Day: August 19, 2011

Zombie Objections

Rodger’s post about the commercial success of Dan Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies joins a long line of fellow Ducks’ quacking about this book. I’ve been a part of the conversation, too, but I can write about the book from a perspective that I think is unique: I’ve just finished teaching an introductory course where I assigned the book. (Hence my complete lack of posting over the past several weeks.) In other words, not only have I read it, I’ve seen whether undergrads get anything from it.

The verdict is clear: Zombies is a great complement for any introductory course, and many of the book’s purported weaknesses or omissions are in fact its strengths.

Granted, this wasn’t a randomized experiment. I’m drawing this tentative conclusion based on the experience of one class, which was itself relatively small. But the response to the book was so positive that I’m actually considering replacing the textbook I used this time and using Zombies as a primary text for teaching the “isms” (realism, liberalism, and constructivism) next time–supplemented, of course, by more traditional articles.

I’m bullish on Drezner for two reasons. The first, and this is not often appreciated, is that most expositions of the grand theories are simultaneously deathly dull and completely incomprehensible to 17- and 18-year-olds. This is only partly the fault of students’ failing to put in enough time. It is largely because the inductive approach that many texts, and many more lecturers, use to illuminate the paradigms is badly designed to demonstrate how highly abstract theories can throw light on generalizable situations. If you use “realism” to explain the outbreak of the First World War and “liberalism” to explain the mechanisms by which the League of Nations was supposed to work, then all the typical freshman will take away is an unintended and hazy version of analytic eclecticism.

Because Drezner is dealing with fantasy, however, he is completely unbound by the messiness of real-world examples. (I’m not sure what it says about IR theory that I find it easier to teach, and to understand, when applied to fantasy instead of reality.) And this makes Drezner a useful teaching tool and textbook. As a teaching tool, it is nice to have one cogent, unified running example to use throughout discussions of all three of the major approaches. As a textbook, Drezner is meticulous in spelling out his understanding of the principal issues and assumptions related to each paradigm. In fact, although I haven’t measured this, my impression is that he spends more time laying out the theoretical core of each approach than most textbooks I’ve read (er, skimmed).

That’s why criticisms that Drezner spends too much time “inside the box” ring hollow to me. I really want a book that does a sound job at using unusual examples to teach canonical arguments well. Most of the more sober books I know use normal examples and teach poorly.

My second claim–that the book’s apparent faults can actually be its strengths–requires me to make a claim not unlike cereal manufacturers’ claim that Reese’s Puffs is part of a complete breakfast. When balanced by a suitably engaged professor, the omissions or smooth assumptions in Drezner’s book can become a useful foil. Charli, in a comment to an earlier post, puts this argument best: “[Drezner’s book] doesn’t work to describe what critical theory might say about zombies, but it does work as a representation of the caricature of a field that systematically marginalizes critical theory. And it then allows students to do the thinking around how a critical theoretical view of zombies might look.”

I don’t teach critical theory in my courses–I smuggle in a lot of contemporary constructivism, but I foreground IPE issues and theories to redress their usual marginalization–but I agree with Charli that this is exactly the right way to use Drezner. And that’s why it’s a very good thing that Drezner does not include these approaches in his book. His handling of constructivism is a notable weak point; nowhere is his fondness for cheap jokes on greater display than in his caricatures of activists standing up for undead rights. When Drezner is using unusual examples to teach standard theory, he is at his most deeply funny and his most useful; but the more outre the theory becomes, the shallower his exposition.

I argue this is not a result of any limitation Drezner might possess, but is rather an inherent limitation of the genre. Standard theory is ripe for parody precisely because of its broad, simplifying assumptions; but one cannot use zombies to illuminate critical theory because the historical and specific relations that such theory would seek to uncover don’t exist. Interrogating specific texts in order to bring out such power structures would merely be tedious. Moreover, it is pedagogically valuable to start with the standard and move to more critical positions; after all, what those positions are criticizing is exactly the standard family of theories, and failing to understand those theories will leave the critical positions either unfairly rejected or incorrectly adopted.

Much like the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Zombies deserves wide adoption first because it is cheaper than standard texts and second because it teaches undergraduates a key lesson about IR theory: “don’t panic.”

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Understanding Zombie Comedy

Earlier this week, Tufts professor Dan Drezner tweeted that his Theory of International Politics and Zombies book has now sold more than 10,000 copies. That’s a huge total by academic standards and I sincerely congratulate Drezner on his success.

Fellow Duck of Minerva bloggers have previously written a good deal about zombies and Drezner’s book. For Foreign Policy, Dan Nexon wrote a brief comment about Drezner’s original article suggesting that we should think (naturally) about IR in terms of hierarchy and empire:

America’s unmatched global-strike capabilities will lead most other remaining states to acquiesce to U.S. leadership over the zone of the living.

The result will not, unfortunately, be Liberal Order 3.0, but a global Pax Americana supported by regional client-empires tasked with controlling and eradicating local zombie eruptions.

Likewise, Laura Sjoberg argues that Drezner reifies masculinization in/of IR.

Reviewer Adam Weinstein argues that the book is “a light, breezy volume” laced with “quick dry punch lines” (Drezner is said to have a “weakness for the cheap joke”). While Charli Carpenter conceded that “the book can and must be read as parody,” Vikash Yadav more critically writes that this hint of humor does not compensate for the mainstream thinking he finds both in Drezner’s book and the larger debate about it:

I do not see the discussions about zombies as a type of new or out-of-the-box thinking. If anything, the discussions of zombies that I have noted so far are completely “in-the-box” thinking, except with a touch of geeky humor, parody, and wit that is usually lacking in the discipline.

So what would constitute an out-of-the box critique of Theory of International Politics and Zombies?

In her most thorough Duck blog post about the book, Charli notes a potentially serious failing of Drezner’s work.

…the book actually scarcely mentions critical theory, post-modernism, feminist theory or pretty much any scholarship falling on the “reflectivist” side of the discipline, much less utilizes their tools. (Though to be fair, Dan doesn’t claim to do so, either.)

But if I have one critique of this otherwise brilliant little book, it’s that as a description of “the field” of IR, TIPZ’ relentless focus on rationalist theory to the near-exclusion of identities, language or embodiment frankly bites.

Broadly, Weinstein agrees with this assessment, as he claims that Drezner’s survey of the field is “prone to give short shrift to IR theories he clearly disagrees with [citing social constructivism], and to softpedal on those with which he sympathizes just a bit.”

While those are significant concerns about the book, they are likely not sufficiently unconventional to satisfy Vikash’s critique. Indeed, he suggests a potentially more critical approach — by thinking about the central role of threats in the discipline, especially ultimate “worst case” threats.

I would hypothesize that apocalyptic thinking functions to reassert the relevance of dominant modes of theorizing; apocalyptic thinking disciplines the discipline. Apocalyptic thinking is deeply conservative; it reasserts the relevance of theories which protect the status quo.

This is an especially important concern given some empirical evidence Drezner arguably misinterprets in his book — the meaning of a couple of comedic zombie films, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland.

Some readers may know that my ongoing sabbatical project is about “the comedy of global politics.” As I have previously explained at the Duck, numerous realist and other IR theorists have long argued that the discipline is explained in tragic terms. Tragic stories traditionally focus on doomed heroic nobles who find themselves constrained by their situation. The stories tend to be set in the Great Hall or on the battlefield and end in death.

By contrast, comedy potentially provides an important alternative narrative perspective on the discipline. Comedies typically focus on ordinary people and emphasize their regular lives — the human security agenda, if you prefer that language. The stories end happily, perhaps in a marriage. Comedies focusing on elites typically satirize and critique those characters, revealing them to be self-interested buffoons. Satire, farce and black comedy can be subversive, reflecting critical rather than entrenched understandings.

Arguably, the makers of the recent comedic zombie films have both the concerns of ordinary people and subversive ideas about elites in mind. The threat from zombies is mostly played for laughs (Zombieland was criticized for its failings as a horror film) and the lives of the (ordinary) main characters provide alternative narratives that are not centrally focused on apocalyptic threats. The zombies seem relatively easy to slay — though, granted, their large numbers are somewhat worrisome. The lead characters spend a fair amount of screen time thinking about their love lives and families. Both Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland end relatively happily, suggesting romance, family, and a return to (a new) normalcy.

Elite characters in these films, by contrast, are often lampooned and criticized. Obviously, the zombie outbreaks in both films reflect a failure of established order — and the characters in these movies are thus left to construct their own rules and understandings in order to cope with their situations. While Shaun of the Dead relies upon the military to save the lead characters from their situation, the story’s final resolution remains nonetheless focused on the relationships among the ordinary people at the center of the film.

Bill Murray appears as himself in Zombieland , living essentially alone in his mansion and disguising himself as a zombie so that he can have a life outside his dwelling. He plays golf, an elite sport, thanks to his zombie disguise. This way of life proves unsustainable.

Comedic zombie films, despite Drezner’s take (rom zom com?), offer a meaningful pathway to discuss critical theory in IR.

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Friday Nerd Blogging

I was not inclined to see this film because the trailers made it look like a dumb comedy about an annoying Jar-Jar-Binks-esque alien with a potty-mouth and some equally dumb human sidekicks.

But having been force-fed Paul by my kids, I can now attest that it’s not actually about aliens at all. Instead, it’s about nerd culture and its antinomies in Western society. (Any film that incorporates spoken Klingon is ok in my book.)

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