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Book Review: Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir by Ather Zia

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 15/09/2021 - 9:06pm in

In Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in KashmirAther Zia explores the everyday resistance of women activists in Kashmir who focus public attention on the Kashmiri men disappeared by government forces. Effectively capturing the agency, memorialisation and resistance of these activists, this poignant and evocative ethnography will be of interest to students and academics working in the fields of anthropology, sociology, gender studies and critical Kashmir studies, finds Aatina Nasir Malik

Resisting Disappearance: Military Occupation and Women’s Activism in Kashmir. Ather Zia. University of Washington Press. 2020.

Find this book (affiliate link): amazon-logo

Ather Zia’s ethnographic account of the life of Kashmiri women is poignant and evocative, foregrounding everyday life as a political process and agency as a capacity for action that is nuanced. Resisting Disappearance is based on an organisation called the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), which came into being in 1994 to fight the enforced disappearances of Kashmiri men by state forces. Tracing the history of disappearing men and women’s struggles in Kashmir, Zia exemplifies how the experience of Habbeh Khatoon – the fifteenth-century poet’s never-ending search for her husband and struggle against the Mughals who sent her husband, the then indigenous king of Kashmir, into exile – is now manifest in a group of Kashmiri women searching for their men.

The APDP activists are Muslim women from economically marginalised rural classes – half-widows, mothers and sisters of disappeared men who, Zia states, have renounced the gendered rituals of mourning. They mobilise demonstrations, collect documentation, pursue court cases, visit government offices, morgues and prisons alongside holding monthly sit-ins, which are now ritualistic acts of public mourning. It is through this activism – both archival and performative – that these women are making the disappeared appear, or, in other words, visibilising those invisibilised by the government. Here the affective politics and hypervisibility of these women becomes what the author, borrowing from Michel Foucault, refers to as the ‘countermemory’: an alternative to dominant state/official narratives.

This ethnographic work becomes further interesting due to the way Zia refers to her respondents as ethnographic partners or a community rather than as ‘collaborators’, ‘informants’ and ‘interlocuters’, as is the norm in Anthropology. These terms in Kashmir are burdened with politics and used to refer to people who are perceived as traitors who have aided the Indian rule in Kashmir. Secondly, the book is what the author refers to as an ‘intimate ethnography’ where her research community becomes ‘family like’ (19). She further offers her ethnographic poems at the outset of each chapter, crafted from both observation and affect, as what she calls evidence of ethical surfeit – where the ethnographer-poet bears the most honest evidence. This ethnography is therefore a work with dual lenses: one of the trained ethnographer and one of the ethnographer poet, both complementing one another.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Women on Steps of Pedestrian Bridge – Srinagar – Jammu & Kashmir – India’ by Adam Jones licensed under CC BY 2.0

Resisting Disappearance is divided into seven chapters, each catering to a different theme. Chapter One talks about the work of mourning as the politics of resistance. It exemplifies how mundane objects like a door get established as a spectral space offering a threshold between life and death where the return of the dead is conjured repeatedly. The chapter further underscores the process of disappearing the disappearance from the official records and hence elucidates the subaltern power of affective law in relation to the sovereign law. Affective law here is the emotional work of mourning that these women do to keep alive the memory of their loved ones in opposition to sovereign law which impedes justice and memorialisation.

Chapter Two traces how elections allow for a ‘politics of democracy’ that extends India’s rule in Kashmir, thwarting the aspirations of Kashmiris. Here the construction of the Kashmiri ‘other’ via material and non-material markers is underscored as well as how such representations are furthered by the media, making the Kashmiri body, which is also the Muslim body, doubly killable under law.

Chapter Three is about spectacular protests and activism. It discusses the centrally located Pratap Park as a site of protest. Activists are allowed to protest, albeit in a controlled environment, but acknowledgment of their concerns and the delivery of justice hardly ever take place. This chapter builds on the life stories of Parveena (the head of the APDP whose son has disappeared) and Sadaf (whose husband has disappeared), where their performative activism through the notion of asal zanan (good woman) offers a counter-spectacle to the disappearances. For their activism these women deploy culturally ideal feminine acts, which helps them do ‘damage control’ to their hypervisibility in public. These women undergo a transformation where they are pushed from the private to the public domain; the justification for this is grounded in the ethics of an asal zanan and sometimes in the elevation of their status in being ‘just a woman’. This helps them sustain both the masculine military regime and the subaltern cultural patriarchy – representing what the author calls a triumph of subalterity within subalterity.

Chapter Four further talks about gendered resistance, establishing Kashmiri masculinity as the non-hegemonic one against the powerful military apparatus. The subservient status of Kashmiri men is reinforced through everyday rituals like showing identity cards to the authorities. Here, women are pushed to the forefront as visible partners in seeking redress. Under the atrocities, the conventions of gender seem to collapse; borrowing from Begoña Aretxaga, the author refers to this as the ‘inversion of tradition’.

Chapter Five concerns militarising humanitarianism, where humanitarian projects stand for warfare and not welfare. This combines with processes of stringent surveillance and the compiling of dossiers on everyone in Kashmir, establishing everyday life as a grey zone where Kashmiris are not left with much choice. Such interventions are to justify the military’s presence in people’s lives, with the author showing, for example, how the mode of ‘conversation’ between the forces and Shabir (who was detained under false charges of being a militant for 28 months) changes from ‘torture’ to ‘medical treatment’ – where he was earlier tortured and then offered so-called medical treatment by the forces.

Chapter Six establishes the papers and documents that APDP members curate over time – as a file, not only as the proof of disappearance, but also to offer a material reality to the disappeared. Such documents become both an affective and physical site where the disappeared are retrieved, and at the same time are made invincible and credible. In such cases where there is no grave, no jail, no First Information Report, an indefinite wait before the law and no proper closure for family members, these files or archives become important both as a countermemory of loss and as subaltern power. But at the same time, these documents become ‘useless’ as they fail to bring any relief or justice. The final chapter takes the example of a wedding and a protest as commemorative practices where a blurring of the boundaries between joy and grief takes place. In weddings and protests, songs about the disappeared turn them into funerals and celebrations respectively. Here too the work of memory is in contrast with the official accounts marked by silence.

Zia’s study effectively captures the everyday struggles of these women activists whose life is caught in a limbo, and yet this liminal space entails agency, memorialisation and resistance. The book has ‘women’s activism’ in its title, but it does not fall short in bringing to light the struggles and experiences of men as well. Apart from being ethnographically rich, I also appreciated it for being very readable despite being so affectively charged.  One might find the book replete with the themes of resistance and countermemory, which feature in each chapter, but that very well marks their inevitability in different spaces and performances for the APDP activists. The only thing that could have been done differently would have been to shift the discussion of the history of Kashmir and armed struggle from Chapter Two to the introduction, which would help readers get a better grounding to locate APDP and this rich ethnography from the very beginning. Nonetheless, this book is a useful read for graduates, postgraduates and academics working in the fields of anthropology, sociology, gender studies and critical Kashmir studies.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books. 


Book Review Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State by Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke de Noronha

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 14/09/2021 - 10:41pm in

In Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British StateGargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke de Noronha explore how shifting ideas of race and nation have legitimated the expansion of punitive state powers and practices in the UK, resulting in the heightened control, punishment and stigmatisation of racialised minorities. This is a valuable commentary on racism in contemporary Britain that encourages readers to be agile and novel in making connections between the past and present, between now and yesterday, to confront the problems of today, writes Rémy-Paulin Twahirwa

Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State. Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke de Noronha. Pluto Press. 2021.

On 11 July 2021, a few hours after England’s defeat by Italy in the final of the Euro 2020 football tournament, a mural with footballer Marcus Rashford’s portrait was defaced in Manchester. Although Manchester Police’s statement specified that the graffiti was ‘not believed to be of a racial nature’, the three black football players who missed their penalty kicks (Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka) were victims of online harassment, including racist and xenophobic attacks, as soon as the game ended.

Politicians, spokespersons and experts from the football community and many celebrities were quick to condemn the spread of the racist campaign targeting Rashford, Sancho and Saka. From Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Prince William to the Football Association (FA) and even the much-criticised Home Secretary Priti Patel (who weeks before the Euro final described ‘taking the knee’ as ‘gesture politics’), many considered, in the words of the England team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, that racist abuse was ‘not what we stand for’. Then, if this is not England (the team as much as the country), if this is not what we stand for as people and as a nation, how to explain the rapid propagation of racist comments online as Twitter was officially reported to have deleted 1,000 tweets in less than 24 hours?

For the establishment, as exemplified by the FA’s tweet above, the answer was to condemn social media companies for falling to control the dissemination of racist content on their platforms.  Whilst acknowledging that it may raise some questions about rights to free speech, this particular focus on Twitter’s response to online hate has even led some scholars to suggest that the social networking site should develop some kind of monitoring tool that will pre-emptively discard racist content in the future.

However, for the authors of Empire’s Endgame: Racism and the British State (the title a reference to the Cultural Studies classic, The Empire Strikes Back, and Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame), the answer to the roots of this surge of online hate may be hidden in plain sight – the British state itself. Practices and representations of state neglect, cruelty and racialised expulsion, in addition to serving to ‘make racists’ (4), are also ‘produc[ing] political subjects who long for authority, closure and certainty in ways which exceed the racial and implicate all of us’ (4). In our digital world, online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have come to mediate these desires and frustrations ‘of [post] racial imperial anxieties’ (3-4). In sum, what happened after England’s defeat may not be what the Three Lions, or Twitter, or the ‘nation’, or the ‘people’ stand for, but if we agree with Empire’s Endgame’s main thesis, it may tell us what the British state stands for today.

Anarchic Mix of Collective Thinking

Resisting academic norms and practices of individual thinking and ownership that result generally in books separated into a one-chapter-one-writer format, Gargi Bhattacharyya, Adam Elliott-Cooper, Sita Balani, Kerem Nişancıoğlu, Kojo Koram, Dalia Gebrial, Nadine El-Enany and Luke de Noronha opt for ‘an anarchic mix of collective thinking’ (iii) to examine racism in ‘contemporary Britain’ (ix). This collective writing process makes it impossible for the authors (and readers) to know who wrote what.

Bhattacharyya et al refuse ‘class reductionism’ (3) and instead view ‘racism as historically specific and messy’ (1). This is why the authors choose to ‘map some of the complex relations between empire, racist culture, state practices and political economy’ (1), with the help of various theoretical frameworks (including black studies, race, ethnicity and postcolonial scholarship, gender studies and immigration studies) and secondary data (academic and non-academic sources, mainly newspapers and academic journals). Through this book, they ‘trace how shifting ideological repertoires of race and nation legitimate new forms of state power and practice in the context of this “organised abandonment”’ (2).

A River of Blood: State Neglect, Cruelty and Expulsion in An Unhappy Place 

Divided into five parts with fifteen chapters in total, the book firstly looks at how the British state, politicians and traditional media have created ‘folk devils’ through different moral panics aiming at racialised minorities (including the ‘Windrush scandal’, the ‘knife-crime epidemic’ and Britain’s so-called ‘gang problem’).

What interests the authors is how, for example, the Windrush scandal was not only about ‘aggressive immigration policies’ and ‘racist institutions’ (29) — this part is obvious as it has been largely proven — but rather how the ‘hostile environment’ measures were part of a ‘larger bid to further delegitimise any remaining investment in the caring, welfarist state’ (29).

Image Credit: ‘Home Office Immigration enforcement van’ by Counse licensed under CC BY 2.0

Moreoever, Bhattacharyya et al point to how the scandals of ‘knife crimes’ and ‘gang violence’ in urban centres led to new and different modes of control, criminalisation and expulsion of young black and brown Britons that generate ‘widespread anxieties over national identity, cultural difference and insecurity in ways that prove to be politically useful’ (40).

By racialising these ‘crises’, the authors note that the British state has been enforcing policies that act as a ‘racist collective punishment’ (47) — linked to colonial and imperial Britain. This allows wider moves to ‘expand executive power and circumvent the meagre protections afforded by the independent judiciary, thereby transforming the state and the fundamental practices through which it gets defined’ (53). In other words, it is through the collective punishment and stigmatisation of racialised minorities that the British state is expanding its punitive power and authoritarian nature, and this is the real political aim of such policies.

It is in the second part, ‘The Persistence of Nationalism’, that Bhattacharyya et al discuss how nationalist calls have been put into policies and discourses on both sides of the political spectrum. For the authors, it is important to notice ‘the colonial amnesia, nostalgia and melancholia that fuel Britain’s confused nationalist convulsion’ (14). The most important contribution, in my view, is how the authors shed light on the haunting presence of Enoch Powell’s 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in the present-day framing of Britain as a ‘nation under threat’, opposing the ‘migrant’, ‘global/metropolitan elite’ and the ‘decent, ordinary fellow Englishman’ (who is white and a citizen) (63-65).

Powellism is evident in recent nationalist expressions from the right (‘hostile environment’ policies, UKIP, the Leave Campaign, etc). However, Bhattacharyya et al suggest it also manifests in the proposal by some progressive nationalists (liberals and some leftists) to develop, as the Guardian columnist Zoe Williams called it, a ‘good nationalism‘ that would challenge the Tories and the far right’s ‘bad nationalism’.

For the authors, by recasting Britain’s national history through key events such as the abolition of slavery or the making of the NHS, as suggested by Williams, this ‘progressive patriotism’ omits parts of what made this country what it is, meaning colonialism and imperialism. Put simply: ‘Whereas right-wing nationalism practices an imperial nostalgia, progressive nationalism appears to depend on imperial aphasia’ (72).

Image Credit: Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

In addition to the selective nature surrounding what this nation was and is, progressive nationalism also ‘relies on a set of assumptions about the value of differently racialised people; foreigners are placed outside of progressive narratives of a nation supposedly grounded in working-class solidarity’ (73). What this can lead to is a ‘progressive’ project that can be translated as ‘we will exclude immigrants for the sake of workers and equality’ (79). In fact, nationalism, even on the left, seems to be about bordering the nation by dividing people into who is in and who is out (82).

The Daddy-State and the Longing for Authority 

I found the third section, ‘State Patriarch’, a little disputable. Chapters Seven, Eight and Nine take a feminist approach to further explore the book’s object of study by metaphorically referring to the British state as a ‘state patriarch’. This metaphorical device is said to help with thinking about racism and nationalism in contemporary Britain through sexuality and gender relations (103-108). For instance, the authors point to how the post-war welfarist state ‘sought to organise populations through the management of gender roles and family units, rewarding some normative behaviours and penalising the deviant through the allocation of welfare’ (106).

Despite the decimation of the welfare state, or because of it, the family metaphor of the nation — still powerful in British politics — seems to now only characterise an ‘angry father’ who is ‘cold and often brutal’ (108). If the father figure is a Janus with caring (welfare state) and punitive (neglectful state) faces, today punishment has become the sole priority and function of the British state (109).

Bhattacharyya et al demonstrate this with one specific case, the state response to ‘Pakistani grooming gangs’ (Chapter Eight). As explained earlier, the authors highlight how the notion of ‘gang’ is racialised in British public spaces and politics. In fact, the multiple news stories about ‘Asian’, ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Muslim’ men sexually exploiting white girls in Rochdale and Rotherham have contributed to increasing state punishment power in order to protect white gender roles and the white family (123).

One fundamental punitive practice that was enacted by the British state was the deprivation of citizenship to racialised Britons (124). In the Rochdale case of Abdul Aziz, Adil Khan and Qari Abdul Rauf, the authors note that the stripping of British citizenship of the three men was the first instance of such practice following serious criminality without a national security component (124). One can also see this in the Shamima Begum case as she symbolises the opposite of Rochdale and Rotherham’s white girls (purity and innocence of the nation) (125) who must be protected. The recent stand of the Home Secretary for the deportation of Jamaican nationals suggest that the banishment of ‘foreign offenders’ (mostly racialised men coming from the Global South) is here to stay.

In the end, however, Bhattacharyya et al’s analysis falls flat, or at least has unresolved tensions. If I agree with the premise of their analysis of how sexuality and gender relations are constructed and reconfigured through racism and nationalism, the framing of the state as this ‘angry father’ did not convince me. It is not clear, for instance, how this daddy-state is represented in the ‘man-child’ (128) political leadership/persona of Boris Johnson (analysed in Chapter Nine). This work also reinforces still present yet archaic tropes about fatherhood/manhood that have been and are questioned by current feminist and queer interventions. The authors emphasise that they reject the naturalisation of the nation state as family (128), while paradoxically integrating the nation-as-family narrative with the concept of ‘state patriarch’. Here, the text is not entirely doing the work it sets out to do: it does not delink itself from patriarchal and heterosexual reasoning.

Finally, the authors examine the militarisation of British society (Part Four) and discuss the current health crisis (Part Five). In Chapter Ten, Bhattacharyya et al reflect on the demand to ‘send in the army’ to deal with the migrants, the criminals, the ‘gangsters’, etc. This longing for authority, note the authors, is reminiscent of the imperial era of the British state (143-44) and is translated into the control, surveillance, caging and expulsion of racialised Britons.

What Needs to be Done?

The last part of Empire’s Endgame concludes the authors’ inquiry with a close look at the COVID-19 pandemic, which exhibited racial inequalities in the working class, and also to recent anti-racist political projects (Black Lives Matter, Grenfell Survivors and the United Families and Friends Campaign). It is with hope that Bhattacharyya et al end their ‘anarchic mix of collective thinking’: hope in an abolitionist future. In fact, abolitionist projects (of prisons, borders, the police, capitalism) are oriented ‘by something like love’ (199). This is why they may guide us in building what will emerge out of the empire’s endgame: love over hate, solidarity over division, bridges over walls and cages, peoples over nations.

In this sense, Empire’s Endgame is a valuable commentary not only on race and racism in contemporary Britain, but also, and more importantly, on the ‘organised abandonment’ of British people by the British state that has been converted by governments, politicians and the media into racial tensions and racialised crises. It is important to note that the intended audience of Empire’s Endgame is mostly readers on the left. In fact, the book is really a call for the left to make connections (between here and there, now and yesterday) and to get rid of the cynical position that ‘[we] have seen it all before’ (4). The authors ask comrades and political allies to be agile and novel in their thinking around problems that seem ‘old’, as ‘one thing that our enemies do well, do better than us, is to retain the element of surprise’ (4).

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 

Banner Image Credit: Photo by Anita Mihaly on Unsplash.


Book Review: The New Age of Empire: How Colonialism and Racism Still Rule the World by Kehinde Andrews

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 13/09/2021 - 8:45pm in

In The New Age of Empire: How Colonialism and Racism Still Rule the WorldKehinde Andrews explores how the intellectual, political and economic frameworks inherited from colonialism are still governing today’s world, resulting in a new age of empire that perpetuates racism, white supremacy and global economic inequalities. This compact and comprehensive book challenges the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, Western linear progress and developmentalism and offers a broader and more complete picture of the continuing problems of racism and the imperial mentality, writes Ayşe Işın Kirenci.

If you are interested in this book review, you can listen to a podcast of author Kehinde Andrews discussing The New Age of Empire at an LSE event held on 27 April 2021. 

The New Age of Empire: How Colonialism and Racism Still Rule the World. Kehinde Andrews. Penguin Books. 2021.

In The New Age of Empire: How Colonialism and Racism Still Rule the World, Kehinde Andrews explores the historical sources of present-day racism as well as the topic of underdevelopment in Africa, showing the complicated and deeply entrenched nature of these issues in their socio-historical context. By tracing back through the Enlightenment, colonialism, genocide in the Americas and the Atlantic slave trade, he reveals that the intellectual, political, economic and racial frameworks inherited from the past are still governing today’s world and generating neo-colonialist and post-racial orders. In this respect, Andrews challenges many theories in development studies that ignore the historically embedded nature of underdevelopment in Africa, instead suggesting a historical institutionalist approach with his study.

The main axis of the book is predicated on the argument that the West is always seen as a pioneer of all developments in science, industry and politics, while the global and accumulated character of these innovations, the circumstances that provided the equipment to the West to reach its goals and the effects produced are mostly neglected. Andrews emphasises that it was genocide, slavery and colonialism in the Americas and Africa that paved the way for all these revolutions, and that development also contains a contrary element in itself, underdevelopment. In other words, both development and underdevelopment are the products of the very same process. In this context, it would be beneficial to recall Andre Gunder Frank’s approach in his article ‘The Development of Underdevelopment’ (1966), which sees underdevelopment as ‘a historical product of past and continuing economic and other relations between the satellite underdeveloped and now-developed metropolitan countries’.

The New Age of Empire consists of eight chapters: the first half explains the foundations on which ‘the New Age of Empire’ has been founded, while the other half focuses on the rise of the New Age of Empire and the endurance of the imperial mentality, albeit with a new appearance, a changing balance of powers and drawing on additional actors. Thus, Andrews refers to two stages of imperialism, the second one starting after World War Two.

In Chapter One, Andrews expresses the idea that Enlightenment ideals are the intellectual base of the imperial project, which reinforces the idea of white supremacy. This leads to the denial of ‘other’ knowledges produced by non-Westerners and initiates the monopolisation of knowledge by Europeans (1-2). Additionally, it has eased the transition from the old to the new imperialism by means of its supposedly universal and humanitarian values.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Imperial Federation, map of the world showing the extent of the British Empire in 1886’ by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center licensed under CC BY 2.0

Enlightened or not, this imperial discourse can be summed up by the rhetorical question formulated in Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The English Flag’ (1891): ‘What should they know of England who only England know?’ Kipling’s question implies the importance of having an imperial vision for England and gives it the mission of transcending its political borders. This can give us an insight into the perspectives of the time and is useful in understanding the core arguments revealed in The New Age of Empire as well. Although the poem’s question originally attributed a so-called developmental role to England in colonised areas, it also suggests a wider perspective about the nature of the relationship between the coloniser and colonised. Consequently, to what extent can country- and individual-level analyses give an account of the underdevelopment and development inherited from past colonial relations?

After the intellectual origins of modern-day imperialism are revealed, the book considers the coercive practices which cleared the ground for Enlightenment ideals and originated the first stage of imperialism (24). The second and third chapters of the book focus on how genocide and transatlantic slavery generated European development and, at the same time, African underdevelopment (57). It is precisely these same processes that set forth diverse paths for Europe and Africa.

The expansion into the Americas led to genocide, slavery and colonialism, which enabled Europe to create industrial capitalism and realise the notion of Western development (30-32). In order to eliminate the myth of Western progress grounded on the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, it is necessary to grasp the actions of the West beyond its own borders, as Kipling suggested for different reasons. In addition to uncovering the interrelationship between ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ and the concepts of development and underdevelopment, this vision is also essential to understanding the foundations of today’s rooted racism and the New Age of Empire, as Andrews argues.

Therefore, it becomes relevant to ask about the system that has created systemic underdevelopment for Africa. The main concepts associated with capitalist development, the dispossession of the colonised and accumulation by the colonisers, are basic features of an age that employed genocide and slavery in order to possess lands and dispossess people. Since Andrews relates the sources of underdevelopment in Africa to these dispossessions, genocide, slavery and colonialism, studies that take the sources of underdevelopment as being the lack of proper economic institutions, capitalist relations, civil society and private sector development miss the matter at hand.

After the accumulation and dispossession phases had been completed, the West had control over the means – resources and labour – to claim colonial dominance, as outlined in detail in Chapter Four (89). As a result, racial hierarchies and economic inequalities became more systematised and institutionalised, which complicated the process. Thus, as Andrews points out, linking these problems to the quality of governance and capabilities can lead us to miss the root causes and misevaluate the current system of inequalities and racial discriminations.

As revealed in Chapter Five, Andrews evaluates the transition from the old system of imperialism to the new one as a system update and names it ‘liberal imperialism’ (111-12). The new system with its cooperative institutions embracing Enlightenment ideals, such as humanitarianism and universalism, claims to promote good governance and the liberal economic order in formerly colonised regions. However, it causes the persistence of racial hierarchies and white supremacy by accusing Africans of their own underdevelopment and relating this to the lack of good governance or their so-called tribal way of life (131).

There are many movements defending equal rights for all and the New Left campaigned for social democracy and civil and political rights over the course of the second stage of imperialism. However, realising the systemic nature of the problems of racism and social, economic and political inequalities remains most urgent, as Andrews highlights in Chapter Seven. Due to racism’s institutional and deeply rooted nature, he opts for true revolution uniting Black communities (206). Dismissing metanarratives and myths that blur our understanding of the lasting racism against Black people and the causes of underdevelopment in Africa can be the first step in combatting the anti-Black, post-colonial and post-racial world order.

Overall, The New Age of Empire provides a compact and comprehensive resource for those interested in development and colonialism studies who are looking for more critical perspectives on some of the orthodoxies in the political economy literature. Through its historical institutionalist approach, the study challenges the grand narratives of the Enlightenment, Western linear progress and developmentalism. Also, by emphasising the continuities instead of the ruptures in history, Andrews presents a broader and more complete picture of the problems of racism and the imperial mentality. Although the appearances of imperialism may have changed, the core has been preserved and continuities persist. Producing a transformation depends on us changing our approach and being critical in treating the literature before us.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Book Review: How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate by Isabella M. Weber

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 07/09/2021 - 8:54pm in

In How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform DebateIsabella M. Weber explores the contestations behind China’s path to economic reform, showing how it committed to ‘experimental gradualism’ rather than the shock therapy of immediate market liberalisation. This meticulous and wide-reaching book sheds light on the history of marketisation reforms in China and the factors that led it to escape shock therapy, writes George Hong Jiang

How China Escaped Shock Therapy: The Market Reform Debate. Isabella M. Weber. Routledge. 2021.

Find this book (affiliate link): amazon-logo

China’s economic growth has been eye-catching. The story mostly began in the early 1980s, as the Chinese government introduced the ‘Reform and Opening Up’ policy to transform the socialist planned economy. China was neither the only nor the earliest state to launch marketisation reform, but it was the most successful among socialist nations. What led to this socialist ‘great divergence’ in which China refused big bang reform while other European socialist nations chose shock therapy and encountered continuous economic chaos and failure? This history deserves intense attention, but few have looked into it as meticulously as Isabella M. Weber. In her wide-reaching How China Escaped Shock Therapy, we find a map which sheds light on how the Chinese government decided on an ‘experimental gradualism’ (146) rather than shock therapy under the influence of Chinese traditional wisdom and contemporary intellectuals.

Part One of the book delves into Chinese classic lessons (mainly Guanzi), previous experience of price control and deregulation in Western countries and the concrete practices of communist cadres that aimed to manage the economy before the Communist Party of China gained national power. Chapter One explains why Chinese leaders refused shock therapy and were able to introduce the dual-track system in the 1980s, which played a fundamental role in China’s marketisation reform.

Shock therapy prescribes that price controls and the planned economy should be terminated through overnight price liberalisation and meteoric privatisation. Although in the short run there could be economic pain, including mass unemployment and inflation, liberal economists propose that this method will eventually lead to economic recovery, activated markets and prosperity. Shock therapy was once the prologue of the ‘Economic Miracle’ in West Germany (60), but its widespread practice in Russia and Eastern Europe resulted in economic disasters. Chinese leaders found it diametrically opposite to what they had inherited from ancient teaching.

Image Credit: Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

In Guanzi, a political textbook which was written 2000 years ago and preached diverse wisdom about how to conduct ‘politics’, it is taught that administrators should control what is ‘heavy’ (important and essential) for the sake of people’s lives and social stability, and let go of what is ‘light’ (unimportant and peripheral). Guanzi’s original aspiration was to elucidate how to strengthen the capacity for enlarging and wielding resources so that kings could overwhelm rivals in an era of warfare. Therefore, how to achieve ‘prosperity’ and the stable functioning of a society was central to Guanzi. Later, in imperial dynasties, abstract lessons were transformed into concrete practices, such as monopolies on salt and iron, the granary system used to flatten the price of grain, etc.

One important logic outlined in Guanzi is that political stability is prioritised even at the cost of economic freedom. For example, large fluctuations in prices would result in social disorder, which would in turn jeopardise political legitimacy. Wise politicians should try their best to avoid such embarrassing situations. This knowledge has become a kind of instinct guiding how both China’s ancient emperors and contemporary politicians make decisions. It is increasingly acknowledged that present-day China shares much continuity with its past with regards to societal structure and political ideology. The practices of communist cadres in the 1930s and 1940s were in fact influenced by classic wisdom too.

Like Eastern European socialist nations, China also established the Stalinist planned economy in which prices were tightly controlled by the government, and production and distribution were regulated through the commands of planning committees (Chapter Four). By the late 1970s, China had failed to improve people’s living standards or fulfil the promise of a glorious socialism.

After leader Mao Zedong died, politicians started to try possible deregulation and Western-oriented industrialisation. In the early 1980s, attention was drawn to price deregulation which was thought of as the core of marketisation reform. Nonetheless there was little consensus among politicians or economists about how to set the price mechanism free at the outset. Politicians adopted an experimental approach: ‘crossing a river by groping for stones’. The government cautiously and slowly acknowledged the existence of black markets and the small-scale circulation of commodities outside the planning mechanism (175). Markets mushroomed in margins, which became the foundation of the dual-track system.

Through the dual-track system, China gradually introduced price liberalisation. On the one hand, productive units, such as state-owned factories and rural households, had the obligation to fulfil compulsory production subject to the government’s extraction or taxation. On the other hand, after fulfilling compulsory production, those units could utilise their extra capacity to produce more commodities for free circulation in which the price mechanism predominated. Through this process, the price mechanism gradually expanded its scope.

Nevertheless, throughout the entire 1980s, while consensus was reached that reform was necessary, debates continued about which approach, a big bang reform or a gradualist one, would be better. Weber provides a detailed cognitive map in Part Two of those intellectual debates through which we can find clues of why China finally ‘escaped shock therapy’. In the early 1980s, economists from Eastern Europe and the West came to visit and gave lectures in China. But Chinese decision-makers did not take their advice, although some young Chinese intellectuals were proselytised by the package reform that foreign economists proposed.

Later, in 1986 and 1988, China ‘escaped shock therapy’ twice. In 1988, the Chinese government almost practised a wholesale liberalisation, but it led to hyperinflation, unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China, and then social instability. Very soon liberalisation was terminated, and tight control was reintroduced.

Why was a gradualist approach always preferred? In the 1980s those who supported shock therapy were by no means minor or politically weak. The key to the answer to this question might lie in the fact that Chinese decision-makers recognised the possible risky result of a sea change, and they valued social stability above all. Proponents of the planning mechanism, such as Chen Yun, one of the most important ‘engineers’ of the planned economy in the 1950s, never lost their political influence in the 1980s. Surrounding Chen Yun were formed groups of stubborn conservatives who on every frontier opposed liberalisation. They had deep concerns about inflation and social instability which had been a lifelong nightmare for those communist veterans. Several times they succeeded in aborting the plans of those who wanted liberalisation to be faster. Under these circumstances, a compromise was figured out: with the precondition of social stability, a limited price mechanism was allowed to gradually step in. The government must control what was essential for people’s daily life so that social unrest could be avoided. This political logic stems from Chinese classic wisdom through which politicians prioritised social stability and emphasised pragmatic behaviours, as preached in Guanzi. Weber highlights this similarity in her Conclusion.

Thus, contingency and necessity are intertwined here. Debates in the 1980s did not convince Chinese decision-makers of the benefits of shock therapy but exposed the potential risks of such reform. The long-tested political logic also told them to avoid actions which could endanger stability. Out of the gradualist approach grew eventually a market mechanism in the 1990s and 2000s.

Max Weber once made a prediction in 1919: the Chinese would be excellent capitalists, once the obstacles of ethical rules were removed. In hindsight, it could be one of the best predictions ever made in the social sciences. If we speak of economic growth, undoubtedly China’s reform is successful. Behind that was the steerage which sought on the one hand economic prosperity under instructions of liberalist thought, and on the other hand, political stability subconsciously. John Maynard Keynes wrote that ‘practical men who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist’. Weber’s book provides a vivid example of this through her history of Chinese marketisation reforms. To conclude, it was classic wisdom, extant lessons and contemporary debates that helped China to ‘escape shock therapy’.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books. 


Book Review: The Power of Narrative: Climate Skepticism and the Deconstruction of Science by Raul P. Lejano and Shondel J. Nero

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 03/09/2021 - 8:47pm in

In The Power of Narrative: Climate Skepticism and the Deconstruction of Science, Raul P. Lejano and Shondel J. Nero offer a narrative analysis of climate skepticism, exploring its emergence and transformations as well as its position in the ‘post-truth’ era. This book will help readers to critically understand the social and political construction of public narratives surrounding climate change as well as other contemporary issues, writes Sneha Biswas

The Power of Narrative: Climate Skepticism and the Deconstruction of ScienceRaul P. Lejano and Shondel J. Nero. Oxford University Press. 2021.

Find this book (affiliate link): amazon-logo

A typical day in our lives involves several narratives. As Jerome Bruner states, ‘Narrative imitates life, life imitates narrative’. Narratives, which are basically stories, stimulate emotions and form and bind communities. Narratives maintain the intergenerational knowledge flow among many indigenous as well as non-indigenous communities. When any debate enters into the public domain in narrative form, it takes a more convenient and comprehensive shape.

However, in their book, The Power of Narrative: Climate Skepticism and the Deconstruction of Science, Raul P. Lejano and Shondel J. Nero elaborate on the danger of a narrative being influenced by an ideology. The authors are experts in narrative analysis and linguistics: Lejano’s work focuses on the psychological and social construction of several environmental concepts and Nero’s research concerns applied linguistics and pedagogy. Their book presents a chronicle of climate skepticism: its emergence, its transformation into an ideological narrative, its present context in the ‘post-truth’ world and some future suggestions to curb the growth of ideological climate narratives.

In the book, climate skepticism refers to ‘expressing doubt over the accuracy of climate change science and/or arguing against carbon mitigation’. Skepticism towards climate change has emerged rapidly over the last two decades. According to Lejano and Nero, the global depression in 2008, the debated ‘Climategate’ and the failure of commitment at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009 mark the beginning of climate skepticism.

Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash

The book is composed of two major segments – two chapters offer the main analysis of climate skeptic narratives in different countries: namely, the US, the UK, Germany and China. Online surveys, op-eds in newspapers and online comments are used as data for the narrative analysis. The remaining chapters concentrate on deconstructing the metanarrative of climate skepticism.

Climate skepticism was rooted in the US and started to get a stronger and louder foothold there much earlier than the other three countries. One chapter is fully dedicated to tracking and exploring the emergence of public skepticism in the US from 2001 to 2018. The authors describe the development of trend skepticism (the denial that global temperatures are rising) in the US over five stages.

Climate skepticism was marked strongly in the US as the claims of climate science were seen to threaten the ‘American way of life’. In other parts of the world, such as the UK and Germany, the authors attribute climate skepticism to concerns about the ‘cost feasibility’ of climate change policies rather than questions about scientists’ credibility. On the other hand, climate skeptics in China hold that climate change debates and all global summits are part of a ‘western plot to undermine China’ and its economic growth. This polarised stance reflects the disappointment that followed the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit.

In the remaining chapters, the authors shed light on the major components of an ideological narrative, such as autopoiesis and decontextuality. They decode the genetic metanarrative of climate skepticism – how it follows a particular structure and becomes saturated with ideology. The authors explain how this narrative helps develop a like-minded community, position it in a post-truth world and also decipher the social construction of climate science.

Through their analysis of op-eds and online comments, the authors identify some of the common strategies which are used by climate skeptics. These include calling climate change a ‘hoax’ and a global conspiracy, labelling its proponents as ‘alarmists’ and claiming climate change as political propaganda created by climate scientists. It also involves intimidating individual scientists (the Serengeti strategy), using derogating adjectives and sarcasm against climate change activists, deploying an ‘us vs them’ narrative and making reverse accusations. In the case of the US, Al Gore, the former US Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner, was found to be a common target of the climate skeptics for being a strong voice of climate change activism.

As readers proceed through the remaining chapters, climate skepticism as a ‘story’ is unravelled with the help of Actantial theory. According to the Actantial theory framework, each general storyline comprises of actants, a subject (usually the hero), an object, a helper and an opponent and the interactions between these. Similarly, the climate skeptic narrative also encompasses a plot, characters or actors and events with some emotive touches that make it appealing to the general public.

The main structure of climate skepticism is built on disbelief, blame, misinterpretation of scientific data and more, all of which fully characterise the essential features of the post-truth era. Another important catalyst in the development of climate skeptic debates is identified in the book as political regimes. For example, the US saw an increase in the climate skeptic community during the Donald Trump administration. The former US President is one of the strongest climate skeptics. Within the time period of November 2011 and October 2015, Trump tweeted about his climate skepticism 115 times in total. He also scrapped many of the environmental laws made during the Barack Obama era. It can be inferred that political regimes can largely influence the building of public narratives.

The book unveils how climate skepticism, or what the authors refer to as ‘the counter ego of climate science’, started as an opinion that expressed disbelief in the anthropogenic (human) causes of climate change. It took the form of a narrative denying climate scientists’ claims, spreading its roots in public forums, before entering the realm of ideology. This makes the reader realise that climate change is not about science alone; it concerns politics and ideology.

Understanding the social and political construction of narratives not only helps readers understand this particular topic, but it can also act as a guide to other contemporary issues such as rising populism in democracies around the world. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, skeptics can be found all around. They label the pandemic as a ‘hoax’, as political propaganda to exhibit power or as a ploy made up by the pharmaceutical companies. Hence, the book’s appeal is not limited to an academic audience but is also for those in the general public who want to be aware of the construction of current debates.

Throughout their analysis, the authors maintain their unbiased stance and avoid the use of absolutist terms like ‘denialists’ from the very beginning. Their inclusion of the other part of the story – the narrative of climate science, its danger of becoming an ideology and the need for climate scientists to consider how they use their authority when publicly addressing any scientific issue – provides a comprehensive understanding of narratives. The book comes with the obligation to critically analyse any surging narrative in our social-media-dominated ‘post-truth’ world. The book explicitly indicates the responsibilities of climate scientists as a community. Moreover, the book certainly poses questions regarding the important role played by the media, journalists and social media in the construction of public narratives.

In their recommendations, the authors suggest the importance of choosing the right persons (local representatives) and the right language for addressing the subject of climate change. The authors’ arguments resonate with those of the climate scientist Michael Mann, who opines that demonising individuals (climate skeptics in this case) will only help to delay taking action. Instead, we need to be open-minded, sensitive and inclusive in order to build a healthy discussion around climate change. Unlike Mann’s 2021 book, this work is not about what we can do about climate change. Instead, it lays the paving stone for approaching the construction of the whole climate change debate while putting on our critical lenses.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books. 


Book Review: Dark Academia: How Universities Die by Peter Fleming

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 02/09/2021 - 8:27pm in

In Dark Academia: How Universities DiePeter Fleming explores the destructive impact of the bureaucratic and neoliberal structures of academia, which have turned universities into toxic workplaces. The book powerfully evokes despair and despondency at the loss of the intellectual environment promised of academics, writes Chelsea Guo, yet she questions whether the traditional academic institution has ever truly been a sanctuary for everyone. 

Dark Academia: How Universities Die. Peter Fleming. Pluto Press. 2021.

To an aspiring academic, Dark Academia: How Universities Die by Peter Fleming reads like an ‘Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here’ inscription on an ivory doorway to Hell. Despite Fleming’s rather mild tone (except when comparing university management to Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin (71, 123)), each page bleeds with the despair, despondency and forlorn yearning for the intellectual environment that was promised of academics, young and old, across the sciences and the humanities alike.

Throughout the book, Fleming, a seasoned academic himself, recounts the stories of such victims of ‘Dark Academia’. These include Gregory Eells, Director of Counselling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania, who killed himself in downtown Philadelphia. Thea Hunter, a Columbia University PhD who became a permanent member of the underpaid, uninsured, ‘untenured underclass’ and died of multiple organ failure after being unable to afford medical treatment. Stefan Grimm, a Professor of Toxicology at Imperial College, who related his experience of alleged egregious disrespect from his department’s leadership in a posthumously sent email following his suicide that twice asked, ‘Why does a Professor have to be treated like that?’

As Fleming emphasises, these deaths are not mere manifestations of ‘underlying mental health issues’. To treat them as such is to miss the deadly forms of oppression that exist within academia today. Even worse, it is to fall for the narrative pushed by right-wing commentators like Ben Shapiro and Bryan Caplan that universities are blissful ‘La La Lands’ whose inhabitants think they’re doing the Lord’s work, ‘writing books, discussing esoteric topics in tweed jackets and sipping brandy in the evening as they contemplate complex problems’, and leading sheltered, privileged lives unencumbered by the mundane concerns that plague the rest of us. Fleming aims to highlight the gross inaccuracy of this depiction by directly connecting these deaths to the bureaucratisation, neoliberalisation and commercialisation of academia, or the transformation of universities into what he calls ‘darkocracies’.

Fleming argues that in the past half-century, university administrators have, for various political and financial reasons that he largely glosses over, systemically adopted the doctrines of New Public Management, Human Capital Theory and Public Choice Theory. Under such doctrines, academics are reduced to self-interested, utility-maximising, economic beings who’ll shirk their duties if given the opportunity and therefore can’t be trusted with the kind of collegial self-governance that once dominated university departments. Hence the introduction of corporate accountability measures and overbearing managers to keep academics in line and universities profitable.

Fleming is primarily concerned with so-called ‘key performance indicators’, or metrics designed to capture an individual’s contribution to the university’s ‘bottom line’, like H-index scores, journal rankings, impact factors and grant income totals. As captured by the well-known phrase ‘publish or perish’, academics must meet these benchmarks to keep their jobs – becoming either hyper-competitive, backstabbing, publication-chasing careerists or meek ‘production-line knowledge workers’ in the process – or perish. No wonder, as Fleming notes in Chapter One, 90 per cent of UK academics surveyed reported feeling ‘very unsatisfied’ with university management.

Image Credit: Desaturated version of photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

It’s undeniable that business practices like frequent performance reviews, time tracking software, email monitoring and arbitrary performance metrics encourage competition, turn universities into toxic work environments, create power imbalances between academics and university management and kill the love academics once had for their work. Yet, at this point in the book, a non-academic reader might ask: don’t all professionals feel this way? After all, who hasn’t dealt with sadistic managers, gossipy co-workers, cut-throat competition and a sense that all your time is being wasted on pointless meetings and endless emails?

Admittedly, the sections where Fleming describes the psychological ramifications of toxic workplace dynamics do come across as almost naïve, like the observations of a young professional after his first encounter with workplace alienation. At one point, for example, Fleming feels the need to explain to his audience that Human Resources departments do not, in fact, protect employees from abuse and harassment but instead protect senior management from disgruntled employees. Big surprise.

Fleming, possibly anticipating such a critique, emphasises throughout the book that what makes the bureaucratisation of universities particularly damaging for academics is that it is fundamentally inconsistent with the ethos of academia as such. However, one must wonder whether Fleming here falls for a version of the ‘La La Land’ narrative pushed by the right-wing commentators described above. It comes through when he bristles at the fact that academics now have to prove their financial worth to remain hired, meaning ‘little will distinguish their jobs from those in a multinational enterprise or tyre factory’. It comes through when (despite his insistence that academics don’t see themselves as saints) he describes academics as those who ‘see little difference between themselves and what they do for a living’ and go into academia out of a sense of ‘civic duty’ to further ‘public knowledge and societal progress’. Thus, corporatisation is an especially harmful, nasty shock for them, whereas employees at ‘Bank of America or BHP […] know what they’re getting into’.

Implied in this narrative is a sense of exceptionalism – the idea that academics ought to be insulated from market pressures due to the nature of their work and their motivations for working. But is this really the case? Are academics truly motivated by different factors than other workers? From where I stand, many academics seem to be motivated by profit just as much as other workers are motivated by passion, and both are ultimately motivated by a need to survive in a capitalist economy. Thus, is it really true that the suffering of academics is somehow greater than that of other workers, or that only the former deserve to be freed of capitalist oppression?

Importantly, because of this blind spot in his analysis, Fleming misses the opportunity to ground his arguments in a critique of capital itself that would unify the cause of academics with the cause of all workers and highlight their shared suffering, as well as a critique of the ways in which the university has always been capitalism’s handmaiden – a tool of the powerful to reproduce itself. Until recently, most of the world’s top universities admitted only white males, affording only them the opportunity to leisurely read Karl Marx, study medieval poetry and discuss macroeconomic theory, not to mention providing only them the socioeconomic status associated with a college degree. In other words, the university was indeed La La Land – but only because it was for and protected the privileged few.

Now that the university has opened up and is consequently no longer that ‘sanctuary from market discipline’, the white men of academia are beginning to experience the psychological traumas of capitalism that women and people of colour have never been free from. But make no mistake. Despite this seemingly egalitarian turn, the university continues to stratify society along socioeconomic lines. As seen in Fleming’s insistence that academics have it particularly bad, the ideological underbelly of La La Land persists, separating the haves from the have-nots, those learned (or just privileged) enough to dream of a world in which passion and financial stability come hand-in-hand and those sentenced to toil in quiet agony.

So, when it comes to the modern university, we must ask whether it’s ever been, as Fleming describes it, a ‘collegium of peers’, devoted to Truth and open to all. Whether it’s even possible to have such a space in a capitalist system built upon class, race and gender hierarchies. And whether academia lives up to its own principles if it’s only a sanctuary for a select few. Perhaps in our rush to decry the death of the traditional academic institution, we forgot to examine whether it was worth saving in the first place.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Book Review: Lessons from Plants by Beronda L. Montgomery

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 25/08/2021 - 8:30pm in

In Lessons from Plants, Beronda L. Montgomery offers a deep engagement with plant lives, showing how growing our plant awareness can benefit our understanding of human societies and relationships. Inviting us to reflect on the biological and plant metaphors we think with in our everyday lives, this book shows the power of scientists writing about the inspiration that fuels their research, finds Anna Nguyen

Lessons from Plants. Beronda L. Montgomery. Harvard University Press. 2021.

Find this book (affiliate link): amazon-logo

During an online conversation between Dr Chanda Prescod-Weinstein and Dr Beronda L. Montgomery hosted by Schuler Books, Montgomery stated that there were two books in Lessons from Plants. It is, she noted, a biology book and a book with analogies with some illustrations that visualise particular processes. Further, Montgomery shared that she wrote her monograph with Black feminists in mind. Thus, the language of the book highlights Montgomery’s love for plants, science and maths, as she notes in the Preface, and the lessons learned from plants can be a reflection on other organisms, professional spaces, mentoring, equity, relationships and bridging professional and personal domains.

These parallel books are very apparent throughout the six chapters of Lessons from Plants, as Montgomery explains plants and plant lives in scientific terms while also circling back to the lessons she wishes to instil in readers, leaders and organisers. In the Preface, she writes that as a biology researcher in academic science, she was prepared to experience the expected norms of researching science via the structure of the scientific method, mentor future scientists and make some valuable contributions that extend our knowledge of how the world works (xi). What she did not expect, however, was ‘the transformative growth and knowledge’ gained ‘from methodical and systematic observation of biological organisms, especially plants’ (xi-xii).

Analogies and metaphors are plentiful in the book, and a careful reader must be able to discern which ones Montgomery is critiquing and which ones she prefers. In the introduction, Montgomery notes the obvious comparison between human-animal and human-plant relationships and suggests a ‘companion term that encourages deepening awareness and appreciation of the plants around us’ (3), foregoing ‘flora appreciation’ for ‘plant awareness’ (4).

Photo by Sarah Dorweiler on Unsplash

This latter concept of ‘plant awareness’ can also refer to plants as reactive and intelligent, the beliefs that they have knowledge of themselves to go about being and that they actively exist (10). Plants behave in a way that is reflective of their surroundings, an idea that has been challenged or slow for others to accept because plants lack a central nervous system, which other organisms with clearly definable behavioural traits have (11). Yet, Montgomery notes that some scientists have broadened their understanding of behaviour as ‘describing the ability to gather and integrate information about the condition of the external and internal environment and then using that information to alter internal signaling or communications pathways […] resulting in changes to growth or allocation of nutrients and other resources. With this understanding, the idea that plants can ‘‘behave’’ became more acceptable’ (11).

In Chapter Two, ‘Friend or Foe’, Montgomery examines how plants may be competitive. In a particular example, a plant may compete for light through lateral rather than vertical growth. Researchers have suggested that some plants – as well as insects, fungi and bacteria – may adjust their competitive or collaborative behaviour depending on whether their neighbours are close kin or share genetic likeness (41). But we can learn beyond individual or genetic relations through what she calls ‘network-based relationships’ (51). Such beneficial relationships are an ideal for ‘establishing an ecosystem of support, collegiality, and community’, Montgomery writes, adding that her own professional network has been enriched by those in and outside of her disciplinary focus (50-51).

At the end of this illuminating chapter, Montgomery applies another analogy between plants and human relations in the ever-present problem with higher education or professional networks: that individuals from marginalised, underrepresented or first-generation communities have been kept out of these networks and this exclusion has derailed their likelihood of achieving success (51). Further, community gardens, community-based mentoring programmes and collaborative professional work ‘offer a salient demonstration of the power of diverse communities’ (51). The ultimate lesson, here, is that the most effective networks are ones that create and maintain robust systems of communication and diverse interactions (52).

These networks and their lessons also show up in Chapter Four, where Montgomery discusses ecological succession in the context of transformation and tells the story of the Chernobyl trees and resilient pioneer plants. Researchers observed the trees’ ability to re-establish themselves despite the dire toxic environment of Chernobyl (73-75), and noted how processes of ecological succession (primary succession and secondary succession) and pioneer plants play a part in the changing structure of the ecosystem. Soil characteristics change, and individual plants of various species ‘adapt to the local environment through the processes of colonization, establishment, and growth and survival significantly affect the overall pattern of succession’ (77). Pioneer plants, or species that are able to grow in challenging environments and can acquire scarce nutrients, behave differently in the two different types of succession. The ecological lesson regarding pioneer plants is that ‘no two species can occupy the same niche (that is, play the same ecological role) in the same location; one will outcompete the other. The process by which one species replaces another during succession occurs at varying rates and affects the ultimate species diversity in a community’ (83).

Mixed metaphors continue to be on Montgomery’s mind, specifically the adage ‘bloom where you’re planted’. She argues this is misleading, for plants ‘don’t just function in their environment: they actively participate and transform it’ (91). The lesson to create institutional change:

promoting change in human environments requires similar skills to those that plants display during ecological succession. In human institutions, or ecosystems, effective initial leaders of cultural change function as pioneers. Identifying and supporting individuals who possess the characteristics needed to promote change successively and synergistically toward developing and sustaining a new ecosystem is critical (92).

Here, Montgomery envisions flourishing community development that rejects individualist exceptionalism.

Chapter Five may best summarise the possibilities of diverse knowledges and communities. Montgomery shares the valuable Indigenous intercropping techniques of the Three Sisters as a way to acknowledge traditional ecological knowledge and bridge gaps between knowledge systems that have always included relationality to kin and non-human species without co-opting them (99, 106). This practice, in which Indigenous peoples have planted beans, corn and squash together, is another example of her argument regarding collaborative effort between nature, plants and humans. Finally, in the conclusion, Montgomery asks us to move beyond the conventional understanding of kin. Noting the restrictive use of biological kin, she adds that humans value ‘functional kin’, which she views as ‘based on rather narrow definitions of shared ethnicity, race, gender, or socioeconomic status’ (142) that inhibit actual inclusive communities from flourishing and thriving in society, like plants.

It is hardly controversial nowadays to declare that science is neither apolitical nor neutral. Nor is it controversial to ask readers to think about the author of the text. In a Nature article titled ‘My Most Memorable Mentors? Plants’, Montgomery, a Black woman scientist and Professor, writes that she is ‘in the vast minority’ in her professional space. This is a space where, she further explains, scientists are trained not to write about the inspiration that fuels their research and to separate the personal and the scientific. Readers should view Lessons from Plants as a book that can and has done both of these diligently. If biological metaphors like ‘taking root’ and ‘uprooting’ are significant to us, Montgomery’s explorations and critiques may make us reconsider why these are some metaphors she and we think with.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The LSE RB blog may receive a small commission if you choose to make a purchase through the above Amazon affiliate link. This is entirely independent of the coverage of the book on LSE Review of Books.


Long Read Review: Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction by Robbie Shilliam

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/08/2021 - 11:49pm in

In Decolonizing Politics: An IntroductionRobbie Shilliam explores the colonial and racist logics enfolded within the history of political thought while also identifying decolonising moves within the discipline. Recontextualising and reconceptualising the intellectual roots and routes of political science, this book is infused with new possibilities and optimism, providing practical solutions for scholars keen to go beyond power-laden racialised and gendered categories of thinking, writes Sudhir Chella Rajan.

Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction. Robbie Shilliam. Polity. 2021.

The art of territory and the empire of political theory

‘The negroes are in general fine healthy people’, began the banner headline on page 3 of an 1828 handbill printed in Haymarket, London. That this was not some lavish assessment is abundantly clear in the very next line: ‘and have increased twenty in number since 1819’. The flyer was an auction notice for a group of nearly 300 men, women and children packaged for sale in two sugar plantations in St. Kitts along with several non-human livestock, two windmills, houses and 400 acres of land. Thomas Thomas purchased this bundled ‘property’ for 16,250 pounds.

Reading that handbill now, its clarity of intent is especially stark against the racist frenzy of white nationalists and their enablers, opposed by the counter-movement hashtagged ‘Black Lives Matter’. If racist bigotry seems absurdly anachronistic today, it is because there is no thoughtful support for it, even while racism as such has hardly disappeared. No living philosopher is opposed to the slogan ‘BLM’. A few may question the movement’s forms of protest and its demand to defund the police, but even to them it is abundantly clear that no framework of ethics can defend the dehumanisation of persons — through bodily harm and murder, threats, intimidation and systemic deprivation. The right to life for all is foundational to contemporary human rights jurisprudence, and irrefutably so.

Be that as it may, there are jarring disconnections between theory and practice. For millennia, some groups of persons violently and systematically abused others based on the latter’s bodily features and heredity. Today, police violence towards people of colour, institutional discrimination in the workplace and concerted attacks on the Global South in international politics and trade are endemic features that seem to have little or no permanent resolution.

These facts present themselves as embarrassing questions for political philosophy. What types of justificatory discourse or forms of reasoning, alongside the prevailing everyday social practices of ordinary people, fostered human slavery and its successive forms of discrimination for several centuries? How did they change shape, if at all, as societies got more integrated with the spread of legal institutions that protected equality? How did the great social thinkers of yore, whose ideas form the bedrock of today’s political theory and jurisprudence, tolerate or even validate these different practices in their midst? Or must we separate the wheat from the chaff, as some have suggested, by, say, ignoring Aristotle’s justification of slavery that it was part of the natural order?

Even more specifically, during the period known as the Enlightenment, which prided itself on the self-conscious application of practical reason against divine intervention or providence to validate new forms of social order, how were colonialism and slavery justified? Did moral accounting for prevailing forms of dehumanisation somehow get elided in the course of the progressive education of reasonable people in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? Or were racist beliefs in fact encoded in the very forms of justification that gave rise to the duplicitous liberal institutions that are today dominant forms in constitutional republics around the world?

Image Credit: ‘2016-10-01_Margate06’, photograph of ‘The British Library’ by Yinka Shonibare by Ungry Young Man licensed under CC BY 2.0 

In rare non-technical language that any troubled undergraduate student looking for answers can understand, Robbie Shilliam’s Decolonizing Politics: An Introduction follows the work of some of the most celebrated scholars of the European and North American traditions of social and political science to disclose their racial prejudices and other unexamined biases. But he also identifies decolonising moves within these disciplines that destabilise racial and gender stereotypes and rework political thought.

The history of political thought is typically treated in classrooms and journals as if it were the progressive development of pure forms of reasoning, uninterrupted by cultural biases and support for prevailing forms of power. In fact, several famous political philosophers, including John Locke, David Hume, Immanuel Kant and G.W.F. Hegel, not only took openly racist positions in their writing, but their ethics were constitutive of white male privilege alongside the construction of non-Europeans and women as having separate and only quasi-human identities. Different capacities for doing intellectual work among different groups became the very rationale for promoting the idea that there were ‘more or less competent [people] than others to exercise reason for political ends’. It is such hidden colonial logics in the history of political thought that Shilliam aims to disclose in this slim volume.

‘Inferior’ by nature or nurture

In broad terms, Shilliam identifies at least two strategies of colonial reason, one involving nature; the other, nurture. For millennia, claims about the natural deficiencies of women, slaves, serfs and non-human species have been the characteristic basis for exercising control over them. In the 10th mandala (or Book) of the Rig Veda, which was composed sometime between 1500-500 BCE, cosmic Man was deemed the originator of different types of varna, literally ‘hue’. Brahmins were formed in the head, lesser varnas in the arms and stomach and Shudras in His feet. In the Biblical tradition, Noah’s curse of eternal slavery on the descendants of Canaan was eventually used to justify the enslavement of black Africans.

In Politics, Aristotle justified rule by men of reason over women and slaves on the basis of natural order. ‘The relation of male to female is by nature a relation of superior to inferior and ruler to ruled’. Moreover, ‘the idlest [of humans] are nomads’, who derive sustenance from the wild without effort because they are in ‘a living farm’. As natural inferiors, slaves and animals ‘exist for the sake of human beings’. Nomads, like brigands, fishers and hunters, ‘do not supply sustenance through exchange and commerce’, effectively making them surplus members of society.

Shilliam describes how even nurture had primeval foundations for Aristotle. But here, the rule of reason, a discursive apparatus of logic, was especially vital. How does someone come to develop a reasoning mind? Usually by training, through refinement of some sort, or after being nurtured. To be nurtured properly in the arts of logic is also to be accultured toward refined practices and ideas, which serve to cultivate a well-trained mind. Refined men enhance their tastes to understand and appreciate ‘noble tunes and rhythms’. Animals engaging in collective projects such as bees and ants also have this property, though in a less distilled sense, by following ‘a single and common task [ergon] or function’.

Image by morhamedufmg from Pixabay

Aristotle admitted in Politics that ‘man is much more a political animal than any kind of bee or any herd animal’, but ‘just as man is the best of the animals when completed, when separated from law and adjudication, he is the worst of all’. Since ‘without virtue, he is the most unholy and the most savage of the animals, and the worst with regard to sex and food, […] justice is a thing belonging to the city.’ The city (polis) was important here, for it was not an indifferent site of political activity but rather a spatial organisation that assembled for itself a set of commitments and tasks for a range of persons, animals and plants to fulfill broad economic goals that involved rent extraction and its redistribution. It was, in other words, an entire geography of government—the rule of people and things by those who could rightfully make claims to territory.

Aristotle defends the polis against imperial degeneration, but does so in a way that vindicates the entire apparatus that maintains the polis – the patriarchal family, slavery and the legacy of settler colonialism. Shilliam’s decolonising move here is to reveal that ancient claims of legitimate territorial control, which Aristotle upholds, were based on the presumption that might (of settler colonialism) is right and not on an abstract set of ethical principles.

Similar claims later coalesced into the imagined entity we now call the ‘state’, a set of carefully calibrated performances by elite networks which operated on three registers. The first was protection, a pastoral role of retaining a working population within a territory and ensuring its resources were properly fended off from outsiders. The second was effectiveness, which meant keeping the promise of prosperity active through a redistribution of rents that the elite network captured on surplus gains from land (through taxation) and trade (through geographical arbitrage). Third, and perhaps most important for the territorial polity’s endurance, was guaranteeing the legitimacy of its own rule, which was established on externally authorised institutions of justice. These included those provided by the rituals of divine sanction and by a system of the rule of law founded on demonstrably justifiable logic.

It is useful to note that territorial polities were a rarity until around 500 BCE. Still, the empires of Europe and Asia made such grandiose claims and engaged in such extravagant displays to create memorable spectacles of sovereignty that they constructed almost everything we know about the past. As late as 1500 CE, the vast majority of the human population lived outside the territories ruled by those making these ostentatious assertions of supreme authority. As James C. Scott observes, they knew well the ‘arts of not being governed’. Meanwhile, territorial political thought developed on the basis that refined men are the legitimate rulers over women and slaves, while barbarian nomads clamour at the gates of the city and are further to be distrusted for their idleness and unreliability. In short, only the already mighty (produced by nature or nurture) have established the right over the city in any type of regime: kingships, aristocracies or republics.

The impoverishment of humanity

Shilliam makes another nifty move by referring to the early writings of Kant. In doing so, he clarifies for us the intended subjects of Kant’s use of reason, a majestic word that makes staged appearances in the sublime language of the three Critiques. In Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, which was written about two decades before the three Critiques, Kant cites Hume to write that ‘among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have been transported elsewhere from their countries, although very many of them have been set free, nevertheless not a single one has ever been found who has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality, while among the whites there are always those who rise up from the lowest rabble and through extraordinary gifts earn respect in the world.’

Kant’s essential contention was that all black people and all women are ‘naturally inferior’ to white men.  But in the Critique of Practical Reason, he wrote that the ‘ground of obligation’ upon which to draw moral conclusions is not to be ‘sought in the nature of the human being or in the circumstances of the world in which he is placed, but a priori simply in concepts of pure reason’. If so, on what basis but natural or birth-given attributes are women and slaves not owed the same rights as white men? Shilliam writes that Kant’s framing of humanity covers only white men because it is they (and only they) who are deemed to have the education and the cultivation to pursue human ends, whereas various non-European humans are not yet there. It is an argument that resembles John Stuart Mill’s relegation of the colonies to what Dipesh Chakrabarty has termed the ‘waiting room of history’, an abode that is ‘not yet’ Europe, but can surely reach someplace resembling it, once the ‘natives’ are properly refined.

In the end, even the nurture argument tends to be derived from a type of naturalisation of the character of the already displaced and disadvantaged. Black men are deemed lazy and unintelligent and ‘natives’ are deemed unreliable because of the very conditions of their existence: namely their birth and socialisation as captured peoples. The capacity for universal communicability and a sense of refined judgement is undeveloped in non-Europeans, but they can rely on European men to forge the emancipatory agenda of universal humanism. Shilliam writes that humanism was built on what Sylvia Wynter calls the ‘over-represented’ category of the human – over-represented, that is, first as Man1 by the white Christian man and, in the twentieth century, as Man2 by a normalised member of the Western European bourgeoisie. In both these constructs, Man was contrasted with animal in the same binary opposition of reason to sensory response, the decision-taking, rational investor/consumer versus the anarchist rebel who will just not play the game.

Coloniality and its territorial burden

If race is an ideological construct, re-reading Enlightenment philosophers reveals that it was a useful construct, useful to justify slavery and colonialism through various stages of the imperial project. Central to Empire was territory: its formation, institutionalisation and fortification, the extractive operations associated with it and the protection of the interests of rent collectors. Colonial exploitation in its various incarnations required a consistent confinement of exploited bodies to the waiting rooms of training and education, the ‘white man’s burden’. After World War II, when it no longer made economic sense to hold on to far-off colonies directly, the global order was re-organised on the basis of Bretton Woods arrangements for the non-Communist world. This was when Wynter’s simulated bourgeois liberal, economically rational Man2 became significant, because its properly marketised form now overtook every other possibility of human model: that is to say, it eclipsed a pluriverse of alternative ways of living and representation.

Image Credit: Photo by Adolfo Félix on Unsplash

Shilliam’s book covers a lot of ground in political science in addition to the history of political thought. These include behaviourism, the study of political institutions, comparative politics and international relations. He lays bare a dominant tradition in each of these domains where scholarship contorted itself to accommodate imperial and racist agendas. For instance, it was progressives in the United States who were most eager to advocate eugenics because they feared degeneracy with the mixing of hereditary characteristics. Race was the often unspoken tag to distinguish between ‘normal’ and ‘abnormal’ behaviour and competent and incompetent state subjects, while responsible elites managed the reins of the polity to maintain social order.

In comparative politics and international relations, research agendas were developed to ‘improve’ native populations, but not too hastily, perhaps in case that might go to their heads, as Hume had feared. European guidance and tutorship were essential to get the post-colonies out of disorder, but European responsibility for centuries of colonial violence was always neatly ignored in the analysis. This led to special designations for post-colonial societies: failed states, neo-patrimonialism, tribalism, traditional and authoritarian as opposed to modern and democratic, and dangerous populism. Yet, Shilliam points out that possibly because the field of international relations was most explicitly created as a science of imperial administration, it has seen some of the most remarkable decolonising moves by both scholars and intersectional activists.

More generally, Shilliam describes several instances of study and political organising that have been inspired by Frantz Fanon’s autopoiesis or collective self-making to redescribe political relationships not in terms of binaries but as flows and shifts of identity and difference, and also as inexact changes in power and legitimacy. In his imaginary conversation between the Chicanx queer theorist Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa and Aristotle, Shilliam illustrates a process of redescription of familiar tropes with tolerance and ambiguity to ‘recontextualize and reconceptualize the intellectual roots and routes of political science’.

Achieving the pluriverse

Decolonizing Politics redescribes an array of allied disciplines — area studies, comparative politics, political theory and international relations — in a new light; critically, to be sure, but also providing practical solutions for young scholars who are keen to go beyond power-laden racialised and gendered categories. Shilliam’s approach is to engage in ‘border thinking’, to develop new languages of politics that might ‘erase the power hierarchies that consistently recreate centres-with-citizens and marginal peoples-on-borders’. It is not a cynical exercise at all but one infused with new possibilities and optimism for pluralist, decolonised solutions.

I end this review with two further pointers of hope. The first, which bears affirming in spite of the validity of the assessments made above, is that much good has resulted from the political science canon. One might point out, for instance, that the moral arc of Kant’s political philosophy has been bent by political activism for over two centuries towards the formation of human rights law. This is pointedly the foremost discursive juridical strategy that brought a modicum of justice to dominated peoples of all genders and hues since the nineteenth century. Human rights law might be a slender raft, but it is a raft all the same, on which a host of current and future concerns about displaced peoples, human trafficking and political violence can be salvaged. Recall that decolonial movements in India, South Africa, the US and elsewhere were led by activists on the streets as well as lawyers in courtrooms. The latter chipped away at the practical inconsistencies of jurisprudence built on universal principles derived from Aristotle, Locke, Kant and others, which preached freedom, equality and solidarity.

The relevance of the so-called ‘Western’ canon was highlighted in a recent Washington Post op-ed by Cornel West and Jeremy Tate on Howard University’s decision to shut its Classics department. West and Tate treat the decision as a sign of ‘spiritual decay and moral decline’, arguing that the Classics have profoundly influenced black freedom fighters throughout history from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King. West and Tate then seek a fuller appreciation of the classical canon, in spite of its discursive associations and methodological histories of justifying slavery and the other demeaning effects of colonialism. In arguing thus, they correctly signal their distance from Audre Lorde’s austere formulation: ‘The Master’s tools will never dismantle the Master’s house.’

Image Credit: Crop of ‘Sojourner Truth Monument – Battle Creek’ by Battle Creek CVB licensed under CC BY 2.0

My second source of hope in the project to decolonise politics is its potential to produce hybrid, travelling cultures of scholarship that do not seek to ground ideas in a single canon. Aristotle, Locke and Kant may form a significant thread of conversation that is ‘Western’, but by the 21st century, many voices from the Global South and North have already joined that conversation, including Zera Yacob, Gandhi, B.R. Ambedkar, C.L.R. James, Michel Foucault, Wynter, Anzaldúa and Linda Tuhiwai Smith. Theory, pragmatic philosophers such as William James and West will point out, is a set of hooks to interpretation, not pegs on which to hang all the evidence. Theory is therefore a plural category, open-ended rather than closed, available for interpretation, not mastery.

What then might constitute a critical or decolonised canon of politics? Shilliam comes very close to identifying it, but he is prudent to only make gestures at this point, recognising that an open-ended and multi-pronged research of canonical and corresponding texts is a principal necessity. He emphasises that it cannot be founded on any type of nativism, even of the identity-affirming sort, say, of originating in a European or African location with pride of place.

Thought that is predicated on dissensus, but is still tentative and unsure of itself while remaining pluralist and agonist, is neither entirely new nor exclusively European in origin — it has venerable roots in Buddhist and Greek philosophical traditions as much as in Kant and Anton Wilhelm Amo and is today often termed critical philosophy. The political implications of such thought can be radical, just as the language of the American Declaration of Independence spawned not just the French Revolution but also the Haitian Revolution. And in spite of its internal contradictions of slavery, perhaps American political theory too may yet be redeemed, as Judith Shklar tries to, if it can be revisited as a strained set of plural engagements across Jeffersonians, Madisonians, Tocquevillians, Sojourner Truths and Anzaldúans, not as a way to cover up the violence and contradictions but to recontextualise and reconceptualise them.

Note: This review gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. 


Q and A with Dylan Mulvin on Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 24/08/2021 - 9:01pm in


book review

We speak to Dr Dylan Mulvin, Assistant Professor in LSE Department of Media and Communications, about his book Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In, which examines the ways in which proxies shape our lives, the histories of their production and how we delegate power to represent our world.

You can visit the MIT Press website to purchase Proxies or download a free, open access copy. Proxies is launching at LSE on Thursday 18 November as an online public event

Q&A with Dylan Mulvin on Proxies: The Cultural Work of Standing In. MIT Press. 2021.

Q: How do you understand the role of the proxy?

If proxies are those people, places and things that we choose to stand in for the world, they play all sorts of different roles in making societies run and holding communities together. We have proxy voters who stand in for us when we can’t be present; we have proxy servers that buffer our connection to computer networks; and we have proxy wars that serve as satellite battlefields. The person, place or thing is a trusted delegate, standing in for something else, allowing us to displace the need for the real thing in order to accomplish some social, technical or political goal. In this way proxies are a means to an end.

But I’m interested in the world of less conspicuous proxies that suffuse our lives: the colour bars you might use to calibrate your television or computer monitor — a proxy for the normal range of visible light, and ‘normal’ human vision, that we can adjust to our expectations. Or the market basket of goods that stands in for an average consumer’s purchasing habits in calculating inflation. Or the crash test model that stands in for human bodies when they are at their most vulnerable. These are not proxies for specific people or habits but for ideas of ‘the ideal’, ‘the average’ or ‘the normal’. They are the necessary forms of make-believe that we use in the production of knowledge and the standardisation of the world.

While these proxies might escape notice on a day-to-day basis, they mould what is visible, how we can afford to make-do or how we might survive an accident. These are cultural artifacts, steeped in the biases and favouritisms of people and the limited ways we might envision our world. Hence, colour television was bad at reproducing non-white skin, the market basket of goods fails to capture quality of life and the bodily template of crash test models has been tied to higher mortality for people who don’t conform to its notions of the average (including most women).

So, proxies are all around us: they perform the necessary work of standing-in, but they are also shaped and twisted to fit specific visions of the world. We need proxies, in other words, but we also need to attend to the ways they shape our lives, the histories of their production and the reasons we might reject them and demand better stand-ins.

Q: What led you to focus your research on stand-ins?

I began this project ten years ago, and it grew out of a fascination with test images (the focus of Chapters Three and Four in the book). With Jonathan Sterne I wrote about the 27 Kodak slides used as test images to standardise American colour TV. These images were peculiar cultural artifacts (odd pictures of people rowing and playing table tennis) and crucial scientific instruments. I was captured by the work that engineers had to do to reconcile those two dimensions without undermining either.

Image Credit: NTSC test image, 1955

I started collecting other examples of proxies – test sounds, measurement prototypes, test cities, standardised patients and mock juries. What I had seen with test images – that awkward reconciliation of cultural outlook and professionally compelled objectivity – now appeared to be part of a much larger and familiar process of ‘proxification’ in the production of knowledge. The collection of proxies that became my book’s focus were chosen because they had lasted through time, become critical to different institutions (the US military, the metric system, computer science and the medical establishment), and they demonstrated the embodied and laborious nature of proxy work.

It was essential to be doing this research at a time when others were looking at stand-ins. When I began working on television test images, Lorna Roth had already published her work on the history of Shirley Cards, Genevieve Yue was working on so-called ‘China Girl’ images and Jacob Gaboury was working on the history of digital imaging, including test objects. Roth and Yue had provided a language for talking about the gendering and racing of stand-ins in visual media and Sue Murray’s work on the history of colour TV showed how the labour of standardisation linked up with the larger project of infrastructural and aesthetic renewal. The fact that we were all working on film, television and very early computer technology meant that there was a solid framework for placing novel AI techniques within the longer history of the politics of proxies.

Q: How is this research different from exploring the history of working objects?

Great question: investigating working objects in scientific domains has often been central for historians of science. Among others we have Robert Kohler’s history of the fruit fly Drosophila used in genetics research, Nathan Ensmenger’s account of chess in AI and Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison’s scientific atlases in Objectivity. What these histories show is how different disciplines have adopted models for the world when the world itself is ‘too plentiful and too various’ (to use Daston and Galison’s phrase). The models themselves have to be accessible and usable. Chess is ready-to-hand for many computer scientists just like fruit flies are abundant and easily replaced (a rotting banana is often all you need). Each one tells a fascinating story of the material specificity of these workable models — and how each discipline was shaped through their use of common objects.

In Proxies I sought to build on these histories but also stretch the focus to the labour, performance and bodies of the people who work with and as proxies. The chapter on standardised patients, for instance, looks at human actors who perform as ill or disabled. I’m not comfortable thinking of people as ‘working objects’. The work these actors perform goes far beyond the mechanistic function of a chessboard or the fungibility of a fly; it must incorporate their own sentiments, affects and idiosyncratic bodies. My hope would be that people can read Proxies alongside histories of working objects to think about the politics of proxification more broadly.

Q: In Chapter Two you explore the hand-cleaning of the International Prototype Kilogram, which acted as the worldwide stand-in for mass. Why is it vital to recognise that information management and data hygiene require manual and bodily processes of cleaning and maintenance?

One of the central arguments of Proxies is that we can understand the role that stand-ins play in society through the work people have to perform to keep proxies viable. If proxies are analogies for the world out there, then we have to keep track of all of the labour it takes to keep that analogy alive. When I was researching the history of the metric system, I was amazed to find these precise guidelines for washing and cleaning kilograms. Because all metals are porous, the platinum-iridium surface of the metric system’s prototypes soak up their surroundings. While we have these beautiful and odd rituals in nineteenth-century France for consecrating a piece of platinum-iridium as the definition of mass, you get these understated guidelines for rubbing the kilogram with chamois leather to give it a ‘rather handsome, but not specular’ appearance.

Image Credit: Cleaning a kilogram by hand. Credit: R.R. Mulvin.

If we can talk about hygiene for kilograms — the basis of virtually all mass measurements in the world — in terms of ‘handsome but not specular’ appearances, then there must be an inescapable bodily and aesthetic dimension to how we handle information and data. There’s been a turn towards maintenance and repair in Media Studies and Science and Technology Studies, and a longer history of attending to the labour of upkeep in feminist theory and sociology. We see the importance of the labour of upkeep, and the toll it takes on bodies, in the role that content moderators play in cleaning up the most gruesome segments of the internet. The history of the kilogram shows us that the manual and embodied labour it takes to maintain a system long-predates the ‘digital’ and extends to the most basic units of measurement science.

Q: In Chapter Three you look at the history of the ‘Lena image’. How did this photograph of a 1972 Playboy centrefold, featuring the model Lenna Sjööblom, become a standardised test image?

There are different accounts of the origins of the ‘Lena’ or ‘Lenna’ test image. But they all agree that in 1973 engineers at the University of Southern California’s Signal and Image Processing Institute (SIPI) scanned the centrefold image of the November 1972 issue of Playboy, either tearing or folding the image above the model’s bare chest, and therefore sanitising it for scientific use. USC was one of the first institutions connected to ARPAnet, what would become the internet, and they used the image to practise digitising images for network transmission. In other words, they were honing a visual, digital and networked medium through their trained surveillance of women’s bodies.

As an early entrant into networked image transmission and transformation, SIPI also produced its own set of test images and shared their database with people who visited the lab (the database is still available on their site, though they’ve recently removed the Lena image). The Lena image floated to the top and became one of the most frequently reproduced images in published research. By the first volume of a new image processing journal (Transactions on Image Processing) in 1992, you can find more than 200 reproductions of the Lena image, as it had become a lingua franca for demonstrating one’s skills with digital image techniques.

Image Credit: An artist’s rendering of a triptych band of test images from SIPI: a tank, ‘Girl,’ and an aerial surveillance image of a territory surrounding water. Credit: R. R. Mulvin.

In that twenty-year period, you can see the ascendance of the Lena image to the status of disciplinary proxy. Like other successfully institutionalised proxies, it could only happen through repetition, a shared connection to the object as an agreed-upon stand-in and a consensus that it was a ‘good’ analogy for the world out there. As with the television images I had written about, the history of the Lena image is full of people reconciling their cultural and scientific values. Many engineers would disavow a sexual fascination with the image, claiming that it was a particularly useful scientific object — that it included a mix of textures and a high dynamic range. Others would plainly state that the excitement of using a (cropped) nude model enlivened their work with otherwise boring images of tanks, bell peppers, boats and aerial surveillance. And it shouldn’t be forgotten that this research was funded by the US military in the midst of the Vietnam War. When the Lena image appears in SIPI research, it often runs alongside images of tanks and territory, underscoring the continuity between the control of military space and the control of images of women.

Q: As you write, ‘there is a cost to the repetitive use of women as test objects’. What does the Lena image tell us about the environments of computer science and engineering as well as the relationship between gender and proxies more broadly?

If the story above gives us one rendition of the history of computer vision and image engineering as one of male-gendered control, the shadow history is one of exclusion, exploitation and abuse in universities and workplaces. From the earliest days of AI and computer vision research, men would find ways of using women’s bodies to demonstrate what they could do with their new tools. By the late 1980s and early 1990s there was organised pushback against the oppression of women and minorities in computer science and engineering. This included frequent complaints about the pervasiveness of porn, which marked computer science as the domain of male-gendered and hetero desire. The Lena image itself was singled out as emblematic of the abusive conditions of non-conformity in lab settings. These complaints were often folded into ‘campus politics’ and ‘political correctness’.

I think it’s really crucial to revisit this period and understand it through the labour of testing, training and honing digital techniques for seeing and sending images. This is boring work, but it’s also brutal work if it’s done through the compulsory use of alienating or exploitative instruments. The demands for different test images were often labelled as insurrectionist and censorial. Given what we now know about the labour conditions of so much work surrounding tech, they read as clarion calls for equity and justice. In the past few years there’s been renewed interest in the Lena image. A few journals and associations have banned the image and there’s a documentary, featuring Lena herself that draws attention to gendered injustice in tech. I think it’s remarkable that the Lena image, as a powerful proxy for computer vision and science more generally, has indexed the field’s gendered politics for going on 50 years.

The Lena image is far from alone, however. A pale-skinned femininity is thoroughly baked into the infrastructures of visual culture. Roth and Yue showed that with still images and film, the invisible labour of maintaining ‘good colour’ was always tuned to a form of prototypical whiteness and femininity — where whiteness marked the imagined norm of skin tone and femininity marked the passivity of test image proxies that could serve as shared images. We can’t separate the history of visual culture from these attunements, though the study of proxies can help us trace their material politics in the everyday labour of engineers, technicians and other workers.

Q: Your book shows that proxies are essentially our ‘chosen delegates’ and you explore how we delegate this power to represent the world. How do you hope readers might reconsider this power after reading Proxies?

In many ways we are living in the moment of the stand-in. If the book looks at these longstanding proxies that have been vital to large-scale sociotechnical institutions like the metric system, computer science or medicine, there’s a whole world of proxies that are equally worthy of interrogation. Everyone needs proxies — we have shared references, inside jokes and commonplaces that bind us with other people.

VPNs are now a lifeline for people who need to access content within an increasingly geofenced internet. They only work because a proxy server can help us to circumvent barriers in a world where IP addresses are commonplace stand-ins for physical location. Like others, I’ve spent most of the past many years at home and often paying for grocery delivery. What is that service but a stand-in for my own trip to the grocery store, and a form of invisible and highly precarious labour? We can’t do without proxies, but close attention to who and what we delegate as our chosen stand-ins can reveal the material and labour politics of proxification. I hope that in addition to the specific histories included in Proxies, readers will come away with an interest in thinking about that wider world of standing-in.

Note: This interview gives the views of the author, and not the position of the LSE Review of Books blog, or of the London School of Economics and Political Science. The interview was conducted by Dr Rosemary Deller, Managing Editor of the LSE Review of Books blog.


Book Review: The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia by Madawi Al-Rasheed

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 23/08/2021 - 8:51pm in

In The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi ArabiaMadawi Al-Rasheed provides a new account of Saudi Arabia’s recent history, focusing on the duality of reform and repression that has characterised the era of the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammed bin Salman. This book is an essential resource for those looking to understand the transformations and contradictions of Saudi Arabia under the Son King, writes Betul Dogan Akkas.

The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia. Madawi Al-Rasheed. Hurst. 2020.

Find this book (affiliate link): amazon-logo

In The Son King, Madawi Al-Rasheed reflects on the transformations in Saudi Arabia, providing the reader with an account of Saudi Arabia’s recent history, focusing on reform and change. In her seminal study, Al-Rasheed elaborates on the historic and contemporary milestones in the Kingdom’s politics over seven chapters. Although the book’s full title is The Son King: Reform and Repression in Saudi Arabia, its scope is broader than the titular Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Muhammed bin Salman (hereafter MBS).

Al-Rasheed begins with journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s tragic murder, which has become a shared starting point in the latest books on Saudi Arabia. The introduction provides a comprehensive literature review of the new era’s branding and policies, including the duality of reform and repression under MBS’s rule. In today’s Saudi Arabia, these reforms are heavily discussed in the media and academic studies; however, as Al-Rasheed states, there is still much to talk about regarding a digital and social wave of repression.

The introduction gives readers a clue that digital propaganda and the new Saudi diaspora have emerged in the last decade due to policy changes, notably intensified after the Arab uprisings. As Al-Rasheed states, the book ‘delves into new social and political outcomes beyond the scope of radical religion, oil and the current progressive leadership’ (2), guiding us through the potential challenges to the future of the country. In the introduction, Al-Rasheed also shares her own story of exile. This personal anecdote and the short story about how her research interests have evolved were nice additions and insightful for readers.

Al-Rasheed’s introduction defines the primary assumptions of the book. To start with, she emphasises that Saudi society is still struggling to define its national identity. While the state lacks a unified social and political identity, MBS promotes himself through new, modern imagery and policies to generate loyalty to himself, rather than to the nation. Al-Rasheed also discusses stories of the Saudi diaspora, including Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and avers that ‘the violence of the new regime became global too’ (9).

Al-Rasheed also depicts the power vacuum that has emerged in the years after the deaths of several senior princes in the 2000s and the subsequent transformations that Saudi Arabia has gone through. Another critical argument of the book is to define the change in Saudi Arabia beyond being a natural process of installing a new monarch. Al-Rasheed scrutinises ‘the contradiction between repression and reform that has become a central prism’, delving into the duality of reformist and oppressive monarchical rule.

Image Credit: Crop of ‘160616-D-DT527-209’, DoD photo by Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz featuring Muhammed bin Salman (Released) licensed by US Secretary of Defense under CC BY 2.0

The first chapter summarises the history of previous Saudi states and how the current Saudi Arabian rule has been authorised. This section is particularly significant for readers who are not familiar with Saudi history because it outlines the establishment of Saudi Arabia through old and new strategies, the role of local actors and the challenges to the state.

Chapter Two starts with a detailed analysis of the Son King’s branding and network of alliances, mainly through media and PR companies. Al-Rasheed depicts ‘the media’s optimistic and overtly congratulatory assessment of the emerging realm’ (31). How the regime deployed a new royal vision through a persuasive and aggressive publicity campaign is at the centre of this chapter. Al-Rasheed states that the analysis published in the media and academic outlets proposes that progressive leadership is the only way to solve the ills of Saudi society. However, proposing this leadership as the solution ignores the views and experiences of locals, the Saudi voices that have struggled for years to demand reform. Later she adds that while the media and these contested analyses define MBS as the leader of reform, he ‘has appreciated the work and struggles of feminists and vocal activists, while holding them in detention and claiming to be the source himself of these initiatives and progress’ (85).

Chapter Three introduces MBS in detail, delving into how he consolidated his cult of personality and how his policies combine reform and repression. Significantly, the murder of Khashoggi is one of the foci in this chapter. According to The Son King, Khashoggi’s evolution from being a man of the Palace to a dissident in exile, persona non grata, represents the duality of reform and repression in the era of MBS. Khashoggi was a supporter of change in the time of King Abdullah, and he was defending the regime abroad: Al-Rasheed states that for many, he was initially seen as an ‘apologist’ (108). In the era of so-called reforms, he was expected to be among those impressed by them, but rather he was critical of the nation’s current politics. She adds that ‘observers who may think that the murder of Khashoggi represents an unusual turn in the history of Saudi repression are probably unaware of precedents to this heinous crime’ (122).

Al-Rasheed argues that ‘Saudi Arabia moved from religious nationalism and pan-Islamism to populist nationalism to mobilize the loyalty of citizens to the future Son King’ (138). Chapter Four primarily discusses this new wave of populist nationalism deployed by MBS. However, Al-Rasheed argues that Saudi Arabia is far from being a melting pot for its multicultural and multi-sectarian society. Instead, the Kingdom is still a state run by Al Saud, not a nation.

After surveying religious nationalism in the early formation of the state and pan-Islamism in the later era, Al-Rasheed introduces the new nationalism along with its contradictory narratives. MBS’s propaganda about ‘Saudi moderation’ proposes the myth that it was the Iranian revolution and the siege of the Mecca Mosque in 1979 that encouraged radicalism in Saudi Arabia. Al-Rasheed does not discuss the accuracy of this claim; however, she underlines that these interpretations of the reasons for radicalism in Saudi Arabia absolve political elites and the wider society of any responsibility due to the belief that if there was no trigger in the region like Iran, Saudi Arabia would be ‘an island of tolerance’.

Considering counter-narratives to this new nationalism, Al-Rasheed provides examples of activists and exiles who reject this, stating that it does not represent them but rather Al Saud. One of the critical advantages and outstanding elements of The Son King is the use of primary data gathered from interviews. Notably, in this chapter and later chapters, where Al-Rasheed interviews women, young people, exiles and ‘sub-nationals’ (or minority groups) to learn their approach to reform and repression in the Kingdom, these insider comments give readers comprehensive insight.

Similar to Chapter Four’s approach to the new nationalism, Chapter Five discusses the minorities and sub-nationals in the Kingdom, starting with a conceptual and historical analysis. The chapter provides a comprehensive account of tribalism, the competition between tribes, religious minorities, mainly Shia, and their problems with the regime.

Chapter Six illustrates the struggles of Saudi women, including case study examples from well-known figures in the Kingdom and elements of patriarchal domination such as guardianship. Al-Rasheed starts with young people’s contradictory political stances towards the regime, discussing millennial ‘runaway girls’ who have sought political asylum outside Saudi Arabia, and later providing similar examples from young Saudi men in Chapter Seven.

Chapter Seven highlights the regime’s effort to manage restless youth and the new generation’s demands. In particular, digital technologies and the Kingdom’s use of these for further repression and investigation are elaborated in detail. As the book indicates, there is more than one component in Saudi society that opposes the current policies. However, the regime is aware that this opposition is not unified, and there needs to be more than one strategy to tackle these multidimensional threats. Thus, the current duality of reform and repression has various elements that can work to deal with the problems posed by sub-nationals, the Shia population, women, young people, tribes and exiles.

Al-Rasheed’s elaboration of change and transformation in Saudi society, focusing on the duality of reform and repression in the era of the Son King, provides a well-structured discussion of Saudi political history and concepts embedded in it, such as populist nationalism and the hyper-nationalist agenda. The book gives details of the network which rules and manages the Kingdom through well denoted discourses and narratives. As Al-Rasheed states, ‘Saudi society found refuge in social media’ (14), and The Son King proposes reasons for and the outcomes of each type of exile that different Saudi Arabian citizens experience. For students and scholars of Gulf Studies, Al-Rasheed’s book is an essential resource.

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