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What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

17 Apr

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.


What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading

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

13 Apr

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

Cavity Searches in Intern(ation)al Relations

19 Jan

In the most darkly comic scene in Mohammed Hanif’s brilliant A Case of Exploding Mangoes, General Zia—the thinly mustachioed dictator of Pakistan from 1977-88—suffering from a bad case of worms, enlists the services of the physician of his Saudi friend Prince Naif. ‘Birather, bend please’, requests Dr. Sarwari, in a strange mixture of Arabic and American accents. Zia unfastens his belt, slips his trousers down and leans forward, laying his right cheek on his desk. His head is between two flags, Pakistan’s national flag and the flag of the Pakistan Army, as Dr. Sirawar slips a lubricated probing finger into his itchy rectum. The allegory is crystal clear: this is Pakistan being fucked by Saudi and US money and weapons during the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan.

In Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist, the terror attacks of September 11 provide the pivotal moment in the transformation of young Pakistani Princeton graduate Changez Khan from Wall Street analyst to Islamist radical. Watching 9/11 unfold on television while away on a work trip, Khan feels something akin to schadenfreude, as if the attacks were payback for the daily humiliation of being Muslim in America, giving vent to a reservoir of grievance hitherto fiercely suppressed, even denied, in his pursuit of the American dream. Returning to the US, Changez can see that Americans see him differently. In Mira Nair’s film version of the book, he is separated from his white colleagues at immigration and subjected to a cavity search: this is Pakistan being fucked by the US in the aftermath of 9/11.

Continue reading

A Right To The World: On Syria and an Idea of International Public Order

6 Jan

P1 aniang

A guest post from Amy Niang on the contours of ‘international community’, following previous interventions from Siba Grovogui in relation to Libya, Robbie on provinciality in International Relations and John M. Hobson et al. on Eurocentrism in international political theory. Amy teaches international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand and she is affiliated with the Centre of Africa’s International Relations (CAIR). She gained her PhD from the University of Edinburgh in 2011. She has taught International Relations, political theory and African history in South Africa, Scotland and Japan. Her research interests are in the history of state formation, political theory and Africa’s international relations, and she has commented regularly on democracy, civil society and Western intervention in Africa.


The Syria crisis has sparked many debates in scholarly and media circles, not least around the way in which the ‘international community’ should exercise its responsibility to Syrians and to the protection of human rights, particularly in the aftermath of the alleged use of chemical weapons on Syrian civilians. The lack of consensus on the most appropriate response, within the limits of international law, raised a number of questions.

There were times when we were told that a military attack was imminent, others when cautious voices against a military campaign seemed to have the moral upper hand. In the days following the discovery of the use of chemical weapons, the U.S. made public its position on the question, based on the conviction that the Syrian government was responsible. In the general uproar that that ensued, the recent examples of Afghanistan and Iraq guided many deliberations on the wisdom of another humanitarian intervention. Like Barack Obama, many commentators believe in the existence of a red line that delineates the contours of a hypothetical morality, its alleged violation by Syria warranted punishment if the red line was to be pushed back. Many others however warned against acting on an impulse of outrage, Libya is a vivid example of how an ill-conceived intervention can be more damaging than the situation it originally sought to fix.

P3 Hypocrisy-Irony

From the polarized debates, two declarations in particular piqued my interest. The first one was Barack Obama’s Address to the Nation of September 10th, 2013. The second one was the Declaration of the Forum for Former African Heads of State and Government (the Africa Forum) on September 5th, 2013. The first one was as usual widely followed in America and beyond. The second went unnoticed partly because it was of little news worthiness for commentators of world affairs, partly because no one expected Africans to formulate any coherent view on the Syrian question. The first was delivered as an authoritative pronouncement on how a putative ‘we’ (i.e. the international community) should interpret international law and what shape its moral responsibility – here merely one embodiment of the West – should be engaged. Continue reading

Dr Srnicek, I Presume?

10 Dec

Hot on Elke’s heels comes the news of the world’s latest doctor. Nick Srnicek, PhD. Awarded for his original thesis Representing Complexity: The Material Construction of World Politics, examined by Professors Iver Neumann and Alex Preda. A certain mastery thus attained.

Dr Nick

Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

1 Dec

comte

The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 

19_malinowski

Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

Continue reading

Teach It, And They Will Come

5 Nov

1960s Teach In

As another term approaches its zenith, we at The Disorder engage in a novel public service: making available a range of our module reading lists. Ready-made bibliographies, crib-sheets, self-help guides, or just objects of curiosity, to do with as you will. We have focused on our more specialised courses, on the assumption that there is a relative dearth of taught programmes on these issues, or taught from these perspectives. Most of the readings remain inaccessible online, although there are libraries still in existence where they may be found. You will also miss out on our great personal charms. Nevertheless, enjoy.

Just click on the titles for the full PDFs. May a thousand ideas bloom!


Joe (Lecturer in International Relations, City University)

Myths and Mysteries in World Politics (co-taught with Aggie Hirst and Amin Samman): This is a ten-week course that runs in the first term and is compulsory for all our undergraduate students. The idea behind it is that we wanted to provide an introduction to “theory” that not only avoided the numerous “isms” but which also harnessed the students’ interest in politics. So, the course is organised around key ideas in politics and we push students to think philosophically about what world politics is, as well as how they are already engaged in it. We hope to develop a critical sensibility by getting students to realise how much they already know, or think they know, about world politics and then encouraging them to look more deeply – hence the “Myths and Mysteries” title. The course is structured in three parts: there’s an initial week where we talk about what “politics” means and ask students to consider their own placement in the political world (this is also the topic of their first essay), then we cover “Power”, “Ethics”, “Violence” and “Law” as big conceptual ideas before turning to a section that looks at the institutions of world politics (broadly conceived), including “Empire”, “Capitalism”, “The State”, “Money” and “History”. In the end, the primary hope is to build intellectual skills – reading, writing, thinking – and introduce them to big ideas in politics rather than indoctrinate them in disciplinary debates.

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