This is a brilliant and brave book, and what I most appreciate about Jasbir’s work, both The Right to Maim and the earlier Terrorist Assemblages, is that it suspends any predictable politics, letting the analysis take us forward to a new kind of political work for the future. Contrary to the recent dismissal of critique as somehow counter to care and concern – I’m thinking of Bruno Latour’s essay “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” – Jasbir’s work demonstrates the vital importance of critique as “a practice in which we pose the question of the limits of our most sure [sic] ways of knowing, “expos[ing] the limits of [our] epistemological horizon [and] making the contours of the horizon appear, as it were, for the first time.” (That’s Judith Butler glossing Foucault in “What is Critique?”). Without exposing those limits via the practice of critique, a politics of care – of care as justice – cannot emerge.
My comments will largely focus on the intersecting themes of temporality and asphyxiation in The Right to Maim, and I have three questions interspersed in my comments. I’ll get to them via the secular, which hovers as a minor analytic throughout the text. The Introduction takes up the recent “It Gets Better” campaign (ostensibly a suicide prevention campaign) as a “secular neoliberal coming-of-age-story,” secular in that it “evokes the religious [I would say Christian] genre of spiritual salvation” (Puar 2017, 7). Here, then, Puar adroitly joins the Christian and the secular: The “retro-homo-reprofuturism” signaled by “It Gets Better” is part of a neo-liberal progress narrative of self-improvement that is itself, as Tracy Fessenden has shown, integral to the Christianity of American secularity. In the linear temporality of secularity, history moves forward and secular America continually overcomes its past (sins) and moves toward a (better) future.
If Fessenden is talking about 19th-century and 20th-century liberal feminism, Puar turns to 21st-century homonationalism. “It Gets Better” captures the future-oriented rallying cry of a secular liberalism that, in a neo-liberal age, has shifted onto individual subjects the burden of bettering both themselves and society itself.
And yet, certain populations within that society are governed by a different temporality, the temporality of debilitation. Puar writes of debilitation as a “tactical practice deployed in order to create and precaritize populations and maintain them as such” (73). The word “maintain,” invoking stasis, is key: the temporality of debilitation “mov[es] neither toward life nor toward death” (xviii). This temporality is one of slow death, where “‘death becomes durational,’” as Foucault put it. That is to say, “slow death is not about an orientation toward the death drive […]; rather, it is about the maintenance of living” (12). And “this puts living and dying into a specific zone of proximity and precarity: ‘While death is usually deemed an event in contrast to life’s “extensivity”, in this domain dying and the ordinary reproduction of life are coextensive” (part of that is a quote from Lauren Berlant).
I would push beyond the language of proximity and co-extensivity, for it seems to me that it becomes difficult in this zone to distinguish between living and dying. As Puar elaborates in other parts of the book, the temporality of debilitation is the temporality of asphyxiation, of “I can’t breathe,” uttered by Eric Garner as he was choked to death by the police. Was Garner living or dying, not just in the minutes of his asphyxiation, but in the hours and days and years in which he and his body were slowly debilitated by a biopolitical state? I don’t mean to discount the various ways in which Garner was able to live, to survive in the midst of durational death, but I do want to focus, as Puar does, on what she calls an “asphixatory control society,” (135) on how living, and what it may mean to live rather than to die, may take on a different valence in such a control society.
These asphyxiatory control societies are multiple. As Puar writes, Garner’s words “capture the suffocation of chokeholds on movement in Gaza and the West Bank” (xxiii). 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. This raises my first question, namely: how much we can extend Puar’s framework of debilitation and asphyxiation beyond spaces like the United States and Palestine/Israel that sit at the “intersection of imperialism and racialized capital” (as the back cover notes), to the places and spaces that seem like ‘collateral damage,’ spaces that are not, of course, collateral damage but integral to the functioning of imperialism and racialized capital at its border zones? At the same time as I was reading The Right to Maim, I was reading about the 39 Vietnamese migrants found dead in a refrigerated truck container in Britain. A New York Times article about the event – and I use the term “event” purposefully, to gesture to Puar’s theorization of death as the event that makes slow death un-eventful – briefly tells of the stories of lives lived before those deaths, including that of Pham Thi Tra My, who had left Vietnam to find work to help her family, which was $19,000 in debt. Early on October 23rd, as she suffocated in a truck, she texted her mother: “Mom, I love you and Dad so much! I’m dying because I can’t breathe.” The resonance is jarring. And there is more. Here is Puar on control societies, contemporary capitalism, and debt: “Debt as enclosure, as immobility, is what Gilles Deleuze writes of in his description of control societies: ‘Man is no longer man enclosed, but man in debt” (18). In the wake of durational death, the slow death of debt, 18,000 indebted Vietnamese make that journey every year.
Another resonance, this time from Stefania Pandolfo’s recent Knot of the Soul, an ethnography of madness and despair in contemporary Morocco. Pandolfo begins with Frantz Fanon, who wrote that the goal of colonialism, at once psychic and military, is “not to destroy the autochthonous culture, but to produce its unending agony [l’agonie continuée], a simulacrum of life [as Pandolfo puts it] in the suspended state of a culture undead” (Pandolfo 2018, 6). She goes on to write of how poor youths in contemporary Morocco call their existence “a ‘slow death’ (al-mawt al-bati), death by lack of place, a certain way of becoming a spirit (ruh) while still alive, a living dead” (212). For the Qur’anic therapist who is one of Pandolfo’s main interlocutors and whom she calls the Imam, this slow death, this precaritized life of debt and immobility, is a kind of “soul choking” (tadyiq al-nafs). The Imam uses the concept of soul choking to “describe the experience of despair among the youth, crushed by the political violence of the state and the mass pull towards undocumented migration” (8). The concept of soul choking draws on the Qur’anic depiction of the constriction and expansion of the soul, the nafs, via the opening or sealing of the heart as the pathway to knowledge of God. Soul choking, writes Pandolfo, refers to a “crippling of the ethical faculty, a disablement of the soul fostered in existential and political trauma.” When the soul is choking, “the divine message is no longer heard in the heart” (13).
Reading Pandolfo and Puar together, I have a second set of questions: what does ethical action look like in the temporality of debilitation, in a control society’s zone of asphyxiation? How does one live ethically? What does one do with one’s life when one is living dead? Pandolfo describes an argument between two youths, Jawad and Kamal, about risking one’s life to attempt migration to Europe. Jawad says that migration is a rebellion against God, since one is gambling with one’s life and not waiting for one’s time to die willed by God. Multiple temporalities compete here: the temporality of debilitation, of divine will, and potentially of the wayward human. To act ethically is to abide by God’s temporality, which configures life and death differently (for many Muslims, one truly awakens to the knowledge of God only when one dies). Kamal disagrees and says that the risk of death in crossing to Europe is not a challenge to God but an ethical struggle for a better life, a jihad al-nafs, an effort of the self, precisely in order to return to the temporality and sovereignty of the divine. For Kamal, migration is an antidote to despair, a crossing from the temporality of slow death to the temporality of God. “The person in despair has thoughts of being abandoned by God,” writes Pandolfo, which carries the existential risk of spiritual crisis and unbelief. For Kamal, the “the risk of death … is … an effort to seek health” (210).
This leads to my third set of questions: if our lives are saturated by secular-liberal, capitalist, and colonial-imperial logics, might those logics also saturate our modes of theorizing this condition, including the ways we understand life and death? Might we want to draw on other, nonsecular frames that don’t rely on the secular temporality and ontology of capitalism and colonialism (like soul-choking)? I ask because Puar herself rightly notes that “It is from the vantage of the occupied … and not from state power or the privilege of the occupier, that we must apprehend and contend with revising—and challenging, in fact –the theorization of the violent mechanisms of biopolitical population creation and maintenance” (140). If critique is “a practice in which we pose the question of the limits of our most sure [sic] ways of knowing” and “expose the limits of [our] epismtological horizon,” is it worth trying to think beyond the biological body and secular time that biopolitics – both as practice and as analytic – takes for granted? What kind of ethics, and what kind of politics, might that enable?