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Joanne Yao

If the Rhine and Danube commissions could be considered accomplishments in global governance, then the abortive International Commission of the Congo proposed in the text of the 1885 General Acts of the Berlin Conference was an international disaster. Chapter 7 examines diplomatic efforts to bring European normative and institutional models to the conceptual emptiness of the Congo basin. At first glance, it seemed that diplomats at Berlin faced the same dilemma as their predecessors at Paris in 1856 – whether to tame the river through private sovereign control or as international commons. However, the Congo represented a particular colonial geography in the European imagination – first, as a blank canvas waiting to be filled with European models, and second, in the Congo’s primary importance as a token in European balance of power politics. Combined, these framings led to the imposition of ill-fitting models taken from Europe’s own historical development onto the morally and politically ‘empty’ spaces of the colonial periphery. Hence, European diplomats’ inability to transform the Congo into a peaceful, non-sovereign, and neutral space for the benefit of international commerce reflected failings in the Western European geographical imaginary – both of the conceptually empty Congo as well as its understanding of Europe as a geography of universal and generalizable political possibilities.

in The ideal river
Constructing the Congo
Joanne Yao

If the Rhine represented an internal European highway to be tamed for European civilization, and the Danube represented a liminal space between the civilized European self and the semi-familiar other to the east, then in the late nineteenth century the Congo represented an abstract and empty colonial geography waiting to be filled with European ideas, practices, and institutions. Chapter 6 examines the construction of the Congo – by European legal experts, cartographers, and explorers – as a colonial highway that would impose commercial rationality and European civilization onto a conceptually empty space. This imaginary of the river collapsed time and terrestrial space into the same civilizational and developmental continuum that elevated Western Europe as the model of progress. However, I contend that exporting civilization to the Congo basin not only erased indigenous histories and political agency but contorted Europe’s own messy experience with state-building and economic development into a generalizable model applicable across time and space. At the same time as the Congo represented endless possibilities for ambitious colonizers, it also represented a disconnected geography separate from the normal politics of civilized European society and a foreignness that threatened to reverse rationality and uncivilize those Europeans who traveled upriver – a fear made vivid in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I highlight how European imaginaries of the Congo looked inward at European superiority and anxieties about Europe’s own geopolitical and civilizational position in the late nineteenth century.

in The ideal river
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La révolution accomplie? Some legacies of women’s art in 1970s France
Rakhee Balaram

The conclusion reconsiders women’s artistic practice in the 1970s from a contemporary standpoint ranging from the MLF aftermath in the early 1980s to the current practice of privileging specific artists from the 1970s. Significant contemporary artists such as Annette Messager, Sophie Calle, ORLAN and others have enjoyed important solo exhibitions and/or prestigious prizes in biennales. Practices once marginal to the mainstream have been incorporated widely into contemporary art with 1970s feminist aesthetic strategies reappearing throughout the 2000s. The conclusion will further attest to how current scholarship has framed the history of feminism and art and how such scholarship can be widened, enhanced and changed by a focus on France during the 1970s and this book.

in Counterpractice
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The strong brown god of the Anthropocene
Joanne Yao

The conclusion reflects on how the history of transboundary river cooperation and the creation of the first international organizations is largely absent from IR literature and theorizing, but how despite this absence, the river and its sociopolitical importance permeates IR in the way we privilege the sovereign territorial state, the way we are bound by global hierarchies, and the way we trust in IOs to resolve the collective dilemmas of the twenty-first century. I conclude by contemplating the challenges of the Anthropocene, and in particular, how perpetual economic growth continues to be the modern benchmark for moral and political progress. This standard leads us, as Amitav Ghosh eloquently warns, to a ‘great derangement’. It is my hope that understanding how the standards and desires of modern life emerged from a global history of entanglement between international society and the natural world will allow us to recognize the power and politics behind modern standards of progress – but also, in looking to the future, to challenge the myth that these standards are somehow natural and immovable.

in The ideal river
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Psychoanalysis, politics and the art of French feminism
Author: Rakhee Balaram

This groundbreaking book highlights, for the first time, a generation of women making art to define a culture of experimental thought and practice against the backdrop of the French women’s movement, or Mouvement de libération des femmes (MLF) (1970–1981). Women’s art is viewed in relation to some of the most exciting thinkers emerging from radical trends in philosophy and literature in France in the 1970s – Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva – who are widely seen to represent the international brand of ‘French feminism’. The women artists in this book force a timely reconsideration of the full spectrum of revolutionary practices by women in the years that followed the events of May ’68.

Constructing the Danube
Joanne Yao

In the mid-nineteenth century Europeans envisioned the Danube as a commercial highway for a quickly industrializing Europe. However, if the Rhine represented an internal European highway, the Danube signified a connecting river that emanated from the heart of European civilization to the near periphery. Chapter 4 draws out this distinction between the two rivers and argues that taming the Danube’s physical and metaphysical dangers not only reflected legitimate authority along its banks but also signified control over this conduit to the east, so that free trade and civilization could flow from Europe outward. Controlling the connecting Danube also signified control over temporal dynamics and guarded against reversing the river, and therefore reversing the progressive flow of history and European civilization and allowing instability to flow from the east back upriver. Most famously, Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula represents this haunting possibility of invasion from the east, and civilizational norms upended. If taming the Danube signified legitimate political authority, then Russian unwillingness or inability to control the river’s mouth during the mid-nineteenth century threw Russia’s civilizational status into question and set the stage for the establishment of the 1856 European Commission of the Danube.

in The ideal river
Subversive practices from écriture féminine to soft art
Rakhee Balaram

This chapter presents the way in which women and some men challenged contemporary practices through the body, experimental writing such as écriture féminine, and the employment of ‘soft’ materials such as embroidery, knitting, weaving and so on, in an effort to place women within a larger tradition of anonymous, artisan works. While the practice of écriture féminine was embedded in the French language, the use of soft materials in art shared a wider international heritage. It is argued that women’s soft art also shares a relationship with avant-garde French male groups of the period such as Supports-Surfaces and their dismantling of the canvas via Marxist theory into their component ‘soft’ parts. The result is a major reassessment of the way in which women were believed to be working independently of their male counterparts during this period, as evidenced by radical practice.

in Counterpractice
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The taming of nature into the twenty-first century
Joanne Yao

Chapter 8 examines international society’s efforts to construct the ideal river in the twentieth century. I begin with World War I and the 1919 Paris Peace Conference which finally seemed to affirm that Europe’s transboundary rivers are unequivocally international commons. Standing at 1919, it would seem that a century of international cooperation had finally culminated in victory for liberalism, free trade, and progress. However, I challenge this narrative by showing how 1919 could be understood otherwise and argue that narratives of institutional success and failure depend very much on where in history we stand and the thickness and orientation of our analytical blinders. This chapter traces the continuation of Enlightenment confidence in science’s ability to tame the river for economic and moral progress. Control of the river continued to define a state’s legitimacy, first as a sign of imperial power, and then, after the mid-twentieth century, as a mantra adopted by newly independent states to showcase their rising status and self-sufficiency. I focus on megadams as a monumental symbol that illustrates how our efforts to create the ideal river continued throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries.

in The ideal river
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How control of nature shaped the international order
Author: Joanne Yao

Environmental politics has traditionally been a peripheral concern for IR theory, but increasing alarm over global environmental challenges has elevated international society’s relationship with the natural world into the theoretical limelight. IR theory’s engagement with environmental politics, however, has largely focused on interstate cooperation in the late twentieth century, with few works exploring the longstanding historical links between the management of natural resources and the foundations of the modern international order. This book examines nineteenth-century efforts to establish international commissions on three transboundary rivers – the Rhine, the Danube, and the Congo. It charts how the ambition to tame nature (both the natural world and human nature) became an international standard of rational and civilized authority and informed our geographical imagination of the international. This notion of domination over nature was central to the emergence of the early international order in the way it shaped three core IR concepts: the territorial sovereign state, imperial hierarchies, and international organizations. The book contributes to environmental politics and IR by highlighting how the relationship between society and nature, rather than being a peripheral concern, has always lain at the heart of international politics.

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Psychanalyse et Politique and the spaces of women’s art
Rakhee Balaram

This chapter considers the history and influence of Psychanalyse et Politique and the relationship between interior drives and exterior politics: the role of sexuality, importance of hysteria and jouissance and the diverse spaces of women’s artistic production. Artists who were associated with the group, who exhibited at the group’s gallery and artists with a psychoanalytic focus are represented in the chapter. The group’s purchasing of the trademark MLF from the women’s movement as a strategy is also discussed. The result of the trademark battle ultimately resulted in the dissolution of the MLF, but Psychanalyse et Politique significantly impacted French culture in terms of the volume of women’s art and literature produced.

in Counterpractice