Wednesday, March 18, 2020

William A. Callahan's "Sensible Politics"

William A. Callahan is Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science. His recent books include China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future (2015) and China: The Pessoptimist Nation (2010). Callahan also makes documentary films: "China Dreams" was broadcast on KCET (Los Angeles) in 2015, "Toilet Adventures" (2015) was shortlisted for a major award by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, and "Great Walls" (2019) juxtaposes Trump's wall with the Great Wall of China.

Callahan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations, and reported the following:
Page 99 of Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations considers how Seth Rogen’s bromance comedy The Interview (2014), which includes a scene where American journalists kill North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, became embroiled in geopolitics. Many critics assumed that this film is an example of Hollywood slavishly following Washington’s elite-driven security propaganda to frame politics in terms of a “good” America vs. an “evil” North Korea. But page 99 explains that
it’s more complicated than that, and these complications undermine the logic of securitization theory. Firstly, it shows how people from outside the political elite can be sucked into national security politics. The film was co-written and co-directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, who are not known for serious or artistic filmmaking. Rather, they are famous for making movies that appeal to the male teenage demographic’s interest in casual sex and gross bodily functions. Rogen was bewildered at North Korea’s threats, posting on Twitter that ‘People don’t usually wanna kill me for one of my movies until after they’ve paid 12 bucks for it.’ If we see the film as a political satire, the targets are American journalism and U.S. foreign policy as much as North Korea’s dictator. Progressive elites like George Clooney tried to organize actors and directors to defend The Interview as a matter of freedom of expression; but he was unsuccessful, perhaps because many saw it as a bromance movie rather than as a serious political film worthy of political activism.

Moreover, neither Rogen nor Goldberg is American: they are both proudly Canadian, and much of the movie was filmed in their hometown of Vancouver. While based in Los Angeles, Sony Pictures Entertainment is part of the larger Japanese multinational corporation Sony, and the Tokyo headquarters weighed in to tone down the excesses of the film after North Korean complaints in Summer 2014. How then can we say that the film is part of securitization [of America vs. North Korea] if neither the filmmakers nor the company are clearly ‘American’? Certainly, some would point to Sony’s discussions with RAND Corporation and the U.S. State Department to argue that The Interview was part of U.S. foreign policy and propaganda. But since Sony ultimately didn’t follow their advice, to me it suggests that something else is going on.
Page 99 thus starts the argument that we need to understand the visual politics of film in more nuanced and complex ways than simply political and cultural elites using popular culture as propaganda to manipulate the general public. Indeed, The Interview is a great example of a low-brow film made by relatively apolitical directors can provoke international politics in unexpected ways: it pushed political leaders to pursue new cybersecurity, anti-terrorism, and artistic freedom policies.

Page 99 thus gives readers a good sense of Sensible Politics as a whole. The main argument of the book is that we need to understand politics (and specifically visual politics) in two interrelated ways. First, we need to recognize that images shape our view of the world: in our post-literate age, most people get their information about international affairs from visual media. As the photograph of the dead toddler Alan Kurdi during Europe’s migration crisis in 2015 graphically showed, photographs can put issues on the global agenda, even provoking Angela Merkel to allow over one million refugees into Germany. The book thus argues that we need to understand how visuals are important not just because of the content of their meaning, but also to understand how their meaning is constructed by the “who, when, where, and how” issues of their production, distribution, and viewership. Who directed The Interview, which studio produced it, how was it re-edited after North Korea complained, who could watch it—and who couldn’t.

Page 99, however, also hints at Sensible Politics’s other key message: visual images matter, but in different ways beyond their rational meaning. Because images can viscerally move us in unexpected ways, they need to be appreciated not just in terms of what they mean, but also how they make us feel, both as individuals and as groups. The horrible photo of Alan Kurdi did not simply provide information for a greater understanding of the plight of migrants; it viscerally moved and connected people in ways that mobilized new political communities that did things. Sensible Politics explores this thinking/feeling dynamic through an analysis of the visual politics of photographs, films, art, maps, fashion, walls, gardens and cyberspace, with examples from Asia, the Middle East, and the West. It hopes to reach people who are interested in international affairs, visual culture, and/or Asian politics.
Learn more about Sensible Politics at the Oxford University Press website.

The Page 99 Test: China: The Pessoptimist Nation.

--Marshal Zeringue