Batman, White Saviourism and International Politics: A Colloquium

In this post we welcome a discussion by guest authors on the recent volume Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development, by Alexandra Budabin and Lisa Ann Richey (University of Minnesota Press, 2021). The authors appreciate the critical feedback from Johanna Jarvela on this discussion.


Alexandra Cosima Budabin is senior researcher at the Human Rights Center, University of Dayton, and contract professor in the Programme in Media, Communication, and Culture at the Free University of Bolzano.
Lisa Ann Richey @BrandAid_World  is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark.

This book analyses what celebrity strategic partnerships are doing to disrupt humanitarian space by focusing on the relationships celebrities create with other donors, implementers, and Congolese recipients. The main argument is that while celebrity strategic partnerships claim to disrupt the usual politics of development and humanitarianism, they instead lay bare the practices of elite networking, visibility, and profitable helping that characterize these fields of North–South relations.

Celebrities like Ben Affleck accompany the increasing presence of other private actors in international politics with the ability to attract new funding, ideas, and support to establish their own organizations. These celebrity-led organizations have impacts, both material and representational, on the other actors in the development and humanitarian space and, even more consequentially, on the beneficiaries themselves. A deeper understanding of these new actors and alliances contributes to contemporary discussions across scholarly fields.  First, international development scholarship would suggest that in these new and “disruptive” celebrity strategic partnerships, celebrity humanitarians on the ground might have acted differently from experienced, old-fashioned, traditional donors and implementers. Instead, our book shows how celebrities and their partners (corporations, capital asset management firms, and philanthropists) are elite players in an elitist field who disrupt very little. Second, studies of celebrity politics would lead us to expect that the institutionalization of a long-term investment and collaboration in celebrity strategic partnerships would make them more accountable than the more commonly found short sighted celebrity do-gooding. Our book explains why they are not. Finally, understandings of global politics might have suggested that celebrity strategic partnerships’ ability to bring together a broader range of shareholders to direct the enterprise of development would have led to better representation of Congolese voices among them. This was not the case; instead, the post democratic politics of North–South relations was cloaked in the attractive guise of partnership. While celebrity strategic partnerships claim to disrupt the usual politics of development and humanitarianism, they instead lay bare the practices of elite networking, visibility, and profitable helping that now characterize North–South relations. This short intervention is excerpted from a panel from the International Studies Association in 2022 around the book, Batman Saves the Congo: How Celebrities Disrupt the Politics of Development (Budabin and Richey 2021).


Ilan Kapoor is a Professor of Critical Development Studies at York University, Toronto. His most recent book is Universal Politics (2022).

Neofeudalism, Batman, and White Saviorism

The title of your book is a wonderful coinage because it’s so evocative of the white man’s burden, the superhero saving the Congo—the Congo stereotypically being “the darkest corner” of the so-called “dark continent.” It resonates with celebrity humanitarianism’s roots in colonialism and empire, and I think it’s evocative as well of how popular culture—how Hollywood—is so imbricated today with humanitarianism and global charity—which is to say that Hollywood is so imbricated with questions of domination and imperialism.

I also appreciate as well that you chose to focus in your book on the case of Affleck in the Congo. I think you’re quite right in saying that it’s a specific case that reveals much about the neo liberalization of development, through celebrity strategic partnerships. It’s another example of how they can reveal and reflect a lot about the universal kind of like a prism that helps illuminate the universalization of global capitalist political and cultural economy, as well as the increasingly post-democratic landscape in which elites help propagate the privatization of development, while remaining largely unaccountable. And we shouldn’t forget that Batman himself is a masculinist and a highly unaccountable figure: it’s no mere accident that Affleck-as-Batman is also Affleck-as-elite-white-neo-colonial-patriarch-saviour. I would even go so far as to say that Affleck is more Batman than Batman—he reinvents Batman for the modern age, teaching Batman how to be a superhero in the age of the global: batmobiling into the Congo, with the mission of saving people by bringing them the “gift” of market capitalism, directing them on how to revitalize Congo’s coffee sector, as you’ve shown in your book.

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But I also wanted to reflect on your book alongside some of the recent work on neofeudalism that I have been reading, because I think there are some important parallels. There are those like leftist critics, Jodie Dean, but also drawing on rightist libertarians like Tyler Cowen and Joel Kotkin, who argue that we are moving, or indeed we have already moved, away from neoliberalism towards what they call “neofeudalism”: an age associated with extreme inequality, generalized precarity of labour, and monopoly corporate power, under which a property-less underclass services the needs of the highly privileged as child and elder care workers, trainers, cleaners, cooks, and, in our case, landless peasant coffee growers. I think these authors are mainly thinking of the “platform economy” and “gig economy,” under which a handful of mainly tech companies (Apple, Google, Uber, Airbnb, etc.) have become even richer and more extractive by turning their owners into billionaires on the basis of the cheap and precarious labour of their workers, the free labour of their users, and the tax breaks given to them by cities and states desperate to attract employment. But there’s certainly a parallel with celebrity charity in the way that you describe it in the book in relation to poor coffee growers in the Congo—servicing the needs of a global network of so-called “partners”: celebrities, corporations like Starbucks, financial companies, USAID, NGOs like ECI, and so on. Unlike the capitalist whose profit rests on surplus value generated by waged workers through the production of commodities, here the neo feudal lord extracts value through monopoly, coercion, and rent, and in our case through celebrity charisma and influence. So, for example you write about “the convening power of the celebrity humanitarian, who drawing on political capital, is able to promote the partnership to both mainstream and elite circles.” And all of this, of course, happens in the context of war-torn Congo, where violence, coercion, and dispossession are integral to people’s lives and livelihoods. So overall, a situation in which you have a handful of overlords and millions of impoverished peasant farmers, or as Jodie Dean puts it, “a few billionaires, a billion precarious workers.” I think to see it in this way makes us reckon with the extreme social apartheid of our time, the fact that celebrity multi-millionaires and corporate billionaires amass trillions of dollars of assets, walling themselves into their safe enclaves (or “batcaves”!), while millions become war and climate refugees and hundreds of thousands are reduced to “bare life.”

The point being made by Dean and Kotkin is that, just as feudal relations persisted under capitalism, so do capitalist relations of production and exploitation continue under neofeudalism, but the big difference are the non-capitalist dimensions of production that exist today: forms of expropriation, domination, coercion, dispossession, of which I would count celebrity charisma and influence (i.e., what in this case we might call “batmanization”!).

Another feature of neofeudalism is what is referred to as “hinterlandization.” This is a reference to the extreme spatialization—geographic forms of apartheid—associated with neofeudalism: protected and safe centres that exploit/live off agriculture, mining, and desolate hinterlands, of which much of the Congo is an extreme example. And in the “hinterlands,” this implies the loss of the ability of people to lead liveable lives.

Finally, like under feudalism of old, neofeudalism is characterized by the centralization of power, yet one that masks as localization. The “partnership approach” that you talk about in your book is precisely that, in my view: as you say, it “pretends to encourage local participation and decentralization, but all the key decisions are centralized for the benefit of many corporate actors.” Rather than meaningful and equal sharing, these “partnerships” in fact reinforce hierarchy and inequalities. Here neofeudalism intensifies the neoliberal strategy of undermining democratic authority and the authority of the nation state over its economy, in the interests of advancing global trade, finance, and corporate power, with celebrities as their handmaidens.


Laura Seay is Assistant Professor of Government at Colby College.

Accountability

As the book roughly alludes to, I did have a front row seat to the circus – I was conducting dissertation research in Goma and Bukavu from 2005-2007 and have gone back many times since. And I really would mark the shifting point as once Lisa Shannon, this woman who decided to run a marathon for the Congo and went on Oprah. When she went on Oprah, everything changed and the circus came to town – and the circus has largely since departed, which I think the book does a good job at critiquing the reasons for. But I guess my comments here will be offered in the spirit of just really appreciating the book and thinking about what this means in the Congolese context, what this means in relationship to other literature on NGOs, and what we might think about as an alternative or positive way forward.

My first question is on the choice of focusing on celebrities instead of foundations. It seems to me that celebrities are useful conduits for foundations that want to work in the field of development, but we’ve also seen pretty good evidence that they’re not necessary, and I’m thinking here directly about the Buffett Foundation. Yes, it’s engagement with the ECI was important, especially for ECI’s survival, but the Buffett foundation has also been deeply involved in other initiatives in Congo and other parts of the region, that they really did not draw the celebrity angle for, they really did not pull in celebrities and I’m thinking here of the efforts to militarize conservation in Virunga national park, the efforts to hunt down Joseph Kony in Central African Republic. Where the work of the Buffett foundation and along with the Bridgewater foundation out of Texas, were sort of directly funding military activity in some ways buying equipment for the Ugandan People’s Defence Forces, like night vision glasses and even providing helicopters, and other expensive things to try to hunt down a warlord.

Foundations are already an expression of this accountability problem – to whom are foundations accountable? When Howard Buffett supplies the Ugandan army, not with lethal material, but with material that is nonetheless used for lethal purposes and then the Ugandan army goes back and uses those skills that it has developed and the equipment it has acquired in a domestic context to suppress political speech, who is accountable?

Given the extremely fragile state context that ECI and other organisations work in, in a place where development has never been accountable or democratic in any way, reaching back to misguided notions of “development” in the colonial period, it has never been democratic. What else works? And is there a danger of perfect becoming the enemy of the good? We have a lot of evidence that traditional development models fail in the DRC all the time, and lead to tremendous waste and are also completely unaccountable. For example, the Tuungane project, which was a series of community-development initiatives financed by DFID and implemented by the International Rescue Committee, that attempted to get communities to participate in deciding how to spend the grant for the public good together. Anyone who knew Congo who looked at the design of the original Tuungane project could and did tell the folks who were working on it “this is going to fail”, and there was a control trial and it showed absolutely no results. That was a 150 million pounds of British taxpayers’ money down the tube, gone, for nothing. It turned out that the process to get communities to work together, which had the goal to build accountability between local leaders and the community was little more than facilitated manipulation, and communities did not experience it as a process of building accountability.

What they experienced was— ‘here’s some white people coming from outside, they will give us some money to play along with their game and fill out their scorecard and do all those things and we will get a construction project out of it.’ And this had to do with the construction industry as well, because it turned out that local suppliers were not prepared to provide this level of service across communities all at once. But I’m wondering if the problem with this sort of development a lack of accountability is – I can’t think of any NGOs that are accountable to the Congolese. And groups that waste resources, implement experimental projects, do all kinds of bad work and are unaccountable to anyone who is affected when their projects fail, have negative consequences. Maybe there’s an argument to be made that traditional NGOs are at least accountable to governments in the Global North, and that because they are non-profit there is something less insidious about what they’re doing.


Ami V. Shah is Associate Professor and Chair of Global Studies at Pacific Lutheran University.

Teaching, Race and Gender

Your book demonstrates that this Batman is no hero. My understanding is that many in the public would agree with that sentiment in relation to the movies, but the idea of “saving” is often fraught, complicated, and never goes like in the movies. I must say that I love the title, and I could even see a playful subtitle that simply asks, “or does he?” 

Overall, I find this book to be very teachable, and my comments here are largely reflecting on how it might be used or received in an undergraduate classroom. First, so many concepts are clearly identified, contextualized, and explained. For example, the emphasis on the components of neoliberalism lays the groundwork for students on how these terms are going to be contextualised and used throughout the book. Further, for those of us, like me, who teach in interdisciplinary programmes, the authors highlight the input to IR from a variety of disciplinary fields – from geography to anthropology to political economy and communications, and more. In terms of supporting student research, there is a nice blueprint in the appendix on the research methods— clearly organized and nicely layered by theme.

Specifically in terms of global development, this text is a great starting point to consider the ideas of success and failure of global development interventions. It lays out the emphasis on capital, money, and profit in determining what ‘development’ success is. We often define both the seriousness and purpose of intervention through the money and resources that are organized around it, and we understand success through the idea of profit and access to markets. This system of development “progress” and success, as Batman Saves the Congo shows, is not disrupted or changed but constantly recreated, and our notions of success are inelastic, supporting the recreation.

More subtly, the book also addresses issues of race and gender, though I do think they could be emphasized more explicitly. Focusing on race, of course, Western views of the Global South are not just filtered through racial overtones but are absolutely raced themselves. We cannot forget that the first journal within international studies or international relations was the Journal of Race Development, and this case follows from that long history; “How do we develop the other races?”. Throughout the book, the racial dynamics of this development intervention are hinted at by the concept of white saviourism, the notion of elitism, and the visibility of the outsider and an American running this intervention.

As I have alluded to, the idea of disrupting the embedded industry of global development is seemingly futile. These “new” alternatives simply end up being part of a long continuation of constant colonial and unequal power dynamics which are simply part of how development and North-South relations work. And we, as scholars and students alike, are quick to critique and then dismiss, in a constant search for perfection. Yet, I tell my students that at times we need to embrace the grey. The idea that we can have public policies that are 100% good is wishful at best – there will always be winners and losers and we always need to step away from the demand of seeming perfection. Simultaneously, we are all products of the same society that raises up the white saviour and raises up this idea of doing good, and we can’t expect celebrities to be exempt from that. In many cases, celebrities and other do-gooders may just reflect ourselves, and how can we expect any other? Perhaps then, the book may also serve as an entry way for students to the process of self-reflection, supporting a re-entry to North-South relations with greater awareness and humility.


Andrew F. Cooper is University Research Chair, Department of Political Science, and Professor, the Balsillie School of International Affairs, University of Waterloo.

Andy Cooper on Complex Identity and Other Celebrity Humanitarians

We have been working on celebrity politics for a long time and the trends have been exactly what this book suggested:  towards strategic management, towards certainly a lot more of an elitist perspective, and certainly towards a sense of unaccountability. But what is fascinating to me is how multidimensional, multi-identity many of these celebrities are. So, if you look back to 2014, you see Ben Affleck, kind of coming out on some of these sensitive issues about Islam, about identity, about the Middle East.  He was involved in the Michael Moore project on Fahrenheit 9/11, so there’s two sides to his work. I mean, I agree that the dominant side is exactly the one that you suggest, but there is this other side – and I’m wondering if there’s something determined by whether it’s strategic management he moves in one direction, and then he gets pushed back, and perhaps that he worries about some components of his career, if he’s seen as too adversarial, too kind out there, and then he comes back to relatively safe, conformist grounds.

Race has also been mentioned, and the only leading black activist is found in a footnote, Harry Belafonte. African American celebrities deserve more consideration, even if it’s to try to probe why they’re not in the mix, why they’re not as central. I think maybe there are reasons for this. One example is from the kind of chumminess, the old boys’ network, and celebrity network. Don Cheadle did the voice overs of a book on Leopold’s Ghost back in 2006 which leads to a puzzle: if he can do voice over of a hard-hitting award-winning book, then what else is he doing or not doing, in terms of the Congo? Looking back to his work with George Clooney on Darfur, what sort of experience was this for an African American celebrity? As the Robin to the Batman at the time? Was he seen as a follower or an add-on to sort of give some credibility and legitimacy to the white celebrities who remained in the forefront?

And this is a whole other question, getting into the point of celebrities from the non-English speaking world, not just in terms of race but in language. One example is Shakira, from the Latin American, Colombian world, where Shakira was not only crucial to some of Howard Buffet’s activities, but to draw in people who were reluctant to give in money. Carlos Slim, being the real exhibit. Seeing a lot of this activity upfront over the years, maybe thinking celebrities are fading away, if you have a celebrity in your pocket, cohort, entourage it does bring people in. Going back to summits for presidents and prime ministers of secondary countries, if a Bono or a George Clooney turns up, who are the leaders of big countries going to sidle up to, who is the media going to sidle up to, it’s not going to be leaders from Italy or Canada etc. It’s going to be the cohorts, delegations around the celebrities. There is celebrity fatigue to some extent, but it is still an attractive component in that elite circle, there’s a lot of insecurity in that circle – people who made their money and want to do something else. Just because you’ve been famous or successful in one aspect of life doesn’t mean you have a huge amount of self-confidence in other dimensions of life.  There’s a real psychological aspect here that must be teased out, tackling all the rationalist institutionalists because without it, we have a totally misleading analysis of how global politics and institutions work.


Catia Cecilia Confortini @Peace_Wellesley (Twitter) is Associate Professor in the Peace & Justice Studies Program at Wellesley College, USA.

Catia Cecilia Confortini on Co-optation and Complicity

The bricolage methodology was able to reveal this complex interweaving of narrative, political economy, underlying messages, and logics of neoliberalism. As a feminist peace scholar, I am especially concerned with the normative aim to transform systems of power, planet, and people. We are also concerned about the radical restructuring of society. Your methodology covers the ways in which celebrity strategic partnerships are a long way from doing that, and I also appreciate how teachable the book is.

For me the first takeaway from the book is about the resilience of the system of business and development in a neoliberal age – about the co-optation of the language of empowerment, disruption, and transformation for neoliberal or feudal purposes rather than democratic purposes. And the second one is a direct reflection of our own complicity as IR or peace scholars: how come our research has been co-opted so easily?

Affleck and ECI present themselves as innovators with technocratic solutions, a modern ideological ethos, a neoliberal, perhaps even neo feudal state (in Ilan’s words), in its reliance on technocratic logic and politics, and a narrative on democratic ethos and politics. The book shows how cleverly ECI co-opts the rhetoric or language of from the critical nexus of peacebuilding, development, and humanitarianism and also the language of feminist literature. And through this, the book shows what ECI really is, a continuation of neoliberal logic of development and humanitarianism. Michelle Alexander in her famous book The New Jim Crow, talks about the system of social and racial discrimination in the US that began with slavery and has continued in the US, and continues to this day through different forms, and that now manifests itself in mass incarceration. Similarly, what your book shows, by starting with your genealogy with early celebrity humanitarianism (Morel and The Congo Free State), that the business of neoliberal development continues even as the language utilized may change.

To add a bit more on the co-optation of language: the literature in peacebuilding and development has emphasized the strengths of bottom-up peace building (the work of Pamina Firchow and Roger McGinty, Laura McLeod, and Sévérrine Autesserre, to name a few). And celebrity humanitarianism co-opts this literature’s lingo: for example, locally led initiatives, transformation, long term impact, to name a few. Your book exposes in fact how, despite the lingo, these partnerships miss accountability to the locals, so these interventions are not really community led. They talk about centring alternative narratives, embracing multiple voices, and your study exposes how really that is not the case.

When Affleck talks about long term involvement, it is in fact a short-sighted view of long-term. I don’t think that less than ECI’s less-than-10 years life is long term involvement. At least Elise Boulding, one of the founders of the field of peace studies, talks about “200-year present.” We need to think of long-term in this sense, what ECI is doing is not long-term.

ECI labels their work as transformation and disruption, but disruption is framed as proposing win-win solutions. That is not disruption at all: neoliberal development relies on the exploitation of some at the expense of others – there can be no win-win solutions within its logic. This is also happening in peacebuilding. For example, anthropologist Susan Ellison, talks about dynamics of responsibility in a different context, in Bolivia, where communities are seeing the language of conflict transformation imposed on them and being co-opted into a practice that is pushing not for the transformation of the system that generated the conflict (and that is external to the community), but rather to the transformation of the community itself, its cultures and practices, as if they were at the origins of violent conflict.

Then again, the language of women’s empowerment and feminism is being co-opted, with messages that portray women as victims (not agents), but also using the victimization of women for ends that benefit donors, interveners, and business as usual and boost the respectability of the companies.

The second takeaway is our imbrication in it: I mean we are in it. This is not a critique of the book, but more for us as scholars: How did this language that we have, that we use to express our quest for a different system of governance in global affairs, of relating to each other. How did it get co-opted so easily? Maybe our research is not so obscure that it gets co-opted, maybe it also has to do with how we position ourselves, academics in a neoliberal academia, how we must navigate this system and must make our research visible. What worries me is that critical research, research that is supposed to disrupt power, can be also complicit in the neoliberal project via the neo liberalization of the academy.


Annika Bergman Rosamond is Associate Professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Department of Political Science, Lund University, Sweden.

Annika Bergman Rosamond on American Charismatic Narratives

This book is a page turner, touching on a range of topics pertaining to celebrity diplomacy, humanitarianism, and advocacy. It is also an invaluable contribution to scholarship on celebrity-driven and endorsed business ventures as well as giving the reader a sense of Ben Affleck’s ethical ambitions beyond borders. Although the book does not centre on the individual charisma of Ben Affleck, rather engaging with the structures of celebrity humanitarianism, it inspires readers to reflect on the role of individuals in development, security, and global politics.

The book also invites readers to engage with the narration of celebrity humanitarianism across textual and visual contexts. The reader is presented with a thoroughgoing exploration of a range of celebrity and development narratives, as well as the ethical considerations and gendered and neoliberal logics that undergird such stories. The authors compare such narratives by bringing attention to variations and similarities across texts and visuals that centre on the brand, stardom, persona, and activism of Affleck. While I welcome the explicit focus on narratives throughout the book, I wonder whether it might have benefited the clarity of the book if the two authors had reflected more on the ways in which the stories were selected and what images and texts were left out from the book?  By locating the study of celebrity narratives more firmly within narrative theory and analysis, not least feminist contributions (Wibben 2011), readers would have acquired a stronger sense of the methodological choices that inform the book. Annick Wibben notes that there are external and internal narrators; the external narrator does not refer to herself as a character in the story while the internal one does. Employing this logic, the authors of the book would have been able to capture a wider range of voices, including those of the people that Affleck seeks to emancipate through his activism and business ventures. This seems important since Ben Affleck himself professes to want to work closely with the people of Congo in a spirit of solidarity. Here I might want to ask the authors what external testimonies they came across in researching their book, and what they made of those voices? In other words, what images and visuals are excluded from Affleck-centred narratives, and what are the ethical implications of such silencing?

Another question that we might want to consider is what might have happened had Ben Affleck acted on his interest in the Middle East? Had it changed the character of his activism had he turned himself into an expert at Middle Eastern politics?  Perhaps more relevant here is the question whether the book had evolved in another fashion had Middle East been its primary geographical focus?

The book could also be read as a contribution to feminist scholarship that critically takes on board the idea that women in the global south necessarily stand to benefit from the neo liberalization of aid? Do celebrity-induced business opportunities automatically lead to a sense of emancipation and empowerment? Feminist scholars of the international political economy have noted that transnational business feminism does not automatically transform individual lives in the global south. Indeed, the authors of the book put forth a compelling critique of business as a route to empowerment and healing. Indeed, the exposure to gendered violence, poverty and harm cannot be healed by business logic alone.  The book also provides a point of departure for interrogating the gendered effects of masculinist protection in global politics, not least the ways in which white saviour logics prevail in celebrity activism, diplomacy, and humanitarianism. Here I think more reflection on such masculinist protection would have benefited the feminist ambitions of the book, not least since Affleck himself appears to assign protection traits to his brand and persona. In many ways Affleck’s humanitarianism and emancipatory business ambitions are in line with the gender binaries that undergird global politics, a logic that tends to assign protector to white privileged men and the role of protected to non-western vulnerable women. 

Finally, the book speaks to scholarship on popular culture and world politics and development by showing how popular culture helps to constitute knowledge and ethical consideration. But how does celebrity humanitarianism translate across contexts?  Would this story have been fundamentally different if we weren’t dealing with an American celebrity going beyond borders and “doing good”?


Response: Lisa Ann Richey on Selling Authenticity and Values that Feel Good

With gratitude to our critics for their engagement with the text, there are some interesting things that I will respond to briefly.  Annika asked a question from the hypothetical case: “What if Affleck had actually gone to the Middle East?” Or as we provocatively say in our work: “What if he would’ve gone into US labour rights?” as Affleck actually did back in the day, something on which he could’ve claimed some “genuine” expertise and authenticity. I wrote an article in African Affairs (Richey and Christiansen 2018) about Afropolitanism, and one of the things we found out when we did this study, which is looking at Danish celebrity humanitarians – so definitely not Hollywood A-listers— is that the modality of the celebrity only works if you’re not too close. So, celebrities must have this necessary distance to make the entire sleight of hand function, to be able to produce this believable imaginary, and this owes a lot to Ilan’s work (2020) understanding the psychoanalytical side about why celebrity politics becomes so powerful. It is completely irrational, and Andy I’m really looking forward to your forthcoming work drawing on the role of individuals and taking issue with rational choice-making to build on this. But then we need to understand how celebrity politics work does, what is that power—the power of race, the power of class, the power of all those old school things that all our great grandparents started talking through decades ago in trying to analyse how power works. There hasn’t been any new thing, but what has happened is that celebrities are able to do this sleight of hand so effectively. It feels right.

Catia, you talk about how easily these discourses, which are genuinely progressive, are be co-opted. I’m in South Africa right now, and I just saw the most beautiful chandelier yesterday, in a fancy art gallery, made from the fence that contained Robben Island. I don’t know where to start with this:  with the biblical quotations from which they take a reference, with the fact that it was recovered by some well-meaning white person in South Africa who’s now selling it at an exorbitant profit because everyone really wants to buy into some of the power that got people through in Robben Island. Those are powerful moments, and that power is personal.

Laura asked about why do we not study foundations—why actors? As Andy pointed out as one of the first scholars of celebrities in international politics (2008), what’s fascinating about celebrities is that they are both individuals and institutions, all in one, and all the good media scholars have taught us how to think about them as ‘both, and.’ They’re basically both – exploited and exploiting themselves for profit in an interesting way that other new actors and alliances in humanitarianism can’t do. So, that’s what for me is still interesting in celebrity humanitarianism.

Whether or not Affleck per se is a particular kind of persona, as Andy and Annika have pointed out, is worth discussing. We (Richey and Brockington 2020) looked at the seven tropes of celebrity humanitarianism, and Affleck is interesting because he is a bit harder to type. He is a more interesting outlier, someone who absolutely all the people who worked with him—and we did interview quite a lot of people who had worked with Affleck— take seriously.  I mean, he’s serious, he’s smart, he’s not just some pretty face. And there’s no reason to think he doesn’t want to do good any more than anybody else. But the apparatus of this kind of elite politics doesn’t even allow for accountability or for celebrity humanitarianism to be successfully done differently.

No one would really disagree with the kinds of ‘helping’ values being promoted by Affleck’s organisation promotes. Yet in practice, what we found in our other work on the coffee, (Richey and Ponte 2021) was that there were already organisations working in Eastern Congo with the same coffee cooperatives doing basically a better job than ECI, Buffet, Starbucks, and USAID. And perhaps it was fine when they came in, of course, but they were not preparing those cooperative for surviving, and on the ground, we had lot of negative perceptions about how they came in, playing local politics in ways that were not very helpful. Laura asked, are we sure is it better than nothing? Well, I don’t think nothing is really the alternative – and that’s what often gets sold to us that there’s ‘nothing’ in the Eastern Congo, and that is quite frankly rubbish. There has long been this kind of humanitarianism going on in Congo in general and in Eastern Congo in particular. This is nothing new per se, as our historical work in the book documents. However, it is the way celebrity humanitarianism is being reconfigured and sold is ‘new’ that makes it interesting, and that’s what we hope makes it worthwhile reading a whole book about Batman.

A Response

The last contribution to our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018), in which the author responds to commentaries from Lisa Tilley, Lisa Ann Richey, and Toussaint Nothias.


I am (racialised as) white. My dad is (racialised as) brown. We’re both, unavoidably, even if unevenly and occasionally conditionally, White, participants in and enablers of the supremacy of logics, structures, and ways of doing things and modes of being that privilege, if not always people that look like my dad, then certainly people who look like me (as long as we go on presenting in ways coherent to White supremacy). Imaging Africa comes from occupying this liminal set of spaces, spaces that, however uncomfortable they make me, remain a privilege relative to those who do not have the luxury on reflecting on exactly how white, or not, they really are.

Writing Imagining Africa was a complete departure for me. Previously I’d been writing about civil society in Southern Africa and the politics of international development targets. So far so ok. But it wasn’t enough; I struggled to find my ethos in that work, and I felt like a gatekeeper. And so I started to think a lot about myself. Being born Jewish also added layers to the experience of being white and it became something I wanted to write about in more depth. Writing Imagining Africa thus became a bridge from the work I was doing previously (in and on bits of continental Africa) and what I wanted to be writing about then/now i.e. race, (re)racialisation, and specifically whiteness/Whiteness.

All of this made writing Imagining Africa incredibly difficult. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, while incorporating Whiteness centrally into how we configure our readings of the international in the way I tried to do is vital, there are also a series of lacunae that I wished I’d addressed. I spent most if not all of my time researching and writing the book feeling like I was stabbing around in the dark. New literatures would confront me on a regular basis, and new possibilities for research, all the while that my own sense of self and my ethical commitments were being reshaped and tested out the deeper I got into it. And what kind of book would it be anyway? Where would it sit within the disciplines? Would it be REF-able (urgh!)? This does not justify the gaps within the work that Lisa Tilly, Toussaint Nothias and Lisa Ann Richey have identified, but it does perhaps explain them.

That said, I am particularly grateful to all the symposium contributors for how closely and carefully they read the book, during busy periods of marking, holidays, injuries, fieldwork, writing, and everything else that life throws up. They have all thrown up such important questions and issues that I look forward to exploring in further detail now I’m ‘post-book’. And thanks also to Nivi, who I worked with directly on this, as well as all the other DoT editors, for giving me the opportunity of bringing this symposium to the site.  Continue reading

Why was Africa Rising? The Roots and Perils of Afro-idealization

The third and last commentary in our Imagining Africa symposium, to be followed tomorrow by the author’s reply. Today’s post is from Toussaint Nothias, who is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab. Toussaint holds a PhD in Media and Communication from the University of Leeds. His research explores journalism, social media and civil society in Africa. He has done research on foreign correspondents in Kenya and South Africa; on the media production of the Africa Rising narrative; on Kenyan journalists’ reporting of elections, terrorism and international criminal justice; and on the social-media led critique of CNN’s coverage of Kenya. Most recently, he is researching Facebook’s initiatives to increase internet connectivity across Africa, and their impact on local media production and civic engagement. The project engages a range of debates about digital advocacy and activism in the Global South, and about tech corporation’s investments in network infrastructures and civil society. Toussaint’s work notably appears in The International Journal of Communication, Journalism Studies, Visual Communication and Communication, Culture, Critique. He organized the pre-ICA conference “African Media Studies in the Digital Age” in 2017; edited a blog post series on Digital Africa for Africa is a Country; and he is the recipient of the IAMCR’s 2018 Stuart Hall Award.

All posts in this series are available here.


While travelling in Ghana and Nigeria in 1960, the Pulitzer winner reporter Homer Bigart wrote a letter to his New York Times editor, Emmanuel Freedman:

“I’m afraid I cannot work up any enthusiasm for the emerging republics. The politicians are either crooks or mystics. Dr Nkrumah is a Henry Wallace in burnt cook. I vastly prefer the primitive bush people. After all, cannibalism may be the logical antidote to this population explosion everyone talks about” (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).

Freedman responded:

“This is just a note to say hello and tell you how much your peerless prose from the badlands is continuing to give us and your public. By now you must be American journalism’s leading expert on sorcery, witchcraft, cannibalism and all the other exotic phenomena indigenous to darkest Africa (in Allimadi, 2002, p. 6).”

Such reliance on crude racist stereotypes testifies to the broader place long assigned to Africa in the imaginary and social order shaped by Whiteness – a multilayered, oppressive system of social hierarchization largely born of 19th century racialist thinking. So when the British magazine The Economist published a cover titled Africa Rising in December 2011 – discussed in more detail in the 7th Chapter of Clive Gabay’s fantastic book – it may have appeared, at first sight, like a radical discursive departure. Could it be that after years of critiques from postcolonial scholars and intellectuals, the media took these comments on board and decided to remedy their shortcomings in terms of representations of Africa?  Against this reading, Gabay offers a clear, powerful, and critical argument. This apparent representational change is neither altogether new, nor does it really constitute a change. On the contrary, this trend for Afro-idealization, most notably visible in the metropolitan appetite for Afropolitan fashion shows and festivals, is the result of broader political and economic processes entangled with a set of racial anxieties about Western decline in the aftermath of the 2007/2008 financial crisis.

Gabay’s much anticipated book provides the most sustained analysis to date of why the early 2010s saw the growth of an “Africa Rising” discourse across a range of fields – from academia and business to politics and cultural productions. One of the book’s main contributions is to provide historical evidence of past Afro-idealizations in Western discourse – from the 1920s debates around ‘native rights’ in Kenya to the 1950s liberal-settler, inter-racial associations and groups in Southern and Eastern Africa.  Through these two case studies, Gabay reminds us that positive accounts of African subjectivities have in fact long been part of the discursive apparatus of colonial power.

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Imagining Africa as the Market for Profiting from Whiteness

A second commentary in our series on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa, this time from Lisa Ann Richey. Lisa is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Currently, she leads the research projects Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things (2016-2021), funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (FSE) and Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (2019-2024), funded by the Danish Development Research Council (FFU). Among other books, she has authored Celebrity Humanitarianism in Congo: Business, Disruption and the Politics of Development with Alexandra Budabin (forthcoming); Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with Stefano Ponte (2011); Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (2008) and edited Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (2016).  She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes, new transnational actors and alliances in the global South, development theories and representations, global health and gender. Lisa was the founding Vice-President of the Global South Caucus of the International Studies Association (ISA). She tweets as @BrandAid_World.

The full collection of posts in this series is available here.


I distinctly remember the first time I learned about Clive Gabay’s research on representations of Africa now published as Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press 2018). I was sitting in the audience of an African politics panel at an international conference, and Clive put up a slide showing the cover from The Economist from 2000 headlining ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (p. 204). He quickly switched to the cover from 2011 with the visual play on ‘The Kite Runner’ and its eternal optimism entitled, ‘Africa Rising’ (p. 205). This visual transition from covering Africa as ‘nothing but a nihilistic swamp of pre-modernity’ to Africa as ‘colourful, joyful and optimistic’ (p. 203) left me troubled. Not just intellectually, irritated by the audacity of The West to continue to frame all things African in stereotypes where the range of options for young men runs from militarized to infantilized, but emotionally, feeling angry at the sensation of guilty pleasure produced by the juxtaposition of the photographs. The images themselves, as Gabay describes, couldn’t have been more different in their depictions of a continent through the bodies of its masculine youth. Yet, the magazine covers had strange similarities beyond their gender, as they were both highly-crafted, beautiful covers.  While the second ‘rising’ cover with its beckoning light and natural aesthetic (where even the dirt is a photogenic hue of red clay) was obviously linked to the editorial line on Africa’s possibilities, it was the first ‘hopeless’ cover that was surprisingly appealing.  Sure the young man is holding a rocket-launcher, but the expression on his face— notably the large and central focal point of this image—appears to be one of delight. There is nothing in this image to suggest that its referent object, a young African man, is hopeless. Quite the contrary, he looks full of agency, just not the kind WE want in our imagined Western civilization built upon Europe’s ‘exceptional institutional genius’ (p.12).  Instead, we prefer the happy kite-flying child, viewed from a safe distance so as not to disrupt our gaze and imaginations with any possibility of a real, feeling subject. The Economist imagery embodied the realization of modernization’s ideal movement from the constraints of savagery to the open-space flow through dreams that were . . . Ours. Divorcing the roots of Western societal wealth from systems of slavery and imperialism, Gabay shows us, ‘it has been possible to generate a belief in the universal utility of this system for the whole world’ and this universalism (not the system itself) is what Gabay calls ‘Whiteness’ (p. 13).

In most simple terms: Eurocentrism+Narcissism+Modernism=Whiteness

So how we feel about the covers of the Economist is raced. And thus, any history of Whiteness must engage deeply with the politics of affect.  Because, it is OUR feelings that count. And we feel White. These White feelings consist, predominantly, of anxiety, and this anxiety has a history. Specifically, Imagining Africa argues that ‘over the past century, we have seen the arrogance of elite phenotypical white supremacy slip, all the while that the centrality of Whiteness to the imagination and mechanics of international order has been maintained’ (p. 236-7).  Gabay’s book provides a remarkably documented, deeply political history of the international relations imaginaries of Africa.  After the publication of Imagining Africa, all scholars of African international politics, colonialism, media studies or humanitarianism should be expected to account for the question of Whiteness in their analysis.

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Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space

The first commentary in our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Lisa Tilley is currently Lecturer in Politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Her work focuses on political economy/ecology, race, and historical/present-day colonialism, extraction and expropriation. She has analysed key sites of colonial/capitalist expansion – the plantation, the mine, and the city – with particular attention to the social and ecological formations, technologies and logics produced through those locations. Most of her research has been conducted in Southeast Asia, specifically across the rural and urban frontiers of Indonesia. See, for example, “A Strange Industrial Order”: Indonesia’s Racialised Plantation Ecologies and Anticolonial Estate Worker Rebellions, forthcoming in History of the Present. She also co-convenes the CPD-BISA working group, is Associate Editor of Global Social Theory, and has visited with us several times before.

The full collection of posts in this symposium is available here.


 

I happen to be reading Clive Gabay’s new book in a homestay owned by German missionaries in West Papua. The European owners themselves are not here but their presence is made vivid in the written instructions printed in cordial, civilised italics on two sheets of A4 and pasted onto my door: “do not bring prostitutes into your room; do not chew betel inside or near the homestay; do not wear Western swimsuits at the beach, this is seen as almost naked and Papuan men will think you want a boyfriend; respect the Papuan culture by covering your body in public; God bless you!” On the adjacent wall is a National Geographic-style photo montage of Papuan men in penis gourds and adolescent Papuan girls in grass skirts, bare breasted, looking suspiciously into the camera. It is gradually made clear to me that the Mission still concerns itself with that most nineteenth century of burdens – the ‘civilising’ of those assumed to be lazy, savage, and infantile, yet who are simultaneously idealised as noble and innocent.

Papuan Mural

Public mural from West Papua (Jayapura).

Occasionally I make it to the local internet café and engage with a distant reality through social media. But this only tells me that the academic sentinels of white supremacy ‘back home’ are still rehearsing their appeals for the overt reassertion of white pride: whiteness is just an ethnicity like any other; white majorities are set to become minorities in their own lands; whites have higher IQs; whites can be distinguished by skull measurements. I carry my visible phenotypical whiteness with me wherever I go, of course, but what Gabay calls “Whiteness” – with a capital W – as “mythologised genius” (p.2) and “a system of privilege that rests on a set of supposedly universal and ahistorical codes that represent a civilised status” (p.237) is clearly already everywhere, whether phenotypical whiteness is present or not. With all of this as my immediate personal backdrop – ongoing white missionary tutelage in West Papua and academics fostering narratives complementary to white supremacist resurgence in Europe – Gabay’s historical analysis of Whiteness feels far too contemporary for comfort. And so, I’ll willingly fail at the challenge of starting this engagement with anything other than seemingly cliched descriptors: Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze by Clive Gabay is timely, important, and necessary.

Gabay’s focus is the British and broader Western gaze on Africa but has wider resonance in European interferences across the Global South. The analysis pivots on the seemingly counterintuitive construction of ‘Africa’ in idealised forms – from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition presentation of Africa as a place, in Gabay’s terms “where Whiteness could be redeemed” (p.50) to the jubilant “Africa rising” narratives which gained prominence after the global financial crisis. Conceptually, Gabay has bestowed us with a vocabulary which clearly enriches and sharpens the study of the production and operation of Whiteness over time. Empirically, his seven years of careful archival work have resulted in the curation of an important historically traced narrative. Methodologically, he has presented an exemplary way of crafting an informed and illuminating history of the present. One central contribution is the mentioned separation of phenotypical whiteness from capital-W Whiteness, that “system of privilege” which has “always needed a place called Africa” (p.2). Another is the argument running throughout the text which holds that it is “racial anxiety” rather than economic imperatives alone which explain the way in which Africa itself is constructed in the white/White imagination.

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Imagining Africa

The first post in a new book symposium, on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Clive is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. After living as a critical ethnographer of international development and state-civil society relations in Southern Africa, in around 2016 he ditched it all for critical race studies and a love affair with a dead German-Jewish Anarchist called Gustav Landauer. In his head this all ties together because he was born Jewish, to an Egyptian father and a Ukrainian-descended mother, and had thus long obsessed over both the nature of whiteness and variants of political Jewishness that abscond from Zionism. As well as publishing Imagining Africa in late 2018 (most recently recipient of an honourable mention for the British International Studies Association 2019 Susan Strange Book Prize), Clive has also been writing a series of articles on Landauer, race and (settler) colonialism which all cohere around an anti-colonial critique of post-structural and Derridian conceptions of identity-formation and subjectivity. Two of these are forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory and Citizenship Studies. Clive tweets sporadically @clivesg.

The posts in this forum are collected for posterity here.


 

Conventionally, we have long known that disciplinary International Relations has constructed itself around a racialized hierarchy of the international that places the West and an ever revolving set of pretenders at the top, with ‘Africa’, a continent of 54 countries, at the bottom. We know this because everyone from Hegel to Huntington said it, and more importantly because giants of African scholarship and writing have also said it, from Chinua Achebe, through VY Mudimbe, to Achille Mbembe.

Huntington Clash

Figure 1: The list of ‘civilisations’ From Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Sub-Saharan Africa constituted a ‘possible’ eighth civilisation.

It is not difficult to find work in IR that coheres around Africa as a place of death, disease, corruption and state failure. Indeed, Africa has to serve this function in order for careers to perpetuated, journal articles and books to be published, grants to be won and budgets to be justified. This obviously bleeds out beyond the discipline, and is informed by discourses produced from beyond the discipline. This in itself has produced a mini-industry of scholarly and cultural interventions designed to humanise and deconstruct racist ideas about ‘Africa’ within and beyond IR. Popularly, the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa was a classic of this trope, as was the more recently viral Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, The Danger of a Single Story.

So if Newsweek decides to put monkeys on its front cover to suggest that the West is at threat from ‘African diseases’, or a reputed journal publishes an article that suggests that Africa is so messed up that it needs more, rather than less colonialism, we should not be surprised.

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Rejoinder: For Whom Do We Study International Politics?

Sophie HarmanThe last post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from the author herself. Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. Sophie’s research focuses on visual method and the politics of seeing, global health politics, African agency, and the politics of conspicuously invisible women. She has pursued these interests through projects on Global Health Governance, the World Bank and HIV/AIDS, partnerships in health in Africa, the 2014/15 Ebola response, the governance of HIV/AIDS, and her recent film project, Pili, for which she was nominated for a BAFTA as in the category of Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer. Apart from Seeing Politics, Sophie’s recent publications include ‘Why It Must Be a Feminist Global Health Agenda’ in The Lancet (with Sara Davies, Rashida Manjoo, Maria Tanyag and Clare Wenham), and ‘Governing Ebola: Between Global Health and Medical Humanitarianism’ in Globalizations (with Clare Wenham(. She is also a Co-Editor of Review of International Studies, and the recipient of numerous grants and awards.

The full collection of contributions to the Seeing Politics symposium is now accessible here.


 

Big Pili

When things get a bit much at work it is not uncommon to hide in the loo. When you are shooting a film scene in fields without a nearby loo, everyone demanding something from you (new, better umbrellas to shelter from the heat, more money for the field manager, colder water), you find yourself escaping for a pee in a pineapple field. It was during a trip to a pineapple field that the thought occurred to me, I wonder what notable Professors of International Relations (IR) around the world are doing right now? Quickly followed by, what on earth am I doing? Very few people in the field of IR seem to think what I’m doing is real research, why didn’t I just write a book about the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak? I’m peeing in a pineapple field: no-one is going to take this work seriously. Based on these five thoughtful and generous reflections on Seeing Politics, I was clearly wrong.

Not only is this type of work taken seriously, there seems to be genuine hunger or, at the very least, curiosity, for new, visual methods, and an honesty to the politics of co-production among academic researchers. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, tensions and questions persist over the use of visual politics, narrative, co-production, representation, knowledge, and disciplinary boundaries that sit uneasily within not just International Relations, but academia more broadly. What is refreshing about the five interventions is a willingness to not dodge the discomfort in these questions. I am so grateful to each contributor for reading Seeing Politics in such detail, really engaging in what I was trying to do, and offering new insights that I had not even thought about. I am especially grateful for each of them taking time during busy periods of their academic life: each contribution was written in the midst of PhD reviews, marking season, research Directorships, and of course their own research and writing projects. Thank you Paul Kirby, editor of the Disorder of Things. n the Q&A that followed a screening of Pili at the European International Studies Association (EISA) in Barcelona 2017, Pablo suggested that he sort of wished I wasn’t writing a book about the film, so that it could just stand by itself. I don’t know if he’s changed his mind, but I am flattered he suggested the idea of this symposium and grateful for his patience and advice and for making this happen.

Several themes emerged across the five essays: narrative and story-telling, vocalisation and visualisation, experiencing and explaining politics, and not only why and how we research international politics, but who the research is for. Laura J. Shepherd’s introduction to the symposium begins with the importance of story-telling in the Western Anglophone. Story-telling is not limited to the Western Anglophone (something literary criticism is starting to recognise) but is a fundamental social and political practice throughout the world that helps make sense of the world and how it came to be. This can range from the stories out families tell us about our history, to what states and citizens tell themselves about their own history, to how we tell stories about our research and understanding of the world, and how stories and narratives contradict and challenge each other. Stories inform our identity, how we make sense of the world, and how we relate to each other. Given the importance of narrative and the stories we tell, see, and shape our world view, and what I was trying to do with Pili, I could have made more of the literature and debates in this aspect of IR. Perhaps. The cowards reply to Shepherd here would be that I was exhausted with ‘turns’ when situating the book: the problem in writing a book that does not fit within Shepherd’s ‘disciplining of the discipline’ is how and where to position the book. I had an unwieldy chapter 1 where debates on narrative, story-telling, and auto-ethnography all got chopped.

The more/less cowardly answer is a fear of the palimpsest. As Shepherd insightfully notes the book shows how making a film is a complicated endeavour and ‘Making a researcher is similarly so, and that, for me, is the text that emerges as a palimpsest.’ In many ways for all that Seeing Politics is about film, co-production, and knowledge, it can fundamentally be read as a book about research, researchers, and the stories we tell ourselves and write. I have an uneasy relationship with this palimpsest, in particular the problem of erasure inherent within it: that the palimpsest of the book does not erase the stories of Pili. It is a strength of Shepherd’s essay that in one sentence she hits the biggest source of my unease: the palimpsest is not just the book, as audiences for the film grow and people want to learn more about it in audience Q&As, marketing, and promotion, the voices and narrative that were so important to the film risk erasure to the bigger narrative of the politics of seeing how the film was made. Audiences ask me how ‘Pili’ is (despite her being a character), interviewers want to know why and how the film was made, and the visual narrative of Pili once the film was released is the face of Bello Rashid (‘Pili’) on posters with Director Leanne Welham and I on red carpets, answering questions as to what ‘Pili’ is doing now.

Q&As and responses to both the book and film, suggest audiences want a happy ending. They want the lives of women such as ‘Pili’ to improve. They want me to have a close and ongoing relationship with the women in film. They want the women in the film to show some sort of pleasure, or worse, gratitude, for being in the film. Craig Murphy pinpoints the difficulty with such happy endings. First, experiencing the world as it is leads to seeing some of the worst forms of inequality that exist, so packaging a happy ending narrative is wholly misleading to audiences, however they much they may want it. Second, experiencing the world and explaining it from this basis necessitates an honest reflection on the different relationships we have, both as researchers and as people in our everyday lives. As Murphy states, ‘The moral compasses of all successful field researchers may not point in the right direction, but they do have to be reliable, consistent, and always available’ – in many ways in writing Seeing Politics this is what I was trying to do. Finally, in a world of visual representation there is the happy ending we see – in the case of Pili, pictures of joy from the cast and I at the 2016 and 2018 Tanzania screenings, the fun I had in attending the BAFTAs – and the toll and aspect of people’s lives we don’t see. Murphy suggests he would have liked me to have reflected more on the psychological toll of research of this kind. The toll of the project resulted in me losing more skin pigment, eating too much, jolting awake at night (only in the first month back from Tanzania), writing Seeing Politics and then realising I should probably talk to someone (big thanks to those colleagues who sensed this may be a good idea before I did, with kind and well-timed ‘you okay hon?’ you know who you are Tim, James, and Kim). I deleted the previous sentence seven times as I don’t want this to be the focus of the project or have to discuss it on a future roundtable (I’m not a trained therapist or counsellor, I find it quite boring): I kept it in as I know others face similar dilemmas, and this should be destigmatised, especially for postgraduate researchers. More substantively, I am mindful of how my own well-being is linked with ongoing relationships with the lives of others long after a project has been completed who don’t want to share. As with my fear of the palimpsest, I don’t want Seeing Politics to become about me.

This latter point, highlights one of Jo Vearey’s key responses to the book, there are some voices missing in all this: what do the women think of the film, the book, and the whole process? I can guess; I can draw on their feedback from the 2018 Tanzanian premiere in Dar es Salaam; I can give you the limited responses I get via a third party production assistant/translator from time to time. But really, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the women and thus spoken directly to them for three years. The main reason I have not seen them in three years is the film has not made any money for them: as chapter 2 sets out in detail, no money was promised and expectations were managed, but hope and expectations still exist. I don’t want to disappoint them or let them down (maybe Murphy does have a point that perhaps I should have said more on this): I don’t want to have to defend myself against any accusation that I lied and have kept the money for myself. If asked about the process of making the film, I suspect some of the women would tell me what they think I want to hear or limit their response depending on what they need or want from me, and a handful will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Similar to Vearey’s reflection, this is an addition to the book’s longlist of discomforts: similar to the book, I want to confront this discomfort. My hope is to run a short follow up project for the women to reflect directly on the process five to ten years after production ended. I have some ideas as to how to do this – film and photo elicitation, working with a third party researcher – however as Vearey’s response clearly highlights doing so brings me back to one of the core issues explored in the book: how to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable tension between intent and process. Substantively, it is not my intention that matters: it’s up to the co-producers of the film – the cast, the crew, the community of women from which the story was drawn – and the interest and value they place in such a project.

Upon his death in May 2019, Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay ‘How to write about Africa’ was shared across social media. The response to Wainaina’s death was similar to many talented artists, sadness at the loss of life, particularly so young, but also a pleasure in re-reading or re-listening to their work. Re-reading ‘How to write about Africa’ I was struck by the sentence:

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. (Wainaina, 2005)

No-one wants to tick one of the items on Wainaina’s list and I thank Simukai Chigudu for kindly not pointing this out in his discussion of chapters 4 and 5 on gatekeeping politics, especially given the lengthy discussion on visas and permits in chapter 4. Chigudu’s reflection on gatekeeping in the book is perhaps more generous in suggesting it serves as a reminder to study states, particularly African states, ethnographically given the diffuse and at times competing units of government. I concur here, but would also extend this argument for investigating various forms of gatekeeping. As the book explores, gatekeeping depends on the intersection between formal political processes and informal practices at both the state level in Tanzania and within the hierarchy of global film governance. To understand and see such gatekeeping, you need to engage with the gate.

A theme that runs across Chigudu’s essay is one of change in story-telling in and of Africa. Chigudu’s shift from a reflection on the impact of new and modern technology, most notably mobile phones and smartphones, to Black Panther is particularly revealing. Both, in different ways, have been highlighted as markers of change in perceptions of the continent, stories, and the stories that are told and seen. Both, in different ways, are subject to the same old questions of access, use, types of representation, and ownership of such technologies and stories. These two positions are well summarised by Jelani Cobb’s 2018 essay on the film, where he outlines ‘Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth’ yet the importance of Black Panther, and Wakanda specifically, is how ‘It is a redemptive counter-mythology’ (Cobb, 2018).

Wakanda may be located on the map in central Africa, feature a diverse range of black actors from around the world, and draw on themes of colonialism, coloniality, and Afrofutures, but it is a western, American film. It was produced by and makes money for Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures (IMDb, 2019), and the ‘hero’ ends up committing to the liberal internationalist cause at the UN General Assembly. This may not matter; when I left a packed London cinema on Valentine’s Day in 2018, there was an absolute sizzle of positivity among the predominantly younger audience (and me, who doesn’t love to suspend their critical mind and just enjoy militarized rhinos?), ‘this changes everything’ I overheard one young black man say excitedly to his friends. This points to an important question that someone asked me at the beginning of this project, who is the audience for this film? And which audience matters? As chapter 5 explores in the book, as Pili progressed to sales and distribution, this question changed from who is the audience, to which audience matters, to which audience counts. In film the audience that matters is the audience that makes money; ‘this changes everything’ is true of Black Panther not only in how it makes audiences feel and think, but the potential impact on Hollywood: a film set in Africa, with a majority black cast, made US$1.344 billion as of May 2018 at the Box Office (IMDb, 2019). As Chigudu alludes to, Black Panther in many ways is emblematic of the tech revolution in Africa: a source of promise, joy, optimism, global connection, new opportunities for representation, under western ownership, control, and profit.

Western ownership, control, and profit is a theme that runs throughout chapter 5 of the book, and is an issue drawn out by Dean Cooper-Cunningham’s point on ‘giving’ voice and the relationship between vocalization and visualization. Voices exist, people are seen throughout their lives: the politics is the context in which they are seen, how their voices are amplified, who amplifies them, who ‘gives’ and who takes space. As Cooper-Cunningham explores, part of the book shows and reflects the inequalities of who enters and controls entry into political spaces, be it the global response to HIV/AIDS or film production and cinema audiences. This point reminds me of bell hooks’ argument of the second wave feminist movement, wherein the white bourgeois women who dominated the movement shaped the spaces and ways women of colour, particularly black women, were involved, with white women concluding ‘that black women need not contribute to developing theory. We were to provide the colorful life stories to document and validate the prevailing set of theoretical assumptions’ (hooks, 2000; 33). hooks’ argument has important relevance to academic research, gatekeeping, and the role of different partners in co-production practices and how these roles are shaped and given space. As Seeing Politics suggests, this is about what knowledge counts, who counts, and, as Cooper-Cunningham insightfully reflects, who ‘gives’ or allows this voice or knowledge, and the politics therein.

I conclude this reply with one of Cooper-Cunningham’s final points on the book and Murphy’s initial insight on the distinction between experiencing politics and explaining politics as arbitrary markers of what defines ‘real’ social science. I began this project thinking about who or what my research is for. I had become slightly lost in the academic system, being critical of performance indicators while simultaneously being motived (and subsequently disappointed) by them, forgetting why I loved my job, becoming bored and frustrated by what I was reading and writing. I had my pineapple field moments and the book reflects a lot of the difficulty and discomfort involved with a co-produced project: but I regained a sense of interest and purpose in my research, however uncomfortable, by remembering the question that first got me interested in international politics, posed by Cooper-Cunningham: for whom do we study international politics?

References

Cobb, Jelani. (2018). ‘“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”’ The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/black-panther-and-the-invention-of-africa (accessed August 2019)

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminist theory: from margin to center London: Pluto Press.

IMDb. (2019). ‘Black Panther’ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/releaseinfo?ref_=ttco_ql_2 (accessed August 2019).

Wainaina, Binyavanga. (2005). ‘How to write about Africa’ Granta https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ (accessed August 2019)

The Risky (But Critical) Business of Seeing Politics, Even Without Film

The fourth contribution in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Craig Murphy. Craig is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. He is past chair of the Academic Council on the United Nations System, past president of the International Studies Association, and recipient of the Association’s Distinguished Senior Scholar Award in International Political Economy for his historical studies of global governance and economic development. Craig has published relatively widely on US policy toward the developing world, the economic debates within the UN, the UN Development Programme, the ISO (the International Organization for Standardization), and the co-evolution of industrial capitalism and international institutions. His current project (with JoAnne Yates, Distinguished Professor of MIT’s Sloan School of Management) focuses on private international regulatory standard setting. Their book, Engineering Rules: global standard setting since 1880, was published this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.


When I first heard about Sophie Harman’s “Pili” project, I immediately thought of the first lines of Joshua Goldstein’s 2001 book, War and Gender:

Recently, I discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. About ten lines down is “gender and war,” with the notation “most interesting of all; will ruin career – wait until tenure.”

The thought was still with me as I read Harman’s brilliant Seeing Politics, not only due to the academic risks to an early career researcher of undertaking a film, but also because Harman’s book forcefully reminded me of how unusually difficult, and academically risky, similar projects using traditional media can be. Therefore, my comments focus what Seeing Politics reminds us about the undervalued and often deeply misunderstood practice of doing traditional intensive fieldwork, especially throughout the global South.

It’s fundamentally important, even if you are ‘just’ seeing (or describing) something.

Harman gives us a wonderfully detailed understanding of what film makers do: They allow us to see and hear political actors and action in their physical and social contexts by carefully selecting words and images from an over-abundant universe of raw material. They find ways to (re)-present, truthfully, the common characteristics of many individual, sometimes by creating aggregate characters. Often, producers and directors must provide anonymity to the people whose words viewers will hear, yet, at the same those speakers are given truthful faces. It is a complex things whose success can certainly be judged, but not perhaps by using only the tools that all social scientists have developed.

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Just Research? (Un)Seeing Politics in a Complex World

Jo VeareyThe third post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Jo Vearey. Jo is an Associate Professor and Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, where she is involved in designing and coordinating research programmes, teaching, and supervising graduate students. Jo is involved in multiple international partnership, is Vice-Chair of the global Migration, Health, and Development Research Initiative (MHADRI), and is an Honorary Researcher at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Jo is a South African National Research Foundation rated researcher and, supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, established the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHp). With a commitment to social justice, Jo’s research explores ways to generate and communicate knowledge to improve responses to migration, health and wellbeing in the southern African region. Fundamental to her research practice is Jo’s participation in a range of policy processes at international, regional, national and local levels. Jo is exploring the role of public engagement in the development of appropriate policy responses, including the use of mixed methods approaches that involve various publics in the co-production and application of knowledge to affect change.


Sophie Harman has produced an excellent, accessible text within which she shares her reflections on the opportunities and tensions associated with a research process that draws on feminist research praxis, engages with efforts to democratise research, and aims to work with participants to co-produce knowledge. In Seeing Politics, Sophie presents a comprehensive review of the potential of film as a feminist method, and reflects on her work with 80 women in Tanzania that culminated in the co-production of a narrative feature film that shares their stories of living with HIV. The resultant film – Pili – has been shown at international film festivals and received awards and, as Sophie highlights, is the first time that a co-produced narrative film has been applied as a feminist research method in the field of International Relations (IR). Seeing Politics is a book about method and about a justice-driven approach that attempts to ‘make visible the invisible’ lived experiences of women living with HIV in Tanzania, notably their navigation of formal and informal everyday politics and how this intersects with their health and wellbeing, and with gendered experiences of discrimination and abuse. But it is also about a lot more.

Knowledge Politics

Seeing Politics forces us to see a different form of politics: the politics of knowledge. Whilst this is, obviously, implicit throughout the book, we should more explicitly reflect on how ‘the visual’ as a research method and research output ‘makes visible’ the discomforts of knowledge politics, namely: who is telling whose story and for what purpose? When we claim to ‘make visible the invisible’, who are we positioning as invisible and what does it mean to do so? In what context? Is it for us (the researcher) to determine who needs to be made visible? For whose benefit? What are the implications of making people and places visible? Such questions force us to engage in our own research praxis and confront uncomfortable questions about the politics of knowledge, and the role of scholarship and the academy when engaging in justice-driven research.  These are by no means new or novel questions and an extensive body of literature exists that I won’t in any way attempt to summarise here. These long established calls for democratising, decolonising and humanizing research are attracting a new generation of indigenous researchers from multiple disciplinary perspectives who are productively engaging with these tensions, re-engaging with decolonial approaches to research methods and praxis and challenging the status quo in international partnerships.

Sophie highlights that the methodology outlined in Seeing Politics is about a commitment to ensuring what Sophie and her colleague William Brown have previously framed as ‘African agency’, an approach to research that aims “to take African politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously to get beyond the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimised, chaotic, violent and poor” (Brown and Harman 2013, 1-2). This is a welcome imperative but, as a framing proposed by two white, British academics based in the UK, what does this – as an academic project in its own right – mean for the idea of ‘African agency’?  At its core, I would argue that Seeing Politics is in fact about precisely these tensions and contradictions that many of us experience in our research praxis. The book itself becomes a helpful tool for recognising and responding to the discomfort we feel of being a researcher and the way we feel about our own positions and complicity in the extractive nature of research. I see how I can use the book in my teaching as a way to generate exactly this form of reflection.

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A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.


Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

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