A Political Ethnography of the Visual

4379-Simukai_Chigudu_(423586)-1The second post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics. This contribution is from Simukai Chigudu, who is Associate Professor of African Politics at the University of Oxford. Simukai is principally interested in the social politics of inequality in Africa, which he examines using disease, public health, violence, and social suffering as organising frameworks for both historical and contemporary case studies. His forthcoming book entitled The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe (Cambridge University Press, 2020) is a study of the social and political causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s catastrophic cholera outbreak in 2008/09, the worst in African history. He has published articles in a number of peer-reviewed scholarly journals including African AffairsGlobal Health GovernanceHealth EconomicsPolicy and Law, the International Feminist Journal of PoliticsHealth Policy and PlanningSeizure: The European Journal of EpilepsyFeminist Africa, and The Lancet. Prior to academia, Simukai was a medical doctor in the UK’s National Health Service where he worked for three years.


Political science as a discipline, including the branch of international relations, has been slow to grapple with the AIDS crisis. It seems that the HIV-AIDS issue has been conceived of as too private, too biological, too microlevel and sociological, too behavioral and too cultural to attract the attention of many political scientists.

Catherine Boone & Jake Batsell, Africa Today, 2001

It is tempting – and certainly not altogether misguided – to think that in our contemporary digital age, the ubiquitous infrastructures of the Internet, of mobile phones, and of cheap audio and video technologies have radically democratised economies of representation in various (global) public spheres. After all, it is often claimed, mobile phones have profoundly transformed how we acquire and exchange information. In Africa, where most have gone from no phone to mobile phone (‘leapfrogging’), many have believed that improved access to telecommunication would enhance everything from entrepreneurialism, to democratisation, to service delivery, all the while ushering in socio-economic development (Archambault 2016). As part of this package of social transformation through innovation, techno-utopians praise communication technologies and social media for opening up important avenues for popular oral and visual circuits of storytelling.

But how far can these circuits of storytelling go? Where do they meet their limits? What are the structures that enable and inhibit storytelling in public arenas? Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics offers a fascinating exploration of these questions through her foray into the commercial world of narrative film production. Film is both a microcosm and a macrocosm of the intimate but also vexed interrelationships between technology, economy and the politics of storytelling. Harman shows in riveting detail how a blind optimism in capitalism’s logic of progress and innovation belies the socio-economic structures, patronage politics and gatekeeping practices that govern the making, dissemination and consumption of narrative films.

A simple illustration. The visual landscape of representations of Africa in narrative film, Harman argues, remains largely defined by Hollywood cinematic tropes of ‘“the dark continent” full of “tribal” conflict (Black Hawk Down), ruthless dictators (Last King of Scotland), inner-city violence (Tsotsi), genocide (Hotel Rwanda), government corruption and collusion with capitalist interests (The Constant Gardener), and resource plunder (Blood Diamond)’ (p. 34). Even Black Panther – and I say this cautiously as an enthusiastic Marvel fanboy – can only subvert these tropes through a computer-generated spectacle that, despite being a compelling comic-book movie, offers little by way of a textured and rich (dare I say real?) Africa while the prolific film-makers of Nollywood, Swahiliwood, and Bongo film industries simply can’t compete with the Hollywood behemoth.

Where might ‘we’ (taken here to mean a global audience) then see ordinary African people, in their diversity and uniqueness, reconfiguring and pluralising images of the continent? Harman’s debut film, Pili, is a place to start.

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On the British Empire Among Empires, and on Property Beyond Sovereignty

This guest post, from Kerry Goettlich, is the second contribution to our symposium on Brenna Bhandar’s  Colonial Lives of Property. Kerry is a PhD candidate in the IR Department at the London School of Economics. His research is on the historical relationship between space and international politics, particularly the origins and consequences of linear borders. His latest work is ‘The rise of linear borders in world politics’ in the European Journal of International Relations. He was also recently co-editor of Millennium: Journal of International Studies.


As part of the fieldwork for Colonial Lives of Property, Brenna Bhandar witnessed the seventieth razing of the Bedouin village of Al-Araqib by the Israel Land Authority since 2010 (p. 116). Some Bedouin living under Israeli authority are now so used to having their homes destroyed that they have begun building them with particularly pliable materials in order to make reconstruction easier. Others destroy their own homes in order to avoid being charged bulldozing costs by the state. One of Bhandar’s interviewees ‘paid for someone to build his house and paid the same person to destroy it’ (p. 117).

This is just one of many ways in which Colonial Lives of Property powerfully demonstrates the meaning of a ‘history of the present’. The book is a compelling history of private property regimes in settler colonial contexts which never loses sight of what makes this material important for scholars—and, I think, particularly IR scholars—today. It takes us through many centuries of different articulations of the concept and practice of property, each abstracting land space in different ways, and shows us historically how property came to be the upholder of racial and gender inequalities that it is today. It brings together a wealth of theoretical resources to do this, from legal studies scholars such as Cheryl Harris and Alain Pottage to more general social theorists such as Stuart Hall and Cedric Robinson, and many more. The book without a doubt demolishes any account of property as natural, as somehow separate from race and gender, or as emerging fully formed within a self-generating Europe. These, in my reading, would be the main counterarguments, and after reading this book, it would be quite difficult to sustain any of them.

With that in mind, what I want to offer in this post is less of a critique of Colonial Lives of Property than some reflections on some relevant questions it raises. In particular, I focus on two things that are not as prominent here as one might expect: non-Anglophone imperialism and the sovereign or imperial centre. The point here is not that these things are missing, but rather to think about how their relatively subdued roles might help us appreciate the book’s significance differently.

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States and Stilettos

The last commentary in our forum on Parashar, Tickner and True (eds.) Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations from Shine Choi. Shine is Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Massey University, where her work focuses on North Korea, visuality and aesthetics. She is also an Associate Editor for the International Feminist Journal of Politics and a co-editor of the Creative Interventions in Global Politics book series. Her recent publications include ‘Questioning the International: (Un)making Bosnian and Korean Conflicts, Cinematically’, (with Maria-Adriana Deiana) in Trans-Humanities Journal. The complete set of posts in this series is available here.


 

Choi Shoe

In the Afterward essay to Revisiting Gendered States, Christine Sylvester suggests feminists focus on people’s experiences of the state, and as an aside, also asks us to take off our stilettos. Taking the state as an agent or structure in our studies impedes feminist objectives; it is too snug with power even if we critique it. Fashion choice is telling.

This is now the second time, in the last month, that a feminist IR reading has nudged me, as a parenthetical in a larger argument, to reconsider my fashion choice in wearing heels. And now that I think about it, I recall at least two other conversations with academics (one was a fellow IR theory friend, the other a colleague in anthropology who has now retired) where they confide how they would personally never wear heels because their colleagues would never take them seriously if they did. I had assumed their colleagues in reference were men but now I am not so sure.

These shared assumptions about heels – and stilettos perhaps being an extreme, and as a result, an easy type of heels to dismiss – in these conversations/readings are curious. They got me wondering why serious thinking, and more importantly, serious feminist politics cannot be done wearing heels. This is not the lesson we are learning from drag queens about stilettos, and I cannot help but wonder why it takes drag queens to teach us that serious affective embodied thinking and doing do happen in most ridiculous of heels, full makeup and by ‘eccentric’ looking people. Why do we have all these social, cultural gendered ideas around what serious work/wear look like?

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States of Intersection: Beyond womenandchildren

The next commentary on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series is here).


Although it can no longer be claimed with any credibility that gender is at the fringes of International Relations as a discipline, consistently excellent and adequately nuanced analyses of the gendered nature of IR and its touchstone – the state – are still few and far between. In a field otherwise saturated by liberal feminism focused largely on the West (the US, the UK and Western Europe to be precise), Swati Parashar, J Ann Tickner and Jacqui True’s Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations provides a refreshing change. Bookended by an incisive forward by Spike Peterson and a compelling, almost poetic afterward by Christine Sylvester are eleven ‘substantive’, and uniformly thought-provoking chapters. In less than 200 pages the contributions to Revisiting Gendered States manage to traverse the whole spectrum of issues sacralized by IR: state formation, borders and bordering practices, terrorism, security, identity and belonging.

The text reopens the discussion the seminal Gendering States: Feminist (Re)visions of International Relations Theory published in 1992 and edited by Spike Peterson, initiated. Gendered States has the same point of departure – an examination, and concomitant critique of the centrality of the masculine, patriarchal state in IR but it does so in a distinctly 21st century context. The state is no longer a blackhole or a rarefied rational actor, but rather a set of complex and often confused practices: an effect, symptom and perpetrator of globalisation, securitisation, and nationalism. The chapters are truly global in scope, drawing on case studies from Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, Indonesia and Australia. The contributions are not merely empirically heterodox, they are also theoretically pluralist, drawing variously on queer theory, assemblage theory, affect theory and postcolonialism alongside more mainstream IR theory. Continue reading

Gendered States: What We *Really* Talk About When We Talk About the State

The first of three critical commentaries on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (the full series, including an introduction and posts from chapter authors Christine Agius, David Duriesmith and Katherine Brown, is here). This intervention comes from Megan MacKenzie, who is Professor of Gender and War at the University of Sydney. Megan’s research spans feminist theory, international security and transitional justice, and her latest publications explore (myths about) women in combat roles and masculinity nostalgia.


We talk about the state a lot within the field of International Relations. In fact, as a student of international relations I was taught that the state was the most important actor; everything below the state level was to be studied in other disciplines like sociology, anthropology, or development studies. But what are we really talking about when we talk about the state? It’s probably useful to state upfront- in a sort of full-feminist-disclosure-style- that I’m an unusual person to review a book focused on the state. I’ve always been suspicious and apprehensive about studying the state. I can trace the root of this apprehension back to my PhD training. I can still vividly remember taking an International Political Economy course from the formidable and amazing Professor Suzanne Soederberg. At some point during the first week I made an intervention into the class discussion, and used the word ‘state.’ Professor Soederberg stopped me and said, ‘what do you mean by the state?’ I was flummoxed. ‘Well, the state…you know…um, the institution…’ I’m sure I trailed off in embarrassment. Professor Soederberg then asked the rest of the class for a definition and got equally vague, yet more confident responses that included terms like ‘sovereignty,’ ‘borders,’ and ‘power.’ I can still remember her total exasperation as she drew a black box on the white board and explained that the state is not some singular “thing” that we can just lazily refer to and hope no one asks us what we mean. We were all busted.

Actually, most of IR as a discipline is busted when it comes to lazily using the term ‘state.’ From that moment on, there have been dozens of times I wished I had Professor Soederberg’s words recorded so I could play them at conferences, in other classes, and when reading articles. The state is consistently referred to as a given, or defined with such minimal attention or effort that it offers not much more than my answer back in my International Political Economy unit: ‘well, the state…you know.’ Years later, I still don’t know how most people are using the term ‘the state’ and often I don’t think they do either.

Rather than wade through the many, many definitions of the state, it is more useful to ask, ‘what do we talk about when we talk about the state?’

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To Be Or Not To Be? Islamic State as a Proto-State

The fourth contribution to our forum on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations, this time from Katherine Brown. Katherine is Senior Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Head of the Department of Theology and Religion at the University of Birmingham, where her work focuses on the gendering of religious resistance and politics. Recent publications address social media and terrorism and the securitisation of human rights. The full series of posts is available here.


 

The so-called Islamic State (hence forth Daesh) offered a new world order to believers, one in which states were abolished, the pious ruled, and Allah’s will prevailed. The group offered adherents ‘Gold, God and Glory’, and in exchange members would help realise the group’s vision through extreme levels of violence and banditry. Alongside this was an everyday, mundane and tedious mode of governance, covering tax inspections, trading standards, fishing permits, Quran reading competitions, and fairgrounds. This dichotomy puzzled security analysts who struggled to classify the group. Daesh was both more and less than a terrorist group, or an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement. For IR scholars, if it wasn’t any of these then a new possibility opened up – were we witnessing the birth of a new state? It was therefore a perfect case study for the revisiting of Gendered States.

Daesh was set a series of tests by academics and others to determine its ‘right’ to call itself a state. Did it have autonomy, capacity, legitimacy to govern, was it a ‘bordered power container’, could it redistribute resources, did it have a monopoly on the use of force? Longobardo asks this question about whether or ISIS could be seen as a sate in international law, and Belanger-McMurdo also addresses whether it can achieve political domination. The problem is that it had all and none of these. As Nexon notes, there is a tendency to conflate the Weberian ideal-typical definition of the modern state with the concept of ‘state’ and secondarily, a tendency to read the literature exclusively with an eye toward asking when, if, and how particular polities crossed some imaginary threshold into ‘state-ness.’ The tests seemed ‘unfair’ in so far as setting a high bar for a state emerging as ‘fully functioning’; it was like expecting a PhD candidate to pass their viva just by having been accepted onto the programme. Continue reading

Promoting Ally Politics in the Liberal State during the Age of Paleo-Masculinism

The third in our series on Revisiting Gendered States: Feminist Imaginings of the State in International Relations (edited by Swati Parashar, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True). In this first set of posts, contributors to the volume recap their contributions. Today, it is the turn of David Duriesmith. David is a UQ Fellow at the University of Queensland, where his research focuses on masculinities, peacebuilding and new wars. His latest article is ‘Hybrid Warriors and the Formation of New War Masculinities: A Case Study of Indonesian Foreign Fighters’, in Stability. The full series on Revisiting Gendered States may be viewed here.


 

Feminist activism often appears to bump up against the desire to appeal powerful masculine actors to use their privilege for good. These appeals are unavoidable for those who want to achieve concrete and immediate change due to the power that patriarchy affords masculine actors on the basis of gender. The success of these appeals in the international arena create uncomfortable alliances between feminist activists on one hand and state actors on the other, the latter of whom are increasingly keen to position themselves as feminists on the international stage.

My contribution to Revisiting Gendered States came out of my discomfort at some of the successes in getting state actors to adopt the language of feminism and gender equality. In particular, I was provoked by the emergence of Sweden’s feminist foreign policy and the rise of state leaders positioning themselves as feminist ‘agents of change’ through initiatives like #HeForShe.

These developments seem seductive, in that they utilise state power for feminist goals, while reinforcing the legitimacy of these state actors as protectors of the oppressed. However, the adoption of the label ‘feminist’ does not require that states are substantially remade, nor that they change the masculinist nature of their institutions, but instead seems to occasionally result in the cynical use of gender programming to legitimise other forms of violence that they themselves inflict. Continue reading