H-Diplo Review Essay 407- "Sensible Politics"

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H-Diplo Review Essay 407

27 January 2022

William A. Callahan.  Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.  384 pp.  Hardback £64, paperback £18.99.  ISBN:  9780190071738.

Editor: Diane Labrosse | Commissioning Editor: Damien Mahiet | Production Editor: George Fujii

Review by Constance Duncombe, Monash University

In June 2021, Miss Africa Russia contestant Victoria Chiamaka Udeh participated in the category requiring contestants to dress in clothing representing Nigerian culture. Walking down the runway in Nigeria’s colours of green and white, Udeh held aloft a Nigerian flag splashed with red paint, symbolizing the lives lost as part of the #EndSARS movement that aims to draw attention to the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Special Anti-Robbery Squad. When the social media video went viral, to both acclaim and criticism, Udeh explained that first she entered the pageant to break beauty stereotypes but also wanted to use the platform for a good cause: “We need to be safe in our country and not losing lives every day. It was just a call to the Nigerian government to address the country’s security issues.”[1] How can we understand the power of these images, and the affective dimensions they provoke? The intersection of beauty and political activism has long been recognised as a platform through which individuals can campaign for social change, as a space of meaningful politics that challenges what Cecilie Basberg Neumann calls the “beauty/narcissism double-bind.”[2] Beyond the level of the individual, scholars have meanwhile examined the links between aesthetics and power at the international level particularly in the (re)construction of national identity: “when idealized beauty is compromised, insecurity follows”.[3] In Sensible Politics: Visualizing International Relations, William A. Callahan extends these discussions, including the politics surrounding the visualisation of beauty pageants and their contestants, to demonstrate how the power of visual artifacts is tied to their affective dimensions, “not just what they mean, but also how they make us feel, both as individuals and collectives” (2). From women’s modest fashion to maps, walls, and surveillance technology, Callahan provides a unique insight into how such disparate examples of visual politics work to actively create global politics though the “multisensory performance of the international” (2).

Callahan conceptualises how we can think, feel, and creatively act visually to develop an appreciation of politics that draws on all of our senses. He argues that a focus on visual images and artifacts allows us to understand global politics differently, beyond simply a visual representation of objects or events, or the transmission of images as communication between actors. Rather, paying attention to images and aesthetics provides an opportunity to conceptualise politics in new ways that emphasises how we think and feel, drawing on both visual representations and performative experiences of visual artifacts as valuable political spaces. Each chapter is richly detailed and illustrated with photographs and still images from across a variety of visual artifacts, from iconic images, films, documentaries, paintings, maps, and memorials. In doing so, Callahan examines the presumptions about the visual as operating only through representation; instead, we gain insight into how international politics is shaped through the contrasting and complementary dyad of visibility and visuality, connecting images and their representations to visual artifacts, experiences, performances, and the affective dimensions they engender.

Callahan’s book explores the complexities raised in how we might understand the impact of visual images and artifacts on global politics in three parts that separately detail the theoretical and methodological issues involved in analysing visual international politics. Part One provides a framework for analysis in order to “differentiate between ‘meaning’ and ‘doing’” (16), taking an interdisciplinary approach that draws on a diverse set of literatures across international relations (IR), history, sociology, Asian studies, art history, and media and communications, among others. Chapter One, “Visibility,” traces the history of the treatment of images as sources of politics and their role in the social construction of the visible. Key here is how we can illuminate the ways in which images, from photographs, documentaries, and popular film to propaganda, emerge from scopic regimes that shape our understanding of the world by making people, places, events, and institutions (in)visible, thereby delimiting what is politically possible and who or what is included and excluded in this idealized politics.  Chapter Two, “Visuality,” moves from the previous chapter’s focus on the social construction of the visible to how such image construction makes you feel, and how this can provoke different social-ordering and world-ordering dynamics. For instance, taking a set of maps titled “Europe in 2035,” a futurology project that predicts the expansion of Russia to encompass much of the previous territory of the Soviet Union, Callahan demonstrates how such visual artifacts mobilized people to create different affective communities of sense: “people thus responded viscerally to what they saw, rather than rationally to what they understood” (35). Here Callahan expands on his conceptualization of sensible politics as multisensory politics, one that “excites ‘affective communities of sense’ in both elite forums and everyday life” (45). Chapter Three, “Dynamic Dyads,” challenges the presumed distinction between visibility and visuality by positioning both approaches as complementary strategies for analysing visual international politics. Callahan surveys the relationality of dynamic dyads such as inside/outside, Self/Other, Civilization/barbarism by drawing on Chinese concepts, practices, and experiences to show how “inclusion of non-Western sources is not just an empirical issue, but one of theory and method” (57).

In Part Two, Callahan engages more fully with core debates in visual international politics research.[4] Through addressing the visual turn in IR across aesthetics, visual securitization, and ethical witnessing, Part Two illustrates the limitations of conventional Western-centric analyses of visual politics, arguing that we must “push beyond this verbally-inflicted mode of analysis to see not just what images mean, but what they can ‘do’ in provoking affective communities of sense” (60). Chapter Four, “Methods, Ethics and Filmmaking,” draws on Callahan’s experiences of documentary filmmaking via his film toilet adventures, examining how different people came to terms with their first encounters of Chinese public toilets.[5] His auto-ethnographical account of how his film was made shows how filmmaking can be both a research tool and an innovative method for examining the sensible politics of the everyday and the affective dimensions that underpin this. Chapter Five, “Visualizing Security, Order and War,” takes a more conventional approach in examining the image-war nexus through an initial discussion of critical security studies and visual securitization. The discussion of the immediacy, circulability, and ambiguity of images draws on Lene Hansen’s work on visual securitization,[6] to show how the immediacy of the image can become an emotional immediacy: “iconic images, especially of death and violence, can provoke a more direct and immediate response from the viewer. This immediate response is both rational in the sense that photographs are seen as reflections of the truth, and emotional because images of human faces can provoke identification with greater humanity” (95). The Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg-directed feature film The Interview and Islamic State’s social media propaganda videos are used as exemplars here to develop the visibility/visuality dyad and highlight the conceptual weaknesses inherent in both securitization theory and cultural governance approaches regarding resistance to dominant imaginings of political legitimacy.[7] Chapter Six, “Visual Art, Ethical Witnessing and Resistance,” takes this one step further by analysing the work of Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei and his documentary Human Flow to explore how the intersection of visual art and ethical witnessing of atrocities actively engages in resistance to problematise such cultural governance practices.[8]

Part Three builds on the previous theoretical and conceptual arguments to explore the multisensory nature of visual image analysis across different visual artifacts and sensory spaces. Moving from cartography practices and maps (Chapter Seven), visual body politics of veil-wearing and beauty pageants (Chapter Eight), relationality of border walls (Chapter Nine), political power of gardens and memorials (Chapter Ten), and trends in surveillance as both social and world-ordering (Chapter Eleven), Part Three argues that any analysis of the visual must take into account visual artifacts as material modalities and sensory space (12).

I wondered when reading the book whether the multisensory conceptual framework presented here can allow us to analyse how social media platforms themselves shape the creation, circulation, and experience of visual artifacts. Callahan asks: what is it that images mean, and what can they do? To fully appreciate what images can do, and how they can create affective communities of sense, we need to pay attention to the overlap between physical and virtual spaces, to appreciate that the multisensory includes materiality, such as smartphones or screens, and how ways of seeing via social media influences the representation and provocation of emotions. What remains outside of the book’s core discussions about images, politics, and emotions is how the space of circulation itself also shapes the meaning of the image and the emotional sensibility connected to it. For example, Callahan draws on distinct examples of visual images and artifacts to explore the visibility/visuality dyad. From the image of Alan Kurdi’s small body lying still on a Turkish beach, to Islamic State videos, to the viral NiqaBitch Shakes Paris video, social media plays a key role in the visibility of these visual artifacts.[9] Audience responses over social media too play into the creation of affective communities of sense. For instance, one example of the blurring of art and political activism is Ai Weiwei’s series of nude photographs posted on the Internet (127); yet this was at least in part made powerful through the naked images posted by numerous Twitter users in response to express their indignation at the Chinese government’s decision to investigate Ai for pornography. Social media platforms play an integral role in this circulability and immediacy: how users interact to (re)shape still and moving images posted on Twitter, Instagram, Weibo, or Facebook adds to the ambiguity of the image. Each platform has its own algorithmic logic of circulation and visual affordances that further complicate the intertext of the image and the emotions connected to it, which in turn influences both how users experience the image and also how this phenomenon is communicated from one person to another and from the individual to the group. Thus the image or visual artifact in the digital age is always embedded within the intertext of material technology (smartphone, desktop) and affective online space (social media platform) that shape the experience and performance of emotions.

A second question concerns the role of gender in how we might better appreciate the affect-work of images. Gender is implicit in a number of discussions in the book that traverse the complexities of visual securitization, cultural governance, and resistance. Yet it remains siloed somewhat within Chapter Eight, which explicitly draws on the entanglement between gender and race to explore the juxtaposition of hypervisibility and concealment in the performance of identity, from individual veiling practices to women’s bodies as representations of a nation in beauty pageants. For instance, in detailing visual securitization and cultural governance through the ‘bromance’ movie The Interview and Islamic State videos in Chapter Five, there was a missed opportunity to explore the gendered dimensions of these visual artifacts and how this influences the social construction of war and security. The absence or invisibility of women, and by contrast the hypervisibility of men, in both the movie and propaganda videos, tells us not only how security is structured—as masculine, through necessary violence—but how these visual artifacts enable the constitution of gendered and embodied spectators.[10]

The role of gender also appears when feminist IR theory is referenced as critical to the focus on person-to-person relations and the everyday that filmmaking as method seeks to uncover. Callahan cites Cynthia Enloe in arguing that “to get a critical bottom-up understanding of international politics, we need to switch from research in the halls of power to take ‘notes in a brothel, a kitchen, or a latrine’” (61-62). The point Enloe is making here is arguably about how power exposes itself through mundane practices and materiality that structure the lived experience of actors differently. It is what happens within these spaces of low politics that matters, and what this reveals about patriarchal power relations. Enloe may be referring to latrines more broadly, but she writes of “refugee camp latrines,” where there is a clearer link between space and the structures that reproduce insecurity and vulnerability for women.[11] The link between everyone’s use of toilets in China and how this conveys structures of power, like patriarchy, but more broadly intersections of gender, class, or race, are less clear in Callahan’s discussion of toilet adventures. For example, Callahan argues that “toilets provide a good hook because, on the one hand, everyone has to use them, and on the other, it is still generally taboo to discuss toilet activities” (78). Yet the experience of toileting is situated within a highly gendered and cultural context of what is and is not acceptable toilet behaviour. Gender is a significant component in the emotional dynamics surrounding toileting, particularly in terms of feelings of shock, embarrassment, shame, relief that emerge from navigating the social expectations around revealing or concealing intimate details about what we do on the toilet, and the public visibility or private nature of this practice. What was described as a serious film about vulnerability (even if received as a comedy, pointing to the ambiguity of meaning of visual artifacts) could have pursued in greater depth the gendered experiences of this vulnerability and how this was visually expressed and embodied by the interview participants, especially given Callahan’s point that “participants thus may be surprised to see that out of an hour-long interview, I have chosen the fifteen seconds when they talked about their most intimate and embarrassing episode” (83).

Sensible Politics is a provocative, intellectually and visually stimulating book that convincingly situates the visual at the heart of global politics. Callahan brings his deep knowledge of Chinese culture and history to show how visual politics is a global phenomenon that cannot be understood without taking a multisensory, interdisciplinary approach. Engaging with Callahan’s work is a sensory experience in itself: the interplay of text, image, and touch of the page draws the reader in, with each chapter stepping the reader through the argument as one might hop across sunken stones in a memorial garden lake, challenging, exciting, and enticing the reader to see what is on the other side of each chapter. This book is an excellent example of what critical inquiry can accomplish outside of the confines of conventional academic practice.


Constance Duncombe is Lecturer in International Relations at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, and an Associate Editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. She is the author of Representation, Recognition and Respect in World Politics (Manchester University Press, 2019). Her work on recognition, emotions, and digital diplomacy has appeared in the European Journal of International Relations, International Affairs, and International Political Sociology.


[1] Nimi Princewill, “How a Nigerian Model Used a Russian Beauty Pageant and a Bloodied Flag to Protest Police Brutality,” CNN, 29 June 2021, https://edition.cnn.com/2021/06/29/africa/nigerian-model-russia-pageant-intl/index.html.

[2] Tiffany M. Gill, Beauty shop politics: African American women's activism in the beauty industry (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2010); Alfred M. Cohen, Beauty queens on the global stage: Gender, contests, and power (Psychology Press, 1996); Oluwakemi M. Balogun, Beauty diplomacy (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020); Cecilie Basberg Neumann, “A Dangerous Subject: The Fashion Model and the Beauty/Narcissism Double Bind,” Hypatia 32:2 (2017): 380-396.

[3] Brent J. Steele, Defacing power: The Aesthetics of Insecurity in Global Politics (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2012), 14.

[4] Roland Bleiker “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory,” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 30 (2001): 509–533; Lene Hansen, “Theorizing the Image for Security Studies: Visual Securitization and the Muhammad Cartoon Crisis,” European Journal of International Relations 17:1 (2011): 51–74; Michael C. Williams, “Words, Images, Enemies: Securitization and International Politics,” International Studies Quarterly (2003) 47: 511-531.

[5] William A. Callahan, “Toilet Adventures in China: A Film about Transnational Encounters,” Australia National University: The China Story (August 25, 2015), https://www.thechinastory.org/2015/08/toilet-adventures-in-china-making-sense-of-transnational-encounters/.

[6] Hansen, “Theorizing the Image for Security Studies”; Lene Hansen, “How Images Make World Politics: International Icons and the Case of Abu Ghraib,” Review of International Studies 41:2 (2015):263–288.

[7] Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, dir., The Interview (Sony Pictures Entertainment, 2014); Simone Molin Friis, “‘Behead, Burn, Crucify, Crush’: Theorizing Islamic State’s Public Displays of Violence,” European Journal of International Relations 24:2 (2018): 243–267.

[8] Ai Wei Wei, dir, Human Flow (Amazon Studios, 2018).

[9] NiqaBitch Shakes Paris (2010), http://vimeo.com/15747849.

[10] See for example Manni Crone, “It’s a man’s world: carnal spectatorship and dissonant masculinities in Islamic State videos,” International Affairs 96:3 (2020): 573-591.

[11] Cynthia Enloe, “The Mundane Matters,” International Political Sociology 5:4 (2011), 447-462, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1749-5687.2011.00145_2.x.