Memory Loss as Imperial Effect

16 September 2013, 1000 EDT

In  One Hundred Years of Solitude , Marquez writes “the day may come when things would be recognized by their inscriptions but no one would remember their use.” This passage speaks to an awareness of memory loss. José Arcadio Buendía realizes he is losing his ability to remember the names of ordinary things, like chairs, tables, and windows. Anticipating his loss, he moves around the house and labels each object. After some time, as his memory continues to dissolve, he takes note of the labels and recognizes his handwriting but cannot recall to what the labels refer.

Here is my effort at the opposite anecdote: imagine living in a house so comfortably that you could walk within it with eyes shut. Your body moves from room to room and around the furniture without having to see or remember anything. Neither moving nor seeing require a world outside.

These two stories can be linked via a process: Someone approaches the house, stands in your window and shouts, “Hey, look at what I have brought you. Perhaps you have need for it in your house.” We thank the stranger, import his wares, examine them for novelty, and decide to place them in our curios cabinet where they are protected from the dust. One day, the progeny of the original traveler returns and repeats, “Hey, look at what I have brought you. Perhaps you have some need for it.” We examine the wares and reply, “thanks but I have that already.” We recall seeing it before but not why we needed it. Or, if we needed it. “Never mind,” we say to ourselves, the important thing is to return to our routines.


In the 1980s, Peter Van Ness was one of my professors at what then was called the Graduate School of International Relations (GSIS) at the University of Denver. He was responsible for FGOD, the fortnightly gathering on development. These were bi-weekly evening events where students, professors, or visitors gave talks that set forth intense discussions. Peter also brought the beer. The proceedings were sometimes fierce and passionate. The students and the arguments were from all over the world.

Dependency Theory was still in vogue – so much so that James Caporaso taught Dependency Theory I, and Dependency Theory II – if you can imagine that. He had made a name for himself, in part, by editing a special edition of IO on Dependency.  Part of his job was translating it for IO readers. I recall Raymond Duvall’s visit to GSIS when he gave a talk on how to operationalize Dependency Theory – if you can imagine that. The chalk board was a blur of variables, causal arrows, and probabilities. Duvall was a bit sheepish in the presence of our Latin American students. He offered apologies for his dissection of theories that strive to grasp wholes. But Caporaso, whose rigor was matched by his generosity, pushed Bud to embrace his own vision and work.

That was the apex of Dependency Theory in the US, I am betting. It wasn’t long before it was shelved in the curio cabinet. Caporaso himself was one of the few who soberly assessed the situation: Dependency Theory, he claimed, had died from neglect, not from critique.


Consider, in contrast, the case of what we call “Constructivism.” Not what emerged from Nick Onuf’s work but from Alex Wendt’s. Reflexivity? Dialectical sophistication? An awareness of the meta issues – ontology? epistemology? How shall we name that moment in the late 1980s and early 1990s when someone came up from the basement and said, “Hey, look what I/we found?” The result twenty years later: a booming mass-production of constructivism – the new liberalism, same as the old liberalism. Busy drones generating citation counts, publications, and seeming arguments with one purpose: imagine the scholar as hero; feel good; defend the empire (see, Inayatullah and Blaney, “The Dark Heart of Kindness: Norms Constructivism as Deflection,” International Studies Perspectives, 13, 2, 2012, pp. 164-75).


In “Core, Periphery, and (Neo) Imperialist International Relations,” Arlene Tickner does three things very well.  First, her quantitative and qualitative sketch reveals the insularity of our scholarship. It is easy to make the general claim that the discipline of IR is dominated by the American/Anglo world. But she marshals the evidence.  Here is a sampling:

  • 82% of total literature covered by the Social Sciences Citation Index is authored by scholars affiliated with the US and Western Europe, while Latin America and Africa combine for less the 2%.
  • 80% of academic-refereed journals in the social sciences are edited in English.
  • US-based scholars dominate publication in IO, ISQ, and International Security accounting for between 80-100% of articles published in any given year between 1970 and 2005.
  • The rest of the world is “essentially invisible” in IO, ISQ, International Security, RIS, and EJIR.

Even in a discipline where “reflexivity” dominates, it is possible to be overwhelmed by something as simple as evidence.

Second, she insists that we open up the curio cabinet and recover the language of “core-periphery” relations – a language we learned from Dependency Theorists and World System Theorists. She writes: “Core, periphery, and the elites that facilitate the flow between them” – these are the terms/relations that best explain our predicament.

Third, she returns us to the central trope of the global political economy, namely the global division of labor, and she twins it to the production of knowledge. The division of labor for wealth production, profit and commodities is similar, she insists, to an intellectual division of labor where Third World scholar provide the raw materials (data produced by native informants) and First World scholars provide the knowledge-intensive processes that fashion those materials into refined products.

It is worth noting that under capitalism the competitive process requires all corporations to have research and development (R&D) facilities. The stream of capital dedicated to R&D is subsidized by the state, promoted by the military, and enriched by colleges and universities. Colleges and universities provide the training for future corporate employees, provide junior candidates for those jobs, and serve as incubators for social and technical innovations. Intensive and extensive cultivation of knowledge serves as the fuel for innovation – the driving force of capitalism. As participants in the discipline of IR, we are not passive bystanders in the accumulation process. Regardless of our political posture towards capitalism, our institutions serve the capitalist global division of labor. All this is implied in Arlene’s analysis.

Thus the lacuna that Arlene presents as the motivation of her article – the gap between the discipline’s increasing reflexivity and a blindness to core-periphery relations — is no lacuna at all. It is just business as usual. I am not accusing Tickner of naiveté. On the contrary, I am sure she knows how and why some things get placed in the curio cabinet while other things boom and go boom as constructivism. Rather, I think she uses “this lacuna” to confront us with view in the window.

Nor can I embrace her hope that instead of operating “behind or within” we should move global politics “beyond disciplinary boundaries.” “Behind,” “within,” and “beyond” are the same to those eager to don heroic hoods and forget our complicity in the tragedies we construct and over which we despair.

What then is there to do?


If the slave is a slave to the master, the master is a slave to slavery. So regarded, the question becomes, how does our slave self speak to the master within us? How do we create this encounter? Tickner notes, “the core-periphery structure that still characterizes global IR may be stifling theory equally in its current centers of calculation” (16). My translation: What can the master actually see and hear? The answer: profit. For those seeking material accumulation, it is the promise of greater wealth by which we can flatter them. For IR theorists, it is the promise of innovative holistic theory that may move us to remember our purpose. If, indeed, this is what motivates us. Perhaps we are just looking for puzzles to solve – the jumble, Sudoku – and CVs to fatten.


Recently, in a casual conversation with one of my colleagues, I confessed the following: I started my career with the ambition to stop a certain Princeton professor from producing a falsely eclectic theory of international political economy. Five years later, I geared it down to reaching, not the theorist, but his graduate students. Now I just laugh at myself. How did I imbibe such delusions of grandeur? But I found out I am not alone as my confession provoked a counter-confession. My senior colleague believed that her first book would change not just the profession, but the world entire.

On the other hand, at a well-attended panel at ISA, I have also heard my colleague Aida Hozic reveal something like the following: “I was never one to believe I could change the world. But these days I am not sure I can even change myself.” This makes sense to me. Since “We are the world” (soundtracked not by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, and Bob Geldof’s Band Aid, but by J.S Bach), why should it be any easier to change ourselves than it is to change the world.

We do not read, write, and publish because we believe we can change the world. We do so for two reasons that seem to me redeemable: because we wish to learn how to moderate and perhaps minimize our collaboration with the imperial death star; and, because we have a room with a window and a view. In that view, someone is calling out to us. We just have to find the window. And then the door. If we can remember where they are. And what they are.

Editor’s Note: This is the 22nd installment in our “End of IR Theory” companion symposium for the special issue of the European Journal of International Relations. SAGE has temporarily ungated all of the articles in that issue. This post refers to Arlene B. Tickner‘s  article  (PDF). Her post appeared earlier today.

Other entries in the symposium–when available–may be reached via the “EJIR Special Issue Symposium” tag.