Colonial Lives of Legality and Possibilities for Resistance?

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s new book, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership. First up is the symposium organiser, Alvina Hoffmann, a PhD student in IR at King’s College London. She is review article editor, social media officer and member of the editorial board of Millennium: Journal of International Studies. She is co-convenor of the research group Doing International Political Sociology. Her thesis investigates the annexation of Crimea, the Sami people’s struggle over land rights and the Internet users’ claims over digital spaces through the lens of rights claims practices which intersect in various institutional settings such as the UN.


Brenna Bhandar’s Colonial Lives of Property takes its readers on an analytical journey through various empirical and temporal contexts, excavating the racial assumptions underpinning the development of modern property law which animate contemporary settings of settler colonialism. In Bhandar’s own words, the book’s main focus lies “on the political ideologies, economic rationales, and colonial imaginaries that gave life to juridical forms of property and a concept of human subjectivity that are embedded in a racial order” (p. 22). The book is an impressive study which skilfully combines archival material, legal cases and fieldwork to showcase the various practices of appropriation of land and its rationalisation through property law regimes. It will appeal to scholars from various disciplines studying the development and contemporary manifestations of racial capitalism, Indigenous people’s dispossession and resistance struggles, and the history of property, territory and sovereignty more broadly. This interdisciplinary form of inquiry not only helps shed new light on questions surrounding the enduring forms of racial and economic inequalities, but also offers thoughtful reflections on new political imaginaries of property.

In this post, I want to draw out three points that Brenna Bhandar’s rich and thoughtful book raises. First, I will show how her historical analysis of processes of racialisation constituted political subjects in colonial settings. Then I will focus on practices of legality and consider ways in which her analysis can be applied in international law with regards to Indigenous peoples and their claims to land rights. The final part will consider Bhandar’s conclusive thoughts on alternative political imaginaries of property which draw on an array of scholars and resources which inspire critical theories and practices of such imaginaries.

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What We Talked About at ISA: The Climate for Women in International Relations and Politics

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Yesterday, The Guardian reported on the level of sexual harassment in British universities. Based on Freedom of Information requests (and for this and other reasons necessarily a partial insight into the incidence of harassment) the investigation notes the combination of allegations from students against staff, and from colleagues against each other (roughly 60% and 40% of the total allegations respectively). Perhaps the most high profile media story on sexual harassment in universities so far, The Guardian piece nevertheless follows from a series of stories and controversies, most notably Sara Ahmed’s documentation of specific cases at Goldsmiths (covered in posts on the initial harassment conference, on the nature of evidence, on discovery and speaking out, and on resignation as a feminist issue).

Many of the same concerns have been raised in International Relations (IR) and politics. Individual stories of harassment have long circulated (and been collected anonymously at sites such as Everyday Power and Privilege in IR). At this year’s International Studies Association conference in Baltimore, ten panels were convened on marginalisation, discrimination and violence in professional contexts. Due to a gap in the programme, I was asked to contribute. I opted to describe – and now report in blog form – an experiment in addressing discrimination and bias against women in academia, and to draw some comparisons with IR and politics.

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Bodies, What Matter?

And now, the fourth post in our symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence.[1] It follows Lauren’s opener, Kevin McSorley’s take on embodiment and Alison Howell on the value of feminist IR in such a project. Posts by Antoine and a rejoinder from Lauren follow.


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Lauren Wilcox seeks something like a theory of the body (and embodiment, crucially different) in international political violence. The body not as inert or as the mere vehicle for mind, but malleable, and indeed “deeply political”. As she puts it early on in Bodies of Violence, we therefore require a conceptual framework for seeing “how bodies are enabling and generative of war and practices of political violence more broadly”. And it is part of her case that such a theory of bodies – or, at least, a theoretical inquiry into violent embodiment – would be among the first in the discipline of International Relations, which has thus far failed to understand how bodies matter, how bodies are produced, and how violence acts upon and through bodies, even as it claims to be the discipline most concerned with human survival in the face of organised violence. And despite IR being in thrall to an unsustainable individualism, which might at least be expected to bias it towards discrete human experience.[2]

In short, international theory is disembodied, and the body an “absent presence” (aptly put, and true). Since we all have bodies, and can only encounter the world through our bodies, we should thus in some sense seek to include – perhaps even ‘centre’ – the body in theory. Even as poststructural scholarship evades the injunction to produce systematic theory, it is able to reveal the absence of bodies in our dominant paradigms. Wilcox pushes us in the same direction, arguing that, as subjects, we are embodied, precarious and have physical forms that are both produced by, and are in turn productive of, the world of ‘politics’. This is both a conceptual and a normative question, since those who have been considered improperly bodied have historically been excluded from politics, from the means of social reproduction and autonomy, and from recognition as human itself.

To not see the body is thus not to entertain a neutral and cerebral vision of the human, but instead to reproduce the historical exclusions by which some bodies (in the familiar refrain, those that are male, white, cisgender, heterosexual, Eurocentric, able-bodied and rational) are taken to be the benchmark by which others (framed as deviant, inadequate, juvenile or dangerous) are measured and found wanting. Bodies of Violence moves through a series of sites (the US Naval Base, Guantanamo; the suicide bomber’s vest; the airport scanner; the drone operator’s screen-throne; the rhetoric of humanitarian intervention), mapping how the body figures in each of them. It is a book thoroughly about bodies, but not therefore necessarily a theory of bodies and embodiment. And it is theory of em-bodies-ment that we may in need of.

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Shipboard Travels: A conversation between Charmaine Chua and Laleh Khalili (Part II)

Part One just over here.


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LK: First of all, before we proceed, can I say how much I am enjoying this conversation?  Part of this is the ability to compare my experiences with someone of the same political disposition and theoretical commitments who can comment on the contrasts and similarities of the experience of travel aboard a containership, but part of it is also our gender identification.

I felt a kinship with you upon meeting you (as I did with Deb Cowen upon reading her amazing book) precisely because of us confounding gendered expectations of who would do this sort of research in an area –maritime labour, security, travel, and labour– that has always been –and continues to be– marked so profoundly as masculine. And I was really curious about your experience.

I think although I experienced one instance of ass-patting, by and large I think I had it a lot easier than you. One reason may have been that CMA CGM, the shipping company on whose ship I was steaming, actually takes onboard passengers as a matter of course, and there were two other women passengers, both in their 70s, on the ship with me. Whereas –and please correct me– my impression is that you were on a shipping line that doesn’t necessarily take on passengers. I also think my age –I am 46– probably to some extent insulated me from some of your experience. Two other factors also mattered hugely: one that there was a woman cadet being trained to be an officer onboard who could really hold her own with the male officers and crew; and the second, that the captain’s wife was also traveling with us, and her presence at the table, for instance, completely changed the tenor of the meals.  So there were 5 women on a ship of 37 people.

But what really struck me was the range of masculinities aboard the ship. The European officers certainly performed their manliness very differently than the Filipino and Keralan crew, and even within the rank of the Europeans (most of whom were Croat), the deck officers crafted their bodies in a different way than the deck officers: the latter worked out in the gym to build up their arm muscles and upper bodies into taut masses of muscles; the latter, not so much.

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The Quiet Port is Logistics’ Nightmare

Dispatch #2 from Charmaine’s ethnography of a container ship comes to us from the port of Tacoma, where the ship is currently experiencing severe delays. Continue to follow the Ever Cthulhu with the tag ‘Slow Boat to China’.


Source: author

Source: author

It is 3am on a Wednesday when we pick up the Port Angeles pilot who will take the ship through the Puget Sound. All day, we have been sailing through a fog that has hung so thickly around the ship that it has seemed we are drifting through clouds. The fog has delayed our pilot by four hours: sailing through the Puget Sound’s narrow channel is already a formidable task, made Herculean by the fact that no one can see past the ship’s nose. Take that, multiply it by the fact that the port of Tacoma is situated in a tight bottleneck of an inlet, that an unusual volume of vessels are docked in anchorages clogging passage to the port, and that the captain is being hounded by the charterer to get us to berth on time, and you get the shipper’s molotov cocktail. Short of risking navigating by radar, avoiding ships via yellow blips on a screen, waiting the fog out is the best option. At dinner, the captain sighs. “Fog, congestion, work slowdowns: at this rate, we will never get to China.”

There is a massive traffic jam on the ocean, and the Ever Cthulhu is stuck in the thick of it. Already, we have been delayed for almost two weeks: the ship stayed for five days longer than the forecasted two in both Oakland and Los Angeles, and is expected to be in Tacoma for ten. Regularity, it turns out, can no longer be expected in the logistics industry, and my 26-day trip on the Ever Cthulhu is turning into a 40-day one. All along the West Coast, ports and berths have been choked with vessels in every terminal, and waiting ships have crowded into anchorages for days in far higher numbers than the captain has ever seen. Imagine the ripple effects of all this congestion: if a single ship takes six days longer than the usual 2.5 to be unloaded at berth, and ships that have been waiting experience those same delays when their turn at berth arrives, those backlogs reverberate outward in unfathomable ways, affecting ships’ travel times to other ports around the world, trucking rates inland, air freight pricing, rail service delays across the U.S., and the availability of empty containers in China.

The reasons for this coast-wide congestion are unclear. In July, when the current International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract ran out, more than 70 multinational maritime companies and ocean carriers represented by the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) began to negotiate a new contract with the ILWU for the 29 U.S. West Coast ports in its jurisdiction. The process soon turned ugly. The PMA blamed the increasing port congestion on an organised work slowdown by the union, alleging that the ILWU was deliberately not dispatching enough gangs to the waterfront. The union vehemently denied this, and countered that the PMA was deliberately mounting a smear campaign against them by cutting the number of workers at terminals and cancelling critical night shifts that would speed the cargo operations. The media, of course, lapped this all up, blaming rotten agricultural productions, anchored ships, and delayed shipment arrivals on the ILWU, one outlet going so far as to ask whether longshoremen were “spoiling Christmas”.

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Terra-forming Islands in the South China Sea, or the Future of International Law in the Age of Anthropocene

As per our disciplinary formations, IR scholars often indoctrinate instruct their students with the assumption that anarchy is a constant in international relations. The use of the term, however, generally assumes that there are natural/material constants within the international that transcend central concepts of sovereignty, power, and choice/preference. In other words, the assumption is that anarchy has (material) limits. Even those subscribing to the discursive turn would/might agree that there are material constraints that limit ‘meaning construction.’ We base a number of international laws, norms and regulations on this assumption; there are certain constants that cannot be changed through human actions. Our aspirations, capabilities, hopes, preferences, do not change these constants. What if – and this is a big ‘what if’ – for the time being, we are increasingly wrong about this assumption? What if human ability to transform the earth’s eco-systems has reached a level where this basic assumption no longer holds valid, or as valid as it used to be?

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A number of geologists, environmental scientists, and futurists alike have already picked up on this trend. Looking at climate change in particular, they claimed that the earth has entered a new epoch in its life cycle. “We now live in the age of Anthropocene!” these scholars claim. Anthropocene, in this context, refers to the humans’ distinct ability to affect earth’s ecosystems. This claim is disputed, yet many see merit in it. To understand, or reflect, on the implication of the fact that we, as humans, are not the only ‘things’ that matter in this world of ours, you can also look at this amazing post by Audra Mitchell on Posthuman Security.

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While in the future we might see the effects of other types of terra-forming and/or bio-engineering in international relations and international law, this post will only look at the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the effects of the Chinese pursuits in the South China Sea on the said law. The BBC ran an excellent exposé back in September on the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) pursuit of building man-made islands on the South China Sea and its (intended) effects on the territorial water disputes between the countries of the region. Aside from the amazing medium through which the BBC editors and reporters managed to convey the message, the story itself is equally worth reflecting on for all things international.

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International Relations is Not an American Discipline (Well, Maybe It Is, A Little)

Helen TurtonA guest post on the state of the discipline by Helen Louise Turton. Helen is a University Teacher in International Relations and Security Studies at the University of Sheffield. She received her PhD from Exeter in 2013 for a dissertation on ‘The Sociology of a Diverse Discipline’, and next year Routledge will publish her International Relations and American Dominance: A Diverse Discipline. She also has work on marginality and hegemony in IR forthcoming in the Journal of International Relations and Development (with Lucas Freire) and is beginning a larger project on ‘Rereading European IR Theory’ (with Knud Erik Jørgensen and Felix Rösch). Helen is also the co-convenor of the BISA Working Group on IR as a Social Science. If you wish to join the working group please follow the link.


Gary Hilliard

It has been said on more than one occasion that International Relations is an American dominated discipline, or that the US IR community is hegemonic. In fact, one could even go so far as to say that the disciplinary image of IR being dominated by the US has become a disciplinary truism, with many academics reproducing this characterisation time and time again. The TRIP survey that has just been sent to academics in 33 different countries even poses the question “Please indicate the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement: The discipline of international relations is an American dominated discipline” to ascertain the degree to which IR scholars around the globe feel dominated by the US. Furthermore, other empirical surveys of the discipline have sought to demonstrate the seeming continued disciplinary dominance of the American academy, pointing to the different ways in which the US is able to exercise its disciplinary hegemony.

In my new book International Relations and American Dominance I challenge the claim that IR is an American dominated discipline because the underlying question is itself deeply problematic. Asking whether IR is dominated by the US presupposes a yes or no answer. We are therefore presented with an either or option which overlooks the possibility that the discipline may be dominated by the US in some ways but not in others. This then leads us to unpack what it means to be dominant. When scholars claim that IR is an American dominated discipline we first need to assess how they understand disciplinary dynamics and relationships of dominance. Are dominance claims being made because it is perceived that American methods populate the discipline? Or do certain American theories dominate global IR? Perhaps the US is stated to be dominant because it is American IR scholars who are in positions of power? Maybe scholars have argued that IR is dominated by the US because there are more American IR scholars than those from other national IR communities? Or does the discipline subscribe to an American agenda and American understanding of what ‘international relations’ is?

The reality is that all these grounds have been used to state that the US IR community is hegemonic. Academics have implicitly drawn on different understandings of dominance and explicitly drawn attention to the different implications of US dominance, but often this is done without first clarifying what is meant or implied by American disciplinary dominance. Often scholars are speaking about one form of dominance on one page of a text, and then refer to a different understanding on another page. What this means is that the word dominance when in the context of claims stating ‘IR is an American dominated discipline’ or ‘IR is no longer an American enterprise’ is used in many different ways, taking on many different forms and measured in numerous modes despite the fact that it is presented as ‘one size fits all’ form of dominance. What this means is that although certain scholars may agree that the US is dominant they may be talking at cross-purposes about how and why America dominates. Whilst there may be agreement in one sense, there will be different answers to the crucial questions of how and why America allegedly became and remains disciplinarily dominant.

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