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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