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Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times

by Jasbir K. Puar

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Tenth Anniversary Expanded Edition

Ten years on, Jasbir K. Puar’s pathbreaking Terrorist Assemblages remains one of the most influential queer theory texts and continues to reverberate across multiple political landscapes, activist projects, and scholarly pursuits. Puar argues that configurations of sexuality, race, gender, nation, class, and ethnicity are realigning in relation to contemporary forces of securitization, counterterrorism, and nationalism. She examines how liberal politics incorporate certain queer subjects into the fold of the nation-state, shifting queers from their construction as figures of death to subjects tied to ideas of life and productivity. This tenuous inclusion of some queer subjects depends, however, on the production of populations of Orientalized terrorist bodies. Heteronormative ideologies that the U.S. nation-state has long relied on are now accompanied by what Puar calls homonationalism—a fusing of homosexuality to U.S. pro-war, pro-imperialist agendas. 

As a concept and tool of biopolitical management, homonationalism is here to stay. Puar’s incisive analyses of feminist and queer responses to the Abu Ghraib photographs, the decriminalization of sodomy in the wake of the Patriot Act, and the profiling of Sikh Americans and South Asian diasporic queers are not instances of a particular historical moment; rather, they are reflective of the dynamics saturating power, sexuality, race, and politics today. 

This Tenth Anniversary Expanded Edition features a new foreword by Tavia Nyong’o and a postscript by Puar entitled “Homonationalism in Trump Times.” Nyong’o and Puar recontextualize the book in light of the current political moment while reposing its original questions to illuminate how Puar’s interventions are even more vital and necessary than ever.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822371755
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 01/26/2018
Series: Next Wave: New Directions in Women's Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 392
File size: 14 MB
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About the Author

Jasbir K. Puar is Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and the author of The Right to Maim, also published by Duke University Press.

Tavia Nyong’o is Professor of African American Studies, American Studies, and Theater Studies at Yale University and the author of The Amalgamation Waltz.

Read an Excerpt


People often say that modern society has attempted to reduce sexuality to the couple — the heterosexual and, insofar as possible, legitimate couple. There are equal grounds for saying that it has, if not created, at least outfitted and made to proliferate, groups with multiple elements and a circulating sexuality: a distribution of points of power, hierarchized and placed opposite to one another; "pursued" pleasures, that is, both sought after and searched out; compartmental sexualities that are tolerated or encouraged; proximities that serve as surveillance procedures, and function as mechanisms of intensification; contacts that operate as inductors. — Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 1, emphasis mine

The Empire Strikes Back ... So you like skyscrapers, huh, bitch? — The legend on posters that appeared in midtown Manhattan only days after September 11, depicting a turbaned caricature of Osama bin Laden being anally penetrated by the Empire State Building

the sexuality of terrorism

There has been a curious and persistent absence of dialogue regarding sexuality in public debates about counterterrorism, despite its crucial presence in American patriotism, warmongering, and empire building. Without these discourses of sexuality (and their attendant anxieties) — heterosexuality, homosexuality, queerness, metrosexuality, alternative and insurgent sexuality — the twin mechanisms of normalization and banishment that distinguish the terrorist from the patriot would cease to properly behave. At this historical juncture, the invocation of the terrorist as a queer, nonnational, perversely racialized other has become part of the normative script of the U.S. war on terror. One need only reflect upon the eager proliferation of homophobic-racist images (reactivated from the 1991 Gulf War, the Israel-Palestine conflict, and eighteenth-, nineteenth-, and twentieth-century Orientalist histories) of terrorists since September 11, 2001. Take the case of Osama bin Laden, who was portrayed as monstrous by association with sexual and bodily perversity (versions of both homosexuality and hypertrophied heterosexuality, or failed monogamy, that is, an Orientalist version of polygamy, as well as disability) through images in popular culture (also the case with Saddam/Sodom Hussein). Recall, as an example, a website where weapons are provided to sodomize Osama bin Laden to death. Or even spy novelist John le Carré's pronouncement in The Nation that Osama bin Laden's manner in his video was akin to a "man of narcissistic homoeroticism," which can provide Americans with hope as "his barely containable male vanity, his appetite for self-drama and his closet passion for the limelight ... will be his downfall, seducing him into a final dramatic act of self-destruction, produced, directed, scripted and acted to death by Osama bin Laden himself."

Sexual deviancy is linked to the process of discerning, othering, and quarantining terrorist bodies, but these racially and sexually perverse figures also labor in the service of disciplining and normalizing subjects worthy of rehabilitation away from these bodies, in other words, signaling and enforcing the mandatory terms of patriotism. In this double deployment, the emasculated terrorist is not merely an other, but also a barometer of ab/normality involved in disciplinary apparatuses. Leti Volpp suggests, "September 11 facilitated the consolidation of a new identity category that groups together persons who appear 'Middle Eastern, Arab, or Muslim.' This consolidation reflects a racialization wherein members of this group are identified as terrorists, and are dis-identified as citizens." This disidentification is a process of sexualization as well as of a racialization of religion. But the terrorist figure is not merely racialized and sexualized; the body must appear improperly racialized (outside the norms of multiculturalism) and perversely sexualized in order to materialize as the terrorist in the first place. Thus the terrorist and the person to be domesticated — the patriot — are not distant, oppositional entities, but "close cousins."

Through this binary-reinforcing "you're either with us or against us" normativizing apparatus, the war on terror has rehabilitated some — clearly not all or most — lesbians, gays, and queers to U.S. national citizenship within a spatial-temporal domain I am invoking as "homonationalism," short for "homonormative nationalism." Homonormativity has been theorized by Lisa Duggan as a "new neo-liberal sexual politics" that hinges upon "the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption." Building on her critique of gay subjects embroiled in "a politics that does not contest dominant heteronormative forms but upholds and sustains them," I am deploying the term homonationalism to mark arrangements of U.S. sexual exceptionalism explicitly in relation to the nation. Foucault notes that the legitimization of the modern couple is complicit with, rather than working against, the "outfitting" and proliferation of compartmental, circulating, and proximity-surveillance sexualities, pursued pleasures and contacts. We see simultaneously both the fortification of normative heterosexual coupling and the propagation of sexualities that mimic, parallel, contradict, or resist this normativity. These proliferating sexualities, and their explicit and implicit relationships to nationalism, complicate the dichotomous implications of casting the nation as only supportive and productive of heteronormativity and always repressive and disallowing of homosexuality. I argue that the Orientalist invocation of the terrorist is one discursive tactic that disaggregates U.S. national gays and queers from racial and sexual others, foregrounding a collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay and queer subjects themselves: homonationalism. For contemporary forms of U.S. nationalism and patriotism, the production of gay and queer bodies is crucial to the deployment of nationalism, insofar as these perverse bodies reiterate heterosexuality as the norm but also because certain domesticated homosexual bodies provide ammunition to reinforce nationalist projects.

Mapping forms of U.S. homonationalism, vital accomplices to Orientalist terrorist others, instructively alludes to the "imaginative geographies" of the United States. Derek Gregory, reworking Edward Said's original framing, describes these geographies as fabrications, "combin[ing] 'something fictionalized' and 'something made real' because they are imaginations given substance." What I take from this definition is that certain desired truths become lived as truths, as if they were truths, thus producing material traces and evidences of these truths, despite what counterevidence may exist. In other words, Gregory argues, imaginative geographies are performative: they produce the effect that they name and describe. Importantly, imaginative geographies endeavor to reconcile otherwise irreconcilable truths; they are mechanisms of, in Freudian terms, disavowal. It is through imaginative geographies produced by homonationalisms, for example, that the contradictions inherent in the idealization of the United States as a properly multicultural heteronormative but nevertheless gay-friendly, tolerant, and sexually liberated society can remain in tension. Despite the obvious unevenness of sexual and racial tolerance across varied U.S. spaces and topographies of identity, it nonetheless exists as a core belief system about liberal mores defined within and through the boundaries of the United States.

I begin with a survey of the multiple activations of anxious multicultural heteronormativity that surfaced after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, noting the fissures and disruptions where gay and queer discourses intervene. I then explore multiple sites and genealogies of homonationalism, focusing less on conservative LGBTIQ discourses, which, though horrifically xenophobic, are hardly surprising and have been well-documented. Instead, I foreground three less apparent lineages of homonationalism: the analyses of terrorist corporealities by feminist, queer, and other scholars; the consumer habits of the gay and lesbian tourism industry, which consciously defines itself as a progressive industry that seeks social change through the disruption of "straight space"; and the liberal multicultural discourses of tolerance and diversity portrayed in the cable television cartoon South Park. These three sites, enmeshed in vastly differing homonationalisms, suggest both the radical contingency of any nationalist homosexual formation and the potency of their potential consolidation; thus, they may craft new critical cartographies as much as they may reify hegemonic dominant terrains.

Hetero- and Homonationalisms

We're told to go on living our lives as usual, because to do otherwise is to let the terrorists win, and really, what would upset the Taliban more than a gay woman wearing a suit in front of a room full of Jews?

— Ellen DeGeneres, hosting the 2001 Emmy Awards, twice postponed, on November 4, 2001; cited in Besen, "A True American Hero"

Heteronormativity is, as it always has been, indispensable to the promotion of an aggressive militarist, masculinist, race- and class-specific nationalism. In the United States, the aftermath of September 11 entailed the daily bombardment of reactivated and reverberating white (and multicultural, in cases where people of color and certain immigrant groups are properly patriotic, or serve symbolic or material needs, for example, Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. military) heteronormative imagery, expectations, and hegemonies. From the images of grieving white widows of corporate executives to the concern about white firemen leaving their families to console widows of former coworkers to the consolidation of national families petitioning for bereavement funds to more recent images of broken military homes, the preservation of white American heteronormative families has been at stake. But events such as the National Day of Mourning (where multicultural families gathered together to grieve national loss), the work of numerous national advocacy groups for Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Americans who presented their communities as established by upright, proper citizens, and the ubiquitous appearance of American flags in immigrant communities, indicate the extent to which normative multiculturalism helped actively produce this renewed nationalism. The narration of sexual practices after the attacks iterated September 11 as a trauma of national sexual violation, proffering predictions as well as advice about "terror sex." Worried that the "nation's sexual health could spiral," Judy Kuriansky and other sex therapists discouraged "maladaptive" behavior, that is, sex outside of primary, intimate relationships, insinuating that nonmonogamous and other nonnormative sexual scenarios were not helping or were disrupting the nation's healing process. Conservative Christian right-wingers such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson predictably blamed abortionists, feminists, and gays and lesbians for the attacks, while George W. Bush used them as yet another alibi for his pro-family agenda through federal programs to fund research and education on "healthy marriages." Same-sex surviving partners petitioning for bereavement funds were initially subjected to plans to have the families of deceased partners account for and validate their relationship, infuriating many LGBTIQ advocates. Additionally, gay and bisexual men continued to be broadly excluded from donating blood.

However, even as patriotism immediately after September 11 was inextricably tied to a reinvigoration of heterosexual norms for Americans, progressive sexuality was championed as a hallmark of U.S. modernity. For despite this reentrenchment of heteronormativity, the United States was also portrayed as "feminist" in relation to the Taliban's treatment of Afghani women (a concern that had been previously of no interest to U.S. foreign policy) and gay-safe in comparison to the Middle East. While Americans lauded "gay heroes" such as Mark Bingham, who attempted to divert one of the hijacked planes, and Father Mychal Judge, a gay New York Fire Department chaplain who perished in 1 World Trade Center, the New York Times published obituaries of gay and lesbian victims focusing on their bereaved partners and commemorating their long-term relationships. For a brief moment there was talk of a retraction or suspension of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy in the face of the need for greater recruitment. (The exercising of this policy has resulted in the dismissal of at least twenty-two gay or lesbian military linguists specializing in Arabic, Korean, and Farsi. The Pentagon's latest statistics show that the number of discharges since September 11, 2001, have declined by half and are at their lowest level from the time the figures were first tallied in 1997.)

Paralleling an uneasy yet urgent folding in of homosexuality into the "us" of the "us-versus-them" nationalist rhetoric, LGBTIQ constituencies took up the patriotic call in various modalities. Gay conservatives such as Andrew Sullivan came out in favor of bombing Afghanistan and advocated "gender patriotism": butching up and femme-ing down to perform the virility of the American nation, a political posture implying that emasculation is unseemly and unpatriotic. The American flag appeared everywhere in gay spaces, in gay bars and gay gyms, and gay pride parades became loaded with national performatives and symbolism: the pledge of allegiance, the singing of the national anthem, and floats dedicated to national unity. (As with the case of communities of color, these flags and other patriotic symbolism may function as both defensive and normalizing gestures.) Many gays and queers identified with the national populous as "victims of terrorism" by naming gay and queer bashing a form of terrorism; some claimed it was imperative to support the war on terror in order to "liberate" homosexuals in the Middle East. Mubarak Dahir angrily challenges this justification of the war and calls on gays and lesbians who support the war in Iraq to "stop using the guise of caring about the plight of gay Arabs to rationalize their support." National LGBTIQ organizations such as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the Human Rights Campaign had little political reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan (and subsequently have been more preoccupied with gay marriage campaigns and gays in the military than the occupation of Iraq). One exception was the protest of homophobic graffiti on an army missile, "High Jack This Fags," by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance against Defamation (GLAAD). Their press release quotes Executive Director Joan M. Garry: "If U.S. military property had been defaced with a racial, ethnic or religious slur against any other group — including against the targeted terrorists — I doubt the Associated Press would have found such a photo acceptable for publication." Interesting in this passage is that the epithet "fags" is de-linked from any racist connotations, comprehended only as a homophobic slur; the "targeted terrorists" are naturalized as the appropriate mark for this missile, thus implying support for the invasion of Afghanistan. Presumably, the word "fags" refers to the Afghanis, a racist epithet that GLAAD did not question.

Opposition to the war from various queer quarters also took bizarre forms. The decrease of funding for HIV /AIDS research was proffered as one rationale not to go to war. An even more egregious example is the equating of victims of homophobia with victims of the Iraq invasion; note, for example, the statement released by the Metropolitan Community Church:

We call upon all people of faith and people of goodwill everywhere, especially our sisters and brothers in the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities who know first hand what it means to be vilified, labeled and violently attacked, and who also know how difficult it is to survive under such circumstances, to join with the friends and members of Metropolitan Community Churches to oppose any further acts of aggression against Iraq.


Excerpted from "Terrorist Assemblages"
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Table of Contents

Foreword / Tavia Nyong'o  xi
Preface: Tactics, Strategies, Logistics  xvii
Introduction: Homonationalism and Biopolitics  1
1. The Sexuality of Terrorism  37
2. Abu Ghraib and U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism  79
3. Intimate Control, Infinite Direction: Rereading the Lawrence Case  114
4. "The Turban is Not a Hat": Queer Diaspora and the Practices for Profiling  166
Conclusion: Queer Times, Terrorist Assemblages  203
Postscript: Homonationalism in Trump Times  223
Acknowledgments  243
Notes  249
References  307
Index  342

What People are Saying About This

Entanglements, or Transmedial Thinking about Capture - Rey Chow

“By articulating terrorism, patriotism, and U.S. exceptionalism not only to race but also to homophobia, heteronormativity, and queerness, Terrorist Assemblages offers a trenchant critique of contemporary bio- as well as geopolitics. As an author on a hotly debated topic, Jasbir K. Puar is as gracious about acknowledging other authors’ contributions as she is unyielding in her interrogations of secular-liberalist epistemic conventions. This is a smart, admirably researched, and courageous book.”

Lauren Berlant

“I could not stop reading this outraged, meticulous, passionate, and brilliantly visioned book. Jasbir K. Puar’s analysis of the neoliberal, imperial, sexual, and racist present reaches into the U.S. academy and multiple transnational publics and is critical of them all, even when she has solidarity with them. It’s been a long time since I read something so smart and so thorough in its storytelling.”

Sara Ahmed

“In this powerful book, Jasbir K. Puar offers a stunning critique of ‘homonational’ politics. She rethinks intersections as assemblages, as networks of affect, intensity, and movement. The very rigor of her critique suggests an unflinching optimism about what is possible for queer politics.”

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