This paper uses the work of Samuel Beckett to reflect on the in-between positionality of International Political Sociology (IPS) and offers a field guide to help scholars, students, and thinkers embrace this disposition more energetically. It makes the case for a more balanced transdisciplinarity that keeps the field of inquiry open while attending to the international, the political, and the social at the same time and in equal measure. The power of this in-between approach is that it forces thinkers in IPS to constantly look at the horrors of our contemporary world without turning away. Through the ambivalent position of the “happy wreck,” this paper explores the need to do something about these horrors (e.g., diagnose, act, intervene) while fully acknowledging that such actions always produce new forms of violence and exclusion. To help thinkers in IPS inhabit this challenging space of inquiry more confidently, the paper makes four suggestions: (i) broadening our emotional responses to the horrors of the world; (ii) resisting resolution through non-cathartic dispositions; (iii) pursuing slow research to contest dominant rhetorics of crisis and emergency; and (iv) re-imagining shared conditions of vulnerability.

In me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.

(Samuel Beckett, Molloy 1955 [1994])

In all his plays, novels, and creations, Samuel Beckett acknowledges how difficult and uncomfortable it is to live in-between. The “two fools” cited above give us some sense of the antagonistic desires governing this position: we want the comforts of known parameters, but we also want the excitement of new possibilities. Beckett, of course, is not an easy thinker. His refusal to resolve these negotiations one way or another leaves us perpetually caught between opposing forces—between known and unknown, present and future, hope and despair. If we think of this capture as static, then it is utterly depressing: we are forever stuck in-between, waiting for something—happiness, resolution, certainty, God—that will never come. But what Beckett does so well is show us that waiting in-between is neither passive capitulation nor fixed inertia; instead, it is a dynamic and unbounded way of living. Indeed, his most famous play Waiting for Godot (1954 [2006]) demonstrates that waiting in-between is actually a lively collection of shouting, kicking, weeping, worrying, pissing, babbling, joking, disrobing, eating, singing, and dancing. For Beckett, living well means waiting well—it means embracing an in-between position capable of puncturing the illusions of hope with the mundane realities of everyday life, and countering the pointlessness of daily living with the belief that things could be otherwise. At his best, Beckett shows us that a kind of joy can be found waiting in-between.

This paper uses Beckett’s insights to reflect on the collective project of International Political Sociology (IPS)—an endeavor I loosely define as transdisciplinary global research that pursues the international, the political, and the social at the same time and in equal measure. While the paper does engage with the meta-discussion of what IPS actually is (a community? a journal? an epistemology? a field? a critical ethos?), it is more interested in what IPS might become if it embraces Beckett’s slippery ambivalence. When I refer to IPS as a collective—as “we”—I am referring to all those students, scholars, and thinkers who have participated in IPS’s welcome expansion of critical research agendas and its courageous reformulations of outdated approaches to global politics. Indeed, the research accomplished under the rubric of IPS in the past decade has irrevocably expanded the intellectual horizons of International Relations (IR), Politics, and Sociology, as well as enlivening pre-existing collaborations with Geography, Law, Anthropology, History, Philosophy, Literature, Sciencedelete this comma - Science and Technology are usually framed together and Technology. But that “we” is also a placeholder for future IPS colleagues, comrades, and allies who will take the project in multiple and unimagined directions. Indeed, it would not be in keeping with either the critical ethos of IPS or the contrarian attitude of Beckett to celebrate our achievements without question. With that in mind, I want to employ Beckett’s “two fools”—one content with the status quo, the other striving for more—to help push IPS in three directions.

First, Beckett’s account of waiting in-between helps us understand IPS’s move from an interdisciplinary endeavor to a more transdisciplinary one. Our origins in, and scholarly crossings of, at least three academic disciplines suggest that some notion of in-between-ness has always been central to IPS. Indeed, we are always balancing equally pressing commitments to the international, the political, and the social while trying not to privilege any one discipline, intellectual tradition, or canon. The challenge for IPS is in preventing these three terms from slipping into a hierarchy when everything in our contemporary world and in our spaces of scholarship urges us in that direction. While interdisciplinarity has been vital to the whole endeavor of IPS, it has also permitted the three founding disciplines to remain far too intact. As a result, there is a growing assumption that IPS has become simply a “political sociology of the international.” For me, the delicately balanced in-between position that IPS has done so much to nurture is currently in danger as Sociology seeks to occupy the foreground. To counter this hierarchy, there needs to be a greater recognition of the limitations of an interdisciplinarity that leaves our intellectual foundations and knowledge claims intact, and a greater effort to contaminate our fundamental categories through more transgressive transdisciplinary research.

Second, a more active account of ambivalence is required to support IPS scholars as they intervene in the horrific conditions of our world. The in-between is not a happy place of resolution and satisfied contentment: it is instead a difficult and demanding terrain of inquiry that scholars must fight hard to keep open, pluralistic, and hospitable to new ideas. This struggle for openness is extremely difficult when faced with the horrors of global politics and the demand for urgent solutions. By horrors I don’t just mean the multiple crises and catastrophes reported daily in our news feeds (e.g., terrorist incidents, wars in the Middle East, financial collapse); I also mean the more historically entrenched conditions producing longer-term misery (e.g., environmental degradation, structural underemployment, population migrations) and the often-undetected forms of pernicious violence that operate in mundane spaces (e.g., misogyny, racism, discrimination). Any compulsion to confront such horror is deeply ethical, of course, and IPS shares with many scholarly traditions the urgent need to do something. But what distinguishes IPS from more mainstream approaches and places it in partnership with critical Feminists, Marxists, and Postcolonial thinkers is a deep ambivalence about how to intervene. Critical thinkers know two things: (1) that “we” are complicit in producing horrific conditions around the world because our privilege is built on the backs of others, and (2) that any solution—no matter how well intentioned—causes its own violence. Certainly these realizations mean we are not seduced by easy explanations, but they also mean we are prone to paralysis and melancholia. Recalling Beckett’s much more active account of waiting and living, I want to argue that we need more robust dispositions of ambivalence that refuse the seductions of resolution and certainty, keep us focused on the horrific global conditions we currently face, and prevent us from turning away. A good example of this is found in Michel Foucault’s (1981) invocation of Beckett in which he encourages us all to become “happy wrecks” in the face of overwhelming horror. This is not a passive form of acceptance, but rather an assertion that the best way to counter the horrific conditions of the world is to trouble the dominant structures of certainty, power, and authority that got us there in the first place. As Beckett’s fools suggest, all we can do is muddle through in the hope that things might get better around the corner, knowing all the while that this is extremely unlikely.

Finally, in the spirit of Beckett’s in-between-ness, active waiting, and profound ambivalence, I want to offer four re-orientations to encourage more creative, reflexive, and experimental research trajectories in IPS. If our constitutive in-between-ness is best guaranteed by an open terrain of transdisciplinarity, and the disposition best able to navigate that terrain is the ambivalent “happy wreck,” how do we actually go about doing IPS? How can we replace paralysis and inertia with more active forms of waiting, living, writing, speaking, teaching, thinking, and critique? How can we transform those actions into strategic interventions that are modest in scope, sensitive in character, and generous in spirit? More to the point, how can the collective project of IPS (with its constant attention to questions of who “we” are, who “we” are not, and the work such identity claims do in the world) embrace its own contradictions with more optimism and hope? With these questions in mind, I offer a “field guide” to four possible re-orientations—absurdity, non-catharsis, slowness, and vulnerability—to assist the “happy wrecks” of IPS in their future work. Like the meandering plot of Waiting for Godot, this field guide scrabbles over familiar ground, uncovers strange connections, and pokes at the limits of rationality. My own (qualified, tempered, cautious) hope is that by engaging with some of Beckett’s insights, IPS scholars might be able to uncover stories about global political life that we have never heard before.

Asking for Trouble: The Difficulties of Transdisciplinarity

No matter how consistently IPS calls attention to its own boundary-making practices, its decade-long existence does indicate some kind of developing tradition (i.e., there is a recognized “thing” called IPS) and some kind of growing community (i.e., there are people who “do” this thing called IPS). The institutional emergence of IPS within the auspices of the International Studies Association (ISA) and the founding of the journal International Political Sociology (IPS) are not efforts to claim this as a “new discipline or school of thought” (Huysmans and Noguiera 2012, 2); indeed, as the founders of IPS rightly acknowledge, all three traditions have long and significant histories of interdisciplinarity (Bigo and Walker 2007, 1–2). What these institutional origin points have enabled is a dedicated collaborative space that allows critical scholars, students, and thinkers to intervene more forcefully in the pressing issues of global affairs, and to ask difficult questions about how these affairs have come to be the way they are. What interests me here is the evolution of IPS’s interdisciplinarity over the past decade, and the extent to which it enables or forecloses our ability to remain actively waiting in-between.

Bigo and Walker (2007, 3) rightly predicted that “to bring sociology and social theory to bear on the problem of the international is to ask for considerable trouble.” For me, this “trouble” has emerged in the form of a problematic interdisciplinarity, which has enabled the three founding disciplines to remain intact and, as a consequence, has allowed Sociology to dominate the project. Despite insisting that we should not privilege the international, the political, or the sociological, the initial framing of IPS as interdisciplinary has protected each founding discipline as singular (instead of always-already constituted by multiple origin points), separate (instead of always-already contaminated by plural lines of inquiry), and stable (instead of always-already punctured by contingency). As a result of this protective interdisciplinary architecture, too much authority has been ceded to the discipline of Sociology. Indeed, there is a sense that what we are really doing is a political sociology of the international, and that our job is therefore to take established modes of inquiry from Sociology and Political Sociology and apply these “upward” to the realm of the international. My concern is that a normalization of this hierarchy will compromise our commitment to, and protection of, an open terrain of inquiry by allowing practices of gatekeeping around a “pure” form of IPS that privileges Sociological approaches. The difficulty here is that IPS is not a “levels of analysis” story: it cannot be arranged into an established hierarchy in which Politics + Sociology combine so as to be applied “upward” to the international. It is impossible to privilege “the international” as a separate space or even a discrete object of inquiry because it saturates not just the political and the social, but also the local, the legal, the cultural, the domestic, the embodied, the material, the metaphysical, and the everyday. It pulses across borders, through landscapes, inside temporalities, and within futures—it is in so many more places than we think it is. Certainly Political Sociology is one way to get at this heterogeneous terrain, but as Anna Leander’s (2011) critical appraisal of Bourdieu suggests, it should not be allowed to occupy a privileged position in the collective endeavors of IPS.

While heeding Bigo and Walker’s account of the difficulties of doing IPS, we need to generate a different kind of disciplinary trouble that claims Beckett’s in-between-ness, resists all slippages into hierarchy, and does more to cross-pollinate the international, the political, and the sociological. This is not an accretive project in which “adding” these three registers together will miraculously “add up” to something coherent. Rather, it requires a shift into a more penetrating and transgressive transdisciplinarity that not only fundamentally alters the foundations of the international, the political, and the sociological, but also widens the scope of what counts as knowledge, expertise, methodology, theory, practice, and collaboration (Bal 2002; Shepherd 2012). Something of this shift is captured in Michael Shapiro’s account of thinking:

To think (rather than to seek to explain) in this sense is to invent and apply conceptual frames and create juxtapositions that disrupt and/or render historically contingent accepted knowledge practices. It is to compose the discourse of investigation with critical juxtapositions that unbind what are ordinarily presumed to belong together and thereby to challenge institutionalized ways of reproducing and understanding phenomena … To think rather than reproduce accepted knowledge frames is to create the conditions of possibility for imagining alternative worlds (and thus to be able to recognize the political commitments sequestered in every political imaginary). (Shapiro 2013, xv)

Certainly this kind of critical thinking has always been a part of the IPS project, but pushing the project further into transdisciplinarity will enable us to recapture that disruptive ethos in ways that make disciplinary hierarchies more unlikely. I am not suggesting that this kind of thinking is easy—far from it. It is much more in line with Charles Scott’s (1984) argument that critical thinkers must do “whatever is hardest”; that is, deliberately “take up the questions they find most troubling, difficult, and even possibly unanswerable” (McWhorter 2012, 39). I want to argue that shifting into a more transdisciplinary frame will enable IPS thinkers to keep asking those difficult and intractable questions, and in the process help “rearrange and invent new possibilities for seeing and feeling and understanding and wondering” (ibid.).

Facing the Horror: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”

What attracts so many scholars, students, and thinkers to the open terrain of IPS is the manner in which it forces us to constantly confront the horrific conditions of our contemporary world. We cannot turn away: we cannot retreat into easy theoretical explanations, uncontested disciplinary foundations, or comfortable normative solutions, no matter how tempting this might be. Like Beckett, we recognize the pull of those seductions, but equally we see the problems with certainty and resolution. This need to engage with horror resembles a familiar looking/not looking dilemma: we do not want to look, we would rather be comforted by pleasant pictures, but we cannot help ourselves—and once we do look, we cannot look away, nor can we un-look at what we have seen (Möller 2009). This dilemma is neatly expressed in the famous last lines from Samuel Beckett’s (1955 [1994]) novel The Unnameable—“You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on”—which in turn framed the brilliantly anxious opening to Michel Foucault’s (1981) seminal article “The Order of Discourse”:

Desire says: “I should not like to have to enter this risky order of discourse; I should not like to be involved in its peremptoriness and decisiveness; I should like it to be all around me like a calm, deep transparence, infinitely open, where others would fit in with my expectations, and from which truths would emerge one by one; I should only have to let myself be carried, within it and by it, like a happy wreck.”

Certainly there are huge resonances between Foucault and Beckett with respect to language, speech, and discourse (Uhlmann 2006, 108–13), but in the spirit of Beckettian mischief I want to deliberately misread Foucault’s claims here to see what they tell us about IPS’s looking/not looking dilemma.

First, Foucault offers a rather Bartleby-like lamentation—“I should not like to”—a sense of disappointment that he must enter into the laws, orders, and structures of discourse. This drawn-out and rather petulant sigh is also an explicit wrestling with Beckett’s first two imperatives: the peremptory instruction of “you must go on” and its stubborn refusal of “I can’t go on.” Embedded in this exchange is a clear reminder of the seductive power of laws, limits, and order: we cannot forget how comforting it is to have order because it produces rules which, in turn, help us get things done. Second, Foucault is equally cognizant of the complacency that comes with uncritical opposition—how our efforts at counter-conduct can be as blinding, implacable, and exclusionary as the laws we oppose. Again, he outlines the seductions for us: wouldn’t it be satisfying if others—both allies and enemies—conformed to our pre-given expectations? Wouldn’t it be reassuring if truths were revealed “one by one” and lined up according to our already-arranged oppositional stance? Being “carried away” by such comfortable and orderly forms of resistance simply reinforces the ruthlessness of the laws being opposed. Indeed, Orwell made this clear: the revolutionary pigs who overthrow the tyrannical farmer soon move into the farmhouse and install new forms of oppression. Third, Foucault gives us hope that we can navigate the polarizing instructions of “You must” and “I cannot,” but only to the extent that we acknowledge the inescapable horror, wretchedness, and misery that thrives between these two imperatives. What Foucault’s invocation of Beckett suggests is that the least-worst option is to be a “happy wreck”—a compromised figure who is overwhelmed by a compulsion to face the horrors of the world in an effort to try and make things less miserable, all the while knowing that these efforts will most likely fail and end up unleashing further misery. The point for both Beckett and Foucault is that we cannot succumb to nihilism (“I can’t go on”), even though everything is forcing us in that direction. Rather, we must find courage in our efforts to muddle through (“I’ll go on”) and hope that along with confronting tragedy and misery, we may also find some brief moments of respite and contentment (if not happiness) that will help make life “slightly less horrible.”

I want to encourage thinkers in IPS to inhabit the subject position of the “happy wreck” more confidently because it offers the most hope for contesting the powerful liberal fantasies of our time. These fantasies are very familiar: they promise resolution in the face of ongoing conflicts, certainty in the face of absent foundations, order in the face of proliferating life choices, and a singularized future in the face of competing possibilities. Indeed, it is precisely these fantasies promising freedom, autonomy, civility, sovereignty, liberty, equality, and tolerance that encourage us to turn away from the horrors of our contemporary condition and disavow the difficulties of the “happy wreck” with her agonizing ambivalence, slippery contingency, and risk of nihilism. These liberal promises are seductive because they operate through a familiar combination of inclusion and denial: everyone is invited into empty signifiers like “freedom,” “equality,” and “democracy,” and yet these fantasies can only be sustained to the extent that they pre-emptively distinguish between those who are included and those who are not. Activating the position of the “happy wreck” means calling attention to the reproduction of these constitutive limits, pointing out the horrors they enact, and exposing the rhetorics of erasure and distraction aimed at neutralizing critical interventions.

While IPS—especially in the past decade—has been exemplary at unpacking these liberal fantasies and resisting their promises to solve intractable global problems, I think there is still more room for us to become both happier and more wretched in these endeavors. Cultivating more forceful dispositions of ambivalence requires us to become more attentive to the circuitous and often hidden histories through which contemporary horrors are generated; more vigilant in identifying new forms of authority that quickly mobilize in expected and unexpected global sites; more painfully honest about how and when “we” as scholars are complicit in reproducing forms of violence and exclusion; more courageous in calling out our own complicity; and more creative in opposing all forms of impending closure. One way to become even happier in our wretchedness is to consider Claire Rasmussen’s critical re-imagining of masochism. Rather than see the masochist’s love of submission as fatal, she re-works it as a more creative form of non-autonomous agency: “Instead of simply reiterating the logic of control, the masochist negotiates new, different, and dynamic power relations … As well as blurring the line between pleasure and pain, the masochist challenges the very binaries that sustain the idea of autonomy” (2011, 152–53). For Rasmussen, active perversion of the norm gives masochists more autonomy, freedom, and choice rather than less. This is instructive for the “happy wrecks” of IPS because it shows us that our stubborn efforts to remain engaged with the horrific conditions of our world—our masochistic determination not to turn away—might be the very thing that politicizes our ambivalence and enables more creative arrangements of hope and despair.

The Absurd Life of a “Happy Wreck”: A Field Guide to Living In-Between

How can we, as thinkers of IPS, begin to own our in-between transdisciplinarity with more confidence? How can we continue to face the horrors of the world (and not become overwhelmed with depression) by mobilizing a more active disposition of ambivalence—by becoming “happy wrecks”? I do not see in-between-ness or ambivalence as passive orientations indicating disengagement from the world; rather, I see them as lively modes of engagement that will help us become both happier and more wretched as we continue to intervene in the world. With this in mind, I am keen to explore the political implications of in-between-ness and ambivalence—to find out what is possible when thinkers in IPS combine hope and despair more productively. To this end, I offer four suggestions for how we might re-orient ourselves as “happy wrecks” as we follow the mobilizations and distributions of global power.

Remember to Laugh

In the productive space that IPS has opened up, many scholars have contested dominant accounts of rationality by drawing attention to the emotional and affective registers through which global power travels (Ahmed 2004; Moïsi 2009; Bleiker and Hutchinson 2014; Hutchinson 2016). While I welcome these insights, I want to push the argument a little further by reflecting on the understandable but quite restrictive emotional grammar they rely on. I say restrictive because we focus on only a small number of emotional pathways that are activated when we confront the horrors of the world. These limitations are usefully analyzed in IPS-attuned work in media, communication, and cultural studies that examines the way viewers respond to images of distant suffering. For Boltanski (1999), anger is one of the dominant responses to suffering and is often prompted when we, as viewers, demand to know why horrible things keep happening (see also Chouliaraki 2006, 2012; Razack 2007). However, we often seek to neutralize the destabilizing affective force of anger by retreating into rational efforts to locate, denounce, and punish the perpetrators of violence. Such denunciations are understandable, but they end up privileging a binary relationship between accusers (e.g., lawyers, journalists, viewers) and distant perpetrators—all of which effaces those who have actually been victimized by violence. Conversely, when we respond to suffering in overly sentimental ways (e.g., tears, anguish, pity), there is a narcissistic focus on our own capacity to display emotion rather than on the victim who is actually suffering. Here, objectified victims become silent motors that drive “our” displays of compassion: what really counts is that viewers feel deeply and then translate that experience into action (e.g., organizing aid, giving to charity). The problem is that such actions are undertaken on behalf of distant sufferers whose agency is, once again, effaced. Finally, we also respond to suffering through a knowing form of aesthetic appreciation—an ethical stance that is understood to be superior to overly righteous and/or highly sentimental reactions. Here, we acknowledge our mediated distance from sufferers, and while we don’t actually get involved, we remain engaged through watching and then judging the aesthetic quality of the resulting images. Certainly there are important critiques to be made of Boltanski’s moralized framework of spectatorship, not least its gender politics and reliance on pragmatism, but I find it useful for the way it exemplifies the consequences of using only a limited emotional repertoire in response to suffering. We can do anger, we can do pity, and we can do indifference … but we struggle to offer anything beyond these well-trodden responses.

What would happen if thinkers in IPS approached the “serious” subject matter of our work less seriously than we currently do? This is not to negate such horrors, or trivialize their consequences. Rather, as my frequent nods to Beckett suggest, it is to acknowledge that tragedy is never isolated from its attendant absurdities, and should therefore be engaged through the broadest and most complex repertoire of emotions available. Tragedy is painful, of course, but that pain doesn’t necessarily map onto the pre-figured emotional pathways of anger, sadness, and detachment. Lurking within the experience of tragedy are a whole range of unruly, excessive, and in-between emotional states that might, if followed, lead to alternative responses. What happens when we examine how misery, horror, and suffering are translated through, for example, absurdity, comedy, satire, slapstick, mimicry, and laughter? Given my invocation of Beckett, it should come as no surprise that I see enormous potential in exploring the political potentials of absurdity—of confronting the relentless horrors of the world through hysterical laughter, riotous babbling, and unrehearsed invective. While we haven’t yet found the axe of Beckett to smash the foundations of rationality, there have been a number of creative efforts to explore how the international, the political, and the social are linked through satire and comedy. A majority of this work operates at the representational level, for example Jabri’s (2003) argument that Harold Pinter plays produce a radical form of critique that echoes far beyond the bounded halls of the theatre, or James Brassett’s (2015) claim that “alternative” British comedy speaks directly to wider claims about global justice. Other interventions explore the subversive nature of comedy more generally, for example Louiza Odysseos’s (2001) argument that disruption, transgression, and irreverence contest the “harmonious resolution” usually associated with Greek comedies (see also Critchley 2002; Dodds and Kirby 2013). More recently, laughter is being analyzed as an important counter-conduct that destabilizes counterterrorism practices such as airport screening (Salter 2011; Basham and Vaughan-Williams 2013; Leese and Koenigseder 2015). These initial accounts of emotional states other than anger, sadness, and detachment are important because they open up the vast emotional landscape that supports, infuses, and disrupts the rational infrastructure of global politics. They also offer productive starting points for further research into the emotional landscape of global horror, such as whether humor can build global solidarity, and how satire is extremely risky in repressive contexts (Hendawi 2016).

Resist Catharsis

What makes Beckett’s work so politically important is its capacity to lay bare the difficulties attending all normative-based solutions—especially those like peace, security, and freedom that we cannot avoid. Absurdity is different from critical dispositions that seek to reveal “the truth” behind false consciousness, or advocate emancipation as a universal and incontestable good. Instead, absurdity enables us to fully acknowledge our desire for things like freedom and equality while simultaneously recognizing that the costs of fulfilling such desires are never distributed equally and are seldom borne by those who benefit most. Absurdity blocks escapist retreats into fantasy because it insists on a multiplicity of futures, foregrounds non-teleological temporalities and, most importantly, refuses the comforts of resolution. It does not allow for happy endings in any form—neither the catharsis produced by tragedy nor the order restored by comedy. While these disruptions have always shaped the formal theatrical conventions of Beckett and other playwrights of the absurd (e.g., Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionescu, Caryl Churchill), they are also emerging in more popular renditions of satire. For example, Larry David, one of the co-creators of the hugely popular sitcom Seinfeld, had a golden rule for the show: “No hugging, no learning” (Worth 2008). In a cultural universe dominated by narrative resolution and character fulfilment, Seinfeld—famously advertised as a show about nothing—achieved both critical and popular acclaim by reordering the dominant assumption that comedy always produces a happy outcome. That reordering emerges in a more straightforward satirical idiom in the animated series South Park, where the central character Cartman not only stubbornly refuses to learn anything, but also mocks the whole idea that humans ever learn from their mistakes. He starts out as a jackass and remains a jackass throughout: no hugging, no learning. While South Park has become infamous for its extreme humor and outrageous satire, I think its political significance lies more in its relentless mocking of all forms of moral closure and its committed refusal to resolve anything.1

Working outward from these popular contestations, how might we ask more ambitious questions about the states of feeling that can help us resist the seductions of catharsis? Similar to Rasmussen’s re-working of masochism, Ngai (2005) examines how “ugly feelings” like envy, shame, paranoia, and disgust exceed dominant governing rationales that seek to encourage modern subjects along predetermined emotional pathways. But she also demonstrates how these intense feelings are unsettled by more ambiguous emotional states that do not lead to expected forms of catharsis:

By non-cathartic I just mean feelings that do not facilitate action, that do not lead to or culminate in some kind of purgation or release—irritation, for example, as opposed to anger. These feelings are therefore politically ambiguous, but good for diagnosing states of suspended agency, due in part to their diffusiveness and/or lack of definite objects. (Jasper and Ngai 2011; see also Ngai 2005, 9)

This idea of suspended agency produced by ambivalent feelings is enormously helpful when thinking about how to disrupt, circumvent, and resist the drive for resolution. In her more recent work, Ngai (2012) examines how the seemingly “throwaway” aesthetics of zany, cute, and interesting trouble dominant accounts of the beautiful and the sublime and prevent subjects from finding comfort in expected forms of transcendence. This account of suspended agency expresses something of what I am getting at with the figure of the “happy wreck” who knowingly refuses the tempting resolutions that come with catharsis and order. Ngai’s work is an encouragement to stop dwelling in familiar states of feeling like anger, sentiment, and detachment, and instead consider what happens when we confront the horrific conditions of the world through more ambivalent states like anxiety, thoughtfulness, boredom, wonder, and distraction. This provocation resonates with recent work in IPS critiquing the linear rationality of sovereign time and politicizing the progressive direction of liberal fantasies (Hutchings 2008; Kessler 2012; Lundborg 2012; Debrix 2015). Here, I am particularly interested to see the multiple futures that might be imagined when IPS scholars confront the horrific conditions of our contemporary world through non-cathartic dispositions.

Slow Down

Contesting the drive toward resolution is about questioning the rhythm, pace, and duration of dominant temporalities, unpacking the discrete moments and events contained within them, and attending to the complex temporal loops expressed by alternatives (e.g., anticipation, projection, memory, haunting). This un-working of time is central to IPS scholarship critiquing the instantaneous nature of biometric data, algorithms, and security technologies currently being used at border sites to better distinguish between safe and dangerous travelers (Marx 2007; De Goede 2008; Amoore 2013; Bellanova and Fuster 2013; Bourne, Johnson, and Lisle 2015; Muller et al. 2016). What has become apparent in this work is that our dominant understandings of duration are so structured around human life cycles that we struggle to understand—let alone contest—the speed, intensity, and amplification of non-human data. This has produced anxiety over our inability to manage such large amounts of information: we are no longer able to reliably identify threats and do all the work that is necessary to keep those threats at bay. As a result, our contemporary condition is characterized by new rhetorics of crisis, catastrophe, and apocalypse that enable the exclusions constitutive of liberal rule to be imposed with more force, legitimacy, and violence (Grove 2015). For example, the threat of inevitable apocalypse from any number of sources (e.g., terrorism, climate change, recession) is used to discipline populations in the present: obey this form of governance and the horror will be alleviated (by technological solutions), managed (by cultivating resilience), outsourced (by building barriers against it), or postponed (by assuming that future generations will sort it out).

I am interested in how this language of perpetual crisis occludes the repetitive, much slower, and more familiar rhythms of everyday life. As Beckett well knew, what matters most is not the eventual arrival of Godot, but all the energies, habits, connections, practices, routines, and circulations that develop in the waiting. This idea is part of what animates recent work on slowness that seeks to expose the unfamiliar tempos lurking within dominant rhetorics of crisis, emergency, and apocalypse. By exploring the kinds of calamities that “patiently dispense their devastation” outside the spectacular and instantaneous glare of mediated governance, Rob Nixon (2011) offers a comprehensive account of what is displaced by dominant frames of crisis. Slow violence is that which occurs “gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all” (2011, 2). Nixon’s work suggests that the disposition of the “happy wreck” is entirely appropriate to the task of capturing the “invisible, mutagenic theatre” of slow violence precisely because her constitutive ambivalence is able to attend to spectacles that are “slow paced and open ended, eluding the tidy closure, the containment, imposed by the visual orthodoxies of victory and defeat” (2011, 6). Similarly, Lauren Berlant (2007, 758) characterizes our current condition within global capitalist structures as one of slow death that develops in a different “zone of temporality” than the dominant emergencies, crises, and exceptions that define our modern age. Simply getting on with things amid the slow death of modern life is a vital form of resistance to the crisis management strategies usually deployed to discipline populations within prevailing orders of governance. Berlant (2007, 759) sees the accretive, slow-moving narratives of everyday life—the familiar and unsurprising routines of “ongoingness, getting by, and living on”—in more hopeful terms because their alternative rhythms interrupt dominant narratives of urgency. More importantly, she explains that tempos of slowness are always sequestered within whatever is taken to be urgent:

crisis rhetoric belies the constitutive point that slow death … is neither a state of exception nor the opposite, mere banality, but a domain where an upsetting scene of living is revealed to be interwoven with ordinary life after all, like ants discovered scurrying under a thoughtlessly lifted rock. (2011, 102)

Her explanation of entanglement here is important because it does not allow the horrors of contemporary life to be evaded by romanticized accounts of a previous time or mortgaged to our descendants’ future. As Berlant suggests, “upsetting” repetitive scenes of everyday life continue to unfold—slowly—no matter what kind of crisis is in play.

IPS-attuned scholars are also analyzing slowness as an effective counter-conduct against the neoliberal managerialism currently governing modern universities. “Slow Research” is being used to “challenge the accelerated time and elitism of the neoliberal university,” where all forms of embodied productivity are increasingly measured and ranked according to reductive metrics such as journal impact factors, teaching evaluation scores, and levels of research grant income (Mountz et al. 2015, 3; see also Dowling 2008; Gill 2009; Lorenz 2012; O’Neill 2014; Berg and Seeber 2016). These counter-conducts are about deliberately elongating the duration of everyday knowledge practices—thinking, reading, writing, mapping, supervising, teaching, editing, organizing, collaborating, and engaging—in ways that align with embodied rhythms rather than the unforgiving and hyper-efficient tempos of the institution or the market (Garey, Hertz, and Nelson 2014). Slow strategies that contest the impossible top-down targets imposed by senior managers can prevent critical and creative work from being captured and made productive by a dehumanized institution (Giroux 2013). Within this growing space of dissent there are tentative signs of an emerging Beckettian political consciousness as stubborn acts of slowness allow thinkers to meet pernicious neoliberal assaults on academic freedom through a mixture of subversive humor (e.g., playing “bullshit bingo” to expose management speak; actively cultivating “uselessness”) and creative acts of protest (e.g., communication blockades; flash-mob occupations). Certainly thinkers are taking risks when they choose to push back against imposed institutional norms, no matter how surreptitiously or ironically they do it. But such actions need to be celebrated for the creatively dangerous energies they unleash and for the unexpected solidarities that emerge as a result. Linking back to the work of Nixon and Berlant, I want to encourage IPS scholars to further recalibrate their academic labor in ways that tap more explicitly into the layered rhythms of ongoingness and slow catastrophe—precisely the rhythms that are eclipsed whenever neoliberal managers try to neutralize critical research through reductive metrics such as “commercialization” and “research impact.”

Become Vulnerable

What I have been circling around with my advocacy of absurdity, non-catharsis, and slowness is a more explicit engagement with vulnerability—not just individual and embodied vulnerability, but also emergent forms of exposure, contingency, and risk that connect global populations and infrastructures. Vulnerability, of course, is beloved by the agents of contemporary neoliberal governance who see it as the very condition that must be overcome in order to achieve the ultimate goal of resilience. Within this framework, the brutal emotional costs and affective impacts of vulnerability are evacuated by a linear process of objectification: first you identify a vulnerability (e.g., a character flaw, a professional “skills-deficit,” an infrastructural weakness, a “failed state”); then you code it as a risk (e.g., to thriving, to advancement, to security, to freedom); and then you develop a “strategic plan” to alleviate that named risk (e.g., cognitive-behavioral therapy, professional development, disaster simulation training, humanitarian intervention). But as critical scholars have rightly argued, vulnerability is not inherent to particular bodies or populations—it is not “out there” waiting to be discovered and corrected. Rather, it is produced by the brokers of global power in ways that subject ever-increasing numbers of people to the most powerful mechanisms of governance we have ever seen ( Joseph 2013; Welsh 2014; Howell 2015). The extent of these efforts to control, contain, and manage vulnerability give us some indication of its danger and its power; indeed, recognizing the anxieties created by vulnerability is the first step in revealing its capacity to disrupt, un-work, and reorder dominant rationales of global governance. By this I do not mean resuscitating colonial asymmetries that make it “our” job to discover new populations of vulnerable subjects—new others—who must be saved from their own abjection by our benevolence, magnanimity, and professional interventions. Absolutely not—the constitutive role of Postcolonial and Decolonial scholarship within IPS rightly disallows such mobilizations of nostalgia and privilege. Rather, what I am calling for here is a much more vibrant and poly-vocal account of vulnerability that fosters multiple ways of knowing, foregrounds empathic modes of encounter, nurtures skepticism toward confident claims of progress, encourages solidarity, and cultivates modesty about its own capacities for political intervention.

Sara Ahmed’s (2004, 68–70) feminist rereading of vulnerability is particularly attuned to the kind of interventions I am proposing here (see also Shildrick 2002). She does not see vulnerability as inherent to particular bodies (e.g., feminine bodies, queer bodies), but rather as an effect of social and spatial power that works to limit the mobility of bodies that are pre-emptively coded as vulnerable. In this re-working, she articulates something important about the way vulnerability is considered dangerous because it produces responses based on fear:

Vulnerability is a bodily relation to the world in which openness itself is read as a site of potential danger, and as demanding evasive action. Emotions may involve readings of such openness, as spaces where bodies and worlds meet and leak into each other. Fear involves reading such openings as dangerous; the openness of the body to the world involves a sense of danger, which is anticipated as a future pain or injury. (ibid. 2004, 69)

Mapping the nexus of vulnerability—fear—danger is a good way to start unpacking how specific subjects and global populations are pre-emptively produced as vulnerable, how attending discourses of fear are mobilized in response, and how this results in interventions aimed at neutralizing vulnerability’s troubling power. But if fear encourages us to read the openings inherent to vulnerability as dangerous, what other non-fearful dispositions might encourage us to read such openings as welcoming, hospitable, and exciting? What if we re-frame vulnerability not in opposition to resilience, but rather as always-already imbricated in it? What if we understand vulnerability as constantly folding itself into a variety of ambivalent states of feeling such as anxiety, boredom, and distraction? What research practices do such entanglements demand, and what political possibilities do they produce? A good starting place is the idea of mutually constructed vulnerability articulated by Participatory Action Research (PAR), which requires researchers to work “in collaboration with and not just on, or for subordinated peoples” (Guishard 2009, 85–88). Certainly these ethical imperatives already shape much of the work that IPS does, but recognizing that the subjects we have pre-coded as vulnerable are actually full of agency, complexity, and vibrancy poses two important methodological questions. First, scholars who position vulnerability as both the object and process of research force us to confront the limitations of traditional knowledge acquisition models in which “expert” scholars instrumentally use the narratives, data, and lifeworlds of others (Johnson 2012; Eriksson Baaz and Stern 2015; Bulmer and Jackson 2016). Second, scholars who bring their own vulnerabilities as researchers more centrally into their research force us to confront our own often-unacknowledged privilege. This requires great care because acknowledging one’s own vulnerabilities can so easily tip into an unwarranted form of narcissism—“It’s all about me!”—that silences the more risky forms of vulnerability attached to marginalized subjects and obscures any common interest “we” might share with “them.”

My concern here is that our lack of attention to more heterogeneous formations of vulnerability can sometimes render the methodological terrain of IPS cleaner than it is. For example, IPS has been central to a profound change in the way discourse analysis is being deployed by rightly insisting that discourses always exceed the confines of language, text, and documents (i.e., the domains where traditional discourse analysts feel most comfortable). By focusing on the material, affective, atmospheric, embodied, and mobile character of discourses, IPS thinkers have picked many of us out of our textual and visual comfort zones and thrown us—willing or not—into “the field.” This has certainly been energizing and enlivening for the IPS research community; indeed, my own thinking has benefited enormously from working alongside experienced ethnographers, interviewers, creative artists, and seasoned observers. At an embarrassingly old age, I went “into the field” expecting to learn the “Great Secrets of Empirical Research” that had previously eluded me, only to discover to my great shock that I had, in fact, done ethnographies many times before without realizing it (in South Africa, Cyprus, Bosnia, and Belfast), and that my training in critical social theory was central to these experiences. Having said that, I am concerned that the methodological pendulum has now swung too far in this direction—that our shift “into the field” now favors empirical “evidence” derived from ethnographic fieldwork over detailed textual, linguistic, and visual analysis. This is, in part, a strategy to mask the vulnerabilities inherent in the research process—those nagging and inescapable questions like what is the point of this theoretical research, who actually cares about this work, and am I really changing the world or just commenting on it (Miller 2005, x)? Showing interventions through “direct” empirical research rather than through “once-removed” textual representations is also favored by research funders who largely operate through a unidirectional social science model of going “out” into the world, finding evidence, doing “analysis,” reaching a conclusion, and then making a measureable “impact” on policy. While I’m more than happy to extol the virtues of critically attuned fieldwork, I’m not content to throw away the hard-won insights that came out of early IPS work on discourse analyses, formal deconstruction, and semiotic readings of images and texts. In that sense, I am keen to see more work that shows how the interpretive skills we have learned through successive textual, cultural, visual, and aesthetic “turns” can powerfully enhance, rather than detract from, the field-based research we are now doing (Johnson 2011; Dyvik 2014; Salter 2015, 2016).

My point here is that IPS should be the meeting ground of these methodological developments rather than the site of their separation. That only becomes possible to the extent that we recognize our shared experiences of vulnerability—experiences that commitments to either “the text” or “the field” seek to alleviate. Here, John Law’s account of mess in social science research is indispensable because his methodologies of uncertainty advocate honesty and openness about the “ragged ways that knowledge is produced” (Law 2004, 19). Law contests the idea that we can ever be at peace with the process of knowing when the world we are looking at is “Slippery, indistinct, elusive, complex, diffuse, messy, textured, vague, unspecific, confused, disordered, emotional, painful, pleasureable, hopeful, horrific, lost, redeemed, visionary, angelic, demonic, mundane, intuitive, sliding and unpredictable” (ibid., 6). Unsurprisingly, I am delighted with the echoes of Beckett that resonate in these hopeful/horrific juxtapositions. But I am also energized by how Law’s account of mess is shaping recent debates in Critical Security Methods that do not shy away from the uncertainties of knowing, the circuitous routes of discovery, and the realization that our own idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities as researchers constitute the very worlds of security we purport to analyze “rationally” and “objectively” (Salter and Mutlu 2012; Aradau and Huysmans 2014; Aradau et al. 2014).

Flawed Futures

When reflecting on how we might better attune ourselves to the slow, ongoing tempos of everyday life, Berlant is careful not to romanticize the resistive possibilities of a register in which one’s practice is “more like desperate doggy paddling than like a magnificent swim out to the horizon” (Berlant 2011, 117). This is a terrific metaphor for the awkward, anxious, and often distressed activities that we find ourselves engaged in when trying to suture together the international, the political, and the social. The challenge is not just learning to live with the permanent anxiety of exploring three disciplinary foundations at once, it is also about finding joy amidst the horrific conditions unleashed by modern life. By all means, recognizing that things don’t necessarily get better but just get differently terrible, in different degrees, for different groups of people, is a hard pill to swallow. For impatient modern subjects, the very long, very slow, and very idiosyncratic pace of “progress” is difficult to identify, let alone celebrate—especially when the cost of “progress” is so unequally distributed around the world. But the kind of work that the “happy wrecks” of IPS do is vital because it exposes how unexpected and unseen mobilizations of global power emerge; in other words, it shows us where, when, how, and in what new forms terribleness finds its way into the world. To this end, IPS has been especially good at ferreting out the hidden articulations of power in supposedly empowering discourses such as development and humanitarianism (Duffield 2001; Ilcan and Lacey 2011; Abdelnour and Saeed 2014; Best 2016), and in state practices seeking to “manage” risky populations more efficiently while masking the violence inherent in such endeavors (Basaran 2008; Buckel and Wissel 2010; Muller 2010; Chauvin and Garcés-Mascareñas 2012; Methmann 2014).

At its best, IPS research couples an ability to expose global logics of power with a keen attention to the ever-present modes of resistance that trouble, subvert, and reorder such logics. In this sense, IPS has taken the first step of critiquing power and holding it at bay, and the second step of discovering the alternative forces that always reside in these uncovered spaces. To go back to Berlant’s earlier metaphor, we have picked up the rock and revealed the ants scurrying beneath it. But I think IPS needs to more actively hold open that space to see what emerges in the ambivalent “contact zone” between the old and the new. That space may be difficult to inhabit and quick to close down, but its presence—however brief—must be guarded and nourished. I would argue that in such a moment of suspension, IPS research has the capacity to do something quite surprising. Because we have experience skating between multiple disciplinary authorities, and because we have learned to cultivate the disposition of the “happy wreck” in full acknowledgment of the horrors of the world, we have the capacity to develop a quieter kind of joy that fully embraces its own contingency. There may be faster and more elegant swimmers striking out toward the horizon, but our collective doggy paddling will invite more people in, we will swim for longer, and we will certainly develop new ways of swimming.

1Arp (2006) suggests that the moral force of South Park resides with Kyle and Stan, who carefully puncture the sacred values of democracy, liberty, equality, human rights, and the respect for difference. For me, Cartman provides a more difficult set of ethico-political possibilities that are both seductive and frightening. As the ultimate “Lord of Misrule,” his vicious mocking, casual violence, and rampant narcissism trample over everything. But as we laugh at Carman’s destructive force, we must also ask who is being trampled over, and how disempowered bodies are often unintentionally included in the range of satire’s target.

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