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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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.

Toward a New Concept of Genocide: A Reply

Our symposium on Benjamin Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) concludes with the author’s response to the participants. You can find all the previous entries listed here.


As I read each of the pieces in this symposium, I felt a sense of deep gratitude. While scholars regularly discuss issues with one another, it is truly rare that our research becomes the subject of such serious, thorough engagement. Each of the contributors to the symposium made insightful comments, showcased their critical acumen, and read The Politics of Annihilation with agonistic respect. Each commentary gave me new insight into the work. Indeed, a friend of mine in Disability Studies maintains that you only know what a book is about after you finish writing it. To the contrary, I think you only know what a book is about after you hear what it has done (or not done) for others. In that sense, these contributions have given me some of the first insights into what this text is actually about. So let me begin by extending a heartfelt thanks to Jelena, Alex, Jessica, and Myriam for their time, generous feedback and consideration. I also wish to thank Antoine Bousquet for both suggesting and organizing the symposium.

Jelena’s piece calls attention to the problem of linguistic policing and the danger of focusing on language rather than actual violence. She describes this as an international phenomenon by pointing to the ongoing debate in the United States about whether the Trump administration’s detention facilities are ‘concentration camps’ and to the classification of Srebrenica as the only ‘act of genocide’ in the context of the ICTY. Each case, Jelena contends, creates a distinct problem. On the one hand, the politicization of ‘concentration camps’ involves “gatekeeping of the use of certain historical terms and the prohibition of analogizing from past to today that is freezing political action.” Entrenched debate over terminology saps energy that could be used to dismantle these institutions of confinement and violence. On the other hand, language is important since it lays the groundwork for other types of denial and disavowal. At worst, historical designations may become the touchstone that legitimates contemporary political violence. The difficulty then is that focusing too much on language obscures material conditions, but, at the same time, ignoring discursive power risks the derealization of violence.

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“New Forms of Genocide”: Annihilation and the Politics of Seeing

The Politics of Annihilation symposium continues with a post from Jessica Auchter, Guerry Professor and Associate Professor of Political Science at University of Tennessee Chattanooga. Jessica’s recent articles include “Imag(in)ing the Severed Head: ISIS Beheadings and the Absent Spectacle” in Critical Studies on Security and “Stories of a Death Tourist” in Journal of Narrative Politics. She is currently working on a book manuscript on the global politics of dead bodies.


The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide offers a critical take on the traditional story told by genocide scholars of the importance of the concept of genocide: Raphael Lemkin sees the need for a name to describe the violence he observes, and as this concept evolves, so alongside it emerges a consciousness of human rights and a slow expansion of international law. Benjamin Meiches takes issue with such a “progressive” account of genocide, noting that it does not offer an explanation of how genocide became a concept, does not analyze how concept of genocide links to other ideas, and that the history told in this story is too linear and sets aside the complex histories of great power violence. The main purpose of the book, then, is to examine how the hegemonic discourse of genocide depoliticizes violence. To do so, Ben distinguishes between genocide as politics (the use of mass violence to target groups) and the politics of genocide (the discourses surrounding the concept of genocide), the latter of which he seeks to uncover in his genealogy.

Using assemblage theorizing, the book draws on theoretical ancestors such as Deleuze and Guattari, Latour, Malabou, and Lacan. It is a well-written and immaculately theorized piece of work that takes a well-worn concept and says something new about it. The book is also an impressive review of the larger field of genocide studies in many ways. In this post, I want to highlight what I see as the three main contributions of the book, using each to raise questions about the larger impact this book will have, ending with some reflections on annihilation itself.

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The Politics of Annihilation: A Symposium

The Disorder of Things is delighted to be hosting over the coming week a symposium for Benjamin Meiches’s important new book The Politics of Annihilation: A Genealogy of Genocide (University of Minnesota Press, 2019). Following Benjamin’s introductory post below, we will have a rich set of interventions from Jelena Subotic, Alexander Barder, Jessica Auchter, and Myriam Fotou before a final rejoinder from the author. All the entries in this series will be collated here. Previous symposia are also available.

Benjamin Meiches is Assistant Professor of security studies and conflict resolution at University of Washington Tacoma. In addition to his new monograph, he has contributed a variety of articles to International Political Sociology, Security Dialogue, Critical Studies on Security, and Review of International Studies.

 


“New conceptions require new terms” – Raphaël Lemkin (Axis Rule in Occupied Europe)

“To affirm is not to bear, carry, or harness oneself to that which exists, but on the contrary to unburden, unharness, and set free that which lives.” – Gilles Deleuze (Nietzsche and Philosophy)

Raphaël Lemkin coined the neologism ‘genocide’ in 1944 in a publication called Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, a voluminous study that documented legal and policy changes in Europe under Nazi rule. Little did Lemkin know that less than a century later this term would become one of the most charged terms in contemporary politics. Indeed, within a generation, an explosion took place that transformed the concept of genocide from little more than a scholarly heuristic buried in the midst of a legal tome into the most symbolically vexing and affectively potent form of rhetoric in global politics.

Although barely seven and a half decades separates the genesis of the concept of genocide from today, a great drift took place during this period. Consider, for example, a popular and critical use of genocide discourse today. NK Jemisin, author of the brilliant science fiction series The Broken Earth, uses the character of Nassun to speculate about the meaning of genocide. In the text, Nassun is a member of a hunted group called ‘orogenes’ that suffer murder, enslavement, and torture over millennia. Through Nassun’s voice, Jemisin addresses the problem of genocide. Specifically, Nassun states: “But breathing doesn’t always mean living, and maybe…maybe genocide doesn’t always leave bodies.” In some sense, Nassun (or Jemisin) are correct to view this statement as a new (and important) image of genocide because, today, the dominant images of genocide focus primarily on the act of mass killing based on ethnic, religious, national or racial identity. The irony is that Jemisin’s (or Nassun’s) image of genocide, the genocide that may or may not leave bodies, resonates far more powerfully with the vision of genocide articulated by Lemkin and many of his interlocutors at the inception of this discourse.

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The case against Woodrow Wilson, after 100 years

This guest post is a collective statement, written by Philip Conway in consultation with several other current and former PhD candidates at the Aberystwyth University Department of International Politics. It is co-signed by a number of current and former Aber PhD candidates, not all of whom were directly involved in the drafting process. It does not, therefore, necessarily present a consensus. However, it does, we hope, present a constructive and forceful contribution to an important debate.

At Aberystwyth University, the year 2019 marks the Centenary of the Department of International Politics. A century, that is, since the philanthropists David, Gwendoline, and Margaret Davies donated a sum of £20,000—more than £1m in today’s money—in order to establish a Chair of International Politics (the first of its kind in the world). The Chair was established “in memory of the fallen students of our University.”[1] It was to be named after the then-current US President, Woodrow Wilson.

This was, and is, an appellation heavy with significance. At the end of the War, as Lord David Davies himself later wrote:

“Among the protagonists of the new Jerusalem stood President Wilson, towering head and shoulders above them all. […] By all those who sincerely desired a permanent peace and were prepared to sacrifice their imperialistic conceptions, he was acclaimed as the leader.”[2]

On 25th October last year, as part of the Department’s Centenary celebrations, a roundtable seminar was held, titled “Reflections on Woodrow Wilson.” It was instigated by the current incumbent of the Woodrow Wilson Chair of International Politics, Andrew Linklater.

This instigation had, in turn, been prompted by a student request to take the occasion of the Centenary as an opportunity to re-evaluate the Department’s association with this particular historical figure.

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