Bodies, What Matter?

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


Type Any Name Bodies

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

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

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

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Fratriarchy, Homoeroticism and Military Culture

The ever-excellent Sociological Images offers up this 1940s advert, and others like it, as an example of how images previously taken to be innocent consumer bait for stereotypical homemakers now appear to us as dripping with homoeroticism. They may have added too that this half-ironic, half-nostalgic distance is what endears us to such images, which we then enjoy as vintage objects, for all that we know about the true historical context in which they were produced.

One common idea, which relates nicely to military bathing aesthetics (cannon towels? really?) is that many bonding behaviours in nominally heterosexual, male-dominated groups are in fact homosexual, but in a disavowed or repressed way. The scrum, the shared shower, the bunk-beds, the exclusion of women not only from the fields of play and war, but also from the various celebrations and carnivals that follow, all seem to indicate a desire for intimacy that cannot be named as such.

In the excellent Bring Me Men (which deserves its own dedicated review), Aaron Belkin identifies a more complex relation. In becoming military men, there is a need not only to disavow femininity, but also to become intimate with the ‘unmasculine’ and the ‘queer’. Rather than identifying a direct alignment of the masculine with the military, or seeing gender norms as accidental in their intersection with the military, there is instead a constitutive tension between the masculine and the unmasculine (or, we might say, between the strongly heteronormative and the homosexual). Basic training relies on a traumatic ambiguity, continually casting initiates as by turns masculine and unmasculine, so that no soldier can ever be sure that they were sufficiently on the ‘right side’ of the line. As one Marine put it: “The opposite of feminine? No. To me, what is masculine? I don’t know. [pause] And I’ve worked so hard at being it”. The continual ambiguity – what Belkin calls discipline as collapse – interacts with surveillance and punishment to produce the soldier-subject.

More brutally: Continue reading