Review: Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times

Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times. Jasbir K. Puar. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007. Pp. ix + 222.

In Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times, Jasbir Puar examines the way acts of terrorism and the image of the terrorist have become entwined with the idea of homosexuality within the United States. The bulk of this analysis rests upon the examination of her archive, the “terrorist assemblage” that gives the book its title, and which Puar uses to demonstrate how terrorism is lived and represented in the United States. This archive consists mainly of the images and objects that have become symbols of terrorism, which she interprets as being connected to the Orientalist notion of the Arab man as a sexual Other who is always associated with terrorism. By focusing on the assemblages of the items with this archive, Puar creates a visual representation of the “ideas that converge, diverge, and merge” into the American perception of terrorism (xxii). Terrorist Assemblages analyzes “a form of sexual exceptionalism – the emergence of national homosexuality, which I term ‘homonationalism’ – that corresponds with the coming out of the exceptionalism of American empire” and results in large part to the recasting of Arab men into terrorist homosexuals (2).

Throughout Terrorist Assemblages, Puar creates “a story about various events that operate as both snapshots and flashpoints: of September 11, torture at Abu Ghraib, the decriminalization of sodomy in the United States, the spate of racial backlash crimes against Muslims and Sikhs, the detention and deportation of suspected terrorists, and the post-9/11 organizing” in order to “move a notion of becoming-time that allows for the force of the present … embracing the heteroglossia of public intellectual and intellectual activist modalities (xviii-xix). In the wake of these events, the homosexual community within the United States displayed a surge in patriotic activity, which Puar examines this “national sexuality” under the exploration of “homonationalism,” and seeks to explain how this reaction comes as a direct result of perceived homosexuality within the threatening form of the terrorist.

Puar focuses on the examination of individual images and objects that she relates to the common workings of the terrorist trope, which she pulls together into a titular “assemblage”. She argues that by looking at representations of terrorist figures, her audience can better understand “contemporary discourses of terrorism and counterterrorism” (13). Terrorist Assemblages holds that these images serve to shape the American perception of terrorism, associating terrorists with everyday objects that thus take on a more sinister meaning when encountered. One of the most prominent objects is that of the turban, which she discusses throughout the book and uses as the main symbol for her fourth chapter. Puar’s examination of the imagery associated with terrorism displays the disconnect between objects usually associated with Arabic culture and what they have come to represent, as an everyday accessory like the turban becomes marked as inherently belonging to terrorism through the paranoia it inspires in its audience.

Puar begins by casting American responses to terrorism as a fear of the perceived racial and sexual otherness of the terrorist. Her first chapter focuses on the idea that within the United States, terrorism has become associated with homosexuality, with the “sexuality of terrorism” becoming one of the major sources of affect connected to the issue (37). She holds that American society has become highly sensitive to this perceived “queer” sexuality and that feelings of revulsion once associated with homosexuality by the heterosexual majority have been redirected toward the terrorist body. Relatedly, the homosexual population has engaged in a “homonationalism” that leads formerly marginalized gays and lesbians to distance themselves from the terrorist image, as they seek to disassociate themselves from dissidence and maintain their own position in the social hierarchy. This terrorist queerness and the affective effects it provokes constitutes the driving force behind Puar’s analysis, giving her opportunity to explain how the affect surrounding the terrorist being derives from the “feminizing” of Arabic bodies and “the consequent insistence on mutually exclusive positions of masculine and feminine, that strips the tortured male body of its national-normative sexuality” (99).

Another major avenue of analysis for Puar is her examination of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal. She revisits the story and its implications, mostly in her second chapter, “Abu Ghraib and U.S. Sexual Exceptionalism”. In this section, she outlines the events leading up to and immediately after the scandal, focusing on how the sexual acts that the prisoners were forced to endure were circulated as the major imagery of the event. The United States media chose to focus on these images, emphasizing their sexual nature and largely failing to comment on the coercive nature of the prisoner abuse, instead highlighting the homosexual undertones. Thus, “the Muslim body [is] constructed as pathologically sexually deviant and as potentially homosexual” and “the torture performs an initiation into or confirmation of what is already suspected of the body” (87).

Puar takes particular interest in the fact that acknowledging that these acts could be seen as torture to their prisoners paints a far different picture of the guards who participated. She emphasizes the fact that a number of academics pointed out that this forced homosexual contact might be seen as socially unacceptable to the Middle Eastern prisoners, and that by forcing them to engage in such acts the guards implicitly supported this idea that “sexual torture and humiliation rather than extreme pain” is “the worst form of torture” (97). The book underscores how this attitude toward what is described as a specifically Arab aversion toward homosexuality in fact reflects continuing American discrimination against and discomfort with queerness. As they allow the events to continue, the guards who contributed to the torture and the American audience who learned about it from the media participated in a type of homophobia. One of Puar’s goals here seems to be to call into question the sense of being “less homophobic and more tolerant of homosexuality (and less tainted by misogyny and fundamentalism) than the repressed, modest, nudity-shy Middle East,” showing that despite recent social progress, discrimination against the queer population continues, although under the assumption of exceptional American tolerance (94).

In this direction, Puar compares the events in Abu Ghraib to those surrounding the Lawrence Case, which legalized sodomy in the United States, but emphasized racialized readings of sexuality, due to the “race of Garner and the sodomitic miscegenation … implicated in the false disturbance call and the arrest” (121). By juxtaposing the two events, she emphasizes the racial elements that operated in both instances, showing how homosexuality is generally associated with middle-class white men and the racial Other is largely ignored or portrayed as a terrorist. Puar makes a point of exploring this notion, as she questions the gendering and racialization of both queerness and terrorism throughout the text, using this final chapter and the Lawrence case to emphasize “sodomy must not only be disavowed with totality be heterosexuality in order to maintain its distance from homosexuality; it must be displaced from whiteness in order to retain its demonizing capacity to perversely racialize bodies (140). She also uses this pairing to further explain the meaning of sexual exceptionalism in the heteronormative community of the United States. Puar points out that just as people used their own disgust at the treatment of Abu Ghraib prisoners to feel better about their own sexual tolerance, reactions to the Lawrence case cemented the idea that the Lawrence decision showed the United States had overcome homophobia and discrimination against American queers.

Terrorist Assemblages offers an explanation of the American affective response to terrorism in the wake of the Abu Ghraib prisoner scandal. While Puar’s assemblage at times seems somewhat esoteric, provoking questions about why some of her items were included, the “terrorist assemblages” she ultimately fleshes out allow for a better understanding of how the image of the terrorist has been constructed in the American psyche and how the affect surround that image interacted with perceptions of queerness and terrorism within the United States. By emphasizing the homonationalism that occurred in the wake of Abu Ghraib and the perceived association between terrorism and homosexuality, Puar’s analysis helps to explain American patriotism within the queer community in the wake of terrorism, as gays and lesbians try to distance themselves from the perceived threat and assimilate with the heteronormative population through displays of nationalist devotion. At the same time, the rejection of terrorist sexuality allows the United States as a whole to avow its sexual exceptionalism, reinforcing the sense of nationalistic superiority at American acceptance of the queer community. These reactions combine to show the affective power of the terrorist Other.

Stephanie Derochers