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The state's right to mutilate

The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability
Forfatter: Jasbir K. Puar
Forlag: Duke University Press (USA)
Queer theorist Jasbir K. Puar delivers a sharp analysis of Israel and the US race-based biopolitics.


The conflicts are escalating. Throughout. And the fronts are becoming more and more apparent. On the one hand we have the nation states, on the other we have the people. Over the past six months we have seen US President Trump's administration separate migrant children under five from their families and cage them inside, we have seen thousands of refugees and migrants from Africa, Syria and Afghanistan die trying to enter The EU and we have seen Palestinians being shot as they approach a fence that has locked them in for more than ten years.

As Giorgio Agamben and Comité invisible, among others, have described, today the nation state is an exclusionary machine that is always ready to ramp up the violence in defense of the national community. For a long time, this violence was less visible in the Western world, as national economies were so good that the local working classes gained access to consumption and welfare and became citizens of the national democracy. For a long period after World War II, it was even possible to hire "foreign workers" from other parts of the world. Since the beginning of the 2s, however, the economic situation has been different, and the trend towards nationalist exclusion has been evident for a long time. Now we have come so far in the decay of nation states that there seems to be no end to racist politics. Apparently, there is nothing else to do but turn up control and exclusion even more and resort to some of the techniques that otherwise looked as if they were obsolete (in the West) and used only in the former colonies. Sovereignty and biopolitics are now being followed.

Sovereignty, biopolitics and mutilation

In his new book The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability queer theorist Jasbir Puar analyzes parts of this evolution where sovereignty and biopolitics not only appear together – in contrast to the slightly over optimistic analyzes of the replacement of discipline with control in the 1990s – but have been extended with a new third paradigm, namely what Puar calls the "disability regime", a regime of debilitation in English. Foucault described, as you know, how the sovereign power, characterized by letting go or living, was gradually replaced by biopower that lets live or sends to death. The biopower manages life and regulates the population. 

Today's nation state is an exclusionary machine.

As Puar describes on the basis of a critique of disability studies, it is necessary to extend Foucault's biopolitical analysis with the right to mutilate. Today, the production of various types of disabilities is an end in itself – in other words, disability is something that is produced. The right to die and the right to live must therefore be expanded with the right to mutilate or make the disabled. Puar's best example of this new form of biopolitics, which does not (only) kill or regulate the population, but turns it into a mass of people with disabilities, is Israel / Palestine, ie the Israeli settler colony and its handling of the Palestinian population in Israel and in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. 

Puar shows how Israel has played a role as a kind of laboratory for the right to mutilate. The Israeli army operates a mutilation strategy where it restricts the number of dead Palestinians, but does everything it can to hurt and mutilate as many people as possible in its daily operations. Puar describes it as a detention of death where Palestinians are kept alive, but is subject to an overwhelming colonial power that does everything to destroy any independent life force. The IDF not only breaks the arms of stone-throwing protesters, Israeli soldiers use so-called non-lethal rubber bullets that explode inside the body, leaving thousands of pieces of metal in the body. As Puar writes, mutilation is an integral part of the Israeli occupation – to weaken the resilience of Palestinians through physical mutilation and urban destruction. In Palestine, no one is healthy – everyone is disabled in the sense that they are objects of the Israeli state's mutilation policy, restricted in their movement, and subjected to a brutal occupying power with patrols, control posts and restrictions on virtually everything from access to relief to building materials, power, telecommunications and water. The Israeli state is not interested in resolving the conflict, concluding a peace treaty, a one or two state solution or whatever it might be, but merely keeping the Palestinian population alive and suffocating it slowly so that it can then embellish itself with a certain humanitarian aura, while intensifying its colonial rule. 

The biopower manages life and regulates the population.

The Israeli army's occupation in the occupied territories is the clearest expression of the racialized biopolitical security logic that Puar maps with a particular focus on mutilation as a control. Israel is a laboratory for the implementation of a biopolitics, however, we also see many other places. Puar brilliantly links the mutilation of Palestinians to the vulnerability of blacks in the United States. If Israel / Palestine exemplifies the right to mutilate, then the US state practices the right to kill as police continue to shoot young black men. As more and more people become redundant for capital accumulation in the United States, the state controls the largely black surplus population by simply shooting them or putting them in jail. Killing and mutilation complement each other in a global preventive security regime where the state preventively or finally crushes resistance. We live in the age of counter-revolution from Gaza in 1987 to Tiananmen in 1989 to Genoa in 2001 to Homs in 2014 to Ferguson the same year to Moscow in May 2018 and beyond. 

Disability and nationalism

Puar describes his book as a critical intervention in the disability studies. She criticizes these for subscribing to a rights-based identity policy that loses sight of the more comprehensive and general production of people with disabilities taking place in neoliberal capitalism. Disability studies and disability activism must therefore be expanded in a criticalism and nationalism critical direction. Disability has to do with economy, race, gender and nation state. And only if disability is rooted in a broader context, where disability studies articulate actual structural criticism and view disability as a collective phenomenon that cannot be resolved individually or by giving individual groups rights – only then can the racialized logic as a mutilation paradigm be part of of, mapped out and challenged. 

We must analyze disability in this broader sense, where "disability" is replaced by "production of disability". Within the individual-based discourse of disability activism, where disability is the result of something unusual, an accident and not a deliberate production, the structural weakening remains invisible. And so we need far more comprehensive criticism, where disability studies merge with anti-racism, decolonialism and Marxism's economics criticism into a truly revolutionary system criticism. That must be the perspective of the criticism that Puar addresses the disability studies.

Killing and mutilation complement each other in a global preventive security regime.

Only through such a shift towards more radical criticism is it possible to counter and reject it pink washing, which disability activism, especially in the West, tends to participate in, according to Puar. Perhaps the best example of this trend is Puar in Israel's homo-nationalism, where a progressive gay policy not only covers brutal settler colonialism, but also forms part of a racial birth policy aimed at increasing the number of Jews, but not Palestinians.

of opportunity

Puar's analysis effectively removes us from the humanitarian trap that often operates with too simple a contradiction between life or death, and therefore cannot see, let alone criticize, the state's right to mutilate. It is only if we understand disability as a more comprehensive production of limited opportunities that we can begin to aspire to create another world – a world without nationalist exclusion, settler mutilation and economic exploitation, and where Foucault's notion of a other governance redefines its liberation potential and turns into radical social criticism.

Mikkel Bolt
Mikkel Bolt
Professor of political aesthetics at the University of Copenhagen.

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