Talking Book, Creating Methods

Shine Choi, Anna Selmeczi, Erzsébet Strausz

Saara Särmä’s Underbelly (installation, 2018) as it appears in the book chapter she authored, ‘Chapter 17. Collage as an empowering art-based feminist method for IR’

3 locations (revised, 2021)

it’s just that lately, work has absorbed my entire existence.

I wonder what really is happening when seemingly nothing is moving forward.

because I don’t have time to do anything else with it, I think that happens on the level of how I construct myself.

 

Revisiting method: the Book is a living thing!

In some ways, the book we co-edited, Critical Methods for the Study of World Politics: Creativity and Transformation, is about people and relations as much as it is about staying hopeful and forward looking about the discipline of International Relations, about the university, about teaching and researching, of writing, of sharing, of persisting. In a way, it is not surprising that when the three of us ‘as editors’ got together in a Zoom room to prepare to write about Our Book, we ended up talking about people and what is going on with us: our colleagues, our students and what we are learning from and about them, about what the institutional day in and day out feel like, the multiple crises and negotiations they entail. So we talked not just about what we are thinking (as academics) but what we are living. What we have been living has been a key resource for our academic, creative and pedagogical work all along – as ‘work’ material, sites of struggle and also inspiration – for our personal and collective sensing and meaning-making processes, which, besides countless other threads, sparks, seeds and sprouts, also yielded a book—a love book, as we ended up calling this collection of different critical methods which we curated to feel out the boundaries. These impulses, fragments, vibes that have flown into and through the book have continued to merge, morph, proliferate, informing our research-teaching-transformation triangle ever since, as lived and living knowledge, wisdom, and (don’t-yet-)know-how.

Talking some more: Asking questions, naming fears, winding threads

Once we talked the idea of the book into existence. As we talk now, we keep on uncovering, probing deep, confronting, reflecting, making associations, attaining realizations.

From our exchanges, traces of a method emerges.

Part of our practice materializes through the vehicle of asking questions, some hard and open-ended ones that grow out of actual situations, that push us beyond our familiar frames. We are asking questions of and for ourselves and from each other to be moved, displaced, stirred and steered onto other planes of thinking, feeling, imagining, being-with.

Where we are at now, however transient and precarious it may be, not only emerges from our shared desire to nurture and nourish ‘creativity and transformation’, as the subtitle of the book captures, under complex and often strained institutional and personal circumstances, but also from facing our fears. As we each came to narrate our relationships to what we do as writers and educators, we have named the fear provisionally, fragility, complicity, and complacency in how we are being seen in the system by those who ‘own’ the system, that reflect the way most students think, too. We have talked and walked around the fine lines that mark and mismark generosity as an appearance of weakness, being gentle while risking not being taken seriously, being difficult and critical while unintentionally reinforcing structural violence, the efforts to help and the limits of situated ignorance and the non-transversability of heterogenous worlds. In that naming courage, persistence, and new openings reside.  As the snippets from our conversations hint, the results and reflections about these at best create greater ambivalence about what is possible in and from university as a space of unlearning, undoing, and rebuilding that matters from global historical and structural perspectives. The conversation then marks minor, and perhaps minute efforts that might not even register as transformative politics. In sharing them, we invite a pause, a reflection about a plausible world where the minute and nothing-happening also matter, somehow.

Put more directly, we don’t know where we may be headed but we keep on reflecting and working with the life material that offers itself for unpacking, acknowledging, appreciating at every turn of phrase, at every turn of breath. In fact, to engage the process, that is, the many simultaneous, intersecting processes through which ‘meaning’ may temporarily arise has been one of the central ambitions of our book. We wanted to provide a snapshot of ongoing, not yet fully visible paths of making and creating while using the editing process also as an opportunity to invite and encourage new practices, to formulate and formalize what has been cooking, stewing, looking for articulation, as ideas, thoughts, ways of being and doing, at any point in their life cycles. As ‘IR trained’ critical theorists in our respective ‘entry level’ academic postings, we needed to do this because that was what we were trained to do, but at the same time, what we had learned in training was so much else which then got in the way of the job as institutionally defined. While pulling and weaving threads in and beyond the study of world politics and the discourse of IR, the book contains a practice of winding threads, of making visible what we (and our collaborators) may otherwise not say, maybe not even think about consciously, or perhaps just ponder somewhere in the back of our minds, not reaching the threshold of recognizability, let alone (disciplinary) ‘significance.’ As we continued to talk, despite our distinctively different positionality and institutional embeddedness, surprising and deeply resonant textures and fabrics showed themselves.

Below is a collage in the mode of writing, drawing threads and sounds from our Zoom conversations about our book. Our snippets of transcription and soundbites move between the two chat sessions and the three of us, piecing together how we re-encountered some of our main questions, but also messing with the fixity that the printed object might seem to give them. Here, as in the co-authored parts of the book, it is not always clear even to us who exactly was speaking – our locations might be identifiable but their constant shifts connect more than separate us. Being-with.

Interesting mess

Being involved in the business of making successful (global) citizens is a dirty affair. Linda Tuhiwai Smith was right: not only is research a dirty word, so is education.

When you step over the institutionally defined boundary from being a ‘student’ to  ‘staff/faculty’, the assumption is that with your terminal degree, that things should now finally all make sense. Somehow, magically we have to make sense of this whole academic structure and render it workable, something that as a student you weren’t quite responsible for. But you realise it still doesn’t make sense. I still don’t know what the value of the discipline or the university degree or the PhD or all these norms that we have are about. It still freaking doesn’t make sense, so that’s kind of where our book sits, and the contributions in it are all different versions of that conversation.

And that’s kind of what you are navigating, and you’re trying to dismantle and rebuild, so education is always going to be a dirty word, just like research is going to be a dirty word. But if we were not interested in the dirtiness of things, then as a student reminded me in a class discussion, she was like, ‘I wouldn’t be in school, I wouldn’t have pursued a university degree.’

So on one level, students already come in with a certain formation and desires attached to what they see as where they want to be in the power structures? This has been so interesting to witness. So what is the image already present in them – and us – regarding the institution? Regarding power?

There’s almost a resignation to, or an apparent resignation, to what the university expects of students. But I think that resignation is actually useful to them. Because it allows them to progress in this system, which is secure.

‘Whatever I learn has to have some kind of use, if it makes me less powerful, makes me less able to navigate the system in a way I gain, then it’s not necessarily something that is valuable.’ So there’s an assumption that there are things that are valuable or less valuable, right? There’s a plus minus equation.

I find this very, very interesting to keep thinking about what practical usefulness is, and how people still hold on to this idea, as distinct from experimentation and abstraction and theory at a higher institute, in higher education. Right, so we’re not in the HR office, but at the university.

Student essays, even e-mails feature ‘IR’ as an imaginary sovereign who makes people do things, such as write in a particular way. I want to ask them and occasionally do ask them: ‘Who is this IR you are talking about, which comes across almost like a person?’ ‘Whose expectations are you wanting to meet and where are these expectations located?’ It reminds me of growing up in a troubled family. Where do these projections come from?

Students are thinking that the discipline is a person because there are people who are saying that they are the person of IR, they embody the discipline with authority. It is so convincing because discipline exists in and through their person.

This is really interesting, because what I’ve been also working towards is to enable resourcefulness.

Our book was meant to support that, to open the discipline up, which is also a form of authorization to do things differently. This is the point where I often wonder, though, that this is all brilliant, but what are the ways in which I can actually experience that freedom that I want to authorize for others? This is a tension that I have been pondering. I want to give all the encouragement in the world for people not to be limited by disciplines, institutional structures, social structures—to venture beyond and not feel struck down by events and experiences, which would reify already existing power relationships. However, when I look at my life as a picture in parallel to that, what can I say about that? Is this the right way to authorize them? Or should I do that with a little more caution, acknowledging  the limitations of my own experience and not go further than that? Yet that is not what I want to believe in at the same time.

You have to do it in a way that can be understood as a communicative encounter, right? So you don’t want to be shaped by the thing that you’re fighting. So what are you, how are you going to push back? And what is the deep thinking language that you can use? How are you going to develop this? How can we use this encounter for that – yes, it includes fighting the sort of conservatism that I inhabit as a teacher in this classroom and has brought us together.

But the conceptual language is not necessarily a form of elitism that is part of the academic history which we traced in the book, or a form of appeasement of the master patriarchal white culture. It is here a way to stay hopeful about the possibility of ideas and words meaning something politically, when there’s a power imbalance. That’s what theory is, no?

There is a strong desire that I want to transcend my current frame of understanding, of what’s going on. For me, this is the very academic ethos that I want to somehow enable and encourage, such as critical thinking. However, that is often done through a faculty, which is not always as progressive as we might think it is. Intellectualization in and by itself doesn’t take us much further. We need to explore more of the totality of our being. This is a prime task of all pedagogies and this is where embodied learning can come in. How we may be able to arrive at this is not only engagement with knowledge as we know it, but a journey towards understanding that also brings some kind of genuine relief.

Locations, grounding the global, connecting the margins

In the classroom, I eventually end up framing myself as a Second World woman because that grounds me or positions me a little more specifically, through which I become, I don’t know how exactly, more relatable.

It has been an ongoing effort to understand what it means to actually have been conditioned in that context, and also, more intellectually, what it means to be jumped over in how the story of the world is told, or the story of politics, world politics. Whatever is told of that region of the world is now as if it is in this void, of the part where we weren’t yet. Part of the the western neoliberal paradigm is just completely effaced. I find that I want to drag some of that back.

I have been reflecting on the diversity of contexts and what education can or may mean in a locality, and for whom exactly. For me a marker of Second World-ness – that an AI transcription software translates into ‘second world mess’ – comes through a deep lack of awareness of the politics of knowledge production in higher education. The often uncritical acceptance of the discipline and the power structures of the institution, especially when it comes to studying in a Western or Westernized university, as part of the mission of education is palpable. Students come in with some kind of an idealistic faith in education and an experience of having been disciplined, in a way which may be violent yet not too violent, still manageable. There is a strange zone where it becomes very difficult to analytically reflect on how lines of separation and exclusion operate, on both them and me.

While incredibly problematic, in the (post-)Soviet bloc, access to basic education was universal and was universally thought of as something that can lead you to excellence. Knowledge is your way or major tool to contribute to society and state, whereas, in settler colonial societies, things were such that that path was restricted overtly and now through quieter, sneaky sabotage, roadblocks, gatekeeping… I mean, I’m talking in unjustifiably broad strokes, but I still think that that’s interesting how… that promise of education was not available.

Then there is the global university structure coming in to settler colonial and other neocolonial contexts contributing to the flattening out of all these histories that are important to experiences and understanding what this thing called education is. Just even thinking of the case of south Korea, there was one institution of higher education under the imperial Japanese colonisation (1910-1945), a teaching university that became the current Seoul National University, and the majority of the private universities in south Korea have ties to the US Christian missionary schools. Its current global university structure sits on this history, this history does not go anywhere, it is all still (t)here.

       how to make your self public,
to share that which you hold close,
          and say,
          it can be part of my public self.
                       sort of reclaiming,
                       repurposing,
             repossessing

  how to make your self public,
to share that which you hold close,
   and say,
   it can be part of my public self.
        sort of reclaiming,
        repurposing,
     repossessing

                the public self while recognising that this is not necessarily a decolonizing process either, not all that it is, because one person finding their voice isn’t necessarily going to align with the project of decolonization and systemic change that matters in global history.

        the public self while recognising that this is not necessarily a decolonizing process either, not all that it is, because one person finding their voice isn’t necessarily going to align with the project of decolonization and systemic change that matters in global history.

      there are more possibilities for alliance I cannot tell you what kind of alliances for a while but like there are more resonances more connections you know more ways.

‘this is your rite of passage. And, when you pass through, you will be part of the margin.’

How is this margin being utilised? And are we the margin of the margin? Or what?

think of the afterlife or, the birth and the afterlife of the book in that sense, and what that means and what kind of work needs to be done to build that infrastructure. Because it just feels like this is especially it – this is one of the central aims for us, this kind of authorization through hesitantly inserting ourselves into the discipline. And it’s that gesture that matters most,

that this is an object, this is a valid object in the library, alongside other similar objects.

Shine Choi is Korean who grew up in the Phillippines, and now teaches and works on international relations and political theory in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Anna Selmeczi was born in 1978 in Budapest, has been living in Cape Town for the past eight years, and is a lecturer at the African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town.

Erzsébet Strausz was raised in the Hungarian countryside. She studied and worked in the UK before returning to ‘Central Europe’, teaching international relations through narrative methods at Central European University, Vienna.

References

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2012. Decolonzing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, second edition. Zed Books.

Smith, Linda T, Tuck, Eve and Kevin W Yang, eds. 2019. Indigenous and Decolonizing Studies in Education: Mapping the Long view.  New York and Oxon: Routledge.

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Suzy Kim, editor