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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Ethical Encounters – Taming of the Infinite: Applying Ethics for Political Violence – A Brief Critique

This is the third post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam’s post can be found here, Joe’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


The relationship between ethics and politics is complex; in theory, as in practice. Against a contemporary background where hitherto morally prohibited acts, such as assassinations by drones strikes in non-military zones, are instituted as legitimate and justifiable practices, it becomes vital to understand anew the relationship between politics, violence and ethics, and its limits, particularly when such acts are underwritten by innovative military technologies that open new horizons for ethical considerations in international politics.

Ethics, in the context of politics – including international politics – is presently predominantly conceived in terms of applied ethics and chiefly concerned with the search for an ethical theory that can be arrived at through abstraction and applied to real world ethical dilemmas. While burgeoning poststructuralist scholarship in the late 1990s sought to address ethics in terms that consider aspects of contingency, alterity and potentiality, the events unfolding in the aftermath of 9/11 appear to have given way to a more practically oriented approach to thinking about ethics in international politics, giving priority to the application of ethical principles of warring. Such practical approaches often mirror scientific processes, or algorithmic logics in trying to find ‘correct’ outcomes.

While just war traditions of ethics in war have always had a close relationship with the analytical procedures and structures of international law, the practical turn in contemporary political ethics means that concerns addressed in the international and global context are primarily framed in terms of finding and applying appropriate principles, codes and rules in trying to resolve ‘real moral problems’. Problem solving through rational procedures, and scientific rationales thus stands at the heart of practical considerations of the ethics of political violence and war. This is exemplified in the IF/THEN logic of current discourses on the ethics of war or in the structures of target selections for lethal drone strikes. Among others, Seth Lazar’s recent work on the morality of war, presented at a philosophy workshop at the LSE in 2013 for example, considers approaches to moral decision making in uncertainty in the following terms: “one plausible approach to decision-making under uncertainty is to determine the expected moral value (EV) of the outcomes available to me, and to choose the best one. So, I am permitted to ƒ if and only if EV(ƒ) ³ EV(¬ƒ)”. Similarly, Bradley Strawser’s defence of the ethical obligation to use drones as a weapon of choice relies on a selection of variables (X, Y, G) and principles (principle of unnecessary risk – PUR) that, combined, serve to confirm the hypothesis, namely that using drones is an ethical obligation. This procedural algorithmic logic speaks to a technoscientific-subjectivity with which ethical outcomes are ascertained, problems solved. Ethics becomes a technical matter that can be solved through procedures and thus has natural limits. It is only able to assess, whether an outcome was achieved through the correct logical theoretical trajectory, not through the particularities of the moment.

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

Stuart Kinlough/Getty Images

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What We Talked About At ISA: The God Complex – Biopolitical Ethics

The paper I presented at the ISA is part of a larger project in which I look at the ways in which ethics, in the context of certain political practices, is saturated with biopolitical rationalities. The (re)surfacing and framing of hitherto morally prohibited practices – torture, extraordinary rendition, extrajudicial assassinations – as justifiable, legitimate and even necessary acts of violence, paired with rapidly advancing and increasingly autonomous military technologies that facilitate these practices, has opened new dimensions and demands for considering just what kind of ethics is used to justify these violent modalities. I’m specifically frustrated by the emerging narrative of the use of drones for targeted killing practices in the interminable fight against terror as a ‘wise’ and ‘ethical’ weapon of warfare. The prevalence of utility, instrumentality and necessity in this consideration of ethics strikes me as dubious and worthy of a closer look. This keeps leading me again and again to the perhaps foolhardy, but inevitable question: what, actually, IS ethics? And more specifically: what is ethics in a biopolitically informed socio-political (post)modern context? My quest for an answer begins with the growing divergence in scholarship and philosophical inquiry of the ethicality of ethics, or meta-ethics on one hand, and practical conceptions of ethics, applied ethics, on the other.

It has been noted by philosophers and scholars across geographical and disciplinary divides, that, in recent years, there has been a growing focus in philosophical and political thought on the application of moral and ethical principles rather than the “ethicality” of ethics itself. This trend is particularly widespread in Anglo-American philosophy, and manifests itself in the striking surge of applied ethics as a subfield of ethics, which considers the chief role of ethics to be that of providing a practical guide for moral agents, based on rational analysis, scientific inquiry and technological expertise. In other words, considerations of ethics have become preoccupied with establishing practicalities and ways of application. While the practical side of ethics should, of course, not be dismissed, the domineering focus on ethics’ practicality over considerations of meta-ethics, or the ethicality of ethics, occludes any deeper engagement with what ethics actually is, how moral content is established and how we can understand ethics in modernity as something beyond a mere set of context specific norms and legal regulations, as something other than laws and codes. To make sense of this preoccupation with ethics’ practicalities, it is worthwhile to consider how ethics might, in fact, be determined by the characteristics of a specific form of society. This brings me back to the biopolitical rationalities with which (post)modern societies are infused. Continue reading