Knowing Like A Jinetera

The last commentary post in our forum on Megan’s From Cuba With Love, following contributions from Megan herself, Rahul, Dunja Fehimovic and Nivi. Megan’s rejoinder will be up imminently.

Visit Cuba Poster

So near and yet so foreign! declares the advert. Intimate and exotic, Cuba as a repository for fantasy and self-discovery, the neighbour with the mixed-race charms, the imagined nation Cindy Weber once analysed so relentlessly as “the near colony and certain feminine complement” of the United States. Megan’s new, and first, book – From Cuba With Love – exposes the same kind of dynamic, although from a different standpoint.[1] Hers is a near-seamless blend of reportage and feminist IR, moving from autobiography to testimony to political theory, translating from events on the Malecón (the long waterside promenade in Havana dubbed “Cuba’s great sofa”) to the masculine histories of the Cuban state and back again. It is also – for those seduced by such things – a book beautiful to look at, and to hold (which is a way of saying that you should buy a hard copy). It is a book about evasion, repression and muddled motives, but is itself a model of generosity and clarity.

The central figure throughout is the ‘jinetera’, superficially close to the idea of a ‘prostitute’ but evidently much more ambiguous in definition and shifting in practice. As Megan explains, the term ‘jinetera’ and the general practice ‘jineterismo’ are plays on ‘jockeying’, meaning to manoeuvre for advantage and also to have sex, both connotations clearly playful, if also risky (see the previous posts in the forum for more discussion on the meaning and forms of jineterismo).[2] It is with a curiosity about jineterismo that Megan starts. But where we end up is inside an indispensable guide to the ‘sexual-affective economy’, a bold innovation in disciplinary writing, and a testament to the difference gender analysis makes in studying the global political.

From Cuba With Love does what a certain kind of post-structural feminist IR does best, dissecting the identities created by, and in, a concrete historical system. Not the narrow ‘identity politics’ critics abhor, but identity as the fullness of lived experience shot through with power, subjectivities which are at once deeply personal (love, hope, desire, sex) and interwoven with the most brute forms of political violence (the state, the prison camp, the rehabilitation centre, the police system, imperialism and resistance, exclusion and poverty). It is a study that is undeniably ‘global’ in its scope, even about inter-national relations in a rather precise sense, given how often the admixture of sex and money circles the desires of the (usually) western male for a ‘local’ rendezvous, and how implicated notions of race, nation, difference, rivalry, trade, progress, savagery, miscegenation, and geopolitical virility are in that. A kind of diplomacy, even. This is an encounter with ‘the Other’, and a negotiation of the foreign, in its most visceral possible form. Or, as one key informant more bluntly puts it:

It’s different if one goes to bed with a foreigner, or a mountain of foreigners…Do we have to carry such chauvinistic patriotism with us in our pussies too? Is it obligatory to make use of a mambí dick? Or are they trying to avoid alienating penetrations?

Yet From Cuba With Love is not just a great success on those terms. It is also in many ways the stand-out example of ‘narrative IR’, that vague but increasingly popular sub-field (or is it a method?) devoted to exploring world politics from the situated perspective of someone experiencing it (that someone usually being the researcher themselves). Continue reading


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.

Continue reading

Inference and Scientific Progress in International Relations

This is the third in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. Joe continued with his post and a discussion of the relationship between the scientific and the normative, and their institutionalization within IR. Next week will see a final post, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now up.

Inference and Scientific Progress in International Relations

From a philosophy of science perspective, IR discussions on methodology and epistemology have always struck me as a bit bizarre. The outdated nature of most debates and the odd use of labels like ‘positivism’ have made IR philosophy of science too often seem like a muddled confusion, rather than an insightful debate. So it’s hard to overstate how fantastic it is to see a book like Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s – precisely because it weaves skillfully through rigorous philosophy of science, and doesn’t remain bound by IR’s idiosyncratic frameworks of debate. I find myself highly sympathetic to a lot of what Jackson argues for in this book, and am a strong proponent of methodological pluralism. There are two major points I think Jackson’s book neglects though – one is more based upon my own philosophical position (an external critique), while the second is a problem more or less within Jackson’s position (an internal critique). In what follows I try to examine some missing elements of Jackson’s book, and suggest what might be an alternative approach. [1]

On Monism and Dualism

Jackson begins by setting out a 2×2 matrix of different fundamental philosophical orientations (‘wagers’). These are considered ideal types that help to clarify the vast field of philosophy of science. The first distinction is between mind-world dualism and mind-world monism. It is a distinction concerning the relationship between the researcher and his or her object. The second distinction is between what Jackson calls phenomenalism and transfactualism – or what might be also known as instrumentalism versus realism about scientific objects. The former sees empirical data as all that can be legitimately said to exist, whereas the latter argues we can deduce the existence of unobservable entities as well.

Phenomenalism Transfactualism
Dualism Neopositivism Critical Realism
Monism Analyticism Reflexivity

The 2×2 matrix: A scholar’s best friend.

As Jackson is clear about the ideal-type nature of this categorization, I don’t want to criticize that aspect. Rather, my point is that in his discussion of mind-world dualism and monism Jackson leaves aside one crucially important position (and the position undertaken by many in the so-called ‘speculative realist’ movement). [2] Whereas Jackson sets the empiricist, explanation-based, ‘scientific’ perspectives on the side of mind-world dualism, he sets the social constructivist, understanding-based perspectives on the side of mind-world monism. The former tries to bridge the gap between mind and world by creating accurate representations. The latter asserts that all of reality is intertwined with linguistic and conceptual baggage. (36) (This is precisely what Quentin Meillassoux will call the ‘correlationist’ position: the reduction of Being to the relation between mind and world. )

Continue reading