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.

Certainly Bodies of Violence marks well the relevance of the body. It offers trenchant readings of current instantiations of the body-in-violence and – sometimes fleetingly – a political critique of how hegemony (largely that of the United States) renders bodies. In the case of the Guantanamo detainees, US torture practices are explained as a contradiction in sovereign power. For they not only injure the body but also need to sustain it. ‘Enhanced interrogation’ is also (as, in a different sense, its proponents claim) a kind of dedication to life. It is not the sovereign power of making die. Moreover, the detainee cannot be allowed to commit suicide. He is not that which must die such that others will live, but he who must be preserved despite (or is it because of?) the torture. Wilcox renders all this palpable as a specific tension between sovereign and biopolitical logics acting on the body. By contrast, the self-harm of the hunger strike is properly understood as inflicting pain not in nihilism, but so that a detainee might enter a relationship and assert subjective presence, what Banu Bargu has elsewhere called necropolitical resistance (it would indeed be productive to read Wilcox alongside the astounding Starve and Immolate, and other recent interventions on the body such as Karin Fierke’s Political Self-Sacrifice).

When offering political readings of the body at this level, Bodies of Violence will likely resonate with critical sensibilities and claims. For example, that the special power of the female suicide bomber lies in reworking maternal codes, pregnant with a new political order. Or that security scanner technology seeks the certainty that otherwise comes only with anatomical dissection, whilst “[l]ife, in its vitality and complexity, hides the truth of the body”. As others have also noted, scanners today make the body legible through a heteronormative regime that renders trans* or queer bodies threatening. Or, that the drone operator as not just post-human but also post-sex, because their embodiment occurs in their interface with (their presence in?) a technical system. Drone warfare at the same time offers a one-way intimacy (through the screen) to go with its one-way violence (a violence more like torture than war, as Wilcox aptly phrases it).

Imran Qureshi, 'Blessings Upon The Land Of My Love' (2011)

Imran Qureshi, ‘Blessings Upon The Land Of My Love’ (2011)

Importantly, Wilcox is insistent on what it means to apprehend the body, and that is not just to recognise its pain or death. She offers a reading opposed to those who would prove their criticality by the index of the corpse:

the ‘human’ that they show is an injured body, a corpse, a body defined by its relationship to physiological harm or death. This kind of attempt to re-value bodies in opposition to strategic thought does not fundamentally challenge the reduction of the human to biological being, and thus erases the sociality of the body as it lives or dies.

To see and count bodies is not to afford them ethical concern, or to represent them as properly human. Like Sankaran Krishna, Himadeep Muppidi, Judith Butler and Derek Gregory before her (and also obviously in the work of the other contributors to this forum), Wilcox is addressing the technological, discursive and geopolitical mediations that confer meaning on bodies. When writing insists on the body, our own embodiment becomes more salient, impinging on our sense of our self – the mechanics of typing hands, or moving eyes, or posture and disposition. In that sense, writing about the body has the effect of centring the body. Thinking about the value of bodies draws us into a contemplation of human life and its treatment. Which is why the mere act of recognising bodies can seem tantamount to calling for the preservation and celebration of life. Drawing attention to bodies to highlight an equality of concern due to those who have otherwise been rendered invisible is itself to engage in materialisation, making those bodies matter in a different way. It is a way to turn bodies (which are, on the whole, visible to us) into persons (entities with value and meaning which we may not recognise). And yet the body – precisely because it is inescapable and ubiquitous – is also evasive, and the form of its mattering elusive.

For Judith Butler, ‘mattering’ is the conjoined process of materialisation (suggestive of the way bodies are produced or come into being) and meaning (how bodies are recognised and invested with worth). The stress in contemporaneous and subsequent work on material-isation (on matter-ing) is thus intended to signal a break with ideas of matter as simply there, as idle or inert, and therefore as a kind of brute fact which is inescapable or consistent in its ahistorical role. Thus we are pushed to examine not the characteristics of matter, but the historical process of mattering; not the innate sex that simply bears gender constructions, but the moments which seemed to establish bodies (or body parts) as prior to the sign system which names them. The point is well taken, and has consequences for a theory of embodiment.

Wilcox is overtly indebted to Butler, and in many ways Bodies of Violence can be read as an extension of the project begun in Frames of War, an encouragement to think differently about who is counted as human – and how. Yet there are ways of caring about bodies – and agreeing with Wilcox’s reading of drone interfaces and the saviour politics of liberal intervention – that do not require us to endorse feminist or other theories of the body. The disjuncture is key not just to Bodies of Violence, but to all thinking about international mattering. Butler’s register in texts such as Bodies That Matter is primarily philosophical, and her intervention is directed against ideas of the body as outside of discourse, as free from history, and as unconstructed. Again, much follows. But we could also say that the body is (minimally) constructed – apprehended through regimes of bio-medical truth, situated according to codes of sexuality and maturity, &c. – but that this construction does not really matter for an analysis of the international political.

I do not mean to endorse such a sentiment (it is mistaken), but to point to a level of analysis question. We might accept that the body is materialised, without saying that the participation of bodies is the crucial matter in, e.g., suicide bombing. What is at stake is less the nature of matter as such, and more the contextual mattering of bodies/embodiment to the political phenomena of violence. Many IR scholars might accept that bodies have some role or presence, agreeing with Wilcox that “[t]he body is an object that violence is done to, a container or a location for violence”. For all the abstractions of IR, this is not a sentiment that will call forth many objections. To show that bodies are performative and political does not mean that their absent presence requires an overhaul of all disciplinary thinking. And so what is needed is a deeper excavation of the form, degree and value of mattering.

For the so-called new materialists, such a theory means attributing a certain agency to bodily substance (genetics, morphology, neural pathways, flesh itself). As Karen Barad has insisted:

any robust theory of the materialization of bodies would necessarily take account of how the body’s materiality – for example its anatomy and physiology – and other material forces actively matter to the process of materialization.

This is importantly different to saying that political regimes interpret and work bodies in distinct ways. In Bodies of Violence, despite the emphasis on how bodies produce politics, it is mainly politics that produces bodies. Or better, politics that intervenes on and shapes bodies. The kind of categorization of prisoners enacted at Guantanamo is not really a reformation of matter so much as a revaluing of it. Unlike the process of soldier-making documented in Aaron Belkin’s Bring Me Men, there is more meaning than materialising at work. The example of suicide bombing – a political de-materialising – surely reshapes bodies, but in the process also abolishes them.

Rajkamal Kahlon, 'Did You Kiss The Dead Body' (2013)

Rajkamal Kahlon, ‘Did You Kiss The Dead Body’ (2013)

It is not entirely clear where Bodies of Violence sits in relation to these debates about ‘vibrant matter’, which are themselves ambiguously related to Judith Butler’s work on bodies. For some, there is a compatibility with the new materialism. For others there is not. Butler’s brand of monism asserts that “the very contours of the body are sites that vacillate between the psychic and the material”, which suggests a resistance that comes from bodies as such, described not in terms of a stable boundary but a resistance and demand that we respond to when making categories like ‘sex’ or ‘genetics’ or ‘disease’. These categories are the common stuff of thought, which is what makes a counter-history of them radical in conceptual terms, and potentially radical politically.

By contrast, it becomes easy to see violences as about embodiment when they happen to bodies, and more, when they happen to bodies in ways somehow unusual or surprising relative to a conventional form of violence. When focusing on the exceptional, or on violence that we find politically objectionable, the bullet on the battlefield does not appear as an example of embodied violence. If bodies are seen as primarily the materiel for violence, the substance that violence is done to, then there is less of a sense of bodies themselves constituting or limiting meaning. Nor do we see the mechanics of a power that layers meaning onto bodies. To give an account of power’s materialising is to insist on a proper account of the body’s historicity. Like Foucault (him again). But such histories (genealogies) are specific and dense, even as they claim that nothing was quite the same hence. The danger in centring the body is then of falling between the requisite conceptualisation (what is mattering in general?; what is a body as such?) and specific histories of power (how did the modern state come to govern a population of bodies?).

The intertwining of concepts and histories means that there are various (we might even say rival) understandings of political bodies, and mattering bodies. In The Body in Pain Elaine Scarry writes of torture as:

the translation of all the objectified elements of pain into the insignia of power, the conversion of the enlarged map of human suffering into an emblem of the regime’s strength… [A]t least for the duration of this obscene and pathetic drama, it is not the pain but the regime that is incontestably real, not the pain but the regime that is total, not the pain but the regime that is able to eclipse all else, not the pain but the regime that is able to dissolve the world.

Whilst materialising is something that happens upon, or in, the physical form (hence phrases like ‘inscribed on the body’), the mattering of bodies is not a brute physical process. The conferring of meaning on bodies and their experiences – the conversion of pain into truth – is something done in speech (which we might say is hardened into something called ‘discourse’). Is saying so to to reinstate a bad dualism, a good dualism, or not a dualism at all? Should we read Scarry as inattentive to the body as more than a bundle of nerve endings, or see the foundation on which different political histories might be erected? Even as the tortured body occupies the zenith of materialised violence, Scarry insists on a certain ontology of the body whilst putting the emphasis on institutional power. Pain in the body has certain characteristics that cannot find intersubjective expression. So the meaning (and perhaps therefore the materialisation) of bodies as tortured, and tortured for a reason, comes through the political speech of the torturer and his regime.

Otto Dix - Card-Playing War Cripples - 1920

In Bodies of Violence, the conceptual key to understanding how bodies are produced (and hence political) is performativity. Which is to say that categories do not name pre-existing realities, but are enunciations that claim to be reflecting facts that they are actually creating. So bodies (or the political language around violent bodies) cannot be taken for granted. But what is the opposite of performativity? Who is it that claims that ‘prisoner’ reflects a pre-existing truth rather than coming into being through the institution and discourse of imprisonment (an example Wilcox draws on)? Clearly, there is too much woven into the idea of performativity to unpack the possibilities here. The point is that there are multiple ways in which performativity could be seen to work in practice, and an enlarging sphere of debates about mattering to sift through. Moving beyond the rare figures of international politics, how do we sense the body of the factory worker, of the financial trader, or the seafarer, of the defence intellectual? Liminality makes for symptomatic readings, but also the paradoxical re-inscribing of “the body” as of only occasional import, rather than as central to the global everyday.

The materiality of the body is the substratum of a subjectivity that is always – necessarily – in excess of the body. The bare life of the body needs to be taken literally – there is nothing to be said about the body without translation in and through some other regime of meaning. So attention is due to the history of those regimes of meaning. Or else we require an account of mattering that confers more agency to flesh than Bodies of Violence does. If the body is resistant or has agency at a more fundamental level, theory must explicate that mechanism in addition to showing how different embodiments are used by hegemonic politics. This is to a great extent a question of ontologies of the body, and a generalised theory of embodiment. But it is also crucial for the political readings we hope to produce. If, as Wilcox suggests, suicide bombing deterritorialises the state in its exemplary force (the leakiness of flesh challenging the hegemony of the body politic), and if the state form itself requires a certain stabilised form of the body, international theory must reckon with the body anew. As Kevin says, Bodies of Violence is a broad proof of concept, and it does much to convince. A vista of possibilities has been opened (not all of which, as Ali Howell notes, need be indebted to feminist theory above all). Theory is disembodied (decapitated here, mutilated there), but matter is going nowhere. All these bodies, and still the theories keep piling up.

[1] Although I know Lauren, I refer to ‘Wilcox’ throughout in an effort at scholarly convention. I have, however, eschewed page references, since they bother the textual flow so.

[2] The first chapter is largely concerned with charting this individualism. Such a reading is necessarily brusk, taking in Hobbes, Foucault, liberal feminism, constructivism, and more. I think there is room for serious debate over whether IR really is as individualist, liberal and humanist as Wilcox claims, but I leave that to one side, the better to focus on the principal positive argument of the book.

6 thoughts on “Bodies, What Matter?

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

  2. Pingback: Bodies of violence | geographical imaginations

  3. Might I have some clarification? You write that the study is concerned with THE BODY AS NOT: inert, the mere vehicle for mind. Rather it is concerned with THE BODY AS: malleable, and indeed “deeply political”; and “enabling and generative of war and practices of political violence more broadly”.

    You also say that IR theory has 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”.

    Can you spell that out in clearer language, or at least in different words? I don’t understand:

    1 – what you mean by body;
    2 – how they “matter” in the very specific way you seem to suggest they do;
    3 – what according to you it means for them to be produced (humans are mammals; they’re born–but I gather that you mean something like subjective accounts or descriptions of particular kinds of people, who are said to have particular kinds of bodies);
    4 – what you mean by enabling and generative of war and practices of political violence more broadly”; how can a body enable war? or cause war? or are you again referring to what I think you’re referring in 3?
    5 – and what you mean in the very specific way you seem to mean “how violence acts upon and through bodies”. What does it mean to have violence as a subject in your sentence? On my understanding, violence can’t act; humans act, and do violence.



    • Good questions that have gone unanswered for too long. And highly demanding ones. In each case, there is a considerable degree of ambiguity, and I would say that I am less settled on answers to them in this post than I am trying to point out how these issues are unresolved, or in need of further discussion, if the study of bodies and embodiment is to mean much for IR. I would also suggest that much of what you ask – all expansive enough in its own terms – is covered in the post. At least, I make attempts to cover it. To set that all out again, in clearer language or not, would be to write several thousand words, if not a book. I should also clarify that the very title of the post (‘Bodies, What Matter?’) is meant to indicate a considerable degree of doubt about embodiment theory and body talk in IR. In that sense, the demand for a fully-worked out account of the body and embodiment is misplaced when directed at me.


      1. The body is multiple. This is not an evasion of the question. My having a single definition will not help, since the idea of the body is deployed so differently and in so many contexts, and it is this meaning-in-use that counts. The body is basically corporeal matter. But saying so misses at least three crucial ambiguities: (i) lots of people, including ’embodiment’ theorists, continue to talk as if the body is the opposite (or complement) of mind. They see in the body emotion, presence, specific location in the world, and contrast that to attention to propositions, logic, identity, thought. Implicitly, they do not see the mind as part of the body. I reject that division, but it is common; (ii) some who study the body are interested in its component parts and how they work together and are imagined together by us. So the body is not a single thing but a collection and inter-relation of neurons, limbs, and categories (i.e. the way we speak about bodies somehow constitutes or makes bodies because the definitions we use change how we interact with bodies as mere matter); (iii) because pain is experienced in bodies, attention to embodiment is taken to mean attention to human suffering and experience in a way not true if scholars just study war in the abstract. Again, I don’t think this is a sustainable or sufficient distinction, but I am working with the work in IR on embodiment that exists.

      2. I don’t advance a strong claim of how bodies matter. I say that this claim is common, and that there are various ways of reading it (I give some examples from established theorists of the body and embodiment like Judith Butler). I suggest the account that we have thus far does not sufficiently help us clarify what it means for the body to matter. So if your question indicates a scepticism about the language of bodily mattering, it is one that I share. I am at the same time taken by the general claim that the character of the body (understood as corporeal stuff) is too quickly passed over in academic accounts that stress language, policy, high theories of statecraft, quantifications of state power, and more (you might say tautologically that the body is neglected in studies that don’t focus on the body).

      3. Bodies are produced in the sense that they are described in ways that change what they are (what Ian Hacking calls looping effects), but also in the much more basic sense that corporeality shifts and changes in the face of all kinds of social practices (systems of nutrition that vary historically, training regimes of the military that construct bodies in certain ways, technological and labour shifts that increase sedentary posture, medical advances in both ‘real’ bodily interventions and in the ‘imaginary’ space of classifications, etc.). Saying that the body is produced is a way of not taking its existence for granted, and of asking how it comes to take the shape and have the meaning that we give to it in any given context.

      4. The line you reference is a quote from Lauren’s book, so the question of what it means for a body to be generative of war is best directed at her. My own view in the post is that there is quite a gap between saying that bodies matter (for some of the reasons elaborated in 1.) and saying that bodies are generative in ways that are crucial for political analysis to grasp. There is a literature on new materialism that you can look up that tries to explain how bodies can have agency, are generative, are ‘vibrant’, etc. Again, I see value in this work insofar as it indicates the limits of ignoring the capacities and resistances of matter (including corporeal matter), but I am much more sceptical of specific claims of embodied generative power. My own view (tentative, in development) is much closer to a standard interpretivist view than it is new materialist.

      5. See 4. But you can rephrase the line to “how violence is done to bodies, and what violence bodies are capable of”.


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