Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture

About the Author

            Eric A. Stanley is a President’s Postdoctoral fellow in the department of Communication and Critical Gender Studies at the University of California, San Diego. He works at the intersections of radical trans/queer aesthetics, theories of state violence, and anti-coloniality. He is currently visiting faculty in Critical Studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and along with Chris Vargas, directed the films Homotopia (2006) and Criminal Queers (2012). He is a coeditor of the anthology Captive Genders: Trans Embodiment and the Prison Industrial Complex. 


Main Arguments

  • Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture examines forms of queer non-sociality (near life) as nonexistence.

–The productive discourse that wishes to suggest that queer bodies are no different might miss moments of signification where queer bodies do in fact signify differently. This is not to suggest that there is an always locatable, transhistorical queer body, but the fiercely flexible semiotics of queerness might help us build a way of knowing antiqueer violence that can provisionally withstand the weight of generality (p. 2).

–Queer is forced to embody…the approximation of a terrorizing threat as a symbol of shattering difference, monstrosity, and irreconcilable contradiction. This fetishistic structure allows one to believe that queers are an inescapable threat and at the same time know that they are nothing (p. 12).

–If for Agamben bare life expresses a kind of stripped-down sociality or a liminal space at the cusp of death, then near life names the figuration and feeling of nonexistence, as Fanon suggests, which comes before the question of life might be posed (p. 13).

  • “But what does it mean to do violence to what is nothing?”(p. 1) Through a reading of the brutal murders and disarticulation of a number of trans/queer people, Stanley offers the legal concept of “overkill” (the type of violence against queers which goes beyond death) as a way of apprehending a queer ontology that stands in contrast to the security of an LGBT identity, and the concept of “near life” as death-in-waiting (or “the figuration and feeling of nonexistence”), while queerness means “inescapable violence” (p. 4).

–Overkill is a term used to indicate such excessive violence that it pushes a body beyond death. If queers, along with others, approximate nothing, then the task of ending, of killing, that which is nothing must go beyond normative times of life and death. The legal theory that is offered to nullify the practice of overkill often functions under the name of the trans-or gay-panic defense (p. 9).

— Overkill is what it means, what it must mean, to do violence to what is nothing.(p. 10)

  • Near Life, Queer Death: Overkill and Ontological Capture is an interrogation of how queer ontology and violence against queers can be seen as a constitutive part of liberal democracy. As antiqueer violence is written in the social as an outlaw practice, these forms of violence are not an aberration but are central to the reproduction of liberal democracy in the United States.

–The numbers, degrees, locations, kinds, types, and frequency of attacks, the statistical evidence that is meant to prove that a violation really happened, are the legitimizing measures that dictate the ways we are mandated to understand harm. However, statistics as an epistemological project may be another way in which the enormity of antiqueer is disappeared (p. 5).

–Reported attacks on “out” queer folks, such as these data, can of course only work as a swinging signifier for the incalculable referent of the actualized violence. ..“Reports” on antiqueer violence, such as the “Hate Crime Statistics,” reproduce the same kinds of rhetorical loss along with the actual loss of people that cannot be counted (p. 6).

–The law, and specifically “rights” discourse, which argues to be the safeguard of liberal democracy, is one of the other motors that works to privatize this structural violence (p. 7).

–Thus for the law to uphold the fantasy of justice and disguise its punitive aspirations, antiqueer violence, like all structural violence, must be narrated as an outlaw practice and unrepresentative of culture at large (p. 8).

— The nothing, or those made to live the death of a near life, is a break whose structure is produced by, and not remedied through, legal intervention or state mobilizations (p. 15).



           Stanley begins his article by evoking Frantz Fanon’s “‘Look, A Negro!’” from Black Skin White Masks.  His concept of “near life” of queer is heavily relied on Fanon’s theory of blackness: “Fanon opens up critical ground for understanding a kind of near life that is made through violence to exist as nonexistence. For Fanon, violence is bound to the question of recognition (which is also the im/possibility of subjectivity) that apprehends the relationship between relentless structural violence and instances of personal attacks evidenced by the traumatic afterlives left in their wake (p. 13)… For Fanon, colonization is not a system of recognition but a state of raw force and total war. This space of nonexistence, or near life, forged in the territory of inescapable violence, allows us to understand the murders of queers against the logics of aberration (p. 14).”

Stanley also points out that the murdered queer were largely working class and people of color and/or transgender people, which marks this interpersonal violence as a restaging of larger iterations of necropolitical state violence. Seeing queerness as a deviation from normative white settler sexuality, he fails to adequately theorize its connection to structures of racism and white supremacy. The concept of “antiqueer violence” does not emphasize other differences (especially violence experienced by queer of color and transgender people) and thus makes them invisible and continued to be marginalized in queer politics.


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