International Relations and Decolonial Ethics

Conference report: ISA 2018 (International Studies Association 59th Annual Convention, San Francisco, California, USA)

by Thomas Mercier (Post-doc CEFRES & Charles University)

The International Studies Association (ISA) was founded in 1959. It was created by U.S. political scientists who were growing dissatisfied with the hegemonic position enjoyed by behaviourists within the American Political Science Association. Because the behaviourist approach naturally privileges methodological individualism and micro-scale analytics, it was deemed ill-fitted for the study of international affairs, balances of power between states or empires and macrostructural politics, as well as for understanding the specifics of war, diplomacy or foreign policy. Additionally, it was the intention of the founders of ISA to offer a more inclusive platform, less focused on American politics and more open to other methodologies and disciplines. But the creation of ISA also reflected a general trend in Western academia: the field of International Relations (IR), born in the UK just after WW1, was progressively affirming its independence from its mother disciplines — disciplines such as political science, social sciences or political theory.

Nonetheless, what we call ‘IR’ remains an odd creature among disciplines: depending on academic institutions and regions of the world, IR is considered as either a subfield of political science, or an interdisciplinary academic field (combining methods and notions from social sciences, political thought, economics, international law, etc.), or an entirely independent academic discipline in its own right. In actuality, these three interpretations are often superimposed and indistinguishable in the teachings, research, and self-understanding of IR students and scholars. This relative amorphousness has traditionally put IR in an awkward position vis-à-vis more established disciplines, while its object of study itself — diplomatic relations between sovereign states, war, ‘the global’, etc. — has usually provided IR departments with significant (and often undeserved) prestige, as well as substantial financial resources.

Because of its nebulous character as a discipline, IR has constantly borrowed its concepts, methods and paradigms from other disciplines (chiefly, social sciences and philosophy). Making the best of its sponge-like nature, IR has made a habit of absorbing notions elaborated in the most progressive fields of Humanities — fields such as Marxist critique, feminist and post-structural thought, postcolonial studies, queer theory, animal and environmental ethics, critical race theory, etc. In doing so, institutional IR has been able to ensure its own survival, regenerating IR literature by co-opting concepts that originated from critical thought, and often eroding the critical potential of said concepts by the same token — a phenomenon that critical IR scholar Cynthia Weber named the ‘gentrification’ of critical theory.

IR’s (and ISA’s) claim to inclusiveness must thus be taken with a pinch of salt; yet it seems that this inclusiveness has become more apparent in recent years, as is reflected in the dizzying variety of questions addressed by panels, keynotes, lectures or roundtables taking place each year at the ISA Annual Convention. It’s almost as if the disciplinary amorphousness of IR — barely an interdisciplinary field, let alone a discipline — had turned into an unlikely asset, as indeed anything can happen in an IR conference, for better or worse. You might catch a debate between foreign policy experts about old-fashioned strategic issues while, next door, feminist and queer scholars compare the gender and racial politics of antiabortion movements in various regions of the world. Another panel might feature philosophers discussing the benefits of Object Oriented Ontology for the epistemology of IR, followed by a roundtable featuring critical criminologists exploring the racist implications of counterterrorist profiling and analysing human rights infringements caused by Big Data surveillance. These scholars don’t have much in common beside the ‘IR’ tag. They don’t read each other’s work and barely even talk to each other; yet they coexist during events such as ISA Annual Conventions.

This profusion of themes and concerns was in full display during the event known as ‘ISA 2018’, shorthand for the International Studies Association 59th Annual Convention, which took place in San Francisco from 4th to 8th April 2018. The 2018 Annual Convention gathered more than 6000 scholars coming from more than 100 countries; it came with its own hashtag — #ISA2018 (!) — and a very open-ended theme, ‘The Power of Rules and Rule of Power’, that left a lot of wiggle room for panel organizers. It is hard to describe the impression of chaos that such a gigantic event can provoke — it is sometimes exhilarating, often discouraging. But in some rare instances, which seem like cracks in the enormous machine, the presentations and ensuing discussions feel important and necessary.

Such an instance occurred during the panel sessions organized by Louiza Odysseos and Myriam Fotou around the theme ‘Eurocentrism, Racism, and the De-Colonization of Ethical Enquiry’. The discussions featured in these panels were very varied and transdisciplinary, and conveyed a refreshing sense of academic and intellectual freedom; yet they never lost focus of the issues at stake. The organizing question could be summarized as follows: While it is now more and more difficult to ignore the Eurocentric, imperialist, and often racist presuppositions of International Relations as a discipline, how can we incorporate the decolonial critique of institutions into practices of scholarship and academy, so as to invent new ethical directions for international studies? The panellists also grappled with a subsidiary question that was never made quite explicit, but that seemed to constitute an implicit thread throughout papers and conversations: How can we ensure that this ‘incorporation’ be in effect without it taking the form of an appropriative ‘gentrification’ of decolonial thought, so that decolonial critique can preserve its critical potency in and through its consideration by IR scholarship?

Many interesting answers were offered. Several speakers convincingly argued that the importation of decolonial concepts into the lexicon of international studies could help us question the basic presuppositions of IR ethics. Louiza Odysseos made use of Frantz Fanon’s and Sylvia Wynter’s notion of ‘sociogeny’ so as to challenge the Kantian claim to a self-foundation of the ethical subject, and to emphasize the importance of sociopolitical factors and narratives in the development of subjectivities. As such, sociogeny points both to the impossibility of conceiving a purely autonomous moral subjectivity, and to the racist and colonial factors that contribute to the construction and perpetuation of othered subjectivities. This question is far from purely theoretical, as these sociogenic factors have very concrete, violent consequences, not only because they impact the mental health and corporeal well-being of othered subjects, but also because these narratives enable colonial and racist policies in our present — something that Myriam Fotou demonstrated in her analysis of the current European framing of the refugee ‘crisis’. Other speakers chose to focus on the internal contradictions of Western ethics, targeting in particular the self-image of European subjectivity as sovereign, omnipotent and phallocentric — as illustrated by Sam O. Opondo’s reading of Achille Mbembe and ‘St. Augustine’s phallus’. Similarly, some speakers focused on the inherent heterogeneity, incoherence and incompleteness of the European narrative, and on the phantasmatic character of ‘Western thought’ conceived as centralized and totalizing ethos — an aspect I tried to emphasize in my discussion of Walter Mignolo and Jacques Derrida in relation to philosophical imperialism.

In general, speakers seemed to agree that the decolonizing of international ethics should imply a deconstruction of disciplinary borders, but also that decolonial thought can be married with different approaches — with a feminist critique of the patriarchal essence of private property (as demonstrated by Anna M. Aganthangelou), with a Marxist critique of socioeconomic structures (as illustrated by Ida Danewid), with queer theory (for instance in my discussion of Gloria Anzaldúa), or with a Foucauldian critical hermeneutics of the subject (as illustrated by Jake Bartholomew, but also by Sean Chabot, Carol Daniel and Stellan Vinthagen). Another point of convergence among panellists seemed to be that decolonial critique (usually associated with Latin American thinkers Enrique Dussel, Aníbal Quijano, Walter Mignolo, or Nelson Maldonado-Torres) could be fruitfully combined with postcolonial thought, whose main representatives are Gayatri C. Spivak, Edward Said or Homi K. Bhabha — if only to resist the canonizing and disciplining of decolonial critique, a point made by Zeynep Gulsah Capan.

One last series of question: Where do we go from here? How can we imagine ethical futures beyond the critique of ‘the coloniality of power’ (Quijano)? And the most difficult question of all: How does one decolonize oneself, how does one decolonize one’s own mind, thought, scholarship? In this effort, some speakers chose to emphasize ethical and philosophical frameworks alternative to Western-imposed narratives: for instance, Jake Bartholomew engaged with the work of indigenous activist Fausto Reinaga and his argument that we must ‘turn our back to Europe’. Others tried to invent different mindsets within postcolonial settings: for instance, Ida Danewid argued for new forms of transcolonial solidarity between Black Lives Matter and Palestinian resistance; Louiza Odysseos explored new types of sociogeny that would be repairing rather than destructive and exclusionary, while Shiera S. Malik discussed how Édouard Glissant’s ‘poetics of relation’ may help us imagine after-colonial relations that would not reproduce the reifying effects of colonial violence. In this perspective, the question remains to know how IR scholarship may do justice to the challenge of decolonial critique while respecting the singularity and the multitude of decolonial struggles, and the plurality of ethical horizons it demands. Similar questions were raised in another important panel discussion, ‘Encounters and Entanglements: International Ethics and the Pluriverse’, featuring Kimberly Hutchings, Ajay Parasram, Cristina Rojas, Maggie Fitzgerald Murphy, and Diego de Merich.

These debates will continue during the 12th Pan-European Conference on International Relations, organized by the EISA (European International Studies Association). The conference will take place in Prague on September 12-15, 2018; in addition to panels and roundtables focused on decolonial ethics, it will feature thematic sessions dedicated to the Anthropocene, to European populisms, to critical military and security studies, to anarchism and punk culture (!) — among many, many, many other themes.