global politics, relationally

Sex and Death … revisited?

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I won’t tell you how old I was when Carol Cohn published “Sex and Death in the World of Rational Defense Intellectuals” – but I will tell you that I’ve read it dozens of times over my years as an IR scholar, and that it has been foundational to my thinking about security issues in the international political arena, as well as the links between gender, violence, and security. So I was surprised, and interested, to see an article in the FirstView of International Organization which plays off of the title of Cohn’s original Signs article – Rose McDermott‘s “Sex and Death: Gender Differences in Aggression and Motivations for Violence.” Then I read it.

Almost thirty years ago, Cohn described that  “it was hard not to notice the ubiquitous weight of gender, both in social relations and in the language itself” of “white men in ties discussing missile size” (p.688, 692). This discussion about sexualized imagery does not serve to compare (favorably or unfavorably) men and women – in fact, Cohn notes the ease of getting drawn into it even with an explicitly feminist predisposition. Instead, Cohn’s discussion serves to show that militarism itself relies on gendered significations – of men and women, of states, and of strategies and tactics. The lasting richness of Cohn’s work is about voice, signification, reification, and hybridity in gender/security matrices. And that’s what’s lost in McDermott’s reuse of Cohn’s title.

McDermott naturalizes sex and gender, throwing Butler’s caution about the performative co-constitution of sex and gender to the wind. The consequences are a step backwards, rather than a step forward, for analyzing gender and international security.

The books ‘under review’ (which I put in scare quotes because the bulk of the essay is loosely if at all related to the books under review) include Aaron Belkin’s Bring Me MenMatt Evangelista’s Gender, Nationalism, and War, Valerie Hudson and colleagues’ Sex and World Peace, and Ann Towns’ Women and States (though Towns’ name is misspelled throughout the essay). McDermott begins by expressing concerns about “discrepancies and divergencies within feminist international relations” which “have often advanced in neglect, if not ignorance, of each other” with the effect of “hindering the field’s capacity to expand in synthetic ways” (p.1). After several readings of the essay, I find this point both ironic (since the essay itself cites very selectively in feminist IR (where most people cited are white Americans, most feminist work cited is fairly early, and most newer work cited is positivist) and incorrect on face – since there is real political difference behind some of the lack of ‘synthesis’ in scholarship about gender and IR.

What the essay engages in the books it analyzes is their notions of the relationship between masculinities, femininities, and violence. About the first 40 percent of the essay reviews this work, then turns to mention Dara Kay Cohen’s article-length work on women’s engagement with political violence. In praising Cohen’s work, McDermott notes that few scholars have looked at the role of women in perpetrating political/sexual violence in war, and suggests that it is important to do so.  Even if I were not personally bothered by that (given my work with Caron Gentry on the subject), I think I would be bothered for Megan MacKenzie, Swati Parashar, Sungju Park-Kang, Miranda Alison, Katherine Brown, Sandra McEvoy, and others who have done work on women’s conflict violence. Its not that I don’t like and respect Dara’s work on women’s violence – I do – but for an essay claiming to look to talk across differences in feminist IR, the message that this sends is that no other feminist work on women’s engagement in political violence counts. Given that many feminist scholars focus a fair amount of attention on this now-decade-old research program, there’s space for being concerned about McDermott’s reading.

This is all the more true because of the way that McDermott treats theorizing about women’s violence specifically and the relationships between gender, war, and violence generally. McDermott (p.12) suggests that most analyses of the relationships between gender and violence are “theoretically underspecified” with “uninterrogated notions about the nature of sex differences, insufficient investigation of the differing motives for violence and aggression between men and women, and the differing forms of coalition psychology that undergird these tendencies.” Yet in the discussion of “uninterrogated notions about the nature of sex differences,” I see none of the “notions about the nature of sex differences” that frequent work that I think of as feminist IR. Instead, I see McDermott’s analysis making a number of its own presuppositions. In the ensuing discussion, it becomes clear that McDermott has naturalized that there are two sexes (people called men and people called women), that they have essential not only physical but also psychological differences, and that (therefore) the interesting questions about the relationship between gender, war, and violence are about how the fundamentally different psychological makeups that women and men have influence differential rates of aggression. It is these questions that cause McDermott to be interested in research that can “explore in a more nuanced fashion the putative linkage between gender, sexuality, and violence” (p.19) – where by ‘nuanced’ McDermott means ‘psychological.’

It is in seeking this particular form of nuance, though (looking for an “ontological basis for sex differences”) that McDermott makes a number of particularly un-nuanced, and even regressive, assumptions. First, research has shown that there are not two biological types of people – men and women – with essential commonalities. Instead, there are many biological sexes, and a wide variety of distribution of sex-related traits even across the two most common sex-chromosome configurations. The very assumption that people fit neatly into the categories that McDermott sets up as oppositional is an error. But beyond that, what McDermott calls atheoretical and underspecified is actually a different theory of gender, based on eschewing the biologically dichotomous and essentialized notion of sex that McDermott advances. Instead of being atheoretical, the theory in most feminist work on gender, aggression, and violence is that gender is performative, war is gendered, and that gender and war are co-constituted, each a condition of possibility of the other. This theoretical approach disagrees with McDermott’s essentialist notion of sex, with her focus on psychological drivers, and with her implicit naturalizing of both sex and aggression. This disagreement does not make McDermott’s opponents not have a theory – it makes them have a different theory.

Nowhere is that more clear than the discussion of gender predispositions to offense and defense in war. Lauren Wilcox outlined a feminist approach to offense-defense theory six years ago which I thought had a lot in common with Cohn’s iconic piece – it addressed embodiment, signification, gendered pride, and gendered nationalism in the production of the ‘cult of the offensive’, both in Van Evera’s World War I case and more generally. Lauren made the argument that discourses and productions of gender underlie presentations of masculinities and femininities, not only of/in fighters, but of/in technologies. This theoretical approach casts both gender and military technology as driven by and drivers of discursive power. McDermott, on the other hand, limits drivers of offense and defense to individual (or even group) psychological predisposition and/or makeup. Theoretically, the two disagree on what people arehow identity is constitutedhow decisions are madewhat gender is, and how gender manifests. These are some pretty fundamentally differences – ones that make the “synthesis” that McDermott envisions early in the article look very difficult.

I think feminist IR should be able to converse more. But I’m afraid the sort of “synthesis” that McDermott is looking for comes only at the price of discarding as ‘atheoretical’/making invisible epistemologically different/diverse work. In discussing technostrategic discourse nearly 30 years ago, Cohn argued that  “much of their claim to legitimacy, then, is a claim to objectivity born of technical expertise and to the disciplined purging of emotional valences that might threaten their objectivity” (p.717). McDermott’s delegitimation of the ‘theoretical underspecified’ work that has gone before serves an eerily similar function as she looks for specification and interrogation in a particular, sanitized notion of science. I think that Cohn’s words in the original “Sex and Death” suggest an appropriate response. Cohn calls for a “deconstructive project” of fighting against the “decontextualized rationality” that “speaks so loudly in our culture, it will remain difficult for any other voices to be heard until that voice loses some of its power to define what we hear and how we name the world – until that voice is delegitimated.” (p.717-718).

One of the things that Cohn worked to delegimate was traditional, dichotomous, biological/psychological notions of gender. From reading the article after McDermott’s reused of Cohn’s title, though, I think that ‘we’ (whoever that is) have a long way to go.