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.


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.

Continue reading

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.


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

Continue reading

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.

b4367380aba26506f571b124b88cd1febf0fc442c1fb715267614d71a7f356af

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!

Continue reading

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

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.

Continue reading