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

Symptoms Worse Than Death

The “daughter of India” died in a hospital in Singapore yesterday, causing shockwaves around the globe and placing India on the verge of a violent implosion. Whilst rape had become a matter that women were told that they had to contend with in their everyday lives, that they must make it safer for themselves by not being alone after dark, by not dressing provocatively, and by not drinking or acting in a manner that is ‘lewd’ and ‘unladylike’, especially in North India, something about this case has led to a national uprising of unprecedented proportions. People have taken to the streets, New Year eves’ parties have turned into mass commemoration events, and the Internet is positively ablaze with news, blogs, and posts about this nameless woman whose impact on Indian politics today cannot be exaggerated.

India has had the distinction of being labelled the worst country in the world for women and Delhi is often called India’s ‘rape capital’, so perhaps it is not surprising that a 23-year old woman was gang-raped on a bus by six men on the way home after watching The Life of Pi with her boyfriend. It is perhaps also not surprising that the rape was brutal, that a metal rod was shoved into her vagina, that the men took turns at “having a go” and finally got rid of both her and her male friend by throwing them out of the window of the moving bus. What is surprising, however, is the reaction. Why has an event that may even be classified as mundane garnered so much attention and prominence?

Many on the so-called Left in India have proclaimed that the case has been given such importance only because the woman was (ostensibly) middle-class and it is always a shock when it happens to “us”, not least when it happens in a manner this horrific. Most of the mobilized youth claim that this was the last straw in what has been a devastatingly protracted chain of brutalities against women. The cynics argue that reactions such as these are tokenistic gesture that will change nothing but help those protesting come together in a moment of collective catharsis, share in a feeling of shame and sorrow not unlike that experienced when Pakistan defeats India in a cricket match. For me, the answer to the question posed above is ultimately immaterial. Yes, the woman was not a Dalit or Adivasi, and crimes against the poor in India vastly exceed those against the rich. And yes, the injustices perpetrated against the rich, powerful or established have historically been at the forefront of media reporting and government agendas, as was most blatantly obvious in the case of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. And indeed, it is unlikely that there will be any overwhelming change in either attitudes or policy towards women in the immediate aftermath of this insurrection.

In light of this, should we just lull ourselves into a state of callous complacency and churn out platitudes about the state of our society? Those who want to are welcome to squander away both hope and perspective. For those who recognise that the path to any significant change is thorny but may yet render itself navigable, some acknowledgement of the conditions that have made gender-based violence possible and continue to make it possible, even run-of-the-mill, is in order. An awareness of how we ourselves, albeit unwittingly, reproduce these conditions and help engender systemic violence that is both symbolic and ‘real’ is also urgently needed. We must be cognisant of the fact that India is a deeply conservative society and the ‘opening-up’ of the economy since 1991 has witnessed a patriarchal backlash in the face of rising inequity, the collapse of the extended family and the disappearance of any social welfare. Those who have placed the blame singularly on “Indian men” and our “backward culture” – and who think revenge in the form of capital punishment and castration is the only solution – fail to take into account how deeply embedded they are in this patriarchal order and how readily they are partaking of a discourse that is both misogynistic and short-sighted.

The calls for castration are symptomatic of an acutely phallocentric order – where a man’s ‘masculinity’ is considered his greatest pride, and the source of this masculinity is none other than his reproductive organs. Similarly, the widespread proclamation that “rape is a crime worse than murder” and must be punished accordingly has a patently sinister side to it. Is a woman (or man for that matter) who has been raped not entitled to a life? Is she “worse than murdered”? Is it the “defilement”, the snatching away the “honour” and “purity” of a woman that so bothers us? It is worth remembering that the woman who died yesterday, who the Indian government in yet another meaningless and flippant gesture has called a “martyr” and “Delhi’s braveheart”, desperately wanted to live. She had been “violated” by six men in an ordeal that lasted over an hour, was on life-support, but not, in her own opinion, worse than dead. She was only (worse than) dead after she died.

The protests in Delhi and around India contain within themselves a latent emancipatory potential. But in order for this to amount to anything, even something as pedestrian as allowing women to negotiate public spaces in Delhi without constant threat of harassment, we must think about how our subjectivity as women, men, and citizens is (re)produced. This is the only way we can build up some resistance to the “common-sense” we are invariably brought up with. We need to start problematising the taken for granted assumptions that our heteronormative order inflicts upon us everyday, most importantly the implicit belief that women are “less equal” than men. The contours and manifestations of this tacit hierarchy may be different in the West from those in the global South, but the substance remains largely the same. As always, the words of anthropologist Barbara Diane Miller resonate deeply: “We must not forget that human gender hierarchies are one of the most persistent, pervasive and pernicious forms of inequality”. Change will not come easy.

A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

Continue reading

Female Terrain Systems: Engagement Officers, Militarism, and Lady Flows

One of the more interesting interventions made at Friday’s Gender, Militarism and Violence roundtable came from Vron Ware on the topic of a photo exhibit about the British Army’s Female Engagement Officers. The exhibit is funded by the Poppy Appeal, which was itself subject to some debate as a sentimental memorialism allocating funds in the service of a imperial-nostalgic self-image. The pictures, collected by a female former RAF Sergeant, are presumably understood by military and civilian leaders to be a significant public relations resource in illustrating the flexibility, equity and decentness of Anglo-American-Western ‘involvement’ in Afghanistan. Manifestations of cultural sensitivity, postfeminist integration and armies as state-building reconciliation services. And yet someone decided, both on the Army website and Twitter account, that the best image to lead with was that of knickers on a washing line. A puerile social media engagement.

The rest of the images, and the media coverage of them, focus heavily on assorted ‘personal’ issues experienced by the women. Gaze on their beauty products! See how they control their lustrous hair! Peak in on their need for mementos of home! Marks of difference indeed, although none of the coverage I have seen broaches the possibility that men too might stash deodorant in their tents, or manage their body hair to maintain professional standards, or display reminders of loved ones waiting at home. Instead, as any gender-sensitive observer might expect, the specially femininity of these troops displaces all other dimensions of war/peace/development/security (an impression encouraged by some of the subjects themselves). The BBC even recently juxtaposed the death of a female army medic with an image of another woman coming out of the shower tent. A soft voyeurism on military women as leaky bodies and as somehow out of place. But not just that. The juvenilia comes packaged together with the idea of the Female Engagement Officers as crucial to a kind of military effectiveness:

Captain Crossly told the London Evening Standard that one of the highlights of the tour was ‘seeing the absolute fascination of women in the compound when I removed my helmet and protective glasses to speak to them in their own language’.

She added: ‘Women are known throughout the world to bring people together, to focus on family and community. Just by being female, even in military uniform, you are seen to promote such things and are therefore more accepted.’

Lieutenant French said: ‘The photographs demonstrate the more feminine traits of female soldiers can be used as a strength on operations.’

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Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.

Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. Continue reading

The Olympic Semiosphere

The chafing constraints of a thesis prevent any original reflection on our hallowed Olympic moment (not least because Rahul has already said so much, and so well). There was little to better Iain Sinclair’s apt diagnosis of “a wonderful national hallucination: a beautiful conjuring between William Borroughs and Charles Satchi…the combination of paranoia and advertising run wild” (a clip worth watching for Jon Snow’s outraged ignorance at the origins of the Olympic Flame [clue: Nazis]). Reports had filtered through that the economic miracle was not as originally billed, with talk of Central London’s ‘ghost town’, stimulating a description elsewhere of the Olympics as an “economic bomb deployed against world cities”. And now there is the most welcome return of K-Punk. At length:

Welcome to the Hunger Games. The function of the Hunger Games is to suppress antagonism, via spectacle and terror. In the same way, London – 2012 preceded and accompanied by the authoritarian lockdown and militarisation of the city – are being held up as the antidote to all discontent. The feelgood Olympics, we are being assured, will do everything from making good the damage done by last year’s riots to seeing off the “threat” of Scottish independence. Any disquiet about London 2012 is being repositioned as “griping” or “cynicism”. Such “whinging”, it is claimed, assumed its proper place of marginality as the vast majority enjoy the Games, and LOCOG is vindicated…

…But once the Olympic floodlights are turned off, most will switch back from an attitude of mild interest to indifference towards even the most dramatic Olympic sports, never mind those many Olympic sports which plainly have limited specator appeal. This isn’t the point though: disquiet about London 2012 was never necessarily based in any hostility towards the sports. Enjoyment of the sport and loathing for LOCOG and the IOC are perfectly compatible.

Cynicism is just about the only rational response to the doublethink of the McDonalds and Coca Cola sponsorship (one of the most prominent things you see as you pass the Olympic site on the train line up from Liverpool Street is the McDonalds logo). As Paolo Virno argues, cynicism is now an attitude that is simply a requirement for late capitalist subjectivity, a way of navigating a world governed by rules that are groundless and arbitrary. But as Virno also argues, “It is no accident … that the most brazen cynicism is accompanied by unrestrained sentimentalism.” Once the Games started, cynicism could be replaced by a managed sentimentality.

Affective exploitation is crucial to late capitalism. The BBC’s own Caesar Flickerman (the interviewer who extracts maximum sentimental affect from the Hunger Games contestants before they face their deaths in the arena) is the creepily tactile trackside interviewer Phil Jones. Jones’s “interviews” with exhausted athletes, are surely as ritualised as any Chinese state broadcast. Emote. Emote again. Emote differently. Praise the crowd.

And, just in case you somehow missed it, the irrepressible CassetteBoy:

The Anglosphere, Part Two: Of Liberal Leviathans and Global Turns

Viewed from the perspective of liberal IR, Britain’s globe-spanning empire can be described as “Liberal Internationalism 1.0.” According to G. John Ikenberry, the “liberal ascendancy” had everything to do with the “growth and sheer geopolitical heft of the world’s liberal democracies.” The British may have been the first to harmonize national interest with the stability, openness and rule-following in the international systems, but it was the Americans who “fused” them. “If the liberal order was built after World War II primarily within the West, the end of the Cold War turned that order into a sprawling global system” [1].

The question that has always fascinated me is how we got from Liberal Internationalism 1.0 to Liberal Internationalism 2.0, or how, to freely borrow from Ikenberry, power shifted between two liberal Leviathans, Britain and the U.S. What is puzzling here is the absence of the Wars of Anglophone Succession. Instead of fighting each other at least once or twice, the two empires first found ways to cooperate and coordinate their imperial activities around the globe, then engaged in what can be described as a pacted transition, even as a corporate merger. Here’s one verdict, taken from “The imperialism of decolonizationpiece by Wm Roger Louis and Ronald Robinson:

The British were welcoming the Americans back into the British family of nations and, informally at least, into the Commonwealth . . . [the post-war empire operated] as part of the Anglo- American coalition . . . like a multinational company.

Putting aside the historiography debates about its scope, timing and sequencing, this historical process was no doubt of momentous importance for the evolution of the liberal order, both in terms of the accumulation of hegemonic power, and in terms of social and institutional learning. The Anglosphere, in other words, begins here. So how do we explain it? Strategic calculus and/or a putatively liberal predilection for cooperation, compromise, and conciliation (last word Churchill’s) are only parts of this story, as Charles Kupchan notes in his How Enemies Become Friends:

British appeasement of the United States and the practice of reciprocal restraint that followed cleared the way for rapprochement. But it was the emergence of a new discourse on both sides of the Atlantic – one that propagated notions such as a “shared Anglo-Saxon race” and an “Anglo-American family” – that produced a compatible identity, consolidated stable peace, and laid the foundations for the strategic partnership that exists to this day.

I could not agree more. Racialized identities operate as social structures of power, and this was a time when they explicitly authorized unity and superiority for Us against Them in ways that had profound consequences for the evolution of the so-called liberal international order. Anglo-Saxonism enabled the U.S. and Britain – or their elites – not only to position themselves favourably vis-à-vis each other at the turn of the twentieth century, but also with respect to the rest of the world and in a longer term. The Anglo-American rapprochement was no “global turn” of the sort that Kupchan talks about in his latest book, but it arguably comes close to it in macro-historical term. For one, the paths, pace and outcomes of the 1945-1951 international institution-building spree – that foundation of Liberal Internationalism 2.0 –followed the patterns of UK-U.S. cooperation first established during the colonial wars and near-wars in the 1890s. The much-disclaimed “special relationship” has its origins in this period – something to keep in mind next time we hear that U.S.-hugging remains in someone’s national interest, as General Sir David Richards, the head of Britain’s armed forces, argued last week.

This story I wish to tell can be expanded and contracted empirically (Anglo-Saxonism is dead today, but its effects can be found everywhere from university scholarships to contemporary military alliances) and theoretically (through, say, an account of core-periphery relations that made global capitalism possible), but the main substantive point remains the same, and that is that we cannot fully understand the “liberal ascendancy” without pausing (as Siba Grovogui might say) over the pervasiveness and power of racialized identities that connected Liberal Internationalism 1.0 and 2.0 [2]. Continue reading