In defence of the apparently indefensible (or, French ‘intellectuals’ did not ruin the West and can we please stop postie-bashing because it’s not actually terribly helpful thank you)

Note: I decided to write this post because I got tired of trying to explain my position on discourse, reality, truth, and why Foucault is not to blame for the rolling shit-show that is US politics right now on Twitter in 140 characters. And then my 800 word blog post turned into a 4000 word essay. Sorry about that. Tl; dr version: truth is a social construct but that doesn’t mean anything goes. But the long version contains turtles and an Adam Savage gif, so do please read on…

 Let me get a couple of things straight before I begin. First, I am not A Philosopher. I am not (often) a thinker of profound and important thoughts (not nearly often enough, anyway), nor do I consider the work that I do to be in the realm of philosophy, or even ‘grand theory’. I am not A Theorist either; I am, at most, a theorist with a lower-case ‘t’. I theorise, a bit, about the nature of the things that interest me and the relationships between them. It helps me make sense of the world and that’s about as far as it goes. So I am probably woefully underqualified to write this post. But here I am, because being woefully underqualified to write about postmodernism[i], and truth, and facts, and the world in general, doesn’t seem to stop a whole bunch of other people doing it and if they’re having their fun I want some. (Plus, the way you get qualified to write about Stuff is to write about it, amirite?)

Second, I have (quite unfairly, I admit), used bits of Helen Pluckrose’s recent essay on ‘How French “intellectuals” ruined the West: Postmodernism and its impact, explained’ as a sort of intellectual sparring-partner in this post, just because it offers such a full account of the charges laid at the door of postmodernism, and how this intellectual movement has affected truth, and facts, and the world in general. It’s unfair because Pluckrose’s essay is just the latest in a line of similar types of argument, and I could just as easily have chosen to respond to any of those. But I chose this essay because I am lazy and it popped up on my Twitter feed on Saturday morning and when I read it I thought: No. No more. No longer. For this, I cannot stand. So, again, here I am, to address what I see as the four key points of argument she presents in an effort to discuss the things I want to discuss about postmodernism, and truth, and facts, and so on.

1. ‘the roots of postmodernism are inherently political and revolutionary, albeit in a destructive or, as they would term it, deconstructive way’

So there are some issues here. Continue reading

An African-American Social Science: International Relations

This is the third post in our book symposium on White World Order, Black Power Politics. The opening post by Bob is here, and the earlier response of Naeem is here. Further responses will follow.

White World Order, Black Power Politics (WWOBPP) was on my reading list before it was released; it had come highly recommended by my supervisor who was then reviewing it for Cornell, it was a on a topic that was close to my heart, and it was written by Bob Vitalis, whose work had been an inspiration to me for years.

And yet I was unprepared for the full emotive and intellectual force of the book. WWOBPP is a genealogy of American International Relations, which it turns out is essentially an enterprise in systematic forgetting, in the writing out of and over an already established body of scholarship in the ‘discipline’ pioneered primarily by a cohort of black academics including Alain Locke, Ralph Bunche, Rayford Logan and Merze Tate from the 1920s to the ‘50s that ultimately coalesced around Howard University in the US.

The Howard School were veritable trailblazers in all their scholarship as Bob painstakingly documents, but two of their insights stand out for me in particular: (i) that imperialism was the core problematique of IR, that is, the “central problem for scholars seeking to grasp the nature of and threats to the existing world order” (86) and (ii) that racism and imperialism were mutually implicated, that there was an “elective affinity between the concept of race and empire” (87). Together these two insights revealed that international relations were essentially inter-racial relations, and IR a racial science that served as steadfast handmaiden to empire. Continue reading

White World Order, Black Power Politics: A Symposium

vitalis-e1458738905580This is the first post in the symposium on Robert Vitalis’s, White World Order, Black Power Politics: The Birth of American International Relations (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015). Professor Vitalis (who also answers to ‘Bob’) teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, When Capitalists Collide: Business Conflict and the End of Empire in Egypt, was published in 1995. His second book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, published in 2005 was named a book of the year by The Guardian. He has been a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars (2009), Rockefeller Foundation (2003), the International Center for Advanced Study, NYU (2002), the American Council of Learned Societies (2002), and the MacArthur-SSRC International Peace and Security Program (1998). He was a MacArthur Award nominee in 1998. Below is his introduction to our symposium.


Naeem’s response is here; Nivi’s is here and Srdjan’s is here.


White World Order, Black Power Politics may well be the only book discussed in this symposium series that isn’t primarily concerned with theory, or at least the only one by an author who does not self identify as a theorist, teaching in a department that does not recognize what I do as “IR.”  It is also less an intellectual history, which might allow it to pass as theory, than it is an institutional history. So I am grateful for the interest in it here.

28522646._UY1280_SS1280_That said, it is indeed a critical history. The records of professors, schools, research organizations, and foundations in the early twentieth century United States reveal a past that bears scant resemblance to the “practitioner histories” or insider accounts of great debates invented about the discipline of international relations in the second half of the century, which are the ones most specialists tell themselves and their students until now. In fact, the more I learned and labored in the archives the more I came to see the problem as similar to the one I wrestled with in my last book, America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. The history that U.S. oil companies invented after World War II about their early and unshaken commitment to a “partnership in progress” with the Saudi people, at a moment when criticism of U.S. imperialism was on the rise in the Eastern Province and across the globe, is the one that books repeated uncritically for decades. The firms’ private records though revealed a dramatically different reality. I developed an account of the exploitative order in place in the oil camps, the racial science that justified it in the minds of the American engineers and managers, and the failed efforts of Arab and other workers to bring about its end. I likened what I did in that book to “reverse engineering” particular processes of mythmaking. I’ve done more or less the same thing for a sector of the U.S. academy in White World Order. Continue reading

Critiquing the Social: Comments on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force

The last commentary in our forum on Economy of Force, from Andrew Davenport. Andrew is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, where he works on International Theory, with particular emphasis on debates in Critical Theory, materialism and idealism, and modern social theory. He is the author most recently of ‘Marxism in IR: Condemned to a Realist Fate?’ in the European Journal of International Relations. Patricia’s rejoinder to the four commentaries (from Pablo, Jairus, Elke and Andrew) will follow tomorrow.

In the concluding section of Chapter Two of this book, Patricia Owens quotes Robert Nisbet to the effect that the essential concepts and perspectives of the sociological tradition “‘place it much closer to … philosophical conservatism’, than we might otherwise think.” A basic theme of the book is that it ought to be more clearly understood that prominent categories in the work of Durkheim, Weber and Marx – community, authority, alienation and status – are in fact just “conservative moral categories … but in scientific garb”.[1] The conservative character of sociology’s origins is in fact no secret. At much the same time as Nisbet was writing, Theodor Adorno also noted it: near the beginning of his introductory lectures on sociology, he emphasised that any assumption of an intrinsic connection between sociology and radical politics (that sociology = socialism) would be seriously mistaken: “if the concept of sociology is understood as it came into being, with the historical meaning it has, it can be said that the opposite is actually the case.” Sociology’s interest, from the start, was always the maintenance and preservation of the existing order, not its critique and change. What does the character of these origins mean for social theory? How should it affect or condition our understanding of social thinking and its basic concepts: precisely, ‘society’ and ‘the social’? Owens’ answer is unequivocal: it should lead to profound suspicion, if not outright rejection. Social thinking, from the start, contained a poison and its natural affinity to conservative thought, attitudes and practices is simply indicative of this noxious nature. Especially damaging in its consequences for IR theory, so the argument runs, has therefore been the unthinking naturalisation of ‘social’ terminology virtually across the spectrum, from statist Political Realism to Foucauldian biopolitics – as if society and the social were neutral terms that do not themselves colour or prejudice the discourse.

The language of ‘society’ is indeed widespread, and often perhaps unreflectively used, in IR, and so its critique is surely an important theoretical project. Not the least of the book’s merits is that it poses uncomfortable questions to critical theory about how far it is possible to adopt social thinking for purposes of critique. Owens directs some pointed remarks at Marxists, Foucauldians and other critical theorists for, in effect, supping with the devil, and in the chapters on counter-insurgency she marshals enough evidence of a ‘homology’ between social theory and imperial practices of counter-insurgency to give even the most committed sociologist pause. Further, in demonstrating that the emergence of distinctly social thinking was coeval with the development of capitalist society, there is at least the implication that those who would pursue critique of capital ought not to accept social categories at face value. Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are difficulties with the critique of the social elaborated in the book, both in how the argument is structured and with the categories employed, difficulties that lead to some of the work of critique remaining undone. As a result, the account of the social developed here, challenging and thought-provoking as it is, breaking new ground, nevertheless does not go as far as it might.

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Home-ology; Being a Comment On Patriarchs and Patriarchy in Economy of Force

This is the second contribution to a forum on Patricia Owens’ Economy of Force. More to follow in the coming days.

Joshua Reynold's portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

Joshua Reynold’s portrait of Clive of India, director of the East India Company, c. 1765

What to say about Economy of Force, Patricia Owens’ wildly ambitious contribution to international political theory?[1] A book that threatens to overwhelm, whether with the vast literature it marshals or in its brazen assault on (almost all) social theory. A book that consistently degrades the “intellectual crutch” of sociality, offers an arresting agenda for historical and political analysis, and then delivers a revisionist account of late colonial and ‘post-colonial’ counterinsurgency of its own. Amidst the parade of detail and argument, a book in which you will also discover a nascent theory of patriarchy. Arguably more, Economy of Force presages nothing less than the groundwork for a unification of feminist and international political theory.

As we have already seen, Owens’ critique of ‘the social’ as a category of thought and practice involves reviving the alternative to it: oikonomia, economy in its original sense. More precisely, Economy of Force dispenses with the usual distinction between a time when the family household was the primary site of power (feudal, certainly pre-modern, personalist, and status-based) and the contemporary distribution of political, economy and civil power in something we call ‘society’ (properly modern, bureaucratic or networked, and contract-based). Instead of telling stories in which the household is overcome by society, we should, on this account, recognise that ‘the social’ is a historical transformation of the household form. The change in the form of household governance is real, but the stories told about the change are fictions. The current hegemonic story – social theory itself – has as its effect the obscuring of power as domestication. In other words, our conventional narrative of how the household disappeared provides ideological cover for the fact that the household is still very much with us.

Oikonomia, or household governance, is rule characterised by a father figure (paterfamilias) whose power is more or less that of a despot. Since despot means ‘master of the house’, you might expect International Relations scholars to have noticed, or to be alert to their own repeated tendency to name as ‘domestic’ whatever is not part of global politics proper. Instead, these threads must be uncovered, recovered, constructed and mapped anew.

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The Science Question in International Studies: PTJ, CoI and follow-ups

Science Montage

From the beloved xkcd

Long time TDOT readers may recall the first ever book symposium we hosted, on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson’s Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations. PTJ’s argument regarding the status of ‘science’, epistemology, methodology and reflexivity has continued to generate vibrant and wide-ranging discussion in the discipline. At last year’s Millennium Conference on Method, Methodology and Innovation, PTJ’s keynote speech extended an argument regarding the distinctiveness of scientific knowledge, but argued that international studies did not have to be a science. Responses from Iver Neumann, Mark Salter, Nicola Chelotti, Laura Sjoberg and myself were invited in the follow-up special issue of the journal.

I’ve made my contribution accessible via, but here’s a sneak preview: Continue reading

When Ernest Met Leon

This is the fourth post in our forum on Buzan and Lawson’s The Global Transformation, from our own Jamie. The opening post, responses from Julian Go and Jeppe Mulich, and the authors’ rejoinder are all live.

Imagine that you are a collier in one of the mining districts of central Scotland in 1799. You spend your days hewing minerals from the earth, as your predecessor of one century before almost certainly did. You eat a similar, limited, diet and probably return from darkened pit to tallow-lit cottage on the same route and to the same few possessions as that of one hundred years previously. Perhaps most important, as vast proportions -possibly a majority – of the rest of humanity had been and remained at the time of your birth, you are not a legally or politically autonomous individual. You are a serf of sorts: your labour if not your entire body bound to the will of another. Should you attempt to flee this master, and were not returned to him within a year and a day, any person found to be harbouring you would be liable to pay one hundred pounds compensation for your person .

Compare now the grandson or great-grandson (for by this point, and unlike the case of 1799, daughters would not be working down the pit) of this collier in 1899. It is quite possible you or your forbears would have emigrated, as one-sixth of your European contemporaries did, to lands such as Canada and Australia cleansed of their aboriginal inhabitants to enable you to flourish. Where once you were the property of a mine-lord, you are now the citizen-subject of the world’s most powerful Empress: a ‘psychological wage’ available to you should you choose to take it. Your work remains back-breaking, but aided by machinery. Most of all, you are paid for it. This wage relationship creates not just a free individual but a potentially conscious collectivity. That collectivity, in which you may recognise yourself not just as miner, Briton or Scot but as a member of something called ‘the working class’, has its own flags, buildings, trade unions and – an entity unknown to your forbear of 1799 – political parties.

Has there ever been a century in which so much changed for so many? The wager of Barry Buzan and George Lawson in their magisterial book The Global Transformation is that – with the possible hazy exception of the early holocene transition to settled agriculture – there has not. In doing so, they are revising revisionism, with great consequences not just for historical sociology but for the discipline of IR.

The view of the ‘long nineteenth century’ from the French Revolution to the Russian as a ‘great divide’ in human history has fallen into disfavour, smacking as it can of the triumphal sense of European, male, bourgeois self that characterised the century in question. The institutions and social practices heralded as novel can usually be traced back to other times and places, and the picture of shocking change within a lifetime transformed into something less immediately perceptible. To the extent that there is a popular historical consciousness, in the UK at any rate, it thrives on finding the familiar in history: the ways in which the Edwardians, or Victorians, or Tudors or Plantanagets were ‘like us’. Buzan and Lawson’s reminder of the recent nature, and the strangeness, of the past is a lapidary one.


Tea-plantation workers in Tsarist-era Georgia.

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Reading across the ‘Colour Line’: Texts, Traditions, and Academic Solidarity

ShowFullImageA guest post by Prof Gurminder K Bhambra, University of Warwick

Four incidents in the last week have caused me to check the calendar and confirm that I hadn’t accidentally time-travelled back a generation. Debates on which I had believed there to have been some (positive) movement over the last couple of decades seem to have made such little impact on many colleagues that it was as if the earlier debates had never happened. I outline the first three incidents briefly before going on to discuss the fourth in greater detail; I do so in order to reflect on their implications and consequences for academic work and engagement.


bebop-2014-flyer-names-low-resA community statement was circulated by colleagues in Germany protesting against the development of an academic programme of Black Studies that did not include Black scholars or thinkers or engage with Black scholarship. It seems astonishing, in 2015, to have to rehearse the arguments, again, about why setting up a programme addressing the distinct experiences of a particular group of people and not including people – academics, activists, and others – who have had such experiences and have produced scholarship articulating that experience is problematic. Just so that people don’t misunderstand me here: I am NOT saying that only people with the experience can ever study or talk about such experiences. However, I am saying that to set up a programme for study without the participation of people whose experiences and writing are putatively central to it is problematic. There has been so much discussion on this topic that to repeat the mistakes of earlier times seems deliberately willful and it is this willfulness that requires to be addressed.

Since starting to write this piece, the director of the programme has disbanded it, apparently temporarily, in favour of an open debate about how to move forward in light of the criticisms being raised. Instead of disbanding, why not restructure on the basis of the criticisms and by taking them into account? They are not new.


europeislamSecondly, the professional association that I consider to be my academic ‘home’ has advertised its forthcoming annual conference theme as ‘Fragmented Societies: Migrating Peoples’. As another colleague suggested, why not just call it ‘Migrating Peoples Fragmenting Societies’ and do away with the niceties and apparent distance created through the use of the colon. Thus far, there has been no response from the professional association to the suggestion that the wording of the conference theme be changed to avoid it sounding like a UKIP-sponsored conference.


The third incident involves the setting up of expert panels at an international conference where all the experts chosen are from north America. There is not a single all-male panel; but all the panelists on all four panels are white. When concern about this was expressed on social media, one response was:

“Moronic tokenism, mk 2. Not satisfied with gender equality on panels at XXX? Rant about people’s skin colour instead”

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Solidarity and Resilience: A Forum

Between 19-21 September 2014, resident blogger Wanda and King’s College partner-in-crime, Nicholas Michelsen, organised a workshop with the theme of Solidarity & Resilience at King’s College, London. Before the special issue hits the stands, we have gathered for our readership a small forum of contributions to sample some of the hot topics discussed over that weekend. The organisers would also like to use this opportunity to thank all those who participated in the event. It was really a tremendous gathering that shattered many old ideas and made possible new ones!

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 13.34.02

As most good things happen, the “Political Action, Resilience and Solidarity” workshop was born over post-conference drinks. A few of us were musing over the proliferation of the term resilience at the 2013 EISA in Warsaw, when someone chimed in the concept’s obvious rival, solidarity. Had we forgotten about this term? Perhaps even declared it dead? The level of excitement grew and we just knew we had to organize an event about this strange pair. Exactly one year later, we met again at King’s College in London, with much appreciated support from the Open University and Westminster University, to unpack the hidden genealogies of these two concepts and muse over their possible associations/combinations.

We hosted panels approaching the matter from the perspective of political theory, conflict studies, governmentality and social movements. In almost every case, resilience appeared to be more malleable (sometimes infinitely malleable perhaps to its detriment and our suspiciousness), befitting contemporary challenges, and just plain… resilient. Solidarity, on the other hand, required complex theorizing, lacked a practical anchoring, was at times entirely absent from some panels, and made a strong comeback only on the closing roundtable thanks to the benevolence of some Marxists speakers.

Certainly, we would not want to do something as simplistic and rash as to declare a winner. Practices of solidarity would certainly benefit from a dose of resilience, and investments in resilience would certainly be a lot richer if they drew upon the latent democratic culture and transformative impetus of solidarity. But it was hard at the end of the two-day event to not feel like we had found ourselves on the threshold between two worlds. There is a great force pushing against the spirit of Enlightenment thinking, with its “enthusiasm for revolution” and its half technocratic, half romantic belief in human-led progress and perfectibility. That force is variously known as complex systems analysis, new materialism, flat ontology or the Anthropocene, all of which describe a connectivity-volatility-fragility nexus for which resilience emerges as the proper mode of action.

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Modelling Worlds: The Politics of Simulation

A guest post from Nathan Coombs who is an incoming Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh. He edits the Journal of Critical Globalisation Studies, and is the author of the forthcoming book, Politics of the Event: From Marxism to Contemporary French Theory (Edinburgh University Press, 2015). His current research interests are in financial algorithms and financial regulation. He can be contacted at n.coombs (at)



Over the last decade, scholars have become increasingly interested in what we do when we make use of models and simulations. An emerging consensus – often legitimated through reference to Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory – is that mathematical models and computer simulations are not passive tools but rather a material force in their own right. Agents may employ such technologies in order to achieve pre-determined ends, but the technologies themselves have an effectivity that exceeds their users’ intentions, and set in place path-dependencies that serve to proscribe the range of political and economic possibility.

This concern with the politics of technology cuts across multiple disciplines including Sociology, Communication Studies, International Relations, International Political Economy, and Management Studies. However, the Social Studies of Finance (SSF) has perhaps gone furthest in exploring the practical implications of modelling and simulation technologies. Applying Austinian and Barnesian notions of performativity, researchers in this field have sought to grasp the way in which economic models shape markets, and to dig into the mathematical and technical details that underpin this process.

Donald MacKenzie’s book An Engine, Not a Camera (2008) is exemplary of this approach, and a common point of reference for scholars in SSF and all the aforementioned disciplines. In his analysis of the development and uptake of the Black-Scholes option-pricing model in the 1970s, MacKenzie aims to show how the model’s employment of the efficient market hypothesis – where stock prices are considered to accurately reflect their risk – led to a period in which the pricing of options came to reflect that predicted by the model. The point of MacKenzie’s analysis is not to endorse the neoclassical economic assumptions codified in the model. Rather, it is to point out how models serve to socially facilitate evaluation practices in the face of complexity, uncertainty, and epistemological opacity. On this basis a model can also contribute to financial instability when it is both widely employed and based on assumptions that are confounded by ‘real world’ contingencies.

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