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Dispatches from the Robot Wars; Or, What is Posthuman Security?

24 Jul

Audra MitchellA guest post from Audra Mitchell, who is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York. Audra is a Fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (2014-15) and has held or will hold visiting fellowships at the Universities of Queensland, Edinburgh and Melbourne. She is the author or editor of three books: International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity? (Routledge, 2014); Lost in Transformation: Violent Peace and Peaceful Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2011) and (ed. with Oliver Richmond) Hybrid Forms of Peace: From the ‘Everyday’ to Postliberalism (Palgrave, 2011), as well as articles in Security Dialogue, Review of International Studies, MillenniumBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations, Third World Quarterly, and Alternatives, amongst others. She blogs at Worldy IR. Audra’s current research project explores how mass extinction challenges the ontological and ethical underpinnings of ‘security’.

“So when are the intergalactic robot wars coming?” This is a question I’ve been asked (more than once) by colleagues who’ve heard that I’m working on posthumanist thought and international security. The implication is that what I’m doing is a kind of science fiction. Well, there’s definitely science (including robots – see below) and a rich fictional literature to draw on, but it’s not taking place in a galaxy far, far away. It’s very much rooted in, and attuned to, this planet.

‘Posthuman security’ is an umbrella term I’m using to talk about a recent surge in thinking and writing at the nexus of posthumanist philosophy, security and ethics. It starts from the proposition that international security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Diverse beings other than humans are implicated in the conditions of (in)security. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security and the ways that we define them. This, in turn, challenges the engrained notion that the human is the ultimate referent object of security, ethics and philosophy.

Mojave Desert Ecology

Indeed, another question I get asked frequently is “are you critiquing human security?” The answer is both yes and no. The norm of human security epitomizes a humanist turn in the last two decades of international thought, also reflected in the fields of humanitarianism and norms such as Responsibility to Protect. These frameworks have carved out a space for themselves within international ethics by framing a specific image of the human individual as the focal point of security, ethics and, by extension the universe. So, of course, adopting a post-human (or more-than-human) approach to security means challenging and deconstructing these influential paradigms. But this new discourse is not simply a critique of existing frameworks. Posthuman security thinking offers a number of distinct, positive contributions to international security, ontology and ethics.

The term itself is highly contestable – and should be contested. Continue reading

The Onuf Principles

30 May

Nicholas Onuf recently gave an interview over at e-IR. Several people of our acquaintance shared the tail-end of that, in which he is prompted to dispense career advice. Although opinions are indeed like assholes, these are good enough to elevate far above the gutter.

Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

1. Preparing at length for classes does not make you a better teacher. Insofar as it dampens spontaneity, students will think you are boring; this will undercut the self-confidence you thought your lengthy preparations had purchased for you. And, of course, it steals valuable time from your scholarship.

2. Writing is a craft; writing well takes most of us a great deal of work. The usual practice is to think of a problem or issue, formulate a project, do ‘research,’ and then write it up. Bad idea. Keep writing at every stage, even if, in the end, you throw out most of what you have written. Writing makes the problem clearer, points up what more you need to do in the way of research, and, most of all, keeps your writing skills well-honed.

3. Don’t send sloppy, badly crafted papers out for review. As a frequent referee, I see them all too often. Many referees will punish you, not always consciously, for doing so, even if they think you are on to something. Once you think you have a well-crafted piece of work, do send it out, because most referees and editors take their duties seriously and will give you valuable feedback.

4. Be cautious about taking on collaborative projects. We all know that scholarship is a lonely occupation. Collaboration reduces the loneliness quotient and can result in better work than any of the collaborators could have produced on their own. It can also result in a piece of work that no one is entirely happy with. Sometimes collaboration causes damaging tension and bad feelings because of temperamental differences, greater or lesser commitment to the project, and perceived inequities in the distribution of work. All that said, collaborating with my brother on two book projects was hugely rewarding. That it might have been hugely risky never occurred to us.

5. Be even more cautious in participating in symposium projects. Their thematic foci may not match your interests very well; they tend to be superficially refereed and thus are not taken seriously; they also tend to disappear quickly from view. There are exceptions—symposia that mark major developments in the field—but you’ll have a pretty good idea if a particular symposium project has that potential. As a senior scholar, I contribute to symposia because it is fun to do projects with friends and I can afford the luxury. Most of all, avoid editing symposium volumes. This involves collaboration under the most difficult conditions. It is extraordinarily time consuming. Wrangling recalcitrant contributors is too often a thankless and disheartening responsibility.

6. Do not take on too many projects at one time. You will spread yourself too thin, miss deadlines, and make it all the more likely that you will succumb to the 90% rule—you run out of steam when any given project is 90% done and only needs some fine-tuning to be sent off. You will end up with a drawer full of nearly done projects that you have progressively lost interest in and will therefore never finish.

7. Dissertations are apprentice projects, immediately recognisable as such. Turning a dissertation into a book is probably the smart thing to do, but it will often take longer than writing the dissertation did. For most of us, it takes five years to write a good book; World of Our Making took me ten years. Whether you have that much time, institutionally speaking, is another matter.

8. Read every day. When I get up in the morning (early) and get my coffee, I read for 45 minutes. In my case, it has always been something that I do not have to read for whatever I am doing at the time. While this has broadened me immeasurably, for many scholars, a fixed time for reading is an opportunity — perhaps the only opportunity — to keep up on the literature in the field.

9. Whether to jump on a trend in the field’s scholarship, try anticipating a trend, come late to a trend but treat it critically, jump around from thing to thing, or plug away at something few others seem to be interested in is a tricky question, having much to do with temperament. It requires you to ask yourself how ambitious you are, how much you need validation from others, how long you can stayed focused on one thing, et cetera.

10. On the assumption that you are smarter than most people (or you would not be a scholar), seek out people whom you know to be smarter than you in various obvious ways. On the one hand, the more of these people you know, the less intimidating you will find them, and the more you will learn from them. On the other hand, knowing really smart people will remind you of your own limitations and help you be less arrogant. Arrogance is, of course, a constant hazard in our line of work.

Bad Infinity?: Hans J. Morgenthau’s Double Critique of Depoliticisation

28 May

VassiliosA guest post from Vassilios Paipais, Lecturer in International Relations at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland. Vassilios holds a PhD in International Relations from the LSE and has published in Review of International Studies, International Politics and Millennium, and held various teaching posts at the LSE, SOAS, UCL and the University of Edinburgh. His work focuses on International Relations theory and international political theology. He is also co-founder of Euro Crisis in the Press and Associate to the LSE IDEAS Southern Europe International Affairs programme. You can read his Euro Crisis posts here, as well as follow him on Twitter.

This post is based on a recently published article in Millennium where he explores the implications of post-foundational political ontology for IR via a reading of Martin Heidegger and Oliver Marchart.

Hans Morgenthau

Post-foundational political thought offers the conceptual tools to theorise the experience of dislocation in politics signified by the difference as such between politics and the political. According to Žižek, the political designates the “moment of openness, of undecidability when the very structuring principle of society, the fundamental form of the social pact is called into question” whereas politics describes the positively determined outcome of that process, a “subsystem of social relations in interaction with other sub-systems”. The difference as such between politics and the political implies that any effort to cancel this gap or gloss it over by using ethical, political, juridical or economic arguments is nothing else but an attempt to hegemonise the social by ideologically displacing politics. The political signifies the moment of grounding/de-grounding of the social that is suppressed or forgotten by the operation of politics but can be reactivated at any time through dislocation and antagonism. Politics is incessantly trying to colonise the political but we are each time painfully reminded that an unbridgeable chasm separates the two. It is exactly the irresolvability of this gap that makes politics the name for a paradoxical enterprise which is both impossible and inevitable – which is why none has ever witnessed ‘pure politics’ either. The political cannot be brought about voluntaristically but, whenever we act, it is as if we always activate it or, better, we are always enacted by it. Both gestures of eliminating the force of the political (post-politics) or of introducing it unmediated into politics (total war, revolutionary terror) end up abolishing the political difference and ultimately result in an ideological displacement of politics.

Against this backdrop, I read the sophisticated realism of Hans Morgenthau as a promising but inconclusive attempt at a post-foundationalism political ontology. In fact, I argue that by equally shunning a facile surrender either to the immanence of power (ultra-politics) or to the technologisation of politics (post-politics), Morgenthau’s theory of the political strove to maintain a reflexive fidelity to the logic of political difference as such. At this point, the question naturally arises: why Morgenthau? Isn’t he the archetypical exponent of a tradition that prioritises a static view of international relations and the adoration of power politics? Well, for those who have been following the recent revisionist literature on classical realism, not really; Morgenthau, in contrast, emerges as an apparent candidate to discuss the crisis of foundationalism in (international) political thought and the paradox of its necessity and impossibility, not least because he is one of those rare thinkers that offers no facile solution to, or redemption from, the existential anxiety caused by the interrogation of ultimate foundations in late modernity.

Such an exercise highlights the strong affinities between Morgenthau and critical historicist currents in social and political theory, but this would come as a surprise only to those who equate Morgenthau’s realism with stasis and conservatism and are ignorant of his debt to the thought of Dilthey, Mannheim and Nietzsche. And yet, why inconclusive? Short answer: because of his failure to be radical enough in his Kantian antinomism or, to put it reversely, in his Nietzschean skepticism. And yet, my intention is not to award or withhold credentials of criticality, nor to indict Morgenthau for failing to live up to standards that he never set for himself. On the contrary, in an authentic act of immanent criticism, one does not seek to oppose the other(s) but, instead, to bring out a certain ‘internal contradiction’ to them, in a sense repeat all that they are saying but for an entirely different reason. The purpose of this critique is not to identify shortcomings in Morgenthau’s arguments but to interrogate the ‘transcendental’ conditions of his discourse: that which is in it more than itself. My thoughts on Morgenthau’s unfinished project then should be seen as a propaedeutic towards an investigation of the conditions and challenges involved in practicing international theory as a constant critique of depoliticisation.

Continue reading

Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part II)

17 May

This is the second part of a single post about the F-35 as actor-network. The first part is here 

wbbuca 013


This word is meant to convey the F-35’s identity as a proper multirole fighter, a machine rigged to conduct both air superiority and strike missions, the latter defined as tactical attacks on a ground or naval target with a particular focus on “initial blow” or “first day of attack” operations.  All three variants of the F-35 fighter family hold this capability: the conventional A version designed for use by the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces; the Short Take-Off, Vertical Landing (STOVL) or B variant for the U.S. Marines Corps as well as the UK’s Royal Navy, as well as the conventional carrier-based edition for the U.S. Navy, the F-35C.

Airstrike, or strike for short, shapes, and is shaped by, the evolving structure of international politics in important ways.  Pax Americana, defined in terms of successive hegemonic or hierarchical international and regional orders centered on Washington, D.C., can be regarded as an assemblage made possible by the so-called global strike, among other smaller assemblages.  Since the middle years of the twentieth century warplanes have transformed themselves into multirole, fighter-bomber machines capable of ever-greater lethality and survivability.  What makes U.S. strike aircraft especially formidable is the surrounding stuff—assets like ballistic and cruise missiles plus countless “force enablers” such as ground bases, aircraft carrier groups, logistics depots, a large tanker force and aerial refueling know-how, interlinked information and communication systems, the ability to generate and sustain the use-of-airspace deals on relatively short notice and so on.

Continue reading

Aircraft Stories: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (Part I)

16 May


How big is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter? By one set of measures, it is three times bigger than the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System, ten times bigger than either the Apollo Project or the International Space Station or Hurricane Katrina, or one hundred times bigger than the Panama Canal. These comparisons are only moderately outlandish. US$1.45 trillion is the Pentagon’s own December 2010 estimate of lifetime operating and supporting costs for the 2,443 copies of the F-35 currently on order by the United States government, which we can then compare to the known price tags, in 2007 dollars, of these five projects.[i] Costs—also variously prefaced as procurement, actual, sunk, fly-away, upgrade, true and so on—and their contestations are central to a discourse of accountancy that surrounds all projects that require large-scale mobilization of public power. But enormous as they are, these numbers still cannot capture the size of this particular weapons program. To understand just how big the F-35 is, I wish to suggest in this two-part post, we ought to conceive it as a proper assemblage—a heterogeneous association of human and nonhuman elements that is at once split, processual, emergent, and, most importantly, constitutive of the modern international.

Continue reading

Open Access, Institutionalised?: Or, Another Reason Why International Relations Is Failing As An Intellectual Project

28 Apr

Soc Sci Tweet

The American Sociological Association (ASA) has announced that it will launch an (as-yet unnamed) open access general sociology journal as soon as possible (this year, maybe next). Its proposed features are a mix of traditional and new: there will be start-up cash and a stipend for Editors, peer-review is to be on the standard, appropriately ‘prestigious’ model (but expedited and light on style corrections), a traditional publisher (SAGE) is involved, authors will retain copyright, there will be no hard copies and therefore no limit on how much can be published in any given time period, all articles (accepted or not) will be subject to a $25 processing fee, and a variable tariff of Article Processing Charges (APCs) will be implemented, from free for scholars from “non-competitive” countries to $100-150 for students and $700 for non-members (for the first 12 months, APCs can also be waived, no questions asked).

The editors at Sociological Science (one of whom we interviewed last month) have noticed that this borrows heavily from their own initiative. Sniping aside, this is surely all to the good. An indication that major academic institutions are, at last, taking open access seriously. Not quite overhauling their systems, but adopting publishing platforms considerably more reasonable than the $3,000 APCs and business-as-usual structure previously threatened. This is an important point, since it supports the claim of some OA advocates that APCs may be financially better for the academy than historical subscription rates (I leave exacting comparisons of costs and the burden of double-dipping during any transition to one side). The problem has always been that the prestige economy (and therefore the social reproduction of universities) is not venue-blind. Low cost APCs in marginal journals are therefore of little help for those still seeking the (shrinking) securities of a formal academic post. But when the reputational power of learned societies is applied, it becomes much easier to envision a world of reputable (and hopefully high quality) open access journals charging APCs at a lower net cost than we currently pay through library subscription models.

The ASA is a powerhouse in these terms, and enjoys more market influence than the International Studies Association (boasting 13,000 members to our 7,000). It is all but inevitable that the mainstreaming of open access in this way will put the squeeze on the smaller open access journals, very many of which are labours of love, and some of which seem to actively treasure their reputation as insurgents or irrelevancies. If we want more material (and particularly the kind of material that carries value in an academic market) to be open access, imitation is the right kind of problem to have. Cultural Anthropology is another example of that shift (we got the gossip from them too last year), funding an open access conversion through the largest section of the 12,000 member American Anthropological Association.

Journal Profits

Profitability data from Harvie et al., 2012.

And yet this scenario is once again an embarrassing one for International Relations, which otherwise likes to imagine itself the most engaged and relevant of disciplines (state power! trade rounds! war and peace!). Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

17 Apr

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.

What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

13 Apr

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).

Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did then not seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the root to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. Continue reading

Cavity Searches in Intern(ation)al Relations

19 Jan

In the most darkly comic scene in Mohammed Hanif’s brilliant A Case of Exploding Mangoes, General Zia—the thinly mustachioed dictator of Pakistan from 1977-88—suffering from a bad case of worms, enlists the services of the physician of his Saudi friend Prince Naif. ‘Birather, bend please’, requests Dr. Sarwari, in a strange mixture of Arabic and American accents. Zia unfastens his belt, slips his trousers down and leans forward, laying his right cheek on his desk. His head is between two flags, Pakistan’s national flag and the flag of the Pakistan Army, as Dr. Sirawar slips a lubricated probing finger into his itchy rectum. The allegory is crystal clear: this is Pakistan being fucked by Saudi and US money and weapons during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the terror attacks of September 11 provide the pivotal moment in the transformation of young Pakistani Princeton graduate Changez Khan from Wall Street analyst to Islamist radical. Watching 9/11 unfold on television while away on a work trip, Khan feels something akin to schadenfreude, as if the attacks were payback for the daily humiliation of being Muslim in America, giving vent to a reservoir of grievance hitherto fiercely suppressed, even denied, in his pursuit of the American dream. Returning to the US, Changez can see that Americans see him differently. In Mira Nair’s film version of the book, he is separated from his white colleagues at immigration and subjected to a cavity search: this is Pakistan being fucked by the US in the aftermath of 9/11.

Continue reading

A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order

6 Jan

P1 aniang

A guest post from Amy Niang on the contours of ‘international community’, following previous interventions from Siba Grovogui in relation to Libya, Robbie on provinciality in International Relations and John M. Hobson et al. on Eurocentrism in international political theory. Amy teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and she is affiliated with the Centre of Africa’s International Relations (CAIR). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2011. She has taught International Relations, political theory and African history in South Africa, Scotland and Japan. Her research interests are in the history of state formation, political theory and Africa’s international relations, and she has commented regularly on democracy, civil society and Western intervention in Africa.

The Syria crisis has sparked many debates in scholarly and media circles, not least around the way in which the ‘international community’ should exercise its responsibility to Syrians and to the protection of human rights, particularly in the aftermath of the alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. The lack of consensus on the most appropriate response, within the limits of international law, raised a number of questions.

There were times when we were told that a military attack was imminent, others when cautious voices against a military campaign seemed to have the moral upper hand. In the days following the discovery of the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. made public its position on the question, based on the conviction that the Syrian government was responsible. In the general uproar that that ensued, the recent examples of Afghanistan and Iraq guided many deliberations on the wisdom of another humanitarian intervention. Like Barack Obama, many commentators believe in the existence of a red line that delineates the contours of a hypothetical morality, its alleged violation by Syria warranted punishment if the red line was to be pushed back. Many others however warned against acting on an impulse of outrage, Libya is a vivid example of how an ill-conceived intervention can be more damaging than the situation it originally sought to fix.

P3 Hypocrisy-Irony

From the polarized debates, two declarations in particular piqued my interest. The first one was Barack Obama’s Address to the Nation of September 10th, 2013. The second one was the Declaration of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government (the Africa Forum) on September 5th, 2013. The first one was as usual widely followed in America and beyond. The second went unnoticed partly because it was of little news worthiness for commentators of world affairs, partly because no one expected Africans to formulate any coherent view on the Syrian question. The first was delivered as an authoritative pronouncement on how a putative ‘we’ (i.e. the international community) should interpret international law and what shape its moral responsibility – here merely one embodiment of the West – should be engaged. Continue reading


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