Friday 2 October 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 2

The first panel of the EISA conference on Thursday morning (after the Wednesday plenaries) that I attended was ‘Geographies of Violence—The Political Ecology of Violence,’ chaired by James Andrew Tyner of Kent State University.

Connor Cavanagh kicked off proceedings by talking about the history of the Ugandan protectorate and the imperialist knowledge produced by the likes of F.J.D Lugard, an Indian-born British colonial administrator and author. Connor also mentioned the POLLEN political ecology network, which I will have to investigate in more detail.

Second, the chair himself, James, gave an outline of his project of “the biopolitics of geophysical transformation,” particularly looking at the agricultural and canal building projects of the Khmer Rouge. Against the stereotype of the Khmer Rouge as being anti-technology and absurdly naive with regard to the agricultural possibilities of the land, James showed the importance they placed on engineering projects as part of their Great Leap Forward and also that their overly optimistic expectations with regard to agriculture were based, at least in some part, on US and UN research.

Esther Marijnen outlined her work on the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, particularly, the Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary film Virunga; tagline: ‘Conservation is War.’ She talked about conflicting perceptions of the work and position of the park’s director, the Belgian aristocrat Prince Emmanuel de Merode. Some see him as having appropriated the park but others apparently regard him as a saviour of sorts. She also reflected on her own position as a researcher, having been asked to go to Brussels to feed back discontent that local people were not able to communicate themselves, and on the difficulty of getting hold of the reports and documents being produced by international organisations.

Finally, Marijn Nieuwenhuis delivered a paper titled ‘Violence in the Air,’ which started off with Carl Schmitt’s definition of man as a “groundling,” that is, as essentially related to the earth (as suggested by the etymology of human). Interestingly for the work that I have been doing on environmental determinism, he then drew on the work of Paul Vidal de la Blache and argued for understanding eco- and geo-political relations through a conception of an emergent milieu rather than an Umwelt or environment. He concluded with a range of examples of how the air can be turned into an instrument of violence, through technologies such as tear gas and other bioregulators.

At every session there were at least 3 or 4 panels that I wanted to go to; however, next I decided to go  to ‘Environments of Violence,’ organised and chaired by Carolin Kaltofen of Aberystwyth University.

First up was Jakob Zahora who outlined the early stages of his research into the new architectures of Israeli checkpoints, comparing them to other kinds of systematised, rationalised spaces, such as factories and slaughterhouses (he was careful to admit the care needed in constructing this argument!).

Next, Jesse Reynolds gave a very useful overview of a forthcoming article, co-authored with Joshua Horton, on geoengineering. He lamented the lack of engagement so far by IR scholars in this crucial topic. It was an even-handed presentation of the risks, costs and potential benefits of these technologies.

Marta Abegón Novella and Matilde Pérez Herranz investigated the possible extension of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to environmental issues in a paper titled ‘On the Responsibility to Protect the Individual from Environmental Degradation.’ They argued that environmental factors are neglected within discussions of human security. They were careful to emphasise the risks associated with R2P discourse, particularly with regard to justifying military interventions, which, they stated, should only be used as a last resort.

Finally, Audra Mitchell took us to a much more speculative and philosophical place with her thinking on extinction, drawing on the likes of Claire Colebrook, Jean-François Lyotard, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux and Nigel Clark. She argued that, despite the popularity of discourses of extinction (e.g.), this is something that our received conceptual categories are currently unable to grasp. The philosophical relation between the ‘unthinkable’ and extinction was a thought-provoking one, although I think I’d need to read about it some more before I am quite convinced.

After lunch, I went to see ‘The Force of Lawyers: Authority, Lawyering and Expertise.’ I have no background in law but I wrote a little bit on it last year and am hoping to develop a project on it in the near future, so this was very useful for that. (I must admit that this session was in a very warm room, looking out onto the glistening Mediterranean and my note-taking noticeably waned as a result; however, I will see what I can recollect from the snippets.)

Gavin Sullivan of the University of Amsterdam (and soon, I believe, to be of the University of Kent) opened proceedings with a paper on ‘Global Emergency and the UN1267 Ombudsperson.’ Drawing on, among other resources, Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple, Gavin articulated a description of the actors creating the legal assemblage that constitutes the ombudsperson as a distributed entity. He particularly emphasised the role that some IR scholars have played in being branded as global security experts, playing a key part in the reconstitution of international regulatory regimes. Against some critical legal thinkers, he sees the processes he is researching as leading not to a loss of law but a jurisgenerative recalibration with regard to preemptive security logics.

Ioannis Kalpouzos talked about ‘New Weapons Technologies and the Administration of Violence,’ particularly with regard to the global administrative law of targeting. Immi Tallgren’s paper ‘The Birth of the Epistemic Community of International Criminal Lawyers’ wound a long and fascinating route between the many theoretical approaches that one might take in trying to understand the social and political place of the community of IC lawyers, settling, for the time being it seems, on the notion of the epistemic community.

Finally, Michelle Farrell and John Reynolds co-presented a paper on using linguistic and discursive analysis, understanding representative practices to be constitutive of legality. The first example they mentioned was the 'surgical strike' discourse of drone warfare. This immediately brought to my IR-trained mind works from the 1990s like James Der Derian’s Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War, which make similar arguments with regard to the representational techniques utilised in the 1990-91 Gulf War. As the discussant commented during the panel, it will be very interesting to see how this comes together in bridging IR and international legal points of view.

Finally, I attended a session run by more people from Aberystwyth University (my new institutional home from which I am typing these very words!) on ‘How methods shape how we know: The disciplining of knowledge production.’

Danielle Nicole Young and Andrew Davenport both presented papers on conceptualisations of history. Danielle asked ‘Where do you start?’, arguing that this question is crucial to the knowledge that results, particularly when it comes to origin stories such as, in IR, the infamous year of 1648. Her work comes out of training in medieval history but she is keen to stress that she is not interested in how to ‘do history better,’ as important as that question might be. Instead, she is interested in understandings of history as a construction that narrativises temporal experiences, opening and up and closing down various avenues of knowing.

Andrew, similarly, set out to explicate his critique of the use of history in IR. Particularly in his critical crosshairs was neo-realism and its systematic theorising. Drawing on Reinhart Koselleck, he is thinking about the invention of historical time and what happens at the intersections of other conceptual oppositions (inside/outside, time/space, agency/necessity, etc.) when notions of history are taken into account. His concluding words: “What relation to the past would a new global subject have?” I suppose everything hangs here on what is meant by ‘new.’ Undoubtedly, there have been subjects declared ‘global’—typically, one would assume them to be characterised by a self-conceived detachment from the past and an embrace of some sort of humanist universality. Of course, the word ‘global’ is also crucially enigmatic.

This was all fascinating for my own budding project, although I take a slightly different view of how modernist conceptions of history might be undone. I was left wondering what place the trace has within these understandings of history that place so much weight upon experience abstracted from the rest of the world. History is a narrative art, of course, but I would argue that what it draws together, ties in bundles and patterns and filigrees is not experience in the abstract but concrete, entropic, experienced traces of the past from books, archives, oral accounts and even, in some cases, tree rings and ice cores (mediated via the relevant sciences). That said, I have only heard about a very small part of these projects so far and I’ll look forward to hearing more over the coming months.

Finally, Laura Sjoberg and J. Samuel Barkin gave a preview of their forthcoming book on heterodox, critical and progressive uses of quantitative and mathematical methodologies (an article on this subject is available here [paywalled]), a most welcome and overdue endeavour in a discipline where methods tend to be divided up according to politics (to the detriment of both).

Having been away from IR as a discipline for a long time (since 2006, formally), this was a very exciting and reassuring day for me. While I am very glad to have received the studentship that I have and to have three years ahead of me in one of the best International Politics departments in the world, I did wonder how well my own interests, which have meandered rather a long way from traditional IR in the past few years, would fit into the state of this discipline today. I needn’t have worried.

By the end of day 2, I had realised that my epistemic idiosyncrasies were amply accommodated within what this discipline has become, at least in some quarters: an open-minded forum for ambitious intellectual work that is connected more by shared passions and concerns than by the strictures of method or domain. This conference was perhaps exceptional in this regard—by no means is everywhere so free-thinking! However, the fact that it happened and that it was so overwhelmingly successful (far more participants than previous years) was and is deeply reassuring.