Queer International Relations (IV): Queer As Method

The fourth post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is from Cyril Ghosh. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here.

Cyril Ghosh is Assistant Professor of Government & Politics at Wagner College and Part-Time Assistant Professor of International Affairs at the Julien J. Studley Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School. He is the author of The Politics of the American Dream: Democratic Inclusion in Contemporary American Political Culture (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013). He is currently working on a book manuscript (with Elizabeth F. Cohen): Key Concepts: Citizenship (under contract with Polity Press, UK).


Cynthia Weber has written a very compelling contribution to the study of queer international relations. In this symposium entry, I intend to identify what – to my mind – are the three biggest achievements of the book. Here, I want to specifically offer some reflections on two figures discussed by Weber: one is the neoliberal, docile, gay, homonationalist patriot – in other words, the ‘good gay’. The second is the figure of Tom Neuwirth/Conchita Wurst, whom Weber sees as a destabilizing persona that lends itself beautifully to reading sexuality and/or the queer into international relations. I will conclude the post with a few remarks on some of the questions the book raises and invites further discussions about.

But I begin with the achievements: first, the book clarifies queer IR as a method in a way that is both urgent and welcome. In doing so, it secures a solid foundation for both future and contemporary scholarship on queer IR. The specific discussions of tropes from Foucault, Sedgwick, Haraway, Butler, Barthes, and others is fascinating to me – especially as a combination of lenses that can be used to refract and pluralize analyses of contemporary IR.

For some time now, we have had a feminist IR movement within the field of IR. But, at the present time, only a handful of scholars examine tropes of sexuality. As Weber correctly identifies, this is because IR scholars and Queer Studies scholars rarely converse with each other. And, in doing so, they leave unexplored much fertile ground of inquiry.

Discourses surrounding despised sexualities of various kinds present themselves in international affairs. In fact, they are ubiquitous. Thus, as Jasbir Puar, Lily Ling, Anna Agathangelou, and others have shown, ‘political’ rivals are routinely presented/depicted using imagery and language predicated on despised sexualities. These depictions can range from the figure of a highly sexualized violent rapist to emasculation (and defeat?) through anal penetration. Analyses of these tropes obviously transcend the field of IR (I am thinking here of Edward Said or Jack Shaheen), but they remain particularly relevant for it.

So, in offering a systematic and yet not reified methodological approach to queer IR, Weber has done, I think, a great service to this nascent subfield. Hers is not the final word on the subject, as she would herself acknowledge. However, the book represents a bold step forward in this line of inquiry.

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Queer International Relations (III)

The third post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge comes to us from Antke Engel. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and responses to it here. engel_72dpi_small_tiller

Antke Engel is director of the Institute for Queer Theory in Berlin, a site where academic debate meets political activism and artistic/cultural practice. She received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at Potsdam University and works as an independent scholar in the fields of queer, feminist and poststructuralist theory, political philosophy and visual cultural studies. She has held visiting professorships at Hamburg University (2003/2005), Vienna University (2011), and Alice Salomon University Berlin (2016), as well as a research fellowship at the Institute for Cultural Inquiry Berlin (2007-2009). She has published numerous essays (some of them available at e-flux journal) and two monographs, Wider die Eindeutigkeit (2002) and Bilder von Sexualität und Ökonomie (2009). She has also co-edited Global Justice and Desire: Queering Economy (Routledge 2015) and Hegemony and Heteronormativity: Revisiting ‘The Political’ in Queer Politics (Ashgate 2011).


Reading Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations has been a great pleasure for me, since I strongly agree with her desire expressed in the introduction and elaborated in the last part of the book to carve out a space for plural logoi in queer theory as well as political thinking and international relations. Plural logoi depend on the ability to uphold the simultaneity of and/or (rather than either/or) in understanding social realities as social complexities. Gender, for example, does not necessarily follow the pattern of either female or male, but might come along as female and/or male. You might like to call this transgender; yet, if you prefer to avoid another label (which would, anyway, only return to an either/logic – either female or male or trans), you would instead claim simultaneity or undecidability: ‘both either one thing or another or possibly another while…simultaneously…one thing and another and possibly another’ (196). For Weber this kind of thinking is what undermines the illusionary figure of ‘sovereign man’, which still successfully claims authority in international relations as the basis of all politics.

The argument is by far not as abstract as it may sound. Weber extracts it from a concrete study of figurations of homosexuality in recent political discourses. Her thesis is that two unacknowledged figures, namely the ‘perverse’ and the ‘normal homosexual’ underlie these discourses. These figures matter not only on the level of sexual politics (that is, the way gendered and sexualized subjectivities as well as intimate relations are socially organized, state regulated, and politically contested), but provide the foil against which ‘sovereign man’ legitimates himself as the guarantor of statecraft and international governance. The argument gets even more thrilling when she argues that currently a third figure turns up on the hegemonic political floor, a figure which is simultaneously perverse and normal. The reader gets to know this figure by accompanying Weber in her subtle and most convincing reading of the phenomenon of Conchita Wurst (Tom Neuwirth) winning the Eurovision Song Contest in 2014, which in its aftermath provoked some of the most interesting, highly contradictory reactions by European journalists, politicians and religious representatives.

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Queer International Relations (II)

The second post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge is contributed by Joan Cocks. You can read Cynthia’s introductory post and other responses to it here. joan-cocks-photo

Joan Cocks is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Mount Holyoke College, where she also founded and for many years directed the interdisciplinary Program in Critical Social Thought. She is the author of On Sovereignty and Other Political Delusions (Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), Passion and Paradox: Intellectuals Confront the National Question (Princeton University Press, 2002), and The Oppositional Imagination: Feminism, Critique and Political Theory (Routledge, 1989 and 2013). She has published articles on feminism, Marxism, nationalism, sovereignty, cosmopolitanism, and political violence in edited volumes, contributions to symposia and blogs, and journals such as Political Theory, Theory & Event, Political Studies, Politics and Society, Polity, New Political Science, Radical Philosophy Review, differences, Quest, Arena Journal, Social Research, Constellations, Interventions, and Socialism and Democracy. In addition to writing on the politics of disappearance and the concept of primitive accumulation, she is currently engaged in rethinking citizenship and the meaning of foreignness for a global age.


The interest of modern states in nailing down the identity of things to be subjected to their authority has been highlighted by critics from Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault to James C. Scott and Zygmunt Bauman. However much the struggle for sovereign power may issue in bloodshed, social chaos, and the dissolution of existing life worlds, the desire of sovereign power for order asserts itself once that struggle has been resolved.

As these and other scholars have argued, the modern state’s quest for order is manifested in the establishment of external borders separating one nation-state from another and in an increasingly adept drive to classify the persons, social groups, and material resources that make up the domestic domain. Inversely, the territory and people the state aims to control are made to submit to representational rules that differentiate one kind of entity from another as well as practical rules governing the behavior appropriate for or towards each type of subject and thing. If sovereign power ever could become absolute, nothing in its realm would be at odds with its assigned category; nothing would stray from the limits of that category through an autonomous impulse, proclivity, or decision; nothing would consist of aspects or levels hidden from the sovereign eye; and no entity would metamorphose of its spontaneous accord into an entity of another sort.

Of course, actual life is far too profuse, energetic, unruly, labile, and multi-layered, as well as too susceptible to limits and pressures from heterogeneous sources, including the imperatives of biology and the ‘dead weight’ of history, to match the conditions for its total subjection to sovereign power listed above. But while absolute sovereign power in human affairs must therefore be counted as a delusion, the will to exert the maximum possible degree of sovereign power is very real. Moreover, far from being the sole prerogative of states, aspirations to sovereign power may be expressed by or ascribed to the abstract individual, the demos, the ethno-nation, political movements that dress up their will to sovereign power in godly garb, and even the entire human race in its relationship to other species of being. Finally, the fact that the total control of people and places on the part of any of these would-be sovereigns is phantasmic does not mean that attempts to turn fantasy into reality are phantasmic, or that those attempts have only phantasmic effects on the world.

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Queer International Relations: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to host a symposium on Cynthia Weber’s new book Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge. We kick off the symposium with an inaugural post from Cynthia, followed by replies over the next few days from Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh and Dianne Otto. We will conclude the symposium with a reply from Cynthia. cw-headshot

Cynthia Weber is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.  She has written extensively on sovereignty, intervention, and US foreign policy, as well as on feminist, gendered and sexualized understandings and organizations of international relations.

UPDATE (22/11/2016): a response from Joan Cocks.

UPDATE (23/11/2016): a response from Antke Engel.

UPDATE (24/11/2016): a response from Cyril Ghosh.

UPDATE (25/11/2016): a response from Dianne Otto.

UPDATE (27/11/2016): a response from Cynthia Weber.


What is ‘homosexuality’? Who is ‘the homosexual’? Queer Studies scholars have long engaged with these questions, as well as with a vast array of additional questions about gender variant, gender non-conforming and gender expanding people. They have done so not to answer these questions but to trace how what Michel Foucault calls the will to knowledge about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘the homosexual’ drives various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, techniques of medicalization, psychologization, and (self)disciplinization, Queer Studies scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ subjectivities are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sexes, genders and sexualities, which they read intersectionally through (amongst other things) race, class and ability. What Queer Studies scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sexualities is a specifically sovereign will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see, for example, Berlant’s work on sovereignty).

International Relations (IR) scholars, in contrast, regard sovereignty as among their core concerns. This leads them to pose an alternative set of questions in their research, including: What is ‘sovereignty’?; Who is (the always presumptively male, masculinely-engendered) ‘sovereign man’?; and What arrangements of national and international politics does ‘sovereign man’ authorize? Foucauldian and other social constructivist and poststructuralist IR scholars ask these questions not to answer them but to trace how the will to knowledge about ‘sovereignty’ and ‘sovereign man’ drive various hegemonic discourses of normalization. By focusing on, for example, the social construction of nation-states as sovereign, justifications for intervention in the name of sovereignty, and sovereignly-authorized international economic distributions of wealth, these IR scholars demonstrate how ‘normal’ and ‘perverse’ international subjectivities and international orders are always produced as/in relation to complex understandings of sovereignty. What IR scholars less often do is theorize how the will to knowledge about sovereignty is a specifically sexualized will that makes possible and presupposes specifically sexualized sovereign subjectivities (although see Peterson’s work).

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Economy of Force: A Reply

In which Patricia Owens responds to our four commentaries (on patriarchy, colonial counterinsurgency, biopolitics and social theory) on her Economy of Force.


I’m extremely grateful to Pablo K, Elke Schwarz, Jairus Grove, and Andrew Davenport for their serious engagements with Economy of ForceAs noted in the original post, the book is a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with what I think are significant implications for social, political and international thought. It is based on a study of late-colonial British military campaigns in Malaya and Kenya; the US war on Vietnam; and US-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq against the background of the high colonial wars in the American Philippines and nineteenth-century French campaigns in Tonkin, Morocco and Algeria. Probably the emblematic case for the book is Britain’s colonial state terror against Kenya’s Land and Freedom Army and civilians in the 1950s, a campaign that was closer to annihilation than ‘rehabilitation’. Although the so-called ‘hearts and minds’ campaign in Malaya is held up by generations of counterinsurgents as the model for emulation, the assault on Kikuyu civilians shows the real face of Britain’s late-colonial wars. It also points to some profound truths about the so-called ‘population-centric’ character of more recent campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though offering new readings of some better-known counterinsurgency cases, Jairus Grove suggests that this choice perpetuates an erasure of America’s ‘Indian Wars’.

Mau-Mau

Researching Economy of Force, I certainly became aware of the general significance of these wars, including through Andrew J. Birtle’s and Laleh Khalili’s histories of counterinsurgency. However, Grove draws attention to something more relevant to Economy of Force than appreciated before: “one of the first federal bureaucracies with jurisdiction over the home and social issues”, he writes, “was created by and administered by the War Department”. Decades before the distinctly ‘social’ engineering during the Philippines campaign (1899-1902), the Bureau of Indian Affairs was administering indigenous populations on the mainland. In focusing on overseas imperial wars, Economy of Force surely neglects settler colonialism, its genocides, and how “warfare, pacification, and progressivism were an assemblage in the US context from the outset”. While the book was not centrally focussed on US state making, I’m grateful to Grove for insisting that settler colonialism is necessarily a form of counterinsurgency. To be sure, the Philippines campaign was examined not as the founding moment of American counterinsurgency, but because it was explicitly conceived by contemporaries as a form of overseas housekeeping; to problematize progressive social policy; and to challenge the effort to separate good (domestic) social engineering at home from bad social engineering (overseas). I would hesitate to wholly assimilate the Progressive Era (1890s-1920s) into earlier Indian Wars, though its ‘social reforms’ shaped indigenous administration. But these are quibbles. Grove is right that I have neglected something of significance in the ‘historical trajectory from Thanksgiving to Waziristan’. I hope to be able to rectify this in future work.

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All Means, No End? Economies of Life Management

The fourth piece in our forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. One more to follow before Patricia’s rejoinder this weekend.


Economy of Force provides an insightful and provocative re-reading of Anglo-American imperialism and counterinsurgency. Unlike conventional accounts, which for the most part remain trapped within the hermeneutic limits of political theory, Owens undertakes a historical sociology of ‘the social’ itself, tracing out its attendant mechanisms of political rule over time. Central to her account is the notion of ‘the household’, which, she suggests, functions as a dominant form of administration and rule within both modern and contemporary imperialisms. ‘Despotism’, ‘governance’, ‘ruler-ship’, ‘sovereignty’, ‘administration’, ‘life processes’, ‘violence’, ‘hierarchy’, ‘patriarchy’, ‘pacification’, ‘domestication’, ‘domesticity’ – this language of household rule is crucial in order to better understand the politics that underpin different forms of imperial practice. For this, we must also understand that it is the oikos, and not politics, that stands at the heart of imperial and counter-insurgency campaigns. Indeed, for Owens, such campaigns are best grasped as “armed social work”.

One clear target of this argument is mainstream IR, which all too often works with an ahistorical conception of society. Owens firmly rejects this approach by identifying: (1) the origins of ‘the social’ in a concept of household rule; (2) the transformation of household rule over time; and (3) the historically-specific influence that different forms of household rule exert over political practices in the present. In so doing she also rejects the folk wisdom that household rule and management has been eliminated or pushed to the margins of politics through various processes of modernisation. Rather, she argues, household rule is sozialpolitik rendered as politics, and that IR scholars would do well to engage with the changing logics of household rule if they want any purchase on the political world.

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Afghan National Policemen participating in an interactive exercise during Counter Insurgency Training

Owens grounds this bold claim in the close relation between the social and an ancient modality of household rule: oikonomia. This is an important move and I, for one, am convinced that an engagement with household management can provide a powerful lens through which to understand the entwinement of the social and the international. Such a lens resonates with Hannah Arendt’s insight that, in modernity, “we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose everyday affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of housekeeping” (The Human Condition, p.28). And for Arendt too, ‘the social’ is infused with the logic of household management, turning modern ‘society’ into a mode of government based on specific and historically situated relations of reproduction. In fact, I would argue that Arendt’s proto-biopolitical argument has much to offer to Owens’ project.

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Economy of Force

We return from the holidays with gusto and a book symposium on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force: Counterinsurgency and the Historical Rise of the Social (Cambridge, 2015). Patricia is Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex, co-editor of European Journal of International Relations, and a former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and of Oriel College, Oxford. Patricia’s first book was Between War and Politics: International Relations and the thought of Hannah Arendt (Oxford, 2007). Economy of Force is in the Cambridge University Press series ‘Studies in International Relations’ and is out in paperback next summer (the introduction is available in full here). The book will also be the subject of a forthcoming special section of Security Dialogue.


Economy of Force

Economy of Force seeks to rekindle interest in one of the oldest but neglected languages and techniques of government administration – household governance – that it uses to write a new history and theory of counterinsurgency with broad implications for social, political, and international thought. The book is a study of oikonomia in the use of force, from oikos, ancient Greek for household. But it also makes a larger claim, that household governance underlies the relatively recent rise of distinctly social forms of government and thought more broadly. Since the late eighteenth-century, modern, capitalist state and imperial administrators have drawn on and innovated different forms of household governance, scaling up and transforming the units of rule in which populations are domesticated. To really understand the significance of households-as-government we need to dispense with the relatively recent and bourgeois notion of households as houses, homes, or family-as-kin. Instead, households are best understood through the nature of the hierarchical relations between people in a particular spatial arrangement. Households are the persistent but historically variable spaces in which the life processes of members – real, vulnerable bodies needing food, water, shelter – are administered and the household itself is maintained.

There is a very long tradition of thinking of households-as-government in the history of political and economic thought and in anthropology, archeology and comparative studies of different household forms. There is also excellent and wide-ranging scholarship in literary and gender studies on practices and ideologies of domesticity (from domus, Latin for house). In drawing on and extending these and other literatures, Economy of Force suggests that there is a far deeper significance of households and forms of domesticity than captured in International Relations debates about the so-called ‘domestic analogy’. Household administration is highly portable and plays a remarkably significant role in imperial and international relations. These are grounds to make a stronger claim than one based on mere analogy. I argue that there is a domestic homology connecting different households, despite their historical and geographical variability, based on the genealogy of household governance in the history of social and political thought, but also the human experience of basic life necessities and the stubborn but contingent attempts to domesticate people through the administration and control of life needs.

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