Rendition and Exception in the Carceral Archipelago

18 Aug

Given half the chance
They danced around the truth
For most of my youth
Like you’re really going to jump off that roof
You lived your life
In a perfect paradise
The sun always shone
On your beaches with lies

- Leatherface, ‘Diego Garcia’ (2010)

Diego Garcia US Navy SeaBees

In October 2005, then Foreign Office Minister Kim Howells stood before Parliament and reported that the UK government had granted no requests for extraordinary rendition in any part of British territory or airspace, and was aware of no such use. Critics – who suspected that the UK was indeed complicit in rendition for torture – pressed the point. So in December Jack Straw, who was Foreign Secretary, explained that “careful research” within government had turned up no evidence of renditions since 9/11 in UK spaces (land, air, or sea) and, again, no requests. The very next day Straw was giving evidence to the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and was asked about the possibility of an investigation along similar lines as other EU states. Came the forceful reply:

I do not think that there is any case whatsoever for such an investigation here…I did what it is my duty to do, which is to provide a thorough comprehensive answer. That has been done. It has produced a nil return. Unless we all start to believe in conspiracy theories and that the officials are lying, that I am lying, that behind this there is some kind of secret state which is in league with some dark forces in the United States, and also let me say, we believe that Secretary Rice is lying, there simply is no truth in the claims that the United Kingdom has been involved in rendition full stop, because we have not been, and so what on earth a judicial inquiry would start to do I have no idea.

Conspiracies! Dark forces. Lies and secret states, no less. By January 2006, Howells was again reporting to MPs that all relevant Foreign Office records and recollections had been checked, implying that no proof of rendition had been discovered. Two years later David Miliband, who replaced Straw, was forced to admit that two renditions in fact did pass through the island of Diego Garcia in 2002 (Blair, pathetically: “We have just been informed by the United States of America about what has actually happened”). Suspicions were somewhat confirmed, but it was all a long time ago, and there was a change of Prime Minister, and then of government. While rendition-torture didn’t exactly go away, it faded from view. But it has resurfaced. Last month we discovered that some crucial records are incomplete due to ‘water damage’. Because if you have files pertinent to a major foreign policy controversy, why not store them that badly? Never mind that Ministers had previously argued that they wouldn’t be keeping notes anyway, and had to rely on assurances from the Americans (an “error” in US records was the culprit). Kettle logic, again.

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Modelling Worlds: The Politics of Simulation

12 Aug

A guest post from Nathan Coombs who is an incoming Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He edits the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Politics of the Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). His current research interests are in financial algorithms and financial regulation. He can be contacted at n.coombs (at)



Over the last decade, scholars have become increasingly interested in what we do when we make use of models and simulations. An emerging consensus – often legitimated through reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory – is that mathematical models and computer simulations are not passive tools but rather a material force in their own right. Agents may employ such technologies in order to achieve pre-determined ends, but the technologies themselves have an effectivity that exceeds their users’ intentions, and set in place path-dependencies that serve to proscribe the range of political and economic possibility.

This concern with the politics of technology cuts across multiple disciplines including Sociology, Communication Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy, and Management Studies. However, the Social Studies of Finance (SSF) has perhaps gone furthest in exploring the practical implications of modelling and simulation technologies. Applying Austinian and Barnesian notions of performativity, researchers in this field have sought to grasp the way in which economic models shape markets, and to dig into the mathematical and technical details that underpin this process.

Donald MacKenzie’s book An Engine, Not a Camera (2008) is exemplary of this approach, and a common point of reference for scholars in SSF and all the aforementioned disciplines. In his analysis of the development and uptake of the Black-Scholes option-pricing model in the 1970s, MacKenzie aims to show how the model’s employment of the efficient market hypothesis – where stock prices are considered to accurately reflect their risk – led to a period in which the pricing of options came to reflect that predicted by the model. The point of MacKenzie’s analysis is not to endorse the neoclassical economic assumptions codified in the model. Rather, it is to point out how models serve to socially facilitate evaluation practices in the face of complexity, uncertainty, and epistemological opacity. On this basis a model can also contribute to financial instability when it is both widely employed and based on assumptions that are confounded by ‘real world’ contingencies.

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Black Academia in Britain

28 Jul

The last few years have witnessed a growing concern with the challenges that peoples of African heritage – whoI will define in this blog as Black peoples – face working and studying in the UK higher education system. Issues of the relative absence of Black people in influential positions have taken centre stage, alongside the direct and indirect discrimination that both black students and staff might confront. These are long standing issues. Indeed, for a number of years now, some British Black academics have made careers in North America more easily than in their domicile country. 

These challenges have been met by various recent initiatives, for example, a concerted effort to formally institute a British Black Studies, and the creation of a network of Black British Academics. To repeat, concerns as to the presence and experience of Black people in British academia are by no means new. But these concerns have been re-engaged with in a new context marked by austerity, the growing internationalisation of universities, and the radical changes to the public university system in Britain implemented by the coalition government who  are turning “multiversities” into “monoversities” organized singularly along the lines of commercial logic and interest.

Having been involved in a small way in recent re-engagements with the place and standing of Black academics and staff in UK academia I thought I would take stock and look at a few recent statistical and qualitative studies that appraise the state of Black academia in Britain, from both an academic and student standpoint.

Before I start, though, I want to say a few words about the internal composition of Black peoples in the UK. According to the 2011 Census, Black people now compose 3.3% of the population. However, the pronounced immigration over the last twenty or so years of peoples from the African continent has significantly shifted the demographics and dynamics of the Black population itself. Whereas, in the 1950s to 80s, Black Britain referred primarily to the “historical” African Diaspora – mainly those from an African-Caribbean background – it now predominantly refers to a new Diaspora with a continental background.

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Dispatches from the Robot Wars; Or, What is Posthuman Security?

24 Jul

Audra MitchellA guest post from Audra Mitchell, who is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York. Audra is a Fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (2014-15) and has held or will hold visiting fellowships at the Universities of Queensland, Edinburgh and Melbourne. She is the author or editor of three books: International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity? (Routledge, 2014); Lost in Transformation: Violent Peace and Peaceful Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2011) and (ed. with Oliver Richmond) Hybrid Forms of Peace: From the ‘Everyday’ to Postliberalism (Palgrave, 2011), as well as articles in Security Dialogue, Review of International Studies, MillenniumBritish Journal of Politics and International Relations, Third World Quarterly, and Alternatives, amongst others. She blogs at Worldy IR. Audra’s current research project explores how mass extinction challenges the ontological and ethical underpinnings of ‘security’.

“So when are the intergalactic robot wars coming?” This is a question I’ve been asked (more than once) by colleagues who’ve heard that I’m working on posthumanist thought and international security. The implication is that what I’m doing is a kind of science fiction. Well, there’s definitely science (including robots – see below) and a rich fictional literature to draw on, but it’s not taking place in a galaxy far, far away. It’s very much rooted in, and attuned to, this planet.

‘Posthuman security’ is an umbrella term I’m using to talk about a recent surge in thinking and writing at the nexus of posthumanist philosophy, security and ethics. It starts from the proposition that international security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Diverse beings other than humans are implicated in the conditions of (in)security. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security and the ways that we define them. This, in turn, challenges the engrained notion that the human is the ultimate referent object of security, ethics and philosophy.

Mojave Desert Ecology

Indeed, another question I get asked frequently is “are you critiquing human security?” The answer is both yes and no. The norm of human security epitomizes a humanist turn in the last two decades of international thought, also reflected in the fields of humanitarianism and norms such as Responsibility to Protect. These frameworks have carved out a space for themselves within international ethics by framing a specific image of the human individual as the focal point of security, ethics and, by extension the universe. So, of course, adopting a post-human (or more-than-human) approach to security means challenging and deconstructing these influential paradigms. But this new discourse is not simply a critique of existing frameworks. Posthuman security thinking offers a number of distinct, positive contributions to international security, ontology and ethics.

The term itself is highly contestable – and should be contested. Continue reading

Metrics: An Addendum on RAE / REF

24 Jun

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts...

We have had overwhelming support from a wide range of academics for our paper on why metrics are inappropriate for assessing research quality (200+ as of June 22nd). However, some have also posed interesting follow-up questions on the blog and by email which are worth addressing in more depth. These are more REF-specific on the whole and relate to the relationship between the flaws in the current system and the flaws in the proposed system. In my view the latter still greatly outweigh the former but it is useful to reflect on them both.

Current REF assessment processes are unaccountable and subjective; aren’t metrics a more transparent, public and objective way of assessing research?

The current REF involves, as the poser of the question pointed out, small groups of people deliberating behind closed doors and destroying all evidence of their deliberations. The point about the non-transparency and unaccountability of this process is an important one to keep in mind.

The question is then posed, are metrics more transparent, public and objective? On a surface level, metrics are more ‘transparent’ because they are literally visible (public) and given a number, making them easily rankable. But what they represent, as we argued in our paper, is fundamentally non-transparent given the wide variety of reasons there might be for citing work, and more besides those we cited. In fact, it is the very simulation of transparency in the use of a numerical marker that becomes threatening to the act of actually reading work for assessment purposes. Continue reading

Acting Time; Or, Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

17 Jun

Pitt Jolie ESVC PicturesThe attention lavished on sexual violence in conflict last week was in many ways unprecedented. As well as convening the largest ever gathering of officials, NGOs and other experts for the Global Summit on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, co-chairs William Hague (Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland) and Angelina Jolie (Special Envoy of the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees) also generated very many pages – both print and digital – of commentary. In some myopic quarters, that achievement was in itself a distraction from the really important politics of blossoming conflict in Iraq. Such views should remind us that there are still those who insist on seeing gender violence as marginal to international peace and security. Worthy, yes, “no doubt important”, obviously a cause for concern, and so on, but naturally not the real deal.

Since the Summit’s close on Friday, there have also been criticisms of a different sort. A protest on the first day drew attention to the asylum and refugee policies of Her Majesty’s Government, and the ways in which survivors of sexual violence were being mistreated on the British mainland. The Foreign Office raised awareness in part through one-dimensional stories of crazy monsters in the hinterlands of barbarism. The “weapon of war” framework was ubiquitous, but no less problematic for that (see also). Although the Summit made space for youth delegates, UN entities, amateur hackers, foreign ministers, survivors, doctors, lawyers, celebrities, military officers and the odd NGO, academics (and our directly relevant research) were barely at the table. Some myths were therefore recycled. Delegates insisted on using rape survivors as props for their own journeys of self-discovery. I met a women in Panzi Hospital and what she told me broke my heart, etcetera. Some national representatives seemed only just to have discovered the existence of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325, which urged the participation of women in military and political settings at all levels. That was, um, 14 years ago. John Kerry, amongst others, appeared to believe that rape in war was not yet illegal, but that we could make it so if we really put our minds to it.

The Fringe events were themselves a source of considerable disappointment. Angelina opened proceedings by assuring us that “our” institutions protected us from rape, and prosecuted it ably when it did occur, whilst “they” (we all know who) need our help because they are confined to refugee camps. There was a staged ‘trial’ of the afore-mentioned Resolution 1325, in which an all-white panel of lawyers and faux-judges, including Cherie Booth QC, took the testimony of African witnesses. You could buy various goods made by (or meant to help) rape survivors in the “bustling” Fringe marketplace, and the official programme recommended that you “treat yourself” by doing so. All of this (including the less appalling and more considered exhibits) seemed removed from the set piece debates upstairs. If the Foreign Secretary really did refuse to meet with four Nobel Laureates – some of whom are themselves survivors of political rape – then clearly civil society (that vague but essential category) was being neglected.

Those accumulated complaints can be dismissed as relatively trivial if the Summit gets even some way to achieving its stated aim of ending sexual violence in conflict.[1]  Continue reading

Why Metrics Cannot Measure Research Quality: A Response to the HEFCE Consultation

16 Jun

Pacioli Euclid Measurement

Update 24th June: 7,500+ views, 100s of shares, 200+ signatories! And a new post with some responses to further issues raised.

The Higher Education Funding Council for England are reviewing the idea of using metrics (or citation counts) in research assessment. We think using metrics to measure research quality is a terrible idea, and we’ll be sending the response to them below explaining why. The deadline for receiving responses is 12pm on Monday 30th June (to If you want to add an endorsement to this paper to be added to what we send to HEFCE, please write your name, role and institutional affiliation below in the comments, or email either ms140[at] or p.c.kirby[at] before Saturday 28th June. If you want to write your own response, please feel free to borrow as you like from the ideas below, or append the PDF version of our paper available here.

Response to the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment
June 2014

Authored by:
Dr Meera Sabaratnam, Lecturer in International Relations, SOAS, University of London
Dr Paul Kirby, Lecturer in International Security, University of Sussex


Whilst metrics may capture some partial dimensions of research ‘impact’, they cannot be used as any kind of proxy for measuring research ‘quality’. Not only is there no logical connection between citation counts and the quality of academic research, but the adoption of such a system could systematically discriminate against less established scholars and against work by women and ethnic minorities. Moreover, as we know, citation counts are highly vulnerable to gaming and manipulation. The overall effects of using citations as a substantive proxy for either ‘impact’ or ‘quality’ could be extremely deleterious to the standing and quality of UK academic research as a whole.

Why metrics? Why now? Continue reading


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