Bodies, What Matter?

And now, the fourth post in our symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence.[1] It follows Lauren’s opener, Kevin McSorley’s take on embodiment and Alison Howell on the value of feminist IR in such a project. Posts by Antoine and a rejoinder from Lauren follow.

Type Any Name Bodies

Lauren Wilcox seeks something like a theory of the body (and embodiment, crucially different) in international political violence. The body not as inert or as the mere vehicle for mind, but malleable, and indeed “deeply political”. As she puts it early on in Bodies of Violence, we therefore require a conceptual framework for seeing “how bodies are enabling and generative of war and practices of political violence more broadly”. And it is part of her case that such a theory of bodies – or, at least, a theoretical inquiry into violent embodiment – would be among the first in the discipline of International Relations, which has thus far failed to understand how bodies matter, how bodies are produced, and how violence acts upon and through bodies, even as it claims to be the discipline most concerned with human survival in the face of organised violence. And despite IR being in thrall to an unsustainable individualism, which might at least be expected to bias it towards discrete human experience.[2]

In short, international theory is disembodied, and the body an “absent presence” (aptly put, and true). Since we all have bodies, and can only encounter the world through our bodies, we should thus in some sense seek to include – perhaps even ‘centre’ – the body in theory. Even as poststructural scholarship evades the injunction to produce systematic theory, it is able to reveal the absence of bodies in our dominant paradigms. Wilcox pushes us in the same direction, arguing that, as subjects, we are embodied, precarious and have physical forms that are both produced by, and are in turn productive of, the world of ‘politics’. This is both a conceptual and a normative question, since those who have been considered improperly bodied have historically been excluded from politics, from the means of social reproduction and autonomy, and from recognition as human itself.

To not see the body is thus not to entertain a neutral and cerebral vision of the human, but instead to reproduce the historical exclusions by which some bodies (in the familiar refrain, those that are male, white, cisgender, heterosexual, Eurocentric, able-bodied and rational) are taken to be the benchmark by which others (framed as deviant, inadequate, juvenile or dangerous) are measured and found wanting. Bodies of Violence moves through a series of sites (the US Naval Base, Guantanamo; the suicide bomber’s vest; the airport scanner; the drone operator’s screen-throne; the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention), mapping how the body figures in each of them. It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.

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Bodies, and Violence: Thinking With and Beyond Feminist IR

10170814_10203788729029655_7004664852126275170_nOur third post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence comes courtesy of Alison Howell (the first two posts can be found here and here). Alison is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, Newark. She has written on topics relating to the international relations of medicine, health, security and warfare. Her first book, Madness in International Relations examined the role of psychology in global security practices.

I have a confession to make: at the last ISA, swept up in the magic of New Orleans, I rekindled a romance. I should probably clarify that I’m not talking about one of those salacious romances that one hears rumors of on the Hilton elevator. No, I’m talking about my relationship to FTGS specifically, and feminist IR more generally.

tacky rose

When I first started going to the ISA a little over ten years ago, I felt strongly identified with FTGS. Though I consider my research feminist (amongst other things), and though, for that matter, I’ve continued to pay dues to the FTGS section as a kind of hopeful political act – still the romance didn’t last. Partly my intellectual curiosities took me in different directions. I also had trouble articulating some of the problems I had with the deployment of some concepts in feminist IR (especially the concepts of trauma, and also violence, which I’ll return to in a few paragraphs).

But lately I’ve been feeling flirtatious with feminist IR again. In part, this is because I’m finally getting some clarity on why I have disagreements with some feminist thought in IR (and thoughtful disagreement is a kind of engagement). It’s also because I think that feminist IR is beginning to be more diversely peopled and theorized. For these reasons, I was excited to find Lauren Wilcox’s impressive book in my possession, a book that appears as part of Oxford University Press’s Gender and International Relations series, a perch from which it is pushing feminist IR in some new directions.

Wilcox’s book is novel in that it works to systematize an approach to the body in IR. To date, a focus on the body as a site of theoretical concern in IR has been piecemeal, though certainly not absent. Yet what Wilcox achieves in placing the body and embodiment as central conceptual artifacts in Bodies of Violence, is to freshly open up a number of thematic concerns and questions for the study of global politics.

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Violence, Norms and Embodiment

McSorleyWe are delighted to welcome Kevin McSorley for the second post of our symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence. Kevin lectures in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. His work explores war, violence and militarism through the lens of embodied, emotional and sensory experience. His scholarship has explored contemporary conflicts including those in Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as analysing phenomena including the global arms trade, military fitness regimes, and helmetcam technologies. Recent publications are available at

Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence: Theorising Embodied Subjects in International Relations is an extremely welcome addition to a growing corpus of recent scholarship that attempts to foreground the body and embodiment in the analysis of topics such as war, violence and security. Wilcox argues that IR has historically constituted itself as a discipline partly in terms of the exclusion of the detailed consideration of the body and embodiment, concerns which have rarely been admitted as core to a discipline whose interests supposedly lay at higher levels of abstraction. Indeed, the absenting and sequestering of the bodily and particular bodies has been central to the formation and history of many academic disciplines, modern social and cultural formations, and the organisation of much mundane experience. Relatedly, it is often specifically in occurrences and encounters of bodily discomfort, illness, estrangement, harm, failure, violence and pain that the body may assume a renewed experiential salience in everyday life. The under-theorisation of embodiment thus seems particularly paradoxical for a discipline such as IR, whose analytic remit encompasses the organisation of violence and pain for political ends, phenomena which can hardly be adequately understood without attempting to think through the multiple ways that violence and pain are intimately related to the in/abilities of bodies to engage in particular sense-making, meaning-making and worlding practices. Indeed, such under-theorisation may be more than just paradoxical, for abstract strategic thinking that avoids acknowledging bodies has historically been complicit with particular expert modes of knowing and doing violence.

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Los Torturados (1976)

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Los Torturados (1976)

Wilcox’s project is thus a necessary intervention that grapples meaningfully with the disembodied soul of IR and I am thoroughly supportive of its ambitions. The body is one of the most plural and contested concepts in social science but Wilcox initially argues that, when considered at all, the way that it has typically been rendered through the realist and liberal traditions of political thought that inform IR and security studies is as a stable, singular, bounded and natural entity whose flourishing is dependent upon protection from various inevitable risks and threats. This narrow understanding of the body is thus of something essentially thing-like, fixed and existing outside the realm of the political. In contrast, biopolitical and particularly feminist analytics – the latter having a specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power – provide the alternative conceptual underpinning for Wilcox’s own analysis.

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Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations

photo copyThis opening post by Lauren Wilcox kicks off the symposium dedicated to her new book Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2015) with a series of follow-up posts coming over the next few days. Lauren is University Lecturer in Gender Studies and Deputy Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. She was previously a Scarf postdoc in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and did her PhD in Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

Bodies of Violence

The impetus for “Bodies of Violence” (which is based on my PhD dissertation) is that there is, or was, no theory of the body in International Relations, or general study of the role of bodies on IR; and this is a problem for the study of political violence as well as for the political implications that a lack of attention to bodies has in the field. The work begins by noting a deep irony in war/security studies, that while war is actually inflicted on bodies, or bodies are explicitly protected, there is a lack of attention to the embodied dynamics of war and security. This seeming ‘disembodiment’ of theory stands in stark contrast to the political dynamics of violence, especially in the particular practices or modes of violence that I discuss in this book.  Drones make it possible to both watch people and bomb them, often killing dozens of civilians as well, while the pilots operating these machines remain thousands of miles away, immune from bodily harm. Suicide bombers seek certain death by turning their bodies into weapons that seem to attack at random. Images of tortured bodies from Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib provoke shock and outrage, and prisoners on hunger-strikes to protest their treatment are force-fed. Meanwhile, the management of violence increasingly entails scrutiny of persons as bodies through biometric technologies and ‘body scanners’.

I: Argument and Main Contributions

While bodies and embodiment are an ‘absent presence’ in studies of war and security, feminist theory has been at the forefront of considering the relationship between subjects, bodies and violence in recent decades. In this work I draw on work in feminist theory that offers a challenge to the policing of boundaries between human bodies and the broader political context. It is here that feminist theory is most incisive, for feminists have struggled with the problems of how to theorize embodiment as a necessary but not exclusive aspect of subjectivity in their own terms, terms which can help us to ‘think the body’ in IR in such a way as to provide new purchase on central concepts such as power, security, vulnerability and violence. For example, violence can be re-thought as something that is productive and not only destructive; vulnerability is not just a condition to be overcome but also a constitutive feature of the embodied subject. I focus on Judith Butler’s work, in conversation with other theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles. I argue, as have others, that there is continuity between her works on “Gender” from Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and her more explicitly ethical and political works such as Precarious Life and Frames of War. A central feature of Butler’s concept of bodily precarity is that our bodies are formed in and through violence. The implication of feminist theory’s emphasis on the co-constitution of bodies and political structures is to give IR a new starting point, as theorists can no longer begin with political communities populated by actors whose bodies are undifferentiated and can be transcended.

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Steal This Conference

A guest post from the Ray Hudson Posse.

If you were to ask a handful of early career scholars for their impressions of the recent British International Studies Association (BISA) conference in London they would probably say: “I wasn’t there”. The reason for the dearth in young attendees is that the conference (like all conferences) was prohibitively priced. Its four days costs a whopping £120 for early birds and £150 otherwise. For undergrads and postgrads the fee is £100 (early bird) and £130 (late). Membership to BISA is compulsory, which costs another £30 a year. It’s a hell of an entry fee into the Ivory Tower.

The way in which the structures of academia are chewing up and spitting out the next generation of scholars-with-no-future is most clearly expressed in the ‘conference trap’, characterised by a double-fuckery – those most in need of attending are precisely those most priced out. While for established academics conferences are little more than an opportunity to blow research budgets on a piss-up with the lads, for aspiring researchers these events are crucial to bolstering the CV and (*shudder*) networking. That is, they are crucial to obtaining a job that will provide them with the means – a proper wage, research budgets, time off teaching etcetera – needed to go to conferences! (And, also, to live).

But it is precisely early career scholars in fractional, contract or zero-hours employment that have limited/ no research budgets and therefore struggle to attend. It is precisely early career scholars that are underpaid and thus unable to pay out of their own pocket. These structural constraints tend to be ratcheted up if you’re a person of colour, not-male, working class, and/or from the global south. On the one hand we can’t afford to go; on the other hand we can’t afford not to go. We need a job to go; we need to go to get a job. Something has to give.

We went to BISA. We didn’t pay. We stole this conference. You can too. Here’s how.
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Ethical Encounters – Encountering Ethics


Our final post reflecting on the forum itself is from Professor Kimberly Hutchings, she is Professor of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. She is a leading scholar in international relations theory. She has extensively researched and published on international political theory in respect to Kantian and Hegelian philosophy, international and global ethics, Feminist theory and philosophy, and politics and violence. Her work is influenced by the scholarly tradition that produced the Frankfurt School and Critical Theory. Previous posts can be found here: Myriam, Joe, Elke, Jillian and Diego.  *Note: all images provided by Joe – Kim bears no responsibility for the cheap visual gags!

Ethics as a term encompasses every-day and more specialised meanings. It is used to refer to existing moral commitments, standards and values embedded in actual contexts and influencing or governing practice. It is also used to refer to philosophical justifications of moral standards and values. One encounters ethics in both senses in reflecting on the contributions to ‘Ethical Encounters’. All of these encounters seek to speak to dimensions of practice: war, development, migration, rights claims in the name of humanity. All of them also seek to shift the philosophical assumptions and implications of predominant approaches to international ethics. In summary, they all ask ethical questions about doing ethics in theory and practice. For all of the contributors encountering ethics is itself an ethical encounter. Of course they do not all say the same thing, and in what follows I want to pick out some of the commonalities and some of the differences between them. This will not be in order to resolve or transcend differences, or to develop a synthesis of the views expressed, but rather to bear further witness to what Elke calls the ‘ethicality of ethics’, which I want to suggest is intimately related to unresolvable but also unavoidable questions of authority and judgment.

Myriam, Joe, Elke, Jillian and Diego are all against a certain kind of international ethics, which they see as globally dominant in theory and practice in the worlds of the western academy and liberal international policy. They are against ethics understood ultimately as a matter of universal truths, which can be translated into the terms of binding prescriptive rules, laws and codes of practice. It is pretty clear, although he is not necessarily named, that Public Enemy Number One is Kant, with Bentham a close second, followed of course by the recent deontological, contractarian and utilitarian inspired generation of cosmopolitan moral and political theorists and their allies in law and policy.

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Ethical Encounters – Parsing the Pluriverse: empathy and deliberation in a post-MDG ethics of international development


Our fifth post in the forum is a guest post from Diego de Merich. Diego got his PhD from LSE and is now an LSE 100 Fellow and a research associate at the Institute for Intersectionality Research and Policy at Simon Fraser University. His work focuses on human empathy and the ethics of care in service of alternative frameworks for International Development (post-Millennium Development Goals). For earlier posts in the forum do look for Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.

With the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set to expire in 2015, focus has turned to a new framework which might replace them. Heavily influenced by the Human Capabilities Approach (HCA), the MDGs and the recently-proposed ‘Golden Thread’ frameworks posit a relatively monolithic, liberal understanding of what ‘development’ is meant to signify. As such, each new iteration of an international agreement on development seems destined to miss the potential for more creative and context-appropriate political action in response to the shortcomings of the approaches which preceded them. Using as a starting point Arturo Escobar’s Encountering Development, I suggest that his notion of the pluriverse – which stands in opposition to the ‘universal and homolingual thrust of modernity’ – both challenges the post-2015 discourse and implies the need for different ethical practices upon which ‘development’ might instead be re-cast. Realisation of the pluriverse and notions of care, responsibility, democracy and pluralism would require that closer attention be paid to narrative voice and to the role that empathic processes should play in the deliberation surrounding development.

The ‘promise’ of empathy in pursuit of a post-MDG development practice can be understood by contrasting two approaches to deliberative democracy – one which would hold the HCA as its guiding ethical impulse and one which suggests that an ethics of care and responsibility in international development requires a better appreciation for the role that empathy and narrative play in understanding the development possibilities and realities of the constituent elements of Escobar’s pluriverse. Here, the focus of ethical enquiry is shifted from a more abstract notion of social justice to a recognition of shared/lived vulnerability, alternatively-imagined ways of being and thus, to an ‘international development’ which is differently understood and practiced.

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