What We Talked About At ISA: Cognitive Assemblages


What follows is the text of my presentation for a roundtable discussion on the use of assemblage thinking for International Relations at ISA in early April.

In this short presentation I want to try and demonstrate some of the qualities assemblage thinking brings with it, and I’ll attempt to do so by showing how it can develop the notion of epistemic communities. First, and most importantly, what I will call ‘cognitive assemblages’ builds on epistemic communities by emphasising the material means to produce, record, and distribute knowledge. I’ll focus on this aspect and try to show what this means for understanding knowledge production in world politics. From there, since this is a roundtable, I’ll try and raise some open questions that I think assemblage thinking highlights about the nature of agency. Third and finally, I want to raise another open question about how to develop assemblage theory and ask whether it remains parasitic on other discourses.

Throughout this, I’ll follow recent work on the concept and take ‘epistemic communities’ to mean more than simply a group of scientists.[1] Instead the term invokes any group that seeks to construct and transmit knowledge, and to influence politics (though not necessarily policy) via their expertise in knowledge. The value of this move is that it recognises the necessity of constructing knowledge in all areas of international politics – this process of producing knowledge isn’t limited solely to highly technical areas, but is instead utterly ubiquitous.

1 / Materiality

Constructivism has, of course, emphasised this more general process as well, highlighting the ways in which identities, norms, interests, and knowledge are a matter of psychological ideas and social forces. In Emanuel Adler’s exemplary words, knowledge for IR “means not only information that people carry in their heads, but also, and primarily, the intersubjective background or context of expectations, dispositions, and language that gives meaning to material reality”.[2] Knowledge here is both mental, inside the head, and social, distributed via communication. The problem with this formulation of what knowledge is, is that decades of research in science and technology studies, and in cognitive science, have shown this to be an impartial view of the nature of knowledge. Instead, knowledge is comprised of a heterogeneous set of materials, only a small portion of which are in fact identifiably ‘social’ or ‘in our heads’. It’s precisely this heterogeneity – and more specifically, the materiality of knowledge – that assemblage thinking focuses our attention on.

Knowledge is inseparable from measuring instruments, from data collection tools, from computer models and physical models, from archives, from databases and from all the material means we use to communicate research findings. In a rather persuasive article, Bruno Latour argues that what separates pre-scientific minds from scientific minds isn’t anything to do with a change inside of our heads.[3] There was no sudden advance in brainpower that made 17th century humans more scientific than 15th century humans, and as philosophy of science has shown, there’s no clear scientific method that we simply started to follow. Instead, Latour argues the shift was in the production and circulation of various new technologies which enabled our rather limited cognitive abilities to become more regimented and to see at a glance a much wider array of facts and theories. The printing press is the most obvious example here, but also the production of rationalised geometrical perspectives and new means of circulating knowledge – all of this contributed to the processes of standardisation, comparison, and categorisation that are essential to the scientific project. Therefore, what changed between the pre-scientific to the scientific was the materiality of knowledge, not our minds. And it’s assemblage thinking which focuses our attention on this aspect, emphasising that any social formation is always a collection of material and immaterial elements.

In this sense, questions about the divide between the material and the ideational can be recognised as false problems. The ideational is always material, and the constructivist is also a materialist.

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Open Access: Is It Really “Open”?

Our fourth post this week on open access, IR and the ambiguities of the future, from Nivi Manchanda (following Pablo, Colin Wight and David Mainwaring and followed by Nathan Coombs and Meera). Nivi is a PhD student in Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge and also currently Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, one of the very few student-run IR journals that consistently hosts material worth reading (apart from Millennium of course!). When not running the Cambridge Review, she studies Anglo-American representations of Afghanistan.

UPDATE (27 January): Nivi has now joined the Disordered collective on a more permanent basis and you can read more from her by clicking on her face in the sidebar.

The open access movement for academic journals is excellent in theory; not merely because of the need for an alternative to the clearly out-dated journal system that we currently have in place, but also to reclaim the internet as it were. In an ideal world, the internet would be the space for the unbridled circulation and dissemination for knowledge that the World Wide Web’s original architect had imagined it to be. In practice, however, ‘open’ access the way it is conceived in the Finch report (which is the the catalyst of, if not reason for, this conversation) is hardly ‘freely available’ and ‘non-proprietary’ research in the way the slightly misleading ‘open’ here might suggest.

For a student-run journal some of the many problems (delineated nicely by Pablo and Colin) with the ‘Gold’ OA system embodied in the Finch proposals become particularly acute. In the first instance, with regard to the benefits of the present system, in a field governed by citation indices and impact factors, there is something to be said about the legitimacy and credibility that a set-up with a renowned academic publisher provides. The other big advantage of having a publisher who is invested in the journal, especially for the Cambridge Review of International Affairs (hereafter CRIA) and other student-run publications I would imagine, is the discipline they demand. Having a set publication schedule has been crucial for CRIA, not only for associate editors who are copy-editing in the middle of term but also for peer reviewers and authors who get nagging automated reminders every week from ScholarOne’s Manuscript Central, the web-based submission and peer review tool used by Taylor & Francis (Routledge). Finally, although an equivalent open source software exists, merely getting some training in the workings of Manuscript Central and of indeed access to it, has been a great asset for CRIA.

This is not to say, in any way, that the current journal system of pay walls and enormous publisher profits is not deeply flawed. It is, but so is the solution proposed: high Author Processing Charges (APCs) that would hit students and early career researchers disproportionately, to say nothing about those who are not affiliated with an academic institution. Academics are however, thinking about ways around this with mixed success. A great example would be the initiative taken by Timothy Gowers, a mathematician at the University of Cambridge who has managed to persuade Cambridge University Press to launch a gold open access electronic journal – The Forum of Mathematics – with a print on demand option. To keep a check on what is being sent in, authors need to send in a reasonably long justification of why they are interested in publishing in the journal and what ‘cluster’ they want to submit their paper to. A ‘cluster’ is like a stream, for instance a theory or anthropology stream in IR – schematically speaking. There are of course nuances and overlaps that Gowers has meticulously devised a system for dealing with, and which could potentially be looked at as a model for a social science/IR journal. Each cluster has one editor and a few managing editors working on it who are experts in that particular field.

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One Size Fits All?: Social Science and Open Access

The third post in our small series on open access, publication shifts on the horizon and how it all matters to IR and social science, this time by David Mainwaring  (Pablo’s post was firstthen Colin Wight’s, and following David came Nivi Manchanda, Nathan Coombs and our own Meera). David is a Senior Editor at SAGE with responsibility for journals in politics and international studies. So he oversees journals like Millennium and European Journal of International Relations amongst others (which is how we know him), and can thus offer a close reading of movements within the academic publishing industry. Images by Pablo.

Open Access is the talk of the academic town. The removal of barriers to the online access and re-use of scholarly research is being driven by a cluster of technological, financial, moral and commercial imperatives, and the message from governments and funding agencies is clear: the future is open. What is much less clear is exactly what sort of open future social scientists would benefit from, let alone what steps need to be taken in order to transition away from the existing arrangements of scholarly communication and validation. Here the conversation is in its relative infancy, characterised at this point by a great deal of curiosity, anticipation, confusion, and the shock of the new. What it needs to move towards is a recognition and coordinated response to the fact that although social science may share the same open access goal as the STEM disciplines, the motivations for travelling down that path are not identical, and the context – especially in terms of research funding – is significantly different. The roundtable discussion at the Millennium conference at the LSE on 20th October was an attempt to explore these issues specifically from an IR perspective; further such events (such as those being run by the AcSS and LSE this autumn) are to be warmly welcomed as a means of building broader understanding of the issues among social scientists and facilitating strategic thinking.

Social Science and the Open Access Debate

The long-running debate about how scholarly research communication should be funded and transmitted has been, and remains, a discussion conducted primarily by those working in STEM. Most of the blogosphere’s best-known voices on open access, the likes of Mike Taylor, Michael Eisen, Peter Murray-Rust, Björn Brembs, Cameron Neylon, Kent Anderson, Stephen Curry and Tim Gowers, have backgrounds in STEM research or publishing. (Notable exceptions are the philosopher Peter Suber, who heads the Harvard Open Access Project, and self-archiving advocate Stevan Harnad, a cognitive scientist). To dip into the often heated debates on open access can leave you with the strong impression that, despite the occasional nod to social science and the humanities, the frame of reference is proper, rigorous, natural scientific research, the kind carried out in a laboratory that leads to medical advances and the development of new technologies.

By and large social scientists – and arts and humanities scholars, to whom many of the points raised in this piece apply equally – have had a back seat in this conversation, and the development of open access awareness and capabilities has been slow. Many leading social science journals continue to be distributed in print form due to subscriber demand well over a decade after the launch of their online editions. The American Political Science Association’s 2009 book Publishing Political Science devotes just two out of over 250 pages to open access, and fewer than 10% of the nearly 13,000 signatories of the ‘Cost of Knowledge‘ boycott of Elsevier were social scientists, despite the company’s position as one of the world’s leading publishers of social science journals. That’s not to say that there is nothing going on: the Social Science Research Network has acted as a site for open paper sharing since 1994; there are active ‘open’ movements in disciplines including IR and economics; and the Directory of Open Access Journals lists more than 1,600 social science titles. To date, however, very few of the latter have been able to break into the higher echelons of profile or reputation within their fields.

Social Science and Open Access Mandates

Over the last eighteen months a series of events, including George Monbiot’s polemic in The Guardian and the defeat in the US of the Research Works Act, stirred for the first time a significant consciousness among social scientists about open access. This awareness increased dramatically – in the UK at least – with the publication in June 2012 of the final report of a committee set up by the Government to examine access to published research findings. Continue reading

Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.

Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. Continue reading

A Magical Anti-Rape Secretion

Todd Akin (R-MO) says that doctors told him that women can’t get pregnant from rape. The doctor in question was presumably Onesipherous W. Bartley, whose 1815 A Treaties on Forensic Medicine or Medical Jurisprudence explained that conception:

must depend on the exciting passion that predominates; to this effect the oestrum/veneris must be excited to such a degree as to produce that mutual orgasm which is essentially necessary to impregnation; if any desponding or depressing passion presides, this will not be accomplished. (via)

At least we know how up to date a certain kind of Republican is on the medical literature. Aaron ‘zunguzungu’ Bady offers a less generous, but surely more astute, diagnosis:

The thing about a chucklehead like Rep. Akins is that he doesn’t actually care whether or not women have a magical anti-rape secretion in their body that makes conception less likely. That’s the whole point: his right not to have to worry about it. If you look at his entire statement, for example, you’ll notice that his foray into weird science was tangential to his main point, which was, simply, punish the criminal not the child. And this is more or less orthodox GOP doctrine, which has the hammer of law enforcement and looks for nails: solve the problem of rape by hammering the criminal, and make abortion into a crime, so you can hammer that too. But this simple-minded approach stumbles when it runs into the problem of the rape-victim: how to have empathy for the victim (because “victim’s rights” is a central pillar of the law and order approach) while also criminalizing her if she gets an abortion? How to insulate her choice to get an abortion from the contingency she did not control, and could not have chosen?

As many have pointed out, then, the first imperative is to make it her choice, and therefore her fault. But there’s still he cognitive dissonance of a rape victim forced to have the child of a rapist, something that doesn’t sit at all easily in the mind of a right wing family-and-police; she’s still a problem, and a thorny one. And so, a simple answer, for a simple mind: she does not exist. He argues that the rape victim who is impregnated is a fantasy of people who want to make the whole thing complicated and difficult, with their “ethics” and “problems,” and so he invents a “doctors told me” story to make it make sense, to explain how what seems complicated is actually simple. But the fact that he’s just making shit up, that women’s body’s aren’t Nature’s Own Anti-Rape Kit, is irrelevant; when you believe in the super-sufficiency of simple laws (and in The Law), problem-cases just become nails to be hammered down or ignored, while “facts” are nothing more that the warrant for doing so.


Materialism and World Politics conference

Materialism and World Politics

20-22 October, 2012
LSE, London, UK

Registration is now open here for anyone who wants to attend.

Scheduled Speakers:

Keynote: The ontology of global politics
William Connolly (Johns Hopkins University)

Opening Panel: What does materialism mean for world politics today?
John Protevi (Louisiana State University)
More TBC

Closing Panel: Agency and structure in a complex world
Colin Wight (University of Sydney)
Erika Cudworth (University of East London)
Stephen Hobden (University of East London)
Diana Coole (Birkbeck, University of London)

ANT/STS Workshop keynote:
Andrew Barry (University of Oxford)

ANT/STS Workshop roundtable:
Iver Neumann (LSE)
Mats Fridlund (University of Gothenburg)
Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London)
More TBC


The annual conference for volume 41 of Millennium: Journal of International Studies will take place on 20-22 October, 2012 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This includes 2 days of panels and keynotes on the weekend, and a special Monday workshop on actor-network theory (ANT), science and technology studies (STS), and alternative methodologies. Space for the latter is limited though, so let Millennium know of your interest in attending it as soon as possible.

The theme of this year’s conference is on the topic of materialism in world politics. In contrast to the dominant discourses of neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism, the materialist position asks critical questions about rational actors, agency in a physical world, the role of affect in decision-making, the biopolitical shaping of bodies, the perils and promises of material technology, the resurgence of historical materialism, and the looming environmental catastrophe. A large number of critical writers in International Relations have been discussing these topics for some time, yet the common materialist basis to them has gone unacknowledged. The purpose of this conference will be to solidify this important shift and to push its critical edges further. Against the disembodied understanding of International Relations put forth by mainstream theories, this conference will recognize the significance of material factors for world politics.

What We Talked About At ISA 2012: How Music Brings Meaning to Politics

At this year’s ISA conference, I presented on the panel ‘The Social Technologies of Protest’, with George Lawson, Eric Selbin, Robbie Shilliam and our discussant Patrick Jackson. The full text of the draft paper is available here. Thanks go to the panel and audience for some fascinating questions and discussions.

Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move

–          ­‘Sir Duke’, Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Music is an old and effective technology of politics. This was highly visible in both the recent uprisings and the attempts at counter-revolution; whilst from the beginning Tunisian activists sang their national anthem in the street in anti-regime protest, Assad blasted the Syrian anthem into the cities as a reminder of his position. Rappers and older musicians shared platforms in Tahrir Square, and DJs parodically remixed Gaddafi’s final public speeches into technotronic nonsense. Whilst not all political music is sung of course, songs and the act of singing are particularly powerful in political situations as means and symbols of mobilisation and unification.  Moreover, songs tend to linger in the brain.

But there are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and music. The question which is perhaps most often asked and answered is: how, when and where is music political? So, why did the Tunisian protesters sing the national anthem in front of the courthouse, how did music support the anti-apartheid struggle, and why did the Haitian revolutionaries sing the Marseillaise? How did the musical character of these expressions facilitate a particular kind of political act? Lots of excellent writers, both scholarly and otherwise, have turned their attentions to the nature of political music, and especially protest music, in a variety of times and places.

However, the question that I want to focus on mainly here though is slightly different: how, when and where is politics musical? This question was stimulated by the general observation that when we try to make sense of politics, we often use metaphors related to music. A common phrase is that a political statement or value ‘struck a chord’ with an audience, or that protesters are ‘banging a drum’. Politicians may or may not be ‘in tune’ with publics, and relations may be ‘harmonious’ or not. Coups will be ‘orchestrated’.

Perhaps surprisingly, in moving from vernacular to scholarly modes of understanding politics, the metaphors of music are no less important. In fact, in some cases they seem to be more important. The genre-defining work of the historical sociologist Charles Tilly in the study of contentious politics is a revealing and fascinating case in point.

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