Ronak K. Kapadia, Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War (Duke University Press, 2019, Series: Art History Publication Initiative).*

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Ronak K. Kapadia (RK): Insurgent Aesthetics is about the interface between contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic visual art and aesthetics and US global warfare in the Greater Middle East. At a time when the global catastrophes of fascism, neoliberal austerity, carceral governance, and endless warfare continue to proliferate and engender gendered, racialized worlds of untold anguish for those rendered suspect within this imperial world order, I wanted to explore what creative strategies contemporary artists have employed in service of insurgent struggles to end forever wars and imagine otherwise.

My book is animated by a supreme dissatisfaction with the dominant discourses of twenty-first century national security and the booming cottage industry of “terrorism studies” that has so impoverished our political imaginations in the wake of unending wartime violence. Indeed, there is so much overlapping dread and despair today that it often feels like these affective conditions have crowded out or evaporated any semblance of joy, renewal, resistance, beauty, or alternatives.

I sought to write a book that could intervene into this dystopian here and now by spotlighting the radical experiments, sensuous knowledges, and world-making visions of contemporary minoritarian artists and cultural workers responding to the state of forever war. Turning to the more expansive world-making knowledge practices of contemporary artists—what I call insurgent aesthetics—inaugurates new ways of understanding the politics of security and freedom from the perspective of those most dispossessed by US war-making and their diasporic kin. Armed further with a critical appreciation of the queer utopian function of art, Insurgent Aesthetics reveals how diasporic expressive cultures have made available new ways of knowing, sensing, and feeling that were once thought to be unintelligible or unimaginable. An analysis of insurgent aesthetics offers a politics of refreshment—an opening to think antiracist, anti-imperialist queer feminist politics anew.

As an interdisciplinary scholar trained in transnational American studies, I also wanted to write a book about contemporary US empire in the Greater Middle East that could address both the multiple scales and transformations of late modern wars, while equally imagining outside, beyond, and below its stranglehold and forms of imperial dominion, when global warfare finally misses its mark. So much of the popular and scholarly criticism of US militarism attunes so closely to the dominant strategies and technologies of national security that such work often has the unintended effect of making the state’s frameworks and institutions seem monolithic and omniscient, even as that work seeks to critique war and empire. My book plots another, more arresting approach, by tracing how this global world order is, in fact, already fleeting, fragile, and always failing. As I describe throughout, felicitous cracks have appeared in the surface of the US forever war’s architecture that are being exploited by forms of fugitivity, refusal, and rebellion and that can be gleaned further in the critical works of art under investigation in my book.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

RK: Insurgent Aesthetics theorizes the queer world-making potential of contemporary art and aesthetics in the ongoing context of US war and empire in the Greater Middle East, with an explicit focus on the post-Cold War expansion of US security governance in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine. The book analyzes how global militarized security practices have affected immigrants and refugees in the United States, and how transnational visual artists, in turn, have exposed and contested the violence of US planetary warfare through their solo and collaborative artmaking.

The book specifically traces how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists in the United States and Europe have grappled in their works with the US national security state’s use of gendered racial violence—including targeted killings (via drones), imperial confinement (through military detention), and overt settler colonial infrastructures (via the client state of Israel and its occupation of Palestine).

While this book focuses on the historical present, it offers a queer poetics of relationality to understand violent settler colonial histories of settlement, land theft, Native genocide, African chattel slavery, and Asian exploitation as wholly vital to not only what Lisa Lowe vividly names the “intimacies of four continents,” but also the genealogy of the contemporary forever war. As Insurgent Aesthetics depicts, these braided histories of violence and their material afterlives are imprinted onto the DNA of the forever war and in the very practices of state violence that the artists in my book interrogate so evocatively in their creative works.

The book illuminates how the forever war is not only a historical period describing a series of geopolitical and military conflicts, but also an ongoing archival project, structure of feeling, and production of knowledge for interpreting and acting on the geopolitical alignments of the United States in the broader “post”–Cold War era. The “forever” of “forever war” thus calls up a fantasy sense of temporal perpetuity in wartime’s violence that likewise mimics the uninterrupted and limitless spree of US global war-making across the long twentieth century. By “insurgency,” I thus summon the long history of subterranean and fugitive consciousness of insurgent struggle, or what Ruth Wilson Gilmore refers to as “infrastructures of feeling” against the forces of empire, gendered racism, and capital. This fugitive consciousness of insurgent struggle is key to making visible, so as to undermine, the forever war. In the process, the book makes three principal arguments.

First, by linking its investigation to a long history of US war, empire, and counterinsurgency, the book argues that new forms of remote killing, torture, confinement, surveillance, and lawfare have created a distinctive post-9/11 infrastructure of racialized state violence both within and beyond US borders.

Second, the book makes the case that contemporary art is a site of social critique that disrupts conventional myths and ideas about the United States and its national security apparatus. My formal analyses of visual and performance art examine how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists living in the heart of empire have made palpable the unseen and forgotten dimensions of secrecy and terror that define the US security state.

Third, the book argues that the forever war is an assault on the human sensorium for citizens, subjects, survivors, and refugees of US empire. Its study of contemporary artworks illustrates the centrality of the body and the human sensorium to both war-making and subjugated knowledge about the global war on terror. By foregrounding a queer feminist decolonial critique of neoliberal security and warfare, the book depicts what is absented and ghosted by US technologies of abstraction and state knowledge. These artists force a reckoning with the intimate, redacted, and ghostly dimensions of forever wars—what I call the sensorial life of empire.

In short, Insurgent Aesthetics investigates how contemporary artists challenge violent histories of US militarism and create alternative ways of knowing, feeling, and sensing beyond permanent warfare. As the product of transnational queer feminist cultural studies, the book ultimately contends that critical analysis of insurgent art and culture can excavate subjugated forms of knowledge about the United States and its forever wars, a vital resource for policy, activism, and social transformation.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

RK: Insurgent Aesthetics is the culmination of over a decade of interdisciplinary research and writing on the politics of national security and the ongoing US wars on terror through the realm of art and culture. Going forward, I am pursuing broader creative outlets for the dissemination of this research, including a number of curatorial and art activist collaborations. One of my core claims in the book is that the creative forms of activism and cultural production that emerge in response to contemporary state projects of security, warfare, and confinement enable new practices and publics.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

RK: My hope is that the book will resonate in multiple overlapping intellectual and political spaces, including scholars who work in academic fields of critical ethnic and Arab/Asian/American studies, queer and feminist studies, art and visual culture, as well as critics in security/lawfare/militarism studies, area studies of South Asia and the Middle East, geography, sociology, and so on.

Outside of academia, I hope the book might serve as a resource and inspiration for contemporary artists and interdisciplinary cultural practitioners of all stripes, including archivists, curators, lawyers, and activists working to dismantle the domestic and global dimensions of US carceral and imperial power. Moreover, I would like the book to connect with queer feminist anti-imperialists searching for kernels of political possibility in the transnational archives of multimedia art-making assembled here.

Throughout, I hope the book helps to accentuate the centrality of queer feminist criticism to historical and contemporary studies of US race, war, and empire, while further articulating the value of contemporary minoritarian art and aesthetics to radical freedom dreaming.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

RK: While Insurgent Aesthetics traces critical responses to the state of emergency produced by fears of national security and the United States’ aggressive policing and surveillance apparatus, my second book extends these questions on aesthetics and warfare to consider the state of emergence among a new generation of social justice activists and queer and trans migrant artists of color. Provisionally titled Breathing in the Brown Queer Commons: Reimagining Collective Survival and Healing Justice in the Wilds of Imperial Decline, this new book studies the expressive cultures of contemporary social justice movements and visual strategies of resistance against the militarization of urban police violence and the domestic war on terror across North America.

I am researching how queer and trans Black, Indigenous, People of Color (QTBIPOC) communities have created new models of transformative/healing justice praxis and radical speculation across transnational sites of militarized security and urban warfare. The project is inspired by the concept of “care work” in race-radical and Indigenous feminisms, Black and Palestinian liberation struggles, and disability justice movements, which have long tracked the differential dispensation of care, healing, and survival in communities grappling with legacies of slavery, genocide, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism. In the process, I am exploring what culturally grounded systems of care, support, and wellness within QTBIPOC communities can teach us more broadly about embodied vulnerabilities and the intimacies of racialized and gendered bodies, especially at a time of immense ecological peril and political-economic-cultural transformation in the projected afterlives of US imperialism. So, in a nutshell, this new book is about tracing how people plan to breathe more life into contemporary freedom struggles amidst the wilds of twenty-first century imperial decline.


Excerpt from the book 

From the introduction: “Sensuous Affiliations: Security, Terror, and the Queer Calculus of the Forever War”

Insurgent Aesthetics is about the creativity and fugitive beauty that emanate from the shadows of terrible violence incited by forever war. Of freedom dreams flecked by inscriptions of wartime’s death and dispossession. The forever war is an assault on the human sensorium for citizens, subjects, survivors, and refugees of US empire alike. A time of ever more state security and imperial violence, the historical present necessitates more sensuous ways of knowing and feeling that challenge the militarized imperatives of the state and exceed the visual register alone. The global circulation of images of violence and social suffering has also intensified in our public culture over the past three decades. As a privileged regime of power, the field of vision is central to the manufacture and global supremacy of US war-making regimes and to the violent regulation of racialized, gendered, and sexualized bodies under the conditions of state security and surveillance. Given the US state’s will toward quantified abstraction in counting, without ever being accountable to, those killed, diseased, displaced, traumatized, and/or maimed in its armed conflicts, how might we divine other, more sensuous and affective ways of knowing this forever war and its inhuman violences? This book asserts that we must demand a stranger calculus—what I term a queer calculus—that unsettles prevailing interpretations of the forever war, makes sensuous what has been ghosted by US technologies of abstraction, and endows the designs for seemingly impossible futures amid infinite aggression. A queer calculus of the forever war advances an account of both dominant knowledge apparatuses and data logics of the US security state as well as alternative logics, affects, emotions, and affiliations of diasporic subjects living and laboring in the heart of empire. One such embodied queer calculus can be found in the corpus of aesthetic forms created by contemporary diasporic artists from South Asia and the Greater Middle East. These imaginative works of art reassemble vision with the disqualified knowledges, histories, geographies, and memories preserved by the “lower” senses of empire’s gendered, racialized Others to fashion an insurgency against empire’s built sensorium. In so doing, these insurgent aesthetics craft a queer calculus of US empire that makes intimate what is rendered distant, renders tactile what is made invisible, and unifies what is divided, thereby conjuring forms of embodied critique that can envision a collective world within and beyond the spaces of US empire’s perverse logics of global carcerality, security, and war.

This book engages a wide range of critical interdisciplinary paradigms to reveal the radical experiments, aesthetic strategies, and freedom dreams of contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists. I argue that these works comprise a transnational constellation of visual art and aesthetics that together have animated new ways to think, feel, sense, and map the world amid US global state violence and its forever wars across the so-called Muslim world. Specifically, the book surveys the broader post–Cold War expansion of US militarism in the Greater Middle East (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine) and the domestic regimes of surveillance and repression in the US and other militarized sites mapped onto a transnational jihadist network. It contends that new and flexible forms of remote killing, torture, confinement, surveillance, and lawfare have built a distinctive post-9/11 infrastructure of gendered, racialized state violence both within and beyond US borders, which in turn marks the ongoing present as a distinct age within the longue durée of US settler colonial society. I explore this complex terrain through a contrapuntal queer feminist analysis of contemporary Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic visual cultures and their criticalintersections with the contemporary logics and tactics of global warfare. Although many scholars have studied the impact of liberal empires and late modern warfare in the Greater Middle East, including the militarized and racialized vision of US imperialism at its core, insufficient attention has been paid to how the state’s dominant necropolitical calculus of neoliberal security and warfare has been thwarted and reimagined. By contrast, this book foregrounds the conceptual works of contemporary artists from South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporas, whose insurgent aesthetic acts refashion ascendant ways of knowing and feeling the forever war.

My chief premise in this book is that if we want to apprehend (so as to ultimately arrest) contemporary transnational security politics and carceral practices, especially the prevailing biopolitical regimes of surveillance, imprisonment, and killing perfected at the domestic and international fronts of the forever war, then we need an alternate approach to the maps of strategic thinkers and security analysts who have been telling us how we should look, think, and feel about the world and its violences. By privileging a wide range of diasporic cultural forms—namely, visual and sound installation, performance, painting, photography, new media, and video—as a generative site for critiquing American war and empire, this book illuminates what I term insurgent aesthetics, an alternative articulation of minoritarian knowledge produced by those populations and their diasporic kin most devastated by the effects of the homeland security state and its forever wars. This book illustrates how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists in the US and Europe, including Mahwish Chishty, Wafaa Bilal, Naeem Mohaiemen/Visible Collective, Rajkamal Kahlon, Index of the Disappeared, Mariam Ghani, and Larissa Sansour, have grappled in their work with the neoliberal state of exception and the national security state’s use of gendered racial violence. Insurgent Aesthetics documents the impact of present-day militarized security practices and historical legacies of imperial violence on diasporic, (im)migrant, and refugee communities in the US who have been besieged both by domestic wars on terror, crime, drugs, and immigration as well as military and foreign policies directed at their homelands. These artists, in turn, have produced sensuous affiliations and political imaginaries that critique the simultaneous proliferation of gendered racism, neoliberal capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and Islamophobia in the post-9/11 period. These concepts represent intersectional systems of power and violence that fuel the ideological engines that legitimate the homeland security state’s use of global prisons, confinement technologies, overt killing, and permanent warfare as inevitable features of a political economy that seeks to “solve” our multifarious contemporary crises. In this context, what role can expressive culture and aesthetics play in struggles over hegemony of the contemporary neoliberal carceral, security, and warfare state? This book answers this question by centering the expansive world-making knowledge practices of diasporic visual and multimedia artists who hail from societies besieged by war but live and labor in the heart of empire. In short, the book investigates how South Asian and Middle Eastern diasporic artists challenge violent histories of US militarism, sustain critical opposition to the global war machine through the realms of art and culture, and create alternative systems of knowing, feeling, and living with and beyond forever warfare.


In the midst of enduring bloodshed in Afghanistan and Iraq; population displacements and drone attacks in Pakistan, Somalia, Libya, Niger, Syria, and Yemen; the drumbeat of war against Iran and North Korea; the deepening occupation of Palestine; the normalization of intensified disciplinary tactics against racialized immigrant and nonimmigrant peoples of color in the US; and the complex unfolding of imaginative geographies of liberation and freedom in the US, the Greater Middle East, and around the world today, a queer feminist fugitive relation to these violent archives advances urgently needed genealogies of the forever war and its affective afterlives. The prevailing logics of state security in discourses of terrorism, militarism, and war have impoverished our political imaginations. Insurgent Aesthetics reveals how diasporic art and expressive culture can make available new ways of knowing, sensing, and feeling that were once thought to be unintelligible or unimaginable. An analysis of insurgent aesthetics offers a moment of refreshment—an opportunity to think antiracist, anti-imperialist queer feminist politics anew. It lets us move beyond the state’s supreme calculus of security and carcerality to propose urgently needed alternatives to US empire. A queer calculus of the forever war designs sensuous affiliations and freedom dreams as expansive as the Pentagon’s fever dreams of everlasting warfare but without the violence of their vision.

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