Pacific Redemption Songs

Te Hau

“Te Hau” by Abby Wendy

A few years ago I was reasoning with members of Ras Messengers, a reggae-jazz band who had in 1979 toured Aotearoa New Zealand. The Rastafari musicians recollected their experiences with various Māori communities. Occasionally female Māori elders (kuia), in introducing themselves to the band, would connect their genealogies back to Africa. The kuia did this as part of an indigenous practice called whakapapa, which literally means to “make ground”. It is a practice that allows diverse peoples who might never have met to find a genealogical route through which they are already personally related.

Chauncey Huntley from Ras Messengers showing the Rakau (traditional sticks) that he was gifted thirty years previously

Rastafari also have a practice called “grounding”, which is to collectively reason on the meaning and challenges of contemporary life. Over– or inner- standing (instead of under- standing) is cultivated through the guidance of natural laws and – often with the help of drums, fire and holy herb – the intuition provided by spiritual agencies (Irits) that allows ones to pierce the veil of deathly inequality, oppression and dehumanization so as to redeem living energies and relationships that might help with healing in the present. When I think of Irits I also think of a key concept of Māori cosmology called hau. Overstood by Māori Marsdenhau is the breath or wind of spirit which is infused into the process of birth to animate life and associated with the intention to bind peoples together in righteous living.

A key stone of the Rastafari faith is that adherents collectively redeem their African genealogy so as to breathe life back into their suffering condition and leave behind the death of enslavement and its contemporary legacies. So when I heard of this story of the kuia and Ras Messengers, I imagined how this practice might have given strength to the Ras. After all, in those days (and perhaps still today), peoples of various African heritages were often forced (directly or indirectly) to disavow those connections themselves.

Whakapapa is an art practised collectively. Yet it is not free play, nor is it the manufacturing of fiction. It is a creative retrieval. It could even be a redemptive act.

Keskidee 13

Keskidee perform in New Zealand

This was certainly the intention of those who organized the tour of Ras Messengers alongisde the Black British theatre group, Keskidee (the name of a Guianese bird known for its resilience). The organizers were a group of New Zealand activists that came together under the banner Keskidee Aroha (Aroha being the Māori word for love, sympathy, nurturing affection etc). Their intention was to learn from and work with the artistic tropes of Black Power and Rastafari so as to catalyse a cultural revolution and renaissance amongst young Māori and Pasifika peoples thereby strengthening them in their confrontation with a racist post-settler society.

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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

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

Marshalling the Real: War and Simulation

This post was originally given as a talk at the Urbanomic event Simulation, Exercise, Operations held in Oxford on the 11th July 2012. Thanks to Robin Mackay for the transcription of the talk that served as a basis for the present version.


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Upon reflecting on the meaning of simulation and the role it occupies in war, it strikes me that it is possible to distinguish between two distinct, if perhaps complementary, significations. There is a first signification which refers back to an older understanding of simulation and is a more etymologically faithful meaning of simulation in terms of deception, in terms of pretence, illusion, and false appearance that refers us back to the classical idea of the simulacrum as formulated by Plato. This conception of simulation invokes the notion of surface resemblance – a simulation is something that appears to be what in fact it is not. The history of the visual arts naturally provides us with numerous examples of such simulations, among others through the styles of trompe l’oeil and photorealism. Simulation here references the idea of a surface representation which may present a superficial resemblance to its object but which possesses no ontological depth.  In the military context, this kind of simulation corresponds to the decoy, for example the inflatable tanks of the Second World War that may resemble tanks from a distance but which beyond that do not capture anything about what a tank actually is and how it works. Related to this is the correlated notion of dissimulation where the exercise is there not so much the representation of something that is not but the concealing of something that is, camouflage being here the obvious military referent.

inflatable tanks

Notwithstanding the significance of such practices, there is also a more contemporary meaning of simulation that will be the main object of the present post. This is a conception that is tied into the history of computing, although it does predate it, and which suggests the imitation of processes, situations and systems through the modelling of the internal characteristics and dynamics of that system and the formalisation of the constituent variables. With it comes a claim – not a claim, obviously, that we should take uncritically – to capturing some depth to whatever is being simulated, rather than simply its surface. In fact, the simulated representation might not be verisimilar and replicate our immediate phenomenological perception; it might for example merely take the form of data points on a computer printout. One common definition of a simulation that is used by computer modellers is that of “an experiment performed on a model” and indeed the concept of the model is key here because this is what distinguishes the first sense of the simulation from the second. Implicit in this second understanding of simulation is the notion of a model as a set of interrelated propositions that purport to capture the internal dynamics and behaviour of a given system. Assumptions are made about the system and mathematical algorithms and relationships are derived to describe these assumptions. These together constitute a model that purports to reveal how the system works, the operation of which can then be tested through simulation exercises with the purpose of such experiments being to better apprehend the patterns of behaviour of the system and eventually evaluate optimal conditions and variable settings for the operation of the system.

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Obama’s Ohio Report

My Ohioans did it again.  In every election since 1964 (and almost every time since 1904), the winner of this state ended up taking the presidency – hence the clichés “America’s bellwether” and “as Ohio goes, so goes America”.  Having spent six years of my life studying politics at The Ohio State University not so long ago, I can’t help but identify and sympathize with Buckeye voters, a group of people that every four years gets to decide the fate of the U.S. and, some might add, the world. This is a heavy burden for many reasons, including being exposed to the fanfare of presidential candidate fly-ins (82 of them this time), thousands of attack-counterattack TV ads (that typically target only “undecideds” and/or “independents”), as well as dozens of phone calls and door knocks reminding you to get out and vote for the right person (in the final week of the 2008 campaign, Team Obama said it knocked on a million Ohio doors per day).

The phrase “key battleground state” that every news outlet likes to attach to Ohio refers to its electoral-college vote clout (the 2010 Census reapportionment gives it 18 votes until 2020) as well as its recent record in presidential elections, which is marked by small margin-of-victory numbers (4.6 percentage points in 2008, 2 in 2004, etc.). The state has a remarkable red-blue balance overall; since 1998, the state voted for three Democratic and three Republican candidates each). Also remarkable were the results of pre-election state polling in October, which showed a tied (or at least tightening) race between President Barack Obama and his GOP challenger Mitt Romney (see, for example, the discussion of the RCP poll of polls from 30 October).

To be sure, electoral pathologists – those friends of yours obsessing about assorted ‘paths to presidency’ – had probably explained to you that each candidate could have won an electoral majority without Ohio (e.g. Obama would have had to grab one or two bigger states considered tossups plus all reliably blue states, and Romney would have had to hold onto all normally red states while pulling off multiple upsets elsewhere). This type of electoral math is both fun and fantastic, but reason tends to swiftly restore the status quo ante: it’s all about “Ohio, Ohio, Ohio!

Tuesday’s drama ended right after 11 pm Eastern Time, when the news organizations called Ohio for Obama; less than two hours later, Romney conceded the race.  To examine this outcome, let us begin with two issues identified by the media as key to this election: the auto and coal industries, and the thousands of jobs each of them provides to the state. (Compare, The Globe and Mail’s Ohio postcard of 25 October or The Economist of 27 October to the endorsement editorials in The Columbus Dispatch [Romney], The Cincinnati Enquirer [Romney], The Plain Dealer [Obama], or my favourite OH newspaper, The Blade [Obama]). In a nutshell, while some Ohioans liked what the president did with the former (that 2009 bailout of GM and Chrysler helped the manufacturing sector in the northern part of the state), others hated what he did with the latter. (Being viewed as too green on energy was expected to hobble Obama’s re-election chances in the coal-mining counties of the Appalachian part of the state).

Whatever the explanatory merits of simple storylines like these, unofficial returns bear this one out. The website of Ohio Secretary of State’s office has Obama winning by about 2 percentage points, which is lower than in 2008. The president indeed carried the populous Cuyahoga County (centered on Cleveland) plus a string of smaller counties in the northeast by sufficiently large margins, while Romney won large parts of the coal country.  What went on elsewhere in the state was more important, however. Though Romney ran strong in most traditionally Republican rural areas, he severely underperformed in the remaining half dozen big urban counties, which account for almost 40% of the statewide vote. Even Hamilton County (Cincinnati), historically a GOP bastion, went to Obama by about 20,000 votes again. (For the county-by-county comparisons over time, see Rich Exner’s page at The Plain Dealer; U.S. politics junkies might also consult a map of the 2008 precinct-by-precinct results provided by Stanford’s Spatial Social Science Lab).

Demographically, Obama probably carried the state in the same manner as he did four years ago.  How many Ohioans voted will not be known until late-arriving absentee ballots and provisional ballots are counted, but the turnout (about 68%) can safely be described as well above average. This surely helped the president: by getting its base to register and ballot (including via early in-person voting), the Obama campaign succeeded in maximizing Ohio’s Democratic potential once again (against a stream of ‘voter fraud’ legislation targeting qualified minority voters). What exit polls seem to be suggesting is that the president bested his challenger among female, young, college-educated as well as minority voters.  And what of Ohio’s white working class males (those without a university degree), who sit at the center of any “annoying, all-purpose pet theory” of U.S. presidential elections? Here, it appears that the president succeeded in avoiding a large margin of defeat, and it will be interesting to see why. The success in capitalizing on Romney’s casino capitalism sounds like a plausible hypothesis (and a nice extension of the auto bail-out storyline); but let’s recall that in 2008 Obama won 56% of votes from union households, which was lower than the national average.

What about the role played by ‘non-fundamentals’, specifically Obama’s race? Estimating this particular effect is challenging at any level of analysis, but both survey-based and non-survey-based studies have suggested that in 2008 Obama lost about 5 percentage points of the national popular vote due to racial intolerance on the part of some voters. A meaningful decline in this number would be my candidate for a feel-good story of the 2012 election.


Note: Cross-posted at the CIPS Blog, and meant to be read in conjunction with “Pre-Election Facebook Rants, #652

The Cursory Pedant: War Rape, the Human Security Report and the Calculation of Violence

“Cursory and pedantic”. So says IntLawGrrls’ Fionnuala Ní Aoláin of the just released Human Security Report 2012 (hereafter HSR). You may recall the team behind the HSR from their last intervention, which upset the applecart over the estimate of 5.4 million excess deaths in Congo (DRC) since 1998 and which also claimed a six decade decline in global organised violence. The target this time round is a series of putative myths about wartime sexual violence (those myths being: that extreme sexual violence is the norm in conflict; that sexual violence in conflict is increasing; that strategic rape is the most common – and growing – form of sexual violence in conflict; that domestic sexual violence isn’t an issue; and that only males perpetrate rape and only females are raped), each of which the authors claim to overturn through a more rigorous approach to available evidence. Along the way an account is also given of the source of such myths, which is said to be NGO and international agency funding needs, which lead them to highlight the worst cases and so to perpetuate a commonsense view of war rape that is “both partial and misleading”.

Megan MacKenzie isn’t impressed either, especially by HSR’s take on those who currently study sexual violence:

[HSR's view is] insulting because it assumes that those who work on sexual violence – like me – those who have sat in a room of women, where over 75% of the women have experienced rape – as I have – listening to story after story of rape, forced marriage, and raising children born as a result of rape, it assumes that we are thinking about what would make the best headline, not what are the facts, and not what would help the survivors of sexual violence.

Laura Shepherd (who like Ní Aoláin and Megan has written at some length on these issues) took a slightly different approach: “It makes not one jot of difference whether rates of [incidents of conflict-related sexual violence] are increasing, decreasing or holding entirely steady: as long as there are still incidents of war rape then the issue demands serious scholarly attention rather than soundbites”. Activists are concerned less by what the report says than by how it will be interpreted and the effects this will have on victims and survivors of rape (the danger, in Megan’s words, that “painting rape as random is another means to detach it from politics”). By contrast, Laura Seay (who has previously addressed similar issues in relation to Congo) is very supportive: “it’s hard to find grounds on which to dispute most of these claims. The evidence is solid”. Andrew Mack (who directs the HSR) similarly replied that the data supports HSR’s claims and that, despite criticisms, it had been checked rigorously.

So what is going on here?

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