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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More Groundings

The final piece, and rejoinder, in The Disorder Of Things forum on The Black Pacific.


I have to say, I really didn’t know what to expect from my interlocutors. Perhaps that’s because I have little idea what kind of response to expect from the book and who its readership might be. In any case, these varied and passionate responses are a joy to engage with.

Heloise, you not only provide a lucid introduction to some of the key themes and provocations of my book; you also usefully connect its arguments to broader intellectual and political currents in the world of development, especially regarding indigenous struggles in and over the Americas. Olivia, you provide a striking engagement with the politics of intellectual investment, one that in many ways exceeds the strictures of my book to become a general mediation upon ethics and method. Ajay, you poetically and critically reflect on solidarity building across/besides territory and culture, and in so doing you begin to ask pertinent questions about “groundings” with reference to Turtle Island. Krishna, yours unfolds as a forceful defence of the urgency to focus intellectually upon the materiality of dispossession.

I’m going to engage with your response, Krishna, at some length. But firstly, I want to call attention to and amplify some of the questions that Olivia and Ajay ask.

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Reinventing the Future

It is an honour to have had Inventing the Future considered in such depth and detail, and we want to begin by extending our thanks to everyone who contributed to this symposium. This response is a useful moment for us to clarify our argument, to respond to the most significant questions, to acknowledge limitations of the book, and to correct some misunderstandings. We do so in a spirit of humility, given that – as we wrote in the introductory post – we see this book as a contribution to a larger debate and hopefully the spark for reflection on what we think are important issues for the contemporary left.

Post-Work Futures

In Joseph, Sophie and David’s pieces, some fundamental questions are raised about what precisely a post-work world entails, particularly with respect to concerns around the environment, labour, social reproduction, and colonialism. Does a high-tech post-work world entail the exhaustion of resources and the decimation of the earth’s climate? Does a post-work world mean the continued oppression and subjugation of low-income countries? These are essential questions to ask. In responding to these queries, it will be useful to draw up a series of alternative possible futures indicating how a post-work project may play out. Roughly speaking, we can imagine four broad and potentially intersecting futures: a neocolonial and racist post-work world, an ecologically unsustainable post-work world, a misogynist post-work world, and a leftist post-work world.

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Postcapitalist Ecology: A Comment on Inventing the Future

The third post, and second guest, in the Disorder’s forum on Nick and Alex Williams’ Inventing the Future. Joseph Kay writes on climate change and libertarian communism with the collaborative blog Out of the Woods.


Having drafted the following comment on Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’ (henceforth S&W) Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work, it reads more critically than I expected. In mitigation, I should say that I’m on-board with many of the key themes of the book. I am wholly sympathetic to anti-work politics, generally in favour of automating away toil (with qualifications which will become apparent), and agree that the replacement of global capitalism requires scalability, comfort with complexity, long-term strategy, utopian imagination, and a plurality of organisational forms and infrastructure.

The critical tenor of what follows arises less from disagreement as such, than from my focus on what appear to be the ecological silences in the text. In particular, I focus on the implied conception of nature imported through S&W’s adoption of an avowedly modern rhetoric of progress and control, and on the unmentioned premises of both the project of full automation, and their more general contention that “we are usually not better off taking the precautionary path” (p.177). My argument is not to reject a high-tech, low-work future, but to outline some of the problems to be addressed in rendering such a ‘hyperstitional’ image ecological.

Modernity and the Ideology of Nature

Early on in Inventing the Future, S&W summarise their thesis:

If complexity presently outstrips humanity’s capacities to think and control, there are two options: one is to reduce complexity down to a human scale; the other is to expand humanity’s capacities. We endorse the latter position.

Read in an ecological light, the conjunction of ‘think and control’ affords two readings. The first and obvious reading is that their argument is situated within what Neil Smith called the ideology of nature. Smith argued that the ideology of nature had two poles. The first, a modernising politico-theological argument which saw scientific progress as the means to conquer and subdue nature. Here, the imaginary is mechanical, and separation from – as dominion over – nature is understood as an emancipatory process.

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Between Innocence and Deconstruction: Rethinking Political Solidarity

The third and final post in our short resilience and solidarity forum, this time from Chris Rossdale. Chris lectures in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London. His research focuses on anti-militarist social movements and radical political theory. He has also recently edited a special issue of Globalizations on radical political subjectivities, his own contribution exploring the relationship between Emma Goldman and Friedrich Nietzsche through the concept of dance. He can be reached by email thusly.


The ethos of solidarity remains one of the left’s most powerful and enduring ideas, a clarion call for collective struggle in the face of international borders and neoliberal individualism. At the time of writing, my social media feeds are awash with calls for solidarity with Ferguson; thousands also turned out to a solidarity protest at the US embassy. Last week I attended a solidarity fundraiser for the Kurdish Red Crescent, took part in an action organised to coincide with UN International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People, and circulated a petition in solidarity with students who experienced police violence at the University of Warwick. Rarely a day passes at present without some fresh discussion about the particular politics involved in different forms of solidarity with those suffering from the outbreak of Ebola. Across different modes, the practice of solidarity is a part of our everyday political conduct.

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Protestors march after gathering outside the American Embassy in London November 26, 2014, to show solidarity with the family of black teenager Michael Brown who was shot and killed by a police officer in August in Missouri. REUTERS/Paul Hackett

On the one hand, this is clearly a good thing, enabling common political, financial and emotional resources to be shared in important and useful ways. Distance, whether spatial or cultural, can be an alienating force, and practices of solidarity can serve as a powerful redress to such alienation, asserting collectivity and community in the face of division. In this piece, however, my intention is to outline a critique of much of what passes for solidarity, and suggest that more radical or deconstructive understandings are needed if we wish to produce more substantive challenges to political domination.

The particular practices of solidarity I have in mind are those which occur in those contexts (which are many) in which the imbalance of power directly privileges, at least in some forms, one party over another – whether this is in the context of cis-male solidarity in feminist projects, citizen solidarity in migrant and refugee struggles, or, the particular case study I discuss below, Jewish-Israeli solidarity with Palestinians. Continue reading

Governing Through Resilience: Implications for Solidarity and Political Action

The second guest post in our solidarity and resilience forum, this time from Tudor Vilcan. Tudor is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southampton. He seeks to critically investigate how discourses of resilience are put to use as ways to govern society. He is also interested in complexity theories, new materialism and critiques of neoliberalism.


This contribution represents a sum of reflections about solidarity and political action in the context of resilience policies based on a presentation given at the Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity Workshop organized at King’s College London in September 2014. I suggest that there is room to think about political action and solidarity in the context of resilience policies. Political action and solidarity are developed through encouraging individuals and communities to take ownership of their own risk management and build generic adaptive capacities. I argue that the meaning of political action and solidarity is changed in this context, as it provides a localized social engagement that at the same time evacuates political concerns from consideration. For resilience policies to succeed in properly connecting with individuals and communities, they need to find a level of engagement that is not just social, but also political.

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Resilience has become an important idea, especially in the last few years. It has been developed and applied in the context of the environment, threats and hazards, development or thinking about change. More importantly, it has started to make its way into policy making, becoming one way in which society can be governed. At its core, resilience proposes to be a property or capacity of groups, communities or societies to cope with disruptions and still maintain their basic functions.

There is an acute absence of contributions that seek to draw links between resilience on one side and political action and solidarity on the other. This might be because we are told that resilience is about the strengthening of society as a whole to better tolerate shocks and rebuild if necessary. It appears to go beyond concerns with formal politics and deliver a model for governing society that is more appropriate to the interdependent and complex world in which we are living. Such a model emphasizes the need for connections, diversity, broadened participation or devolved governance. It signals a move away from the centralized approaches to policy making to emphasize that society must be seen as a large array of networks, systems and critical infrastructures whose disruption or failure can have catastrophic domino effects. When resilience is conceptualized in such way, political action and solidarity can be seen to represent atavisms of a time when static, concrete political and social categories were popular. In today’s complex and fluid world, they don’t appear to have the same purchase.

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Dispatches from the Robot Wars; Or, What is Posthuman Security?

Audra MitchellA guest post from Audra Mitchell, who is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York. Audra is a Fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (2014-15) and has held or will hold visiting fellowships at the Universities of Queensland, Edinburgh and Melbourne. She is the author or editor of three books: International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity? (Routledge, 2014); Lost in Transformation: Violent Peace and Peaceful Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2011) and (ed. with Oliver Richmond) Hybrid Forms of Peace: From the ‘Everyday’ to Postliberalism (Palgrave, 2011), as well as articles in Security Dialogue, Review of International Studies, MillenniumBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations, Third World Quarterly, and Alternatives, amongst others. She blogs at Worldy IR. Audra’s current research project explores how mass extinction challenges the ontological and ethical underpinnings of ‘security’.


“So when are the intergalactic robot wars coming?” This is a question I’ve been asked (more than once) by colleagues who’ve heard that I’m working on posthumanist thought and international security. The implication is that what I’m doing is a kind of science fiction. Well, there’s definitely science (including robots – see below) and a rich fictional literature to draw on, but it’s not taking place in a galaxy far, far away. It’s very much rooted in, and attuned to, this planet.

‘Posthuman security’ is an umbrella term I’m using to talk about a recent surge in thinking and writing at the nexus of posthumanist philosophy, security and ethics. It starts from the proposition that international security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Diverse beings other than humans are implicated in the conditions of (in)security. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security and the ways that we define them. This, in turn, challenges the engrained notion that the human is the ultimate referent object of security, ethics and philosophy.

Mojave Desert Ecology

Indeed, another question I get asked frequently is “are you critiquing human security?” The answer is both yes and no. The norm of human security epitomizes a humanist turn in the last two decades of international thought, also reflected in the fields of humanitarianism and norms such as Responsibility to Protect. These frameworks have carved out a space for themselves within international ethics by framing a specific image of the human individual as the focal point of security, ethics and, by extension the universe. So, of course, adopting a post-human (or more-than-human) approach to security means challenging and deconstructing these influential paradigms. But this new discourse is not simply a critique of existing frameworks. Posthuman security thinking offers a number of distinct, positive contributions to international security, ontology and ethics.

The term itself is highly contestable – and should be contested. Continue reading

Open Access, Institutionalised?: Or, Another Reason Why International Relations Is Failing As An Intellectual Project

Soc Sci Tweet

The American Sociological Association (ASA) has announced that it will launch an (as-yet unnamed) open access general sociology journal as soon as possible (this year, maybe next). Its proposed features are a mix of traditional and new: there will be start-up cash and a stipend for Editors, peer-review is to be on the standard, appropriately ‘prestigious’ model (but expedited and light on style corrections), a traditional publisher (SAGE) is involved, authors will retain copyright, there will be no hard copies and therefore no limit on how much can be published in any given time period, all articles (accepted or not) will be subject to a $25 processing fee, and a variable tariff of Article Processing Charges (APCs) will be implemented, from free for scholars from “non-competitive” countries to $100-150 for students and $700 for non-members (for the first 12 months, APCs can also be waived, no questions asked).

The editors at Sociological Science (one of whom we interviewed last month) have noticed that this borrows heavily from their own initiative. Sniping aside, this is surely all to the good. An indication that major academic institutions are, at last, taking open access seriously. Not quite overhauling their systems, but adopting publishing platforms considerably more reasonable than the $3,000 APCs and business-as-usual structure previously threatened. This is an important point, since it supports the claim of some OA advocates that APCs may be financially better for the academy than historical subscription rates (I leave exacting comparisons of costs and the burden of double-dipping during any transition to one side). The problem has always been that the prestige economy (and therefore the social reproduction of universities) is not venue-blind. Low cost APCs in marginal journals are therefore of little help for those still seeking the (shrinking) securities of a formal academic post. But when the reputational power of learned societies is applied, it becomes much easier to envision a world of reputable (and hopefully high quality) open access journals charging APCs at a lower net cost than we currently pay through library subscription models.

The ASA is a powerhouse in these terms, and enjoys more market influence than the International Studies Association (boasting 13,000 members to our 7,000). It is all but inevitable that the mainstreaming of open access in this way will put the squeeze on the smaller open access journals, very many of which are labours of love, and some of which seem to actively treasure their reputation as insurgents or irrelevancies. If we want more material (and particularly the kind of material that carries value in an academic market) to be open access, imitation is the right kind of problem to have. Cultural Anthropology is another example of that shift (we got the gossip from them too last year), funding an open access conversion through the largest section of the 12,000 member American Anthropological Association.

Journal Profits

Profitability data from Harvie et al., 2012.

And yet this scenario is once again an embarrassing one for International Relations, which otherwise likes to imagine itself the most engaged and relevant of disciplines (state power! trade rounds! war and peace!). Continue reading

What Does It Mean To Start An Open Access Journal?

Following earlier interviews with Editors at Ethics & Global Politics and the newly open Cultural Anthropology, we present yet another insight into how to do open access, this time with Professor Kim Weeden of Cornell, a Deputy Editor of the new open access journal Sociological Science, which launched earlier this year. As the name suggests, this is a sociology journal (and a ‘general interest’ one at that), indicating yet another field in which open access is being taken seriously whilst International Relations languishes (not withstanding para-IR examples like Ethics & Global Politics and our friends at the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies). So what can we learn from the Sociological Science model? As usual, I’ve stuck some thoughts on at the end.


Sociological Science

1. Who initiated Sociological Science, and why?

Dissatisfaction with the traditional publication process, and in particular the peer review system, has been festering in sociology for a while. Seems like everyone has a tale of a paper that sat for months before an initial decision, received multiple rounds of “revise and resubmits” that extended the review process to several years, or was rejected because it reported on a replication study, didn’t make enough of a “theoretical contribution” regardless of the quality of the empirical analysis, or espoused truly novel ideas that ruffled the feathers of a single anonymous reviewer. Even papers that experienced relatively smooth sailing in the traditional review process can be 1-2 years on the wrong side of fresh before they finally see the light of day.

A couple of colleagues, including our Editor-in-Chief Jesper Sørensen, got together and started brainstorming alternatives. They recruited a few other like-minded colleagues to the cause, and this founding group hammered out the details. The founding group morphed into the current 7-person editorial board, which includes sociologists on the faculty of Cornell, MIT, NYU, Stanford, and Yale. All of us have tenure, and are at a stage in our careers where we have the energy and social capital to devote to starting a journal.

2. How has the launch of Sociological Science been funded?

We’re a volunteer effort. The founding group and core editorial team did all the legwork to set up the journal: incorporating as a non-profit, devising the editorial model, setting a fee structure, advertising through social media, creating the web site, hiring copy editors, working with libraries so that the journal is indexed in abstract search databases, you name it.

The Stanford Graduate School of Business has generously funded a temporary, part-time managing editor to help with the launch. Our next task is to raise the funds to make the managing editor position permanent.

3. Sociological Science uses a system of Article Processing Charges (APCs), charged at different rates depending on author seniority. How did this decision come about?

We’re a non-profit entity, so our goal in setting fees is to cover the costs of publishing, no more and no less. We decided on APCs as the easiest and fairest way to cover these costs.

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Ah, Ça Ira, Ça Ira! Iconographies of the French Revolution

Last month, Stanford University and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France jointly released a vast online collection of documents and images from the French Revolution via the French Revolution Digital Archive. With around 14,000 high-resolution images, it is an overwhelmingly large collection but the website is thankfully very user-friendly with content tagged in multiple ways and organised according to various themes. This is undoubtedly a fantastic resource for not only historians but also a wider audience interested in the tumultuous events of the late eighteenth century considered by many to mark the start of political modernity.

Drawn into the archive, I spent quite some time trawling through it with a particular eye for caricatures, satirical illustrations, and other allegorical depictions of the revolution. I have compiled here a selection of those images I found most striking or noteworthy along with translations and contextual information where necessary. Hopefully these will be of some interest to readers of this blog. As I have no academic specialism in this period of history, I am very much approaching the material as a layman. I therefore more than welcome any corrections or additions to my readings of these images that I’ll gladly include in updates.

Chasse patriotique à la grosse bête (1789)

Patriotic Hunt of the Great Beast (1789) [link]

“Posterity will tell us that in 1789 on the 12th July around four o’clock in the evening, several people claimed to have seen in the vicinity of Paris, on the road to Versailles, a Beast of an enormous size and a shape so extraordinary as to have never before seen the like. The news spread universal alarm in the city and put its people in a state of violent agitation. Cries of “to arms, to arms” were heard everywhere without any being found; it seemed that the Beast had swallowed them all along with their munitions. New weapons as extraordinary as the animal that had to be combated were immediately forged. On the 13th, people continued to agitate themselves, arming themselves and running after the Beast without being able to encounter it. On the the following day of the 14th, forever memorable for the France that suffers, a hundred thousand individuals ran to the Hotel des Invalides from which they carried away canons and sixty thousand rifles, such that there were two hundred thousand armed men who tracked down the Beast everywhere. Suspecting that it had retreated to the Bastille, the people flew to it with heroic courage and this lair of Despotism, despite its hundred bronze mouths vomiting fire, was taken by assault in two hours. With this victory appeared the monster with a hundred heads; its hideous form revealed that it was of an aristocratic kind; suddenly our bravest hunters seized upon her from all sides and it was to whom would cut the most heads. This monster that dragged behind it desolation, famine and death disappeared instantly under a hundred different forms and fled languidly abroad, taking with it the despair and shame of its defeat.”

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