Public Thinker: A. Naomi Paik on a Future without Rights

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
What is specific to or even unique about the condition of “rightlessness,” to the ...
A. Naomi Paik

Dr. A. Naomi Paik, in her book Rightlessness, brings us into confrontation with a number of vexing and dynamic analytical questions: What is specific to or even unique about the condition of “rightlessness,” to the extent that it is related to—but unnervingly distinct from—the juridical regimes that exclude certain peoples from access to citizenship? How might we understand rightlessness as a condition of existence and historicity, distinguished from a lack or absence of legal entitlement or existence (which should, presumptively, already be possessed)? Is rightlessness always or necessarily in a dialectical relation to rights or human rights?

I understand “rightlessness” to be something that is constituted as a condition of subjection to the foundational violence of “citizenship” and the modern human being (or humanity). In other words, rightlessness isn’t just an absence or a negation, but a production of delimited and endangered (non-)subjectivity. Does the constitution of rightlessness already anticipate a break or decisive rupture from the political realm of the citizen and the rights-bearing, human, historical subject?

The historically grounded, though firmly interdisciplinary, methodology of Rightlessness allows for a difficult and vital reading. The book discusses those targeted by the US government—Japanese Americans interned during World War II, HIV-positive Haitian refugees detained at Guantánamo in the early 1990s, and Guantánamo’s so-called enemy combatants from the War on Terror—and how they resisted. Dr. Paik pushes us to consider how the narrative strategy of the testimonials seeking redress from the government demonstrates the limits of representation—or the impossibility of “narrative”—in particular sites of “internment” and capture. In this sense, the book decenters conventional positivist knowledge. It opens new ways for us to read and account for knowledge that departs from traditional epistemologies and writing practices.

In so doing, Dr. Paik’s book facilitates a contextualized rethinking of the theoretical and historical technologies of racism. Her work points to the possibility that detention camps and other carceral sites of “rightlessness” may form primary institutional links between the nationalist logic of US global dominance and a larger racial social determination, in which the meanings of “race” are created, re-formed, fabricated, invented at the sites of capture.

Dylan Rodriguez (DR): I’m really excited to talk to you about your book Rightlessness. What brought you to this research in the first place? What led you to a project that engages redress, testimony, and testimonials in US prison camps since World War II?


Naomi Paik (NP): One thing that was really important is that I had been living in New York for several years when 9/11 happened, and I continued to live there for years after.

That was a very formative moment for me. Not just because of what happened to New York City, but [because of] the way that New York City and Washington, DC, were mobilized by the state to produce endless war, detention, and torture regimes in our name. It was as if the state said: “We have to wage a global war on terror and take all these supposed terrorists and torture them in horrifying ways, and we’re doing it partly as revenge.” Not to mention, partly as a twisted justice for people like me who lived in the city.

And I couldn’t deal with that. I could not tolerate that, and it was very difficult to figure out what the fuck was happening. That is part of what led me to think about Guantánamo in the first place. Coming from an ethnic studies / feminist studies background, I knew that a lot of the left progressive hand-wringing about Guantánamo—“This is un-American,” “This is not who we are”—was fundamentally not true and historically inaccurate.

So I thought: Okay then, how do we understand this? Where did this place come from? What are the legal precedents for what we’ve been seeing at Guantánamo from 2002 onward? The “internment,” when the US government detained ethnic Japanese Americans living on the West Coast en masse in camps during World War II, is one historical precedent. The camp we built at Guantánamo to indefinitely detain Haitian refugees in the early 1990s is a direct legal precedent. The vacated order that released a group of 158 out of about 300 HIV-positive refugees from that camp ended up being cited in the torture memos. Where else can we find the roots of this? I think it’s by working backward that the project coalesced into something.


DR: You’re engaged in an intellectual practice that obliterates a particular kind of liberal teleological narrative. That is: the carceral state goes to the liberal racist state to confess its own wrongdoing, performs a narrative and juridical ceremony of closure, and re-narrates the testimonials of survivors of racist incarceration. The US racist state has done this with the testimonials of those who survived the “internment” of Japanese Americans, most famously in curating an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Is this a somewhat accurate representation of your work?


NP: The state is the very entity that creates these problems, that creates particular people as rightless subjects. And yet, it is through the state that rightless subjects confront these powers, as in, for example, those formerly interned people speaking before a congressional investigatory commission held decades after the camps closed, or those imprisoned in Guantánamo being forced to seek redress through a kangaroo court controlled by the United States.

Redress requires acknowledgment of wrongdoing, of the harm caused; efforts to repair the damage; and, most important, work to prevent its recurrence in the future. But how do you ask for redress from the very entity that is putting you in a rightless situation and that works to hold on to those powers that create rightlessness? And yet, you can’t refuse an attempt at redress, or release from detention, either. You can’t relinquish yourself to the camp as a matter of protest against the state.


“We Forgot Our Names”

By Brigitta Olubas

DR: I am alarmed by the emergence, over the last decade, of a liberal progressive framing of “mass incarceration,” which has erased a lot of bare historical facts. This term is really a liberal appropriation that universalizes the condition of incarceration under the rubric of “mass,” rather than naming it what it is: gendered, racist incarceration.

It’s large-scale, but it’s not mass. It’s targeted. That’s why your book is so important. What you’re talking about is the opposite of mass incarceration. It’s about concentration.

Your book offers a necessary complication of this increasingly prevalent, liberal progressive discourse of mass incarceration. How would you describe the intervention your book is making?


NP: I think right now we’re in a moment of transition, from a targeted mass incarceration society into something like a mass surveillance society. If you look at the 1980s redress movement for Japanese “internment”—when the US state sought to close the book on these camps by officially apologizing for its “mistakes” while refusing to dismantle the underlying logics, powers, and infrastructures that drove it—that moment also marked a transition from an explicitly racist society to the officially antiracist, but still racist, state and society.

This previous moment of transition, of redress, marked not the closure of the racist state but rather a continuation of that racist state in a form that’s much more nuanced, and that seems to have learned the language of antiracism and made it official. Examining such a moment—the shift to an officially antiracist but pragmatically racist government—might be instructive for what we’re headed into over the next 20 years.


DR: It sounds like what you are saying is that the problem is not simply incarceration as an isolated state practice. Rather, I read you as arguing that the logic of incarceration guides US nation-building across different historical periods, and that US history is premised on different carceral logics, not necessarily limited to prisons and jails but extending to forms of targeted human immobilization, criminalization, and policing.


NP: Right. And we need to be attuned to how that logic of incarceration is continuously shifting and adapting. I think it is good that people who aren’t necessarily grassroots activists are starting to recognize and identify that what is called mass incarceration is a problem. That is a good thing. But I think we need to be critical of strange alliances being made between liberal progressives and even full-on neoconservatives around these kinds of issues.

For example, ankle bracelets are being seen as a progressive movement away from caging and the actual institution of the prison, but you just offload all the costs onto the imprisoned person. It still is a method of social control and in fact facilitates its spread. (For example, see the work of James Kilgore for more about e-carceration.) So I think what such policy moves show us is that we have to let go of any liberal conception of time or liberal progress narrative.


DR: Given all that, I think your concept of “rightlessness” as a counterpart to “incarceration” becomes ever more relevant. How would you define “rightlessness”?


NP: Rightlessness is a more expansive concept than mass incarceration or carceral space or imprisonment regimes. It’s a broad concept that captures that there are many different ways to make a rightless person. Not all of them involve a camp. The concept of rightlessness actually is much broader, and it cannot be confined to any singular carceral site, whether a prison, a detention camp, or anything else.

So the way that I talk about rightlessness is to say that one of its defining characteristics is the deprivation of certain kinds of supposedly inalienable or constitutional or human rights (like due process, habeas corpus, and the right not to be tortured). But that’s a very narrow definition.

Another definition is—and I’m riffing on Hannah Arendt—that rightlessness is the inability to have “the right to have rights.” What she means by this is that you have no political or social community that cares that you don’t have due process, habeas corpus, and the right not to be tortured. There’s no one you can appeal to and they’ll respond, “I hear you. I’m going to do what I can to get you out of that situation.” Camp imprisonment—or even just regular county jail imprisonment—is an effective method of removing a person from that social and political community. But it’s not the only way.

One of the central ways that I define rightlessness is the inability to make oneself heard. Rightless people speak to their condition all the time, but the problem isn’t that they’re not speaking the right way. The problem is that we are either unwilling to hear or incapable of hearing what they have to say.

I was hoping that the capaciousness of the term might help us connect things that we might not normally see in the same picture. You don’t have to be in a carceral space, specifically, to not be able to have your voice heard. There are all kinds of people living with some kind of gradation of that condition, so one of the other central arguments for me is that there’s a spectrum between people who are super rightful—like myself, who has a living wage and a US passport—and a camp inmate. There are a lot of different positions in between these two poles—think here of the range of incarcerated people (regular prisoners locked up by the criminal justice system; pretrial detainees who can’t afford bail; migrant and immigrant prisoners held under administrative detention; youth in juvenile detention), or ordinary people who don’t have access to the basic necessities of life like clean water, food, or housing and whose appeals to have these basics to just live go unheard. You don’t have to be a torture victim in Guantánamo to know something of the experience of rightlessness.


Painting while Shackled to a Floor

By Nicole R. Fleetwood

DR: This makes sense. But is the answer really to recognize more rights? To make the treatment of others in these carceral sites tied to rights, rather than simply abolishing these sites?


NP: First of all, I just want to affirm what you are saying. One of the points of Rightlessness is not that rights are good, rightlessness is bad, and rightlessness equals solely the deprivation of having rights. That’s not what the argument is.

The argument is that rightlessness is produced by rights regimes: that we can’t understand what rights even are without rightlessness hanging out somewhere in the background, even if we’re not explicitly acknowledging it. Put another way: the fact that I have rights that are recognized by other people and institutions makes sense only because other people do not.

We have to see these things as being intimately connected. It’s really important to realize that rights cannot ever be the solution to rightlessness as a condition. But even if this condition needs to be remedied by other means (that operate beyond liberal rights altogether), rights are not worthless in the world we live in right now. What rights can do, right now, is get individual people out of prison camps or get more modest, but important, improvements to their conditions, like not being subjected to force-feeding or torture.


DR: So rights and rightlessness are inseparable?


NP: Yes, and a lot of times rightless people have to draw on the language of rights to make themselves heard at all. That’s only because we understand the language of rights. It’s this very well-developed lexicon at both the national and international level. So if someone is saying, “I am a refugee, I have these rights by these conventions,” or “I am being tortured and the Geneva Convention says you cannot do that,” that is something we can understand.

Rights regimes—like those recognized by the United States or by the United Nations—enable certain kinds of statements to get heard and prevent other kinds of statements from being heard. This is an epistemological form of violence.

Because even using the language of rights, we don’t necessarily understand what that refugee or that torture victim is saying about what it means to live under this condition. That’s the issue.

We also need to get real about what our goal is. It’s not a future where everyone has their rights recognized. The goal is a future where rights are no longer necessary.


DR: How do you animate your research, so that it’s moving from the archives that you’re engaged with to a larger reading public, including and beyond academic readership?


NP: Rightlessness was the first book, the tenure book, written from a dissertation. All the structures that led to it were fully ensconced in academic structures. Still, it has always been important to me that I’m not just speaking to other scholars. If it’s not useful to people outside the academy, then what are we actually doing?

It was about trying to write as clearly as possible and then taking these abstract concepts—like biopolitics, necropolitics, and neoliberalism—and trying to break them down in such a way that, even if you don’t know these obscure bodies of knowledge, you will still know enough to follow what I’m talking about.

Grounding the analysis in the testimonies of people detained in these prison camps was also central, because they are way more articulate than I am in identifying what is happening to them and what it means to be in a camp. I felt that if those testimonies were the driving force behind the argument and the narrative, then people would be able to grab on to the narrative in a way that they wouldn’t with abstractions.


The Immigration Crisis Archive

By César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández

DR: Can you give us a few examples of how you approached this enormous challenge of tracing the genealogy of rightlessness across these different archives, within the larger condition of the US carceral racist state?


NP: A lot of the work is going straight to the words of those interned in the prison camps. So one of the archival issues that I ran up against was finding where people were speaking directly about their camp experience.

Legal archives are a good place to look, because that’s where they’re filing lawsuits or otherwise speaking against the state, saying, “You have violated these rights that I’m supposed to have” or “I’m asking the state for some kind of redress.” But you have to be really careful and think very clearly about legal archives, because they are limited by the state and a structure where the state is the very problem that’s being criticized. At the same time, however, there’s still a trace of what these camp inmates and rightless subjects are speaking to.


DR: Of course.


NP: It’s also important to look, when available, at statements that are not given to the state. This is where the literature, film, and op-eds that rightless people have written become really important.

This is a paradox, because on the one hand, I’m saying that one of the things that defines rightless people is their inability to be heard, especially by entities that can mobilize and do something about what they’re talking about. But on the other hand, I’m looking at these archives where rightless people are constantly speaking back, and speaking very powerfully to what it means to live in a camp, to be subjected to certain kinds of medical treatments, and so on. So the whole time I’m reading these state archives, I am reading with them and against them.

For example, when I looked at the records of the kangaroo habeas corpus trials at Guantánamo Bay—the Combatant Status Review Tribunals—I found that most of the records for the so-called enemy combatants look almost exactly the same. They’re about three pages each. They say, “What is your name? Where are you from? These are the charges against you. How do you plead?” That’s kind of it.

There’s something about the repetition itself that is telling me something about the state, if not about the people who are speaking, because they don’t get to speak that much. I think that repetition tells a lot about the whole structure of this kangaroo court and what it was trying to achieve, which was not actual habeas corpus for these people.

I’m also looking for the ones who break free of that form. I’m looking for insertions of self into this very rigid space. For example, one detainee entered the military commission court dressed in his orange jumpsuit as a way to insert himself into the proceedings, because it was against the rules to come in his jumpsuit. He had to come in business casual or cultural attire. He refused to do that and effectively said, “Well, you say I’m an enemy combatant. Then I get to dress like this. This is my cultural attire because you’ve made me an enemy combatant.” The ways that they were able to insert themselves were also telling me something about how they use these very strict, limited structures to craft opportunity for themselves. They showed me what it takes for someone in this situation to make themselves heard at all.


The Inequality of “Human Rights”

By Trevor Jackson

DR: Could you talk a bit about how Rightlessness contributes to the critical interdisciplinary humanities-based work of radical and abolitionist carceral studies? Are there gaps in the discourse that the book is trying to fill?


NP: Yes, I’m obviously heavily influenced by and definitely in dialogue with critical prison studies. At the same time, I’m trying to look at sites we might not usually stitch together under that rubric.

The sites that I’m looking at play in their own fields, but they’re intimately connected to each other historically, ideologically, and materially, even in terms of personnel. Japanese incarceration, for example, is a big area of study in Asian American studies, but not necessarily in these other fields. Haitian refugees are examined in immigration studies, but might not be as much in critical carceral studies—and the same with the War on Terror detentions.

I’m trying to bring together these sites that we might not normally put together with regular old jails or prisons. Even though the racial logics driving these sites aren’t exactly the same—and they operate very differently and emerge under certain historical conditions—we can still see them working together as part of a larger system. Even when they seem like they’re in opposition to each other, they’re actually working synchronously.

I want to bring these other kinds of racialized logics and different modes of racialized targeting into the same conversation. So that we can see how the struggle against Guantánamo is intimately connected to the fight around shutting down supermax prisons or solitary confinement.

I hope that the book can do some of that connective interstitial work in bringing together the many different modes through which the carceral state operates and adapts.


DR: How has the book redirected your work? What are you working on now?


NP: When I was wrapping up Rightlessness, I started exploring new directions in military outsourcing. I was thinking about the collusion of the state and capital in creating lethal networks of labor and migration, which I’ve again located on the spectrum of rightlessness.

Then the 2016 election happened, and I put that down to write a lot more about immigration, particularly sanctuary movements for migrants and refugees. Such movements have to be as radical and intersectional in their analysis as possible. And by “radical,” I mean, following Angela Davis, “grasping things at the root.”

So I’m writing a short book called Bans, Walls, Raids, Sanctuary, historicizing the “Muslim ban,” the US-Mexico border wall, and ICE raids, that tries to do that work. I’m trying to historicize these events in a way that makes clear that none of this is over, even when Trump is gone. These problems are going to outlive him because they have been existing so much longer than he’s been around.


DR: Outstanding. I expect a copy of that book in my mailbox as soon as possible, please.


NP: Actually, what’s your next book on?


DR: It’s called White Reconstruction, and it’s a critical examination of the so-called post–civil rights period. The book argues that the half century following the formal abolition of US Jim and Jane Crow apartheid has been characterized by a reconvening of white racial ascendancy by way of liberalism, especially through the technologies of multiculturalist white supremacy. That’s why your work interests me so much.

More important, I think the readers of this interview should recognize that we owe you a debt of gratitude for doing this difficult archival work. I’m grateful to you for that.


NP: Well, I’m grateful to you because your work has been so influential on mine.


The Right to Have Rights

By Stephanie DeGooyer et al.

DR: You’ve said that to make any good sense of the history of US carceral camps and to make any good sense of the afterlives of those carceral sites, one has to, in your terms, let go of liberal narratives.

I agree with you completely. Pedagogically, one of my obsessions is to smash prevailing liberal narratives. But on the other hand, I recognize that many people, especially people subjected to forms of systemic violence, displacement, and denigration, rely on the production of narratives to make sense of things, to make sense of themselves, to cohere community, to generate love and beauty, and so forth. People need narratives. So, coming out of the work that you’ve done for this project and your ongoing work, what does a radical counternarrative look like?


NP: That is a really hard question. Rea Tajiri’s experimental film History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige gave me a model, because Rea’s character is haunted by ghosts, the ghosts of “internment” that her family endured but never talked about and never worked through, and yet she’s inherited this violence. She has to find a way to grapple with it, but she can never access the memory or the history that she desperately needs. Through the archives, talking to her family members, and going back to the site where her family was detained, she tries to patch together these different sources—but nothing is sufficient.

The haunting of the inherited violence that she’s dealing with doesn’t go away; it becomes something that she carries with her. In the end, she never gets to a resolution where she finds the origin story she’s been looking for, but during her search she ends up creating something else. The story that she creates is not a liberal teleological narrative, like “Internment happened here, and this is what happened, and it ended.” For her it’s ongoing; it goes backward and forward in time and flashes. I feel like for her, as the inheritor of this violence, it is a more honest narrative.


DR: You’re saying that the inheritance of violence lends itself to nonlinear, nonteleological stories about dealing with this inheritance. There is no complete closure. There’s only this haunting. There’s only this gravity that’s involuntary but brings with it a whole set of obligations or responsibilities—can you help me think through that?


NP: I think that if you have had this intimate exposure to the kinds of violence that lead one to be rightless, how can you possibly believe in a progress narrative of history? I don’t know if that’s actually possible if you take it seriously, especially when you see the same thing happening over and over and over again.

Maybe the targets have changed. Maybe it’s more subtle, but if you keep seeing this repetition, how can you believe in a liberal teleological progress narrative of history? So I feel like people who have a confrontation with or exposure to this radical violence, they—not because they’ve read it or anything like that—have a more Benjaminian approach to history. They are similar to what he describes as the Angel of History, watching the wreckage of modernity pile up at your feet, and as soon as you want to intervene and help, progress pushes you back. People like Walter Benjamin, who was pursued by the Nazis, know this, because they’re experiencing radical violence and theorizing it along the way.

It’s almost a privilege of the rightful to believe in progress. If you are a rights-bearing person who believes in a teleological liberal progress narrative of history, then your response to people who are not rights-bearing people is, “Just wait, things will get better.” It becomes an excuse for not making necessary changes.

Progress can be defeat. I fully believe that. Anybody who has a real grasp on US history cannot hang on to a liberal progressive idea of time.

We have to see how mutations in strategies of social control are adapting to our strategies of resistance. I think this transition from a mass incarceration society to whatever is coming for us next is partly in response to all of the mobilizations against the carceral state and society. This is not what we want, but what we’re heading into is also not what we want.


This article was commissioned by Imani Radney. icon