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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Body Politics: Corporeal Suffering, Memes and Power/Resistance, with Special Reference to #Occupy, Tahrir Square, ‘Hunger’ (2008) and Rage Against The Machine

*some extremely disturbing images ahead* (and some humorous deployments of Impressionism and Leonardo DiCaprio).


Two weeks ago, Karin Fierke presented a paper at our theory workshop on self-immolation as speech act (part of a forthcoming book entitled The Warden’s Dilemma: Self-Sacrifice, Agency and Emotion in Global Politics with Cambridge University Press). She focused principally on Thich Quang Duc, the South Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself alight and burned to death, silent and still, in Saigon in June of 1963, and on Norman Morrison, an American Quaker who copied Duc’s example in November 1965 by combusting his own flesh outside the Pentagon office of Robert McNamara, then the United States Secretary of Defence implementing Operation Rolling Thunder, the rain of fire which infamously unleashed a greater tonnage of bombs on Vietnams North and South than the total dispatched during the entirety of the Second World War.

This mimesis, an affinity not only of form but also of sacrificial politics, was cited as a mechanism for rupturing the symbolic order. Both Duc and Morrison engaged in a corporeal self-violence so forceful that it not only offended senses, but in fact extended a certain community. An act, substituting for speech, argument or manifesto, which forced itself on high politics and forged an international sensibility until that point lacking. One more contemporary dimension of that imitation and repetition is that many must have encountered the image the same way I did, which was via the front cover of Rage Against The Machine’s pugnacious, convulsively political eponymous debut in 1992. And not just the image, but a vague sense of the story imparted by sleeve notes (and lyrics today associated both with opposition to the media grip of Simon Cowell and with visions of the riotous encounter).

Self-immolation persists in a certain tradition of struggle, but the relevance of these themes – the body, sacrifice, the edifice of politics and protest, the circulation of images – has coalesced potently in the wake of recent events (on which more in a moment). Continue reading