The State of the Sublime: Aesthetic Protocols and Global Security

My latest article (with Anna Leander) ‘The State of the Sublime: Aesthetic Protocols and Global Security’ is now forthcoming at Millennium: Journal of International Studies. You can download a pre-print of the article here (or below).

Abstract:

Security politics is everywhere, its tendrils entangled with every aspect of life. Nonetheless, this hyper-securitized status quo has not interrupted the flow of everyday life, nor the circulation of people, goods, or ideas. For the privileged of the world, a paradox has emerged: war, terrorism, ecological disaster, pandemics, and many other ‘monstrous’ forms of insecurity are now experienced as mundane and manageable phenomena in spite of the exceptional political measures, and more generalized affective states of fear and anxiety, that they have proliferated. How has this occurred? This article argues that aesthetic processes and politics are fundamental to the maintenance of this paradox. To do so, we draw on Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘transfrayeurs’ (trans-fears) to understand how modes of aesthetic design are deployed to simultaneously locate sublime imaginaries of insecurity in our midst whilst also allowing us to live-with, accept, and forget their presence. More specifically, we suggest that trans-fearing is achieved through ‘aesthetic protocols’ that specify principles for designing material, affective, and discursive forms into our lives in ways that allow for the careful ‘calibration’ of how we (unequally) experience a hierarchized, depoliticized, and militarized ‘state of the sublime’ within global security politics.

Acknowledgements:

We thank Claudia Aradau, Marieke de Goede, Pierre Guillet de Monthoux, Jef Huysmans, Iver B. Neumann, Mathias Leese, Emma Mc Cluskey, Didier Bigo, Sven Opitz, Thomas Bonacker, Delf Rothe, Dagmar Rychnovska and Sam Weiss Evans for their comments on earlier versions of this argument.

Citation

Austin, Jonathan Luke and Leander, Anna. (2022). “The State of the Sublime: Aesthetic Protocols and Global Security,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies, in press.

Read:

You can read The State of the Sublime below or download a copy here.

The Plasma of Violence | Review of International Studies

My latest article ‘The Plasma of Violence: Towards a Preventive Medicine for Political Evil‘ is now forthcoming at Review of International Studies. The article follows-up from my previous work exploring the ontology of political violence from a Science and Technology Studies (STS) perspective. You can download a pre-print of the article here (or below).

Abstract:

How do people know how – very practically speaking – to be violent? This essay explores that question through a Science and Technology Studies perspective. It does so to go beyond the usual location of global political violence at a structural level that attributes its emergence principally to hierarchical orders, formal training, or deep cultural, political, or ideological factors. The alternative explanation offered here draws on Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘plasma’ to sketch a theory of how practices of violence are embedded at a distributed ontological level through the historical accumulation of (popular) cultural, textual, technological and other epistemic objects. In making that claim, I seek to stress how violent knowledge circulates outside the formal domains associated with it (the military, police) and is instead preconsciously accessible to each and every person. To support this argument, the paper draws on empirical examples of the use of torture, including interviews conducted with Syrian perpetrators of torture, as well as by tracing the paradoxical entanglements between scientific practice and the practice of torture. I conclude by engaging the field of preventive medicine to speculate on the need to develop modes of violence prevention that appreciate political violence as a population level socio-political problem.

Acknowledgements:

For kind comments, suggestions, and critiques of earlier drafts of this paper I would like to first extend my gratitude to the (2020) members of the Doing IPS Transnational Hub (Jef Huysmans, Stephanie Perazzone, Linda Monsees, Rune Saugmann, Andreas Baur, Renata Summa, Katja Freistein, Lucy Hall, Marijn Hoijtink). In addition, a very early draft of this paper was presented at the EISA Pan-European conference. For comments on that panel, I would like to thank David Chandler, Oliver Richmond, and Anna Leander. Additionally thanks are due to Iver B. Neumann and Isabel Bramsen.

Citation:

Austin, Jonathan Luke. (Forthcoming). “The Plasma of Violence: Towards a preventive medicine for political evil,” Review of International Studies, in press.

Read:

You can read The Plasma of Violence below or download a copy here.

For and against post-critique

My latest article The Public, its problems, and post-critique is now available at International Politics Reviews. The article is a response to critiques of my work on critical international relations, specifically those by Philip Conway, Martina Tazzioli, and Daniele Lorenzini.

The article makes three main claims ‘in defense’ of post critique. First: post-critique is ultimately about amplifying the aesthetic resonance of critical scholarship, connecting it more closely to global publics who risk being alienated from the predominant style in which it is articulated.

Second: I stress the radical political potential for transformation within post-critique, drawing on the example of Foucault’s work on prison abolition, which contained substantive – often reformist and non-judgmental – nuance.

Third: I argue that post-critique is about an embrace of the impurity of politics and the necessity of navigating the ‘social’ in all its contradictions, something that sometimes requires saying different things to different people.

In all of the above, I actually argue that post-critique does not exist per se. Its ultimate goal is to defend the value of critical inquiry, but to do so by re-tooling its capacities in the face of radical changes in the contours of world politics.

The article can be read below or downloaded via this link.

International Political Design | Call for Papers | EISA 2022

Could we make algorithms that improve world politics? Emancipatory computational designs for global publics? Artistic installations that jolt us into critique? Crafted objects that generate reflection on war, violence, and alternative futures? Designs for different international futures?

These questions are at the core of a standing section that myself and Anna Leander are convening at the European International Studies Association’s annual Pan-European Conference (1-4th September, Athens). The section explores how IR and associated disciplines might expand the focus of its intellectual, normative-political, and quotidian practice beyond what Friedrich Kittler termed the “monopoly of writing” so as to explore the potential of new forms of design and making within the discipline. We are especially interested in contributions (papers, panels, roundtables) that explore any of the following key themes (and beyond):

  • Conceptual, empirical, and practical work on how IR might integrate different forms of material and aesthetic design or making into its practice, including but not limited to:
    • Computational or digital making (the design of apps, algorithms, databases, etc.);
    • Artistic making (installation, painting, collaging, etc.);
    • Visual making (photography, cinema, dance, etc.);
    • Architectural design and practice;
    • Craft-based making (metalworking, woodworking, weaving, stitching, pottery);
    • Game-based making (map design, lego, etc.);
    • Engineering (‘technical’ making of all kinds);
    • Digital fabrication (3d printing; circular economies, etc.);
  • Reflections on how to design international things that explore, for example:
    • How and why designed material and aesthetic objects spread across global space and exert socio-political power;
    • Whether or not it is possible to predict or control (to any degree) the politicio-normative effects of such circulations of designed objects;
    • If it is possible to balance local, indigenous, and situated needs/desires with global designs (following Mignolo);
    • If a form of non-coercive and democratic or emancipatory form of designing international things is possible or not.
  • Reflections on the ethics and politics of engaging in design and making, including vis-a-vis:
    • How design/making can be more than ‘problem-solving’ in its ambition and effects;
    • The relationships between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ social scientific work;
    • The risks of political co-option when collaborating with other disciplines and vocations;
    • The dangers of devaluing traditional academic work through engaging design and making;
    • The capacity (or not) for design and making to escape commercial and neoliberal logics.
  • Engagements with the pragmatic obstacles to expanding the practice of IR beyond the written word and/or logo-centrism that explore themes such as the following:
    • The opportunities and challenges of transdisciplinary collaboration;
    • The political economy of (commercial) academic life;
    • The challenges posed by the functional differentiation of academic and social life to work of this nature;
    • The continued prevalence of Snow’s ‘two cultures’ within the scientific field.

In exploring these, or related questions, the section is entirely open vis-a-vis the disciplinary or sub-disciplinary fields employed. This might include, for example, approaches within international political sociology, critical security studies, science and technology studies, design theory and research, critical making, speculative design, engineering, ergonomics, and fear beyond. We also welcome contributions that explore other forms of design that complement or challenge the above foci, including for instance literatures on policy design and transfer.

Abstracts, panels, or roundtables can be submitted directly via the EISA system. The deadline for submission is 16th March 2022.

Seeing all evil: The global cruelty of digital visibility

My new article Seeing all evil: The Global Cruelty of Digital Visibility has now been published open access with Global Studies Quarterly. The article explores the relationships between digital mediation, violence, and ontological security.

Abstract:

Cruelty is a historical constant across world politics. Nonetheless, something has changed. Today, it is possible to observe death,massacre, torture, police brutality, terrorist attacks, drone strikes, and more, in high-definition video. Sometimes, we can watchlive. In this article, I ask what it means when the historical sanitization of cruelty, injustice, and violence is stripped away. I doso in three ways. First, I explore how digital media has transformed how knowledge of violence is produced, circulates, andaffects those who witness it. I focus in particular on how this visibility of cruelty affectively fractures our ontological security,undermines societal solidarity, and amplifies polarization. Second, I describe how this process is marked by substantive globalinequalities vis-à-vis who is “protected” (or not) from exposure to graphic imagery. Third, I ground my discussion empiricallythrough participant observation conducted with members of the militia group Hezbollah that focused on their emotional,affective, discursive, and political reactions to watching videos circulating on social media depicting members of their owngroup committing war crimes in Syria. The article concludes by dwelling on the worrying possible political futures thesedynamics appear to be opening up.

You can download the article below or open access via Global Studies Quarterly.

Making is thinking | EWIS 2022 Workshop

Myself and Anna Leander are organizing a 2022 European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS) workshop titled Making is thinking: Design, craft, and the practice of International Relations. The event will take place in Thessaloniki, Greece. The workshop explores relationships between international relations, design theory and practice, craft, making, theories of human-computer interaction, aesthetics, science and technology studies, and beyond. We are especially concerned with exploring how IR might expand its quotidian practice beyond the spoken and written word by ‘making’ concrete material-aesthetic objects that exceed the representational (machines, textiles, artworks, algorithms, etc.).

We invite possible contributors to this workshop to present work that explores the relationships between design, craft, making, and the practice of international relations. We especially encourage contributions that do so from a productive perspective, with the goal of moving away from the critique of these tasks as they are currently practiced by a multitude of actors and towards speculatively imagining their alternative applications within world politics. More specifically, we invite contributions that address any of the following questions, or related themes:

  1. Why should we begin expanding the praxis of IR into distinct forms of material-aesthetic making? What would be gained, scientifically, politically, and socially, from doing so?
  2. What can the discipline of International Relations (very broadly conceived) actively contribute to the task of making international things? Put differently, what unique forms of knowledge and expertise would be injected into distinct forms of making if this were to occur?
  3. How responsible are we for engaging in that task? Are we societally obligated to inject the knowledge we have of the world into acts of material-aesthetic making? And/or are we required to make this move in order to maintain the continued relevance of scholarly knowledge in the future?

We equally encourage contributions that practically-empirically explore work expanding the reach of IR’s praxis into different forms of making, including experiments into visual, computational, mechanical, craft-based, and other forms of making conducted with a focus on global, international, or transversal dilemmas.

More information on the workshop can be found in the document below or on the EWIS 2022 webpage. We envisage publishing selected outputs from the workshops as part of a series of forthcoming collective publication projects (special issues, edited volumes, etc.).

Article | Designing-With/In World Politics

Myself and Anna Leander have published an article entitled Designing-With/In World Politics: Manifestos for an International Political Design. The article explores the contemporary relationship between social sciences that explore world politics and design theory, calling for a radical extension of the quotidian praxis of the former into modes of material-aesthetic making.

C I T A T I O N

Austin, Jonathan Luke and Leander, Anna. (2021). “Designing-With/In World Politics: Manifestos for an International Political Design,” Political Anthropological Research on the International Social Sciences, 2 (1).

A B S T R A C T

Why is the praxis of the International Social Sciences (ISS) so limited? Why are word counts and abstracts so much more integral to our quotidian workday than datasheets or color palettes? Why do we do little more than write texts and give lectures with – perhaps – the odd foray into photography or film-making? Why are we so reluctant to practically (and so not simply conceptually) engage with the full gamut of material, aesthetic, and technological making? This essay addresses these questions by advocating for the emergence of an International Political Design. It begins from the intuition that conceptual and empirical shifts across ISS towards embracing the material-entanglements of world politics, the centrality of affect and emotion to human praxis, and relational ontologies of emergence, prefiguration, and complexity, all logically demand a radical re-thinking of our praxis. Specifically, we argue that limiting our activities to the alphabetical (or visual) mediation of knowledge about world politics constrains our politicality and impoverishes our conceptual and empirical vitality. Considered in conjunction with the contemporary prevalence of global violence, injustice, and oppression, we suggest that integrating a far broader range of material-aesthetic practices into ISS is now an ethical imperative.Without taking up that responsibility, we abdicate the possibility of a more worldly and socially-embedded social science. Based on these core contentions, our discussion elaborates on how we might imagine an International Political Design: a conceptually rich, empirically-grounded, and ‘applied’ material-aesthetic approach to ISS. We do so in the form of a manifesto or – rather – collage of manifestos that each militates, in one way or another, towards the necessity of designing-with/in world politics.

D O W N L O A D

You can read or download the article through this link or below.

The Poetry of Moans and Sighs

I have a new piece published in Frame: Journal of Literary Studies, which discusses how we can think about ‘designs for and against evil.’ The piece draws on the work of Iraqi novelist Ahmed Saadawi, alongside architectural theory and praxis, to describe the ‘poetry of moans and sighs’ that afflict world politics. It begins with the idea that we can think about war and violence in ‘a-subjective’ terms (i.e. without an intentionally acting human subject), but then moves to asking what – if that’s true – we can ever imagine doing about it? To approach an answer, I draw on the philosophy of Donna Haraway, as well as work from Hanna Arendt and Franz Kafka, to suggest the necessity of moving beyond the epistemic and reflexive and towards the performative, artistic, material, and designed.

You can download the piece here, or read it below.

International Political Design | Call for Contributions

* Deadline extended to 20th March 2020.

This Autumn, myself and Anna Leander are organizing a section at the European International Studies Association’s annual meeting (EISA-PEC 20) in Malta. We are soliciting contributions (papers, panels, round tables, objects, art-installations, and more) for an ongoing and developing research project termed International Political Design (IPD), being carried out in collaboration with colleagues from forensic architecture, activist civil society groups, engineering and other applied scientists.

The IPD project asks, quite simply, how is world politics made: materially, technologically, and aesthetically? How is it designed? Through a deliberate consideration of form and object? And how, if we understand all that, can we re-make its contours? In ways that alter the very fabric of the world political? Building-up, quite literally, a different set of material-aesthetic infrastructures around which its events might flow? International Political Design (IPD) explores questions like these. IPD will call attention to growing efforts at exploring the (extant, possible, and future) relationships between International Relations (IR), critical, speculative, and transnational design studies, and artistic or aesthetic studies. While the field of design has become increasingly concerned with topics core to international affairs (war, violence, climate change, inequality, etc.), IR has also moved towards a far deeper understanding of the importance of materiality, technology, aesthetics, practice, visuality, and related phenomena for international affairs. The time is thus ripe for a sustained exploration of how these fields currently – and may in the future – interact in ways that have the potential to transform the critical, normative, and ethical status of the discipline.

As an EISA section, IPD invites contributions from across IR that coalesce around questions of (social and political) design and its relevance to the analytical, normative, and practical aspects of (intervening in to) world affairs. IPD is in particular concerned with developing a forum through which scholars increasingly concerned with engaging the International through non-epistemic means can explore novel theories, methodologies, and tools to expand the praxis of IR beyond what Frederic Kittler called the continuing ‘monopoly of writing’ within social science. That includes the possibility of constructing (making) concrete technological objects, the importance of producing deliberately aesthetic interventions into world politics, and inquiring into a world political status quo that appears to radically exceed the still dominant focus on cognition, reflexivity, and political deliberation. This mission is of especial relevance to scholars working across a transdisciplinary set of sub-fields, including international political sociology, critical security studies, feminist theory, science and technology studies, practice theoretical approaches, the visual turn, and cognate fields of inquiry across the discipline.

The IPD section seeks, following these goals, to redefine perceptions of what appropriate avenues through which to engage critically with world politics constitute and understandings of what explicitly political social scientific practices can involve. In line with these goals, we are particularly focused on 1) encouraging non-traditional modes of conducting and presenting scholarly work relevant to work affairs, 2) reflecting on the ethico-political implications of such work, and 3) soliciting contributions and engagement from scholars outside the boundaries of IR.

We welcome submissions (panels, roundtables, individual submissions, or other formats) that explore:

  • The relevance of ‘making’ or ‘crafting’ or ‘designing’ to understanding, intervening-in, or changing world politics;
  • The relationship(s) between technology and social scientific practice;
  • The emancipatory potential of the technological, despite its ‘impure’ (Haraway) and often violent pasts and presents;
  • The relationships between design, politics, and critique;

We are especially open to non-traditional submissions and presentation formats as part of the section, which we will accommodate as fully as possible. This includes the presentation of non-linguistic research objects and interventions (i.e. aesthetic, material or technological ‘things’) made by participants, as well as unusual modes of data or theory visualization and presentation, and beyond.

For queries please contact jonathan.austin@graduateinstitute.ch or anna.leander@graduateinstitute.ch.

 

Details:

Submissions Portal: https://eisa-net.org/
Submission Deadline: 20/03/2020

Venue:
University of Malta – Msida, Malta
Dates:
September 16-19 2020
Section Title:
International Political Design: International Relations Beyond Writing [S18]

 

Publication | The Departed Militant

 

 

My latest publication – The Departed Militant: A Portrait of Joy, Violence, and Political Evil – is now forthcoming at Security Dialogue.

This is a quite personal piece in which I offer a narrative or portrait of the contours of what is usually termed ‘terrorism’ based on my own friendship with an Islamist militant fighting in Syria in the Lebanese city of Tripoli.

The article explores how subjectivities are fractured towards political violence through fundamentally joyous, spiritual, and affirmative encounters with different cultural, religious, ritualistic, and personal phenomena, concluding with a discussion of the ontology of political evil read through my own meetings with those branded with this term.

To (try to) make all this happen, I blend together a mix of social theory, empirical studies of violence and war, Sufi spiritual thought, Surrealist aesthetic theory, Arabic poetry/aesthetics, as well as photographic representations of what I discuss.

The paper can be downloaded here.