The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Horrorphilia (Or … I couldn’t resist weighing in on the zombie debate)

April 11, 2011

Though I clearly swim in the shallow end of the pool of those who think about Zombies in International Relations – in fact, I learned what a zombie is from Dan Drezner’s book. At the same time, I can’t really resist a brief observation on the popularity of the Zombie book, and follow-up journal articles, blog posts, and ISA panels. I don’t mean this to engage all of the relevant issues, but can’t resist a few reflections.

Dan Drezner asks what the global political community would look like it the undead walked among us. What if the undead were aggressive attackers looking to exterminate humanity? How would people react? How would states? What would (mainstream) International Relations theory have to say about the security threats posed by Zombies? About the differences between zombies and humans? How might IR theory suggest ways to minimize, or potentially eliminate, conflicts and or injustices brought about by the presence of zombies among us?

While we’re at it, why not take seriously the claim that Harry Potter’s world intertwines with our own? Why not celebrate IR analyses of wizardry, the majestic, and the fantastic? Why not explore what facets of the young (then teenage) Harry Potter’s world are reflective of (and reflected in) our own world? What are the muggle sports between states? IR theorists fantasize about wizards and their magic(s) enthusiastically, along with the Lord of the RingsStar Trek and Battlestar Galactica, UFOs, Enders Game, and other “hip” pop culture stuff.

These questions, asked in a tongue-and-cheeck if not satirical way, are comfortable questions among a new generation of IR theorists, who engage IR as if zombies walked among us in journals, on blogs, and on panels – in the same rooms, on the same websites, and on the same table of contents as discussions of the capitalist peace, offshore balancing, institutional design, bureaucratic politics, and the normal business of IR theorists/the mainstream on the discipline.

However cool … (through feminist lenses), I’m concerned. Why? …

Because the new, cooler IR is comfortable with (and fantasizes about) the world as if it contained zombies, wizards, hobbits, and aliens. They discuss the ethics of inclusion, the problems of difference, liminality brought about by uncertainty, security dilemmas created by differential positionally, epistemological issues brought about by performances of otherness, and the like. But the world as if women existed (and as if gender needed to be taken seriously) remains taboo.

What are the ethics of sex, gender, and sexuality inclusion? What are the problems of sex, gender, sexuality difference and differentiation? What liminalities are brought about by gender uncertainty? What security dilemmas are created by differential positionalities of gendered bodies and gendered actors? What epistemological issues are brought about by performances of gender(ings)?

You will tell me (and you may be right) that this is not a zero-sum game … and you may be right. But you may not be.

Thinking of Hilary Charlesworth’s argument that good feminist work “searches for silences” because the unsaid in texts matters as much as the said, I wonder why and how IR can ask questions about the co-constitution of monsters and IR but not about gender and IR. Then I remember Carol Cohn’s brilliant analysis of the (gendered) function of abstraction in nuclear security discourses, and think that (gendered) abstraction is often covering (gendered) discomforts.

Along these lines, I fear it is possible that IR’s (recent) interest in the fantastic and its (continued) blindnesses to gender(s) are intimately intertwined. Feminists have previously identified mainstream IR as “malestream,” a world of research questions and methodological standards made by men for men. Ann Tickner noted that “all too often, [the mainstream’s] claims of gender neutrality mask deeply embedded masculinist assumptions which can naturalize or hide gender differences and gender inequalities.”

As odd as it might sound, fantasizing about monsters, UFOs, aliens, hobbits, and wizards does not (in Sarah Brown’s words) threaten the division of knowledge which presently defines the discipline – one which has structural gender bias in its epistemologies and ontologies. Those biases are at once reproduced and glazed over in the new, cool IR – which mentions “gender” (by which it means sex) in passing while talking about the relationships among wizards or the differences among zombies.

I believe it is and remains true that gender belongs in, and transforms, IR – and not as a (sex) question in IR’s traditional or fantastic work, but asking questions about what we don’t see in either of those genres of IR work. I believe it is and remains true that IR needs gender analysis to make its worldview less partial, and to increase the explanatory value of its theoretical propositions, and to clarify its empirical observations. And I worry that books like International Relations Theory and Zombies are at once widening that gap and making it invisible. But maybe that’s just me.

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Laura Sjoberg is British Academy Global Professor of Politics and International Relations at Royal Holloway University of London and Professor of Political Science at the University of Florida. Her research addresses issues of gender and security, with foci on politically violent women, feminist war theorizing, sexuality in global politics, and political methodology. She teaches, consults, and lectures on gender in global politics, and on international security. Her work has been published in more than 50 books and journals in political science, law, gender studies, international relations, and geography.