Book Review: Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times


Nine years after the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, the issues of racial profiling, prisoner abuse, and anti-Muslim (and presumed Muslim) sentiment still abound. Thus, Puar's book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is both pertinent and compelling. Pairing together two unlikely positionalities--that of the terrorist and the queer-- Puar constructs a cogent argument about the way in which what she calls "homonationalism" is deployed in order to separate U.S. national gays and lesbians from queer and racial others, betraying a "collusion between homosexuality and American nationalism that is generated both by national rhetorics of patriotic inclusion and by gay queer subjects" (39). In other words, the white, heteronormative American nation relies upon non-heternormative sexualities to differentiate barbarism from civilization, to differentiate "us"-- good, liberal Americans from "them"--the Muslims, the Arabs, the Sihks, the queers, the terrorists. In this way, gays and lesbians actually become complicit in the very heteronormative configurations that work to subordinate them. Expanding on the work of Ray Chow, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Giles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben, Puar traces her argument through theories of sexual exceptionalism, the ascendancy of whiteness, affect and assemblage.

In Chapter 2: Abu Ghraib and U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism, Puar argues that the torture of prisoners committed at Abu Ghraib has been constructed by the U.S. media and political leaders as "exceptional" or contrary to American culture, morals and politics. Analyzing President Brush's statement that the prison guards' "treatment does not reflect the nature of the American people," Puar argues that US exceptionalism discourse has been used to dissociate the acts of violence and sexual torture performed from the prison guards who performed them. In her analysis, Puar draws on several photographs taken at Abu Ghraib and released during 2005, including the now infamous picture of a pyramid of nude men and Lynndie England dragging a prisoner by a dog collar. By claiming that these acts of torture do not "reflect the nature of the American people," they are instead re-configured as reflective of the "nature" of the Iraqi prisoners themselves. Setting up a dichotomy between the conservative and homophobic Muslim East and the liberal and tolerant West, the U.S. "capitalizes on the cultural difference discourse, nearly claiming that the repressive culture of Mulsim extremism is responsible for the potency of the torture, in effect blaming the victims" (91). Thus, the sexual torture perpetrated against the Iraqi prisoners is re-constituted as a necessary strategy of war-- a method of punishment designed specifically to attack the prisoners' cultural mores. As such, this form of torture is positioned as offensive only to the homophobic and sexually repressed prisoners, and not the liberal minded American guards or American public. In so doing, the possibility for and existence of homosexual and queer Muslims is erased. Problematizing this rhetoric, Puar asks us to consider "whether these acts of torture really reveal anything intrinsic or particular to American culture" (109-10) [emphasis mine].


Chapter 3: Infinite Control, Infinite Attention takes up the U.S. Supreme Court case Lawrence and Garner v Texas (2003) which decriminalized consensual adult sodomy at the federal level.  Rather than seeing this as a gay rights victory, Puar draws our attention to the language of the majority decision, authored by Justice Anthony M. Kenneedy. By favoring a broader privacy argument over a narrower, equal protection argument, the Supreme Court privatizes queer sex, "rendering it hidden and submissive to the terrain of the domestic (subjected to insidious forms of surveillance), an affront to queer public sex cultures that sought to bring the private into the public" (118). Echoing Katherine Franke, Puar argues that by sanctioning sodomy solely by virtue of it's placement in the private realm, Lawrence-Garner tacitly re-criminalizes it outside of the bedroom, in the public sphere. Decided only two years after 9/11 and at the height of the U.S. 'war on terror,' Lawrence-Garner's inclusion of gay and lesbian subjects as protected citizens is perpetrated largely at the expense of racialized subjects. In particular, the private is constructed as a racialized (white) and nationalized (American) space which is granted only to citizens and withheld from non-citizens (non-white, non-American). Thus, Muslims, Arabs, Sikhs and other "terrorists" are excluded both from heterosexuality and upright homosexuality. This "reracialization of sodomy elsewhere...allows for the sanitation of [the white citizen's] intimiate sexual being," further legitimizing gays and lesbians and the expense of racialized others (120). This notion of intimacy is a significant part of the affective economy Puar details throughout her book.


Chapter 4: The Turban is Not a Hat examines the pervasive confusion between the turbaned Sihk man and the so called Muslim "terrorist" in post-9/11 America. Puar argues that "the widespread campaigns undertaken by liberal Sikh advocacy groups to educate 'ignorant Americans' about Sikhs, focusing on who Sikhs are (not terrorists but peace-loving good Americans, model minority immigrants, our turbans look like this) and who they are not (Muslims, terrorists, our turbans do not look like that), while important do not address the affective economies that conflate resemblance and misrecognition" (188). As Puar explains, these campaigns focus on the visual and assume that these differences really matter, rather than getting at the core issue which she sees as the "affective" response that many Americans feel towards "terrorist" bodies.  She argues that the anxiety surrounding the impossibility of containment-- and the fear of contagion-- have lead to the fiction of a feared object: the turban and its attendant "terrorist" body.  Examining the frequent request (particularly at airports) for Sikh men to remove their turbans, Puar asserts that the turban has appropriated the status of a weapon. The turban, fused with the body of its wearer, becomes like the bomb strapped to the body of a suicide bomber. As such, the turban--or weapon--ceases to be merely a tool used by the body and, instead, becomes an assemblage--an unmistakable and potentially deadly part of the terrorist body.


This concept of the Deleuzian assemblage is elaborated in Puar's conclusion Queer Times, Terrorist Assemblages and put into conversation with the intersectional model of identity discussed by theorists such as Kimberly Crenshaw and Cathy Cohen. Unlike intersectionality, which presumes that the components of gender, sexuality, class and race intersect with one another yet can be separated and disassembled, an assemblage takes into consideration the "interwoven forces that merge and dissipate time, space, and body against linearity, coherency, and permanency" (212). Instead of privileging naming, meaning, and visuality, assemblage emphasizes ontology, feeling and affect which allows us understand the workings of power beyond disciplinary models. Furthermore, queerness as assemblage troubles the queer/non-queer binary while underscoring its complicity with dominant forces.


Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times is both unique and thought-provoking in its careful examination of the often overlooked associations among race, queer sexualities, and U.S. nationalism which depends upon the exclusion of the terrorist body and its nebulous sexual and racial positionalities. Perhaps Puar's most salient point is that her project, and ours as critical readers and scholars, is not excavate the queer terrorist, or queer the terrorist.  Rather, queerness is always already present in the act of naming the terrorist.


Speaking of Puar, she is speaking at Butler University this Thursday...too bad Indianapolis is so far away:

Jasbir Puar, a professor in the department of Women & Gender Studies at Rutgers University, will close Butler University’s new Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies Speakers’ Series with a talk at 4:30 p.m. April 22 in Jordan Hall 141. Admission is free and open to the public. No tickets are required. Call (317) 940-5974 for more information.
Puar’s talk, “'I'd Rather Be a Cyborg Than a Goddess': Intersectionality, Assemblage, and Affective Politics," is about feminist methods and why they are bifurcated, with intersectionality on one hand and a post-poststructuralist critique of theories of subject formation and signification on the other. This paper reviews these two threads of feminist theorizing and suggests benefits if they were to be in conversation with each other.

Thanks for your summary of the different chapters. Did you find reading the entire book to be helpful in making sense of the queer assemblage (and our discussion of the ballistic body in class)? Why/why not?

As I mentioned in our last class, I am teaching an upper level undergrad course next semester called Queering Desire. Is there a particular chapter in this book that you think would be especially good for that class? What about Chapter 3? Or Chapter 4?

Thanks Jessie! I will be teaching a grad course on queer theory (or queer ethics?) next spring--it would great to have you in it!

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