Translating Radical Plurality in Pragmatism: A Paradox?

This is the fourth and final commentary in our symposium on Reconstructing Human Rights.The symposium will close with a  rejoinder post by Joe tomorrow. You can catch up on the opening post, the first, second and third commentaries.


As I was reading Reconstructing Human Rights, I found myself nodding in agreement throughout most of the book. This did not come as a surprise; the work Hoover does in his book is close to my own work, and to my heart. giphy-1.gifDisrupting ethical theories that are rooted in abstractions and assumptions of universal moral principles is, I believe, urgently required if we are to better understand the moral responsibility we have toward our fellow human beings, particularly in environments of conflict and violence. And so for me, what resonates most strongly in Reconstructing Human Rights is the ethical project contained within the book. Like Hoover, I am not at all convinced that universalising accounts of morality can adequately address ethical problems in political contexts. And like Hoover, I am concerned with how the quest for certainty and universality shapes how we understand, see, and treat one another in social and political life. What is at stake here, in my view, is nothing less than the capacity for ethical action itself, which is at risk of being entirely subsumed by the pursuit of absolutes, leaving little room for contingency, alterity, uncertainty, or indeed anything unknown that might arise out of the specificity of any one ethical moment.

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All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

The fourth piece in our forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. One more to follow before Patricia’s rejoinder this weekend.


Economy of Force provides an insightful and provocative re-reading of Anglo-American imperialism and counterinsurgency. Unlike conventional accounts, which for the most part remain trapped within the hermeneutic limits of political theory, Owens undertakes a historical sociology of ‘the social’ itself, tracing out its attendant mechanisms of political rule over time. Central to her account is the notion of ‘the household’, which, she suggests, functions as a dominant form of administration and rule within both modern and contemporary imperialisms. ‘Despotism’, ‘governance’, ‘ruler-ship’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘administration’, ‘life processes’, ‘violence’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘pacification’, ‘domestication’, ‘domesticity’ – this language of household rule is crucial in order to better understand the politics that underpin different forms of imperial practice. For this, we must also understand that it is the oikos, and not politics, that stands at the heart of imperial and counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, for Owens, such campaigns are best grasped as “armed social work”.

One clear target of this argument is mainstream IR, which all too often works with an ahistorical conception of society. Owens firmly rejects this approach by identifying: (1) the origins of ‘the social’ in a concept of household rule; (2) the transformation of household rule over time; and (3) the historically-specific influence that different forms of household rule exert over political practices in the present. In so doing she also rejects the folk wisdom that household rule and management has been eliminated or pushed to the margins of politics through various processes of modernisation. Rather, she argues, household rule is sozialpolitik rendered as politics, and that IR scholars would do well to engage with the changing logics of household rule if they want any purchase on the political world.

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Owens grounds this bold claim in the close relation between the social and an ancient modality of household rule: oikonomia. This is an important move and I, for one, am convinced that an engagement with household management can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the entwinement of the social and the international. Such a lens resonates with Hannah Arendt’s insight that, in modernity, “we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (The Human Condition, p.28). And for Arendt too, ‘the social’ is infused with the logic of household management, turning modern ‘society’ into a mode of government based on specific and historically situated relations of reproduction. In fact, I would argue that Arendt’s proto-biopolitical argument has much to offer to Owens’ project.

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Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

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What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

We, the garden of technology. We, undecidable

– John Cage, 1988

“Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, John Cage once famously quipped. I hadn’t really given this line much thought until I watched a friend perform with his ensemble of free improvisationalists and began to understand – rather late, admittedly, – the creative interconnectivity of musical improvisation with aspects of political and ethical life. Encapsulated in Cage’s comment is the close enmeshment of creation and performance, fabrication and action, production and interaction, set against a modernist ontology of profound uncertainty, pertinent beyond disciplinary analytical divides. Simultaneously embracing and resisting the scientifically and technologically mediated quest for certainty in his time, John Cage, along with other experimental musicians and artists, perpetually sought to challenge a reliance on that which can be decided, by finding different disruptive and unfamiliar techniques.

These techniques are not merely aesthetic choices or practices, but rather, as forms of encounters, have also ethical and political relevance. Whether it is through shock, as in Marcel Duchamp’s work in art (Fountain – a urinal as art!), or experimentation in John Cage’s work in music (4’33 – silence as music!), such disruptions emanate propositions of drastic undecidability – albeit against an always specific socio-political background. Residing in these practices of radical alterity is a production of subjectivity, of a modus vivendi, and with it an ethico-political dimension. As Maurizio Lazzarato duly notes, such techniques are ethico-politico-aesthetic techniques to wrest with the nature of disciplinary and security societies. Embracing this transdisciplinary approach, I thus take the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink, in positive ways, how to deal with the modern modus of fluid ground, uncertainty and undecidability, in politics and ethics through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction.

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Challenging the practical turn in contemporary conceptualisations of ethics in politics was my core theme for this year’s ISA conference, so I came equipped with not one but three papers on ethics and politics. Each sought to problematize the prevalence of applied ethics in theorizing international politics more broadly and political violence specifically. The first paper develops a critique of practical ethics as the dominant way of thinking about the ethics of political violence (watch this space for more on that). The second paper considers the prevalence of ethics as a scientific-technological matter in the use of unmanned and autonomous military technology. In this third and final paper, I try to rethink ethics in trans-disciplinary ways and turn to an unlikely source: free improvisation in music. Drawing on the principles of free improvisation, I suggest, allows us to conceptualise ethics as action rather than an applied abstract concept or epithet. In other words, to overcome the shortcomings of traditional modes of theorizing ethics in political theory, I look to free improvisation in music to rethink ethics and politics in less familiar ways, through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction. I am very much still in the process of thinking all this through, so bear that in mind if you decide to read on. Suggestions, critiques and feedback welcome!

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What We Talked About At ISA: The God Complex – Biopolitical Ethics

The paper I presented at the ISA is part of a larger project in which I look at the ways in which ethics, in the context of certain political practices, is saturated with biopolitical rationalities. The (re)surfacing and framing of hitherto morally prohibited practices – torture, extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial assassinations – as justifiable, legitimate and even necessary acts of violence, paired with rapidly advancing and increasingly autonomous military technologies that facilitate these practices, has opened new dimensions and demands for considering just what kind of ethics is used to justify these violent modalities. I’m specifically frustrated by the emerging narrative of the use of drones for targeted killing practices in the interminable fight against terror as a ‘wise’ and ‘ethical’ weapon of warfare. The prevalence of utility, instrumentality and necessity in this consideration of ethics strikes me as dubious and worthy of a closer look. This keeps leading me again and again to the perhaps foolhardy, but inevitable question: what, actually, IS ethics? And more specifically: what is ethics in a biopolitically informed socio-political (post)modern context? My quest for an answer begins with the growing divergence in scholarship and philosophical inquiry of the ethicality of ethics, or meta-ethics on one hand, and practical conceptions of ethics, applied ethics, on the other.

It has been noted by philosophers and scholars across geographical and disciplinary divides, that, in recent years, there has been a growing focus in philosophical and political thought on the application of moral and ethical principles rather than the “ethicality” of ethics itself. This trend is particularly widespread in Anglo-American philosophy, and manifests itself in the striking surge of applied ethics as a subfield of ethics, which considers the chief role of ethics to be that of providing a practical guide for moral agents, based on rational analysis, scientific inquiry and technological expertise. In other words, considerations of ethics have become preoccupied with establishing practicalities and ways of application. While the practical side of ethics should, of course, not be dismissed, the domineering focus on ethics’ practicality over considerations of meta-ethics, or the ethicality of ethics, occludes any deeper engagement with what ethics actually is, how moral content is established and how we can understand ethics in modernity as something beyond a mere set of context specific norms and legal regulations, as something other than laws and codes. To make sense of this preoccupation with ethics’ practicalities, it is worthwhile to consider how ethics might, in fact, be determined by the characteristics of a specific form of society. This brings me back to the biopolitical rationalities with which (post)modern societies are infused. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

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Killing is the New ‘Justice’: The Murky Morality of Target Killings

Today’s news of the killing of US citizen Anwar al-Awlaki by US drones sparked a much overdue flurry of criticism and questions on the ethics and legality of Obama’s death-by-drone programme in the war on terror. Awlaki, al-Qaeda’s alleged ‘chief of external operations’ in Yemen (an upgraded title he received posthumously by officials at the White House and the CIA – previously he was by reputation and status merely a radical Muslim cleric) is the first US citizen to have been assassinated in President Obama’s brand of the fight against terrorism. The drones programme is by no means a recent tool in the American war chest, nor has it been particularly reserved in its remit of eliminating specified targets in this interminable ‘war’ effort. What is new, however, is that the US has today eliminated one of it’s own citizens, without due process, stripping said citizen of his 5th Amendment rights and rendering him nothing if not unworthy of living. The fact that a public outcry against the extra-judicial assassination of a human being becomes audible (aside from the controversial killing of enemy #1 Bin Laden of course) only when a US citizen is concerned starkly highlights the normalised extra-judicial status of all foreign drone targets in the perception of the international public. The gloves that came off during the Bush administration are still off and killing as the new justice is beginning to supersede the norm against assassinations.

The norm against political assassinations has been in serious peril since the Bush administration first overtly conceded the strategic use of target killings, framed as a military act to weed out and eliminate high-level Al-Qaeda members, in 2002. This norm continues to deteriorate with Obama at the helm, who has stepped up the drones programme considerably since he took over from Bush junior in 2008. Today, there are roughly double the number of drone attacks per week in regions deemed terrorist hotbeds, specifically Pakistan. Since 2004, these drone strikes are reported to have killed between 1,579 and 2,490 individuals, whereby some analyses estimate the civilian casualty rate among these statistics to be as high as 20%. The vast majority of these deaths have occurred in 2010. While the policy originated as a programme to “capture and kill” a small number of high value terrorist leaders in the G.W. Bush years, the programme has expanded its remit considerably: up to 2,000 killings can hardly be described as a small number, no less if we accept that the total number of military leaders killed was a mere 35 since 2004.

Leaving aside the sovereignty issue that glaringly stares us in the face in a situation where the US decides to engage militarily within a non-war party, such as Pakistan or Yemen, this is a highly concerning development, as it represents not only the gradual erosion of the norm against assassinations but also the very acceptance of the ethics of the targeted killing of persons on a growing scale. Continue reading