Jennifer Doyle on Queer Theory and Current Events

In this guest post written on behalf of Social Text, Jennifer Doyle addresses current events, including the recent mass shooting at Pulse Nightclub in Orlando targeting queer people of color and the Black Lives Matter movement, through the lens of two essays by Jasbir Puar. For additional scholarship, read the essays, “Queer Times, Queer Assemblages” and “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots,” written with Amit S. Rai, made freely available.

ddst_72_20_3“How are gender and sexuality central to the current ‘war on terrorism’?” This question opens Jasbir Puar and Amit S. Rai’s 2002 essay “Monster, Terrorist, Fag: The War on Terrorism and the Production of Docile Patriots” and has become more pressing over time. The alarming news from Orlando caught numbers of us off-guard — not (sadly) because mass shootings are unthinkable. We found ourselves off-balance but because, with Orlando’s news cycle, queer people of color, mostly Latino and mostly Puerto Rican, were quickly deployed, as victims, in the service of the discourse of national security. Yes, mainstream and conservative news media choked on the word “gay,” but only for a moment. The lynch-logics of the discourse on terrorism are never “only” about race; it has always been cut with sexual fantasy — a sexed and raced fantasy about those who must be protected, and those against whom they should be protected. The way these discourses are entangled is the subject of much of Jasbir Puar’s work. She writes, “queerness is proffered as a sexually exceptional form of American national sexuality through a rhetoric of sexual modernization.” This positioning of the modern, national sexual subject is, in turn, deployed to “castigate the other as homophobic and perverse, and construct the imperialist center as ‘tolerant’ but sexually, racially, and gendered normal.” These combinatory dynamics have acquired a dizzying velocity. A man with a semi-assault weapon is a terrorist not because he belongs to an organized political movement, but because he says he is. He says he is because he might as well be. He declares himself at war with the world. Media cycles through speculation about his sexuality — as if the question of his interest in men and the question of his feelings about that offers us something more useful than the word “murder.” What does it mean that a man who claimed the word terrorist for himself murdered so many gay and brown men in a popular gay bar? Does that self-naming make it an act of war? What is a war these days? How to mourn our losses when that grief is so easily enlisted by the violent systems that have terrified us for so long? Is a man who shoots at police also a terrorist? Are the police who shoot black men in their cars, face down on the ground, running away — are they terrorists? What is a terrorist these days?

We lean into a familiar outrage regarding the marketing of semi-automatic weapons, perhaps because this is easier than speaking the reason the public must not be militarized — the public has this murderous, terrifying capacity. Is this not what a militarized police force expresses? An uneasy truth, or is this the chiasmus of paranoid thinking? Bullets ricochet around the vulnerable.

ddST_84-85_color_nobarcodeWho knows this violent public, this violent state, this particular kind of vulnerability better than the queer people of color who knew each other at Pulse? Orlando was not the first mass murder at a gay bar: in New Orleans, numbers were burned alive in a deliberate arson. Do the numbers of people killed in homo and trans-phobic bashings add up? What does it mean when the intimate, often privatized forms of terror that have haunted queer publics intersect with legitimized, state-sanctioned discourses of terrorism, and with, furthermore, nationalism?

These questions about the relationship between LGBT life and state sanctioned violence are woven into the foundations of queer studies — see, for example, recent struggles over the concept of the “normative”: where do we go when LGBT experiences and struggles are normatized and mainstreamed? Orlando looms again: one’s history of suffering and one’s vulnerability to threat is basic qualifier for membership to a national public (“us,” as opposed to than “them”). We cannot desire this.

Power flows through our world making some the object of state sanctioned violence, making a spectacle, furthermore, of that violence. Unthinkable forms of mass violence are staged elsewhere, within the context of war, which is itself an awfully flexible category. In a few cases, we encounter the madness of a person at war with the world. Can we even see the difference between the psychosis of that one person and the psychosis of the world against which he wages his war? A range of ideological systems sanction murderous rage against trans people, against gay people, against Latinos, women, elected officials, abortionists, black people — black children. The list goes on. The sanctioning of these forms of violence begins with a schizo-paranoid fantasy of threat. Each narrative of this “threat” has its own awful history, its own logics — and they are never far from “normal” terrors.

Puar’s work is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the relationship between the wars conducted by the state elsewhere, the wars conducted by the state against its own people, and the struggles — sometimes violent — we wage amongst and against ourselves (e.g. her essay on the “It Gets Better” social media response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide.) Puar’s more recent writing on the sexual politics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a similar force to her essays on the discursive combines she has theorized as “terrorist assemblages.” Zionists activists have singled out that work with the aim of stigmatizing Puar— to mark her as a threat, as Steven Salaita and other scholars have been marked as threats. The intention of that effort is clear: to inhibit their work by making the consequences of publishing and speaking on the subject unbearable. The intention is to make a spectacle of the scholar’s professional exile. Let us recall anti-homophobic and anti-abortion campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s which marked a range of artists, writers, and activists as “too controversial” to touch. Which made certain areas of inquiry into “no go zones.” The harassment of Puar recasts necessary work as dangerous work. We are meant to back away from each other’s most ferocious critical capacities. As we wrestle with a xenophobic/racist national security discourse attempting to hail us as queer subjects — as vulnerable through our commitment to something like sexual freedom — let us remember, here, that the discourse of sexual freedom is always already racialized, shaped within an imperial system and that this sexed idea of being free is, very much, articulated in relation to quite specific states of un-freedom. As we read Puar’s work, we, as a community of scholars, need to consider our collective responsibility to those working on the front lines of thought, and signal our solidarity and our commitment to queer theory as a mode of critical resistance.

Additional reading:

Jasbir Puar on “Ecologies of Sex, Sensation and Slow Death

Before Orlando Shooting, an Anti-Gay Massacre in New Orleans Was Largely Forgotten” in the New York Times

Jasbir Puar on “Speaking of Palestine: Solidarity and Its Censors

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