Imagining Africa as the Market for Profiting from Whiteness

A second commentary in our series on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa, this time from Lisa Ann Richey. Lisa is Professor of Globalization in the Department of Management, Society and Communication at the Copenhagen Business School in Denmark. Currently, she leads the research projects Commodifying Compassion: Implications of Turning People and Humanitarian Causes into Marketable Things (2016-2021), funded by the Danish Council for Independent Research (FSE) and Everyday Humanitarianism in Tanzania (2019-2024), funded by the Danish Development Research Council (FFU). Among other books, she has authored Celebrity Humanitarianism in Congo: Business, Disruption and the Politics of Development with Alexandra Budabin (forthcoming); Brand Aid: Shopping Well to Save the World with Stefano Ponte (2011); Population Politics and Development: From the Policies to the Clinics (2008) and edited Celebrity Humanitarianism and North-South Relations: Politics, Place and Power (2016).  She works in the areas of international aid and humanitarian politics, the aid business and commodification of causes, new transnational actors and alliances in the global South, development theories and representations, global health and gender. Lisa was the founding Vice-President of the Global South Caucus of the International Studies Association (ISA). She tweets as @BrandAid_World.

The full collection of posts in this series is available here.


I distinctly remember the first time I learned about Clive Gabay’s research on representations of Africa now published as Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press 2018). I was sitting in the audience of an African politics panel at an international conference, and Clive put up a slide showing the cover from The Economist from 2000 headlining ‘The Hopeless Continent’ (p. 204). He quickly switched to the cover from 2011 with the visual play on ‘The Kite Runner’ and its eternal optimism entitled, ‘Africa Rising’ (p. 205). This visual transition from covering Africa as ‘nothing but a nihilistic swamp of pre-modernity’ to Africa as ‘colourful, joyful and optimistic’ (p. 203) left me troubled. Not just intellectually, irritated by the audacity of The West to continue to frame all things African in stereotypes where the range of options for young men runs from militarized to infantilized, but emotionally, feeling angry at the sensation of guilty pleasure produced by the juxtaposition of the photographs. The images themselves, as Gabay describes, couldn’t have been more different in their depictions of a continent through the bodies of its masculine youth. Yet, the magazine covers had strange similarities beyond their gender, as they were both highly-crafted, beautiful covers.  While the second ‘rising’ cover with its beckoning light and natural aesthetic (where even the dirt is a photogenic hue of red clay) was obviously linked to the editorial line on Africa’s possibilities, it was the first ‘hopeless’ cover that was surprisingly appealing.  Sure the young man is holding a rocket-launcher, but the expression on his face— notably the large and central focal point of this image—appears to be one of delight. There is nothing in this image to suggest that its referent object, a young African man, is hopeless. Quite the contrary, he looks full of agency, just not the kind WE want in our imagined Western civilization built upon Europe’s ‘exceptional institutional genius’ (p.12).  Instead, we prefer the happy kite-flying child, viewed from a safe distance so as not to disrupt our gaze and imaginations with any possibility of a real, feeling subject. The Economist imagery embodied the realization of modernization’s ideal movement from the constraints of savagery to the open-space flow through dreams that were . . . Ours. Divorcing the roots of Western societal wealth from systems of slavery and imperialism, Gabay shows us, ‘it has been possible to generate a belief in the universal utility of this system for the whole world’ and this universalism (not the system itself) is what Gabay calls ‘Whiteness’ (p. 13).

In most simple terms: Eurocentrism+Narcissism+Modernism=Whiteness

So how we feel about the covers of the Economist is raced. And thus, any history of Whiteness must engage deeply with the politics of affect.  Because, it is OUR feelings that count. And we feel White. These White feelings consist, predominantly, of anxiety, and this anxiety has a history. Specifically, Imagining Africa argues that ‘over the past century, we have seen the arrogance of elite phenotypical white supremacy slip, all the while that the centrality of Whiteness to the imagination and mechanics of international order has been maintained’ (p. 236-7).  Gabay’s book provides a remarkably documented, deeply political history of the international relations imaginaries of Africa.  After the publication of Imagining Africa, all scholars of African international politics, colonialism, media studies or humanitarianism should be expected to account for the question of Whiteness in their analysis.

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Imagining Africa: ‘White Civilizational Vitality’ Across Time and Space

The first commentary in our symposium on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Lisa Tilley is currently Lecturer in Politics and Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London. Her work focuses on political economy/ecology, race, and historical/present-day colonialism, extraction and expropriation. She has analysed key sites of colonial/capitalist expansion – the plantation, the mine, and the city – with particular attention to the social and ecological formations, technologies and logics produced through those locations. Most of her research has been conducted in Southeast Asia, specifically across the rural and urban frontiers of Indonesia. See, for example, “A Strange Industrial Order”: Indonesia’s Racialised Plantation Ecologies and Anticolonial Estate Worker Rebellions, forthcoming in History of the Present. She also co-convenes the CPD-BISA working group, is Associate Editor of Global Social Theory, and has visited with us several times before.

The full collection of posts in this symposium is available here.


 

I happen to be reading Clive Gabay’s new book in a homestay owned by German missionaries in West Papua. The European owners themselves are not here but their presence is made vivid in the written instructions printed in cordial, civilised italics on two sheets of A4 and pasted onto my door: “do not bring prostitutes into your room; do not chew betel inside or near the homestay; do not wear Western swimsuits at the beach, this is seen as almost naked and Papuan men will think you want a boyfriend; respect the Papuan culture by covering your body in public; God bless you!” On the adjacent wall is a National Geographic-style photo montage of Papuan men in penis gourds and adolescent Papuan girls in grass skirts, bare breasted, looking suspiciously into the camera. It is gradually made clear to me that the Mission still concerns itself with that most nineteenth century of burdens – the ‘civilising’ of those assumed to be lazy, savage, and infantile, yet who are simultaneously idealised as noble and innocent.

Papuan Mural

Public mural from West Papua (Jayapura).

Occasionally I make it to the local internet café and engage with a distant reality through social media. But this only tells me that the academic sentinels of white supremacy ‘back home’ are still rehearsing their appeals for the overt reassertion of white pride: whiteness is just an ethnicity like any other; white majorities are set to become minorities in their own lands; whites have higher IQs; whites can be distinguished by skull measurements. I carry my visible phenotypical whiteness with me wherever I go, of course, but what Gabay calls “Whiteness” – with a capital W – as “mythologised genius” (p.2) and “a system of privilege that rests on a set of supposedly universal and ahistorical codes that represent a civilised status” (p.237) is clearly already everywhere, whether phenotypical whiteness is present or not. With all of this as my immediate personal backdrop – ongoing white missionary tutelage in West Papua and academics fostering narratives complementary to white supremacist resurgence in Europe – Gabay’s historical analysis of Whiteness feels far too contemporary for comfort. And so, I’ll willingly fail at the challenge of starting this engagement with anything other than seemingly cliched descriptors: Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze by Clive Gabay is timely, important, and necessary.

Gabay’s focus is the British and broader Western gaze on Africa but has wider resonance in European interferences across the Global South. The analysis pivots on the seemingly counterintuitive construction of ‘Africa’ in idealised forms – from the 1924 British Empire Exhibition presentation of Africa as a place, in Gabay’s terms “where Whiteness could be redeemed” (p.50) to the jubilant “Africa rising” narratives which gained prominence after the global financial crisis. Conceptually, Gabay has bestowed us with a vocabulary which clearly enriches and sharpens the study of the production and operation of Whiteness over time. Empirically, his seven years of careful archival work have resulted in the curation of an important historically traced narrative. Methodologically, he has presented an exemplary way of crafting an informed and illuminating history of the present. One central contribution is the mentioned separation of phenotypical whiteness from capital-W Whiteness, that “system of privilege” which has “always needed a place called Africa” (p.2). Another is the argument running throughout the text which holds that it is “racial anxiety” rather than economic imperatives alone which explain the way in which Africa itself is constructed in the white/White imagination.

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Imagining Africa

The first post in a new book symposium, on Clive Gabay’s Imagining Africa: Whiteness and the Western Gaze (Cambridge University Press, 2018). Clive is a Senior Lecturer in International Politics in the School of Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London. After living as a critical ethnographer of international development and state-civil society relations in Southern Africa, in around 2016 he ditched it all for critical race studies and a love affair with a dead German-Jewish Anarchist called Gustav Landauer. In his head this all ties together because he was born Jewish, to an Egyptian father and a Ukrainian-descended mother, and had thus long obsessed over both the nature of whiteness and variants of political Jewishness that abscond from Zionism. As well as publishing Imagining Africa in late 2018 (most recently recipient of an honourable mention for the British International Studies Association 2019 Susan Strange Book Prize), Clive has also been writing a series of articles on Landauer, race and (settler) colonialism which all cohere around an anti-colonial critique of post-structural and Derridian conceptions of identity-formation and subjectivity. Two of these are forthcoming in Contemporary Political Theory and Citizenship Studies. Clive tweets sporadically @clivesg.

The posts in this forum are collected for posterity here.


 

Conventionally, we have long known that disciplinary International Relations has constructed itself around a racialized hierarchy of the international that places the West and an ever revolving set of pretenders at the top, with ‘Africa’, a continent of 54 countries, at the bottom. We know this because everyone from Hegel to Huntington said it, and more importantly because giants of African scholarship and writing have also said it, from Chinua Achebe, through VY Mudimbe, to Achille Mbembe.

Huntington Clash

Figure 1: The list of ‘civilisations’ From Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Sub-Saharan Africa constituted a ‘possible’ eighth civilisation.

It is not difficult to find work in IR that coheres around Africa as a place of death, disease, corruption and state failure. Indeed, Africa has to serve this function in order for careers to perpetuated, journal articles and books to be published, grants to be won and budgets to be justified. This obviously bleeds out beyond the discipline, and is informed by discourses produced from beyond the discipline. This in itself has produced a mini-industry of scholarly and cultural interventions designed to humanise and deconstruct racist ideas about ‘Africa’ within and beyond IR. Popularly, the late Binyavanga Wainaina’s How to Write about Africa was a classic of this trope, as was the more recently viral Ted Talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, The Danger of a Single Story.

So if Newsweek decides to put monkeys on its front cover to suggest that the West is at threat from ‘African diseases’, or a reputed journal publishes an article that suggests that Africa is so messed up that it needs more, rather than less colonialism, we should not be surprised.

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Rejoinder: For Whom Do We Study International Politics?

Sophie HarmanThe last post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from the author herself. Sophie Harman is Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. 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. Apart from Seeing Politics, Sophie’s recent publications include ‘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.

The full collection of contributions to the Seeing Politics symposium is now accessible here.


 

Big Pili

When things get a bit much at work it is not uncommon to hide in the loo. When you are shooting a film scene in fields without a nearby loo, everyone demanding something from you (new, better umbrellas to shelter from the heat, more money for the field manager, colder water), you find yourself escaping for a pee in a pineapple field. It was during a trip to a pineapple field that the thought occurred to me, I wonder what notable Professors of International Relations (IR) around the world are doing right now? Quickly followed by, what on earth am I doing? Very few people in the field of IR seem to think what I’m doing is real research, why didn’t I just write a book about the 2014/15 Ebola outbreak? I’m peeing in a pineapple field: no-one is going to take this work seriously. Based on these five thoughtful and generous reflections on Seeing Politics, I was clearly wrong.

Not only is this type of work taken seriously, there seems to be genuine hunger or, at the very least, curiosity, for new, visual methods, and an honesty to the politics of co-production among academic researchers. As the excellent contributors to this Symposium clearly show, tensions and questions persist over the use of visual politics, narrative, co-production, representation, knowledge, and disciplinary boundaries that sit uneasily within not just International Relations, but academia more broadly. What is refreshing about the five interventions is a willingness to not dodge the discomfort in these questions. I am so grateful to each contributor for reading Seeing Politics in such detail, really engaging in what I was trying to do, and offering new insights that I had not even thought about. I am especially grateful for each of them taking time during busy periods of their academic life: each contribution was written in the midst of PhD reviews, marking season, research Directorships, and of course their own research and writing projects. Thank you Paul Kirby, editor of the Disorder of Things. n the Q&A that followed a screening of Pili at the European International Studies Association (EISA) in Barcelona 2017, Pablo suggested that he sort of wished I wasn’t writing a book about the film, so that it could just stand by itself. I don’t know if he’s changed his mind, but I am flattered he suggested the idea of this symposium and grateful for his patience and advice and for making this happen.

Several themes emerged across the five essays: narrative and story-telling, vocalisation and visualisation, experiencing and explaining politics, and not only why and how we research international politics, but who the research is for. Laura J. Shepherd’s introduction to the symposium begins with the importance of story-telling in the Western Anglophone. Story-telling is not limited to the Western Anglophone (something literary criticism is starting to recognise) but is a fundamental social and political practice throughout the world that helps make sense of the world and how it came to be. This can range from the stories out families tell us about our history, to what states and citizens tell themselves about their own history, to how we tell stories about our research and understanding of the world, and how stories and narratives contradict and challenge each other. Stories inform our identity, how we make sense of the world, and how we relate to each other. Given the importance of narrative and the stories we tell, see, and shape our world view, and what I was trying to do with Pili, I could have made more of the literature and debates in this aspect of IR. Perhaps. The cowards reply to Shepherd here would be that I was exhausted with ‘turns’ when situating the book: the problem in writing a book that does not fit within Shepherd’s ‘disciplining of the discipline’ is how and where to position the book. I had an unwieldy chapter 1 where debates on narrative, story-telling, and auto-ethnography all got chopped.

The more/less cowardly answer is a fear of the palimpsest. As Shepherd insightfully notes the book shows how making a film is a complicated endeavour and ‘Making a researcher is similarly so, and that, for me, is the text that emerges as a palimpsest.’ In many ways for all that Seeing Politics is about film, co-production, and knowledge, it can fundamentally be read as a book about research, researchers, and the stories we tell ourselves and write. I have an uneasy relationship with this palimpsest, in particular the problem of erasure inherent within it: that the palimpsest of the book does not erase the stories of Pili. It is a strength of Shepherd’s essay that in one sentence she hits the biggest source of my unease: the palimpsest is not just the book, as audiences for the film grow and people want to learn more about it in audience Q&As, marketing, and promotion, the voices and narrative that were so important to the film risk erasure to the bigger narrative of the politics of seeing how the film was made. Audiences ask me how ‘Pili’ is (despite her being a character), interviewers want to know why and how the film was made, and the visual narrative of Pili once the film was released is the face of Bello Rashid (‘Pili’) on posters with Director Leanne Welham and I on red carpets, answering questions as to what ‘Pili’ is doing now.

Q&As and responses to both the book and film, suggest audiences want a happy ending. They want the lives of women such as ‘Pili’ to improve. They want me to have a close and ongoing relationship with the women in film. They want the women in the film to show some sort of pleasure, or worse, gratitude, for being in the film. Craig Murphy pinpoints the difficulty with such happy endings. First, experiencing the world as it is leads to seeing some of the worst forms of inequality that exist, so packaging a happy ending narrative is wholly misleading to audiences, however they much they may want it. Second, experiencing the world and explaining it from this basis necessitates an honest reflection on the different relationships we have, both as researchers and as people in our everyday lives. As Murphy states, ‘The moral compasses of all successful field researchers may not point in the right direction, but they do have to be reliable, consistent, and always available’ – in many ways in writing Seeing Politics this is what I was trying to do. Finally, in a world of visual representation there is the happy ending we see – in the case of Pili, pictures of joy from the cast and I at the 2016 and 2018 Tanzania screenings, the fun I had in attending the BAFTAs – and the toll and aspect of people’s lives we don’t see. Murphy suggests he would have liked me to have reflected more on the psychological toll of research of this kind. The toll of the project resulted in me losing more skin pigment, eating too much, jolting awake at night (only in the first month back from Tanzania), writing Seeing Politics and then realising I should probably talk to someone (big thanks to those colleagues who sensed this may be a good idea before I did, with kind and well-timed ‘you okay hon?’ you know who you are Tim, James, and Kim). I deleted the previous sentence seven times as I don’t want this to be the focus of the project or have to discuss it on a future roundtable (I’m not a trained therapist or counsellor, I find it quite boring): I kept it in as I know others face similar dilemmas, and this should be destigmatised, especially for postgraduate researchers. More substantively, I am mindful of how my own well-being is linked with ongoing relationships with the lives of others long after a project has been completed who don’t want to share. As with my fear of the palimpsest, I don’t want Seeing Politics to become about me.

This latter point, highlights one of Jo Vearey’s key responses to the book, there are some voices missing in all this: what do the women think of the film, the book, and the whole process? I can guess; I can draw on their feedback from the 2018 Tanzanian premiere in Dar es Salaam; I can give you the limited responses I get via a third party production assistant/translator from time to time. But really, I don’t know, I haven’t seen the women and thus spoken directly to them for three years. The main reason I have not seen them in three years is the film has not made any money for them: as chapter 2 sets out in detail, no money was promised and expectations were managed, but hope and expectations still exist. I don’t want to disappoint them or let them down (maybe Murphy does have a point that perhaps I should have said more on this): I don’t want to have to defend myself against any accusation that I lied and have kept the money for myself. If asked about the process of making the film, I suspect some of the women would tell me what they think I want to hear or limit their response depending on what they need or want from me, and a handful will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Similar to Vearey’s reflection, this is an addition to the book’s longlist of discomforts: similar to the book, I want to confront this discomfort. My hope is to run a short follow up project for the women to reflect directly on the process five to ten years after production ended. I have some ideas as to how to do this – film and photo elicitation, working with a third party researcher – however as Vearey’s response clearly highlights doing so brings me back to one of the core issues explored in the book: how to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable tension between intent and process. Substantively, it is not my intention that matters: it’s up to the co-producers of the film – the cast, the crew, the community of women from which the story was drawn – and the interest and value they place in such a project.

Upon his death in May 2019, Binyavanga Wainaina’s satirical essay ‘How to write about Africa’ was shared across social media. The response to Wainaina’s death was similar to many talented artists, sadness at the loss of life, particularly so young, but also a pleasure in re-reading or re-listening to their work. Re-reading ‘How to write about Africa’ I was struck by the sentence:

The Modern African is a fat man who steals and works in the visa office, refusing to give work permits to qualified Westerners who really care about Africa. He is an enemy of development, always using his government job to make it difficult for pragmatic and good-hearted expats to set up NGOs or Legal Conservation Areas. (Wainaina, 2005)

No-one wants to tick one of the items on Wainaina’s list and I thank Simukai Chigudu for kindly not pointing this out in his discussion of chapters 4 and 5 on gatekeeping politics, especially given the lengthy discussion on visas and permits in chapter 4. Chigudu’s reflection on gatekeeping in the book is perhaps more generous in suggesting it serves as a reminder to study states, particularly African states, ethnographically given the diffuse and at times competing units of government. I concur here, but would also extend this argument for investigating various forms of gatekeeping. As the book explores, gatekeeping depends on the intersection between formal political processes and informal practices at both the state level in Tanzania and within the hierarchy of global film governance. To understand and see such gatekeeping, you need to engage with the gate.

A theme that runs across Chigudu’s essay is one of change in story-telling in and of Africa. Chigudu’s shift from a reflection on the impact of new and modern technology, most notably mobile phones and smartphones, to Black Panther is particularly revealing. Both, in different ways, have been highlighted as markers of change in perceptions of the continent, stories, and the stories that are told and seen. Both, in different ways, are subject to the same old questions of access, use, types of representation, and ownership of such technologies and stories. These two positions are well summarised by Jelani Cobb’s 2018 essay on the film, where he outlines ‘Africa—or, rather, “Africa”—is a creation of a white world and the literary, academic, cinematic, and political mechanisms that it used to give mythology the credibility of truth’ yet the importance of Black Panther, and Wakanda specifically, is how ‘It is a redemptive counter-mythology’ (Cobb, 2018).

Wakanda may be located on the map in central Africa, feature a diverse range of black actors from around the world, and draw on themes of colonialism, coloniality, and Afrofutures, but it is a western, American film. It was produced by and makes money for Marvel Studios and Walt Disney Pictures (IMDb, 2019), and the ‘hero’ ends up committing to the liberal internationalist cause at the UN General Assembly. This may not matter; when I left a packed London cinema on Valentine’s Day in 2018, there was an absolute sizzle of positivity among the predominantly younger audience (and me, who doesn’t love to suspend their critical mind and just enjoy militarized rhinos?), ‘this changes everything’ I overheard one young black man say excitedly to his friends. This points to an important question that someone asked me at the beginning of this project, who is the audience for this film? And which audience matters? As chapter 5 explores in the book, as Pili progressed to sales and distribution, this question changed from who is the audience, to which audience matters, to which audience counts. In film the audience that matters is the audience that makes money; ‘this changes everything’ is true of Black Panther not only in how it makes audiences feel and think, but the potential impact on Hollywood: a film set in Africa, with a majority black cast, made US$1.344 billion as of May 2018 at the Box Office (IMDb, 2019). As Chigudu alludes to, Black Panther in many ways is emblematic of the tech revolution in Africa: a source of promise, joy, optimism, global connection, new opportunities for representation, under western ownership, control, and profit.

Western ownership, control, and profit is a theme that runs throughout chapter 5 of the book, and is an issue drawn out by Dean Cooper-Cunningham’s point on ‘giving’ voice and the relationship between vocalization and visualization. Voices exist, people are seen throughout their lives: the politics is the context in which they are seen, how their voices are amplified, who amplifies them, who ‘gives’ and who takes space. As Cooper-Cunningham explores, part of the book shows and reflects the inequalities of who enters and controls entry into political spaces, be it the global response to HIV/AIDS or film production and cinema audiences. This point reminds me of bell hooks’ argument of the second wave feminist movement, wherein the white bourgeois women who dominated the movement shaped the spaces and ways women of colour, particularly black women, were involved, with white women concluding ‘that black women need not contribute to developing theory. We were to provide the colorful life stories to document and validate the prevailing set of theoretical assumptions’ (hooks, 2000; 33). hooks’ argument has important relevance to academic research, gatekeeping, and the role of different partners in co-production practices and how these roles are shaped and given space. As Seeing Politics suggests, this is about what knowledge counts, who counts, and, as Cooper-Cunningham insightfully reflects, who ‘gives’ or allows this voice or knowledge, and the politics therein.

I conclude this reply with one of Cooper-Cunningham’s final points on the book and Murphy’s initial insight on the distinction between experiencing politics and explaining politics as arbitrary markers of what defines ‘real’ social science. I began this project thinking about who or what my research is for. I had become slightly lost in the academic system, being critical of performance indicators while simultaneously being motived (and subsequently disappointed) by them, forgetting why I loved my job, becoming bored and frustrated by what I was reading and writing. I had my pineapple field moments and the book reflects a lot of the difficulty and discomfort involved with a co-produced project: but I regained a sense of interest and purpose in my research, however uncomfortable, by remembering the question that first got me interested in international politics, posed by Cooper-Cunningham: for whom do we study international politics?

References

Cobb, Jelani. (2018). ‘“Black Panther” and the Invention of “Africa”’ The New Yorker https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/black-panther-and-the-invention-of-africa (accessed August 2019)

hooks, bell. (2000). Feminist theory: from margin to center London: Pluto Press.

IMDb. (2019). ‘Black Panther’ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1825683/releaseinfo?ref_=ttco_ql_2 (accessed August 2019).

Wainaina, Binyavanga. (2005). ‘How to write about Africa’ Granta https://granta.com/how-to-write-about-africa/ (accessed August 2019)

Showing, Speaking, Doing: How ‘Seeing Politics’ Forces Us to Rethink Epistemological and Methodological Biases in International Relations

Dean Cooper CunninghamThe final commentary in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, to be followed by a response from the author tomorrow. This intervention comes from Dean Cooper-Cunningham, who is a Ph.D. Fellow at the University of Copenhagen working at the intersections of visual politics, critical security studies, and feminist and queer theories. He is currently researching (responses to) Russian political queerphobia and is particularly interested in questions about the visuality of resistance and security. His recent work, published in the International Feminist Journal of Politics, focuses on seeing (in)security and theorises the interrelation of text/words, images, and the body through the case of the British Women’s Suffrage Movement. Previously, Dean held an editorial position with E-International Relations between 2015-2018 and was shortlisted for the Millennium: Journal of International Studies Northedge Prize in 2017.

The full set of posts in this series is available here.


I want to echo Roland Bleiker’s blurb. This really is one of the best books I’ve read. It is provocative, innovative, feminist and decolonial to its core, and speaks to so many of the questions that I’ve found myself thinking about not just in relation to visual politics but to the way we ‘do’ and come to ‘know’ international politics. What is most inviting and enthralling about this project is that it seeks to challenge how we ‘see’ international relations (caps and lowercase) and global power structures by using narrative feature film. To that end, Seeing Politics builds on the important work of Michael Shapiro, Cynthia Weber, and William Callahan in bringing film to bear on the ‘stuff’ of international relations and the discipline itself. Academia has a habit of taking brilliant and inspiring projects and nonetheless finding flaws; I won’t do that here. Instead, I want to reflect on the ways that Seeing Politics provoked me, made me reflect on my own work and queer-feminist research practice, as well as the ways it speaks some of the big questions I’ve been grappling with about ‘voice’, ‘speech’, ‘language’, ‘subjectivity’, and what it means to ‘do’ politics and be ‘seen’. All of which are embedded in sexualised-racialised-gendered power structures that determine who is/can be heard and/or seen in IR.

As if pre-empting my notes in the margin about whether film—or for that matter any visual medium claimed to open access to spaces of public discourse and better allow for self-representation—can give voice to marginalised people and show the politics that we’ve been unaware of and/or ignoring, Harman links her work to debates on silence/ing (27-8). Drawing on feminist and decolonial critiques of speech, visibility, and who is/can be heard (Parpart 2010; Dingli 2015), Harman positions Seeing Politics and her co-produced film Pili as both methodological and epistemological interventions that enable African women—whose voices have often been co-opted and/or marginalised in IR scholarship—to be able to see and show themselves and their lived experiences of international politics. This is hugely ambitious, highly commendable, and quite provocative for a field, which, unlike other social sciences, has lagged behind in terms of the form we ‘do’ research in and (co)produce knowledge(s).

Above, I emphasise ‘give’ for one, perhaps pernickety, reason. Seeing Politics is built on decolonial and feminist foundations. These critical approaches endeavour to allow subjects, people, to self-represent and show “the everyday realities of lived experience from around the world and the ways in which people resist, assume, or adapt to” all of the political ‘stuff’ that structures their everyday lives (25). It is this foundation that makes me uneasy with the notion that film—when produced from within the structures of both the overwhelmingly white Western academy and filmmaking industry—gives (and/or amplifies) voice to the people whose experiences have been traditionally ignored, appropriated, and/or misrepresented. This isn’t a reservation I have of film as method and/or medium alone: Benjamin Dix’s PositiveNegatives project, which uses comics to share stories from the most marginalised in society, also provokes a similar response. Thinking these two aesthetic visual projects and ways of doing research together got me thinking about the argument Seeing Politics makes.

Screenshot 2019-09-13 at 12.24.26

From Benjamin Nix and Asia Alfasi’s comic on irregular status from the PositiveNegatives project.

Is it really about giving and amplifying ‘voice’? Both yes and no, I think. The emphasis on feminist co-production and the bringing together over eighty women’s collective stories into Pili reads more like sharing the microphone/loudspeaker/pencil/keyboard/etc. Even more than that, this book and Pili push us even further to think about negotiating the Western emphasis on vocalisation as a means of entering politics, performing agency, and obtaining subjectivity (Spivak 1994; Dingli 2015). Seeing Politics in a sense dilutes the power Western philosophies attribute to voice and, in negotiating potential issues like white gaze and/or constructing African women’s lives and bodies through white feminist narratives, really establishes a space for turning to interactions of text/word, visuality, and body talk to see the performance of subjectivities and politics through other—equally powerful—mediums. Mediums that compliment, rather than outclass or replace one another. This is something various scholars have grappled with in theoretically driven ways (e.g., Hansen 2000; Parpart 2010; Cooper-Cunningham 2019).

Harman never claims to speak on behalf of or for the women who feature in both Pili and Seeing Politics. She meticulously shows us how each and every woman’s voice was included in the story of Pili.  However, to say that film ‘gives voice’ risks both reifying a problem in Western scholarship that emphasises voice-as-agency (Dingli 2015) and downplaying the massive epistemological shift Seeing Politics encourages in Disciplinary IR. It risks suggesting that it is only through ‘us’ that people can speak; that the only ways unseen/ignored people can ‘speak’ and come into being as political subjects is through our (academic) work—be that film, comic books (as in PositiveNegatives), or articles/books. Is it the case that voice is being given? Or, is it rather, that “speech” in the form of a loud and present vocalisation is being reworked by film-making? Reconstituted in such a way that the forms of political participation and storytelling about the everyday experiences of, in this case, African Women emerge in new and innovative ways that disturb the epistemological privilege given to ‘voice’ and ‘speech’ using film? Not just in IR but social sciences more broadly?

For me, this is exactly what Seeing Politics does. Instead of questioning whether the subaltern can speak (Spivak 1994), Harman pushes social scientists to think about means of political engagement, resistance to (colonial, misogynistic, Eurocentric) discourses, and ways of doing politics and performing subjectivities that move beyond and deconstruct voice/silence, agency/passivity, political/apolitical dichotomies that structure (Western) academic thinking. And almost without explicitly saying that’s what it’s doing.

Seeing Politics is not just a decolonial work that allows for new types of knowledge (co-production) and ways of negotiating the hierarchies and tropes that plague Western academic scholarship and popular culture. Film-making allows for subjects to emerge and be seen in radically different ways than previously possible: through visualisation not vocalisation. This is clearest when Harman moves into her discussion of production: “it was clear that the more urgent and human stories were to be found in the rural areas of Miono and Mbewe, Those women were more isolated from the basic services…their stories were the ones that would go unseen” (71). In this sense, it is perhaps not that voice is (or needs to be) given to anyone but rather that other ways of doing and seeing (international) politics and research emerge. This is especially important in regard to the recurring defence Harman has to make: that film is not just a way of communicating existing research but a way of doing research, doing politics, seeing and showing the unseen.

This brings up an important reflection point. For whom do we study international relations? With all the talk of paywalls and gatekeeping in/of academic research, narrative feature-length film, which has its own barriers (Chapter 5), allows Harman to show that research isn’t just for our students and academic peers, for conferences/books/papers and the occasional blog or op-ed. To produce film is to not only make the politics we study visible to a wider audience and to consider the way that knowledge is aesthetically produced and consumed, but to think about the ways individuals (both as viewers and co-producers) are brought into research not as objects but as seeing/showing subjects and how our research discursively constitutes, has impact on, and is intertwined in the world (in) which we research.

By turning to visuality, Seeing Politics speaks to questions that I and many other scholars have tried to engage with: how is it that dominant narratives and political power structures are negotiated and/or resisted and/or reified; what does it mean to ‘do’ (international) politics; how does the visual exceed written/spoken discourse(s) and how can we work with and operationalise that particularity in the study and practice of international relations?

Speaking to visual analysis debates about “the death of the author” and Barthesian approaches to visual analysis that argue no visual has a singular meaning because they are interpreted differently by different audiences, Seeing Politics offers visual (IR) scholars a unique insight into both the intentions behind an inherently political film and a glimpse into the behind-the-scenes production of visuality. Not only does Harman take us through the importance and trials of film as IR method as she exposes all of the decisions, barriers, and possibilities of visualising research, she also give theoretical and methodological insight into the production aspect of photorealistic media.

This has an important takeaway even for scholars who do not wish to produce a visual project as research method—be it a film, comic, artwork, etc. Seeing Politics gives me inspiration for new types of question about the ways visuals get produced and what effects they have. Some things Seeing Politics (chapters 3-5 in particular) have forced me to confront in regard to my own research about visual resistance practices against Russian political queerphobia are: how individuals and activists gain entry and/or are prohibited from and/or constrained in entering international debates about queer rights; what the international political (visual) economy of queer/human rights looks like; and how ‘the digital’ and social media transform the political economy of visuality—who gets access, how, and who are the gatekeepers.

Seeing Politics raises so many more questions than it answers. That’s exactly the type of scholarship we need in the visual turn. On that, I will give the last word to a sentence that, for me, captured the decolonial and feminist essence and struggle of the project. It encourages self-reflexivity, inquisitiveness, and acknowledgement of positionality. I hope it provides you as much food for thought and reflection as it did me: “How one sees and who one sees are shaped by the political economy of where one is born and where one lives” (Harman 2019, 56).

Bibliography

Cooper-Cunningham, Dean. 2019. “Seeing (In)Security, Gender and Silencing: Posters in and about the British Women’s Suffrage Movement.”  International Feminist Journal of Politics 21(3):383-408.

Dingli, Sophia. 2015. “We need to talk about silence: Re-examining silence in International Relations theory.”  European Journal of International Relations 21(4):721-42.

Hansen, Lene. 2000. “The Little Mermaid’s Silent Security Dilemma and the Absence of Gender in the Copenhagen School.”  Millennium Journal of International Studies 29(2):285-306.

Harman, Sophie. 2019. Seeing Politics: Film, Visual Method, and International Relations. Qeuebec:McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Parpart, Jane. 2010. “Choosing Silence: Rethinking Voice, Agency, and Women’s Empowerment.” In Secrecy and silence in the research process: Feminist reflections, edited by Róisín Ryan-Flood and Rosalind Gill, 15-29. London:Routledge.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1994. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” In Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Laura Chrisman and Patrick Williams, 66-111. New York:Columbia University Press.

The Risky (But Critical) Business of Seeing Politics, Even Without Film

The fourth contribution in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Craig Murphy. Craig is the Betty Freyhof Johnson ’44 Professor of Political Science at Wellesley College. He is past chair of the Academic Council on the United Nations System, past president of the International Studies Association, and recipient of the Association’s Distinguished Senior Scholar Award in International Political Economy for his historical studies of global governance and economic development. Craig has published relatively widely on US policy toward the developing world, the economic debates within the UN, the UN Development Programme, the ISO (the International Organization for Standardization), and the co-evolution of industrial capitalism and international institutions. His current project (with JoAnne Yates, Distinguished Professor of MIT’s Sloan School of Management) focuses on private international regulatory standard setting. Their book, Engineering Rules: global standard setting since 1880, was published this year by Johns Hopkins University Press.


When I first heard about Sophie Harman’s “Pili” project, I immediately thought of the first lines of Joshua Goldstein’s 2001 book, War and Gender:

Recently, I discovered a list of unfinished research projects, which I had made fifteen years ago at the end of graduate school. About ten lines down is “gender and war,” with the notation “most interesting of all; will ruin career – wait until tenure.”

The thought was still with me as I read Harman’s brilliant Seeing Politics, not only due to the academic risks to an early career researcher of undertaking a film, but also because Harman’s book forcefully reminded me of how unusually difficult, and academically risky, similar projects using traditional media can be. Therefore, my comments focus what Seeing Politics reminds us about the undervalued and often deeply misunderstood practice of doing traditional intensive fieldwork, especially throughout the global South.

It’s fundamentally important, even if you are ‘just’ seeing (or describing) something.

Harman gives us a wonderfully detailed understanding of what film makers do: They allow us to see and hear political actors and action in their physical and social contexts by carefully selecting words and images from an over-abundant universe of raw material. They find ways to (re)-present, truthfully, the common characteristics of many individual, sometimes by creating aggregate characters. Often, producers and directors must provide anonymity to the people whose words viewers will hear, yet, at the same those speakers are given truthful faces. It is a complex things whose success can certainly be judged, but not perhaps by using only the tools that all social scientists have developed.

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A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.


Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

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