An Essay on Pandemic Borders: From ‘Immunitary Dispositif’ to Affirmative Ethics

An eighth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Umut Ozguc. Umut is postdoctoral research fellow in International Ethics at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia. She is a critical IR scholar working on critical security and border studies, settler colonialism, spatial theory, resistance and posthumanism. Currently, she is working on a research project on the ecological impacts of border walls. Her current research aims to challenge the overly anthropocentric focus of the contemporary debates over borders and mobility.


Those applying for temporary or permanent residency in Australia know well that you can only be granted a visa if you meet the health requirements set by the Australian Government. That is to mean, you should not pose a threat to the public health of the nation. The Department of Home Affairs website states that  it says, if you have any health condition it should not pose a significant cost to the Australian community ‘in terms of the health care or community services required to manage [the] condition.’ The result of the health examination is not revealed to applicants; it is a confidential document used only for migration purposes and a powerful document that as determines whether you are eligible to cross the border. I cannot recall how many times I had to undergo a medical examination for my visa applications, but I do remember the anxiety I felt each time. The medical examination is not a neutral process; it is a performative act that classifies, occupies and eventually transforms your body into a border- line between you and Australia.

Borders are not lines on the map, they are an affective experience produced by our everyday movements, narratives and codes that simultaneously define our relations with the world. We tend to think of borders as legal administrative lines separating sovereign units. They are indeed lines, but not simply legal and administrative ones. And they are certainly not straight lines, but floating ones that could act as boundaries between life and death. For some, borders are everywhere. For others, they are imperceptible. That is why, as Achille Mbembe (2019, 99) suggests, it is necessary to talk about the process of ‘borderization’—how certain spaces are turned into ‘impassable places’ for certain people, while always being accessible to others.

This essay is about how, during the current public health crisis, certain bodies are turned into a border between life and death and how different practices of ‘borderization’ continue to operate to intensify global inequalities, racism and narcissistic celebration of established modes of politics and its economy of violence. My aim is to define the pandemic border from the perspective of those who experience it. I argue that the pandemic border, like all other borders, is not a static construction having a final form, but an affective experience. It changes our perception of time and space and is altered by those perceptions. It shapes our bodily experiences and is affected by our bodily movements. And, perhaps most importantly, the border determines who we are and is determined by our encounters with others. In the contemporary operation of biopolitical borders, COVID-19 operates as a political actor, as an ‘actant’, which is, as Bennett (2010, 9) reads it, ‘neither an object nor a subject, but as an ‘intervener’,  or a ‘parasite’ (Serres, 2007), an intermediary, a mediator that causes disruption and a new system within the system. Continue reading

Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The seventh contribution to our growing collection of writings on Covid-19 and this moment of crisis. Federica Caso is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Queensland, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her expertise is on militarisation and war memory in liberal societies. She also works on the politics of culture, art, and gender. Her most recent publication is titled “The Political Aesthetics of the Body of the Soldier in Pain” which features in Catherine Baker’s edited volume  Making War on Bodies.


In this pandemic, the war rhetoric has spread as fast as the coronavirus itself. Recently, US President Donald Trump has characterised himself as a wartime president. Hospitals are preparing for war and healthcare workers are heralded as the frontline soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Economists ask how the coronavirus war economy will change the world. Wartime terms such as shelter-in-place, panic-buying, and lockdown have entered our daily and most mundane conversations.

The language of war is so normalised that in a recent episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, a medical doctor answers questions from US American children about the coronavirus using war metaphors. We have come to believe that these children, aged no more than 6 and raised in ‘peacetime’ and prosperity, naturally know about invasion, bombing, weapons, and strategic warfare. We have come to believe that this is the best language to teach them about life processes.

It is important to pay attention to the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

The War Metaphor

This is not the first time that the language of war is stretched to contexts that are not legalistically wartimes. In the last fifty years, we have heard of the war of drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, and the war on plastic.

War is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate, and emotive tool to communicate urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.

Continue reading

We, the Subjects of Surveillance: In Conversation with Giselle Stanborough

The sixth entry in our coronacrisis series, an exhibition commentary at a distance from Charlotte Epstein. Charlotte is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where her work straddles surveillance studies, international relations and political theory. Her latest book is entitled Birth of the State: The Place of the Body in Crafting Modern Politics will be coming out later this year with Oxford University Press. All photos included below were taken by Mark Pokorny.


In early 2020, I was commissioned to write a text for a forthcoming exhibition Cinopticon by a Sydney-based performance artist, Giselle Stanborough. The exhibition was just about to open, and then from one day in March to the next, along with the rest of the globe, Sydney woke to a world that was retreating into itself under the onslaught of a virus. As I watched the cultural life of my city shrivel, I realised that, while the exhibition could no longer happen, the conversation that it had opened up must, since the profound intensification of surveillance is one of the effects of the fight against the pandemic.

What does it mean to be subjects under a constant, unrelenting surveillance, one to which we also, however, seem to willingly contribute? This is the contemporary paradox Giselle Stanborough wrestles with, in ways that only an artist knows to, by joining dots we had not thought to connect; yet a joining that resonates somewhere deep in our minds and our beings. Before considering how Stanborough invites us to join her in grappling with this tension, let us take a step back and consider where we have gotten to, in our states of surveillance.

When Michel Foucault first identified ‘surveillance’ as a historically distinctive and highly efficient mode of social and political control that works from within, by the quasi-magical effect of someone knowing that they are being watched, the phenomenon was still limited to closed spaces: the prison, the school, the factory, or the army barracks. ‘Discipline’ is how he termed this social power that makes someone toe the line under the gaze. He defined the kind of space where it is deployed as ‘the panopticon’, borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham, who invented the model of the prison organised around a central watchtower that offers an all-seeing (‘pan-optic’) vantage point from which to see without being seen. In Foucault’s time, however, the surveilled subject was the prisoner, the student, the factory worker, the army recruit, or the office clerk. Today it is every one of us. The panopticon is no longer confined to bounded or, for that matter, to physical spaces. It has become digitised and diffused throughout the virtual spaces that we (or our data doubles) now inhabit and where we (or they, rather) meet others. The use of the fingerprint for identification has been transformed from a repressive prison technology to the key that unlocks our phones. This little object we carry around in our pockets and to which we have become so attached is also the most effective of disciplinary devices. It monitors our every step, and how long we sleep or peer at the screen for. Through it, we put our lives, our tastes, our thoughts, and our moods on display for all our friends, and those who are not our friends, to see. By it, we are constantly solicited to react and to emote via ever more ‘applications’ in order to generate very personal information about us that is relentlessly beamed off to the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, and Amazons of this world, or ‘GAFAs’, as the French term them.

Continue reading

The Body Politics of Covid-19

The fifth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Kandida Purnell. Kandida is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London. Having previously published on the body politics of aspects of the Global War on Terror, war commemoration, and army/artist collaboration, Kandida is currently finalising her monograph Rethinking the Body in Global Politics (Forthcoming 2020, Routledge Interventions). Kandida is also continuing to collaborate with Natasha Danilova and Emma Dolan on the Carnegie-funded ‘War Commemoration, Military Culture, and Identity Politics in Scotland’ project while her solo research into Bringing Bodies Back: Repatriation and War Performance within Forever War is ongoing.


Bodies are contested sites of global politics. Some of you realised this before I did; some of you might want to know more about body politics; and some of you may not be used to thinking about bodies and ‘embodiment’ (that is, the unending and intensely contested process through which bodies come to be) at all. You might also be wondering if and/or how these things (bodies and embodiment) ‘belong’ within the discipline of International Relations (IR).  This post is for you all, and reluctantly yet hopefully ‘uses’ the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it as a way into and forward for the study of body politics within IR and beyond.

Given the gravity of events unfolding around us and written in haste, this short post is intended as a ‘teach in’ on and introduction to thinking about body politics highlighting and providing some initial analyses of two interrelated, crucial, and particularly disturbing aspects of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic currently playing out. In part 1 I explain and discuss the metaphoricity of the body politic in relation to the ‘British’ response to Covid-19 and in part 2, and again within the UK context (due to my situation and for ‘convenience’ within the scope of this blog post) I discuss the necropolitics of body (un-)counting. This analysis is preceded by the brief contextualisation and situation of my thoughts within existing IR and other literature and the provision of a brief overview of my arguments on body politics to date (feel free to skip this bit and jump straight to the Covid-19 analysis).

 On Bodies, briefly

Bodies are contested sites of global politics. However, for the most part, IR has left the politics out of bodies by denying and/or occluding intensely contested processes of (re)embodiment while preferring to analyse, scrutinise, and politicise, the contest other units arriving with and/or comprised of already made bodies (namely “man, the state, and war”). In my endeavour to ‘rethink the body in global politics’ (this it the title of my first book forthcoming 2020), I have therefore followed some in IR – namely, but not only, Lauren Wilcox (2015) on bodies and violence, Stefanie Fishel (2017) on the body politic, Jessica Auchter (2014) and Tom Gregory (2016) on dead bodies and body counting, and Jenny Edkins on missing bodies (2011) and trauma (2003) – but also many from beyond. These include Achille Mbembe (2003 and 2019) on Necropolitics, Sara Ahmed on emotion bodies, wilfulness, and use (2004, 2014, and 2019), Judith Butler on performativity (1993), precariousness (2004), and vulnerability (2015), Diana Coole (2005) on agency, Jane Bennett (2010) on the vibrancy of matter, and Kathleen Stewart (2007) and Teresa Brennan (2004) on affect.

Through this theory and intensive empirical research (see Purnell 2015, 2018, and forthcoming 2020), I have described bodies as performative, lively, and ontologically insecure – always a process and always in process and explained and underlined the role of emotion/affect in this. However, in my previous studies – into for example the 2013-2015 Guantanamo Bay hunger strike and treatment of suffering and dead American soldiers – I have researched and written about extremely exposed and very obviously contested bodies. However, I have done this as a means to reveal the more subtle ways and logics informing how every body is contested as a site of no ‘less’ amounts of global politics. As a crisis concerning everybody, the Covid-19 pandemic has therefore done a lot of work for me – by revealing the management, manipulation, and pervasive political interventions into the lives/deaths and (re)embodiments of not only ‘extremely’ placed and exposed bodies, but including the ‘everyday’ bodies of you and I. In the following paragraphs, intended to demonstrate the merits of thinking/re-thinking the body in global politics, I provide some initial analyses highlighting particular ways bodies are being (re)produced, (ab)used, and contested through responses to Covid-19 I am currently witnessing in the UK.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

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.’

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading