The third post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge comes to us from Antke Engel. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here.
Antke Engel is director of the Institute for Queer Theory in Berlin, a site where academic debate meets political activism and artistic/cultural practice. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Potsdam University and works as an independent scholar in the fields of queer, feminist and poststructuralist theory, political philosophy and visual cultural studies. She has held visiting professorships at Hamburg University (2003/2005), Vienna University (2011), and Alice Salomon University Berlin (2016), as well as a research fellowship at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin (2007-2009). She has published numerous essays (some of them available at e-flux journal) and two monographs, Wider die Eindeutigkeit (2002) and Bilder von Sexualität und Ökonomie (2009). She has also co-edited Global Justice and Desire: Queering Economy (Routledge 2015) and Hegemony and Heteronormativity: Revisiting ‘The Political’ in Queer Politics (Ashgate 2011).
Reading Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations has been a great pleasure for me, since I strongly agree with her desire expressed in the introduction and elaborated in the last part of the book to carve out a space for plural logoi in queer theory as well as political thinking and international relations. Plural logoi depend on the ability to uphold the simultaneity of and/or (rather than either/or) in understanding social realities as social complexities. Gender, for example, does not necessarily follow the pattern of either female or male, but might come along as female and/or male. You might like to call this transgender; yet, if you prefer to avoid another label (which would, anyway, only return to an either/logic – either female or male or trans), you would instead claim simultaneity or undecidability: ‘both either one thing or another or possibly another while…simultaneously…one thing and another and possibly another’ (196). For Weber this kind of thinking is what undermines the illusionary figure of ‘sovereign man’, which still successfully claims authority in international relations as the basis of all politics.
The argument is by far not as abstract as it may sound. Weber extracts it from a concrete study of figurations of homosexuality in recent political discourses. Her thesis is that two unacknowledged figures, namely the ‘perverse’ and the ‘normal homosexual’ underlie these discourses. These figures matter not only on the level of sexual politics (that is, the way gendered and sexualized subjectivities as well as intimate relations are socially organized, state regulated, and politically contested), but provide the foil against which ‘sovereign man’ legitimates himself as the guarantor of statecraft and international governance. The argument gets even more thrilling when she argues that currently a third figure turns up on the hegemonic political floor, a figure which is simultaneously perverse and normal. The reader gets to know this figure by accompanying Weber in her subtle and most convincing reading of the phenomenon of Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth) winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, which in its aftermath provoked some of the most interesting, highly contradictory reactions by European journalists, politicians and religious representatives.
However, before arriving at the more complicated, more exciting way of analyzing the sexual politics of international relations through pluralized logoi – and thus deconstructing sovereign man and his unacknowledged sexualized will – one has to endure the more traditional thinking in terms of exclusion and inclusion. In the discussion after her talk at the WZB (Berlin Social Science Center) in July 2016 Weber pointed out that the book had been written for the gatekeepers of IR, which means that it might appear a bit basic for those familiar with feminist and queer as well as postcolonial critique. This is a helpful note, particularly since it also explains why Rick Ashley’s theory of ‘statecraft as mancraft’ enjoys such a prominent role in the book. After decades of criticizing ideas of sovereignty as masculinist and exclusionary and opting for relational theories of subjectivity and politics, it seems somewhat surprising to start again from a masculine subject, explain that it relies on hegemonic heteronormativity and whiteness, and take a whole book to finally get to Michel Foucault’s ‘end of man’. Although, I have to admit that working through these often criticized notions and mechanisms once more, turns out to be a clever didactic move, since afterwards the Barthesian and/or logics seem all the more convincing.
This said, we have to caution ourselves not to see in plural logoi the promising political alternative, but understand its involvement with the ruling order and how it functions to modernize governance according to a fantasy of the superiority of (neo)liberal pluralism. While Weber herself sometimes introduces the terms ‘queer and/or modalities of queerly pluralized and/or subjectivities’ (197) as an epistemological and political promise, and optimistically states that ‘queer logics of statecraft […] confuse and confound Western domestic and foreign policies’ (ibid.), she is also very clear that queerness is not an antidote against racism, homonormativity, classism, neocolonialism, imperialism. When she distinguishes the two figures of the ‘perverse’ and the ‘normal homosexual’, it is important to note that she explains how the seemingly progressive notion of the ‘normal homosexual’ as the bearer of rights, goes along with a redefined version of the ‘perverse homosexual’, now figured as the ‘unwanted im/migrant’ and the ‘terrorist’. The latter signify the limit of normalization; they update the racist and homophobic figure of ‘primitive man’ as ‘underdeveloped’ or ‘undevelopable’, who as such have been and still are written out of the fully human.
Taking this linkage seriously, means that the pluralized and/or is not immune to cooptation and may very well also function to stabilize political rule, because it actually legitimizes the simultaneity of exclusion and inclusion, or relativizes its violent effects. In overlooking that it is also an established position to value Europe for being a battleground of contradictory politics, a ‘unified and/or fractured Europe’ (153) rather than an ‘integrated Europe’ (ibid.), Weber sometimes tends to present and/or as the promising way out. Meanwhile, Weber’s argumentation becomes most convincing, when she sticks to a chronopolitics, which constructs the three figurations (perverse, normal, perverse and/or normal) and the corresponding modes of exclusion, inclusion, and ambiguation (not Weber’s term) as parallel. They should decisively not be understood as succeeding each other, as an idea of historical progression would suggest. Otherwise, this would feed into the normalization regime, which fosters the conviction that neoliberalism and Western democracy are made to overcome archaic political orders, and achieve this through military action.
Apart from the transtemporal, decolonial chronopolitics, what I also find strong and important about Weber’s text is how she specifies the notion of queer, making sure that it is neither mistaken as a shorthand for LGBTI politics, nor overly generalized into a critique of any regime of normalcy (14ff.). So she insists that queer has a content-related dimension, namely that it raises questions of sex, gender, and sexuality. Following Eve K. Sedgwick, she calls queer those bodies/figures that refuse or fail to signify monolithically in terms of sex, gender and sexuality. Furthermore, Weber insists that queer undermines the normative/antinormative opposition. Rather than claiming an avant-garde position of queerness as embodied non-normativity, we should, according to Weber, see how queer also embraces normativities and perversions, even when it is at the same time eschewing them. Otherwise we would not be able to acknowledge and criticize e.g. homonormativities or homonationalism. Refusing to abstract queer from bodies which challenge monolithic regimes of sex and gender, and refusing to reduce queer to the non-normative, is vital for undermining the figure of a singular, sovereign subject, and this exactly because there is a certain tension between these two refusals.
This becomes most obvious in the chapter on Neuwirth/Wurst, where Weber elaborates how this ‘transborder figure’ on the one hand ‘has been mobilized as a singular “sovereign man” on behalf of an integrated “European” statecraft as mancraft (as either a positive figuration of a new normal “Europe” or as a negative figuration of a new perverse “Europe”)’ (145), while on the other hand ‘defies traditional understandings across multiple axes.’ (ibid.) The bearded drag queen (a paradoxical figure in itself, given that usually one is either bearded or drag queen) not only transgresses the binary gender order, and thus resists definition as either homosexual or straight, but also, as Weber humorously develops, appears as an inverted Christ, and undermines racial orders. The latter, extracted from various stories from Neuwirth/Wurst’s biographies, changes between white, indigenous, and Mestiza. Rather than a simple and/or, oscillation (rather than ambiguity) occurs thanks to the third (yet another), which derives from the simultaneity of ‘and’ and ‘or’. A ‘triple trinity’, Weber calls it. And I would like to add that here one also understands, an aspect not elaborated by Weber, that Neuwirth/Wurst, he/she/they, also embodies the hybridity between figure and figuration – because deconstructing the figuration is here/queer built upon ‘figures that cannot signify monolithically’ (196).
Yet, given the dynamic complexity of the triple trinity, one does not really understand why sexuality enjoys the status of primary framework in Queer International Relations. Exclusively homosexuality, not homosexuality and/or Blackness and/or Muslim and/or Crip provides the horizon against which sovereignty erects itself. While it is on the one hand fascinating to see how figures like the ‘unwanted immigrant’ and the ‘terrorist’, the ‘underdeveloped’ and the ‘undevelopable’ gain sexual contours, it seems on the other hand provocative to overwrite earlier critiques of sovereignty from feminist and postcolonial theory or critical disability studies. Weber’s argument in favour of a plural logoi could as convincingly have been developed around the exclusions and inclusions of women or Blacks, or people with different abilities. Although this critique does not register, that sovereign man, particularly as he inhabits politics, political theory, and international relations is still in need of understanding its sexualization. Let alone to learn post-sovereign desire.
As I hinted at the outset, Weber’s elaborations on plural logoi resonate nicely with what I have developed under the headline of a queer politics of paradox (Engel 2010; 2013). I would like to suggest naming the and/or relation a paradoxical rather than a plural one. This would shift the focus to the tension that builds up when Weber parallels the options of ‘and’ and ‘or’, for example when she writes that Neuwirth/Wurst ‘is figured as either dangerous or liberating as well as both dangerous and liberating at the same time.’ (146) It is precisely not an additive pluralization (and/and), which would fit nicely with neoliberal tolerance pluralism, but something that she calls ‘queerly plural’ (196), or following Derrida, an ‘impossible possibility’ (190). In order to even further emphasize the contradictory moment, my suggestion is to include a ‘neither/nor’, that is, a radical negation to the set of logical relations that define the political field. Though, like Weber, I would like to hijack it from the pure antagonism of either/or and capture it within the paradox.
I characterize the paradox as simultaneity of as well as and neither/nor, a circular, spiralling tension (Engel 2013: 185), which neither matches the linear time of progress nor finds a solution in an act of ‘statecraft as mancraft’. In upholding the paradox rather than turning it into an antagonism or cutting its agonistic character by translating it into ambiguity, one is able to highlight the necessarily conflictual character of politics that cannot be overcome by ‘solving’ a conflict, but appears as a ‘reconciled irreconcilability’ (Engel 2010: 243). Nevertheless, it can strategically and temporarily be politicized into antagonism (either/or) or ambiguity (as well as), according to concrete (sociohistorical, geopolitical, economic) demands. Thus, a queer politics of paradox, as I see it, draws attention to and invites those politics that become possible after ‘the end of man’ – post-sovereign politics, which by no means end up in harmony, but outline forms of dealing with conflict that are built on taking pleasure in complexity and desiring tension, and suggest non-violent forms of living queer socialities. Yet, this is another story, which I have told under the title ‘Driven into Conflict by Utopia’ (Engel 2015).
So let me summarize: What I love about Queer International Relations is its openness to potentialities and impossibilities, its insistence on detecting sexual politics in supposedly neutral, general, or objective terrains, and its chronopolitics of nonlinear simultaneities. Nevertheless, I would find it even more daring – and more seductive, if the sexual paradigm had been more thoroughly intertwined with its precursors and kin, and if ‘transborder figures’ like Neuwirth/Wurst had migrated beyond the reach of their chapter and confused the figuration of ‘statecraft as mancraft’ with feminist, postcolonial/postslavery, crip wit from their very first moments of appearance.
Engel, Antke (2015): Driven into Conflict by Utopia, in: Doujak, Ines/Ressler, Oliver (eds.): Utopian Pulse: Flares in the Darkroom, London: Pluto Press, 22-31.
Engel, Antke (2013): The Surplus of Paradoxes. Queer/ing Images of Sexuality and Economy, in: Pascale, Celine-Marie (ed.): Social Inequality & The Politics of Representation: A Global Landscape, London/New Delhi/Thousand Oaks: Sage, 176-188.
Engel, Antke (2010): Desiring Tension: Towards a Queer Politics of Paradox, in: Holzhey, Christoph (ed.): Tension/Spannung, Wien: Turia+Kant, 227-250.