An Invite to Stay With the Trouble
Emily Jones’ monograph Feminist Theory and International Law: Posthuman Perspectives is an invitation to explore how posthuman feminist theory sheds new light on a range of contemporary issues and debates in international law. As an invitation, it does a number of things: It calls the reader to a carefully curated field of debates and scholarly works, impressively assembled with generosity, skill and care. In engaging with this field, it provides the reader with careful descriptions of contentious issues, pointing out relations and divergences, and providing ways to think through the thorny bits. It navigates the reader through the debates, respectfully acknowledging contributions and taking each seriously on their own premise without necessarily accepting the arguments. With a writing that is deliberately accessible, Jones brings complex theories to bear on contemporary practical problems and shows how posthuman feminist theory has purchase beyond questions concerning women’s experiences.
In this short review, I focus on Jones’ invitation in Chapter 3 ‘Regulating Military Technologies, Between Resistance and Compliance’ to ‘stay with the trouble’. This is a quote by Donna Haraway, who in her 2016 monograph argued that we live in troubled times and need to better understand how human and nonhuman are inextricably linked. And our times are indeed troubling: As Jones makes clear from page 1, climate crisis, wars, global inequalities, dystopian technological developments and much more indicate that we are living in ‘posthuman times’. For some, despair or denial seems like the only way to respond, but Haraway and Jones argue that it is necessary to stay with the trouble: to not shy away from the difficult but to stay in the present, and build alliances and collaborations.
In inviting us to ‘stay with the trouble,’ Jones seeks to ‘work between and across resistance and compliance modes of feminism’ (p. 85). Much feminist engagement with international law is situated between these two modes (Kouvo and Pearson, Jones p. 85). As Kouvo and Pearson noted in their now classic work, invitations to feminists to join legal and policy debates are rarely unconditional but instead premised on ‘adding’ but not upsetting the system. Like Kouvo and Pearson, Jones is interested in the kinds of engagements that are both possible and provide change. This is also a question of the kind of engagement that is the most strategic in a particular context. The risks are not insignificant. Strategically picking one’s fight from within can become supporting the system. Alternatively, remaining at the outside to critique may not deliver change.
The example of feminist engagements with the UN Security Council’s Women, Peace and Security Agenda is illustrative of the difficulties in instantiating change from the inside. Originating from an initiative by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF), the Security Council’s preoccupation with women in the form of Resolution 1325 did little to advance the WILPF’s feminist agenda and instead made the protection of women an explicit basis for military action. Some feminist ideas were taken up but in a ‘strange shadowy version’ (p. 89, quoting Nancy Fraser), some feminists ‘walk the halls of power’ (p. 5, quoting Janet Halley) but certainly not all.
While this may be illustrative of the risks of working with(in) the system, Jones asks whether there really is an alternative in refusing and resisting from the outside. Is there even ‘an outside’ when ‘most of us are complicit in the structures we critique’ (p. 92)? Here, as elsewhere in the book, Jones challenges the usefulness of structuring knowledge in binaries. ‘[R]esistance and compliance are not binary modes of engagement,’ she writes, nor are they necessarily antithesis to one another (p. 91).
Indeed, the way knowledge relies on binaries is a key concern throughout the book, and, as Jones demonstrates, posthuman feminist theories provide ways to problematise, dispel and overcome them. This is illustrated in Chapter 3 with the debates surrounding Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems (LAWS).
Debates on LAWS tend to centre around three sets of binaries or distinctions: (1) humans and machines; (2) autonomous and automation; and (3) human control/no control. But as Jones demonstrates, the questions LAWS pose, in legal and ethical terms, are better tackled differently. Rather than centring on the distinction between humans and machines, what is significant is how the two relate. Against the distinction between autonomous/automation, Jones argues the two are better understood as a continuum. And while the question of human control still animates the debate, Jones demonstrates how existing programs have already developed in a way that has effectively made the question obsolete.
So how should or can LAWS be approached? A key method in critical scholarship is to examine the stakes involved. Who is included and who is excluded? Who wins and who loses? In this vein, Jones cites critical scholars who have noted that attempts to (re-)centre the human in LAWS are problematic given the way the category of the human is constructed. This is always by notions of gender, race and able-bodidness, ensuring that ‘some’ are always already excluded or, possibly, in need of ‘fixing’ before they can be accepted.
In other technology contexts, posthuman feminists have argued for the significance of ensuring engagement already at programming stages to pre-empt biases. As Jones explains, an affirmative posthuman xenofeminist approach actively works to ensure that feminist ideas are at the core already at the stages of programming and design. This kind of engagement takes seriously the tasks of addressing the problems ‘from the inside’.
Similarly, there is much to learn from Indigenous knowledges which, while diverse, tend to decentre the human and instead foreground the relations between humans and non-humans. Accordingly, a working group of Indigenous scholars and activists developed 2020 Guidelines for Indigenous-Centred AI Design that include principles on locality, relationality, reciprocity and responsibility.
But how do these ‘inside’ approaches developed in broader tech and AI contexts work in relation to LAWS more specifically? What would a feminist non-biased programming of weapons look like? Or one based on locality and relationality? At some point, a line needs to be drawn. While Jones argues against binaries, even a continuum has pointy ends. For Jones, and I agree, a line has to be drawn in developing military technologies. Developing military technologies to kill or destroy is in direct contradiction to feminist commitments to peace and anti-militarism, and to another of the Indigenous Centred AI Design principles, namely to ‘do no harm’.
Feminist Theory and International Law: Posthuman Perspectives and its chapter on regulating military technologies is an invitation. It is an invitation to closely examine debates, to not shy away from the difficult but to stay with the trouble. But the invite is also a call to action. The chapter shows how compliance and resistance should not be seen as a binary choice but rather as a continuum of operating modes. Moving away from binaries more broadly also opens up new ways of engaging with technology and AI.
It also provides pathways for engaging with other areas. Take discussions on sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) in international criminal law (ICL). Feminist scholarship often frames the way SGBV figures in ICL as ‘in spite’ – prosecutions in spite of neglect, testimonies in spite of cultures of shame. As I’ve argued, there is power in spite. Yet, it also suggests a dichotomy, an either/or that misses the complexity of how experiences of harm are translated into crimes and evidence, and how these can reinforce and create new hierarchies. And like Jones argues, there is a need to problematise the binaries, ask different questions and stay with the trouble. But like Jones’ argues regarding military technologies, there are also lines. In ICL, this is when the calls for prosecutions feed into carceral logics and reinforce patriarchal structures.
Jones’ invitation to stay with the trouble is thus not infinite or unconditional. And this is what makes it so rare. Her invitation and the way she engages with the debates is generous, and her description of the issues respectful and incisive. The way she brings to bear abstract theories on concrete examples is masterful. But she also articulates limits. She shows both the need to stay with the trouble and the need to sometimes step away. In her words, ‘While staying with the trouble maybe sometimes be necessary the trouble is sometimes too troublesome to be able to stay with’ (p. 109).