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.

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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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On Situatedness, Knowledges and Absences: A Response to the Symposium on Decolonising Intervention

The final post in our symposium on Decolonising Intervention. A massive thanks to Lee for organising and editing; errors in this final part are mine.  If tweeting, please use #DecolonisingIntervention. The earlier posts can be seen here: my introduction, Marta’s response, Lee’s response, Amy’s response and Megan’s response. The whole book is available for free Open Access download here.

My sincere thanks to all the contributors to this symposium for reading the book and responding with such thoughtfulness, seriousness and robustness. I respect them all enormously as scholars and have learned a great deal from their own work – a learning process which continues through this symposium as well. Moreover, the space for deep reading, critical feedback, intellectual argument and reflection is something that the structures of the neoliberal academy increasingly accumulate against; my pleasure and gratitude is deepened by the knowledge that the contributors have all actively managed to hold the door open in spite of this.

My response to their contributions will principally focus on the questions they raise and points of contestation. However, I was happy to see that the basic argument and conclusion of the book – that intervention is intimately structured by relations of colonial difference – is one with which they appear to agree and find compelling as an explanation for the continuation of failure. A primary hope of mine in writing this up was that one could not read this book and look at intervention in post-conflict or ‘fragile’ states, and its various ‘implementation problems’, without this understanding in mind. Having done this work, I find it now very difficult to read assessments of post-conflict state-building or development practice that continue to reproduce various forms of technocratic fantasy about how exactly it is that institutions, polities and economies are ‘built’ or ‘improved’.

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This conclusion and the analysis supporting it has been reached through an engagement with the experiences and perspectives of intervention’s targets in Mozambique. Thus, the book is also concerned with how we study what we study in the field of International Relations – specifically how we cultivate what Niang deftly describes as the ‘value of uncanonical insights of subjects whose absence would otherwise give an incomplete account of the game of intervention’. The contributors had different reactions to this proposition and the way it was taken forward in the book, which I will look at below. Notwithstanding the challenges and complexities of this, I feel that if we are to practice a scholarship which is both more ‘scientific’ and more democratic, this kind of epistemic and methodological re-positioning of scholars vis-à-vis structures of power is absolutely critical. Continue reading


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

My personal genealogy of International Institutions in World History

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Laust Schouenborg’s new book International Institutions in World History: Divorcing International Relations Theory from the State and Stage ModelsWe kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Laust, followed by replies over the next few days from Erik Ringmar, Cornelia Navari, Yale Ferguson, and Benjamin de Carvalho. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Laust.

Laust is Associate Professor in the Department of Social Sciences and Business at Roskilde University. His research interests fall within International Relations theory, particularly the English School approach, disarmament, security studies and world history.

You will be able to find all the posts for this forum here.


I must say that I have some rather grand ambitions with this book – perhaps too grand. I aim to put International Relations (IR) theory on a new footing and to challenge the role of the state and stage models, not just in IR, but also in our sister disciplines in the social sciences, most notably anthropology, archaeology and sociology. I did not start out with these grand ambitions. Initially, the book was meant to be a short foray into history to test some ideas I had developed in a 2011 piece in the journal International Relations.[i] However, as so often happens (the beauty of scientific discovery), the project went through a metamorphosis. A more complex creature emerged (probably not as pretty as the original if I am to pursue the analogy with Kafka’s famous book). The project did not change direction as such, but I became aware that I could use the initially conceived inquiry to support a sustained attack on two cherished (as well as loathed) concepts in the social sciences: the state and stage models. For the purposes of this symposium, it might be interesting to engage in a bit of genealogy and trace the evolution of the book from its somewhat humble beginnings to its eventual larger and ambitious claims. If you prefer the more polished or ex post facto story, I refer you to the actual book.

It all began with Hedley Bull, Barry Buzan and Jack Donnelly. While only the former two are traditionally associated with the English School (ES) of IR, all three had thought about the institutions of international society. Most readers are probably familiar with the five institutions that were discussed in Bull’s landmark contribution The Anarchical Society: international law, diplomacy, war, the balance of power and the great powers.[ii] These five are still central to ES debates, but have been supplemented by a long list of additional institutions identified by various authors.[iii] In the mid-2000s, Buzan and Donnelly separately started to address how all these institutions might be organised into functional (as referring to activity) categories, thus laying the groundwork for a theory of international institutions.[iv] I was very intrigued by this, and tried to think with them in this endeavour. In doing so, and I suppose partly as a consequence of my prior training as a historian, I was very conscious of the risk of formulating categories that were biased towards modern history. By this I mean the abstracting of social elements of modern societies into universal principles applicable at all times and in all places. Another way of describing this is through the ‘comparativist challenge’. It goes a little something like this. Assume that we are interested in comparing societies across history and across cultures and regions of the whole world. Not just societies from European history of the past millennium, or even Western civilization over the past five millennia, but potentially societies drawn from all human history on this planet. How can we do this objectively? How can we neutrally compare? What are the benchmarks that can be applied in this exercise? Continue reading

In defence of the apparently indefensible (or, French ‘intellectuals’ did not ruin the West and can we please stop postie-bashing because it’s not actually terribly helpful thank you)

Note: I decided to write this post because I got tired of trying to explain my position on discourse, reality, truth, and why Foucault is not to blame for the rolling shit-show that is US politics right now on Twitter in 140 characters. And then my 800 word blog post turned into a 4000 word essay. Sorry about that. Tl; dr version: truth is a social construct but that doesn’t mean anything goes. But the long version contains turtles and an Adam Savage gif, so do please read on…

 Let me get a couple of things straight before I begin. First, I am not A Philosopher. I am not (often) a thinker of profound and important thoughts (not nearly often enough, anyway), nor do I consider the work that I do to be in the realm of philosophy, or even ‘grand theory’. I am not A Theorist either; I am, at most, a theorist with a lower-case ‘t’. I theorise, a bit, about the nature of the things that interest me and the relationships between them. It helps me make sense of the world and that’s about as far as it goes. So I am probably woefully underqualified to write this post. But here I am, because being woefully underqualified to write about postmodernism[i], and truth, and facts, and the world in general, doesn’t seem to stop a whole bunch of other people doing it and if they’re having their fun I want some. (Plus, the way you get qualified to write about Stuff is to write about it, amirite?)

Second, I have (quite unfairly, I admit), used bits of Helen Pluckrose’s recent essay on ‘How French “intellectuals” ruined the West: Postmodernism and its impact, explained’ as a sort of intellectual sparring-partner in this post, just because it offers such a full account of the charges laid at the door of postmodernism, and how this intellectual movement has affected truth, and facts, and the world in general. It’s unfair because Pluckrose’s essay is just the latest in a line of similar types of argument, and I could just as easily have chosen to respond to any of those. But I chose this essay because I am lazy and it popped up on my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and when I read it I thought: No. No more. No longer. For this, I cannot stand. So, again, here I am, to address what I see as the four key points of argument she presents in an effort to discuss the things I want to discuss about postmodernism, and truth, and facts, and so on.

1. ‘the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive or, as they would term it, deconstructive way’

So there are some issues here. Continue reading