Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

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.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

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So much to say, so much to say… A Reply

I want to begin by thanking Karen, Anthony, Kirsten and Elke for their comments on the book–and a special thanks to Elke for organising. It is a rare treat to have so much attention paid to one’s work, especially by such thoughtful and insightful colleagues. My profound thanks to you all. I also need to offer some explanations for my much delayed post – first I was starting a new job and time ran out, then I was ill, and then my iCloud account somehow ate my draft. So, I’ve had to start from scratch, which has forced me to be direct and straightforward to save time. Any curtness of tone is a reflection of circumstances rather than my appreciation of my critics.

I learned a great deal from all the posts—about the gaps, limitations and possibilities of my book. Therefore, in my response I want to reflect upon what I have learned through this forum. What I have to say here is only a brief continuation of the collective intellectual journey taken through this forum. You have all given me much to think about it the future. Continue reading

Reconstructing Human Rights

The first in a forum on Joe’s recently released Reconstructing Human Rights: A Pragmatist and Pluralist Inquiry in Global Ethics (Oxford University Press, 2016). A number of commentaries will follow in the coming days.


hoover-reconstructing-human-rights-cover1Earlier this year I visited Sylvia’s Corner, the home of the Focus E15 campaign, to give a talk about the human right to housing. As I shared my research, based on work I had done with housing campaigns in Chicago and Washington DC, I was struck by how this specific moment illustrated what I most hope Reconstructing Human Rights might accomplish—namely, helping to reconstruct human rights as a more democratic idea, and practice.

In London, Focus E15 has been fighting for the human rights of those struggling to secure a decent home for themselves and their families, often struggling against the very public agencies who should be assisting them. Their work not only draws on an ethical and political language of human rights, but it also remakes that language, renders it suitable to their needs and responsive to their experiences. I have witnessed this same process with other campaigns, such as the  Chicago Anti-Eviction Campaign, and with community organising groups like ONE DC in Washington DC. It was revealing to act, even briefly, as a conduit through which the experiences of these distant groups could be relayed. Human rights are constantly being remade, repurposed—reconstructed—to serve the ends of those suffering from injustice. It is this reality that motivates my book, which is at its core an attempt to understand how human rights can be both an instrument of the privileged and powerful, and also a weapon for the oppressed and disempowered. I wrote this book because I wanted to know, what should we make of human rights?

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White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.


Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

What can we make of this? Continue reading

An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.


White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire. Continue reading

No Less A Scream For It Being Artful

Naeem InayatullahAnother guest contribution from Naeem Inayatullah to our symposium on Vitalis’s White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s research locates the Third World in international relations through history, political economy and method. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011), as well as Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (Routledge, 2016) with Elizabeth Dauphinee. His writing, research and talks can be discovered and devoured at his academia.edu page.

*Update* Nivi’s response is here, and Srdjan’s is here.


When I finished reading White World Order, Black Power Politics, I made three decisions.  I would read the book again.  Not because it is theoretically difficult or jargon heavy.  It’s not.  But because I want to absorb its details, re-orient my body through its revelations, savor Bob’s story telling skills, and anticipate his scarce but nevertheless Pharoah Sanders-esque screams.

In addition, I immediately designed a course titled “Race and IR” around Bob’s book.  The course has been approved and I am scheduled to teach it in September.  Third, I’ve suggested Bob’s name to my best students as someone they might consider as a future mentor in graduate study.  So, boom!  Immediate impact.  Could a book and an author want more than this?  Perhaps not.  Still, I suspect Bob has larger ambitions for this book.  It could change our field, if we are lucky.  Count me in for this project as well.

The importance of Vitalis’ book is easy to articulate.  It demonstrates the racist foundations of our discipline (IR).  Bob recounts the narrative as two sides of one tale.  There is the account of those who theorized and practiced white hegemony.  And there is the story of those who rejected it.  Our origin story is not about the three great debates, not the mythical line of realism going back to Machiavelli and Thucydides, not the immaculate conception of a Cold War politics, not anarchy as the founding condition, and not abstractions concerned with statics or dynamics of inter-state relations. Rather, Vitalis demonstrates, it is racist theories and institutions of imperialism constitute the actual origins of our discipline.

Here is how Bob puts it:

What is new and important in this book is the discovery that the intellectuals, institutions, and arguments that constituted international relations were shaped by and often directly concerned with advancing strategies to preserve and extend [the theory and practice of white hegemony against those struggling to end their subjection.  (2)

But also:

…we can’t understand the history of the early decades of the discipline without understanding the long and globe-spanning freedom movements that are central to its intellectual, social, and institutional development. (9)

Each part of the tale is told in equal measure: the ying and the yang, the force and counter-force, imperialism and liberation. Continue reading