Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’

Bringing to a close our symposium on Bodies of Violence is Lauren’s rejoinder to all our contributors, Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell, Pablo and Antoine.


First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.

As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event).  It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence.  My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment.  Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.

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Secular Bodies of Pain and the Posthuman Martial Corps

The penultimate post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence before the author gets the opportunity to respond to all the participants. Previous contributions come courtesy of Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell and Pablo – Lauren’s opening post can be found here.


David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

With Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox performs the much-needed service of bringing the body back to the foreground of international politics. Through both sophisticated theoretical exegesis and a rich treatment of relevant empirical material, the work insistently underlines why embodiment matters in contemporary practices of violence and how so many accounts of international relations to date have been deficient in this regard. To any that might still doubt it, Wilcox further demonstrates how the insights developed by feminist theory are not restricted to its primary object of gender and makes a compelling case that we find in this body of work one of the most important repositories of conceptual resources for thinking physical embodiment and the normative social frameworks in which such embodiment is lived out.

Perhaps Wilcox’s most important theoretical commitment in the book is her steadfast refusal to take bodies, and by extension political subjects, as given. Instead, bodies are always to be conceived of as in-formation, produced within and bound by normative orders all the while resisting and exceeding them. The human body should therefore not be treated as the basic unit of social ontology or serve as the fixed atom upon which the edifice of political theory is to be constructed (as exemplified by liberalism’s usual reliance on the sovereign rational individual). Drawing in particular on Judith Butler’s work, Wilcox proposes rather to conceptualise the subject as ‘ontologically precarious’ (p.190) and our political orders as accordingly contingent and open-ended. Violence is here taken to be of critical importance since it cannot be considered as ‘merely harmful but is constitutive of the embodied subjects of IR’ (p.28).

Bodies of Violence offers much stimulus for reflection but I will limit my comments to developing two lines of thoughts which are presented here as much as general provocations than as pointed questions to Wilcox. The first concerns the status of pain within the ethico-political imaginaries of modern societies, the second pertains to the relation of the posthuman military body to prevalent corporeal norms.

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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 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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The Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative and Its Critics

I have a piece out in the latest International Affairs on the UK government’s Preventing Sexual Violence Initiative (PSVI), better recognised as that thing William Hague did with Angelina Jolie(-Pitt) when he was still Foreign Secretary. As well as an important project in its own right, the Initiative might be read as signalling a new front in ethical foreign policy, and another success story in feminist activism around sexual violence (alongside the rise of ‘governance feminism’ and what have been called ‘femocrats’ in the UN and elsewhere). The role of the UK as a diplomatic and political presence becomes more important still against the background of rising attention to gender in global policy discourse in recent decades (conventionally referred to as the ‘Women, Peace and Security’, or WPS, agenda). Alternatively, the PSVI might be understood as a cause without demonstrable success, already fading from the scene along with Hague, its main advocate. And from either a conventionally Realist or a more radical activist perspective, the chances of a Foreign Office-led policy initiative making any feminist ground would seem slim.

Against this background, and building on a few years of following the Initiative’s progress, I stake out a preliminary analysis of three planks of the PSVI’s work. First, its wholesome embrace of ‘weapon of war’ thesis. Second, the great emphasis on ending impunity as the most effective means to reduce atrocity. And third, the repeated foregrounding of men and boys as ignored victims of sexual and gender-based violence. The headline conclusion is that, despite its promise, the initiative has thus far achieved little on its own technical terms, and its underlying approach to gender violence in conflict is in important senses limited. The conceptual bases of this relative failure lie in an unduly simplistic account of where and why such violence happens and an inability to reckon with the lack of evidence for strong deterrence effects or the significant resource challenges involved in supporting local and national justice programmes. By contrast, the PSVI stands as an important moment in the opening out of policy understandings of gender violence, although there nevertheless remain important ambiguities over ‘gender neutrality’ in practice, and therefore a likelihood of disputes over resources.

Missouri Emancipation Ordinance

The arrival of the Hague-Jolie Initiative onto the WPS scene was unexpected. The Conservative manifesto for the 2010 general election made no mention of wartime sexual atrocity, and was utterly conventional in its references to human rights. UK support for Security Council resolutions aside, activities on sexual violence have historically come from the Department for International Development (DFID), and with the exception of the attention generated during the London summit, the UK government has not made much of the initiative in its public relations since. The PSVI is thus heavily identified with William Hague personally, and can be traced to his epiphany over the role of genocidal rape in Bosnia. Hague, who is also the biographer of William Wilberforce, has framed war rape as similar to slavery in its immorality and argued for the role of the UK as an abolitionist force, repurposing standard diplomatic practice to progressive ends. This is to seek nothing less, in his words, than “the eradication of rape as a weapon of war, through a global campaign to end impunity for perpetrators, to deter and prevent sexual violence, to support and recognise survivors, and to change global attitudes that fuel these crimes”.

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Ethical Encounters – Care in Counterinsurgency: Feminist Ethics and the Morality of ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’

Processed with VSCOcam with lv01 preset

This guest post, by Jillian Terry, is the fourth in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Jillian is in the final stages of completing her PhD in International Relations at the LSE, where her research explores the relationship between feminist ethics and post-9/11 war. Recently, Jillian has published her research in the International Feminist Journal of Politics and has contributed a chapter to the edited volume Gender and Private Security in Global Politics, edited by Maya Eichler (OUP, 2015). For earlier posts, see Myriam’s here, Joe’s here, Elke’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post can be found here.


In thinking of twenty-first century war, questions of ethics in the realm of counterinsurgency are embodied in a wide range of encounters between combatants, civilians, and counterinsurgents. In Afghanistan and Iraq, we have witnessed tactics, strategies, and mechanisms in the name of COIN operations ranging from population control and detention to targeted killings and the implementation of the Human Terrain System, resulting in a set of complex realities about what it means to ‘do’ counterinsurgency in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, much of what we talk about when we think through questions of ethics and counterinsurgency remains tied to its manifestation in formal, legal mechanisms – namely the Counterinsurgency Field Manual (FM 3-24) – and their insistence on counterinsurgency as a practice of ‘winning hearts and minds’. Like much mainstream work on the ethics of war in IR, this has resulted in ethical conversations around counterinsurgency operations that are theorized with respect to just war doctrine, applying principles of jus in bello and jus ad bellum to determine the moral status of counterinsurgency as a means of warfighting. Here, I see a vital disconnect between existing analyses of COIN and how it is actually experienced and felt by insurgents and civilian populations – experiences and encounters that are irreducible to the strict criteria of the just war framework. To bridge this disconnect, I suggest a reorienting of our ethical lens away from just war thinking and towards a feminist ethics premised on care, empathy, and relationality. Such a perspective is more attuned to considering the practical realm of counterinsurgency rather than remaining mired in abstract debates about the semantics and theory of COIN operations. Given that the practical realm is one in which the truly relational nature of counterinsurgency becomes apparent, it is logical to look towards feminist ethics for an alternative viewpoint that prioritizes the lived experiences of individuals over legalistic interpretations of counterinsurgency as it appears on paper. A feminist ethics rooted in understandings of care and relationality will allow us to move beyond the formal articulation of COIN as is found in FM 3-24 and instead think about the encounters of those affected by counterinsurgency operations in a genuine and meaningful way.

U.S. Army PFC Danny Comley during patrol in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, February 2010.

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Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

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