The Pembroke Seminar

Current Seminar: 2016-2017

Pembroke Research Seminar
"Anti-War!  Theaters of War/Politics of Refusal"
Seminar Leader Bonnie Honig, Professor of Modern Culture and Media and Political Science

Resistance to military service is often cast in terms of conscientious objection, which (though it is sometimes communally organized and collectively supported) tends to individualize resistance and to depoliticize it. This seminar will look at anti-war activism through a theoretical lens, drawing especially on the contemporary turn to a “politics of refusal,” an emerging body of theoretical literature that has not thus far been extended to – or tested by -- anti-war activism. The politics of refusal (promoted by what we might call the Bartleby Left) tends to focus on General Strike or inoperativity, and has not really addressed the issue of antiwar politics. What are the promises and limits of drawing on conscientious objection versus a politics of refusal for theorizing antiwar politics? And how might a focus on antiwar politics broaden or challenge the contemporary fascination with a politics of refusal?

Since war resistance is often fueled by theater – most predictably, the Antigone, but also (among the many others) the Lysistrata -- this seminar will also explore possible connections between theatricality and refusal, spectatorship and destituency. Reading a tragedy and a comedy in which women engage in anti-war politics, one by way of what is often seen as conscientious objection (the Antigone) and the other by way of what might well be called a politics of refusal – a sex strike (Lysistrata), calls our attention, as well, to the politics of gender and genre, topics of relevance to all seminar readings.

The seminar will end with some attention to what happens when we move from war as something that takes place in theaters (theaters of war) to war games and then to digital media warfare. How should we theorize, ethically and politically, new developments in war and resistance  - such as the use of drones and the rise of cyber-resistance or hacktivism? How do these shifts in warfare differ from earlier ones (eg WW I use of poison gas)? Are these – were those -- mere changes of technique or did they force an ontological alteration?

Inspired by historical examples, themes of resistance, riot, desertion, and strike will structure the seminar’s exploration of resistance to war as an ethical and/or political practice. During WW I, for example, Canada introduced the Military Service Act, which met various forms of resistance. Of the 404,385 men made eligible for conscription by the Act, 385,510 applied to be exempted. Resistance to conscription escalated further, especially in Quebec, when police began arresting men who could not produce proof of exemption. In one such incident, the arrested man was soon released (when relatives brought proof of exemption) but crowds, which had begun to assemble at the police station, attacked the station and a conscription office as well as the offices of newspapers supporting conscription and stores that sold weapons. Under the 1914 Emergency Powers Act invoked by Prime Minister Borden years earlier for different purposes, soldiers were now brought into Quebec from other provinces. Crowds responded by gathering again, now to protest against the military presence in the city, which by then had grown to 1,200 soldiers. The Easter Riots (March 28 - April 1, 1918) ended when soldiers fired into the protesting crowds, killing 5 people and wounding many more.

Another example of draft refusal: Several groups arose in response to Israel’s conduct of the Lebanon war. Yesh Gvul and Courage to Refuse are two of those that organized dissent and refused reserve service and/or the draft in Israel, beginning in the early 1980’s (“Between Militarism and Pacifism: Conscientious Objection and Draft Resistance in Israel,” Yulia Zemlinskaya).

The reasons for these two refusals, one at the beginning of the 20th century in Canada, and the other toward the end in Israel, could not differ more. But they, along with others, such as the international socialist efforts (in the US and Europe) to mobilize refusal of WWI as an imperial project, and the anti-war movement in the US during the Vietnam war (which could be seen as among the remains of that WWI refusal), motivate the seminar’s exploration of the following questions:

What are the politics of war resistance and what theoretical resources for thinking about it -- normatively, diagnostically, critically -- might be provided by political theory’s canonical literature on conscience, disobedience, and dissent, and by the new literature on refusal or inoperativity? How might attention to war’s theatricality and gamification traverse or even redraw the theoretical lines between conscience and inoperativity?

The seminar will start with one of the classic texts on civil disobedience: Sophocles’ Antigone which we read together with one of the classic texts on war refusal: the Lysistrata. We will then read some of the theoretical classics in the tradition of civil disobedience, from Thoreau to Douglass to Gandhi to King to Arendt and Bernard Williams. We will then turn to the archive of refusal or inoperativity, drawing on Deleuze and then turning to some or all of the following: Giorgio Agamben on destituent power (interview in Society and Space and The Uses of the Body), Jean-Luc Nancy on inoperativity (The Inoperative Community), Michel Foucault ("The Subject and Power") on resistance and rebellion, Fanon (The Dying Colonialism).

Throughout, we will be interested in how to think the relation between destituent power and war. From Benjamin’s general strike, through Nancy’s “inoperative community,” to Agamben’s “destituent power,” theorists of inoperativity have said less about the forms of power and the shows of power (of which war is one) they seek to render inoperative.

Noting that inoperativity in Italian means simply – strike, we will read recent work on inoperativity first in connection with Walter Benjamin (Critique of Violence) and W.E.B. DuBois (Black Reconstruction) on the General Strike, attending also to recent, related literature such as: Alys Eve Weinbaum’s “Gendering the General Strike: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Black Feminism’s ‘Propaganda of History’” (South Atlantic Quarterly) and Emily Apter’s “Interference” (fc in Political Concepts, on Derrida’s term “de s’immiscer), and Audra Simpson’s Mohawk Interruptus. How do these varied instances or iterations of a politics of refusal differ from the traditional resort to conscience or conscientious refusal? What are the different sorts of subjectivity, modes of comportment, world-making, and practices of organization postulated by each approach?

Since anti-war activism is usually criminalized, the politics of incarceration, criminalization, and institutionalization will also be central to the work of the seminar. Our move in this direction may be enabled by a turn to the work of Erving Goffman, in particular his Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings which could be read alongside Rei Terada’s “Out of Place: Free Speech, Disruption, and Student ProtestQui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, fall/winter 2011: 251-269; available at

Our focus on inoperativity may also lead from thinking about the General Strike to a particular practice of striking, which has a war-related history as well. Hunger striking has historically been used by those incarcerated as a way to demand treatment by the state not as criminals but as political prisoners, with all the rights and recognitions and protections that go along with that. Here the strike is not anti-war, as such; it my rather be a technique of war. It is also, however, a refusal -- of the criminalization of political violence or struggle. In England up until WWI, Suffragettes used hunger striking as a non-violent political tool and they were force-fed. When they suspended such activities for the duration of the war, devoting themselves to the national cause of war, it is almost as if a baton was passed. In 1913 James Connolly became the first Irish political prisoner to use the hunger strike as a weapon of protest. His anti-war activism was unabated through WW I, and he was executed for it just 3 years later in 1916. Almost 70 years later, IRA prisoner Bobby Sands died while hunger striking in H-Block prison and, of course, in recent years, prisoners in Guantanamo and in California have gone on hunger strike as well. What are the best theoretical rubrics for understanding this practice? Is it a refusal of biopolitics or itself a biopoliticized practice? How have the institutional responses to the practice changed over the last 100 years, since the British responded to the Suffragettes’ use of hungering with the “Cat and Mouse” law (naming the practice whereby police released the women after they were weakened by self-starvation, and then rearrested them once they recovered and were again politically active)? Among the key theoretical, literary, and cinematic texts here may be Banu Bargu’s study of the Turkish death fasters in the 1980’s: Starve and Immolate: The Politics of Human Weapons, Patrick Anderson’s So Much Wasted: Hunger, Performance, and the Morbidity of Resistance, Kafka’s The Hunger Artist, and Steve McQueen’s film, Hunger.

Finally, we will turn to focus on recent changes in war from theater to gaming, as a digital and game-like practice. How are the politics of conscience and dissent affected by war’s move from the large theater to the small screen? From being comrades in arms to being seated at consoles at the moment at which the ranks of the US military have been opened to gay and female citizens wishing to serve? What might the political and gendered impacts of this shift be? Beginning with Deleuze and Guattari on war machines and moving to more recent work on digital war, we ask whether and how community is differently staged and experienced in these two kinds of war practice, and we look at whether the possibilities for war’s politicization or refusal are affected by these changes. What happens to democratic dissent and conscientious objection when war moves from being metaphorized as theater to being likened instead to games: war games and games of war? Texts we will work toward for the end of the seminar may include: Adi Kuntsman and Rebecca L. Stein, Digital Militarism: Israel’s Occupation in the Social Media Age, 2015, Greg Chamayou, Theory of the Drone, Mark B. N. Hansen, Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media, “Foucault and Media: A Missed Encounter?”  (SAQ 2012), The Mourning After: Attending the Wake of Postmodernism (Postmodern Studies 40) ed Brook et al and Athina Karatzogianni, Cyber Conflict and Global Politics (2009, Routledge).