Oxygen: Impressions from the Workshop ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Oded LowenheimPost seven in our ongoing mini-forum on methodology and narrative in (critical) IR. This time it’s the turn of Oded Löwenheim, who is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His interests lie in the field of emotions and politics, autoethnography and IR, and investigating the peculiarities of power, so to speak, in various issue areas and fields. He is the author of Predators and Parasites: Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm and Great Power Authority (The University of Michigan Press, 2007), and The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (The University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2014). His articles appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Security Dialogue, Security Studies, International Political Sociology and the Review of International Studies. At the Hebrew University he teaches courses on science fiction and on politics and autoethnography and IR.

The two days of the workshop were very intensive for me, in terms of both the many talks and conversations we heard and had, and in terms of the emotional weight I felt during these discussions. Some of the talks we heard were not easy to hear: people told about their personal experiences of places such as the “highway of tears” in British Columbia, Hawaii as a colonized space, or escape from worn-torn Eritrea. Other stories dealt with personal loss and the political meanings of grief; or, of opening up to the inner world of what I, and many other in the West, call “suicide bombers,” while they consider themselves as martyr soldiers; or, of the pain of Inuit people in Canada. But despite the sometimes difficult stories and realities, I felt I am full lungs breathing. I felt that the stories and the responses to them fill me with oxygen, almost literally.

We talked about the way stories and narratives can bridge gaps between people and enable us to reach out to the humanity of others. Yes, stories can be fabricated, manipulated, or exploited to reproduce hegemonic or dominating orders, some of the colleagues in the workshop reminded the participants. Stories can also serve a claim for authenticity, by virtue of the author/teller “being there,” while in many manners, there cannot be such a “there” from the outset. But stories, nonetheless, can create a strong sense of community, I felt. The more I heard the various talks, I realized that we live in a world that values distance and objectivity, but these values also contribute to human loneliness and atomization of societies. Narrativistic research not only challenges the traditional methods of writing in order to highlight various power structures that these methods ignore or do not capture fully. It can also have the potential to restore and to rebuild some sense of community among authors and their readers. By community, I do not mean only a professional community of academicians, which is often a small and closed one, but also a larger human community. Narrativistic writing, I felt during the workshop, can help people resist this institutionally – and structurally – imposed loneliness that is so characteristic of our times, both in academia and in broader society. Lonely people are easier to govern than people with a strong sense of belonging, connection, and community.

One of the most interesting conclusions I took from this workshop was Jenny Edkins’ comment (I hope that was indeed what she meant …) that while the state’s sovereign narrative is about completeness and continuity, a linear story in which there is a clear beginning and a path along which history continues, a path which the state – and I may add in a Foucauldian manner, its admirers/reproducers in academia – purport to know, in many political and historical situations reality is wounded and full of gaps and crevices. Narativistic writing acknowledges these gaps and irregularities, disrupts the linear narrative, but at the same time offers some comfort by engaging in a process of writing about the wound and, no less important: letting the wound write us back.

Indeed, writing about my own wounds and letting them write me back is an essential part of my autoethnographic work. In this sense, the workshop was for me so moving because participants were so open with each other and willing to share or reveal their vulnerabilities. Sharing our experiences in the world, a world which is partially of our own making and partially “given” to us, can help us understand ourselves better. Identifying to yourself what bothers and hurts you in the world, and why so, is an essential step in understanding how your subjectivity was constructed, and, consequently, a prerequisite for acquiring a more agentive role in the world. Sharing, in workshops, conferences, or in published writing this self-understanding can, in turn, humanize our writings – and no less important, our oral teachings – as social and political scientists.

We often write and teach in an objective and detached style, in a realistic and authoritative omniscient voice. This is why so many social science academic texts and university courses look and sound so similar to each other, and, naturally, generate distance between author and reader or between professor and student.[1] While such a distance has its many known benefits, it also has several shortcomings. One of them is sometimes boredom. Another is the instilment of cynicism in the reader/student or the breeding of, in effect, indifference for the fate of other human beings who become “actors” in a “case study” and not human beings in real life situations. This is not a necessary outcome, but it is a plausible one. And, based on my personal experience, a common one. Added to this is the tendency of many political scientists to adopt a state-centric approach, which treats the state and its institutions and practices not as a means (for achieving human well-being, prosperity and happiness, for example), but, practically, as an end in itself or, at least, as given social facts that cannot be transformed by academics, merely analyzed as phenomena that present to us interesting intellectual puzzles.

Furthermore, when we refuse to write or read, to teach and learn, about the personal effect – on us or on other people as specific individuals – of the violence inherent in the political, we not only reify this violence as a given phenomenon that takes place in the remote and abstract “international level” or in the barbaric context of “civil strife,” for example. What we do by such an evasion or refusal is to avoid a more comprehensive discussion of the different facets and workings of violence and conflict. In Placing Autobiography in Geography, Pamela Moss encourages geographers to use autobiography in their research: “We need to accept what we do and scrutinize its meaning”. While I agree with Moss’ call, I also believe that we should also scrutinize the meaning of what is being done to us, personally – and to others – and contemplate whether we are willing to accept this or change it. Autoethnography is a way to probe our subjectivity and thus, at least try, emancipate ourselves. Autoethnography, therefore, offers companionship and an ethic of care.

Thus, by sharing the personal experiences and emotions that the political infuses and inspires in us, we admit to be humans and involved in the world about which we write and teach. By this, we inevitably also add a novel aspect to the understanding of the political and the social. Sharing with others our political experiences and stories that take place in the actual world of the living – in evocative terms – opens them to our subjectivity and encourages them to think about how social and political constructs constitute their own subjectivity. While such understandings and sharing might sharpen differences and conflicting interests, I believe that ultimately it can help people transcend conflicts and disagreements by revealing all of us as humans who suffer, rejoice, have doubts and seek dignity and recognition.

[1] Brent J. Steele, though, argues that irony could be useful in allowing scholars a “critical distance” from their subject of study without requiring them to abandon their emotions. See his: ‘Irony, Emotions and Critical Distance’.

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