Scandals are everywhere, or so it seems, from torture to the infringement of civil liberties, from finance to labour and sexual exploitation, from the destruction of the environment to governance misconduct. Despite this seeming proliferation, there is scant literature devoted to scandals in IR, let alone literature dealing with what scandals do. Yet, as public and publicised moral transgressions, scandals directly tackle questions of (dis)order, ethics, and the reproduction of norms. Despite appearing as a form of entertainment, scandals are often invested with the hope of speaking truth to power. As events, scandals can trigger mass-mobilisation and contestation, expressing demands for more justice and accountability. These demands often have a political and judicial element via public apologies, boycotts, or the commissioning of public inquiries. Yet, many scholars and activists decry the ways in which the extreme visibility afforded by scandals tends to obfuscate power dynamics and diverts our attention from what really matters. Why is that? My PhD research looks into the politics of scandals to make sense of this paradox. My work is situated at the intersection of political philosophy, anthropology, sociology and IR. By seeking to answer the question: “what do scandals do to politics?”, I explore the assumption that certain forms of collective political manifestations that generate strong emotional reactions, such as scandals, can form the basis of collective participation and emancipatory politics. For this, I draw from anthropology literature on transgression and its relation to the sacred, with authors such as Michael Taussig or Georges Bataille, and from sociology authors, such as Luc Boltanski, to conceptualise how certain events constitute “tests” to institutionalised accounts of reality on which a certain order is based. Additionally, I engage with Jacques Rancière and IR literature on aesthetics and emotions to develop alternative understandings of justice.
By Ana Flamind, PhD Researcher