Is IR Theory White? Racialised Subject-Positioning in Three Canonical Texts

This post is a little introduction to my recently published (open access) article in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in which I use the scholarly literature on whiteness to examine three highly influential books in International Relations (IR) – Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics, Robert Keohane’s After Hegemony and Alexander Wendt’s Social Theory of International Politics.

Of course, the answer is what you might expect (duh); but I hope the route to reaching that conclusion might be something worth considering, and maybe not exactly what you were expecting. It articulates an account of whiteness which is ultimately less pessimistic than the oft-caricatured ‘identity politics’ framings of race – indeed it argues that it is absolutely possible to overcome the limitations of whiteness as a standpoint, but that this would not be transformative without other structural changes.

Screenshot 2020-11-29 at 12.37.32

I began thinking about this issue because I was simultaneously excited, provoked by and wary about a framing emerging from the student movement at UCL: “Why is My Curriculum White?” – a moment in which both Nathaniel Coleman and Adam Elliott-Cooper played leading roles. We were also increasingly having conversations with students and colleagues at SOAS about race and decolonisation in the curriculum whilst we witnessed what was going on in South Africa and elsewhere.

Despite the care and precision with which the UCL collective expressed itself on the question of whiteness as an ideology, the media and the Right concocted a fevered moral panic around the issues, proclaiming an attack on Western Civilisation, free speech and academic freedom by the ungrateful, and the emergence of ‘reverse racism’ and so on. It did not help that some contributions from elsewhere in the movement seemed to be rather essentialist around the questions of race and racism (in ways which had been long abandoned with respect to gender, for example). From a political point of view, the ‘culture wars’ framing of matters was eliciting a set of destructive emotional responses anticipated in the whiteness literature itself – shame, guilt, anger, denial – which were a (sometimes intentional) distraction from more transformative and productive conversations.

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Loving Exclusions: Marriage, Emotional Attachments and Global Inequalities

A guest post from V. Spike Peterson. Spike is Professor of International Relations at the University of Arizona. She is a critical social theorist whose research interests stem from anti-war, civil rights and feminist activism in the US and many years of work/travel/residence ‘outside’ of the West. Background studies in anthropology, historical sociology and communications inform her work in IR, which queries how structural hierarchies of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity/race and nation are historically produced, ideologically normalized, continuously intersecting, and potentially transformed. Her publications span genealogies of sex, family, science and state formation; critiques of informalization, global political economy and its in/securities; intimate-global relations, racial logics, citizenship regimes, alt-right nationalisms, and the politics of im/migration in our fraught neoliberal, neo-imperial present. Her most recent work aims to raise critical awareness of how power relations of privilege operate to reproduce intentional and – surprisingly and importantly – unintentional resistance to transformative social change.


Ah, love! Fairy tales and romantic comedies promote living the quest for love and its idealized consummation in the ‘happily ever after’ of married life. What could be better than love? The ‘sanctity of marriage’ and ‘love of family’ are touted by conservatives, love of god by religious believers, love of one’s nation by patriots, love of oneself by self-help manuals and consumerist advertising, and love of prosperity by economists. Academics too are on board, urging closer attention to emotional investments and erotic practices in studies of social life, and asking how institutions idealizing love also foster inequalities and exclusions. I explore here the loving exclusions of marriage: the state-sanctioned institution widely presumed to epitomize love, its passionate commitments, and its importance for happy couples, healthy families, thriving communities, and stable nations.

Lauren Berlant observes that ‘intimacy builds worlds,’1 and I argue that the intimacy of marriage has built a world of inequalities. The heteropatriarchal premises of marriage are deeply ingrained, not only in laws but in hearts and minds worldwide. Given these premises, it is no surprise that feminists and queers have developed trenchant critiques of the institution. I endorse these critiques but argue that even more is at stake: that the institution of marriage produces not only inequalities of gender and sexuality but also, and inextricably, of race, class and national prosperity. That these inequalities are geopolitically problematic is readily acknowledged, but how marriage figures in producing, exacerbating or complicating them is rarely addressed. The point is not to judge individuals – who have varying reasons for supporting and/or participating in marriage – but to critically assess the political work that institutions do.

I recap several entwined inquiries: how marriage matters constitutively to the intergenerational continuity of states/nations; how Eurocentric manipulation of marriage figures in producing modernity’s ‘race difference’; and how fluid, ‘mobile essentialisms’ of race matter affectively, culturally and materially in our colonial present of increasing global inequalities, migration pressures, nationalist populisms and xenophobic hostilities. The hope is to illuminate unfamiliar terrain: how marriage historically and currently re/produces inequalities through the state/nation’s regulation of sexual practices, ethnic/racial relations, resource distributions, and citizenship (hence, im/migration) options.2

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Danish Innocence, Muslim Guilt

This is the third in our short series of posts exploring the weavings of structural and interpersonal racism in the Danish context. Following Somdeep Sen’s enraging piece on racism in the Danish academy and Chenchen Zhang’s detailed analysis of the statistical and discursive invention of “non-Western immigrants”, Mahvish Ahmad explores the co-construction of Danish innocence and Muslim guilt in everyday life – a deeply personal account which illuminates a broader, structural picture.


It was difficult for me to write this blog. I left Denmark years ago, in large part because I was tired of the big and small insinuations about Muslims that were a part of national politics and everyday life. I grew up reading gross generalisations about Muslims in Danish newspapers. I read stories about my oppression as a Muslim woman and how I should be grateful that Denmark saved me. I watched the Islamophobic far right gain unprecedented levels of power and the center-left throw Muslims under the bus by changing their position on immigration because that was the only way they could imagine staying in government. I reeled from stories about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that the Danish state took part in to stay in America’s good books, only to deny settlement to refugees escaping the violence they had helped unleash. In visits to Pakistan, which our family went on every summer, I saw a country destroyed by the same wars. The horror of imperial violence and racial stereotypes bled into everyday interactions. It manifested itself when my boss told me that he would never hire a woman with a veil because he was uncomfortable with this supposed symbol of female oppression. This was before he denied me a raise because he didn’t feel it suited women to insist on a higher salary. It showed itself when a journalist insisted that my father, a Muslim man whom he had never met, must be a misogynist. It revealed itself when my brother was racially profiled and strip searched by police because him and two friends were the only brown guys in a club at which the cops were searching for drug dealers. It showed its ugly face when my brother’s drunk colleague admitted to me that all her co-workers hated my “gangsta” brother but “fuck,” she loves her favorite “perker,” a derogatory term for non-white Danes. It felt close when friends saw visa applications for spouses rejected, because their partners came from the Muslim-majority countries their parents were born in. And yes, racism circulated in the corridors of Danish academia, where I as a student of social and political science was taught to talk about Denmark’s foreign policy instead of its support for imperial war and where I was told about immigration and integration but never about racial governance.

It was difficult for me to write this blog because I spent years seeped in a society where you were not allowed to utter the word, racism, especially not if you’re Muslim like I am. To write now, openly, about the racism of big, violent policies and small, aggressive interactions feels overwhelming. In the first drafts of this blog, I kept listing every public and personal example I could think of, only to find myself getting more and more angry at the oppressive silencing of debates on racism that was so central to Danish debates when I was growing up. You see, I learnt that people like me have three options. We can loudly and boisterously proclaim our love for Denmark and our gratitude that we have been released from a life in a Muslim-majority country. We accept, in other words, that Denmark is fundamentally good and the world of Muslims fundamentally bad. Politicians like Naser Khader – who supported a Danish ban on burkas and who played on tropes of violent Muslims to falsely accuse my good friend, the female imam Sherin Khankan, of being a “closet Islamist” – is the most prominent example of this position. Alternatively, we can engage these topics respectfully and apologetically, desperately trying to convince good Danes that we’re not all that bad. That’s what Ozlem Sara Cekic, a parliamentarian, did when she drove around the country meeting neo-Nazis for tea and cake. Or, we can stay quiet because that is often the only way to get through the day. Engagement was too tiring for me, so I was mostly evasive. To now write against a tried and tested survival strategy, developed and honed after years in Denmark, feels strange. It’s weird to use the word “racism” in the context of Denmark, not because racism does not exist, but because I have spent my entire life being told that I absolutely cannot and should not use that word about the Danes.

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The Epistemic Production of “Non-Western Immigrants” in Denmark

This post is the second in a short series exploring the weavings of structural and interpersonal racism in the Danish context. Following Somdeep Sen’s moving and enraging piece on racism in the Danish academy, Chenchen Zhang analyses the statistical and discursive invention of “non-Western immigrants” and considers how this contributes to the ordering of everyday life.


Successive governments in Denmark have introduced ever more restrictive immigration laws and integration policies in recent years. However, it is not all immigrants that are equally concerning to policy makers and the Danish public. What occupies the centre of policy debates and media discourse are the so-called “non-Western immigrants” (ikke-vestlige indvandrere). But what does this category mean exactly? According to the national statistical agency Statistics Denmark, Western countries refer to the member states of the EU (including the UK), Andorra, Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Norway, San Marino, Switzerland, Vatican City, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand. Non-Western immigrants, then, refer to foreign-born residents from the rest of the world.

Source: Danmarks Statistik, created with mapchart.net

Furthermore, the category of “non-Western immigrants” in public debates on migration and integration almost always includes both (foreign-born) immigrants and their (Danish-born) descendants. A descendant, according to Statistics Denmark, refers to a person born in Denmark to non-Danish born parents (when neither of the parents is a Danish citizen born in Denmark).

The establishment and operation of these concepts by Statistics Denmark, which maintains a population register (the CPR register) that covers all residents of Denmark, has profound implications for the problematization and government of the population group known as non-Western immigrants. Social statistics, as Foucauldian scholars argue, is a fundamental technology of power of the modern state. The statistical knowledge produced about non-Western immigrants creates the group as such by describing its “own regularities” (Foucault, 2007): the rate of criminalisation of its members, their employment rate, income level, education level, and so forth. This knowledge enables politicians, media professionals, and social scientists to talk about non-Western immigrants – people from over 150 countries across the world – as a somewhat monolithic object of governmental intervention and social scientific inquiry.

The statistical production of non-Western immigrants, for example, is the precondition for Danish authorities to create of a list of “ghetto” neighbourhoods where controversial integration policies have been introduced. The plan includes, for instance, mandatory day care for children born in the “ghetto” areas from the age of one and doubled punishments for offences. A “ghetto” is officially defined as a neighbourhood in which over 50% of the residents are non-Western immigrants and descendants, while also meeting 2 out of 4 additional criteria about crime rate, employment rate, education, and income.

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Race, Racism and Academia: A view from Denmark

Earlier in the year, just as the COVID-19 pandemic began taking lives and livelihoods across the world, the backlash to a published article on racism at the roots of securitization studies was picked up by the Danish press. The resulting narratives and racist cartoons produced to illustrate the backlash were at once shocking and unsurprising, considering the cultivated racial innocence of the Danish context and the collective denial of racism within the country, especially among the cultured intellectuals within the university system. This short series of reflections emerges out of collective conversations around that time among scholars of colour with experiences of the Danish academy. Over the coming days, Somdeep Sen, Chenchen Zhang, and Mahvish Ahmad share testimonies which movingly illustrate how structural and interpersonal racism are experienced in everyday academic life in Denmark. These testimonies indirectly situate the racist backlash to critical IR scholarship in its broader context of structural and societal racism in spaces where such racism is innocently disavowed.

This first post is authored by Dr Somdeep Sen of Roskilde University and the series is edited by Lisa Tilley.


In late March 2015 I ran into a fellow PhD student in the hallway outside my office. I was looking for a pair of scissors and asked him if he had one I could borrow. He said, “I don’t, but I am sure you can find one at the [department’s] reception.” I had been working non-stop in order to submit my dissertation that day and was exhausted. So, I said, “The reception seems so far away. I’m too tired.” He responded, “You’re such a lazy n*****!”.

This wasn’t my first experience of racism in Denmark. In fact, my first encounter with everyday racism in the country happened the day after I arrived in Copenhagen to start my PhD. It was a Friday afternoon in late September 2011, and I was standing in front of a furniture store talking to the owner about buying a cupboard that was displayed outside. Suddenly an old woman hit me with her tote bag and began yelling at me in Danish, while pointing to her (white) skin. At the time, I knew that racism was an unavoidable feature of my everyday life in Europe. Still, I naively believed that I would be sheltered from such incidents on the elevated (intellectual) plateau where the academy seems to reside. “Educated people,” my (lower) middle class Indian upbringing assured me, “would never behave like that.”

Of course, through a slew of experiences of racism in the past nine years I have come to realize that the color lines are just as prominent “up here”. Here are a few examples: I was having drinks with a few colleagues on a Friday night at a bar in downtown Copenhagen. We were discussing the dating experiences of non-Danes, when one of them, a postdoc, said to me, “You are fine, but I think most Indian men smell bad”. On another occasion, I was discussing the skills and qualifications of incoming migrants in Denmark with a tenured professor at a conference and he said to me, “You’re Indian. I guess your skill is raping women”. At another university organized social event, a PhD student insisted on calling me a “black baby”. He was (drunkenly) concerned that if he was unable to have a child with his partner, they would have to adopt a “black baby”. While rubbing his hands on my head, he kept repeating, “what would I do with a black baby like this one?”. Once, when leaving my office on a Friday evening, a colleague noticed that I was carrying books in a plastic bag. He commented, “It will be funny to see how many people think you are a bottle collector”. More recently, when I asked a colleague how the previous semester had been in terms of his teaching load, the conversation quickly devolved into him proclaiming that the biggest challenge to Danish society and culture was the “trend” of Danes marrying foreigners. He knew well that I was married to a Dane.

To be sure, everyday racism in academia is not a uniquely Danish problem. In fact, my experiences are all but commonplace for BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnic) scholars in largely white academic institutions in the Global North. This is evidenced not least by the experiences shared by black scholars on Twitter with the hashtag  #BlackInTheIvory and the treatment that has been meted out to Errol Henderson for authoring an op-ed titled “Being Black at Penn State”. Neither is any of this surprising.  Academic institutions are intimately involved in the making of the hierarchies that inform the international political order. Furthermore, as social scientists, we are well aware that the very foundations of our disciplines are racialized and deeply formed by an effort to marginalize indigenous and non-white perspectives on politics and society.

But, as is often the question, so what?

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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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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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