Saturday, November 3, 2012

Onuf and 'heteronomy'

Yesterday afternoon I drove to Baltimore and went to a couple of sessions at the ISA-NE conference (the program is here [pdf]). One of the sessions I attended was a roundtable on Nicholas Onuf's work.

At the roundtable Onuf made a reference or two to "heteronomous" orders. I couldn't recall how he used the word in his recently reissued 1989 book World of Our Making (it had been a long time since I'd looked at it), so earlier today I pulled my copy off the shelf and briefly perused ch.6, where the idea is discussed. To simplify, for Onuf "heteronomy" is a form (or "category") of rule (the other two being hierarchy and hegemony) in which exploitative social relations are disguised under a mantle of formal equality and the ruled (including workers dependent on the sale of their labor-power) in effect participate in their own oppression, under the illusion that they are exercising some sort of self-determination. Though the word "heteronomy" is taken from Kant, Onuf's description of a 'heteronomous' order (or form of rule) owes a good deal to Marx, as he acknowledges. 

As far as I'm aware, however, Onuf's use of 'heteronomy' has not been adopted, even by those who might agree with his analysis. Nor did the papers or subsequent discussion at the roundtable directly address this aspect of World of Our Making. Onuf sees exploitation as inevitable, as he makes clear at the end of the book, so perhaps it's not too surprising that, embedded as it is in a quite pessimistic worldview, the word 'heteronomy' as he uses it has not (again, as far I'm aware) caught on with those who might have been its natural constituency, namely Marxists (of one sort or another) and critical theorists. I stand open to correction in comments, as I'm not an expert on critical IR theory (or all the strands of constructivism, etc.).

P.s. I was not at the conference today, where there was a follow-on session "Whither Constructivism?" I hear that the debate was lively and I understand that ProfPTJ will be posting a recording of the session, which I will link to when it's available.

Update: PTJ has now posted the audio here. I'm planning to listen to it soon.

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