Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: Terrorist Assemblages

[Jasbir K. Puar. Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Durham NC: Duke University Press, 2007.]

I have complicated feelings about this book. In some ways, that I am choosing to work out some of these feelings in this specific review is arbitrary and unfair, as they are more about my longstanding significant attraction to yet profound unease with academic knowledge production, which only intensified over my recent year in graduate school. Indeed, it is perhaps the case that some of what underlies this post for me is best understood as part of a longer and less urgent phase of the same detox from graduate school that I first identified as necessary in this post. Yet in some ways this is a very appropriate book to use as a focus for some of these reflections, precisely because it does have important things to say and its author certainly regards it as grounded in and explanatory of certain kinds of experiences and struggles.

I don't have much that is new or critical to say about the main thrust of the book, which is reflected in its title and which is the aspect of the work I've seen most often mentioned in other places. At the point when Terrorist Assemblages was published, there was already a growing critical literature pointing out the troubling political implications of the relatively historically novel and still-tenuous inclusion of many racially and economically privileged queers into benefit from dominant oppressive norms and forms of social organization (e.g. white supremacy, capitalist exploitation), in part through a willingness to participate actively in (some would say, assimilate to) the mainstream norms enacted by their privileged heterosexual peers. These are benefits from which they would previously have been partially but significantly excluded because of their experiences of heterosexist oppression. This new phenomenon has sometimes been called "homonormativity." This book was, I think, the first book-length intervention to point out the intimate relationship between admission of privileged queers to this long-denied inclusion in the nation and the dependence of that inclusion on the exclusion and violent oppression of various racialized Others through the global war on terror -- that is, its character as "homonormative nationalism" or simply "homonationalism" (10). This homonationalism is identified and explored in a varied mix of sites and approaches, from looking at rhetoric produced by mainstream gay and lesbian organizations in the United States in the years after 9/11, to examining implications of the Supreme Court decision decriminalizing sodomy, to analyzing episodes of South Park, and much more. Central to her analysis is the idea that with their inclusion in the nation, however tentative, not only "gay" and "lesbian" identities but even "queer" subjectivities, however anti-identitarian their intent, have become normative and regulatory in ways that depend on and contribute to the ascendency of whiteness. This is, she argues, tightly tied to the ways in which various racialized figures, including those at the centre of the war on terror, are permeated with queerness not as it has been made (somewhat) acceptable for the modern, white, Western subject but rather with that sense of depravity and perversity (including but not only sexual) that excludes from the possibility of subjecthood and even of humanity. The approach in this book is definitely not the only way to talk about these phenomena, and I'm sure other work will refine and build on it, but it is an important contribution to attempts to understand how racialization and sexuality are bound together.

Getting at the root of my ambivalence, which as I said is only in a limited sense about this particular book, requires taking a step or three back. This book is both a specific object deserving focused consideration on its own, and also exemplary of a particular class of books. It is an academic book. It is an intensely theoretical book. It is likely a book that far more people have read than understood -- I certainly don't claim to get it all, though as an enthusiastic amateur I certainly get more than I would've five years ago -- and that far more people have cited than read. Though its author writes with concerns about struggle and resistance and power in the forefront, I doubt it gets read much in movements except by people who are also in academic contexts, plus by a small number of self-educated theoryheads. It is, to be blunt, a perfect example of the sort of book that lots of people -- smart people, people struggling against oppression and exploitation, people whose words and actions and feelings and ideas are the weave from which movements are and must be made -- would pick up, look at, and ask, "WTF?"

I hope it's clear that in saying that, I mean to denigrate neither the people nor the book. The relative merits of approaches to writing about the world cannot in any straightforward way be mapped onto designations of "accessible" or "inaccessible." Of course the concerns raised by those who prioritize only and always accessible writing are important -- inaccessible writing polices borders, reinforces hierarchies, and restricts communication, and it doesn't matter how brilliant your insights are if you can only communicate them to 150 other people in the entire world. At the same time, I have increasingly come to appreciate that one of the ways in which oppressive social relations work is by depriving us of language to name our experiences and to name the forms of social and discursive organization that produce our experiences. Recovering that language, creating that language, is sometimes, perhaps often, going mean saying and writing things that are inaccessible, offputting, alienating, strange, weird, to lots of people. So neither accessibility nor inaccessibility of writing are intrinsically virtues or fatal flaws in a given piece of writing. Writing in 'academese' and writing in lay English may both be capable of doing useful political things or of being useless, confusing, distracting, harmful. In fact, I think the situation is complicated enough that a piece of inaccessible writing can, in fact, be both politically useful and politically troubling. I think it is entirely possible for such a text to hack through silence and obfustication and create new ways of thinking and naming that sound weird, are understood by few, but have value, at the same time as that same piece of writing is taken up by the social relations of knowledge production in the academy and mobilized to regulate and police knowledge and its production, and to reinforce hierarchical and oppressive institutions. It's not a simple thing.

There are lots of ways that academic writing can be inaccessible, and though there is lots of overlap, I think that to the extent to which these ways cohere into particular approaches, traditions, and lineages, they reflect particular patterns of strength and risk. Terrorist Assemblages might be put in the "queer theory" lineage, or more generally into the "post-structuralism" lineage. It is a gross generalization, and I'm sure those more conversant and invested in this tradition will leap to correct me, but my sense is that much post-structuralist writing is particularly vulnerable, at its worst, to turning into flights of fancy built on words such that a particular kind of responsiveness to the world plus a series of clevernesses built upon clevernesses results in a product that is complicated, beautiful, and detached from much grounding in its starting point. Of course, it is quite hard to assess whether such constructions are grounded and useful or whether they have become castles built in the air precisely because they tend towards such complexity. This is particularly a challenge for the non-specialist. Yet the deeper your understanding of the details, the more likely you are to buy into it when skepticism might be more warranted -- the more likely to be, I think, swept up in the aesthetics of the argument, or in the localized but potentially mutually misleading norms of a self-referential micro-community of scholars. However, noting this particular form of vulnerability -- and other traditions, including those with their own sort of skepticism towards the post-structuralist family, have their own problems -- is not to say that it is all tripe. Far from it.

To take Terrorist Assemblages as an example, I've already pointed out that it does things on both sides -- there are some places where it does indeed appear to build fancies out of clevernesses and end up floating in the air, though I can't decisively say that is the case as it feels more true in the bits and pieces that I grasp less. But, as I said, it has tremendously useful stuff as well. Even aside from the main point being made by the book, along the way it also has a lot to say about how we can approach understanding the world that for all its occasional opaqueness we would be foolish to dismiss. For instance, throughout the book and especially in the "Conclusion" it expresses a determination to move away from approaches to knowing the complexity of the world that rely purely on visibility and intersectionality and a particular understanding of disciplinary power, and towards one focused on affect, on tactility, on (in a slightly different vein) the masses of data increasingly associated with bodies, and on a kind of attention to complexity based in resisting reification and attending to lived experience in an even more resolute and fine-grained way than the most anti-reificatory versions of intersectionality. I don't know quite what to do with the approach that Puar suggests, but I think it is attempting to do some really important things. I think our ways of trying to puzzle out how our (inter)relations are organized are often caught up in visual metaphors that sometimes neglect the affective and the tactile and lead us to erase important aspects of the social world. I think that even sophisticated, anti-identitarian intersectionality does leave us vulnerable to re-reifying identity (though I am less convinced than Puar that this isn't sometimes the least bad approach). I want to learn from this, to take it up, to make it move in movements, in communities, in our written and spoken debates and in the more visceral flows of feeling that tie together the bonds that are the basis of struggle. But I'm not sure how. I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge the author as smarter than me, and her work as important, but I still think there are ways that her work is made concrete in text that are as much about the institutional relations in and for which the book was produced, and that taking up the important knowledge in this book -- and many, many other books by many, many scholars -- in movements and communities-in-struggle is not just hard because it's a process of translation into different idioms or a process of educating as we popularize. It's hard because there is no easy way to dissect out the unnecessary, the troubling, the detached, and the organized-by-oppressive-social-relations-of-knowledge-production that structure the lives and institutions and disciplines that are the field upon which such work, even when critical or radical, has been produced.

So I am ambivalent. There are things to be gained, things to be learned, and some of those are important and very, very relevant to efforts to create change. But some are decisively not. And it seems to me that what is missing is not specific pieces of text, specific frozen knowledge-objects, but rather a broad range of social processes of knowledge production that are able to be more responsive to the urgent need for change as exhibited by the violence and struggle against it organized into so many lives and -- perhaps more importantly, because many academic books already work hard to do that, within the constraints of their disciplinarey and institutional homes -- to be less responsive to the other demands and pressures of the social relations of knowledge production in academia. There are powerful material reasons why such social processes of knowledge production do not exist or exist only in small and fragmented ways, and wishing hard is simply not a sufficient response. So I continue to feel like there is value in reading books like this. But the ways in which I, as an isolated individual who reads and writes broadly and is by no means an expert, can actually extract what's useful and apply it in whatever extra-academic work I do feels so small as to be orders of magnitude less relevant than the original text, which for all its inaccessibility to most readers itself has access to certain kinds of discursive circuits that have at least the potential for indirect but important broader influence. So ambivalent and unsure I, therefore, remain.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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