Ronak K. Kapadia

Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War

Duke University Press, 2019

352 pages


Reviewed by Molly Roy

Ronak K. Kapadia’s Insurgent Aesthetics: Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War attends to the sensorial landscape activated by drone warfare, and the forever war more broadly, through the work of diasporic artists from South Asia and the Greater Middle East. While focused to a large extent on the post-9/11 period, Kapadia’s conceptual assertion of the forever war reaches back to the post-Cold War era and accounts for not only military acts, “but also an ongoing archival project, structure of feeling, and production of knowledge for interpreting and acting on the geopolitical alignments of the US.” He charts spatial and temporal contours of warfare and the campaigns for global supremacy, as well as the ruptures and provocations of artist-activists, drawing on a range of interdisciplinary scholarship. With incisive and elegant prose, Kapadia argues that the forever war is intimately embodied and affective, countering official, state-sanctioned renderings of distance and decorporealized data. His queer, feminist, decolonial analysis uplifts the interventions of diasporic artists, theorizing their work not only as reacting to geopolitical events but also as producing cultural meaning and advancing an ongoing project of imaginative, liberatory world-making.

Throughout the book, Kapadia builds his arguments around two primary analytics—queer calculus and the titular idea of insurgent aesthetics. His queer calculus “makes sensuous what has been ghosted by US technologies of abstraction,” offering a lens to parse the affects and textures of the forever war, troubling its dominant logics. Working through the queer calculus, insurgent aesthetics encompass “an alternative articulation of minoritarian knowledge,” centering those “most devastated by the effects of the homeland security state and its forever wars.” Rooted in queer theory, Kapadia’s methodology engages close readings of artistic works, many of which are shared and enlivened by striking full-color plates.

In Chapter One, Kapadia situates the reader and contextualizes his analysis through a “genealogical historical method,” recognizing the forever war as inextricably bound to centuries of settler colonialism and the structural intricacies of empire. He tracks counterinsurgency in the US, South Asia, and the Middle East from the Cold War to the present, charting the continuation of Cold War legacies. Outlined here and underscored across the text are the links between global warfare and domestic institutions of racial carceral violence, the militarization of domestic policing, and the creation and enforcement of immigration policies. He examines the so-called ‘cultural turn’ in the armed forces through the Human Terrain System, which deployed academics and social scientists to serve as cultural liaisons, aiming to leverage culture as military tactic. Kapadia’s analysis of drone warfare focuses on visual framing, the work done by and through an aerial view, and the embodied impacts for those in targeted regions. Particularly impactful is the double-tap phenomenon, which refers to multiple drone strikes on one place in succession, a protocol that not only challenges the rhetoric of precision, but critically discourages rendering aid, and “effectively freezes the basic function and organization of collective social life in drone-targeted regions.” He asks what forms of insurgent coalition and community emerge from this project of dehumanization and argues for an aesthetics that works outside the visual frame.

Each of the remaining three chapters revolve around specific artists and the contributions of their work. Chapter Two centers around Iraqi performance artist Wafaa Bilal, who has become a popular subject in recent years within the burgeoning field of surveillance art. Bilal’s projects, including 3rdi (2010-2011), Domestic Tension (2007), and …And Counting (2010), register on a visceral level, as he uses his own body in extreme ways to evidence the bodies implicated in regimes of power, critiquing, for example, the operations of drone warfare and the metrics of body counts and collateral damage. Kapadia engages queer, feminist performance studies discourse on body manipulation and masochism in reading Bilal’s work, considering what tactile knowledge does to visual frames of war and the inadequacy of quantitative data in capturing loss and life. He concludes the chapter with a series of drawings and paintings by elin o’Hara slavick, titled Protesting Cartography or Places the United States has Bombed (1998-2005), to enunciate affective counter geographies amidst uncontained, transnational violence.

In Chapter Three, Kapadia locates his argument within detention centers, secret prisons, and ‘black sites’ across the globe, through the work of two multi-ethnic collaborative groups from New York City, Visible Collective and Index of the Disappeared, and solo installations by Indian-American, Berlin-based artist Rajkamal Kahlon. The author positions himself most noticeably in this chapter, in relation to these artists within the extended, networked community of makers and organizers in NYC. He notes the complex layers of privilege surrounding these diasporic artists, relative to the subjects of their artwork, as they live and create within urban bastions of empire, rather than drone-targeted regions and conflict zones. Kapadia shapes his analysis in this chapter around the concept of “warm data,” a term borrowed from artist Miriam Ghani of Index of the Disappeared and described as “a conceptual art strategy and feminist methodology to conjure the violent absences and haunted abjections in carceral archives of US military detention.” The Index of the Disappeared’s Warm Database (2004-Present); Visible Collective’s Disappeared in America (2004-2010); and Kahlon’s Did You Kiss the Dead Body (2009-2012) each explore alternative ways of knowing and relating to calculations of disappearance, cold facts, and redactions in official documents, generating counter-archives of affect and the warmth of corporeal intimacy.

Chapter Four takes up the work of London-based, Palestinian multimedia artist Larissa Sansour, considering the security state and settler colonialism through US ties to Israel and the occupation of Palestine. Drawing upon queer, utopic feminist theorizations, as well as Indigenous and Black studies, critical geography and security studies, Kapadia addresses the US/Western focus that can permeate queer theory and its claims to universality, as he suggests a queering of Palestine and a conceptualization of Palestinian futures and Arabfuturism. He discusses Sansour’s work within the literary framework of visionary fiction, in its call to reinterpret Palestinian dispossession and expand realms of possibility and in alignment with organized movements for social justice. His reading of Nation Estate (2012) is particularly resonant, applying an analytic of vertical geography to consider Palestinian world-making and the logics of Israeli spatial control.

Reflecting on the events coincident with its publication, the Epilogue speaks to the myriad assaults of the Trump administration on marginalized and vulnerable populations, which Kapadia cites as signals of US imperial decline. Highlighting protests and activist projects, he argues toward a praxis of imagining worlds otherwise with reflexive consideration of our own relationship to the structures of the US security agenda. Overall, Kapadia’s analytic frames of insurgent aesthetics and queer calculus, articulated through deep and prismatic theorization, have the potential to be meaningfully applied across a range of contexts, projects, and disciplines. Amidst a shifting political landscape, the deep trenches of the forever war will have to be contended with long into an uncertain future. Kapadia’s work asks us to connect to embodied, sensorial forms of knowing and a more nuanced encounter with the aesthetic frames of the forever war.