Friday, February 19, 2016

Jasbir Puar at Vassar and a new justification for homophobia

Jasbir Puar, an Associate Professor of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, recently gave a speech at Vassar College called "Inhumanist Biopolitics: How Palestine Matters." She was invited by the American Studies Program and her talk was cosponsored by Africana Studies, English, International Studies, Jewish Studies, Political Science, Religion, and Women’s Studies. William Jacobson, a Cornell professor of law, who also publishes the blog Legal Insurrection, recently posted a long article about Puar's talk - Vassar faculty sponsored anti-Israel event erupts in controversy. He quoted extensively from a transcript of the talk, prepared from a recording made by a member of an alumni/parent group called Fairness to Israel. (There was a request made not to record the speech, but FTI did so anyway). (All quotes here from Jacobson's article).
Before I give my brief remarks, I would like to request that you silence your devices you brought with you so as not to disrupt the conversation with Professor Puar is conducting with us today. I would also like to request on her behalf and on behalf of the rest of the assembly that you refrain from recording this evening’s proceedings, in the spirit of congeniality and mutual respect, though it is not against the law, to record someone vocation professional labor without informing them, it is quite unseemly and violates the modest contract of trust essential to the exchange of ideas.
William Jacobson has eviscerated the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish features of Puar's talk, but here I discuss the introduction that the Vassar faculty member gave to her talk.
Professor Puar is a Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University who has established herself as one of the preeminent scholars of Queer Theory.

Having produced work on par with Judith Butler, Robyn Wiegman, Jack Halberstam, and Sara Ahmed. Her widely acclaimed book Terrorist Assemblages published in 2007 explores the ascendant phenomenon of homonationalism, arguing that the new sexual inclusiveness of Western nations is not so much a sign of social progressivism but rather a tactic to shore up and re-invigorate existing hierarchies of race, gender and sexuality toward the end of furthering military initiatives like the U.S. war on terror. This evening, Professor Puar returns to a site of inquiry that to her offers a particular example of how states re-engineer sexual cultures for the purposes of making war: the State of Israel.
I've written about this new concept "homonationalism," before on this blog, and about my objections to it. I view this notion as homophobia in another form, this time justified not by traditional religious teachings or contemporary anti-gay political movements, but by people who consider themselves to be radical leftists. Puar's argument, as summarized in this paragraph, sees the limited positive effects of the feminist movement and the movements for LGBT rights not as social progress but as a means to support US militarism. It's a kind of conspiracy-theory argument - the fact that the US Supreme Court struck down anti-same-sex marriage laws, and other countries around the world have legalized same-sex marriage is taken not as a laudable sign of progress towards making the lives of LGBT people better, but as a covert project to support military initiatives. I do not see how improving the lives of women and LBGT can be viewed in any way as supporting militarism (in any country). In what sane evaluation of the activities and successes of the LGBT rights movement can the legalization of same-sex marriage be regarded as "re-invigorating existing hierarchies of race, gender, and sexuality"? Doesn't the ability of a same-sex couple now to get married in the US actually diminish the previously-existing hierarchy which valued male-female relationships entirely above same-sex ones?

Of course, legalizing same-sex marriages is not the only goal of the LGBT rights movement - one of the really big unfinished tasks is the passage of a federal law making illegal anti-LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, and public accommodation. A same sex couple can get married in every state in the US, but in many states it is still entirely legal to fire someone for being gay or lesbian or transgender, or to prevent someone from renting an apartment or buying a house or any number of other ordinary human activities.

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