Critique In Hysterical Times

This is a slightly edited version of an essay that was published in The Black Book of FYTA, ed. Athanasios Anagnostopoulos & FYTA (Athens: Nefeli, 2017), 34-40, a collection marking the fifth anniversary of the conceptual audiotextual performance duo FYTA. It was written in February 2017 and revised in April. Think of it as bits of the year gone by. Thanks to FYTA for the invitation to write this, and to Jordan Osserman for useful chats.

In their performance/situation entitled ‘nEUROlogy’, presented at Geneva’s Bâtiment d’Art Contemporain in October 2015, FYTA attempted a far-right medico-theological resuscitation of the European project. The performance was staged in a confined room that FYTA describe as ‘something between the basement of a cult and Clockwork Orange’s reform clinic’—perhaps as apt a description as any of the contemporary European Union as seen from the perspective of its more disgruntled members. In Part I of this triptych, entitled ‘Eden’, FYTA assume the role of the high priests of the European right. Dressed in the red robes of cardinals, they stand before the altar of ‘Europe’, performing the rituals and incantations on which its very sustenance seems to depend. The soundscape of the performance in this segment is revealing in the way FYTA give voice to the utterly banal sentiments of xenophobic nationalists (‘Our environment is our home, our blood is what connects us to the soil, earth is our blood; when we defend our land we defend our blood’) against a disorienting musical backdrop of what sounds like Mongolian throat singing—as if to draw attention to the naturalisation of the arbitrary that is constitutive of all nationalisms. In Part II (‘The Garden’), Europe lies prostrate on a stretcher, covered by her flag. She might be dead, although the beep of machinery suggests life support. Here FYTA appear in the garb of medics who, even as they mill around the patient to no great effect, intone ‘we must remain free’. On the wall hangs a sign that reads ‘Rester Frei!’, the unfamiliar linguistic mashup seeming to gesture at the discontents of Franco-German alliance (or maybe this is just how the Swiss speak). Who killed Europe? On this question the cardinals are unambiguous: barbarians, cultural relativism, immigrants (‘how many people can you fit in the smallest of all continents!’), Islam. On the ground lies a pile of blood spattered posters—mass-produced, as if for a large protest—that read ‘Je suis Voltaire’. Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy’, the Anthem of Europe, ushers in Part III (‘Hell’). One thinks of the orchestra of the Titanic playing music to calm the passengers as the ship sinks.

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The Face Of Sexuality: Why Do AI-Generated Sexual Orientations Matter?

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Weber is the author of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge which has been the subject of a symposium on this blog, besides also being an occasional contributor to the blog. This text is based on comments presented at the 2017 European International Studies Association Annual Conference, Barcelona, on the panel ‘The Politics and Responsibility of IR in an Age of Crisis’.

A Stanford University study by Yilun Wang and Michal Kosinski that recently went viral repackages long discredited beliefs that a person’s face is scientifically readable for specific personality traits (also see this). The study claims artificial intelligence (AI) facial recognition technology can determine a person’s sexual orientation, with 16-30% greater accuracy than the human eye. The study analyzed more than 35,000 images on a US dating website of white, able-bodied, 18-40 year olds for ‘fixed’ (e.g., nose shape) and ‘transient’ facial features (e.g., grooming styles, weight, facial expressions). Researchers compared their AI-generated sexual orientations against sexual orientations researchers found from dating profiles, which researchers established ‘based on the gender of the partners that [website users] were looking for’.

LGBTQ advocacy organizations immediately labeled the study ‘junk science’. Social scientists will have little trouble understanding why. For example, the study’s sample is skewed in terms of race, age, (dis)ability, and location (online and in the US). Furthermore, the study’s coders failed to independently verify crucial information like age and the problematic category sexual orientation, which are things people regularly lie about on dating sites.

What may be less obvious to many reading the study are some of the other ways biases are created via coding errors or are written into the facial recognition algorithm. For example, the study restricts the range of sexual orientations, sexes and genders to neat yet inaccurate binaries: gay and straight, male and female, masculine and feminine. The study also mistakenly equates sexual orientation with sexual activity, even though people who have same-sex sex do not necessarily identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual or queer. And the study treats ‘transient’ facial features as if they are natural or ‘native’ to ‘gay culture’ and ‘straight culture’, rather than understanding them as performative acts that are highly dependent upon context. In addition to naturalizing culture, this move overdetermines how ‘gay’ and ‘straight’ are coded. For it fails to recognize that people who choose to go on a dating site will likely post photos of themselves that can be easily understood through sexualized stereotypes, which they may or may not perform in other on- and off-line contexts.

If there are so many problems with this study, why should any of us give it a second thought, particularly (IR) scholars, policymakers and activists? And why should this study be the focus of reflections on the politics and responsibility of International Relations in an age of crisis?

I have five answers.

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Trump, Russia, and the Global Right: IR’s Difficulty with the Political Present

Christopher McIntosh is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Political Studies at Bard College whose published research examines the concept of war, “terrorism,” and the intersection of time and temporality in international politics. He most recently co-edited a volume called Time, Temporality, and Global Politics, and he is currently completing a book project entitled, Theorizing the Interim: IR as Study of the Present.

Given recent events in the United States and Europe, it appears IR scholars have fallen victim, in the words of Robert F. Kennedy (among others), to an ancient “Chinese curse”: “may [you] live in interesting times.” From my position as an American citizen writing in the United States, American politics—both foreign and domestic—appears completely consumed by Trump’s actions, the moves of his “administration,” and the role of Russia in the 2016 election and potentially beyond. Nationally televised Congressional hearings during the day and seemingly daily “bombshell” news stories breaking at night have made it appear as if the US polity is in a unique, ongoing crisis. As overwhelming as it sometimes appears, as IR scholars we cannot afford to look away, as much as we might like to do so. By all accounts, these are, indeed, “interesting times.” Trump’s rise and the rise of the global right potentially upends much of what we think we know and could create a series of natural experiments that confirm or disconfirm our theories.

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A Border In Every Street

This is a guest post by Sarah Keenan, who is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London. Keenan is the author of Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging, as well as numerous articles in the fields of property law, critical race theory, gender and sexuality, migration, and the politics of Indigenous Australia.

KeenanTwo summers ago, the British government announced that it would pass laws requiring  landlords to evict tenants who do not hold valid visas. As part of her efforts to convince poor African migrants that ‘our streets are not paved with gold‘, then Home Secretary Theresa May planned to make it a criminal offence for landlords to rent to irregular migrants. This plan, which has since been implemented by the Immigration Act 2016,[1] was part of May’s professed intention of intensifying the ‘hostile environment‘ for irregular migrants that her government had begun creating with the Immigration Act 2014. As the Church of England put it, the so-called ‘right to rent’ requirement creates a border in every street.

How do we understand such borders, which are at once invisible and real, intermittent and permanent; borders that operate by attaching to individual subjects wherever they go rather than bounding off a defined physical area; borders that are internal to the nation that has already been entered. In particular, how do we understand internal borders in Britain, a political entity that as Kojo Koram has argued, ‘has never really existed as a nation, it has only really functioned as an empire‘; an empire which once sought to extend its borders to encompass as much of the world as possible? As the empire crumbled, patterns of migration shifted from white British subjects moving out to colonise the world, to brown and black British subjects moving from resource-depleted home countries to the island motherland, seeking work and a better life. The British state responded to this arrival of non-white subjects with increasingly restrictive immigration laws which have the maintenance of white supremacy at their core. Immigration law has then combined with other areas of law to increasingly and literally restrict the physical space in which non-white subjects are able to safely exist on this island. Examining the hostile environment produced by the internal borders of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts helps us to make sense of the means through which law produces racist landscapes in which material spatial boundaries exist for particular subjects and not others. Beginning with a brief discussion of how legal geography, critical race theory and critical disability studies assist in understanding the relationship between law, space and the human subject, I put forward the concept of ‘taking space with you’ as a way to understand the racist British landscape in which we live today.

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White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean

A guest post from Ida Danewid. Ida is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her work focuses on decolonial theory, global ethics, and the politics of solidarity. She is the editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies vol. 45, and the forthcoming special issue “Racialized Realities in World Politics”. This post is based on her article White Innocence in the Black Mediterranean: Hospitality and the Erasure of History which won the 2017 Edward Said Award.


On the evening of the 3rd of October 2013, an overcrowded fishing boat carrying more than 500 migrants sank off the coast of the Italian island Lampedusa. Amongst the 368 found dead was an Eritrean woman who had given birth as she drowned. The divers found her a hundred and fifty feet down in the ocean together with her newborn baby, still attached by the umbilical cord. Her name was Yohanna, the Eritrean word for “congratulations”.

Over the last few years the Mediterranean migrant crisis has provoked numerous responses and activism; ranging from Ai Wei Wei’s life vest installation to Pope Francis’s “day of tears”, from radical activist campaigns such as “The Dead Are Coming” to Jason deCaire Taylor’s undersea sculpture museum, from the silent minute in the European parliament to #AlanKurdi. Seeking to counteract the rise of populist, far right, anti-immigrant, xenophobic, and racist political parties, a variety of scholars, activists, artists, and politicians have called for empathy and solidarity with the fate of shipwrecked migrants. By recognising and publicly mourning the lives that have been lost, they seek to “humanise” those who, like Yohanna and her baby, are swallowed by the turquoise-blue waters of “Our Sea”.

Graffiti welcoming refugees in Dublin

In international theory, these expressions of solidarity have been paralleled by a growing interest in the question of who and what counts as human. A longstanding area of concern for post- and decolonial thought, poststructuralist and feminist theorists have increasingly begun to interrogate the normative frames that cast some lives as waste, bogus, and non-human. Responding to an era shaped by the global war on terror and securitizing discourses that figure the nation-state as a body under threat, thinkers such as Judith Butler and Stephen White have argued for a new humanism, based not on the rationalist sovereign subject central to liberal political theory, but on notions of loss, grief, relationality, and bodily vulnerability. Calling for a “reconceptualization of the Left” based on precariousness as “a shared condition of human life”, Butler argues that mourning and vulnerability can serve as the new basis of political community, enabling a “we” to be formed across cultures of difference. Applied to the context of the European migrant crisis, this is an ethic of hospitality that seeks to disrupt nationalist protocols of kinship and that points towards new forms of solidarity beyond borders. As the contributors to a recent special issue on “Borders and the Politics of Mourning” make clear, grief for unknown others—for migrants—offers a radical challenge to the xenophobia and white nationalism that underwrite the necropolitical logic of the European border regime.

My research interrogates what such critical humanist interventions produce and make possible—and crucially, what they foreclose and hide from view. Building on what some activists, artists, and academics have begun to call “the Black Mediterranean”, I argue that these responses are indicative of a general problematique, endemic to both leftwing activism and academic debate, which reproduces rather than challenges the foundational assumptions of the far right. By privileging a focus on the ontological—as opposed to historical—links that bind together humankind, these ethical perspectives contribute to an ideological formation that disconnects histories that are intimately connected, and that removes from view the many afterlives of historical and ongoing colonialism. Continue reading

A Faustian Special Relationship

Donald Trump has a thing for rebuking America’s democratic allies and their leaders—his latest target being Australia’s prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull. The UK appears to be an exception to this trend. In his first interview with the British press as president-elect, Trump explained that the UK has a “special place” in his half-Scottish heart and pledged to support a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal. Reportedly a big fan of Winston Churchill—and of Boris Johnson’s Churchill Factor—he also asked the UK government to loan him a Churchill bust that his Republican predecessor George W. Bush kept in the Oval Office.

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White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.

*Update*

Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


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White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading