Some Thoughts on ‘Toxic Masculinity’

A guest post from four friends of the blog on the topic of (toxic) masculinity. Maria Tanyag is a Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, Australian National University. Twitter: @maria_tanyag. Ibrahim Bahati is Mastercard Foundation Graduate scholar at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon. Twitter: @Bahabris. David Duriesmith is Development Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies, The University of Queensland. Twitter: @DavidDuriesmith. Marysia Zalewski is Professor of International Relations in the School of Law & Politics at Cardiff University, UK. Twitter: @ProfMarysiaZed. Each shared their thoughts and reflections on two questions – (i) How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’? and (ii) What can ‘we’ do about [toxic] masculinity?


How do you understand the idea of ‘toxic masculinity’?

Maria

I have many reservations about the increasing use of ‘toxic masculinity’ (noted in 2018 as the word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries). As a ‘buzzword’ it simply depoliticises wider inequalities and individualises and de-contextualises what specifically constitutes the ‘toxic’ in/with/through masculinit(ies). And for me, it is no coincidence that toxic has attracted wider applications to some of its original uses in relation to health and the environment at precisely a time when we are observing the rise of extremist ideologies, reversals in women’s and human rights, and environmental degradation. If we work with the feminist idea of a ‘continuum of violence’ we might be able to articulate how toxicity occurs on multiple levels or scales, as well as how it has come to represent a multi-dimensional phenomenon. The term toxic might reveal how it is not just individuals that incite a range of bodily harms, but also to gradual depletions in health and the environment. All of these are linked to power structures and embodied in gendered ways.

In my research on women’s bodily autonomy in the Philippines, I find that in social media, concepts such as toxic relationships, toxic politics, toxic workplaces, and even toxic ‘national’ culture (as in ‘toxic Filipino culture’) are increasingly used. I find this notion that there are toxic aspects of culture that can go hand in hand with nationalist sentiments and representations of ‘Pinoy Pride’.[1] I myself have started using ‘toxic’ in making sense of polarised politics in the Philippines under Duterte. Toxic is a very appropriate word to describe how my body reacts to hearing him speak and upon seeing images of him particularly as he interacts with women. Consequently, part of self-care for me has been to ‘detoxify’ or unplug from watching local news from time to time, though I know friends who do the opposite. They ‘rant’ or vent through social media to ‘purge’ the toxins out of their system.

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The Right to Maim: A Reply

In the concluding post in our symposium on The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability,  a reply from Jasbir K. Puar who is Professor and Graduate Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University. The Right to Maim received the Alison Pipemeier best book award in feminist disability studies from the National Women’s Studies Association. Puar is also the author of award-winning Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (2007), which has been translated into Spanish and French and was expanded and re-issued for its 10th anniversary (2017).


Thank you for this opportunity to dialogue with International Relations scholars and for taking the time to read The Right to Maim. It is always an enormous privilege to engage new and unexpected audiences and I am grateful to Nivi Manchanda, Cynthia Weber, Darcy Leigh, Rahul Rao, Isis Nusair, and Sankaran Krishna for their thoughtful responses. Special thanks to Ali Howell for curating this forum in The Disorder of Things, and for organizing a roundtable on the book at the recent Journal of Millennium Studies conference that took place at the London School of Economics in October 2018. These scholars raise so many points of discussion that it would be impossible to be exhaustive so I will address the most salient points. To begin, while the responses have focused largely on the material that makes up about the last third of the book on Palestine/Israel, The Right to Maim is first and foremost about American empire, and therefore continues the inquiry about the violent global effects of U.S. exceptionalisms that I began in Terrorist Assemblages. In linking Palestine to a broader thesis about U.S. empire, I contend that it is impossible to address contemporary manifestations of U.S. exceptionalism without examining the ideological and material legitimization that Israel provides for U.S settler colonialism. It is therefore crucial that Palestine is neither produced as an external object to the United States nor exceptionalized as a site disconnected from other locations of settler colonialism and biopolitical population management more generally. While The Right to Maim could be read as intellectual solidarity scholarship, I prefer to situate it as a form of accountability to the field of American Studies.

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Settler Colonial Sovereignty: Some implications of Jasbir Puar’s conception of the sovereign right to maim

The fourth contribution to our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim comes from Darcy Leigh and Cynthia Weber. Dr Darcy Leigh currently teaches decolonial and queer legal perspectives, as well as interdisciplinary ‘widening access’ programming, at the University of Sussex Law School. She has previously been a Teaching Fellow and/or Research Assistant at the universities of Edinburgh, Ottawa and Alberta. Dr Leigh has also worked as a facilitator, researcher and/or consultant with decolonial higher education projects Dechinta Centre for Research and Learning and the Akitsiraq Law School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in School, as well as in the equalities and policy sectors in Scotland. Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.


State sovereignty, as a central analytical category in the field of International Relations (IR), has been too often uncontested (Walker, 1993). In spite of a wave of critical sovereignty studies in the 1990s (Ashley, 1988; Bartelson, 1995; Weber, 1995; Biersteker and Weber, 1996; Walker, 1993), with few exceptions those debates largely skirted or ignored altogether how state claims to sovereignty are woven through and require specific relationship to race and sexuality (Doty, 1996; Peterson, 1999; Weber, 1999). Only very recently have IR scholars come to recognize the centrality of sexuality and race in sovereign state formation (Anievas, Manchanda & Shilliam, 2015; Agathangelou et al 2008; Inayatullah & Blaney, 2004; Leigh, 2017; Manchanda, 2015; Rao, 2012, 2014; Richter-Montpetit, 2007, 2015, 2016; Sabaratnam, 2017; Shilliam, 2015; Weber, 2016). More recently still, IR scholars are beginning to recognize the centrality not just of sexuality and race, but also of settler colonialism and disability (Beier, 2005, 2009; Crawford, 1994, 2007; Howell, 2011, 2018; Leigh, 2015; Shaw, 2008).

Jasbir Puar’s challenging and provocative new book, The Right to Maim, pushes these discussions further, demonstrating the inextricability of state sovereignty from settler colonialism as configured through racialized and sexualized relations of debility, capacity and disability. In so doing, Puar contests the function and meaning not only of sovereign statecraft, but also of settler colonialism.

In this short piece, we focus on the implications of Puar’s reworking of sovereignty and settler colonialism.

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The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II

Based on a paper I am co-authoring with Bryan Mabee. See Part I here.

Nation-statist militarism is the default (‘normal’) setting for militarism in international and global life.  Following Mann, this manifestation of militarism is characterized by some form of civilian control over the armed forces and a state-led economic and social mobilization of ‘destructive’ forces. (Alternative labels are ‘Westphalian militarism’ and even ‘Keynesian militarism’). In claiming the monopoly of legitimate violence, the nation-state prioritized territorial defence; planned, built and consumed from its own arsenals; and engaged in military recruitment practices that reflected and reinforced the prevailing social structures of the nation (whether professionalized or constricted).

This type subsumes what Mann refers to ‘authoritarian militarism’ and ‘liberal militarism’, his main examples coming from Europe–the absolutist polities and their twentieth century authoritarian descendants (e.g. Germany, Russia) versus the polities deriving from the constitutional regimes (e.g. Britain, France).  It even subsumes the militarisms of the post-1945 nuclear age, which include, in Mann’s terminology, sub-types like ‘deterrence-science militarism’ (‘techno-scientific militarism’) and ‘spectator sport militarism.’

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Economy of Force: A Reply

In which Patricia Owens responds to our four commentaries (on patriarchy, colonial counterinsurgency, biopolitics and social theory) on her Economy of Force.


I’m extremely grateful to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport for their serious engagements with Economy of ForceAs noted in the original post, the book is a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with what I think are significant implications for social, political and international thought. It is based on a study of late-colonial British military campaigns in Malaya and Kenya; the US war on Vietnam; and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq against the background of the high colonial wars in the American Philippines and nineteenth-century French campaigns in Tonkin, Morocco and Algeria. Probably the emblematic case for the book is Britain’s colonial state terror against Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army and civilians in the 1950s, a campaign that was closer to annihilation than ‘rehabilitation’. Although the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Malaya is held up by generations of counterinsurgents as the model for emulation, the assault on Kikuyu civilians shows the real face of Britain’s late-colonial wars. It also points to some profound truths about the so-called ‘population-centric’ character of more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though offering new readings of some better-known counterinsurgency cases, Jairus Grove suggests that this choice perpetuates an erasure of America’s ‘Indian Wars’.

Mau-Mau

Researching Economy of Force, I certainly became aware of the general significance of these wars, including through Andrew J. Birtle’s and Laleh Khalili’s histories of counterinsurgency. However, Grove draws attention to something more relevant to Economy of Force than appreciated before: “one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues”, he writes, “was created by and administered by the War Department”. Decades before the distinctly ‘social’ engineering during the Philippines campaign (1899-1902), the Bureau of Indian Affairs was administering indigenous populations on the mainland. In focusing on overseas imperial wars, Economy of Force surely neglects settler colonialism, its genocides, and how “warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the US context from the outset”. While the book was not centrally focussed on US state making, I’m grateful to Grove for insisting that settler colonialism is necessarily a form of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the Philippines campaign was examined not as the founding moment of American counterinsurgency, but because it was explicitly conceived by contemporaries as a form of overseas housekeeping; to problematize progressive social policy; and to challenge the effort to separate good (domestic) social engineering at home from bad social engineering (overseas). I would hesitate to wholly assimilate the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) into earlier Indian Wars, though its ‘social reforms’ shaped indigenous administration. But these are quibbles. Grove is right that I have neglected something of significance in the ‘historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan’. I hope to be able to rectify this in future work.

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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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