Posthuman International Relations: Complexity, Ecologism and Global Politics

Posthuman International Relations: Complexity, Ecologism and Global Politics

by Erika Cudworth, Stephen Hobden


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781848135154
Publisher: Zed Books
Publication date: 01/17/2012
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 894,753
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Erika Cudworth is Senior Lecturer in International Politics and Sociology at the University of East London, where she teaches political sociology of various kinds. Her research interests include: social and political theory, particularly feminisms, ecologisms and complexity theory, food consumption and production, and human relations with non-human animals. She is author of Environment and Society (Routledge, 2003), Developing Ecofeminist Theory: The Complexity of Difference (Palgrave, 2005), The Modern State: Theories and Ideologies (with Tim Hall and John McGovern, Edinburgh University Press, 2007), and Social Lives with Other Animals: Tales of Sex, Death and Love (Palgrave, 2010).


Stephen Hobden is Senior Lecturer in International Politics at the University of East London, where he teaches courses on International Relations theory, US foreign policy, and China in world politics. Previous publications include Historical Sociology and International Relations (Routledge, 1998), and a volume edited with John Hobson.

Read an Excerpt

Posthuman International Relations

Complexity, Ecologism and Global Politics

By Erika Cudworth, Stephen Hobden

Zed Books Ltd

Copyright © 2011 Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78032-221-6


Introducing complexity and posthumanism to international politics

Since 'we have never been modern' we have always been living through a completely different history than the one we keep telling ourselves about: until the ecological crisis began to strike hard and strong, we could go on as though 'we' humans were living through one modernisation after another, jumping from one emancipation to the next. After all, the future was one of greater and greater detachment from all sorts of contingencies and cumbersome ties until 'Free at last!'

What happens to our identities if it finally dawns on us that that very same history always had another meaning: the slow explication of all of the attachments necessary for the sustenance of our fragile spheres of existence? What happens if the very definition of the future has changed? If we now move from the position of taking into account a few beings to one of weaving careful attachments with an ever-greater and greater list of explicated beings, where will we be? Attached at last! (Latour 2009: 75)

This book may well annoy some of those who read it because it intends to disrupt. It follows the passion of Bruno Latour in calling for a profound rethinking – in our case, of the study of international politics, in particular with regard to its recent attempts to incorporate the 'natural world' into the scope of its study. 'Environmental problems' have emerged as issues of concern for international relations to the extent that they cross state borders and call for solutions which transcend state boundaries. Both here, and in the chapters that follow, we will suggest that this additive approach has been minimally disruptive for scholarship in international relations. We will argue that international relations remains wedded to the Enlightenment project of overcoming the hazards of nature, and is thus fully human-centred in its approach. Established theoretical approaches in international relations, such as Marxism(s) or liberal-institutionalism, have incorporated 'issues' of the environment in terms of established conceptual frameworks of regimes and questions of global governance on the one hand, or a critique of global capitalism on the other. Perhaps most influential in practical political terms have been the more mainstream links made between environmental 'issues' and conflict. The resultant environmental security perspective, which will be strongly criticized towards the end of the book, tends to reproduce a dualistic understanding of human relations to 'the environment', in which humans are either threatened by or pose a threat to 'nature'. Recent, more critical developments of the concept of 'environmental security' remain largely embedded in this dualism. The challenge we face is profound. While we are undoubtedly in a situation of risk, this is shaped by histories of social relations, economic practices and formations of political power. At the same time, 'we' have unmade many of the attachments necessary for our lives on this planet. Latour suggests that we call humans, those who have 'waged war on Gaia', 'Earthlings' (ibid.: 75). This recognizes the need for us to understand our attachments to Planet Earth, and understand ourselves as a species, among many other living inhabitants. Underpinning such terminology is the notion that 'we', the Great Apes who like to call ourselves 'human', see ourselves as 'on' and not 'of' Planet Earth. In his 'manifesto for a new millennium', drawing on ideas of ecologism and complexity alongside international politics, Edgar Morin entreats us to reinvent a politics for 'Homeland Earth' (Morin 1999). Even more critical scholars of international relations unfortunately do not undertake scholarship for earthlings of Homeland Earth.

Latour pushes us further in asking whom this new understanding of the world must be for. If the 'project' of the modernist social sciences was about emancipating humans (from exploitation or ignorance or insecurity, and so on), it needs to be profoundly rethought, reconfigured and reinvented. We need a new social science that can attend to the needs of 'Earthlings buried in the task of explicating their newly discovered attachments' as they 'suddenly realise', in the face of ecological catastrophe, that 'all along' they have inhabited the earth (2009: 75, 84). For both Morin and Latour, their differences notwithstanding, the reinvention of politics means reflecting our condition of, and with, this planet. When Latour made this plea to an assembled throng of sociologists, many of them stood and clapped, but it may well be that they enjoyed the jokes and the charm of Latour's delivery and thought rather less of the case made. They may have smiled at some of the content – for example, the challenge of a social science that takes consideration of the needs of earthworms or one that contemplates a 'politics for the Gulf Stream'. And yet, such statements must be taken utterly seriously. The challenge of a politics that thinks beyond the narrow confines of 'the human', a politics of Homeland Earth, is, we would suggest, the most profound of the twenty-first century.

We argue that the study of international politics is transformed by the understanding that we have never been either modern or human (respectively, Latour 1993; Gane and Haraway 2006). Neither Latour nor Donna Haraway, as we will see below, approves of the term 'posthuman' as a description for this condition. Neither do they endorse the appellation 'posthumanist' for perspectives which critique human centrism. This book, however, is, in our view, articulating a posthumanist critique of international relations and suggesting a new agenda. A colleague recently described what we are doing as 'not international relations', and some readers may well come to agree with this assessment. Within international relations, however, are a range of core assumptions and useful concepts that might be rethought and developed. Crucial to our engagements with, and recasting of, some kinds of international relations theory has been the development of complexity theory and its use in the social sciences.

Posthuman International Relations draws on reworkings of the concept of 'system' in complexity theory as multilevelled, nested, overlapping and non-saturated, while acknowledging distinctions between human and non-human systems. Compared with systems approaches in international relations, a complex systems approach has a number of significant advantages. It enables us to consider the embedded character of human relations within broader multi-species and biosphere contexts. In addition, a complexity view of systems allows the analysis of patterns of social exploitation in ways that reveal complex and dynamic configurations and intersected qualities. Yet, to date, approaches drawing on the notion of complexity have under-theorized the notion of power. To address this inadequacy, we propose incorporating an analysis of power in terms of three different types: relational power, institutional power and biopower.

The book builds upon ideas from complexity theory and political ecologism to develop a 'complex ecologism', informed by elements of feminism and (post-)Marxism/colonialism in positing that human relations to other humans, other species and natures are characterized by complex forms of social difference and domination. We call this approach 'posthuman' as it overcomes the Enlightenment anthropocentric focus of most social and political theory; and provides a post-Newtonian non-mechanistic approach. The co-evolution of human communities, non-human animals and the 'natural environment' can be understood as interpolated through institutions and practices of biopower that give rise to patterns of multiple complex inequalities. We hope to provide students of international relations with a coherent, readable discussion of complexity theory that illustrates the implications of a complexity approach, and to convince at least some of our readers of the need for posthuman international relations, where a focus on the biosphere replaces the current human-centred framing of the discipline. We will be arguing that the combined insights from complexity theory and ecological thinking provide a new focus and agenda for a progressive and critical international relations of the twenty-first century. This chapter closes with an outline of the structure of the book, but in between then and here, we want to introduce uninitiated readers to complexity theory, outline our critique of international relations theory and suggest how it might be developed, and also situate this book as a posthumanist text.

Complexity theory and the complex world

'Complexity theory' is itself a contested and problematic term because it is something of a misnomer for a range of theories and concepts. It is tempting to concur with Dillon's (2000: 4) observation that any attempt to define complexity theory 'seems bound to go wrong'. One of the tasks that we undertake in this book is to tease out some variations in the way that complexity has been applied, particularly in the social sciences. Such variations have profound consequences, we will argue, for how we think about complexity, and the implications of living in a complex universe.

The usual understanding of complexity by complexity scientists is 'the occurrence of complex information in which order is emergent' (Hayles 1991: 176), while also being dynamic and imperfect (Hayles 1990: 292). At this point it is perhaps useful to distinguish between complicated, complexity and chaos. Complexity theory had its origins in the study of apparently chaotic processes (for good introductions to the development of complexity theory, see Capra 1996; Gleick 1988; Waldrop 1994) observed in the non-animate world. The underlying order in the rate of drips from a tap is often cited as an example (Gleick 1988: 262–6), or grains of sand dropping on a sand pile, causing apparently random collapses (Waldrop 1994: 304–5). The chemist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher Isabelle Stengers (1984) suggest that even in the most apparently chaotic situations we can see the emergence of coherence, structure, order and pattern. The concept of complexity became synonymous with this study of underlying order which appeared in many processes. Complexity theories and concepts emerged in the natural sciences, in physics, biology, chemistry, mathematics and in computing sciences. The scientific study of complexity hasbeen neatly summarized as 'the study of the phenomena which emerge from a number of interacting objects' (Johnson 2009: 3–4, emphasis in original). In other words, complexity implies something more than just the study of complicated things. A car engine might be described as complicated (by a nonmechanic, anyway!). It has many parts which perform different functions, but which, when combined, make a car go (until one part wears out). How a car engine works can be understood by breaking down the separate parts and thinking about how they work together. Ultimately, a car engine is nothing more than the sum of its parts. Complexity occurs where there are emergent features – a complex system is more than the sum of its parts. Interactions between elements lead to the appearance of new phenomena. There are features at the level of system that are not apparent by looking at the constituent parts, the key point being that these new phenomena cannot be deduced from the study of the parts. Complex phenomena need to be studied holistically.

A comparison can be drawn here between Newtonian and post-Newtonian physics. Newton's study of gravity and force paved the way for many of the features of the contemporary world, such as industrialization. However, even Newton was aware that his theories did not explain everything, and through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries shortcomings in the Newtonian worldview became apparent, especially with the advent of quantum mechanics. It isn't so much that Newton was wrong – it is more that his laws described only a limited subset of physical reality (Wallerstein 2000: 30–31). The problem is that much of the social sciences is based on a mechanical and Newtonian view. In particular, the world is seen as ordered, systems are seen as closed, and the same rules apply regardless of time or space. Post-Newtonian perspectives would dispute all of these ideas. The world may be ordered at times, but it is also subject to disorder, systems are open and subject to 'time's arrow', what has occurred in the past will affect the present and future, and locality can matter.

Some are greatly concerned at the modification and application of concepts and theories in the natural sciences by social scientists, yet historically, both the social and natural sciences have borrowed and borrowed back from one another (López and Scott 2000: 10). For example, at perhaps one of the leading centres of the 'non-linear' science of 'complex adaptive systems', the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico (Waldrop 1994: 11–12), there have been concerted attempts to theorize beyond the natural sciences. Complexity scientists have themselves sought to apply their ideas to various aspects of human behaviour – from the actions of traders in financial markets, commuters in cities and voting panels in the Eurovision Song Contest, to the behaviour of states and militaries in warfare contexts and the strategies of 'terrorists' and counter-insurgency organizations (Johnson et al. 2003;Johnson 2002; Fenn et al. 2008; Johnson et al. n.d.). While some of these applications are more credible and significant than others, it is notable that scientists have been using complexity to make sense of social phenomena for some time, with limited engagements by the social sciences until very recently. Early chapters of this book develop the arguments that complexity sciences are a rich source in the attempt to transcend unhelpful but powerful dichotomies between the 'social' and 'natural' worlds and the disciplines of their study. In addition, we will be arguing that complexity concepts allow us to better understand the complex features of world politics.

Complexity theory provides us with a range of concepts and ideas that are usefully developed in the study of international politics. In complexity science, natural systems are understood to exist in a web of connections with other systems and to be internally differentiated. The term 'emergent properties' is used to describe those specific qualities that emerge at a certain level of systemic complexity, but which are not apparent at lower levels (Capra 1996: 34–5). This is a non-reductionist position in which phenomena cannot be reduced to the sum of their parts but gain their character from interaction. In international relations, this enables us to consider multiple kinds and levels of institutions, processes and relations and to avoid the pitfalls of reductionism.

Secondly, complexity science has transformed the understanding of the concept of a 'system'. Systems in complexity theory are multi-levelled and layered, and complexity scientists often speak of systems as 'nested', with larger-scale systems enclosing myriad smaller-scale systemic processes (Holling et al. 2002b: 68–9). Complexity also sees systems as existing in the context of other systems and as interacting with them and often developing cross-system dependencies (Maturana and Varela 1980: 109). Systems have 'autopoiesis' and are self-making, self-reproducing, self-defining or regulating. One of the main criticisms of the use of the concept of 'system' in the social sciences was that it was associated with stasis and the maintenance of equilibrium. However, complex systems avoid the problem of stasis by using notions of positive (reinforcing) feedback and 'co-evolution' (in which systems are internally changed by their interactions with other systems external to them).

Such concepts for understanding systemic patterning have seemed increasingly attractive to social scientists. Much of the theoretical legacy of the social sciences has, until recently, been concerned with large-scale conceptualization and modelling, usually invoking some kind of conception of a system or structure. In the path of Marx, for example, the capitalist system of relations has been seen as operating globally (Wallerstein 1979). The critique of systems theory in the social sciences has focused on an inability to account for the shifting nature of social life and its multiple differences, a rigid understanding of the relationship between parts and wholes and a preoccupation with notions of balancing in the maintenance of equilibrium, or social order, as apparent in the functionalism of Talcott Parsons (1951,1960). Complexity thinking avoids such rigidity and stasis, understanding systems as simultaneously ordered yet disordered, stable yet unstable (Prigogine 1980). Instabilities lead to new forms of order and disorder, and these are often (but not necessarily) of increasing complexity. Change and development depend on the systems' history and various external conditions and cannot be predicted (Prigogine and Stengers 1984: 140). So, these kinds of understandings of complexity provoke a rethinking of notions of order, pattern, system and change.


Excerpted from Posthuman International Relations by Erika Cudworth, Stephen Hobden. Copyright © 2011 Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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Table of Contents

1. Introducing Complexity and Posthumanism to International Politics
2. Complexity Theory in the Study of the Social World
3. Complex International Systems
4. Emergent Features in International Systems
5. Complex Ecologism
6. The Politics of Posthumanism
7. For a Posthuman International Relations

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