Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties: On the Importance of Political Activism in Academia at EISA 2015

FCasoA guest post from Federica Caso on the recently created petition from academics to EU decision makers on the ongoing refugee/migrant crisis (you can see it and sign it), which has also been subject to discussion by Federica and Tiina Vaittinen over at the Feminist Academic Collective. Federica is a doctoral candidate in International Relations at the University of Queensland, where she is working on embodiment and the aesthetics of militarism in the context of the militarisation of society. Her research is informed by feminism and queer theory.


What can we do as academics and political subjects in face of the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding in Europe? Probably not much, but I would like to take the time and energy to tell why I think signing the petition by IR academics and community to address the EU to open safe channels of entry and mobility for asylum seekers is important, and suggest what can be done to mobilise at EISA.

So, does it take a picture of a dead boy on the shore of Turkey to awaken political consciousness? These days, tons of memes about Aylan Kardi circulate on the internet. Even those who oppose what has been called ‘trauma porn’ of sharing pictures of dead bodies cannot do anything but see these images on their social networks feeds. Megan Mackenzie, Annick Wibben, and Tiina Vaittinen have provided some insights into the debate surrounding the ethics of sharing these pictures. Most importantly, they all have raised important issues about what academics and scholars can and must do. As has been rightly pointed out in the context of images of refugees, we need to understand how they shape our emotional and ethical attitude, we need more insights, but we also need more political action. When considering the political impact that an image can have, Tiina Vaittinen says “To share an image of a dead child’s body on your Facebook page! It is truly immoral – while simultaneously it may also be the most moral act to do”, to the extent that it is the act that starts the much needed political mobilisation.

Academia and the discipline of IR have long been accused of being at loss with political action, or better, with the ability to speak to real world problems in a timely and effective way, which I see as academia’s political action. The gap debate in the discipline of IR is quite well known to all of us. Academia provides for a comfortable Ivory Tower from which the academic speaks, and this voice feeds the clouds rather than address an actual audience. This was pointed out by a recent article about very expensive academics books that content- and cost-wise are out of the reach of the everyday person, and disappear on the shelves of a university library (very important read!).

Annick Wibben in her post for The Duck of Minerva gives some practical advices as to what we can do for the ‘humanitarian crisis’[1] that is unfolding in Europe: we can join petitions, we can contact local organisations, we can share ready-made lists of things to do, and we can make a commitment to share refugees stories so that ‘trauma porn’ doesn’t dehumanise them. In some ways, she is exhorting us to be human and treat refugees as humans, because there is an intrinsic violence in the image: the voice of the person represented is muted in favour of the power that the viewer gains to interpret the image as they please and within the cultural and social registers they have. A case in point of this violence was the proliferation of images of veiled women in the aftermath of 9/11 used by some to demonstrate how oppressed these human beings are. It did not matter if these individual women felt oppressed or empowered by their veils. Their voice was muted, sucked by the violence of the image. Agency was shifted from the represented to the viewer, for these last had the power to inscribe meanings into those images, while those women subjects of the images had no longer the ability to answer back, contextualise, and make their own sense of what was represented. As several feminist scholars have told us, these power imbalances between the observed and the observer have served the narrative of the oppressed Muslim women that has led to the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I am not trying to neglect the emancipatory and aesthetic power that images can have. They can be the most powerful tool for humanising and mobilising. They can be tools for emancipation and to give voice, sometimes. But images can be inherently violent too, because deeply imbued with power. The lived experience is interrupted. Abstracted identities dominate. Identity politics take over the politics of affect. It is no longer about who the represented person is, what they were doing, and what their lived experience was; all of a sudden it is all about what they represent. Crucial to understand, what they represent is often dictated by the viewer of the image rather than its subject. The body-flowing-energy and its subjectivity eternalised in the image become passive subjects of discourse and identity politics. The power/violence of images lays in the fact that they block the flows of energies that connect bodies, humans, in a moment. The essence of human interaction is deeply changed by the image. It opens to interpretations by its viewers and unequal terms of interaction between the represented and the viewer, creating aleatory possibilities that can be at times and for some empowering, and some other times and for some others violent. This is why it is so important to tell stories, as Annick Wibben puts it. To channel the power/violence of the images towards the restoration of humanity lost when capturing a moment in an image.

We live in visual societies. Vision is bestowed primacy over other senses. Images drive our politics. Then, the durability of that politics is a different issue all together, for often times we see a shocking image, think political for a second, and then scroll down to the next image. That ‘thinking political’ barely ever translates into political action. And we play at the Sleeping Beauty, as Franz Fanon put it. This is very well encapsulated by Megan Mackenzie when she says:

My point about ‘doing’ something was not merely some liberal notion of ‘activism’ or just giving some money to an organization. It includes deep reflection on our own role in the asylum seeker crises today. Of course, that might include sharing a narrative – but, for me, sharing the narrative is only helpful if it is driven by a desire to make ourselves uncomfortable, to reflect on our complicity and role in global politics, and a commitment to move forward with different steps than led us to the story.

I want to pick on her point about making ourselves feeling uncomfortable, and I hope that what follows makes all of us feel that, with the intent of encouraging all of us to check our privileges, because we all are privileged in a way or the other. Soon lots of us will be in Sicily for the Pan-European conference (EISA), presenting their academic papers at the Hilton Hotel in Giardini Nexos, Sicily, gate to the Mediterranean sea of death. I do not want to open sterile polemics on its location or theme, which are decided years in advance, and therefore could not possibly foresee (maybe?) the asylum seeking crisis that is unfolding and the resulting thousands of deaths in the Mediterranean. While we are all preparing our academic papers to present there, we might be forgetting that we as human beings and professionals have a duty beyond putting words on paper such that they are aesthetically pleasing for the eyes of whom reads and the ears of whom hears. Watching distressing images of dead bodies in the Mediterranean and thinking about the humanitarian crisis that European institutions are either watching unfolding or actively perpetrating is a painful process, and it can make people feel powerless. The feeling of powerlessness often times results at best in us closing ourselves into our academic Ivory Towers, or at worse playing at the Sleeping Beauty.

Out of this deep feeling of powerlessness and desire to make ourselves feel uncomfortable – NB not to make us feel better, but to make ourselves feel deeply uncomfortable with our complicity, lack of action, lack of attention, fragmentation, ideological biases, sterile debates, etc. – some of us have created a petition in the name of IR academics and community to lobby the EU institutions, representatives, and policy makers to effect changes in the visa requirements for refugees and the policies of mobility that are de facto killing many. We would encourage you to sign if you agree with the content, not to feel better with yourself, and not to fulfil “some liberal notion of ‘activism’”, but to make yourself feel deeply uncomfortable with your privileges, and to remind yourself how powerless we are. But also to channel your privileges in a positive way.

Meanwhile, for those who believe in activism, the petition will go into press release with all the signatures mid-October, and subsequently we are creating channels to reach policy-makers and representatives. While most of us are rightly very critical about liberal activism, sometimes we need to work within the system to make changes. And anyway being silent is tantamount to complicity.

For those wondering what they can do while at the EISA, the answer is not much, because Giardini Nexos is a touristy resort between, and far enough form the bigger cities of Catania and Messina, where local organizations working with refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers, are. So don’t bring clothes or others to donate unless you plan to visit these two cities. We would encourage all of you, while at EISA – and not only – to debate and talk about the responses of the EU to asylum seekers, but also that of ordinary people welcoming refugees at the train station of Vienna, Frankfurt, and other cities. Talk to people and read about people’s experiences. Watch videos and commentaries about and from asylum seekers. Empathise, but don’t patronise, to restore the humanity that images of dead and living bodies of refugees strip away. Debate the ethics of the pictures, but go beyond the false moralism of good/bad, because for some it takes a shocking image to mobilise. Accompany the shocking image with a story that restores the human face of these people, as Annick Wibben recommends, and with a deep feeling of discomfort, as Megan Mackenzie suggests. Feminists have now made it clear that porn can be empowering for some women, and so can trauma porn.

Whilst at EISA, you could also wear a black ribbon/armband as sign of mourning and protest, as it was at ISA in 2003 in the context of the then coming war in Iraq. That action certainly did not stop the war from happening, but it was a sign of protest and the beginning of still ongoing academic debates.

Moreover we would encourage you to sign and share the petition. It is very important that we reach a good number of people, because academia is not intellectual masturbation. We will then contact key media outlets and EU policy-makers and representatives to let them know that academics care about ‘real world’ issues and that we are mobilising as professionals and political subjectivities, and above all, that we want to see changes in these European policies of death.

Some of you might have never been to Italy before, some have, some of you might be Italians and live there, some will take the opportunity to be in Italy to travel and see the beauty and history of the country, some others will come and go. Feel the discomfort about your privileges while doing all of this. We would encourage you to take that moment while you are in that space, and turn it into an opportunity to reflect and act collectively. A petition might not change the world, but it is better to die trying, than live pretending nothing is happening.

Sign it, if you support the cause, and print it, email it, and ask people to sign it, and send it back to us (myself and Tiina Vaittinen). As mentioned, once we have collected all signatures and your comments as to why you are supporting this campaign, we will contact key media outlets and EU representatives and policy-makers.


[1] By which I do not refer to the number of people who are coming to Europe seeking asylum, but to the fact that EU visa requirements and mobility policies are creating a list of deaths. The crisis is political and moral.

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3 thoughts on “Ivory Towers and Sleeping Beauties: On the Importance of Political Activism in Academia at EISA 2015

  1. Pingback: On helping from the ivory tower | amanda cellini

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