Twilight of the Journal Vampire Squid

This was in someone's open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

This was in someone’s open access slide show someplace, but the name, and therefore the credit, escapes me.

I have a piece up at e-IR today returning to the question of open access. It is partly an introduction to the issues, partly a manifesto on why academics should take the digital commons more seriously. But it is mainly intended as a provocation for the discipline (proto-discipline, non-discipline, borg-discipline, what you will) of IR, and a challenge to the in my view excessive resistance to open access that characterises its upper echelons. To wit:

What is IR’s contribution to the open access movement? Almost nothing, arguable less than nothing. There is no IR equivalent of ArXiV  – the hugely successful online repository favoured by physicists and mathematicians. Nor of PLOS  – the gigantic open access mega-journal suite favoured by hard scientists, which sustains itself on low relative processing charges. Nor of Cultural Anthropology – a learned society journal gone fully open access. No experiment like the Open Library of the Humanities – a new platform-cum-mega-journal funded by a conglomerate of libraries. No appetite for something like Sociological Science – an open access journal with quick review times and low, means-tested article publishing costs. There are a handful of open access IR journals, like Ethics & Global Politics (not to be confused with Ethics & International Affairs), the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and the Journal of Narrative Politics, run largely on goodwill, but they are sadly lacking a disciplinary presence. Publishing in them will not make a career, and is unlikely to impress hiring committees which have an eye to bankrupt measures of quality like the journal impact factor.

Worse still, the discipline of IR has missed opportunities to make itself more open and relevant, all the while fretting over its introversion and lack of relevance. Some of our responses to the open access movement have been sadly conservative and dismissive. New journals like the European Journal of International Security and the Journal of Global Security Studies are run on the standard closed model. Neither the leadership of the British International Studies Association nor the International Studies Association have followed the innovations carved out by colleagues in anthropology, sociology or STEM subjects. And young journals that position themselves as disrupting orthodoxy (such as Critical Studies on Security) have nevertheless emerged under the imprint of familiar publishing houses. While Editorial Boards in other disciplines are considering resignation and boycott to force change on the system, IR scholars are joining an ever-growing list of titles that promote business as usual. Closed journal publishing has become common sense: unquestioned despite its manifest failings.

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Laughter, the Canadian election and the niqab debate

Screen Shot 2015-10-20 at 8.09.09 AM

Let me begin by clarifying: I’m not talking about laughing at the niqab, but at the niqab debate (or #niqabdebate) as it has become known in Canada in the last six weeks. The niqab debate that loomed so large in the 2015 federal election, a record 78-day campaign that reached its finale Monday night, and that may (arguably) have precipitated the collapse of the social democratic alternative (arguably) in Canada. The debate provoked by Conservative race-baiting in an impressively cynical bid to profit from the seldom-acknowledged but very real prejudice of white Canadians. The bullshit niqab debate.

Let me back up a bit.

In 2011, the Canadian federal government banned the wearing of face-covering garments during the swearing of citizenship oaths. This, it was said, was to ensure that the oath was actually said – that is, that the prospective citizen’s lips were moving – a problem that could be solved by standing within earshot. It served no purpose for identification either, as all candidates for citizenship have, by the time they reach the point of swearing an oath, already braved a gauntlet of background checks, paperwork, regulation photos, and meetings with officials. They also reveal their faces to an official for identification purposes immediately prior to the ceremony. More to the point, as journalist Justin Ling so aptly said only a few weeks ago, “All would-be citizens are required to actually sign the oath of citizenship, which is the legal part of becoming a citizen. For the oral exam part of the ceremony, you may as well be reciting ‘Hypnotize’ by Notorious B.I.G.”

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What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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Why Tell Stories – Or Rather, Why I Tell Stories

This post has been slowly taking shape in my head since last year’s ISA in Toronto.  A year late, I know, but maybe now it can act as some kind of refresher as we head into this year’s festivities.  (In fact, as I write these words with a cup of tea in front of me, I’m watching the last of the sunrise over Faubourg-Marigny.)

Last year, as there has been for a few years now, there was a roundtable that consisted of people telling stories – personal stories, political stories, literary stories. The room was packed, as it always is for the storytelling roundtable. People stood leaning against the walls, cross-legged on the floor, and sometimes two to a seat. The air was warm and still. The stories were touching, wryly acerbic, and occasionally silly. One storyteller, though, both caught and divided the audience’s attention. She told a powerful story of victimisation in multiple voices, drawn from our own ranks at the ISA, and laid bare the systemic problem of sexism and sexual harassment in the academy. It was the sort of story that had half the audience stunned into silence and the other half nodding in knowing agreement.

In the wake of that story, the discussion took on a life of its own, with a number of audience members calling for solidarity, empathy, and action. Others were shocked and claimed no knowledge that such a world existed under their very noses. Still others shrugged it off, saying that the story lacked an understanding of the complicity of its own narrator (or rather, its narrators) – that it was a kind of call, but one that should not be answered. Sitting in the audience, I said nothing, watched and listened as the tension in the room crested and abated.

Two years earlier, in a similar conference room in San Diego, I had told a story of my own. I hadn’t planned to tell that particular story – in fact, I’d decided months earlier to present a piece I had written for my doctoral thesis that had gotten a warm reception in other settings, which has since appeared here in another form. That was someone else’s story, from my fieldwork in Cuba. But, about two weeks before the start of the ISA, a story of my own came to me all at once and I wrote it in less than an hour. I brought both with me to the roundtable and sat them on the table in front of me, in case I lost the nerve to tell my own story, but somehow I managed it, shaking hands and all.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)

Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.

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The Living Dead: On the Strange Persistence of Zombie International Relations

A guest post by George Lawson, Lecturer in International Relations at the London School of Economics & Political Science. He is the author of Negotiated Revolutions: The Czech Republic, South Africa and Chile, Co-Editor of The Global 1989: Continuity and Change in World Politics and has written a number of articles on historical sociology, revolution and world order. He is currently a Co-Editor of Review of International Studies and a Convener of the BISA Working Group on Historical Sociology and International Relations. He is currently working on a monograph on the anatomy of revolutions. Images by Pablo.


Daniel Drezner is no fool. This is a scholar who produces major publications, who teaches at a major institution, and who contributes to a major International Relations blog. So you have to wonder why he wrote Theories of International Politics and Zombies. Because this is, by any criteria I can come up with, a very foolish book.

Every now and again, I come across films, music or books and wonder how, in a world where so many talented people fail to make the grade, it can be possible to create, develop, sanction and, ultimately, sell products that are so banal. Often, the answer is simple – money. Perhaps that is the case here too. But I have a feeling that something else is involved in this book as well – Drezner, and plenty of others, seem to think that the connection between zombies and IR theory is uproariously, hilariously, side-splittingly funny. Judging by much of the commentary on the book – and listening via podcast to the guffaws of the audience at a panel devoted to the book at the 2011 International Studies Association Convention – many people clearly share Drezner’s sense of humour. So perhaps I am the curmudgeon here. Because I found this book diverting only in a way popularised by a recent headline in The Onion: ‘Time Between Thing Being Amusing, Extremely Irritating Down To 4 Minutes’. I lasted about half that long with Theories of International Politics and Zombies.

Why is it that so much hoo-hah has been made about this book (10,000 copies sold within six months of publication)?

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On Objecting to the New College of the Humanities; Or, Who Would Pay £18,000 a Year to Listen to this Outdated Victorian Rationalism When They Could Buy Themselves a Second-Hand Copy of John Stuart Mill?

Yes, this is more comment on the New College, a.k.a. Grayling Hall, a.k.a. Grayling’s Folly, a.k.a. North Oxford in Bedford Square (NOBS), a.k.a. The Ultimate Scab University.

It won’t have escaped your notice that there has been a flurry of disgust, disbelief, protest and rage at the announcement of the New College of the Humanities (an aside: ‘of the’ Humanities? Why not ‘for the’ Humanities?). There have also been a number of responses that pretty much add up to ‘meh’: to wit, there are some bad things, but also some good things about Grayling’s Folly. And then there has been some welcoming of this project, and its ‘chutzpah’. Since we are in a downward vortex of vanishing funding and academic status, why not expand where we can? And why damn the entrepreneurial? As Brian Leiter puts it:

NCH is just the natural continuation of the elimination of 75% of government funding for higher education and 800% increases in tuition in the space of a few years. If the Brits can’t even keep the Tories out of office, and if their party of the Left is now in bed with the Neoliberals, it’s really hard to see why one should think “petitioning” the government for more government funding for higher ed will produce any results. The battle to be won is at the polls, and NCH is just a symptom of the battle already lost.

All this makes me think it’s worth clarifying the case against, and the potential mitigating factors. Continue reading