Wednesday 30 September 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 1, Semi-plenary

The second EISA 2015 event that I attended (after this) was a semi-plenary session that was run in parallel with two others. The panel featured Navnita Behera, Gurminder Bhambra, George Lawson and Arlene Tickner and was titled “After empire? New legacies for international thought.”

Navnita began by emphasising three problematic and interrelated Es: Empiricism, Epistemology and Eurocentrism. The phrase that stood out for me in her presentation, and that I noted down, was “every act of knowing brings forth a world.” She emphasised the multiplicity of cosmologies and the need to understand their heterogeneity from a non-hierarchical and non-hegemonic point of view. Who is entitled to know? How are knowledges produced? These, rather than the traditional epistemological questions of ‘what constitutes correct knowledge,’ are the questions that were urged to be pursued.

Arlene reflected on her complex status as a US academic working at an elite university in Colombia, as well as being a journalist and activist. Like Navnita, Arlene also emphasised the need to knock modern forms of rationality from their pedestal and to place them alongside, rather than above, other forms of knowledge. Against a “one-world reality,” in John Law’s words, should be posed a pluriverse of worldly, collective perspectives.

George, particularly usefully for what I’m trying to think about in my own work, articulated the need to reconnect and entangle forms of knowledge historically. He gave the examples of Hegel’s understanding of the revolution in Haiti and Adam Smith’s relationship to British trade networks. (This brings to my mind Simon Schaffer’s work on the crucial importance of British trade networks for gathering the data used to produce Newton’s Principia Mathematica.) He also affirmed very convincingly that no aspect of IR is without an imperial dimension and that imperialism should be researched more intersectionally in places where it is not generally recognised.

Finally, Gurminder spoke of the refugee crisis and the linguistic politics of posing ‘refugees’ against ‘migrants,’ noting the overwhelming absence of any consideration of how such movements of people are caused and how Western countries are complicit in these processes. She made a particularly interesting observation on the fact that in British political discourse it is often Ugandan Asians who are held up as the model for social integration and an example of British benevolence in immigration policy. Au contraire, the Ugandans were received grudgingly by the British authorities and only after much contestation. Against previous presentations, she argued for the necessity of a “single conceptual frame” rather than discerning between multiple cosmologies.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of this session was a passionate, indeed angry, intervention by a Turkish scholar from the floor during the Q&A. To paraphrase: How can we be talking about cosmologies when people are drowning in the sea and being herded around like cattle? The point was well made that those of us already settled in Europe are only talking about these people because they are “pushing”; because they are making an issue of themselves by walking thousands of miles and passing through the various precarious bottlenecks of the geographies that Fortress Europe hasn’t been able to close off altogether.

This certainly goes right to the heart of questioning what an academic conference is for and what responsibilities academics have to their matters of concern. I mentioned in my previous post that I found it thought-provoking that the conference was held on the edge of the Mediterranean, the sea that has so occupied news cycles recently. Is this ‘thought-provocation’ not a little pretentious and withdrawn from concrete political struggles, looking at it from a point of view of abstract intellectual interest rather than urgent, pressing need for activism? Perhaps. I plead guilty to over-fondness of abstraction and too little engagement with practical politics.

That said, this intervention also provoked me to think about the need for care and specificity with regard to the agenda for ontological and cosmological thinking in relation to geopolitics. In some circumstances these approaches are perhaps not so useful. However, in others I think that they are. For example, the missionaries who attempted to completely eradicate native cultures and turn the people into, to all intents and purposes, European Christians—a form of imperialism still in evidence in various forms today and touched on by at least two of the panelists in this session. Without understanding the clashing of cosmologies, we miss much of the mass of matters geopolitical. It is questionable whether such modes of thought would help to understand the refugee crisis; however, that should not, in my view, detract from the many situations where these factors are of considerable relevance.

Where all of that leaves my own thinking (and, perchance, acting) I’m not sure.