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

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Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response

In this final post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Cynthia responds to her interlocutors. You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. His campaign was marked by extreme racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and homo/bi/trans*phobias. In light of this election result, I will depart from the usual format for a symposium conclusion, in which I would engage point-by-point with the generous, insightful, critical commentaries of Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh, and Dianne Otto. Instead, I will put the analysis I developed in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power and the correctives to it offered by the commentators in this symposium to work to address two urgent questions: ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘What is to be done?’.

The argument I make in Queer IR is that sovereignty, sexuality and all political scales from the intimate to the international are inseparable. So, too, are the intersectional ways sex, gender and sexuality function in relation to and through, for example, race, class, ability, religion, ‘civilization’ and colonialities. One cannot understand sovereignty without understanding how sexuality functions intersectionally at every scale, and one cannot understand sexuality without understanding how sovereignty functions intersectionally at every scale. This means my queer IR analysis is never fully distinct from those found in Critical Race Studies, Black Studies, CRIP Studies, and Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies. Yet it always insists on focusing its analytic lens on the function of sex, gender and sexuality, which is not necessarily the case with other critical traditions. As Antke Engel points out in this symposium, my idiosyncratic formulation and articulation of a queer IR has its pitfalls. But, as she and Cyril Ghosh discuss, these choices are what allow me to mobilize queer strategically, especially in relation to the Discipline of International Relations that has long ignored queer scholarship. This neglect of queer scholarship is as much because of how Disciplinary IR conceives of proper contributions to the Discipline as it is to how Disciplinary IR fetishizes particular kinds of IR methods.

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Queer International Relations (II)

The second post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is contributed by Joan Cocks. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and other responses to it here. joan-cocks-photo

Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where she also founded and for many years directed the interdisciplinary Program in Critical Social Thought. She is the author of On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013). She has published articles on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence in edited volumes, contributions to symposia and blogs, and journals such as Political Theory, Theory & Event, Political Studies, Politics and Society, Polity, New Political Science, Radical Philosophy Review, differences, Quest, Arena Journal, Social Research, Constellations, Interventions, and Socialism and Democracy. In addition to writing on the politics of disappearance and the concept of primitive accumulation, she is currently engaged in rethinking citizenship and the meaning of foreignness for a global age.


The interest of modern states in nailing down the identity of things to be subjected to their authority has been highlighted by critics from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to James C. Scott and Zygmunt Bauman. However much the struggle for sovereign power may issue in bloodshed, social chaos, and the dissolution of existing life worlds, the desire of sovereign power for order asserts itself once that struggle has been resolved.

As these and other scholars have argued, the modern state’s quest for order is manifested in the establishment of external borders separating one nation-state from another and in an increasingly adept drive to classify the persons, social groups, and material resources that make up the domestic domain. Inversely, the territory and people the state aims to control are made to submit to representational rules that differentiate one kind of entity from another as well as practical rules governing the behavior appropriate for or towards each type of subject and thing. If sovereign power ever could become absolute, nothing in its realm would be at odds with its assigned category; nothing would stray from the limits of that category through an autonomous impulse, proclivity, or decision; nothing would consist of aspects or levels hidden from the sovereign eye; and no entity would metamorphose of its spontaneous accord into an entity of another sort.

Of course, actual life is far too profuse, energetic, unruly, labile, and multi-layered, as well as too susceptible to limits and pressures from heterogeneous sources, including the imperatives of biology and the ‘dead weight’ of history, to match the conditions for its total subjection to sovereign power listed above. But while absolute sovereign power in human affairs must therefore be counted as a delusion, the will to exert the maximum possible degree of sovereign power is very real. Moreover, far from being the sole prerogative of states, aspirations to sovereign power may be expressed by or ascribed to the abstract individual, the demos, the ethno-nation, political movements that dress up their will to sovereign power in godly garb, and even the entire human race in its relationship to other species of being. Finally, the fact that the total control of people and places on the part of any of these would-be sovereigns is phantasmic does not mean that attempts to turn fantasy into reality are phantasmic, or that those attempts have only phantasmic effects on the world.

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