The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

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Love, Discomfort and the Language of the Tribe

This is the third post in our forum on Megan’s new book. We are delighted to welcome Dunja Fehimovic, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge working on the relationship of film to national identity in Cuba in the 21st century. Dunja is author of a number of investigations of those themes in Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and Bulletin of Latin American Research, as well as forthcoming in Cuban Cinema Inside Out and The Routledge Companion to World Cinema.


When From Cuba with Love arrived in the post, my first thought was, ‘What a beautiful book.’ It was the kind of book that drew me in – the kind of book, in fact, that might catch the eye of anyone browsing the shelves of their local bookshop. Its cover illustration reminded me of the endlessly-proliferating coffee table books about Cuba, including one I myself own about pre-Revolutionary Cuban advertising and design. It appealed to the vague, pervasive nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, roughly associated with the 1930-50s, that seems to be doing the rounds of late – all cupcakes, vintage posters, Cath Kidston and red lipstick.

From Cuba - Red Cover

But like the señorita in the picture, whose skirt is slashed to show a titillating amount of thigh, this had added appeal. The added sex appeal of Cuba, that is. As reactions to my topic of study have confirmed over time, Cuba is a sexy subject. Sex in Cuba is a very sexy subject. Daigle’s book, then, immediately evokes all of the stereotypical, exotic or erotic associations that we reveal or conceal through our reactions to Cuba as a place and subject of study. From its front cover onwards, it triggered uncomfortable reflections on my own contradictory, complex fascination with the country – a fascination that evolved, tellingly, from a love of salsa music and dancing through to a touristic experience during my undergraduate years and to the present day, as I move towards the completion of my thesis on contemporary Cuban cinema and national identity. In her introduction, Daigle warns that this is not a comfort text. True enough.

When I started reading From Cuba with Love, I got in touch with Megan to say that I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those books I wish I had written. And at certain points, I felt as though I had. The atmosphere and situations she so eloquently describes, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, were all too familiar to me as someone who has also spent time doing research in Cuba. I, too, lived near the Callejón de Hamel, and spent many afternoons pushing through the crowds, fascinated and frustrated in almost equal measure. As the rumba music picks up, Megan tells us, ‘the divide between dancers and onlookers blurs’. Crucially, though, the divide between foreigners and Cubans never does. I’ve never been sure how much of this is caused by my own self-consciousness, and how much is ‘objectively’ evident in the behaviour of people around me. Most likely it’s another case of the chicken and the egg, a self-perpetuating cycle of self-alienation and othering from both sides.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).


Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did not then seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the route to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. Continue reading

Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

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The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 

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Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

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What Does It Mean To Become An Open Access Journal?

Following an earlier interview with Eva Erman on editing the open access journal Ethics & Global Politics, another set of enlightening responses on academic publishing. This time with Professor Brad Weiss of the College of William & Mary and President of the Society for Cultural Anthropology, which publishes Cultural Anthropology, the premier journal of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). It is a major journal by other metrics too (take your pick of GoogleScholar or Impact Factor). All of which is as preamble to the point: Cultural Anthropology will be a fully open access journal from 2014. Not just that. It has a web presence and offers a set of connected resources that are without compare (at least in my experience). Brad was kind enough to offer his time to answer some questions on taking a learned society journal of prestige open access.


Cultural Anthropology Cover Trimmed

1. How did the decision to make Cultural Anthropology open access come about? Who initiated it, and why?

There is a longish story here. For several years prior to this action, many members of the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) Board, and our Editorial Board had been interested in pursuing an open access option. That really wasn’t up to us, as we are only one section of the AAA that maintains a contract with Wiley-Blackwell to publish more than 20 of its sections’ journals. However, the director of publications with the AAA, Oona Schmid, proposed the possibility, last August (2012) to all of the publishing sections that one of them could be permitted to go open access for the duration of the Wiley-Blackwell contract (which expires in 2017) given certain provisions. Our Board formed a task force, including some real experts on publishing and open access in particular, and this group determined that it was a good idea to pursue this option. As it happened, we were the only AAA section to elect to do so, so were authorized to make the transition, which will begin in February 2014.

2. How was the move to open access funded?

Again, a little complicated. For one thing, the SCA is the biggest section of the AAA, and our membership dues are important sources of revenue; but in and of themselves, they don’t cover the costs of publishing, as well as all of the other activities (workshops, board meetings, special sessions at the AAA meetings, a biennial conference, etc.) that the SCA undertakes. We have been able to build our fund balances over the last several years, when the Wiley-Blackwell contract brought us significant royalties. Between these two sources of funding, we are confident that we can make open access work – for now. In the long term, we are looking to develop an open access model that will incorporate many more sections of the AAA, so that whatever happens next in publishing (post-Wiley contract) allows sections to share editorial and distribution costs, which will substantially reduce the costs of publications for everyone. Our hope is that the costs of open access become so reduced through cost sharing, that each sections’ member dues will provide sufficient revenue to fund, not only their publications, but all of their other activities. This will probably mean that open access won’t be profitable, but will at least not be prohibitively expensive – and, crucially, that the professionals we hire to edit, publish and design the journal will get paid for their work.

3. It seems that your open access model, as paid for through membership dues, could be characterised as Article Processing Charges by another name. How would you respond to the objection that this is another drain on academic funds? 

We are seeking a middle ground. We cannot sustain open access for long on just membership dues; and we already have a broad membership, so we’re not asking for more money from members, we’re just using these funds for this purpose.  Moreover, we added the membership requirement primarily to reduce the number of unwarranted submissions that take literally hundreds of hours to process.  We are trying not to charge our members extra, but hoping that the fund balances we already have will keep our enterprise going until the AAA can generate a new publication model, which we hope will at least make open access more widely available, if not the standard model.

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Oxygen: Impressions from the Workshop ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Oded LowenheimPost seven in our ongoing mini-forum on methodology and narrative in (critical) IR. This time it’s the turn of Oded Löwenheim, who is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His interests lie in the field of emotions and politics, autoethnography and IR, and investigating the peculiarities of power, so to speak, in various issue areas and fields. He is the author of Predators and Parasites: Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm and Great Power Authority (The University of Michigan Press, 2007), and The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (The University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2014). His articles appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Security Dialogue, Security Studies, International Political Sociology and the Review of International Studies. At the Hebrew University he teaches courses on science fiction and on politics and autoethnography and IR.


The two days of the workshop were very intensive for me, in terms of both the many talks and conversations we heard and had, and in terms of the emotional weight I felt during these discussions. Some of the talks we heard were not easy to hear: people told about their personal experiences of places such as the “highway of tears” in British Columbia, Hawaii as a colonized space, or escape from worn-torn Eritrea. Other stories dealt with personal loss and the political meanings of grief; or, of opening up to the inner world of what I, and many other in the West, call “suicide bombers,” while they consider themselves as martyr soldiers; or, of the pain of Inuit people in Canada. But despite the sometimes difficult stories and realities, I felt I am full lungs breathing. I felt that the stories and the responses to them fill me with oxygen, almost literally.

We talked about the way stories and narratives can bridge gaps between people and enable us to reach out to the humanity of others. Yes, stories can be fabricated, manipulated, or exploited to reproduce hegemonic or dominating orders, some of the colleagues in the workshop reminded the participants. Stories can also serve a claim for authenticity, by virtue of the author/teller “being there,” while in many manners, there cannot be such a “there” from the outset. But stories, nonetheless, can create a strong sense of community, I felt. The more I heard the various talks, I realized that we live in a world that values distance and objectivity, but these values also contribute to human loneliness and atomization of societies. Narrativistic research not only challenges the traditional methods of writing in order to highlight various power structures that these methods ignore or do not capture fully. It can also have the potential to restore and to rebuild some sense of community among authors and their readers. By community, I do not mean only a professional community of academicians, which is often a small and closed one, but also a larger human community. Narrativistic writing, I felt during the workshop, can help people resist this institutionally – and structurally – imposed loneliness that is so characteristic of our times, both in academia and in broader society. Lonely people are easier to govern than people with a strong sense of belonging, connection, and community.

One of the most interesting conclusions I took from this workshop was Jenny Edkins’ comment (I hope that was indeed what she meant …) that while the state’s sovereign narrative is about completeness and continuity, a linear story in which there is a clear beginning and a path along which history continues, a path which the state – and I may add in a Foucauldian manner, its admirers/reproducers in academia – purport to know, in many political and historical situations reality is wounded and full of gaps and crevices. Narativistic writing acknowledges these gaps and irregularities, disrupts the linear narrative, but at the same time offers some comfort by engaging in a process of writing about the wound and, no less important: letting the wound write us back.

Indeed, writing about my own wounds and letting them write me back is an essential part of my autoethnographic work. Continue reading

In Praise of Question Marks: Reflections on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Jennifer RigganThe sixth post on critical methodologies and narrative, by Jennifer Riggan. Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University, where she began teaching in 2007.  She holds a Ph.D. from the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received training in political and educational anthropology and African Studies. Her ethnographic research addresses a variety of issues including nationalism, citizenship, state formation, militarism, development, and education. She has published on the changing relationship between citizenship and nationalism and on the de-coupling of the nation and the state. She is currently working on a project entitled The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea which explores the role of teachers in state-making in the east African nation of EritreaThis research has been funded by a Fulbright research fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Riggan earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College in 1992 and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995 to 1997.


Alienation

I show up at the workshop on October 26th, not quite sure what to expect. I have gone through the ritual preparations for a conference. I have crafted a carefully cultivated appearance—professional, but not formal attire. Light makeup, hair blown dry, hopefully neat but not overly coifed. Glancing around the room, I’d say many of us have made the same preparations. This is a conference. We all know how to perform ourselves for this venue. The ritual is familiar to us. Notebooks at the ready. Cups of coffee in our grips. A firm handshake of greeting when we meet someone. A socially acceptable hug or kiss if we know someone well. Small talk about our institutions, our research, our teaching. Occasionally our children make a brief appearance in the conversation. When we sit down to introduce ourselves, my voice emerges from my mouth, confident and assertive. I hear myself speak and I don’t recognise the sound, even less the tone. How certain this person sounds, I think, I could be convinced by this person.

For me, the ritual is essential to make me believe in the performance. After all, I have no idea why I’m here and I assume, as usual, that some mistake was made when they invited me. Do they really know who I am? The preparatory rituals, the carefully calibrated appearance, the performance of being academic acts as a talisman against someone pointing the finger at you and crying, “imposter!” I say it to myself all the time. But in an odd form of ritual alchemy, I become what I perform. I fake it until I make it and then I actually believe in this ‘I’ that I barely recognized a moment before. I have become the performance. But when I get lost in my performance, where have I actually gone?

Question Marks

We are here to talk about stories. Some of us tell stories. Some of us make arguments about stories. Stories, like academic rituals, are performances. Are they any less alienating than the ritualization of self? The most honest of us raise questions about stories or tell stories that ask questions. Himadeep Muppidi’s poignant and simple assertion, “empire tells amazing stories,” has stayed with me since that day like a song whose words you can’t get out of your head. We are all penetrated by the empire’s stories. They make us cry and fill us with pride or righteous indignation. They have answers. But how do we tell stories that perform less and question more? This is hard to do in a world, and a profession, that prefers periods or exclamation points to question marks. Our language limits us. What is the point of a question without an answer? What do we become in the absence of our performances of certainty?

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