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Dispatch from ISA 2024: Jonathan Hui’s blog from the field

Photo by Jonathan Hui

By Jonathan Hui, PhD

With the theme of “Putting Relationality at the Centre of International Studies”, the International Studies Association held its annual conference in San Francisco from April 3-6th, bringing together scholars primarily in the fields of international relations (IR) and political science, alongside sections for history, sociology, history, and many other disciplines. As likely the final ISA of my PhD, this trip provided a potent combination of intellectual, collegial, and multi-disciplinary inspiration for my continued work on the cosmotechnics (and politics) of IR theory and practices.

My first day involved attending a pre-conference workshop hosted by the Bridging the Gap program, a US-based initiative aimed at cultivating career ties between academia and policy-making. Numerous topics covered included how to situate one’s scholarship to be policy-relevant, the different roles of academics in media and public discussions, and how science interfaces with politics. Lively Q&A was sprinkled throughout the afternoon with participants, largely coming from European, North American, and Middle Eastern institutions, raising questions about the applicability of academic-policy binaries in non-democratic contexts and the unpredictable uses of one’s research once gone from our hands (and computers).

The next couple days flew by amid chairing and presenting at a panel, alongside discussant duties on another. Presenting on Chinese IR and cosmotechnics, I received valuable feedback and fascinating questions from audience members, including on who Chinese IR works are for, whether such theories practically influence politics, and the cosmological effects of zero-sum approaches to politics and technological change. During my subsequent panel as discussant, similar themes were raised with respect to environmental degradation and technologies, such as the growing recognition of how car tire use contributes to microplastics pollution. These sessions pointed to common dilemmas, namely the lack of cosmopolitical imagination regarding what renewed cultural and historical sources can help govern the bewildering complexities of global extractive technologies and their planetary costs.

Having completed my designated conference responsibilities, the remaining days were left open to a variety of explorations, from connecting with interesting researchers and attending section mixers to relaxing with colleagues and friends. This whirlwind memorably tied together many of my disparate interests, from relations to planetarity, and left lasting impressions on what international studies could be for next generations.

Relational IR scholars, as proponents of the conference theme, were well-represented among panels and roundtables. ISA’s opening plenary for “Weaving relationalities otherwise in/as international” placed relationality in light of various contexts of knowledge-making, including the relations of empire to canonical scholarship and the relational practices of indigeneity and community in stressed academic systems. Centering relations was a priority for Quantum and Chinese IR, both long-standing groups at ISA seeking to change the dominant Newtonian and positivist paradigm of IR. Of note, Chengxin Pan’s holographic part-whole synthesis was further refined through material, inter-subjective, and practical wholes of power, while Chih-yu Shih offered a pluriversal reading of IR through triangulating Tianxia, Ubuntu, and liberal cosmologies. Relational perspectives remained well-represented and attended, attesting to their disciplinary contributions and as research paths for young scholars.

Global IR and Planetary Politics, both abstractions aiming to complement the “international” frame of reference, similarly received substantial attention. In honor of path-breaking work, the Global IR section recognized Professor’s Barry Buzan, Cristina Rojas, and Shiping Tang, and invited their colleagues to celebrate their contributions. Common themes in their celebrations were their generosity, humility, and attentive listening when interacting with younger scholars, as well as the opening of fruitful avenues of research with global, not simply national, reach. A fascinating roundtable on Planet Politics capped the conference off with wide-reaching meditations on the Earth in international politics by various scholars. Glenda Sluga, Peter Katzenstein, and Daniel Deudney offered different histories and ethics for acting politically on the planet, including the Limits to Growth debates, “parahumanism” and pragmatic survival, and “terrapolitanism” via consensus around minimal well-being. Questioning a single “Earth”, Audra Mitchell, Rafi Youatt, and Adriana Guerra touched on dangers of homogenization and control on planetary scales, the inefficacy of the Earth as political subject, and the Earth as having witnessed the end of many worlds before. Debates between global, international, and planetary perspectives thus remain vibrant and welcoming of new contributions.

Amidst rich intellectual conversations at the conference were daily support and meals with fellow BSIA attendees. Special thanks to Felicia, Ana, Naireen, Isabella, Mo, Tamara, and Hari, as well as congratulations to Allison for being awarded Best Book by the ISA Human Rights section. While the afterglow of this year’s conference remains, the next iteration will be in Chicago with the theme of “Reconnecting International Studies”. I look forward to continuing to cultivate relations made throughout the conference and to making useful contributions in my research, carrying along the aforementioned spirit of generosity, humility, and listening, with timely humor for good measure.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the BSIA, its students, faculty, staff, or Board of Directors.

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