World Political Compositions is a research project drawing together scholars working at the intersections of aesthetics, science and technology studies, narratives, ethnography, and beyond to ask the basic question: how is the world composed. A full description of the project is offered below.
Compositions is comprised of a set of contributions that will form a book and several special issues. The first meeting of the Compositions group will take place in workshop format in San Francisco on April 3rd 2018, as a side-event to the annual International Studies Association conference. There is limited space available for audience attendees.
The project is based at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, and is being convened by Jonathan Luke Austin and Anna Leander. It draws on funding from the Swiss National Science Foundation.
How do we make visceral, real, and lived sense of the International? This volume draws together contributions around the concept of composition, in the aesthetic sense of the term, and the five traditional senses of human perception in order to answer this question more creatively, affectively, and – so – ‘objectively’ than it has been before. The contributors ask how simple sounds, sights, touches, smells, and tastes form the core of world political phenomena in terms of their manifestation of scale, their construction of systems of signification, their working to ‘make things happen’ around us, and ultimately their standing as the main building blocks of both everyday and academic sensemaking. Combining insights from the aesthetic turn in international political theory, the emerging interest in science, technology and art in IR, and growing (ethnographic) concern for the quotidian, practical, and everyday of world politics, the volume asks us to ‘ground’ – quite literally speaking – these already quite theoretically developed areas of study in our phenomenological experience of the world around us. It asks how the world is composed both as an object of individual apprehension and, more than that, how this object gains a collective and coherent understanding through our mutual embededness in its diverse sensing: how individual sounds, sights, touches, smells, and tastes carry across borders (mis)understandings of what the world is, could be, and means. The contributions to the volume will be accompanied by an online platform that works to draw together the sensual content of world politics into an open repository of data that, rather than replicating the print book, can be dynamically added to, revised, and reinterpreted by the reader. In this, the volume hopes to stand as a starting point for an iterative process of ‘making sense of the international’ that will allow for the emergence of new imaginaries of what it means to ‘do’ international relations in the twenty first century.
The work of the Bauhaus artist Wassily Kandinsky is oddly important to the study of International Relations (IR) and Political Science. The jagged shapes of his White Center adorn the 1994 cover of King, Keohane and Verba’s Designing Social Inquiry, for example. A few decades since then, meanwhile, the cross-hatched colours of his Intersecting Lines are reproduced on the cover of Basaran, Bigo, Guittet, and Walker’s 2016 volume International Political Sociology. We can interpret these curious social scientific homages to the world of modern art in more than one way. Perhaps it was the focus of Kandinsky and his colleagues on the abstraction of the world that encouraged the authors of Designing Social Inquiry to favour his work. For those aligned with this (quantitative, positivist, or whichever term we now prefer) school of though, abstraction has generally been equated with simplification and this act is deemed “one of the first and most difficult tasks of research in the social sciences.” (King et al. 1994: 42) Superficially, sympathetic words for this appreciation of parsimony can be found in Kandinsky’s (2008: 71) own claim that “the more abstract is form, the more clear and direct its appeal.” Of course, drawing this parallel is itself an oversimplification of Kandinsky’s philosophy, which opposed the abstract directly to the material (the natural). The abstract meant, for him, not a simplification but – rather – an expression of human consciousness, spirituality, and affect. His was an artistic theosophy, a “kingdom of the abstract” trained directly against the “nightmare of materialism” he perceived in mimetic artistic representations or indeed the type of mimetic social science advocated for by King and his colleagues. Perhaps we are over interpreting King et al, anyhow. But Basaran, Bigo, Guittet, and Walker (2017: 6), for their part, are far more explicit about their attachment to Kandinsky:
[We] insist on the need to examine specific practices, relations between actors, temporal processes, the diversity of places, the multiplicity of ways in which people congregate, and so on, rather than simply presume continuity, territory and the centralization of power and authority… [And to] encourage attention to places where lines become boundaries, how they crisscross, cut, intersect and destroy the continuity of other lines, and organize a pattern of traces left by multiple dynamics of human activity. The painting by Kandinsky reproduced on the cover of this volume may be suggestive in this respect.
For these authors, who advocate a different kind of social science, it is the hybrid abstractions of Kandinsky that attract: the ways in which his colours and lines draw together the “multiple dynamics” of social life to depict connections or relations upsetting any simplification of the world. A closer reading of Kandinsky, then.
What is most interesting about the self-identification of social scientific work of all kinds with Kandinsky, or any other seemingly distant domain of life, is not – however – the degree to which either King et al or Basaran et al manage to more or less accurately find echoes of Kandinsky’s theories and beliefs in their own work. No, what is interesting is the very fact that a simile is being drawn by social ‘scientists’ to the hardest (or ‘softest’?) of humanities: abstract art. This self-comparison with a ‘subjective’ mode of piecing together our experiential engagement with the world into a more or less coherent whole daubed on canvas is indicative of the (frequently unconscious) self-recognition of the field that we all ‘do’ social science in an equally haphazard, contingent, and – indeed – ‘subjective’ manner. Whatever the checks and balances we do or do not impose on our work as it proceeds, whatever concerns with ‘reliability’ or ‘validity’ that we may or may not hold to when inquiring into the world out there, we all know that what comes to be printed on the page at the end of all this is – just like a work of art – another very fragile, non-exhaustive, simplified, and – indeed – human composition.
Composition, too, is a concept that Kandinsky dwelled on at length. For him, the creation of an (artistic or otherwise) composition represents the coming together of a set of:
Clashing discords, loss of equilibrium, ‘principles’ overthrown, unexpected drumbeats, great questionings, apparently purposeless strivings, stress and longing (apparently torn apart), chains and fetters broken (which had united many), opposites and contradictions… Composition on the basis of this harmony is the juxtaposition of the coloristic and linear forms that have an independent existence as such, derived from internal necessity, which create within the common life arising from this source a whole that is called a picture. (Lindsay and Vergo 1982: 193)
Describing how a more or less coherent coming together of this chaotic process occurs, Kandinsky (2008: 116-17) moves to distinguishing between an impression – “a direct impression of outward nature, expressed in purely artistic form” – an improvisation – “a largely unconscious, spontaneous expression of inner character, the non-material nature” – and, finally, the composition: “An expression of slowly formed inner feeling, which comes to utterance only after long maturing… In this, reason, consciousness, purpose, play an overwhelming part. But of the calculation nothing appears, only the feeling.” For Kandinsky, the compositional is primary in the ways in which it combines, and so overcomes, the relative limitations of both our mimetic engagement with the world – what we sense, what comes to ‘positive’ experience – and how that worldly sensibility feeds into our unconscious, spontaneous – and somehow ineffable – being in the world. Simply put, and turning finally back to the terms that more preoccupy IR or Political Science: a composition is that which goes beyond positivist impression and interpretivist self-expression.
This volume brings together a set of reflections on the ‘world political compositions’ constructed by scholars exploring international relations and the world political. It asks how we, as scholars and everyday individuals, come to make visceral, real, and lived sense of the International. And it does so by drawing together contributions around the concept of composition, meant broadly in the aesthetic sense of the term laid out by Kandinsky above, and the five traditional senses of human perception, in order to answer this question more creatively, affectively, and – so – ‘objectively’ (Leander 2015) than it has been before. The contributors ask how simple sounds, sights, touches, smells, and tastes form the core of world political phenomena in terms of their manifestation of scale, their construction of systems of signification, their working to ‘make things happen’ around us, and ultimately their standing as the main building blocks of both everyday and academic sensemaking. The volume asks us to ‘ground’ – quite literally – these already quite theoretically developed areas of study in our phenomenological experience of the world around us. It asks how the world is composed both as an object of individual apprehension and, more than that, how this object gains a collective and coherent understanding through our mutual embededness in its diverse sensing: how individual sounds, sights, touches, smells, and tastes carry across borders (mis)understandings of what the world is, could be, and means. The contributions to the volume will be accompanied by an online platform that works to draw together the sensual content of world politics into an open repository of data that, rather than replicating the print book, can be dynamically added to, revised, and reinterpreted by the reader. In this, the volume hopes to stand as a starting point for an iterative process of ‘making sense of the international’ that will allow for the emergence of new imaginaries of what it means to ‘do’ international relations in the twenty first century.
This reflection on the affective, aesthetic, and unconscious means by which we both sense and make sense of the world around us comes in the context of growing interest among scholars exploring world politics in the study of the entanglements between science, technology, and art that pervade contemporary social life (Bleiker 2009; Howland et al. 2016; Singh et al. 2018). Broadly following the trend of importing the insights of Science and Technology Studies (STS) into IR and IPS (Barry 2013; Mayer et al. 2014; Salter 2017) and combined with the legacy of Roland Bleiker’s (2001) earlier declared Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory, the field has gradually become concerned with how science, technology, and art (as broadly conceived categories) are co-imbricated in the ways in which each works to continually shift the means by which we make sense of the world as the circulatory patterns of images, information, and affect shift rapidly across time and space. Today, scholars have thus come to explore the entanglements of science, technology and art in/on diplomacy (Bleiker and Butler 2016), terrorism (Chambers 2012; Crone 2014; Leander 2016), the politics of big data (Bellanova and Saetnan 2018), counterinsurgency and confinement (Muller et al. 2016), torture and political violence (Austin and Leander Forthcoming 2018), tourism (Lisle 2016b), sovereignty (Howland et al. 2016), logistics (Cowen 2014), and beyond.
This growing research programme has amply demonstrated the value of reflecting on the contemporary intersections between science, technology, and art vis-à-vis countless topics of world political concern. In doing so, scholars have brought into stark focus the fact that – as Debbie Lisle (2016a: 418) writes – we are living today in an “in-between” world that is categorized by a tangible and yet inexpressible sense of “the horrific conditions of our world” and which drives much work in the social sciences by provoking an impotent yet “urgent need to do something.” As information networks accelerate, mediums of viral dissemination disorient our perspective on truth and its assessment, and – perhaps most dramatically – images of death and violence have become irrevocably normalised, so understanding the scientific and technological means by which our lifeworlds have been aesthetically transformed is crucial to reorienting ourselves to the challenges ahead. As Nigel Thrift (2011: 5) writes:
A wide-ranging change is occurring in the ontological preconditions of Euro-American cultures, based in reworking what and how an event is produced. Driven by the security-entertainment complex, the aim is to mass produce phenomenological encounter…
Indeed, today – it seems – we can gain a ‘sense’ of everything that occurs in the world: little seems to be beyond the means of digital capture and algorithmic circulation. This volume seeks to explore the effects and affects of that process. Specifically, if we return to Kandinsky, then we see – perhaps – how most attention has thus far been given to the impressionistic in the study of science, technology, in art in International Relations: to the ways in which these objects of study and their entanglement have made changes upon the world around us. To the process and material conditions of the mass production of phenomenological encounters. Less focus has been given to how shifts in science, technology, and art have left impressions directly on ourselves as human beings living – very concretely – in these times: to the ways in which the very sense of horror or liminality that we experience today is a product of shifts in the technological infrastructures of mediation themselves, rather than any qualitative shift in the ethical or political status of the world and its politics in and of themselves (Hansen 1997, 2000). We ourselves are objects of impression for these technological shifts and the aesthetic tumult evoked. We are, as it were, being scarred by this very object of study in our everyday lives and work and the nature of this scarring has – if anything – only served to open up the unconscious and improvised preoccupations of our individual and collective characters. This is obvious, of course, but – we suggest – now needs sustained reflection. And that is the goal this volume takes up.
We hope then to move beyond an impressionistic exploration of the meanings of science, technology, and art for the study of world politics by seeking a compositional understanding of how the impressions of the world we have all received through our sensual engagement with the sights, sounds, smells, touches, and tastes of world politics come to slowly improvise a path towards constructing a more solid and abstract composition of the world, the political, and the meaning of those two terms. For example: it asks how, sometimes, an entire ethical philosophy and reflection on conditions of exile might be grounded – simply – in childhood memories of the smells of boiling coffee pots or sounds of marching boots. Such chains of composition, from fragmented sensings of the world – the little impressions it leaves on our souls – upwards to entire theories, symphonies, or artworks, are what interests this volume: how we get from A to B, from fleeting experience to inscribed object. It asks that contributors think through these questions vis-à-vis the subjects of their own work. It asks – for example – a scholar studying terrorism to consider how that phenomenon comes to (multiplistically) ‘make sense.’ It asks how the phenomenon of terrorism flows on to our screens as an object of apprehension through a vast array of hidden infrastructures that ‘make real’ the masked men appearing before us and gesturing, with orange-clad bodies awaiting death before them. And it would ask how those masked men on the screen got there. What were the sights, sounds, smells, touches and tastes that got them there. How bitter were those senses? How did they escalate? Chain together all the way to that terrible moment now being watched, far away, probably, by someone else on a screen. And changing them too?
This volume asks, therefore, that contributors consider how the phenomenon they study has come to ‘make sense’ through the sense of feeling that it draws upon. Put more simply:
How have the sights, sounds, touches, smells, and tastes of what we study come to ‘compose’ a phenomenon and build up the multiple array of ways in which it ‘makes sense’ to different people?
How contributors seek to interpret these questions will be left a matter of open discussion: a composition in and of itself, aided by the numerous in-person meetings that will be held in the process of composing the volume collectively. But each contributor will be asked to pick one of the five traditional human senses – sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste – and a particular ‘starting’ point – say, the smell of burning flesh or the taste of cigarettes – from which they will depart. This starting point might represent something for the researcher, as that which kick-started their sensual engagement with the topic that brought them, eventually, to inscribing a world political composition of greater depth and breadth than that sense might originally have conveyed. Or it might be something else. The ultimate goal, again, however is to move from a single sensual experience forward or backwards towards the kind of thundering collision of small worlds that Kandinsky claimed any composition is made up of.