What is Post-Critical IR?

Critical approaches to IR have reached an impasse. And the problems facing the field are multiple. First, the common theoretical intuitions of critical IR are accused – no less – of contributing to today’s post-truth era and its panoply of socio-political abuses (Fuller2016; Phillips2017). Second, many see the field-wide turn to (pragmatist) sociology as “indicative of a fragmented discipline searching for the ends of IR theory” (Abraham and Abramson 2017,26, Huysmans and Nogueira 2016, 302). Third, critical theory has failed in its reconstructivetask. Over twenty years ago now, Krause and Williams (1997: XIII) wrote that a failure to make a shift from “a negative or deconstructive critique… to a positive or reconstructive stance…. [is] the major charge leveled by practitioners. It is also a question that divides much of critical theory.” It is the failure of critical approaches to convert their knowledge-production into ethical, normative, and practical purchase over the world that, indeed, worries the field most acutely today.

This research project explores the future of critical approaches to studying international affairs. It does so by introducing IR to post-critical social theory. Post-critical approaches to social science seek a ‘constructive’ (rather than deconstructive) mode of critical inquiry. Core to this move is re-configuring post-modern, post-structuralist, and related theoretical tools away from their fundamentally ‘negative’ (i.e. against X, Y, Z) base, which has traditionally sought to ‘denaturalize’ existing social orders. While few such approaches are “unconcerned with the problems of the real world” the efforts of most to “stand apart from the prevailing order of the world” has distanced critique from producing constructive proposals for change (Cox, 1996: 88-90). Post-critique, pace Cox, argues instead that a ‘critical problem-solving’ theory of the social can be imagined and that, indeed, it must be imagined for critique to escape its current impasse. Post-critical inquiry is, therefore and in summary, about finding ways to apply critical insights in ways that not only problematize the world but also find new answers to its problems (c.f. Austin, Forthcoming-b).

To develop an applied critique, post-critical approaches embrace a set of theoretical, methodological, and empirical sensibilities that can be traced explicitly to the philosophy of Karl Polanyi (1962; Cannon 2008) but also to the work of Michel Foucault (Jensen 2014), Paul Ricœur (1995), Michel Serres (1995), and numerous other social theorists (Zournazi 2002). Beyond such canonical thinkers, post-critical thinking tools have multiplied across the social sciences (in sociology, anthropology, psychology, and beyond) as well as the humanities and political theory (particularily feminist theory). Post-critique now represents a sustained intellectual turn.[1] As Felski (Anker and Felski2017, 1) describes, this turn has emerged because:

We are currently in the midst of a recalibration of thought and practice whose consequences are difficult to predict. There is little doubt that debates about the merits of critique are very much in the air and that the intellectual or political payoff of interrogating, demystifying, and defamiliarizing is no longer quite so self-evident.

This project brings these debates to IR where critical approaches have become increasingly influential over the past decades. That influence has been important in expanding the horizons of IR and, in particular, in working to denaturalize common assumptions about its workings and integrating previously excluded voices. However, the intellectual, institutional, and ideological embedding of critical approaches within the mainstream has risked its becoming (in Lakatosian terms) a ‘normal’ science sheered of its initial radicalism (Austin, Bellanova, and Kaufmann 2019; AustinForthcoming-a). While few would agree with Walt’s (1991: 223) early broadside that the geneses of critical IR represent a dangerous, “prolix and self-indulgent” approach “divorced from the real world,” the time for self-questioning has nonetheless arrived in earnest. Post-Critical IR takes up that task for the field as a whole.



All references are available here.

[1] Seeinter aliaDe Sutter 2019,Felski2017,Love2017,McDonald2018,Noys 2017,Sedgwick2003,Barnwell 2015, Zournazi2002, and Latour2004.