Category Archives: Academia

Some interesting links

Some interesting things we’ve come across this week:

  • America’s hip-hop foreign policy: an interesting read from the Atlantic discussing the role of rap in the war on terror. Apparently America is dealing with ‘jihadi rap’ by sponsoring ‘good muslim hip-hop’. The discussion of how rap has been used both to radicalise and in turn as a tool of diplomacy is particularly interesting.
  • Yugoslavia as science fiction: discusses art from the former Yugoslavia and the way in which it’s being viewed today, with a fascinating discussion of what this implies about the post-Yugoslav space today.

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Acknowledgements: the first two pieces were kindly forwarded from @laurence_cooley and the last one was spotted via the always excellent @caiwilkinson!

 

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Kitten’s Law, Internet Research and The DARPA Pet Photo Contest

Godwin’s law is an internet adage that asserts that the longer an online discussion goes on, the more likely  some kind of comparison with Hitler or the Nazi’s will be mentioned. It’s pretty much a bonafide, objective truth – just read the comments section on your average political article on any major news site.

Recently I’ve been thinking that there’s another internet law, and rather than Nazi’s this one involves kittens, dogs and other animals. I propose that “as internet research grows longer, the probability of coming across animal pictures approaches 1″ —​ that is, if your research  takes into account the internet (regardless of topic or scope), sooner or later you’ll come across a picture of cute animals.

I think we should call it ‘kitten’s law’ (‘Crilley’s law’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it). What got me thinking about this was a recent conference on the topic of ‘social influence in the information age’ hosted by the Ministry of Defence and the Defence Science Technology Laboratory. As such, you’d expect it to be a very serious affair with no room for lolcats. But no, within the first 3 minutes of the keynote speech, an image of a kitten popped up. Throughout the day I saw a further 4 cats in various presentations. And today…

Well today I came across the DARPA Pet Photo Contest. Quite possibly one of the weirdest things to have ever happened on this planet. Ever.

DARPA is the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and  is responsible for developing military things like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, stealth boats and the terminator, *ahem* I mean ‘robots featuring task-level autonomy that can operate in the hazardous, degraded conditions common in disaster zones’. Or the post-apocalyptic world after Skynet launches all the nukes.

Anyway, the photo contest involves DARPA employees submitting ‘pictures of their pets in costume, with patriotic and science themes strongly encouraged’. Meet the winner, Freddy.

Here’s the runners up:

And my personal favourite, Henry.

So there, even when you’re researching something niche and ‘serious’ like how various political actors use contemporary digital technologies to claim legitimacy for violence you’ll come across animal photos. In fact maybe part of the answer to my research question is that they use lolcats and dog’s dressed up as robotic IED detectors, but as much as I’d love to write a chapter (read: whole thesis) on this I’m not sure it would actually fly. Maybe I should just stick a photo of a kitten in there and call it a day?!

Teaching International Relations With Memes

I thought I had the revolutionary idea of using memes to engage with my students on the IR theory courses I teach but it turns out Dr Jack Holland has already beaten me to it!

The idea behind using memes is that they’ll be a funny way to highlight interesting theoretical points in a concise way. I’m going to roll one out in this weeks class and then set my students a task of producing a meme related to the course content  over Christmas. Because surely they’ve got nothing better to do over the holidays…

Here’s the first one I’ve come up with that ties in to this week’s class on constructivism. Conspiracy Keanu gets to grips with a bit of Wendt…

I’m a bit worried that my students won’t be quite as nerdy as me and won’t get the whole meme thing, so if anyone out there has tried teaching IR/politics using memes then it’d be good to hear how it went down!

Here’s one meme that they should all appreciate…

Friday Links

Hope everyone has had a great week – here are a few interesting things we’ve come across (usually while avoiding other work):

First up, the US government shutdown is now in its second week. Lots of interesting things have been published on this, and of course it has huge implications for government staff who either aren’t allowed to work or have to work for no pay. On the security front, it also means that 90% of US nuclear safety regulators were shut down yesterday. The article notes that ‘If something truly terrible goes down, of course, they’ll be able to call in emergency backup’ – though efforts to actually make reactors safer are now officially on hold. While we usually think of the US as a ‘reliable’ nuclear power state in terms of safety procedures, Greenpeace US have long campaigned to shut down American nuclear reactors, with some success in particularly problematic cases.

The Guardian have started a worthwhile debate over UK universities overseas partners, as six UK universities set up campuses in Uzbekistan – a country with an abysmal human rights record – including forced labour practices. This report also follows discussions from earlier this year over UK universities’ investment in (and generally close ties to) fossil fuel industries. Isn’t it time to start holding universities accountable for unethical practices?

A guest post on the Duck of Minerva asks, Why didn’t the US ‘re-interpret’ the UN Charter on Syria? 

Some research found interesting links between slave ownership and modern management practices. Control over every aspect of human lives basically allowed slave owners to maximise productivity, and the lessons learnt are still used in management today. 

Lastly: Don’t be that dude: handy tips for the male academic – a discussion that unfortunately still needs to be had, in 2013.

Have a good weekend all!

States of Exception, Aesthetic Responses

In response to the recent al-Shabaab attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, COBRA, the UK’s Cabinet Office briefing room A, met for the third time this year. At the same time an alternative COBRA met in a small pub in Whitehall.

This alternative COBRA “was born out of a desire to engage critically and creatively with the increased use of aesthetics and performance by the UK government to promote, explain and justify its labelling of an event as ‘an emergency'”. COBRA: A Critical Response was set up in early 2013 and as a group of artists they respond to official COBRA meetings with a critical aesthetic that challenges political performance in times of emergency.

This political performance plays out through press conferences, news interviews and increasingly through social media outlets such as Twitter and Facebook. The state use of media and information is not a new thing, but contemporary technologies are enabling actors to utilise aesthetic mediums at an unprecedented level. Through the use of social media, organisations and individuals need not rely on the media to get across their message, they simply become the media themselves.

As David Cameron tweets, the British Army posts on Facebook and the Home Office drives around in a ‘racist’ van with a big ‘go home’ advertisement on it, it becomes increasingly clear that “this image-based politics is a politics of presentation, of appearance and constructed images that tell a certain story, often a moral story of good v evil, of citizen v terrorist”. A story of false dichotomies and difference.

This use of images and digital mediums by state actors shows a realisation that aesthetics are important. Unfortunately the discipline of International Relations is seemingly struggling to keep on top of these technological and aesthetic developments that the state is embracing and utilising with success. This is worrying when one takes into account how these aesthetic and technological practices are tied in to the state of exception that has arguably become the paradigm through which governments operate in light of the ‘War on Terror’.

It is in this state of exception where exceptional means such as extraordinary rendition, torture, indefinite detention, foreign invasions and increasingly pervasive domestic laws become the norm: legitimised as normal ways to deal with an exceptional threat such as terrorism.

Image by Steve Bell, published in The Guardian

As COBRA: A Critical Response highlight themselves, one of the ways to engage and challenge this state of affairs is to use art and aesthetics to open up a space for discussion, create different interpretations and new imaginations of global politics. Art can exist as a medium to challenge the orthodoxies of politics that lead to violence. This is something that IR and security scholars from critical approaches have recognised for several years.

However, as politicians and state actors draw ever more on aesthetic mediums to promote their message it is important that aesthetic approaches to IR and security keep up with these fast paced developments, not only to understand and explain them but to also provide an academic platform upon which they can be challenged, critiqued and changed.

Perhaps as scholars we need to eschew the values of science and draw upon the critical insights of artists. Maybe we need to stop doing ‘social science’ and do art. Could alternative forms of scholarship such as blogs, videos, social networks and even more radical aesthetic forms have more impact on the ‘real world’? Wouldn’t these aesthetic mediums engage more people than monographs and articles written in outdated journals that sit behind paywalls and gather dust on the shelves of stuffy libraries in ivory towers?

The debates posed by these question are of too much depth to engage with in this short blog post, but it is worth considering that as states and other actors in the realm of global politics utilise aesthetic mediums to a great extent, maybe we should too.

Friday Links

Experts respond to the lastest IPCC report, with some very sensible words from Mike Hulme (Kings College London):

“…it is good and proper to ask critical questions about the state of climate knowledge. Science never produces finished products, only provisional ones. But being sceptical about climate science does not automatically entitle one to be negative about climate policies—the question is what sorts of climate policies are most appropriate—effective and plausible—given what we know today. The problems of energy supply, weather risks and poor air quality all need to be tackled in some way even if the climate sensitivity was only 1.5C. This latest assessment of climate science from the IPCC threatens to distract from resolving the core issue of climate change – the political challenge of finding policy interventions that are effective and plausible. The difficulties in implementing policies that reduce the dangers of a changing climate don’t result from a deficiency of scientific knowledge. Raising the confidence that humans are a major influence on climate from ‘very likely’ to ‘extremely likely’ doesn’t change the politics of climate change. The difficulties arise because of different interests, values and attitudes to risk. These can only be worked through using political strategies that are less constrained by the need to reach global agreements.

We need a more pragmatic politics of climate change, not more weighty science about climate change.

Some useful links for academics:

10 tips on how to write less badly

Some wise words on ‘imposter syndrome’ and academic writing

10 truths a PhD supervisor will never tell you

Though I disagree with number 6, ‘be wary of co-supervisors’ – as some one who has had more than their fair share of supervisors (due to staff leaving for other institutions), one of the things I have learnt is that the more people you can usefully discuss your work with in a constructive way the better. Everyone is different, and so it’s good to have good working relations with more than one person to discuss your work with – whether they are a formal supervisor or not.

Exploratory writing and the discomforts of uncertainty

‘We are rarely in the position of simply ‘writing down what we think’. Instead, we are putting words together in a way that then shapes meaning’.