Patriotic Ties that Bind

Since excerpts can be spoilers, you may want to skip the excerpts given below and click here (pdf) to read Jasbir Puar’s new essay, “Abu Ghraib and U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism.” (h/t Kawdess)

As the space of “illicit and dangerous sex,” the Orient is the site of carefully suppressed animalistic, perverse, homo- and hypersexual instincts. This paradox is at the heart of Orientalist notions of sexuality that are reanimated through the transnational production of the Muslim terrorist as torture object. Underneath the veils of repression sizzles an indecency waiting to be unleashed. The most recent invocation of the perverse deranged terrorist and his naturalized proclivities is found in this testimony by one of the prisoner guards at Abu Ghraib: “I saw two naked detainees, one masturbating to another kneeling with its mouth open. . . . I saw [Staff Sergeant] Frederick walking towards me, and he said, ‘Look what these animals do when you leave them alone for two seconds.’ I heard PFC England shout out, ‘He’s getting hard.’ ” Note how the mouth of the Iraqi prisoner, the one in fact kneeling in the submissive position, is referred to not as “his” or “hers,” but “its.” The use of the word “animals” signals both the cause of the torture and its effect. Identity is performatively constituted by the very evidence—here, getting a hard-on—that is said to be its results. (Because you are an animal you got a hard-on; because you got a hard-on you are an animal.) Contrary to the recent public debate on torture, which foregrounds the site of detention as an exemplary holding cell that teems with aggression, this behavior is hardly relegated to prisons, as an especially unnerving moment in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) reveals. A group of U.S. soldiers are shown loading a dead Iraqi, presumably recently killed by them, covered with a white sheet onto a stretcher. Someone yells, “Look, Ali Baba’s dick is still hard!,” while others follow in disharmonized chorus, “You touched it, eeewww you touched it.” Even in death the muscular virility of the Muslim man cannot be laid to rest in some humane manner; not only does the Orientalist fantasy transcend death, but the corpse’s sexuality does too; it rises from death, as it were. Death here becomes the scene of the ultimate unleashing of repression.

Reinforcing a homogeneous notion of Muslim sexual repression vis-à-vis homosexuality and the notion of modesty works to resituate the United States, in contrast, as a place free of such sexual constraints, thus confirming the now-liberated status of the formerly repressed diasporic Muslim. This captive/liberated transition is reflected in what Rey Chow terms “coercive mimeticism—a process (identitarian, existential, cultural, or textual) in which those who are marginal to mainstream Western culture are expected . . . to resemble and replicate the very banal preconceptions that have been appended to them, a process in which they are expected to objectify themselves in accordance with the already seen and thus to authenticate the familiar imaginings.” Unlike a (Bhabhaian) version of mimesis that accentuates the failed attempts of the Other to imitate the Self, Chow’s account claims that “the original that is supposed to be replicated is no longer the white man or his culture but rather an image, a stereotyped view of the ethnic.” The ethnic as a regulatory device sustains the fictive ideals of multicultural pluralism. For AlFatiha to have laborated on the issues of Islam and sexuality more complexly would have not only missed the Orientalist resonance so eagerly awaited by the mass media; that is, there is almost no way to get media attention unless this mimetic resonance is met. It would have also considerably endangered a population already navigating the pernicious racist effects of the USA PATRIOT Act: surveillance, deportations, detentions, registrations, preemptive migrations and departures. Thus Al-Fatiha’s performance of a particular allegiance with American sexual exceptionalism is the result of a demand, not a suggestion. The proliferation of diverse U.S. subjects, such as the Muslim American and even the queer Muslim American, and their epistemological conditions of existence are mandates of homeland security, ones that produce and regulate homonationalism.

Given the unbridled homophobia (among other phobias) demonstrated by the U.S. guards, it is indeed ironic, yet predictable, that the United States nonetheless emerges as sexually exceptional: less homophobic and more tolerant of homosexuality (and less tainted by misogyny and fundamentalism) than the repressed, modest, nudityshy Middle East. Through feminist, queer, and even conservative reactions to the violence at Abu Ghraib, we have a clear view of the performative privileges of Foucault’s “speaker’s benefit”: an exemplar of sexual exceptionalism whereby those who are able to articulate sexual knowledge (especially of themselves) then appear to be freed, through the act of speech, from the space of repression. Foucault describes it thus: “There may be another reason that makes it so gratifying for us to define the relationship between sex and power in terms of repression: something that one might call the speaker’s benefit. If sex is repressed, that is, condemned to prohibition, nonexistence, and silence, then the mere fact that one is speaking about it has the appearance of a deliberate transgression.” As Sara Ahmed notes, this hierarchy between open (liberal democracy) and closed (fundamentalist) systems obscures “how the constitution of open cultures involves the projection of what is closed onto others, and hence the concealment of what is closed and contained ‘at home.’” Thus those who appear to have the speaker’s benefit not only reproduce, through a geopolitical mapping of homophobia and where it is most virulent (a mapping that mirrors open/closed, tolerant/repressed dichotomies), the hegemonic ideals of U.S. exceptionalism; the projection of homophobia onto other spaces enacts a clear disavowal of homophobia at “home.”

The focus on gay sex also preempts a serious dialogue about rape, both the rape of Iraqi male prisoners but also, more significantly, the rape of female Iraqi prisoners, the occurrence of which appears neither news- nor photograph-worthy. Indeed, there has been a complete underreporting of the rapes of Afghani and Iraqi women both inside and outside of detention centers. Major General Anthony Taguba’s report notes that among the eighteen hundred digital photos there are unreleased pictures of females being raped and women forced at gunpoint to bare their breasts, as well as videotape of female detainees forced to strip and rumors of impregnated rape victims. Why are there comparatively few photos of women, and why have they not been released? Is it because the administration found the photos of women even more appalling? Or has the wartime rape of women become so unspectacular, so endemic to military occupation as to render its impact moot? Or could these photos finally demolish the line of reasoning that the United States is liberating Muslim women, a fantasy so crucial to the tenets of American sexual exceptionalism? How, ultimately, do we begin to theorize the connections and disjunctures between male and female tortured bodies, and between masculinities and femininities?

Torture […] works not merely to disaggregate national from antinational sexualities—for those distinctions (the stateless monster-terrorist-fag) are already in play—but also, in accordance with nationalist fantasies, to reorder gender and, in the process, to corroborate implicit racial hierarchies. The force of feminizing lies not only in the stripping away of masculinity, the faggotizing of the male body, or in robbing the feminine of its symbolic and reproductive centrality to national-normative sexualities; it is the fortification of the unenforceable boundaries between masculine and feminine, the rescripting of multiple and fluid gender performatives into petrified sites of masculine and feminine, the regendering of multiple genders into the oppressive binary scripts of masculine and feminine, and the interplay of it all within and through racial, imperial, and economic matrices of power. This is the real force of the torture.

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