The Stories We Tell About Killing

The third piece in our forum on Economy of Force (following Patricia’s opening and Pablo’s piece on patriarchy), and the first contribution to The Disorder of Things from Jairus.


Narrative: The central mechanism, expressed in story form, through which ideologies are expressed and absorbed.

– Glossary, U.S. Army Field Manual 3-24

Patricia Owens Economy of Force is, to date, the most important book that has been written on counter-insurgency. To put it another way, Economy of Force is the first book written with the sobriety of distance from the necessary but often polemical responses to Human Terrain and the high-profile ‘anthropologists’ of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The shortcoming of these earlier responses was the tendency to treat contemporary efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as somehow new. Lost in the flurry of shock over academic involvement in warfare was the understanding that social theory has, in some sense, always been at war. It is this last point that Owens’ book really excels at theorizing. Unlike other explorations of counter-insurgency that emphasize the ‘weaponization’ of social theory and anthropology, Owens locates counter-insurgency as an outgrowth of liberalism and its governance of the social, specifically the domestic. This difference is vitally important. In the work of Roberto Gonzalez and others, we are left with a sense that anthropology and social work could be demilitarized. However, the genealogy of ‘home economics’ given to us by Owens’ suggests that the very concept of the social is rife with the desire for order, which is often established by violent means.

HTT 12
This places the first part of Owens book alongside Michel Foucault’s three biopolitics lectures, in particular Security, Territory and Population, as well as Domenico Losurdo’s Liberalism: A Counter-History. In their own way these works attempt to reconstruct the philosophical and political history of liberalism as beginning with the violence of racial and economic ordering, rather than seeing liberalism as having fallen from grace as a result of the temptation and corrosive effects of empire. Owens, Foucault, and Losurdo all find liberalism’s logic of governance to be in the form of what Foucault famously called ‘war by other means.’ What distinguishes Owens’ work from Foucault and Losurdo is that she follows this line of logic through to the particular formation of a liberal way of war called counter-insurgency. Owens’ foregrounding of counter-insurgency is a much needed corrective to Foucault’s conclusion in Security, Territory, and Population, where he argues that external relations in the state system of Europe were characterized by balance of power politics. Entirely absent in Foucault’s development of the concept of race war in Society Must be Defended and Security, Territory, and Population is the particularities of European imperial and then colonial enterprise. This becomes even more apparent in the final lectures The Birth of Biopolitics, in which the brilliant and prescient account of the rise of neoliberalism in the U.S. leaves out entirely the anti-black racism that animated the war on the welfare state. Owens’ more internationally situated account does not ameliorate all of these shortcomings, but does put us on the road to doing so. In fact, her genealogy of the domestic is not about refining our understanding of the social in social theory, but about showing how essential and under-theorized the domestic is in the field of International Relations, which relies essentially on the difference between the foreign and domestic.

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‘Once more unto the breach’ – On Hilary Benn and Fighting Wars with Words

IMG-20150308-WA0003 (3)A guest post from Nadya Ali. Nadya is a Teaching Fellow in Politics and IR at the University of Reading. Her thesis was written on the topic of UK counter-terrorism and it’s role in the governance of the domestic Muslim population. Her research interests include gendered understandings of political violence and postcolonial approaches in IR. She is also a convenor of the BISA Critical Studies on Terrorism Working Group.


Shadow Home Secretary Hilary Benn has emerged as the unlikely oratory hero through his speech to the House of Commons during the debate on whether to carry out airstrikes in Syria. It has been hailed as ‘extraordinary’ and as one “that will go down as one of the truly great speeches made in this House of Commons”. Benn has been described as ‘the mouse that roared’ and now even as a potential leadership candidate. The effusive coverage of the speech comes in the aftermath of the successful vote which enables the extension of British airstrikes targeting Islamic State (IS) from Iraq into Syria. Leaving aside the context of internal Labour party politics, Benn’s words have a resonance and political utility that extend far beyond the party. Despite the plaudits and unlike Shakespeare’s Henry V, Benn did not deliver a great speech but simply the right speech.

His dramatic moment in the House of Commons was the culmination of the successful move to, once more, mobilise British military capability as part of the ‘War on Terror’. According to one journalist the speech was written while the debate took place with Benn sitting on the front bench. This was no doubt intended as a compliment but it needn’t be: everything he said was could have been lifted out of the ‘War on Terror Handbook of Justifications to Fight Wars’, if indeed it existed. Since 9/11 Western leaders have deployed the same set of claims about particular actors, states and terrorist organisations to make the case for military interventions. Benn ticked all the relevant boxes; he talked suitably about the ‘fascist’ threat of IS, of ‘our values’ and the necessity to use further violence.

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Thinking Internationally About The Arms Trade

A guest post, following our recent podcast on the arms trade and its discontents, from Anna Stavrianakis. Anna is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on the arms trade, arms transfer control and militarism.


Zapiro - Russia Syria Arms Trade

September 2015, ExCel Centre, London: Stop The Arms Fair activists block the road and prevent military vehicles entering the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) exhibition. They are protesting against one of the largest arms fairs in the world – sending a message to the UK government and arms companies that “inviting representatives of repressive regimes and their armed forces to hob-nob and do dodgy deals at DSEI … with representatives from the UK government and unscrupulous arms companies from around the world IS NOT OK.” Two weeks previously, Cancun, Mexico: Control Arms activists build a life-size sand sculpture of a Stormer 30 tank on Baracuda Beach, Cancun, calling on states to save lives! by ensuring the toughest possible standards at the first Conference of State Parties to the Arms Trade Treaty, the biggest game in town for contemporary international arms transfer control.

These two campaigns share the language of “dodgy deals” but are otherwise quite different visions of the arms trade and its control. The Control Arms campaign focuses on encouraging, informing and embarrassing diplomats into agreeing a multilateral treaty that enshrines higher common international standards and establishes stronger norms against arms transfers that violate human rights and international humanitarian law. The Stop The Arms Fair coalition, meanwhile, takes direct action to halt the operation of arms fairs in the UK by physically blockading the exhibition centre, in protest at the relationship between arms companies and the UK government, and the relationships between the UK government and authoritarian, repressive and war-fighting foreign governments.

I’ve written in the past about the international politics of NGO and campaign group strategy – whether reformist, insider approaches are more effective than transformist, outsider ones – in the context of debates about global civil society. Yet what continues to trouble me, intellectually and politically, is a raft of questions about the operation of the arms trade itself. Namely: where, or with whom, does political responsibility lie for the negative effects of the arms trade in a world of formally national states that are home to internationalising arms companies and operate in a multilateral system based on sovereignty? What social forces drive the arms trade, how does their power operate, what is the character of the problems they generate, and how should scholars and activists best respond? Competing understandings of the operation of the arms trade can be seen in the varied activist responses to it: is the problem one of lack of regulation, the need for improved multilateral action, improved normative standards and international law, as per the Arms Trade Treaty? Or is the problem the relationship between the state and arms capital, and government promotion of the trade, as per the anti-DSEI protests? In the case of DSEI, how are we to understand the operation of internationalising arms capital that has an intimate yet fractious relationship with national states? And in the case of the Arms Trade Treaty, how should we make sense of efforts to create a level playing field of respect for human rights and humanitarian law in the context of a vastly asymmetric and hierarchical world military order?

Thinking theoretically, I have come to see that a large part of the difficulty in answering these questions lies in the grip that methodological nationalism continues to hold on IR as a discipline. Continue reading

The Dissonance Of Things #3: The Arms Trade and Its Discontents

This month, I step into the role of host for our third ever podcast, on the topic of the arms trade, ways of thinking about it, and the various forms of opposition to it. Helping us make sense of all that are Chris Rossdale of the University of Warwick and Anna Stavrianakis of the University of Sussex. Chris is a participant observer of anti-militarist social movements and the author of numerous pieces on the politics of protest, as well as this post for us on political solidarity. Anna is the author of many pieces on the arms trade and militarism, including Taking Aim at the Arms Trade: NGOs, Global Civil Society, and the World Military Order (Zed, 2010).

The immediate context for our discussion is a whole series of protests against the Defence and Security Equipment International (DSEI) Exhibit, due to take place next week in London. One part of that was an academic ‘Conference at the Gates’ earlier today at the ExCeL Centre, and it is on the notion of activist academia that we begin the conversation.

As ever, consume, cogitate, share, discuss and share again. You can also follow past and future casts on soundcloud.

 

Further resources, including articles discussed in the podcast:

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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