Topologies of Security Workshop Keynote Address

The following keynote was delivered by Professor Samer Abboud in "Topologies of Security: Critical Security Studies in postcolonial and postsocialist scenes" a workshop organized at the Justus Liebig University Giessen on June 25th and 26th by Professors Andreas Langenohl, Dr. Philipp Lotholtz, Amina Nolte, and Dr. Andrew Dwyer.

Topologies of Security Workshop: Keynote Address

I would like to use my time during this talk to draw on my experiences as co-coordinator (with Omar Dahi) of the Critical Security Studies Working Group of the Arab Council on the Social Sciences based in Beirut to reflect on how we approached the challenges in trying to promote a network of scholars committed to advancing non-Western perspectives on Security Studies. My contribution is principally framed around the problem of producing knowledge about security from within and outside the region when the conditions of disciplinary legibility and validation have been pre-established for scholars, on the one hand, and when institutional and political limitations restrict access to the vast archive available to write about security, on the other. I want to sketch out some important questions that we in the Collective asked ourselves and which hopefully will resonate with everyone here, while also reflecting on some of the social and institutional challenges we face in producing knowledge across this vast, wide region that we refer to as the Arab World.  

I would like to begin with an engagement with what I think is the central question people interested in exploring non-Western perspectives on security confront, mainly: how do we access these perspectives? I then go on to discuss what I call the disciplinary unconscious, or the absence of these perspectives from Security Studies before concluding with an appeal for deeper forms of engagement and collaboration with scholars, archives, vocabularies, and networks.

If someone were interested in conducting research on security in the Arab World, what would they begin reading? What would be the theoretical texts they ground their work in? If we were to survey the principal schools associated with Critical Security Studies, we would find that they are predominantly based out of European institutions, draw from European thinkers, approaches, and so on. What does this mean for scholars working in and on the Arab region? Rather than approaching the question of how to advance Critical Security Studies in the Arab region as an empirical problem (i.e. the need to find ways to encourage Arab researchers to write within the intellectual, theoretical, and conceptual parameters established by these schools), we started from a different premise, mainly, that it was entirely possible that a critical research agenda grounded in the work of scholars working in and on the region would yield more dynamic, interesting, and analytically relevant insights into questions of security and insecurity in the region. At the outset, these two positions sat in tension with each other, as we negotiated between trying to support scholarship and research that drew on and contributed to an existing set of theories and approaches on the one hand, and the desire to support knowledge production outside of these ‘schools', on the other.

I would suggest that the project will always balance this tension and exist in the space between the two positions, as some people within our network wanted to engage with what is out there and others who were ambitious and wanted to reinvent the field. Do we want more of what we have, or something radically new? This is another way of framing the problem that motivated our project – is the disciplinary problem the absence of Arab scholars or scholarship about the Arab World, or the vocabularies and methods we use to produce scholarship? This is a problem that Pinar Bilgin has written about extensively and which I think many of us who inquire into non-Western perspectives on security grapple with, mainly: how do we access or understand someone else’s views on security? So, this to me is a common problem or question we all face.

At our inaugural workshop, we decided to ask participants to write on and discuss the following questions: if we asked people in the region what made them insecure, what would they say? And what vocabularies, frameworks, and theories do we have to make sense of these responses? We asked these questions in response to what we saw as the existing limitations imposed on scholars in the region producing knowledge about security.

One of the things we found once we started reading proposals and essays submitted for our Summer Institute and other projects was that many researchers were trying to fit their scholarship into an existing vocabulary and style of writing. In addition to this issue of researchers feeling compelled to write a certain way, there is of course the real world issue of the political conditions in which many people conduct research. The dependency of most Arab regimes for external support for survival has left most of the region at the mercy of narrow security interests. This has made both knowledge production about security and movements that promote alternative models of collective security very difficult. While we in the project rejected any pretense towards speaking for the entire region, we believed in the need for new knowledge and theories of security to be constituted by work and people from within the region who were intimately familiar with the production of insecurity and its complexities.

What brought us together as researchers was a belief that the “insecurity conundrum” that peoples of the region experience cannot be fully grasped if our analysis remained nested within the long-held analytical frameworks within many mainstream approaches to the study of security. To be more direct, there was a contradiction between what we saw and experienced as researchers and residents of the region, and what the dominant frameworks for studying security told us, principally those that emphasized policy or solutions-oriented analysis.

Such approaches to security tend to replicate the binarisms of West/non-West while simultaneously reproducing and normalizing the anxieties and insecurities of the West, as the principal site of military power and knowledge production. Such binarisms bleed into the region itself and manifest in a mimicry or replication of security paradigms that materialize in research, think tanks, and university programs that are state- and military-centered, and which advance narrow understandings of security. We are certainly seeing this happen in the Arab region today. Thus, rather than the historical and contemporary experiences that have shaped insecurity in the region forming the core of academic and policy approaches to insecurity, it is the same stale, Western-centric framings of global security that define these new programs. Indeed, the initial impetus for our specific project was the creation of many of the security studies programs in Arab universities and the desire by the ACSS to provide a counter-weight to them. Our diagnosis of the problem of security studies research in the region was thus in part driven by developments in Arab institutions.

The basic premise of the project then was to begin to confront the proliferation of traditional security teaching approaches that were emerging in the region and to direct scholarly attention to the multiple sources of insecurity in the region and how they were proliferating. We had often joked as a collective that security studies did not accurately describe what we were trying to do and that insecurity studies was a more appropriate way to describe what we were interested in. Ultimately, what we were calling for was the proliferation of approaches that localize our understandings of security and insecurity in the region that help us capture and understand these patterns as they relate to one another.

So, what does it mean to localize our understanding of insecurity? To address this question, I have something in mind here that is based on the work of the Collective but given more specific language in the work of Fadi Bardawil on Arab Marxism. The assumption of many who go out “searching” for non-Western perspectives is that they are hidden or that they do not exist. In a sort of treasure hunt they go searching for scholars and scholarship that mimics or conforms to the researcher’s world views, thus confirming the universality of their approach. Bardawil takes a different approach and seeks to revive our understanding of a critical theoretical tradition in the Arab World based on transversal knowledge that defies the logics of professionalism, expertise, and disciplinarity. Critical theory in the region emanated from an engagement with radically different writers from around the world whose work was read, translated, and disseminated among scholars and activists who made sense of the world through these multiple theoretical and epistemological sources. In doing so, they implicitly rejected the divide between North and South, especially the divide between the Global South as the site of empirics or concrete facts and the Global North as the site of theory. They also rejected disciplinary rigidities or desires to speak to specific audiences. Doing so, however, meant that many of these theorists were ignored by Western Marxists or dismissed altogether. Their work was not legible to a Western audience.  

I believe herein lies the fundamental challenge of approaching security studies from a non-Western perspective, mainly: to understand the many ways and the different forms of scholarship that exist and that are produced from within the non-West that implicitly or explicitly speak back to the core concerns of Security Studies. Put another way, people in the region are differentially producing knowledge and practices that confront their own notions of security and insecurity. How can we promote serious and non-hierarchical forms of engagement with this work? And how can we shift our disciplinary toolkits to accommodate the vast theoretical and empirical contributions that exist outside of the ‘core’ of security studies and which we willfully ignore? Bardawil frames his study around the concept of the metropolitan unconscious, an absence in the metropole’s theoretical and institutional architectures of producing knowledge about the non-West. Simply put, critical theorists have not been sufficiently engaged in the production of knowledge about security and insecurity in the region. Neither have we sufficiently engaged with the movements, artists, writers, and others whose work can help us develop alternative vocabularies for understanding insecurity.  

Ultimately, and I am borrowing from Bardawil here of course, there is a sort of disciplinary unconscious that emerges in security studies. This unconscious is reproductive of the hierarchies of knowledge production and network building that concentrate knowledge in Western journals and institutions. The disciplinary unconscious is not an absence but a willful peripheralization of alternative modes of thought and analysis that provide knowledge about the world. We simply cannot expect alternative approaches to proliferate when Western institutions, journals, and networks are hierarchically positioned in relation to the non-West, and can implicitly dictate what counts as scholarship, knowledge, theory, and so on. It is not the case that people around the world are not producing knowledge about security, but that the fields we associate with, and the principal schools, journals, academic programs, and institutions that produce knowledge about security in the Arab World, are not sufficiently engaged with how people are making sense of the world.

This disciplinary unconscious is aggravated by the institutional, sociological, epistemological, and, of course, political conditions connected to the challenges of knowledge production from within the region. Institutions from within the region simply do not have the resources or political space to foster sustained cooperation with institutions in the West. Despite many impressive efforts from the ACSS and other organizations in North Africa and elsewhere to promote social science networks, scholars from within the region do not have the same access to funding and support that we do outside of the region. They are often burdened by precarity or unreasonable teaching loads that makes their active and sustained contribution challenging. And finally, of course, there is the political question of how to conduct critical research in an authoritarian context and how to disseminate this work in a way that is legible to an academic audience. So, the challenges here are immense.

If we reject the notion that a non-Western perspective on security studies involves the discovery of something “out there,” or that non-Western mimicry is constitutive of experience, then our posture should be to engage with the traversal, plural, and multilingual knowledge that is produced throughout the region and to build collaborative networks that can help shrink this unconscious space.

The question is not about discovery, but about intermediation and engagement and how this can occur without mimicry or reproducing hierarchies and disciplinary conventions. If it is not about discovery, then it is about a particular kind of engagement. And I want to stress here that engagement is not simply about getting more people from within the region to write in journals. This is the goal of POMEPS and APSA MENA, and programs like that. I appreciate and value those projects immensely and they should be supported and grown to meet the needs of researchers and to establish productive communities and networks. But the goal should also be to engage with plural perspectives precisely by pushing these disciplines to think differently about security and insecurity.  

So, we do not want to think about simply uncovering something or finding the critical theorists that can help us think about security studies. These certainly exist, and a genealogy of their work is important and ongoing through the ACSS. We need to consider how to intermediate between these theorists and the core concerns of security studies as we see them today. In other words, what can we learn about Security Studies from the work of theorists and researchers working in the Arab region today? There needs to be ways to foster engagement between core concerns and ideas between scholars working in and on the non-West through the fostering of networks that foster collaboration. This can involve dynamic and complicated readings of texts that implicitly speak back to Critical Security Studies and building research projects around this. It can involve new ways of productive collaborative knowledge. But most importantly it must involve the promotion of different forms of knowledge as relevant to security studies. Indeed, one of our principal challenges has been in convincing scholars that their work does indeed speak to security studies, because for many of them, this is a field dominated by strategy, geopolitics, and so on.

We also need deeper engagement with what we called in our manifesto the double burden that we as researchers in the non-West face. The first burden is explaining the geographic space which we are writing about, and the second related burden, is to produce knowledge legible to a security studies audience predominantly structured around Western institutions, journals, and departments, and, of course, the English language. But this double burden that we wrote and thought about, especially in relation to translation, was an unnecessary concession to the discipline of Critical Security Studies. What is needed, I believe, is a more radical posture of engagement, one that acknowledges that the contexts in which we conduct research, publish, and so on but is not bound by the demands of rendering research legible to a disciplinary audience. We need to understand security and insecurity in the contexts in which they are produced and to be radically open to knowledge that moves us towards that goal.

I want to shift slightly and consider the excellent work of Lamia Moghnieh and her provocation to think about what it means to frame violence as something that is lived and not encountered. The researcher’s position as someone who experiences fear and insecurity while trying to write about fear and insecurity is a specific positionality that we need to understand and engage. For Moghnieh, violence is theorized as an event or encounter and not something that is lived in the everyday. What we need, I believe, is a theorization of the everyday, what I have tried to think about as landscapes of insecurity, or what the conference is calling the topologies of security. So, I do not mean this in the anthropological sense but rather as a way of asking about the relational pressures that produce sustained, structural forms of insecurity in the lives of people throughout the world. And rather than seeing the insecurity of the everyday as a moment or an event, how can we historicize this insecurity and understand it relationally? How can we understand insecurity in its many contexts?

Moghnieh’s excellent research shows the incompatibility between the multiplicity of the experiences of violence in Lebanon and expert knowledge production about humanitarian aid and trauma. The incompatibility of policy and disciplinary knowledge in how people live in violence produces knowledge and forms of intervention that perpetuate individual and collective insecurity. Moghnieh’s call is one that I am repeating today: fieldwork and research on insecurity needs to account for the knowledge practices and strategies that people use to contain and make sense of violence and insecurity. Anything beyond this risks mimicry.  

I want to conclude by returning to the brief anecdote from the beginning about researchers at our summer institute who were writing legibly about their research so that they could speak to a specific English-speaking audience. The problem here was not simply one of theory or vocabulary but an institutional and professional one as well. Many scholars believe that in order to be published and to gain academic employment, their work on security has to look and read a certain way and that any challenge, no matter how small, to the discipline, could end miserably. I was reminded of this sort of unconscious complicity in the reproduction of security studies’ framing of the non-West as I followed the recent debates about securitization and racism. We are further deprived of new perspectives in security studies when we do not have the institutional support or professional networks to encourage localized scholarship.

The challenge of developing theoretical positions on security in the non-West that draws upon work from outside of Western traditions is thus immense. Nevertheless, we need to encourage and support research that maps existing archives, texts, networks, and vocabularies that trace the evolution of regional thinkers and theories. Networks, publications, conferences, and projects that are centered on the development of new pedagogical practices and collaborative research questions that represent a radical openness to the ways in which Critical Security Studies can be done are one of the only ways forward for us. We do not simply seek out new discovery but altogether new ways of doing and thinking about security. When we began our project, we all agreed that our goal was to produce a more inclusive knowledge about the world. Today, many academic fields advocate for the inclusion of voices from the Global South. We should take this as an opportunity to support the creation of conditions for such inclusion and engagement but in ways that support collaboration and not hierarchy. In doing so, we need to think with our colleagues around the world, to engage them, to learn from each other, and to inscribe the politics and insecurities of people around the world on their own terms in our scholarship and knowledge production.


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