“Across Oceans To Hear”

Naeem InayatullahThe eighth post in our Methodology and Narrative mini-forum, this time from Naeem Inayatullah. Naeem teaches at Ithaca College. His research locates the Third World in international relations. He shows how the history and theory of international relations are formed against ideas about “Indians”. He demonstrates how classical theorists such as Smith, Hegel, and Marx construct their arguments via comparisons to non-European peoples. His conceptualization of political economy as a capitalist global division of labor aims to reveal how contemporary conditions of wealth and poverty emerge from historical capitalism. In addition, he works on the relationship between autobiography and theory construction as well as on how popular culture – especially music and television – expresses theoretical tensions. With David Blaney, he is the co-author of International Relations and the Problem of Difference (Routledge 2004), and Savage Economics: Wealth, Poverty, and the Temporal Walls of Capitalism (Routledge 2010). He is the editor of Autobiographical International Relations: I, IR (Routledge 2011). He is currently working on materials that consider the overlap between pedagogy, psychoanalysis, and writing.

Pablo adds: He is also an incisive and funny responder to student criticism.

Too often my eyes glaze over when I am reading the theory section of our professional papers. At conferences and workshops, my ears search for other frequencies when I hear theory speak. But not always. When “my theorists” are engaged, I can filter out and hone in. Otherwise, though, I glide away. When I do so, I discipline myself into attention by mocking my hubris. I don’t wish to take that posture here. Instead, I want to use this space to defend and substantiate my drift. I am not sure I will do so, however, with an explicit argument.

Our discipline is faddish, no? Product differentiation requires graduate students and established scholars to move from theorist to theorist – searching for profit from all the pores of the earth.[1] And yet, new debates seem like old debates. Things, times, and theorists change but our foundational questions probably remain less than a dozen. My favorite theorists – dead and alive – negotiate these questions. As do yours. I no longer have it in me to sift through the jargon and make the translations.

And yet, there is always something to be had in these workshops and conference papers. Something buried in the theory speak but which the author/speaker hides in plain view. She/he is speaking now. A mind/body configured uniquely by the particular path of this particular life. But structured by forces mundane, ubiquitous, and universal. Such bodies speak and write. They hide what they try to learn. But they also reveal bits of the real. I am trying to pay attention.


Claire Turenne-Sjolander relates her husband’s sudden death. She conveys what forced her to write her grief and to rage against the medical profession. She describes her negotiation with the editor of a journal over what needs to be added. She marvels at the outpouring of responses she receives from readers. Her story contains a universal equivalent. It presses others to reveal their own particular grief and anger. She sketches the stakes in all this. Writing is grief work, a kind of mourning — I take her to imply.

Jennifer Riggan says, “I fell in love with a man from Eritrea.” My mind races. Only one of my ears is attuned to her speaking now. I recall reading her work from a prior conference. She traveled to the horn of Africa. Why? She is talking about her work there but what is important to me is prior.[2] I want to ask her: Why did you travel to Eritrea? What did you imagine discovering there that you didn’t find at home? And love! Doesn’t one decide to fall in love? She is at work on a theory of travel and on a theory of desire. But her subject matter gets in the way, I think. She is removing those obstacles — but surreptitiously. Is she waiting for someone to ask her questions about love and travel? I want to ask her about the “prior.” I need her collaboration with my own prior story.

Tony Burke asks this about the workshop participants: “Are we doing social science as fiction?” He introduces the concept “ficto-criticism.” My mind has to expand towards the space he creates with this language. I don’t experience it as jargon but as play that works. How did he get to all this I wonder. I must ask him to trace out the path.

Richard Jackson gives us a list of ten ways in which narrative writing excels. The list is precise and useful, I think. But what else is going on? At some point he confesses to having written a novel. I will read the novel. What will he say in his novel that eludes him in his long publication list? How did he decide to write a novel? I want to know the precise details of this process.

Melissa Finn engages Jihadis on their own terms. She aims to understand their political theory and criticize it from within. She reveals she wrote a novel alongside writing her dissertation. How many novelists in the room so far? The count is up to four. Again, I have questions for Melissa: Why the novel? Where is it now? Why the simultaneous double tracts? What does she make of the wall that separates them? Is the false dichotomy “agent-structure” replicated by the dichotomy “novel-dissertation”? So much to uncover, so little time.

Oded Löwenhiem is troubled by this question: why is his book on biking through Jerusalem is written in English and not Hebrew. Pained contortions deliver his response. Writing in Hebrew takes him to the core of the problem and he cannot glare into that sun without losing all sight. English gives him distance, allowing him to look awry, he says. He can orbit his love and hate without crossing the event horizon and being submerged into the singularity. There is much more to him, I think, than the optimism he portrays about our workshop. The workshop space allows him to “breathe,” he says. I begin to sense how dire is his suffocation as he pedals on the hills of the city he loves but in which he cannot breathe. There is a deeper story here, I think.


Breakfast, lunch, and dinner provide opportunities to probe what is hidden but left in plain view. Body to body as we nourish ourselves. This nourishment is what awaits beyond the boredom that veil us — boredom’s telos. The bits that give us away wait for someone to ask us the question – the question we fear and desire in equal proportion. And so we come to know bits of the world that produce these impossible bodies.

Our writing takes us away but also towards. We are learning how to make it worth our while to write it, read it, and speak it. Not a lack of theory. But an acknowledgment of the real. An awareness of what we know is absent from our work; what we are trying to say but cannot.[3] Something worth learning, worth writing, worth traveling across oceans to hear.

[1] Himadeep Muppidi comments: “Not really. This is too generous. More like: “from every pore of Europe, every obscure, second, third rate theorist in the West will be engaged before we dare leave its shores for a thinker/theorist outside….”

[2] Himadeep Muppidi comments: “Yes…you see the beginnings of a world in that “prior” and that’s exciting as IR.

[3] Himadeep Muppidi comments: The core, I think: “…what we know is absent from our work.” Absent from what we present, talk, theorize, discuss, and publish, as a contribution to the study of IR. Forget the rest of the larger world—our work doesn’t even do justice to us; our fuller knowledge (with all its limits and distortions) is absent from what we learn to write professionally.

So we have learnt to keep our eyes and ears open to what reveals itself otherwise when we stage our perfect formal writing; that’s where we locate good stories about the world; and those are the stories that are worth re-introducing into IR. The rest is fluff, window-dressing, a cover-up that bores you and me and everyone else.


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