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Reflections on Narrative Voice

23 Mar

The final post in our mini-forum on critical methodologies and narrative in IR. The series is closed by Himadeep Muppidi, who is Betty G.C. Cartwright Professor of International Studies and Political Science at Vassar College, New York. He is the author, most recently, of The Colonial Signs of International Relations (Hurst and Columbia University Press, 2012).


Himadeep Muppidi and Students

Himadeep (seated, fourth from left) with the ‘Vassar village': students and faculty who were into story-telling.

I went to the York University workshop persuaded of the importance of the narrative turn in the field of international relations. I find literature in various forms useful in my teaching of international relations at Vassar, not least in opening my own provincial imagination to the worlds of others. Entering the international through narratives allows the class to engage political issues from the inside rather than pretending we were somewhere outside looking in or somehow beyond the concerns of those whose worlds we safely theorize. Narratives in different forms – novels, memoirs, short stories, and autobiographical essays – also allow for insightful translations of contemporary contexts. After soaking oneself in the nuance and complexity of narratives, conventional accounts of IR appear lifeless and boringly schematic in their attempts to straddle (our) humanity. They perish, unseen and unmourned, on the classroom floor.

But the discussions in the workshop helped me realize that narratives on their own are not enough. We need critical theories to go along with the current turn towards narratives. Colonialism too sustains itself on effective story-telling and not just brute force. It has a robust history of accumulating, systematizing and circulating its stories, not least to those citizen-subjects it narrates as its benevolent and heroic center. In IR, we often claw our way out of these archival dumps searching for fresher, more humane, worlds.

In the wasteland that is conventional IR, stories of any sort might appear, at first glance, to offer a welcome respite. But there is also, as some of our fellow disciplines can attest to, a politics of story telling: whose stories do we get to hear all the time; whose stories are generally inaudible; how do stories make us over; whose mansions do stories furnish with humanity in every remote room and whose huts do they deprive of life and dignity. Perhaps we need to explore these inequities of the political terrain more even as we take the narrative turn seriously. The question I left with from the all too brief workshop, one that is not a new one by any means, was: How can we, in IR, engage better the diverse worlds of the human international, as they come to us through narratives, without losing sight of the politics of inequity staging their appearances and disappearances?

And there I would have stopped but Naeem Inayatullah encourages me to say more. He wonders if what I am saying is: “No matter the turn, it will be dominated by Europe. So what can we do to give the narrative turn a chance at something else?” I am unsure if it is Europe’s renewed domination of the wasteland that bothers me as much as the prospect of another lost opportunity to plough newer terrain.

Maybe I should defer to the voice of a better storyteller. In a 2009 TED talk, Chimamanda Adichie speaks to what she calls the ‘The Danger of a Single Story’. In this short, approximately 20 minute presentation, Adichie draws our attention to a number of issues relevant to our thinking about stories and storytelling: to how “impressionable and vulnerable” we all are in the face of stories, to how the British and American stories she read as a child opened her imagination and at the same time shaped her childhood writing so much that the stories she wrote, even as she grew up in Nigeria, were of British and American worlds (filled with discussions of the weather and ginger beer). Reading stories by writers such as Chinua Achebe, she tells us, brought her to other worlds in which she could recognize characters like herself. Adichie is appreciative of the ways in which British and American stories opened up her world even as she highlights the dangers of knowing only those stories. This is not just an inter-country issue either.

Even the Nigerian context she imbibes as a child is not shaped by a single story though it takes her a while to realize this. There are subaltern worlds here (the world of the domestic help for instance) that she sees only in a thin and caricatured form at first since the story of “their” poverty dominates her imagination and occludes all their other ways of being human. Adichie insightfully connects stories and storytelling to questions of structural power and narrative homogeneity: our socially learned capacities to hear and tell diverse and plural stories of one’s own world while hearing and re-telling only single stories of the other. Adapting Adichie, I wonder if, given the social structures of teaching and learning IR that we currently inhabit, the narrative turn would only result in a renewed cycle of seemingly new stories about the diversity and humanity of Europe and single and simple stories about its Others.

But Naeem’s question continues to smile at me: “So what can we do to give the narrative turn a chance at something else?” It knows that I haven’t responded fully to it yet. I am tempted to say that I prefer to think with you all on that one. Maybe my partial response would be, in anticipation of a broader and longer conversation, that it is not writing alone but reading and teaching that we need to work further on. Maybe we need to begin by reading and teaching an international in which there are multiple other stories than the one or few we already know about IR’s others. Maybe that is the implicit promise of storytelling conceptualized, critically, as a politics of exile.


Suggestions for further reading: Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano, Assia Djebar, Amitav Ghosh

Indigenous Narrative Methods: A Hawaiian Perspective

21 Mar

Noelani Ka'opua

We’re now up to the ninth post in our consistently excellent methodology and narrative mini-forum, and this one was contributed by Noelani Goodyear-Kaʻōpua. Noelani is an Associate Professor of Political Science, with an emphasis in Indigenous Politics, at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. She has published on issues of identity, indigeneity and praxis in Hawai’i. Her first book, The Seeds We Planted: Portraits of a Native Hawaiian Charter School, was recently published by the University of Minnesota Press. Her second book, Ea: Hawaiian Movements for Life, Land and Sovereignty (Duke University Press, forthcoming), is a collection co-edited with Ikaika Hussey and Kahunawai Wright that explores late-20th and early 21st century Hawaiian organising for justice and self-determination. More recently, she has also become interested in the intersections of energy and food politics with Indigenous social and political health.


Ka'opua - Kaneohe Bay

Kāneʻohe Bay

Native novelist and scholar, Thomas King, reminds us that “stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” In The Truth About Stories, he argues that’s all we are: stories. Empires are built on great stories. But on the other hand, anti-imperialist movements have also been motivated and sustained by narratives of personal and collective experience.

In my own home—Hawaiʻi—we lived for almost a century with the narrative that the US takeover was legitimate and that Kanaka Maoli (Indigenous Hawaiians) did not resist the US annexation of the islands. This story is even memorialized in a statue of US President William McKinley that fronts the public high school in Honolulu named after him. He is portrayed stately holding a document. If one were to climb up onto that eight-ton statue and peer over McKinley’s shoulder, she would see ‘Treaty of Annexation’ carved into the bronze. And this is one of the dangers of stories; sometimes they are completely false. In fact, an approved Treaty of Annexation never came to President McKinley’s desk for his signature.

The groundbreaking work of Noenoe K. Silva, in her book Aloha Betrayed, demonstrated that through a massive organized effort, Kanaka Maoli successfully defeated attempts to push a treaty through the US Congress in the mid-1890s. Over 38,000 Hawaiians defended their political sovereignty and recognized independence by signing petitions against the merging of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the United States. It was only when scholars began taking the narratives in Hawaiian language newspapers, Native oral histories and in Hawaiian songs and chants seriously that a century-long fiction was peeled back. The recovery of these stories has been incredibly generative for a new generation of scholars and activists who are now describing the relationship between the US and Hawai‘i as a prolonged, military occupation.

Narratives can be powerful because they have material consequences. Stories can be written on the lands that we inhabit. I grew up flanked by the consequences of the ways imperial narratives are made reality and Indigenous narratives dismissed as archaic. I grew up alongside the largest sheltered body of water in the Hawaiian Islands, Kāneʻohe Bay, approximately 12.7 kilometers from farthest northwest and southeast points and about 4.3 kilometers wide. Kāneʻohe Bay contains one of the only barrier reefs in the Hawaiian Islands and can be quite shallow in parts, filled as it is with coral reefheads and sandbars. As such, it was Pearl Harbor, rather than Kāneʻohe Bay, that became the US Navy’s center in Hawai‘i because of the Navy’s need for deep water portage for its massive warships. However, the south side of Kāneʻohe Bay is shielded by Mokapu peninsula and upon that headland, the US built a Marine Corps base complex that includes airfields, military housing, training and recreational facilities. For Native Hawaiians, the name Mokapu speaks to the significance of the place. “Mokapu” is a contraction of the words “moku kapu,” literally a “sacred and reserved land,” and it is known in Hawaiian mo‘olelo (narratives) as a site of godly creation and of human burial.

Continue reading

A Global Story of Psalms 68:31 | Against the Provinciality of the Twenty Years Crisis

9 Nov

‘Moses and his Ethiopian Wife’, by Jacob Jordaens, c. 1650

Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God

Psalms 68:31 is part of the global story of colonialism, enslavement, the “civilizing mission” and self-liberation. It is a story that is central to the Twenty Years Crisis that constitutes the originating point of International Relations as a self-proclaimed discipline. But it is a story that is largely absent when this originating point is commemorated.

We can pick up the story of Psalms 68:31 with the King James version of the Bible, translated into the vernacular in 1611. At this time it is practice to denote things African through the name Aethiops. More than just a polity south of Egypt, Ethiopia also encompasses Black Africa as a whole. By 1773, catechisms are being developed around Psalm 68:31 that directly address African enslavement in the Americas and the prospects of abolition, emancipation and liberation.

There are two key interpretations. One, cultivated by white abolitionists and subsequently used by Europeans who embark upon an African “civilizing mission”, holds that it is they – white/Europeans – who are God’s children. Hence, it is white/Europeans to whom Ethiopia is stretching for her hands for deliverance from slavery and primitivism. The other, cultivated by the enslaved and their downpressed descendants, holds that the Bible is their story –  the “half never told“. Africans will therefore righteously deliver their own selves from bondage.

The first catechism appears as early as 1773 in the letters of Anthony Benezet, a French-born Quaker living in North America. Scouring through the Bible to find  divine authority for the abolitionist cause, Benezet notes: “beloved friend, the passage we are seeking for is Psalms 68, 31.”; and “the people called Ethiopians are definitely African negros due to Jeremiah 13,23 – “can the Ethiopian change his skin?”. Abolitionists – especially British ones – are most concerned that the enslavement practised by white and European “Christians” would denigrate their status as the most civilized amongst humanity. By Benezet’s time, it is already a belief amongst the intellectual caste of  white/Europeans that they are the people chosen by God to express his Providence, through commerce and colonisation.

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Eurocentrism, Racism: What’s In A Word?: A Response to Bowden, Sabaratnam and Vucetic

23 Oct

The fifth and final post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics: a reply from John himself, responding to the commentaries from Meera, Srdjan and Brett. John’s original summary post is, of course, still available too.


Introduction: All for one and one for all?

I would like to begin by thanking most sincerely my three blog interlocutors for having gone to the trouble of reading my new book, never mind taking the time to write up their extremely thoughtful and interesting blog responses. Of course, the cynic reading all of this might be forgiven for thinking that such a blog forum is hardly a ‘testing environment’ for Hobson’s book, given that his interlocutors are either postcolonialists or at least influenced by postcolonialism and have presumably, therefore, been “cherry-picked” for their potentially sympathetic tendencies. Even the titles that they have chosen, so the cynic might think, would appear to be symptomatic of this, with Meera Sabaratnam’s piece proclaiming – extremely generously I must concede – that my book has succeeded in ‘blowing up the disciplinary citadel of International Relations’, while Srdjan Vucetic’s title projects even further the meaning of the front cover of my book to that which I had intended, suggesting that IR is a ‘foolish discipline’ given his resounding agreement that it suffers from a pervading Eurocentrism. In this vein it might be thought that Brett Bowden’s title – ‘Eurocentrism and More’ – chimes in with yet another wholehearted rendition of the now familiar chorus of ‘IR is a Eurocentric discipline’. So why the fuss about all this and is there much point in reading on? For it would seem that we’re all agreed and there’s nothing to debate, right?

Well no, not quite all for one and one for all. Continue reading

Eurocentrism and More

8 Oct

For this fourth post in our symposium on John M. Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, TDOT is delighted to welcome a response from Brett Bowden, Associate Professor of History and Political Thought at the University of Western Sydney.  The first three posts included an introduction from the author, and responses by TDOT’s Meera and Srdjan. In the next few days we look forward to a response from the author.


Let me begin by stating what will soon become obvious: this is not a book review of John Hobson’s The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The earlier posts from Meera and Srdjan have done an admirable job of engaging with the book in greater depth than I intend to here. Given that this is a blog, I will lay my cards on the table upfront – I’m a fan of John Hobson’s work. And I’m a big fan of The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics, which probably comes as no surprise to anyone remotely familiar with my own Empire of Civilization (all three of you). More specifically, I largely agree with the general tone and thrust of John’s book and the larger points he seeks to make about Eurocentrism. I don’t always agree with the details or finer points, but I too don’t want to split hairs. For instance, as John notes, I am not so kind to Kant, as I think his Lectures on Geography cast a doubt on some of his cosmopolitan claims and anti-imperialist credentials. But this is a minor difference of opinion that has no real bearing on the larger points being made about Eurocentrism and the study of world politics, or more specifically, international theory, for there is a difference.

As noted in an earlier posting, similar observations could be made about the humanities and social and behavioural sciences more generally, which is where, as an undergrad, I was first struck by Eurocentrism, albeit probably without knowing it by name. I can’t recall all of the details, but it was in a small seminar (only three students and a lecturer) on political philosophy where something we were reading and some comments on it struck me as rather odd; I made a point of raising my objections, which were dismissed by my three interlocutors, and I recall thinking to myself: ‘Wow, people still think like that’ – and well-educated people at that. Yes, Eurocentrism, along with a few other accompanying -centrisms are alive and well. This book won’t be the death of Eurocentrism, but hopefully it will shine a light in to some of the darker corners of the discipline and help to open the eyes and ears of a new generation of students and scholars. Which brings me to my purpose here; given that I’ve said I’m not exactly reviewing the book.  The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics and some of John’s earlier work has done a great service in bringing contentious issues to the fore where they can be debated openly – and now that John has opened up the can of worms, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon, get on my soapbox and ride on his coattails. Continue reading

A Foolish Discipline?

1 Oct

This is the third post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book, followed by Meera’s response. In the next few weeks, we will have a posts from Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Brett’s response is now up.


Interest in the history of International Theory has grown, but the academic study of its origins has received relatively little attention to date.  The reasons are multiple: the complexity of the subject, a powerful commonplace view that ‘disciplinary history’ equates scholasticism and navel-gazing, and, I would hasten to add, a collective unwillingness to deal with racism that often pops up in the writings of mythicized fathers of international theory.  John M. Hobson is not hindered by any of these obstacles.  What he does in The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics is tell a story that begins in 1760 and ends in 2010, assessing hundreds of international theorists past and present, from Adam Smith to Anne-Marie Slaughter.

This wide-ranging, authoritative book is a continuation of the author’s previous achievement of note, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation. There, Hobson argued, echoing Edward Said, that nineteenth century European imperialism was symbiotic with Europe’s “racist identity.”  This symbiosis has had many implications, but none as big as this: “had racism not existed and had the West viewed the Eastern peoples as equal human beings, imperialism might never have occurred” (2004: 241).  This meta-point is now revisited in a major way:

international theory is to this book what Western literature is to Edward Said’s Orientalism….given Said’s claim that Eurocentrism has a clear link with international politics – in this case imperialism – then international theory should logically constitute the ultimate litmus test for revealing this discourse in Western academic thought (p.2; all subsequent in-text references are to this book, unless otherwise indicated). Continue reading

The Citadel Has Been Blown Up. Hurray! Next? A Response to Hobson

24 Sep

This is the second post in a symposium on John M. Hobson’s new book, The Eurocentric Conception of World Politics. The series began with a post by the author summarising the argument of the book and laying out some provocations for sympathetic readers. In the next few weeks, we will have further posts from Srjdan and Brett Bowden, followed by a reply from John.

Update: Srdjan’s post and Brett’s post are now up.


I was at an IR event last year where the speaker jovially declared that they just did not care about being, and being accused of being, Eurocentric. At the time, I found it both a little shocking and depressing that they could see fit to dispense with that fig leaf of serious acknowledgement that often accompanies discussions of Eurocentrism.  And indeed I thought, glumly, that it perhaps reflected many scholars’ underlying attitudes to the issue – a tokenistic practice of acknowledgement underpinning a wider apathy or disconnection. What only struck me later was also the possibility that the speaker also didn’t really understand the issue which was batted away so carelessly. Indeed, it is unclear that many ‘mainstream’ IR scholars truly understand the problem of Eurocentrism, given the mythologised twin deaths of colonialism and scientific racism in 1945 (or so).

Seriously?

So, Hobson is knocking at the door more loudly, with a bigger stick, and much more paperwork.  Continue reading

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