Author: David Duriesmith

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.

Respectability and the protective logic of liberal masculinity in Australia’s arms trade

On the 29th of January Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a $3.8 billion fund to encourage local arms manufacturers to increase their trade with the aim of Australia becoming one of the top 10 arms exporters in the world. The reason behind the push, he explained, was twofold. First, he explained that given the size of Australia’s defence budget (around 12th largest in the world) “we should be a lot higher up the scale.” Second, he explained that Australian workers needed the manufacturing jobs. The new arms initiate, named the Defence Export Facility, and the justifications used to back it up are classic protective moves in the handbook of liberal masculinity.

Malcolm Turnbull stands in front of a Bushmaster Infantry Mobility Vehicle

For any student of feminist international relations, this distinction will be a familiar one. In 1992 Ann Tickner wrote about how different models of masculinity are deployed in international relations, showing how notions of manhood are deployed by states to justify their actions. Turnbull’s justifications for increasing the export of arms fits comfortably within the liberal logic of protection. Like most liberal articulations of institutional masculinity, the violence behind the decision to invest almost 4 billion dollars in promoting the arms trade is hidden behind economic ‘rationalism’ and vague allusions to protection.

 

In this mode the arms trade is good for Australia because it will provide jobs and a stronger military. However, unlike more robust articulations of militant nationalism, it does this through promoting the market economy. The program makes militarism respectable by creating “tens of thousands of jobs for Australian manufacturers.” This kind of approach does not contain the violent ‘fire and fury’ rhetoric of recent American militarism but couches masculine protection in a veneer of economic necessity and mutual benefit. But like most liberal logics of protection relies on an impressive capacity for double-speak and structural violence.

Australia, like the Scandinavian social democracies we often hope to be compared to, makes a good show of trying to position ourselves as enlightened (liberal) global citizens by quickly adopting humanitarianism, human rights and a gender-sensitive approach to foreign policy. However, like Sweden, our humanitarianism has centred much more on presenting a ‘human face’ to the world through charity and another posturing while simultaneously pursuing an economic agenda that supports the structural conditions behind the violence. Or as Jacqui True has put it in relation to Sweden: “How is it possible to sell arms (when, regardless of whom you first sell them to, they often end up perpetrating crimes) and at the same time promote a humanitarian, human rights approach to foreign policy?”

At a time when the world is particularly preoccupied with the overt masculine violence of Donald Trump, it is worth being reminded of the more insidious logic of masculine liberal protection. Throughout his tenure as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has striven to distance his ‘leadership style’ from that of his predecessor Tony Abbot. Abbot sort to live up to perform the kind of over exaggerated machismo of militant nationalism which might make a men’s rights activist blush (and Mark Latham swoon). This entailed threatening to ‘shirtfront’ Vladimir Putin and never squandering a chance to show his explicitly demonstrate his patriarchal credentials for a howling mob.  In contrast, Turnbull has consistently tried to position himself as a rational liberal businessman, avoiding the most brutal jingoism of Australian nationalism in favour of dispassionate arguments for order and profitability.

Tony Abbott embracing muscular nationalism

When a leader like Turnbull puts forward the argument that “we don’t see threats from our neighbours in our region, but nonetheless all countries must plan ahead” the structural violence of Australian foreign policy can hide much more easily than behind a populist leader. But that doesn’t make it less violent. When pundits in the Australian left have visible conniptions over the explicit brutality of Trump’s rhetoric and foreign policy it is easy to forget the respectable violence of Australian politics.

The politics of respectability are particularly dangerous in Australia’s politics because of the way that they are used to silence critical voices on settler colonialism, militarism, heteronormativity and racism. Most recently this has flared up in rabid attempts to sack Tarneen Onus-Williams from the Koorie Youth Council in Victoria for pointing out the colonial foundation of the Australian state, but the use of gendered respectability to circumvent radical critique is deeply embedded in the structure of Australian politics. In justifying the right to rule liberal masculinity relies on the politics of respectability to compartmentalise issues and deflect critique. Working against violence demand an attentiveness to how masculine logics can cloak themselves in respectability through contrast with more overt examples of masculine violence. Liberal politicians rely on the promising to save politics from the aggressive masculinity of more overtly militant men and from the disorder of radical change. When actors present their militarism in respectable terms, it’s imperative to remember how the logic of protection operates to make structural violence appear natural, inevitable and justified.

 

 

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.

Reading a life: Interpreting life-history transcripts honestly

“Life history research brings us to the level of personal experience. Where you are not just dealing with figures, abstractions or cultural categories, we are dealing with real living breathing people and their experiences.” Raewyn Connell

 

“I must confess that I found the analysis of my data intensely problematic. I wanted to be faithful to the methodological approach I had decided upon and to treat the interview data simply as discursive artefacts, but this was complicated by the fact that I was analysing texts that I had created through an encounter with another person. I breathed the same air as these people, they welcomed me into their offices, and we talked beyond the research, sharing small details of our lives. Deconstructing their words… felt decidedly wrong, as though I were trying to catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words. As I made notes, I could hear them in my head: “That’s not what I meant!”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.29.

In 2012 I was given the opportunity to travel to Bangkok to take part in a clinic organised by Partners for Prevention (P4P) on the life-history research. The clinic, which was run by Raewyn Connell, went through the basics of conducting life history research and how to read life-history transcripts. In the clinic, we were trained in how to conduct biographical interviews, and how to interpret interviews which narrate individuals lives through a critical feminist lens. In the coming year, I had the opportunity to work on some life-history research with P4P which explored men’s relationship with gender-equality after the Aceh conflict. These transcripts were the result of interviews conducted by UN Women Indonesia that had been transcribed and translated into English.

I found working with these transcripts difficult. Based on reading the record of a few interviews I began to try and interpret the trajectory of 12 men’s lives, as a way to explore their pathways towards and away from violent practice. Reading the transcripts, I tried to become familiar with these men’s lives, where they were born, what they valued, how they had lived and whom they loved. With more than 140,000 words of interview transcript, the stories they told were complex, contradictory and often difficult to interpret. While I was happy with the research chapter that came from this work (exploring anti-colonial politics and men’s support for gender equality), I felt awkward about trying to write the lives of men I hadn’t met.

The most recent life-history research I have conducted, on men’s pathways out of jihadi networks in Indonesia, presented a very different challenge. This research, conducted with Noor Huda Ismail, was conducted in person, with multiple interview sessions, long periods of hanging out, eating, talking about politics and the news, smoking clove cigarettes, and with a few former fighters driving around Central Java. This research did include discrete periods of interviewing but was surrounded by far longer periods where we chatted about unrelated topics, such as their thoughts on Donald Trump (not positive), their favourite rapper (Tupac over Biggie), or the traffic in Jakarta (hellish).

This research has presented a very different challenge to the research with P4P. This time the struggle was more a process of trying to disentangle my own experiences, attachments, and thoughts about someone from what the transcript actually said. Laura Shepherd discusses the difficulty of interpreting the words of participants with whom she had met in person and spent time with. She makes the case that for her own purposes, interviews can still be used as part of discourse analysis because:

“an interview is a limited encounter. Even loosely structured interviews, such as those I conducted, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, at which point the research participant is thanked for their time and the researcher leaves the building. The boundaries around the research encounter, therefore, produce a text that is also bounded, which lends itself well to discourse analysis.”

Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.27.

While the research I have been conducting is quite different in approach and assumptions from Shepherd’s (being life-history work rather than discourse analysis), the difficulty of disentangling the personal encounters and the transcripts is consistent. Her comments on the uncomfortable feeling that the research process was intended to “catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words” is something I continue to struggle with.

Reading gender into transcripts involves looking at comments, stories and experiences which the interviewee doesn’t take to be primarily about gender, and interpreting them through a feminist lens. For both projects where I have used life-history methods, this has involved drawing on historical information, social theory and feminist knowledge to chart gender relations as the “linking thread… along which violence runs.”

Charting these relations is likely to go beyond, or even in contrast to, how an individual thinks about their own experience. To draw out the gendered experience this relies on reinterpreting individuals’ stories through frameworks which are likely to feel very alien to the person who has opened up to narrate their life to you. Or as Raewyn Connell  puts it, “life history data doesn’t stand alone, we need to compare it to all kinds of other sources as aids to interpretation for the information we have.” Drawing on these sources to interpret the transcript in ways the participant might not expect does feel uncomfortable within the research relationship.

This results in treating the interview transcript as an authority in recording the biography of an individual which is then employed to make broader social or political claims about their milieu which they are likely to disagree with. This creates a tension between reading transcripts as a freestanding record and viewing them as recordings of a particular conversation within a broader relationship. Interpreting the social significance of transcripts honestly relies on comparisons which fit uncomfortably with the messy and complex lives of people you have come to know.

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.

De-centring ‘militarisation’ in the study of collective masculine violence

Reading Cynthia Enloe’s work on militarisation for the first time really shocked me on a personal level. At the time I was an 18-year-old who had grown up watching war movies, playing military strategy computer games, listening to heavy metal music preoccupied with war and spending a significant chunk of my time assembling, painting, and playing with military miniatures. The idea of the military as an institution and tradition which permeated my gender identity simply made sense. My encounter with Enloe also required me to rethink my relationship to the aesthetics of military institutions seriously and had a big role in the topic I eventually chose for my PhD thesis three years later.

The album art from Agent Orange by Sodom. The concept of militarization went a long way to unpack the fascination with military-themed cultural products.

While I still think the idea of militarisation has a lot to offer, I am increasingly uncomfortable with how often and how broadly it is invoked. Earlier this year Marysia Zalewski wrote a think piece for the Critical Military Studies special issue on “Masculinities at the Margins” on the topic of military masculinities. In that piece, she laments that the idea of military masculinities has become “overly familiar and ‘comfortable.’” Zalewski, in characteristically incisive fashion, asks the reader to consider what military masculinities mean at a stage when military roles are increasingly affixed to female bodies and to consider the blurry boundaries of military practice. I greatly appreciated this injunction, but my own discomfort comes from trying to navigate a different kind concern. The fear that my own use of ‘militarised masculinities’ has centred European style military institutions as the natural and inevitable holders of collective violence.

Over the past year and a half, I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the role that masculinities play in mobilising young men to join Islamist networks in Indonesia. One aspect of this work that has struck me most significantly is the absence of military signifiers, in the aesthetics, narratives, and ordering principles of these groups. Notions of collective violence, discipline and heroism are present, but these factors were not linked to aspirations of a military tradition. At least not in the sense of formal army with associated traditions of soldiering and service to the state.

Instead, very different traditions, aesthetics, myths and practices have emerged as being the structuring force in men’s lives. These forces build on tropes around collective violence but do not link them to what one might think of as military institutions. One interview which I conducted with Noor Huda Ismail as part of a small project on men’s lives after jihad stuck out in this regard. We were speaking to a young man who had participated as a trainer and recruiter in an Indonesian jihadi network. When we asked him how he became interested in the network, he recounted meeting a man from an Islamic boarding school (pesantren) and being amazed at the man’s beautiful white clothing, his neatly kept beard, his cleanliness and perfumed scent. He spoke about the man’s sophistication, strength and desirability. This encounter resulted in a long-term project of self-reaction to embody his idealised vision of a pious Muslim warrior.

Nusra Front, “Day of the Infiltration” (2012), sourced from Asfshon Ostovar’s chapter The Visual Culture of Jihad, in Jihadi Culture: The Art and Social Practices of Militant Islamists edited by Thomas Hegghammer.

This process has a lot in common with militarization. It is one of a young man undertaking ‘body work’ in a desire to emulate the imagined role of a valorous warrior. But the signifiers, the narratives, and the tropes which this young man drew on were not built on a military tradition, and not a process was that of militarisation. These practices represent a different historical cluster of practices that are linked to collective violence in the Indonesia archipelago. The recent edited volume Jihadi Culture edited by Thomas Hegghammer has gone a long way to explore some of these traditions and the associated narrative and aesthetic components, albeit without a focus on SE Asia. Through this volume does not include a gender focus it shows the memetic quality of jihadi narratives which do not necessarily rely on a genealogy tied to formal militaries.  They are often positioned in direct opposition to the idea of the military, which was associated with colonial histories and the oppression of a secular government.

I am inclined to think that the overwhelming focus on processes of ‘militarisation’ is a product of particular histories of collective violence that have been so salient during the past 150 years. In conducting my own research, I now worry that my initial fascination with the military and militarism might result in viewing collective violence through camo-tinted glasses, rather than viewing patterns of collective violence in their own right. By writing work on violence in the Global South as being about a process of militarization, I fear other genealogies of violence may be written out by an approach to violent masculinities which is perpetually measuring performances in relation European military traditions. While state militaries and militarisation are clearly still vitally important subjects of study and analysis, I hope to show more curiosity around dynamics of collective violence that do not hold militaries or military-like institutions at their heart.

David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.