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Let's Read "Terrorist Assemblages"! A Phenomenological Review: Chapter One

This is the third part in my series of reflections on Jasbir K. Puar's Terrorist Assemblages.  The first part can be found here and the second here.

The first chapter of Terrorist Assemblages is entitled "the sexuality of terrorism" and this immediately fills me with slight misgiving.  While I agree that, especially in light of this book's subject matter, it makes sense to examine "discourses of sexuality (and their attendant anxieties)––heterosexuality, homosexuality, queerness, metrosexuality, alternative and insurgent sexuality," I am not at all convinced that without these discourses, as Puar claims, "the twin mechanisms of normalization and banishment that distinguish the terrorist from the patriot would cease to properly behave." (37) To my mind an imperialist project accumulates particular and secondary ideologies and discursive frameworks that are always contingent upon its social-historical context––that is, contingent upon the way imperialism conceives itself in various historical conjunctures––that are not the foundation of the project itself.  Indeed, the current US imperialist project could continue without expressing itself according to the sexual discourses Puar highlights, it is quite unnecessary for it to possess a sexualized dimension, but imperialist projects (and thus capitalist and colonialist projects) being what they are, an entire range of contemporary human expressions are drawn upon in order to justify its promulgation.  Or, to use Puar's language, the imperialism and capitalism always find salient ways, in every historical moment, to fold themselves into life.  I think it is wiser to think of the excesses of the War on Terror as representing what Robert Biel has termed the "exterminist" impulse of crisis capitalism––an analysis stripped bare of the ideology used to obscure its logic––which does not necessarily need to sexualize the terrorist and the patriot in order to preserve their distinction.

My complaint, here, should not be taken as a call to ignore the ways in which discourses of sexuality are used to code the War on Terror––and thus undermine what Puar will say about these discourses––but should rather be understood as a materialist counterpoint to what I worry is an idealist reversal where the world is grasped in an upside down matter and the ideological instance confused with the material basis upon which all ideologies are generated.  While it is indeed true that we might not ever be able to cut through the realm of ideology to perceive that "final instance" of the material base, since ideology is always called up with every development of the concrete, it is still an exercise of putting the proverbial cart before the horse to treat the ideological as primary.  Hence, this complaint should connect to my previous concerns with Puar's project: her approach, inspired by a range of post-structural and "genealogical" analyses, is still confined to the surface of reality.  It is important to excavate the appearance of a social phenomenon, which is why there is something to be said about the genealogical approach, but it is also important to go deeper––something that the genealogical approach in itself forbids as totalizing.

In order to prove the way in which the terrorist is coded as a sink for the excesses of queerness (that can be severed from the "good" imperialist queers, permitting homonationalism), and hence a "deviant" sexuality, Puar seems to rely on circumstantial evidence: John Le Carré's pronouncement "that Osama bin Laden's manner in his video was akin to a 'man of narcissistic homoeroticism'," as well as a racist website "where weapons are provided to sodomize Osama bin Laden to death." (38)  From this she claims that sexual deviancy "is linked to the process of discerning, othering, and quarantining terrorist bodies, but these racially and sexually perverse figures also labor in the service of disciplining and normalizing subjects worthy of rehabilitation away from these bodies, in other words, signaling and enforcing the mandatory terms of patriotism." (38)  In this context she points out that the "you're either with us or against us" false dilemma, that characterized so much of the Bush regime's initiation of the War on Terror, has been able to pull some queer populations into the US "spatial-temporal domain" of homonationalism, which she now clearly defines as short-hand for  homonormative nationalism.  Phew!  Let's see how this plays out.

After more lit review (that again reminds me that this still reads as a dissertation) where Said's theory of orientalism is mobilized to indicate a "discursive tactic that disaggregates U.S. national gays and queers from racial and sexual others" (39)––all in all a fact that can be established empirically, grounded upon the fact that colonial racism has always been used to produce some form of disaggregation between settler populations and the colonial/migrant other, without an appeal to authority––Puar notes the significance of "imaginative geographies [that] are performative." (39)  That is, "imaginative geographies endeavor to reconcile otherwise irreconcilable truths" (ibid) such as the fact that the US is idealized as queer friendly, tolerant, and sexually liberated regardless of the material facts that would demonstrate otherwise.  But this is just a vaguer way to talk about ideology in general: of course the pre-eminent imperialist power will produce lies about its own civilizational advancement so as to incorporate even its most oppressed subjects into its hegemony.  The same ideologically covered contradiction persisted during the Civil Rights movement: precisely at the moment that the US's claim to being the force of freedom against Soviet totalitarianism it was actively fighting to maintain racial segregation––in those days it worked very hard to obscure this reality behind successive layers of ideology about anti-communist freedom, producing a "common sense" ideology that even some of its New Afrikan subjects, despite the concrete fact of racial segregation, decided was correct.  Hell, even Martin Luther King Jr., at one point, accepted the US narrative about the worse evils of totalitarianism promoted by the Eastern Bloc!

But I digress: let's skip past the rest of prefatory info-dump that characterizes academic theory and outline the dimensions of this chapter Puar will examine the significance of the construction the sexuality of terrorism in regards to: i) hetero- and homonationalisms; ii) genealogies of terrorism; iii) homonational spending; and iv) South Park.  Yes!  South Park.  Considering that I used to watch South Park just before and just after the advent of the War on Terror I could not help but be nerdily excited about Puar's decision to include this in the first chapter––hell, I remember going to see the South Park movie on its opening night (and with a then friend who years later I would later marry) and laughing so hard that I nearly had an asthma attack.

Before reflecting on the areas examined in this chapter, though, I feel I should mention something that I should have discussed in my reflection on the Introduction.  Puar claimed, as early as pages 23-24, that she was unhappy with an "identity politics" approach and was interested in the intersection of identity, i.e. intersectionality.  As I've mentioned before, this whole bugbear of intersectionality can be part-and-parcel of an identity politics approach: just stating that there is an intersection between sites of identity oppression has become something of a customary ritual in anti-oppression practices. If we want to talk about intersectionality in a concrete manner––that is, demystify how and why oppressions intersect––then we have to know what this point of intersection is and its function within a social formation to such an extent that these multiple sites of oppression, and their interaction, can be provided with explanatory depth.  I get the sense that Puar plans to provide such an articulation, and that it will have something to do with her concept of assemblage that, for some reason, she's not choosing to unveil until later on.  Hence, both the introduction and this chapter feel haunted by this lacuna, a nomological dangler that she will deal with at a later date.  Although I look forward to what she will say about this concept of assemblage, I also feel that the answer to intersectionality already exists and can be explained according to the same language: social class, rather than an identity, is in fact that category of social being that is the moment of intersection between especial sites of oppressed identity.  That is, in any given social formation class is determined by––indeed, an assemblage of––various oppressions that are particular to the way in which class struggle has developed in any given social-historical context.  If we do not understand this intersection as the moment of class contradiction, or that a social class is the product of a complex assemblage, then we end up in failing to understand the logic of the overall mode of production, and thus not being able to say anything significant about how to understand enemies, allies, or the way in which economic and political power is deployed.  But, again, I digress…

Puar begins her discussion of the genealogies of terrorism by noting how US policy pathologizes terrorism to the point of describing it in the plague metaphors of contagion.  To connect this to her overall object of critique, she claims that the "lexicon of contagion and disease suture the etymological and political links of terrorist infiltration and invasion to queerness and the AIDS virus." (52)  This comes across as a circumstantial grasping at straws, Puar's own attempt to suture hegemonic discourses of terrorism to a queer discourse.  Contagion metaphors precede the AIDS virus and have been used in multiple and conflicting ways.  Nazi propaganda, for example, referred to Jews in this language and this was long before the AIDS virus.  On the other hand, progressives have referred to reactionaries in plague-style language for a very long time.  Contagions and plagues have been seen as social ills for a very long time since they have existed for a very long time (if we go back to ancient Hellenistic society we find the word miasma being used, which was an older word for a similar social ill), so it would make sense that someone trying to explain why their social enemy is a plague would make sense with or without AIDS: plagues are bad, if you refer to your political enemy in this terminology then they are also bad, end of story––queerness, in general, has nothing to do with this.  I think the text would be better served by avoiding these tenuous connections.

Beyond the metaphor of contagion, though, Puar does draw a connection between the anxiety produced by the idea of "managing rhizomic, cell-driven, non-national… terrorist networks," and the anxiety also associated towards the queer subject, particularly in the ways that this anxiety "is often sublimated… through the story of individual responsibility and individuated pathology." (52) [Since now I'm a little bit ahead of my entries on this book, I'd like to point out that Puar will bring this intersection of what is sublimated to head in a later chapter.]  What is produced by this "obsessive pathologizing" is the "deep narcissism implied in the query 'Why do they hate us?'" (Ibid.)

Hence, in an effort to discover why the terrorist threat is aimed at the exceptional US, counter-terrorism ends up being embedded in patriotric narcissism that will end up intersecting with a homonationalist discourse.  There is indeed an obsession with pathologizing the terrorist mind-set in an effort to avoid responsibility: while it might seem laughable that the common US patriot dismisses the possibility of terrorist attacks as generated by some inane "hatred of freedom," this indeed originates from a state sanctioned discourse where the terrorist is psychologized as "mentally ill, or the terrorist as fanatic." (54)  The models of terrorist psychology that Puar describes possess a history that predates the current War on Terror.  During the period of anti-imperialist terror in the 1970s, for example, the Red Army Faction in Germany was classified as "insane" by the state, to the point that Ulrike Meinhof's brain was actually removed during her autopsy, given over to scientists from the former Nazi regime who classified her politics as a result of "brain illness." (J. Smith and André Moncourt, The Red Army Faction: A Documentary History Volume One [Montreal: Kersplebedeb, 2009), 385.)  The discourse lingers: all mainstream docudramas of those who would dare to challenge state power tend to promote the message that any violent challenge to the violence of capitalist-imperialist hegemony is essentially insane.

This supposed insanity provides a further avenue for this contradictory movement: i) anti-gay and anti-woman ideology is sunk into the terrorist, the fanatic who hates the supposedly enlightened attitude towards queers and women that the imperialist west takes; ii) the excesses of queerness, that which a heteronormative US actually despises, locate the terrorist discourse as a sink––Bin Laden's followers are monastic, same-sex deviants that are fanatically devoted to one another like gay men… But they aren't really gay, the discourse claims, because they hate gays, but in fact repressed and monstrous psychopaths who "'have no choice but to accustom themselves to relatively monastic lives,' at once overlooking the possibility of same-sex liaisons." (57)  In this context the US becomes the exceptional defender of the homosexual subject; the terrorist represents the pathological site of queerness that is at the same time both queer and anti-queer.

Puar points out how a similar contradiction function according to the US's discourse regarding masculinity.  On the one hand the terrorist is an anti-woman cipher, where the "monastic" existence of terrorist men excludes women, but on the other hand the problem of "the Taliban's problematic womenless world" was not recognized in the ultra-masculinist moment "of the post-9/11 white world of rugged firefighters, policemen, ground zero workers, and corporate suits." (57)

Some slippage happens, however, when Puar attempts to apply her non-concrete intersectional analysis to pull this genealogy together.  She drifts between complaints about the above contradictions, the way in which liberal feminists conceive of patriarchy and gender, the worry that such conceptions of gender and patriarchy are being applied unreflectively upon a non-western culture, strange attempts to reclaim the space of the religious (because modernity, the anti-religious, is sometimes conceived as the enemy), and some other seemingly random insights that do not necessarily cohere into a Foucauldian genealogy.  While it is indeed true that the contradictions she examined resort "to the banality of nomenclature and of a [hegemonic] narrative structure, thus obfuscating critical thinking through these containment strategies," (60) it is also the case that, at least to my mind, she hasn't done a good job of systematizing these "containment strategies" but has instead moved from one thought to another.

But Puar moves on to discuss homonational spending, the "presence of queer consumer citizenship offered by the market." (62)  The movement from a vague genealogy to this seems rather abrupt, but there is much about this book that is abrupt.  There is also the fact that here we again are faced with the failure to recognize how the historical fact of class struggle––that is, not "class" as another identity, another position of intersectional analysis but intersection itself––determines the queer subject.  She talks about the consumption of the US queer population without ever recognizing the point in production that some queers occupy and some do not, a position that permits a particular class of the queer population to be this very consumer citizenship.

The consumer citizenship Puar focuses on, though, is the tourist industry and the vast amount of money that more wealthy US queer citizens pay to companies designed to court queer consumers.  I don't deny that this analysis is interesting, particularly since tourism is the imperial-privileged other of both immigration and transnational terrorism. And the threat to tourism, as Puar notes, is something that can indeed be used to produce the homonational subject since, if she is correct, [US and white] gay and lesbian tourism forms a significant proportion of the tourist market… Such a market is destabilized when its consumers fear terrorist encounters.  There is indeed a rhetoric of "queer tourist exceptionalism" that "constructs itself as outside of the affects of racial profiling and travel surveillance technologies." (66)  But so what?  What does this have to do with the supposed "sexuality of terrorism" which is this chapter's concern?  While I think that Puar is indeed correct to point out that the gay tourist industry, if it is indeed as lucrative and normative as she suggests, does seem to be a moment where homonationalism proliferates––the US gay subject demonstrates hir exceptionalism by going everywhere in the world, bringing the US to every tourist space––it seems like another snapshot in a sloppy collage stamped with the name "the sexuality of terrorism."  None of this is to say, of course, that Puar's claims are invalid––again, they simply lack rigour.

Finally we reach the section on South Park but sadly it did not fulfill my expectations and I found my eyes went glossy, and my mind fogged up, as I tried to make sense of it.  To be fair to Puar, though, this is more the fault of my academic disciplining, reflecting the way in which I find it difficult to appreciate a specific type of cultural theorizing.  I was reminded, when I read this section, of an argument I had years ago with a colleague who was doing her graduate work in English.  After she critiqued a movie according to a very academic analysis, I complained that her assessment was an over-theorization.  She retorted that I should "know better" since I was "studying philosophy" to complain about over-theorization.  But I argued that my complaint had to do with the following: i) she herself indicated that her reading was no more valid than anyone else's; ii) she imposed her own particular symbolic order upon the film; iii) I was trained to examine the truth value of any given argument and I couldn't see how her analysis was justified as an argument outside of a completely subjectivist, and imposition of her own favoured symbolic reading, upon the object of critique.  Point being: yes, cultural production can and should be interrogated but I often find it frustrating that such interrogation is based more on what an individual academic thinks, according to their favoured set theory, about a given cultural offering, and the assumption that a very individualistic reading should possess a truth-value equal to contrary and equally individualist readings… which, of course, nullifies the very concept of truth-value to begin with.

Puar's reading of South Park reminds me of this above complaint.  In her insistence in using this cultural offering as an example of her overall concerns she expends more sentences justifying what quickly begins to feel like a tangent then is necessary––but, to be fair, an overbloating of jargon is precisely what is required to justify academic conceit.  "I am interested in South Park not because of the size or location of its audience," Puar writes, "nor because of its potential or perceived cultural impact.  Rather, what intrigues me is the reflection of and and continuities with critiques of the war on terror and the pathologization of terrorist bodies that is surfacing in popular culture. Thus South Park itself, as perhaps a minor cultural artifact, may appear superfluous, but the implications of its representational praxis and approaches are not." (67)  This momentous claim about something the author herself indicates might not really be that momentous can easily be combed down, freed from its linguistical excess.  First of all we should ask why anyone would be interested in something that does not have a "potential or perceived cultural impact"? Why South Park and not some random comic book, someone's zine, an webcomic, etc.?  No, let's be clear: Puar is indeed interested in South Park because, at least for a time, it possessed some level of popularity and served as a particular barometer of the attitudes of the more liberal non politically correct US population.  Beyond this, why all of the overly obscure language?  "I am going to examine South Park because it is paradigmatic of the way in which terrorism is understood in popular culture," for example, is less bloated way to explain the same thing.  Just saying.

But Puar's description is just as arcane as her use of the television show, at least for someone who has been trained to be allergic to this kind of cultural critique.  I mean, her examination of the way in which one episode portrays Osama Bin Laden of having a tiny penis, and thus signalling (again) a lack of virile modernity––a flaccid and weak terrorist orientalism––must deal with, if she is going to treat South Park as important, the contradictory fact that in the South Park movie, Saddam Hussein was depicted (in another orientalist manner) as possessing a massive phallus.  So the story of a "lack" of modernity that treats modernity, problematically and psychoanalytically, as a phallus, is suddenly contradicted by another immodern figure, Saddam Hussein, who has a giant phallus.  The entire problem, here, is an appeal to an idealistic psychoanalytical dimension which, in itself, is just another instance of the ideological.

Puar says some interesting things in this South Park section about "metrosexuality" and the way in which it is connected to homonationalism, but I feel it would have made more sense to work this out as a separate critique rather than embed it within a survey of South Park episodes.  Yes indeed "metrosexuality" deserves recognition as in the way an acceptable homonorativization functions in accordance with imperialism––and yes, a South Park episode maybe reflects this––but I cannot help but feel that it would make more sense to deal with the meterosexual phenomenon on its own terms, without being filtered through South Park because this cartoon only dealt with it because it already existed.

Puar concludes this chapter by asking how "the queer terrorist function[s] to regenerate the heteronormative or even homonormative patriot, elaborated in the absurd but tangible play between the terrorist and patriot?" (76)  A strange question that comes out of nowhere and seems to suggest that the terrorist is the sexual other of everything and anything.  The answer in some ways is a big "so what?"  At the same time, however, we get this gem of an insight: "In the never-ending displacement of the excesses of perverse sexuality to the outside, a mythical and politically overstated externality so fundamental to the imaginative geographies at stake, the (queer) terrorist regenerates the civilizational missives central to the reproduction of racist-heterosexist U.S. and homonormative nationalisms, apparent in public policy archives, feminist discourses, and media representations, among other realms. Discourses of terrorism are thus intrinsic to the management not only of race, as is painfully evident through the entrenching modes of racial profiling and hate crime incidents. Just as significantly, and less often acknowledged, discourses of terrorism are crucial to the modulation and surveillance of sexuality, indeed a range of sexualities, within and outside U.S. parameters." (76-77)  It is in this context that Puar indicates that a homonormative discourse of the nation has become just as crucial as the heteronormative, where "queerness is also under duress to naturalize itself in relation to citizenship, patriotism, and nationalism." (77)  Any gain made for queer self-determination in the US must be read according to this context.  My problem, however, is that the chapter did not systematically work out these claims; rather it approached them in a scatter-shot manner which I find somewhat bothersome.


  1. Disclaimer: I haven't read the book and am just bouncing off your reactions.

    The section on South Park reminds me of the way that Zizek books tend to function. They work off of cultural reference points, usually ones that are fairly well-known, but don't tell you much about the art or the processes that art is caught up in so much as looking at the reference point as an object that can be mined for what can seem like trivial bits of insight or cleverness. That's not to say that people who do that are entirely wrong in doing so, but that method seems strange to me if what you are saying about a certain film (as an example) doesn't also illuminate the film itself rather than just making an argument for you. On that topic, too, maybe a better example to pick on for the way that Orientalism projects its fear of the Other into the East would be the work of Frank Miller, particularly 300. I mean, Miller more or less fused himself to the American war machine with his propaganda––what better place to look?

    At this point in your Let's Read, I'm not sure how Puar is reaching out past what Edward Said already indicated about the Orientalist way the West projects its "shadow other" into the East it constructs for itself. Other than embedding it in queer theory, of course. Am very curious to see how it develops and whether I will want to look into this book or not by the end. Cheers.

    1. Well I don't think Puar would disagree that what she has to say about orientalism is going beyond Said, in fact she cites him quite frequently. Her problem with Said, though, is that he fails to grasp how the east is queered. I think her main concept of homonationalism and the way it functions as a contradiction of exception is quite good, but I am also looking for more. This assemblage thing she wants to put forward seems interesting, but otherwise I think that even if this is just a genealogical reading of what she has called "homonationalism" then it does function to examine this problem in a way that hasn't been done yet. Obviously there's the problems I've pointed out, and the lit review style that mediates everything, but even this is good enough.

      And yeah, I was also reminded of Zizek. Funnily enough, she cites him now and then.


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