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Research interests

My work explores how states maintain different kinds of secrecy - particularly around their use of violence abroad - and how these efforts leave traces in the public sphere that affect both the activities themselves and popular ideas and feelings about what the state does in the dark.

My current research, funded by an ESRC New Investigators grant, examines numbers stations - shortwave radio transmissions, existing for decades, used to send coded messages to spies abroad. These transmissions involve automated voices, musical interludes and white noise. They remain virtually unbreakable but exist in public, being detectable by anyone with a shortwave radio. I am researching the global history and geopolitics of numbers stations' use, and how these sounds reproduce the secret state within public space as something one can 'listen in' on. This forms part of a broader project to trace the links between secrecy, sound and state-making over the last century. I recently spoke about this research on the SPIN podcast series: https://anchor.fm/spin-research/episodes/In-conversation-Oliver-Kearns-and-Elspeth-Van-Veeren-on-secrecy-and-the-audible-e947ht.

In my previous work, which I am now preparing as a book, I examine the public traces of unseen covert action during the Obama and Trump years of the 'War on Terror'. From drone strikes to special forces raids, secret counter-terrorism leaves behind all sorts of remains, from smoke and rubble to rumours and speculation. This residue can end up undermining state narratives for violence by hinting at unspoken possibilities about what happened. At the same time, these hints can shift the focus away from those at the receiving end of this violence. I use colonial historiography and the writings of W.G. Sebald to argue for a link between this covert counter-terrorism and secretive lynchings in the U.S. a century earlier: in both cases, violence is interpreted as disturbing because hard to comprehend, narrowing the kind of ethical questions asked of it. I link this analysis to the broader issue of the ethical stakes of witnessing distant violence today.

Finally, I have an ongoing interest in the colonial and post-colonial lineage of state intelligence work. Early efforts by so-called Western states to understand the postwar world were shaped by governments' reckoning with anti-colonial nationalist movements. Anti-colonialism posed a challenge to these states' understandings of how geopolitics worked and who it served. I trace the legacy of this challenge and reckoning in the Cold War development of intelligence theory and modes of analysis - right through to the ways of thinking that predisposed British and U.S. intelligence to perceive Saddam Hussein's Iraq as a 'threat' in the early 2000s. I aim to thereby rethink Western intelligence analysis: not as a practice of objectively gathering information on the world, but as an attempt to legitimise geopolitical injustice at the expense of truly understanding its effects.


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