Queer International Relations (II)

The second post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is contributed by Joan Cocks. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and other responses to it here. joan-cocks-photo

Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where she also founded and for many years directed the interdisciplinary Program in Critical Social Thought. She is the author of On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013). She has published articles on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence in edited volumes, contributions to symposia and blogs, and journals such as Political Theory, Theory & Event, Political Studies, Politics and Society, Polity, New Political Science, Radical Philosophy Review, differences, Quest, Arena Journal, Social Research, Constellations, Interventions, and Socialism and Democracy. In addition to writing on the politics of disappearance and the concept of primitive accumulation, she is currently engaged in rethinking citizenship and the meaning of foreignness for a global age.


The interest of modern states in nailing down the identity of things to be subjected to their authority has been highlighted by critics from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to James C. Scott and Zygmunt Bauman. However much the struggle for sovereign power may issue in bloodshed, social chaos, and the dissolution of existing life worlds, the desire of sovereign power for order asserts itself once that struggle has been resolved.

As these and other scholars have argued, the modern state’s quest for order is manifested in the establishment of external borders separating one nation-state from another and in an increasingly adept drive to classify the persons, social groups, and material resources that make up the domestic domain. Inversely, the territory and people the state aims to control are made to submit to representational rules that differentiate one kind of entity from another as well as practical rules governing the behavior appropriate for or towards each type of subject and thing. If sovereign power ever could become absolute, nothing in its realm would be at odds with its assigned category; nothing would stray from the limits of that category through an autonomous impulse, proclivity, or decision; nothing would consist of aspects or levels hidden from the sovereign eye; and no entity would metamorphose of its spontaneous accord into an entity of another sort.

Of course, actual life is far too profuse, energetic, unruly, labile, and multi-layered, as well as too susceptible to limits and pressures from heterogeneous sources, including the imperatives of biology and the ‘dead weight’ of history, to match the conditions for its total subjection to sovereign power listed above. But while absolute sovereign power in human affairs must therefore be counted as a delusion, the will to exert the maximum possible degree of sovereign power is very real. Moreover, far from being the sole prerogative of states, aspirations to sovereign power may be expressed by or ascribed to the abstract individual, the demos, the ethno-nation, political movements that dress up their will to sovereign power in godly garb, and even the entire human race in its relationship to other species of being. Finally, the fact that the total control of people and places on the part of any of these would-be sovereigns is phantasmic does not mean that attempts to turn fantasy into reality are phantasmic, or that those attempts have only phantasmic effects on the world.

At the most general level, Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations concerns the tug of war between the compulsion to classify and control by would-be sovereign authority on the one side, and the resistance of life to that compulsion and authority on the other, in the specific historical and geographical context of the contemporary West/Global North. In the contest between the allergy to ambiguity and high anxiety about disorder on the part of Western/Northern regimes of power, and the delight in ambiguity and ease with disorder on the part of identities at odds with those regimes, she comes down firmly on the ambiguity-embracing and order-disrupting side.

Cynthia’s frame for analyzing that contest has its pluses and minuses. For example, her geographical focus allows her to avoid falsely universalizing contemporary experience on the basis of the Western/Northern case. At the same time, that focus prevents her from addressing the extent to which and the ways in which regimes of power outside the West/Global North also may try to pin down the profusions of life for the sake of exerting control over them; how ‘Western discourses’ stack up against discourses elsewhere with respect to their openness to fluidity and plurality; and how the direction of influence might be shifting today among contemporaneous discourses in the Global South, the Global North, and regions that don’t fit on either side of that binary. Then, too, while Cynthia’s association of the concept of sovereign power with the emergence of the modern nation-state agrees with the historical record, that association helps her skirt the possibility that transnational forces such as al-Qaeda or ISIS or global capital, which she intimates are anti-sovereign because they are corrosive of national sovereign power, may be out to wield sovereign power in non- or post-national forms. Finally, Cynthia’s discourse-centered methodology allows her to interpret, with the requisite complexity, the dream world of contemporary Western politics. Still, she leaves the reader (or at least this reader) with the old nagging question of what exactly the relationship is between dream and reality: that is, between discursive figurations and the actualities that those figurations imaginatively sculpt and re-shape. For example, can the discourse of Western statecraft be said to do a disservice to what ‘the al-Qaeda terrorist’ is really about, or can Cynthia merely encourage us to exchange one discursive construction of ‘al-Qaeda’ for another (and, if so, which construction exactly, and why?)

These general queries to one side, Cynthia’s special project is to bring queer theories of sexual identity into contact with critical IR theories of sovereign power in order to give their two sets of agendas combined intellectual clout. The most tantalizing elements of that project, to my mind, are the portraits she paints, with brushes borrowed from both schools, of recently arrived characters on the contemporary national and international scene. As Cynthia represents them, these characters or rather their unsettling doubles in the Western political imagination frustrate all attempts of the Western state – and, in the case of the EU, an incipient supra-state – to force life into the simplifying mold of the ‘either/or’, especially with respect to the positive/negative ‘either/ors’ of ‘the citizen and the alien’, ‘the civilized and the barbarous man’, and ‘the normal heterosexual and the perverse homosexual’. I take Cynthia to intend these willfully disobedient or unselfconsciously binary-busting characters also to serve as a reminder that critical theorists should avoid falling into the trap of reiterating the ‘either/or’ constructions of power regimes when they effect a transvaluation of values by turning the positive pole into the negative and the vice versa.

Some of these characters Cynthia calls ‘perverse (i.e. disorderly) homosexuals’ in international relations, and others, ‘both perverse and normal homosexuals’. It’s easy to see why she tacks back and forth between the ‘either/or’ and the ‘both/and’, given the central battle that she sees between sovereign power’s penchant for clear and sharp distinctions and queer theory’s penchant for blurred boundaries. At times, however, it’s hard to know whether Cynthia means to be literal or metaphorical when she uses the term ‘the perverse’ (or perverse-and-normal) homosexual’ with respect to figures that are kept out, cast out, or outlawed from society on other grounds. At times, the analogy (or homology?) she suggests between homosexuality and other forms of political marginality seems just too much of a stretch. But what is nonetheless compelling are many of the crisscrossing lines of similarity she traces among the disparate figures of the unwanted im/migrant, the terrorist, the normal LGBT rights-holder, and the normal- and-perverse border-straddler.

All of these figures are at once products of Western state power and subversive of Western sovereign state control. On the one hand, they arise out of the simplifications and reductions disseminated by modern state power. On the other hand, they testify to ‘the open mesh of possibilities, gaps, overlaps, dissonances and resonances, lapses and excesses of meaning’ that Eve Sedgwick has defined and Cynthia has re-affirmed as the core meaning of ‘queer’ (14). Take, for example, the LGBT rights-holder. Currently championed by progressive grassroots movements around the world, by liberal democratic Western leaders such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and by far right European Islamophobes such as Geert Wilders, this figure as Cynthia dissects it has emerged out of a historical shift away from earlier Western ‘either/or’ contrasts between the normal heterosexual and the perverse homosexual. While gay rights politics took up the cause of the perverse homosexual against the normal heterosexual, that either/or opposition has since been sublated. Cynthia charts the expansion of the Western idea of sexual normality to embrace LGBT minorities under the proviso that they submit to neoliberal strictures by shouldering the individual responsibilities imposed by marriage and the nuclear family, defanging themselves politically, pursuing private interests and material consumption as the purpose of life, and investing in their own and their children’s entrepreneurial skills. The bifurcation of the homosexual into normal neoliberal and perverse rebellious types, with the former type now upstaging the latter has allowed Western states to inoculate themselves against the dangers of perverse homosexuality by wooing many of its former advocates and practitioners to bourgeois values. It also has allowed those states to use their new found support for gay rights as evidence of their own superior modernity, rationality, and morality in comparison with ‘underdeveloped’ states too immature to accept those rights and ‘pathological’ states too intrinsically intolerant to respect those rights.

The international relations implications of the LGBT rights-holder as a minority version of the universal Kantian subject are quite clearly unclear in Cynthia’s reading. These ambiguous implications include the Western state’s use of the claim that ‘gay rights are human rights’ as a neo-imperial cudgel against non-liberal democratic states; the LGBT rights-holder’s all-too-frequent complicity with traditional family values and neoliberal capitalist economics as the price of their assimilation into conventional society; and third, the emancipatory potentialities that come from widening the mesh of imaginable and acceptable sexualities – a widening that, although Cynthia doesn’t say it – has already taken multiple creative forms in different geographical and cultural sites around the world.

Let me shift to Cynthia’s illuminating portrait of the ‘unwanted im/migrant’, a figure at the center of one of the great political storms of our age, which in turn is part of a larger weather system comprising other related storms sparked by regional power asymmetries, economic class inequality, race and gender injustice, and global ecological crisis and collapse. According to Cynthia, the figure of the unwanted im/migrant is civilizationally, politically, and sexually problematic to Western eyes because it is seen as bringing to the Global North what Western developmental discourse already has diagnosed as the ‘underdeveloped’ habits and capacities characteristic of the Global South. Had the unwanted im/migrant stayed put, he or she would simply continue to be (permanently) less developed than populations in the West (although what Cynthia does not say, unless I missed it, is that ‘underdeveloped’ countries can become problematic themselves by gathering their forces to catch up with and then leap ahead of the West economically, intellectually, and militarily). But once he or she is on the move out of a desire for Western development as it has been glorified by the global media, or, I would add, in search of more than the very barest modicum of physical and social security, the unwanted im/migrant is seen as puncturing civilizational boundaries by injecting ‘already developed’ societies with illiteracy, poverty, parasitism, high fertility rates, anti-entrepreneurial habits, superstitious religious beliefs, retrograde gender norms, etc. etc. This, to be sure, is a different kind of injection than the one that the terrorist on the move intends to deliver, who, in the official view of the West, is not less civilizationally developed than Western man but is actively and permanently hostile to civilization per se. Nevertheless, as someone as mobile as the unwanted im/migrant and indeed often indistinguishable in appearance from the unwanted im/migrant, the terrorist also brings problems that were once safely outside Western society inside.

By the way, Cynthia astutely ferrets out a weird family resemblance, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of that phrase, between the figures of the perverse homosexual and the terrorist that have troubled Western state and society’s sleep. In her view, not only have perverse gay culture and jihadi networks alike offered boys and men alienated from the established Western order a homosexual and/or homosocial substitute for traditional heterosexual family life; perverse homosexuality and radical jihadism both reproduce themselves, not via biological conception, but instead via a strong sexual or ideological magnetism – both of which the West fears as an ever-widening ‘contagion’.

Although he/she stands as an emblem of Cynthia’s hope for pluralizing the monolithic concept of sovereign man and for queering an integrated Europe, I’m going to gesture only briefly to the border-straddling Eurovision song contest winner Neuwirth/Wurst. I have to confess that I’ve never watched Eurovision and so must trust Cynthia’s reading of N/W entirely, but as she depicts him/her, unlike the normal homosexual, this bearded lady from Austria and Colombia managed to provoke wildly clashing reactions from leaders and peoples in different countries and of different political stripes by impaling him/herself on the border of masculine and feminine, the Global North and Global South, secularism and religion, white and brown racial identities, and national particularity and regional integration. Still, while Cynthia’s layered reading of N/W is as sophisticated an interpretation of identity deconstruction as any cultural theorist could hope for, a performance of ambiguities in identity on stage, and the parsing of those ambiguities in a queer IR theory text, can push the world forward (or, to the minds of N/W’s critics, backward) only so far.

sovHence Cynthia leaves her readers with the largely unanswered question of how people might escape the nightmarish features of the dream world of Western sovereign state, and supra-state, politics, whether they have suffered from being the dreamer or the dreamed about. She also leaves us to pose the question of how to make it to the other side of the turbulence that currently plagues humanity’s waking life. Western nation-states and the states that fought for their independence from Western intrusion have long been vastly unequal in their political potency, but, as I have argued elsewhere, the sovereign power of even Western states has been more fantastical than real. Today, complex global forces are making passé across the board the top/down lines of authoritative power and the outside/inside territorial distinctions on which both the idea of territorial sovereignty and the idea of a self-determining, self-identical West depend. The growing disjuncture between the nation-state form and the connected histories and current realities that colonialism, capitalism, and environmental havoc have bequeathed to all of us, as well as the social and species injustices that have issued from those histories and realities, are so profound that a theoretical physicist colleague of mine, Paul Raskin, has dubbed the earth a failed state. Re-imagining identity in a more open and pluralistic way, as Cynthia urges us to do, is a necessary condition for transcending that failure. But as we were told many years ago by someone whom she just might agree to describe as a ‘proto-perverse homosexual’, re-imagining the world is not a sufficient condition for radically changing it. That requires a struggle to democratize material as well as cultural power and to forge new political institutions for exercising it without sovereign aspirations, delusions, or pretensions.

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2 thoughts on “Queer International Relations (II)

  1. Pingback: Queer International Relations: A Symposium | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response | The Disorder Of Things

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