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New Materialisms, discourse analysis, and International Relations: a radical intertextual approach

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 August 2014


This article investigates the recent ‘New Materialisms’ turn in social and political thought and asks what the potential theoretical and methodological significance might be for the study of International Relations (IR). To do so we return to debates about the theoretical status of discourse in IR as it is in this context that the question of materiality – particularly as it relates to language – has featured prominently in recent years. While the concept of discourse is increasingly narrow in IR, the ‘New Materialisms’ literature emphasises the political force of materiality beyond language and representation. However, a move to reprioritise the politics of materiality over that of language and representation is equally problematic since it perpetuates rather than challenges the notion of a prior distinction between language and materiality. In response, we draw on earlier poststructural thought in order to displace this dichotomy and articulate an extended understanding of what analysing ‘discourse’ might mean in the study of IR.

Copyright © British International Studies Association 2014 

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1 Coole, Diana and Frost, Samantha, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, in Coole, Diana and Frost, Samantha (eds), New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency and Politics (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 146CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

2 For works framed in these terms see, for example, Bennett, Jane, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Braun, Bruce and Whatmore, Sarah (eds), Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)Google Scholar; Coole and Frost, New Materialisms. For an older set of literature also engaged with the question of materiality, but not necessarily framed in terms of ‘New Materialisms’ see, for example, Appadurai, Arjun (ed.), The Social Life of Things: Commodities in a Cultural Perspective (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988)Google Scholar; Barad, Karen, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Towards an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28:3 (2003), pp. 801–31CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Fraser, Mariam, Kember, Sarah, and Lury, Celia (eds), Inventive Life: Approaches to the New Vitalism (London: Sage, 2006)Google Scholar; Law, John and Hassard, John (eds), Actor-Network Theory and After (Oxford: Blackwell)Google Scholar; Latour, Bruno, Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005)Google Scholar.

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4 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. viii.

5 Coole and Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, p. 1.

6 Ibid., p. 1.

7 Ibid., p. 5.

8 Braun and Whatmore, ‘The Stuff of Politics’, p. xvii.

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10 For a recent summary of these debates see Banta, Benjamin R., ‘Analysing Discourse as a Causal Mechanism’, European Journal of International Relations, 19:2 (2013), pp. 379402CrossRefGoogle Scholar. For recent contributions see also Epstein, Charlotte, The Power of Words in International Relations (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2008)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Epstein, Charlotte, ‘Who Speaks? Discourse, the Subject and the Study of Identity in International Politics’, European Journal of International Relations, 17:2 (2010), pp. 327–50CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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12 We have chosen to focus on particular authors because their work on discourse analysis – perhaps more than any others' over the past two decades – has been hugely influential in inspiring a generation of scholars in IR. Moreover, their work is commonly referred to as landmark texts when critics refer to poststructural scholarship. See, for example, Banta's discussion in ‘Analysing Discourse’.

13 We gratefully acknowledge the comments of an anonymous reviewer on this point.

14 See, for an example of this approach, Mearsheimer, John J., ‘A Realist Reply’, International Security, 20:1 (1995), pp. 8293CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 We recognise that the label ‘poststructuralism’ is potentially problematic. It refers to a diverse literature consisting of sometimes incompatible perspectives and often thinkers associated with this term openly reject it. However, we use it as a heuristic device to refer to a body of scholarship that seeks to problematise the language/materiality distinction. For a summary of this scholarship see Edkins, Jenny, Poststructuralism and International Relations: Bringing the Political Back In (London: Lynne Rienner, 1999)Google Scholar.

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43 See, for example, the Special Issue entitled ‘Materialism and World Politics’, Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 41:3 (2013).

44 Braun and Whatmore, ‘The Stuff of Politics’, p. xiv.

45 Coole and Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, p. 2.

46 Braun and Whatmore, ‘The Stuff of Politics’, p. ix.

47 Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 452.

48 Ibid., p. 453.

49 Ibid., p. 457.

50 Ibid., p. 458.

51 Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. viii.

52 Jane Bennett draws heavily on Deleuze when advancing her version of a vital materialism, not least when referring to an immanent power of materiality – a power that is inherent in materiality to change, transform, and create independently of human actions. She draws moreover on various connections explored by Deleuze and Félix Guattari between materiality's power of variation and the process of deterritorialisation, which frees ‘life’ from an illusory state of being and opens up to an unpredictable movement of singularity and becoming. See Deleuze, Gilles and Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Massumi, Brian (London: Continuum, 2004), pp. 445–58Google Scholar.

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56 Ibid., p. 357.

57 Ibid., p. 357.

58 Ibid., p. 349.

59 Ibid., p. 358.

60 Ibid., p. 351.

61 Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 460.

62 Ibid., p. 461.

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69 Ibid., p. 244.

70 Aradau, Claudia, ‘Security That Matters: Critical Infrastructure and Objects of Protection’, Security Dialogue, 41:5 (2010), pp. 491514, 493CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

71 Ibid., p. 493.

72 Ibid., p. 494.

73 Ibid., p. 501.

74 Ibid., p. 509.

75 Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 455.

76 Coward, ‘Between Us in the City’, p. 476.

77 Aradau, ‘Security That Matters’, p. 494.

78 Coole and Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, p. 3.

79 Ibid., p. 6.

80 Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 451.

81 Ibid., p. 454.

82 Banta, ‘Analysing Discourse’, p. 2.

83 Shapiro, Michael J., ‘Textualizing Global Politics’, in Der Derian, James and Shapiro, Michael J. (eds), International/Intertextual Relations: Postmodern Readings of World Politics (Massachusetts and Toronto: Lexington, 1989), pp. 1124, 13Google Scholar.

84 Ibid., p. 17.

85 Ibid.

86 Connolly, William E., The Terms of Political Discourse (3rd edn, Oxford and Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993), p. 231Google Scholar.

87 Ibid.

88 Foucault, Michel, The Archeology of Knowledge, trans. Sheridan Smith, A. M. (London: Routledge, 2003)Google Scholar. See especially Chapter Three, ‘The Formation of Objects’.

89 According to Edkins, Foucault ‘goes out of his way to stress’ the materiality of discourse. Edkins, Poststructuralism and International Relations, p. 48.

90 Foucault, Michel, Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Howard, Richard (London: Routledge, 2006)Google Scholar.

91 Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge, p. 49.

92 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Sheridan, Alan (London: Penguin Books, 1991), p. 109Google Scholar.

93 Ibid., p. 143.

94 Deleuze, Gilles, Foucault, trans. Hand, Seán (London: Continuum, 2004), p. 32Google Scholar, emphasis added.

95 Foucault, Discipline and Punish, p. 30.

96 Ibid., pp. 32–3. For a further elaboration on the materiality of the body and its relation to mechanisms of power, see Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality: Volume 1, trans. Hurley, Robert (London: Penguin Books, 1998), p. 152Google Scholar.

97 Coole, ‘Agentic capacities’, pp. 465–6.

98 Coole and Frost, ‘Introducing the New Materialisms’, p. 36.

99 This ethical-political dimension of genealogy is especially evident in Foucault, Michel, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’, in Michel Foucault, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, ed. Bouchard, Donald F., trans. Bouchard, Donald F. and Simon, Sherry (New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), pp. 139–64Google Scholar.

100 Berman, Russell, ‘Troping to Pretoria: The Rise and Fall of Deconstruction’, Telos, 85 (1990), pp. 416CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

101 Protevi, John, Political Physics: Deleuze, Derrida, and the Body Politic (New Brunswick, NJ: Athlone Press, 2001)Google Scholar. See also Coole's comments on the limits of ‘undertaking linguistic or textual deconstruction of texts’ in Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 454.

102 Derrida, Jacques, Of Grammatology, trans. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 158Google Scholar.

103 Derrida, Jacques, ‘Some Statements and Truisms about Neologisms, Newisms, Postisms, Parasitisms, and Other Small Seismisms’, trans. Tomiche, Anne, in Carroll, David (ed.), The States of ‘Theory’: History, Art, and Critical Discourse (New York and Oxford: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 79Google Scholar.

104 Pheng Cheah has argued that: ‘It would not be inappropriate to speak of deconstruction as a materialism of the other, or more precisely, as the thought of the materiality of the reference or relation to the other.’ Pheng Cheah, ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’, in Coole and Frost (eds), New Materialisms, p. 75.

105 Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. Kamuf, Peggy (London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 168–9Google Scholar (quoted in Cheah, ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’, p. 72).

106 Cheah, ‘Non-Dialectical Materialism’, p. 72.

107 Ibid., p. 74.

108 Jacques Derrida, Limited Inc (Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1988), p. 148.

109 Derrida, ‘Some Statements’, p. 79.

110 Derrida, Limited Inc, p. 148.

111 Derrida, ‘Some Statements’, p. 65.

112 Cheah, ‘Non-dialectical Materialism’, p. 81.

113 Derrida, Jacques, ‘Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority”’, in Jacques Derrida, Acts of Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 228–98Google Scholar. See also Derrida, Jacques, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness (London and New York: Routledge, 2001)Google Scholar, and Borradori, Giovanna, Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jürgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2003)Google Scholar.

114 Coole, ‘Agentic Capacities’, p. 454.

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