25 October, 2006

Pattern Variables

Spy School has made me feel old. In Development last friday, the lecturer was going on about yer man Talcott Parsons and his pattern variables. I had a wonderful flashback to hearing all about these in the first ever Sociology lecture I went to back when I was an undergraduate. Then I realised that this would have been 20 years ago last October.

I still do not know what pattern variables are.

18 October, 2006

Britain goes veil mad

Following on from Jack Straw's intervention on women who wear veils that obscure their faces, it seems like Britain has become obsessed with the question of what women do or do not, should or should not wear on their heads. It all seems a bit prurient.

One thing that often strikes me about those propounding an anti-Muslim discourse is the idea that They (Muslim Men) oppress "their" women. That the same people who say this are quite happy to tell women what they can and cannot wear is an irony that never seems to strike them.

Anyway, I was very taken by a piece by Zaiba Malik that appeared in The Guardian on Tuesday: 'Even other Muslims turn and look at me' In this, the journalist, a Muslim woman, wears the full-on niqab for the first time in her life. She finds it dehumanising, but is struck by how it makes her a magnet for pervs and racists.

11 October, 2006

and what did I learn this week in spy school?

not much... I missed the Development class, in which the lecturer talked a bit more about the magic of academia, ending apparently in a ta-daa moment where everything suddenly fell into place and became relevant to studying Development's theory and practice.

In the International Political Economy class the lecturer talked a bit about the development of the world economy, not really saying anything you would not already know. More interesting, but also more annoying, were the questions from some of my classmates. These cast the world trading system as Bad, and the lecturer as a representative thereof, so there was a lot of "but what about...?" style questions, which maybe missed the point that we were there to learn the history of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and not engage in a debate about whether trade was classic or dud. The interesting bit was maybe in looking at how for all that arguments broadly in favour of free trade between countries have essentially won the battle where it matters, they have not really won hearts and minds, particularly of graduate students who may well find themselves making decisions in the future. So perhaps if all that Kuhnian paradigm shift stuff has anything going for it we could be going back to the 1930s at some point over the next ten years or so.

09 October, 2006

The Final Programme?

Hunting Monsters is under threat. One of my pals has started a new International Relations weblog, and invited me (and many other people) to write for it. It is called The Dublin School of International Relations, and has only one post on it, not by me. It would be churlish not to sign up for that project, but I suspect that there is only so much IR stuff I can write, meaning that Hunting Monsters may fall even more on the back burner. Ah, such is life.

02 October, 2006

Conference: Palestine as 'State of Exception': a Global Paradigm (part three)

You may recall part one and part two.

Gargi Bhattacharyya talked about how the Palestinian issue has become an emblematic one for anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist people, with it often being said that it is the defining struggle of our time. While this has obvious benefits, it has the downside that the Palestinians themselves get reduced to ciphers, with their actual struggle rendered almost invisible by its appropriation by the opponents of the current world system. There is also the problem that although the Palestinian struggle is currently chic, it may soon go out of fashion, leaving the Palestinians high and dry. As someone with a sceptical view of the anti-globalisation movement, I found myself wondering if the Palestinians conscription by the that lot alienates support from middle-of-the-road people; the dispossession of the Palestinians has little or nothing to do with neo-liberalism, so bundling the two things together produces unlikely bedfellows.

Dr. Bhattacharyya also talked about race, and about how the West has in the context of the War on Terror moved towards seeing Muslims as an existential threat to Our Way Of Life; this is akin to how the Israeli establishment paints the Palestinians. The UK authorities, meanwhile, has moved away from multicultural models of integration for immigrants, seeing these as promoting self-segregation, and instead have moved towards a new model of authoritarian assimilation, with those clinging to other ways of life seen as hating freedom.

Bobby Sayyid talked about the resonance Palestine has for Muslims throughout the world. He finds this resonance interesting and not readily explainable – Muslims who have never been to Palestine or met anyone who was there still feel a great personal attachment to the issue. Dr. Sayyid also talked about how this general Muslim engagement with the Palestinian struggle can be somewhat abstracted and removed from the real-life experience of that people. Instead, the Palestinian issue becomes a metaphor for all Muslims who are struggling against oppression. Sayyid felt that without the engagement of Muslims world-wide with Palestine, the issue would have lost its salience.

I did find myself wondering how the Palestinian issue would resonate with people who are themselves being colonised by Muslims – the good folk of West Papua, say. If the struggle of the Palestinians has become a metaphor not of resistance against oppression but of Muslim resistance against repression of Islam then maybe the Palestinian struggle could lose its cachet with the kind of anti-globalisation people Dr. Bhattacharyya was talking about, if bolshy Muslims and anti-globalisation ever become decoupled.

Conor McCarthy was the last speaker, talking about Edward Said and his theories of the state. A lot of this was situated in a world of literary critical theory with which I am not that familiar, so I struggled a bit, with the lateness of the hour not helping. The paper name-checked such exciting characters as Gramsci, Foucault, and Poulantzas. Dr. McCarthy talked about how Said looked at the Zionist project from the point of view of those on whom it impacted, and on how he looked at the genealogy of Zionism as a concept. Beyond that, Said was perturbed by the disconnection between Israeli and Palestinian self-narratives.

General Points on the Conference

One thing that really struck me about this conference was the absence of any real Palestinian voice or any sense of Palestinian agency. Dr. Lentin had in her opening remarks to the conference discussed how this was going to be a conference about Palestinians in which their voices would be articulate. In practice, though the papers seemed to be all about things being done to the Palestinians or things other people were doing purportedly on their behalf.

Another feature was the absence of Israeli voices. Dr Lentin pointed out in her closing remarks that three of the academics who scheduled to speak were Israeli citizens, but these were either Palestinian Israelis or dissidents like Ilan Pappe whose opinions are completely beyond the pale of normal Israeli opinion. If the conference had lived up to its billing as a vehicle for articulating and analysing Palestinian viewpoints, then the marginalisation of any kind of Israeli voice would make more sense. In practice, though, large parts of the conference were devoted to things the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians, and the lack of any attempt to see things from their point of view made them seem disembodied and ahistorical, a decontextualised and inhuman force rather than the human citizens of a country.

In some ways, though, the above is just nitpicking on my part, and should not be taken as indicating any overall lack of satisfaction with the conference proceedings.


01 October, 2006

Conference: Palestine as 'State of Exception': a Global Paradigm (part two)

Remember part one?

On the second day, Raef Zreik opened by talking about the constitutional setup in Israel. Legal theory imagines other countries as moving from a chaotic revolutionary situation where all metaphorical gloves are off to one bound by constitutional niceties, while in Israel the revolutionary state of emergency has remained in being while the forms of constitutionality have been adopted. He also mentioned an odd feature of the country – that the state notionally exists not just for the benefit of its actual inhabitants, but also for all Jews everywhere, giving Israel a notional constituency several times larger than its actual citizenry.

Honaida Ghanim began with an account of a named Palestinian woman who found herself giving birth at an Israeli army checkpoint, losing the child. She discussed the incident in terms of it being almost the perfect atrocity, and then went on to talk about the Palestinians living in a situation of endlessly terminable bare life, subject to total biological control by the Israeli powers that be. More sociology.

Laleh Khalili discussed the relationship of Hezbollah with the Palestinian issue. This was for me one of the most interesting of all the papers delivered at the conference, perhaps because it was more to do with politics than sociology. Dr. Khalili talked about how Hezbollah have painted themselves as the champions of the Palestinians, taking numerous symbolic and actual acts in their favour. However, she cast the relationship as being not entirely symbiotic, with Hezbollah being prepared to subordinate Palestinian concerns to the party’s own interests. Thus, Hezbollah organised commemorations of the Sabra & Shatila massacres that focussed on the small number of Lebanese Shia Muslims killed, obscuring the far greater number of Palestinians killed. For Lebanese political reasons, Hezbollah invited speakers from the Amal party to speak at the commemorations, despite its role in killing numerous Palestinians during the camps war of the mid-1980s. Dr. Khalili went on to talk about how Hezbollah’s symbolic attachment to Jerusalem obscures the city’s status as an actually existing place in which real people struggle to maintain their lives, echoing themes covered in my beloved’s unpublished MA thesis.

Ronit Lentin then talked about Zochrot, this being an Israeli Jewish organisation which seeks to commemorate the Palestinian Nakba (the Nakba being the Arab language term for catastrophe used to denote the founding of the state of Israel and the associated dispossession and exiling of numerous Palestinians). Zochrot organises trips for Israeli Jews to places that were once Palestinian towns or villages. They place signs in Arabic and Hebrew showing the localities’ old names and arrange for the places’ former inhabitants to talk of their dispossession. Lentin was somewhat critical of this fascinating organisation, partly because their trips can often traumatise Palestinians who must re-experience the Nakba for them, and partly because Zochrot proletarianises the Palestinian victims of the Nakba by making them performers of misery recreation for Zochrot tourists. More crucial, however, was Lentin’s disdain for Zochrot’s politics, or Zochrot’s de facto lack of politics. They commemorate the Nakba, but they are a bit vague on whether they are calling for the Nakba’s victims (and descendants) to be able to return to the country in which they used to live. Meh, that seems like ultra-leftism to me – what Zochrot does is more important than what they call for.

During lunch, they showed two short films by Tamar Goldschmidt, apparently downloadable from http://www.mahsanmilim.com - Abu Dis Report and Qalandiya Report. These are both about crossings through the Wall that Palestinians use if they are coming to Jerusalem. Abu Dis is a surreal spot – it is a section of wall standing on its own, with fencing on either side of it, fencing that has had holes knocked through it so that people can climb through it and enter Jerusalem without showing papers to Israeli soldiers. The film is an endless succession of people climbing through the gap, carrying an endless variety of stuff to or from Jerusalem. The surrealism of the whole thing is accentuated by the musical accompaniment – an early Zionist song about the wonderful country they were going to build in Palestine. Qalandiya Report showed people moving through the checkpoint at Qalandiya, the entry point to Jerusalem from Ramallah and the northern West Bank. The passage looked amazingly chaotic, with enormous numbers of people having to crowd through a handful of turnstiles as they waved their papers at Israel conscripts. However, the piece lost some of its power with me because it was filmed about a year before I was in Palestine. The Qalandiya checkpoint had changed greatly by then (and has probably changed even more since), becoming much less chaotic and more efficient, though still somewhere that anyone interested in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict should visit.

One odd thing for me with both these films and the earlier use by Professor Goldberg of an image of an Israeli settlement on a West Bank hilltop was the nostalgia they evoked – while intended as images of oppression, they reminded me of places I had been to on holidays.

What I learned this week in Spy School, 29/9/2006

Spy School is back! Oh the excitement, the fun of trekking out to DCU to learn things about stuff.

This week I had two classes. One was notionally on the theory and practice of Development, though it was actually an overview of how the social science produces knowledge. The lecturer talked about the academic community, the importance of academia's independence from vested interests, and the role of theory in shaping understanding of the world. Deadly stuff, though over pints afterwards some felt that maybe he could have cut most of this out and got us straight into a discussion of where Development is at these days; it was even argued that academic theorising is responsible for all the ills of the world.

The second class was on International Political Economy - the study of how the world economy works and stuff, though more from a world politics point of view than a rigourously economic one. This class was introductory, outlining some of the general theories in the area (basically, Realism/Nationalism/Mercantilism, Liberalism, and Marxism (with its friends Critical Theory, Dependency Theory, Structuralism, et al.); attentive readers will already have some understanding of this) before going on to say that no one pays any of them that much attention any more. He then bombed through some theoretical discussions of why countries trade, beginning with Adam Smith's theory of absolute advantage and David Ricardo's comparative advantage. The more sophisticated Hecksher-Ohlin theory was then outlined, with this adding in factors of production costs, a massive leap from Smith-Ricardo models; unfortunately, empirical evidence has not been favourable to its predictions that countries like the USA with lots of capital and not so much labour would exclusively export industrial manufactures and exclusively import commodity goods. There was then some theory about intra-industry trade in advanced markets with monopolistic competition between companies manufacturing differentiated products, but this seemed a bit too woolly to count as a full on theory.