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How the world stage makes its subjects: an embodied critique of constructivist IR theory

Abstract

This article provides a critique of constructivism and post-structuralism within IR theory from an embodied, realist perspective. Meaning is not made as much as experienced, we will argue, and subjectivity is not constructed as much as enacted. The theater illustrates the difference between constructivist, post-structuralist and embodied perspectives. By analyzing international politics in terms of a performance instead of performativity a more credible version of the sovereign subject can be identified. The world is a stage and it is only by appearing on this world stage that the state becomes real. To back up this argument the article draws from recent research in cognitive theory and neuroscience.

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Notes

  1. For our purposes, the category of structural constructivists includes scholars who would, no doubt, prefer to label themselves ‘post-structuralists’. This inclusion is justified by the fact that post-structuralists, much as earlier generations of structuralists, emphasise the role that language and language analogues play in the constitution of social life. In practice, post-structuralists, too, ascribe a self-contained, coherent structure to language as a system. In other words, the ‘post’ prefix is not sufficiently determinate to constitute a break with traditional forms of structuralism.

  2. ‘I hold it’, as Hillis Miller puts it, ‘that it would be a catastrophe to blur different meanings of “performativity”’ (Miller 2007: 220).

  3. Although several calls have been issued for a study of neuroscience and international relations — Brown (2013), Neumann (2014a) — there are (yet) few illustrations of how this could be done. One exception is McDermott and Hatemi (2014); for words of warning, see Jeffery (2014).

  4. ‘[W]e cannot’, as Neumann puts it, ‘go on putting the physical body — and, by extension, biology and psychology — under erasure forever. […] Contra Butler and followers, biology has to be brought back in play’ (Neumann 2014a: 346, 350). An example of what Neumann has in mind is Fierke (2014); for a defense of Butlerian approaches, see Wilcox (2014: 359–64); see also Wilcox (2015).

  5. Markell (2003: 9–38). ‘Wendt’, as Ross puts it, ‘loses purchase on modes of belief and identity that are inspired and absorbed before being chosen’ (Ross 2006: 199).

  6. Butler (1989a: 95). ‘[S]ubjectivity and individuality,’ as Michel Foucault put it, ‘are not rooted in some free and spontaneous interiority. Rather, we are dealing with categories produced in a system of social organization’ (Foucault 1976: 112); for a critique, see Miller (2007: 223–26).

  7. ‘Butler’s world’, as Susan Bordo puts it, ‘is one in which language swallows everything up’ (Bordo 2004: 291). For further critique of Butler from a feminist perspective, see Nelson (1999: 331–32) and Benhabib (1994: 76–92).

  8. As convincingly argued, in the context of evolutionary biology, by Brown (2013). ‘Seeing that the entire social science undertaking rests on the idea that human beings have a certain sameness,’ as Neumann puts it, ‘it rests upon us to follow and relate to evolving knowledge about that sameness, as it is produced by other disciplines’ (Neumann 2014b: 368). For a constructivist response, see Sokolowska and Guzzini (2014: 142–46).

  9. Habits, a neuroscientist would explain, are ‘sequential, repetitive, motor, or cognitive behaviors elicited by external or internal triggers that, once released, can go to completion without constant conscious oversight’ (Graybiel 2008: 361).

  10. A cognitive system, the neuroscientist Terrence Deacon argues, is defined by its absences rather than by its presences (Deacon 2013: 27–28).

  11. Compare Austin’s anti-theatricality: ‘[A] performative utterance will, for example, be in a peculiar way hollow or void if said by an actor on stage, or if introduced in a poem, or spoken in soliloquy’ (Austin 1962: 22). For a critical discussion, see Miller (2007: 226–29).

  12. David Campbell, as Ross points out, ‘tends to view performance from the perspective of the product it engenders — discursive presentations of ethnic identity — rather than the bodily performance itself’ (Ross 2006: 211).

  13. There are obvious similarities between the argument presented here and notions of ‘collective mind’ as developed within organisational studies. See, for example, Weick and Roberts (1993: 357–81); cf. also DiMaggio (1997).

  14. Wendt’s constructivism, Ross has said, is ‘intellectually over-prepared’ (Ross 2006: 206).

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Acknowledgements

I am grateful to Jozef Bátora, Maria Birnbaum, Rhonda Blair, Karin Fierke, Stefano Guzzini, Aliaksei Kazharski, Lukas Makovicky, Matej Navrátil, Jordan Zlatev, to three anonymous reviewers, and to the participants in seminars at the Comenius University, Bratislava, and the Goethe University, Frankfurt, for comments on a previous version of this article.

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Ringmar, E. How the world stage makes its subjects: an embodied critique of constructivist IR theory. J Int Relat Dev 19, 101–125 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1057/jird.2015.33

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Keywords

  • cognitive theory
  • constructivism
  • neuroscience
  • performances
  • performativity
  • post-structuralism
  • practices