Theorizing Embodiment and Making Bodies ‘Matter’

Bringing to a close our symposium on Bodies of Violence is Lauren’s rejoinder to all our contributors, Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell, Pablo and Antoine.

First, a huge thank you to the (Dis)order of Things and especially Antoine for organizing this forum and to each of the contributors. It’s been a huge honor to have my work read so carefully and responded to so thoughtfully and I welcome the opportunity to try to clarify some of my work and acknowledge where the contributors have pointed out helpful areas for future research.

As Pablo K and others noticed, Bodies of Violence it is not meant to be a general theory of embodiment in IR (I’m not sure such a project is feasible or politically desirable in any event).  It is a more specific intervention with a different ambition: both to speak to ‘mainstream’ concerns about theorizing violence, particularly forms of political violence associated with the ‘war on terror’ and to make not only a theoretical argument about how we might or should theorize embodiment and violence, but also to show that understanding these different ‘modes of violence’ necessitates such an understanding of the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence.  My rationale for using feminist theory to think about the relationship between bodies, subjects and violence in IR was not meant to be exclusive: certainly (other) people working with concepts of biopolitics as well as anti-colonial/anti-racist theorists, disability theorists, phenomenologists and more also have much to say on this topic, some insights of which have been very important in my analysis, if not as fully fleshed out (if you will) as my engagement with feminist theory is.[i] For me, it was a particular reading of feminist theories of embodiment, not solely based on Butler, but on a particular feminist problematic in which women, as a category of those constituted, as Pablo K put it, the “improperly bodied”, are politically disenfranchised and generally excluded from their status as a fully human subject that served as a starting point, but far from an ‘ending’ for thinking about the subject of embodiment.  Rather, it is, as Kevin noted, “the specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power” that feminist theory entails that I wanted to use to think about violence and embodiment in ways that I hope will speak not only to feminists in IR but also to other critical and the more pluralistically and trans-disciplinarily minded scholars in IR and beyond as well.

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Secular Bodies of Pain and the Posthuman Martial Corps

The penultimate post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence before the author gets the opportunity to respond to all the participants. Previous contributions come courtesy of Kevin McSorley, Ali Howell and Pablo – Lauren’s opening post can be found here.

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

David Mach, Die Harder (2011)

With Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox performs the much-needed service of bringing the body back to the foreground of international politics. Through both sophisticated theoretical exegesis and a rich treatment of relevant empirical material, the work insistently underlines why embodiment matters in contemporary practices of violence and how so many accounts of international relations to date have been deficient in this regard. To any that might still doubt it, Wilcox further demonstrates how the insights developed by feminist theory are not restricted to its primary object of gender and makes a compelling case that we find in this body of work one of the most important repositories of conceptual resources for thinking physical embodiment and the normative social frameworks in which such embodiment is lived out.

Perhaps Wilcox’s most important theoretical commitment in the book is her steadfast refusal to take bodies, and by extension political subjects, as given. Instead, bodies are always to be conceived of as in-formation, produced within and bound by normative orders all the while resisting and exceeding them. The human body should therefore not be treated as the basic unit of social ontology or serve as the fixed atom upon which the edifice of political theory is to be constructed (as exemplified by liberalism’s usual reliance on the sovereign rational individual). Drawing in particular on Judith Butler’s work, Wilcox proposes rather to conceptualise the subject as ‘ontologically precarious’ (p.190) and our political orders as accordingly contingent and open-ended. Violence is here taken to be of critical importance since it cannot be considered as ‘merely harmful but is constitutive of the embodied subjects of IR’ (p.28).

Bodies of Violence offers much stimulus for reflection but I will limit my comments to developing two lines of thoughts which are presented here as much as general provocations than as pointed questions to Wilcox. The first concerns the status of pain within the ethico-political imaginaries of modern societies, the second pertains to the relation of the posthuman military body to prevalent corporeal norms.

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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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Bodies, and Violence: Thinking With and Beyond Feminist IR

10170814_10203788729029655_7004664852126275170_nOur third post in the symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence comes courtesy of Alison Howell (the first two posts can be found here and here). Alison is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, Newark. She has written on topics relating to the international relations of medicine, health, security and warfare. Her first book, Madness in International Relations examined the role of psychology in global security practices.

I have a confession to make: at the last ISA, swept up in the magic of New Orleans, I rekindled a romance. I should probably clarify that I’m not talking about one of those salacious romances that one hears rumors of on the Hilton elevator. No, I’m talking about my relationship to FTGS specifically, and feminist IR more generally.

tacky rose

When I first started going to the ISA a little over ten years ago, I felt strongly identified with FTGS. Though I consider my research feminist (amongst other things), and though, for that matter, I’ve continued to pay dues to the FTGS section as a kind of hopeful political act – still the romance didn’t last. Partly my intellectual curiosities took me in different directions. I also had trouble articulating some of the problems I had with the deployment of some concepts in feminist IR (especially the concepts of trauma, and also violence, which I’ll return to in a few paragraphs).

But lately I’ve been feeling flirtatious with feminist IR again. In part, this is because I’m finally getting some clarity on why I have disagreements with some feminist thought in IR (and thoughtful disagreement is a kind of engagement). It’s also because I think that feminist IR is beginning to be more diversely peopled and theorized. For these reasons, I was excited to find Lauren Wilcox’s impressive book in my possession, a book that appears as part of Oxford University Press’s Gender and International Relations series, a perch from which it is pushing feminist IR in some new directions.

Wilcox’s book is novel in that it works to systematize an approach to the body in IR. To date, a focus on the body as a site of theoretical concern in IR has been piecemeal, though certainly not absent. Yet what Wilcox achieves in placing the body and embodiment as central conceptual artifacts in Bodies of Violence, is to freshly open up a number of thematic concerns and questions for the study of global politics.

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Violence, Norms and Embodiment

McSorleyWe are delighted to welcome Kevin McSorley for the second post of our symposium on Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence. Kevin lectures in Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. His work explores war, violence and militarism through the lens of embodied, emotional and sensory experience. His scholarship has explored contemporary conflicts including those in Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as analysing phenomena including the global arms trade, military fitness regimes, and helmetcam technologies. Recent publications are available at

Lauren Wilcox’s Bodies of Violence: Theorising Embodied Subjects in International Relations is an extremely welcome addition to a growing corpus of recent scholarship that attempts to foreground the body and embodiment in the analysis of topics such as war, violence and security. Wilcox argues that IR has historically constituted itself as a discipline partly in terms of the exclusion of the detailed consideration of the body and embodiment, concerns which have rarely been admitted as core to a discipline whose interests supposedly lay at higher levels of abstraction. Indeed, the absenting and sequestering of the bodily and particular bodies has been central to the formation and history of many academic disciplines, modern social and cultural formations, and the organisation of much mundane experience. Relatedly, it is often specifically in occurrences and encounters of bodily discomfort, illness, estrangement, harm, failure, violence and pain that the body may assume a renewed experiential salience in everyday life. The under-theorisation of embodiment thus seems particularly paradoxical for a discipline such as IR, whose analytic remit encompasses the organisation of violence and pain for political ends, phenomena which can hardly be adequately understood without attempting to think through the multiple ways that violence and pain are intimately related to the in/abilities of bodies to engage in particular sense-making, meaning-making and worlding practices. Indeed, such under-theorisation may be more than just paradoxical, for abstract strategic thinking that avoids acknowledging bodies has historically been complicit with particular expert modes of knowing and doing violence.

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Los Torturados (1976)

Oswaldo Guayasamín, Los Torturados (1976)

Wilcox’s project is thus a necessary intervention that grapples meaningfully with the disembodied soul of IR and I am thoroughly supportive of its ambitions. The body is one of the most plural and contested concepts in social science but Wilcox initially argues that, when considered at all, the way that it has typically been rendered through the realist and liberal traditions of political thought that inform IR and security studies is as a stable, singular, bounded and natural entity whose flourishing is dependent upon protection from various inevitable risks and threats. This narrow understanding of the body is thus of something essentially thing-like, fixed and existing outside the realm of the political. In contrast, biopolitical and particularly feminist analytics – the latter having a specific tradition of trying to think through women’s subordination in terms of the relationship between bodies, subjects and power – provide the alternative conceptual underpinning for Wilcox’s own analysis.

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Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations

photo copyThis opening post by Lauren Wilcox kicks off the symposium dedicated to her new book Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations (Oxford University Press, 2015) with a series of follow-up posts coming over the next few days. Lauren is University Lecturer in Gender Studies and Deputy Director of the Centre for Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge. She was previously a Scarf postdoc in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University and did her PhD in Political Science at the University of Minnesota.

Bodies of Violence

The impetus for “Bodies of Violence” (which is based on my PhD dissertation) is that there is, or was, no theory of the body in International Relations, or general study of the role of bodies on IR; and this is a problem for the study of political violence as well as for the political implications that a lack of attention to bodies has in the field. The work begins by noting a deep irony in war/security studies, that while war is actually inflicted on bodies, or bodies are explicitly protected, there is a lack of attention to the embodied dynamics of war and security. This seeming ‘disembodiment’ of theory stands in stark contrast to the political dynamics of violence, especially in the particular practices or modes of violence that I discuss in this book.  Drones make it possible to both watch people and bomb them, often killing dozens of civilians as well, while the pilots operating these machines remain thousands of miles away, immune from bodily harm. Suicide bombers seek certain death by turning their bodies into weapons that seem to attack at random. Images of tortured bodies from Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib provoke shock and outrage, and prisoners on hunger-strikes to protest their treatment are force-fed. Meanwhile, the management of violence increasingly entails scrutiny of persons as bodies through biometric technologies and ‘body scanners’.

I: Argument and Main Contributions

While bodies and embodiment are an ‘absent presence’ in studies of war and security, feminist theory has been at the forefront of considering the relationship between subjects, bodies and violence in recent decades. In this work I draw on work in feminist theory that offers a challenge to the policing of boundaries between human bodies and the broader political context. It is here that feminist theory is most incisive, for feminists have struggled with the problems of how to theorize embodiment as a necessary but not exclusive aspect of subjectivity in their own terms, terms which can help us to ‘think the body’ in IR in such a way as to provide new purchase on central concepts such as power, security, vulnerability and violence. For example, violence can be re-thought as something that is productive and not only destructive; vulnerability is not just a condition to be overcome but also a constitutive feature of the embodied subject. I focus on Judith Butler’s work, in conversation with other theorists such as Julia Kristeva, Donna Haraway and Katherine Hayles. I argue, as have others, that there is continuity between her works on “Gender” from Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and her more explicitly ethical and political works such as Precarious Life and Frames of War. A central feature of Butler’s concept of bodily precarity is that our bodies are formed in and through violence. The implication of feminist theory’s emphasis on the co-constitution of bodies and political structures is to give IR a new starting point, as theorists can no longer begin with political communities populated by actors whose bodies are undifferentiated and can be transcended.

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