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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What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: Poststructural and Postcolonial Thought

…(drumroll)… We are collectively joyous at being able to introduce a new contributor to The Disorder Of Things: Robbie Shilliam, currently at the Victoria University of Wellington and author of a slightly staggering array of critical texts (on the impact of German intellectuals on IR; the Black Atlantic in modernity; the Haitian Revolution; race and sovereignty; and the imperatives of decolonial thinking, among others). Cross-posted at Fanon/Deleuze.


At the recent ISA conference in Montreal, I participated in a lively, weighty and difficult roundtable on postcolonial and poststructural approaches to International Relations. Alina Sajed had supplied the panellists with a provocation by way of refuting Dipesh Chakrabarty’s famous injunction that Europe was the inadequate and indispensible to frame the epistemological constellations of “modernity”. Sajed challenged the panellists to debate whether Europe was in fact dispensable as well as inadequate. There was certainly a spectrum of opinions given and positions taken on the function, possibility and desirability of the relationship between poststructural and postcolonial approaches. As a form of reflection I would like to lay out some thoughts by way of clarifying for myself what the stakes at play are in this discussion and where it might productively lead.

For myself I do not read the Europe that Chakrabarty considers in terms of the historical expansion and exercise of material colonial power. I read it in terms of a fantasy that captures the imagination. At stake is a conception of the whys, hows and shoulds of people suffering, surviving, accommodating, avoiding, resisting and diverting the colonial relation and its many neo- and post- articulations. In this particular respect, I take Frantz Fanon’s position and agree with Sajed: “Europe” must be dispensed with. In any case, as Ashis Nandy has shown, the monopolisation of the meaning of Europe by a fascistic figure (rational, male, hyper-patriarchal, white, civilized, propertied) has required the re-scripting of the pasts of peoples in Europe and a concomitant distillation of the traditions of European thought themselves so as to accord to this fantasy figure. Europe is a fantasy through and through, but one that damages different peoples with different intensities. And those who look in a mirror and experience no significant cognitive dissonance when they proclaim “European” can still count themselves, to different degrees, as being a thoughtful protagonist in a contested human drama. For others, there is only the promise of living this drama vicariously through the thought of others. That is why “Europe” is dispensable, even though for some peoples Europe has never been indispensible; regardless, it must be dispensed with.

Let me explain a little more what I mean by all of this. Europe is first and foremost a sense of being that constructs its empathy and outreach in terms of a self whereby all who cannot intuitively be considered of European heritage are categorized into two entities. First, they might be the “other” – foils to the understanding of the self. Their emptied presence is to be filled as the verso to the internal constitution of the European self. If they are lucky, they are given a kind of non-speaking part in the drama. In fact, they usually are lucky. Much critical European thought – and certainly almost all of canonized European thought – speaks volumes about the ”other” but only so as to fill in the European “self” with greater clarity.

Second, they might be the “abject” – the entity that is impossible for the self to bear a relationship to, although even this impossibility will be instructive to the inquiring European self. Abjects, under the European gaze, are reduced to a primal fear out of which an intensity of feeling is engendered that wills the drama of human (European) civilization. Defined in excess to the other/abject, the internal life of the European self can substitute itself for humanity at large in all times and spaces, and develop itself as a richly contradictory being that overflows its meaning and significance.

I do not know whether other colonialisms predating and contemporaneous to the European project matched this audacity. And in a significant sense, it really does not – and should not – matter. After all, the lure of making comparison is the precise methodology through which the European self overflows to define all others by a lack. I do though want to hazard a particular claim at this point, which might or might not bear up to scrutiny: the prime “others” of European colonialism were the indigenous peoples of the Americas. And while we owe much to Kristeva’s work on the term, the prime “abjects” of European colonialism were the enslaved Africans bought over to the Americas.

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