Thursday, 12 April 2018

Technology in Jasbir Puar's Right to Maim

(Edited from remarks delivered in a lecture discussion on 10 April 2018.)

The grip of technology is all around us. The word “technology” has come to mean (according to the OED) “The application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes, especially in industry.” The root word “tekne” brings us more to the idea of art or craft. There is an idea of making, of how to make. In Right to Maim, Jasbir Puar explores the application of technology—technology’s uses for better, technology’s uses for “It Gets Better.” We want everything “bigger, better, faster,” as the old entrepreneurial expression goes. But technology is more insidious than that. Technology at the level of the everyday, of the human, can enable what Puar refers to as “slow death”—this “mode of neoliberal and affective capacitation or debilitation.” “Technology,” she says, “acts both as a machine of debility and capacity and as portals of affective openings and closures” (2). In this way, for Puar, technology seems to define what can alter the body, whether through medical procedure or mere use. “The distinctions or parameters between disabled and non-disabled bodies shift…scientifically, as prosthetic technologies of capacity, from wheelchairs to cell phones to dna testing to steroids, script and rescript what a body can, could, or should do” (xiv-xv). This computer I’m writing on becomes an extension of my bodily capacity (and/or debility), just as the computer or phone or tablet you’re reading on does yours. These terms capacity and debility work not necessarily against each other, as opposites; rather, Puar stages them as intertwined states of being which are in turn modulated by these concepts of technology and slow death. In her engagement of technology, she outright refuses what she calls “straightforward political cants”—I’m seeing the horse running off into the sunset at the end of a western—“straightforward political cants of a rational public sphere.” Here, she points to what might parallel a certain understanding of how nonsense works or can work; I’m thinking, too, about her explication of a temporality that is expressly non-chronological—a sort of nonsense time.

One of our main themes we’re discussing is this idea of holding multiple sensations, so I just wanted to look at a technological instance in the text. In the introduction, Puar is talking about the suicide of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. On p. 4, she introduces this concept of lifelogging—the main activity of social media, right? We have to tell each other what we’re up to, how we’re feeling, etc. There is a struggle between the public and the private; these are my private thoughts, and in the privacy of my own home, I can post them to social media. That makes my private thoughts public in a way that might not necessarily make me feel like I am ceding my privacy. In this way, according to Puar on p. 5, social media creates “simultaneous sensations of exposure (the whole world is watching) and alienation (no one understands).” The sensations of exposure and alienation are held at the same time. She goes on to describe this use of social media as an extension of one’s self or body as “cyborgian,” and, as we see in Clementi’s case, the effects of social media use leads ultimately to an effect on the body. We are changed by technology use at the level of the quotidian, having noticeable effects on the affective tendencies of bodies. We are constantly forced to identify ourselves on social media—whether we choose to be truthful or not, the act of self-identification alters us further. Social media becomes a way of practicing different identities, trying things out, using the response of other social media users to judge ourselves. What Puar calls “lifelogging” becomes (or has become) an intrinsic piece of how we become who we are.

These systems created between the body and technology are described by Puar as “action-at-a-distance technologies.” Clementi’s privacy was intruded upon in the cyber-peeping on his sexual activity, through a distance of cable and electronics; Clementi announces his intention to kill himself via the same technology. Puar argues that this is a form of touching, a new form, perhaps. The touching happens because the body is extended through this action-at-a-distance technology. It is as though Ravi and Wei were looking through Clementi’s window, hands on the glass on which Clementi would later write his note. There is a folding of space and time, as Fred Moten might suggest.

This idea that technology hails the era of the posthuman might be accurate, as more and more we tether ourselves to technology and become more “cyborgian.” But Puar also points out the critique of posthumanism as still existing in the realm of a colonial mindset, where, quoting Weheliye, the posthuman “frequently appears as little more than the white liberal subject in techno-informational guise” (30). And of course, there is Wynter’s assessment that we have yet to approach anything like a radical humanism at all (29). There may be much to gain from thinking in a posthumanist mindset, but much still has to be done to revise what is thought of as human first. As technology improves to further extend our bodies and our lives, we are faced with the prospect that none of us really can fit the mold of complete ability; the body singularly exists in a state of unachieved potential. As Puar says on p. 15, “there is no such thing as an ‘adequately abled’ body anymore.”

The push for individuals to make and remake their own bodies necessitates, as Puar notes on p. 50, the making and remaking of the larger bodily assemblages that allow the individual bodies to exist. She calls for a “formulation…of new somatechnologies” which refuse neoliberal configurations of “body” and “society.” The real trouble is how to upend a system upon which one relies—a problem Puar states on p. 35 in regards to how trans bodies rely on the “medical-industrial complex” which simultaneously brings them life and death.

Work Cited
Puar, Jasbir K. The Right to Maim: Disability, Capacity, Debility. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017.