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The Subjects of Posthuman IR

9 1 5
12.10.2017

This is an excerpt from Reflections on the Posthuman in International Relations. An E-IR Edited Collection. Available now on Amazon (UK, USA, Ca, Ger, Fra), in all good book stores, and via a free PDF download.

Find out more about E-IR’s range of open access books here.

Approaching the relation between posthumanism and international relations (IR) from some disciplinary distance, there seem, at first pass, fewer more awkward intellectual travelling companions. The very idea of a nation is to a large extent tied up historically and epistemologically with the idea of the human being, and more precisely the human subject of the human sciences. More specifically, nations are social institutions that are constituted by conscious, active, and supposedly autonomous human subjects who identify with the nation in a reciprocal process of institutional reinforcement creating in the process both the nation and national-subjects. Whether one adheres to a primordialist positon that modern nation-states are founded upon proto-national communities or a modernist one that the socio-economic conditions of the industrial age created a need for a new political form, the nation-state, and a new political subject, the national citizen, it is the case that modern nations are institutions that require speaking, remembering, interacting subjects, in other words, subjects that navigate the world like us. That’s not to say that other forms of political life are not possible for human-subjects, they obviously are, but rather that there seems to be a special relation and perhaps one of dependency between nations and certain types of subjects. And in gratitude for their existence the nation-state provides these newly instituted subjects a pole around which to situate an identity and orient relations with other (human) subjects, as well promising a degree of material security and stability to accompany the spiritual.

The nationalities of non-human subjects are, pet passports notwithstanding, irrelevant to the perseverance of the nation. If in a radical form the project of post-humanism proposes radically altering the human-subject, this will likely mean altering the viability or even possibility of the nation-state as a political form. This may of course be a desirable outcome, but then our questions about posthuman security will no longer involve nations and their subjects as the central actors of this drama and so a posthuman post-IR will have to undertake rethinking both sides of this dyad. Harrington (this volume) notes that ‘To speak of security absent the human subject has been considered irrational or worse, uninteresting.’ I might provocatively go one step further, speech, absent the human subject, does not seem to me to be something that we can speak about (cf. David Roden 2015 on speculative post-humanism and the ‘disconnection thesis’).

Moreover, concrete and historical international relations have to some extent developed in the modern period alongside the sciences of and variations on the theme of the subject. Metternich’s Concert of Europe was designed to suppress or at least control the growing power of national subjectivity: the idea being that truly great, autonomous, sovereign men would meet one another in order to settle disputes and retain not only their balance of territorial power, but also their power over and against the mass of newly formed national subjects whose national desires and ambitions, though in some cases stoked by these same great men for various purposes, threatened to grow out of control, overturning established orders.[1] Metternich’s geo-political dream of an orderly European theatre of interstate relations came unravelled, at least in part, precisely due to the growing power of the mass political mobilization and mass parties which began to exert influence on domestic and international relations. This new form of suddenly politically relevant and active human being, the mass subject, was technologically mediated in its appearance through the proliferation of communication technologies and growing literacy among the labouring classes, which made representation by mass parties, with their correlative mechanisms of internal and external governance, possible.

The rise in influence of mass parties in (European) international relations is correlated to the emergence of a new form of political subjectivity and power, the mass-subject of disciplinary power that Michel Foucault investigates in such works as The Birth of the Clinic (1963) and Discipline and Punish: the birth of the prison (1975). The development of the human, social, and life sciences in whose frame the human subject gained its sense as an at least potentially rational and autonomous agent facilitated the growth of the techniques would be used to undermine this rational autonomy in the creation of the plastic, normalizable and administered subject of mass-society. This is not the place of course to recount this full story and the point of this grossly incomplete sketch of the development of the relation between the institution of the human subject and the institution of the nation-state is merely to point out a correlation between the development of the modern subject and the modes and actors of international relations. As Harrington (this volume) notes, ‘exploration of alternative political identities beyond the state – such as nations, races, classes, movements, religions, cultures, or gender’ (Walker 1993, cited by Harrington) are not foreign to IR and I do not wish to present an overtly state-centric idea of contemporary IR. But I think that the point holds, as the universe of IR expands to include institutions other than states, such as those mentioned above, the centrality of the human subject remains.

What Foucault, among others, shows is that the human-subject is not a fixed-essence with determinate capacities and structures of engaging with the world and others in it. Rather, sciences and technologies of the subject have developed in correlation with the sciences, techniques, and institutions of political life. Further developments, such as the discovery (if that is the right term) of the Anthropocene, discussed at considerable length throughout this volume, necessitate again a rethinking of this relation between the institutions of human-subjectivity and the polis.

The question then is what shift in our thinking about political institutions........

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