Photo by Dylan Hunter on Unsplash, Routledge book cover.

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Chapter 2 of Emily Jones’s rich and generative new book, Feminist Theory of International Law Posthuman Perspectives, draws attention to all the ways in which humans and machines “are already working together to make life/death decisions” (p.81). However, because the legal and ethical debate surrounding so-called lethal autonomous weapons systems (LAWS) imagines humans and machines to be, by nature, separate and separable, these deadly collaborations in which they are already engaged tend to fly “under the radar of the LAWS debate” (p.83). Posthuman feminist insights are offered in this chapter as a corrective to this analytical and regulatory mistargeting—a way to ensure the effectiveness of “any possible regulation or ban on new and emerging military technologies” (p.59).

This is a persuasive argument, illuminated by an array of fascinating examples of military technologies already blurring human/nonhuman, manual/automated, dependent/autonomous divides. Whether pharmaceutically enhanced or guided by a wearable gunfire location system (p.81), the human warrior is already subject to techno-machinic enhancement, Jones shows. Meanwhile, automated targeting systems such as the Patriot enshrine humans in a nominally controlling role while negating that control operationally. As one US Army engineering psychologist has written elsewhere, “calling for reliable supervisory control over a complex automated system is an unreasonable performance expectation” to make of humans. Debates about existing and prospective regulatory constraints on LAWS miss this military mingling entirely when they fixate on patrolling an ideal boundary between human and machine, Jones argues. This allows the development of human-machine combinatory military technology to continue unchecked while those responsible for its relentless advance, such as the UK, champion their commitment to prospective legal constraint on boundaries that are supposedly yet to be crossed.

It is the posthuman feminist challenge to ando- and anthropocentrism that enables this Biblical falling of scales from eyes in the LAWS debate, according to this chapter. In Jones’s hands, posthuman feminism can be “appl[ied]” (p.59) or “used” (p.60) to correct the LAWS debate’s misalignment with technology and ensure a closer correspondence between regulatory initiatives and the military capabilities that they would curtail. This sets the stage for Chapter 3’s later advancement of “alternative regulatory solutions” (p.83). At the same time, posthuman feminism might also strip occlusions from the xenofeminist enthusiasm for technology, Jones suggests. By “speak[ing] back” (p.59) to feminist technological utopianism from a posthuman vantage point, Jones urges feminists to keep the “dark sides of technological development” in view (p.62).

There may be advantages to having posthuman feminism deliver policy payoffs of this kind: that is, to showing how posthuman feminist insights might add value to prevailing legal and policy debates. Nonetheless, this instrumentalization of posthuman feminism may have down sides too. To suggest, as Jones does, that posthuman feminism can be used instrumentally by legal scholars to challenge prevailing debates risks reinstating the very human/nonhuman hierarchy that posthuman feminism would have us question. In this instantiation, the strategically savvy scholar bends the theory, text, system, artefact to her critically-enhanced will in order to deliver an interpretation that will prove more “[e]ffective” (p.59) for ostensibly pre-agreed purposes—those of “regulat[ing] [military technologies] [more] appropriately” (p.83) by broadening the scope and representational capture of the LAWS debate. The text, system, or artefact in question is presumed always amenable to doing the instrumental bidding of the scholar armed with posthuman feminist insight—that is, to being made more “useful” (p.60) to encapsulate and regulate the world. Yet the scholar herself remains strangely uninterpellated by that practice. And there is no “speak[ing] back” (p.59) by the theory instrumentalized to the scholar wielding it; no sense in which posthuman feminism seems likely to resist this use. This seems at odds with some key posthuman feminist insights. For instance, it appears in tension with the posthuman feminist emphasis on non-representationalist writing and reading: that is, writing and reading that do not aspire to mirror or discipline the world so much as contribute to the enactment or materialization of worlds. Likewise, it takes little account of posthuman feminist extensions of Marxist theories of interpellation whereby the action of theorising involves writing the scholar, her scholarship, and all the elements that scholarship presupposes into effect conjunctively.

Among the possible “dark sides” (p.62) or unintended consequences of this instrumentalization of posthuman feminism is the implication that those techno-military developments “flying under the radar of the LAWS debate” (p.83) are not already otherwise enabled by law. On this basis, it becomes plausible to suggest, as Jones does, that what is needed to arrest or second-guess further techno-military accumulations of lethal force is to arrive at “alternative regulatory solutions” in the public international law arena (p.83). What is made comparatively less urgent is any call to actively dismantle or reengineer aspects of the robust regulatory architecture already in place (in national and international private and commercial law, as well as international law on the use of armed force including treaties such as the NATO treaty) insofar as it helps to defend the bottom line of Raytheon and other advanced military technology providers. In other words, an instrumental approach focused on international law’s shortfall makes it seem that international law is new to the scenes of life/death decision-making on which Jones’s chapter focuses, thereby exonerating it from prior complicity in that lethal work.

These are serious concerns. Even so, perhaps there is no need to imagine legal scholars choosing between a search for new “alternative regulatory solutions” (p.83) along the lines that Jones sketches and a less instrumentally- oriented, experimental practice of unravelling and reworking existing laws. Perhaps posthuman feminist work can advance on multiple fronts in a kind of Schlieffen plan for legal counterconduct amid the twenty-first-century military-industrial complex. Emily Jones’s book certainly suggests that scholarly work in this field is powerful and dynamic enough to enliven that prospect.

Fleur Johns

Fleur Johns is a professor in the Faculty of Law & Justice at the University of New South Wales (UNSW Sydney), an Australian Research Council Future Fellow (2021-2025), and a visiting professor at the University of Gothenburg (2021-2024).

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