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The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability

The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability

by Jasbir K. Puar


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In The Right to Maim Jasbir K. Puar brings her pathbreaking work on the liberal state, sexuality, and biopolitics to bear on our understanding of disability. Drawing on a stunning array of theoretical and methodological frameworks, Puar uses the concept of “debility”—bodily injury and social exclusion brought on by economic and political factors—to disrupt the category of disability. She shows how debility, disability, and capacity together constitute an assemblage that states use to control populations. Puar's analysis culminates in an interrogation of Israel's policies toward Palestine, in which she outlines how Israel brings Palestinians into biopolitical being by designating them available for injury. Supplementing its right to kill with what Puar calls the right to maim, the Israeli state relies on liberal frameworks of disability to obscure and enable the mass debilitation of Palestinian bodies. Tracing disability's interaction with debility and capacity, Puar offers a brilliant rethinking of Foucauldian biopolitics while showing how disability functions at the intersection of imperialism and racialized capital.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822368922
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 11/03/2017
Series: ANIMA: Critical Race Studies Otherwise Series
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.69(d)

About the Author

Jasbir K. Puar is Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University and the author of Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt


Bodies with New Organs

Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled

"Transgender rights are the civil rights issue of our time." So stated Vice President Joe Biden just one week before the November 2012 election. Months earlier, President Barack Obama had publicly declared his support for gay marriage, sending mainstream LGBT organizations and queer liberals into a tizzy. It was an unexpected comment for an election season, and nearly inaudibly rendered during a conversation with a concerned mother of Miss Trans New England. Yet Biden's remark, encoded in the rhetoric of recognition, seemed logical from a well-established civil rights era teleology: first the folks of color, then the homosexuals, now the trans folk. Biden's proclamation could be one genesis of the "transgender tipping point," a term coined by Time magazine in June 2014 to delineate a plethora of (positive) media representation of transgender people. Indeed, a slew of antidiscrimination laws were passed under Obama's presidency; a national debate emerged about women's colleges and the presence of trans students; accessibility to gender-neutral bathrooms was lauded and also abhorred; Orange Is the New Black brought Laverne Cox and other trans actors to widespread public attention; and Bruce Jenner came out as Caitlyn. There were also unprecedented numbers of trans women of color, mainly black trans women, murdered during this same tipping point periodization.

The narrative of the tipping point feeds into the post–civil rights era story about the linear progression of the bestowal of rights. What happens to conventional understandings of "women's rights" in this telos? The "transgender question" puts into crisis the framing of women's rights as human rights by pushing further the relationships between gender normativity and access to rights and citizenship. I could note, as many have, that failing an intersectional analysis of these movements, we are indeed left with a very partial portrait of who benefits and how from this according of rights, not to mention their tactical invocation within this period of liberalism whereby, as Elizabeth Povinelli argues, "potentiality has been domesticated." As Jin Haritaworn and C. Riley Snorton argue, "It is necessary to interrogate how the uneven institutionalization of women's, gay, and trans politics produces a transnormative subject, whose universal trajectory of coming out/transition, visibility, recognition, protection, and self-actualization largely remains uninterrogated in its complicities and convergences with biomedical, neoliberal, racist, and imperialist projects." In relation to this uneven institutionalization, Haritaworn and Snorton remark that trans of color positions are "barely conceivable." The conundrum here, as elsewhere, involves measuring the political efficacy of arguing for inclusion within and for the same terms of recognition that rely on such elisions. Desires for trans of color positions to become conceivable necessarily deploy their bare inconceivability to critique and upend that which seems conceivable.

Biden's remarks foreshadow the steep cost of the intelligibility of transgender identity within national discourses and legal frames of recognition. Does his acknowledgment of transgender rights signal the uptake of a new variant of homonationalism — a "trans(homo)nationalism"? Or is transgender identity a variation of processes of citizenship and nationalism through disciplinary normativization rather than a variation of homonationalism? In either instance, such hailings, I argue, generate new figures of citizenship through which the successes of rights discourses will produce new biopolitical failures — trans of color, for one instance. Susan Stryker and Aren Z. Aizura call the "production of transgender whiteness" a "process of value extraction from bodies of color" that occurs both nationally and transnationally. Thinking of this racial dynamic as a process of value extraction highlights the impossibility of a rights platform that incorporates trans of color positions, since their inconceivability is a precondition to the emergence of the rights project, not to mention central to its deployment and successful integration into national legibility. Adding biopolitical capacity to the portrait, Aizura writes that this trans citizenship entails "fading into the population ... but also the imperative to be 'proper' in the eyes of the state: to reproduce, to find proper employment; to reorient one's 'different' body into the flow of the nationalized aspiration for possessions, property [and] wealth." This trans(homo)nationalism is therefore capacitated, even driven, not only by the abjection of bodies unable to meet these proprietary racial and gendered mandates of bodily comportment, but also by the concomitant marking of those abjected bodies as debilitated. The debilitating and abjecting are co-substancing processes.

In light of this new but not entirely surprising assimilation of gender difference through nationalism, I want to complicate the possibilities of accomplishing such trans normativization by foregrounding a different historical trajectory: one not hailed or celebrated by national LGBT groups or the media, nor explicitly theorized in most queer or trans theory. This is the move from the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to the present moment of trans hailing by the U.S. state. Historically and contemporaneously, the nexus of disability and trans has been fraught, especially for trans bodies that may resist alliances with people with disabilities in no small part because of long struggles against stigmatization and pathologization that may be reinvoked through such an affiliation. But stigmatization is only part of the reason for this thwarted connection. Neoliberal mandates regarding productive, capacitated bodies entrain trans bodies to re-create an able body not only in terms of gender and sexuality but also in terms of economic productivity and the development of national economy. Thus, trans relation to disability is not simply one of phobic avoidance of stigma; it is also about trans bodies being recruited, in tandem with many other bodies, for a more generalized transformation of capacitated bodies into viable neoliberal subjects.

Many trans bodies are reliant on medical care, costly pharmacological and technological interventions, legal protections, and public accommodations from the very same institutions and apparatuses that functionalize gender normativities and create systemic exclusions. How do people who rely on accessing significant resources within a political economic context, where the possessive individual is the basis for rights claims — including the right to medical care — disrupt the very models on which they depend? This dependence is required in order to make the claims that, in the case of trans people, enable trans people to realize themselves as trans in the first place. I explore this conundrum for trans bodies through the ambivalent and vexed relationship to disability in three respects: (1) the legal apparatus of the ADA, which sets the scene for a contradictory status to disability and the maintenance of gender normativity as a requisite for disabled status, one organized through hierarchies of race; (2) the fields of disability studies and trans studies, which both pivot on certain exceptionalized figures that may delimit their entanglements; and (3) political organizing priorities and strategies that partake in transnormative forms not only of passing but also of what I call "piecing," a recruitment into neoliberal forms of fragmentation of the body for capitalist profit. Finally, I offer a speculative imagined affiliation between disability and trans, "becoming trans," which seeks to link disability, trans, racial, and interspecies discourses to acknowledge porous boundaries constitutive of the overwhelming force of ontological multiplicity, attuned to the perpetual differentiation of variation and the multiplicity of affirmative becomings. What kinds of assemblages appear that might refuse to isolate trans as one kind of specific or singular variant of disability and disability as one kind of singular variant of trans? What kind of political and scholarly alliances might potentiate when each takes up and acknowledges the inhabitations and the more generalized conditions of the other, creating genealogies that read both as implicated within the same assemblages of power? The focus here is not on epistemological correctives but on ontological irreducibilities that transform the fantasy of discreteness of categories not through their disruption but, rather, through their dissolution via multiplicity. Rather than produce conceptual interventions that map onto the political or produce a differently political rendering of its conceptual moorings, reflected in the debate regarding transnormativity and trans of color conceivability, I wish to offer a generative, speculative reimagining of what can be signaled by the political.


The legal history that follows matters because it both reflects and enshrines the contradictory relationship that trans bodies may have to resisting pathological medicalization yet needing to access benefits through the medical-industrial complex. The explicit linkages to the trans body as a body rendered disabled and/or rehabilitated from disability have been predominantly routed through debates about gender identity disorder (GID). Arriving in the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III, published in 1980), on the heels of the DSM-II depathologization of homosexuality in 1974, GID was eliminated in the DSM-5, released in May 2013, and replaced with the diagnosis gender dysphoria. These complex debates have focused largely on a series of explicit inclusions and exclusions of GID in relation to the DSM and the ADA. The inclusion of GIDin 1980 and its focus on childhood behavior were largely understood as a compensatory maneuver for the deletion of homosexuality, thus instating surveillance mechanisms that would perhaps prevent homosexuality. In contrast, a notable passage in the ADA specified the exclusion of "gender identity disorders not resulting from physical impairments" as a disability — couched in an exclusionary clause that included "transvestitism, transsexualism, pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, ... 'other sexual disorders,'" and completely arbitrary "conditions" such as compulsive gambling, kleptomania, pyromania, and substance use disorders involving illegal drugs. This clause was largely understood (unlike the specific exclusion of homosexuality) as an entrenchment of the pathologization of GID. This deliberate inclusion of the terms of exclusion is a crucial piece of the story, in part because to date the ADA is "the most extensive civil rights law to address bodily norms."

Given the ADA's hodgepodge of excluded conditions, many of which carry great social stigma and/or are perceived as criminal activity, most commentators concur with L. Camille Herbert's sentiment that "while one might argue for the exclusion of certain conditions from the definition of disability as justified by not wanting to pathologize certain individuals and conditions, this does not appear to have been the motivation of Congress." The process by which Congress arrived at these exclusions was marred by moral panic discourses about diseased and debilitated bodies, discourses that the ADA was produced in part to ameliorate. Former senator Jesse Helms (R-NC), writes R. Nick Gorton, "raised the specter that the law would provide disability protections to numerous politically unpopular groups," concluding that most people who are HIV-positive are drug addicts, homosexuals, bisexuals, pedophiles, or kleptomaniacs, among others, and that the exclusion was enacted "as a direct result of Helms's efforts." Noting that the ADA "unequivocally" endorses the use of the DSM in recognizing conditions of disability, Kari Hong argues that "understanding why a dozen conditions were removed becomes an important task," as the exclusion not only disqualifies certain conditions from consideration as a disability but also "isolate[s] particular conditions from medical authority." Hong also points out that Helms's "bifurcation of disability into 'good' (wheelchairs) and 'bad' (transvestitism) categories echoes a disturbing misuse of medicine." Ultimately, Congress capitulated and sacrificed these excluded groups in exchange for holding onto the protection of another vilified "minority" group: individuals with HIV. This move of course insists on problematic bifurcations, perhaps strategically so, between individuals diagnosed with GID and individuals diagnosed with HIV.

Thus, Kevin Barry argues, "The ADA is a moral code, and people with GID its moral castaways." He adds that GID"sits at the uneasy crossroads of pathology and difference," an uneasy crossroads that continues to manifest (especially now as GID has been eliminated in the DSM-5). Adrienne L. Hiegel elaborates this point at length, with particular emphasis on how this exclusion recodes the labor capacities of the transsexual body. In segmenting off "sexual behavior disorders" and "gender identity disorders" from the ADA's definition of disability, the "Act carves out a new class of untouchables. ... By leaving open a space of permissive employer discrimination, the Act identifies the sexual 'deviant' as the new pariah, using the legal machinery of the state to mark as outsiders those whose noncompliant body renders them unfit for full integration into a working community."

From this perspective, the ADA does less to change the ethical and symbolic weight of nonnormative corporeality and disability itself; instead, it reifies standards of bodily capacity and debility through the reproduction of gender normativity as integral to the productive potential of the disabled body. Further, the disaggregation, and thus the potential deflation, of political and social alliances between homosexuality, transsexuality, and individuals with HIV is necessary to the solidification of this gender normativity, solicited in exchange for the conversion of disability from a socially maligned and excluded status to a version of liberal acknowledgment, inclusion, and incorporation. The modern seeds of what Nicole Markotic and Robert McRuer call "crip nationalism" — the hailing of some disabilities as socially productive for national economies and ideologies that then further marginalize other disabilities — are evident here. The tolerance of the "difference" of disability is negotiated through the disciplining of the body along other normative registers of sameness. And further, what Sharon Snyder and David Mitchell term "ablenationalism" — that is, the ableist contours of national inclusion and registers of productivity — ironically underwrites the ADA even as the ADA serves as groundbreaking legislation to challenge it. Snyder and Mitchell describe ablenationalism as the "implicit assumption that minimum levels of corporeal, intellectual, and sensory capacity, in conjunction with subjective aspects of aesthetic appearance, are required of citizens seeking to access the 'full benefits' of citizenship." In reorganizing the terms of disability, ablenationalism redirects the pathos and stigma of disability onto different registers of bodily deviance and defectiveness, in this particular instance that of gender nonnormativity. In that sense, crip nationalism goes hand in hand with ablenationalism; indeed, ablenationalism is its progenitor.

The specific details of the exclusionary clause might gesture toward the multifaceted reasons that, as Snyder and Mitchell observe, "queer, transsexual, and intersexed peoples ... exist at the margins of disability discourse." It is also worth remembering, pace Hortense Spillers, that gender normativity coagulates through biopolitical control of reproduction, civilizational discourses, and racial hierarchies. Therefore, whiteness is not a by-product of this cohesion, but rather constitutive of the consolidation of gender-normative yet disabled difference. Spillers argues that debilitation of slavery involved not only mutilation and dismemberment but also the denial of the gendering constitutive of legitimate kinship, whereby "one is neither female, nor male, as both subjects are taken into 'account' as quantities." She continues:

In the historic outline of dominance, the respective subject-positioning of "male" and "female" adhere to no symbolic integrity. At a time when current critical discourses appear to compel us more and more decidedly toward gender "undecidability," it would appear reactionary, if not dumb, to insist on the integrity of female/male gender. But undressing these conflations of meaning, as they appear under the rule of dominance, would restore, as figurative possibility, not only Power to the Female (for Maternity), but also Power to the Male (for Paternity). We would gain, in short, the potential for gender differentiation as it might express itself along a range of stress points, including human biology in its intersection with the project of culture.

The potential for gender differentiation in the first instance is already the potential — indeed the capacitation — of whiteness; the capacity to lean into gender "undecidability," the province of that same whiteness.


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Table of Contents

Preface: Hands Up, Don't Shoot!  ix
Acknowledgments  xxv
Introduction: The Cost of Getting Better  1
1. Bodies with New Organs: Becoming Trans, Becoming Disabled  33
2. Crip Nationalism: From Narrative Prosthesis to Disaster Capitalism  63
3. Disabled Diaspora, Rehabilitating State: The Queer Politics of Reproduction in Palestine/Israel  95
4. "Will Not Let Die": Debilitation and Inhuman Biopolitics in Palestine  127
Postscript: Treatment without Checkpoints  155
Notes  163
Bibliography  223
Index  261

What People are Saying About This

The Security Archipelago: Human-Security States, Sexuality Politics, and the End of Neoliberalism - Paul Amar

"Jasbir K. Puar's must-read book The Right to Maim revolutionizes the study of twenty-first-century war and biomedicine, offering a searingly impressive reconceptualization of disability, trans, and queer politics. Bringing together Middle East Studies and American Studies, global political economy and gendered conflict studies, this book's exciting power is its revelation of the incipient hegemony of maiming regimes. Puar's shattering conclusions draw upon rigorous and systematic empirical analysis, ultimately offering an enthralling vision for how to disarticulate disability politics from this maiming regime's dark power."

Judith Butler

"Jasbir K. Puar's latest book offers us a new vocabulary for understanding disability, debility, and capacity, three terms that anchor a sharp and provocative analysis of biopolitics of neoliberalism, police power, and militarization. Gaining recognition for disability within terms that instrumentalize and efface its meanings carries a great risk. So too does opting out of discourse altogether. Puar references a wide range of scholarly and activist resources to show how maiming becomes a deliberate goal in the continuing war on Palestine, and how the powers of whiteness deflect from the demographics of disability and ability. Lastly, her deft understanding of how the attribution of 'capacity' can work for and against people in precarious positions will prove crucial for a wiser and more radical struggle for justice."

Toward a Global Idea of Race - Denise Ferreira Da Silva

"Jasbir K. Puar's The Right to Maim is obligatory reading for anyone concerned with the continuing operation and the ethical and political implications of racial power. By exploring the production of the 'disabled subject' as both a reiteration of how whiteness organizes the modern political text and an effect of the unleashing of the racial logic of obliteration (in US and Palestinian cities), Puar exposes the complexities and compromises troubling articulations of subjects of rights/protection."

Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism - Elizabeth A. Povinelli

“In signature style, Jasbir K. Puar takes readers across multiple social and textual terrains in order to demonstrate the paradoxical embrace of the politics of disability in liberal biopolitics. Puar argues that even as liberalism expands its care for the disabled, it increasingly debilitates workers, subalterns, and others who find themselves at the wrong end of neoliberalism. Rather than simply celebrating the progressive politics of disability, trans identity, and gay youth health movements, The Right to Maim shows how each is a complex interchange of the volatile politics of precarity in contemporary biopower.”

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