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.

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