An Essay on Pandemic Borders: From ‘Immunitary Dispositif’ to Affirmative Ethics

An eighth entry in our coronacrisis series, from Umut Ozguc. Umut is postdoctoral research fellow in International Ethics at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales, Australia. She is a critical IR scholar working on critical security and border studies, settler colonialism, spatial theory, resistance and posthumanism. Currently, she is working on a research project on the ecological impacts of border walls. Her current research aims to challenge the overly anthropocentric focus of the contemporary debates over borders and mobility.


Those applying for temporary or permanent residency in Australia know well that you can only be granted a visa if you meet the health requirements set by the Australian Government. That is to mean, you should not pose a threat to the public health of the nation. The Department of Home Affairs website states that  it says, if you have any health condition it should not pose a significant cost to the Australian community ‘in terms of the health care or community services required to manage [the] condition.’ The result of the health examination is not revealed to applicants; it is a confidential document used only for migration purposes and a powerful document that as determines whether you are eligible to cross the border. I cannot recall how many times I had to undergo a medical examination for my visa applications, but I do remember the anxiety I felt each time. The medical examination is not a neutral process; it is a performative act that classifies, occupies and eventually transforms your body into a border- line between you and Australia.

Borders are not lines on the map, they are an affective experience produced by our everyday movements, narratives and codes that simultaneously define our relations with the world. We tend to think of borders as legal administrative lines separating sovereign units. They are indeed lines, but not simply legal and administrative ones. And they are certainly not straight lines, but floating ones that could act as boundaries between life and death. For some, borders are everywhere. For others, they are imperceptible. That is why, as Achille Mbembe (2019, 99) suggests, it is necessary to talk about the process of ‘borderization’—how certain spaces are turned into ‘impassable places’ for certain people, while always being accessible to others.

This essay is about how, during the current public health crisis, certain bodies are turned into a border between life and death and how different practices of ‘borderization’ continue to operate to intensify global inequalities, racism and narcissistic celebration of established modes of politics and its economy of violence. My aim is to define the pandemic border from the perspective of those who experience it. I argue that the pandemic border, like all other borders, is not a static construction having a final form, but an affective experience. It changes our perception of time and space and is altered by those perceptions. It shapes our bodily experiences and is affected by our bodily movements. And, perhaps most importantly, the border determines who we are and is determined by our encounters with others. In the contemporary operation of biopolitical borders, COVID-19 operates as a political actor, as an ‘actant’, which is, as Bennett (2010, 9) reads it, ‘neither an object nor a subject, but as an ‘intervener’,  or a ‘parasite’ (Serres, 2007), an intermediary, a mediator that causes disruption and a new system within the system. Continue reading

Are We at War? The Rhetoric of War in the Coronavirus Pandemic

The seventh contribution to our growing collection of writings on Covid-19 and this moment of crisis. Federica Caso is currently a teaching assistant at the University of Queensland, where she also completed her PhD in 2019. Her expertise is on militarisation and war memory in liberal societies. She also works on the politics of culture, art, and gender. Her most recent publication is titled “The Political Aesthetics of the Body of the Soldier in Pain” which features in Catherine Baker’s edited volume  Making War on Bodies.


In this pandemic, the war rhetoric has spread as fast as the coronavirus itself. Recently, US President Donald Trump has characterised himself as a wartime president. Hospitals are preparing for war and healthcare workers are heralded as the frontline soldiers in the war against COVID-19. Economists ask how the coronavirus war economy will change the world. Wartime terms such as shelter-in-place, panic-buying, and lockdown have entered our daily and most mundane conversations.

The language of war is so normalised that in a recent episode of the New York Times’ podcast The Daily, a medical doctor answers questions from US American children about the coronavirus using war metaphors. We have come to believe that these children, aged no more than 6 and raised in ‘peacetime’ and prosperity, naturally know about invasion, bombing, weapons, and strategic warfare. We have come to believe that this is the best language to teach them about life processes.

It is important to pay attention to the language that we use to describe the coronavirus pandemic because it determines how we respond to it.

The War Metaphor

This is not the first time that the language of war is stretched to contexts that are not legalistically wartimes. In the last fifty years, we have heard of the war of drugs, the war on poverty, the war on crime, and the war on plastic.

War is a powerful metaphor. It is an effective, immediate, and emotive tool to communicate urgency to the general public. It also conveys a sense of struggle and righteousness that can justify exceptional measures.

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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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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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Fatal Collaborations

A guest post from Chris Rossdale, issued in the midst of the latest round of UK university strikes over pensions, pay, precarity, workload and inequality. Chris is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of Bristol. He writes about militarism, race and colonialism, social movements and political resistance. His book Resisting Militarism was published last year with Edinburgh University Press, and will be the topic of a Disorder symposium coming to a screen near you soon. You can also find Chris on Twitter here.


In January 2020, hundreds of students at SOAS staged a walk out, joining staff on the steps of the Bloomsbury campus to protest against yet another round of budget cuts. Once again, the institution was at the front line in the long struggle against the neoliberal restructuring of British universities, its position here an enduring product of the collision between aggressive management and well-organised staff and students. This time, administrators had announced that a budget shortfall would be filled by cancelling unfunded research leave for lecturers. Activists expect that this will also entail slashing the hours of sessional teaching staff, the ‘fractionals’ whose inspiring and successful unofficial strike action in 2014 presaged the more determined University and College Union (UCU) action we see today.

SOAS also made headlines last year when students learned that the institution was taking money from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in return for providing academic expertise and training to the British armed forces. Research by the Decolonizing Our Minds society revealed that SOAS has received at least £400,000 since the end of 2016 to deliver ‘Regional Study Weeks’ to the MoD’s ‘Defence Cultural Specialist Unit’ (DCSU). Currently active in at least 22 countries including Afghanistan, Chad and Chile, the DCSU is similar to the widely-criticised Human Terrain System developed by the US to support operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. It involves the MoD supplementing its forces with specialists in the culture of societies where British operations are active, in pursuit of a gentler form of domination in ‘rapidly expanding neo-colonial context[s]’. The Regional Study Weeks are opportunities for academics to teach DCSU staff about the social and political contexts of particular regions, while highlighting the resulting ‘implications for UK military missions’. SOAS academics made up the largest portion of those teaching, but the weeks have included faculty from LSE, St Andrews, Cambridge, KCL, UCL, Lancaster and De Montfort. As the students’ report states, this academic collaboration with the armed forces facilitates a project that, at best, ‘is useful for crafting more inclusive forms of imperial governance’, and at worst, is used to ‘either destroy or “neutralize” potential sites of resistance with insider information’.

Reports of SOAS’s links with the MoD caused a scandal, but this apparent deviation masked a deeper reality. Collaborations between British universities and military institutions are no aberration – they are the overwhelming norm. A recent report by students at the University of Oxford revealed that the institution’s research council grants active in 2019 included over £80m linked to the MoD, and that nearly 40% of its £420m in science council grants are paired with military-related bodies. BAE Systems has spent millions partnering with over ten universities developing new technologies for stealth drones. Thales, Europe’s third largest arms company, are proud to announce that they are involved with over £146m in Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (ESPRC) funded research, working with over 20 institutions. My own institution, Bristol, received £3m from the Atomic Weapons Establishment between 2010 and 2016, while researchers at Surrey have worked with Lockheed Martin on improving components in armored vehicles. These examples are indicative, not exhaustive; very few institutions can claim to be free of these connections. Universities disingenuously attempt to emphasise the civilian applications of this research in their public-facing communications; however the reality is that the British university system is intimately entangled in systems of military production.

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Moving Out of the Backstage: How Can We Decolonize Research?

This blogpost is written by seventeen researchers based in (or in between) various settings, in particular the DR Congo, Sierra Leone, India, Sweden, Rwanda and the UK. Since all co-authors do not have a personal or institutional web-sites they are simply listed by name, in alphabetical order: Oscar Adedi Dunia; Stanislas Bisimwa , Elisée Cirhuza, Maria Eriksson Baaz, John Ferekani, Pascal Imili, Evariste Kambale, Jérémie Mapatano; Lebon Mulimbi; Bienvenu Mukungilwa; Lievin Mukingi; David Mwambari; Swati Parashar; Darwin Rukanyaga Assumani; Wolf Sinzaher, Mats Utas and James Vincent.


 

Research here in the DRC is like the coltan and other minerals. Other countries that don’t have access to it claim it and benefit from it. It is the same with research. The research would not be possible without us. Still it is people from the outside who profit from it, get visibility, funding and are called experts. At the same time we – the ones who provide access, adapt the methodology and questions and collect the data in very precarious circumstances – get little compensation and are not acknowledged. It is sort of a continuation of colonial relations.

This was one of the conclusions summarising a workshop organised to exchange experiences among “brokering researchers”, in the DR Congo. This workshop forms part of a larger research project involving also Sierra Leone and India.[i] By the concept brokering researchers, we here refer to researchers based in the research setting who regulate the access and flow of knowledge. They are often, in the literature, pejoratively referred to as “local research assistants” or even “fixers”. While accounts of research exploitation have increased in recent years, in large enabled by social media, they go long back in history[ii] and have been articulated in a range of contexts[iii][iv] in and outside of Africa, most recently in Syria[v]. Yet, while research exploitation seems particularly marked in research conducted in settings marked by armed conflict (which is the focus here) it is certainly not unique to such contexts.[vi]Hence, we encourage also researchers outside conflict research to continue reading and weigh in.

To summarise a long and uncomfortable story: there is (most often) a marked inequality between brokering researchers and “contracting researchers” (i.e. researchers often based in the global North, who contract brokering researchers,). The latter are ones who profit the most, not the least from the research in zones of armed conflict. Publishing on issues based on exciting field data in such zones provides a venue for recognition, citations and further research funding necessary for career advancement. The trouble is that the more brokering researchers are silenced, erased and made invisible in the research texts, the more the contracting researcher appears to benefit from this extractive and exploitative relationship. Not only can he/she write him/herself as the daring and heroic inquirer revealing truths in dangerous places, he/she (by not including the indispensable people as co-writers),  can also profit from single (or with other contracting researchers) authored publications. More recently, the silencing of brokering researchers and the promotion of the “contracting researcher Self” has taken the form of indulging in psychological discomforts and so called traumas related to fieldwork. This increasing preoccupation with the psychological and physical well-being of the contracting researcher often appears as quite unintentionally oblivious to privilege and positionality, disregarding the situation of brokering researchers and others in the field.

Not seldom and gradually more so, given the increasing securitization of research[vii], such research is often conducted while the contracting researcher remains in the comfort of his/her country, or stays in a comfortable hotel in a safe urban setting in the conflict zone. Hence, it is frequently the brokering researchers based in the research setting who are most at risk, at times (in cases when the contracting researchers follow to the field) arising from contracting researchers’ risky and suspicious behavior. Moreover, brokering researchers regularly do most of the hard work; provide access to the respondents; translate and adapt the methodology (interview guides/survey questions) to the context; collect the data in insecure settings, summarise the data and provide crucial inputs into interpretation, ensure the safety of the researcher, and much more. Yet, brokering researchers most often do so with poor remuneration, no insurance and no/limited funds to cover unexpected costs crucial to their safety in the field. In addition to this and despite all the work, brokering researchers rarely make it further than the acknowledgement section (sometimes not even that); with slim chances of appearing as co-authors. As Mukungilwa concludes brokering researchers are “like ghosts in the research machine: they are there, but nobody sees them.” A similar situation has been reported also in other contexts, not the least in journalism. It seems academia is not much – if at all – any better.

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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

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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