O (fuck you) Canada!

Our very first guest rant, courtesy of Sankaran Krishna of the University of Hawai`i at Manoa.


Fuck Canada

Okay, I need to get something off my chest. I am sick and tired of the way “Canada” is positioned as a beacon of progressive socialistic state policies and a peaceful, enlightened citizenry. I am sick and tired of hearing white, liberal colleagues assert during every Presidential election in the United States that if “… Dole/ Bush / McCain / Romney … wins, I am moving to Canada.” I am also sick of the way Canada’s educational system, its health care system, its gun control policies, and a variety of other practices are contrasted favorably with the United States and held up to the latter as a model worth emulating. I am sick of American tourists abroad putting Canada stickers on their backpacks as a way of immunizing themselves from opprobrium. I am sick of all the evocations of Canadian politeness and niceness and what not, conveniently forgetting that in every war-making venture the United States has been in since its founding, the Canadians have been there right alongside. I am sick of all this for at least three reasons.

One, it effaces the conjoined history of both the United States and Canada as settler-colonial societies constructed on the violent usurpation of the lands of indigenous peoples and continued into the present through their ongoing dispossession and marginalisation. Do people not realize the enormous privilege inhering in the idea that you can just move to another country because you don’t agree with election results in your own? That the very idea of such a movement reenacts the originary violence that created both societies?

Two, in this entire imaginary that depicts the US and Canada as contrasts (as distinct from being overwhelmingly similar settler colonies), the unspoken locus of enunciation is white. How does the alleged contrast between the two societies look like from the perspective of someone from one of the pre-contact indigenous groups in either of these nations? What does it look like from Black or South Asian or East Asian or other immigrant (or “arrivant” as Jodi Byrd terms them) perspectives? These questions do not seem to be within the frame of analysis when Canada is presented as a liberal wet-dream in contrast to the United States.

Third, instead of contrasting them, might it not be better to see Canada as the alibi that normalises the extremity that is the United States? And the US as the egregious violence that sanitizes and renders more benign the incredible violence that is Canada? To twist Baudrillard, in different ways Canada and the US serve towards each other the same function that Disneyland does in rendering the rest of Los Angeles real.

So the next time you hear some allegedly liberal colleague, friend, whatever of yours praise Canada and offer it as a salutary contrast to the benighted United States, say something like “a pox on both (y)our houses” – and you can add any expletives that seem appropriate and tactically permissible at that moment.

Open Letter In Support of Surrey Politics Department

Last week, members of the Politics Department at the University of Surrey were told by their managers that they would be effectively closed down in the summer, with a reduction of 14 staff to five teaching-only posts, and no guarantee of employment for anyone presently in the Department. The Department had been ranked 6th in Politics in this year’s Guardian Subject League Table, 4th in the NSS 2014 with an overall satisfaction rate of 97%, and 17th in the Complete University Guide 2014. Thanks to a rapid reaction and online campaign immediately following this, as well as discussions with the Political Studies Association over the last week this decision appears to be under review. The initial proposal however remains on the table at the time of writing.  To follow unfolding events, please go to the Facebook page set up by a support group, and follow the Twitter account @surreypolgrads. Many are using the hashtag #savesurreypolitics.

The below is an open letter originating from members of the Department of Politics and International Studies at SOAS, University of London.

Update 26th March: following much enthusiasm, the open letter is now available for all to sign and we have edited according. Please respond in the comments section with your name, role and institution where relevant, and do forward to colleagues.

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What We MADE at ISA: Art as Subject, Art as Method

Our panel at ISA 2015 began with a comment made in a panel at ISA 2014 in Toronto: “I knit in panels. And this is the first conference I’ve ever attended where I’m the only knitter.” The speaker was Kate Daley, knitting in hand, and the conversations that followed eventually became “Art as Subject, Art as Method”, an innovative panel at this year’s conference in New Orleans.

The role of art in international politics has largely been ignored, a fact which Christine Sylvester has highlighted repeatedly [1]. In our panel, we wanted to combine study of art with the practice of art. Shifting the focus from what we make to the act of making itself, we asked what an engagement with the material, visual, sensory, and creative elements of art and craft could bring to the study of politics, employing not just colour and texture, but also interaction and sensory experience as tools.

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

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

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

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

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

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

To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric. –Adorno

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

plantation map

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What We Talked About At ISA: Weaponising Geography and the Global Striations of Military Targeting

In the context of a panel I put together on “Turning Ploughshares into Swords: Weapons and Weaponizations”, the ISA’s annual conference was the occasion for me to present some of the research I have undertaken as part of my long term project into the logistics of military perception. The central aim of that project is to uncover the genealogy and operation of the functional constituents of contemporary targeting practices as they increasingly span the globe. I submit that we can outline three distinct, if profoundly intertwined, functions of sensing, imaging and mapping that respectively gather sensorial information, visually represent and disseminate it, and relate it to geospatial frameworks. It is the last of these operations that was the focus of my paper, with particular attention paid to the way in which the planet has increasingly been enframed within systems of geographic coordinates permitting the geolocation and thereby targeting of any entity caught within their mesh.

While the role of cartography in European colonial expansion from the fifteenth century on is well-known, my main interest here lies in the even more intimate relationship between the histories of weapons targeting and techniques of geospatialisation. From the outset, the development of artillery in the early modern era was closely bound up with that of surveying techniques for the measurement of distances by visual means. Indeed, the range-finding exercises of gunners relied on the same trigonometric methods that underpinned the rise of modern cartography.

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