Sunday, February 21, 2016

A critique of Jasbir Puar's "Homonationalism"

I just found an interesting blog post (Jasbir Puar’s Homonationalism Talk: A Real Disappointment) that critiqued a talk by Puar from 2008, which brings up some of the same points as I did in my last post. The author is at McGill University (or was in 2008) and heard her speak about her book Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.

The author of the post, whose name was not given, began by criticizing the obscurity of Puar's language.
Well, why not [begin] with language. It feels like fishing in a barrel to complain about the words with which most post-structuralist/postmodernist theories are crafted, but i think it’s important to note. Telling, in more ways than one. What to say about a talk which is only comprehensible to people who have read Deleuze and Guattari, who know when you say “biopolitics” that you must mean it in the Foucoultian sense, and who can dangle more lines of flight from their affect than an ontology has epistemes???
I heartily agree. I've seen a transcript of Puar's talk at Vassar, and parts of it were incomprehensible to me because I didn't know the theoretical language she used. The term "prehensive" seems to be important in her argument, for example, and I could not figure out what it meant. She didn't define it, and even the Oxford English Dictionary couldn't help me.

The author of the post then went on to explain Puar's argument and critique it. Some excerpts:
Puar’s first point was that to criticize or work against homophobia or transphobia (and likely sexism, racism, and all kinds of other things too) within cultures, peoples, or countries which are victimized by imperialism, is to be complicit with imperialist oppression.
This explains the notion of "homonationalism" - if gay/lesbian people in the US or Europe criticize or work against homophobia in countries like Iran, it means that we're participating in "imperialist oppression" of these countries. She doesn't have a concept of solidarity across borders for gay people. I don't see why someone couldn't work to improve safety for gay men in Iraq, for example, in an expressly anti-imperialist way. Or, to work with queer people in Palestine without working with the Israeli government in any way (I imagine that in practice she would be in favor of this - but maybe not?)
This is a crude position, one which has been hinted at in other arguments people have made over the past years regarding Hezbollah, Hamas, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and Ahmadinejad’s Iran. (The only specific example given by Puar were  a series of protests held in 2006 to mark the first anniversary of the execution of two queer teenagers in Iran, a case i have already mentioned, and reposted criticisms of, on this blog.)
I've encountered this attitude myself. A few years ago, at the end of the semester in my modern Jewish history class, we were talking about antisemitism in contemporary Iran. This was when Ahmedinejad was president, and the first so-called "Holocaust Cartoons" contest was being held - and it produced cartoons that were obviously antisemitic. This particular class session was a follow-up to an earlier class that had talked about antisemitic ideology in the 19th and 20th centuries. One student, on the very last day, came up to me because she objected to my criticizing the Iranian regime in any way - even if the regime was pushing Holocaust denial. She of course did not agree with Holocaust denial (a good thing, since we had just covered the Holocaust a couple of weeks before this), but didn't think it was appropriate to criticize Ahmedinejad for propagating it. I was astonished, and furious, but I had sufficient presence of mind to ask her if she believed this for "anti-imperialist" reasons. She said yes. I went home and fumed to my friends. Fortunately, the semester was at an end, and I wouldn't have to put up with her in class after this unpleasant conversation.
In fact, without drawing any distinctions, acknowledging any other forms of solidarity activism, or providing any other examples to back up her charge, Puar accused the “Islamophobic Gay Left” of being complicit with imperialism, point finale. Rather than explain this in terms of political dynamics or material forces in the real world, without looking at the history/herstory that got us to this point, Puar stated that this imperialist bent was “constitutive” of queer identity as it has been constructed. (That she has also stated that “the rise of queer” is contingent, or dependent, on the rise of racism should be noted. Whether this is a contradiction in her thought, or a paradox she needs to explore, i do not know.)
What do you suppose this mythical "Islamophobic gay left" even is? Who belongs to it? I've never heard of it.

And it's outrageous to say that queer identity is "constituted" by Islamophobia. Queer identity doesn't have anything to do with Islamophobia. One important feature of queer identity for some people is the rejection of traditional religious homophobia - I've heard this expressed many times by people raised as Christians or Jews who are grateful to escape from the stiflingly homophobic communities they grew up in. What does that have to do with hostility to Muslims or Islam?
While there were a lot of esoteric catchphrases summing up the whys and hows of this, there was nothing – nada, zilch – in the way of actual historical or political explanations. It seems this judgment on a terrain of struggle was the product of a lot of mental energy and pure logic, no actual practical experience necessary. That would just get in the way. 
This is also a feature of her recent lecture at Vassar College. She did not provide any evidence for her accusations against Israel.

If you're interested in a more lengthy critique of the talk this author heard, click on the link above. While the post is not about Puar's recent Vassar talk, it does help one to understand the political world that Puar comes from and explains some of the difficult theoretical language.

1 comment:

  1. Do you still have a transcript of Puar's talk at Vassar? I'd be interested in reading it.