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

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.

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

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.

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


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.

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

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

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

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

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.

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