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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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 – 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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What We Talked About At ISA: Weaponising Geography and the Global Striations of Military Targeting

In the context of a panel I put together on “Turning Ploughshares into Swords: Weapons and Weaponizations”, the ISA’s annual conference was the occasion for me to present some of the research I have undertaken as part of my long term project into the logistics of military perception. The central aim of that project is to uncover the genealogy and operation of the functional constituents of contemporary targeting practices as they increasingly span the globe. I submit that we can outline three distinct, if profoundly intertwined, functions of sensing, imaging and mapping that respectively gather sensorial information, visually represent and disseminate it, and relate it to geospatial frameworks. It is the last of these operations that was the focus of my paper, with particular attention paid to the way in which the planet has increasingly been enframed within systems of geographic coordinates permitting the geolocation and thereby targeting of any entity caught within their mesh.

While the role of cartography in European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century on is well-known, my main interest here lies in the even more intimate relationship between the histories of weapons targeting and techniques of geospatialisation. From the outset, the development of artillery in the early modern era was closely bound up with that of surveying techniques for the measurement of distances by visual means. Indeed, the range-finding exercises of gunners relied on the same trigonometric methods that underpinned the rise of modern cartography.

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Closet Postcolonialists? On Buzan and Lawson’s Global Transformation

julianaugust13This is the second post in our symposium on The Global Transformation by Buzan and Lawson. We are delighted to welcome Julian Go, Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at Boston University, and Editor of Political Power and Social Theory. Julian’s recent books include American Empire and the Politics of Meaning (Duke University Press, 2008) and Patterns of Empire: the British and American Empires, 1688 to Present (Cambridge University Press, 2011), both of which have won numerous prestigious awards in various disciplines. He is currently working on a manuscript provisionally entitled Postcolonial Theory and Social Thought and a volume on Global Historical Sociology co-edited with George Lawson.

Update: Jeppe’s response, Jamie’s response and the authors’ rejoinder are now also live. Original post here.

In this magisterial work, Buzan and Lawson make two overarching claims: 1. the nineteenth century saw a fundamental “global transformation” in the “international order”, creating the essential aspects of the “global modernity” we inhabit today, and 2. disciplinary IR needs to recognize this transformation and reconfigure its identity and agenda accordingly. As a historical sociologist, I feel less certain about judging the second claim but more certain about the first. Was there a fundamental transformation in the nineteenth century that has shaped our contemporary global modernity? Yes. And Buzan and Lawson painstakingly and persuasively chart this transformation like none other.

What, then, to say about this important book – a book, by the way, which every serious historical social scientist needs to read? A book which, in my estimation, belongs among the great works of historical sociology like those of Wallerstein, Tilly, and Mann? Pushed to say something critical, I will instead say something didactic. More precisely, I will comment on two things: the relative absence of theory and the remarkable presence of empire. Put differently: what is the theoretical frame or theoretical considerations mobilized in the work? And why isn’t empire the fundamental organizing analytic category? Or, put simply: are Buzan and Lawson closet postcolonialists? Continue reading