Following is a brief excerpt from a chapter I wrote for the Oxford Handbook of International Relations, a major analytical survey of the field edited by Christian Reus-Smit and Duncan Snidal. This take on postmodernism was supportive but also somewhat critical, especially of what I take to be some key normative, analytical and political failures of cogency and nerve. \

A full version of the article can be read on the Oxford Handbooks website, here:


If this chapter were a self-help book, it might be called: ‘Your paradigm is killing you’. And if it were a placard at a demonstration: ‘Your paradigm is killing us’.

By this I mean to situate postmodernism in International Relations through its most fundamental and powerful characteristic: its systematic denaturalisation of the real and the given, with the aim of social critique in the name of some ethical good. This it does by connecting systems of knowledge, theory, and representation with the operations of social and political power. This is how ‘paradigms’ can kill or save—through the ways they define and impose ‘realities’ upon a diverse and recalcitrant world. ‘Postmodern’ or ‘poststructuralist’ strands of critical theory in international relations have not always handled ethical or normative issues well. However they have all been motivated by a desire to challenge existing practices and conceptualisations of international reality because of their perceived untenability or danger to human beings, societies and ecosystems. Their aim has not been to break language free from all claims to truth—they constitute another such claim, after all—but to show how modern social structures, institutions and events are historically bound and contingent; how they are the products, not of human nature, the laws of politics, the progress of history or the cunning of reason, but of human action and thought in a world without stable foundations.


A Future for Postmodern IR? Norms, Ethics, Relevance

What should, or could, be the future of postmodernism in international relations? It is obviously hard to make predictions, but my hunch that its future hinges on three things: on its ability to look self-critically at its past, and respond to new ethical, political and intellectual challenges; in doing so, on its ability to engage constructively with other strands of critical and traditional theory; and most importantly, on the outcome of a darker struggle with forms of political theory and practice that wish to silence it. This is why it may be better to stake out clearer normative positions and commitments, engage in detail with events, and confront critics head on rather than through strategies of displacement.

The stakes involved in this struggle became clear in 2006 when The Australian, a national newspaper published by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, published a series of articles arguing that the Australian Research Council should cease funding critical research on terrorism. While this agenda was driven by a neo-conservative political lobby close to that in the United States, their charges echoed those of some leading scholars of IR. Consider how Peter Katzenstein, Robert Keohane and Stephen Krasner justified the absence of debate between postmodernist and rationalist theory in the journal International Organization:

Little of this debate was published in IO, since IO has been committed to an enterprise that postmodernism denies: the use of evidence to adjudicate between truth claims. In contrast to conventional and critical constructivism, postmodernism falls clearly outside the social science enterprise, and in international relations research risks becoming self-referential and disengaged from the world, protests to the contrary notwithstanding (Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner, 1998: 678).

There is a brazen acknowledgement of censorship and suppression in this statement about the publication history of arguably the discipline’s most influential US journal. Claims that postmodernism ‘rejects the use of evidence’ and is not social science are damaging ones echoed by Fred Halliday (1995: 320), who sweepingly conflates ‘various forms of relativism and postmodernism’ that he argues are characterised by ‘an abandonment of claims to rational analysis [and] and an affectation of language and reference…at the expense of substantive or particular analysis’. As wrong as such charges are, I fear that postmodern scholarship has not dealt with them effectively or kept them in its critical horizon.

In the last few years there has been a welcome growth in the number of works (at least partly) influenced by poststructuralism that deal in detail with historical events and empirical problems, without being positivistic (Campbell, 1998; Bleiker, 2005; Burke, 2001, 2007a; Sylvester, 2002, 2003). In this they have been joined by a number of constructivist works (see Reus-Smit, 2005; Price and Reus-Smit, 1998), and in the case of Lene Hansen’s important new account of how discourse analysis can be pursued and used to explain the practice of foreign policy, an empirical focus on the Bosnian war diplomacy is matched by a compelling account of discourse analysis as a methodology. ‘Its time’, she remarks, ‘for poststructuralism to take methodology back [from rationalism]’ (2006: 5). Perhaps ironically, it was a traditionalist ‘data-based’ scholar, John Vasquez, who has made one of the strongest arguments for a post-positivist approach that can use and evaluate ‘evidence’ without slipping into relativism. Importantly, Vasquez saw this as part of an effort to ‘restore normative practical theory to its rightful place within international relations discourse’ (1995: 225-9).

Less happily, Richard Ashley and R. B. J. Walker concluded their edited 1990 issue of International Studies Quarterly on dissidence in international studies by addressing a list of similar complaints about postmodern theory, including serious questions about its lack of ‘criteria for choosing among multiple and competing explanations’ or its failure to identify with a ‘“someone” on whose behalf they theorise’ (1990: 368-9). While much poststructuralist scholarship has implicitly refuted such claims, when given a high-visibility opportunity to address them explicitly Ashley and Walker merely deconstructed their strategies—especially their attempts to discipline and exclude—rather than set out a persuasive and direct refutation.

At such times postmodern analysis can fail to appreciate the political stakes of its own discourse. For example, consider how Lene Hansen, in the course of her brilliant defence of poststructuralism as a methodology, makes the problematic claim that it has a ‘non-causal epistemology’ (2006: 5). Against Keohane’s view that while ‘reflectivists were right in pointing to the importance of identity, culture, norms, regimes and ideas’ they ‘needed to formulate causal hypotheses and subject them to more rigorous testing’, she argues that ‘poststructuralism cannot be formulated as a causal theory because the relationship between identity and foreign policy is co-constitutive or performative’ (2006: 2-3).

Hansen is right to criticise the rationalist idea of causality as too ‘narrowly and rigorously defined’ and as enacting intellectual exclusion because ‘there is no scope…within the rationalist epistemological position for research projects that cannot be conceptualised in causal epistemological terms’ (2006: 9-10). Yet her rejection of causality as such neglects an opportunity both to improve causal models and show how poststructuralist analysis can explain events and help make policy. The idea of causality is not owned by rationalism, and it is of supreme importance in how we weigh decisions and make choices when exercising the instrumental and rhetorical powers of modern politics.

Hansen’s account makes any process of co-constitution of discourses and events strangely static, when surely the point of discourse theory is to show what kind of ethical and political outcomes are at stake in the performance of particular forms of identity and the mobilisation of particular kinds of knowledge. How else are we to make ethical arguments about discourse and representation if not in terms of what they might cause or at least bring into the realm of the possible? This is how we choose between competing explanations. This point is at the heart of Maja Zehfuss’s critique of mainstream constructivism which, by positing a material reality prior to norms and representations, ‘obscures the politics already involved in representing reality’ and enables an evasion of political and ethical responsibility (2002: 250-63). Poststructuralism certainly challenges instrumental models of causation that link means and ends unproblematically—as in much strategic policy—by showing how events are subject to contradictory interpretations and are often the outcome of discourses competing for hegemony and influence (Burke, 2007a: 83-85, 2007b). Yet a careful marriage of social, policy and textual analysis can enable both historical and predictive arguments about causes.

In turning to the ethical implications of postmodern analysis, we also need to pay attention to the normative consequences of particular exercises of deconstruction. Of most concern to me in this regard are works that collapse the moral and normative distinction between war and peace (which is different from keeping the ways and purposes for which such distinctions are mobilised under scrutiny) (Burke, 2005: 84). For example, in her discussion of binary oppositions put into question by postmodern IR, Donna Gregory includes the dichotomy war/peace, citing Richard Ashley’s incisive deconstruction of Walt’s projection of war as chaos to fortify an image of man (and the ordering western state) as rational (Der Derian and Shapiro, 1989: xv-xvii). In Women and War the just war theorist and vocal supporter of the US war on terror, Jean Bethke Eshtain, seeks to deconstruct this opposition to discredit Kant’s Perpetual Peace, which she describes as a ‘solipsistic dream’ (1995: 255; Burke, 2005 and Elshtain, 2005). More recently, scholars have written about Foucault (2003), who in the course of trying to recast our solely repressive and juridical models of power, inverted Clausewitz to assert that politics is a form of war by other means (Reid, 2003; Neal, 2004; Devetak, 2005: 165-166). Ironically, in these lectures Foucault had posed the question of whether to analyse politics and discourse in terms of ‘the vicissitudes of a war…according to a grid which would be one of strategy and tactics’, but refused to definitely answer yes or no (Davidson, 2003: xvii-xviii).

Yet this was framed dogmatically by Arnold Davidson in his Introduction to Society Must be Defended as ‘Foucault’s most concentrated and detailed historical examination of the model of war as a grid for analysing politics’ and a ‘strategic model that would allow us to reorient our conception of power’ (Davidson, 2003: xviii). I agree with Foucault’s attempt to show how power is productive, fissured by conflict and permanently at risk, but he could have done so without making such an uncritical appropriation of Clausewitz’s categories, which comes at great cost. We lose the ability to normatively distinguish between a non-violent—if agonistic, tactical and disciplinary—‘politics’, and vast exercises of strategic violence and threat that involve systematic slaughter, destruction and chaos. Nor can we critique the dehumanising force of a ‘strategic’ approach that turns men and women into means, ‘mere machines and instruments in the hands of someone else’, and seek to imagine a different kind of political image of the human (Kant, 1988: 95; Burke, 2007a: ch. 8).

This is where postmodernism’s ability to place normative discourse under scrutiny needs to be matched with greater efforts to engage with and make normative argument, to argue for positive forms of change and suggest ways of achieving them. After all, the other of the most damning charges against postmodernism is that it is anti-enlightenment and nihilistic (Halliday, 1999). Yet such views are quite wrong, as Richard Devetak (2002) shows when he demonstrates important affinities between the ‘postmodern ethics’ advanced by David Campbell in his book on Bosnia (1998) and the Kantian cosmopolitan project advanced by Andrew Linklater—both of which begin from a critique of the modern state as a totalising and exclusivist project. Michael Shapiro (1998) has pursued similar affinities. Jim George (1994: 161-7) early on pondered a possible normative (if not analytical) synthesis between critical theory and postmodernism in IR, sentiments more recently echoed by Linklater (2001) and Kimberley Hutchings (2001: 89) and enacted in Richard Shapcott’s Justice, Community and Dialogue (2001). In the wake of the liberal and universalising rhetorics of neo-conservatism the postmodern critique of universalism and the philosophy of history remains ever salient (Burke, 2005, 2007a), but without a critical reconnection with Kant’s hopeful vision of a universal human community we can wonder how it will ever restore the lives made ‘bare’ by the terrible sovereign ontologies of the Twentieth Century.

In some thoughts about the aims of the long-running journal Alternatives in 2000, its editor R.B.J. Walker summed up well the possibilities of and challenges for postmodernism. The journal had, he argued, sought to pursue ‘debates about the possibility of alternatives…about who it is that might be able to imagine alternatives and who these alternatives might be for…about what kind of authorities might be able to respond to novel structural conditions, to new dangers, and to new opportunities…debates, in short, about what we mean when we claim to be engaging in politics’ (2000: 1). Our current global politics is a time when certainty is ever invoked, imposed, and desired, but there are few certainties to be had. At such a time, postmodernism holds the unique potential of being able to navigate a world without borders and charts; to conceive worlds outside the current boundaries of the possible.


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