What We Talked About At ISA: ‘Afghan Masculinities': The Construction of the Taliban as Sexually Deviant

Taliban 1

The paper I presented earlier this month at the International Studies Annual Conference held in San Francisco looks at how Afghan masculinities have been represented in and by Anglo-American media. The words ‘Afghan man’ conjure up a certain image, a pathologised figure that is now associated with most males in Afghanistan. The paper analyses this figure of the ‘militant’ Afghan man, most strikingly captured by descriptions of the Taliban and juxtaposes it with the less popular, though still familiar trope of the ‘damned’ Afghan man, embodied in the figure of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. But here I focus on a particular construction of the Taliban as sexually deviant, (improperly) homosexual men.

Jasbir Puar, in her trenchant appraisal of today’s war machine and the politics of knowledge that sustains it argues that the depictions of masculinity most widely disseminated in the post 9/11 world are terrorist masculinities:

failed and perverse, these emasculated bodies always have femininity as their reference point of malfunction and are metonymically tied to all sorts of pathologies of the mind and the body – homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, madness and disease.

Whilst representations of al-­Qaeda as pathologically perverse have permeated the Western mainstream, the Taliban because of its historically low international profile has escaped that level of media frenzy. The attention it does get, however, is almost always mired in Orientalist fantasies of Eastern men as pathologically disturbed sodomisers. The ‘high jack this fags’ scrawled on a bomb attached to the wing of an attack plane bound for Afghanistan by a USS Enterprise Navy officer, while in no way ubiquitous, is certainly an edifying example of our image of the Taliban as perverse and not quite “normal”.

This perversity of the Taliban has been largely attributed to their madrassa upbringing, an all-­male environment and their concomitant attitude towards women. Continue reading

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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Bluster By The Bay, ISA 2013 Edition

Academic DuckNext week, the massed ranks of global IR will descend on San Francisco Bay. There will be congregation, dispute, commiseration, boorishness, ingratiation, laughter, inebriation and the occasional sparkling insight. There will also be the first ever International Studies Blogging Reception, co-constituted by Sage and Duck Of Minerva. It will be on the Thursday, in Yosemite A, at 7.30pm. There will be prizes (we were nominated for some) and some speechifying, and also drinks. So come to that, do.

We’ll also be doing various turns of our own. The list is a bit long (we’re clearly an over-active bunch), but we’re on panels with names like ‘Advancing Post-Colonial Approaches to World Politics’, ‘Inquiry as Invention: Bringing Stories to Tell’ and ‘Vulnerability and Ethics in Global Politics’. So Ctrl-F us in the programme and say hi afters. We’ll also be doing our usual ‘What We Talked About At ISA’ thing, so there’s really no danger of missing out on our assembled wit/wisdom. Hope to see some or many of you there, and don’t forget Megan MacKenzie’s ISA guide. The advice is pitched at grad students, but is pretty sound all round. That said, rules are also for the breaking, so don’t forget to enjoy it.

Reflections on Narrative Voice

The final post in our mini-forum on critical methodologies and narrative in IR. The series is closed by Himadeep Muppidi, who is Betty G.C. Cartwright Professor of International Studies and Political Science at Vassar College, New York. He is the author, most recently, of The Colonial Signs of International Relations (Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2012).


Himadeep Muppidi and Students

Himadeep (seated, fourth from left) with the ‘Vassar village': students and faculty who were into story-telling.

I went to the York University workshop persuaded of the importance of the narrative turn in the field of international relations. I find literature in various forms useful in my teaching of international relations at Vassar, not least in opening my own provincial imagination to the worlds of others. Entering the international through narratives allows the class to engage political issues from the inside rather than pretending we were somewhere outside looking in or somehow beyond the concerns of those whose worlds we safely theorize. Narratives in different forms – novels, memoirs, short stories, and autobiographical essays – also allow for insightful translations of contemporary contexts. After soaking oneself in the nuance and complexity of narratives, conventional accounts of IR appear lifeless and boringly schematic in their attempts to straddle (our) humanity. They perish, unseen and unmourned, on the classroom floor.

But the discussions in the workshop helped me realize that narratives on their own are not enough. We need critical theories to go along with the current turn towards narratives. Colonialism too sustains itself on effective story-telling and not just brute force. It has a robust history of accumulating, systematizing and circulating its stories, not least to those citizen-subjects it narrates as its benevolent and heroic center. In IR, we often claw our way out of these archival dumps searching for fresher, more humane, worlds.

In the wasteland that is conventional IR, stories of any sort might appear, at first glance, to offer a welcome respite. But there is also, as some of our fellow disciplines can attest to, a politics of story telling: whose stories do we get to hear all the time; whose stories are generally inaudible; how do stories make us over; whose mansions do stories furnish with humanity in every remote room and whose huts do they deprive of life and dignity. Perhaps we need to explore these inequities of the political terrain more even as we take the narrative turn seriously. The question I left with from the all too brief workshop, one that is not a new one by any means, was: How can we, in IR, engage better the diverse worlds of the human international, as they come to us through narratives, without losing sight of the politics of inequity staging their appearances and disappearances?

And there I would have stopped but Naeem Inayatullah encourages me to say more. He wonders if what I am saying is: “No matter the turn, it will be dominated by Europe. So what can we do to give the narrative turn a chance at something else?” I am unsure if it is Europe’s renewed domination of the wasteland that bothers me as much as the prospect of another lost opportunity to plough newer terrain.

Maybe I should defer to the voice of a better storyteller. In a 2009 TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie speaks to what she calls the ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. In this short, approximately 20 minute presentation, Adichie draws our attention to a number of issues relevant to our thinking about stories and storytelling: to how “impressionable and vulnerable” we all are in the face of stories, to how the British and American stories she read as a child opened her imagination and at the same time shaped her childhood writing so much that the stories she wrote, even as she grew up in Nigeria, were of British and American worlds (filled with discussions of the weather and ginger beer). Reading stories by writers such as Chinua Achebe, she tells us, brought her to other worlds in which she could recognize characters like herself. Adichie is appreciative of the ways in which British and American stories opened up her world even as she highlights the dangers of knowing only those stories. This is not just an inter-country issue either.

Even the Nigerian context she imbibes as a child is not shaped by a single story though it takes her a while to realize this. There are subaltern worlds here (the world of the domestic help for instance) that she sees only in a thin and caricatured form at first since the story of “their” poverty dominates her imagination and occludes all their other ways of being human. Adichie insightfully connects stories and storytelling to questions of structural power and narrative homogeneity: our socially learned capacities to hear and tell diverse and plural stories of one’s own world while hearing and re-telling only single stories of the other. Adapting Adichie, I wonder if, given the social structures of teaching and learning IR that we currently inhabit, the narrative turn would only result in a renewed cycle of seemingly new stories about the diversity and humanity of Europe and single and simple stories about its Others.

But Naeem’s question continues to smile at me: “So what can we do to give the narrative turn a chance at something else?” It knows that I haven’t responded fully to it yet. I am tempted to say that I prefer to think with you all on that one. Maybe my partial response would be, in anticipation of a broader and longer conversation, that it is not writing alone but reading and teaching that we need to work further on. Maybe we need to begin by reading and teaching an international in which there are multiple other stories than the one or few we already know about IR’s others. Maybe that is the implicit promise of storytelling conceptualized, critically, as a politics of exile.


Suggestions for further reading: Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano, Assia Djebar, Amitav Ghosh

The Personal is Political, But Is It IR? On Writing as a Mother and Feminist

Annick WibbenThe penultimate post in our methodology and narrative mini-forum, written by Annick T.R. Wibben. Annick is Associate Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of San Francisco. She’s been thinking about narrative for a long time, but rarely writes autoethnography. The piece featured here was originally written in 2006, but it’s taken her this long to find a suitable home for it…not to mention the courage to let it go out into the world. When she is not thinking about narrative (or tweeting about feminism, security and violence @ATRWibben), her research at the intersections of feminist theory, security studies, and continental philosophy, aims to radicalize security studies and to challenge the politics of security. In Feminist Security Studies: A Narrative Approach (Routledge, 2011), she examines meanings of security legitimized in existing practices and proposes an opening of the security studies agenda by drawing on narrative approaches. So, really, she’s never not thinking about narrative.


So here I am; it is 9:30am. I am sitting in a room with other women at our weekly Friday writing group. We call ourselves the Writing Warriors, as much to describe what we’re doing as also to encourage ourselves to continue doing it. Most of us are untenured still, which adds an extra dimension to the task of writing – must be productive, must publish! Many of us have small children and when the writing stops, that’s what we talk about: How do we deal with the challenges of combining motherhood and an academic career. We exchange recommendations for childcare and kid-friendly restaurants; we give advice on breastfeeding, potty-training, and where to buy healthy snacks (we certainly don’t have time to make them). Sometimes one or more of us have to miss the writing day (or part of it) when a child is home from school, a babysitter is ill, or we just cannot focus on our own research because we need to catch up on teaching or service commitments (of which we all have plenty, of course).

So here I am; I arrived late today. Only a few minutes late, but late enough to be occupied still with what I left behind in the rush to get here as close as possible to 9am when we meet, greet, talk about our writing plans for the day, and then start writing, promptly at 9:15am. I am wondering should I have left earlier. When? I could have skipped breakfast. I could have ignored my daughter’s requests to read her a story before leaving. Should I not have bothered to throw in the load of laundry? Or, to wipe off the food from the high-chair? I could have gotten here a few minutes earlier…

So here I am; writing IR. I am an international relations scholar, so this is what I do, I write IR. I need to convince myself that this is what I am doing, say it again: I write IR. I write IR. As I repeat these words, something else pops into my mind: Sam I am, I do not like that Sam I am. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them Sam I am… just like the character in Dr. Seuss’ children’s book needs to be convinced to try green eggs and ham just like I need to convince myself, that I am writing IR.

So here I am; staring at the blank page. Continue reading

Indigenous Narrative Methods: A Hawaiian Perspective

Noelani Ka'opua

We’re now up to the ninth post in our consistently excellent methodology and narrative mini-forum, and this one was contributed by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua. Noelani is an Associate Professor of Political Science, with an emphasis in Indigenous Politics, at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She has published on issues of identity, indigeneity and praxis in Hawai’i. Her first book, The Seeds We Planted: Portraits of a Native Hawaiian Charter School, was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press. Her second book, Ea: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land and Sovereignty (Duke University Press, forthcoming), is a collection co-edited with Ikaika Hussey and Kahunawai Wright that explores late-20th and early 21st century Hawaiian organising for justice and self-determination. More recently, she has also become interested in the intersections of energy and food politics with Indigenous social and political health.


Ka'opua - Kaneohe Bay

Kāneʻohe Bay

Native novelist and scholar, Thomas King, reminds us that “stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” In The Truth About Stories, he argues that’s all we are: stories. Empires are built on great stories. But on the other hand, anti-imperialist movements have also been motivated and sustained by narratives of personal and collective experience.

In my own home—Hawaiʻi—we lived for almost a century with the narrative that the US takeover was legitimate and that Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians) did not resist the US annexation of the islands. This story is even memorialized in a statue of US President William McKinley that fronts the public high school in Honolulu named after him. He is portrayed stately holding a document. If one were to climb up onto that eight-ton statue and peer over McKinley’s shoulder, she would see ‘Treaty of Annexation’ carved into the bronze. And this is one of the dangers of stories; sometimes they are completely false. In fact, an approved Treaty of Annexation never came to President McKinley’s desk for his signature.

The groundbreaking work of Noenoe K. Silva, in her book Aloha Betrayed, demonstrated that through a massive organized effort, Kanaka Maoli successfully defeated attempts to push a treaty through the US Congress in the mid-1890s. Over 38,000 Hawaiians defended their political sovereignty and recognized independence by signing petitions against the merging of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States. It was only when scholars began taking the narratives in Hawaiian language newspapers, Native oral histories and in Hawaiian songs and chants seriously that a century-long fiction was peeled back. The recovery of these stories has been incredibly generative for a new generation of scholars and activists who are now describing the relationship between the US and Hawai‘i as a prolonged, military occupation.

Narratives can be powerful because they have material consequences. Stories can be written on the lands that we inhabit. I grew up flanked by the consequences of the ways imperial narratives are made reality and Indigenous narratives dismissed as archaic. I grew up alongside the largest sheltered body of water in the Hawaiian Islands, Kāneʻohe Bay, approximately 12.7 kilometers from farthest northwest and southeast points and about 4.3 kilometers wide. Kāneʻohe Bay contains one of the only barrier reefs in the Hawaiian Islands and can be quite shallow in parts, filled as it is with coral reefheads and sandbars. As such, it was Pearl Harbor, rather than Kāneʻohe Bay, that became the US Navy’s center in Hawai‘i because of the Navy’s need for deep water portage for its massive warships. However, the south side of Kāneʻohe Bay is shielded by Mokapu peninsula and upon that headland, the US built a Marine Corps base complex that includes airfields, military housing, training and recreational facilities. For Native Hawaiians, the name Mokapu speaks to the significance of the place. “Mokapu” is a contraction of the words “moku kapu,” literally a “sacred and reserved land,” and it is known in Hawaiian mo‘olelo (narratives) as a site of godly creation and of human burial.

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“Across Oceans To Hear”

Naeem InayatullahThe eighth post in our Methodology and Narrative mini-forum, this time from Naeem Inayatullah. Naeem teaches at Ithaca College. His research locates the Third World in international relations. He shows how the history and theory of international relations are formed against ideas about “Indians”. He demonstrates how classical theorists such as Smith, Hegel, and Marx construct their arguments via comparisons to non-European peoples. His conceptualization of political economy as a capitalist global division of labor aims to reveal how contemporary conditions of wealth and poverty emerge from historical capitalism. In addition, he works on the relationship between autobiography and theory construction as well as on how popular culture – especially music and television – expresses theoretical tensions. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011). He is currently working on materials that consider the overlap between pedagogy, psychoanalysis, and writing.

Pablo adds: He is also an incisive and funny responder to student criticism.


Too often my eyes glaze over when I am reading the theory section of our professional papers. At conferences and workshops, my ears search for other frequencies when I hear theory speak. But not always. When “my theorists” are engaged, I can filter out and hone in. Otherwise, though, I glide away. When I do so, I discipline myself into attention by mocking my hubris. I don’t wish to take that posture here. Instead, I want to use this space to defend and substantiate my drift. I am not sure I will do so, however, with an explicit argument.

Our discipline is faddish, no? Product differentiation requires graduate students and established scholars to move from theorist to theorist – searching for profit from all the pores of the earth.[1] And yet, new debates seem like old debates. Things, times, and theorists change but our foundational questions probably remain less than a dozen. My favorite theorists – dead and alive – negotiate these questions. As do yours. I no longer have it in me to sift through the jargon and make the translations.

And yet, there is always something to be had in these workshops and conference papers. Something buried in the theory speak but which the author/speaker hides in plain view. She/he is speaking now. A mind/body configured uniquely by the particular path of this particular life. But structured by forces mundane, ubiquitous, and universal. Such bodies speak and write. They hide what they try to learn. But they also reveal bits of the real. I am trying to pay attention.

—–

Claire Turenne-Sjolander relates her husband’s sudden death. She conveys what forced her to write her grief and to rage against the medical profession. She describes her negotiation with the editor of a journal over what needs to be added. She marvels at the outpouring of responses she receives from readers. Her story contains a universal equivalent. It presses others to reveal their own particular grief and anger. She sketches the stakes in all this. Writing is grief work, a kind of mourning — I take her to imply.

Jennifer Riggan says, “I fell in love with a man from Eritrea.” My mind races. Continue reading