Just Research? (Un)Seeing Politics in a Complex World

Jo VeareyThe third post in our symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics, from Jo Vearey. Jo is an Associate Professor and Director of the African Centre for Migration & Society, University of the Witwatersrand, where she is involved in designing and coordinating research programmes, teaching, and supervising graduate students. Jo is involved in multiple international partnership, is Vice-Chair of the global Migration, Health, and Development Research Initiative (MHADRI), and is an Honorary Researcher at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Edinburgh. Jo is a South African National Research Foundation rated researcher and, supported by a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award, established the Migration and Health Project Southern Africa (maHp). With a commitment to social justice, Jo’s research explores ways to generate and communicate knowledge to improve responses to migration, health and wellbeing in the southern African region. Fundamental to her research practice is Jo’s participation in a range of policy processes at international, regional, national and local levels. Jo is exploring the role of public engagement in the development of appropriate policy responses, including the use of mixed methods approaches that involve various publics in the co-production and application of knowledge to affect change.


Sophie Harman has produced an excellent, accessible text within which she shares her reflections on the opportunities and tensions associated with a research process that draws on feminist research praxis, engages with efforts to democratise research, and aims to work with participants to co-produce knowledge. In Seeing Politics, Sophie presents a comprehensive review of the potential of film as a feminist method, and reflects on her work with 80 women in Tanzania that culminated in the co-production of a narrative feature film that shares their stories of living with HIV. The resultant film – Pili – has been shown at international film festivals and received awards and, as Sophie highlights, is the first time that a co-produced narrative film has been applied as a feminist research method in the field of International Relations (IR). Seeing Politics is a book about method and about a justice-driven approach that attempts to ‘make visible the invisible’ lived experiences of women living with HIV in Tanzania, notably their navigation of formal and informal everyday politics and how this intersects with their health and wellbeing, and with gendered experiences of discrimination and abuse. But it is also about a lot more.

Knowledge Politics

Seeing Politics forces us to see a different form of politics: the politics of knowledge. Whilst this is, obviously, implicit throughout the book, we should more explicitly reflect on how ‘the visual’ as a research method and research output ‘makes visible’ the discomforts of knowledge politics, namely: who is telling whose story and for what purpose? When we claim to ‘make visible the invisible’, who are we positioning as invisible and what does it mean to do so? In what context? Is it for us (the researcher) to determine who needs to be made visible? For whose benefit? What are the implications of making people and places visible? Such questions force us to engage in our own research praxis and confront uncomfortable questions about the politics of knowledge, and the role of scholarship and the academy when engaging in justice-driven research.  These are by no means new or novel questions and an extensive body of literature exists that I won’t in any way attempt to summarise here. These long established calls for democratising, decolonising and humanizing research are attracting a new generation of indigenous researchers from multiple disciplinary perspectives who are productively engaging with these tensions, re-engaging with decolonial approaches to research methods and praxis and challenging the status quo in international partnerships.

Sophie highlights that the methodology outlined in Seeing Politics is about a commitment to ensuring what Sophie and her colleague William Brown have previously framed as ‘African agency’, an approach to research that aims “to take African politics, actions, preferences, strategies and purposes seriously to get beyond the tired tropes of an Africa that is victimised, chaotic, violent and poor” (Brown and Harman 2013, 1-2). This is a welcome imperative but, as a framing proposed by two white, British academics based in the UK, what does this – as an academic project in its own right – mean for the idea of ‘African agency’?  At its core, I would argue that Seeing Politics is in fact about precisely these tensions and contradictions that many of us experience in our research praxis. The book itself becomes a helpful tool for recognising and responding to the discomfort we feel of being a researcher and the way we feel about our own positions and complicity in the extractive nature of research. I see how I can use the book in my teaching as a way to generate exactly this form of reflection.

Continue reading

Advertisements

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.

Continue reading

Seeing Politics, Seeing the Self/Knowing Politics, Knowing the Self

The first contribution in a symposium on Sophie Harman’s Seeing Politics (McGill-QUeen’s University Press, 2019) (other symposia are also available). The symposium is today introduced by Disorder regular Laura Shepherd. Laura is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow and Professor of International Relations at Sydney University. Laura is also a Visiting Senior Fellow at the LSE Centre for Women, Peace and Security in London, UK. Her primary research focuses on the United Nations Security Council’s ‘Women, Peace and Security’ agenda. Laura is particularly interested in gender, security and violence, and she has strong interests in pedagogy and popular culture. Laura is author/editor of several books, including, most recently Gender, UN Peacebuilding and the Politics of Space (Oxford University Press, 2017) and Routledge Handbook of Gender & Security (edited with Caron Gentry and Laura Sjoberg; Routledge, 2019). Her work has been published in journals such as European Journal of International Relations, International Affairs, and International Feminist Journal of Politics. She tweets from @drljshepherd and blogs semi-regularly right here.

The contributions to the symposium will be collected at this link as they appear over the next weeks.


Stories have a privileged place in the communicative practices of Western Anglophone cultures; they are a way of learning, and of passing on learning. Sophie Harman’s book is motivated by the insight that the stories of Pili and other HIV-positive African women remain largely untold in scholarly and policy discourse on international politics. As Harman writes in the opening pages, ‘Their stories are instrumentalised for funding, political will, and campaigns but they are one-dimensional stories of success in adversity, educational and sanitised narratives, or morality tales of risk and redemption’.[i] Harman goes on to explain that the partiality of the stories that we tell is not unrelated to the methods that we use to conduct our investigations of world politics; a decolonial feminist perspective enables a different kind of seeing, wherein such ‘methods of seeing need to allow such women to see and represent themselves and to value the knowledge and co-contribution to the research process’.[ii] This sets the scene, so to speak, for the development of film-as-method.

Harman’s is not an uncontroversial intellectual undertaking. International Relations, Harman’s discipline and the discipline in which I also (somewhat uneasily) situate myself, seems a particularly disciplined discipline. The idea of a discipline (noun), in the academic sense, clearly derives from the verb: both relate to establishing clear boundaries between what is right and good (behaviour/research) and what is wrong and bad (behaviour/research); both have ways to correct transgression when an uninitiated (or resistant) person strays. We are trained to recognize the boundaries of our discipline and to stay carefully with them, and the artefacts and agents of International Relations police those boundaries furiously, both explicitly and implicitly.[iii] ‘Among other things, international relations students are quietly forbidden from looking for, let alone importing, valuable insights from art, fiction, and literary criticism’.[iv]  Yet – and thankfully – an ill-disciplined, dissident series of scholars have refused to be bound by such strictures and have delighted in music, photographs, sculptures, murals, novels, and films as ways of encountering, and presenting encounters with, world politics.[v]

Seeing Politics Harman

Harman’s book in some ways continues in the tradition of these scholarly works, exploring ‘the potential of film as method and scholarly output for seeing politics’.[vi] But Harman achieves much more than this. She deftly interweaves telling and showing, reading and seeing, to complicate both how we understand the empirical focus of her investigation – the lives of Pili and women like her – and how we approach and apprehend knowledge itself in our quest to better understand the practices of world politics, and she is centrally concerned with the story of her research – or rather, the stories, plural. Harman presents a many-layered narrative in Seeing Politics, drawing in her own research story, the stories of the women that she worked with, the stories of film-making, and stories about the broader political economy of media production, distribution, and consumption. As Harman explains, ‘[n]arrative feature film is an important method in capturing who speaks and who sees IR; however, it also provides an important insight into the relational aspect of knowledge production and consumption and the role of the researcher within this’.[vii] Within every story, there are multiple stories, and within those stories, worlds to tell. Harman writes with a remarkable sensitivity towards these stories, a sensitivity that I can only describe as an ethic, a mode of encountering the world and her own research as a social practice within that world. This research ethic, and mode of both encountering and producing knowledge, situates Seeing Politics as a different kind of intervention.

Continue reading

Rising to the Challenge: Critical IR in the Corbyn Moment

David WearingA new post in our loose series on left foreign policy, this time from David Wearing. David is a Teaching Fellow in International Relations at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he specialises in UK foreign relations in the Middle East. David is author most recently of AngloArabia: Why Gulf Wealth Matters To Britain (Polity, 2018), reviewed in a recent issue of the LRB, and of many interventions on the arms trade, the war in Yemen, and the Gulf monarchies. He is also a frequent commentator at The Guardian.


In the academic field of international relations, up until recently, the division of labour was pretty clear. Some of us were engaged in ‘problem solving theory’ and others in ‘critical theory’, as per the distinction famously drawn by Robert Cox.[1] Here, I want to address those friends and colleagues who count themselves in the latter group, arguing that the current historical moment presents us with a unique (perhaps fleeting) opportunity to have a significant impact on British politics and international relations, but one which also demands a willingness to recognise the urgency of that moment, and adapt.

According to Cox’s distinction, problem solving theory ‘takes the world as it finds it, with the prevailing social and power relationships’, and looks for patterns or regularities within those parameters. It is a small-c conservative, technocratic approach, suited to advising policymakers on how best to manage the status quo. Therefore, notwithstanding claims made by those who fall under this heading to be apolitical, objective and scientific, problem solving theory has an inescapably political character, attracting those on the right and centre of the political spectrum, and primarily serving those who benefit most from the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’.

Critical theory, by contrast, ‘does not take institutions and social and power relations for granted but calls them into question by concerning itself with their origins and how and whether they might be in the process of changing’. As such it attracts those further to the left on the political spectrum, for whom the point of interpreting the world is not to manage it better but to change it in fundamental and transformative ways. Under the hitherto familiar division of labour in IR, our task was not to advise policymakers, but step back from and critique the historical conditions within which policymaking takes place: shedding light on what is taken for granted, looking for moments of disruption and crisis in the established patterns, and engaging with those civil society actors who shared our commitment to challenge the ‘prevailing social and power relationships’ head on.

I say ‘the hitherto familiar division of labour’ because we in the UK are now living through precisely one of those moments of disruption and crisis that much of our analysis seeks to identify. Call it ‘the Corbyn moment’, for want of a better term. And if our focus and activities as scholars are defined by our ‘position in…social and political time and space’, as Cox says, and if the present moment is different from the familiar norm, then our focus and activities must surely be different as well.

What is the nature of that moment?
Continue reading

Reinventing Language

Catherine Charrett BiopicA guest post from Catherine Charrett. Catherine is a Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Queen Mary University of London and will be teaching at the University of Westminster from September 2019. Catherine uses transdisciplinary methods to explore and present research on technologies of security and policing in the Occupation of Palestine and is the author of The EU, Hamas and the 2006 Palestinian Elections: A Performance in Politics (Routledge, 2019). Catherine created a 45-minute solo performance piece based on the material in this blog post and entitled The Vein, the Fingerprint Machine and the Automatic Speed Detector. You can view a trailer for the show here. Please get in touch with Catherine for further information about booking or viewing the performance piece.


 

Invent a hope for speech,
invent a direction, a mirage to extend hope.
And sing, for the aesthetic is freedom/
***
I say: The life which cannot be defined
except by death is not a life”

(Darwish, 2007)

The poetic means that form is loosened from technical function.

(Larkin, 2013: 335)

Below are two texts. The first is a deconstruction of a transcribed Israeli ‘start-up’ competition in the weapons industry. I attended this event in the Dan Panorama Hotel, Tel Aviv (Jaffa) on 18 July 2018. I witnessed and recorded the technologisation and capitalisation of killing Palestinians and other racially marked bodies – hosted by Israel, attended by international spectators. To take a break from this show I walked down the street, and I came across a sigh of relief in the shape of a mosque, the Hasan Bek Mosque, Jaffa. The second text below is a historical rendering of that mosque as described in the Journal of Palestine Studies by the late Shafiq al-Hout. Al-Hout, born and raised in Jaffa, was a founding member of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), and never ceased to fight for the Palestinian right to return.

In this intervention, my hope is to play with the form of language to disrupt what Carol Cohn described as the internal ‘logic’ of technostrategic language. As academics of international relations often we are prone to repeating the technostrategic language, which Cohn says has been invented by mathematicians, salesmen, economists and political scientists to invent a truth, which makes it possible to think the unthinkable (1987: 715).  This language capitalises upon and reproduces phallic imagery, competitive male sexuality and the promise of male creationism. In the first text I offer a deconstructive parody of some of these mechanisms. Non-official tongue, slang, sarcasm, colloquialism resist the totalitarianism of administrative language, says Herbert Marcuse. In playing with language, I hope to performatively critique the techno-fetishization that continues to circulate around Israel’s high-tech industry, and around high-tech solutions in the security industry more generally.

The reference for the ‘logic’ of technostrategic speech, argues Cohn is the weapon itself ‘(1987: 715). There is however, another reference point, the one who will be targeted, the one who will be ‘sacrificed’ for apparent technological evolution, those who will serve as the “literal raw materials” for white security (Agathangelou, 2013 cited in Howell and Richter-Montpetit, 2019). Drawing inspiration from Katherine McKittrick (2011; 2014) I include the second text as an expression of Palestinian life before and beyond the rupture of violent European/ Israeli expansionism, dispossession and racial extraction into Palestinian livelihoods.

Poetry is often unquantifiable in terms of material weight, but the fact that it has lasted for as long as humankind has been using language suggests that its value lies in its presence as a fact of language within which people search for meaning, for echoes to the sounds of their souls and the music of their minds.

(Alshaer 2016).

***

Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Revisiting Genocide: From Hegemonic Narratives to Plasticity

The last guest contribution to our symposium is penned by Myriam Fotou,  Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Leicester. Her research focuses on the ethics of hospitality, inquiring into conceptualisations of Otherness within an increasingly securitised intellectual and policy migration framework. She is currently working on people smuggling.


Ben Meiches’s The Politics of Annihilation constitutes a deeply nuanced and impressively thought-out genealogy of genocide, offering a detailed account of its complexities and interaction with global politics. Focusing on the hegemonic understanding of genocide – the one we, as IR scholars, have tried over the years to grapple with in our research and teaching – it moves beyond it in an enormously significant contribution to the understanding of the past, present and future of how such an understanding predefines and constrains our comprehension and conceptualisations of violence and its destructive processes. Bringing in the Deleuzian logic of sense and his and Guattari’s work on the theory of concepts as assemblages (and Malabou’s plasticity in the second part of the book), it succeeds in dealing with the elusiveness and unease the concept presents most of us (or at least the less initiated to genocide studies) with. It argues convincingly for genocide’s ontological independence as concept, an independence that we must take into account when considering the possibilities of its future forms.

Ben Meiches’s book identifies a series of “unique dangers” deriving from the hegemonic understanding of genocide’s tendency to limit and suppress such future forms and any conceptualisations beyond the canon in general. First, the hegemonic understanding acts as a barometer of what truly counts as genocide, constraining more nuanced or multi-aspect genocide discourses, namely limiting the politics that respond to genocide per se. Secondly, it engenders mechanisms, institutions and other tools of global governance imbued by governmentality that in essence define who and what should either be protected or abandoned, leading to serious inequities and exclusions. Thirdly and closely related to the above, it does not allow any space to understand, articulate or even foresee future, novel or more loosely formed destructive and deathly processes that could count as new forms of genocide.

Continue reading