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Gender Trouble, Racial Salvation and the Tragedy of Political Community in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2012-2013)

11 Jun

A shamefully-delayed commentary on Game Of Thrones, Seasons the Second and Third, since the first one went so well. As before, *great clunking mega spoiler alert*. You have been forewarned.


Recall three justifications for an analysis of pop culture politics. First, for all their superficial escapism, cultural products represent political ideas and ideologies, and do so in ways that may matter more than what we receive through the news. They are full of desires and fantasies that refract and reflect (and to some extent are themselves) real politics. Second, you can criticise the thematics of the show without hating the show. In fact you can do it while loving the show (and finding the fact of that love interesting in itself). In other words, look, I really like Game of Thrones. Moreover, that as great as comparisons with the source text can be, a TV series is a different kind of beast and is entitled to judgement on its own merits. Third, objections that “it’s just a show” don’t wash. If you’re reading this it’s because you have some sense that there are ways of understanding and being embodied in even the lowest of cultural objects (paging Dr Adorno!). That doesn’t mean that the substance of the relationship between media and politics is simple or settled, but it’s there.

Let’s start where we left off last time. It was claimed in some quarters that the plot subverts – even refutes – certain standard typical ideas about the feminine, and critiques feudal social relations along the way. So, rather than being a “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons”, the many strong, complicated, agentic female roles in fact set Game of Thrones as a critique of patriarchy. But only the most one-dimensional of sexisms regards women as utterly abject. The mere presence of intelligent, or emotionally-rounded, or sympathetic female characters is not enough (and that it might be taken as inherently ‘progressive’ probably tells us a lot about contemporary gender politics). No, the issue is how a cultural product deploys some common tropes of masculinity and femininity and, with appropriate caveats about not reading every plot twist as an allegory, how those celebrate or reinforce certain orderings of gender. So a narrative which makes the family the primary unit, and which does so in a conventionally heteronormative register (twincest notwithstanding), is selling a particular idea of gender (and of community and nation and legitimate violence and…).

In Seasons 2 and 3, a few female figures threaten to upset the patriarchal framework. As before, there is Arya, astute, principled, fierce, and eager to promise death to her enemies. Brienne of Tarth, giant, loyal, lethal, dismissive. Ygritte, rugged, capable, sexually dominant, a hardened killer with no respect for rank (“If you ripped my silk dress, I’d blacken your eye”).[1] And yet in each case the threat is contained and wrapped in some familiar gender constraints.

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Ten Reasons Not To Write Your Master’s Dissertation on Sexual Violence in War

4 Jun

Marsha Henry

A guest post, following on from some previous reflections on gender and teaching and the politics of pedagogy, from Marsha Henry. Marsha is Lecturer in Gender, Development and Globalisation at the LSE Gender Institute, where she teaches, amongst other things, a course on gender and militarism. Her most recent research is into sexual exploitation in peacekeeping missions and peacekeeper labour hierarchies, and she is also, with Paul Higate, author of Insecure Spaces: Peacekeeping, Power and Performance in Haiti, Kosovo and Liberia (Zed, 2009). With Pablo, she recently co-edited a special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on ‘Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence’. This post is based on a presentation given in San Francisco at the International Studies Association in April 2013.


It’s the first day of Lent term and the students are nervously gathered in a small stuffy classroom.  When I walk in and head towards the front of the room, the group falls silent. I introduce myself and we start a round of introductions and I ask students to speak briefly about their interest in the course. The first student tells me, and the class, that she’s in IR (International Relations), and is keen to take the course because she’s interested in studying sexual violence in war.  Another student turns to her, incredulous because she too is interested in that exact subject, and that furthermore she has worked for 3 months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has ‘seen a lot’. A few more students echo similar interests and I’m trying hard not to stereotype these students. But it’s difficult. A mythical figure is beginning to crystallise in my head and I can’t stop it. This figure is young, female and possibly middle-class, sometimes Scandinavian. She’s studying IR, Human Rights or Gender Studies. A few male students also indicate an interest. Some indicate interest in other topics, but there is a numbers problem from the outset. I feel uncomfortable as this is the third year that I’ve taught this course, each time allotting only one lecture week to the subject of sexual violence in war, and subsuming it under the larger heading of ‘gender, sexualised violence and work in militarised contexts’. Each year students have asked for more time to be devoted to the subject, for the lecture week to be moved up, and for their to be less focus on diversity in the armed forces. When students come to me during office hours to discuss the scope of their dissertations on the subject I fidget. After a few conversations with colleagues, I decide I need to start compiling a list – of compelling reasons why students should not write on the subject of sexual violence in war. But what would I do with this list? Can it be shared? And what of my responsibility not to teach on the subject?

10: Writing About ‘It’ Narrows The Political Focus

As a committed feminist, I’m all for drawing significant attention to the ways in which women experience conflict in distinctive ways. But the concentration of interest on sexual violence in wartime often leads to a neglect of the ways in which women experience violence (labelled as sexual or not) in peacetime. This noticeable singular focus on the topic also narrows the possibility of dislodging categories and subject positions. It is often assumed in class conversations, essays and subsequently dissertations that women are the victims and men are the perpetrators of this form of violence. This assumption appears in written work in a way that both masks the possibility of other positionings within the perpetrator-victim continuum, as well as the structurally embedded way in which sexualised violence occurs and is experienced by individuals and communities. This failure to explain the pervasiveness of sexualised violence against women tends to reinforce the binaries and provides a rather fixed aperture for analysing sexual violence in war and its consequences.

9: Researching The Topic Inspires Voyeurism

I’m squirming in my seat as one of the students smiles widely while she explains her interest in working on the topic of sexual violence as a weapon of war. She could be nervous explaining herself in front of her peers and her professor. She could be feeling awkward about the subject matter. She could be conforming to gendered expectations of women in the classroom where female students who express themselves confidently or through feminist rhetoric are categorised as aggressive. If feminist critique is pleasurable, how do we ‘do’ our analysis of sexual violence in wartime, paying attention to experience, trauma, and moral responsibility? There is a tendency, in making visible the ‘horror’ of it all, that students sensationalise the subject by focussing on the minutiae, the details and the thick descriptions. Honing in on the bodily experience of rape, for example, can remove rape in war from the wider social, cultural, economic and political context in which it always takes place. It can be an abstraction of the total experience. The affective impact is that readers of these dissertations distance themselves from subjects in the studies. Those who are victims and/or survivors and end up consciously or unconsciously performing what Donna Haraway referred to as a god-trick.

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Indigenous Narrative Methods: A Hawaiian Perspective

21 Mar

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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Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence

7 Mar

The modified text of an introduction written with Marsha Henry for our special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics on ‘Rethinking Masculinity and Practices of Violence in Conflict Settings’ (trailed here), which came out in December 2012. The full text of the issue is currently freely available. I don’t know for how long, so get to it!


Join the Navy - The Service for Fighting Men

Why rethink masculinity and conflict? After all, the connection of men and masculinities to organised (and seemingly unorganised) violence has been subject to considerable academic scrutiny over the last decades, not least as part of the feminist critique of disciplinary International Relations. It is now increasingly common to both note the unequal character of gendered violence (it is predominantly men who do the killing and the maiming) and to stress the contingent and sometimes paradoxical status of this situation (women kill and maim too, and the content of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ varies significantly over time, space and context). The analysis of gender within global politics has also moved beyond the level of the state and war to interrogate the full spectrum of social life, from popular culture to political economy. And yet elite institutions still prove stubbornly resistant to teaching gender, feminism and sexuality within ‘the international’, despite introductory texts which increasingly offer such insights to the curious student.

Although you wouldn’t know it from some of the caricatures in circulation, feminist and gender scholars write often of multiplicity in masculinities, of varied and shifting constructions of gendered agency, and of representations of violence as themselves constitutive of gender, rather than merely reflective of a pre-existing distribution of essences. Some, like Melanie McCarry, have become rather sceptical of this situation, warning that the actions and power of men themselves are obscured in the consensus that there are many masculinities. In other words that multiplicity, discourse and construction are not advances in theory, but ways of displacing responsibility away from concrete male perpetrators. At the same time as they direct attention to the material practices of men such criticisms also tend to gloss over rich and situated examples of critical theorising along exactly those lines. A different brand of critic has sometimes suggested that feminism may be incapable of properly analysing the variety of gendered experiences in conflict. But here too, a comprehensive history of the field instead reveals many close and nuanced considerations of men and women at war.

Nevertheless, ambiguities do persist in the way feminist and gender scholars describe and account for masculinity. Against this background, a number of problems come into sharper focus. First, how are masculinities and violences connected in specific locations of power? Second, how do these connections play out internationally, in the interactions between political communities, however understood? Third, just how related are gendered identities to fighting, killing and dying in conflict settings? And fourth, how do the complexities of violence situated in this way reflect back onto theorising about gendered hierarchy and difference?

Some of these questions are more familiar than others, but the collection of articles presented in our special issue of International Feminist Journal of Politics substantially addresses them all (I know, get us, right?). Continue reading

Marshalling the Real: War and Simulation

10 Jan

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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(Im)Possibly Queer International Feminisms

17 Dec

Wehrmacht DragWe’ve previously mentioned the 2013 International Feminist Journal of Politics annual conference – on the topic of ‘(Im)Possibly Queer International Feminisms’. It turns out that there is extra reason to trumpet its existence: our very own Rahul Rao (author these excellent posts) will be one of the conference keynotes, alongside such others as Lisa Duggan (NYU), Jon Binnie (Manchester Met), Vivienne Jabri (Kings), V. Spike Peterson (Arizona), Laura Sjoberg (Florida), Rosalind GaltAkshay Khanna, and Louiza Odysseos (all Sussex)! A lot of other exciting papers will be on display, some of which I’ll be associated with. And there’s also a pre-conference workshop on Queer, Feminist and Social Media Praxis. Clearly not an occasion to miss.

The full call is as follows:

(Im)possibly Queer International Feminisms

The 2nd Annual IFjP Conference
May 17-19, 2013
University of Sussex, Brighton, England

The aim of this conference is to serve as a forum for developing and discussing papers that IFjP hopes to publish.  These can be on the conference theme or on any other feminist IR-related questions.

Feminists taught us that the personal is political.  International Relations feminists taught us that the personal is international.  And contemporary Queer Scholars are teaching us that the international is queer.  While sometimes considered in isolation, these insights are connected in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. This conference seeks to bring together scholars and practitioners to critically consider the limits and possibilities of thinking, doing, and being in relation to various assemblages composed of queer(s), international(s), and feminism(s).

Questions we hope to consider include:  Who or what is/are (im)possibly queer, (im)possibly international, (im)possibly feminist, separately and in combination?  What makes assemblages of queer(s), international(s) and feminism(s) possible or impossible?  Are such assemblages desirable – for whom and for what reasons?  What might these assemblages make possible or impossible, especially for the theory and practice of global politics?

We are interested in papers and panels that explore these questions through theoretical and/or practical perspectives, be they interdisciplinary or located within the discipline of International Relations.

Sub-themes include (Im)Possibly Queer/International/Feminist:

  • Heteronormativities/Homonormativities/Homonationalisms
  • Embodiments/Occupations/Economies/Circulations
  • Temporalities/‘Successes’/‘Failures’
  • Emotions/Desires/Psycho-socialities
  • Technologies/Methodologies/Knowledges/Epistemologies
  • Spaces/Places/Borders/(Trans)positionings
  • States/Sovereignties/Subjectivities
  • Crossings/Migrations/Trans(gressions)
  • (In)Securities

We invite submissions for individual papers or pre-constituted panels on any topic pertaining to the conference theme and sub-themes. We also welcome papers and panels that consider any other feminist IR-related questions.

Any inquiries should be addressed to the conference coordinator, Joanna Wood, at cait@sussex.ac.uk

Abstracts should be no more than 250 words.

Deadline for submissions: January 31, 2013

We will, however, confirm acceptance of submissions before the deadline if we receive abstracts early.  Early submission is therefore recommended.

Please submit your abstract here.

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

4 Nov

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.’

Continue reading

Fratriarchy, Homoeroticism and Military Culture

1 Nov

The ever-excellent Sociological Images offers up this 1940s advert, and others like it, as an example of how images previously taken to be innocent consumer bait for stereotypical homemakers now appear to us as dripping with homoeroticism. They may have added too that this half-ironic, half-nostalgic distance is what endears us to such images, which we then enjoy as vintage objects, for all that we know about the true historical context in which they were produced.

One common idea, which relates nicely to military bathing aesthetics (cannon towels? really?) is that many bonding behaviours in nominally heterosexual, male-dominated groups are in fact homosexual, but in a disavowed or repressed way. The scrum, the shared shower, the bunk-beds, the exclusion of women not only from the fields of play and war, but also from the various celebrations and carnivals that follow, all seem to indicate a desire for intimacy that cannot be named as such.

In the excellent Bring Me Men (which deserves its own dedicated review), Aaron Belkin identifies a more complex relation. In becoming military men, there is a need not only to disavow femininity, but also to become intimate with the ‘unmasculine’ and the ‘queer’. Rather than identifying a direct alignment of the masculine with the military, or seeing gender norms as accidental in their intersection with the military, there is instead a constitutive tension between the masculine and the unmasculine (or, we might say, between the strongly heteronormative and the homosexual). Basic training relies on a traumatic ambiguity, continually casting initiates as by turns masculine and unmasculine, so that no soldier can ever be sure that they were sufficiently on the ‘right side’ of the line. As one Marine put it: “The opposite of feminine? No. To me, what is masculine? I don’t know. [pause] And I’ve worked so hard at being it”. The continual ambiguity – what Belkin calls discipline as collapse – interacts with surveillance and punishment to produce the soldier-subject.

More brutally: Continue reading

Queerly Global Politics: Some Events

14 Sep

Normal blogging service soon to be resumed. In the meantime, two gender and world politics events of note. First, on Friday 2 November, a roundtable on gender, militarisation and violence at LSE, featuring Cynthia Enloe, Aaron Belkin, Kim Hutchings,and others. It will be excellent. Second, the call for papers for the 2nd International Feminist Journal of Politics is out. The conference is a way away (17-19 May 2013 at the University of Sussex), but early paper/panel submissions are encouraged. Details below the model military aesthetic.

(Im)possibly Queer International Feminisms

Feminists taught us that the personal is political. International Relations feminists taught us that the personal is international. And contemporary Queer Scholars are teaching us that the international is queer. While sometimes considered in isolation, these insights are connected in complex and sometimes contradictory ways. This conference seeks to bring together scholars and practitioners to critically consider the limits and possibilities of thinking, doing, and being in relation to various assemblages composed of queer(s), international(s), and feminism(s).

Questions we hope to consider include: Who or what is/are (im)possibly queer, (im)possibly international, (im)possibly feminist, separately and in combination? What makes assemblages of queer(s), international(s) and feminism(s) possible or impossible? Are such assemblages desirable – for whom and for what reasons? What might these assemblages make possible or impossible, especially for the theory and practice of global politics?

We are interested in papers and panels that explore these questions through theoretical and/or practical perspectives, be they interdisciplinary or located within the discipline of International Relations. Sub-themes include (Im)Possibly Queer/International/Feminist:

  • Heteronormativities/Homonormativities/Homonationalisms
  • Embodiments/Occupations/Economies/Circulations
  • Temporalities/‘Successes’/‘Failures’
  • Emotions/Desires/Psycho-socialities
  • Technologies/Methodologies/Knowledges/Epistemologies
  • Spaces/Places/Borders/(Trans)positionings
  • States/Sovereignties/Subjectivities — Crossings/Migrations/Trans(gressions)
  • (In)Securities

We invite submissions for individual papers or pre-constituted panels on any topic pertaining to the conference theme and sub-themes. We also welcome papers and panels that consider any other feminist IR-related questions. Send abstracts (250 words) to: Joanna Wood (j.c.wood [at] sussex.ac.uk)

Deadline for submissions: 31 January 2013

‘Our Retrospective Abhorrence’; Or, ‘Jerry Building’ (1994)

6 May

Jonathan Meades‘ incisive, irreverent, sweeping, often hilarious and somehow majestic account of the forms of Nazism (architectural, political, libidinal), criminally unavailable on DVD. Presented here in full lo-fi glory. One of the best docu-arguments ever committed to celluloid. You’re very welcome.

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