The Limits of Semantic Ambiguity: A response to Steve Fuller

‘Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny’

Mahatma Gandhi

I was at a seminar once, presenting an early version of some research on popular culture and world politics. During the question & answer period, a colleague – a distinguished scholar in literary studies and creative writing – asserted, quite forcefully, that I should reconsider my use of the concept of narrative. It didn’t belong in my scholarship, he argued, it was a concept with a history and a trajectory and its home was in literature not International Relations, the oddly ill-disciplined discipline in which I have found myself. My colleague raised his voice during this exchange, became somewhat upset. His emotional register, his irrational response to my naïve and perhaps clumsy use of a concept he had spent decades working on: he behaved like a woman.

Academics in general are such emotional creatures. We might speak, in fact, of ‘academic feminisation’. They’re so invested in their work, and the good ones are so committed to their students: they nurture, they foster talent and possibility, they provide guidance and professional socialisation. They act like women. They respond irrationally to criticisms of work, or the complaint that a concept is being misappropriated; or they focus on some perceived ‘injustice’ rather than take an argument at face value and use logic to refute it. Hysterical responses are not uncommon…

… It is clear, I hope, that the above paragraphs are deliberately ridiculous. In no scholarly outlet, one would hope, would such a flagrantly reductive and offensive set of gender stereotypes find a platform. And yet Steve Fuller was able to publish an article recently on the multi-author blog Sociological Imagination that used flagrantly reductive and offensive stereotypes about autism to support an argument about ‘semantic ambiguity’ in sociology. I want to respond here to both Fuller’s blog post, and his defence of said post – both in the comments and on Twitter – in which he essentially ‘doubles down’ on his original position. Continue reading

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In defence of the apparently indefensible (or, French ‘intellectuals’ did not ruin the West and can we please stop postie-bashing because it’s not actually terribly helpful thank you)

Note: I decided to write this post because I got tired of trying to explain my position on discourse, reality, truth, and why Foucault is not to blame for the rolling shit-show that is US politics right now on Twitter in 140 characters. And then my 800 word blog post turned into a 4000 word essay. Sorry about that. Tl; dr version: truth is a social construct but that doesn’t mean anything goes. But the long version contains turtles and an Adam Savage gif, so do please read on…

 Let me get a couple of things straight before I begin. First, I am not A Philosopher. I am not (often) a thinker of profound and important thoughts (not nearly often enough, anyway), nor do I consider the work that I do to be in the realm of philosophy, or even ‘grand theory’. I am not A Theorist either; I am, at most, a theorist with a lower-case ‘t’. I theorise, a bit, about the nature of the things that interest me and the relationships between them. It helps me make sense of the world and that’s about as far as it goes. So I am probably woefully underqualified to write this post. But here I am, because being woefully underqualified to write about postmodernism[i], and truth, and facts, and the world in general, doesn’t seem to stop a whole bunch of other people doing it and if they’re having their fun I want some. (Plus, the way you get qualified to write about Stuff is to write about it, amirite?)

Second, I have (quite unfairly, I admit), used bits of Helen Pluckrose’s recent essay on ‘How French “intellectuals” ruined the West: Postmodernism and its impact, explained’ as a sort of intellectual sparring-partner in this post, just because it offers such a full account of the charges laid at the door of postmodernism, and how this intellectual movement has affected truth, and facts, and the world in general. It’s unfair because Pluckrose’s essay is just the latest in a line of similar types of argument, and I could just as easily have chosen to respond to any of those. But I chose this essay because I am lazy and it popped up on my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and when I read it I thought: No. No more. No longer. For this, I cannot stand. So, again, here I am, to address what I see as the four key points of argument she presents in an effort to discuss the things I want to discuss about postmodernism, and truth, and facts, and so on.

1. ‘the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive or, as they would term it, deconstructive way’

So there are some issues here. Continue reading

A measured response to criticisms of the LSE’s new appointments

By way of homage to xkcd: This blog contains strong language, which may be unsuitable for children, and evidence-based arguments, which may be unsuitable for Trump supporters.

Oh, and also, for those who care about these things: I am most definitely posting this in an independent capacity. My views reflect the views of neither of the institutions with which I am affiliated, nor do those institutions swear as much as I do. Probably. Or at least they only do it in private.

Two things happened in my little corner of the interwebs this week. First, a dear friend discovered the (fabulously sweary and very NSFW) website Get In the Sea, and tagged me in a Facebook post to tell me so. For those who are not familiar, it is a site that posts images of, or links to, things, people or events that its creator(s) finds objectionable with a caption exhorting them to ‘get in the fucking sea’ (it’s funnier than it sounds). Naturally, I was delighted by this development; I have long been a follower of the site – there are days on which only its unique blend of righteous indignation and creative profanity seem able to raise a smile for me – but it pleased me greatly to know that for this, among many other things, my friend and I have shared enthusiasm. It is always nice to be reminded of why your friends are your friends: because of the random synchronicity of humour, life experience, outlook, whatever. Apparently we both enjoy succinct critiques of consumer culture and injustice with a side of foul language. This makes me smile.

Sea

The sea, to get in (photo by author)

And, second, my social media feeds were jammed with the news of Angelina Jolie’s appointment at the London School of Economics and Political Science. My construction of that sentence is entirely deliberate: mass news media coverage of the appointment of four new ‘Professors in Practice’ at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security focused almost exclusively on the credentials of Angelina Jolie Pitt (while mostly dropping the Pitt because who cares about calling her by her actual name when we’re busily engaged in tearing her down) to occupy this position, mentioning in passing if at all the other three new appointments (Jane Connors, Director of International Advocacy at Amnesty International Geneva, William Hague, former UK Foreign Secretary, and Madeleine Rees, Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, for those of you who managed – understandably – to miss their names). Continue reading

The Futures Past of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

"What are you doing for Peace?" Launch Event

UN Secretariat staff mark the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the United Nations. 17 September 2015. UN Photo/Rick Bajornas.

This essay is a much abridged and lightly edited version of an article of the same name by Paul Kirby and Laura J. Shepherd published on 8 March 2016 in International Affairs.

UNSCR 1325, the foundational resolution of the eight that form the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) policy architecture, has strikingly few critics – or, at least, few who would openly dispute its headline ambition: to achieve global gender equality. It seems particularly appropriate to celebrate the WPS agenda on International Women’s Day, adopted by the United Nations in recognition of the ongoing global struggle for women’s rights. Our modest contribution to IWD celebrations this year is the launch of a special issue of International Affairs, which documents the advances and limits of the WPS agenda. These are traced in the various articles across multiple registers, from the implementation of WPS principles and provisions by regional organizations to the heteronormative dynamics of participation, prevention and protection. And yet, as the contributors show, the much-noted gap between WPS ambitions and current realities is not merely a report on imperfect implementation: rather, it takes us to the heart of what the WPS agenda is, and what it might become.

In our article, we discuss various elements, or ‘pillars’ of the Women, Peace and Security agenda, to evaluate where gains have been made under the auspices of this architecture. The ‘pillars’ are generally identified as ‘protection’, ‘participation’, ‘prevention’ and ‘relief and recovery’, with a fifth – the normative dimension – sometimes included. WPS principles govern activity in each of these domains. Women’s participation in peace agreements, for example, is somewhat more consistent than it was before the WPS agenda was inaugurated, and yet remains disappointing given initial ambitions. From 2005 onwards, there has been a notable increase in the number of peace agreements dealing with multiple aspects of gender security and participation.  The 2015 global study on the implementation of Resolution 1325 found that the proportion of peace agreements since 2000 making reference to women was 27 per cent, more than double the level over the period 1990–2000.  Given the emphasis in the WPS agenda on women as both makers and beneficiaries of peace, this trend towards inclusion is clearly welcome. Yet, as Radhika Coomaraswamy and her colleagues observed: ‘The present programmes put forward by the international community tend to be extremely narrow: just to bring a female body to the table’. Continue reading

Out of Place: Space/Time and Quantum (In)security

A demon lives behind my left eye. As a migraine sufferer, I have developed a very personal relationship with my pain and its perceived causes. On a bad day, with a crippling sensitivity to light, nausea, and the feeling that the blood flowing to my brain has slowed to a crawl and is the poisoned consistency of pancake batter, I feel the presence of this demon keenly.

On the first day of the Q2 Symposium, however, which I was delighted to attend recently, the demon was in a tricksy mood, rather than out for blood: this was a vestibular migraine. The symptoms of this particular neurological condition are dizziness, loss of balance, and sensitivity to motion. Basically, when the demon manifests in this way, I feel constantly as though I am falling: falling over, falling out of place. The Q Symposium, hosted by James Der Derian and the marvellous team at the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies,  was intended, over the course of two days and a series of presentations, interventions, and media engagements,  to unsettle, to make participants think differently about space/time and security, thinking through quantum rather than classical theory, but I do not think that this is what the organisers had in mind.

photo of cabins and corridors at Q Station, SydneyAt the Q Station, located in Sydney where the Q Symposium was held, my pain and my present aligned: I felt out of place, I felt I was falling out of place. I did not expect to like the Q Station. It is the former quarantine station used by the colonial administration to isolate immigrants they suspected of carrying infectious diseases. Its location, on the North Head of Sydney and now within the Sydney Harbour National Park, was chosen for strategic reasons – it is secluded, easy to manage, a passageway point on the journey through to the inner harbour – but it has a much longer historical relationship with healing and disease. The North Head is a site of Aboriginal cultural significance; the space was used by the spiritual leaders (koradgee) of the Guringai peoples for healing and burial ceremonies.

Continue reading

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. Continue reading

For the Joy It Brings: Hashtag Activism and Little Wins

I do it for the joy it brings
because I’m a joyful girl
because the world owes me nothing
and we owe each other the world

Ani Difranco, ‘Joyful Girl

So unless you were unplugged last week (and it’s fine if you were, I’m not judging), you would have seen the hashtag #takedownjulienblanc trending on Twitter. Julien Blanc, to whom the hashtag refers, is a self-styled ‘Pick Up Artist’ who charges actual money – between one thousand and three thousand dollars, by all accounts – for the privilege of listening to his advice on how to ‘pick up’ women. For the privilege of listening to his white, male, privilege, actually, given that the (TW) video that caught the attention of the activist community showed Blanc assaulting Japanese women in a highly sexualised way and commenting that ‘when you go to Tokyo, when you’re a white male, you can do what you want’.

Blanc was clearly paying attention in class when they studied Peggy McIntosh’s ‘invisible backpack’; the trouble is, he thought it was a primer rather than a cautionary tale. This is not the only time Blanc has confused genres in this way. Earlier this year, he tweeted a chart mapping out various abusive relationship dynamics, from intimidation to coercion and threats, with the caption ‘May as well be a checklist’ (though the image has since been taken down, along with Blanc’s entire Twitter account). Blanc’s website actively encourages men to use ‘male privilege, isolation and emotional abuse’ to attract women.

The hashtag was started by ‘shitty artist, intersectional feminist’ Jennifer Li.

Li has explained why she started the hashtag, saying that she was moved to start the hashtag because Blanc is actively perpetuating ‘toxic masculinity’, sexism and racism through his website, social media usage, and ‘Real Social Dynamics’ seminars. The hashtag existed, as all hashtags do, to catch the attention of Twitter users, to make explicit Li’s critique of Blanc and to encourage other Twitter users to do their own research into Blanc and his vile misogyny so that they might support efforts to get Blanc’s seminars shut down.

Dear readers, it worked. Continue reading