Totalising the State through Vision and War

Another commentary in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press), following the author’s introduction and pieces by Katharine Hall and Dan Öberg. This latest intervention comes from Dr Matthew Ford, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in the School of Global Studies at the University of Sussex. Matthew has written extensively on military innovation, science and technology studies, and counter-insurgency. Matthew’s latest works are Weapon of Choice: Small Arms and the Culture of Military Innovation (Hurst, 2017), and (with Alexander Gould), ‘Military Identities, Conventional Capability and the Politics of Standardisation at the Beginning of the Second Cold War, 1970-1980’ in The International History Review. He is in addition the founding editor of the British Journal for Military History, a peer-reviewed open access that caters to audiences outside of academia as well as within.


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The Eye of War does not draw a connection to the official seal of the United States of America but the book does serve to remind us that among all the world’s powers, the United States has done the most to make the symbol of the all-seeing eye a technological reality. Tracing the pattern of ideas that framed the American political imaginary and subsequent reification of the Eye of Providence is not Antoine Bousquet’s purpose. Instead, Antoine’s book makes a double move. In the first instance, the majority of the work goes wider and draws attention to how technologies of vision personify the Leviathan state (Neocleous, 2003). In the second, it shows how technologies of hiding have undermined battle as a point of decision.

In an effort to develop these lines of reasoning and add my own provocation, I advance a three-step argument. In part one, I draw parallels with James Scott’s Seeing like a State (1998) and argue that the technologies of vision that Antoine identifies reflect the impulse of the state to sedentarise populations in an attempt to assert control over them. Expanding my point, in part two, I argue that the martial desire to achieve decisive battle has been frustrated by camouflage and concealment, technologies that are represented in orientalist terms by Western militaries. Finally, I contend that these modes of seeing have reified Western military strategies into technical systems that in effect reproduce what might best be described as a frustrated Western Way of Warfare (Hanson, 2009), trapping martial thinking in orientalist (Porter, 2009) and counter-productive ways.

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On Statues (III)

This is the third in a series of posts about statues. Because shit keeps happening. You can read the first and second posts in any order.

Thanks to Newsnight for the TL; DR version:

 

Here’s the discussion that followed:

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One striking aspect of this conversation is the degree of anxiety about the precedent value of statue removal: as Kirsty Wark asks, ‘where do you stop?’ Donald Trump wondered the same thing in a tweet that, I suspect, he hoped would be a conversation stopper:

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A Border In Every Street

This is a guest post by Sarah Keenan, who is a Lecturer in Law at Birkbeck, University of London. Keenan is the author of Subversive Property: Law and the Production of Spaces of Belonging, as well as numerous articles in the fields of property law, critical race theory, gender and sexuality, migration, and the politics of Indigenous Australia.

KeenanTwo summers ago, the British government announced that it would pass laws requiring  landlords to evict tenants who do not hold valid visas. As part of her efforts to convince poor African migrants that ‘our streets are not paved with gold‘, then Home Secretary Theresa May planned to make it a criminal offence for landlords to rent to irregular migrants. This plan, which has since been implemented by the Immigration Act 2016,[1] was part of May’s professed intention of intensifying the ‘hostile environment‘ for irregular migrants that her government had begun creating with the Immigration Act 2014. As the Church of England put it, the so-called ‘right to rent’ requirement creates a border in every street.

How do we understand such borders, which are at once invisible and real, intermittent and permanent; borders that operate by attaching to individual subjects wherever they go rather than bounding off a defined physical area; borders that are internal to the nation that has already been entered. In particular, how do we understand internal borders in Britain, a political entity that as Kojo Koram has argued, ‘has never really existed as a nation, it has only really functioned as an empire‘; an empire which once sought to extend its borders to encompass as much of the world as possible? As the empire crumbled, patterns of migration shifted from white British subjects moving out to colonise the world, to brown and black British subjects moving from resource-depleted home countries to the island motherland, seeking work and a better life. The British state responded to this arrival of non-white subjects with increasingly restrictive immigration laws which have the maintenance of white supremacy at their core. Immigration law has then combined with other areas of law to increasingly and literally restrict the physical space in which non-white subjects are able to safely exist on this island. Examining the hostile environment produced by the internal borders of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts helps us to make sense of the means through which law produces racist landscapes in which material spatial boundaries exist for particular subjects and not others. Beginning with a brief discussion of how legal geography, critical race theory and critical disability studies assist in understanding the relationship between law, space and the human subject, I put forward the concept of ‘taking space with you’ as a way to understand the racist British landscape in which we live today.

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White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Author’s Response

Bob’s response to Naeem, NiviSrdjan, and Meera completes our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics.


Four critical IR theorists have taken time away from other tasks to read my book carefully, generously, and thoughtfully. What a gift. The brevity of this response will appear stingy by comparison, but I don’t mean it to be. Rather, I am typing with my wrist in a splint, and it hurts, while I am also due to leave in the morning for a two-week vacation. Perhaps there will be another chance to show my gratitude. Many of the questions that Nivi, Naeem, Srdjan, and Meera raise have to do either with the book’s and my relationship to theory or with the limitations of my research strategy, as I anticipated and sought, self-servingly, to head off.

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“But What On Earth Is Whiteness That One Should So Desire It?”

This is the fifth post in our symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics, which will be followed shortly by a response from the author. Earlier responses are here from Naeem, Nivi and Srdjan. This piece expands on, and in some senses muddies, a short review I wrote of the book for a symposium in Perspectives in Politics.


This book is an indispensable and provocative account of the genesis of International Relations in the US as a discipline expressly concerned with the maintenance and expansion of global white supremacy. It is an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how we study world politics, which has thus far ‘disappeared’ racism and racial politics from its foundational narratives. [1]  It seems, this time anyway, that people are paying attention – the book is receiving wide acclaim and attention in the roundtables, symposia and review sections of the very journals, conferences and institutions that constitute the historical objects of its narrative. Does this mean that the ‘rising tide’ of calls for the discipline to deal with its racist foundations are being answered?

We will have to wait and see. Vitalis’s book makes some important headway in that direction but the rearguard is already being mobilised. Gideon Rose’s capsule review for Foreign Affairs, the journal once named for Race Development, perfectly captures precisely how this rearguard can function, in the process re-inscribing the ‘norm against noticing’ the operation of racism and white supremacy in both world politics and the discipline (IR) that claims to study it. Marking the book as ‘flawed’ and ‘political’, Rose accepts that the origins of the discipline were racialized and characterized by discussions about race relations. However, his rhetoric effectively consigns the analytic case that there are continuities in these ideas to a conspiratorial form of politics (attributing to Vitalis, bizarrely, a rather childish view of the US as ‘evil’).

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

The most prominent of these linkages in the text is Vitalis’s juxtaposition of Lorthrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color, which foretold of coming race wars in the twentieth century, with Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations which does the same for the twenty-first (4, 62-4, 177).  It is true that Vitalis does not work through a point by point analysis of the two texts; however, it is also equally demonstrated that there are clear overlaps in form and content between the arguments. Both are grounded in the belief in coherent civilizations existing in fundamentally antagonistic relations, of which the white (or Western) is the most advanced and against which others will attempt to rise. For Rose to refuse to acknowledge the argumentation at all, even in a capsule review, seems odd until one reads the same reviewer’s graceful, generous assessment of Huntington’s famous work in the same journal in 2013, commemorating the 20th anniversary of its publication:

The origins of “The Clash of Civilizations?” lie in the conjunction of a special scholar and a special time. By the beginning of the 1990s, Samuel P. Huntington was already one of the most important social scientists of the second half of the twentieth century, having authored major works in every subfield of political science. The hallmarks of his efforts were big questions, strong answers, independent thought, and clear expression. The end of the Cold War, meanwhile, had ushered in a new era of international relations along with a host of questions about what would drive it. Drawn, as always, to the major practical and theoretical questions of the day, Huntington set himself the task of limning this new world.

The more he thought about it, the more he decided that most existing analyses were heading in the wrong direction. The future was not likely to be an easy run toward democracy, peace, and harmonious convergence, nor was it likely to be a return to the old games of traditional great-power politics or ideological rivalry. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural,” he concluded; “the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. [Rose, Foreign Affairs, The Clash at 20]

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What is This Thing Called IR? A View from Howard U

This is the fourth post in our symposium on Vitalis’ White World Order, Black Power Politics. Naeem’s post is here, and Nivi’s is here. Further responses, including from the author are to follow…


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It was a party for DAAD-funded scholars from all over Germany and our hosts at the Martin Luther University of Halle-Wittenberg invited to us a historical costume play.  It was childish, and therefore well-suited for us international Stipendiat/inn/en, many of whom still struggled with basic German: some students and faculty dressed up as famous scholars from various periods in the university’s 500-year history and said a few things about themselves.  I have now forgotten all of the names but one: Anton Wilhelm Amo. A West African slave of a German duke who in 1734 successfully defended a dissertation in Halle’s philosophy department. The (black) guy who played Amo spoke loudly and clearly, but I recall turning to the (black) DAADer sitting next to me, a fellow poli sci student from France: “1734?” “That’s what I heard, too”, she said, “1734.”

Since this was in the era of the (dial-up) Internet, a few days later I was able to learn more about this Amo fellow, including the details eluded in the university play. Vitalis’ latest book, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Cornell, 2015) is a powerful reminder of another lesson I learned then: that work by non-white scholars tends to be “denied”–that is, ignored, temporized, ornamentalized and outright purged [1]. How many students of international law or of the German Enlightenment today know anything about Amo’s “On the Right of Moors in Europe” (1729)?  Not many given that the essay has been lost to history, probably because its copies were deemed unworthy of those meticulously maintained rare book collections.  And this is a huge loss given the relevance of historical “rights of Moors” debates for the constitution of “Europe.”

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An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.


White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire. Continue reading

Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” Speech (A Black History Month Perspective)

Truman and Churchill in Missouri

Churchill’s Westminster College audience, March 5, 1946 (Life/Getty Images)

This year is the seventieth anniversary of Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech, a.k.a. “Sinews of Peace,” a.k.a., the Fulton address, which means that we will soon be hearing all about it once again. The speech is central to the iconography of the Cold War, of anti-communism, and of Anglo-American specialness. Countless historians, biographers and rhetoreticians have examined almost every aspect of it: when and where it was written, whether it was pre-approved by others, including President Truman, and, indeed, how it was received. On the last point, we know that the speech was met with a mixture of cheers and boos. The reactions tended to be politically and ideologically determined. Conservative politicians and the media praised the speech for its realism about the nature of the postwar settlement: at last someone had the courage to publicly say that the victor nations could not forever be friends.  In contrast, most liberals, socialists, and communists condemned the speech as inflammatory. With so many hopes pinned to the newly created United Nations Organization (UNO), the last thing the world needed was geopolitical tension between the Western powers and the Soviet Union, they argued. But that was not all. Some leftists went further still. Churchill’s notion the Anglo-American “special relationship” and “fraternal association” constituted the ultimate sinew of world peace smacked of racial supremacism, they said.

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What Is It Like To Be Lebanese And To Work On China?

elamineredA guest post from Loubna El Amine. Loubna teaches political theory, with a particular focus on early Chinese political thought at the Department of Government, Georgetown University (her teaching was mentioned on this blog last year).  Before Georgetown, Loubna was a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale University. She holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton University and a BA in Political Studies from the American University of Beirut.  Classical Confucian Political Thought: A New Interpretation (Princeton University Press, 2015) is her freshly pressed first book.


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I recently wrote a book. Its cover is (very) red and features an ornate golden doorknob shaped like the face of a lion. I have always dreamt of writing a book. The experience of seeing one with my name on it fills me with a combination of delight and incredulity. I am sure all first-time authors experience a similar feeling. In my case, however, the feeling is heightened by the sense that I wrote a book that, for the first two-thirds of my life, I could never have even conceived of writing.

The book is on early Confucianism in China, and I did not know anything about China until I was twenty. China was so foreign to the intellectual, political, and cultural world in which I grew up that the two ways in which it was usually mentioned were the proverb, often attributed to the prophet Muhammad, which says “Seek knowledge, even in China” and the description of anything that sounded incomprehensible as Chinese (the Arabic equivalent of the American “It’s Greek to me.”). More mundanely, there was only one Chinese restaurant in Beirut when I was growing up, a small, family-owned place called Rice and Spice (today there are many more, with names ranging from Chopsticks to Wok Wok).

riceandspiceAlthough I studied political science as an undergraduate at the American University of Beirut, the curriculum rarely covered areas beyond the Middle East, and when it did, it only reached as far as Europe. It was only because of one professor, Yahya Sadowski, that I discovered China. He taught courses on global political economy and on development in the Arab world, and frequently cited both East and Southeast Asian countries as case studies. When I started graduate school in the US, I decided to explore East Asia further. This exploration took a few twists and turns, and I finally landed, having foregone empirical for philosophical pursuits, in the intellectual world of 3rd century BCE China.

Every once in a while, someone describes what I do as “contrarian,” “crazy,” or “looney.” I never know quite how to react. The description is, in some ways, true. I studied Confucianism because it spoke to me and because I was intrigued by it, but I also sometimes wonder whether I studied it because I did not want to study the Middle East. I sensed that it was expected of me that, as a non-Westerner, I study my own region. This expectation bothered me. When people now call what I do “contrarian,” this only reminds me that the expectation is still at play. Not that I think that there is anything wrong with someone from the Middle East working on the Middle East, just as there is nothing wrong with someone from the US studying the US. The problem is simply that no one thinks it is contrarian or crazy when Americans or Europeans choose to study societies other than their own.  In other words, my worry is that the surprised reactions I get about my work point to the existence of an unconscious bias, generated and maintained by the current make-up of academia, against the ability of non-Westerners to produce knowledge that is not about ourselves. We cannot transcend, like our European and American counterparts can, our own world. We are our own case studies, so to speak. This means that if we are successful at studying our own regions, the success is likely to be attributed to our “inside knowledge,” rather than the work itself. It also means that when we do happen to study a topic that is seen as “Western,” say European philosophy, the default assumption is that we do so from the standpoint of our colonial experience. And finally it means that studying another non-Western region is simply “contrarian.”

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Though it has not happened to me personally, friends of mine from Lebanon have reported being encouraged, even if gently, to focus their doctoral work on Lebanon, the Arab world, or Islam. Other friends who have chosen to work on the Middle East have complained about their work being mislabeled to the same effect, its theoretical import downplayed in favor of its ‘regional flavor’. I have also heard of new professors being encouraged to teach courses on topics that they do not necessarily work on (who else is going to teach Islamic philosophy but the new Iranian professor?!). And my suspicion is that this arrangement also likely guides decisions on admission to US and European PhD programs in the humanities and social sciences: if you are from a non-Western country, you are more likely to get accepted if your work is directly related to the geographic area where you are from.

This expectation also feeds into the way in which academic institutions in non-Western countries are framed and present themselves. When I inquired some years ago about what it would take to be hired at the American University of Beirut, I was told clearly that I would need to shift my work toward Islamic thought. Middle Eastern and Islamic studies are, after all, AUB’s claim to fame, the primary reason it is able to place graduate students in American and European institutions and to attract foreign MA students. It was also telling that, when in Seoul this past summer, my work was described by a couple of people I met as the “Islamic view of Confucianism.” The equivalent here would be to describe American and European work on China as representing “the Christian view.” But while this sounds as odd as it is problematic, it is actually not much different from the charge of contrarianism: both descriptions belie the need to place me back into the world in which I grew up. I absolutely love the world in which I grew up, but I would like to think that, like my Western colleagues, my intellectual horizons are not limited by my place of birth.

Let’s Talk About the “Ugly Briton”: Shashi Tharoor on Winston Churchill

October is always a good time to catch up on one’s correspondence from July.  “FYI,” noted a friend though FB’s messaging system, linking to this:

The video’s title, “Dr Shashi Tharoor MP – Britain Does Owe Reparations,” sums it up.  The other videos from the same debate event are worth watching, too, but Tharoor’s is quite simply a must-see for anyone interested in the British Empire.  Indeed, you have probably seen it already.  With 3 million views, 6000+ comments plus what seem to be hundreds of reactions by all kinds of people in all kinds of media of communication, this one 15-minute video alone can legitimate Oxford Union Society claim’s that it aims “to promote debate and discussion not just in Oxford University, but across the globe.”

Why is it that Oxford Union struck social media gold with this debate but not with some others (“socialism does (not) work,” anyone)?  Even if it is safe to assume that “many” people would be familiar the reparations argument in general and even that “some” would be familiar with Britain’s reparations to the Maori, the fact is that “no one” had given a fig about the case for Indian reparations [1].  My scare quotes are meant to signal that these quantifications are relative.  It was a century ago that Dadabhai Naoroji, known to some as the Grand Old Man of India, argued that “immediate” self-government, a.k.a. swaraj, would constitute Britain’s “reparation”.  But this is precisely the point: reparations-talk becomes itself only when subjected to a sufficient degree of metropolization or mainstreaming [2].  White academics like Boris Bittker started paying attention to the legal argument for “black reparations” only in 1969, after James Forman famously stood up in a New York City church to argue that white churches owed a lot of money to a lot of people.

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