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.

Spectrums of Debility and Resistance

The second post in our symposium on Jasbir Puar’s Right to Maim is by Isis Nusair, who is Associate Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and International Studies at Denison University. She is the co-editor with Rhoda Kanaaneh of Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender among Palestinians in Israel, and translator of Ramy Al-Asheq’s book of poetic prose Ever Since I Did Not Die. She is the writer and director with Laila Farah of Weaving the Maps: Tales of Survival and Resistance; a one-woman show based on research with Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian refugee women.  Her upcoming book is titled Permanent Transients: Iraqi Women Refugees in Jordan and the USA. She is currently conducting research on the narratives of crossing of Syrian refugees into Germany. Isis previously served as a researcher at the Women’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and the Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Network.

Jasbir Puar’s The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability makes an important contribution to our thinking about the connection between debility, capacity and disability. The book challenges binary thinking and offers a continuum when thinking about dis/ability. Puar argues that “capacity, debility and disability exist in mutually reinforcing constellation and are often overlapping or coexistent, and that debilitation is a necessary component that both exposes and sutures the non-disabled/disabled binary” (Puar, xv).

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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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Right-Wing Populism, Anti-Genderism, And Real US Americans In The Age Of Trump

This is a guest post from Cynthia Weber, who is a Professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex. Cindy is the author, most recently, of Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power which was the subject of a symposium hosted by The Disorder of Things. 

The US satirical website The Onion recently ran a fake testimonial video featuring a remorseful Donald Trump supporter. The 2-minute clip is entitled ‘Trump Voter Feels Betrayed By President After Reading 800 Pages of Queer Feminist Theory’. The video features the character ‘Mike Bridger, Former Trump Supporter’, a middle-aged, working class, cishet white male from a small steel town in Pennsylvania. The balding Mike is shot in documentary talking-head style. Mike sits facing the camera, both so that his truthfulness can be evaluated by viewers and so that what US Americans will recognize as his iconic working-class garb is fully in view – dark tan zip-up jacket, olive-green button-down shirt open at the collar, white t-shirt visible underneath. Accompanied by slow music which sets a troubled, post-catastrophe tone, Mike tells his story.

‘I voted for Donald Trump,’ Mike tells us. ‘I voted for Trump because I thought he’d create a better America for everyone. But after reading 800 or so pages on queer feminist theory, I realize now just how much I’ve been duped.’

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Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

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Sovereignty, Sexuality And The Will To Trump: A Queer IR Analysis And Response

In this final post in our symposium on Cynthia Weber’s Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Knowledge, Cynthia responds to her interlocutors. You can read the other posts in the symposium here.


On November 8, 2016, Donald J. Trump was elected as the 45th President of the United States of America. His campaign was marked by extreme racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, ableism, and homo/bi/trans*phobias. In light of this election result, I will depart from the usual format for a symposium conclusion, in which I would engage point-by-point with the generous, insightful, critical commentaries of Joan Cocks, Antke Engel, Cyril Ghosh, and Dianne Otto. Instead, I will put the analysis I developed in Queer International Relations: Sovereignty, Sexuality and the Will to Power and the correctives to it offered by the commentators in this symposium to work to address two urgent questions: ‘How did this happen?’ and ‘What is to be done?’.

The argument I make in Queer IR is that sovereignty, sexuality and all political scales from the intimate to the international are inseparable. So, too, are the intersectional ways sex, gender and sexuality function in relation to and through, for example, race, class, ability, religion, ‘civilization’ and colonialities. One cannot understand sovereignty without understanding how sexuality functions intersectionally at every scale, and one cannot understand sexuality without understanding how sovereignty functions intersectionally at every scale. This means my queer IR analysis is never fully distinct from those found in Critical Race Studies, Black Studies, CRIP Studies, and Postcolonial and Decolonial Studies. Yet it always insists on focusing its analytic lens on the function of sex, gender and sexuality, which is not necessarily the case with other critical traditions. As Antke Engel points out in this symposium, my idiosyncratic formulation and articulation of a queer IR has its pitfalls. But, as she and Cyril Ghosh discuss, these choices are what allow me to mobilize queer strategically, especially in relation to the Discipline of International Relations that has long ignored queer scholarship. This neglect of queer scholarship is as much because of how Disciplinary IR conceives of proper contributions to the Discipline as it is to how Disciplinary IR fetishizes particular kinds of IR methods.

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