Making Bodies Legible

Last week I visited the Facing History exhibit of Shirin Neshat’s work at the Hirshhorn Museum (which I’m excited to share with you in an upcoming exhibit review) and was struck by the attention to physical bodies in her work. It’s no secret that attention to bodies as sites of violence is a key component of my academic work, but after seeing Neshat’s photography and short films, I spend the next few days thinking about the ways we can keep the role of the physical body legible in critiques of war and colonialism. My research (and some great tweets from my followers!) led me to Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations, by Lauren Wilcox, a book which cuts right to the heart of what I found most fascinating about Neshat’s art.

A recent symposium on this book was held at The Disorder of Things, but beneath the jump is a quick rundown of my own as well!

In Bodies of Violence, Lauren Wilcox makes the case for a close reading of body materiality in the field of international relations. If this seems like a simplistic argument for an academic text, it should — and yet international relations, the study of war and political conflict, two very human and very bodily phenomenon, had until recently been a “disembodied theory” that seldom took this physicality into account.

Building from the feminist and queer theory of Judith Butler and other scholars, Wilcox examines prisoner hunger strikes, airport security assemblages, and drone warfare to see where the body intervenes in (or is intervened itself by) the political world. She writes, the body “is not given by nature but formed through politics and who is not naturally bounded or separated from others” and argues that seeing bodies as inherently political is necessary in creating a protocol in international relations study that “re-makes” the political world.

One key example of Wilcox’s argument is the body scanners at most modern airports, which require TSA agents to designate “male” or “female” labels for the body of a traveler about to be scanned. If a body (whether queer, trans, etc.) does not immediately appear to fit these biopolitical categories, it must automatically be rendered a threat, and “reveal the problematic location of ‘the material’ (and thus ‘securable’) in the bodies of humans, as well as the state’s investment in ‘securing gender’.”

In arguing that international relations must make use of this focus on the body, Wilcox advocates for an intervention in the traditional “disembodiment” of the field and highlights the use of feminist and queer theory across departments. She highlights the way seeing bodies as locations for both violence and state power (echoed on Neshat’s work above as well) gives scholars new vocabulary for political discourses that has been previously illegible.

If you’re interested in more thoughtful criticism of Wilcox’s book, please check out the Disorder of Things link above, or find me on twitter (#BGMB411) — I am so ready to talk more about this!

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