The Duck of Minerva

State Consciousness and Ontological Security

10 February 2022

I appreciate this opportunity to remark on Adam Lerner’s (hereafter, just ‘Adam’), excellent 2020 International Theory article on state consciousness. I recall first chatting with Adam about this paper when it was still in development, over a coffee in Prague at the 2018 European International Studies Association (EISA) annual meeting. Some of what I’ll mention here will be a rehashing – but also rethinking – of what I told him then. 

To cut to the chase, I still maintain my skepticism regarding how Adam’s article, and those like it, will be received in certain corners of International Relations (IR). But now, seeing it fully developed in published form, I’m convinced and persuaded he’s onto several things here that are important and worthy of further praise. 

I also appreciate this opportunity so I can mention how it relates to his closing proposal for state consciousness’s purchase for ontological security studies, a research community that I’ve been part of since my graduate work in the early 2000s.

[Ejdus & Rečević’s and Lerner’s] creative approaches… are refreshingly brilliant, heuristically promising, and, also, kind of cool

I recall telling Adam at that 2018 coffee meeting that I wasn’t sure there was much left to be said that would change critics’ minds on the levels-of-analysis issue, at least with respect to defending ontological security studies (that is, applying an individual-level process to collectives). Most critics of that ‘scaling’ move were mostly ignoring our arguments. If anything, the more those of us involved in ontological security studies talked about it as a research community, the more it just stirred up critics to keep on avoiding a substantive debate while offering yet another round of criticism. 

I mentioned the same sentiment around this time to Dr. Filip Ejdus, who was then pursuing a co-authored paper with Tijana Rečević that sought to address the levels-of-analysis issue via seeing ontological security as “emergent phenomena.” Neither Filip nor Adam listened to me, because they are both smarter than I am and also have more discipline and energy than I do to carry out ambitious projects. 

In both cases that was a good thing. This is not because either Adam in his article here, nor Ejdus and Rečević in their outstanding 2020 article in European Psychology, necessarily ‘resolved’ the levels-of-analysis issue. But, rather, it’s because their creative approaches to it are refreshingly brilliant, heuristically promising, and, also, kind of cool for re-envisioning how to analyze the problematic politics of identity that ontological security studies increasingly focuses on. And that’s where I’ll conclude this essay below.

Ontological Security and its Critics

But let me back up a minute. Adam notes (p. 280) that one of the chief critics of ontological security studies is Richard Ned Lebow, whose 2016 book took the research program to task for treating having ‘psychological needs.’ That’s notable for a couple of reasons. 

First, Lebow’s arguments weren’t new. The earlier state-as-person debates formed the basis of the original counterarguments that Jennifer Mitzen and I made back in the early days (around the mid-2000s) of ontological security studies. Lebow didn’t directly engage these responses, but Adam thankfully does include them at the top of page 280. Lebow’s book was also notable for when it was issued, because ontological security studies was, at that point (which feels inflective to me in retrospect), about to launch into a series of studies, special issues, roundtables and other professional activities. These would (IMHO) prove illuminating for understanding the clashes of ontological security drives of different communities, actors, and groups – including, but not limited to, states. 

It was also in late 2016 and early 2017 that I started to receive invitations to review more and more manuscripts dealing with ontological security. I think that proliferation happened for a variety of reasons, including the events of the time, such as Brexit, Trump’s election, Modi’s rise, the general ‘populist’ wave. It was also because of the sustained and community-building work that Jennifer Mitzen and Catarina Kinnvall and others did – and that I did too, but to a lesser degree – in coordinating these special issues, conference roundtables, workshops and the like. 

But I also think this was around the same time that this ‘research community’ of ontological security studies largely (but not uniformly) pivoted away from the levels-of-analysis debates and moved on to grappling with global politics in what I think (and yes, I’m biased) were, and still are, creative and analytically dynamic ways.

You can see this impatience, or at least pivot point, in my own work in a 2019 article for the special issue I co-edited with Alex Homolar, that Adam also cites in his article (and one that he, as outgoing editor of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, considered for that journal):

Whatever scepticisms remain regarding the ‘levels of analysis problem’ for ontological security, it may be best for scholars to think of other ways to use ontological security than restating the defences that have been around for over a decade for its appropriation in IR. It’s time, in short, to move on. And it is precisely because ontological security proves useful for analysing the struggles over identity at different levels of analysis simultaneously that we can and must move on.

It was this moving on, I would aver, that is also a reason why ontological security studies has, invoking Adam’s assertion in his article, “gained enormous traction, yielding significant empirical results and more nuanced theoretical explorations’”(p. 280).

So, there are two reasons I remain skeptical (or cautious) of Adam’s enterprise. One is that critics of state personhood are not longer listening. The other is that this “problem” doesn’t need to be “resolved.” 

Who cares if he’s using another metaphor to displace a metaphor? The article is brilliant and worthy of our time and attention all the same

There’s plenty of purchase in using the “mere metaphor” (Adam’s words) of the conflicts between different (and elusive) drives for ontological security at different levels as a central feature of the dangerous and precarious politics of identity in late modernity. Speaking out about those problematic politics remains an unrealized potential of ontological security studies, one that scholars of ontological security increasingly recognize – since at least Chris Rossdale’s now iconic 2015 provocation. It also can be addressed via this conflict of different drives and levels. Further, Adam’s contribution to the “mere metaphor” of ontological-security studies – when it comes to states as persons – is to provide another metaphor (he calls it a “model,” but a middle-school dance seems pretty metaphorical to me all the same).

The Rich Promise of State Consciousness

But that’s not how I want to chiefly appraise the article. Doing so would be unfair. So what if it doesn’t resolve the levels-of-analysis or personhood debates? Who cares if he’s using another metaphor to displace a metaphor? The article is brilliant and worthy of our time and attention all the same. I’m in awe of it both as an inspiring piece of scholarship, and as a resource and helpful reorganization for approaching all kinds of topics we like to study. I say “inspiring” because it must have taken a formidable amount of time to dig into all these angles and multidisciplinary debates, let alone organize them into an article-length study, 

The article’s resourcefulness comes in a whirlwind of interdisciplinary insights, anchored by a well-researched rundown of Consciousness Studies. The article tackles philosophical work on many complex deliberations, both historical (Durkheim and Kelsen make appearances) and contemporary. It places all of those within and alongside these debates as they’ve unfolded in different fits and starts in International Relations. His two tables, and especially the second one (on p. 274) provide heuristic inspiration and organizational clarity for for future scholarship. This article, I expect, will prove to be a durable resource for a variety of research groups, communities, and debates.

For ontological security, it provides a touchstone project to at least refer to when someone asks about the group personhood issue, and a far more eloquent and sophisticated provocation than I could ever provide. But perhaps more than anything, the “middle school dance” metaphor’s purchase is its centralization of “identity-related anxieties [as] hallmarks” of international relations. Such centering of anxiety is an increasing feature of ontological-security work. Scholars now see anxiety as a systemic, constitutive feature of global politics in the twenty-first century. It provides analytical guidance and philosophical foundations for exploring both ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ productions of narratives in societal settings (p. 281).

These novel insights are increasingly, and provocatively, generated by scholars who are admirably and incorrigibly dissatisfied with past approaches to those issues.

The article does indeed “‘encourage application … to a variety of other debates in the discipline that are still plagued by limited rationalist assumptions and the dominance of functionalism and methodological individualism” (p. 282). It bears upon the ongoing deliberations over quantum approaches in international-relations theory, as well as the recent flurry of attention to philosophy of science and meta-theory. I don’t closely follow these debates anymore. But armed with Adam’s insights, I think that I could dive back into them.

Adam’s intervention allows us to continue to specify and articulate the vibrant interest in IR in emotions and thecirculation of affect in collectives, which Adam sees “best explained as collective phenomenal reports, irreducible to individuals within the state” (p. 276). In a similar way, I see plenty of overlap between Adam’s insights and my own ongoing interest in collectives and expressions of ‘psychic energy’ via Jung. In short, Adam’s article recalls for me the work of the late Hayward Alker – it’s an amazing amalgamation of interdisciplinary insights that can help connect, momentarily perhaps, but hopefully in a sustainable way, all kinds of research communities, approaches, and perspectives in International Relations. 

I come away convinced that some of the best work in the field is shaped by, but not confined within, old debates that were never really resolved. These novel insights are increasingly, and provocatively, generated by scholars who are admirably and incorrigibly dissatisfied with past approaches to those issues. It’s incumbent upon cynical or tired (or both) folks like me to get out of their way, listen to, and even be energized by what they have to say.