Symposium — Response to Christine Sylvester, “Experiencing the End of IR Theory/End of War”

15 September 2013, 1100 EDT

Sylvester productively draws out the implications of the current ‘camp’ structure of IR: on the one hand, the proliferation of ‘camps’ and communities within IR increases the opportunities for publication and advancement for those whose work does not conform to traditional disciplinary norms; on the other hand, the emergence of camps with their own journals, books series, ISA/BISA sections and common citations productive dialogue across and between camps is difficult if not impossible.

Sylvester also usefully points out that the camp system can end up with arrogant competitions within camps for dominance. Sylvester does well to highlight how comfortable camp IR can be for some people (and implicitly, how uncomfortable cross camp connections and dialogue can be, where one is forced to contend with those who do not necessarily share deeply held ontologies.  Even the camp structure of feminist IR can be problematic, with feminists in IR only citing other IR feminists, leaving behind the broader world of gender/sexuality studies and reproducing some of the problems of the sex/gender distinction and erasure of racial, geographic, ability, cultural and class differences.

The current ‘camp structure’ in IR seems to be an improvement over disciplinary hegemony in the way that a world of multiple sovereign states seems to be an improvement over an imperial structure, this world of camps seem to imply functional equality among camps. Similarly, understanding the structure of IR as ‘camps’ underestimates the power dynamics laden in the structure of IR. For example, ‘camps’ suggests a kind of conditional tolerance that conceals the darker politics of regulation and aversion that Wendy Brown warned about in Regulating Aversion.

The main strength of ‘camps’ is to bypass disciplinary gatekeepers and allow for theoretical exploration and innovation that might not otherwise be possible.

The main strength of ‘camps’ is to bypass disciplinary gatekeepers and allow for theoretical exploration and innovation that might not otherwise be possible. One advantage of the ‘camp’ system is that one does not have to perpetually beat ones’ head against the wall, or publish pieces about why ‘they’ still don’t understand the basic tenets of one’s political and theoretical perspective forever and ever. Disciplinary privilege can accrue the benefits of hiring and resources, essential for academic labor, but such privileges can allow for ignorance and closed-mindedness. Disciplinary privilege depends upon a certain NOT understanding; the burden of understanding and explaining is perpetually placed upon those without certain forms of social privilege (see, for example, the myriad journal articles and books attempting to explain feminist IR to a ‘mainstream’ audience).

Here, there is a direct connection between the embodied experiences of ir/IR that Sylvester writes about and the embodied experiences of IR scholars that has been much discussed here on the Duck and elsewhere recently, especially about issues of access, networking and sexual harassment and the different experiences of people of different genders and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Sylvester is quite correct that we experience the world as bodies, or rather, embodied subjects, not as isolated individual thinkers and speakers/writers: understanding our world and our field depends upon taking seriously the complexities of bodily existence when that very existence is saturated with differences and power relations.

Sylvester’s argument that the study of ordinary people involves taking seriously more than high level discourse, but the impact of discourse and action on people’s lived worlds contains a powerful insight that is too often neglected in IR. For a similar example, Sara Ahmed’s work of almost a decade ago, The Cultural Politics of Emotions remains under appreciated in International Relations despite its incisive theorizing of the work emotions do in attaching some bodies to other bodies, and turning some bodies away from other bodies in her analysis of topics familiar to IR scholars, such as the politics of hate and exclusion, of fear and terrorism, of apprehending the pain of others, of shame and national apologies, to name but a few. A growing literature now exists that takes up emotion and affect as embodied and political that theorizes emotions not as states existing within subjects, but as physical practices that are productive of the borders between bodies and groups. Work in this vein resonates with some feminist/queer work, postcolonial literatures, and work on emotions by scholars such as Karin Fierke, Janice Bially Mattern, and Andrew Ross, among others.

Starting from embodied experience need not reproduce outmoded dichotomies but can provide for a broad rethinking of our understanding of war and political violence.

Sylvester’s call for a shift away from the abstract, global, and structural and toward a focus on the concrete and local is a potentially valuable way to start the process of rethinking the project(s) of IR from the lived, embodied experiences of actual people. Yet, reflecting on my own recent writing about the politics of ‘drone’ warfare and the lived experiences of war suggests a modification of these aims to avoid reifying the dichotomies of abstract/concrete, global/local. One of feminist IR’s strength has been in the ability to move from the personal to the international and to dissolve the meaningfulness of the idea of separate ‘levels of analysis’. Sylvester praises work that takes seriously the experiences of ‘everyday people’ in IR as opposed to high level personalities and discourse—however, it is not clear where the experiences of, say, drone pilots falls. They are as purveyors of some of the most technologically advanced form of violence, but, as feminists have noted, they are also generally recruited from the less privileged sectors of society in a time of limited employment opportunities. Furthermore, quite apart from a ‘disembodied’ form of war, the increasing number of drone operators diagnosed with PTSD suggests that even ‘video game’ combat has real, embodied effects on those who are supposed to be immune from harm (not to mention the injury, death, trauma and anxiety experienced by those who live in areas that are subject to drone attacks). Starting from embodied experience need not reproduce outmoded dichotomies but can provide for a broad rethinking of our understanding of war and political violence.

Sylvester’s intervention suggests that the ‘end of IR theory’ debate that has taken place might signal the end of American or Anglo-American, dominance in IR theory. Some of the most interesting and inspiring work addressing questions and topics relevant to the concerns of IR, especially about war, have come from scholars working disciplines and departments such as anthropology, geography and English/comparative literature. If IR has indeed made itself irrelevant, it is by ignoring any number of aspects of international life, including the embodied experiences of those whom we speak and write about. The ‘end of IR’ and its aftermaths also speaks of the proliferation of other forms of knowledge that is not so concerned with debating and critiquing the ‘mainstream’ of the discipline and thereby reifying it as the center. As such, Sylvester’s calls for dialogue between camps is inadequate to the task at hand, as repeated calls for building bridges and increased dialogue are dependent on a shared set of norms for that dialogue; on whose terms should they take place? If we do not accept that politics takes place on an equal, disembodied plane of deliberation, (and certainly feminist scholars have enumerated plenty of ways in which such assumptions are fundamentally misguided), a call for increased dialogue across ‘camps’ rings flat.  Certainly it is a core tenet of feminist theory that scholarship is political and the spaces and economies in which it is produced are also deeply saturated in relations of power. ‘Dialogue’ presumes a set of commonalities and norms that must be held in common, which sets the stage for the reproduction of existing power structures in the field. Perhaps a disciplinary structure that more closely resembles a rhizome structure (not to be mistaken for a ‘Deleuzian camp’), which entails not a center and a periphery, but a multiplicity of lines and connections would better serve as a model for practicing IR theory. One positive development in this regard is the newish Theory section of the ISA (in which I currently serve as the Secretary and Communications Officer) that endeavors to create a space for people doing work in International Relations Theory, or International Political Theory across theoretical and normative commitments. In just a few years this section has attained an extremely high level of interest that far surpasses its panel allotment, an encouraging sign.

No one IR ‘camp’ provides all of the intellectual resources needed to think though the complexities of a topic as vast as ‘embodied life in IR.” Furthermore, IR theory is heterogeneous and rich, but it is not necessarily taking place in relation to the traditional center(s) of IR. Its afterlives will (I hope) involve transdisciplinary and non-disciplinary contacts, connections and collaborations around the critical issues of contemporary international life that do not depend upon approval by the traditional gatekeepers either within the broader field of IR or within camps themselves.

Editor’s Note: This is the 18th 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 refers to Christine Sylvester’s article  (PDF). Her post appeared earlier today.

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