home Books, Culture, Entertainment Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim asks tough questions of disability studies

Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim asks tough questions of disability studies

Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Puar cites a short article that I wrote in 2014 for Bitch Magazine on inspiration porn and “what’s your excuse” workout memes. I was not aware of this before reading The Right to Maim.

As Disability Studies has become professionalized in academia, and disability justice frameworks have come into wider usage in the disability community in recent years, what might the Western conceptions of “disability rights” be missing—or ignoring?

Rutgers University associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies Jasbir K. Puar attempts to explore this question—and more—in her highly anticipated follow-up to her 2007 book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Like Terrorist Assemblages, The Right to Maim, which will be released later this month by Duke University Press, goes deep into select issues and concepts that Disability Studies and Queer Studies in the U.S. and Europe have not dealt with—and with which they will eventually need to reckon. The Right to Maim is an intense, complex read that expands the scope of both disciplines, while bringing disability-related issues in the global South into perspective.

The cover of The Right To Maim, featuring a grotesque watercolor

By engaging with geopolitical issues that U.S. and Eurocentric Disability Studies has not yet considered or wrangled with in much depth, Puar convincingly shows readers what the future of the discipline might look like. As she writes in the book’s preface, her goal in The Right to Maim is to “think through how and why bodies are perceived as debilitated, capacitated, or often simultaneously both […] I am arguing that the three vectors, debility, capacity, and disability, exist in a mutually reinforcing constellation, are often overlapping or coexistent, and that debilitation is a necessary component that both exposes and sutures the disabled/non-disabled binary.”

Such a move is not the same as claiming that everyone is “disabled” in some way, which tends to (in my limited experience) be a favorite rhetorical trick of nondisabled people who do not believe that ableism is a real oppression. The role(s) of in/capacity and debility in disability may seem obvious; “incapacity,” in a more widely used definition, usually refers to an inability to do things for oneself due to outside circumstances, while “debility” generally refers to physical weakness.  Lest one think that Puar uses these terms to reify disability as a negative thing, she makes a more complex argument in using these terms. In doing so, she utilizes disability justice concepts to incisively examine, among other topics, the progressive narrative of the “trans tipping point” seen in mainstream conversations about transgender people, the “wrong body” narrative, and the debates over Gender Identity Disorder (GID) and its inclusion in various versions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) used by medical professionals.

The following chapters in The Right to Maim take on biopolitics and the “exceptional” disabled people who are included in neoliberalism; in furthering a theory of “crip nationalism,” Puar cogently critiques David T. Mitchell and Sharon Snyder’s recent work The Biopolitics of Disability, but does so in a way that expands the conversation about biopolitics, disability, and debility rather than simply shutting down alternative opinions or ways of thinking.

The Right to Maim’s final two chapters eloquently explore two controversial topics that Puar has worked on for many years. The first is Israel’s “pinkwashing” campaign that situates the country as gay-friendly, even as it is decidedly not friendly to Palestinians, and how Israel’s military actions against this minority contribute to the debilitation and incapacity of certain citizens; the second is the continued debilitation and maiming of Palestinians via military action, with a case study of the 2014 airstrikes.

Puar covers so much ground (so to speak) in The Right to Maim that summarizing the book seems almost pointless; if you have been searching for a Disability Studies and Queer Studies volume containing beautiful analyses of disability exceptionalism, neoliberalism, capitalism, and biopolitics, reproductive counseling as a modern-day version of eugenics, assemblages of debility and (in)capacity, the politics of surface-level LGBT “inclusion” and pinkwashing, and the military-industrial complex’s role in producing debility in the global South, The Right to Maim is the book for you. Puar’s book-length intervention in Disability/Queer Studies could not have come at a better time, and is a great example of scholarship that poses difficult, necessary questions for the future of Disability Studies.