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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics


Response to Laura Sjoberg

In 2001-2002, I was a Visiting Scholar in the University of Southern California’s Center for International Studies. Laura Sjoberg came to the University at the same time to study with Ann Tickner and Hayward Alker. Sitting in on Hayward’s small seminar, I got to know Laura the budding scholar, and I got to know her personally because my office was just a few doors away from the doctoral student bullpen. Now a mature scholar, she still has a playful streak and impish smile.

I saw that smile when Laura told me that she would call her essay ‘Queering Nick Onuf.’ Even though the essay now bears a slightly depersonalized title, it prompts me to wonder what it means to ‘queer’ someone. Laura knows better than to think this figure of speech will shock me, but perhaps she means to shock readers as a way of telling me that I am complacent about sexual politics - in the academy, in society. Temperamentally, I am an observer and not an activist. By Laura’s reckoning, this is complacency by another name, just as feminists of an earlier generation had so often reminded me.

Feminists who had been students of mine - especially Spike Peterson and Lisa Prugl - confronted me with a more serious charge. While I often say publicly that feminist theory significantly contributed to my decade-long effort to work out a conceptual framework, they ask: Where’s the evidence? Aside from a mere two pages in World of Our Making, nowhere in my work is there an explicit treatment of gender as a social construction or an assessment of the systematic exploitation of women. In effect, Laura is making the same charge in updated language.

Over the years, I have thought a great deal about this charge. My answer to it has not changed, and it is no more likely to satisfy Laura than it ever did Spike and Lisa. What Laura calls ‘Onufian Constructivism’ is broadly cast as a conceptual framing of social relations. It is not a theory of international relations in the first instance, even if its formulation is inevitably skewed by my background in IR. Nor is it a normative theory despite discussion of the inevitability of exploitation in the concluding pages of World. It is a framework just as applicable to feminist concerns as it is to affairs of state.

Laura’s essay confirms my large point about Constructivism as an inclusive conceptual framework. To queer what need not be queered, Laura proposes two alterations. First she would have the framework make room for normalization as a violent process of inclusion - one that erects new categories where ambiguity sufficed. Making people normal has the effect of making them alike (‘free and equal’) and thus preparing them for life in a liberal world. Normalization does its work through normativization, which, by turning is to ought, abruptly erases betweenness. While Laura seems to take normativity for granted, I have endeavored to make it a central feature of social construction (most recently in 2008, Ch. 28; also see my response to Antje Wiener’s essay).

Laura’s second alteration would reformulate the social as seductive. By leaving what comes next to the imagination, seduction is a seductive metaphor. To say that ‘the “social” is itself directly sexual/sexualized’ betrays the metaphor - this claim is both obvious and unhelpful. When I sought to give content to the social (selves, deeds, bodies, emotions, habits, standards, values, etc.) for a book project long since abandoned, each of these would-be chapters could, and should, have acknowledged the many ways that human needs and urges play out in social relations, but always with an eye to the place of rules and rule in the constitution and regulation of social life - mark the metaphor.

Laura goes on to say that seduction as metaphor points up “the degree to which allure is a key part of the epistemology of the social.” Subsequent discussion of embeddedness and ‘power-ridden normativities’ says nothing about allure and adds nothing to a queered Constructivism that has not come to grips with how things get normative. Only when Laura turns to the ‘epistemology of attraction’ (giving me to wonder about the relation between active allure and passive attraction) do we find a potentially significant alteration to the Constructivist framework.

That framework is anchored in talk, and talk is mostly what we do with and to each other. Who talks is not the issue, as Laura all but concedes. Attraction matters because it is “a selector of what counts as a speech act, and what is heard.” Thus attraction is “not only as a power relation among speech acts, but a constitutive feature of what counts as a speech act.” Just so, and not just ‘physical’ attraction. There are innumerably many subtle ways in which we talk performatively without needing to say very much of anything.

If there is a single, telling silence in the Constructivist framework, it is the tacit omission of what is tacit, liminal, inflected and aleatory in what we say - in social life. I have been told this before. In my defense, no framework can do otherwise. Insofar as Laura wants to frame the ineffable, then queering Constructivism queers the deal.


Onuf, Nicholas Greenwood. 2008. International Legal Theory: Essays and Engagements, 19662006. Abingdon: Routledge-Cavendish.

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