What We Talked About At ISA: @Hannah_Arendt – A Hypothetical Exploration of Hannah Arendt in Cybersphere

‘Social Media Drawing’ by Tjarko Van Der Pol

This year’s general conference theme for ISA in San Diego centred on ‘Power, Principles and Participation in the Global Information Age’ and, expectedly, gave rise to a proliferation of papers on the value, consequences and effectiveness of platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and other social media in the context of international relations and global politics. Having spent the past three years trying to disentangle the thoughts of one of the more intriguing political theorists on power and politics – Hannah Arendt – it has always struck me that she might have had a word or two to say about the supernova that is social networking as such. I couldn’t help picturing her vigorously engaging with a medium like Twitter, firing off Tweets to relevant interlocutors – @karlmarx no, I think that’s where you’re wrong and dangerous: #history is not ‘made’ by men and #violence not the midwife for a new society! Perhaps even: Yep: RT @karljaspers When #language is used without true significance, it loses its purpose as a means of communication and becomes an end in itself – hashtag and all. Or, on the other hand, flatly dismissing platforms such as Facebook as vanity spheres of little or no substance for political interaction. So I pitched in my paper as a playful thought experiment as to how she might have loved or loathed online social networks as viable platforms and public spheres for the creation of power and conduct of politics proper. This is a somewhat abbreviated version of the full-length paper, which can be found here.

The potency of social networking sites, as channels of communication and a medium for people from all corners of the world to meet in a virtual realm and engage with shared ideas – political or otherwise – has become indisputable. Not least since the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, where bodies and voices were galvanized to part-take in various acts of revolt and revolution in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Libya, facilitated through online networks like Twitter and Facebook, have people discovered the enormous potential for a transnational coming-together in a shared cause. These networks thus appear to present themselves as a global public realm in a virtual space, transcending geographic limitations and boundaries, broadening the scope of possible political impact considerably. But with such a young medium it is perhaps wise to take a step back from the hype and ask how effective are these networks in creating actual political power? In how far can we understand the possibility to mobilize and plan in a non-spatial realm, through social networks, to constitute the generation of power and the actualization of political action? My paper sought to address these questions with an Arendtian lens – for better or for worse.

Inside the Political Twittersphere. Sysomos

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What We Talked About at ISA 2012: A Human Right to Housing

Housing is a Human Right Exhibition, Philadelphia (original photo by Annie Seng)

I ain’t got no home. I’m just a roamin’ round, just a wandering worker, I go from town to town. And the police make it hard wherever I may go. And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

My brothers and my sisters they’re stranded on this road. A hot and dusty road that a million feet have trod. Rich man took my home and drove me from my door. And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Was a farmin’ on the shares and always I was poor. My crops I lay into the banker’s store. My wife took down and died upon the cabin floor. And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

Now as I look around it’s mighty plain to see this world is such a great and funny place to be. Ah, the gamblin’ man is rich and the working man is poor. And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.

-“I Ain’t Got No Home in this World” by Woodie Guthrie

Beginnings Are Difficult

How to start something new? This question troubles the academic as well as the activist. At the moment it troubles me both as a question of inquiry and as a meta-question of method.

In my previous work I have argued that human rights should be judged first and foremost by the consequences they bring about. Do human rights enable new forms of politics? Do they enable politics that increase the control we have over our lives, or that reduce the suffering and humiliation we are exposed to? Or do they confine us in a liberal subjectivity that makes wider visions of justice impossible, which push us to reconcile our beautiful revolutionary dreams to the limited horizon that contemporary liberal capitalism imposes?

I have offered a qualified defense of human rights as a democratising ethos, which suggests that human rights can enable everyday people to challenge the terms of legitimate political authority, including the institutional shape of their government and the makeup of their communities. This is done by formally opening up the identity of “rights holder” to anyone, regardless of their social position. This opening, however, is only formal and in that formality human rights have an ambiguous significance. For this reason, I have argued that to think of human rights as a democratising ethos also requires that we attend to the politics of human rights. This means that ensuring that human rights support democracy and equality is a political struggle as well as an ethical vision.

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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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What We Talked About At ISA: Researching Sexuality in ‘Difficult’ Contexts

In September 2009, Ugandan Parliamentarian David Bahati introduced a draft ‘Anti Homosexuality Bill’ that proposed enhancing existing punishments for homosexual conduct in the Ugandan Penal Code, introducing new ‘related offences’ including ‘aiding and abetting’ homosexuality, ‘conspiracy to engage’ in homosexuality, the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, or ‘failure to disclose the offence’ of homosexuality to authorities within 24 hours, and mandating the death penalty for a select class of offences categorized as ‘aggravated homosexuality’. The bill remained bottled up in parliamentary committees for the duration of the 8th Parliament, thanks in large part to a sophisticated local campaign that sought to bring international pressure to bear on the government of President Yoweri Museveni, but has since been reintroduced in the current 9th Parliament and therefore remains a live concern. In August 2010, I travelled to Uganda to interview a range of actors associated with ongoing debates over sexuality in the country. Rather than commenting on the urgent and pressing substantive concerns at issue in these debates, at an ISA panel entitled ‘Researching sexuality in difficult contexts’, I chose to reflect on some of the methodological dilemmas I encountered in the field, for which my training in international relations had left me unprepared. Emboldened by recent ISA panels on storytelling and auto-ethnography (and utterly bored by what passes for mainstream IR), these reflections take the form of excerpts from my diary (italicized), interspersed with the more censorious, academic voice that I trotted out at ISA. (I make no apology for not writing about the more ‘serious’ issues at stake—on this occasion—because it occurs to me that where sexuality is concerned, the pursuit of fun can raise deadly serious questions, making distinctions between the trivial and the serious difficult to sustain.)

Uganda, August 2010: I am here to do interviews and I spend most of my day setting them up, preparing for them, travelling to or from them, or conducting them. The rest of the time I hang out, people watch, trying to piece together a picture of how life outside heteronormativity survives in a climate that seems—on the surface at least—as inhospitable as Uganda is supposed to be. On Friday, Al (name changed, and this account provided with permission) invited me to a strip-tease. This was going to be a straight strip-tease, but one that some of the gay men went to so that they could watch the straight men getting off on watching the women strip. It sounded convoluted, but unmissable. Plus, I’d never been to a straight strip-tease, so it seemed important to plug this gaping orifice in my sexual history. We entered a dimly lit hall and took seats at the back in a group near the bar. I think I was the only brown man there. There was also one white man in the whole place, in our group. He had evidently been to the place before, and because he came with the same motivations as Al, he had been traumatized on a previous occasion by the way the women flocked to him (money?). So Al was instructed to tell the emcee (a short guy dressed in a white track suit) to make sure that the women didn’t come to our corner. The real attraction, from the point of view of the gay guys, was that the women sometimes got the straight guys to get on stage and strip. Al told the emcee to do his best to encourage this possibility. Call it Straight Guy for the Queer Eye. I was impressed by the brazenness with which Al communicated all this to the emcee. As for the show, let’s just say it took the ‘tease’ out of strip-tease. The first woman (girl? all the performers looked like they were in their 30s, but they could have been younger and prematurely aged by their work) danced to some vaguely familiar Western pop number. She was followed by another woman with bigger hips. Somebody in the group, setting himself up as my informant, tells me that she is ‘a real African woman’. She danced to Shania Twain’s ‘From this Moment On’ (a song I played to my last (and final, I think) girlfriend on the first day I met her, after a year-long correspondence). Just when Shania reached the second verse, the woman dropped her panties. None of the performers took off their bras. ‘African men aren’t interested in breasts’, my self-appointed informant intones. The next half-hour is a blur of female anatomy. So here I am, in a country that people have been calling ‘conservative’ and that American evangelist Rick Warren has decided is ripe for transformation into the world’s first ‘purpose driven’ nation, looking at more naked women in ten minutes than I have seen in ten years, to the soundtrack of my failed romantic history.

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What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part 2

Part two of a post on my presentation at this year’s ISA. Part one is here.


So what would be the normative-political case for the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC)? As Ledbetter notes, the defence industry never had a shortage of defenders, proponents, beneficiaries, and apologists. Various critiques of the MIC notwithstanding, numerous American commentators are now firmly united in the belief that their country needs a large defence budget in order to protect and project its identities and interests in the world. According to Maddow, this collective belief had a lot to do with the discursive and institutional success of the infamous “Team B” reports on Soviet power, which so profoundly enthused Ronald Reagan and his administration, leading to the gigantic military buildup in the 1980s. Maddow’s assessment is worth citing at length:

The Think Tanks and Very Important Committees of the permanent national security peanut gallery are now so mature and entrenched that almost no one thinks they’re creepy anymore, and national security liberals have simply decided it’s best to add their own voices to them rather than criticize them. But like we lefties learned in trying (and failing) to add a liberal network to the all-right-wing, decades-old medium of political talk radio, the permanent defense gadfly world can’t really grow a liberal wing. It’s an inherently hawkish enterprise. Where’s the inherent urgency in arguing that the threats aren’t as bad as the hype, that military power is being overused, that the defense budget could be safely and wisely scaled back, that maybe this next war doesn’t need us? The only audience for defense wonkery is defense enthusiasts, and they’re not paying the price of admission to hear that defense is overrated.

But knotted into the right-wing discourse on defence spending is a number of corollary arguments that are associated with a variety of lefty positions in the U.S. context.  America’s mainstream media outlets rarely fail to acknowledge how the twinning of the country’s economic and armed forces not only creates high-skilled jobs, but also – and critically – keeps them in the country. The move is mainly rhetorical. Not only have successive U.S. administrations encouraged American defence industry to globalize, but there is also little evidence to suggest that defence spending creates more jobs relative to spending on, say, health care or education (see, for example, Pollin and Garrett-Peltier, 2011). I would suggest, then, that what lies behind contemporary pro-MIC arguments is, in fact, a creative and complex combination of certain economic theories, (realist?) beliefs in war (or the threat of war) as a manifest destiny of the international system, as well as an overarching (liberal?) commitment to a powerful, sovereign state capable of exercising global leadership (aka., a “force for good”, in still favoured New Labour parlance.)

Let us revisit the pro-MIC rhetoric from the era of “Team B.” In a footnote, Ledbetter directs the reader to The Lonely Warriors (1970) by John Stanley Baumgartner, who is described as “one notable true defender of the MIC.” Written by an expert in public management and business administration, Baumgartner’s book makes three arguments for the MIC: 1) defending the free world is a moral thing to do (“Sputnik is only one example of the reasons for MIC”); 2) by definition, defence is a big enterprise and all big enterprises (directly or indirectly, the MIC employs one in ten Americans) occasionally make big mistakes, especially when they respond to the murky and changing specifications set by the government (“the tiger” or “the monster”) and its contracting officers; and last, 3) “unconscionable profit” is not so unconscionable in comparative terms (profit on sales, profit on investment, price/earning ratios etc. tend to be below the industrial average).

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What We Talked About At ISA: From #occupyirtheory to #OpenIR?

A write up of my comments at the #occupyirtheory event in San Diego. The event itself was both hope-filled and occasionally frustrating, not least for the small group of walk-outs, apparently ‘political’ ‘scientists’ lacking in any conception of what it actually means to engage in the political (note: this bothered me especially, but was a rather minor irritation in the grander scheme of things). Despite the late hour, there were between 40 and 60 people there throughout, and a number of very positive things have come of it. It looks like there’ll be some gathering at BISA/ISA to discuss further, and we’re pitching something for the Millennium conference on some of the themes addressed below, and there will of course be ISA 2013 too. In the meantime, there’s the Facebook group, the blog, and a mailing list. The term OpenIR is owed to Kathryn Fisher, and seems to several of us to be a better umbrella term for the many things we want to address in the discipline and the academy. I also just want to give a public shout-out to Nick, Wanda, Robbie and Meera for doing so much on this.


The #occupy practice/meme has antecedents. Physical manifestations of a ‘public’, horizontalism, prefigurative politics and more can be traced in all sorts of histories. One such lineage is the foreshadowing of Zucotti Park in recent struggles over education. Take the slogan in March 2010 over privatisation at the University of California, which was ‘STRIKE / OCCUPY / TAKEOVER’. Or Middlesex, where students resisting the dismantling of the Philosophy Department in that same year unfurled a banner during their occupation, one that proclaimed: ‘THE UNIVERSITY IS A FACTORY! STRIKE! OCCUPY!’.

I want briefly, then, to think about the space of the university in our discussions of #occupy. There have been rich and suggestive calls to re-politicise ourselves as academic-activists, to look again at our work and its claims, and to turn our abilities, such as they are, to projects of resistance and transformation. But we risk a displacement. When we talk of ‘the street’, or politics enacted in the reconfigured space of #occupy, or of the ‘real world’ that we must be relevant to, we already miss the university itself as that factory in which we labour. We are tempted by a view of ourselves as leaving ivory towers to do politics, instead of seeing those towers themselves as spaces of politics. As if our institutions and practices were not already part of the world.

Whether you see #occupy as transformational or nor, or whether you simply prefer a different vocabulary, I think a demand remains: a demand to politicise our own positionality. This politicisation can have many dimensions, but I want to suggestively highlight four, each being a sphere in which we should be diagnosing and transforming our own practices.

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What We Talked About At ISA: The U.S. Military-Industrial Complex, Part I

Earlier this year, the U.S. government set out to reduce its vast defence budget. On 5 January, Barack Obama became the first U.S. president to hold a press conference at the Pentagon. What prompted it was the release of Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defence, a “strategic guidance” document outlining the national blueprint for “deterring and defeating aggression,” while reducing record budget deficits “through a lower level of defence spending.” (The document also attracted much media attention because it offered a rare glimpse into the strategic thinking of a president who seems to refuse to be associated with a “doctrine.”) In his State of the Union address three weeks later, Obama reinstated his belief that paring defence sending could help “pay down our debt.” The Pentagon’s FY2013 budget projection followed on 13 February, with a request for $614 billion in funding: $525 billion for the base budget and $88 billion for the so-called overseas contingency operations. FY2012 budget request, the Pentagon noted, was bigger.

Pundits in the US have been debating the meaning of the coming defence cuts, starting with the question of whether there will, in fact, be any cuts in the first place. This debate will probably intensify as the election date approaches, although, indicatively, Obama’s strategic guidance contains no “East of Suez” moments, and his Pentagon speech was a candid expression about the need to stay the course: “Over the next 10 years, the growth in the defence budget will slow, but the fact of the matter is this: It will still grow, because we have global responsibilities that demand our leadership… I firmly believe, and I think the American people understand, that we can keep our military strong and our nation secure with a defence budget that continues to be larger than roughly the next 10 countries combined” (emphasis mine; also, “10” appears to be way too low).

Much remains to be said about the type, magnitude, and sequence of the coming changes to America’s defence, and the electoral 2012 will be too short to say it all. The first round of projected budget cuts (“$487 billion”) takes into consideration the provisions of the self-flagellating Budget Control Act from August 2011. The second round of cuts (“$500 billion”) refers the so-called automatic sequestration cuts, also specified in the Act, which will take effect in January 2013 if Congress does find “alternative” ways to control the budget. U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described these automatic cuts as the “doomsday scenario,” a label that Congress’s bipartisan supercommittee will no doubt keep in mind as it looks for those alternatives (such as, for example, legislation to reverse the Act). In the end, what will change is the ordering of America’s military priorities, but not the militarization of America’s “global responsibilities” (to use Obama’s own label) as such. Behind it, after all, are multiple and reinforcing structural factors that make real cuts difficult. One of them is “defence industry,” which some pundits and watchdog organizations like to call, somewhat retrospectively, the “military-industrial complex” (MIC).

As a conceit, the MIC goes back at least to World War I, but it is popularly dated to Eisenhower’s ‘Farewell Address’ in 1961. As far as US presidential speeches/speechwriting goes, Eisenhower’s was a tour de force in every respect, but the reason why we read it today – or, rather, search for it on YouTube – is for the parts where the president urges the American citizens to pay attention to the “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry [that is] new in the American experience,” while advising the American government to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.”

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