Insurgent Aesthetics

Security and the Queer Life of the Forever War

Insurgent Aesthetics

Art History Publication Initiative

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Book Pages: 352 Illustrations: 93 illustrations, incl. 26 color Published: October 2019

Art and Visual Culture, Critical Ethnic Studies, Gender and Sexuality > LGBTQ Studies

In Insurgent Aesthetics Ronak K. Kapadia theorizes the world-making power of contemporary art responses to US militarism in the Greater Middle East. He traces how new forms of remote killing, torture, confinement, and surveillance have created a distinctive post-9/11 infrastructure of racialized state violence. Linking these new forms of violence to the history of American imperialism and conquest, Kapadia shows how Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic multimedia artists force a reckoning with the US war on terror's violent destruction and its impacts on immigrant and refugee communities. Drawing on an eclectic range of visual, installation, and performance works, Kapadia reveals queer feminist decolonial critiques of the US security state that visualize subjugated histories of US militarism and make palpable what he terms “the sensorial life of empire.” In this way, these artists forge new aesthetic and social alliances that sustain critical opposition to the global war machine and create alternative ways of knowing and feeling beyond the forever war.


“At its core, Insurgent Aesthetics reminds us that war and security are—despite the modern ideologies that would declare otherwise—fundamentally racialized social practices that seek to manage their violence in everyday life through controlling what can be felt and known. By looking at the ways diasporic communities interfere with sovereign and statist logics that conserve the knowledge of loss for the national community alone, this exquisitely written book powerfully argues for the insurgent abilities of culture to interrupt, deform, and repopulate our felt and known worlds in ways that force a reckoning and connection with the racialized death and detritus that US security at once creates and tries to disappear.” — Chandan Reddy, author of Freedom with Violence: Race, Sexuality, and the U.S. State

“With its sharp interrogation of US warfare, settler colonialism, and racial capitalism, Insurgent Aesthetics introduces ‘queer calculus’ as an analytic that focuses on the racial violences of US empire and its forever war. By attending to the sensuous, and to the creative praxis and interventions of Arab, Muslim, and South Asian diasporic artists, Insurgent Aesthetics is a powerful, queer feminist study of life under US empire. Importantly, Ronak K. Kapadia demonstrates how insurgent strategies of solidarity and rebellion can trouble empire's methodologies and move us toward freedom.” — Simone Browne, author of Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness

“ Insurgent Aesthetics is a theoretically-rich piece of cultural studies. … The book o?ers a powerful reading of art inspired by, and produced during, the post-9/11 era of US military aggression and colonization.” — Brian Donovan, Ethnic and Racial Studies

“There is much to be learned from Kapadia, whose ambitious monograph traffics between a profound appreciation for the ramifications of US imperialism, an eye for congruencies between divergent strains of comparative ethnic studies, and an enthusiasm for the critical talents of minoritarian cultural production.” — Eric Vazquez, Lateral

"Fascinating and innovative.... Kapadia’s book is beautifully constructed not only intellectually in the breadth and depth of its analyses but also physically: it is richly illustrated with many of the artistic works that he discusses, a number in full-colour plates.... What is perhaps most important about the book is its insistence that art does not only offer critical perspectives on surveillance and securitization but also brings out the extent to which surveillance practices are themselves inextricably grounded in visual and aesthetic practices." — Robert Heynen, Surveillance & Society

"Insurgent Aesthetics’s argument about the violence of visuality and the capacity of artists to rethink the aesthetics of warfare track through the entire book; however, each chapter and all the art objects feel fresh and different from the previous. The arguments are sustained also by the inclusion of many colour images from each artist discussed. The book belongs in visual, art, media and performance studies classrooms, as much as in social science contexts studying globalisation, war and imperialism." — Kareem Khubchandani, Bioscope

"Insurgent Aesthetics is a dazzling contribution to a number of fields. . . . It is a model of scholarly composition, depth and breadth, grace and nuance. It would also be a welcome model for students and scholars across the humanities for its organization, style, substance, analysis, and beauty. But more importantly, Kapadia’s queer calculus is a methodology that can help ensure we don’t become numb from the gas that now governs so much of the world and shows us that our tears may lead to some, new unknown place of collective freedom for all." — Stephen Dillon, Cultural Studies

“This work by Ronak Kapadia anatomizes contemporary installation, performance, and visual art created by Middle Eastern and South Asian diaspora artists in response to the ‘War on Terror.’ Kapadia presents a feminist analysis of the American security state’s detached methods of warfare—through surveillance, confinement, remote killing, and torture. Through a concentrated effort to reproduce the conflict’s sensory experience, these artists characterize the United States’ domestic and foreign policies as manifestations of desensitized, racialized, and gendered violence through technology.” — Yoseph Hamid, Middle East Journal

“Kapadia’s Insurgent Aesthetics takes the resistance to the weaponized gaze as its point of departure by centering the insurgent art of Arab, Middle Eastern, and South Asian diasporic artists. Kapadia examines a wide range of artistic forms, including visual and sound installation, performance art, video, new media, photography, and painting, to demonstrate how artists recast their relationship to the weaponized imperial gaze of the forever war, the US-led war on terror that has continued in various permutations since September 11, 2001…. [It] offer[s] scholars of American studies a theoretical and methodological approach to the visual culture of war that transcends disciplinary strictures of both the humanities and social sciences on which [Kapadia] draw[s].” — Elspeth Iralu, American Quarterly

“Kapadia has done profound justice to the cultural workers that he features—and his book is a welcome contribution to knowledge production and a living example of what true intersectional scholarship looks like.... Insurgent Aesthetics is itself aesthetically breathtakingly beautiful as a text—and insurgent.” — Sa'ed Atshan, Arab Studies Quarterly


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ronak K. Kapadia is Associate Professor of Gender and Women's Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction. Sensuous Affiliations: Security, Terror, and the Queer Calculus of the Forever War  1
1. Up in the Air: US Aerial Power and the Visual Life of Empire in the Drone Age  44
2. On the Skin: Drone Warfare, Collateral Damage, and the Human Terrain  76
3. Empire's Innards: Conjuring "Warm Data" in the Archives of US Global Military Detention  103
4. Palestine(s) in the Sky: Visionary Aesthetics and Queer Cosmic Utopias from the Frontiers of US Empire  151
Epilogue. Scaling Empire: Insurgent Aesthetics n the Wilds of Imperial Decline  187
Notes  203
Bibliography  271
Index  321
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Winner of the 2020 Surveillance Studies Network Book Award

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