By Thomas Edwards & Aileen Ford
"Art is a permanent accusation”, remarked the Colombian artist, Francisco Botero. He was talking with reporters at the time about his series Abu Ghraib, which he had created in response to the torture of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. personnel at the Abu Ghraib detention center west of Baghdad in 2004. According to Botero, as he was drawing and painting his 80+ images of the torture--which he based on both documented and imagined scenes--he was “trying to visualize” what was really happening at the center in order to denounce the events.
Botero’s art offers a productive space to explore “how the intricate relations among Orientalist knowledge production, sexual and bodily shame, and espionage informed the torture at Abu Ghraib” (Puar 2007, 84). Keeping in mind author Jasbir Puar’s insightful analysis of U.S. exceptionalism and its discursive distancing from violence and imperialism, the overtly sexual/sadomasochistic nature of the prison torture suggests an eroticization and effeminization of the Muslim male body that then enables its objectification, sexual violation, and ultimate domination by U.S. hegemonic masculinity as incarnated in the security personnel (regardless of the gender of the individual guards involved in the torture). The abuse also draws on and feeds into the idea of the Orient as a space of “illicit and dangerous sex” and “carefully suppressed animalistic, perverse, homo- and hypersexual instincts” in need of discipline and correction by a morally superior force (Puar 2007, 87). Perhaps the scenes of Abu Ghraib even demonstrate a certain ontological intimacy been those who tortured and those who are tortured--one replete with tension, desire, and mutual becoming which potentially echo some of the themes of Isaac Julien’s film The Attendant.
Puar also argues that the Orientalism informing the torture in Abu Ghraib in 2004 also influenced the founding of intellectual fields like public policy, terrorism, and area studies that helped to solidify western academic knowledge/control over other regions of the world (Ibid.). That Botero’s pieces should be displayed in the main library of the liberal-leaning U.C. Berkeley campus at the invitation of the University’s Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS) takes on a more nuanced significance given this historical context and the academy’s complicity in the conquest and consumption of racialized populations as objects of study. "A library is a place which has enormously controversial and provocative ideas at its core,” CLAS director Harley Shaiken commented when asked about the Botero presentation in the Berkeley library. He may not have grasped just how true his words were.
“CALIFORNIA CULTURES/The art of Abu Ghraib”
In thinking about current events, this week is an especially appropriate time to read Terrorist Assemblages: homonationalism in queer times. Over the past few days, a trickle of hopeful politicians have announced their candidacy to run for president of the United States. This official kick-off to the election season also marks an opportunity to observe American imperial exceptionalism and racist capitalism on display in a particularly theatrical and ostentatious manifestation. Money, power, nationalism, xenophobia, and deeply ingrained beliefs about American values (which include homophobia) mix in multiple and fluid ways during the campaigns. This reality reminds us that the concepts which Puar talks about in her book are still alive and well and being reproduced--thanks to our active or passive collusion--in American society right now.
The video below of Hillary Clinton announcing her second presidential run is a powerfully condensed example of the slick reproduction of American exceptionalism. In particular, the video privileges the inclusion of select (i.e., white, usually male, able-bodied, consumer/owner) queer and model minority subjects “into the fold of life” within the nation-state at the expense of other queered and racialized bodies that might disrupt the racism, classism, ableism, and even ageism upon which these “homonational” figures rests. In Clinton’s video, the homonational is most obviously embodied in the two (apparently) white same-sex couples shown holding hands, displaying affection, and talking about their upcoming marriage vows.
The superficially liberal politics of progressive inclusion--of which Hillary is a self-proclaimed “champion”--and the token recognition of queer people’s civil rights would prompt Puar to ask: what is progress, who is benefiting from it, and at whose expense? For, while permissible queer subjects (and some model minorities) may be temporarily granted conditional access to the rights and privileges of state citizenship, their ascendancy relies upon heteronormative practices of kinship, regeneration, and reproduction within a capitalist consumer model. Such queer exceptionalism enacts diverse forms of violence upon bodies that “need not apply” for inclusion within the nation-state project, and who are thus constructed as expendable, unsalvageable, sexually deviant, and perverse beings (the sexuality of terrorism).
But what strikes you about the vignettes in the video? What messages do you think they convey about who “everyday Americans” are, what they do and where, and the values they literally embody? Equally important, who is missing from the video and why? Finally, what other conceptual tools not mentioned in this post does Puar’s work offer to help us analyze the video’s style, structure, and content to unpack its layered meanings?
“Getting Started”, Video Announcing Hillary Clinton’s Second Campaign for U.S. President
***Visible Collective/Naeem Mohaiemen and Aimara Lin, Driving While Black Becomes Flying While Brown, 2006. (Accompanying text featured on page 135 of Puar’s text.)
The above work helps to illustrate Puar’s argument in chapter three that documentation and cooptation, framed as liberal progression, allow for more thorough control over and management of populations. Relevant is Foucault’s superpanopticon, which instead of functioning on inclusion/exclusion, thrives upon accumulating larger populations and normalizing their constituents.
On the whole, chapter three presents for us a discursive address of the proliferation of performed militarized power. Indefinite/infinite detention, intimacy, affect, sodomy, and biopolitics play extensively here. Puar’s method is to examine a single moment laterally through the lens of two seemingly discrete events: the decriminalization of sodomy in June 2003 in Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, then the release and dissemination of photos from Abu Ghraib in May 2004. Puar argues this is a moment of respatialization, where queer (white) liberal subject is afforded the privilege of privacy, and indefinite detention of the somo sacer detainee is extended into infinite detention in the public realm.
In chapter four, Puar discusses advocacy strategies of post-9/11 Middle Eastern and South Asian communities in America and uses the turban to illustrate her conception of assemblage. The turban, an instant signifier of the feared terrorist, accrues meaning outside of the wearer’s religious identity in an encounter with the US citizen. The turban and the body cannot be seen as separate entities, nor can the body be taken for granted and coagulated into a singular entity. Puar claims we cannot render racial profiling a purely ocular act, rather this cultivation of fear and anxiety circulates affectively and participates in a tactile economy. In turn, the turban is a sense of being watched by American citizen subjects, and functions as an affective disciplinary model. Important terms to think about for this chapter are mistaken identity, queer/diaspora, sliding, tactile economy, resemblance, contagion, the turban as assemblage, and informational bodies. Significant theorists with whom Puar engages are, again, Judith Butler, Sara Ahmed, Brian Massumi, and Deleuze.
This week, for the first time we encounter a text that moves fluidly between racial, ethnic, and national identities, as well gender and sexual identities. We would like to discuss Puar’s nuanced system of white ascendancy, racialized others, and queer racialized others to consider what specific utility queer serves within her argument. Further, we can think about the advantages of addressing such a broad spectrum of racialized othering.
Poulomi Desai, I am a Homosexual Also. 2003. This work is useful to considering visual poststructuralism and Puar’s contention that “queer as white” has rendered the racialized other invariably heterosexual.