Seeing Politics, Seeing the Self/Knowing Politics, Knowing the Self

The first contribution in a symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics (McGill-QUeen’s University Press, 2019) (other symposia are also available). The symposium is today introduced by Disorder regular Laura Shepherd. Laura is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at Sydney University. Laura is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, UK. Her primary research focuses on the United Nations Security Council’s ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda. Laura is particularly interested in gender, security and violence, and she has strong interests in pedagogy and popular culture. Laura is author/editor of several books, including, most recently Gender, UN Peacebuilding and the Politics of Space (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Routledge Handbook of Gender & Security (edited with Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg; Routledge, 2019). Her work has been published in journals such as European Journal of International Relations, International Affairs, and International Feminist Journal of Politics. She tweets from @drljshepherd and blogs semi-regularly right here.

The contributions to the symposium will be collected at this link as they appear over the next weeks.


Stories have a privileged place in the communicative practices of Western Anglophone cultures; they are a way of learning, and of passing on learning. Sophie Harman’s book is motivated by the insight that the stories of Pili and other HIV-positive African women remain largely untold in scholarly and policy discourse on international politics. As Harman writes in the opening pages, ‘Their stories are instrumentalised for funding, political will, and campaigns but they are one-dimensional stories of success in adversity, educational and sanitised narratives, or morality tales of risk and redemption’.[i] Harman goes on to explain that the partiality of the stories that we tell is not unrelated to the methods that we use to conduct our investigations of world politics; a decolonial feminist perspective enables a different kind of seeing, wherein such ‘methods of seeing need to allow such women to see and represent themselves and to value the knowledge and co-contribution to the research process’.[ii] This sets the scene, so to speak, for the development of film-as-method.

Harman’s is not an uncontroversial intellectual undertaking. International Relations, Harman’s discipline and the discipline in which I also (somewhat uneasily) situate myself, seems a particularly disciplined discipline. The idea of a discipline (noun), in the academic sense, clearly derives from the verb: both relate to establishing clear boundaries between what is right and good (behaviour/research) and what is wrong and bad (behaviour/research); both have ways to correct transgression when an uninitiated (or resistant) person strays. We are trained to recognize the boundaries of our discipline and to stay carefully with them, and the artefacts and agents of International Relations police those boundaries furiously, both explicitly and implicitly.[iii] ‘Among other things, international relations students are quietly forbidden from looking for, let alone importing, valuable insights from art, fiction, and literary criticism’.[iv]  Yet – and thankfully – an ill-disciplined, dissident series of scholars have refused to be bound by such strictures and have delighted in music, photographs, sculptures, murals, novels, and films as ways of encountering, and presenting encounters with, world politics.[v]

Seeing Politics Harman

Harman’s book in some ways continues in the tradition of these scholarly works, exploring ‘the potential of film as method and scholarly output for seeing politics’.[vi] But Harman achieves much more than this. She deftly interweaves telling and showing, reading and seeing, to complicate both how we understand the empirical focus of her investigation – the lives of Pili and women like her – and how we approach and apprehend knowledge itself in our quest to better understand the practices of world politics, and she is centrally concerned with the story of her research – or rather, the stories, plural. Harman presents a many-layered narrative in Seeing Politics, drawing in her own research story, the stories of the women that she worked with, the stories of film-making, and stories about the broader political economy of media production, distribution, and consumption. As Harman explains, ‘[n]arrative feature film is an important method in capturing who speaks and who sees IR; however, it also provides an important insight into the relational aspect of knowledge production and consumption and the role of the researcher within this’.[vii] Within every story, there are multiple stories, and within those stories, worlds to tell. Harman writes with a remarkable sensitivity towards these stories, a sensitivity that I can only describe as an ethic, a mode of encountering the world and her own research as a social practice within that world. This research ethic, and mode of both encountering and producing knowledge, situates Seeing Politics as a different kind of intervention.

I read this as a book about knowledge. Ultimately, many of the questions Harman engages are questions of epistemology: ‘The relationship between the knower and the known can overlook the source of knowledge, lack reciprocity within this, assume the known cannot be a knower or represent themselves, and rests on an epistemological hierarchy of what it is to know’.[viii] These hierarchies and relations of power are interrogated, explicitly and more tacitly, within the text. The book functions not only as a critique of conventional method or disciplinary boundary-lines but also as a critique of the coloniality of much academic practice, from training to research to publication. Harman offers a thoughtful explanation of both the intellectual debt she owes to the scholars who work in this space and the work that a decolonial framework is doing in her encounters with Pili herself and the production of Pili. In her explanation of her research and publication practice, Harman accounts for how she sees politics differently and, in so doing, enables her readers/audience to see with her, to see otherwise.

I enjoyed the provocation to consider this book as a narrative of ‘the scene/seen’. Throughout, Seeing Politics makes a significant and valuable contribution to emergent use of film-as-method; Harman (correctly, to the best of my knowledge) claims that Pili is the first narrative feature film research output in IR and this book brings the process of making that film alive in an intensely readable way. But the book is (rather obviously) not the film. It is a narrative of, about, alongside, the film – and yet there is no explicit interplay between the film’s narrative and the concept and work of narrative as a way of knowing/seeing. Harman notes that narrative films ‘especially those based on the lives of women from low income countries, are seen as stories rather than scholarly outputs based on academic rigour’;[ix] challenging this idea of narratives as mere ‘stories’ is clearly implicit throughout the book as a whole. Engaging more extensively with the expanding literature on narrative in IR could have pushed further the understanding of the significance of the book (again, as narrative of the scene/seen).

Though diverse, the literature on narrative in IR often proceeds from a set of theoretical assumptions about knowledge and its manifestations that I feel comfortable suggesting Harman would share. Of particular relevance here is the assumption that, to varying degrees, the (so-called) fictive and the aesthetic are as rich a source of insight about world politics as other, more formally validated texts such as presidential statements and policy documents. Further, the fictive and the aesthetic are modes of expression that can allow access to knowledge about world politics that is otherwise closed off. Scholars have written novels[x] and produced art[xi] to explore the dynamics of power and authority that other research explores in more conventional ways. Such work disrupts the ‘secret assessment’ that ‘[f]iction’s insights are not … transferable to our actual world’.[xii]

Narrative accounts of world politics ‘facilitate an encounter between writing and reading that enhances de-reification by demonstrating the partiality of knowledge and the fractures that are inherent in our societies, in our subjectivities, and, by extension, in our scholarship’.[xiii] The worlds about which we write in narrative form are the same worlds about which we theorise in the scholarship that supresses the ‘I’, that makes a claim to objectivity and coheres in rationality, but they are invented differently, invested with different qualities and visible in different ways such that they emerge as different, and differently imaginable, ‘things’. Moreover, we ourselves are differently constituted in narrative. The ‘I’ that engages in narrative writing from within a discipline such as International Relations is undone in, and by, the process of such writing in so much more visible a way than that which characterises the ‘scientific’ writing that is expected of disciplinary scholars.

Harman’s ‘I’ researcher/self is rendered honestly, beautifully, joyfully in this book, and she, alongside her research, is seen. Through interspersing, for example, reflective narrative with more traditional analysis of the process (and political economy) of film-making, Harman provides a fascinating contribution to understanding both the value of film-as-method and her own research journey. She communicates most effectively how the process of research and production has both shaped her engagement with the project and informed the dynamics and relations of power she now sees (or sees anew, writing from the perspective of having experienced her research journey), on which she offers a window to her readers. In tandem with the frank exploration of the tensions and discomforts experienced in the production of Pili, the stories that emerges are rich in detail, complex, and nuanced, demonstrating how making film is, in turn, a complicated endeavour. Making a researcher is similarly so, and that, for me, is the text that emerges as a palimpsest.

In conclusion, Harman states: ‘This book is a call for others to use new methods such as film to see international politics differently and to reach and engage different audiences and sources of knowledge’.[xiv] It is that, but it is more. It is an account of the self/selves, the academic environment, the knowable and the known. It is a way of seeing, inherently political, and an incitement to see – to conceive of – ourselves, our storytelling, and our worlds differently.


[i] Sophie Harman, Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method, and International Relations (Montreal & Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), 8.

[ii] Harman, Seeing Politics, 11.

[iii] Roland Bleiker, following Franz Kafka, refers to these artefacts and agents as ‘doorkeepers’, which is particularly charming. See Roland Bleiker, ‘Forget IR Theory’, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, (1997) 22(1): 57-85.

[iv] Milan Babík, The Poetics of International Politics: Fact and Fiction in Narrative Representations of World Affairs (London: Routledge, 2019), 4.

[v] See, among many others: Roland Bleiker, Aesthetics and World Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009); M. I. Franklin, ed., Resounding International Relations: On Music, Culture, and Politics (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Michael J. Shapiro, Cinematic Geopolitics (London: Routledge, 2009); Christine Sylvester, War as Experience: Contributions from International Relations and Feminist Analysis (London: Routledge, 2013); Christine Sylvester, Curating and Re-curating the American Wars in Vietnam and Iraq (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019); Cynthia Weber, ‘I am an American’: Filming the Fear of Difference (London and Chicago, IL: Intellect Books UK and University of Chicago Press, 2011).

[vi] Harman, Seeing Politics, 14.

[vii] Harman, Seeing Politics, 52.

[viii] Harman, Seeing Politics, 29.

[ix] Harman, Seeing Politics, 19.

[x] Elizabeth Dauphinee, The Politics of Exile (London: Routledge, 2009); Richard Jackson, Confessions of a Terrorist (London: Zed, 2014).

[xi] Saara Särmä, Junk Feminism and Nuclear Wannabes – Collaging Parodies of Iran and North Korea. Doctoral dissertation (2014).

[xii] Naeem Inayatullah and Elizabeth Dauphinee, ‘Permitted Urgency: A Prologue’, 1-4 in Naeem Inayatullah and Elizabeth Dauphinee, eds, Narrative Global Politics: Theory, History and the Personal in International Relations (London: Routledge, 2016), 1.

[xiii] Paulo Ravecca and Elizabeth Dauphinee, ‘Narrative and the Possibilities for Scholarship’, International Political Sociology, (2018) 12(1): 125-138, 126.

[xiv] Harman, Seeing Politics, 223.

One thought on “Seeing Politics, Seeing the Self/Knowing Politics, Knowing the Self

  1. Likewise, it is on a sticky note on my desk – have not yet had a chance to look for it. Aida

    Aida A. Hozic
    Associate Professor
    UF Term Professor (2017-2020) and
    Colonel Allan R. and Margaret G. Crow Professor (2017-2018)
    Department of Political Science
    234 Anderson Hall
    University of Florida
    Gainesville, FL 32611
    Phone: 352-273-2396
    Fax: 352-392-8127

    Like

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