Archive | January, 2011

Memo from an Old Contrarian: Hitchens on Revolution, Islamism and More-Or-Less Benign Dictatorship

28 Jan

No one really knows what will come of ongoing events in Tunisia and Egypt (and Yemen and Palestine, &c.). A plethora of under-qualified voices are currently vying for interpretative hegemony, not to mention secure plottings of the various ‘implications’ for the US, global order and the very meaning of freedom in the 21st century. What will it mean for the Mammonites currently scrambling behind the curve? Will the language of ‘partnership’ and ‘reform’ contain the unrest?

It will surely not be long before someone frames the last days’ clashes in Alexandria as the eventual outcome of bombs over Baghdad. I have no particular interest in indulging such faux-talking-head insta-response. What did catch my attention was an especially contrary and confused statement from Christopher Hitchens, billed at Slate as an encouragement to juvenile Tunisia and then at The National Post as a qualified defence of ‘civilized dictatorship’.

Continue reading

Freeing the Pluralist Imagination, or on the wisdom of escaping Weber’s “Iron Cage”

24 Jan

This is the second in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics. Paul started things off with his post setting up Jackson’s methodology of politics in order to ask important questions about the politics of Jackson’s methodology. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson himself.

Update (3 Feb): Nick’s post is now up, to learn about material monism and the philosophical power of beards read it here.

Update (17 Feb): Meera’s post is now online, in which she threatens the stability of the matrix.


A broad definition of science, by design, does not provide us with any standards for good research, or indeed any specific advice for how to go about doing research, beyond the two basic admonitions to focus on factual knowledge of the world, and to separate this activity logically and conceptually from the promulgation of normative judgments and partisan-political stances. (25)

Patrick Jackson, The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations

My comments on Jackson’s book need to be put in a personal context. I have no interest in claiming the title of “science” for my work or “scientist” for myself. Further, I do not consider my primary vocation the production of empirical knowledge. Instead, my work is “normative” and focused, most broadly, on how we think about the ethical dimension of world politics. Finally, I do not self-identify as a participant in the discipline of “International Relations,” nor as a “political scientist;” the tradition of scholarly work identified as “International Relations” is compromised by its statist foundations and the historically positivist pretensions that motivated the move to a science of politics are unsustainable in my estimation.

This raises an obvious question: why am I commenting on a book about the conduct of scientific inquiry in International Relations (IR)?

A Personal Anecdote

While at a conference in Ljubljana, Slovenia, I had an argument with my friend, Laust Schouenborg, about the nature of social science. Sitting in a Soviet-era housing block converted into a budget hotel, watching the sun go down behind the park, I was rhetorically ejected from academia.

Our argument began when Laust, after reading Chris Brown’s International Relations Theory: New Normative Approaches, suggested (contra Brown) that because there are no standards of what constitutes a “good” normative argument, the study of ethics had no place in IR, and that scholars concerned with making arguments about how politics should be, had no place in academia.[1] The modern university is a place for scientific study and those who were not practicing science should, he claimed, be relegated to the political and cultural spheres.

This line of reasoning shocked me, but it was only the culmination of a disciplining process I experienced in my first two years as a PhD student in the International Relations Department at the LSE. Even as many members of faculty supported my work, I was constantly asked why I was studying in an IR department and some “colleagues” suggested that my research was value-less as scientific work – whatever its virtues as polemic or sermon.[2]

These experiences have left me with two abiding intellectual concerns about the conduct of social inquiry. The first is to challenge the institutional privilege bestowed upon those conducting their inquiry as “science.” On this concern, Jackson and I share considerable ground, as his critique of exclusive definitions of scientific inquiry deflates dominant pretensions and advocates for a more inclusive study of world politics. And I must give credit where it is due: Jackson doesn’t suggest that my kind be thrown from the ivory tower – just given separate offices. The second concern is deeper and more contentious: to challenge the notion that the ethical questions that interest me can and should be separated from scientific inquiry into world politics. On this point Jackson and I share less ground, and for this reason the bulk of my comments will focus on how and why Jackson separates the “scientific” and the “normative” in his pluralist approach to IR.

Aside from satisfying very personal concerns, I offer this response to Jackson’s book because his generous orientation, stated most forcefully in the concluding chapter, invites engagement. Along with analyzing Jackson’s essentially Weberian account of a pluralist science of IR, and suggesting that a fuller account of social inquiry should bring together ethical and empirical inquiry, my most substantive critique is that the pluralism Jackson defends is partial and continues to discipline the study of world politics in an unsustainable way – a critique that, if correct, undermines a central aim of his project.

Continue reading

Martin Luther King as an international thinker?

21 Jan

Monday 17 January marked the official US holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr. While watching Monday’s Democracy Now! program, featuring substantive excerpts from King’s speeches,  the clarity with which he connected the domestic fight for equality to international politics, in particular poverty and war, struck me. The international aspects of King’s thinking, I believe, are important for two reasons.

King’s Radicalism

First, it challenges the interpretation of King as an insufficiently radical leader offered by some critics, and the co-option of King’s legacy not only by “moderate” liberals but also by conservative political figures in the US. King has become a symbol in the public consciousness of a safe reformism and a favorite icon for the type of liberal who abhors radicalism above any other political sin. As Michael Eric Dyson says, “Thus King becomes a convenient icon shaped in our own distorted political images. He is fashioned to deflect our fears and fulfill our fantasies. King has been made into a metaphor of our hunger for heroes who cheer us up more than they challenge or change us.”

A personal anecdote to illustrate the point: a couple of years ago while handing over the editorship of Millennium to the incoming editorial team, one of the new editors commented on the large poster of Che Guevara that hangs on the Millennium office door. The Che poster, so far as I know, predates most of us currently associated with the journal, therefore I suggested it should stay. I then asked why Che should go. My colleague suggested that Che’s participation in revolutionary violence made him an inappropriate icon – in many academic disciplines this might be a rather devastating point, but International Relations is full of characters far more violent and less admirable than Comrade Che – see Paul’s post on Kissinger, for example.

When asked who might better grace the walls of the office my colleague suggested Martin King or Mohandas Gandhi (a political figure subject to a similar post-hoc liberal deification), with their key qualification as acceptable iconography being that they had not participated in political violence. While I have a great deal of sympathy for non-violence, my own introduction to both King and Gandhi came through the study of non-violence political strategy, the liberal (and I think my colleague would gladly accept that identification) embrace of King or Gandhi, paired with the repudiation of Che, is (unintentionally?) disingenuous.

It’s a disingenuous embrace because it insists that the first rule of acceptable political action is a renunciation of physical violence, while at the same time turning a blind eye to the violence institutionalized in the state through everyday police brutality and legalized/legitimized imperial warfare, as well as the structural violence inherent to global capitalism. This misses the radical content of non-violence as practiced by King and obscures the link that exists between non-violent agitation and armed resistance. The political commitments and motivations of King and Che are remarkably similar, even as their fundamental orientations (Marxism vs. Christianity) and tactics (non-violent direct action vs. guerrilla insurgency) diverged. Continue reading

Demarcation Problems: ‘The Conduct Of Inquiry’ Between Politics & Methodology

17 Jan

This is the first in a series of posts by several of us at The Disorder Of Things on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson‘s The Conduct Of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics, released last year to considerable critical acclaim. The next few weeks will see further posts, followed by a reply by Jackson (or PTJ) himself. Taken together, we hope they go some way to meeting the challenge, to paraphrase PTJ himself, of emerging from splendid isolation to engage in some contentious conversations on inquiry.

UPDATE (24 Jan): Joe’s call to free the pluralist imagination is now up.

UPDATE (3 Feb): Nick’s speculative realist examination of inference, progress and materialist monism is now available.

UPDATE (17 Feb): Meera’s further untangling of ‘science’ and challenge to the stasis and status of reflexivism completes this round of responses.

UPDATE (14 March): PTJ has begun his reply.


Conclusion: neither science nor the methodology of research programmes provides arguments against anarchism. Neither Lakatos nor anybody else has shown that science is better than witchcraft and that science proceeds in a rational way. Taste, not argument, guides our choice of science; taste, not argument, makes us carry out certain moves within science (which does not mean that decisions on the basis of taste are not surrounded by and entirely covered by arguments, just as a tasty piece of meat may be surrounded and entirely covered by flies). There is no reason to be depressed by this result. Science, after all, is our creature, not our sovereign; ergo, it should be the slave of our whims, and not the tyrant of our wishes.

Paul Feyerabend, ‘Theses on Anarchism’ (1973), For & Against Method (with Imre Lakatos)

I: Conducts Of Inquiry

Paul Feyerabend’s Dada-ist approach to the philosophy of science was informed by a hostility to singular conceptions of the world, a rejection of rigid prescriptions for the correct character of knowledge and a healthy scepticism towards how people thought their forms of inquiry worked. Setting himself against method, he argued that ‘science’ has no common structure and that no general laws can explain its success or prescribe its methods. The growth of knowledge has not only historically been associated with a disrespect for prevailing methodological rules, it in fact requires such violation (whether deliberately or unwittingly).

Patrick Jackson’s The Conduct Of Inquiry attempts both to expand and to limit the knowledge practices counted as legible and legitimate in International Relations. Like Feyerabend (and Imre Lakatos and Thomas Kuhn and Karl Popper for that matter), Jackson evinces a healthy distrust of hard, fast or easy judgements about truth, reality and research procedure. And so he both avoids making the argument for a particular philosophical perspective with which to forge ‘better’ IR and eschews usual schemas that start with the putative ‘fundamentals’ of ontology and epistemology. Instead he offers a Weberian ideal-typification of methodologies (not methods), intended not as a menu of coherent and precise options but as a useful typology of functional categories (on which more in a moment).

The conception of methodology proffered is an expansive one, taken to designate ‘the logical structure and procedure of scientific inquiry’, but not the actual nature of reality and knowledge or the correct technique for a particular problem. Four commitments to philosophical ontology organise the options, generating four methodologies through their various combinations. The purpose is not somehow to test between them, but to reveal their assumptions and explain how they hang together as philosophical wagers. Hence the need to discuss the forms of faith and commitment that under-gird our styles of research.

So, in one sense, we could read PTJ as speaking with Feyerabend in demonstrating that “all methodologies, even the most obvious ones, have their limits…like an undercover agent who plays the game of Reason in order to undercut the authority of Reason (Truth, Honesty, Justice, and so on)“.

This intervention is much needed. Continue reading

Rape & Rape Prevention: A Cod-Evolutionary Perspective

16 Jan

Rape is an evolutionary adaptation. More than that, it now appears that anti-rape strategies are evolutionary too, which for women means increased strength at certain stages of the menstrual cycle, increased general distrust of men and hatred of black men in particular. Taking Darwin in vain, this is the argument put together by Jesse Bering at Slate.

We should probably start by getting our definitional house in order. In an admirable example of rigging the answer by misspecifiying the question Bering names rape as “the use of force, or threat of force, to achieve penile-vaginal penetration of a woman without her consent“. So men are biologically incapable of being raped, women incapable of raping, and the sexual-reproductive organs the only legible site for sexualised aggression (no anal here please!).

Hardly surprising, given this terminological firing gun, that rape emerges as a phenomena only comprehensible in procreational terms. This is a narrower agenda even than saying that it is somehow ‘evolutionary’, itself already less than saying it has something to do with ‘biology’ (the possibility of rape being about ‘sex’, socially understood, or ‘power’ stands at yet further removes).

The quality of proof offered doesn’t fare much better. Take the study on racist attitudes and menstrual cycles, results we’re at risk of ignoring with our rampant ‘political correctness’ (*yawn*). Turns out women from this sample (77 white undergraduates) scored higher on fear-of-rape metrics of black men when they were most vulnerable biologically to impregnation. Bering takes this as supporting an evolutionary adaptation against ‘out-groups’, although he concedes that ‘cultural transmission’ may play a role.

The study itself suggests something rather less conclusive. It found that implicit race bias (non-conscious stereotyped associations of the form ‘black-physical’) was much more strongly correlated with rising fertility than explicit bias. Its metrics for race bias were all clearly consistent with a sociological or interpretive account of race (which is to say that race is a social, not a biological category, and that its meaning is historically and politically determined, not the outcome of adaptive ancestral behaviour). The data is also somewhat partial, as its relation to some wider questions. There is no comment on the fact that, for example, race bias remains fairly pronounced even where there is no ‘conception risk’, nor any significant attempt to cite work on general levels of race bias in general populations as a comparator or to examine variation among degree of bias in the women studied and the possible sources for those differences.

Continue reading

Intimate Dissidence: Assange, Foucault and (Feminist) Rape Discourse

14 Jan

At Critical Legal Thinking, Narnia Bohler-Muller takes issue with the narrow legalism of the often ‘surreal’ commentaries on the Assange controversy. In amongst the denunciation and counter-denunciation she detects an undercurrent of disciplinary power. On this account, the apparently ‘very broad’ rape laws of Sweden, like efforts in South Africa to force HIV tests on rape suspects, enforce dichotomies under the guise of legal formality, and so cast the accused as impurities of the social body:

The argument is that the law is not an appropriate instrument to deal with matters of sexual intimacy as general principles can never do justice to the particularity of the situation and the nuances of sexual game-playing. Such is the forceful and violent nature of The Law. To depend on legal regulation to resolve all the complexities and quirks of human relations is a dangerous precedent and enforces the dualisms of guilt/innocence and normal/perverted. It is such dualisms that serve to re-produce Foucauldian ‘docile bodies’ that do not threaten or resist the status quo

…The problem is that in such a way harmless conduct may be punished merely because we do not approve of it. If Assange is HIV negative, which one assumes he is, and neither of the complaints fall pregnant, then his failure to wear a condom caused no harm. Or are we now choosing to punish potential harm or the risk of harm? Or, perhaps, punishing the failure to be a considerate lover, or the narcissism and promiscuity of a man who fucks helpless women and then leaves?

This ends up turning sexual assault into a form of dissent, a refusal “to express comfort with any kind of subservience to Authority“. As before, Assange is not really the issue, merely a bystander and stand-in. But, amidst her caution against law as a substitute for political critique and her rejection of marginalising discourse (points well-taken), Bohler-Muller’s use of him to mobilise broader arguments about a Foucauldian analytics of rape raises some stark problems. Continue reading

Kissingerian Contempt: Realism, Statism and Other People’s Genocides

10 Jan

For a blog apparently devoted to global politics, we have so far rather neglected its voguish scandals and intrigues. Disciplinary exposure therapy has evidently done its work, particularly where the amorphous theory-cum-policy-manual of Realism is concerned. After all, what could be more mutually disappointing than a lengthy online discourse on the neo-neo ‘debate’ or its ilk? So much somnabulatory exegesis.

That said, last month’s fracas over ‘criminal psychopath’ and one-time ‘elegant wit’ Dr Henry A. Kissinger deserves a mention. In new releases from the Nixon tapes, his fawning jingoism in the name of some clear-cut national interest rather caught the eye:

The emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union is not an objective of American foreign policy…And if they put Jews into gas chambers in the Soviet Union, it is not an American concern. Maybe a humanitarian concern.

Bushite polemicist Michael Gerson took the opportunity to indict Realism, denouncing its shallow moral compass in favour of a vision of more righteous foreign policy (neo-conservative manifest destiny branch). Stephen Walt responded, pointing out that Kissinger is not the delegated representative of Realists, that many who self-describe as such opposed both the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and that hand-wringing by culpable members of the Bush administration over the human costs of foreign policy is straight-up hypocrisy. Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber rightly stressed that this was besides the point, since what makes Kissinger Realist in the relevant sense is his instrumentalist attitude to the lives of others and the over-riding importance of material power in his world view. Along the way, he also provided a particularly apt description of this particular peace-prize winning carpet-bomber as in thrall to “a scholar’s fantasy of Metternich, in which cynicism, duplicity, and clandestine brutality were not foreign policy tools so much as a demonstration of one’s ‘seriousness’ as a statesman“. Nice. Enter Christopher Hitchens, spraying invective like it was the old days and usefully dismantling the apologetics now apparently emanating from several quarters [1].

Naturally, the seriousness of Kissinger’s servile indifference is as nothing next to his actual and extensive crimes, if legal language can be made to fit the special character of his achievements. And one can hardly credit that the good doctor’s snivelling before the anti-Semitism of Richard Milhouse Nixon should matter half as much as his responsibility for the deaths visited on Kien Hoa or the euphemistic and not-so-euphemistic barbeques served up as part of operations ‘Breakfast’, ‘Lunch’, ‘Dinner’, etcetera. Continue reading

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,613 other followers

%d bloggers like this: