Symposium — Une Invitation au Lecteur

10 September 2013, 0915 EDT

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Charlotte EpsteinIt is the ninth 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 Epstein’s article (PDF). A response, authored by Vivienne Jabri, will appear at 10am Eastern.

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

Being invited by the editors of EJIR to engage with the question of whether International Relations (IR) theory has reached is end(s) was, for me, the opportunity to try to take stock of some of the big picture questions that have long concerned our discipline. The first of these is: what exactly is IR’s world? Ours is one of the youngest disciplines in the history of what has classically been called ‘the human sciences’. Yet what we see today is also a discipline that is much surer of itself than it has ever been, because it is surer of what constitutes its intellectual space — something it owes undoubtedly to theory. IR’s owl has well and truly taken off.

This is signalled by the shift in the word ‘international’ from an adjective to a noun, the international, which is to say, a concept, albeit (and indeed, hopefully, forever) a contested one. Systemic theorising, exemplified by Kenneth Waltz, did much to staking out the space of the international and posit IR as a discrete theoretical endeavour. Recast within a broader history of the human science, Waltz’s efforts are comparable to those of Structuralists, such as Claude Levi-strauss (whom Waltz explicitely cites), who sought to uncover the universal laws of human nature that transcended particular cultures.

In this sense, then, it seemed to me fruitful to bring to bear upon the discipline’s trajectory Jacques Derrida’s founding engagement with Structuralist thought in his key 1966 Baltimore lecture ‘Structure, Sign and Play‘; the seminal moment that triggered the moving beyond, the ‘post’ of post-structuralism. Arguably the particular theoretical blossoming of the late 1980s-early 1990s in IR offered a similar opening; although whether it was borne out is precisely something I question in this piece.The second of these big picture questions concerns the nature of IR’s world: given or constructed? On this question, then, the EJIR’s invitation was the chance to work through my disappointment with constructivism’s failure to live up to its promise to theorise the contingency, or constructed-ness, of IR’s world. Indeed, that international politics is socially constructed, rather than given by nature or God(s), surely means that the form of necessity at work here, to dwell with this category (universality), requires finding substantially different terms with which to appraise it than those that have been used to theorise the universal laws of nature.

Yet because it has shied away from exploring these genuinely different, social rather than natural, plural, particular, and localised forms of necessity, constructivism always seems to fall back onto the naturalist fallacy, as Charles Taylor has called it. It seems to me, moreover, that the duty to resist the temptation of universalism is especially incumbent upon us, precisely because the disciplinary space we operate in, the international, is the one that comes closest to what might look like the space of universality. Ultimately constructivism seems to pining after that ever elusive universal human nature, the absent centre that also haunted French structuralist thought. The problem, to be clear, are not structures per se, but rather the reluctance to move beyond a naturalist model that appraises them as centred and stable. The Eiffel tower is a structure (and arguably not much more), yet, as anyone standing underneath it experiences, it is hollow, and it constantly sways in the wind. Hence the need for a post-structuralist moment, one which genuinely marks the break with the naturalist model as a basis for theorising the social, remains just as intact today.

Last but not least, the editor’s invitation opportunity to explore the extraordinary fertility afforded by concept of gender for drawing out these tensions and dialectical movements around universality and human nature as they regularly resurface in social thought. Paralleling Derrida’s, Judith Butler’s engagement with feminist structuralism, which took shape around the same time as IR constructivist theorising, is the pivot upon which hinges the dialectical movement beyond (the ‘post’).

I realise this does not actually say what I have done in the piece. I hope that it has piqued your curiosity; a manner of what Charles Baudelaire called ‘une invitation au lecteur’. So how the heck did I go about my business? I’ll let the abstract say a bit more:

In this contribution I engage with the question of the end of theory from a poststructuralist perspective. I begin by revisiting the making of IR as a discrete theoretical endeavour from Waltz to Wendt, around, respectively, the efforts to unearth the structures of international politics that carved out the international as a distinct site of political analysis (Waltz, 1979), and the appraisal of these structures as social structures (Wendt, 1999). I then revisit the origins of poststructuralism via the works of Jacques Derrida (1966) and Judith Butler (1990), in order to bring its founding moves to bear directly on IR constructivism. Engaging with constructivism’s founding fathers, Nicholas Onuf, Alexander Wendt and Friedrich Kratochwil, I show that the search for unconstructed universals, grounded in an innate ‘human nature’, persistently haunts IR constructivism; even when it foregrounds language as the medium of social construction, and notably when it engages the question of gender. Just as language provided the original site for orchestrating the ‘moving beyond’ (the ‘post’ of poststructuralism) fixed, naturalized structures, I argue that a return to language holds the promise of renewal, and of constructivism’s being able to fulfill its founding promise to theorize constitutivity and the constructed-ness of IR’s world.