Out of Place: Space/Time and Quantum (In)security

A demon lives behind my left eye. As a migraine sufferer, I have developed a very personal relationship with my pain and its perceived causes. On a bad day, with a crippling sensitivity to light, nausea, and the feeling that the blood flowing to my brain has slowed to a crawl and is the poisoned consistency of pancake batter, I feel the presence of this demon keenly.

On the first day of the Q2 Symposium, however, which I was delighted to attend recently, the demon was in a tricksy mood, rather than out for blood: this was a vestibular migraine. The symptoms of this particular neurological condition are dizziness, loss of balance, and sensitivity to motion. Basically, when the demon manifests in this way, I feel constantly as though I am falling: falling over, falling out of place. The Q Symposium, hosted by James Der Derian and the marvellous team at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies,  was intended, over the course of two days and a series of presentations, interventions, and media engagements,  to unsettle, to make participants think differently about space/time and security, thinking through quantum rather than classical theory, but I do not think that this is what the organisers had in mind.

photo of cabins and corridors at Q Station, SydneyAt the Q Station, located in Sydney where the Q Symposium was held, my pain and my present aligned: I felt out of place, I felt I was falling out of place. I did not expect to like the Q Station. It is the former quarantine station used by the colonial administration to isolate immigrants they suspected of carrying infectious diseases. Its location, on the North Head of Sydney and now within the Sydney Harbour National Park, was chosen for strategic reasons – it is secluded, easy to manage, a passageway point on the journey through to the inner harbour – but it has a much longer historical relationship with healing and disease. The North Head is a site of Aboriginal cultural significance; the space was used by the spiritual leaders (koradgee) of the Guringai peoples for healing and burial ceremonies.

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More Notes for Discerning Travellers

A little while ago I wrote a blog, Notes on Europe and Europeans for the Discerning Traveller. It was a fictional travel guide, but with all points speaking to historical realities.

What is it about a certain “European” sensibility? Not all people who live in European countries have it, of course, but this sensibility seems to define in the main what it means to be essentially “European”). I want to ask: what is it about a sensibility that can never, ever, look at itself, for itself, and in relation to what it does to others?

We all know that the European enlightenment was supposed to be built upon the pillars of self-reflection and accountability in thought and politics. It is funny, then, that the “European” so rarely seemed to be able to hold him/herself to reflexive account especially over European colonial pasts.

It continues.

I swear, if I believed in such a cosmology called “Modernity” I’d be calling the “European” a backward, traditional native ensconced in his/her own culture, taking his/her particulars for mystical universals, and unable to look at him/herself in the mirror to start the process of socialization and “childhood development”.

But I don’t believe. So I’ll just have to call this sensibility by more mundane descriptions, such as un-reflexive, un-accountable, un-relational.

Example (twitter response to my Travel Notes blog): Continue reading

Ethical Encounters – The Special Ambiguity of Humanity

This is the second post in a series reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam Fotou’s original post can be accessed here, Elke’s is here, and Jillian’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


Encountering Humanity

Humanity is special. This sounds like a very conventional claim. We are used to hearing appeals to our common humanity. The appeal works on the presumption that there is something in human beings that we not only share as humans but which also calls us to respond in particular ways when we encounter each other. We are said to have human rights that exceed any of our particular belongings to states, faiths or ethnicities. We intervene to protect human beings beset by violence and catastrophe, disregarding the norms of sovereignty that prevent outside interference. We appeal to our common humanity to solicit resources for distant strangers, often depicted in their suffering as vulnerable human bodies to shake us from our everyday disregard. Humanity is appealed to as a matter of routine, but what does our humanity consist in?

Reflection on the meaning of humanity is less common than our appeals to it, yet this deeper rumination also comes with practiced ease. Knowing what our humanity is has long been a matter of divining what is distinctive about human beings and then moving to grant our distinctively human capacities an exalted status, claiming it as our essential nature. Humanity, as something to which we appeal, is conventionally a judgment on what is prized in human nature, marking out what is elevated amongst all the contradictions of our all too human nature.

Huge Manatee

Humanity then works not only as an appeal – “for the love of humanity!” – but also as a standard to which we should be held. Knowing what is properly human provides a guide to our interactions. What do we owe each other? To be treated in accordance with our essential nature. In a typically modern and Western formulation: to be treated as rational beings, to have our individual freedom respected. These sorts of claims have long echoes and many sources. They also have dissonant reverberations because the standard of humanity not only marks off the human from the animal or the divine, but also differences between those human beings recognised as fully and properly human and those denied recognition, and in their denial degraded as sub-human, primitive and savage. This exclusion from full humanity of the non-human negates the appeal and standard of humanity, opening up the non-human to forms of violence, degradation and abuse. Women, savages, barbarians, Jews, Muslims, Asians, Africans, queers, lunatics, cripples; a brutal list of exceptions to the defining standard, such that even its partial enumeration raises questions about humanity as a standard. Nearly as insidious is the way the self-appointed arbiters of humanity use such distinctions to exculpate themselves. Those who fight for humanity against savagery are always noble in their own eyes. Continue reading

This was their finest hour and a half: UK Election 2015 Debate No.4

There are several generalized reasons why televised election debates ought to be given a miss: they are usually dull; they usually don’t matter much (and when they do, this is primarily a function of how they are read in the news media and why); they are designed by (American-trained) political professionals for other (American-trained) political professionals, which is to say that instead of attempting to function as mass communication platforms for educating voters about different parties’ policies and the likely effects of such policies, televised election debates (“TV clashes”) are basically low-quality infotainment that works to sustain public ignorance…One could throw in the question of elections themselves. Rather than the be-all and end-all of democratic politics, elections are arguably not as important as the competition between and among political machines, lobbies, organized interests, ideologies and/or discourses (depending on one’s pet theory) that takes place outside the electoral system. These hidden, behind-the-scenes currents of power do not determine what happens in voting booths, by they do exert a great deal of influence what election winners can and cannot accomplish once they assume office.

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Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality

s200_myriam.fotouThis guest post, by Myriam Fotou, is the first in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at LSE, she is also a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway and City University London. Joe’s post can be found here, Elke’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.


Let us consider this negative sentence: “death has no border”
J. Derrida, Aporias

Framing the problem

In mid-January 2014, approximately five nautical miles off the coast of Turkey and near the Greek islet of Farmakonisi, eleven non-Europeans, including babies and children, were drowned. Amid adverse weather conditions, their boat had capsized during an attempt by the Greek coastguard to tow the old smuggling boat. Accounts of what happened are contradictory: survivors argue that they were being pushed back to Turkey, shouted at and threatened, and that the drowned were not inadvertently killed; Greek authorities, on the other hand, argue that they were towing the boat to Greek waters and safety, that the conditions did not allow for the people on the old, adrift vessel to be taken aboard the coastguard’s vessel, that the “illegal” immigrants coming from Asia did not know anything about the sea and navigating, how to swim or orient themselves. By gathering on one side of the boat after one of them fell overboard, they caused the vessel to capsize themselves. These contradictory stories, which although might not make much of a difference in the end result (almost half of the people on board were drowned), in essence symbolise the contradiction between the law and its application, the inherent violence in both, and in European states’ backpedalling on their hospitality obligations.

Farmakonisi

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What We Talked About At ISA: Embracing Indecision – Free Improvisation and Ethics as Action

We, the garden of technology. We, undecidable

– John Cage, 1988

“Art is sort of an experimental station in which one tries out living”, John Cage once famously quipped. I hadn’t really given this line much thought until I watched a friend perform with his ensemble of free improvisationalists and began to understand – rather late, admittedly, – the creative interconnectivity of musical improvisation with aspects of political and ethical life. Encapsulated in Cage’s comment is the close enmeshment of creation and performance, fabrication and action, production and interaction, set against a modernist ontology of profound uncertainty, pertinent beyond disciplinary analytical divides. Simultaneously embracing and resisting the scientifically and technologically mediated quest for certainty in his time, John Cage, along with other experimental musicians and artists, perpetually sought to challenge a reliance on that which can be decided, by finding different disruptive and unfamiliar techniques.

These techniques are not merely aesthetic choices or practices, but rather, as forms of encounters, have also ethical and political relevance. Whether it is through shock, as in Marcel Duchamp’s work in art (Fountain – a urinal as art!), or experimentation in John Cage’s work in music (4’33 – silence as music!), such disruptions emanate propositions of drastic undecidability – albeit against an always specific socio-political background. Residing in these practices of radical alterity is a production of subjectivity, of a modus vivendi, and with it an ethico-political dimension. As Maurizio Lazzarato duly notes, such techniques are ethico-politico-aesthetic techniques to wrest with the nature of disciplinary and security societies. Embracing this transdisciplinary approach, I thus take the principles of free improvisation as a stimulus to rethink, in positive ways, how to deal with the modern modus of fluid ground, uncertainty and undecidability, in politics and ethics through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction.

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Challenging the practical turn in contemporary conceptualisations of ethics in politics was my core theme for this year’s ISA conference, so I came equipped with not one but three papers on ethics and politics. Each sought to problematize the prevalence of applied ethics in theorizing international politics more broadly and political violence specifically. The first paper develops a critique of practical ethics as the dominant way of thinking about the ethics of political violence (watch this space for more on that). The second paper considers the prevalence of ethics as a scientific-technological matter in the use of unmanned and autonomous military technology. In this third and final paper, I try to rethink ethics in trans-disciplinary ways and turn to an unlikely source: free improvisation in music. Drawing on the principles of free improvisation, I suggest, allows us to conceptualise ethics as action rather than an applied abstract concept or epithet. In other words, to overcome the shortcomings of traditional modes of theorizing ethics in political theory, I look to free improvisation in music to rethink ethics and politics in less familiar ways, through the modes of sonic and corporeal interaction. I am very much still in the process of thinking all this through, so bear that in mind if you decide to read on. Suggestions, critiques and feedback welcome!

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Size Matters: Reflecting on Perspective, Positionality and Critique After #ISA2015

… so I tweeted on the last day of the 56th Annual Convention of the International Studies Association. I was exhausted by that point, numbed and overwhelmed at the sheer volume of thoughts I had asked my poor brain to process over the previous four days. I was ready to crawl into bed and sleep for a week, but I still had to get home, back to Sydney from whence I came, which I duly did, over the course of the next 37 hours.

I stared blindly out of the aeroplane window as we circled around Sydney, thinking about nothing much at all, noticing the Opera House and the Sydney Harbour Bridge and how tiny they looked, how much like models, how insignificant. And in the taxi on the way home (and yes, I am acknowledging my privilege as I write this, that is kind of the point of this blog, I think…), I asked the driver to please take the bridge, not the tunnel. There is something about the view from the Eastern Distributor, which brackets Circular Quay with the Harbour Bridge on one side and the Opera House on the other, that feels to me like coming home.

photo of sydney opera house

Sydney Opera House. Photo by LJS.

As we drove, and the iconic structures came into view, I thought, somewhat mindlessly, how much bigger they seemed close up. Like I said, I was exhausted, not able to conjure much more than this rather banal observation. Objects in the rear view mirror may be closer than they appear, but objects on the ground, when you’re close up, feel much more significant. Continue reading