Absence in science, security and policyMuch of my recent research has examined how the use of force is depicted and defended. Within that I seek to address questions such as: How is organized violence justified as an instrument of statecraft? How does the restriction — and release — of information serve this end? How is ‘ignorance’ about the conduct of war produced?

Central to this work has been the call to re-think common approaches to transparency and secrecy, disclosure and concealment, as well as knowledge and ignorance. Rather than treating these pairs as opposites, they often co-exist, blur into each other, lead to each other, and get produced from each other. As a result, I advocate that it is necessary to go beyond traditional calls for greater openness and information as means of getting nations to account for their actions.

My research into security and diplomatic communities — where questions of disclosure and concealment loom large — has led me to reflect on the methodological and epistemological issues associated with investigating and writing about secrecy and ignorance. As part of this I have sought to develop novel intellectual ties between fields such as security studies, ethnography, and autobiography. This has been done in an effort to appreciate how accounts by social researchers are themselves characterized by absences; absences resulting from what cannot be told because it is not known and from what cannot be repeated because it should not be told. I am interested in examining the problems associated with undertaking research in conditions of secrecy in order to ask how the missing could figure as a creative resource.

Experimental secretsFor instance, one of the topics I have investigated along these lines is the former secret Apartheid chemical and biological weapons programme (titled Project Coast). Through the endeavours of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an extensive legal trial, and various other investigations, the activities of the programme have become treated as emblematic of the perversities of a former time. And yet, each attempt to determine and remember what took place has been structured and delimited by the very investigations that enabled it. Documentary traces and fragments compiled to date signals much still remains unknown and perhaps will never be widely appreciated. As well, despite widespread public discussion about the project, its offensive intentions have never been officially acknowledged by South Africa and other nations. Many have found reason to call for the past to be left in the past.

A danger with examining an activity like Project Coast in this situation is getting swept away by the mystique and spectacle that defines it. Secrecy was not only central to how the programme was justified, undertaken and covered-up, it continues to be central to how it is milled, ignored, and mystified today. Rather than being swept away, my hope is to become receptive to the wantings, aversions, commitments and fascinations associated with attempts to make open what was hidden.

Through projects funded by a Newton Advanced Fellowship as well as an ESRC Accelerator Impact Award, Chandré Gould and I have sought to find ways of engaging diverse audiences in questions about the continuing relevance this past programme for South Africa and international diplomacy. For instance, we worked with Verne Harris (Nelson Mandela Foundation) and Kathryn Smith (Stellenbosch University/Liverpool John Moores) to put on an exhibition titled “Poisoned Pasts” that was on display at the Nelson Mandela Foundation and the Steve Biko Centre.  We have written a book titled Dis-eases of Secrecy: Tracing History, Memory and Justice that examines how attending to what is missing from history can enable new possibilities for thought and action. 

My initial focus on the machinations of war and diplomacy has recently given way to a much wider investigation of how that what I didn't say or didn't know functions as part of the social and political life as well as scientific research.

Selected Publications

dis eases secrecy(For a complete listing of my publications click here)