What We Talked About At ISA: Abstraction, Authenticity, Objection

Our traditional post-conference binge series returns, with posts on talks given at the International Studies Association conference (this one was in Toronto, in March 2014).


Far Side Anthropologists

0. Prelude

Since our theme is accidental fieldwork, I will begin with an account of my accident. In the course of a PhD thesis mainly on concepts, theories and narratives of wartime sexual violence, I spent three and a half weeks in the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. That time barely deserves the term ‘fieldwork’, but it wasn’t desk work, and it wasn’t familiar. Working partly for an NGO, I spoke principally to agents of the humanitarian international, from ActionAid to various branches of the UN. I was partly working for others, and partly scoping out a more in-depth period of fieldwork, one that never materialised. I socialised in the same bars as those internationals, and sat by the same hotel pools. But I did not then seek to interrogate their peculiar brand of international practice. Nor have I returned to it since.

Perhaps this accounts for why my over-riding sense was one of discomfort. At some level I expected that my time away would enrich the thesis by locating my abstractions in concrete situations and real persons. Perhaps I would experience what so many seem to, and fall for the location itself, returning again and again, and slowly acquiring language, cultural cues, a taste for the food and the air. Instead I felt strangely detached, and implicated in performances not of my choosing (the expert, the knowing colleague, the route to international support, the disaster tourist). I returned more attached to conceptual inquiry, and more suspicious (I was already quite suspicious) of appeals to ‘the real world’ and its informants. My disconnection (from other ‘internationals’, from locals, from Goma itself) became clearer sometime later, sitting in a hotel suite at an ISA panel, listening to others talk about the same place, and some of the same buildings, in terms of their own discomfort and dislocation.

1. Narrative Is A Metacode

Not all representations of the field are alike. Let us distinguish three. Continue reading

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Bodies in Pain: Yasiin Bey and the Force-Feeding of Hunger Strikers at Guantanamo Bay

Lauren WilcoxA guest post from Lauren Wilcox, currently Charles and Amy Scharf Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. Lauren is starting a new job as a University Lecturer in Gender Studies at the University of Cambridge this fall. Her  work is located at the intersections of international relations, political theory, and feminist/queer theory in investigating the consequences of thinking about bodies and embodiment in the study of international practices of violence and security. She is the author of articles in Security Studies, Politics & Gender and, most recently, International Feminist Journal of Politics. Lauren’s current book manuscript is entitled Practices of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations.


Mos Def Nose Tube

Earlier this month, the UK human rights organization Reprieve released a video in which Yasiin Bey, formerly known as Mos Def, a well-known and critically acclaimed American hip-hop artist and actor, underwent (or attempted) the force-feeding procedure undergone by hunger strikers imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. In this five minute video, Bey dresses in an orange jumpsuit like those worn by prisoners at Guantánamo Bay, and states simply that this is the ‘standard operating procedure’ for force-feeding hunger striking prisoners. He is then shackled to a chair resembling those used to force-feed prisoners (such as those pictured below). Bey is approached and held down by two people who attempt to insert a nasogastric tube down his nasal passage way. The video shows Bey struggling against the nasogastric tube, crying out, protesting, yelling for it to stop, and ultimately the force feeding is not carried out. The video is extremely emotional and difficult to watch. After the attempted force-feeding ends, Bey struggles to describe what it feels like, describing it as ‘unbearable’. It ends as it begins, with Bey stating ‘peace’ and ‘good morning’.

For some background context, 166 prisoners remain in Guantánamo Bay: of these, 126 have been cleared for release as not posing any threat to US national security, but are still being imprisoned. To protest their treatment and indefinite confinement prisoners have engaged in hunger strikes since the prison camp opened in July of 2002, the first wide scale hunger strike reached a peak in June 2005, when between 130-200 out of approximately 500 prisoners at Guantánamo Bay began refusing food. Hunger strikes again reached a peak in the spring and summer of 2013, and are ongoing with around 100 prisoners refusing food, and of those, between 44 and 46 are being force-fed (pictured above is an image of an inmate being hauled to the medical facilities to be force-fed), a number so high that the military had to send a back-up team of medical personnel to assist with the force-feeding of prisoners. While the force-feeding of hunger strikers when virtually unnoticed in the media in 2005/6, and again in 2009, the latest months have brought renewed attention to the plight of those who have been held at Guantánamo Bay, some for over a decade, with seemingly no progress made on holding tribunals or securing release of the remaining prisoners. Prisoners have spoken out, including an op-ed published in the NY Times by Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel entitled “Gitmo is Killing Me”. While President Obama has recently renewed his pledge to close Guantánamo Bay, and a federal judge has even more recently stated that while she had no power to stop the force-feedings, Obama could himself order the force-feedings stopped.

What are the effects of Bey’s action? Continue reading

Narrative, Politics and Fictocriticism: Hopes and Dangers

Anthony Burke

The third post in our mini-forum on critical methodologies and narrative in IR, now from Anthony Burke. Anthony is Associate Professor of International Politics at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia. His works include Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other (Routledge 2007), a recent essay in Angelaki, ‘Humanity After Biopolitics’ (December 2011), and the narrative essay ‘Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrrors’, in Borderlands and Meanjin.


I

I have long been concerned by the way that language has two potentials with relevance to the study and practice of politics. On one hand, when combined with systems of logic and categorisation, language can construct, imagine, and fix powerful images of the real, and enable their deployment into material formations of industry, political organisation and human action. Language does not translate directly into power or constitute successful actions; it may indeed find contest and frustration. But we should hold this power in awe and watch it carefully, much as we may watch a dangerous animal that comes into our presence — after all, what more dangerous animal is there than the human, given its collective social powers of organisation and rationalisation, powers deployed through and within language?

On the other hand, particular forms and strategies of language have the power to undo and challenge this ontologizing potential: to see meaning defer and slip away, to see truths appear and shimmer into mist, to see its own strategies revealed even as it pursues them, to find itself haunted by thoughts and signs it did not intend. As Michel Foucault describes it in The Thought From Outside, this is language arriving ‘at its own edge…toward an outer bound where it must continually contest itself’. When this takes on the form of fiction, he argues, language is “no longer a power that tirelessly produces images and makes them shine, but rather a power that undoes them, that lessens their overload, that infuses them with an inner transparency that illuminates them little by little until they burst and scatter in the lightness of the unimaginable”.

This points to two strategies: one taking the form of social science, the other, the form of fiction.

I have pursed this project of deconstruction and unmasking in the form of social science, in way that both affirms and challenges its rules: to question ontologies of war and national security, the rationalist pretentions of nuclear strategy, the narrative confidence of American exceptionalism or the ‘good state’. To explore the dangers of all these things, of narrations and categories taken as truth, of choice masquerading as truth.

Yet I was also driven to literature as a possibility…of what, exactly? Continue reading

Critical Methodological and Narrative Developments in IR: A Forum

Elizabeth Dauphinee 2Some months ago, Elizabeth Dauphinee (York) asked if we would be interested in hosting a series of posts resulting from a workshop on recent critical methodological and narrative developments in International Relations. We said yes. Said workshop was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) and happened in October of last year at the York Centre for International and Security Studies. It considered how narrative writing, including storytelling, autoethnography, and other forms of creative expression are currently altering the provenance of IR knowledge. Over the next week and a bit we will feature posts from many of the contributors. In this introductory post Elizabeth (who previously guest-posted on racism and the self) sets out the trajectory and stakes of the forum.


The ways in which academics and practitioners think about international politics are shaped invariably by the ways in which they produce and access information. In IR, as in all social science disciplines, there exists an established professional language that privileges the initiated, reproduces adherents through highly specialized training practices, and ignores or rebuffs intellectual ‘outsiders’. These languages sanitize academic writing and they strategically deploy their interlocutors in a style of adversarial debate that is often stagnant and exclusionary. In addition, virtually all theories of IR seek replicable truths and are deeply ill-at-ease with results that are unclear or open-ended or with projects that reveal ambiguity and ambivalence. Scholars deploying various critical methodologies have been arguing for decades that knowledge can only be partial and situated. However, this has not led to a change in the way mainstream scholarship is developed and disseminated, and even scholars who consider themselves to be critical typically operate with specialized theoretical languages and narrow intellectual coda that are often impenetrable even for the most diligent and invested student.

In recent years, these dilemmas have led to a new line of academic inquiry that may be fundamentally altering the landscape of IR. These approaches are based in autoethnography and narrative writing, and involve storytelling, explicit use of the ‘I’ as a narrating subject, and deep exploration of the interface between writers and their subject matter. Scholars who work with these approaches are showing that the form writing takes shapes its content, plots its own boundaries, and pre-determines who can comprise its audience. They are showing that researchers are always personally present in their writing, that narratives – both written and oral – are knowledge-producing activities, and that the claim to scientific objectivity is not only impossible but also, critically, undesirable. They are also showing that critical theory written in scholarly language alienates and excludes the very communities that many IR scholars are trying to reach: students, policymakers and practitioners, institutions of governance, international organizations, the reading public, to name just a few.

As this form of writing is growing exponentially in volume and scope, the workshop organizers and participants determined that the time was ripe for a sustained discussion to identify the successes and challenges facing narrative and autoethnographic approaches. Without a careful and systematic exploration of these novel methods by those who are already working with them – and also by those who are unsure of their value – narrative IR may emerge in ways that are misguided and destructive. They may emerge as an exercise in self-indulgence, or as disconnected forays into the personal and confessional without a sustained political motif. Additionally, ethical questions surrounding the disclosure of both self and other are uniquely important for narrative IR scholars, who do not purport to ‘interview’ their subjects in a formal way. And, concerns about epistemic privilege emerge in the context of approaches that do not claim to situate knowledge in any established theory or philosophical tradition.

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Colouring Lessons: Reflections On The Self-Regulation Of Racism

A guest post, following Srdjan’s and Robbie’s contributions on the meaning and structure of contemporary racism, by Elizabeth Dauphinee. Elizabeth is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at York University in Toronto. She is the author of The Ethics of Researching War: Looking for Bosnia and co-editor of The Logics of Biopower and the War on Terror: Living, Dying, Surviving. Her work has appeared in Security Dialogue, Dialectical Anthropology, Review of International Studies and Millennium. Her current research interests involve autoethnographic and narrative approaches to international relations, Levinasian ethics and international relations theory, and the philosophy of religion.


The idea promulgated by Bet 115 that racism can and will meet its demise in a few short decades is based on the assumption that humans are self-regulating creatures, capable of recognizing and assessing their beliefs in an objective way and making appropriate corrections as needed. In order to explore this assumption, we need to inquire into the relationship between the self as an individual entity, capable of navigating and responding to the external world in an objective, disinterested way, and the social sphere, which may so entirely constitute us that we are incapable of thinking beyond the ‘texts’ (or scripts) of our socio-cultural milieus. In simpler terms, the question is: do we create the world, or does the world create us? 

In order to rightly consider this question, it is important to understand the implications of the answers one might be tempted to choose. It is also important to realise that each of us has a personal investment in the answer we might make. If we are individuals capable of willfully altering the world, then it makes sense to say that we can overcome racism (yet one is left with a lingering sense of bewilderment over why we have not done so). If we are fundamentally shaped and inextricably bound by the social sphere in which our ideas are formed, then we might lack the agency to escape the racism that seems to form a cornerstone of the institutions of our historico-political condition. Of course, there are few who would accept that our ability to self-regulate is an either/or proposition.  Rather, it is probably better to understand it as a ‘both/and’ state of affairs. In short, we shape and are shaped by the worlds we occupy. How, exactly, this is so is difficult to pick apart and navigate despite all of social science’s failed attempts to sharpen the distinction between the self and the worlds the self occupies. It inevitably flattens the complexity of social relations, and often ignores the tensions and contradictions that animate people’s views and beliefs. By way of example, let us consider the question with which we began: are we, or are we not, self-regulating creatures? The very structure of the question assumes that one will make answer either one way or the other. It leaves little room to suggest that both propositions are true, but in different ways and with different implications.

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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?

Continue reading