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.

In particular, Wilcox draws heavily upon Judith Butler’s specific theorisation of embodiment in terms of performativity and the embodied citation/iteration of (e.g. gendered) norms, through which ontologically precarious bodies and lives are constituted and materialised as seemingly sexed, stable, bounded and ultimately made culturally legible, liveable and grievable. As such, rather than theorising violence exclusively as something done to, and simply destructive of, fully-formed bodies, Wilcox’s work is also informed by Butler’s more expansive concept of the ‘normative violence’ which she sees as an inevitable and generative part of living life as an embodied subject. Indeed, this is the case whether one is ultimately able to live up to social norms or not, for either way a subject cannot but live through certain norms, through material and embodied social facts. Such an understanding clearly has resonance with other social scientific work on e.g. structural, symbolic, classificatory and everyday violences. These forms of more implicit, elusive and invisible violence are often antecedents for the expression and legitimation of more obviously physical, identifiable and clearly perpetrated violences that are inflicted upon particularly classified bodies that are not intelligible or recognised as fully human.

In Wilcox’s own interrogation of five particular contemporary case studies – force-feeding at Guantanamo Bay, suicide bombing, airport security, precision warfare, the responsibility to protect doctrine – she deploys and extends this particular performative theorisation of embodiment beyond the original context of its development in terms of the embodied performance of social relations and norms of gender and the ongoing (co-)constitution of ‘sexed’ bodies to variously theorise e.g. the embodied performance of relations and norms of enmity and threat and the various associated productions of ‘safe/allied/liveable’ and ‘risky/enemy/killable’ bodies; the embodiment of relations and norms of protection and the associated stabilisation of ‘responsible’ and ‘dependent’ bodies, and so on. This is an insightful theoretical move and indeed each of the five case study analyses has much to recommend it individually in ways that a brief commentary such as this cannot hope to do justice to, suffice to say that those with a specific interest in any of the five areas considered will likely gain much from engaging with Wilcox’ particular analyses on these topics. Here I just wish to briefly mention two general thoughts and associated questions that were raised by the whole book rather than by any one of the case studies in particular, and that may pertain to the further development of the analytic agenda that the book advances.

Gerard Laing - US on Top (2004)

Gerard Laing – US on Top (2004)

The first concerns in what sense there might be any particular limits to the explanatory value of the key sensitising theoretical framework of embodied performativity and ‘normative violence’ that is deployed across all the numerous case studies considered here. Notwithstanding the supplementary engagement in certain chapters with further vocabularies of e.g. abjection or the posthuman to problematize bodily boundaries, the social embodiment of violent norms is really the major theoretical underpinning of all of the analyses undertaken in each of the five different case studies selected for interpretation. My sense was that Bodies of Violence was primarily concerned with establishing broad proof of concept that such theoretical deployment could work rather than engaging with detailed questions about the potential limits of its conceptual purchase and differences in explanatory value across the five varied case studies. The analyses undertaken propose if anything a near-universal analytic utility for the conceptual framework deployed in that there is a consistent interpretation that underlying normative violences operate within each of the different case studies. Additional comparative analysis, that specifically highlighted and attempted to think through where and why the interpretative framework might be especially productive, or indeed where and why it might feel less resonant and begin to break down, may potentially be insightful for further theoretical elaboration. At a more philosophical level, are there any socially embodied norms that are not inherently violent? How might one think or encounter bodies of nonviolence within this theoretical framework? How might the constitution of clearly and certainly devalued bodies, as well as particular embodiments of uncertainty, both relate to expressions of visceral violence? One thinks for example of Arjun Appadurai’s argument regarding ethnic conflict that, rather than physical violence always proceeding on the basis of clear and certain ethnic identifications and associated antagonisms, particular situations may be characterised by significant uncertainty and anxiety over identity categories, and visceral violence is hence often better understood as an idiom for the production of certainty.[1] Physical violence can become a brutal idiom for the perverse ‘confirmation’ of what otherwise may only exist as suspicion and conjecture.

Secondly, and while the current project is clearly conceptualised as a work primarily concerned with theorising embodied subjects rather than being explicitly set up to try and listen to lived experience or struggles for recognition, it is nonetheless important to think about what might happen if the many embodied subjects theorised were able to more consistently speak back to theory, if their feelings and desires were more enfleshed in the analysis. Would the stability of this conceptual grid of intelligibility remain intact and unmoved if such encounters and dialogues were able to be staged, if the complex emotions and meaning-worlds of those socially embodied subjects actively negotiating normative violences could have a more audible place in the analysis? Bodies of Violence insightfully occupies a particular intellectual space to theorise the violent norms at work in specific practices of security and this is certainly not to suggest that it should systematically try to apprehend the forms of embodied practice and being that are actually manifested in such security scenarios, in the way that for example an ethnography of the lived experience of security might attempt to. Rather it is simply to draw attention to the fact that any theory whose primary concern is social embodiment is always ultimately in dialogue with the fundamentally messy, excessive and teeming nature of social embodied life.

Ahmed Alsoudani, Untitled (2008)

Ahmed Alsoudani, Untitled (2008)

Indeed, at various points, Wilcox explicitly suggests the need to engage with further analyses and theories of embodiment and materialisation beyond performativity – from a call in the introductory chapter to engage with ‘new materialisms’ to supplement what has at times been argued to be the overly discursive nature of performativity theory, to a call in the concluding chapter to engage with theories of intercorporeal affect – in order to further develop the study of embodied subjectivity in IR. I would certainly endorse the utility of such dialogue with various other conceptual vocabularies of embodiment to develop such an analytic agenda, in addition to stressing the benefits of plural engagement with traditions of analysis specifically concerned with how various embodied norms are lived and negotiated on the ground – analyses of bodily pedagogics, anthropologies of the body and the senses, carnal sociologies, sensuous geographies and so on – as well indeed of broader dialogue with experiential testimony, literature and other cultural inscriptions on violence beyond the theoretical and the academic.

Neither of these overall comments should be taken in any way as compromising the status of what is an extremely lucid, provocative and significant text within International Relations. Bodies of Violence offers an important intervention and a compelling invitation into an increasingly exciting and significant area of scholarship.

[1] Appadurai, A. (1998) Dead Certainty: Ethnic Violence in the Era of Globalization, Public Culture 10, 2: 225-247


3 thoughts on “Violence, Norms and Embodiment

  1. Pingback: Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’ (The Disorder of Things) | Uma (in)certa antropologia

  2. Pingback: Bodies of violence | geographical imaginations

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