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(Dis)obedience is not an Academic Exercise

Footnotes, containing (too much of) me and us, are not academic exercises; they contain all of me, all of us that is/are in excess of colonial and imperial logics – that is, possibilities for our liberation.

I have become attached to footnotes and other forms of annotation as exegeses in my writings. I use them to clarify, qualify, and caveat myself and my politics. Rarely, do I (think I can)[1] disobey too much, rarely do I (feel allowed to) discard with conventional disciplinary norms entirely and allow (all of) myself to spill over in text. I am (made) aware of the anxiety and the discomfort my political subjectivity cause for the disruptive and insurgent work they do in exposing disciplinary methods and frameworks’ entanglements with power and privilege. In (long) footnotes, I repeatedly clarify myself and my politics; I plead to be taken seriously in my full humanity – socially and relationally; to take seriously anti-imperial, disruptive, and embodied ways of knowing and existing; in footnotes, I urge readers to take seriously modes of agency and resistance of colonised and vulnerable people; and I note that not using dominant positivist methods is an intentional, political refusal and not a naiveté, a pathology, or the absence of disciplinary training.

I clarify that the limitations of methodology and data are also constitutive of my research and not errors to be resolved. I clarify that, yes, I am not (only) implying, I am not mistaken, but in fact I am critiquing dominant ways of knowing for the violence they do. And I unequivocally implicate imperial epistemologies for providing the thinking tools for (and/or obscuring) the direct physical violence of empire. I plead to see all violence as political violence and caution against disavowal and erasure of colonial and racial violence. In these annotations, I try to contain all of me, all of us that is/are in excess of liberal colonial and imperial logics. Many times, these (foot)notes make up the whole of me and the whole of my writing.

Footnotes have become a way of disembodying[2] (from the imagined imperial subject) and emancipating myself and my interlocutors from the imperial and colonial imaginaries that have imbricated my disciplinary home – international policy. As people from the Global South are often in excess (and in absence) of (Western) disciplinary logics and norms, our politics are deemed as non-political, our ways of being as invalid, our bodies as deviant, our existence as a problem to be solved, a threat to be managed, a presence to be mitigated. Disciplined into frameworks that erase our complexity, disavow our politics, and justify the violence, we are rarely allowed to enter the social world as our whole selves; we are (t)asked to justify our existence, our being in relation to the normative, the rational, the worthy, the real, and the ideal.

We are (t)asked to enter and engage the discipline as rational actors, as objective knowers of the world and uncontaminated by what the discipline has already disavowed - that is our complex personhoods. As we enter the field, we are asked to abandon what we already know and how we know and uncritically accept the objective and the universal. While disciplinary norms often disavow and leave the body and its politics at the door, the burden falls on those of us who critique and challenge disciplinary norms to tidy up and discipline the violence of the norms. We are (t)asked to discard and deny (parts of) ourselves that are constituted by and are the very reminder and remainder of (epistemic) violence inflicted by our disciplines.[3] We are (t)asked to disavow our excesses which are produced through the violence of our disciplines – that is, our heartbreak,[4] our refusal and resistance to our ongoing violation, our revolutionary imagination, and our commitments to liberation. In disciplining violence, we are tasked to orate it in discrete and static terms, to reduce what it means to what can be measured about it, and not disrupt/implicate the empire and its perpetuation of violence. As non-western scholars - our bodies already disavowed and violated – we[5] are then tasked with the burden of disassociating and severing ourselves from our heartbreak, trauma, embodiment, and sense making.

Thus, my disobedience results from what Enrike van Wingerden calls "catastrophic encounter" with my discipline - manifest in the incompatibilities between how I live and experience the social world and my discipline’s purported attempts to contain and (re)present the social world in disembodied, fixed, and bloodless categories. Pertinently, my resistance follows from my body’s awareness of the prior (epistemic) violence that has undergirded the subjugation, dispossession, oppression, dehumanization, and the violation of colonized and vulnerable bodies. In Lauren Wilcox’s words, "[v]iolence is not only something that is done to an already established body - rather, various forms of violence are also part and parcel of the production of the various bodies that are subjected to violence". And despite all disciplinary conventions to leave myself and my heartbreak out of text, this prior violence is relevant to my political subjectivity and embodiment, and how I come to know, resist, and (re)imagine relations of power.

The Restless Woman_@shaista.art_2022

Caption: The Restless Woman, 2022, Oil Color on Canvas, 20x16 in. Shaista Langari is an Afghan artist based in Minneapolis, MN, USA. See her art at:

It is in this vein, that in footnotes, I carve space for myself and my interlocutors to (be allowed to) exist in the social world, not just to serve policy and knowledge industries, but as our whole selves. Acknowledging the possibility that I am constituted by my subject matter as I participate in constituting my subject matter, I confess that I am haunted[6] by the fact that I am still invoking my people’s suffering as a way of rendering my own experiences legible; I am still presenting myself and us for the consumption of neoliberal academia; I am still ceding space to empire as a way of writing, thinking, and imagining otherwise and against empire and its violence.

In these footnotes, I open up "a fantastical space where imprecision, ambiguity and contradiction come into play", to test ideas for liberation, and imagine and invent otherwise. It’s in the disruption and rejection of disciplinary boundary-making that I cultivate a space from which to imagine alternative worlds and futurities. In these spaces, I note that the heartbreak, rage, and grief – what my discipline disavows – are necessary components of anti-imperial imagination. Thus, the footnotes, exemplifying my disobedience and/by containing (too much of) me and us, are not academic exercises; they contain all of me, all of us that is/are in excess of colonial and imperial logics – that is possibilities for our liberation.


[1] In my use of parentheses throughout I am also caveating and reflecting on the politics of knowledge production and speaking against objectivity by inoculating the text with my own subjectivity.

[2] In this use of disembody(ing), I am gesturing towards a break from dominant and Western ways of knowing and being by resisting the roles imagined for imperial subjects.

[3] I am borrowing this framing from a collaboration with Megan Manion entitled “Storytelling as/is Violence: Imperial shortcuts to knowledge production on Afghanistan.”

[4] In footnotes, I hint at our lives in the midst of ongoing trauma and suffering and our inability to render them legible. Hopelessly unable to contain the pain (and recognizing the importance of its acknowledgement for imagining otherwise), I leave traces of our suffering in the margins, not to inconvenience the reader. Not to evoke (too much) anxiety.

[5] In this we, I include those whose sympathies lie with people from the Global South and produce disruptive scholarship that challenges dominant ways of knowing and being.

[6] In footnotes I also clarify that experiences such as discomfort and haunting do not mark the end, but the starting point of cultivating and imagining a different way of knowing and being.

About the author

Nasema Zeerak is a PhD student at the University of Minnesota. She sometimes tweets @NasemaZeerak

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