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

In my previous entries in this series I worried about Puar's eclecticism.  By this chapter, however, it seems as if she is beginning to centre her theoretical approach around Agamben, particularly his concept of the "state of exception."  While I don't think this enough to allow her to escape completely from the charge of eclecticism (because I think Agamben is also somewhat eclectic), or from the charge of a very narrow idealism (Agamben's focus and over-application of a Schmitt-inspired concept has always revealed an obsession of appearance over substance, an inability to cut down to the material foundation upon which both the state of exception and homo sacer are dependent), it does permit a greater level of coherency.

Earlier I worried that Puar's concept of homonationalism, though perhaps useful for most imperialist countries, was very US-centric.  Unfortunately this chapter confirms my fears about how the theory has been conceived as nationally specific: it concerns the Abu Ghraib tortures, which is a US phenomenon.  Although I think that a discussion of Abu Ghraib is indeed necessary for this project, the fact that this project so far has mainly sought to examine US phenomena means that the Abu Ghraib tortures will most probably be situated at the site of the reader's USAmerican (treated as obvious, as paradigmatic) guilty conscience.  And though I agree there is definitely something to be said about the ways in which American imperial expectionalism are a significant part of what Puar calls "homonationalism", as I indicated before there are other imperial "expectionalist" narratives that construct similar queer discourses that are not American… That are also involved in the War on Terror and torture narratives, but succeed in getting off the hook because they are not at the helm of worldwide imperialism.

In any case, and my worries about the US-centric way in which Puar's analysis is filtered aside, this chapter does a good job of examining how the Abu Ghraib event "is neither exceptional nor singular," but how, at the same time, this event, while not being "exceptional" cannot also be normalized as "business as usual." (79)  That is, Abu Ghraib is non-exceptional because it is part of a torture industry motivated by the War on Terror… But, simultaneously, the way in which its supposed state of exception is conceived is precisely that which is singular, on the discursive level, because it was an event in which an imperialist line of demarcation was drawn between acceptable and non-acceptable torture––a way in which torture as a whole was normalized by appealing to a queered event that was deemed as "bad" torture.

Here I want to pause to reflect on the ways in which my professional life accidentally paralleled the subject matter of this part of Terrorist Assemblages.  At the same time as I was reading this chapter I was teaching a section in my summer course about moral debates regarding torture (where the students got to read Dershowitz's terrible and racist "ticking time bomb" arguments and then read innumerable critiques of Dershowitz's fascist logic), months after the US was forced to admit to the prevalence of its torture industry––and such an admission had not happened when Puar wrote her book.  One of the questions I posed to my students was the following: if the US claims it is the moral arbiter, and yet perpetuates as part of its normal practice a torture industry (not to mention its connected prison industry), then what is the basis of its moral justification?  Only its belief in its exceptional status, apparently, which exists outside of space and time––because how can a nation that practices torture to such a degree ever be accepted, according to any philosophical theory of ethics, as a moral arbiter beyond its own declaration that this is the case?  In this sense, Abu Ghraib is yet another event that reveals the moral poverty of American exceptionalism.

But let us return to the way in which Abu Ghraib functions, according to Puar, within the discourse of the US War on Terror.  For the imperialist imaginary, this event possesses a particular exceptionalism because it permits "a crucial distinction between the supposed depravity of Abu Ghraib and the 'freedom' being built in Iraq." (80)  That is, those scape-goated in this torture scandal are treated as outliers who are divorced from the American project of "building freedom," the bad others whose actions are separate from a morally pure mission.  Purge these excesses and the War on Terror can remain pure… Indeed its purity is guaranteed by the purging and scape-goating of these soldiers who supposedly acted in an excessive manner.

The Abu Ghraib event is discursively deemed as an exceptional moment of the US industry (that, in turn, functions to mask the fact that there is nothing exceptional about US torture events) because of the way in which it is coded and queered as a sexual scandal: the victims were "exceptionally" tortured because they were subjected to homosexual humiliation.  In many ways Puar's analysis of this event proves her earlier claims about the queering of the terrorist other since it has "been used by conservative and progressive factions alike to comment on the particularly intense shame with which Muslims experience homosexual and feminizing acts."  Here we encounter an orientalist understanding of Muslim sexuality where such "sexuality is repressed, but perversity is just bubbling beneath the surface." (83)  Terrorist suspects are punished with gay humiliation because they are deemed to be closeted queer subjects who find the notion of open and forced queer "perversion" to be humiliating.  They are humiliated because they are secretly queer; they are exceptionally tortured because they refuse to admit this fact.

Leaving aside the ways in which Puar again conflates modernity with the practice of torture (this anti-modern obsession, this apparent vagueness in understanding the meaning of modernity), there is indeed something to be said about how the US torture industry is connected to an especial orientalist reading of its terrorist other that is coded in homophobic terminology.  The tortures in Abu Ghraib were indeed informed, as Puar empirically demonstrates, by an anti-Arab ideology that took its cue from a well-known racist text: Raphael Patai's The Arab Mind.  Patai, "who also authored [the anti-semitic] The Jewish Mind," (84) was responsible for inventing the discourse where the Arab is culturally and racially alien from the "advanced" caucasian mind: a queer deviant who is simultaneously scandalized by this deviance.  Puar examines the way in which counter-insurgency literature was contingent on Patai's analysis and how, therefore, the Abu Ghraib event is only possible within this context: the best way to break "the Arab Mind" is to subject this "mind" to the kind of sexual humiliation it does not wish to be revealed as enjoying.  The oriental Arab is both indecent and suppressed; one result of this contradiction, then, is to submit the Arab body to a torturous interrogation that forces it to concede to queer shame.

Here it is worth pausing to wonder whether US counter-insurgency is, as a whole, that invested in Patai's explicitly racist discourse.  While the current that Puar indicates did indeed exist, it was only one tendency in a broader strategy of counter-insurgency and, as one of my friends and colleagues whose academic research is focused on US counter-insurgency has pointed out, this kind of orientalist understanding is not entirely popular within the counter-insurgency community as a whole. Indeed, one of the more dominant trends, which hopes to recruit a compradori within occupied populations, is more concerned with embracing the formal appearance of multicultural tolerance.  But I digress… Puar's insight here is significant in that it again indicates that tension that exists at the heart of homonationalism: the desire to pose as a protector of gay liberation (amongst other pseudo-liberation discourses) while, at the same time, sinking homophobia into terrorist bodies.

The scandal of Abu Ghraib, then, was articulated in ways that demonstrated a hatred of queerness amongst the very populations who claimed to be championing gay liberation in the war on terror.  The torture was perceived as "exceptional" because the victims were seen as being so opposed to the idea of homosexuality that it was especially humiliated to be tortured in such a queer manner.  Since it is assumed that "[h]omosexuality is taboo in Islamic cultures [apparently more so than in Christian cultures]," then the tortures in Abu Ghraib are only horrendous "for Muslims to endure."  Such an assumption implies "that these forms of torture would be easier for other, supposedly less homophobic populations to tolerate." (111) And indeed, the discourse around Abu Ghraib, and the outcry surrounding the acts, tended to focus on the sexualization rather than the fact of torture itself… As if it would be more acceptable if these homophobes (who are also, as the contradictory discourse goes, secretly closet queers––indeed, they were called all manner of chauvinist queering names by their torturers) were tortured in other ways.  The point, here, is that the event of torture in Abu Ghraib is not at all exceptional, but what makes (dialectically) this non-expectional event simultaneously exceptional is the way in which it being discursively coded as exceptional.

Leaving aside Puar's tangents into other offerings of her theoretical smorgasbord (the whole Foucauldian ars erotica rabbit hole, for example, that would make this post exceptionally long), this chapter examines the tension of Abu Ghraib––the queering that is both necessary to construct the monstrous terrorist body and to provide an outlet of disingenuous sympathy for a humiliation that is only humiliation because of the supposed sexual nature of the torture––and how "the torture performs an initiation into or confirmation of what is already suspected of the body." (87)  I especially liked the way that she connected this tension with "the failures of Euro-American feminisms" (89) that focused on Jessica Lynch instead of the victims.  Indeed, the attempt to "exceptionalize" women torturers on the part of liberal feminists was yet another way, along with "white gay men", of "unwittingly reorganiz[ing] the Abu Ghraib tragedy around their desires." (90)

To sum up (and following Puar's own useful summation at the end of this chapter), the Abu Ghraib event is significant for the following reasons: i) the simulation of sexual acts in the torture are significant because of their supposed "homosexual" nature; ii) the assumption that homosexuality is more of a taboo in Muslim societies than anywhere else makes the torture seem to be exceptional, insinuates that it would not be torture for anyone else (a queering of the terrorist since this falls in line with homophobic and sexist notions of the "nancy boy" or the non-masculine "pussy") as well as discounting the possibility that some of these victims might have indeed seen themselves as gay and without shame; iii) "American tolerance for homosexuality, an imperative fantasy for homonationalism, is elevated in relation to Islamic societies, as symptomatized by the unspecific, ahistorical, and generalized commentary on the taboo of homosexuality for Muslims;" iv) the performance of gay sex is seen as an exceptionally horrendous form of torture; v) rather than treating Abu Ghraib as part of a larger torture industry, criticism of the torture ends up being sunk in a sympathy and pity for victims who have been subjected to the unwarranted humiliation of gay sex; vi) racism and sexism are ignored in favour of a critique of "a homophobic military culture"; vii) sexuality becomes individualized within a "cartography of the body"; viii) torture is normalized by making [gay] sexual torture exceptional; ix) the distinction between captors and prisoners is occluded through "technologies of representation." (111-112)

Finally, in response to Susan Sontag's claim that the pictures of the Abu Ghraib scandal will never go away, Puar claims that they have indeed disappeared.  They did nothing significant in challenging the mainstream attitude, in the imperialist metropoles, about torture as a whole.  This was simply a scandal for the military, a "mistake" that needed to be disavowed, and since that time the stories of the victims have never been represented.  Indeed, the narrative of Abu Ghraib excluded the voices of the victims, whose "lives do not register within the realm of legal status" or even representation. (113)


  1. I was intrigued by your claim that Agamben's work was eclectic and idealist. I was wondering whether you could flesh that out more.

    1. That would be another post in and of itself and would force me to reread Agamben. Also, to be fair, that was something of a subjective, off-hand comment rather than a rigorous point. One of my problems with Agamben is that he bases a lot of his analysis on the concept of biopower which I have always found to be a kind of idealist conception that avoids the material processes upon which power depends (kind of like Duhring's theory of force). Much political analysis that resorts primarily to Agamben ends up avoiding more concrete questions about the class structure of a society, ideological apparatuses, any thorough engagement with the meaning of capitalism/imperialism. None of this is to say that I don't think Agamben has some good concepts that are useful to employ, but there is something more reflective than rigorous that typifies his work. Again, I'd have to go back to Agamben, but here's one thing that bothers me: Agamben, like other similar theorists, tends to make reflective assertions that lack the development of an argument: this is the way it is, here's my theoretical concept that just is, and here's a bunch of ways I see it applying to all of society...


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