International Relations versus Punk Rock

Today I was re-reading a piece by Kevin Dunn, “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication,” and it lead me to wonder how far one’s route into the study of world politics affects how one perceives the “object” of inquiry. Dunn starts out by stating:

I am increasingly concerned about the ways that International Relations (IR) as a discipline seems unable to communicate to everyday citizens about issues of tremendous importance. I am repeatedly struck by our inability to speak to the people whose lives are affected daily by the issues we are supposed to be studying. More importantly, I am struck by how irrelevant we and our work can seem to the world’s population.

In 2003, I grappled quite openly and vocally with this alienation. The annual International Studies Association (ISA) Conference was being held in Portland, Oregon that year. Throughout the hallowed halls of the soul-numbing conference hotel, the discipline of IR was displaying its strengths and weaknesses. The US and its ‘ coalition of the willing’ were on the verge of invading Iraq. But within the ISA, there was little attempt to grapple with what this meant. My few attempts to stage some form of protest and intellectual outrage proved heart-warming but ineffectual. Then, at the end of the week, I went to a punk club a few blocks from the hotel to see a Joe Strummer tribute show. Joe Strummer, the frontman for the Clash, had died suddenly a few months before, and now over twenty bands from all over the region were coming together to play a benefit show. Each band performed two or three Clash songs; one band getting up after the other, sharing amps and a drum set. On stage, the bands were using the songs to make sense of the dangerous world we all found ourselves in. The in-between song banter reflected this – comments about President George W. Bush, remarks about American fascism, concerns about the impending war on Iraq, and pleas to register to vote. The kids in the club were using the Clash and punk rock, much as I did years before, to help them understand the world they were inheriting. While the discipline of IR pontificated down the street to itself about world affairs, I swirled in the mosh pit wondering: what relevance did I and the ISA have to these kids? Sadly, it seemed to me that we as a discipline were doing a poor job communicating with most of the people outside that conference hotel.

Leaving aside Dunn’s very interesting analysis of punk rock’s role as a form of counter-hegemonic global communication and subversive political message, the opening lines resonated in a profound way for me, as I share Dunn’s experience of punk music providing a frame for engaging with world politics. This leads me to the question: how does our route into the study of world politics affect our work?

In a completely biased and unrepresentative sample, I find people embracing IR orthodoxy mostly come to the study of world politics through a specific background: they are interested in foreign policy, they like to argue about what presidents and prime ministers are thinking, they enjoy reading about war and can often be seen carrying The Economist. They tend to identify with the State as an actor, they do internships within the government and move easily between academic, political and business roles.

And I wonder, how does this affect their study of world politics?

To trade in equally ill-founded stereotypes, picking out common traits of those doing “Global Politics” or “International Ethics” is nearly as easy. Though most have similar class backgrounds to those doing orthodox IR, they seem identify with civil society movements and alternative political parties. They carry their books in canvas bags received as gifts for donating to Amnesty International, and identify with international organizations and NGOs.

And again I wonder, how does this colour their study of world politics?

The question obviously holds for the self-styled dissidents and critics (with whom I identify), though I’m less sure of the stereotype – which is undoubtedly the inevitable difficulty of self-reflexivity. I imagine there are common themes around protest movements, radical politics and alternative culture.

So, how do “we” come to the study of world politics and how does it affect our work?

For me it was anti-capitalist/globalisation protests, union and working class politics, studying non-violence movements and moral philosophy, and, unavoidably, the slow-motion catastrophe that was Bush, Jr.’s administration. But underlying that political and ethical journey was punk rock music and culture, which opened up an interconnected world politics defined both by unjust power inequalities and self-reliant alternative responses – and when I stop and think about it, that unaccredited education, with its lack of “summative assessment” and “quality assurance”, has exerted a more powerful and lasting influence upon my work than anything else. My interest in the connection between social movements and human rights, my disinterest in state-centric IR debates, and my opposition to scientistic theoretical neutrality/objectivity are all, in part, commitments that generally remain in the unarticulated sense of reality forming the background to my academic work.

These questions interest me because they push us to consider the unspoken background to our study of world politics, the sense of reality we bring to those studies, the commitments and loyalties that define us and the projects that motivate our work. If we studied genetics, the unacknowledged presuppositions we bring into that study would matter less – frog DNA, for example, doesn’t vary depending on the observer’s frame of reference in the same way that the fundamental structures of world politics do. I suspect that being more upfront about these unspoken motivations and commitments would improve the study of world politics, at least for those of us who share Dunn’s frustration with the disconnection of IR from the political reality of most people around the globe – but that will have to be the subject of a future post.

In the meantime, in the spirit of Dunn’s piece, a Punk Rock IR Playlist – the interactive challenge being intuiting how they might resonate meaningfully with the study of, or engagement in, world politics.

1. “Spanish Bombs” by The Clash

2. “Chemical Warfare” by The Dead Kennedys

3. “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” by X-Ray Spex

4. “Big Takeover” by Bad Brains

5. “Ten in 2010” by Bad Religion

6. “Capitalism Stole My Virginity” by The (International) Noise Conspiracy

7. “Immigrant Punk” by Gogol Bordello

8. “Entertain” by Sleater Kinney

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2 thoughts on “International Relations versus Punk Rock

  1. Pingback: Julian Assange and the Spectre of Rape « The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: International Relations versus Punk Rock (Slight Return) « The Disorder Of Things

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