American Vignettes (II): The Spirit’s Agenda

Most of our day we are unaware of what we are thinking, but it is not our thoughtlessness that is disconcerting, it is our lack of awareness of our thoughtlessness.

It is rare to be in a space uncluttered by social messages, but you suddenly find even your modern sensibilities assaulted as you make your way through contemporary America. There are the expected advertisements, but they cover more of the physical surface of the world than you remember. There are the expected automated announcements, but they pierce the air and reverberate more loudly than you remember. You watch as everyone else moves through this cloud of demands, warnings, enticements, and you wonder: “does their head spin as mine does?”

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Advertisement on escalator railing.

The cab you take across Manhattan has a television screen constantly playing commercials – you can silence it but you cannot turn off the scrolling images. The roads you drive down in New York, Chicago and Denver have their negative space filled by an uncountable number of signs, billboards, words – every surface a text. Even tucked away from the public stream of communication, in your home or in your car, the words and pictures crash over you: television is ubiquitous and its light flashes on you wherever you go, the radio blares at you in the coffee shop and the eye doctor’s waiting room, the ads flash on your computer screen as you write emails to friends, and the messages and updates ding and chime on your phone as you sit down to eat a family meal.

The frenetic quality of the day only appears once you are lying in an unfamiliar bed, in a quiet dark room, when you can hear your parents breathing as they sleep down the hall from you, when you can hear the geese who have come south from Canada honking in the distance, when your mind stops receiving, blocking, dodging, collecting words and is able to put its own thoughts together. Being out of place and out of rhythm, you feel the importance of this moment. Slowness. Quiet. Rest. Continue reading

Narrative, Self, Agency: Reflections on a Workshop

Richard JacksonRichard Jackson offers the fifth post in the Methodology and Narrative mini-forum. Richard is Professor of Peace Studies and Deputy Director of the National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, University of Otago, New Zealand. He is the author of Writing the War on Terrorism: Language, Politics and Counterterrorism (Manchester University Press, 2005), Conflict Resolution in the Twenty-first Century: Principles, Methods and Approaches (Ann Arbor MI: Michigan University Press, 2009; co-authored with Jacob Bercovitch), Terrorism: A Critical Introduction (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2011; co-authored with Marie Breen Smyth, Jeroen Gunning and Lee Jarvis), and numerous related articles. He is also the Editor-in-Chief of the journal, Critical Studies on Terrorism. He blogs at Richard Jackson Terrorism Blog, where part of this post originally appeared.


Any scholar who has ever reflected on their academic career can identify a number of key transformative turning points along the way – those moments when some new insight or experience turned you from the path you were on and sent you in an exciting new direction. It may have been a particular lecture, a book, a chance conversation, a teacher. Either way, it altered your thinking and set you on a new course. Reading Joseba Zulaika and William Douglass’s Terror and Taboo in the days after September 11, 2001 was one such turning point for me. I never would have become interested in critical terrorism studies if I hadn’t found a sale copy of that book in the Otago University Bookshop exactly when the world seemed to be going crazy about the ‘new’ threat of terrorism. The books I later wrote, the journal I helped to start, the conferences and panels I helped to organise – all that might not have happened if I hadn’t picked up that particular book when I did. Sometimes our lives turn on a simple moment that seems utterly ordinary at the time.

Attending a workshop on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’ organised by Elizabeth Dauphinee, has proved to be another of these important turning points in my academic career. It has transformed me to a degree I never imagined; I feel that I am no longer the scholar or person I was before I went to Toronto for what I thought would be just another interesting but not necessarily out of the ordinary kind of academic workshop. I’m on a different path now. I want to do different things than I did before. It’s not that I have it all mapped or know where I will end up. I just know that I don’t want to continue to be the same kind of scholar I was before or pursue my work and academic career in the same way.

In preparing for the workshop, and during the workshop discussions, I had a genuine moment of revelation about how powerful narrative can be – as a mode of thinking, a way of writing, a method of teaching, a way of seeing and being in the world. I hadn’t really grasped it before, but I learned that narrative can help you connect more deeply with students in teaching situations, and also help them to learn in new ways; it can engender deeper levels of affective understanding and insight of subjects like war and politics; it can help to de-subjugate silenced voices and knowledges; it can challenge dominant political narratives and reveal the operations and effects of discipline and power; it can make your work more interesting and accessible to the reader. During the workshop, we discovered a great many reasons for considering narrative as a powerful tool and approach to IR which ought to be more widely used and legitimised in our discipline.

In relation to critical terrorism studies, the field I am most deeply involved in, I had already started to think that we needed other forms of production apart from scholarly books and articles to make a greater impact on the wider culture – such as films, novels, plays, art, music and so on. However, until I met the other writers and scholars at the workshop and heard their stories and experiences, and how narrative has affected them and impacted on their research, I hadn’t really understood just how powerful and transformative narrative writing could be.

Among other things, perhaps the most important revelation for me was when I came to see that narrative writing – especially auto-ethnographic narrative writing – can be an important step in understanding how your own subjectivity has been constructed, and how in turn, this can be an essential step towards greater individual agency and a kind of personal emancipation. For example, soon after the workshop I began to reflect upon, and write about, how my experiences had shaped my academic and political outlook, leading me down a particular path – and also how those experiences had enriched my understanding of some of the political phenomena I study as an IR scholar. Partly as a result of this auto-ethnographic reflection, I subsequently ‘came out’ in relation to my pacifist beliefs. I wrote the following piece not long after the workshop and published it on my blog.

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This Courage Called Utopia

(wild bells) A warm Disordered welcome to Wanda Vrasti, who previously guested on the topic of the neoliberal tourist-citizen imaginary, and now joins the collective permanently. And glad we are to have her. Her academic writings thus far include Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: Giving Back in Neoliberal Times (which came out with the Routledge Interventions series a few months ago), ‘The Strange Case of Ethnography in International Relations’ (which caused its own debate), ‘”Caring” Capitalism and the Duplicity of Critique’, and most recently ‘Universal But Not Truly “Global”: Governmentality, Economic Liberalism and the International’.


It’s often been said that this is not only a socio-economic crisis of systemic proportions, but also a crisis of the imagination. And how could this be otherwise? Decades of being told There Is No Alternative, that liberal capitalism is the only rational way of organizing society, has atrophied our ability to imagine social forms of life that defy the bottom line. Yet positive affirmations of another world do exist here and there, in neighbourhood assemblies, community organizations, art collectives and collective practices, the Occupy camps… It is only difficult to tell what exactly the notion of progress is that ties these disparate small-is-beautiful alternatives together: What type of utopias can we imagine today? And how do concrete representations or prefigurations of utopia incite transformative action?

Javier Lozano Jaén

First thing one has to notice about utopia is its paradoxical position: grave anxiety about having lost sight of utopia (see Jameson’s famous quote: “it has become easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”) meets great scepticism about all efforts to represent utopia. The so-called “Jewish tradition of utopianism,” featuring Adorno, Bloch, and later on Jameson, for instance, welcomes utopianism as an immanent critique of the dominant order, but warns against the authoritarian tendencies inherent in concrete representations of utopia. Excessively detailed pictures of fulfilment or positive affirmations of radiance reek of “bourgeois comfort.” With one sweep, these luminaries rid utopianism of utopia, reducing it to a solipsistic exercise of wishing another world were possible without the faintest suggestion of what that world might look like.

But doing away with the positive dimension of utopia, treating utopia only as a negative impulse is to lose the specificity of utopia, namely, its distinctive affective value. The merit of concrete representations of utopia, no matter how imperfect or implausible, is to allow us to become emotionally and corporeally invested in the promise of a better future. As zones of sentience, utopias rouse the desire for another world that might seem ridiculous or illusory when set against the present, but which is indispensable for turning radical politics into something more than just a thought exercise. Even a classic like “Workers of the World Unite!” has an undeniable erotic (embodied) quality to it, which, if denied, banishes politics to the space of boredom and bureaucracy. It is one thing to tell people that another world is possible and another entirely to let them experience this, for however shortly.

Most concrete representations and prefigurations of utopia from the past half century or so have been of the anti-authoritarian sort. Continue reading

Fratriarchy, Homoeroticism and Military Culture

The ever-excellent Sociological Images offers up this 1940s advert, and others like it, as an example of how images previously taken to be innocent consumer bait for stereotypical homemakers now appear to us as dripping with homoeroticism. They may have added too that this half-ironic, half-nostalgic distance is what endears us to such images, which we then enjoy as vintage objects, for all that we know about the true historical context in which they were produced.

One common idea, which relates nicely to military bathing aesthetics (cannon towels? really?) is that many bonding behaviours in nominally heterosexual, male-dominated groups are in fact homosexual, but in a disavowed or repressed way. The scrum, the shared shower, the bunk-beds, the exclusion of women not only from the fields of play and war, but also from the various celebrations and carnivals that follow, all seem to indicate a desire for intimacy that cannot be named as such.

In the excellent Bring Me Men (which deserves its own dedicated review), Aaron Belkin identifies a more complex relation. In becoming military men, there is a need not only to disavow femininity, but also to become intimate with the ‘unmasculine’ and the ‘queer’. Rather than identifying a direct alignment of the masculine with the military, or seeing gender norms as accidental in their intersection with the military, there is instead a constitutive tension between the masculine and the unmasculine (or, we might say, between the strongly heteronormative and the homosexual). Basic training relies on a traumatic ambiguity, continually casting initiates as by turns masculine and unmasculine, so that no soldier can ever be sure that they were sufficiently on the ‘right side’ of the line. As one Marine put it: “The opposite of feminine? No. To me, what is masculine? I don’t know. [pause] And I’ve worked so hard at being it”. The continual ambiguity – what Belkin calls discipline as collapse – interacts with surveillance and punishment to produce the soldier-subject.

More brutally: Continue reading

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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Colouring Lessons: Bet 115 and the End of Racism

…(fireworks)… Please welcome, in our now well-established way, another new contributor to The Disorder Of Things. Srdjan Vucetic is currently Assistant Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa. He is most recently the author of The Anglosphere: A Genealogy of a Racialized Identity in International Relations (on which he may blog soon), as well as of a number of articles on the ‘special relationship’, ‘Anglo’ coalitions of the willing and genealogy as a research tool in IR. Images by Pablo.


The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line; the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.

W.E.B. Du Bois’ lucid remark, published in The Atlantic in 1901 (and elsewhere), continues to unify and motivate thinking on race and racism in International Relations. ‘Colouring Lessons: Race, Colour, Nation and Colony in Contemporary IR Theory’, an upcoming BISA-ISA conference panel featuring Meera, Omar, Pablo, Robbie, and myself, will consider how the “problem of the color line” might lead us to think differently about the structure and processes of world politics today. There are many good questions to cover; so many, in fact, that we best start our discussions early. Here’s one: when will racism end?

Let us begin by locating the question in the wonderful world of popular online betting. Thanks to the internet it is now possible to make and take wagers on almost anything, including on the future of phenomena such as racism. Recorded in May 2003 by a certain Bill Moore under the title ‘Bet 115’, one such wager can be found on the Long Bets website (Long Bets is run by a California-based non-profit foundation specializing in public education, including “enjoyably competitive predictions, of interest to society, with philanthropic money at stake”). It goes like this: “By 2100 racism will no longer be a significant phenomenon in most countries of the world”. The author qualified his thinking thus:

This prediction simply puts a date to a trend that is well underway. Racism is a set of learned attitudes and behaviour, and as such it can be eliminated. There has been a great deal of movement toward the elimination of racism in the past century. Racism plays a much less significant role in access to employment, housing, education, in distribution of wealth, etc., than it did 100 years ago. Racist attitudes are no longer acceptable in any mainstream, political, social, religious, corporate, or other public figure.

At the time of this writing, Bet 115 goes unchallenged, but thirty or so comments posted by assorted visitors to the site provide us with an interesting repository of ordinary and extraordinary language definitions of race and racism. (A discussion of the boundary conditions of the prediction follows one on human nature, which in turns follows an exchange regarding the “semantics and scope”). Also interesting is that 68% of the registered users of Long Bets (N=249) have voted “against” the prediction, suggesting that the majority expects the global colour line to outlast the end of the twentieth first century, two hundred years after Du Bois wrote (voting has been “temporarily disabled” this fall).

So what would the recent philosophical and socio-historical research on the subject say about Bet 115?

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