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date: 27 February 2021

Poststructuralism and Securityfree

  • Lene HansenLene HansenDepartment of Political Science, University of Copenhagen


Poststructuralism is an International Relations (IR) theory that entered the domain of Security Studies during the Second Cold War. During this period, poststructuralists engaged with power, security, the militarization of the superpower relationship, and the dangers that the nuclear condition was believed to entail. Poststructuralism’s concern with power, structures, and the disciplining effects of knowledge seemed to resonate well with the main themes of classical realist Security Studies. At the same time, the discursive ontology and epistemology of poststructuralism set it apart not only from Strategic Studies, but from traditional peace researchers who insisted on “real world” material referents and objective conceptions of security. The unexpected end of the Cold War brought challenges as well as opportunities for poststructuralism. The most important challenge that arose was whether states needed enemies. The terrorist attacks of September 11 and “The War on Terror” also had a profound impact on poststructuralist discourse. First, poststructuralists held that “terrorism” and “terrorists” had no objective, material referent, but were signs that constituted a radical Other. They viewed the actions on September 11 as “terror,” “acts of war,” and “orchestrated,” rather than “accidents” committed by a few individuals. The construction of “terrorists” as “irrational” intersected with poststructuralist deconstructions of rational–irrational dichotomies that had also been central to Cold War discourse. These responses to “the War on Terror” demonstrated that poststructuralist theory still informs important work in Security Studies and that there are also crucial intersections between poststructuralism and other approaches in IR.


Poststructuralism entered Security Studies in the mid-1980s. This entry was driven by a number of factors. First, poststructuralist philosophy had been a main feature of the Humanities since the 1970s and was now – with the time lag with which academic vogues usually hit International Relations (IR) – making its way into Security Studies. Poststructuralism’s concern with power, structures, and the disciplining effects of knowledge seemed to resonate well with core themes in classical realist Security Studies (Ashley 1987; Der Derian 1987; Walker 1987). Second, the political context was that of the Second Cold War, and poststructuralism was part of a wider political and normative contestation of the Reagan Administration’s and NATO’s understanding of the world as doomed to bipolar nuclear standoff and of the Soviet Union as the evil empire (Dalby 1988; Klein 1988; 1990; Nathanson 1988). As critical peace researchers in the 1970s, poststructuralists were also astute critics of the way in which the exploitation of the Third World underpinned Western military, political, and economic superiority. The way in which nuclear confrontation loomed large in the 1980s meant that “security” was one, if not the, major subfield of IR with which poststructuralists engaged. Thus it is, as with much of IR realism, often hard to draw the boundary between poststructuralism “proper” and its contributions to Security Studies. Crucially, the adoption of security as a core concern was politically motivated in contrast to for example those constructivists who in the 1990s picked “security,” because this would be a “hard case” and hence one conducive to convincing realists about the merits of the constructivist approach (Katzenstein 1996). For poststructuralists, security, put bluntly, was not “a” hard case significant for theory-internal reasons, it was “the” case upon which planetary survival depended.

These academic and political roots are significant for understanding the genesis of poststructuralism and its evolution over the next decades. Although many of its themes, basic assumptions, and conceptualizations were carried over from one period to the next, the structure of this essay will be a chronological one, looking first to poststructuralism’s Cold War origins, then to the challenges and opportunities that the ending of the Cold War brought, and finally to the impact of September 11 and “the War on Terror.” This adoption of a chronological structure is motivated by the fact that Security Studies as a subfield of IR, and poststructuralism as a particular perspective within it, has been driven to a large extent by external, real world events, and the ensuing shifts in the international structure (Buzan and Hansen 2009).

The Disciplinary Sociology of a Vanishing Label

Before we go into this chronological and substantial account, we should make a note however, that poststructuralism is not that easy to define. There are several reasons for this. First, there is a shortage of authors who have self-identified as poststructuralists. The sociology of Security Studies is one of debates between distinct approaches, and hence presenting oneself as such has clear advantages in that this is likely to increase the attention that is bestowed upon one. It is often the case however that approaches and schools gain their distinct label from outsiders or reviewers – as in Robert W. Cox (1981) and Richard Ashley’s (1984) coining of “neorealism,” or Bill McSweeney’s (1996) review of Identity, Migration and the New Security Agenda in Europe which defined “the Copenhagen School” – with those about whom the label is used then subsequently adopting it. “Poststructuralism,” by contrast, was at first (ambiguously) embraced by authors like James Der Derian (1992:6–8) and Bradley S. Klein (1994:9–11), but others, like David Campbell (1992:246) resisted the use of “poststructuralist” and “postmodernist” on the grounds that these labels by the early 1990s had “become overdetermined in scholarly and cultural circles, such that anything described as ‘postmodern’ is immediately associated with a number of ‘well-known’ features, even if neither the argument being analyzed nor the works from which it draws sustenance bears any resemblance to its representation.” Moreover, held Campbell, bundling together a diverse set of thinkers under the mantle of “poststructuralism” glossed over the differences between them. Moving into the 1990s and beyond, Campbell’s resistance became the norm, with few authors writing under the banner of “poststructuralism.” The absence of a self-defined school of poststructuralism means that there is less of an established set of canonical texts that can be referred to, nor is there, like in neorealism or constructivism, an established common theoretical platform that “its” members sign onto.

Second, and related to this point, since poststructuralism is generally – although not necessarily correctly – perceived to be the most radically postpositivist perspective in Security Studies, critics have generally given a devastating presentation of what this perspective entails. It has been argued that poststructuralism believes in there being no material world, that it is apolitical (or only political), that it has no – or only self-referential – concepts or standards of science and truth, and that it is only interested in words (Walt 1991:223; Adler 1997; Katzenstein, Keohane and Krasner 1998:678; Wendt 1999:55–6; Wight 1999). Ken Booth (2005:270) for instance holds that postmodern/poststructural approaches to security have been characterized by “obscurantism, relativism, and faux radicalism.” Based on those representations it is hard to believe why anyone would want to be a poststructuralist. In terms of the larger sociological institutionalization of the field of Security Studies, this representation of poststructuralist as the academic Other has likely implied that potential poststructuralists have been less drawn to defining themselves as card carrying members, particularly if entering the profession and thus looking for jobs and tenure.

Third, the definition of poststructuralism is further blurred by the fact that critics often used the term “postmodernism” instead of poststructuralism. This is confusing insofar as, to the extent that a label is taken on by those practicing “poststructuralist” work, it is generally the one of poststructuralism rather than postmodernism. Postmodernism usually defines a particular postmodern historical epoch that involves a particular shift in terms of architecture, identity politics, communication, etc. Poststructuralism in Security Studies is not confined to any particular historical period (be that postmodern or not), but refers to a particular form of analytical engagement with any historical period. Moreover, the poststructuralist label indicates the strong concern with structures, and the stability of the state and the international system that poststructuralist writings have (Wæver 2002:23–4). The standard use of “postmodern” by contrast tend to emphasize an “anything goes,” in fact, antistructural understanding of politics and identities.

Fourth, the fact that there is little by way of a self-identified “school” or group of poststructuralists may also be related to the shortage of cumulative research coming from this perspective. The way an approach constitutes itself to “its” members as well as to outsiders is usually by having debates over how to bring the perspective forward, how better to design theories, how to apply them to new situations and contexts, and hence in short how to do “a better job.” Poststructuralism by contrast has witnessed little by way of such “cumulative discussion.” Taking poststructuralism’s ontological and epistemological position into consideration this is not surprising: it is postpositivist in the sense that it holds that there are no objective ontological “facts” like a rational state concerned with its own survival, “only” political discourses that constitute the state as such; nor are there any epistemologies or methodologies through which we can trace general “laws.” A major feature of poststructuralist theory is furthermore to analyze how disciplines, schools, and approaches “discipline” an academic field of study and the political implications this entail. As a consequence, poststructuralists are reluctant to adopt a “disciplining” school position. Yet, even if one accepts a postpositivist position, it may be unfortunate not to have “cumulative conversations” over what is a good or better poststructuralist analysis of security – even if there is no quantifiable arbitrator of such discussions (Hansen 2006: xviii–xix).

So, what is poststructuralism? This essay obviously has to make a decision about what constitutes this phenomenon even if it is an elusive one. So, the essay has adopted a delineation based in part on those who nevertheless do identify as poststructuralists, as well as on the way in which this approach has been written into existence by others identifying this as a perspective in Security Studies. In the concluding section of the essay, there will be attention devoted to how “poststructuralism” also seems to have morphed into – or with – a number of other designations.

The Second Cold War Origins of Poststructuralism

Poststructuralism came onto the terrain of Security Studies in the 1980s when the specter of nuclear confrontation had resurfaced after the détente of the 1970s and it was heavily influenced by this political context. Theoretically, poststructuralism picked up and drew upon social, political, and linguistic theories and philosophies that had been the subject of heated debate in the Humanities. While a critical peace research Frankfurt School background was visible in the early to mid-1980s (Ashley 1981, 1984; Walker 1988), the influence from Habermas was gradually replaced by the thoughts of Foucault particularly on how power resided in all structures and discourses of society (Dalby 1988; Chaloupka 1990). Bradley S. Klein (1994:7) for example brought Foucault to bear on military practices arguing that these could “be understood as recurrent and always incomplete attempts to constitute and create what from a traditional perspective looks like a self-evident project – the state. In this manner, strategic violence is less a function of the state than an instance of its own assertion.” Foucault’s concept of genealogy, which pointed to history as produced through practices of exclusions rather than unfolding according to a grand master narrative, was also employed to show how key principles like diplomacy and security institutions like NATO were not given responses to objective threats and conditions, but forming understandings of Self and Other. Security principles and policies were thus discursive practices that continuously tried to create meaning and order, yet which were never entirely successful and hence inherently unstable and contestable (Der Derian 1987; Shapiro 1988; Klein 1990). Discourses in Foucault’s optic were systems that ordered “objects, types of statement, concepts, or thematic choices” (Foucault 1974:38) and to take a discursive approach to security was to see how utterances as well as practices such as the procurement of nuclear weapons relied upon and produced particular subject positions as good/evil, legitimate/dangerous, threatened/threatening and so on. To study discourse was thus different from studying ideas in that discursive practices tie materiality and ideas together.

Jacques Derrida’s linguistic philosophy of deconstruction was also mobilized to show how all concepts, including security, depended upon dichotomous distinctions between positive and negative terms. Meaning therefore was constituted not through correspondence to a “real” world, but through systems of signs. Julia Kristeva’s writings on intertextuality which held that texts always refer to past texts, yet simultaneously reconstitute the meaning of those past texts quoted, and that texts therefore always contain a surplus of meaning, were adopted for instance in the seminal International/Intertextual Relations edited by James Der Derian and Michael J. Shapiro (1989). Here authors used intertextuality and poststructuralist theory more broadly to deconstruct classical IR texts (Walker on Machiavelli; Ashley on Waltz’s Man, the State and War and Theory of International Politics) and central practices and concepts (Roger Hurwitz on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and Timothy W. Luke on deterrence); to show the confluence between security discourse and other forms of discourse (Shapiro on sport/war and Klein on popular military magazines and pornography); and by tracing the links between popular culture and “real” security discourse and policy (Der Derian on espionage, Klein on popular journalism on soldiering and the field manuals of the military). The emphasis on close readings of texts, including those that brought out the intertextual links across popular culture and “real” foreign policy, was also evident in the contributions to a special issue of International Studies Quarterly in 1990 edited by Richard Ashley and R.B.J. Walker entitled Speaking the Language of Exile: Dissidence in International Studies. This special issue also illustrated the early poststructuralist emphasis on security in that four out of six articles had security as the main theme. Although there were some variations between Foucauldian and Derridarian approaches – and these were not the only sources drawn upon – there were nevertheless sufficient commonality in how these were brought to the study of security that they can be treated as one perspective in the discussion below.

To poststructuralists, no materiality would ever be able to present itself outside of a discursive representation (Shapiro 1988; Dillon 1990:103). To see security – or peace – as discourse thus involved a shift from an objective conception of security where threats could be assessed – at least in hindsight (Wolfers 1952) – to a practice through which subjects were constituted. This implied a significant turn in security thinking in that actors or identities were no longer stable and given entities to which peace researchers or security theorists could refer. National security for instance was not something that could be assessed through an analysis of which threats a nation confronted, but rather a process through which “the nation” came to be produced and reproduced with a particular identity (Campbell 1990). Threats themselves were therefore also discursive: to constitute something as threatening was to invoke “discourses of danger and security,” and to situate that “something” as of particular importance to the threatened Self (Dillon 1990:102). Drawing upon Foucault, poststructuralists furthermore emphasized the significance of power and knowledge, of security discourses as “plays of power which mobilize rules, codes and procedures to assert a particular understanding, through the construction of knowledge” (Dalby 1988:416). Knowledge in turn was not free of value judgments and the claim to objectivity that classical positivists espouse was thus problematized.

Security politics, argued poststructuralism, was fundamentally about the construction of a radically different, inferior and threatening Other, but also, since identity is always relational, about the Self (Walker 1986:496–7). The focus on the constitution of the Other broadened the scope of traditional foreign policy analysis in that poststructuralists argued that this took place not only against an external Other – usually other states and alliances – but against internal Others as well as these were “located in different sites of ethnicity, race, class, gender, or locale” (Campbell 1990:270). Security discourses were in that (Foucauldian) sense productive: they were not simply providing a solution to how NATO/the West/America should be protected, but constituting the identities of these subjects across a wider societal terrain. Moreover, these identities were produced through the exclusion of internal differences. In the words of Bradley S. Klein (1990:319) “Fractures of class, gender, and race – of partisan politics and religious identity – all demark potential sites of contestation within the Western alliance. Yet these are unacknowledged, except as internal threats to the unit and ‘identity’ of the West.” In response, poststructuralists advocated a critical deconstruction of the ways in which policy discourses and (parts of) realism and Strategic Studies “naturalized” the need for “societal cohesion” and legitimized the transformation or eradication of those who were different, dangerous and feared.

The emphasis on the legitimation of disciplinary, material, discursive, and institutional structures in poststructuralism played itself out across a wider set of studies. Early work by Richard Ashley (1987) and R.B.J. Walker (1987) traced the way in which classical and contemporary realists texts (re)produce the sovereign, territorial state and the international as an anarchic realm that can never be changed. Walker in particular analyzed the historical evolution of state sovereignty and its link to modern conceptions of security (Walker 1987; 1990; 1993). He held that the principle of state sovereignty provided a very powerful answer to the problem of political identity in that it offered a spatial solution where citizens were located within the sharply demarcated territory of the state and a temporal solution where progress and “universalizing standards” were possible on the inside, whereas power and conflict made global, universal principles impossible (Walker 1990:10–12). The challenge according to Walker was to find an alternative conception of security – which Walker labelled “world security” – flexible enough that it could deconstruct the rigid claims of national security, allow those subjects whose security was not identical to that of the state to come into focus, define modes of differentiation that escaped the friend–foe distinction, and avoid the tempting trap of universalism as that state writ large.

Other poststructuralists turned to contemporary events and the Second Cold War was the subject of many of the early empirical analyses (Dalby 1988; Nathanson 1988; Campbell 1990). David Campbell (1990) located the constitution of the Soviet Other inside a longer American history of difference that comprised American Indians, gender relations, and environmental degradation. Simon Dalby (1988:423) offered a critical analysis of Sovietology (the study of the Soviet Union) as a discipline of knowledge and power, Bradley S. Klein (1990; 1994) studied NATO and Western military practices, and Carol Cohn (1987) traced how technostrategic discourse employed terms such as “collateral damage” that made the weapons rather than human beings the referent objects of security.

Poststructuralists’ emphasis on structure also made them suspicious of what might look like changing structures and of calls for “utopian” solutions where realism’s anarchy was replaced by all countries and people joining in the eradication of conflict and difference (Walker 1990; Connolly 1991). In the words of Klein (1988:313), “Epistemologically, a postmodern search for the politics of peace transcends the modernist aspiration for ‘security’ and the certainties of peace.” In that sense, although closer to critical peace research than to neorealism and Strategic Studies, poststructuralism’s position was also one that had an affinity for classical and more historical and philosophical forms of realism (Ashley 1981; Der Derian 1987:4; Walker 1987; Klein 1994:8). Drawing on deconstruction as well as Foucault’s genealogy, poststructuralists argued in favor of working through the concepts of classical Realism – security, power, war, the state – rather than rejecting them (Der Derian 1995).

Yet, while it was difficult to change the reigning concepts of state sovereignty and security because of the discursive and political “work” that had and went into producing them it was – and here poststructuralists parted with Realism – possible to envisage transformation and resistance. One form of resistance stemmed from deconstruction itself in that picking apart the dichotomies that govern security discourses would reveal the manner in which this governance is carried out. Thus, there were echoes of a more traditional critical theory (Frankfurt School and Gramscian) understanding of theory as capable of providing insight and change. Resistance was also made possible by a double expansion of the traditional scope of security analysis. One expansive move was to show how nongovernmental actors and nonelites contested militarist policies (Walker 1988). In the words of Richard Ashley (1988:94–5)

Movements of criticism and resistance…will exhibit a “historico-critical attitude” that is distinctly local in aspiration and experimental in orientation. Eschewing grand designs, transcendental grounds, or universal projects of humankind, such movements will test limits and explore possible transformations in ways of being and doing in the workplaces of Prague, in the union halls of Pittsburgh, in the soup kitchens of Santiago, in the clinics in Bad Homburg, in Garcia’s rereadings and re-inscriptions of Peru in relation to IMF authority, and in relations between the sexes in Los Angeles.

Another expansive move was to widen the forms of texts that had traditionally been brought into Security Studies. Most striking was the turn to popular culture where poststructuralists found instances of criticism in such seemingly unlikely “texts” as the television series Miami Vice. According to Michael Shapiro (1990:336), the show “supplies a more sophisticated reading of global politics than the typical ‘international relations’ textbooks and commentaries written by the ‘vulgar economists’ of the strategic discourse.”

Situating poststructuralism within the evolution of Security Studies in the 1980s, it was noteworthy for how it explicitly adopted and engaged the concept of security – and to a lesser extent peace (Klein 1988) – hence picking up Barry Buzan’s (1983, 1984) calls for making this the key concept around which Strategic Studies and Peace Research could meet. Yet, the discursive ontology and epistemology of poststructuralism also set it apart not only from Strategic Studies, but from traditional peace researchers who insisted on “real world” material referents and objective conceptions of security. Foreshadowing later clashes over the epistemology of security, prominent peace researcher Johan Galtung (1984:128) declared that “Thoughts and words come and go, actions depend on what is objectively possibly, given by the constraints of natural laws only.” While poststructuralism was facing opposition from several directions it was by the early 1990s nevertheless so established that a special issue of International Studies Quarterly edited by Richard Ashley and R.B.J. Walker was published, and it was singled out as “the” postpositivist perspective to be resisted in Stephen Walt’s seminal account of the field (Walt 1991). A key element of this institutionalization was the journal Alternatives where many poststructuralist articles were published, and there was some support in the Scandinavian peace research community, particularly at TAPRI (Tampere Peace Research Institute) whose journal Current Research on Peace and Violence featured prominent poststructuralists like Michael Dillon, Simon Dalby, and David Campbell (Joenniemi 1990).

The End of the Cold War: Challenges and Possibilities

The birth and early evolution of poststructuralism was very much a product of the Second Cold War: poststructuralists were engaged with power, security, the militarization of the superpower relationship, and the dangers that the nuclear condition was believed to entail. The unexpected disappearance of the Cold War brought challenges as well as opportunities.

Although critical of Western security policies and institutions, Cold War poststructuralism had always maintained the possibility of rethinking security, and hence was not faced by the same crisis as Strategic Studies when the Cold War ended. Yet, the ending of the Cold War did throw some of poststructuralism’s central analytical assumptions into question. The most important challenge that arose was whether states needed enemies. Most if not all of Cold War poststructuralism had assumed a dichotomous struggle between East and West, and an almost structural inability of the US to move out of its demonization of the Soviet Union and Communism. The central text in this debate was David Campbell’s 1992 study of American discourses of danger from “its” discovery to the end of the Cold War, Writing Security. This book foregrounded the importance of the Other, arguing that while state identity could in principle be constituted through relations of difference, in reality the pressure to turn difference into radical, threatening Otherness was overwhelming (Campbell 1992:55; Connolly 1991:64–5, 209–10). “Security” thus became an ontological double requirement: the state needed to be secure, but it also needed the threatening Other to define its identity, thereby giving it ontological security. Moreover, since most poststructuralist analyses of Western security discourse had refrained from assessing (discursively constituted) Soviet capabilities or the “discourses of the Other,” they could give the impression that Western discourses were driven solely by internal dynamics.

The problem with Campbell’s position was, argued (sympathetic) critics, that it ran the risk of reifying state identity (“the state needs enemies”) thus effectively adopting the same view of the state as did realism (“the state is surrounded by potential enemies”). Both perspectives would thereby assume an ontological inseparability between states and enemies and a conception of the Other as monolithic, dangerous, and antagonistic (Neumann 1996; Milliken 1999:94; Rumelili 2004; Hansen 2006:38–9). Methodologically, the problem of assuming state identity as radical Otherness was that if this was taken to be the only form of identity that states could adopt, this would be what was identified in empirical studies, in spite of there being potentially other forms of less radical identity articulated (Hansen 2006:38–41). Since conceptualizations of security are dependent upon constructions of identity, if identity is given, security would be as well, and poststructuralism would be unable to find a way out of realist security. This in turn implied that it became crucial to develop a theory and a methodology of “degrees of Otherness” and even though poststructuralism had at first been reluctant to discuss methodology – Derrida labeling deconstruction an antimethod or methodology as inherently positivist – a small literature on poststructuralist methodology appeared (Neumann 2001; Hansen 2006).

The debate over the theorization of the Other was also influenced by the expansion of the political security agenda in the 1990s. With the Cold War gone, there was no single overarching conflict that Security Studies, including poststructuralism, converged around, but a series of wars and interventions that brought new themes and challenges to the table. Cold War poststructuralism with its concern with militarism and nuclear deterrence had always had a strong “real world” anchoring and this continued into the 1990s. The first major event of the decade was the Gulf War of 1991, and it brought continuity as well as change to poststructuralism in two respects. First, the traditional poststructuralist concern with how security discourses legitimize particular policies through the construction of the subjectivities of Self and Other was brought to bear on the discourse of the West, particularly that of the US (Luke 1991; Der Derian 1992:173–202; Shapiro 1992; Campbell 1993). As noted by David Campbell (1993:21) this was a discourse that constructed Saddam Hussein as akin to Hitler and that drew upon the script of the “good war” reminiscent of World War II while erasing the traumatic memory of Vietnam. Moreover, it was a discourse that was saturated with moral and ethical reasoning: the American-led war was undertaken not to protect the national interest – or material resources like the access to oil – but in defense of a higher, moral order. The American subject position was thus simultaneously specifically American and the embodiment of a universal, and hence unquestionable and privileged position.

The 1991 Gulf War was undertaken in defense of Kuwait’s territorial sovereignty, supported by a UN mandate and described by Western powers as a “war.” With the “internal conflict/wars” in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the discourse changed from one of “war” to “humanitarian intervention.” Compared to the Cold War, the identity–policy–discourse dynamic was no longer one of deterring or threatening the Other, but defending Others against “other Others” be they countries (Kuwait), regions (Kosovo), peoples (Bosnians, Somalis), or “women” (Campbell 1998a; Debrix 1999; Hansen 2001). Although dealing with historical cases set before and during the Cold War, Cynthia Weber’s Simulating Sovereignty (1995) showed that those intervening usually legitimated their actions by arguing that these were made on behalf of “the people” of the Other state who should be protected from “its” government. Weber’s study was in line with David Campbell’s call for interrogating “moral” discourse by pointing out that Western states have a proclivity for constituting their security policies inside a moral and value-based discourse that argue that security policies benefit not only the (selfish) “national interest,” but universal values and the peoples of other (less civilized and democratic) states.

Linking up with the theoretical debates in poststructuralism over how to theorize Self–Other relations, a big question was whether post-Cold War interventions shifted the Cold War constitution of the Other as antagonistic, threatening, and radically different and of the ensuing identity of the Self as superior, threatened, and the embodiment of universal values. Several poststructuralists argued that the central Other was no longer a radically different threat, but a humanitarian “victim” in need of “rescue” (from the Others pursuing it), but that this subject construction depoliticized the conflict and the parties (victims) and that this allowed the West the appearance of “doing something” without fundamentally acknowledging its responsibility (Campbell 1998a; Debrix 1999:159). The ambiguity of humanitarianism was also at the heart of David Campbell’s (1993; 1998a) development of a poststructuralist ethics drawing on the 1991 Gulf War and the war in Bosnia and the philosophies of Levinas and Derrida. Campbell argued in favor of recognizing the Other as Other without constituting it either as radically different, a “victim,” or an underdeveloped version of the Self, and for recognizing one’s responsibility for its wellbeing. Campbell’s ethical security project was also an attempt to counter the frequent criticism that poststructuralism merely observed and deconstructed the policies in place, rather than formulate a proactive and constructive approach to security (Walt 1991; Adler 1997; Katzenstein, Keohane, and Krasner 1998).

The interventions of “the West” generated debate not only on the Other, but also on the implications for the Self. During the Cold War, a key concern had been with how security policies fought to constitute a stable Western/American Self and the exclusions – internal and external – this entailed. After the Cold War debates ensued over the status of NATO: could it be something different than an antagonistic opponent? Was its discourse of enlargement and inclusion one that allowed for more complex identity constructions or was it rather a new form of universalizing discourse that equally sought to master the Other (Klein 1994; Constantinou 1995; Williams and Neumann 2000)? A parallel empirical and theoretical discussion concerned the EU, particularly whether it could be sustained through a discourse that constituted its own past as the Other, thus not relying upon the construction of “external” threats (Wæver 1996).

The second way in which the 1991 Gulf War and the interventions of the 1990s brought continuity as well as change was in poststructuralist analysis of the social and political implications of military technology. James Der Derian (1992; 2001) in particular drew attention to the shift in the media coverage, where a global audience could watch live as Baghdad was bombed, and to the extensive use of gaming and simulation in the preparation and conduct of the war. In Der Derian’s (1992:175) words, this was “the first cyberwar, in the sense of a technologically generated, televisually linked, and strategically gamed form of violence.” The combination of precision guided weaponry, computerized warfare and bombing from afar, and the simultaneously instant CNN broadcast were programmatically described by Baudrillard (1995) as “the Gulf War did not take place.” Der Derian (1992; 2001) expanded upon this arguing that the significance of video games, exercises and simulations intersected with “the real” to create a military environment where soldiers no longer clearly separated between gaming and “fighting on the ground.” To global audiences who watched “war” in the skies over Baghdad, or the 1999 videos of bombers locking on targets in Kosovo, this implied a disembodied form of warfare where neither soldiers nor civilian populations were in sight and hence death and destruction as something that did not really take place or happened to living beings. Cold War poststructuralism had already been concerned with visual representations, but the events of the 1991 Gulf War, Bosnian in 1992, and Somalia in 1993 where American soldiers were killed and dragged through the streets by angry mobs, increased the focus on media representation in television news and advertisements, in press photography, and in popular culture (Der Derian 1992; 2001; Shapiro 1997; Debrix 1999; Campbell 2002a; 2002b). This concern was as we shall see below further boosted by the events on September 11 and “the War on Terror.”

In short poststructuralists were taking on the major (military) security events of the 1990s. There was a continued stream of articles in Alternatives and Millennium and, from the early 2000s, Security Dialogue, and poststructuralists were publishing in the prestigious Cambridge Studies in International Relations series (Walker 1993; Klein 1994; Weber 1995). But there were also processes that worked against an ongoing institutionalization of poststructuralism. First, the standard language of Security Studies in the 1990s became one of widening-deepening, that is whether security should be broadened beyond the military sector (to the environment, the economic, religion, development etc.) and deepened in terms of including other referent objects than the state (the nation, the individual, women, racial and ethnic groups, etc.) (Krause and Williams 1996). Poststructuralism’s discursive, Foucauldian conception of security implied a critical deconstruction of “national security” and those multiple threats that were articulated within this discourse and it criticized the way in which academic and policy discourse silenced subjects of (in)security other than the state. In that sense, poststructuralism could be said to advocate widening as well as deepening. Yet, while poststructuralists were writing on for instance the links between security and ecology (Dalby 1992) or security and gender (Walker 1992), they did not “package” their analysis as explicit calls for conceptual widening-deepening in the way done by for example Critical Security Studies (individual security), feminists (gender as a referent object), or the Copenhagen School (societal security). Poststructuralists were in this respect (still) more deconstructivist, working through the discourses and policies enacted rather than formulating alternative conceptual frameworks to be applied. Second, throughout the 1990s “poststructuralism” became a term increasingly applied from the critical outside, a process that as noted above can hinder institutionalization.

The Impact of September 11 and “The War on Terror”

Considering that poststructuralism has traditionally had a strong concern with “real world” events, particularly those in the areas of “hard-core” security, it is worthwhile examining to what extent and how it was impacted by the attacks of September 11 and “the War on Terror.” Moving from the 1990s and into the 2000s, the situation is, as noted above, one of very little self-identified poststructuralist work. This however does not mean that there is no poststructuralism in Security Studies, but rather that it can be traced, first, through the works of authors who have previously identified with this perspective and who, with or without labels, continue to publish in this tradition; second, through works that draw upon the main themes in poststructuralism: a critical concern with the legitimation of security policies, the construction of subjects of (in)security, the productive role of power, and the power/knowledge intersection.

The impact on poststructuralism of September 11 and the subsequent “War on Terror” was quite substantial. The first way in which classical poststructuralist themes were picked up was in the mobilization of discourse analysis based on deconstruction as well as a Foucauldian concern with the constitution of subjects. Engaging the discourses that justified the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as “the War on Terror” more broadly, poststructuralists held that “terrorism” and “terrorists” had no objective, material referent, but were signs that constituted a radical Other (Der Derian 1992; 2005). “Terrorists” were not legitimate opponents, but evil, sneaky, barbaric, and irrational and it was shown how discursive efforts were applied such that the actions on September 11 were constituted as “terror,” “acts of war,” and “orchestrated,” rather than “accidents” committed by a few individuals (Der Derian 2001; Owens 2003). Later poststructuralists analyzed the ways in which Western discourses sought to legitimate the war/occupation/liberation in Iraq through a mobilization of universally good categories – civilization, democracy, human rights, development, and reconstruction. But this was also simultaneously a discourse which made the identification of the “universally good” the unquestioned prerogative of the superior West, thus invoking the colonial and Orientalist tradition; and it depoliticized Iraqi actors by constituting them as passive “victims” of Saddam Hussein or their opposition as “insurgency” or “terror” (Barkawi 2004; Debrix 2005; Barkawi and Laffey 2006; Sovacool and Halfon 2007). What Western discourses did was in short to show the work of two classic, yet also classically unstable, oppositions: between the universal and the particular, and between “the people” of the Other and the regimes who betrayed, deceived, or manipulated them.

This constitution of the Iraqi Other as either terrorist or victim relied upon a constitution of the Western Self as superior, strong, moral, and civilized. Another classic poststructuralism theme – namely the concern with what qualifies as a critical rethinking of existing discourses (Ashley 1988; Klein 1988; Campbell 1998a) – was evident in poststructuralist analyses that held that even those “critical” discourses of the West that explicitly sought to break with rigid, dichotomous, Self–Other constructions – as those responding to the London bombings in July 2005 – had difficulties coming up with something genuinely multicultural and critical-political (Weber 2006a; Stephens 2007). Another way in which older poststructuralist themes were evident in analysis of “the War on Terror” was in the critical interrogation of how security discourses constituted the identity of the Western Self as one of privileged difference to the terrorist non-West, yet through this securitization allowed for the transgression of those civil and human rights that the West were argued to embody. This unstable discursive position was strikingly brought out in the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo and in the clandestine programs of so-called extraordinary rendition through which suspected terrorists were believed to be transferred to regimes suspected of using torture. One group of scholars drew upon the work on the exception by Carl Schmitt, the more recent Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, and Foucault in discussions of how these practices accentuated the tension between security and liberty at the heart of liberal discourse (Huysmans 2006; Jabri 2006; Neal 2006; Walker 2006).

Another body of work continued the Foucauldian concern with practices of domestic security, surveillance, and disciplining that had been brought out by David Campbell (1992) in his analysis of the “society of security,” particularly evident during the Cold War. The state in this optic is

neither a monolith that exercises power over an independent social domain, nor a settled identity that simply responds to external stimuli. Instead, the state and the social are made possible by “multiple regimes of governmentality,” which employ a rationality of security that calculates the possible and the probable, and simultaneously individualizes and totalizes, asking for both the citizen and the state what it means to be governed.

(Campbell 1992:171).

After September 11, and closely related to developments in digital technologies, a series of biometric regimes were set in place and poststructuralists showed how this form of governmentality “produced” particular understandings of “dangerous” bodies that should be prevented from entering the “safe” spaces of “the West” (Salter 2006; Epstein 2007). More broadly, Michael Dillon and Julian Reid (2009:22) drew on Foucault arguing in favor of seeing the present order through the lens of biopolitics, that is, life as known as coded information. This understanding has ramifications for “domestic” security, the way wars are fought, and “the very boundaries which long distinguished living from not living, animate from inanimate and the biological from the non-biological.”

The intersection between technology and security, which has been a recurring poststructuralist concern, was also engaged in studies of the military “materiality” of “the War on Terror.” Der Derian described the American use of “global surveillance, networked communication, smart weapons, robotic aircraft, real-time simulation, and rapid deployment of special forces” as a form of warfare that was “low-casualty, long-distance, good visuals” (Der Derian 2004:92). Other studies examined terrorist use of networked technologies, and how the internet became a site for antiwar/peace movements as well as being targeted by governmental surveillance. The significance of cyberspace for critical infrastructures as well as for building communities – including groups fighting totalitarian regimes – predated September 11 in that the Clinton Administration had recognized “cybersecurity” as an issue in the 1990s, but “the War on Terror” took this concern to a new, more complex and heightened level (Gray 1997; Deibert 2000; 2003; Der Derian 2003). What set poststructuralists apart from more traditional analyses of the Revolution in Military Affairs and Netwar was a stronger concern with how networked technologies change the ways in which nonterritorial communities and referent objects can be constructed.

The poststructuralist concern with media technology and the way in which it may reconfigure the public’s understanding of war stretched back to the CNN-effect of the 1991 Gulf War, but what coincided with the post-September 11 age was the radical shift in the relationship between producers and consumers. During the 1991 Gulf War, established television networks had been the dominant provider of images – now the ubiquity of videophones, digital cameras and laptops made everyone in New York (Möller 2007) or in Iraq a potential producer for a worldwide audience. What the scandal of Abu Ghraib showed was also the significance of images compared to words: the effect of seeing something rather than hearing about it – the immediacy and emotionality it produced – strengthened the calls for defining a specific field devoted to visual security discourse (Williams 2003; Campbell and Shapiro 2007). Poststructuralists pointed to different media and genres as places where security policies were articulated and negotiated, in addition to photography, attention was brought to film and fictional television shows (Debrix 2006; Weber 2006b), video games (Power 2007), murals (Lisle 2006), museums (Sylvester 2005; Lisle 2007), music (Bleiker 2006), and editorial cartoons (Dodds 2007). Interestingly, in terms of how Security Studies is constituted as an academic institution, some poststructuralists, James Der Derian, Cynthia Weber and David Campbell prominently among them, incorporated documentary filmmaking into their work and course designs or organized photography and video exhibitions.

Finally, the construction of “terrorists” as “irrational” intersected with poststructuralist deconstructions of rational–irrational dichotomies that had also been central to Cold War discourse. There was a call for theorizing the importance of emotion, passion, and feelings, not because these should be juxtaposed or privileged over “rationality,” nor because “terrorists” should be redefined as “rational,” but because rationality assumptions were employed in security discourses with crucial implications for the identities that were constituted (Der Derian 2004; 2005; Bleiker 2006). The challenge to the rationality/irrationality dichotomy was also brought out in analyses which highlighted the epistemological reasoning adopted by central terrorist actors. James Der Derian (2003, 2005) pointed out that bin Laden and his cohort spoke within a discourse of faith and dreams. If actions could be mobilized by divine, rather than worldly, communities, and if dreams could be an indication of attacks, the ontological, political and epistemological domain of Security Studies as well as international security policy should/would be dramatically reconfigured.

Last Poststructuralist Standing?

In 1992, David Campbell had resisted “poststructuralism” and “postmodernism” on the grounds that these were terms used to dispense with the substance of “such” work. By 1998, he noted that attacks had increased in intensity and frequency and that they “appear to be directly correlated with a stubborn avoidance of intellectual engagement” (Campbell 1998b:210). One indication of the attempts to disinstitutionalize poststructuralism was the CASE collective – a group of young scholars and PhD students working with Didier Bigo, Jef Huysmans, Michael C. Williams, and Ole Wæver – who, based on an unpublished paper by Ole Wæver (whose early work had in fact had a poststructuralist flavour: Wæver 1989a; 1989b), relegated “hard-core postmodernists” (and “feminists”) to a footnote, thus writing them out of what counts as critical approaches to security in Europe (CASE Collective 2006:444; Sylvester 2007).

Thus while few works in Security Studies appropriate “poststructuralism,” there are nevertheless important ways in which “it” has left its mark on the field. As shown by the responses to “the War on Terror,” poststructuralist theory still informs important work in Security Studies, and there are also crucial intersections between poststructuralism and other approaches in IR. First, although most Feminist Security Studies are situated within a standpoint feminist optic, there are authors who either embrace a poststructuralist position (Hansen 2000; 2001; Sylvester 2005; Cohn 2006) or who cut across the standpoint–poststructuralist divide (Kronsell 2006; Stern 2006). Second, the poststructuralist political theory and conceptual theory tradition – which one may indeed argue is not particular poststructuralist, but is actually political theory as such – is also very much alive in the works of authors like Michael C. Williams who engages such questions as the democratic peace (2007) and the philosophical background of American neoconservatives (2005), or in the genealogical and critical tracing of the exclusion of particular concepts of security from the pantheon of Security Studies such as in Mark Neocleous’s analysis of social security (2006). Third, postcolonial approaches and anthropological critiques also often have a poststructuralist flavor to them (Masco 1999; Bubandt 2005; Barkawi and Laffey 2006). Fourth, a significant part of what is now call “sociology and IR” – institutionalized within the ISA through a special section as well as the journal International Political Sociology – effectively incorporates what would fifteen years ago have been called poststructuralism.


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Links to Digital Materials

Millennium: Journal of International Studies. At, accessed July 2009. One of the central outlets for poststructuralist research.

Alternatives. At, accessed July 2009. Another crucial venue for poststructuralism.

Security Dialogue. At http:/, accessed July 2009. Important journal for poststructuralist work, particular on visual security, surveillance and terrorism.

International Political Sociology. At, accessed June 2009. Published since 2007, this features works that may not self-identify as poststructuralist, but show clear traces of that tradition.

InfoTechWarPeace. At, accessed July 2009. Project run by James Der Derian, Brown University.


This essay draws upon and expands the discussion of poststructuralism in Barry Buzan and Lene Hansen (2009), The Evolution of International Security Studies, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. I would like to thank the two anonymous referees as well as Theo Farrell for their extensive and insightful comments on this essay.