What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

We, the garden of technology. We, undecidable

– John Cage, 1988

“Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, John Cage once famously quipped. I hadn’t really given this line much thought until I watched a friend perform with his ensemble of free improvisationalists and began to understand – rather late, admittedly, – the creative interconnectivity of musical improvisation with aspects of political and ethical life. Encapsulated in Cage’s comment is the close enmeshment of creation and performance, fabrication and action, production and interaction, set against a modernist ontology of profound uncertainty, pertinent beyond disciplinary analytical divides. Simultaneously embracing and resisting the scientifically and technologically mediated quest for certainty in his time, John Cage, along with other experimental musicians and artists, perpetually sought to challenge a reliance on that which can be decided, by finding different disruptive and unfamiliar techniques.

These techniques are not merely aesthetic choices or practices, but rather, as forms of encounters, have also ethical and political relevance. Whether it is through shock, as in Marcel Duchamp’s work in art (Fountain – a urinal as art!), or experimentation in John Cage’s work in music (4’33 – silence as music!), such disruptions emanate propositions of drastic undecidability – albeit against an always specific socio-political background. Residing in these practices of radical alterity is a production of subjectivity, of a modus vivendi, and with it an ethico-political dimension. As Maurizio Lazzarato duly notes, such techniques are ethico-politico-aesthetic techniques to wrest with the nature of disciplinary and security societies. Embracing this transdisciplinary approach, I thus take the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink, in positive ways, how to deal with the modern modus of fluid ground, uncertainty and undecidability, in politics and ethics through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction.

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Challenging the practical turn in contemporary conceptualisations of ethics in politics was my core theme for this year’s ISA conference, so I came equipped with not one but three papers on ethics and politics. Each sought to problematize the prevalence of applied ethics in theorizing international politics more broadly and political violence specifically. The first paper develops a critique of practical ethics as the dominant way of thinking about the ethics of political violence (watch this space for more on that). The second paper considers the prevalence of ethics as a scientific-technological matter in the use of unmanned and autonomous military technology. In this third and final paper, I try to rethink ethics in trans-disciplinary ways and turn to an unlikely source: free improvisation in music. Drawing on the principles of free improvisation, I suggest, allows us to conceptualise ethics as action rather than an applied abstract concept or epithet. In other words, to overcome the shortcomings of traditional modes of theorizing ethics in political theory, I look to free improvisation in music to rethink ethics and politics in less familiar ways, through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction. I am very much still in the process of thinking all this through, so bear that in mind if you decide to read on. Suggestions, critiques and feedback welcome!

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Size Matters: Reflecting on Perspective, Positionality and Critique After #ISA2015

… so I tweeted on the last day of the 56th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association. I was exhausted by that point, numbed and overwhelmed at the sheer volume of thoughts I had asked my poor brain to process over the previous four days. I was ready to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, but I still had to get home, back to Sydney from whence I came, which I duly did, over the course of the next 37 hours.

I stared blindly out of the aeroplane window as we circled around Sydney, thinking about nothing much at all, noticing the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and how tiny they looked, how much like models, how insignificant. And in the taxi on the way home (and yes, I am acknowledging my privilege as I write this, that is kind of the point of this blog, I think…), I asked the driver to please take the bridge, not the tunnel. There is something about the view from the Eastern Distributor, which brackets Circular Quay with the Harbour Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other, that feels to me like coming home.

photo of sydney opera house

Sydney Opera House. Photo by LJS.

As we drove, and the iconic structures came into view, I thought, somewhat mindlessly, how much bigger they seemed close up. Like I said, I was exhausted, not able to conjure much more than this rather banal observation. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear, but objects on the ground, when you’re close up, feel much more significant. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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What We Did At ISA 2015: Tripping Over The Color Line

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. –Adorno

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true? –Du Bois

plantation map

Along the Great River Road that runs along the Mississippi River there is a stretch called Plantation Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. This section of the river had over 300 sugarcane plantations in the middle of the 19th century. Today the Great River Road is actually a complex series of small roads crossing the Mississippi again and again. Those roads are dotted with oil refineries and the occasional small town, but where the roads run along the river front they are dominated by old plantation homes. The antebellum structures attract throngs of visitors, in tour buses and rental cars, searching for an authentic Plantation Adventure and to experience true Southern Splendor. Plantations, it seems, are family friendly fun, providing a window into the rich history and culture of the South. This is an unsettling sales pitch.

While driving to Lafayette, Louisiana, we decided to stop at the Laura Plantation, where their award as “2007’s Best Louisiana Attraction” is prominently displayed. We chose the Laura Plantation because it was billed as a more serious tour, focused on the history of the plantation rather than costumed play acting and antique fetishism that is apparently rife at other plantations.  We arrived in time for the last tour of the day and drifted into the gift shop to buy tickets. We paid our money and were advised to use the toilets before we began. The shop was filled with memorabilia from the plantation itself, from Plantation Alley and the Great River Road, as well as an ambiguous but discernible thing we can call Southern Heritage. As we waited for the tour to begin, watching the other visitors and browsing the extensive collection of inessential collectibles, it was strange to see that no one displayed any signs of discomfort in this setting or with the history about which we were queuing up to learn.  Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA: The Imperial Sociology of the “Tribe” in Afghanistan

As has been established, encounters between the coloniser and the colonised led to the creation of truths, myths, legends and identities in which the two were mutually implicated. These encounters have also bequeathed a particularly problematic lexicon, one whose provenance is narrowly European and one which has been kept alive especially in the discipline of International Relations, even as it is increasingly renounced by other disciplines and in the world outside the Anglophone academy. In my talk at ISA this year, I sought to problematise the concept of ‘tribe’ and show how a monolithic and unreflective body of work became the norm with reference to Afghan social organisation as exemplified by this kind of statement made by General Jim Gant in 2009:

When one says “Afghan people” what I believe they are really saying is “tribal member”. Every single Afghan is a part of a tribe and understands how the tribe operates and why. This is key for us to understand. Understanding and operating within the tribal world is the only way we can ever know who our friends and enemies are, how the Afghan people think and what is important to them. Because, above all, they are tribesmen first.[1]

By tracing the way in which the term “tribe” has been deployed in the Afghan context, the paper (based on a dissertation chapter) performs two types of intellectual labour. First, by following the evolution of a concept from its use in the early nineteenth century to the literature on Afghanistan in the twenty-first century, wherein the “tribes” seem to have acquired a newfound importance, it undertakes an intellectual history of the term. The Afghan “tribes”, taken as an object of study, follow an interesting trajectory: initially likened to Scottish clans, they were soon seen as brave and loyal men, but fundamentally different from their British interlocutors – albeit interestingly always superior to the Hindus who often provided the necessary contrast – only then to be seen as a “problem” that needed to be managed, and finally, as indispensable to a long-term “Afghan strategy”.[2] And second, the paper endeavours to describe how that intellectual history is intimately connected to the exigencies of imperialism. My argument is that the “tribe” has become a familiar and accessible idiom – another expedient shorthand – used to make sense of Afghanistan’s diverse and complex social structure, but that in the process the term has veered far from the manner in which it was originally conceived and utilised. I aim to demonstrate not only how the term has become more thoroughly racialised, but also how it now amounts to a conceptually vapid word that has paradoxically been credited with ever more importance in “understanding Afghanistan”.

It is one man’s early 19th century writing that continues to be the capstone of much of the academic work done on Afghanistan today. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA2015: A Debate Around John Hobson’s ‘The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics’

Below is the text of my intervention at a roundtable organized by Alina Sajed entitled ‘Race and International Relations—A Debate Around John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics‘. TDoT has hosted a symposium on the book: you can read an initial post by John, commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett, and a reply from John. I’ve tried not to cover the same ground.

While race and racism have recently become topics of increasing interest in the rather parochial world of IR scholarship, few books have ranged so widely across time and thinkers as John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. This is a monumental work of scholarship that accumulates a staggering amount of evidence, were further proof necessary, of the white supremacist and/or Eurocentric foundations of IR as a discipline (I use the ‘and/or’ advisedly, because much of the debate that the book has generated and some of my own critique focuses on the complex relationship between the formations that Hobson identifies as ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’, about which more in due course). So whatever my problems with the book, I want to endorse it as a deeply necessary intervention in the IR academy. Nonetheless, I find myself in sharp disagreement with some of its central claims in ways that have not been fully addressed in earlier discussions. I will focus here on two areas of disagreement: first, the book’s treatment of Marx, Lenin and Marxism in general; and second, its crucial distinction between ‘scientific racism’ and ‘Eurocentric institutionalism’.

Why focus on a critique of Marxism as Eurocentric and/or imperialist? (Again the ‘and/or’ seems necessary because Hobson’s careful mapping of European thought finds conjunctions of racism and/or Eurocentrism with both imperialist and anti-imperialist sensibilities). Partly this comes out of my own intellectual investment in denying what I believe to be the false choice that is often presented between Marxism and postcolonialism. As such, I find myself troubled as much by Marxist work that repudiates postcolonialism as I am by the opposite tendency (which I think is at work in this book). But partly this also comes out of a sense that if Marxism were in fact as Eurocentric and/or imperialist as Hobson suggests, this would leave inexplicable its enormous appeal in the Third World both in the heyday and aftermath of the great decolonization and liberation movements that it informed. More prosaically, I think Hobson’s readings of Marx and Lenin are temporally truncated and therefore somewhat misleading.

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The Global Transformation: A Response

The final post in our forum on The Global Transformation, in which Barry Buzan and George Lawson respond to the points raised by Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson. The original post, summarising the book is available here. The book will also be discussed further at the ISA conference in New Orleans and a launch at LSE.

[Editor’s note: The authors are not responsible for the images in this post. But it’s Friday.]


Given the ‘excess’ of contemporary academic production, it is a rare treat to have colleagues engage seriously with your work. We therefore offer our heartfelt thanks to Julian Go, Jeppe Mulich and Jamie Allinson for their close reading of our book and for their thoughtful critiques of it. We offer our equally heartfelt thanks to the editors of The Disorder of Things, particularly Meera Sabaratnam, for investing a considerable amount of time in organising and publishing these commentaries.

The interventions by Go, Mulich and Allinson raise two main issues: the first relates to our use of, and contribution to, theoretical debates, particularly those around imperialism, and uneven and combined development (UCD); the second concerns the relationship between history and theory, most notably our use of macro-historical frames such as ‘modernity’. We discuss these issues in turn.

On theory

Julian Go is right that The Global Transformation ‘expressly rejects any grand theoretical narratives or systems’. He is also right that we do not use ‘categories derived from a larger and more comprehensive theoretical system’. And, however tiresome it is to keep agreeing with your critics, Go is once more right in saying that our use of uneven and combined development is not meant to correct this shortcoming – as we discuss below, we use UCD as an analytical shorthand rather than as a theoretical schema containing a range of causal claims.

Why is this the case? The first reason is strategic. At the beginning of the project, we had several choices to make: whether to pitch the book primarily to an IR audience or whether to also take some swings at cognate disciplines; whether to get drawn into internal debates associated with particular theoretical schemas or seek out a position in-between, or perhaps above, the fray; how to balance big picture and fine-grained historical analysis, and more. In each of these instances we chose the easy option – easy not in the sense of being straightforward to do, but in the sense of ‘less is more’. For example, rather than spend much time on the shortcomings of disciplinary historical sociology when it comes to its ‘occlusion of the global’, we concentrated on what historical sociology (and economic and world history) contributes to IR debates. Given that the answer to this was ‘quite a lot’, we made this our primary concern. Similarly, rather than distract ourselves – and readers – with the minutiae of debates internal to the whys and wherefores of ‘the global transformation’, we constructed a composite argument that assembled diverse storylines into a single narrative. To be clear – we are not saying that we neither built on, nor took a stand on, many of these debates, not least around the ‘internalism’ and Eurocentrism of many existing accounts. Rather, we made a deliberate decision to take an ecumenical approach, building on insights from a variety of theoretical churches rather than sticking to a single tradition.

Hindu-Jesus Continue reading