Tag: critical theory

Is there a middle ground in the study of ideas in international relations?

I’m working on a new project about the use of religion in power politics (part of which I’ll be presenting “at” APSA this week). I’m finding good evidence, but the framing is tricky. Religion as a power political tool happens, and matters, but it rarely works out the way the wielders intended. Is this an example of ideas mattering in international relations, or an example of their limits? The fact that I feel forced into such a binary reflects a broader issue in the sub-field.

As we all learn in Intro to IR, the study of ideas revolves around constructivism. With the emergence of neorealism and neoliberalism in the 1980s, IR became overly rationalist and materialist. Constructivism developed as a reaction to this, producing numerous studies on the way intersubjective beliefs guided and shaped state behavior. After the paradigm wars faded, “constructivist-y” studies continued, with important work focusing on the role of rhetoric and practices in international relations.

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Symposium — Defining Theory Down

EJT_19_3_cover.inddEditor’s Note: This is a guest post by Inanna Hamati-Ataya. It is the second  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 responds to the introduction (PDF), written by Tim DunneLene Hansen and Colin Wight. Their own post is available here.

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

The EJIR Special Issue is not only a new opportunity to collectively reflect on the status and future of theory in International Relations (IR), but also to consider alternative ways of thinking about theory and its relation to reality. Although the editors acknowledge the diversity of approaches currently populating the field, their own framing of the discussion remains grounded in the philosophy-of-science narrative that our discipline too often puts forth as the only authoritative framework for discussing theoretical and metatheoretical issues.

Many — perhaps most — IR scholars find commonsensical the view that theory is ‘wholly conceptual and is not a concrete object’. They consider it an unproblematic starting-point for the present discussion. It is not. We should challenge this idealist-philosophical perspective. We should take seriously the ontological status and realism of theory/theorizing. Approaching theory as social construct and practice  leads to a more productive discussion — one that entails a more sociological and reflexive engagement with theory.

Such a discussion begins by rejecting the editors’ tempting invitation to slip back into a comfortable Waltzian posture. This invitation threatens to exclude a wide range of IR theory by avoiding the critical issues raised by the ‘third debate’ (PDF) in the field.  The field needs to preserve and re-assess the important gains of this debate and of the development of ‘post-positivist’ perspectives. To ignore the epistemic implications of Critical, Marxist, Feminist, Post-structuralist, and Post-colonial research is in effect to deny the historicity, social situatedness, and practical nature of theory.

We, and our students, have become more sensitive to the socio-economic, politico-ideological, and cultural determinants and functions of academic knowledge; the problématique of the knowledge-power nexus has raised our awareness of our intimate involvement in the (re)production of local and global power structures and relations, beyond the ideals/illusions of objectivity, neutrality, and value-freedom; research on the history of IR itself has also challenged our earlier naïve, objectivist view on the relation of theory to practice and their alleged antinomy. In fact, preserving and re-assessing the gains of the third debate requires us decide whether we take the social sciences seriously in the first place. If we adopt an abstract understanding of theory that treats the theorist as operating over and above the world that she studies, then we cannot produce genuine social science of the kind that influences the conduct and practice of world politics.

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Podcast No. 8 – Interview with Daniel Levine

The eight episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. In it, I interview Daniel Levine about his new book — Recovering International Relations: The Promise of Sustainable Critique (Oxford University Press, 2012).


  • Front Matter
  • Who is Daniel Levine?
  • Recovering International Relations
  • Getting Deeper into the Argument
  • Realism, Liberalism, and the Dialectic of Enlightenment
  • Reflexivity and Critique
  • What’s next
  • End Matter

Note: podcasts now seem to be appearing every Friday, give or take. We’ll see how long we can sustain it.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Comments or thoughts on either this podcast or the series so far? Leave them here.


House MD Epistemologist

Like many of my nerdy friends, I am eagerly awaiting the return of  the second half of this season’s “House MD.” But let’s be honest, the show basically substitutes a flow chart for a plot. No one with half a brain actually watches the show for the “medical mystery”; after all the show is premised on a suspension of disbelief. It’s entertaining and a guilty pleasure because of the wit and antics of the ever gruff Hugh Laurie.

But the show can be read as more than a series of implausible medical escapades; it is also a commentary on epistemology and society. Here is a quick round-up of what I have learned from House MD:

1. House is the most rational person in the world; House is a complete drug addict. These two statements are not a contradiction within the parameters of the show. House is a calculating, self-interested, rational utility maximizer par excellence. His utility is pleasure and his pleasure is avoiding pain… and of course getting more pleasure. He is Bentham’s man; he is John Stuart Mill’s homo-economicus; he is a neo-liberal fantasy in the flesh. House is not a complete human being by any stretch of the imagination and yet this is the human being idealized by rational choice theorists.

Thus, perhaps it should not surprise us that the show’s protagonist moves rather indifferently from the hospital to the prison and back to the hospital as if these were merely interchangeable backdrops from Foucault’s carceral archipelago. House cannot be reformed, resocialized, or rehabilitated by social institutions — he is hardwired, his preferences are (apparently) exogenous — governmentality does not apply to House. Notably, his incarceration makes little real impact on his personality or on his medical practice (and why should it?).

2. Everybody lies. Everyone, particularly every patient, on the show lies constantly — it’s the motto of the show. The interviewed subject (i.e. patient) can never be believed. The subject is a knowing subject who willfully deceives the (medical) examiner by telling him or her what they want or expect to hear. More importantly, the body contains the truth of the subject, but even the body deceives the examiner. Of course, the truth would not be worth much without being defined by these lies. The lies are what make the show interesting; the reasons for the lies are what are worth investigating. The lies uphold the social order and their unmasking reveals the inner workings of that society. Without understanding the reason for the lies, there is no way to solve the mystery.

3. Differential diagnosis: The show is premised on the notion that law like generalizations are irrelevant and probabalistic knowledge is potentially fatal. House is only concerned with finding solutions to the most unique of cases. After all, House’s patients are individuals; they are snowflakes. The accumulated knowledge of science is necessary but inadequate because of the specificity of his cases. These extreme outliers are not “black swans” however because their discovery does not have any impact on established theory or science. The outliers only help to confirm the belief that each individual is unique.

4. Power/knowledge: The production of knowledge is directly tied to power in the show. Wrong answers to House’s quiz questions are immediately punished with mockery and humiliation in the hierarchy of underlings. House’s own status and power are contingent on his unique ability to find the truth by the end of the show.

That Dr. House is also a raving sexist should not be surprising to any feminist theorist. Why House is not also consistently as racist and homophobic as he is sexist is a curious inconsistency or perhaps an indication of the normative (albeit relatively recent) “red lines” in the target viewing audience.

Knowledge is produced in a group setting a la Socrates. Despite House’s incredible intelligence he cannot arrive at the truth all by himself.  (Of course, some of his companions mainly provide him with social insights that he as a hedonist lacks and others provide social constraints upon/opportunities for House’s preferred unethical techniques of diagnosis.) House has encyclopedic knowledge and rational thinking, but what makes him the best diagnostician is that he understands people are seeking pleasure and avoiding pain just like himself. The dictum that guided Hobbes’ (auto-) dissection, also guides House: Nosce teipsum.

The show invariably requires the performance of a radical (and quite literally) critical test in part because House only deals with extreme anomalies and in part because he must eventually contend with increasing time pressures that will not allow for the continued reliance on conventional tests. Thus, the science of House is romantic or perhaps (more accurately) Puritan to the extent that his tests place the life of his patients at stake.

5. Biopolitics: The show is about the demonstration of power through the preservation of life from the clutches of death. The show is not about a flourishing of life, but about keeping people alive mainly to cheat death, i.e. to show the mastery of nature as an intellectual exercise. Oddly, however, House is never able to find redemption, his character must reset as irredeemable by the next episode.

So is it too obvious for me to suggest that House is both a satire and a study of us as Americans and the forms of knowledge that some wish corresponded to our society?


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.


Paintings, Pictures, and Power

At the “Theory Talks” Blog, there is an excellent interview with Michael J. Shapiro on “Pictures, Paintings, Power and the Political Philosophy of International Relations.”  Shapiro argues for the need to awaken the discipline from its pre-Kantian slumber and to move beyond the “anemic, empiricist philosophy of social science which treats mere appearances” as well as the “security-minded and war strategy focused” versions of international relations.  Instead of working within the established techniques of the discipline, Shapiro embraces alternative genres (e.g. film, architecture, poetry, music, etc.) to illuminate hidden political partitions and to articulate alternate possible worlds.

On reading Shapiro’s comments, I began to think about my favorite political paintings and pictures.  For my political economy courses, my favorite image is David Alfaro Siqueiros’ mural “Portrait of the Bourgeoisie,” (1939).  A segment of the mural was used as the cover of Atul Kohli’s State Directed Development (2004), which I assign in my advanced course on States and Markets.  I have found that a discussion of the mural is often a compelling way of reviewing and critiquing corporatist models of development with my students.

Another favorite image, that I use in my seminar on “Sovereign and Subaltern” is a photo of a US soldier collecting biometric data from an elderly Afghan man in 2008.  The image captures the obsessive and largely unchallenged attempt by the United States to assemble a biometric archive of the entire population of Iraq and Afghanistan.  The project is reminiscent of Britain’s attempt to develop a systematic fingerprint archive of Indians one year after the Sepoy Mutiny / First War of Independence in 1857.  These projects reveal not only the operation of power/knowledge, but also the pervasive fears of the “duplicitous” oriental subject that inform imperial practices in occupied territories.  Of course, the invention and deployment of these disciplinary technologies on a subject population, whether fingerprinting or iris scanning, inevitably find their way from the periphery to the metropole.  Hence, the photo reminds us that the conquered territory / colony is a laboratory for the refinement of disciplinary technologies.  In this respect, the periphery may be the future of the core.

Image Source: AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool.

I am curious as to what the other Ducks would list as their favorite political/social paintings or pictures…


Neorealists as Critical Theorists: Film Edition

On Monday, neorealist IR scholar and Foreign Policy blogger Stephen M. Walt posted his top ten list of “movies that tells (sic) us something about international relations.” He was looking for broad insights, beyond what might be offered in genre war films or spy flicks. He also excluded documentaries and overt propaganda exercises.

Long-time Duck readers may recall that I previously wrote a series of blog posts about an IR film class I taught in fall 2006. Since that semester, I’ve taught the course another time (and changed a few film selections). I’m also scheduled to teach it during fall 2009. While other Duck bloggers have occasionally posted about film, I have a ready list to assess Walt’s choices. For now, I’ll ignore Dan Drezner’s list. Drezner agreed with only 2 of Walt’s suggestions — and mine — in his own post on this topic.

In my class, I select a few films that reflect relatively standard IR theory. However, most of the films viewed in the class are fairly critical of these theories and some films offer alternative critical perspectives on IR that are arguably missing from mainstream scholarly debates. After all, I am a critical theorist working on a project entitled “The Comedy of Global Politics.”

What else would you expect from me, right?

Here’s an interesting tidbit, however: Walt’s ranked top 10 list includes 5 films from my class and nearly all offer critical (comedic) readings of IR: #6 “Wag the Dog,” #4 “Gandhi” (yes, a comedy by ordinary standards), #3 “The Great Dictator,” #2 “Dr. Strangelove,” and #1 “Casablanca.” Drezner included “Dr. Strangelove” and “Casablanca.”

Allow me to reiterate this point for emphasis. When selecting films that say something important about IR, the neorealist Walt picks a number of critical and comedic movies. Perhaps the overlap between Walt’s list and my class is not surprising — I suppose it depends upon whether you buy my argument about “neorealists as critical theorists.”

Walt includes some other fine films, but my top 10 list would probably include some different choices: “Twelve O’Clock High,” “The Quiet American,” “Breaker Morant,” “The Whale Rider,” and “V for Vendetta.” Additionally, I’d have to think long and hard about omitting “Missing” and “Lord of War” from a top 10 list.

Neither Walt nor I have included films with many characters who do not speak English, which is obviously a major shortcoming. However, these choices reflect the discipline’s biases as well and thus serve as a critique (or as a jumping off point for a critique). My students are required to watch additional films outside class for a review assignment and their list of choices includes a number of non-English language films.


Teaching from the blogosphere

Recently, my graduate IR seminar addressed critical theory — and we naturally contrasted critical theory to “problem-solving theory,” as Robert Cox would have it.

In a volume about Cox’s contributions to IR, Timothy Sinclair draws the distinction (pp. 5-6):

It is the action, not the limits of the system, that is the analytic focus of of problem solving. Critical theory steps outside the confines of the existing set of relationships to identify the origins and developmental potential of these phenomenon. While problem solving theory assumes the functional coherence of existing phenomenon, critical theory seeks out the sources of contradiction and conflict in these entities and evaluates their potential to change into different patterns.

Allow me to dip into today’s blogosphere to illustrate.

1. Mr. Trend of Alterdestiny cannot figure out what to do with his old baseball cards.

In addition to my impending move to New York, my parents are also leaving the house they’ve lived in for 14 years, so I am forced to sort out the few valuable things I might have and throw out the rest of the majority, which can politely be called “junk.” As part of this process, I’ve been forced to go through all the baseball cards I bought between 1987 and 1991-ish.

Problem solving theory: sell them on Ebay.

2. D at LGM is pondering his falling retirement account:

So I’m wondering what sort of drink goes best with the news that one’s retirement account has lost nearly 15% of its value since January.

Critical Theory response: maybe D should have bought Mr. Trend’s baseball cards (value determined by community member attachments) — instead of traditional investment securities (value at least partly determined by American power, environmental degradation, continued income inequality, etc).


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