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.

It stuck with me, though, as I unpacked my suitcase and had coffee and hugged my husband and my son and had more coffee and began to work my way through the mountain of work that had accumulated in my absence (more coffee was required). It stuck with me because it is kind of how I felt about the ISA this year (employing that in group, cool kid, shorthand that makes us feel like we belong). It felt enormous, significant, like home, while I was right there, up close, breathing the same air; but from afar, it seems tiny, and I am left wondering about the significance.

photo of sydney harbour bridge

Sydney Harbour Bridge. Photo by LJS.

I want to talk about why this matters to me, the size and significance of the ISA this year, and how I think it relates to questions about perspective, positionality, and critique. Before the convention, the Association announced a series of four ‘featured’ panels that they named the ‘Sapphire Series’ (for reasons no one has, as far as I am aware, been able to establish). Cynthia Weber wrote a frankly brilliant critique of the series, drawing attention to the dynamics of the performative perpetuation of white privilege, and a gathering of critical voices joined forces on social media to debate exactly how totally blind to racialised exclusion one would have to be to not notice that there wasn’t a single person of colour on any of the ‘featured’ panels.

Much gnashing of teeth debate ensued. There were discussions on blogs and on Facebook, and some rather wonderful tweets.

The ‘featured’ series went ahead as planned. I didn’t go. It was a meaningless boycott, because I never intended to go. I went instead to the panels that nourish me, panels at which my smart feminist academic heroines present their smart feminist research. And I went to one Presidential Theme panel, ‘Feminist International Relations Today: Transformation in Action’, in the ‘graveyard’ slot (the final session of the final day of the convention).

This is the panel that links my musing about the relative size of the Sydney Opera House with my attendance at the ISA convention (and thus my complicity in the performance of privilege that the convention constitutes). I’m not sure that I can yet communicate the ways in which it was the most powerful, the most unsettling, the most difficult panel I have ever attended.

The audience did not know it at the moment of commencement, but the panel was conceived as a performative intervention in debates about the politics of race that had characterised ISA for the panellists, and much of the audience, this time around. As the panel unfolded, it became clear that the panellists had agreed to make painfully evident, through their own practices and comments, the difficulties in talking about race in world politics and at the ISA.

Riffing on the racialised exclusion of the Sapphire Series, the panellists performed their own exclusion, writing on the body of Swati Parashar the ‘difference’ that the Sapphire panel organisers failed to see. Swati, the only panellist with brown skin, was not introduced to the audience, not invited to speak. She sat at the far end of the table on the podium at the front of the room, silent at first, as the other, White, women spoke, and then silenced, as the audience began to ask directly for her contribution and the chair of the panel refused to allow her to speak. Ultimately, Swati she was so troubled by the feelings this treatment arose in her that she departed the panel to sit at the back of the room, behind the audience.

These acts – refusing to introduce Swati to the audience, the audience’s refusal to countenance the continuation of debate without Swati’s input, Swati’s decision to take herself out of the privileged space allotted to the panel and to position herself physically on the margins of the debate – disrupted the space completely. The audience could not cope. I could not cope. I hid behind my iPad, taking short clips of video and tweeting about the evident discomfort in the room.

When invited to speak, I spoke of shame. I was ashamed that the inadequacies of my professional association fostered an environment in which such a performance was necessary, to point out the lack of reflexive awareness of privilege and position. I was ashamed that I was not the first to move in solidarity with Swati when she opted out of her role on the panel. I was ashamed that I could not comfort the chair of the panel, who – despite having planned the performance in collaboration with the other panellists – was obviously deeply distressed by the events unfolding. I was ashamed that I named another scholar as an example of race-blindness in the discipline (I still feel that I should not have done that). I was ashamed that all I could do was to stay in this space, participate in this discussion, admit to the feelings that participation aroused within me, and I was – I am – afraid that this was not enough.

And it is not enough. I am still ashamed. I am home now, a month has passed, and I have done nothing more with this feeling. The performance of the panel, the discussion, the awakening of emotion and of our relationality with each other and with our discipline felt monumental – path-breaking, paradigm-shifting – close up. Now it feels tiny, and I feel tiny along with it. It has taken me a month to write these reflections, because I still don’t know what to do with these feelings. I don’t know how to make these feelings stay monumental, how to ensure that they fill my intellectual space: my writing and my teaching and my life. I should hold this shame in its enormity and let it colour my engagement with my world. I do not know how to do this. But I am changed after this encounter. And that’s something.


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

  1. Really painful article to read. I can imagine that the cultural beasties unleashed in that panel architecture were not able to be contained by it – most epistemes simply cannot house ontologic racism. It was great that it was presenced though, and great too that you chose to give it a wider audience.

    As a result of a conversation with a friend of mine, I tried on the shocking fundament that ‘I am racist!’ __ not as an exercise in white privileged self-mortification, but as a way of giving solid ground to those unconscious judgemental voices in me. This shift in my thinking, my consciousness, gives that part of me a voice which can be contextualized into a dialogue – a better position I think than the PC fantasy of “there is no racism in me’.

    Like you, I have no idea quite what this very tiny shift is or will ‘do’ – but my vision is perhaps a little clearer on my performance of racism through allowing the idea of it to dwell inside dialogue rather then outside it.

    thanks again for your writing.



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