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n this new monograph, Jasbir K. Puar brings together threads from queer theory, disability studies, biopolitics, and assemblage theory to interrupt mainstream disability studies’ neglect of the regulatory mechanisms that produce and maintain debility globally. The main argument of The Right to Maim is that “debilitation and the production of disability are in fact biopolitical ends unto themselves, with moving neither toward life nor toward death as the aim. This is […] the ‘right to maim’” (xviii). Foucault originally articulated regulatory power as operating first through the pair of “make die/let live” under the sovereign and then “let die/make live” under biopolitics (2003). Puar’s book is a direct modification of this schema, arguing that the right to maim targets particular subjects under the vector “will not let die.”
Puar highlights how disability studies itself and disability rights movements tend to pay attention to only the most-assimilable, and almost always exclude the debilitated. While disability has been taken up within the framework of the rights-bearing individual, debility is a form of massification which supplements disability while itself remaining unseen (xvii). The creation of debility is a productive and useful investment for both state and non-state mechanisms under neoliberal capitalism. Debilitation also capacitates: enabling not only the individual, but also certain relationships of global profit and capitalism, control of representations, etc. The book takes seriously Foucault’s invocation to consider the body as an ability-machine, human capital amongst other forms of capital, a site of capacities that come with and through disability or debility (14).
In the first chapter, Puar examines the space between the recognition of trans individuals as rights-bearing citizens and their placement in a certain relationship to the idea of disability. When the imperative to conform to gender norms and compulsory able-bodiedness intersect, what falls out? The Americans with Disabilities Act (1990) itself acts as a moral code according to which bodies are sorted as those who are gender normative (the ‘good disabled’) and those who are gender non-conforming (and therefore seen as too disabled for recuperation as good citizens). Puar points out that alongside this sorting a new transnormativity is emerging, one that highlights the abilities of the trans subject through “piecing,” or the process through which “the body becomes a terrain of definable localities, each colonized by its particular pathologies” (Mitchell & Snyder, qtd. in Puar 45). Within “medicalization as strategic embodiment,” the trans subject who pieces sees their body as made up of separable malleable fragments (45). Alongside the imperatives to pass for cis, there is now a competing imperative to piece, or “pass as trans” (49). The subject who can piece is lauded as the ground of futurity. However, any analysis of trans-related recapacitation must be placed within what Puar calls the “geopolitics of racial ontology,” which marks out “the manifestation of different spatializing regimes of the body, and its particles” (55). Under these regimes, racism no longer works only through visible racial difference or categorization. Even a trans body, when white and appropriately capacitated, becomes a springboard for social capital and more; new economies, knowledge, and identities are made profitable by capitalism’s folding-in of certain difference (42).
Puar fleshes out the relationship between disability and debility in “Western” disability rights movements in Chapter 2. Specifically, she troubles the notion that disability itself is an inherently resistant identity; this claim becomes possible only when disability is viewed as an exceptional accident, rather than a deliberate debilitation (65). Viewing disability as exceptional contributes to the development of crip nationalism; certain disabled bodies enter the realm of the good citizen in a move that always further excludes others (71). Crip nationalism helps to cover over the biopolitics of debilitation, the purposeful targeting of (often racialized) bodies for maiming. Puar holds that the “sublimation of debilitation underpins the emergence of the modern rights-bearing subject of disability,” but that both categorizations can be sites of profit (74). Certain disabled bodies are non-laboring but easily profitable, “biopolitically incorporated as objects of care.” Debilitated individuals are then classified as “degraded objects” and made profitable in different ways (84, 92). This modulated relationship between debility and profit changes the experience of temporality; the time of debility is endemic. Rather than a future-oriented, technologically advanced notion of what disability enables, those who are racialized are predisposed to debility and live in a kind of “durational death” (86).
In Chapter 3, Puar convincingly argues that pinkwashing is a mechanism of biopolitics that works through the axes of capacity, disability, and debility. Pinkwashing does not only regulate sexual orientation, she argues, but also helps enforce the biopolitical frameworks that foreground certain capacities (100). Puar is concerned with both the rehabilitation of the state of Israel as strong and virile, as well as its pronatalist reproductive politics. Israeli homonationalism is coded as cisgender and masculine, aligning it with the conception of Zionism as “Judaism with muscles” (102). The good homonational citizen is then defined by her capacities. Puar reads an alternative crip nationalism in Israel, “secured through [exceptionalization of] the disabled IDF veteran” rather than disability rights, who, like her Western counterpart is seen as having suffered an accident (108). Such discourses of disability in Israel disavow the looming future disability of Palestinian citizens, which is necessary to secure the occupation. The good homonational citizen is also delimited by her reproductive capacities:
“to be gay in Israel is not only to be Jewish […] not only to be able-bodied (and not disabled), but also to be parents, to reproduce the national body politic along racial and rehabilitated lines” (117).
Pinkwashing “works as a foil to the pronatalist, eugenically oriented practices of sexual reproduction”; Israel’s highly developed assisted reproductive technologies and management of cross-religion egg donations and marriages still function towards the reproduction of a certain settler nation rather than an overall increase in population (124).
The last chapter is where Puar most forcefully makes the book’s central argument that the old biopolitical divisions of “let live/make die” and “make live/let die” have been supplemented by a new regulatory device: the right to maim or injure. Maiming, rather than a by-product of war or a means to another end, is the goal of Israeli tactics and technologies in Gaza, including for instance, “shoot to cripple” plastic and fragmenting bullets. Maiming also enables or capacitates in this context. First, it capacitates the occupied population, preparing the ground for continued occupation under settler colonialism (128-9). Second, it reduces death tolls and so promotes the idea of the Israeli military as humanitarian, since maiming and permanent injury are not included in calculations of collateral damage. The right to maim also exercises itself through attacks on health and social support infrastructure, further debilitating the population. Maiming quells present resistance by making targeted individuals debilitated and unable to seek rehabilitation. In addition, Puar contends that the Israeli state seeks to secure an ongoing lack of resistance by projecting only a future full of maiming, as well as by manipulating generational time by “stunting” youth and debilitating familial support systems (152). The right to maim is not unique to Israel/Gaza, but Puar proposes it as a new framework through which to view other locations and power relations.
Puar’s careful attention to conceptions of resistance in the era of “the right to maim” is an especially enriching part of the book. In The Right to Maim, she maintains her attachment to both assemblage theory and intersectionality, clarifying that we cannot see the intensities and affects of bodies as outside of debilitation, disability, and capacitation (see Puar 2012). Rather, “a molecular politics is recaptured by a molar schema” even in becoming-trans (119). This is a necessary caution for those who might imagine resistance in too unrestricted a fashion. The other interventions around resistance apply to the biopolitics of debility and disability. In Chapter 1, Puar does considerable work to temper hopes about the resistance inherent in disabled bodies, suggesting instead that this is a capacity for only certain disabled individuals. A “proud” reclaiming of disabled identity as resistant is often foreclosed when one is debilitated and massified rather than given rights and exceptionalized. In Chapter 4, her articulation of maiming as a technology of preventing both present and future resistance to political occupation leads us to reconsider the multiple relations which control society has to acts of resistance. Puar asks both “How much resistance can be stripped without actually exterminating the population?” as well as “what are the productive, resistant, indeed creative, effects of such attempts to squash Palestinian vitality, fortitude, and revolt?” (136).
This book brings together many different strands of thought, and does so productively: not collapsing their tensions but probing them. However, the disparate sections within chapters sometimes don’t come together easily, or would require further elaboration to include smoothly. In particular, the sections on becoming-trans and homonationalism-as-assemblage operate at a high level of analysis with many interconnected theories, but the writing tends to become inaccessible and would be enriched by concrete examples. This may in fact be part of a Deleuzian, rhizomatic methodology—but it risks leaving some readers who are not well versed in assemblage theory behind (xxv).
Scholars interested in disability studies, assemblage theory, queer theory, and biopolitics would benefit greatly from encountering The Right to Maim. In its foregrounding of slow debilitation over the notion of the exceptional event, it produces a much-needed triangulation of the disability/ability binary. Puar carefully articulates how racialization manifests within the global racial ontology as license to either disable or debilitate (or often, both), not only impacting subject formation but transforming black and brown bodies from excess in society into new sources of profit.