Why I’m not at ISA this year


Today opens the International Studies Association Annual Convention in Baltimore in USA. The ISA convention is the largest international conference in international relations and regularly draws more than two thousand scholars from the world…or to be more precise from the USA (mainly), Europe & Australia (a lot) and the rest of the world (a bit). This will be the first ISA in the Trump era and I am not the only one who was incited by Agent Orange’s presidency not to participate. I took this decision after T’s travel ban as I saw this and his other executive orders as clear expressions of his quasi-fascist politics which I did not wish to acknowledge in any way through the fact that I participate in what is, at the end of the day, an annual pilgrimage to the USA.

Many argued that they are refusing to go to Baltimore out of solidarity with colleagues who are directly affected by the travel ban (i.e. everyone born in any of these countries, including colleagues holding dual citizenship or green cards). I think that this is an entirely legitimate and ethical argument to make; yet, I believe that the travel ban and the other executive orders are only the tip of the iceberg of much more fundamental political and ethical conundrum. The hatred, xenophobia, retro-nationalism and racism that have come to the open with T’s election and also the Leave vote in the UK feed on a much deeper crisis of our societies and they throw up much more fundamental questions about how we, academics, want to understand our role and work in these societies.

Although I was deeply shocked about the frank abrasiveness with which the T administration exposed their islamophobia, their ignorance and racism, my unease with going to this year’s ISA had settled in before this happened; actually, I started weighing the question whether I should go immediately when it became clear that he won the electoral college. There are many ways his election win can be interpreted but I, for one, saw this resulting from a model of society that has deeply ingrained individual competition, careerism, jealousy, envy and atomism into all social relations and all our institutions.

We know all the books that document and analyse these processes how we have all become individual fighters for our careers, with our portable skills and knowledge, our modular fitness-to-purpose attitudes and our performance indicator literacy. Richard Sennett’s ‘The Corrosion of Character’, for instance, takes apart various job categories and dissects slowly and cruelly how in each sector careers have become individualized, how individuals are constantly pitched against each other and exposed to perpetual uncertainty, and how these neoliberal ways of working have eroded social trust, communities and seriously undermined our capacity to talk to each other, to understand each other and, in short, to live together. The corrosion of character occurs because in our golden neoliberal cage a person’s worth is no longer the being she is but the career she was able to have. Our work value determines our being and all other human beings are nothing more than potential obstacles or means to our perfect career; additional risk factors in an anyway uncertain and arbitrary life trajectory which we try to rule in by co-optation or conflict.

One professional category Sennett does not look at, however, is academia. Yet, the greatly impoverished vision of a person’s worth that the new spirit of capitalism has promoted has since long expanded into universities. As intellectual work is often sui generis individualistic (the argument that only I can write my ideas) most academics have easily bought into the fatal logic of neoliberal careerism. New public management techniques like performance reviews have merely institutionalized the self-exploitative, auto-reproductive precariousness of university careers. The quality of an academic life is determined by ‘products’; creation and dissemination of knowledge as well as education (understood in the broad sense of ‘Bildung’) of the young are only so much of interest as they can be manufactured in quantifiable, individualized and marketable forms. This has not only tremendously reduced the space for creativity, innovation, bold thinking and fun, it has also had the extreme impact of insulating academics from each other, destroying professional solidarity and depriving collective spaces from deliberation, discussion, dissent and exchange (see for instance our university unions whose sole function nowadays is to negotiate salaries and provide legal assistance where they could have been spaces of thinking broadly and boldly about higher education). Furthermore, there is little doubt that the metrification of academia has led to an intellectual impoverishment of research where ‘sure and simple’ research is strongly prioritized over innovative, explorative and out-of-the-box research. The focus on performance indicators privileges snapshot metrics and creates its own loops of conservatism: a high-impact journal is a journal one has to submit to, a high number of submissions (and consequently rejections) makes it a highly competitive journal, a highly competitive journal is a high-impact journal, a high-impact journal…

Such dynamics of auto-reproduction obviously reinforce pre-existing boundaries of exclusion and create new barriers of access. Where individual careerism and competitiveness are the royal pathways to success, personalized networks, gatekeeping and orthodoxy become essential and fiercely defended by the ‘haves’ against ‘have-not-yet’s. To be fair, professoral colleges with their century-old traditions of elite selectivity (remember ‘graduation’ does not mean that you are released from your status as student but that you are accepted into the guild of studiosi) did not need a lot of pushing to integrate those neoliberal new public administration instruments of recreating their power positions.  The confidence that there is only me who can think so brilliantly as to deserve the chair of Whateverstudies at Whereeverland  university has always been a condition-sine-qua-non of academia. Neoliberal governance only amplified manifold the individualism of academia and introduced an existential nastiness into the competition through the hugely increased casualization of work and the direct connection created between measurable ‘success’ (grants, publications, impact factors etc.) and our lives (no success, no money, no love!). Professional organizations like ISA have been instrumental in these changes. And although there is no lack of critical self-examination and awareness of the detrimental effects of new public managed universities in these organizations, their inaction to counter these developments is again and again stunning.

The T administration’s travel ban hits exactly on this spot. It concerns mainly scholars from countries who are to a large extent already excluded from international studies. Who knows a scholar from an Iranian university who wanted to come to ISA? I don’t. The colleagues I know who would have been banned from travelling to the USA (had the ban remained in place) were all educated in the USA, Australia or Europe and all working for a ‘western’ university. In the 12 years I am going to ISA I had exactly 2 scholars from the Global South on any of my panels.

But what more is: the travel ban emanates from a president who is himself a caricature of the neoliberal self and whose program is a page out of the devil’s companion to neo-capitalist managerialism. T’s presidency is a parabol of the atomisation and commodification of our societies; and it can only exist because careerism and competitiveness have so fully and naturally become part of our lives on so many levels. It is this that I would expect ISA to address at exactly this moment in time. How have we, the academics, contributed to the rise of this neo-fascist right by simply playing the neoliberal game of ‘performance’? A game where ‘employability’ of students is more important than teaching them poetry, where my career depends on playing along in power games that are detrimental to my mental and physical health, the academic community and my social and natural environment? How is the way our professional careers are currently organized reproducing patterns of powerful exclusions, marginalizations and atomisation?

But I cannot see that such a debate is happening at ISA on an institutional and general level; it is happening among many colleagues who are wonderfully fierce opponents of these neoliberal ways and in many different forums. But these remain rather marginalized at ISA; so much that the ISA programmers renamed, without the consent of its organizers, a panel series that explicitly called out exploitation and harassment of junior scholars giving it a far more benign title in order not to appear provocative.

The general ISA reaction appears to me well summarized in the response of an US American junior scholar to the request that ISA be held outside the USA in the future: but, but, but then we American junior scholars have to pay a lot of money for airfares and our careers might get slowed down! Individual career chances are gauged against questions of collective solidarity and common weal, and this is considered a valid argument. But it is not, neither for ISA’s problem of US-centeredness and neoliberal complicity, nor for being against the travel ban or for discussing career paths in US academia.

Of course, one can legitimately argue, staying away as I am doing is also not very helpful for advancing this discussion. That is right. It is again a very individualized, personal decision to withdraw temporarily and selectively from what I see being a cruel parody of the neoliberal image of the disposable knowledge production that academia has become in our times. There are amazing protests going on in the USA against T and also against this commodification of all aspects of our lives; many colleagues who are going to ISA are part of these protests and have dedicated their research to their advancement. It is their attendance at ISA that has, in ‘normal’ years, been my main motivation to go there. But not this time; this time I feel that voicing our outrage in esoteric panels, debating our views in hotel rooms and late-night/jet-lag ranting in pubs is not enough. It is our career focus that is keeping the machine alive so I think the best way to protest the machine is precisely not to play this move in the career game.

This decision is, in fact, an avowal of a weakness, namely the weakness of the global citizen to act meaningfully locally. If I were American, or if I were at least engaged in the US for a longer time period, I could indeed try to meaningfully interact with that America that made T possible. However, if I only fly in for three days to a conference I cannot do anything sensible locally (and not the least because I will be completely jetlagged). The US is not my context of action and ISA does not offer the adequate frame for spontaneous, on-the-spot activism. I do not have any decision-making role in ISA either that would allow me to initiate or, at least, meaningfully participate in any general debate over its outlook, identity and future. Additionally, my academic standing is not in any way powerful enough to shape any debate about US politics. Who am I to pretend otherwise? So if there is no real opportunity to constructively shape this debate, than the best is to acknowledge that there is no space for me at ISA right now.


This the letter I wrote to the panelists on my refusal to go to ISA this year:

“So, I have decided to cancel my participation in this year’s ISA convention in Baltimore. It was not an easy decision to take. I have organized two panels with now 8 participants and I had to weigh my consciousness against my responsibility toward these colleagues who might have not come if it hadn’t been for my initiative. I have even, in the past weeks, persuaded two colleagues to come even though they wanted to withdraw. I do feel that I am letting them down and this is why I need to explain why I finally decided that I do not want to travel to the US and pretend that these are normal times where I am just doing my job.

I maybe have to start with the banal statement that I am German. I am of the generation who still could talk to the people who lived through Nazism. I, or better we, this generation, was almost constantly discussing Nazism in school and among friends and, to some extent, in my family. Very early on in these discussions the question for me changed from the quasi utopian ‘what would I have done?’ to the much more realistic ‘how would I have contributed to Nazism just by living my life?’.  This question has dominated my life, my professional choices, my choices of friends, my studies and my interest in politics. Like many other youngsters I asked my grand-father and my grand-uncle what they had done and how they had coped. My grand-father never answered. My grand-uncle did with the common disavowal which was: “I just got on with my life (passed exams, got a job, founded a family etc.) and did not really notice what was going on.” (He also admitted that he, a Chemist working for BASF, was evacuated from Dresden before the heavy bombings started which still leaves me wondering whether German military actually knew of the RAF’s plans – but that is another story). As a child I believed him because I loved him; as an adult I know that he was in denial.

But the scariest normalization of Nazism had not been my grandparents but my great-grandfather, Fritz Heiligenstädt, who was „Leiter der Reichsstelle für Volksbüchereiwesen ins Reichsministerium für Wissenschaft, Erziehung und Volksbildung“ which translates as Director of the Reich Agency for Public Libraries at the Ministry for Science and Education (there is an American historian who has worked on his activities, Margaret Stieg Dalton, and a short Wikipedia). The family story told me that he had accepted this role because it always had been his ambition to develop a nation-wide network of public libraries. Historians tell me that he actively participated in the burning of books in Hannover and that he quite busily anticipated and implemented the various censorship waves in public libraries (Lenin in with Hitler-Stalin Pact, Lenin out with attack on Soviet Union, for instance). One story does not exclude the other. He was simply going on with his life, with his job, his career. Just like Eichmann, maybe even without the anti-semitism.

Now, the USA is not Nazi Germany (yet). But I strongly feel that it is quickly on its way of becoming a fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-pluralist and fascist state and it has been standard to brutally and cruelly discriminate people on the grounds of their skin colour or religion for a long, long time now. I also feel that this anti-enlightenment is not caused by that man in the white house but he’s just a sort of caricature of white American middle class society as it has existed since a long time. What is much more disquieting for me is not T’s non-sense spluttering but the huge mass of Eichmanns, the banal collaborators of daily life. Of course, in all societies there is a certain percentage of people who are clear about their exacerbated nationalism, their extremist Christian bigotry, their obscurantism, their vulgar hatred, and their ordinary prejudices. But these are usually a minority and no political regime could exist only with them. What it needs are Eichmanns or Fritz Heiligenstädts. Those who just want to get on with their lives and their careers.

I feel going to the USA now, going to ISA now, would be doing exactly that, normalizing an absolutely abnormal situation and ignoring the cruelty and ugliness of T’s junta regime. I would be setting my unease, my abhorrence, my consciousness aside because I just want to get on with my job. I have tried hard in the past weeks to convince myself that there might be good reasons that this is not so. That I’m having a responsibility toward the colleagues who are presenting on the panels I’ve organized, that American colleagues are under pressure and that I’m showing solidarity, that I maybe could even participate in some protests or vigils; that I’m being pathetic for taking all this spectacle too seriously; that I’m doing more good by going than by staying away… but no. By travelling to the USA and to a US-dominated conference additionally I feel that I am paying tribute to the USA as country in general and as the alleged site of academic excellence in particular. Whether I then whine about the yucky feeling I had when I received my ESTA ‘approved’ stamp or hold a candle in the Hilton Lobby is absolutely and entirely irrelevant. I would have accepted that I am going there as if everything would be okay and normal (and, being European, white and blond, it would be okay!).  And this I do not want to do. I simply do not want to set foot into this country and spend one single cent on American companies (especially not the Hilton).

I sincerely apologize to my panellists for the inconvenience I’m causing.”