29 January 2018

Portrait: Anna Leander Explores the Politics of Digital, Aesthetic and Legal Practices

Professor Anna Leander joined the Graduate Institute in January. A specialist in International Political Sociology, she has a longstanding interest in the commercialisation of military/security matters and currently works on the politics of digital, aesthetic and legal practices. Interview.

You have recently published an article in the European Journal of Social Theory titled “Digital/Commercial (In)visibility: The Politics of DAESH Recruitment Videos”. Can you briefly present its rationale and main findings?

Leander-Anna.jpgThis article explores the politics of online videos and more specifically of DAESH recruitment videos. It argues that these videos function much as digital advertising generally and that they play on themes associated with the normal life in the Western countries where they are diffused. The advertising for DAESH made by the Australian doctor in the still above is just one of many cases in point (see the full video). This is something that is often missed because of the focus of the many violent images and videos also diffused by DAESH. To make this argument I draw on a practice-theoretical approach analysing the regimes of (in)visibility associated with the videos. This allows me to demonstrate that digital and commercial logics characterise the aesthetic, circulatory and infrastructuring practices through which the recruitment videos make DAESH visible and attractive. More specifically, digital/commercial logics are at the heart of the combinatorial marketing of multiple, contradictory images that makes DAESH attractive. They are core to the participatory, entrepreneurial, individualised and affective processes of contagion that help the videos diffuse to and engage a wide range of people. And, these logics shape the sorting, linking, flagging and censoring of the videos that delimit and define their lives on the net. Overlooking these digital and commercial characteristics of DAESH visibility practices is costly. It perpetuates misconceptions of how the videos work and what their politics are, and it reinforces the digital Orientalism/Occidentalism in which these misconceptions are anchored.

The number of your teaching experiences all over the world is impressive. You have taught at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro, the Central European University in Budapest, the Copenhagen Peace Research Institute, the University of Southern Denmark, the Copenhagen Business School, the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Germany, the Collegio Carlo Alberto in Italy and Cornell University in the United States. Is this a “plus” for doing academic research?

It most definitely is a privilege for me as an academic to be able to exchange ideas with people in different contexts. This is true because contexts matter. Rio, Brazil, is not Geneva, Switzerland, is not Copenhagen, Denmark; and this is not only because Rio is subtropical while Geneva and Copenhagen obviously are not. Although academic environments are interlinked, each also develops its own idiosyncratic practices and takes for granted ways of thinking and hierarchising knowledge. Nothing makes this clearer than working across environments. This seemingly banal and perhaps all too obvious insight has been extremely important, both for my theoretical work – developing and consolidating practice-theoretical approaches to international relations – and for my empirical research. Context is crucial to both. Although I am not focussing my work specifically on any of the many places where I have lived, I have gained enormously from working there and engaging with the colleagues and students I have met. For the same reason, I look forward to joining the uncommonly cosmopolitan Graduate Institute and feel confident that it will helpfully challenge me and move my work forward.

What have you read lately that has marked your research field or academic discipline?

Within my discipline, International Relations, I specialise in international political sociology. One of the things I read recently, although it was published quite some time ago (in 1990 to be precise), is Conversations on Science, Culture and Time where Bruno Latour tries to make sense of Michel Serres’s philosophy. Although this book has not “marked” my field and sub-discipline, the issues and disagreements discussed in it are foundational for them. This is indicative of a far more general trend in the development of academia where “disciplines” conventionally conceived are increasingly instable and the identification of what books “mark” them correspondingly contentious. The foundational work that everyone carefully reads and engages with and that gives a specific academic field a new spin and direction, to me at least, seems to be of the past as debates are fractured and increasingly running across disciplinary lines. It will often be just as easy, if not easier, for me to engage with scholars from other disciplines who share my core theoretical reference points – which are often themselves anchored elsewhere such as in the social studies of science (Latour) or in philosophy (Serres) – as it will be to engage with scholars from my own field and discipline.

What are the “classic” academic articles or books that you would like everybody to read – and why?

Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (and many others) have pointed out that the humanities are no longer what they used to be. There is no uncontested common canon of classics one can assume to be known and that anyone entering it therefore needs to know. The very notion of “classics” is increasingly contested as it has come to epitomise the imposition of reference points and authorities. According to Helga Nowotny, Director of the European Research Council, the same is true of the sciences more generally and therefore unsurprisingly also of International Relations. Critical scholars of all persuasions, including those rooted for example in Marxism, gender studies, postcolonial studies, the humanities, media studies or new materialism have had to make space for their own authorities, which necessarily demands questioning the status of established authorities. From my perspective, acknowledging and indeed respecting this plurality of reference points and authorities is the indispensable point of departure for any interdisciplinary work. This said, I obviously have books and authors I would recommend everyone working in my field to read because they are exceptionally good and make valuable points, and yet are overlooked and misunderstood. Authors I often return to are Pierre Bourdieu and Donna Haraway.

What books (whether academic or not) are currently on your nightstand?

I recently read Johannes Anyuru’s incredibly well-written dystopia De kommer att drunkna i sina mödrars tårar (They will drown in their mothers’ tears) depicting a dark picture of a future Sweden where true Swedes are imposing a reign of terror. The story is told from the perspective of two people who are precarious insiders into this order; a girl who slips out of it by committing an act of terror and is locked into a psychiatric ward, and a journalist who tells her story and emigrates to Canada. This book is still on my “nightstand”. As most of the books there, it imagines alternatives. Imagination is absolutely essential and indeed merits a central place not only in our life but in our research efforts. As Alfred Whitehead has nicely put it, science is an adventure of ideas. There are very many books; the ones that make it to my “nightstand” as well as to my research reading list tend to be those I think support such adventures and the imagination that is necessary to embark on them.

Do you have any special memory related to your thesis supervisor that you would like to share?

In my case, we are not talking about one supervisor but three (Gøsta Esping-Andersen, Rémy Leveau and Susan Strange) working in three distinct academic traditions and contexts: Gøsta as a sociologist of the welfare state in a comparative US tradition; Rémy as a practice-oriented anthropologist working in the French tradition and deeply embedded in the networks of Moroccan power; and Susan working in a UK tradition resolutely opposed to Oxbridge and “academic stuffiness” and interested in the power of money/finance, and hence in the foundation of an academic field (International Political Economy) that would make it legitimate to study it. I have very fond memories of all three and of trying (and usually failing) to sort out their intense disagreements, but then accommodating them and learning how to live with them. Funnily, things that really annoyed me at the time I now find myself thinking and even hear myself saying. For example, Susan never missed a chance to say that “universities should open minds, not close them”. Similarly, Rémy would always say “you need to respect your actors, your reader has to hear and sense them”. And Gøsta, who was ever helpfully trying to help us PhDs communicate our core ideas, kept saying “you need to simplify, to say things so that people understand them”. I used to think that these statements (and many others like them) were all too obvious and therefore did not merit stating. Now I think that my supervisors were really justified in insisting and much more so than I thought when I was their student. I have told all of them this, but perhaps not as strongly as I should have.

Read Prof. Leander’s article > 

Full citation of the article:
Leander, Anna. “Digital/Commercial (In)visibility: The Politics of DAESH Recruitment Videos.” European Journal of Social Theory 20, no. 3 (2017): 348–72. doi:10.1177/1368431016668365.

Interview by Marc Galvin, Research Office.
Front picture: Australian doctor Tareq Kamleh joins ISIL in Raqqah, Syria, and encourages other doctors to join and offer their medical skills. Still from a video, 2015.