We, the Subjects of Surveillance: In Conversation with Giselle Stanborough

The sixth entry in our coronacrisis series, an exhibition commentary at a distance from Charlotte Epstein. Charlotte is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney, where her work straddles surveillance studies, international relations and political theory. Her latest book is entitled Birth of the State: The Place of the Body in Crafting Modern Politics will be coming out later this year with Oxford University Press. All photos included below were taken by Mark Pokorny.


In early 2020, I was commissioned to write a text for a forthcoming exhibition Cinopticon by a Sydney-based performance artist, Giselle Stanborough. The exhibition was just about to open, and then from one day in March to the next, along with the rest of the globe, Sydney woke to a world that was retreating into itself under the onslaught of a virus. As I watched the cultural life of my city shrivel, I realised that, while the exhibition could no longer happen, the conversation that it had opened up must, since the profound intensification of surveillance is one of the effects of the fight against the pandemic.

What does it mean to be subjects under a constant, unrelenting surveillance, one to which we also, however, seem to willingly contribute? This is the contemporary paradox Giselle Stanborough wrestles with, in ways that only an artist knows to, by joining dots we had not thought to connect; yet a joining that resonates somewhere deep in our minds and our beings. Before considering how Stanborough invites us to join her in grappling with this tension, let us take a step back and consider where we have gotten to, in our states of surveillance.

When Michel Foucault first identified ‘surveillance’ as a historically distinctive and highly efficient mode of social and political control that works from within, by the quasi-magical effect of someone knowing that they are being watched, the phenomenon was still limited to closed spaces: the prison, the school, the factory, or the army barracks. ‘Discipline’ is how he termed this social power that makes someone toe the line under the gaze. He defined the kind of space where it is deployed as ‘the panopticon’, borrowing the term from Jeremy Bentham, who invented the model of the prison organised around a central watchtower that offers an all-seeing (‘pan-optic’) vantage point from which to see without being seen. In Foucault’s time, however, the surveilled subject was the prisoner, the student, the factory worker, the army recruit, or the office clerk. Today it is every one of us. The panopticon is no longer confined to bounded or, for that matter, to physical spaces. It has become digitised and diffused throughout the virtual spaces that we (or our data doubles) now inhabit and where we (or they, rather) meet others. The use of the fingerprint for identification has been transformed from a repressive prison technology to the key that unlocks our phones. This little object we carry around in our pockets and to which we have become so attached is also the most effective of disciplinary devices. It monitors our every step, and how long we sleep or peer at the screen for. Through it, we put our lives, our tastes, our thoughts, and our moods on display for all our friends, and those who are not our friends, to see. By it, we are constantly solicited to react and to emote via ever more ‘applications’ in order to generate very personal information about us that is relentlessly beamed off to the Googles, Apples, Facebooks, and Amazons of this world, or ‘GAFAs’, as the French term them.

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The Body Politics of Covid-19

The fifth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Kandida Purnell. Kandida is Assistant Professor of International Relations at Richmond, the American International University in London. Having previously published on the body politics of aspects of the Global War on Terror, war commemoration, and army/artist collaboration, Kandida is currently finalising her monograph Rethinking the Body in Global Politics (Forthcoming 2020, Routledge Interventions). Kandida is also continuing to collaborate with Natasha Danilova and Emma Dolan on the Carnegie-funded ‘War Commemoration, Military Culture, and Identity Politics in Scotland’ project while her solo research into Bringing Bodies Back: Repatriation and War Performance within Forever War is ongoing.


Bodies are contested sites of global politics. Some of you realised this before I did; some of you might want to know more about body politics; and some of you may not be used to thinking about bodies and ‘embodiment’ (that is, the unending and intensely contested process through which bodies come to be) at all. You might also be wondering if and/or how these things (bodies and embodiment) ‘belong’ within the discipline of International Relations (IR).  This post is for you all, and reluctantly yet hopefully ‘uses’ the Covid-19 pandemic and responses to it as a way into and forward for the study of body politics within IR and beyond.

Given the gravity of events unfolding around us and written in haste, this short post is intended as a ‘teach in’ on and introduction to thinking about body politics highlighting and providing some initial analyses of two interrelated, crucial, and particularly disturbing aspects of responses to the Covid-19 pandemic currently playing out. In part 1 I explain and discuss the metaphoricity of the body politic in relation to the ‘British’ response to Covid-19 and in part 2, and again within the UK context (due to my situation and for ‘convenience’ within the scope of this blog post) I discuss the necropolitics of body (un-)counting. This analysis is preceded by the brief contextualisation and situation of my thoughts within existing IR and other literature and the provision of a brief overview of my arguments on body politics to date (feel free to skip this bit and jump straight to the Covid-19 analysis).

 On Bodies, briefly

Bodies are contested sites of global politics. However, for the most part, IR has left the politics out of bodies by denying and/or occluding intensely contested processes of (re)embodiment while preferring to analyse, scrutinise, and politicise, the contest other units arriving with and/or comprised of already made bodies (namely “man, the state, and war”). In my endeavour to ‘rethink the body in global politics’ (this it the title of my first book forthcoming 2020), I have therefore followed some in IR – namely, but not only, Lauren Wilcox (2015) on bodies and violence, Stefanie Fishel (2017) on the body politic, Jessica Auchter (2014) and Tom Gregory (2016) on dead bodies and body counting, and Jenny Edkins on missing bodies (2011) and trauma (2003) – but also many from beyond. These include Achille Mbembe (2003 and 2019) on Necropolitics, Sara Ahmed on emotion bodies, wilfulness, and use (2004, 2014, and 2019), Judith Butler on performativity (1993), precariousness (2004), and vulnerability (2015), Diana Coole (2005) on agency, Jane Bennett (2010) on the vibrancy of matter, and Kathleen Stewart (2007) and Teresa Brennan (2004) on affect.

Through this theory and intensive empirical research (see Purnell 2015, 2018, and forthcoming 2020), I have described bodies as performative, lively, and ontologically insecure – always a process and always in process and explained and underlined the role of emotion/affect in this. However, in my previous studies – into for example the 2013-2015 Guantanamo Bay hunger strike and treatment of suffering and dead American soldiers – I have researched and written about extremely exposed and very obviously contested bodies. However, I have done this as a means to reveal the more subtle ways and logics informing how every body is contested as a site of no ‘less’ amounts of global politics. As a crisis concerning everybody, the Covid-19 pandemic has therefore done a lot of work for me – by revealing the management, manipulation, and pervasive political interventions into the lives/deaths and (re)embodiments of not only ‘extremely’ placed and exposed bodies, but including the ‘everyday’ bodies of you and I. In the following paragraphs, intended to demonstrate the merits of thinking/re-thinking the body in global politics, I provide some initial analyses highlighting particular ways bodies are being (re)produced, (ab)used, and contested through responses to Covid-19 I am currently witnessing in the UK.

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Feeling (in and out of time)

The fourth in our coronacrisis series.


Andes_In_A_Crystal_Ball_(190455783)

Photograph: ‘Andes in a Crystal Ball’ by Luis Ezcurdia. Sourced from Wikimedia Commons. CC-BY-SA-3.0.

On Monday, my day began at 7am, giving feedback on a PhD student’s research proposal and ended some fifteen hours later, when I gave up trying to contact a relative who is locked down alone and I finally managed to calm the insistent panic that they were not ok. They were ok, they just forgot that we had set up a call. Lost track of time.

I learned about the three seasons of the Ancient Egyptian year and the key features of their agricultural production (Year 7 Human Society and Its Environment) and how to design a fair and reliable experiment (Year 7 Science). I reminded my kid to log in to his Google classroom on the hour every hour and perform his virtual attendance, because his school has been very clear that this is the only thing that they care about during these extraordinary times and it takes less emotional energy to play by their rules than it does to point out all of the ways in which their rules surely don’t apply at this time. To this time.

I hosted the first weekly virtual coffee morning for colleagues in my Department and listened to PhD students tell us about how hard it is juggling childcare, space to work, and in many cases completely redesigning their project because it’s clear that the fieldwork they have planned for this year is likely no longer possible. I suggested that it was important to give these students space to grieve their lost projects, their other selves.

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Shelter in Place: The Feminist and Queer Insecurities of ‘Home’

The third in our series of teach-ins and interventions on the coronavirus crisis,, from Catherine Baker. Catherine is Senior Lecturer in 20th Century History at the University of Hull, where her current projects include relationships between the military and popular culture; the cultural politics of international events (including the Eurovision Song Contest); LGBTQ politics and identities since the late Cold War, including queer representation in media; and ‘race’ in the Yugoslav region. Her most recent publication is the edited collection Making War on Bodies: Militarisation, Aesthetics and Embodiment in International Relations (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020).


Italian Corona Flag

 

The UK government message is plain, stretched out over socially-distanced podiums at press conferences: ‘Stay home, protect the NHS, save lives.’

Other national leaders and US state governors have similarly appealed to the public to respect emergency shelter-in-place or lockdown regimes, police are patrolling the streets to enforce orders for people to remain indoors, social media users have framed staying at home as a communitarian effort through hashtag campaigns such as Italy’s #iorestoacasa (‘I’m staying at home’), and celebrities are performing their contributions to public morale by sharing video messages filmed in their well-appointed homes.

But feminist and queer understandings of security remind us that even in a global pandemic home can be the least secure place of all, through the forms of structural and physical violence that manifest within.

Homes themselves will be worsening the health of those living in conditions which are too cramped to distance or isolate themselves safely, those suffering the mental health consequences of not having private space or guaranteed access to the open air, and those whose housing depends on informal agreements with arbitrary or discriminatory landlords in the midst of a global economic shutdown. All these circumstances, which can be seen as structural violence, are more likely to affect individuals who have been racialised into stigmatised minority groups, queer and trans people with limited access to employment protections, and migrants kept out of stable housing by the enforcement of the ‘everywhere’ or ‘polymorphic’ border.

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Pandemics and Health Emergencies: A Teach-In

The second post in our Coronavirus series, this time a virtual teach-in from Professor Sophie Harman, who has been our guest before. 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. Sophie’s recent publications include Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method and International Relations (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019), ‘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.


Pandemics, pandemic preparedness, social distancing, self isolation, secure quarantines, global health security, disease surveillance, vectors of disease, epidemiological curve, morbidity and mortality, health financing facility, PPE, vertical transmission, community transmission, Tedros, burden of disease, secondary impacts of epidemics, biosecurity, international health regulations, advanced purchase mechanisms… if these are words you only had passing familiarity with a few weeks ago and now obsessively reading newspaper articles about, or jumping straight to Foucault-explains-it-all, this list is for you. Over the last twenty years the field of global health politics has increased substantially to the point that most states and international institutions have some form of global security plan or agenda. Global health as a sub-field of academic inquiry in International Relations began in the 1990s as scholars began to explore the relationship between globalization (travel, trade, finance) and health and the growing HIV/AIDS pandemic, human rights, and subsequently, international peace and security. Since then the growth of the field has been dizzying.

The British International Studies Association (BISA), International Studies Association (ISA), and European International Studies Association (EISA) all have sections/working groups. Research into global health politics is now published in mainstream International Relations journals (this was not always the case, the regular gripe of global health Reviewer 2 that health issues cannot bring about social disorder or an international crisis). You may have missed this research and been busy doing other things. You may want to avoid this work entirely given the clear and present stress of living with COVID19. You may want to start to read more on this issue, so here is an abridged list of key things to read about pandemic flu and global health security to get you started. You will note these are all articles rather than books – I am hoping this blog will encourage publishers to un-gate these articles during this time to allow people access to them. This is an abridged list taken from my Global Politics of Health and Disease module, you can find the full module outline here.

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Apocalypse Yesterday?

The first in a series of posts over the coming weeks on the Coronavirus crisis and its multiple aspects, contradictions and possible futures. They will be collected here. This first is from Paul David Beaumont, who is currently finalising his PhD dissertation, The Grammar of International Status Competition, at the Department of International Environmental and Development Studies at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. Paul tweets @BeaumontPaul​ and his research is available to view on his Academia profile. See also his post from December 18, 2019 on Brexit Futures.


The corona crisis is not the beginning of the apocalypse but a symptom; we have been in the apocalypse for a while now. Akin to how the industrial revolution occurred over a far longer period than we normally associate with “revolutions”, apocalypses seldom occur overnight either. In this regard, humans have systematically misread the paradigmatic apocalypse scenario: the asteroid. Rather than wiping out humanity in one big bang, as Deep Impact would have it, it took decades for the mass extinctions to unfold. Similarly, even if COVID 19 does prompt mass deaths and/or societal collapse, if there are any historians still around to argue over the origins of our demise, they will be unlikely to pay much heed to the Corona outbreak itself.

Instead, I expect they will puzzle over a paradox that did not befall the dinosaurs. How did humans manage to create a society so technologically advanced that they could predict the apocalypse(s), develop the technology to stop it (them), yet adamantly and proudly refuse to do so?

With regards to humankind’s inability to halt climate change or the destruction of the world’s biodiversity, future historians will likely and rightly probably lean heavily on the collective dilemma to explain our failure to act. However, pandemic preparation is not a collective action problem for the state. States can prepare for pandemics without requiring all others to do so too, nor can other states necessarily free-ride from one state’s preparations.

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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