The Duck of Minerva

Why can’t it be both?

13 March 2007

Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to let Blake Hounshell have a review copy of Harry Potter and International Relations.

On the other hand, “a brilliant, subversive parody of IR scholarship…” has a certain ring to it.

I’ve been sitting on another book review because I don’t know the actual publication date, but there’s a very positive write up of the book coming out–or perhaps already out–in the Norwegian Journal of Political Science.


Harry Potter and International Relations
Daniel H. Nexon and Iver B. Neumann, eds. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 2006.

If an IR book on Harry Potter is to be more than just an academic alibi to justify reading children’s literature, it should tell us something useful about International Relations. But in keeping with the spirit of the books, this serious story must also be a good read. Happily, this book succeeds on both counts.

First, what do we learn about IR? Since the authors have a variety of approaches, the answer varies. We learn some things about our muggle (non-magical) world, some things about the uses of IR approaches, and a good deal about how innovative thinking can illuminate both. The editors’ opening essay justifying the choice of the Harry Potter series is a succinct and accessible explanation as to how popular culture can both reflect and constitute the world around it. This chapter has use that transcends the book.

The book divides itself into four sections. The first examines Harry Potter as an agent of globalization, including chapters that highlight various aspects of this vague phenomenon: Patricia Goff catalogues the cultural and economic imperialist aspects of Harry Potter, the commodity pushed by the world’s largest media conglomerate, Time Warner; others take on the threat to local culture posed by Harry Potter, western child; and the threat to religious beliefs posed by Harry Potter, the offspring of secular humanists.

Jackson and Mandaville, however, effectively demonstrate that cultures are not simply passive recipients of external impulses. Through the translation process, these are localized. Even literal translations can evoke dramatically different associations; freer translations might be considered a different text. The chapter by Towns and Rumelili is a neat illustration of this point, showing how differently Harry Potter has been received in Sweden and Turkey. Here Harry Potter can serve as a sort of national Rorschach ink blot test for a country’s intellectuals. In Turkey, the magic and folk-loric world of Harry Potter, gives rise to a mixture of superiority and uncertainty in a country whose elite has consciously thrown its lot in with the modernized –but now suddenly and disturbingly re-enchanted– West; while in Sweden, critics are concerned with the book’s all too British class system and gender relations. Gemmill and Nexon demonstrate that the reception of the book in the United States, supposedly a part of the industrialized west and frequently fingered as the foremost agent of globalization, has also been problematic. Many of the concerns of US religious communities — education, secular humanism, disturbing attitudes towards authority and the corresponding threat of the pride of self empowerment, and the power of the market—converge in the HP series and the use made of it by educators. The folklore tradition upon which author JK Rowlings draws to such powerful effect, is here neither quaint nor amusing but instead insidious and threatening.

The second section brings together contributions related to conflict and warfare. Jennifer Sterling Folker and Brian Folker systematically map out the way in which the Wizarding World of Harry Potter reflects our muggle world. Because the Wizarding World is not composed of states, however, it proves an effective if unusual exercise in counter-factual reasoning. Here issues of blood and identity rather than citizenship decides the lines of conflict, raising a bleak specter of an impending war of annihilation. The totalitarian portrayal of the focus of darkness in a world without states recalls both the fear of communism and the present fear of terrorism. If Harry Potter’s world truly is a liberal vision of a world without borders, as the authors argue, it is nevertheless one still mired in “history”: We will have to wait for the last volume in the Potter series to see if liberal optimism may yet pull us through. Potter is here revealed as Rorschach test for Western intellectuals, too.

The close connection between sport, games and warfare is the material of David Long’s chapter. These are intimately intertwined at Hogwarts, in IR literature and in our world, and difficult to disentangle. Games and sport, like other forms of popular culture, also constitute and reflect their world, a theme that Long demonstrates has a distinguished pedigree in IR literature. Long skillfully draws out several strands from the tangled skein – the way the language of sports infuses politics and war and is in turn permeated by them, sport and war as arenas for grand themes and heroism, the rule-bound character of games, sport and war and the way political rivalries are fought out in sporting competition.

The third section, Geography and Myth, includes an excellent chapter by Neumann that probes the relationship between good and evil in HP and beyond. Neumann ties the geography of the Wizarding World to the beings that animate it. They in turn serve as the embodiment of the relationships that complicate and bind together even two opposing cosmic forces. HP himself has an intimate connection to the supreme figure of evil, each fundamentally forming the other and even sharing thoughts. This chapter is packed with insights about the Potter series but anchored as it is in a treatment of the structure and function of myth more generally, Neumann’s analysis easily transfers to our muggle world.

Martin Hall locates the Harry Potter series in its literary genre, fantasy literature, and in Hayden White’s four master plots of Western literature: Romance, Comedy, Tragedy and Satire. Here, Harry’s is only one of several plots discussed –the others vary from the monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy to the family of IR tales that constitute Realism. By examining these as plots, the author suggests that they all have an enduring resonance as much because of the familiar feel of the structure of the tale (which anchors them specific cultures) as for reasons of evidence or truth. A clue to HP fans: the chapter also offers clues to how the series may end.

The last section and chapter takes the setting of the books – in a school – seriously. Given the general importance of the theme of the creation and reproduction of knowledge for the authors represented here, it is surprising that this receives so little attention in the other essays. Knutsen’s chapter entertains with insights gained from the heritage of the British tradition of the boarding school and analysis of the school curriculum (why don’t they teach Latin at Hogwarts?) but also suggests a reading of HP as an extended meditation on the nature of freedom and how to keep it. Dumbledore’s philosophy is to confront and understand evil rather than to hide from it. This is a highly risky strategy – the students may be seduced by evil or perish from it–but all hope in the books springs from those to who dare to undertake the challenge.

This book clearly has pedagogical use as a demonstration of how constructivist methodologies can be put to active use. But is it fun? Gosh, yes. We HP aficionados can learn loads about the series. The volume is well-written, frequently playful and always engaging. Finally, it tells something about the authors themselves. For here we have academic parents who just cannot resist . . . If there is a note of caution to sound here, it concerns matters beyond the text. The book is an illustration of how we can make our parenting duties pay off in publication – but we mustn’t make this the reason we are willing to engage in them. We must make sure not to kill off childish delight in them these books as cracking good reads all on their own. Even so, I can report that this book can be a stalking horse for those of us who would like to pass the joy of our own profession on to our kids . . .

I’ve been told by a number of people that the book was getting positive buzz at last week’s International Studies Association convention. The conference featured a number of panels on popular culture and international relations. The publisher, unfortunately, didn’t bring all that many copies; they sold out within a day.