DR LARA COLEMAN

DISCIPLINE, DISSENT AND DISPOSSESSION
EARLY CAREER FELLOW: FEBRUARY 2014 – JANUARY 2016

Lara holds an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Theology from the University of Oxford (2000) and MScs in International Relations (2003) and Research Methods (2005), from the University of Bristol, where she also completed my PhD (2011). She joined the International Relations Department at Sussex in 2012.

Her research, which lies at the intersections between IR, anthropology and political philosophy, revolves around four main themes: dissent and resistance, the politics of knowledge, feminist theory, and the political sociology of development and violence.

Abstract

Dominant accounts of resistance to “neoliberal globalization” too often read resistance off theories of global order or presume situated struggles to be manifestations of a global resisting subject. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the variegated texture of dissent, or to how anti-systemic struggles are routinely nullified – drawn into the very processes of order-building they profess to contest – through a nexus of interventions organized around apparently emancipatory values. This project seeks to establish a deeper understanding of what is at stake in the interplay between anti-systemic struggles and the more widely-dispersed modes of political control that may be directed toward and through practices of dissent. In particular, it will explore how specifically neoliberal strategies of control inscribe certain types of dissenting subjects and practices, closing political space and cementing dispossession in the name of economic necessity. It is the thesis of this project that such an investigation requires a novel approach. Driven by a concern with the limitations of disciplinary problematics for understanding the political stakes of actual practices of resistance, the project seeks to develop an analytic that involves theorizing through attention to practices of struggle themselves. This will imply very situated work, engaging with the politics of singular struggles through ethnographic methods while simultaneously disengaging in order to undertake a critical, genealogical analysis of wider modes of thought and practice at play in intersecting strategies of discipline and dissent. Extending the focus of previous research, which has explored how peasant and worker struggles in Colombia have been neutralized through abstract notions of rights and absorbed into discourses of corporate responsibility, the proposed project will address a broader range of struggles articulated around rights, territory and nature in the context of extractive and agroindustrial megaprojects.

The Research Idea

Existing research into struggles against a neoliberal socio-economic model is often wedded to perspectives that read struggles off global theories and emancipatory blueprints. Alternatively, analysis may be so local and contextualised that it fails to interrogate wider rationalities and strategies of control, overlooking the broader political stakes of practices of dissent. This project thus seeks to establish a deeper understanding of intersections between anti-systemic struggles and the modes of political control directed toward and through such struggles. In particular, it will explore how specifically neoliberal strategies of control serve to neutralise the pursuit of more radical alternatives and to legitimise only certain types of dissenting subjects and practices. This can be a matter of life and death for activists: for not only do such strategies serve to consolidate patterns of dispossession wrought through neoliberalisation, they can also contribute to the rationalization of armed repression of those struggles deemed illegitimate or unintelligible (Coleman 2013). It is the thesis of this project that such an investigation needs to take place in relation to concrete struggles in specific contexts. My previous research has begun to explore these themes drawing upon extensive ethnographic engagement with the international trajectories of peasant and worker struggles against multinational corporations in Colombia. The proposed project aims to build on this by considering a broader range of peasant and indigenous struggles for the defense of territory (embodying certain concepts of land, nature, and way of life) in the context of extractive and agro-industrial megaprojects over the past decade.

The Focus

While much has been made of an apparent groundswell of grassroots agitation against “neoliberal globalisation” since the 1990’s (e.g. Amoore (ed.) 2005; Gills (ed.) 2000), comparatively little attention has been paid to ways in which such struggles are routinely nullified through their incorporation into processes of neoliberalisation, through a nexus of interventions organised around apparently emancipatory values, such as human rights, sustainable development, peace-building or corporate responsibility (e.g. Coleman 2013, 2007). This project is driven by a concern – animated by more than fifteen years of human rights, research and campaigning work with peasant, trade union and indigenous organisations in Latin America – that these sorts of questions are rendered invisible by dominant approaches to resistance. This is not only of theoretical significance but has very tangible implications for those engaging in struggles in the context of dispossession and armed repression. Lack of attention to this subtle but routine disciplining of dissent serves to direct well-intentioned interventions in ways that legitimise certain political subjects and practices – those most readily intelligible and manageable within the terms of order – so that such interventions may in practice complement the armed elimination of political struggle (Coleman 2013; Coleman and Tucker 2011). Critical reflection upon the trajectories of struggles against neoliberalisation over the past decade is particularly pertinent at the present juncture, as socio-economic dispossession is multiplied in the context of global economic crisis, while the global war on terror has provided the context for a widespread redefinition of dissent as security threat.

Background

Existing approaches are limited by widespread tendencies to read resistance through a series of competing paradigms for understanding governance, or to frame singular struggles as manifestations of a global resisting subject (a “global justice movement” and so on) whose emancipatory potential has already been decided in the framing of this object of study (Coleman and Tucker 2011; Coleman 2013; Drainville 2011; 2005). Such approaches risk objectifying the categories through which struggles are understood and obscuring the complex interplay between dissent and technologies of order-building (Coleman and Tucker 2011). While a number of recent contributions have addressed diverse ways in which resistance is disciplined or “governed” (e.g. contributions to Coleman and Tucker 2012), this project is premised upon the idea that attention to the specific configurations through which resistance is repressed, contained and neutralised may have a lot to tell us about broader strategies of neoliberalisation. The proposed project extends upon my previous research, which has concentrated upon how abstract notions of rights are absorbed into discourses of corporate responsibility, within which rights become attributable only to manageable subjects (Coleman 2013; Ayala et al 2010). Extending the focus to struggles over land and livelihood around agro-industrial and extractive megaprojects, this project will continue to interrogate how competing notions of rights are at play in the trajectories of these struggles, as well as asking how different conceptions of nature are invoked in ways that may subvert or reinforce dominant paradigms of sustainable development (Cardenas and Marín 2006; Rosenow 2012).

Theory & Evidence Base

At the heart of this project is an innovative challenge to incumbent approaches to resistance. The project attempts to develop a novel analytic, one that involves theorising through attention to practices of struggle themselves. This diverges from two dominant trends in analyses of resistance. The first is that of reading the politics of particular struggles off the ready-made problematics and categories of academic disciplines and/or activists themselves (Coleman and Tucker 2011, Coleman and Hughes 2013). By contrast, this project takes inspiration from the research ethos of Michel Foucault, side-stepping theoretical edifices in favour of a concern with interrogating supposedly general categories (in this case presumed collective resisting subjects alongside values mobilised such as “human rights” or “nature”) from the perspective of actual practices supposedly organised around these categories (Foucault 2008:3). The second trend from which this approach diverges is that – found in some work drawing upon Foucault – of following a purely deconstructive move, exploring how struggles are enmeshed in relations of domination without fully engaging with the political stakes of such entanglements. I seek to deploy a novel approach that begins from direct engagement with the politics of specific anti-systemic struggles, while simultaneously disengaging in order to explore wider rationalities and forces at play in the repression or nullification of such struggles (Coleman 2012). This implies very situated, empirical work, tracing trajectories of struggles, from their origins in specific contexts to the ways in which their demands have been taken up within broader processes of engagement or repression.

Methodology

This project will therefore develop its analysis in the spirit of what Foucault once called an “ascending analysis of power” (2003:30-1), exploring specific practices of struggle while considering how these might be taken up within more widely-dispersed relations of domination. This will involve archival and genealogical work, paying attention to specific modes of thought and practice deployed toward and through these struggles. Engagement with practices of struggle will also imply significant crossfertilisation with anthropological methods in the form of a “multi-sited ethnography”, moving from analysis of singular sites to the construction of a more global perspective (Marcus 1995). The project will focus upon struggles around extractive and agro-industrial megaprojects in the Casanare, Catatumbo and Cauca regions of Colombia. It will build upon 18 months of ethnographic research already undertaken from 2006-2008, while I was involved in research and human rights work with a network of peasant, trade union and indigenous organisations. The contextual understanding developed during this period will be supplemented by ongoing relations with activists in Colombia, who have undertaken to assist with research by providing documentation relating to these struggles and to engage in a series of informal interviews via Skype. An additional period of field research, timed to coincide with an activist forum in Bogotá, will enable me to conduct interviews with other activists and to collect documentation unavailable electronically. In addition, collaboration with Dr Doerthe Rosenow (Oxford Brookes University – separately funded), will make it possible to draw upon similar analyses of comparable struggles in India.

Output

  1. Three articles, two co-authored with Doerthe Rosenow, for high-ranking peer-reviewed journals. In line with the focus of both the project and the ISRF, these will be outlets that aim to publish transdisciplinary work. Indicative titles are: International Political Sociology, Economy and Society and Environment and Planning D. The articles will address three themes: struggles over conceptions of nature; struggles over articulations of rights; and intersections between political violence and the production of legitimate practices of dissent.
  2. At least two short comment pieces – in English and Spanish – aimed at disseminating findings to activist audiences. Indicative outlets are Colombian magazines Desde Abajo and Peripheria, and English language publications Open Democracy and New Internationalist.
  3. Begin work on co-authored book, developing theoretical reflections on struggle as an analytic for understanding mechanisms of world order-building and prospects for social transformation.
  4. Presentation of work-in-progress at a workshop at the University of Sussex. This will form the third of a series of interdisciplinary workshops on dissent co-organised by the applicant, with the support of the Sussex Centre for Advanced International Theory and other bodies.
  5. A larger, collaborative research funding application, in conjunction with workshop participants, alongside social organisations in Latin America and India. This will be thematically similar to the project proposed, but will include a wider range of research partners, exploring resonances between the results of this research project and other contexts.
  6. Funding application for dissemination of findings in Colombia, prospectively via Sussex University’s Global Transformations research theme.

Relevance

This project – in both content and motivation – has direct baring upon ISRF’s goal of promoting innovative modes of inquiry that transcend the boundaries of specific disciplines and which aim to address specific real-world problems. The proposed project will not only draw upon insights from across various disciplines, such as International Relations, Development Studies, Sociology, Anthropology and Philosophy. It is, more fundamentally, explicitly driven by a concern with the limitations of disciplinary problematics, categories and modes of analysis for understanding the politics of dissent and for making sense of what is at stake in the diverse ways in which struggles against dispossession are disciplined, repressed, neutralised or rendered illegitimate or unintelligible. Indeed, the framing of this project centres upon the idea – found in the epistemological tradition emerging from the work of Gaston Bachelard – that disciplines themselves are defined not so much by objects of study but by the problems they generate. Such problems themselves produce particular social ontologies and frameworks for knowledge, constituting what are considered the important questions to ask about a given phenomenon (Maniglier 2012). The project thus aims to critically interrogate these ontologies and frameworks by taking situated practices of struggle as an analytical starting point from which to explore wider technologies of control and discipline. Understanding these processes, in turn, has a direct baring upon understanding what is at stake in the way those engaging in practices of dissent frame and respond to the real-world social problems that they confront.

Journal Articles

Montesinos Coleman, L., & Rosenow, D. (2016). Security (studies) and the limits of critique: why we should think through struggle. Critical Studies on Security, 1-19.

This paper addresses the political and epistemological stakes of knowledge production in post-structuralist critical security studies (CSS). It opens a research agenda in which struggles against dominant regimes of power/knowledge are entry-points for analysis. Despite attempts to gain distance from the word ‘security’, through interrogation of wider practices and schemes of knowledge in which security practices are embedded, post-structuralist CSS too quickly reads security logics as determinative of modern/liberal forms of power and rule. At play is an unacknowledged ontological investment in ‘security’, structured by disciplinary commitments and policy discourse putatively critiqued. Through previous ethnographic research, we highlight how struggles over dispossession and oppression call the very frame of security into question, exposing violences inadmissible within that frame. Through the lens of security, the violence of wider strategies of containing and normalizing politics are rendered invisible, or a neutral backdrop against which security practices take place. Building on recent debates on critical security methods, we set out an agenda where struggle provokes an alternative mode of onto-political investment in critical examination of power and order.

Montesinos Coleman, L. (2015). Struggles, over rights: humanism, ethical dispossession and resistance. Third World Quarterly, 36(6), 1060-1075.

What should we make of appeals to human rights in the context of struggles against dispossession or armed repression? After the ‘death of man’ as transcendent ground of all right, critics have highlighted the disciplinary effects and absolutist tendencies of human rights discourse. However, attempts have been made to ‘rescue’ human rights – and wider forms of humanistic advocacy – as an immanent, self-grounding ethical practice. Drawing on analysis of struggles over natural resource extraction and indigenous rights in Latin America, this paper argues that such accounts mirror the assumptions of a predominant mode of international humanitarian activism. By reifying humanistic ideals, without sufficient attention to the effects of practices within which rights are invoked, both obscure entanglements between humanist interventions and logics of dispossession. This is particularly significant at the current juncture. Through these interventions rights have been absorbed into a neoliberal regime of truth in which the subjects of rights are interpellated as parties to private contract, such that rights themselves become tools of exception. Taking struggle as a starting point, by contrast, highlights not only the indeterminacy of rights but also the potential of human rights discourse to disrupt these logics. Through ethnographic engagement with ‘people’s hearings’ into ‘Multinational Corporations and Crimes against Humanity’ in Colombia, I revisit the questions of ‘the human’ and ‘rights’ and propose a more dialectical approach to the relation between normative principle and immanent critique.

Coleman, L. M. (2015). Ethnography, Commitment, and Critique: Departing from Activist Scholarship. International Political Sociology, 9(3), 263-280.

This article addresses the vexed question of relations between critique and political struggle. As emphasis upon the “impact” of research increases, possibilities of integrating research into practices of resistance have been highlighted. Such approaches lend themselves to ethnographic methods, with scholars engaged in these ways offering nuanced reflections on possibilities of “bridging gaps” between research and solidarity. Here, however, I draw on over a decade of “activist” ethnography to highlight risks of conceptual enclosure associated with this move. The politics of struggle are quickly erased through available categories and problematics, which are readily absorbed into existing constellations of power. By contrast, the gaps between solidarity and writing provide spaces for emergence of a critical attitude—along lines sketched by Foucault. Nevertheless, to “apply” Foucault to this sort of ethnography carries a risk of betrayal. Foucault’s critical ethos can be neither starting point nor end of engagement with actually existing struggles. Inspired by the philosophical tradition in which Foucault’s work was rooted, I advocate a practice that gives weight to ontologies emerging from struggle as conjectures perpetually in question. This implies not closing gaps but a persistent back-and-forth between critique and commitment—risking ourselves as subjects at both ends.

Book Chapters

Coleman, L. M., & Rosenow, D. (2016). Struggles Over Nature: Beyond Biopolitics.