Dirty Work and Deadly Agents: A (Dis)Embodied Weapons Treaty and the Illusion of Safety

By Casper, Monica J.; Moore, Lisa Jean | Women's Studies Quarterly, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Dirty Work and Deadly Agents: A (Dis)Embodied Weapons Treaty and the Illusion of Safety


Casper, Monica J., Moore, Lisa Jean, Women's Studies Quarterly


We recently called for a new "ocular ethic" for making sense of the relationship between visibility and invisibility of human bodies in the twenty-first century (Casper and Moore 2009). Drawing on six diverse but interrelated case studies ranging from infant mortality to HIV/ AIDS in Africa to Lance Armstrong s testicular cancer, in Missing Bodies we ethnographically mapped the processes by which we see or do not see certain bodies and what this "witnessing" has to do with power and the politics of gender, race, class, sexuality, citizenship, age, and geography. We have begun to employ our t/methodological project to investigate new sites where (in)visibility matters. Committed to feminist and sociological methods, our critical attention to visibility and the ocular ethic is based on empirical research and is deeply attentive to social structures.

We focus our analytical lens here on connections between national security, arms control, and the shifting gender politics of laboring bodies. We are specifically interested in how an international treaty, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), reflects a strategic rationality aimed at eliminating deadly weapons but uses the abstract language of states with very little textual reference to human bodies (see also Dawes 1999). And yet implementation of the CWC, as we show, relies on, among other things, the invisible work of men at hazardous disposal sites. What does it mean, we ask, when ideals of global security and safety are achieved by risking some bodies for the sake of others? Who can be (made) safe in a world with chemical weapons, even as these noxious munitions are being slowly eradicated? Will obliteration of chemical weapons make everybody safe and secure, as the treaty's architects seem to imply? And how do global treaties and the domestic practices they instigate both reveal and extend structural inequalities? We show that safety and risk operate in juxtaposition, such that concepts as broad and vague as "homeland security" may mean safety for some but only at the expense of others.

Inspired by Foucault (1979/2010) and contemporary scholars of biosecurity and human security (e.g., Collier, Lakoff, and Rabinow 2004; Berman 2007), we interrogate the (dis)embodied qualities of the CWC. We reveal it principally, and perhaps unsurprisingly, as an instrument of governmentality in the service of global arms control. That is, through the CWC policy makers seek to produce secure - but not inevitably safe - global subjects who will adhere to and ostensibly benefit from some version of peace; of course, this works only if certain people are subjected to bodily risks in the name of security. Ideals of security, then, do not necessarily translate into safety for all human beings. Indeed, by bringing workers into our analytical frame, by making them visible, we illustrate how embodied labor facilitates success of the CWC and its policy goals. In short, the collision of disembodied rationality with lived experiences represents a hierarchy of abstract goals over situated practices. The lofty ideals and rhetoric of security trump the practical realities of community relations; basic human safety in the workplace; and the needs and rights of citizens to live in clean, safe environments.

In what follows, we investigate and interpret the ways in which human bodies are simultaneously erased in bureaucratic governmental treaties and used in the nitty-gritty of executing the treaty's provisions. After providing a historical overview of chemical weapons in the United States, we describe our fieldwork and data-gathering strategies. Moving through our analysis of the consequences of creating a treaty without specific consideration of and engagement with human bodies, we then examine our ethnographic data to interpret how men actually work in chemical weapons disposal and what this means in terms of masculinity and security practices. We conclude with observations about the broader implications of "safety" as both ideology and practice and how this relates to governmentality and arms control, rhetorics of national/global security, and the dangerous work of human bodies. …

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