ROBERT A. SAUNDERS, Ph.D.

Current Projects

The thrust of my current research agenda explores the intersections between screened fiction (specifically dramatic television series), geopolitics, and (trans)national identities. My core project is a monograph tentatively entitled The Geopolitics Nordic Noir Television, which is under contract with Routledge’s Popular Culture and World Politics series. This text builds on my previous work on: 1) developing a typology of geopolitical television (Geopolitics); 2) the role of The Bridge and its first two adaptations in premediating geopolitical developments in Sweden/Denmark, U.S./Mexico, and Great Britain/France (Social & Cultural Geography); and 3) my analysis of the Finnish-Russian border zone in the series Bordertown (TV/Series). Ancillary projects include a large-scale collaboration with colleagues at Aarhus University, University of Leeds, and University of Bologna on screening the so-called “Refugee Crisis” and the impact of televisual interventions on social and civic cohesion across Europe, as well as several forthcoming book chapters on crime drama, neoliberalism, and transborder issues (including one on adapting Nordic noir in the center of global neoliberalism, i.e. London, via the series Marcella). Additionally, I am contributing an article to a special issue of Nordicom Review on geopolitics and Nordic noir (which I am also co-editing), in which I examine the depiction of (geo)political landscapes in the Norwegian series Occupied and Nobel. I am also engaged in research on how Danish comedian Jonatan Spang’s satirical rendering of The Bridge’s dynamics is being used as a tool for interrogating differences in political culture across the Øresund Strait, specifically those related to gender, ethnicity, migration, and free speech.
In the mid-19th century, tsarist Russia went to war with an international coalition of Western countries and the Ottoman Empire over the rights of Christian minorities in the Holy Land. A century-and-a-half later, the Russian Federation launched a military campaign to support the Assad regime in Syria, pitting Moscow against the U.S., France, and other powers in the region. In both instances, the Russian state advocated a messianic mission based on ‘protecting’ imperiled peoples and preserving civilization from chaos. Using Engström’s concept of katechon (κατέχων), this paper examines the visual and discursive geopolitics of Russia’s current engagement in the Levant through the lens of ‘withholding chaos’. My case study, which is part of the Striking from the Margins project based Central European University, interrogates the visual securitization of the holy city of Palmyra and the subsequent concert held there by the Russian military in May 2016. With a focus on the current splintering of the Levant along sectarian and ethnic lines, I examine the moralistic and deontological frameworks that Russia employs in its use of military force, while also reflecting on historical parallels in the country’s past involvement in the Eastern Mediterranean. By framing intervention in religio-civilizational terms, I argue that Russia is using the Levant as a key plank in the resumption of its long-held status as the global defender of traditional values, true religion, and genuine culture.
My essay "Völkisch Vibes: Neofolk, Place, Politics, and Pan-European Nationalism" is in press with Nationalism and Popular Culture (Routledge), edited by Tim Nieguth. Drawing on interviews with cultural producers and advocates of various forms of Pan-Europeanism, this chapter provides a tentative mapping of Neofolk—and its closely related peer, Folk Metal. The chapter frames this form of popular culture as a (trans)national phenomenon with important ramifications for the study of contemporary trends in anti-modernist "identity work" and its increasingly borderless nature by focusing on sonic, textual, and visual venerations of a "dead Europe." This chapter aims to make an original contribution to the literature of nationalism via its focus on a comparatively new musical genre (i.e. Neofolk) and its accompanying scene to complicate the notion that contemporary nationalism is necessarily "national" in form. I do this by interrogating the ethnic, cultural, and (geo)political linkages between soundscapes, religio-philosophical orientation, thematic/lyrical content, bands’ country-of-origin, (geo)graphical representations in videos and cover art, concert tour locations, and other factors. 
My colleague Emily A. Fogarty and I recently submitted our chapter ‘Did you take the tour?’ An Analysis of the Spatial Politics of New Jersey’s Craft Beer Taprooms' for inclusion in the forthcoming Beer Places: The Micro-Geographies of Craft Beer, edited by Daina Cheyenne Harvey, Ellis Jones and Nate Chapman. Using a mixed-method interdisciplinary framework that draws on culturological, sociological, and geospatial approaches, we interrogate the micro-geographies of these breweries with the goal of providing a case study of spatial dynamics of the New Jersey taproom experience. Contextualised within a comparative framework informed by the authors’ frequent visits to New Jersey taprooms as well as those farther afield, this chapter is intended to provide an accessible examination of the ‘placemaking’ that has established the taproom as a unique space in the American drinking experience. We also aim to contextualise the New Jersey case with global trends in craft beer production and consumption. In terms of methods, analytical approaches, and data collection, this chapter is based on: 1) interviews conducted with owners, brewers, and staff at the aforementioned taprooms; 2) close readings of the different taproom experiences with a focus on the spatial ordering of the touring, drinking, and socialising, including an examination of the micro-geographies of tasting, e.g. curation styles, glassware, flight sizes/(non-)availability of pints, etc.; and 3) a geographical investigation of New Jersey brewscape clusters to reveal the micro-geographies of beer, culture, and place.
I recently finished a revised draft of my chapter "The Anxiety of Landscapes : Assessing and Critiquing the Autoethnographic Method in Popular Geopolitics" for Sandra Yao and Mark B. Salter's How to Do Popular Culture in International Relations. This chapter provides an explicit analysis of autoethnographic methodologies as a tool for analysing (popular) geopolitical content in cinematic landscapes. The focus is on a suite of geographical depictions of (post-)Soviet space in Western films produced from the late 1980s through the current decade. My categorisation of such landscapes is as follows: i) frozen wastelands; ii) urban warzones; iii) derelict megastructures; and iv) irradiated “neverwheres.” My argument is that repetitive and highly coded visions of such spaces function as a key element of maintaining American, British, and other Anglophone populations’ oppositional attitudes towards the Russian Federation and closely affiliated Eurasian states (Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Belarus, etc.). Taking a critical approach, this essay addresses the inherent challenges in selecting and analysing images for the purpose of interpreting their affectual power within the popular culture-world politics continuum. I problematise the dual role of the researcher as observer and subject, adapting theories from anthropology and other fields reliant on autoethnography. Drawing on recent methodology-centric works including Shapiro (2012), Dittmer (2014), Elwood and Hawkins (2017), and Bleiker (2015), the contribution of this chapter aims at formalising autoethnographic analysis of geopolitically-inflected, anxiety-causing landscapes in popular media (films, television series, comic books, and videogames) and codifying their value to one’s research project. Special attention is paid to the pitfalls associated with (necessarily) limited, ethnocentric, and privileged worldviews in the assessment of their power to influence everyday geopolitical understandings. 

Recent Publications

When and where one can urinate is increasingly politicised around the globe. As an example of bio-political power, the provision, regulation and access to public toilets reflects larger structures in any given society. However, there is another side to micturition, that is the use of urine as a manifestation of bodily power over another/others. I recently submitted and article with my co-author Rhys Crilley (Open University, UK) that analyses the politics of the urinal through a close reading of the men’s toilet in the Lismore Pub in Partick, Scotland, thus bringing together these threads via the concept of everyday effigial resistance. In our interrogation of a politicised urinal that asks users to ‘piss’ on historical figures associated with the Highland Clearances, we aim to push International Relations to follow Enloe’s call for the study of ‘mundane practices… and the most intimate spaces’, by considering the most banal aspects of the human condition as part of its remit. Our case study serves as an explicit political intervention, one which through its geographic and geopolitical scales makes an argument for engaging with the mundane, vernacular and vulgar in everyday IR. Look for this essay in the recently published special issue of Millennium on Revolution and Resistance.
Taking in over $1 billion in ticket sales in less than a month, the Marvel Studios film Black Panther (2018) represents a watershed in popular geopolitical representation of Africa, reversing centuries of depictions of a "Dark Continent." The motion picture also makes a discursive intervention in the politics of African American-African relations through spatial representation of the U.S. (via Oakland, California) and Africa (via the fictional country of Wakanda). In my essay which was recently published by Political Geography, I explore these geopolitical constructs, in addition to a third imaginary geopolitical space, i.e. the "black world." Drawing on methodologies from popular geopolitics and critical IR theory, I aim to make a tripartite contribution to political geography. In terms of its normative input, this article demonstrates the scope and scale of popular geopolitics as resistance, elaborating on how cultural producers as well as scholars, public intellectuals, critics and prosumers can shift the discourse by reframing and reinterpreting geopolitics via progressive pop-culture. From a theoretical standpoint, this treatment breaks new ground in how it synthesises cultural studies-based approaches with critical IR scholarship to more effectively examine the heuristics of mass-mediated artefacts on the everyday (im)possibilities of (geo)political action in a world defined by screened images. Lastly, this article serves as an empirical contribution with its analysis of the representations of Black Panther’s political geographies, focusing on how this artefact intersects with ongoing transnational political movements including Black Lives Matter.
My invited chapter “Of Gods and Men: Uses and Abuses of Neo-Paganism by Nationalist Movements in the ‘North’” has now appeared in the edited volume Northern Myths, Modern Identities: The Nationalisation of Northern Mythologies Since 1800 by Simon Halink (Brill). As a historical overview, this essay focuses on the link between nationalism and Neo-Paganism(s). My thesis is that nationalist elites have often made use of political, social, and cultural “toolkits” of Europe's myriad native religions to achieve political outcomes. I am particularly interested in how nationalist movements have mythologized pagan place in their respective struggles to establish or resist spatial legitimacy in various regions of northern, eastern and central Europe. This has involved the yoking together of three entities: mythologies, the land, and the people. With this essay, my aim is to interrogate and problematize these issues, focusing on how constructions of authentic faith inform the so-called invention of tradition.
Daniel Drezner recently stated: "We live in a Golden Age of international relations programming on television." Responding to this notion, my article "Small Screen IR: A Tentative Typology of Geopolitical Television," is now in print with Geopolitics, and explores the ways in which geopolitical television dramas have flourished in the new millennium. In the paper (which is based on my presentation at the 9th annual Popular Culture and World Politics conference), I discuss the emergence of so-called geopolitical TV, examining on how technological advances and social transformations have created conditions for increasingly sophisticated offerings that interrogate a wide variety of issues in world politics. I address the shift towards more intellectually demanding fare since 2001 before moving on to more recent examples of International Relations TV. In its empirical and structural contributions, this article provides a tentative taxonomy of the genre, classifying geopolitical television series into five distinct groups with a representative empirical case study for each: 1) exotic/irrealist (Berlin Station); 2) parliamentary/domestic (Borgen); 3) procedural/localised (The Bridge); 4) historical/revisionist (Deutschland 83); and 5) speculative/fantastical (Occupied). In its normative and theoretical contributions, this article seeks to advance the study of small screen geopolitical interventions, arguing that geopolitical television series function both as a mirror/reflection of IR and an imaginative/predictive force in contemporary world politics.
From Sir John Mandeville to Joseph Conrad, Africa’s blank spaces on the map have been filled with monstrous creatures that fuel the western imagination. As a consequence, this constant othering of the so-called "Dark Continent" has had a deleterious impact for African states and their citizenries. Cultural Geographies has just published this article, which looks at the continuation of this trend in popular culture via an empirical examination of the speculative fiction of the British novelist and performance artist B. Catling. Appearing in 2015, The Vorrh is the first of three novels set in a parallel Africa, specifically a former German colony that is home to remnants of the Garden of Eden. Focusing on the enchanted forest known as the Vorrh and the colony’s (fictional) capital, Essenwald, this essay employs methods drawn from geocriticism and popular geopolitics to interrogate Catling’s built-world. This is done with the aim of connecting structures of iteration in the representation of fictional ‘Africas’ to the west’s imperially-inflected geopolitical codes towards the actual physical and human geographies that constitute the world’s second-largest and most populous continent. 
My essay "Geopolitical Enemy #1? VVP, Anglophone ‘Popaganda’ and the Politics of Representation" has now been published in Russian Culture in the Era of Globalisation (eds. Sarah Hudspith and Vlad Strukov). In the chapter, I explore Anglophone popular culture’s response to the increasing tensions between the Russian Federation through parodies of Vladimir Putin. The volume will appear in the BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies series. My chapter interrogates Putin as a "celebrity" in world affairs, and specifically on the ways in which Putin has courted domestic and global attention through acts of geopolitical theatre. Through this mediatisation, I argue that a specific "RT" version of Putin has emerged, producing a sort of superhero, however, one who is viewed very differently abroad than at home. A close reading of several pop-culture artefacts of U.S./UK origin is provided in which each of these is unpacked of their geopolitical content with the aim of showing how the RT version of Putin has been inverted to craft a sort of global super-villain instead. The key argument here is that by representing Putin as a figure with superhuman characteristics, such derisive humour actually serves to increase the Russian president’s status in the West. The conclusion brings together these discourses of representation to demonstrate the increasing importance of the popular culture-world politics continuum in a world defined by globalised flows of media content and defined by the ineluctable shift towards the mediatisation of (geo)politics.
In collaboration with Joel Vessels (SUNY-Nassau), I am happy to report that our essay on the geopolitical interposition of Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DR) via the popular culture form of reality television has now been published by the journal Politics. Our article is a close reading of the DR series I am the Ambassador/Jeg er ambassadøren fra Amerika (2014-2016), "starring" the real U.S. ambassador to Denmark. We situate Ambassador within the evolving space of "new diplomacy" through an evaluation of how it imagines, popularizes, and expands everyday sites of diplomacy via mass-mediation. However, as we argue, the series – when viewed holistically – says more about the Danish state and its people than it does about the role of the U.S. ambassador, thus functioning as a tool of nation branding as much at home as abroad. The aim of this piece is to address the role of contemporary diplomacy via a television series, seeing this artefact as a fecund object of analysis that questions many of the myths surrounding the what we call the "diplomatic community."

Books


Popular Geopolitics: Plotting an Evolving Interdiscipline. Routledge (2018).

"Robert A. Saunders and Vlad Strukov's edited collection works to bring popular culture and world politics scholarship together in a cohesive body of work through a careful tracing of both fields as logically converging into an interdisciplinary field capable of incorporating new and evolving intellectual currents." ~ The AAG Review of Books

Popular Geopolitics and Nation Branding in the Post-Soviet Realm. Routledge (2017).

"An original and important
contribution to the study of visual culture and its implications on nationalism, geopolitics, and
the framing of broader geographical imaginations...[and] an insightful overview of the emergent histories of the spaces and people of the post-Soviet Union" ~ Social & Cultural Geography

Ethnopolitics in Cyberspace: The Internet, Minority Nationalism, and the Web of Identity. Lexington Books (2010).

"A welcome contribution [that] deserves the attention of a wide public, as it is a worthwhile contribution to this relatively new field." ~ Ethnic and Racial Studies
Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation, co-authored with Vlad Strukov. Scarecrow Press (2010).

"The Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation fills a gap in the truest sense of the word." ~ Reference Reviews

The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody, and the Battle over Borat. Lexington Books (2008).

"A thoroughly detailed exploration of Cohen's explosive comedy. A smart read deserving of a lot of 'respek.'" ~ Michael Musto

Reviews of Scholarship

"Review of Popular Geopolitics and Nation Branding in the Post-Soviet Realm," Social & Cultural Geography (July 2017)

"Review of Popular Geopolitics and Nation Branding in the Post-Soviet Realm," Digital Icons: Studies in Russian, Eurasian and Central European New Media [Russian language] (June 2017)

"Review of Ethnopolitics in Cyberspace," Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism (October 2012)

"Review of Ethnopolitics in Cyberspace," Ethnic and Racial Studies (June 2012)

"Review of The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen," Slavic Review (Summer 2011)

"Review of Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation," The Russian Review (April 2011)

"Review of Historical Dictionary of the Russian Federation," CHOICE (February 2011)

"Borat as Battleground," Globality Studies Journal (14 December 2009)

"Much Ado about Borat," Journal of Global Change and Governance (Summer 2009)

"Review of The Many Faces of Sacha Baron Cohen: Politics, Parody and the Battle over Borat," Southwest Journal of Cultures (12 February 2009)

"Cultural Learnings of Kazakhstan," Wilson Quarterly (Summer 2008)