Critical resistances to the denial of coevalness in International Relations


Johannes Fabian’s famous critique of the discipline of anthropology in terms of the “denial of coevalness”—the move of locating difference as “there and then”, distant in both space and time from the modern self—has been recently incorporated into critical reflections on the field of International Relations. The article Resisting the denial of coevalness in international relations: provincializing, perspectivism, border thinking, recently published in the special issue Many Worlds, Many Theories? of the Revista Brasileira de Política internacional (Volume 59 – N. 2) looks into that encounter in order to shed light into both the limitations of dominant approaches in the field, and the complex field opened by the critique of the denial of coevalness in international politics.

On the one way, the concept of “denial of coevalness” leads to the rereading of the discursive association of “international order” with the notions of “international system” and “international society” in terms of the foreclosing of alternative worlds and theories. More specifically, “system” and “society” are shown to lock interpretations of international politics within logics of recurrence and expansion that make the field unable to respond to the encounter with the coevalness of “rest of the world”. Hence, we insist, to resist the political practice of denial of coevalness implies tracking paths towards alternative engagements with other, non-Western, worlds and theories.

On the other way, the paper looks into how a set of appropriations of Fabian’s theme into reflections on the International has produced different discursive strategies of resistance and, therefore, has led to a variety of ways of conceptualizing the engagement with alternative worlds and theories. More specifically, three such strategies and their relations are presented: Dipesh Chakrabarty’s strategy of provincializing; Blaney & Inayatullah’s strategy of perspectivism; and Walter Mignolo’s strategy of border thinking.

By reading these positions in relation to one another, it becomes possible to sketch the field of tensions that surround any project of thinking about difference in world politics beyond the logics of recurrence and expansion that underlie the uses of “international system” and “international society”.

Breakdown of the paper

In what regards the uses of “international system” in IR, the paper identifies how its importance led one form of knowledge—scientific systemic theory—and one object of knowledge—the “international system” as the structured reality of the encounter of like-units—to become predominant. Political units are thus always part of the “international system” and, therefore, always subject to its structure; this excludes, by definition, considerations of “race”, “gender”, “religion”, “colonization”, among others, from international politics. One is left with a single political unit, the State, atemporally defined as a rational actor within an anarchic environment.

The tracing of the uses of the concept of “international society” shows it works as a logical principle that, framing history, allows for both synchronic and diachronic studies of international relations and history and locates the field of IR within the wider problematic of the ambitions of modernization through historical development: all can be, and must be, part of international society and order. As with “international system”, alternative worlds and theories are subsumed under a history-made-logic and absorbed into a world constituted in Europe.

With Chakrabarty’s work, the logics of recurrence and expansion are shown to reproduce a mode of thinking that turns modernity into a global order that deny the coevalness of difference through the transition narratives of historicism. His strategy of provincializing is then foreground through his articulation of a relation between History 1 and History 2 in which the latter constantly interrupt the universalizing movement inscribed in the former. In this form of resisting the denial of coevalness, one cannot simply dismiss “universal history”; rather, the point is to allow for a reading that is sensitive to how the universal history of capital (and modernity) and the politics of human belonging interrupt each other’s narratives.

Blaney and Inayatullah’s strategy of perspectivism, in turn, is presented as pointing out how different cosmologies can be understood as coeval with modern capitalism, making it possible to locate, in the present, resources to re-imagine our future. This is the work of the counter-player: to read differences as explicit critiques to modern capitalism. Blaney and Inayatullah also signal another path: to learn to dwell in the place of indifference to capitalism that characterizes the non-player’s capacity to live a non-modern, non-capitalist life. Together, these two ‘modes’ articulate a resistance to the denial of coevalness in that sits uncomfortably with Chakrabarty’s.

Coming to Mignolo’s strategy of border thinking, the paper locates a call for an opening to forms of knowledge that have been colonized, silenced or repressed by the logic of coloniality through a more radical rejection of the categories of European modernity—thus also presenting a challenge to previous strategies of resistance. With that, it becomes possible to articulate alternatives to modernity, instead of variations within modern parameters. In that vein, resisting the denial of coevalness requires resisting the modern project itself in the name of a pluriverse in which many worlds can coexist.

Read the article:

Lage, Victor Coutinho, & Chamon, Paulo Henrique. (2016). Resisting the denial of coevalness in International Relations: provincializing, perspectivism, border thinking. Revista Brasileira de Política Internacional, 59(2), e006. Epub September 05, 2016.

Paulo Chamon is a PhD Candidate and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro – IRI/PUC-Rio (

Victor Coutinho Lage is a PhD Candidate and Adjunct Professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro – IRI/PUC-Rio, and Adjunct Professor at CPDOC/FGV (

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