Symposium — A Response to Charlotte Epstein: Are ‘Universals’ Allowed in Poststructural IR?

10 September 2013, 1000 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Vivienne JabriIt is the eleventh installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post responds to Charlotte Epstein article (PDF). Epstein’s post appeared earlier today.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.

If I claim there is a distinctiveness to ‘the international’, my claim is reiterated, indeed emphasized, by placing the proverb ‘the’ before the noun, ‘international’, and doing so confers a certain materiality to the object of interest. The claim seems to suggest something that exceeds language and its power to construct the ‘real’; something prior to discourse and even more powerful. The international comes to acquire and possess a presence that is generative of relationships, identities, institutions, and indeed the concepts we use in rendering our subject matter comprehensible and meaningful. The object, to use Theodor Adorno, comes to exceed the capturing capacity of our concepts, and it is that excess which somehow renders the international a very special domain of politics and that confers our discipline, International Relations (IR), this very specific task, which is to understand the challenge of the international and how it is manifest in different locations of time and space.

The elders of the discipline, specifically what the textbooks refer to as the ‘realists’ or the ‘neo-realists’, Morgenthau and Waltz among others, understood the specificities of the international and therefore its challenges; appreciated that when the structure of the international and its most fundamental constitutive elements, the sovereign state, the recognition of sovereignty, relations between states, balances of power, came under challenge, the consequences would be far-reaching not just in terms of narrowly defined state interests (which is how many mis-understand realism), and not just in terms of the structural transformation of the international; for example, towards empire, but much more fundamentally still. They understood the historical record relating to transformations of the international, a record replete with conflict and violence. As Mike Williams’s revisionist reading of realism so accurately captures, Kant was never far off these realist readings of the international.

Perhaps at no other time for our generation of IR scholarship has the challenge of the international been so present. This challenge brings with it a responsibility not just to explain, but to define the limits of the possible when faced with the very real events on the ground; events that directly challenge the modern international. We all witness its unravelling at every instance of terrorist violence, extra-judicial assassination, extra-ordinary rendition, the seeming transnational civil war within Islam that reminds us of the European Thirty Years’ War, the ever-present violence that seems all too ready to target civilians, the workings of credit agencies that can bring states to their knees, all and every instant of such events challenging the discourses we have in relation to the international.The constructivists in IR, responding to the transformations that took place in the aftermath of Eastern European democratization and the end of the Cold War, suggested that we might be better placed to understand transformation if we started with the assumption that the international as such is best understood as a product of our discourses and ideas; that these must be conferred primacy over and above the material; that the international, to paraphrase and reconfigure Wendt’s much used quotation, is what we make of it. Whether the ‘we’ here referred to states, individuals, bureaucracies or groups, the point was to place the lens on the mutually constitutive relationship between agency and structure, though the accent was primarily placed on agency.

Charlotte Epstein’s article takes on the constructivists, mainly Wendt, Kratochwil and Onuf, engaging with their work with meticulous analytical precision, and mobilizing, as she does so, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler to put the case for poststructural IR. The crux of Epstein’s point by point critique is to argue that while constructivists draw on language to formulate a critique of neo-realist understandings of the ‘structure’ of the international, they do so in ways that variously re-commit afresh a naturalist and a universalizing understanding of human agency, language, and reason. Moreover, and crucially, the turn to language in constructivism, though acknowledging a debt to poststructural thought, nevertheless assumes that language is yet another structure that unproblematically constructs, or provides rules (here Epstein takes a tour through Wittgenstein) by which actors can interact or indeed construct their identities. In one of the most powerful points in the article, Epstein reveals the intellectual difference between a constructivist and a poststructural reading of language; respectively as game with constitutive rules and, via Derrida, as ‘play’ where the rules are not so rigid, and where there is potential for creativity. Invoking Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, Epstein wishes to argue that the most deeply rooted structures are performatively re-articulated, re-imagined, and indeed re-constituted in the contingencies of time and space.

No other poststructural scholar engages with the constructivists of IR more seriously than Charlotte Epstein. Where they claim to have shifted the terrain away from universals, Epstein reveals the universals underpinning their discourse; from the ‘essential state’ in Wendt to the un-problematized invocation of language in others. All this is well and brilliantly argued.

However, I want to return to the starting point, which is to engage with the challenge of the international. To invoke the international is at once to suggest a terrain of practices and discourses that recursively draw upon deeply rooted institutional arrangements and structures of meaning and to reconstitute these and, at times, even to re-articulate them. A practice that is transnational – the terrorist bomb placed on a bus or the extra-judicial assassination committed by a drone – instantiates an all too material challenge to the inside/outside dichotomy that, as Walker highlights, is so pervasive of our modernist understanding of the international. The point of poststructural IR is to deconstruct this dichotomy among others that pervade our discipline.

At the same time, if we move to Foucault and hence well beyond Derrida (and Butler), we see that even to deconstruct dichotomies such as the inside/outside is itself replete with relations of power; indeed that such deconstruction can itself be a practice of governmentality that can (indeed has) come to capture postcolonial populations in late modern forms of colonial intervention. Epstein is right to highlight the ‘essential state’ in Wendt as a universal too far. However, we might invoke Gayatry Spivak here and argue the case for a ‘strategic essentialism’, one that, unlike Wendt, does not take the state for granted, but that acknowledges the all too material presence of the state in the lived experience of populations and individuals. In other words, and perhaps, more significantly, we might invoke this strategic essentialism for its political value; that ‘the international’, constitutively only meaningful in terms of the limits of law and political community, can be mobilized at every call for self-determination by postcolonial populations and at every call for protection against the excesses of power now transnationally articulated and permeating every detail of the supposedly routine and the everyday.

So universals might be allowed a presence in poststructural thought in IR. However, these are universals that are always subject to provincialization, to use Dipesh Chakrabarty, and contestation, to use Laclau. The turn to language, in Epstein’s poststructural reading, is also a turn to subjectivity, a word surprisingly missing in Epstein’s piece, though it is all too present in her problematization of structuralist (and naturalizing) readings of language. Epstein calls for ‘taking language as the theoretical starting point’ and is skeptical of the shift towards ‘practices’ and the ‘new materialism’. However, if subjectivity is the theoretical starting point in International Relations theorizing, and it is here that poststructural social and political theory makes its most forceful contribution, then the material and the discursive have their place in the constitution of the all too material subject of (international) politics and the subject’s constitutive potentiality.