TRIGGER WARNING: This book review contains images and discussion of the abuse at Abu Ghraib.
In the book “Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times” by Jasbir K. Puar (2007), discourses of gender and sexuality run parallel and are interwoven with discourses on nationalism, imperialism, xenophobia, and military aggression. Using this method of intersectional analysis, Puar explores the emerging concept of homonationalism: what she posits are subtle but definite “collusions between homosexuality and US nationalism” (46).
Did that paragraph give you a headache? Did your lungs constrict and your body break out into a panicked flop sweat? Did you immediately check your text messages, your baby’s diaper, anything to prevent you from engaging this hairy and scaled intergalactic meteor of new ideas and academic terms? Such was my initial experience with “Terrorist Assemblages”, which was not only my first academic experience with problems of gender and war, but also my first experience studying political philosophy and critical theory.
I chose this book for two specific reasons: I wanted to explore the relationship between gender (especially non-binary gender) and nationalism, and I wanted to explore their relationship in a space of conflict. In researching the latter, I came upon Puar’s book and was pleased to find that it addressed one of my research questions in a very specific way: in a world where both war and gender are becoming less easily defined, how do we begin to see how one informs the other? “Terrorist Assemblages” asks us to think critically about both the war on terror as well as national discourses on the “acceptable” other. It helped me to understand my research topic and answer several specific questions about the relationship between the state and the nonbinary gender citizen. I will attempt in this review to summarize Puar’s main points and concepts, as well as raise questions of my own about her work.
Nationalism and Identity Politics
Puar’s analysis of homonationalism and biopolitics is a theme carried throughout the book. But she breaks it down into four sections: the sexuality of terrorism, Abu Ghraib and US sexual exceptionalism, a “re-reading” of the Lawrence Supreme Court case decriminalizing consensual sodomy, and the issues of racial profiling in times of queer diaspora. By examining the issue of biopower through the lens of events like Lawrence, Abu Ghraib, and the racial profiling of Muslims and Sikhs after 9/11, Puar deftly shows the intersectionality of issues like race, gender, and class and how they inform an individual’s relationship to what Puar calls the “tactics, strategies, and logistics of war machines” (iv).
In the first section, “The Sexuality of Terrorism”, Puar introduces an important concept to her work: US sexual exceptionalism. In her work, this exceptionalism refers to both the discourses that present the US as the arbiter of morality and civilization as well as “states of exception”, such as those at Abu Ghraib: in short, an extreme measure “justified” by a time of state crisis.
According to Puar, the US regards itself as “progressive”, and more “tolerant” of LGBT groups than the rest of the world (particularly the “Middle East”). In this way, the US represents itself as protector of LGBT rights worldwide, and its enemies as intolerant, backwards, hateful. Similarly, in spite of treating its own women as second class citizens, the US still presents itself as the arbiter of feminist standards. According to Puar, this “exceptionalism works as a missionary discourse to rescue Muslim women from their counterparts.” (4) In co-opting both the causes and the lingua franca of feminist and
LGBT causes, Puar says that the US effectively aligns itself (and the West in general) with the good and progressive ideals of inclusion and tolerance and and appoints itself international “champion” of women’s/LGBT rights. Puar claims that by “accepting into the fold” an “acceptable” kind of queer citizen, the US “pinkwashes” its acts of militarism and aggression, and “an exceptional form of national heteronormativity is now joined by an exceptional form of national homonormativity, in other words, homonationalism.” (2)
What does Puar mean by “acceptable queers”? To begin with, she says, they are people who display the same “American” ideals, habits, and goals as their heterosexual counterparts: marriage, family, owning property, consuming goods, paying taxes. “US patriotism momentarily sanctions some homosexualities,” Puar says, “through gendered, racial, and class sanitizing in order to produce ‘monster-terrorist-fags’’; homosexuals then embrace the us-versus-them rhetoric of US patriotism.” (46) Following this line of logic, the enemies of the state and the enemies of the homonationalist are one and the same. According to Puar, contemporary examples for this include peoples perceived to be “Muslim”. In a similar vein, the transgender individual is seen to be a source of anxiety to the state: not easily identified and categorized, Puar posits that the transgender person in the US is “neither us nor clearly them… a figure of ambivalence who troubles the border between us and them. The enemy is the clear opposite of the citizen, but the stranger is more fraught with anxiety.” (48)
The majority of the rest of the book visits the Abu Ghraib scandal and how both gender and sexuality informed the events which transpired and the transnational discourse following them. Puar analyzes how images from the war on terror use orientalist stereotypes as well as an emerging homonationalism to paint the Islamic man as a repressed yet repressive sadistic “other”. Puar also notes that immediately following 9/11, the news cameras focused on the image of the veiled Muslim woman and a case was made for war in order to rescue her. However, says Puar: “while narratives of the Taliban’s problematic womanless world abound, no such failure was ascribed to the “very manly moment” of the post 9/11 world of rugged firefighters, policemen, ground zero workers, and corporate suits.” (50) This is one form of sexual exceptionalism she introduced in the first section. The other can be seen clearly in the sexual nature of the torture carried out at Abu Ghraib in the name of “national security”.
Puar submits that the media focus on the “homosexual” nature of many of the acts caught on film was problematic in two ways. First, it used orientalist, ahistorical, and generalized views about sexual taboos in Islam which relegated the subjects of torture once again to the role of other. Second, it minimized the role misogyny played in the military’s use of the feminine as an interrogation tactic, or special weapon of war. As one prisoner said, “They wanted us to feel as though we were women, the way women feel, and this is the worst insult, to feel like a woman.” (89) Why, asks Puar, are there no photographs circulated of the female Iraqi prisoners abused by American soldiers? Could it be that this would finally would destroy one of our most popular justifications for US aggression in the Middle East: rescuing the Arab woman?
In the final chapter, Puar draws parallels between the female Palestinian suicide bomber (such as Arafat’s “army of roses”) and the queer/transgender citizen in several ways. She rearticulates “terrorist bodies”, for instance the suicide bomber, as an “assemblage that resists queerness as sexual identity”. (205) In other words, the binary opposition between queer/not queer is disposed of: to firmly categorize and identify something underscores its complicity with dominant formations like the state. Puar claims that since queerness is “dissenting, resistant, alternative” (205), the assemblage is a more apt way of discussing things like gender and sexuality.
The female suicide bomber, Puar says, disrupts the idea that “terrorism is bred directly of patriarchy and that women are intrinsically peace-manifesting” (220). Puar describes the transformation from “woman” to “weapon” as a “queer temporal interruption”: she doesn’t just carry the weapon of war, she becomes the weapon of war. Furthermore, she illustrates the destruction of the binary, the inability to delineate distinction between the wire and the flesh, or the “ballistic body” and the bodies of those she takes down with her. It is in this way that the female suicide bomber represents the queer assemblages most feared and hated by the imperialist US state: she disperses the “boundaries of bodies”, disobeys conventions of “appropriate body practices and gender”, and is therefore “illegible to state practices of surveillance, control, banishment, and extermination” (221).
I admire Puar for discussing the female suicide bomber only after suspending the need to condemn her. Puar acknowledges the “political risk” one takes in not morally condemning the actions of the suicide bomber, but says that it is necessary to avoid the morality of the act in order to fully examine the forces of affect at play.
In his review of “Terrorist Assemblages”, Rutgers blogger James Carroll completely misses Puar’s point. He mistakes Puar’s reverence for the bomber’s newly “becoming body” (“It is both execution and mourning…there are no sides…suicide bombers are a sign of life emanating from the violent conditions of life’s impossibility…” (218) as approval of the act of bombing innocent people. Carroll also dismisses Puar’s careful examination of the “pinkwashing” of US military aggression as a “sweeping polemic about the racist, traitorous, and collaborationalist nature of the ‘homonationalists’, or the gay and lesbian citizens of the U.S.”
If anything, Carroll’s review illustrates Puar’s research perfectly: he presents an uncritical, reductive, and seemingly uninformed view about Islam and “terror”. In addition, he jumps on her for “disregarding human rights” of “gays and lesbians” but fails to explore the double standard the US sets for itself and Arab countries in regard to misogyny and the treatment of women and transgender citizens. He touches on it with an incredulous “she actually just compared the American treatment of women to the Taliban’s!”, and that’s the end of the “gender” discussion.
Before attempting this book, I recommend having a basic understanding of thinkers and the concepts and theories they are famous for: Hegel and dialectic, Deleuze and assemblages, Foucault and biopower, Edward Said and orientalism. I had to literally stop reading and grab a book on each of these men, then slowly (so very slowly) read them to understand what Puar was saying. Then I read them again. Then I wrote down the basic concepts they each developed in the hopes of being able to repeat the stuff when it came time to write critically about it for this project. I have never taken a philosophy course, and this project is my first experience with gender theory. For example: Puar builds on the Foucaultian concept of biopower to create an intersectional analysis of what she terms “homonationalism”. It takes Puar the entire book to fully develop and explain the concept of “homonationalism”, and she doesn’t waste time explaining basic concepts like “bipower” on the way. Because of this, it was an extremely arduous read and will be for those who have little experience with gender and political theory.
The language is definitely dense, academic, and not very accessible. But this book forced me to do more than simply read it from beginning to end: I really had to engage with the text, intend toward it while I wasn’t reading it, and apply it to things in my life. In this way I was able not only to understand these incredibly abstract ideas but also relate them back in my work. This work, though difficult, was immensely satisfying. I have benefited from this project, and from my interaction with this text, immeasurably.
Puar, Jasbir. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Book.