Apocalypse Yesterday?

The first in a series of posts over the coming weeks on the Coronavirus crisis and its multiple aspects, contradictions and possible futures. They will be collected here. This first is from Paul David Beaumont, who is currently finalising his PhD dissertation, The Grammar of International Status Competition, at the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Paul tweets @BeaumontPaul​ and his research is available to view on his Academia profile. See also his post from December 18, 2019 on Brexit Futures.


The corona crisis is not the beginning of the apocalypse but a symptom; we have been in the apocalypse for a while now. Akin to how the industrial revolution occurred over a far longer period than we normally associate with “revolutions”, apocalypses seldom occur overnight either. In this regard, humans have systematically misread the paradigmatic apocalypse scenario: the asteroid. Rather than wiping out humanity in one big bang, as Deep Impact would have it, it took decades for the mass extinctions to unfold. Similarly, even if COVID 19 does prompt mass deaths and/or societal collapse, if there are any historians still around to argue over the origins of our demise, they will be unlikely to pay much heed to the Corona outbreak itself.

Instead, I expect they will puzzle over a paradox that did not befall the dinosaurs. How did humans manage to create a society so technologically advanced that they could predict the apocalypse(s), develop the technology to stop it (them), yet adamantly and proudly refuse to do so?

With regards to humankind’s inability to halt climate change or the destruction of the world’s biodiversity, future historians will likely and rightly probably lean heavily on the collective dilemma to explain our failure to act. However, pandemic preparation is not a collective action problem for the state. States can prepare for pandemics without requiring all others to do so too, nor can other states necessarily free-ride from one state’s preparations.

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Returning the Gaze: A Reply to The Eye of War Symposium

The final post in our symposium on The Eye of War as Antoine responds to his interlocutors. All the entries in this series are collated here.


I have read each of the fantastic contributions made to the symposium with real pleasure and intellectual thrill. I feel very fortunate to have my work engaged with so thoroughly and generously by four wonderful scholars who each brought something unique to the conversation. Each entry is too rich in suggestive lines of thought to fully do any of them justice here and so I will only be able to selectively engage their contributions. I know however that they will continue to fire synapses for some time to come and I am very grateful to each participant for that gift. Big thanks also go to Paul for suggesting the symposium in the first place and organising it.

Katharine’s comments focus on the book’s early genealogy of the martial gaze, noting the uncommon historical perspective it brings to contemporary accounts of military targeting. It is certainly the case that much of the abundant scholarship produced on drones has a strong presentist feel, often emphasising the alleged revolutionary character of these weapon systems. Some of the best contributions have produced enriching accounts of their antecedents, either through a history of unmanned weapons (Grégoire Chamayou, Ian Shaw) or of aerial bombing (Derek Gregory), but these remain nevertheless conditioned by the starting point of the drone to which such histories lead by design. Notwithstanding its reference in the book’s subtitle (call it a sop to the marketing imperatives of academic publishing), The Eye of War’s enquiry was never motivated by the drone – indeed, the project was initiated before it became an object of sustained academic study – and it only explicitly features fleetingly in the final analysis. Instead, military perception was to be the investigation’s central object with the primary task being to trace its conceptual fundaments and technical milestones as far back as possible.

As outlined in my introductory post, the crucible for the contemporary manifestation of military perception that I settle on is the Italian Renaissance in which we can see an intertwined rationalisation of vision and mathematisation of space cohere. Katharine usefully supplements this account by connecting it to the Cartesian worldview that systematised what was arguably already implicit in the cultural expression of linear perspective (see also her recent article in the special issue on “Becoming Weapon” I had a hand in). As I note in the book, Martin Jay famously identified the originary “scopic regime” of modernity as one of “Cartesian perspectivalism” with its “understanding of vision as monocular, static, fixed and immediate, distant and objectifying, purely theoretic and disincarnated.” The notion of a rapacious drive for mastery over the world underlying modern epistemology is of course itself a well-rehearsed critique, as is the idea that this project has ironically ended up in a supposedly sovereign subject being increasingly dominated by its creations. If The Eye of War has any claim to originality in this regard, it is in underlining that the martial dimension of this reversal is still insufficiently appreciated.

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A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself

Enter the final contributor to our symposium on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). After the author’s opening post and pieces from Katharine HallDan Öberg, and Matthew Ford, our very own Jairus Grove steps up to the plate. Jairus is Associate Professor at the Department of Political Science in the University of Hawai’i at Manoa and the Director of the Hawai’i Research Center for Futures Studies.  His forthcoming book Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World will be published by Duke University Press in 2019.


Leafing back through The Eye of War’s evocative images of zebra-striped naval destroyers, pigeon-powered targeting systems, and steampunk-worthy ‘binaural acoustic aircraft detectors,’ I am reminded of how vital prototypes, designs, and never deployed gadgets are to Antoine Bousquet’s story of the martial gaze. I want to spend a bit of time thinking through the status of technical things that are more than ideas and less than practical machines with a little help from one of Bousquet’s interlocutors, Gilles Deleuze. At the end of Deleuze’s book on Foucault, he queries what the exact status of the panopticon is. According to Deleuze, the panopticons of Bentham’s dreams were rarely completed, and yet Foucault saw in its schematic the ordering principle of a new historical episteme. Is the panopticon, then, a metaphor, a kind of architectural condensation of discourses in the form of a blueprint? Those who would see ideas at the heart of the matter would hope so. The panopticon in a thinly constructivist reading would be at best the outcome of a changing set of normative relations regarding enclosure, discipline, and reform. 

The reactionary realist would be just as happy with this reading, as they are already prepared to dismiss Foucault as a naïve ideational thinker inured to the formative significance of things. However, Deleuze accepts neither of these positions. He instead describes Foucault’s thought as diagrammatic, that is, “a display of the relations between forces which constitute power… the panoptic mechanism is not simply a hinge, a point of exchange between a mechanism of power and a function; it is a way of making power relations function in a function, and of making a function function through these power relations.” Drawing inspiration from Gilbert Simondon, Deleuze locates Foucault as a machinic thinker investigating “the very tissue of the assemblage” and the “immanent causal” relationship between abstract machines and concrete machines. The diagram or abstract machine of the panopticon comes to inhabit and form what Deleuze calls the “human technology which exists before a material technology” with the concrete machine its execution in the form of schools, factories, prisons, open plan office spaces, ad infinitum. As Deleuze puts it succinctly, “the machines are social before being technical,” where the social is defined by Deleuze, this time drawing from Gabriel Tarde, as any assemblage or collection of relations that exceed, make up, and go beyond the sociology of humans or individuals.

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Linear Perspective, the Modern Subject, and the Martial Gaze

The second post in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press). Antoine opened the series with a summary of the project earlier this week, and we now welcome Dr Katharine Hall’s contribution. Katharine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary, University of London and publishes in the fields of political geography, science and technology studies, and security studies. Her recent works include ‘The Technological Rationality of the Drone Strike’ in Critical Studies on Security and ‘The Emergence of Lethal Surveillance’ in Security Dialogue. Her current projects focus on pilotless aircraft and air power in the interwar period, and on racialised violence and militarised urban policing.


One of the things the distinguishes The Eye of War from many of the books about contemporary drones strikes and military targeting technologies is its historical focus. In analyzing the martial gaze – the linking of perception and destruction, surveillance and targeting – Antoine Bousquet looks not just at the development of this gaze in technologies and practices across the 20th century, but also seeks to situate it within a much longer modern history of perception and representation. The former links Eye of War to a body of critical scholarship attentive to the historical geographies and ‘lines of descent’ of contemporary Western war (ex. Derek Gregory, Caren Kaplan, Ian Shaw, Gregoire Chamayou, Kyle Grayson), while the latter links the investigation into the martial gaze to the birth and development of modern science and the modern (liberal) political subject.

Bousquet calls this historical approach a ‘machinic history.’ This methodology is part assemblage theory, part genealogy, and part intellectual history. The main body of the book is devoted to detailing three functions or logistics of perception: sensing, imaging, and mapping (followed by its opposite: hiding).  Through this investigation he aims to show how perception has become technical, which is the root of his argument. Each of these functions have become increasingly absorbed by and embedded in technical apparatuses, not a new phenomenon but one that has been intensifying. Ultimately this is an argument about the relationship between the human and the technical. Bousquet is concerned with human agency and the removal of this agency from processes of perception, especially where the stakes are so great like in targeted killing. As Bousquet writes, “This book’s ultimate wager is that by plunging into the heart of the machine, we may obtain a truer sense of the potential and limits of our agency within it, political or otherwise.” 

Part of this dive into the machine is to the birth of linear perspective and the Italian renaissance, which Bousquet identifies as the foundational site of the martial gaze. One of the central figures here is Leon Battista Alberti, whose book On Painting details a method for translating what is seen from the eye to the paper, keeping proportions and perspective in scale.  In these foundations (and they aren’t the only ones) is the creation of a system or apparatus to represent the world and to do so through a particular regime of accuracy. In other words what develops from this is a system of seeing and knowing the world – of sensing, imaging, and mapping. The central figure in this system, of course, is the eye.

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Lenin Lives! A Disorders Forum: Brave Old World

This is part three in a forum on Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! Reimagining the Russian Revolution, 1917-2017 (Zero Books, 2017). For the rest of the forum, click here.


Alex Sutton is a Lecturer in Political Economy at Oxford Brookes University. He has previously worked at the Universities of Warwick, St Andrews, Kingston and Chichester. His research focuses on International Political Economy and British imperial history, considering how imperial policy derives from the fractious nature of capitalist social relations.

 

 


Philip Cunliffe’s Lenin Lives! is a fascinating, and diverting, journey into a counter-factual world of utopian wish-fulfilment. Here, Cunliffe draws on counter-factual history as a ‘critical tool for political action’ (35) to develop an alternative story of human development: what if the socialist revolutions of the early twentieth century had lived up to their promise?

The book makes a disclaimer early on that its goal is to be ‘indicative, demonstrative, and provocative’ (22), as such any criticisms – I hope – are to be taken with a pinch of salt. My fear, however, is that Lenin Lives! has fallen into a trap in fetishizing a past possibility for a future that could not happen. Indeed, Cunliffe describes the book as a ‘future of the past rather than a future of ours’ (34) and distinguishes between the ‘historical world’ – our timeline – and the ‘better world’ that might have been. Lenin Lives! is, in this sense, far too enamoured with saving the promise of the Soviet Union that it does not adequately account for the inherent problems of this vision and its execution. This is not to single out Cunliffe but rather to say that Lenin Lives! unproblematically articulates a view of social change that has been much-debated within radical thought.

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Reply

In this final post in our symposium on  Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History: Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage Models, Laust responds to his interlocutors.

You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


It is a rare privilege to be afforded the time to reflect on the characteristics of social relations across history, and moreover to have those ideas published. It is even rarer to have such an outstanding group of scholars respond to those ideas. I am truly humbled and thankful, and my comments should be read in this light. In the spirit of academic debate, I will discuss where I disagree with some of the contributors’ observations, and where they may have misinterpreted parts of my argument. However, to paraphrase Yale, I generally think that there is more that unites us than divides us. I am so happy that they all see the value of the book as an intellectual project, and that most of them agree with the general thrust of my argument, of course with several important qualifications. Let me also extend a special thank you to L.H.M. Ling and Hendrik Spruyt who participated in the 2017 ISA roundtable that inspired the present symposium, but who were nevertheless prevented from contributing to the latter.

It is not possible to respond to all of the contributors’ individual concerns. Therefore, I will attempt to address those that I believe are the most significant and those that are shared by several of the them. This should by no means be read as a diminishing of the force of those arguments passed by. Hopefully I will get an opportunity to respond to those arguments in person or in a different forum.

Probably the most important issue to settle is the status of functionalism in my book. This is because it is the basis for the alternative theoretical framework I propose, and for what we can achieve with it. It is also an issue with a substantial room for misinterpretation, because my functionalism is of a specific kind. While most of the contributors seem sympathetic to my critique of the state and stage models, several are nevertheless concerned about different aspects related to functionalism. Continue reading

The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

The Whole and Its Parts

This is the third comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Yale Ferguson. Yale is a Professorial Fellow in the Rutgers University-Newark Division of Global Affairs and Emeritus Distinguished Professor of Global and International Affairs.  His publications include 12 books and over 60 book chapters and articles. Among his latest books with Richard W. Mansbach (Iowa State) are Globalization: The Return of Borders to a Borderless World?; A World of Polities: Essays in Global Politics; and Remapping Global Politics: History’s Revenge and Future Shock. He and Mansbach have a new book in progress, War and Political Evolution in the Ancient Mediterranean.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


It is a pleasure for me to take part in this symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History (hereafter IIWH), as it was to read his thoughtful and provocative book. Reviewers are always saying that some study is a must-read or should be on every scholar’s and serious student’s bookshelf. Well, occasionally such accolades are merited, and for those of us interested in IR theory and history, they certainly are in the case of Laust’s book. His is indeed a landmark study, and I not only enjoyed but profited from reading it, not least in considering Laust’s observations about my own work with Richard Mansbach on Polities. Laust has read essentially everything relevant to his concerns, set forth other authors’ positions with care and respect, and then explained how he begs to differ. In this little piece, I hope to do the same for Laust.

There are so many things I like about IIWH that I cannot begin to mention them all, so I will simply list a few specifics and then move on to what I see as central issues in the book as a whole. First, the list:

  1. Laust’s focus is on social institutions seen as “made up of patterned practices, ideas and norms” (emphasis in original). Social institutions are what they do on a regular basis, what ideas sustain them (and they convey), and what they regard (and do not regard) as legitimate behavior.
  2. He looks at social institutions from a multi-disciplinary perspective, including IR, anthropology, archaeology, and historical sociology. He weighs their respective contributions to his subject, mixes and matches what he can from them, and then advances his own distinct theoretical position.
  3. His approach in IIWH is also proudly and even militantly cross-cultural and trans-historical.
  4. The empirical second section of the book is a broad study of “three extreme or marginal historical cases: nomad Central Asia, the Central African rainforest and Polynesia.” Laust has the audacity to suggest that he has gone to those extremes or margins to highlight the “universality” of his four functional categories versus the “limitations” of the “state-based framework” he attributes to almost everyone else, including those advancing “stage” models.
  5. Laust insists, quite rightly, that there is no useful or reasonable basis for labeling the likes of his case-study societies and their institutions as “primitive.”
  6. He boldly maintains that we can and should view “the functional activities relevant to corporate social actors or polities” and their “interactions” as falling into only four basic categories: legitimacy and membership, regulating conflicts, trade, and governance.
  7. Last in this list, I have special reasons for liking Laust’s observations about war in his discussion of “regulating conflict.” He notes that war is often viewed as a “social evil” or at best (like Bull) a “necessary evil” to help maintain order. However, Laust comments: “In many past societies, including the three [that are his cases], war did not always carry a “negative connotation.” “On the contrary, it was often celebrated. Hence, we are “allowed to consider the possibility that war might be the dominant mode of social interaction, so to speak.” In fact, Mansbach and I are currently writing a book focusing on war and polities in the ancient Mediterranean that argues war was the primary driver of political evolution for thousands of years and speculates about how far one can push that connection into the present and future.

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The Uses of Functionalism

This is the second comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Cornelia Navari. Cornelia is honorary senior lecturer at the University of Birmingham (U.K.) and visiting professor of international affairs at the University of Buckingham (U.K.). Her current research is into international regulatory regimes and involves several linked projects covering regime development.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


To an English School (ES) theorist, and in the context of that theory, the first thing Laust’s argument calls to mind are the structural affinities between the ES and the early days of anthropology. Indeed, it highlights the relation of the English School to, particularly, British anthropology, whose great breakthrough (to remind ourselves) was in the idea of functionalism in relation to social institutions. To recall, what the functional anthropologist was looking for in social practices was the key to social stability among pre-modern peoples, and he rated institutions in relation to their contribution to social stability. Laust has picked up, quite rightly in my view, the correspondence between the ES concept of world order, the institutions of world order such as great power management, and the anthropologist’s idea of social stability.

His argument is also spot-on in relating order or stability to, more particularly, institutionalisation. I don’t think he gives enough credit to Kalevi Holsti (indeed, he doesn’t seem to credit him at all, but who stated it much more boldly in his 2004 Taming the Sovereigns): you cannot have order without institutions.  Equally, however, Hedley Bull, the originator of the ES concern with institutions, features prominently in his argument, and Bull claimed to have identified the basic institutions that provided for world order. In the same manner, Laust’s categories are the functions that he expects any social order to provide. This point will become more important as we proceed. Continue reading

A New Language for a New World

This is the first comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Erik Ringmar. Erik is Lecturer in Political Science in the Department of Political Science at Lund University. He works on topics such as international history, international relations, cultural sociology, and social theory.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


The basic insight that drives the argument presented in this book is that we need a new way of thinking about international politics which does not privilege European experiences and the idea of a sovereign state. This is required since we need to be able to talk about other parts of the world, about European history before the rise of the state, and about a future in which the state no longer will be with us. World history, simply put, is not about the state, and it really isn’t the case that der Gang Gottes in der Welt daß der Staat ist. And people who claim that this is the case — not only Hegel, but all philosophers of history from Adam Ferguson to Walt Whitman Rostow — are simply mistaken. Compare the recently fashionable idea of a “failed state.” To identify a state as having failed is to identify it as not living up to a European standard. It is like saying that a woman is a “failed man.”

Laust Schouenborg‘s suggestion is to dispense with state-talk in favor of a discussion of political functions. We should stop talking about what political entities are and focus instead on what they do. Perhaps we could think of this as a move from ontology to practice. We are in Durkheimian territory, in other words, or Talcott Parsonian. The state, says Schouenborg, can be disaggregated into four functions having to do with 1) legitimacy and membership; 2) conflict regulation; 3) trade, and 4) governance.

Since all polities of whichever kind they may be fulfill these basic functions, this, not the state, should be our focus. Instead of a state-centered vocabulary which only allows us to talk sensibly only about Europe, a function-centered vocabulary allows us to talk sensibly about all of world history and everyone everywhere.  This taxonomy provides a “basic grid,” says Schouenborg, which is neutral between historical and geographical contexts. “So, my general argument in this book is not only that four functional categories can be used to capture social institutions throughout history. I also argue that we should discard the main alternative conceptual framework in the form of the state and the attendant stage models.” Continue reading