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

Oxygen: Impressions from the Workshop ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Oded LowenheimPost seven in our ongoing mini-forum on methodology and narrative in (critical) IR. This time it’s the turn of Oded Löwenheim, who is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His interests lie in the field of emotions and politics, autoethnography and IR, and investigating the peculiarities of power, so to speak, in various issue areas and fields. He is the author of Predators and Parasites: Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm and Great Power Authority (The University of Michigan Press, 2007), and The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (The University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2014). His articles appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Security Dialogue, Security Studies, International Political Sociology and the Review of International Studies. At the Hebrew University he teaches courses on science fiction and on politics and autoethnography and IR.


The two days of the workshop were very intensive for me, in terms of both the many talks and conversations we heard and had, and in terms of the emotional weight I felt during these discussions. Some of the talks we heard were not easy to hear: people told about their personal experiences of places such as the “highway of tears” in British Columbia, Hawaii as a colonized space, or escape from worn-torn Eritrea. Other stories dealt with personal loss and the political meanings of grief; or, of opening up to the inner world of what I, and many other in the West, call “suicide bombers,” while they consider themselves as martyr soldiers; or, of the pain of Inuit people in Canada. But despite the sometimes difficult stories and realities, I felt I am full lungs breathing. I felt that the stories and the responses to them fill me with oxygen, almost literally.

We talked about the way stories and narratives can bridge gaps between people and enable us to reach out to the humanity of others. Yes, stories can be fabricated, manipulated, or exploited to reproduce hegemonic or dominating orders, some of the colleagues in the workshop reminded the participants. Stories can also serve a claim for authenticity, by virtue of the author/teller “being there,” while in many manners, there cannot be such a “there” from the outset. But stories, nonetheless, can create a strong sense of community, I felt. The more I heard the various talks, I realized that we live in a world that values distance and objectivity, but these values also contribute to human loneliness and atomization of societies. Narrativistic research not only challenges the traditional methods of writing in order to highlight various power structures that these methods ignore or do not capture fully. It can also have the potential to restore and to rebuild some sense of community among authors and their readers. By community, I do not mean only a professional community of academicians, which is often a small and closed one, but also a larger human community. Narrativistic writing, I felt during the workshop, can help people resist this institutionally – and structurally – imposed loneliness that is so characteristic of our times, both in academia and in broader society. Lonely people are easier to govern than people with a strong sense of belonging, connection, and community.

One of the most interesting conclusions I took from this workshop was Jenny Edkins’ comment (I hope that was indeed what she meant …) that while the state’s sovereign narrative is about completeness and continuity, a linear story in which there is a clear beginning and a path along which history continues, a path which the state – and I may add in a Foucauldian manner, its admirers/reproducers in academia – purport to know, in many political and historical situations reality is wounded and full of gaps and crevices. Narativistic writing acknowledges these gaps and irregularities, disrupts the linear narrative, but at the same time offers some comfort by engaging in a process of writing about the wound and, no less important: letting the wound write us back.

Indeed, writing about my own wounds and letting them write me back is an essential part of my autoethnographic work. Continue reading

In Praise of Question Marks: Reflections on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Jennifer RigganThe sixth post on critical methodologies and narrative, by Jennifer Riggan. Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University, where she began teaching in 2007.  She holds a Ph.D. from the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received training in political and educational anthropology and African Studies. Her ethnographic research addresses a variety of issues including nationalism, citizenship, state formation, militarism, development, and education. She has published on the changing relationship between citizenship and nationalism and on the de-coupling of the nation and the state. She is currently working on a project entitled The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea which explores the role of teachers in state-making in the east African nation of EritreaThis research has been funded by a Fulbright research fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Riggan earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College in 1992 and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995 to 1997.


Alienation

I show up at the workshop on October 26th, not quite sure what to expect. I have gone through the ritual preparations for a conference. I have crafted a carefully cultivated appearance—professional, but not formal attire. Light makeup, hair blown dry, hopefully neat but not overly coifed. Glancing around the room, I’d say many of us have made the same preparations. This is a conference. We all know how to perform ourselves for this venue. The ritual is familiar to us. Notebooks at the ready. Cups of coffee in our grips. A firm handshake of greeting when we meet someone. A socially acceptable hug or kiss if we know someone well. Small talk about our institutions, our research, our teaching. Occasionally our children make a brief appearance in the conversation. When we sit down to introduce ourselves, my voice emerges from my mouth, confident and assertive. I hear myself speak and I don’t recognise the sound, even less the tone. How certain this person sounds, I think, I could be convinced by this person.

For me, the ritual is essential to make me believe in the performance. After all, I have no idea why I’m here and I assume, as usual, that some mistake was made when they invited me. Do they really know who I am? The preparatory rituals, the carefully calibrated appearance, the performance of being academic acts as a talisman against someone pointing the finger at you and crying, “imposter!” I say it to myself all the time. But in an odd form of ritual alchemy, I become what I perform. I fake it until I make it and then I actually believe in this ‘I’ that I barely recognized a moment before. I have become the performance. But when I get lost in my performance, where have I actually gone?

Question Marks

We are here to talk about stories. Some of us tell stories. Some of us make arguments about stories. Stories, like academic rituals, are performances. Are they any less alienating than the ritualization of self? The most honest of us raise questions about stories or tell stories that ask questions. Himadeep Muppidi’s poignant and simple assertion, “empire tells amazing stories,” has stayed with me since that day like a song whose words you can’t get out of your head. We are all penetrated by the empire’s stories. They make us cry and fill us with pride or righteous indignation. They have answers. But how do we tell stories that perform less and question more? This is hard to do in a world, and a profession, that prefers periods or exclamation points to question marks. Our language limits us. What is the point of a question without an answer? What do we become in the absence of our performances of certainty?

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