What We Talked About At ISA: The Practice Turn and Global Ethics

We're talking about practice!

I want to address the use of practice theory in global ethics rather than International Relations or social science broadly. I am neither a social scientist nor a social theorist. My interests are in political and ethical theory, in asking questions about the good in political life. Nonetheless, questions of ethics are an important part of the turn to practice theory because such a reorientation has much to add to how we think about questions of global ethics. I also hope that my reflections on, and uses of, practice theory may be of interest to those who see themselves as social scientists.

In global ethics there is a constant concern with the issue of justification, with determining how we know what is right or good – and especially how we know that what we know is really right or good. What is surprising is how little time is spent considering the details of what is right or good in specific situations. This question it seems is already known, either because we can deduce it through some rational rule or distill it from some social tradition. This is a crude map, but hopefully adequate to place ourselves.

Even among more dissident scholars the focus is on how justifications fail, or how our justifications reproduce undesirable social consequences – the exclusion of the other, the marginalization of women – and these are absolutely vital insights. However, what remains under-examined is what we take to be right or wrong, good or bad, the substantive and at times contradictory content of our ethics. Along with this there is a lack of concern with how we think when we are being ethical, with what social role ethical claims have and with how social institutions and traditions depend upon ethical claims.

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American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”

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Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest. Continue reading

American Vignettes (I): Totalitarian Undercurrents

The airport is a totalitarian space; sometimes the truth is hyperbolic.

You re-enter the United States, land of your birth, as part of the stream of arriving passengers. It is an everyday experience. You leave the airplane slowly, on stiff limbs, trickling with the mass of travellers into Newark airport.

The imperatives are issued as soon as you enter the terminal building. No smoking. No cell phones. Stand in line. Fill in your declaration form. Foreigner here. Citizen there. Wait behind the red line till you are called. The armed immigration officer checks your papers, holding the power to pronounce your worthiness to enter this sanctified space.

Border Control

With the imperatives come the questions. Where are you coming from? Where are you going? As if the answers are clear. As if these are simple questions. The man with the gun, holding your passport, asks, “Where are you flying next?” But he already knows and he answers for you, “Chicago, on Friday.” This is a test.

“What were you doing in London?” You answer but the officer is not interested, he looks at you with an unarticulated accusation, why would you leave your homeland? Your suspect status is confirmed when he asks, “How long are you staying?” Until you please the armed man with your answers everyone is a foreigner no matter where they were born. Continue reading

Something in the Way of Things

Hip-Hop Head

When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.

Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.

William Connolly suggests that the political condition of late-modernity is to experience this impasse without means to bridge the gap.

In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.

Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.

The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.

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Call for Papers: The Power of Rights and/or the Rights of Power in Global Politics

Call for Papers for the 1st European Workshops for International Studies (EWIS), 5th – 8th June 2013, Tartu (http://www.sgir.eu/upcoming.php)

Workshop 12: The Power of Rights and/or the Rights of Power in Global Politics

Conveners: Louiza Odysseos and Anna Selmeczi

While detractors of human rights have long argued that they form the moral and intellectual keystone of a liberal hegemony, their proponents have countered that ‘human rights are meant to be good news for the underprivileged, the downtrodden, and the dispossessed’ (Dallmayr), historically demarcating the growing power of the king and, later, the state and today enabling the politics of resistance in symbolic, discursive and legal terms. This proposed workshop seeks to combine theoretical discussions and empirical examinations to explore how human rights are essential to both the sustenance of hegemony and to the politics of resistance in global politics. The workshop will examine how human rights instruments and discourses aim to curtail power while often legitimating and reinforcing its operations in distinct political and ethical ways. It will facilitate discussions exploring how rights ‘enable disciplinary projects’ (Golder) by channeling practices of resistance into legal frameworks that delimit campaigns for justice. Central to its objectives is to assess how human rights also provide opportunities for challenging such projects of power, opportunities that are grounded on a rethinking of humanity as the ‘community of the governed’ understood within the history of colonialism.

A number of scholars have expressed interest in interrogating this important dualism of human rights. The workshop therefore would generate discussions about the emergence of human rights’ subjectivities and discourses within struggles towards emancipation that have had varying success in challenging preexisting power relations, for example, in the recent waves of protest in the Middle East. Other potential contributions would analyse how neoliberal technologies of governing use the discourses of human worth to discipline human rights in cases of immigration; how the tension between human and positive rights incites resistance practices by political subjects in the case of undocumented migrants; how, in varied geographical locations such as India, South Africa, Italy and Mexico, neoliberal governmental rationalities deny the subjectivity of the rights-bearing citizen to the poor; how direct action by activists seeks to reconstruct particular rights as strategies of resistance, such as the right to housing in the midst of the global financial crisis.

Please submit your 200 words abstract online through the EWIS website:
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/viewform?formkey=dC05d3BnaVp4V3R3b2NCVXV3bmxoM2c6MQ.

Deadline: 15 December 2012. Applicants will be notified by 15 January 2013 about the outcome of the selection process.