by disability condition and make possible powerful regimes of debility, that in effect catalyze the need and demand for liberal state and non-state projects of capacitating debilitated bodies? This is among the central questions engaged in this book— a line of questioning that seeks to both puncture the able/disable binary while also highlighting the powerful effects of the intimate interlocking and mutual conditioning of disability and debility.

Indeed, among the most profound conceptual outcomes of this book lies in its attempt to read biopolitics precisely as a theory of debility and capacity. More specifically, The Right to Maim explores the question of how normative hegemonic disability rights frameworks, that privilege an understanding of disability centered on the loss of able-bodied whiteness, generate particular modalities of Western imperial and colonial regimes of debilitation in both Western and Global South contexts. As Puar puts this key argument of this book: “the biopolitical distribution between disability as an exceptional accident or misfortune, and the proliferation of debilitation as war, as imperialism, as durational death, is largely maintained through disability rights frameworks” (66). Among the central achievements of this book is the way it conducts an intersectional analysis that takes the conceptual glue of the triangular encounter of debility, capacity, and disability to put into conversation the study of race, religion, queer studies, disability studies, and the study of colonial power. The force of this intersectional analysis comes into central view in Puar’s argument that “the conditions of possibility that enable the simultaneous mass production of debilitation and the emergence of disability as a biopolitical state category are indebted to the biopolitical “ascendancy of whiteness” (69). Puar employs this argument to weave together a number of seemingly disparate theaters and sites of biopolitical control that witness the “assemblage” of debility, disability, and capacity traversing the geographies of the U.S., Europe, and Israel, including discourses of post-humanism, gender normativity and trans bodies, and the interaction of homonationalism and “pinkwashing” (Israeli propaganda discourse on LGBT rights).

But perhaps the feature and argument of this book particularly germane to scholars of Religion and Political Theology is its conceptualization of “maiming” as a quintessential form of biopolitics in settler colonial contexts, through a focus on the specific context of the Israeli state’s maiming of Palestinian bodies and infrastructure. By tracking Israeli state practices of deliberate maiming such as the phenomenon of “shoot to cripple,” Puar argues that “the Israeli state manifests an implicit claim to the “right to maim” and debilitate Palestinian bodies and environments as a form of biopolitical control and as central to a scientifically authorized humanitarian economy” (128). This policy of maiming, Puar insists throughout the book, is a productive one, as it nourishes and sustains a political economy of capacitation and rehabilitation. Through her theorization of settler colonial power as a regime of deliberate maiming, Puar offers an understanding of sovereign power whereby the state’s “right to kill” during war is extended, supplemented, and perverted by the “right to maim.”

In effect, the “right to maim” is supplemented, if not replaced, by “the right to kill.”

Therefore, “the right to maim” and debilitation, in Puar’s theoretical framework, offer important keys and clues to reworking Foucault’s notion of biopolitics in a manner that opens productive avenues to theorize twenty-first century settler colonial power, and its debilitation of colonized bodies, in this case Palestinian bodies.

This forum brings together senior and early career scholars from multiple disciplinary persuasions including Religious Studies, Islamic Studies, Anthropology, English, and Disability Studies to discuss, debate, and wrestle with varied arguments and conversations that emerge from this book. While raising specific questions and threads of discussion, collectively, these essays punctuate and establish the conceptual and political urgency of the decolonial work that The Right to Maim so brilliantly launches and executes. The forum concludes with a response by Puar, that is saturated with her signature combination of theoretical prowess and literary panache.

Symposium Essays

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.