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.

My book makes three interrelated arguments:

  • First, contemporary practices of violence necessitate a different conception of the subject as embodied. Understanding the dynamics of violence means that our conceptual frameworks cannot remain ‘disembodied’. My work builds on feminist and biopolitical perspectives that make the question of embodiment central to interrogating power and violence.
  • Second, taking the embodied subject seriously entails conceptualizing the subject as ontologically precarious, whose body is not given by nature but formed through politics and who is not naturally bounded or separated from others. Feminist theory in particular offers keen insights for thinking about our bodies as both produced by politics as well as productive of
  • Third, theorizing the embodied subject in this way requires violence to be considered not only destructive, but also productive in its ability to re-make subjects and our political worlds.

 Bodies of Violence proceeds first through a theoretical engagement with IR theory, then to a series of engagement with specific modes of violence, primarily associated with the “war on terror” that are aimed at making a distinctive contribution in their own right as well as unraveling some of IR’s implicit assumptions about bodies and arguing that in order to comprehend the dynamics of political violence, a different conception of embodiment is needed.

II: Bodies, Embodiment and Modes of Violence

Chair used to force-feed hunger striking prisoners in Guantánamo Bay

Chair used to force-feed hunger striking prisoners in Guantánamo Bay

In “Dying is Not Permitted,” I examine what appears to be paradox in terms of IR/political theory: that torture (a practice of sovereign violence) and force-feeding (biopolitical violence of ‘making live’) coexist in Guantánamo Bay. I discuss how the anxieties that constitute the paradox of sovereign power and biopower are manifested in the force-feeding of hunger-striking prisoners, an exercise of power that transforms prisoners from dangerous “enemy combatants” to a biopolitical subjectivity as recipients of care (as such this also a critique of the application of Agamben’s homo sacer thesis to Guantánamo Bay).  This is based on force-feeding as a practice of violence done to the ill, mad, and women: not those considered full, speaking, consenting subjects. The practice of hunger striking, as making pain and injury visible in the body, provokes a discussion of politics of ‘bodies in pain’ and recognition in force-feeding, which I have previously blogged about on the Disorder of Things.

The next ‘mode of violence’ I discuss is suicide bombing, which contributes to thinking about about the assumption of bodies as individually bounded and clearly demarcated between inside and outside.  Here, I’m not interested in asking what practice means to various parties or its strategic value or lack thereof, but what the body does, that is, what political work does the body do as it is destroyed in order to transform into a weapon to kill others? I use Julia Kristeva’s term abjection (and Butler’s revision of it) to describe the bodies of suicide bombers and their victims: as transformed into that source of horror which defies borders and is expelled to create the self. As ‘abject bodies,’ suicide bombers frustrate attempts at calculation and rational control of security risks, and, in their mutilated flesh, expose as unstable the idea of the body as a whole with clearly defined boundaries between inside and outside.  Attempts at reconstructing the bodies of victims and perpetrators of suicide bombings such as the work of ZAKA amount to a ‘resubjectification’ of these bodies, and are key practices in the production of the state and gendered and heteronormative subjects. Suicide bombing thus becomes a site that reveals how power molds, shapes, and constitutes the borders of the body and the state simultaneously.

In a different context from the torture and force-feeding of Guantánamo Bay, the terrorist subject is also produced by practices of surveillance and detection that purport to ‘read’ the body for signs of ill intent. The issue of the material/immaterial dichotomy of how we think about bodies is discussed through an examination of what I term, following Mark Salter and others, airport security assemblages. In a series of procedures, documents, machines, algorithms and encounters, the airport security assemblages manage the threat of violence by transforming embodied subjects into suspicious flesh that can be dissected digitally in a search for the truth of a person’s riskiness or trustworthiness. Between analysis of documents and databases for immaterial signs of riskiness to the use of biometrics that takes the material body as the ultimate sign of truth and trustworthiness, embodied subjects are first reduced to ‘just bodies’ and then dematerialized into information patterns to be analyzed for evidence of risk.

Images from millimeter wave scanner

Images from millimeter wave scanner

At the same time, the experiences of trans- people show that such security practices are deeply embedded in discourses of gender that presume and reinforce the alignment of bodily morphology to gender presentation and official documentation.

See the pink and blue buttons? Security personal are supposed to tell the machines what kinds of bodies to expect based on gender presentation. Image from TSA website.

See the pink and blue buttons? Security personal are supposed to tell the machines what kinds of bodies to expect based on gender presentation. Image from TSA website.

Bodies that do not conform to the assumptions made about them based on gendered (and racial) assumptions (and the subsequent treatment of such bodies as security threats) reveal how the categories of the material and symbolic are intertwined in the production of biometric bodies as the ultimate truth. Transgender people and others whose bodies that do not conform to gender expectations reveal the problematic location of ‘the material’ (and thus ‘securable’) in the bodies of humans, as well as the state’s investment in ‘securing gender’.

Another ‘counter-terrorism’ effort also makes the question of bodies and embodiment central to understanding war and technology: the practice of precision warfare, and specifically what is generally now referred to as ‘drone warfare’.  In contrast to the argument that the physical distance between the bomber and the bombed and the lack of the bomber being able to see his victims enables and contributes to various forms of bombing as a tactic, the operators of ‘drones’ usually see their victims quite clearly and their experience of war is far from that of a ‘disembodied’ form of warfare, usually derided as ‘video-game’ or ‘push-button’.  This suggests the need for considering this form of warfare not as ‘disembodied’ but as a kind of augmented embodiment, or, posthuman embodiment. I ask about the conditions of possibility for this kind of violence in terms of bodily relations, investigating the visual capabilities of ‘drones’, ‘pattern of life’ analysis and the use of metadata, and the diagnoses of drone operators with PTSD, among other contemporary features of precision warfare.  The use of drones pushes our thinking about agency and subjectivity in terms of posthuman bodies, assemblages of organic and technological, cultural and natural materials and forces. I argue that the attempted (but ultimately incomplete) transformation of the human body into an information processor enables a certain moral and political calculus of which bodies ‘count’. The posthuman bodies of pilots and drone operators are constitutive components of a regime that carefully seeks out individual bodies to kill, yet cannot provide an accurate count of the number of civilians killed.

The book wraps up with a chapter that applies a framework I’ve developed in the course of this work to the “Responsibility to Protect.” If we theorize bodies as I have argued throughout the work that we should, as both produced by and productive of politics and not contained in themselves nor in their relations to others, we can now think about embodied subjects in connection to RtoP in such a way that challenges the terms of ‘responsibility’ by thinking about not only harm done to existing bodies, but the production of certain bodies as those that can be harmed and certain bodies as invulnerable.

Overall, my engagement with feminist theory and these empirical practices of violence/security demonstrates the inadequacies of the ways in which bodies have been conceptualized in security studies, whether security is understood in terms of the protection of discrete, separate human beings or the guarding of aggregations of bodies in populations. The key conclusion of the work, then, is of the importance of feminist theory as a productive site for thinking about our bodies as both fundamental to subjectivity and political themselves, the implications of which have not been fully explored in the field of International Relations. Our bodies, as the basis for political subjectivity, are politically constituted—they are effects of political discourses of violence and vulnerability, security and power, while also being constitutive of politics themselves. It is my hope that this work will further the debate about embodiment in International Relations, the myriad forms embodiment takes and its significance for theorizing IR and the global dynamics of power and violence more broadly.

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2 thoughts on “Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations

  1. Pingback: Bodies of violence | geographical imaginations

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