Saturday 3 October 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 3

My Thursday at EISA started off with a panel on ‘Kinship in Historical International Relations and Beyond.’ This session was organised by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

My notes are, once again, a bit sparse for this session and with the air-con on full blast (the room was sweltering) it was difficult to hear some of the discussion (my hearing isn’t the best, anyway)—plus there were some noisy aircraft making a nuisance of themselves overhead, preparing for the airshow the next day, which made negotiating the discussion-space even more interesting.

In any case, Iver Neumann, formerly of NUPI but now of the LSE, introduced proceedings by reflecting on matters of kinship in IR, particularly with regard to early state formation. Jan Harald Sande Lie gave a very short and very useful introduction to the history of kinship within anthropology. Ole Jacob Sending discussed how kinship is constitutive of international actors, drawing (to the best of my recollection) to a large extent on political theory circa Hobbes. Finally, and most usefully for my own thinking, Halvard Leira talked about kinship in diplomacy. He noted that diplomacy does not invent new forms of organisation but derives its rites and routines from the world around it. ‘Diplomatic culture,’ in other words, derives from the culture of the world(s) with which it is entangled. This is particularly apposite when considering how, before formalisation and professionalisation, ambassadors were quite often quite literal kin.

I am interested in the relationship between IR and anthropology in general and how these differing traditions and disciplines have intersected, are intersecting and could work together differently. Kinship is an excellent focal point for thinking this through and I’ll look forward to the book that is apparently forthcoming on the subject. As mentioned, I gave particular thought to Halvard’s paper. I wondered how European kinship traditions, as embodied in diplomatic institutions, functioned when coming into contact with non-European diplomatic cultures. Kinship was, for example, a key component in French North American colonial relationships with the Iroquois and Algonquian alliances. As Richard White has argued, lacking a common culture as such, Europeans and First Nations negotiated a ‘middle ground’ based not on mutual understanding so much as mutually beneficial misunderstandings. Differing conceptions of kinship, particularly fatherhood, structured the French and Algonquian relationship by providing a common (or rather ‘middle’) vocabulary with which to reach agreements (usually temporary, fragile and fleeting).

White’s book demonstrates diplomacy occurring on multiple levels at once: not only formal and institutional but also familial, sexual, cosmological and more. (This is something that I hope to explore in my thesis.)

I don’t have as much to write about Thursday as previous days (1.1, 1.2, 2), in large part because the two sessions I went to in the afternoon were roundtable discussion sessions and, consequently, didn’t have a structure or rhythm conducive to note-taking (also, I was beginning to feel somewhat fatigued at this point!). They were, however, very interesting.

After lunch, I went to the concluding session of a section organised by my new friends at Aberystwyth on methodological challenges in research. We talked about the epistemic and institutional difficulties in doing research, particularly as PhD students subjected to the often dogmatic Research Council-imposed demands of research training modules and the ever-emphasised need to have a ‘framework’ clearly distinct from (and sometimes even hegemonic over) what one is studying. It seems to me, and happily I am apparently not alone in this, that these ways of framing and carving up the research process place limitations upon what can be researched.

Against this, how can mess, as John Law has written about, be not only accepted as a legitimate methodological mindset but also recognised as an inevitable part of any research project and even as something that needn’t be covered up as though it were some dirty, unfortunate secret?

Writing styles and methods of textual construction were also mentioned, including matters of reflexive writing, which got me thinking about my own projects ahead. I enjoy writing and like to approach it, whenever and wherever possible, as a creative activity. While my research is primarily historical and philosophical (in roughly equal measure), I spent much of my journey home to Wales thinking about how to wrap my own authorial voice up into my writing, to locate my subject-position not just by way of preface (as is common practice) but throughout the process, and to take the experience of research itself as a creative, structural principle in writing. This is easier to do with ethnographic or similar forms of qualititative research as these, quite often, involve a literal journey (or journeys) of self- and other-discovery. But all research is a journey of sorts.

I am drawn back to the idea of theoria, which at the time of Herodotus meant a voyage abroad in search of knowledge. In Plato this meaning is also evident (particularly in the Laws) but also slips into what we recognise today as ‘theory’: when one no longer needs to travel or even to move because one apperceives Ideas, which are placeless, timeless and fundamentally external to any fallen, earthly derivation. Historians and philosophers also go on journeys, also move, also transform and are transformed. How can this not only be accepted as part of the mess of research but also be taken as a principle of narration—as a part of the very fumbling, stumbling world-bundling process in which we are engaged? These are things that I need to think through and experiment with.

Following on from that, the final session of the day for me was also the final session of a section on ‘Diplomacy and Symbolic Violence.’ The panel included Paul Sharp, Costas Constantinou, Alisher Faizullaev and Marcus Holmes.

Costas (who, incidentally, taught me at Keele University all of a decade ago and whose On the Way to Diplomacy is what inspires my inchoate thoughts on theoria, above) began by affirming that one needn’t represent a territory in order to be a diplomat; that we are all diplomats in our own ways as we all negotiate relations of otherness in a world without certainty, simplicity or readymade sovereignty. The discussion touched on formal diplomatic relations but also diplomacies (and symbolic violences) of the everyday.

I was left thinking (although, having only been to this final session and not the ones that preceded it, I should throw a caveat over this) that the concept of violence probably needs a clearer and more carefully considered articulation. It is very easy to expand the concept to such a degree that more or less anything can be understood as ‘violent.’ I would prefer to relate violence necessarily to a conception of harm. An act is violent to the extent that it is harmful. One thing that did come up was the indeterminacy of symbolic violence—something may or may not be intended to be violent; whether or not it is will depend on how it is received by an other; this gap, this fissure is ineliminable. Consequently, we might say that no symbolic act is without violence or that we can never discount the possibility of an act (symbolic or not) being violent; however, not every act that exerts a force need be violent to a notable degree and nor should all acts that do cause harm be lumped into one category as there are ranges and degrees of violence. I see little to be gained by this critical slippage.

In any case, it was another interesting day and one that I am feeling tired simply by recounting! By around this point in the week the weather was turning, getting cloudier and more humid. Practically everyone at the conference was covered by mosquito bites. Many had also quaffed a fair quantity of the hyper-plentiful local wine (sold by the litre) the night(s) before. The fact that the debate remained so engaging and energetic is testament to the stamina and determination of all those involved!