Monday, April 18, 2016

Rediscoveries and Reformulations: Beyond the 2x2?

At first I thought this book should have come before Ling’s. It seems clear that Ling was influenced by this work—it might have made sense to read this first. As I think on it more and more, I’m glad we didn’t. Having Alker’s analyses fresh in our minds we might have failed to allow ourselves the opportunity to fully inhabit the worlds Ling created for us.


One key point of discussion last week had to do with Ling’s choice to place us in a hierarchical, socially stratified world of kings, nobles, and peasant farmers. We struggled to understand why a story meant to help us imagine alternative possibilities would take this form. I appreciate Alker’s explanation that “story grammars” of this kind likely have greater resonance as a result of their seemingly timeless simplicity (287). After all, collective change can only take place if everyone understands the story. We might even argue that collective change can only take place if everyone participates in constructing the story. As Alker points out, folktales are traditionally collectively owned (he discusses Soviet efforts to reconstruct and preserve peasant folktales after the revolution). Folktales/ fairytales tell of the “hopes and longings of a people,” and in this way they fulfill “the role of a social utopia” (287). So even though we were in a world of kings and nobles, everyone participated in the creation of knowledge/ culture on equal footing—thus no one was subject to false consciousness.


As Ling reminded us in our discussion, knowledge must be kept separate from power otherwise knowledge becomes an instrument of power (is it possible to separate knowledge from power in capitalism?). Though this is not an explicit focus of Alker’s, he does devote some consideration to this topic in his discussion of Orwellian Laswell’s distrust of intellectuals—particularly in their affiliations with the state and other oppressive social institutions (even to understand the word doublethink involves the use of doublethink). This reminds me of Sandra Harding’s call for the democratization of science. Alker also identifies Marx’s “communal historicity,” as an early vision of “a new era of unalienated, unsuperstitious, unblocked collective action and shared self-understanding” (224). Uncoerced Habermasian dialogue is a kind of continuation of this line of ‘emancipatory’ thinking. It remains unclear, however, how, exactly, we go about achieving this kind of a democratization of discourse. Though Alker clearly demonstrates connections between folktales and ‘high theory,’ it’s almost as if he simply assumes that scholarly debates have some kind of bearing on the ‘real world’—Habermasian dialogue is a great idea, but why should we have any faith that it will actually happen? To give another example, Alker has “no doubt” that “studies of exceptional successes and failures at conflict management or conflict resolution by the UN conflict management system will shed new light on possibilities for, and conditions of, significant improvements in that system” (349). This is a bold statement in my view. Whose studies? And why will they yield improvements as opposed to say disastrous misunderstandings and ill-informed, self-serving policy-making?


In some ways Alker’s ancient connection between humanistic understanding/ interpretation and scientific explanation constitutes a call for pluralism—broadening and widening a la PTJ and, of course, Weber. Though, for Alker, it is essential that we recognize that all knowledge creation is story-telling (though based on truths publically identified as such). Any “adequate discussion of the truthfulness of ‘scientific’ theories must address the interpretive and fairytale-like character of their originating traditions and current practices” (304). “Even mathematical economists tell stories. And in doing so, they join themselves with the rest of the human race which has, since before recorded history began, made sense of their lives in such terms” (303). Alker demonstrates that this tension is, and always has been, the crux of International Relations/ World Politics. He sees the understanding vs. explanation debate as a false dichotomy (and he believes current debates attempt to “transcend” this distinction).


Alker’s (re)formulations are postmodern in that they refuse to find their bearings in the Enlightenment project’s traditions, choosing instead a historically self-aware textual (narrative) approach—which Alker shows is much older. Social science’s connections with humanism spiral in and out toward unity and distinction over time. Modernity’s behavioral sciences often forget this because they fail to reflect upon their own historicity. Alker wishes to remind us of the emancipatory potential of appeals to human emotion too often left out of modernity’s equation (narrative story-telling can have this effect). Alker makes a compelling case but I can’t help but wonder: Is this kind of thinking about science and humanistic methodology antithetical to PTJ’s 2x2? Though an ideal-typical heuristic, doesn’t the 2x2 presuppose a certain insurmountable distinction between understanding and explanation—again, a kind of false dichotomy for Alker who rejects Hollis and Smith’s own somewhat similar 2x2 on p. 417?

It's interesting how Alker circles back around to "the return of practical reason" much like how Onuf circles back around to rational choice. So many connections between the various texts in this course my head is spinning.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sihar & Shenya: a fable for our times

I think I am probably not alone in finding Sihar & Shenya unlike anything I have ever read in IRT classes. Although we do find excerpts of things like Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War in many manuals (as we can see described in the Epilogue/Introduction) they are normally brief and used to illustrate a point of some particular theory. So the task of writing this discussion post was a difficult one: how does one go about critiquing a fable? The usual "avenues of attack" (methodology, concepts, and so on and so forth) are not readily available. 

My main question, than, would be this: Is Ling's work theory? And, perhaps more importantly, does it want to be? As the author itself argues, Sihar & Shenya is not "filtered through what we call "the West", "modernity", "realism" and "science" (xviii). Although it is unarguably a very interesting teaching/learning tool, what does it leave us beyond that? It seems four of the five elements in book II (wealth, power, security and knowledge) could - if we wanted to that - be easily translated to the "normal language" of IR. But what about Love? How does it come in a conversation about world politics?

My second question is about the "feminist" aspect of the book. It describes itself as a "non-western feminist perspective on world politics and international relations" (back cover). Yet its idea of feminist seem to differ from other readings we have had. It seems to accept  a more "traditional" view of the feminine/masculine, even as it argues against this dichotomy. This appear in some instances of the fable, such as when the women, becoming entrusted with control of the household accounts, are shown to be more compassionate and fair than the men (p. 14). 

Monday, April 04, 2016

Bodies of Violence: Theorizing Embodied Subjects in International Relations

        Rather than taking the body as an apolitical body as often seen in IR, Wilcox argues that "we can theorize the body as an effect of practices of IR" and that the body is not only acted upon by violence but is "constituted in and through violence" (p. 6.). Her key arguements are that bodies are not just key to understanding the practices of violence, but that bodies are political and constituted in relation to "historical political conditions" (p.3). Bodies also act upon the world. She critically places her views in contrast to both IR realist assumptions about sovereigns protecting bodies and liberal assumptions about human rights as freedom from bodily violence and populated by rational and autonomous individuals sovereign over their own bodies. She also contrasts her views with a Wendtian constructivism that places the body as a "brute fact" in a mind-world dualist position that serves as an analogy for the state as an individual body. (Although she does not engage with Onuf, I am curious how she finds his use of the three bodily senses in his elaborate system of three's, even though they seem to share a similar mind-world monist position.).

       To support her view that bodies are produced by and productive of political relations, she explores four key cases: torture, hunger-strikes, and force feeding in Guantanamo Bay, Suicide Bombings, Airport Security and "bodies of information," and drone warfare and other forms of technologically enhanced invulnerable bodies targeting weak human bodies. I am curious how we might describe her methods in this book, whether as discourse analysis, theoretical reading of current events, or something else? Clearly represented in her book are deep engagements with the works of Judith Butler and Foucault, including disagreements she notes, as well as a clear affinity with critical theory. It would be helpful for me for us to explicitly specify this a bit more, especially as it relates to her findings.

Her rethought notions help her reconsider the neoliberal discourse of "Responsibility to Protect." She re conceptualizes this important doctrine to a view that as bodies, "we are mutually entangled with each other such that we cannot seperate" and "our bodies themselves do not precede social entanglements, and thus we cannot consider an ethics of violence differently from existing frameworks that separate bodily existence from power" (p.189). This page of the text outlining a clear ethic has interesting echoes of our book on "IR and the Problem of Difference," our discussion of Ubuntu as either an ontology or ethic, and the IR constitution of less than human explored in White World Order: Black Power politics - connections that might be useful for us to explore together. It is interesting to notice how interwoven an ethical sensibility is throughout the whole book, and I suspect the "empirical" chapters would make little sense without that ethnic sensibility.

     Before tackling that larger question however, we might want to unpack some key terms:
1. Biopower as contrasted with Sovereign Power (pages 17 and 52 for example - tied to Foucault)
2. Ontology of vulnerability (pages 15, 167, tied to Butler)
3. "bare life" homo sacer, homines sacri (p. 23, and 42 - Ziarek)
4. her frequent uses of the words "constituted," "embodied/disembodied," "embodied subject", "feminized category." (i.e. "the male body of the soldier has been feminized, p.40, force-feeding as a gendering form of violence with "trapped bare life" as feminized category p.75).
   Her explanation of body also might be useful to comment on: "bodies must be understood as both material and cultural, both produced by practices of International Relations and productive themselves. Bodies are thus not fixed entities, but always unstable and in the process of becoming. They are ontologically precarious, existing only in virture of certain material/political conditions that allow them to be intelligible to others."

 (On a final selfish note I was happy to note that her four chapters fell nicely along the four categories I recently proposed for researching eventually in my dissertation, specifically traditional violent conflict (Ch 5 on body counts), suicide protest (Ch 2. on hunger strikers), suicide bombers (Ch 3), and nonviolent action (Ch 4. on the fleshmob nonviolent disrobing in protest of body scanners). Although I conceive of these four as a two-by-two table separated by harming self/not harming self, and harming other, not harming other, I wonder if she would strongly object based on her ideas of mutual entanglement between self and other as well as not being able to understand the bodily self outside of a historically situated political moment. Help me fix my eventual dissertation prospectus and lets discuss this friends.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Rethinking Diplomacy

It was striking to me how At Home with the Diplomats echoed my own two and a half years experience with a Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I would posit that the French MFA may be an extrapolated version of the Norwegian one, and both are an extrapolation of society. European MFAs undoubtedly live in this long aristocratic tradition—even in countries where the monarchy was overthrown: a great majority of French ambassadors had an aristocratic particle name until very recently and diplomats with an aristocratic background are still well represented—and this pyramidal structure. I think this later feature is even more obvious within actual embassies (Neumann’s experience was at the home ministry), where the ambassador reign on top, sitting on the chancery, which is followed by the different sections, hierarchically organized and generally ranging from defense or economic affairs to education or cultural cooperation. In my experience at an embassy in a developing country, all the high rank diplomats were men, the office assistants almost all women, and the rest of the staff positions were filled with “locals:” a quite telling picture.

Among the many directions we could take the discussion along, I found particularly interesting, and again accurate, the description of the self behavioral regulation that diplomats must adopt so as to to fit in, quite in the way Foucault demonstrates with his Panopticon: agents are not sure whether and when they are being observed so they conform at all times. Neumann suggests that perspicacity and sharpness in analysis are useful for being successful but must be moderated in order not to upset the hierarchy, depending on the point of departure of the civil servant. Furthermore, the type of knowledge production that Neumann describes fits such a structure: it has to be consensual, politically correct, and consequently never truly innovative. The description of MFAs as rigid bureaucracies completes this idea, as in the bureaucrat’s view “it is only when the system does not work that something new is produced, because the very fact that something new is produced shows that the system has failed” (p. 86, this could be applied to many governmental agencies and bureaucracies in general). The use of Hedley Bull’s definition of diplomatic knowledge seems also right on point: there is urgency and short-lived prospects for knowledge produced in diplomatic missions abroad, so the “deep structures,” as Gramsci would have it, that shape the political and socio-economic landscape of a country tend to be overlooked. It would be interesting to discuss further Neumann’s matrix of diplomacy as a particular ontology, epistemology and methodology of knowledge production, comparable to anthropology and political science.

The question of gender and class, the different femininities and masculinities, illustrate the arduous social mobility, in MFAs and the rest of society alike. If diplomats can in some instances be vector of change in governmentality, MFAs are probably not instigators of social changes and seem to be slowly conquered after the rest of society (interesting inversion of calendar regarding voting rights in the countries mentioned though). I need to evoke the French case again as a recent article illustrates the disparities in career advancement depending on the alma mater or marital status of diplomats: Nevertheless, and as Neumann highlights, there is an interesting “don’t ask don’t tell” tendency in this proper environment, with very different forms of outcome.

If the genealogy and historical account of diplomacy are important, and if Neumann is probably right when stating that diplomacy has been neglected in comparison to other areas of global politics and that it eurocentrism is evident, I do not think that mainstream accounts are as restrictive as he implies. He bases his argument on Satow’s and Nicolson’s works, but many classes and seminars on the history of diplomacy, at MFAs or universities, would mention Egyptian or Roman cases (for instance). Yet, his particular anthropological, historical methodology and critical approach should also be discussed.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Beyond Mothers Monsters Whores

“If women ran the world there would be no war” [1] is a commonsensical phrase that we all probably heard at least once, and it’s the kind of “traditional wisdom” that Gentry and Sjoberg seek to question in Beyond Mothers Monsters Whores. As the authors show it is based on “traditional images of women as pure, maternal, emotional, innocent and peace-loving” or even on “feminist images of liberated women as capable and equal but not prone to men’s mistakes, excesses and violence” (p. 2).

This inability or unwillingness to view violence perpetrated by women as no different than the violence perpetrated by men is reflected in gendered narratives (which the authors define as “a story about an event or set of events recounted for an audience or readership” – p. 139). These narratives tend to portray women who commit violence as abnormal women; as mothers, monsters or whores.

Without going into further details about the book, I would like to propose a more general question about the book and about feminist theory, two specific questions and comment on two absences.

Firstly, as I started reading the book it struck me that this all seemed obvious to me. I found this interesting because it’s clearly not obvious. Yet I was not at all familiar with Gentry and Sjoberg’s work. This got me questioning how theory might slip into public discourse and reach broader audiences and also the purpose of theories more broadly. The authors advocate that their aim is to “complicate ideas” and to “shift how people think about, approach and live gender” (p. 16). Where does that leave us in our debate about what is theory and what should we do with it?

The first specific question is about the authors defense that there is no such thing as a gendered experience, that there is no such thing as “a common character or common experience that can be attributed to people on the basis of membership to those groups [men and women]” (p.5). While, yes, we all experience our femininity/masculinity differently, it seems to me that there is enough of a common experience.

The second question is really a doubt regarding the author’s criticism of rational choice theory for “ignoring traits associated with femininity such as human emotion and interdependence” (p. 33).

Finally, I noticed two absences. They are both understandable given the scope of the book, but I though they’d be interesting topics to expand the debate.

First, I noticed the authors barely comment on the fact that women commit much less violence than men: only 7% of murders in the US [2], for example. While I don’t think this goes against the authors thesis that violence perpetrated by women is underrepresented, I think it’s interesting to debate whether the recent opening to women of spaces of violence from which they were secluded is going to affect these trends more generally. Furthermore, is it going to affect expectations of feminine violence more generally?

Secondly, I noticed the absence of race. While I know we have been at this again and again, and it is not possible to include all “exclusions” in every debate, it seems that given predominant racial stereotypes regarding especially Black women and violence it would be a worthy inclusion is this particular debate.

[1] Yet only 7% of Americans think women in Public Office are better at dealing with national security:


Sunday, March 13, 2016

“Where then does the table come from?”

Despite the fact that Onuf’s World of Our Making contains an extraordinary amount of information and insight, one word effectively captures its overarching essence: irony. Onuf introduces this literary device early on as he elaborates his position as an author though the word scarcely appears in the text (I think he uses it exactly three times—once on p. 30, twice on p. 156 in footnote 22). Still, irony is on every page. Perhaps I should say ironies. In fact, I’ve identified three


To begin, it is ironic that Onuf puts forth this text in the hope that it will be “a tentative first step” towards “the construction of a new disciplinary paradigm” (22). Though this book “stands resolutely in the tradition of reasoned persuasion that has dominated Western thought for centuries,” Onuf means to persuade us to adopt his (new?) approach (27). He hopes that the reader “will accept my argument rather than retreat along the many steps so arduously taken,” even though he acknowledges that all books are “artful constructions” (28). This itself is ironic to some degree. I must admit, I accept his argument. What I do not understand is: why is he making it?

If a "better" configuration of social relations is inconceivable, why does he want to construct a new disciplinary paradigm? Perhaps this whole thing is meant as an experiment of sorts. Or perhaps it is simply that “[i]dentifying the pervasiveness of asymmetric and exploitive social conditions...does not preclude a personal, liberal commitment to making one’s immediate circumstances less this way” (30). Perhaps he does not believe his own argument. Wouldn’t that be ironic? Maybe he actually believes a more just distribution is possible (see irony #3 identified below). Or perhaps he believes that the improvement comes in convincing the mind to have will over the body (there are inescapable byproducts of the human condition, they are highly unpleasant, people are going to suffer and die, this is inevitable, but art reminds people that suffering is in their minds anyway). Onuf touches on this theme in his discussion of priests (teachers, entertainers, and all those engaged in “selling intellectual fashions or prompting mildly subversive thoughts in young minds” 105). As the Oracle famously told Neo in the widely popular Matrix trilogy: “There is no spoon.” Put differently, we might remember that: In the beginning there was a speech act, it brought suffering, suffering can end completely, a speech act is the way.

Secondly, it is ironic that this book did, in fact, “revolutionize” the discipline. Indeed it did construct a new paradigm. Is Onuf laughing at all of us? Are we dogs chasing our tails (to borrow his metaphoric circularity). Was replacement with constructivist accounts where Realist ones once stood really what Onuf had in mind? Recently I discussed this paradox with a former professor. Regarding this entire enterprise of disciplinary knowledge creation I asked: “Is anything ever new?” He invoked this text, he used the word “revolutionized,” and he was not wrong. Whether he was testing me to see if I saw the irony in his invocation, or if he, himself, failed to see it I’m not sure.

Onuf certainly knows (and, at least ostensibly, hopes) his text will do things in the world. There is such a sense of purpose here. Think of his careful attention to detail. Every single time he makes a reference to an individual, a feminine pronoun is used. This reminds us that “the point of a speech act is to have an effect on some state of affairs” (98). Nonetheless, as purposeful as he is, he ultimately argues that the human condition, necessarily social and mediated by determinate “faculties of experience,” is essentially fixed (certain conditions will arise no matter what we do or how we attempt to control and/ or avoid them). Is it ironic that I just need to know his intent in writing this book?


Finally, it is ironic that Onuf leaves no room for divine intervention. Say a flood that will restore balance to the universe. Irony may be the overarching essence, but theological ghosts haunt these many pages. He laces his text with this lingering doubt/ hope. “Everything must be located within the cells of the table. Where then does the table come from?” (Synoptic Table, see preceding page for quote). While he surely states that the table (and religion) are human constructs, we have no reason to rule out (pun intended) the possibility of God. Humans may construct inequality inevitably, but where did humans come from? In this formulation, divine intervention always looms large and inequality may end if we pray more, for example. Real transformation becomes possible.

On transformation Onuf says much in relatively few words, preferring instead to use the structure of the book to illustrate his point. He notes “[b]ecause the first chapter in Part one is a transformation of the last chapter in Part two, they together constitute a hinge connecting the two parts of the book and allowing them to be turned back on, or toward, each other” (28).  He continues with the assertion (borrowed from Piaget, with whom I am unfamiliar) that “all known structures—from mathematical groups to kinship systems—are, without exception, systems of transformation. But transformation need not be a temporal process: 1+1 'make' 2; 3 'follows hard on' 2...[w]ere it not for the idea of transformation, structures would lose all explanatory import” (28). The book is a structure--transformative potential is built right into it. So too are human social interactions structural (1+1 “make” 2). Perhaps this mysterious metaphor implies that God “follows hard on” 2. Consider creation of new life. In this instance, 1+1 actually “makes” 3.   

*Interestingly, Wikipedia tells me that there are three types of irony: verbal, dramatic, and situational (I cite Wikipedia thoughtfully—I will go out on a limb and say that I think Onuf would approve). In my view, World of Our Making engages all three.