Something in the Way of Things

Hip-Hop Head

When you look at it head on, from just the right distance, the world seems solid. The order of things presents itself as impenetrable. Yet a change in the angle of vision reveals fissures, fusions, flukes – a world of pieces shifting ceaselessly. One vision of the world promises stability and order, the other freedom and creativity. Which of these is more attractive depends on where one finds oneself: pressed upon by the weight of the world, or abraded by the shifting fragments.

Which of these worlds is real? This is the metaphysician’s diagnosis: “If you want to calm your nerves, then find the arrangement of the world as it really is.” But the physician can only prescribe convalescence or catharsis: “Accept the reality of the given world or realise the subliminal essence of the immanent world.” This regiment exhausts us rather than making us well. It lacks the vigour of creative activity. We don’t need to know; we need to make.

William Connolly suggests that the political condition of late-modernity is to experience this impasse without means to bridge the gap.

In our times we can neither endure our thoughts nor the task of rethinking them. We think restlessly within familiar frameworks to avoid thought about how our thinking is framed. Perhaps that is the ground of modern thoughtlessness.

Creativity requires us to leave the metaphysician behind – the making of the world requires dreams, contradictions, promises, lies, empty space, messy abundance. Turning away from knowing does not force us to apologise for the durable architecture of the world – this is the vice of Richard Rorty’s ironic liberalism. He calls on poets of the self to write their lines on the walls of the world as if they were solid, so not to upset things too much – a consolation of the comfortable, irony in the face of human disaster.

The condition of the world impels those caught between the monuments of the given to return to the fissures, fusions and flukes, in hopes of exercising our creativity on the social architecture. We need world makers. We need lovers.

It is with these thoughts in mind that I return to The Roots. Phrenology, the follow-up to Things Fall Apart, explores the creative challenge the band faced after producing an album that reconstructed hip-hop – trying to avoid becoming a parody of themselves or reducing their message to braying didactic verses. The difficulty of achieving real creativity is political as well as artistic and it demands not knowledge but love, desire and risk; it is the Roots’ exploration of how to make worlds anew that offers up lessons of wider import.

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Materialism and World Politics conference

Materialism and World Politics

20-22 October, 2012
LSE, London, UK

Registration is now open here for anyone who wants to attend.

Scheduled Speakers:

Keynote: The ontology of global politics
William Connolly (Johns Hopkins University)

Opening Panel: What does materialism mean for world politics today?
John Protevi (Louisiana State University)
More TBC

Closing Panel: Agency and structure in a complex world
Colin Wight (University of Sydney)
Erika Cudworth (University of East London)
Stephen Hobden (University of East London)
Diana Coole (Birkbeck, University of London)

ANT/STS Workshop keynote:
Andrew Barry (University of Oxford)

ANT/STS Workshop roundtable:
Iver Neumann (LSE)
Mats Fridlund (University of Gothenburg)
Alberto Toscano (Goldsmiths, University of London)
More TBC


The annual conference for volume 41 of Millennium: Journal of International Studies will take place on 20-22 October, 2012 at the London School of Economics and Political Science. This includes 2 days of panels and keynotes on the weekend, and a special Monday workshop on actor-network theory (ANT), science and technology studies (STS), and alternative methodologies. Space for the latter is limited though, so let Millennium know of your interest in attending it as soon as possible.

The theme of this year’s conference is on the topic of materialism in world politics. In contrast to the dominant discourses of neorealism, neoliberalism and constructivism, the materialist position asks critical questions about rational actors, agency in a physical world, the role of affect in decision-making, the biopolitical shaping of bodies, the perils and promises of material technology, the resurgence of historical materialism, and the looming environmental catastrophe. A large number of critical writers in International Relations have been discussing these topics for some time, yet the common materialist basis to them has gone unacknowledged. The purpose of this conference will be to solidify this important shift and to push its critical edges further. Against the disembodied understanding of International Relations put forth by mainstream theories, this conference will recognize the significance of material factors for world politics.

What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: The Politics of Humanity and The Ambiguous History of Human Rights – Part III

This is the final post in a series laying out a set of interrelated arguments I presented at this year’s ISA conference. The first post looked at the nature of human rights claims, while the second considered how rethinking human rights in terms of contestation over the ambiguous meaning of humanity as a political identity affects our understanding of the history of human rights. In the final post I suggest a positive ethos, enabled by attending to human rights in terms of agonism and pluralism.

Human Rights as a Democratising Ethos

In part 1, I analysed human rights as an attempt to offer a universal moral justification of political authority. This is a perennial political question, but one which is reconfigured by talk of “human rights”, as the political identity of humanity opens up question over who is included in political community, as well as the boundaries that define such communities. The stakes of the question of human rights – offering a universal account of who is included as a rights bearing member of the political community, and the legitimate order of that community – lead to a profound anxiety over justifications. The moral reasons we have to uphold human rights should be weighty, powerful and certain – or so the logic dictates.

What emerges from this logic is an essentially legislative understanding of human rights, in which moral principles give justification for the necessary and minimal law to grant legitimacy to the universal vision of both individual and community. If this moral law is to be more than an imposition of power, a merely effective positive law, it must involve a universal moral appeal that cannot be denied in order to secure human rights as the necessary law of legitimate authority. In this regard Habermas’ defense of moral universality and human rights are indicative and sophisticated examples. (Habermas 1992, 1998)

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What We (Should Have) Talked About at ISA: The Politics of Humanity and The Ambiguous History of Human Rights – Part I

Men cannot live without seeking to describe and explain the universe to themselves. The models they use in doing this must deeply affect their lives, not least when they are unconscious; much of the misery and frustration of men is due to the mechanical or unconscious, as well as deliberate, application of models where they do not work… The goal of philosophy is always the same, to assist men to understand themselves and thus operate in the open, and not wildly, in the dark.

-Isaiah Berlin, The Purpose of Philosophy

Last month I presented two papers on human rights at the ISA conference in Montreal (both are available in draft form from the ISA website, here and here, please do not cite, but comments are welcome). Attempting to offer a summary of those papers, however, has made clear to me that they are importantly connected and perhaps incomplete as separate papers – hence the “should” in the title. Together, the papers offer a pluralistic and agonistic reconstruction of human rights as a political concept and an ethical ideal. I’ll try to offer a shorter version of the argument that connects these two papers here, though broken into three (relatively) short posts. My reconstruction begins (Part 1) with a theoretical analysis of human rights, which forms the basis for an argument (Part 2) about how we should understand the history of human rights and, finally, (Part 3) leads to a defence of a democratising reconstruction of human rights.

The Nature of Human Rights Claims

Human rights, I argue, are of central importance for contemporary political theory because they respond to the basic question of legitimate authority, which is most simply the question of what justifies the coercive power of political authority. Traditionally, the question of legitimate authority addressed to the modern state and it is from this line of thinking that we inherent the rights discourse – in which authority is rendered legitimate by protecting the rights of individual members of the political community, which is a group importantly distinct from those actually subject to the coercive power of the state.

The details of this can be filled-in in many ways, but the  logic of rights is central to modern political thought. These political rights, and the institutions of governance they support, in turn, are justified by an appeal to moral rights. The moral appeal is central to the rights tradition as it is the absolute and certain quality of moral principles that justify the limitations imposed upon political authority and the powers granted to political authority to exclude, harm and constrain. Human rights emerge from this modern rights tradition, but the conditions and consequence of their emergence are complex. Continue reading

Revolution in Egypt

Because of the politics of becoming, gaps and fissures open up periodically between positional sovereignty as the highest authority to interpret the law and sovereignty as the effective power to decide what it will be. These two dimensions of sovereignty often shade into one another. But the discrepancy sometimes becomes a fissure that is too dramatic to ignore

William E. Connolly, Pluralism

The Ethics of Austerity

Today, the Con-Lib Coalition announces their full plan for spending cuts. Although many bits have been leaked, this will be the first chance we have to take the full measure of what is to come. Much has been and will be written about how these cuts are necessary, and even that they don’t go far enough.

And while much has been said about the economic arguments for and against the cuts proposed by Mr. Osborne, what is not talked about enough, or with sufficient care, is the ethics of austerity. By this I mean the ethical claims that have been made to prepare the ground for the austerity measures announced today. To borrow a phrase from the political theorist Bonnie Honig, we are seeing the culmination of a discourse of emergency politics.

Emergency Politics

While Honig uses the idea of emergency politics to get at how the threat of emergency is deployed to reassert the sovereignty of the state over the democratic sovereignty of the people as the source of law and legitimate political power, I want to suggest that the financial crises has resulted in a similar discourse, which claims we are in a state of emergency economics.

What the claim of emergency economics does, by framing our current experience in terms of emergency, is reaffirm the sovereignty of the capitalist markets over democratic society by presenting us with a catastrophic choice. We must accept the radical restructuring of public life out of necessity; there is no alternative but catastrophe. To discuss solutions is to waste time; to insist on the imperative of democratic values is to court disaster; to oppose the hasty reform of fundamental elements of the social order is to be a dangerous ideologue. Emergency economics are hardly unique to the UK, but today we are witnessing a clear expression of its consequences.

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