RSS Feed

July, 2012

  1. Michel Leiris’ Manhood as Misread by Susan Sontag

    July 27, 2012 by Fan

           On June 12, 1961, a cool early summer day in Paris, a 28-year-old Susan Sontag jotted down in her diary a list of books she intended to buy:

    Michel Leiris, L’Age d’Homme
    George Bataille, L’érotisme
    Robert Michels, Sexual Ethics
    Torrance, Calvin’s Doctrine of Man
    Harnack, The Expansion of Christianity
    Brooks Adams, The Theory of Social Revolutions
    Jean Wahl, Défense et élargissement de la philosophie
    Le recours aux poètes : Claudel
    L’ouvrage posthume de Husserl : La Krisis
    R. Caillois, Art poétique

          The first entry, Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme was crossed out, presumably after she bought it on a later day. It’s not known if she bought or read other books. Nevertheless, this list presents a coherent intellectual milieu enwrapping Sontag (and Paris) at the moment. Robert Michel, who wrote about sexuality, is also the founding father of moderation theory that leads to Christian Democrat parties in Western Europe. Thomas Torrance is a Protestant theologian paying attention to the relationship between science and theology. Lutheran theologian Adolf von Harnack tried to trace the essence of Christianity beyond the Roman world to the Greek world. Brooks Adams is a radical American critic of capitalism while Claudel is a conservative French poet with a penchant for ritual sacrifices. Wahl and Husserl are earlier existentialists from France and Germany respectively. George Bataille, Roger Caillois and Michael Leiris are all Surrealist artists associated with Marcel Mauss with different tendencies: Bataille focused on eroticism’s universal transcendence; Caillois, the founding father of gaming theory, tried to lead Surrealism out of narcissism to “play”, performance, and communal solidarity; Michel Leiris, the only full-time ethnographer in the group, experimented with the consolidation of mythology, ritual and autobiography-writing.
           Most of those writers flourished between the two World Wars, or, between the tragic aftermath and the looming uncertainty. This was a time when the familiar suddenly looked strange. The expansion of the colonial empire with its bureaucratic machinery and the influx of immigrants, especially those from Africa, on the other hand, made the strange and the exotic familiar.
          Another expatriate American, Ernest Hemingway, captured a total Parisian excitement at this particular moment in his little book A Moveable Feast. Sontag’s book list, written down some 40 year later, appears to be more fragmented – or may I say, “postmodern”. Nonetheless, a set of related key words or phrases can be dug out: Christianity; antiquity; poetics; self and others; mythology, ritual and ethnography; existentialism; aesthetics; Surrealism; eroticism; social reform.
          If I, as an outsider, take ethnographic liberty to speculate on things that might appear to be random and unrelated for those from inside, the concerns of those authors and books as a whole can be delineated into five threads: (I) an intention to trace modern European life to antiquity via Christianity – this is the temporal and self-contained line of inquiry; (II) a desire to expand outside the West – this is a spatial line of inquiry going beyond the self-constraint to the territories of others; (III) an tension between scientific objectivity and aesthetic subjectivity; (IV) a dynamic process from intellectual endeavours to socio-political engagement, and vice versa; (V) the interplay between the individual self/personhood and the world/worldview.
          Michel Leiris’ L’Age d’Homme is the only entry Sontag crossed out in her diary. From her review of the book published three years later in the New York Review of Books when its English translation (with the amusing title of Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility) first appeared in the US, she didn’t appear to have read other books on the list. In any case, she didn’t incorporate any of the five threads listed above into her analysis. Her reading is entirely rooted in her very own milieu, America in the 1960s. However, Sontag’s indifference to history is probably exactly what Leiris’s book is really about – it also explains why my assumed review of Michel Leiris’ book begins not with Leiris but Sontag.
          Let me outline (and sample) the actual contents of L’Age d’Homme, or as it will be called in the following pages, Manhood.
           Manhood is Leiris’ autobiography which he began to write in 1930 when he was 34. Quickly skimming through the book, a casual reader might well be puzzled and annoyed by torrents of trivial and banal details about Leiris’ rather uninteresting personhood and life.
          He opens the book by telling us about his unattractive appearances: average height, receding hair, big and protruding head that makes him look like a ram, small and hairy hands, legs disproportionally short, and hunched back. Sexually he is not abnormal – just cold and impotent and “not endowed”. He dislikes babies because “the diapers smeared with excrement”. Death intrigues him a lot more than life since his childhood. In fact, suicide fascinates him. The book is an inventory of his timidity, failures, boredom, lurid behaviours and physical injuries he suffered. But there are moments of absurd hilarity: when a 7-year-old Leiris accidentally cut himself, his panicking mother tripped herself in the living room and was unable to get up. His father was out-of-town and his bed-ridden uncle could do nothing but looking at the boy’s blood flowing on the floor while the boy himself was meditating with a certain coolness his own imminent death. There are also moments sacred profanity – or profane sacredness – such as when Leiris tells us that:

    “In 1927, visiting Olympia during a trip to Greece, I could not resist the desire to offer a libation of a particular kind to the ruins of the Temple of Zeus. I remember that it was a beautiful, sunny day, that there were many sounds of insects, and that the air smelled of pine, and I still see the intimate offering flowing down the soft gray stone. I had the distinct sense … that I had offered a sacrifice, with all that this word implies of the mystical and the intoxicating”

          Back to Paris from ancient Greek ruins, he tried celibacy in an asexual arrangement of ménage à trois, experimenting existential boredom by wandering around Parisian streets purposelessly with two friends (or rather comrades). But he finally was intrigued by a young woman named Kay. After a three-year relationship, Leiris decides that Kay is emotionally fake (not unlike Swann’s wife Odette in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu). More sexual misadventures, a fascination with the onset of Parisian black culture and Jazz music, and his psychoanalysts’ advice that he need to “get away from civilization” in order to cure his impotence, encourage him to join the famous Mission Dakar-Djibouti, an  ethnographic mission to the heart of Africa under the leadership of Marcel Griaule from 1924 to 1929. Upon return, however, Leiris discovers that Africa and Paris are one and the same. The only way to escape trivial follies, he declares in the end of the book, is to subject himself either to dream or to ultimate emptiness – death.
          Leiris’ story is not told in chronological fashion. Rather than a linear narrative of a life story, Manhood is a set of montage or collage. For already offended readers who were expecting a good (and morally uplifting) story, this is like adding salt to injury: bad contents badly written. For people who are willing to take a second or a third look at the text, however, the organization of the autobiography could be viewed as an intention to elevate trivial profanities of individual experiences to the height of sacred mythology. In fact, Leiris’ disappointing personhood and life are classically embedded in a system of cultural references. Leris and his milieu hold a belief that, as James Clifford points out, “… beneath the dual veneer of the real [there is] the possibility of another more miraculous world based on radically different principles of classifications and orders”. It’s this underlying set of classification and orders that turns autobiography’s banal details – indeed autobiographic writing itself – into a ritual performance, a rite of passage.
           Leiris delineates the life-cycle themes in Prologue when he put his trivialities under headings such as “Old Age and Death”, “Supernature”, “Infinity”, “The Soul”, and “Subject and Object”. The following chapter is entitled “Tragic Themes” in which he relates Goethe’s Faust, Wagner’s Parsifal, and Tales of Hoffman: he was able to connect, through his childhood memories, themes of Christian devotion (in Wagner’s case), pagan knowledge (in Goethe’s case) and vision and knowledge induced by intoxication (Hoffman’s tales are generated by binge drinking). The next chapter about Hellenic femininity manages to end with a section called “Brothels and Museums” – in other words, Leiris sees that the sacred and the profane are one and the same in pagan civilization (remember his seminal “offering” on Olympus?). But the subsequent chapters are entitled with Biblical heroines: Lucrece, Judith. However, the fascination with the sacred femininity is always accompanied by unfortunate incidents proving to Leiris that he is nothing but “the head of Holofernes’. He left for Africa, only to find the same gender antagonism.
          The biblical scale Leiris imposes on his trivial autobiography in this short book creates a certain ambiguity. This ambiguity is the entry point for future readers who intend to look beneath the surface. In fact, Leiris himself took advantage of this ambiguity to reframe the meaning of the book in 1940s. During that period, he was gradually more involved with Sartre’s political activism. In 1946, Leiris published what he considered to be the definite preface to the book, claiming the dark humours and “profound boredom” expressed in the book are actually not about Surrealist aesthetics but an inquiry into authenticity – the writing itself was a ritual performance of selfhood necessary in connecting the personal to political praxis. The book is thus a political statement renouncing Bataille’s aesthetic approach in favour of Sartre’s communalism. The autobiography, along with all its talk about suicide, is thus a ritual suicide of selfish selfhood.
          Those are not the impressions Susan Sontag got from the book: she considers it an exercise in anti-literature by clinically documenting the author’s mental aberration. Revealingly, she points out that the book’s English translation suddenly appears in the US in the early 1960s, the age of anti-hero. The book immediately became a bestseller despite the fact the unknown French author (even to the educated Americans) was not introduced in the translation. In the company of contemporary American writers such as Norman Mailer and Philip Roth, the shamelessness is all Sontag could see in Leiris.
          My reading of Manhood is neither the same as Leiris’ early Surrealist nor late Sartre-influenced interpretations. I also find Sontag’s interpretation crude and uninspired. In any case, it’s sufficient to say here that I have respect for any of those interpretations.
           The book, as the Michel Leiris intended, is a recreation of mythology. Mythology, as Claude Levi-Strauss contended, functions on different levels and intends to evoke multitudes of reactions. The writing of the book – and by extension, the reading of the book – is a ritual performance of a mythological text. A particular individual at a particular moment in a particular place gets his or her particular meaning. To fully grasp the gravity of this very trivial text, one needs to go back all the way to the five threads mentioned early, and it requires a major treatment.


    Michel Leiris as an ethnographer of Dogon culture:

  2. Sea Drift

    July 22, 2012 by Fan

  3. Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    July 20, 2012 by Fan

    Objects and Philosophy: Anthropology Comes Home

    Fan Zhang


    Objects: photographs, kelewangs, bikayat, “ethnographic art” (a contradictory phrase? either ethnography or art?) and public rental bikes in Paris.

    Bodies: Derrida’s naked body (giving off the scent of best Parisian parfum), Siegel’ sweaty body on bike, Javanese aristocrats’ living bodies with all the ceremonial ornaments in Kassian Céphas’ photos, Atjehness dead bodies under the feet of Dutch conquerors.

    Gazes: from Derrida’s pussycat – and from Derrida when he looked back, from Dutch governor of Java who commissioned his “National Geographic” photographs, from Gauguin who saw them, from the battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis who was not disturbed by the carnage in front of him, from enraged Amsterdam public who refused to appreciate Nieuwenhuis’ cruel pictures, from Parisian museum-goers (some of them came for art, some them were merely curious); the indifference of resistant fighters who were going to be executed, the smile of an old man who was about to blow himself up “with friend and foe”; the missing glances between the Dutch conquerors and native population; and Mr. Siegel on a bike who might or might not been seen by the traffic.

    Words: bikayat poetry “standing against everyday speeches”, Derrida’s 200-pages’ philosophical rant after seeing his lady cat looking at his naked body one morning in his bathroom, Jacques Chirac’s often paired spoken words (“peoples and civilizations”, “arts and civilizations”, but please no “peoples and arts”), the heated debates between ethnographer and art critics, Aztec god Quetzalcoatl who re-incarnated in French comics, Siegel’s very own (highly digressive) essays refreshingly free of jargons and inline citations. For once, essay really means essai, not thesis.

    The two Siegel essays we read this week present four fundamental tensions in anthropology and in human life in general: that between self and other, that between objects and symbols, that between art and science (or aesthetics and context), and that between history and structure (or practice and ideology). They crisscross each other and form a complex, expansive and elusive whole. What Siegel does, true to anthropology and true to his subject, is to grasp particular objects and locate them in particular discourses without losing a sense of genealogy and history. The excitement of his writing comes at the moments when different worlds meet. It also comes at the moments when the looked are looking back – or when they are not looking back. “Things” scatter across pages, but it is often absence that provokes curiosity. The result is Siegel’s’ multi-layers’ writing full of meanings and openings.

    The key absence in The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901 is a lack of native Atjeh photographers in the late 19th-century, despite the availability of the technology. This absence can be only noticed when it is compared to other parts of the Indies. Siegel examined in detail the history of photography in the 19th-century Java. He discovers that photography is not only uncontradictory to local tastes, it actually satisfies them to a greater extent than their traditional means of visual representation: photography’s very mechanical function of memorization satisfies Javanese need of social memorization  (Siegel 2011:78).

    The Javanese case is full of nuances. There is Dutch colonial authority’s ambition to do archaeological inventory of Javanese landscape and landmarks and its desire to show off the place in an aesthetically pleasing way: this is an opposition between science and art. The project itself makes contrast to the Javanese elite’s use of photography in which “dignity” is shown and social memory is preserved. The different opinions of Western and Javanese critics with regard to the artistic values of those pictures demonstrate cultural relativity: it is at the same time an opposition between self and other and an opposition between aesthetics and context.

    Many of Javanese photos were taken by native photographer Kassian Cephas. The only photographers in Atjeh around the same period, however, are the Dutch. Refuting a technological explanation, Siegel looks into the pictures taken by Dutch battlefield photographer Nieuwenhuis. What is lacking in those pictures and accompanying descriptions are exchange of glances between outsiders and locals often seen in other pictures taken in similar conditions (Siegel 2011:80). What is abundant is resistant fighters’ lack of fear in front of death.

    From here, Siegel traces the ideological reasons of the local indifference to photography. Again, he intertwine the aesthetics with context, self with other, “looking at” with “being looked at”. But he begins with the curious change of tone in the photographer’s description of battle scene: before victory, Nieuwenhuis kept calm and syntopical despite the carnage and looming danger. But after victory when the danger was gone, his writing suddenly becomes excited with a great sense of elevation (Siegel 2011:84). Why? Siegel utilizes Kant’s concept of the sublime: this aesthetic feeling often appears after a narrow escape of life.

    But this is a particularly Western sensibility. From here, a comparison of self and other indicates that the Atjehenese don’t feel the say way when facing the same situation. In their context and ideology, death in a Holy War means something else – it means living in paradise. In turn, escaping from death is not something to feel good about – it is almost a shame: who wants to take a shameful photo of himself?

    The puzzle is solved, but Siegel is not satisfied. In a tour-de-force move, he brings in klewang and bikayat, enriching the visual analysis with bodily experience, practice, and sound of poetry. This last point, epic poetry, demonstrates the tension between history and structure. The recitation of epic eliminates history. “When the bikayats ever to have been decisive, permanently effective, Atjehnese society would have disappeared. I argue that, in effect, this was what happened” (Siegel 2011:91). The aethetic analysis is crucial in understanding the social context: the very fact that bikayat stands against everyday speech indicates its strength in rejecting flowing social life. It’s a pity that Siegel doesn’t go further to bring in music: in Levi-Strauss’ analysis, music and epic poetry are both the reincarnation of “primitive” mythology in cultural history (Levi-Strauss 1981:656-660). In art, the tension between structure and history dissolves into sight, sound and words.

    Siegel carries his extremely “thick” approach to objects to “Tout autre est tout autre”. The tension between aesthetics and context, or that between art world and anthropologists, opens the essay. But there is a very strange contradiction here: art world is ready to appreciate the universal beauty while anthropologists love the exotic and the strange, but it’s anthropologists who in their contextualization give the universal meanings to art works while art world sometimes depend on art works’ exoticism to attract specters and buyers (Siegel 2011:125-126). The necessary dynamic between contextualization and decontexualization can also been seen in the fate of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl.

    Siegel is not satisfied with the remote (Indonesia) or the sublime (art in a Parisian Museum): it is important to have those mundane (but sometimes strange) moments too. So he turns to Derrida and his very long and very difficult-to-follow Animals that Therefore I am. Sometimes it’s better to look at photos of a landmark than going to the landmark as a tourist – reading Siegel is certainly more of an enjoyment than that particular text by Derrida.

    But it’s still not enough. Siegel leaves aside Derrida and his cat’s bodies, rides bike in Paris, looks around, experiences his own body and contemplates it. At this very moment, anthropology returns from the other side of the world, back to its home: philosophy.





    Levi-Strauss, Claude

    1981 [1971]. The Naked Man. John and Doren Weightman, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “The Curse of the Photograph: Atjeh 1901,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 76-96.


    Siegel, James T

    2011. “‘Tout Autre est Tout Autre’,” in Objects and Objections of Ethnography. New York: Fordham University Press, pp. 116-153.





  4. In Search of Selfhood: On African Statehood and International Relations

    July 19, 2012 by Fan


    In Search of Selfhood: On African Statehood and International Relations

    Fan Zhang


    This paper intends to look at African statehood through the lens of psychological selfhood. The difference between moral relativism and moral universalism is at the heart of the issue. I believe in moral universalism and the traditional conception of statehood, which is an indispensible ideal both to IR and Africa. The nation-statist approaches developed in the past decade, however, provide invaluable insights into how the traditional statehood shall be built according to African reality. They shall be taken seriously as useful analytical tools, but they are not ideals.

    A persistent theme in recent literature of IR theories with regard to Africa,  as sampled in the first part of our course readings, is re-assessing nation-state as the central object of IR study. Different authors have different approaches: some advocate broadening the concept of nation-state; some propose abandoning the nation-state concept in favour of a generalized notion of sovereignty within the IR discipline; some raise the possibilities of more radical subaltern and interdisciplinary approaches; some, however, defend the validity of traditional realist approaches to nation-state either from a behavioural or systematic point of view. The timeframe of those readings indicate that this disciplinary dialogue has been going on for more than one decade without reaching consensus. Relativist arguments on expanding sovereignty concepts are still in an incoherent state.  Africa, and the world, at the same time, have been moving on probably in unprecedented pace. To tentatively reach coherence in this fragmented postmodern debate, I suggest we look at the statehood discussion in terms of selfhood.

    Mohammed Ayoob’s Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism (2002), originally presented in a 2001 Chicago conference, is the earliest text in our readings. It is probably a development of his 1998 thesis Subaltern Realism: International Relations Theory Meets the Third World. In any case, it is a direct response to the rampant neoliberalism triumphant since the 1990s and the corresponding emergence of neorealism within the IR discipline. The keyword missing from both neoliberalism and neorealism, according to Ayoob, is inequality, an “acute state” that “pervades International Relations terrorizing”: “inequality is certainly not new, yet it seems to be intensifying as a result of globalization ..” (Ayoob 2002:48). What is inequality? It is power imbalance. But what is Ayhood worrying about? He is worrying about power imbalance’s impact on knowledge production, and in turn knowledge production’s reinforcement of existent power imbalance, hence the statement: “not only is knowledge power, but power is knowledge as well” (Ayoob 2002:29).

    What is being argued here is the question of selfhood. It’s noteworthy that Ayoob is unwilling to let go the word realism, a word – along with idealism – denotes an attitude, a psychological state and a behavioural pattern – all of them lead to human agency and selfhood. What he sets out to do is to reveal who is this self in previous IR studies and who has agency in neoliberal world order. Neoliberalism endorses a “scientific” approach to universal human agency. Its absolute gain doctrine assumes that global laissez-faire allows free-flowing of capital, technology, other forms of power and knowledge from the North to the South and vice versa. Ayoob, however, points out that “most Third World states are economically and militarily far too dependent on their external benefactors” to have any real gain (Ayoob 2002:36). In other words, neoliberal agency is one-sided in favour of the North. Neorealism in IR appropriate classical realism in its analogue of state behaviour and individual psychology, yet it discards philosophical nuances and historical contexts embed in the classical arguments and recreates a pseudo human “science”. Ayoob re-introduces to IR a classical sense of selfhood developed in European history and accepts its  “statism, survival and self-help” (Ayoob 2002:41). On that basis, he makes his original contribution to IR: the subaltern subjectivity, in other words, the selfhood of non-Western state entities in general and African state entities in particular.

    It’s very noteworthy that Ayhoob doesn’t deliberate on the actual contents of the subaltern realism. Why? Because it is not necessary: for Ayhoob, the psychological components of subaltern realism is not essentially different from classical one: the African self and Western self are the same, albeit the fact that they belong to different individuals “who” are going through different stages of historical-sociological development.

    Ayhoob’s silence on subaltern contents underlines a universalist view of world history and psychology, it also demonstrates methodologically how to appropriate competing discourses: if liberal view of the world, either through idealist or realist lenses, is at the roots of the IR discipline1, the rival critical and neo-Marxist paradigms are introduced implicitly via third parties. The idea of subaltern subjectivity is the brainchild of a ménage à trois, the threesome between anthropology, literary studies and postmodern philosophy. In particular, the summer of 1983 at the University of Illinois sees the presentation of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s canoic text Can Subaltern Speak?(Nelson 1988:ix), an essay that makes the word subaltern popular. Spivak in the essay articulates, with philosophical intensity, literary sensitivity and ethnographic example from India, the possibility of accepting non-Western subjectivity into Western discourses (Spivak 2010:21-78). Spivak’s subaltern agency, however, is not content-free: for example, the ritual suicide of Hindu widow, according to her, could be exercising agency as opposed to submitting passively to “culture” as Western outsiders general perceive (Spivak 2010:66). By contrast, Ayhood in introducing the subaltern concept into IR almost two decades later “deliberately not addressed the issue of … classes, groups, and individuals” (Ayhood 2002:46). The reason Ayhood gives is that “the international system has not yet progressed from being an international society to that of a world society” (ibid).  That is to say: subaltern agency is defined by subaltern nation-state’s relationality with regard to the West – subaltern subjectivity itself – as manifested by smaller groups, individuals and cultural aspects within a nation-state – is outside the scope of IR. This stand is inherently contradictory: how can one be a full-fledged individual without having individuality? It leaves the door open for future articulations, which are done subsequently by William Brown, Ian Taylor, Douglas Lemke, Christopher LaMonica, Thomas Kwasi Tieku and probably many others in the next ten years.

    John F. Clark’s Realism, Neo-Realism, and Africa’s International Relations in the Post­-Cold War Era (2001) was published in the same year when Ayhood gave his speech on inequality and subaltern realism. Like Ayhood’s article, it is also a defence of psychological approach to international relations against neoliberalism and neorealism and a rejection of absolute rationalism and scienticism in IR. Clark pointedly quotes the founding father of neorealism Morgenthau that “politics, like society in general, is governed by objective laws that have their roots in human nature” (Clark 2001:90), and that “there are ‘spiritual’ and ‘instinctual’ drives in the individuals that frequently govern behaviours” (Clark 2001:93). That is to say, we shall not use abstract terms to describe international relations and then to quantify them in a systematics way – international relations are historical dramas: we shall describe them as if we are describing human beings’ desires and actions; we shall understand nation-state as if they are individuals. The individual psychology as seen through classic realists’ nation-states, however, is quite simple: it is embodied in the concept of regime security (Clark 2001:96).  Clark supports his claim with examples of South Africa-Angola and Ethiopia-Somali conflicts, as well as DRC civil war (Clark 2001:96-98).

    In defending classical realism, Clark gives leeway to its object of study. He points out the exceptions to the rules found in Africa, such as personal wealth accumulation becoming functions of nation-states and voluntary resignation from government (Clark 2001:100). Superficially those exceptions weaken the argument supporting IR’s relevance to African reality. In fact, according to Clark, they re-inforce the validity of regime security argument, which is the essence of classical IR. Clark opens new front of IR study by distilling the meaning of classical IR from statism to individual psychology.

    Like the Ayhood and Clark articles, a sense of selfhood permeates Siba N. Grovogui’s Sovereignty in Africa: Quasi-Statehood and Other Myths in International Theory (2001) – only it is more pronounced here. If we look beyond the keyword sovereignty in the title, we will see these words: morality (Grovogui 2001:31), desire (31), determination (44), and self-realization (43). Only armed with this sense of selfhood, is Grovogui able to penetrate African political psychology deeper than either Ayhood and Clark. He uses the phrase “domestic focus” (Grovogui 2001:42) to describe this self-awareness. An example of this domestic focus is African intellectuals’ emphasis on Africans’ responsibility in history: even when they fully understand the global and historical origins of political problems that bring huge personal losses and tragedies, they won’t blame everything on external forces. They will “gaze on internal modes of being that perpetuate the subordination and exploitation of Africa” (ibid). Selfhood, self-determination and self-responsibility are inseparable from each other. Contrary to Robert Kaplan who argues that African states have no internal coherence, thus no true status of sovereignty, thus interventions entirely decided by external actors are justified (Grovogui 2001:29), Grovogui believes in moral universality which is embedded in Africa as well as in other parts of the world. Interventions of any kind can only be justified by this universal morality shared by within and without (ibid: 45).

    Grovogui’s psychological penetration, however, generates technical questions unaddressed in his essay: how to study African sovereignty? where could we find this intense sense of selfhood? To answer this question, we could look into his theoretic background. A quick review of the article shows the word “moral” or “morality” makes one of the most frequent appearances among subjectivity terms listed above. Its association with the question of sovereignty leads us to the Italian philosopher Giorgio Gambian who makes explicit connection between the entity of sovereignty and the existence of individual moral order (Gambian 1998:63). If Foucault cuts the king’s head off, that is to say, denies traditional concept of sovereignty2 (Foucault 1980:121), Gambian re-establishes it – not in old centralized form but in fragmented non-governmental entities or in undocumented governmental . Professor Joshua Barker of the Anthropology Department is an expert on Indonesian police force. He once observes that Indonesian police in their daily works often keep important occurrences off-record while utilizing local oral tradition to keep history alive (conversation with the author). There are possibilities that in contemporary African nation-states, the bureaucracy, which is often inherited from colonial powers, doesn’t necessarily have local welfare in mind and doesn’t necessarily keep local history intact. True practices and true history of the nation-state government exist off-record. In order to study some of the African nation-states, IR scholars or historians might need to go beyond official records and take closer look at daily practices of individual actors or behaviours of smaller institutions and groups, then they might find the moral order, the selfhood, the sovereignty and the statehood universal within the IR discipline.

    If I raise the possibility of African statehood as existing in undocumented daily governmental practices, Kevin C. Dunn’s The (Blank) African State (2001) expands the possibilities to more specific actors such as international financial institutions, regional strongmen, foreign companies, mercenaries, etc. However, the most noteworthy part of his scheme is not the inclusion of non-governmental entities and individuals, but the inclusion of foreign powers in the discussion of sovereignty of African states. Another observation is the absence of moral argument salient in Grovogui’s article collected in the same volume. Those two points are significant: there is no doubt that Dunn’s discursive approach (Dunn 2001:58) is highly practical and precise without overt rhetoric and obscurantism rampant in social sciences, but here he is risking confusing reality with ideal. But why is idealism important? I would like to take the chance to point out that realism, as discussed in the very beginning of this essay, is assuming the selfhood and subjectivity of a nation-state – in other words, is to treat a nation-state as an individual person. Since it is a psychological or behavioural approach, it inevitably invites the discussion of ideals, even when those ideals are not positive ideals.  In confusing reality with ideal, or in abandoning ideals altogether, Dunn might be justifying foreign appropriations of Africa, although he might insist on his scholarly detachment. We could and we should re-define African sovereignty well beyond the scope of nation-state, but we shall always be looking for a selfhood in this sovereignty. Foreign interests, I believe, shall always be looked at as external not internal to sovereignty.

    The same attempt at expanding IR research scope is made by Ian Taylor in his introduction to the volume of African International Relations. The African political entities, under his pen, becomes far more inclusive without losing a sense of selfhood. The mentioning of cultural aspects and the Diaspora is Taylor’s unique contribution in our readings. Taylor also correctly puts foreign actors under the category of international relations instead of African sovereignty, a distinction that is important to make (Taylor 2004:19).

    The distinction between self and others and the integrity of individuality (or selfhood) are keys to the current debates in IR. They are also the two key debates within the discipline of anthropology. The connection made here is neither casual nor trivial. It reveals a coherent and vibrant total history of ideas in modern Western tradition. If we treat the West as an individual – just like we have been doing so far – this individual has been engaging two kinds of intense gazing since its modern history. The exact periodization of modernity is highly debatable. If we take Jacques Derrida’s words, the most revolutionary moment occurred when this tradition was engaging in colonial expansion, in particular its engagement with Africa. This process propels a movement of decentering (Derrida 1978:280), in other words, a moment when the twins of ethnocentrisms and anti-ethnocentrisms were conceived at the same time. If this “individual” had been gazing at himself in the past, colonial expansion truly introduces into his entities and concept of others. Gazing at others gives the self stronger sense of self. If one always perceives self temporally as opposed to spatially (no one can be at two different places at the same time after all), others or the other are first of all distinguished on spatially terms. This leads us to two different kinds of gazing, namely, history and structure. On disciplinary terms, philosophy, when losing its steam in front of sciences, takes two different turns after the onset of colonization: at home it engages in a living history (or politics), morphing into political sciences; in faraway lands it morphs into ethnography and ethnology which is combined into anthropology that studies spatial structure and relationality. IR is born into political sciences, but it was born with an anthropological gene which is reflected in the word “relations” in its name. Political sciences, along with history, and anthropology, have always been approaching each other: the former from the North to the South while anthropology from the South to the North in terms of their respective fieldwork locales. There is no doubt that rampant globalization since the 1990s changes reality on the ground at such a speed that both camps felt compelled to walk faster towards each other. In the Anthropology Department of the UofT, symbolic anthropologists who study rituals and tribes are being replaced by political anthropologists who study nation-state, activism and globalization. The materials I have been reading so far in this class indicate IR researchers are shortening the distance as well. But both sides yet to reach a point where conversations can be carried out in the same room.

    Both William Brown’s defence of IR theory (2006) and Thomas Kwasi Tieko’s plea for African collective worldview  (2012) touch upon key anthropological questions. In Brown’s case, as I have pointed out in my presentation essay, his inconsistent use of relationality on local level and on global level – the former he champions, the latter he detests (Brown 2006:126) – raises the question of how to understand African sovereignty’s statehood. To use the analogue of selfhood again, we can see Brown and Tieko are on the same front: both insist on – if I’m allowed to borrow Grovogui’s favourite word “moral” – moral relativism with regards to African nation-states. In insisting African individual particularities (Brown 2006:140), Brown endorse a self that doesn’t take the same moral responsibilities as others do. Tieku’s collectivism view of African statehood is  based on solid observations (Tieko 2012:41) – the problem is he gives and essentialist interpretation of this phenomenon. Instead of taking into account of African states history and geopolitical contexts, he evokes Leopold Sedar Senghor, who was in search of a pan-African culture and solidarity, and uses the phrase “world view” (ibid). But I believe, what is important is not a particular world view but a particular living condition which is going on rapid change at this very moment.

    To face the challenges and changes, both Africa and IR need to has a strong sense of self. This strong sense self, in modern ages, can only be found in the form of nation-state. African countries shall (and indeed will) continue nation-state building at a time when new opportunities present themselves. IR shall do the same: instead of languishing in the incoherent words of moral relativism, it shall refocus on the idea and ideal of nation-state, and dig into their undiscovered meanings on African ground.





    1. Although LaMonica includes Marxism in his IR paradigm chart under historical-structuralism (LaMonica 2010:366), it is a relatively new development in IR. See Encyclopedia Britannica entry on IR
    2. See Michel Foucault Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon: “… a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (1980:121).







    Agamben, Giorgio

    1998. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford: Standford University Press.


    Ayoob, Mohammed

    2002. Inequality and Theorizing in International Relations: The Case for Subaltern Realism. In International Studies Review, 4:3, pp. 27-48.


    Brown, William

    2006. Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory,

    Anarchy and Statehood. In Review of International Studies 32:1.


    Clark, John F.

    2001. Realism, Neo-Realism and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    1978 [1967]. Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences. In Writing and Difference, Alan Bass trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp.278-293.


    Derrida, Jacques.

    2002. Semiology and Grammatology: An Interview with Julia Kristeva. In Positions: Jacques Derrida, Alan Bass trans. London: Continuum, pp.15-36.


    Dunn, Kevin C.

    2001.  The (Blank) African State. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Foucault, Michel

    1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.


    Grovogui, Siba N.

    2001. Africa: Quasi-Statehoo and Other Myths in International Theory. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Lemke, Douglas

    2011. Intra-national IR in Africa. In Review of International Studies 37:1.


    Lévi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.


    Nelson, Cary and Lawrence Grossberg (edits.)

    1988. Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. Urbana: University fo Illinois Press.


    Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty

    2010. Can the Subaltern Speak?. In Can the Subaltern Speak? Reflections on the History of an Idea, R. C. Morris, ed.. New York: Columbia University Press, pp.21-78.


    Taylor, Ian and Paul Williams (editss)

    2004. Africa in International Politics: External involvement on the continent. New York: Routledge.























  5. Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism

    July 10, 2012 by Fan


    Old Wine in New Bottles: Realism, Neorealism and No-Realism


    Fan Zhang


    An intellectually exciting era is an era when the dust hasn’t’ settled and when thinkers don’t just wait for the dust to settle, thus, it is a relief for me to notice the chronology of this week’s readings: some of them seem to be responding to arguments made later. For example, Brown’s 2006 defence of the IR discipline (based on his 2001 presentation), in a way, is an answer to LaMonica’s 2010 call for new paradigms we read last week. It’s true Lemke responded directly to Brown in defence of neo-realism (some five years later), but both of their arguments have been answered  in 2001 when Clark justified the traditional realism and its philosophy of regime security.  The debate, it seems, is still in the air.

    This, to be honest, wasn’t my earlier impression of political sciences (which I believe IR belongs to). An aura of over-confidence, most saliently in Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations (1993) but also in the writings of many human rights scholars such as Jack Donnelly and Rhoda Howard, seems to be prevailing in the discipline. A clear distinction of everything and everybody, to paraphrase Brown (Brown 2006:136), predominates. Nuances, ambiguity and ambivalence appear to be as rare in political sciences as in politics. The “either/or” dichotomy rules.

    The necessity of this dichotomy in the IR discipline is a myth, Brown tells us in his discussion of statehood and anarchy: there are many shades of grey between the black and white. The key is to leave the lofty theoretical ground and goes deep into particularities. We need to pay “some serious attention to the particular ways in which political authority is constructed [and] the particular claims to sovereignty” (Brown 2006:133). More importantly, we shall see socio-political constructs not as elemental but relational, thus, we may find that statehood is a matter of degree rather than present or absent (ibid), and there is fluidity between anarchy and hierarchy such as interdependence (ibid.:137-138).

    What’s particularly interesting is not Brown’s argument per se but how he makes it, namely, his appropriation, subversion, misunderstanding – and probably unconscious insight – of anthropology.

    One glaring example is his use of the relationality concept. In combating essentialism, Brown declares that “once one moves away from neorealist assumption of statehood to a more relational understanding , a greater opening up of the potential for change becomes possible” (Brown 2006:126, my emphasis). But relationality, according to Brown, is also the culprit leading to the misconceived dichotomy of Western statehood and African anarchy when earlier anthropologists such as Fortes, Nadel and Evans-Pritchard, in a bid to assist colonial authorities’ indirect rules, replaced African individual particularities with abstract roles, just like words are replaced by grammar and syntax (Brown 2006:140, my emphasis).  How do we understand the discrepancy?

    A look at the history of anthropological thoughts, which Brown uses to refute Waltz (ibid), provides us with possible answers. Brown’s relationality concept corresponds to the structure concept in anthropology. Not unlike what happened in Brown’s argument, this concept is a source of confusion for anthropologists. For earlier champions of rigorous fieldwork such as Franz Boas and Bronislaw Malinowski, structure means relationality within a particular community. For what is known as structural anthropology, however, structure denotes underlying mental pattern or patterns of universal humanity. The word’s ambiguity ensures the tensions between different approaches throughout anthropology’s history which in my humble opinion give the discipline necessary energy: the local and the global; the empirical and the speculative; induction and deduction; the study of materiality and the study of symbolism; data-oriented approach (ethnography) and theory-oriented approach (ethnology).

    The discrepancy between Brown’s early and late uses of relationality concept mirrors the inconsistent use of structure concept in anthropology, an inconsistency Claude Levi-Strauss  devotes the entire volume of Structural Anthropology to change. His solution is a vast topic of its own. The gist of his argument, to put it in an extremely simple manner, could be summed up as such: 1. a community must be studied in its totality; 2. to understand the meaning of this totality, one must compare; 3. this comparison will inevitably leads us to the universal human mental pattern. It’s not difficult to see that Brown is operating on the same mechanism. The first Levi-Strauss statement corresponds to Brown’s local relationality. The second statement is what Brown tries to refine – from discontinuous dichotomy to continuous change of degrees2. The third statement about mental pattern leads us to the Lemke and the Clark articles.

    Both Lemke’s defence of neorealism and Clark’s defence of traditional realism depend on the legitimacy of mental patterns they employ. Lemke’s mental pattern is that of assumed scientific model while Clark’s mental pattern is that of political psychology, both of them are of Western in origin. Both patterns are claimed to be universal by their respective authors.

    For Lemke, Brown’s accusation of a lack of nuances in neorealist analysis of African states is largely due to the insufficient dataset, not because of absolute dichotomy. Thus, more data from intro-national study of IR in Africa would solve the problem (Lemke 2011:67). Would it be good enough? Levi-Strauss probably would say “no”, because IR will thus engage “an undertaking so vast” (Levi-Strauss 1963:12) that African states in its current form might have evolved into other things before any meaningful conclusion has been reached.

    The difference between Clark’s realism and Lemke’s neorealism, to use C. P. Snow’s famous phrase, is a battle between “two cultures”, which is to say, between humanities and science. Clark’s regime security paradigm is a psychological and overtly European one which he demonstrates with concrete examples its validity. But this validity is arm-chair validity without “scientific” data – his cases are anecdotal at best. How useful it is to solve the real-life problems, diplomatic or otherwise, is also not demonstrated. But for the same reason, it is not to be easily debunked neither.

    If we look closely, Brown’s new concepts of sovereignty and anarchy, as accommodating as it seems to Third World reality, are also based on European historical experiences: they are borrowed from Michel Foucault’s “beheading of the king” about “a political philosophy that isn’t erected around the problem of sovereignty, nor therefore around the problems of law and prohibition. We need to cut off the King’s head: in political theory that has still to be done” (Foucault 1980:121). Foucault, an historian interested in European political history, becomes a darling of anthropologists who study the Third World and “primitive societies”. This trend in contemporary social sciences doesn’t really divert from their old routes at all.

    Probably we shall not get excited too soon. Dust, sometimes is just smoke screen.





    1. A comparison of Claude Levi-Strauss’ study of community patterns and mythology will serve the purpose.
    2. See Levi-Strauss Do Dual Organization Exist? (Levi-Strauss 1963:132-163) for a far more rigorous treatment.







    Brown, William

    2006. Africa and International Relations: A Comment on IR Theory,

    Anarchy and Statehood. In Review of International Studies 32:1.


    Clark, John F.

    2001. Realism, Neo-Realism and Africa’s International Relations in the Post-Cold War Era. In Africa’s Challenge to International Relations Theory, eds. Kevin Dunn and Timothy Shaw. London: Macmillan.


    Foucault, Michel

    1980. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, ed. Colin Gordon. Brighton: Harvester.


    Lemke, Douglas

    2011. Intra-national IR in Africa. In Review of International Studies 37:1.


    Lévi-Strauss, Claude

    1963 [1958]. Structural Anthropology. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepft, trans. New York: Basic Books.




  6. Fragments Dedicated to Lin Jun

    July 2, 2012 by Fan

    Dedicated to the memory of Lin Jun, a young man who met his untimely and violent death on the night of May 24 when I was in the audience of Tafelmusik’s Beethoven “Eroica” concert.



    Fragments of News on July 1, 2012

    Eurocup. “Italy didn’t just lose. They were never in any danger of winning.” says Toronto Star: their disappointment and distress, thus, look childish. Meanwhile, on the scene at Montreal’s Angrignon Park, news outlets are reporting that Lin Jun’s head might have been found (Update: it is confirmed to be Lin’s remains).

    Lin was said to be uplifting and trusting, and this was not first time he became the victim of self-serving people, which reminds us of a newly-published Susan Sontag diary. The New York Times reviewer finds her constantly in danger of being possessed by self-absorption, self-pitying and other “malign spirits” if she stopped thinking.

    Sontag must have been well aware of or even self-stylized her narcissism. In her 1964 forward to Michel Leiris L’age d’homme (translated into English as Manhood: A Journey from Childhood into the Fierce Order of Virility), she compares Leiris’s narcissism to that of Norman Mailer. Leiris took pleasure in his self-loathing while Mailer did it to gain public attention and fame, Sontag says. But she is wrong: Leiris might have written two-hundred pages of self-absorbing profanity, but that is one page of admiration – for one of his uncles who despite his social background, education, and noble sensibility chose the profession of street comedian and acrobat and had a preference for women from lower-background – that brought Leiris’ writing such sense of transcendent humour, something Sontag never managed in her own all-too-serious writings.

    It is dangerous to go down. Claude Lévi-Strauss refused to go to the Parisian streets in the1960s student movement. He maintained his scholarly dignity and lived to 100 years. Luciano Visconti, whose films are generally in need of a sense of humour except for the superb melo-comedy Bellissima, refused to go to gay bars because they were “vulgar” as a new book on his Death in Venice revealed.

    Leris’ uncle lived in poverty in the turn of the century. Pier Paolo Pasolini was brutally murdered on Novermber 2, 1975. Lin Jun  lost his life violently on the night of May 24, 2012.

    Pasolini claimed that he had discovered Africa in his defeat of death in the following small poem – both  Michel Leiris who was on the Mission Dakar-Djibouti and Jacques Derrida who was born in Africa made the same claim.


    * * * * * *


    Fragment: To Death

    Pier Paolo Pasolini

    I came from you and I return to you,
    a feeling born of light, of warmth,
    baptized with a wail of joy,
    recognized as Pier Paolo,
    at the beginning of a frenzied epic:
    I’ve walked in the light of history
    but my being was always heroic
    under your dominating, intimate thought.
    Every real act of the world,
    of that history, coagulated in
    the wake of your light
    in the atrocious distrust
    of your flame, and in death
    every act proved itself entire
    and lost its life to regain it
    And life was real only if beautiful …

    The fury of confession, at first,
    then the fury of clarity:
    It was from you, Death, that such hypocritical
    obscure feeling was born! And now
    let them accuse me of every passion,
    let them bad-mouth me, let them say I’m deformed,
    impure, obsessed, a dilettante, a perjurer.
    You isolate me, you give me the certainty of life,
    I’m on the stake, I play the card of fire
    and I win this little, immense goodness of mine,
    I win this infinite
    miserable piety of mine
    which even makes my just anger a friend.
    I can do it, for I have suffered you too much!

    I return to you as an émigré returns
    to his own country and rediscover it:
    I made a fortune (in the intellect)
    and I’m happy, as I once was,
    destitute of any norm,
    a black rage of poetry in my breast.
    A crazy old-age youth.
    Once your joy was confused with terror,
    it’s true, and now almost with other joy,
    livid and arid, my passion deluded.
    Now you really frighten me,
    part of angry state, of obscure hunger,
    of the anxiety almost of a new being.

    I’m as healthy as you wish,
    neurosis sprouts out of me,
    exhaustion dries me,
    but doesn’t possess me: at my side
    youth’s last light laughs
    I’ve had everything I wanted, so far:
    indeed I’ve gone beyond certain hopes for the world;
    emptied, you are here within me,
    filling my time and all time.
    I have been rational and
    I have been irrational, to the utmost.
    An now … ah, the desert deafened by wind,
    the stupendous filthy African sun
    that illuminates the world.

    Africa! my only
    alternative …


    * * * * * *


     Fragments: Cinemas of Pasolini & Visconti



    * * * * * *


    Fragments: Lin Jun’s Life in Pictures



    * * * * * *


    Fragments of Memory: Lin Jun in the Eyes of an Acquaintance

    (Translated from a Chinese website)

    “My first acquaintance with Lin occurred 14 years ago when both of us were college students in Wuhan. My first impression was that he was very thin with big eyes and naughty mouth-shape. He liked to blink when talking to people – but he rarely spoke because he was shy. My friend who brought him to my place was very fond of him: “Is he cute?” He asked me again and again. They sticked to each other all the time and gradually I saw less both of them.

    But this friend did tell me more about Lin later. Lin’s parents were both factory workers with very limited income. As a child, he was sometimes beaten up, but he was loved and provided for. By the time he was in college, Lin fell in love with an handsome newly-graduate med student who rented a room in the vicinity of the campus. Lin moved out his dorm and stayed there. His lover was a bisexual who had a girlfriend with marriage persepctive. The relationship was purely casual for the med student but romantic for Lin –  he even brought him home to his mother. The “lover” got married eventually. Lin was very depressed for a long time.

    I saw Lin again many years later in Beijing when I was introduced by a friend to join a local swimming team. I met him there and was surprised by his rather chiselled body – he also dressed up like your typical gay jock. He was much less provinicial.  

     The last time I saw him in Beijing, he was with a very tall and muscular man shopping in a supermarket. We were never close friends so we just nodded at each other without even speaking a word. I didn’t expect he met his end in this way.”