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Violence of war, ontopology, and the instrumental and performative constitution of the political community

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 July 2017

Klejda Mulaj*
Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics, University of Exeter
*Correspondence to: Klejda Mulaj, University of Exeter, Department of Politics, Amory Building, Rennes Drive, Exeter, EX4 4RJ, United Kingdom. Author’s e-mail:


This article considers a neglected question in International Relations, namely how violence of war contributes to the constitution of the political community at the intersection between war and peace. It exposes limitations of means-ends, instrumental understanding of war violence due to the overlooking of violence’s performative attributes stemming from the centrality of bodily injuries in war. The instrumental violence on which the constitution of the political community is grounded finds expression in an order of representation that can be termed ontopology, and a pervasive – circular – relationship between ontopology and violence insofar as ontopology has inspired extreme forms of human behaviour and also been used to justify violence as a means to enact an ontopological goal. Yet, recognising the role of bodily injuries in the course of fighting allows for a more complete understanding of war. Crucially it enables an interpretation of the structure of war as a relation between war’s interior content – casualties in war – and the exterior, verbal issues standing outside it (pertaining to security, identity, sovereignty, authority, ideology), that lead to a surrogate contest of reimagining political community in the process of which performative power of violence contributes directly to the emerging post-war peace and laws that justify it.

© British International Studies Association 2017 

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1 Peace is not only difficult to achieve, it is also a complex term that defies an all-encompassing definition. At a basic level, peace tends to be understood as absence of war or physical violence, a notion which Johan Galtung termed ‘negative peace’ as opposed to ‘positive peace’, which denotes structural conditions conducive to political equality and social and economic justice. Galtung, Johan, Peace by Peaceful Means: Peace and Conflict, Development and Civilisation (Oslo: PRIO, 1996)Google Scholar. However, in analytical terms it is not very helpful to define peace and war as opposites because peace and war carry the seeds of each other. ‘There are pieces of war in peacetime and pieces of peace in war.’ Christine Sylvester, ‘Experiencing war: an introduction’, in Christine Sylvester (ed.), Experiencing War (London: Routledge, 2011), p. 1. Violence can be present both in peace and war – as will be shown below.

2 Brighton, Shane, ‘Three propositions on the phenomenology of war’, International Political Sociology, 5:1 (2011), p. 101 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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4 Nisbet, Robert A., The Quest for Community: A Study in the Ethics of Order and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1953), p. 155 Google Scholar.

5 Ibid., pp. 156–7. Nisbet insisted that the state must not be regarded as a repressive force. The benign state that he advocated does not represent all states, however, even in the context of states’ interest and duty to protect their respective political community.

6 Linklater, Andrew, The Transformation of Political Community (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998), p. 1 Google Scholar.

7 Tilly, Charles (ed.), The Formation of National States in Western Europe (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975)Google Scholar; Mulaj, Klejda, ‘War and state-making at the end of empire: Ottoman collapse and the formation of the Balkan States’, Peace & Change: A Journal of Peace Research, 41:4 (2016)Google Scholar.

8 Derrida, Jacques, ‘The laws of reflection: Nelson Mandela, in admiration’, in Jacques Derrida and Mustapha Tlili (eds), For Nelson Mandela (New York: Seaver Books, 1987), p. 18 Google Scholar.

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11 Nordstrom, Carolyn, Shadows of War: Violence, Power, and International Profiteering in the Twenty-First Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 6061 Google Scholar.

12 Scarry, Elaine, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)Google Scholar, p. 63. The fact of injuring – injury as a central objective of war and its technologies – is largely absent from strategic and IR descriptions of war. Refer to Sylvester, Experiencing War; and Sylvester, Christine, War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis (London: Routledge, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 85.

14 Sylvester, War as Experience, pp. 3–4.

15 Ibid., p. 4.

16 Refer to Scarry, The Body in Pain, pp. 73, 80–1.

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18 Ibid.

19 Ibid., p. 45.

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22 Arendt, On Violence, p. 56.

23 Ibid.

24 Ibid., p. 51. There is not enough space here to discuss this point in more detail, but suffice to note that Arendt’s claim that power is an absolute, in the sense that it does not need justification/legitimation is not appealing to everyone. Indeed, the urge for legitimacy is a constant of virtually every aspect of political life. As Inis Claude has pointed out, ‘politics is not merely a struggle for power, but also a contest over legitimacy, a competition in which the conferment or denial, the confirmation or revocation, of legitimacy is an important stake’. Therefore, legitimacy is central to power and power relations in so far as it justifies and renders them acceptable. Claude, Inis, ‘Collective legitimation as a political function’, International Organization, 20:2 (1966), p. 368 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Arendt, On Violence, pp. 41–2.

26 Ibid., p. 53.

27 Ibid., pp. 4, 51.

28 Carl von Clausewitz, On War, trans, and ed. Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976).

29 Barkawi, Tarak and Brighton, Shane, ‘Powers of war: Fighting, knowledge and critique’, International Political Sociology, 5:2 (2011), p. 126 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

30 Concerns with the codification of the laws of war seem to have to do less with challenging violence of war or minimising it than with protection of warring armies from unlawful combatants. Refer, for instance, to Best, Geoffrey, Humanity in Warfare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), pp. 157215 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Nabulsi, Karma, Traditions of War: Occupation, Resistance, and the Law (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), esp. pp. 80 Google Scholar, 175–6.

31 Barkawi and Brighton, ‘Powers of war’, esp. pp. 129, 135; Gray, Colin S., Modern Strategy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.

32 Hanssen, Critique of Violence, p. 163.

33 Keane, John, Reflections on Violence (London: Verso, 1996), pp. 67 Google Scholar.

34 Kofman, Sarah, Smothered Words (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1998), p. 41 Google Scholar.

35 Norton, Ann, Reflections on Political Identity (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1988), p. 145 Google Scholar.

36 Nordstrom, Shadows of War, p. 63.

37 Yosmaoġlu, İpek, Blood Ties: Religion, Violence, and the Politics of Nationhood in Ottoman Macedonia, 1878–1908 (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2014), p. 172 Google Scholar.

38 See various chapters in Das, Veena, Kleinman, Arthur, Ramphele, Mamphela, and Reynolds, Pamela, Violence and Subjectivity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

39 Sylvester, War as Experience, pp. 66. Also p. 5.

40 Ibid., p. 65.

41 Levinas, Emmanuel, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. from French Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1961), p. 21 Google Scholar.

42 I thank an anonymous reviewer for suggesting this point.

43 Sylvester, War as Experience, p. 5.

44 Ibid., p. 11; Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 63.

45 In the context of this article, ‘violent conflict’, ‘armed conflict’, and ‘conflict’ are used interchangeably to mean a contested incompatibility between two or more parties – one at least being a government of a state – where the use of armed force results in at least 25 battle-related deaths per year. The threshold for an armed conflict to qualify as war is, usually, 1,000 battle-related deaths per year. Refer, for instance, to Uppsala University’s Department of Peace and Conflict Research, ‘Definition of Armed Conflict’, available at: {}; and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), ‘How is the Term “Armed Conflict” Defined in International Humanitarian Law?’, available at: {}.

46 For a rare endorsement of this point in the context of the Bosnian War, refer to Campbell, David, National Deconstruction: Violence, Identity, and Justice in Bosnia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998), esp. p. 84 Google Scholar.

47 Claude, Inis L. Jr, National Minorities: An International Problem (Cambridge, 1955), p. 1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1983), p. 1 Google Scholar. See also, Kohn, Hans, The Idea of Nationalism (New York: Macmillan, 1944)Google Scholar.

48 Yosmaoġlu, Blood Ties, p. 8.

49 Campbell, National Deconstruction, p. 13.

50 Ibid., p. 80.

51 Derrida, Jacques, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International, trans. from French Peggy Kamuf (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), pp. 102103 Google Scholar, emphasis in original.

52 This article suggests that ontopological interpretations form a common denominator in explanations of violence of modern warfare. However, it is not implied here that there are no other factors of explanation. Politics of war itself induce violence. Quality of political leaders is another important variable. So are structural and strategic considerations. The focus of this analysis, however, pertains to ontopology.

53 Brownlie, Ian, Principles of Public International Law (4th edn, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 561 Google Scholar.

54 Brownlie, Ian, International Law and the Use of Force by States (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963), p. 409 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

55 Derrida, Specters of Marx, pp. 102–3.

56 The term ‘refugee’ originated in the sixteenth century in the context of expulsion of religious minorities in Europe. In the eighteenth century the term referred to the expulsion of political dissidents. Zolberg, Aristide R., Suhrke, Astri, and Aguayo, Sergio, ‘International factors in the formation of refugee movements’, International Migration Review, 20:2 (1986), pp. 151169 (pp. 161–3)CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed.

57 Citations from Hobsbawm, E. J., Nations and Nationalism since 1780 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 91 Google Scholar. In this timespan that marked destabilisation and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire a number of historic wars took place: the Russo-Turkish War (1877–8); the Turco-Italian War (1911–12, known also as the Libyan War); and the Balkan Wars (1912–13) in the course of which there were large-scale uprooting of civilians.

58 Ladas, Stephen P., The Exchange of Minorities: Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey (New York: Macmillan, 1932), p. 19 Google Scholar.

59 Ibid., pp. 13, 38, 43.

60 Ibid., pp. 338, 340; Carlile A. Macartney, National States and National Minorities (London: Oxford University Press, 1934), pp. 440, 721.

61 Refer to Wachenheim, Hedwig, ‘Hitler’s transfers of populations in Eastern Europe’, Foreign Affairs, 20:4 (1942)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

62 Campbell, National Deconstruction, ch. 5.

63 John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Shrink Bosnia to save it’, New York Times (31 March 1993); John J. Mearsheimer and Robert A. Pape, ‘The answer: a partition plan for Bosnia’, The New Republic (14 June 1993). This logic underpinned a partition plan designed by the European Community’s Special Envoy, David Owen, and the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy, Cyrus Vance, known as the Vance-Owen Plan negotiated with the warrying parties in Bosnia in the first half of 1993.

64 Mearsheimer, John, ‘The case for partitioning Kosovo’, in T. Carpenter (ed.), NATO’s Empty Victory: A Postmortem on the Balkan War (Washington: CATO Institute, 2000)Google Scholar.

65 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen Van Evera, ‘Redraw the map, stop the killing’, New York Times (19 April 1999).

66 Sambanis, Nicholas and Schulhofer-Wohl, Jonah, ‘What’s in a line? Is partition a solution to civil war?’, International Security, 34:2 (2009), pp. 82118 (p. 113)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

67 See Joseph, Edward P. and O’Hanlon, Michael E., ‘The Case for Soft Partition in Iraq’, Brookings Analysis Paper, No. 12 (Washington, DC: Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution, June 2007)Google Scholar; Kaufmann, Chaim, ‘Living together after ethnic killing: In theory, in history, and in Iraq today’, in Mia Bloom and Roy Licklider (eds), Living Together after Ethnic Killing: Exploring the Chaim Kaufmann Argument (London: Routledge, 2006), pp. 277320 Google Scholar; and Eland, Ivan, Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq (Oakland, California: Independent Institute, 2009)Google Scholar.

68 Cited in Patrick Wintour, ‘John Kerry says partition of Syria could be part of “Plan B” if peace talks fail’, The Guardian (23 February 2016). See also, James Stavridis, ‘It’s time to seriously consider partitioning Syria’, Foreign Affairs (9 March 2016).

69 In a thorough and systematic study that assesses the risks and benefits of partition, Nicholas Sambanis and Jonah Schulhofer-Wohl found that partition does not work in general and that civil wars terminated through partition are likely to reoccur. Sambanis and Schulhofer-Wohl, ‘What’s in a line?’. See also, Sambanis, Nicholas, ‘Partition as a solution to ethnic war: an empirical critique of the theoretical literature’, World Politics, 52:4 (2000), pp. 437483 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

70 Adam R. Alexander, ‘The myth that partition will save the Middle East’, The National Interest (23 March 2016).

71 See, for instance, Kumar, Radha, ‘The troubled history of partition’, Foreign Affairs, 76:1 (1997)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ther, Philipp and Siljak, Ana (eds), Redrawing Nations: Ethnic Cleansing in East-Central Europe, 1944–1948 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001)Google Scholar.

72 Yosmaoġlu, Blood Ties, p. 83.

73 Winichakul, Tongchai, Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-body of a Nation (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), p. 17 Google Scholar, emphasis added.

74 The debate on how to respond to the problems of ontopology remains open. Campbell has proposed a non-ontopological multiculturalism as a radical critique of ontopology. Campbell, National Deconstruction, p. 169. Dan Bulley, however, has suggested that non-ontopological multiculturalism is impossible because it always retains elements of ontopology within itself. Bulley stresses the need for an ‘at-home’ as a basis for any hospitality. ‘In terms of Bosnian identity … a negotiating de-essentialised ontopological conception “at-home” would allow possibilities of articulating what it “is” to “be” “Bosnian”; of what “Bosnia” “is”. … It would permit the possibility of a hospitality, a welcoming of others… [A] negotiating de-essentialised ontopology allows the Bosnian “at-home” to enact an ethical relation to the other [Serbian and Croat] as host (hôte)’. Bulley, Dan, ‘Negotiating ethics: Campbell, ontopology and hospitality’, Review of International Studies, 32:4 (2006), pp. 645663 (p. 661)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Bulley’s argument is sophisticated but not entirely convincing. For one the referents of ‘topos’ (Whose topos?) and hospitality (Whose hospitality?) are not clear. Can war victims and their communities realistically be expected to show the hospitality Bulley advocates? And what exactly is ‘at-home’ in Bosnia, or Palestine, or Kurdish territories? Dangers of ontopological primacy manifested in genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes remain an ongoing challenge that may not be possible to overcome by theoretical negotiating between the poles of mono-cultural ontopology and non-ontopological multiculturalism.

75 Sylvester, War as Experience, p. 65.

76 Ibid.

77 On the structure of war, refer to Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 63.

78 Scarry, The Body in Pain, p. 128.

79 Ibid., p. 121.

80 Ibid., p. 124.

81 Brighton, , ‘Three propositions on the phenomenology of war’, p. 104 Google Scholar.

82 Hobsbawm, E., ‘Inventing traditions’, in E. Hobsbawm and T. Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983)Google Scholar; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 1983)Google Scholar; Winter, J. and Sivan, E. (eds), War and Remembrance in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)Google Scholar; Ashplant, T. G., Dawson, G., and Roper, M., ‘The politics of war memory and commemoration: Contexts, structures and dynamics’, in T. G. Ashplant, G. Dawson, and M. Roper (eds), The Politics of War Memory and Commemoration (London: Routledge, 2000)Google Scholar.

83 Refer to Anderson, Imagined Communities, pp. 6–7, 9–10.

84 Edkins, Jenny, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 229 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

85 Klejda Mulaj, ‘Genocide and the ending of war: Meaning, remembrance and denial in Srebrenica, Bosnia’, Crime, Law and Social Change (2017), Online First, available at: {}; Straus, Scott and Waldorf, Lars (eds), Remaking Rwanda: State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2011)Google Scholar.

86 Derrida, ‘Force of law’, pp. 13–14.

87 Finnis, John, Natural Law and Natural Rights (2nd edn, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 260 Google Scholar.

88 Derrida, ‘Force of law’, p. 16.

89 Ibid., p. 35.

90 Ibid., p. 36.

91 There are many interpretative issues in the Genocide Convention that can be challenged. Space does not allow this article to engage fully with the merits of the Convention. I refer briefly to two interpretative aspects – namely that of the limited assertion of genocidal intent and state responsibility for genocide – to give expression to Derrida’s point that interpretation, performative function, of law is violence without ground that depends entirely on who interprets the law. Unresolved, ‘violent’ matters of interpretation in the Genocide Convention can be raised also about meaning of ‘group’ (which in the Convention’s terms depend on ethnic formulations), and the expression ‘in whole or in part’. These are treated in Aquilina, Kevin and Mulaj, Klejda, ‘Limitations in attributing state responsibility under the Genocide Convention’, Journal of Human Rights, 16 (2017), doi: 10.1080/14754835.2017.1300521 Google Scholar. The legal definition of genocide is cited in the following footnote.

92 Article II of the Genocide Convention defines genocide as: ‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.’

94 Finnis, Natural Law and Natural Rights, p. 260.

95 International Court of Justice (ICJ), Bosnia and Hercegovina v. Serbia and Montenegro, 2007, ICJ Reports 2007 (I).

96 The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has referred to the concept of Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) in several of its judgements. See, in particular, ICTY, Prosecutor v. Duško Tadić, Appeal Judgement, Case No. IT-94-1-A (1999), paras 195–226, available at: {}. The ICTY returned to the JCE concept, most recently, in its Karadžić’s judgement. ICTY, Prosecutor v. Radovan Karadžić, IT-95-5/18-T, 2016, paras 560–70, 3237, 3524, 5680, 5731, 5737, 5821, 5831, 5849, and 5998. Para. 560: ‘When two or more persons act together to further a common criminal purpose, the jurisprudence of the Tribunal recognises three forms of criminal responsibility which may accrue to all members of the group. The first, “basic” category of JCE encompasses situations where all participants, acting pursuant to a common purpose, possess the same criminal intention to effectuate that purpose. The second, “systemic” form of JCE pertains to organised systems of ill-treatment. The third, “extended” type of JCE involves the liability of a JCE participant for a crime which falls outside the common purpose or design, but which is nevertheless a natural and foreseeable consequence of effectuating that common purpose.’ See {}.

97 Derrida, ‘Force of law’, p. 37.

98 Arendt, On Violence, p. 53.

99 Campbell, David and Dillon, Michael, ‘Introduction: the end of philosophy and the end of International Relations’, in David Campbell and Michael Dillon (eds), The Political Subject of Violence (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1993), p. 1 Google Scholar.

100 Derrida, Specters of Marx, pp. 102–3.

101 Sylvester, Experiencing War; Sylvester, War as Experience.