New World Disorders

UPDATE (9 October): And now welcoming Jairus Grove!


Old But Not Wise

We are almost four years old. Four! And like any unnatural creature, we require the lifeblood of others to survive. And the odd bit of cosmetics for our decaying visage. Thus there is a new look, and a joyous bundle of new residents to introduce. Those that have visited with us before are already featured on that there sidebar, and will be joined by the rest as posts tumble forth.

Please be upstanding in your welcome for the following chumrades:

  • Charmaine Chua is a Ph.D. Candidate at the University of Minnesota, where she toils over critical political economy, postcolonial theory, logistics, and the international division of labor. In the next year, she will be conducting field research with activists and maritime workers in Long Beach, Singapore, and on a 90,000 ton container ship traveling from Los Angeles to Taiwan. She plans to climb containers for sport in between interviews.
  • Jairus Victor Grove teaches the future at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. Receiving his PhD from John Hopkins, his work has since encompassed cybernetics, drone war, materialism (the new kind), improvised explosive devices, and ecology, all by way of political theory. There are ways to leverage contemporary technologies in order to hear his voice and see his face.
  • Laleh Khalili teaches and researches Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Her latest book is Time In The Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, which last year also happened to win both the Susan Strange best book prize from BISA and the International Political Sociology best book prize at ISA. You can also follow her intellectual adventures in the politics of transport infrastructure at The Gamming.

Rendition and Exception in the Carceral Archipelago

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.

Continue reading

Acting Time; Or, Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict

Pitt Jolie ESVC Pictures

The 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

The Onuf Principles

Nicholas Onuf recently gave an interview over at e-IR. Several people of our acquaintance shared the tail-end of that, in which he is prompted to dispense career advice. Although opinions are indeed like assholes, these are good enough to elevate far above the gutter.


Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

Original image by Stéphanie Saramago

1. Preparing at length for classes does not make you a better teacher. Insofar as it dampens spontaneity, students will think you are boring; this will undercut the self-confidence you thought your lengthy preparations had purchased for you. And, of course, it steals valuable time from your scholarship.

2. Writing is a craft; writing well takes most of us a great deal of work. The usual practice is to think of a problem or issue, formulate a project, do ‘research,’ and then write it up. Bad idea. Keep writing at every stage, even if, in the end, you throw out most of what you have written. Writing makes the problem clearer, points up what more you need to do in the way of research, and, most of all, keeps your writing skills well-honed.

3. Don’t send sloppy, badly crafted papers out for review. As a frequent referee, I see them all too often. Many referees will punish you, not always consciously, for doing so, even if they think you are on to something. Once you think you have a well-crafted piece of work, do send it out, because most referees and editors take their duties seriously and will give you valuable feedback.

4. Be cautious about taking on collaborative projects. We all know that scholarship is a lonely occupation. Collaboration reduces the loneliness quotient and can result in better work than any of the collaborators could have produced on their own. It can also result in a piece of work that no one is entirely happy with. Sometimes collaboration causes damaging tension and bad feelings because of temperamental differences, greater or lesser commitment to the project, and perceived inequities in the distribution of work. All that said, collaborating with my brother on two book projects was hugely rewarding. That it might have been hugely risky never occurred to us.

5. Be even more cautious in participating in symposium projects. Their thematic foci may not match your interests very well; they tend to be superficially refereed and thus are not taken seriously; they also tend to disappear quickly from view. There are exceptions—symposia that mark major developments in the field—but you’ll have a pretty good idea if a particular symposium project has that potential. As a senior scholar, I contribute to symposia because it is fun to do projects with friends and I can afford the luxury. Most of all, avoid editing symposium volumes. This involves collaboration under the most difficult conditions. It is extraordinarily time consuming. Wrangling recalcitrant contributors is too often a thankless and disheartening responsibility.

6. Do not take on too many projects at one time. You will spread yourself too thin, miss deadlines, and make it all the more likely that you will succumb to the 90% rule—you run out of steam when any given project is 90% done and only needs some fine-tuning to be sent off. You will end up with a drawer full of nearly done projects that you have progressively lost interest in and will therefore never finish.

7. Dissertations are apprentice projects, immediately recognisable as such. Turning a dissertation into a book is probably the smart thing to do, but it will often take longer than writing the dissertation did. For most of us, it takes five years to write a good book; World of Our Making took me ten years. Whether you have that much time, institutionally speaking, is another matter.

8. Read every day. When I get up in the morning (early) and get my coffee, I read for 45 minutes. In my case, it has always been something that I do not have to read for whatever I am doing at the time. While this has broadened me immeasurably, for many scholars, a fixed time for reading is an opportunity — perhaps the only opportunity — to keep up on the literature in the field.

9. Whether to jump on a trend in the field’s scholarship, try anticipating a trend, come late to a trend but treat it critically, jump around from thing to thing, or plug away at something few others seem to be interested in is a tricky question, having much to do with temperament. It requires you to ask yourself how ambitious you are, how much you need validation from others, how long you can stayed focused on one thing, et cetera.

10. On the assumption that you are smarter than most people (or you would not be a scholar), seek out people whom you know to be smarter than you in various obvious ways. On the one hand, the more of these people you know, the less intimidating you will find them, and the more you will learn from them. On the other hand, knowing really smart people will remind you of your own limitations and help you be less arrogant. Arrogance is, of course, a constant hazard in our line of work.

Open Access, Institutionalised?: Or, Another Reason Why International Relations Is Failing As An Intellectual Project

Soc Sci Tweet

The American Sociological Association (ASA) has announced that it will launch an (as-yet unnamed) open access general sociology journal as soon as possible (this year, maybe next). Its proposed features are a mix of traditional and new: there will be start-up cash and a stipend for Editors, peer-review is to be on the standard, appropriately ‘prestigious’ model (but expedited and light on style corrections), a traditional publisher (SAGE) is involved, authors will retain copyright, there will be no hard copies and therefore no limit on how much can be published in any given time period, all articles (accepted or not) will be subject to a $25 processing fee, and a variable tariff of Article Processing Charges (APCs) will be implemented, from free for scholars from “non-competitive” countries to $100-150 for students and $700 for non-members (for the first 12 months, APCs can also be waived, no questions asked).

The editors at Sociological Science (one of whom we interviewed last month) have noticed that this borrows heavily from their own initiative. Sniping aside, this is surely all to the good. An indication that major academic institutions are, at last, taking open access seriously. Not quite overhauling their systems, but adopting publishing platforms considerably more reasonable than the $3,000 APCs and business-as-usual structure previously threatened. This is an important point, since it supports the claim of some OA advocates that APCs may be financially better for the academy than historical subscription rates (I leave exacting comparisons of costs and the burden of double-dipping during any transition to one side). The problem has always been that the prestige economy (and therefore the social reproduction of universities) is not venue-blind. Low cost APCs in marginal journals are therefore of little help for those still seeking the (shrinking) securities of a formal academic post. But when the reputational power of learned societies is applied, it becomes much easier to envision a world of reputable (and hopefully high quality) open access journals charging APCs at a lower net cost than we currently pay through library subscription models.

The ASA is a powerhouse in these terms, and enjoys more market influence than the International Studies Association (boasting 13,000 members to our 7,000). It is all but inevitable that the mainstreaming of open access in this way will put the squeeze on the smaller open access journals, very many of which are labours of love, and some of which seem to actively treasure their reputation as insurgents or irrelevancies. If we want more material (and particularly the kind of material that carries value in an academic market) to be open access, imitation is the right kind of problem to have. Cultural Anthropology is another example of that shift (we got the gossip from them too last year), funding an open access conversion through the largest section of the 12,000 member American Anthropological Association.

Journal Profits

Profitability data from Harvie et al., 2012.

And yet this scenario is once again an embarrassing one for International Relations, which otherwise likes to imagine itself the most engaged and relevant of disciplines (state power! trade rounds! war and peace!). Continue reading

The Marking Boycott And Its Aftermath

Justice League Super Hero Strike

In the face of a UK higher education marking boycott due to start in 11 days time, universities have come forth with a new pay offer. Having unilaterally imposed a 1% rise (read: real terms cut) for 2013/14, they are now proposing 2% for 2014/15, with a small bonus for those on the lowest band to bring them up to a living wage level (at Sussex, that’s an increase on the existing annual pay of £13,621). A consultative ballot is open to union members, and the boycott is delayed. It seems likely that there will be appetite for the deal, given the general tone of despondency and how drained staff are by repeated small scale actions and by mounting work pressures. There had, after all, been doubts that a boycott could compete with aggressive tactics from management (including threats to deduct full pay from anyone who participated in the boycott).

We might be emboldened by this concession from UCEA (the employers’ association). It shows, as more ‘militant’ elements had predicted, that greater returns would be achieved with the threat of a marking boycott than with all the 2-hour and single day strikes put together.[1] A first offer, before the boycott has even begun. Could we not win more than these peanuts (only just a real terms increase, following five cuts in a row, going by Consumer Price Index)?

Sort of.

Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).


Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did then not seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the root to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. Continue reading