Peer-reviewed publications are like buses – you wait for a year and then three come out on the same week. This week, three pieces have come out that mark different trajectories in the research I’ve been doing for the last few years. I thought I’d write a few words about what I’m trying to accomplish with them, and how I hope they will continue to develop.
If you’d like a copy of any of these pieces please feel free to drop me an email.
This article began life on this blog (in fact, it is my very first ‘blog baby’). However, it has considerably morphed along the way, thanks to the input of a number of colleagues, conference audiences and, of course, the editors and reviewers at EJIR. In this article, I argue that IR has been shockingly inarticulate about a phenomenon that threatens to undercut its basic premises, including survival and security: mass extinction. I go on to argue that, in order to confront extinction, IR needs to engage seriously with the inhuman – for instance, by referencing timescales before (and after) human existence and acknowledging the evolutionary histories to which humans owe this existence. With this goal in mind, I show that extinction itself may not be directly thinkable, but that humans can think its possibility. I also argue that thinking extinction does not mean embracing malevolent forms of nihilism (although, as Ray Brassier argues, we should refrain from assuming that nihilism is ‘bad’ per se) or anti-human sentiments. In other words, I reject claims that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ due to cognitive shortcomings or moral taboos. Instead, I argue that IR should confront mass extinction, developing pluralistic modes of responsiveness, concepts and sensibilities for contending with it.
In the review process, a couple of interesting arguments came up that I think deserve attention. First of all, some interlocutors wanted to know ‘why IR?’ – that is, why should IR specifically devote attention to this problem, which has traditionally been the preserve of biology, paleontology and other ‘hard sciences’. Alternatively, questions of being and nonbeing might be better served by philosophy. On the one hand, one might ask ‘why not IR?’, or why is IR sticking its head in the sand about a big and obvious security challenge – perhaps the ultimate one. My response is that IR is one of the important places where action, ethics and threat converge. That is, it is a field in which the practical problems of survival – for humans and myriad other beings – merge with problems of ethics and agency. IR is one of only a handful of disciplines that is actively concerned with the possibilities of survival, as well as one of the few fora in which potentially world-threatening events (think nuclear war and global warming) get any air time. So, of existing fields, it is one of the best-placed to foster discussions of mass extinction, provided that it is open to being transformed by them. This leads to perhaps the most important point: as a field fixated on survival, IR cannot ignore a phenomenon that threatens to undermine the practicable possibility of survival for most life forms.
Of course, addressing mass extinction would involve considerable transformations to IR, to the extent that IR as we know it might ‘go extinct’. Several interlocutors have asked whether this is worth it – that is, whether a desirable form of IR would emerge from this confrontation. To some extent, this is a moot question: a global extinction crisis is happening, and it changes everything. Human thought as a whole (disciplines aside) will need to respond to it, whether we like it or not. However, these comments helped me to hone in on the potential for positive, radical transformations of IR that might emerge from a confrontation with mass extinction. Amongst these are the ability to transcend notions of the human that embed hierarchical structures such as race and gender. Moreover, I argue that relinquishing the anxiety-driven desire for survival-as-it-is and at-all-costs can help humans to avoid the increasingly suffocating interventions of biopolitical governmental regimes. But more than this, embracing finitude and the gift of existence can engender a politics of affirmation, one that welcomes uncertain futures without expecting promises of security. This opens up the possibility of a radical form of cosmo-politics that could produce a much wider range of responses to mass extinction that despair, denialism or fortress mentalities. Humans may not be in a position to choose their future, and they might not ‘like’ the kinds of politics that are demanded of them – but they can creatively affirm these.
Would a field of thought that embraced this ethos still be IR? I’m not sure. That said, I have no particular ties to IR’s survival one way or another. My concern is that humans nurture and proliferate modes of thought and action that enable them to respond creatively and ethically to unfolding futures. By ‘hacking’ IR – that is, cultivating some of its concepts and the platforms it creates, but repurposing them to address wider, more complex realities – we can go some way in doing this.
Planet Politics: A Manifesto from the End of IR, Millennium Journal of International Studies (forthcoming)
I’ve written a fair bit about this article before, but it has gone through a number of changes throughout the revision process, and our writing collective is thrilled to have it published in Millennium. In our new version, thanks to encouragement from editors, reviewers and interlocutors, we have actively embraced the manifesto tone and beefed up our call to action/thought.
For my own part, I’ve responded to some helpful input from one of my co-authors, Daniel Levine. Dan urged me to think more carefully about a call for worldliness in a context in which the conditions of living on Earth are at stake – that is, a form of Arendtian amor mundi that is directed towards the planet rather than just human worlds. I’ve been reflecting quite a bit on this, especially in relation to my slowly simmering project on massive-scale worlding (more about this later…). A good starting point for thinking about this Heidegger’s distinction between Earth – the volatile, stubborn, erupting conditionality of planetary existence – and human worlding, or the creation of spheres of meaning and stability for human habitation. According to Heidegger, the agonistic relationship between earth and world has made human existence possible. This seems to be precisely what is radically off-kilter in the global ecological crisis: human worlding has become entirely alienated from the Earth, and any conflictual balance between them has been lost. From this perspective, doubling down on worlding – whether geo-engineering, space colonization or the creation of super-intelligences – can only exacerbate the problem. Instead, humans need to be thinking about worlds that are in tune with the Earth and open to its eruptions. This is something I’ll be developing – hopefully well beyond Heidegger’s work and the Western philosophical canon – as this discussion moves forward.
“Posthuman Security/Ethics” in Burke, Anthony and Jonna Nyman, Ethical Security Studies: A New Research Agenda, Routlege.
Tony Burke and Jonna Nyman have put together a boundary-pushing research agenda that re-frames security as an ethical field. That is, instead of focusing narrowly on the ethical standards used to regulate existing forms of security, they open up discussion of security as a discourse that generates, transforms and enacts ethics. In turn, the book explores how ethical impulses, imperatives and dilemmas of ethics shapes understandings of what security is, what it can be, and what it shouldn’t be. My contribution to this project takes this argument further, arguing that security is a mode of ‘doing’ ethics. Specifically, it examines how the ethical category of ‘humanity’ structures the boundaries of ethics. I argue that existing, humanist conceptions of security produce and realize ethical norms and boundaries that shape the framing of ethical problems, subjects and forms of responsiveness.Drawing on posthumanist scholarship, philosophies of the inhuman and Indigenous movements, it critiques existing security ethics through the lenses of subjectivity, relationality and agency. This chapter offered me the chance to pull together some of my work on different aspects of posthumanism, extinction and global ecological ethics, but it helped me to sharpen my understanding of the productive resonances between security and ethics.
Ethical Security Studies contains fascinating contributions from: Vivienne Jabri, Matt McDonald, Ali Bilgiç, Rita Floyd, João Nunes, Annick Wibben, Fiona Robinson, Christopher Browning, Helen Dexter, Priya Chacko, Chris Rossdale and, of course, Tony and Jonna themselves. Thanks to the whole team for their efforts on this book, and for inviting me to take part.