Love, Discomfort and the Language of the Tribe

This is the third post in our forum on Megan’s new book. We are delighted to welcome Dunja Fehimovic, a doctoral student at the University of Cambridge working on the relationship of film to national identity in Cuba in the 21st century. Dunja is author of a number of investigations of those themes in Journal of Latin American Cultural Studies and Bulletin of Latin American Research, as well as forthcoming in Cuban Cinema Inside Out and The Routledge Companion to World Cinema.


When From Cuba with Love arrived in the post, my first thought was, ‘What a beautiful book.’ It was the kind of book that drew me in – the kind of book, in fact, that might catch the eye of anyone browsing the shelves of their local bookshop. Its cover illustration reminded me of the endlessly-proliferating coffee table books about Cuba, including one I myself own about pre-Revolutionary Cuban advertising and design. It appealed to the vague, pervasive nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, roughly associated with the 1930-50s, that seems to be doing the rounds of late – all cupcakes, vintage posters, Cath Kidston and red lipstick.

From Cuba - Red Cover

But like the señorita in the picture, whose skirt is slashed to show a titillating amount of thigh, this had added appeal. The added sex appeal of Cuba, that is. As reactions to my topic of study have confirmed over time, Cuba is a sexy subject. Sex in Cuba is a very sexy subject. Daigle’s book, then, immediately evokes all of the stereotypical, exotic or erotic associations that we reveal or conceal through our reactions to Cuba as a place and subject of study. From its front cover onwards, it triggered uncomfortable reflections on my own contradictory, complex fascination with the country – a fascination that evolved, tellingly, from a love of salsa music and dancing through to a touristic experience during my undergraduate years and to the present day, as I move towards the completion of my thesis on contemporary Cuban cinema and national identity. In her introduction, Daigle warns that this is not a comfort text. True enough.

When I started reading From Cuba with Love, I got in touch with Megan to say that I had a feeling that this was going to be one of those books I wish I had written. And at certain points, I felt as though I had. The atmosphere and situations she so eloquently describes, particularly in the introduction and conclusion, were all too familiar to me as someone who has also spent time doing research in Cuba. I, too, lived near the Callejón de Hamel, and spent many afternoons pushing through the crowds, fascinated and frustrated in almost equal measure. As the rumba music picks up, Megan tells us, ‘the divide between dancers and onlookers blurs’. Crucially, though, the divide between foreigners and Cubans never does. I’ve never been sure how much of this is caused by my own self-consciousness, and how much is ‘objectively’ evident in the behaviour of people around me. Most likely it’s another case of the chicken and the egg, a self-perpetuating cycle of self-alienation and othering from both sides.

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Dr Schwarz, I Presume?

And so, after some delay due to storm, and just a month after The Disorder Of Things turned three, our own Elke was closely quizzed by Professors Patrick Hayden and Chris Brown. The cause? The defence of her doctoral thesis: The Biopolitical Condition: Rethinking the Ethics of Political Violence in Life-Politics. Arendt, Foucault, and drones. Now passed, certified, set free. Without corrections. Henceforth, Dr Schwarz.

Elke Foucault

Not actually Elke.

The Office Of Blood; Or, ‘The Act Of Killing’ (2012)

The images and scenes we discuss below are not those of a conventional film plot. Nevertheless, *spoiler warning*.


Act Of Killing Anwar Screen

It’s hard to know how to write about The Act Of Killing, the unsettling, surreal, humanising, nauseating portrait of an Indonesian death squad that is generating such interest. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and the mainly anonymous Indonesian crew (anonymous for fear of retribution) have conjured something quite extraordinary into the world. Laced with caustic insights into atrocity, empathy, memory, commodification, artifice, power, solidarity, fear, self-deception and play.

One million people were killed in Indonesia in the mid-60s following a military coup. The massacres which aimed at obliterating “communists” (along with ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) have been largely undocumented, with many of the perpetrators occupying prominent positions in the Indonesian government. Without wishing to give too much away or to channel and pre-empt the multiple, contradictory emotions that it is bound to elicit, the main conceit is a film within a film where the murderers re-enact their murders, all the while debating whether to recreate this method, or whether that victim would have cried out in that way, and sometimes whether they might just be showing us too much truth in their performances of the past. At one point there is the satisfied declaration that these scenes of re-articulated horror will be seen as far away as London! Part voyeurs, part students, we are thus implicated in their narratives, viscerally. Aghast, covering our eyes, retching when they retch, laughing guiltily at moments of shared humanity.

The Act Of Killing is a deliberate move from the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ to the ‘theatre of the oppressor’, a move that is challenging not simply because we – those ostensibly passive spectators – are made to face deeply uncomfortable ‘truths’ but also because it is above all a movie that painstakingly documents what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, called the ‘banality of evil’. Whilst there is nothing anodyne or sanitised about these gruesome renactments, they are almost flippantly juxtaposed with the mundane rituals, pedestrian encounters, and even moments of compassion and kindness that make these men all too human. The result is an audience suspended between empathy and disgust, between acceptance and incredulity, and between the absurd and the quotidian.

The Act Of Killing, for us at least, is a gut-twisting manifestation of sometimes nebulous socio-political insights. Insights such as Agamben’s ‘camp’ or Foucauldian ‘state racism’: concepts that suddenly unfold themselves before us on film, embedded as they are in a context otherwise deeply unfamiliar to us. But although seemingly focused, somewhat narrowly, on Medan, Indonesia the ambit of The Act is far greater: it offers a compelling commentary on the connate imbrication of capitalism, commodification, legality, sexual discrimination, racism, and their inescapably violent manifestations. It is less a document-ary about Indonesian history than a meditation on violence, memory and subjectivity themselves, a provocation made universal precisely because of its lingering gaze on these few aged torturers.

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What We Talked About At ISA: ‘Afghan Masculinities’: The Construction of the Taliban as Sexually Deviant

Taliban 1

The paper I presented earlier this month at the International Studies Annual Conference held in San Francisco looks at how Afghan masculinities have been represented in and by Anglo-American media. The words ‘Afghan man’ conjure up a certain image, a pathologised figure that is now associated with most males in Afghanistan. The paper analyses this figure of the ‘militant’ Afghan man, most strikingly captured by descriptions of the Taliban and juxtaposes it with the less popular, though still familiar trope of the ‘damned’ Afghan man, embodied in the figure of the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai. But here I focus on a particular construction of the Taliban as sexually deviant, (improperly) homosexual men.

Jasbir Puar, in her trenchant appraisal of today’s war machine and the politics of knowledge that sustains it argues that the depictions of masculinity most widely disseminated in the post 9/11 world are terrorist masculinities:

failed and perverse, these emasculated bodies always have femininity as their reference point of malfunction and are metonymically tied to all sorts of pathologies of the mind and the body – homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, madness and disease.

Whilst representations of al-­Qaeda as pathologically perverse have permeated the Western mainstream, the Taliban because of its historically low international profile has escaped that level of media frenzy. The attention it does get, however, is almost always mired in Orientalist fantasies of Eastern men as pathologically disturbed sodomisers. The ‘high jack this fags’ scrawled on a bomb attached to the wing of an attack plane bound for Afghanistan by a USS Enterprise Navy officer, while in no way ubiquitous, is certainly an edifying example of our image of the Taliban as perverse and not quite “normal”.

This perversity of the Taliban has been largely attributed to their madrassa upbringing, an all-­male environment and their concomitant attitude towards women. Continue reading

Oxygen: Impressions from the Workshop ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Oded LowenheimPost seven in our ongoing mini-forum on methodology and narrative in (critical) IR. This time it’s the turn of Oded Löwenheim, who is Senior Lecturer at the Department of International Relations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.  His interests lie in the field of emotions and politics, autoethnography and IR, and investigating the peculiarities of power, so to speak, in various issue areas and fields. He is the author of Predators and Parasites: Persistent Agents of Transnational Harm and Great Power Authority (The University of Michigan Press, 2007), and The Politics of the Trail: Reflexive Mountain Biking along the Frontier of Jerusalem (The University of Michigan Press, forthcoming in 2014). His articles appeared in International Studies Quarterly, Security Dialogue, Security Studies, International Political Sociology and the Review of International Studies. At the Hebrew University he teaches courses on science fiction and on politics and autoethnography and IR.


The two days of the workshop were very intensive for me, in terms of both the many talks and conversations we heard and had, and in terms of the emotional weight I felt during these discussions. Some of the talks we heard were not easy to hear: people told about their personal experiences of places such as the “highway of tears” in British Columbia, Hawaii as a colonized space, or escape from worn-torn Eritrea. Other stories dealt with personal loss and the political meanings of grief; or, of opening up to the inner world of what I, and many other in the West, call “suicide bombers,” while they consider themselves as martyr soldiers; or, of the pain of Inuit people in Canada. But despite the sometimes difficult stories and realities, I felt I am full lungs breathing. I felt that the stories and the responses to them fill me with oxygen, almost literally.

We talked about the way stories and narratives can bridge gaps between people and enable us to reach out to the humanity of others. Yes, stories can be fabricated, manipulated, or exploited to reproduce hegemonic or dominating orders, some of the colleagues in the workshop reminded the participants. Stories can also serve a claim for authenticity, by virtue of the author/teller “being there,” while in many manners, there cannot be such a “there” from the outset. But stories, nonetheless, can create a strong sense of community, I felt. The more I heard the various talks, I realized that we live in a world that values distance and objectivity, but these values also contribute to human loneliness and atomization of societies. Narrativistic research not only challenges the traditional methods of writing in order to highlight various power structures that these methods ignore or do not capture fully. It can also have the potential to restore and to rebuild some sense of community among authors and their readers. By community, I do not mean only a professional community of academicians, which is often a small and closed one, but also a larger human community. Narrativistic writing, I felt during the workshop, can help people resist this institutionally – and structurally – imposed loneliness that is so characteristic of our times, both in academia and in broader society. Lonely people are easier to govern than people with a strong sense of belonging, connection, and community.

One of the most interesting conclusions I took from this workshop was Jenny Edkins’ comment (I hope that was indeed what she meant …) that while the state’s sovereign narrative is about completeness and continuity, a linear story in which there is a clear beginning and a path along which history continues, a path which the state – and I may add in a Foucauldian manner, its admirers/reproducers in academia – purport to know, in many political and historical situations reality is wounded and full of gaps and crevices. Narativistic writing acknowledges these gaps and irregularities, disrupts the linear narrative, but at the same time offers some comfort by engaging in a process of writing about the wound and, no less important: letting the wound write us back.

Indeed, writing about my own wounds and letting them write me back is an essential part of my autoethnographic work. 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

Transdisciplinarity: The Politics and Practices of Knowledge Production

UPDATE (8 September 2014): Before she joined the expanded blog roster, Laura wrote this as a (very popular) guest post.


I am interested in disciplines, and intrigued by disciplinary transgressions. Recently, I was part of a discussion about these issues and it inspired some musings on the question of transdisciplinarity. I have a background in Social Anthropology at undergraduate level. Anthropology as a discipline is highly reflexive, resistant to abstraction, aware of the politics of representation and positionality. Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Annette B. Weiner was undertaking field research in the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea (now Kiriwina Islands), with a view to unsettling disciplinary notions of common sense regarding gender neutrality of ethnographers and challenging the disciplinary canon in profound and influential ways. My postgraduate training in the discipline of International Relations (IR) was, therefore, a curious through-the-looking glass adventure in double-think. The State, the Balance of Power, a Security Dilemma: it frequently felt that I was being asked to believe at least ‘six impossible things before breakfast’.

Even having received my disciplinary training and being settled in my new ‘home’ discipline (so richly textured and evocative, the metaphor of ‘home’ allows for all sorts of interesting variants such as Christine Sylvester’s idea of camps and homesteading), I have historically not been terribly well-disciplined. As a feminist IR scholar, the work I do was once pronounced marginal; with my philosophical sympathies lying with poststructuralism my work has been aligned with ‘prolix and self-indulgent discourse … divorced from the real world.’ My encounters with my discipline have not been uncomplicated and it has provided me with plenty of material with which to think through the question of transdisciplinarity. Continue reading

Giving Back (Without Giving Up) In Neoliberal Times

A guest post from our sometime co-conspirator Wanda Vrasti. Wanda teaches social studies at the Humbolt University and international politics at the Feie Universitaet in Berlin. Her book Volunteer Tourism in the Global South just came out with Routledge. She has also written on the uses of ethnographic methods in IR (in Millennium, twice) and on questions of global governmentality (in Theory & Event and Review of International Studies). Her current interests (still) include the politics of work and leisure, social movements on the Left, and anarchism and autonomism. Images by Pablo.

UPDATE (9 Nov): Wanda is now happily a member of the Disordered collective. And thus, this is retrospectively no longer a guest post.


Last week my PhD dissertation entitled Volunteer Tourism in the Global South: How to Give Back in Neoliberal Times came out as a book with Routledge’s Interventions series. Publication usually marks the end or the completion of a research project, but in this case I feel like the puzzles that animated it are still very much alive in my mind. Rehashing some of these, at my blog hosts’ invitation (also considering that the book goes for a price I imagine not many people will be able to afford outside university libraries), is an exercise in keeping the thinking and writing that went into this book alive beyond its publication date.

In a sentence, the book is an ethnographic study of volunteer tourism projects in the Global South (Ghana and Guatemala specifically) with a particular focus on the kinds of subjects and social relations this rite of passage cultivates and the reasons why we attach so much value to them. The argument I make in the book is not very different from the common indictment against voluntourism seen in the media. The accusation is that volunteer tourism does more for the Western (in my case exclusively white middle-class) tourists who enrol in these all-inclusive tours of charity than for the impoverished communities they are claiming to serve. Volunteering programs, most of which focus on English teaching, medical assistance or minor construction projects, have neither the trained staff nor the organizational capacity to make a lasting impact upon the lives of developing populations. Often the commercial travel agencies offering these tours fail to deliver even basic assistance goods, let alone encourage grassroots community initiatives that could lead to more sustainable change. What they can offer, however, to Western customers willing to pay $500 to $2,500/month is the chance to travel to places outside the Lonely Planet circuit without being a tourist. A tourist, as we have all experienced it at some point, is a rather pitiable figure reduced to gazing at things or being gazed at, their only meaningful encounter being with the guide book. A volunteer, on the other hand, can live with a local family, get to know traditional cultures, and participate in the collective good. Not surprisingly, the formula has become a growing trend among high-school and college graduates hard pressed to find many opportunities for meaningful participation in the alienated (and austere) market societies they come from.

Sadly, the majority of volunteers I worked with in Ghana and Guatemala did not have their feelings of lack and longing satisfied on these tours. Besides having to cope with all sorts of cultural frustrations and racial tensions, the work we were doing felt boring and useless. Our tour organizers failed to provide work that was challenging and gratifying for the volunteers and socially useful for the local community. Still, most people returned home with an improved sense of self, feeling like these trying circumstances had helped them develop greater confidence and cultural awareness.

Volunteer tourism appears here as yet another form of aesthetic consumption designed to confirm the racial, economic and emotional superiority of white middle-class individuals who are able to afford it. Continue reading

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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All Your Brain Are Belong To Us: Neuroscience Goes To War

The Royal Society has just released a fascinating report entitled “Neuroscience, Conflict and Security” that examines the increasing role that neuroscientific research is playing in the military today (thanks to Nick for drawing my attention to it). Indeed, as was reported by Wired’s Danger Room a couple of years ago, the US Air Force has been soliciting  research proposals for “innovative science and technology projects to support advanced bioscience research” that include “bio-based methods and techniques to sustain and optimize airmen’s cognitive performance”, “identification of individuals who are resistant to the effects of various stressors and countermeasures on cognitive performance” and “methods to degrade enemy performance and artificially overwhelm enemy cognitive capabilities.” Likewise, DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that gave us the Internet) has long shown significant interest in the potential military applications of neuroscience.

As the Royal Society report puts it, military neuroscience can be seen to have “two main goals: performance enhancement, i.e. improving the efficiency of one’s own forces, and performance degradation, i.e. diminishing the performance of one’s enemy” (p.1). It is with reference to these two goals that I will attempt in this post to make some sense of the wider context and implications of neuroscience’s entanglement with contemporary martial practices.

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