CRIC Associate Jonathan Austin Publishes Article on Materiality and the Construction of Political Binaries – University of Copenhagen

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30 November 2015

CRIC Associate Jonathan Austin Publishes Article on Materiality and the Construction of Political Binaries

CRIC Associate Jonathan Austin has published the article 'We have never been civilized: Torture and the materiality of world political binaries' in the peer-reviewed journal European Journal of International Relations

Abstract:

This article demonstrates how world political binaries (democratic–autocratic, civilized–barbarian, etc.) are materially, as well as ideationally, constructed. By drawing on the analytical sensibilities of Actor-Network Theory, it is shown that differences in the actions, practices and/or behaviours of states usually situated at one or another extreme of socio-political dichotomies are sometimes dependent only on the availability of, and/or global inequalities in, mundane material ‘allies’, such as airplanes, sedatives and military bases. Empirically, the article evidences this claim by constructing a comparative case study of the Argentine torture regime and ‘Death Flights’ programme (c. 1975–1983) and the post-9/11 US-led ‘extraordinary rendition’ programme. By describing the contours of each case in microsociological detail, I suggest that differences in the forms of violence enacted in these two cases (both involving torture but one resulting in death and the other indefinite detention) were not related to the democratic or ‘civilized’ status of the US and the authoritarian or fascist-cum-barbarian status of Argentina (and the subjective motivations that we attribute such binary signifiers), but, rather, to differences in the agencies of the non-human object of the aircraft available in each case. These empirical findings allow the article to affirm the value-added of Actor-Network Theory’s ‘reconstructive’ method in International Relations for: 1) ‘mangling’ power-saturated world political binaries without relying on critical ‘deconstruction’; 2) revealing the ever-present material-semiotic fragility of those dualisms; and 3) unveiling the ideational ‘purifications’ that sustain dichotomies in spite of their often lacking an empirical basis through a refusal to engage with materiality.