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

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Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

This is a guest post by Dan Boscov-Ellen. Dan is a Ph.Dprofile. student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a Visiting Instructor in Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His dissertation research involves exploring the political-philosophical implications of capitalist ecological crisis.


One of the most persistent refrains of the US Presidential election has been that of liberal incredulity at the idiocy of Trump voters. Depending on the current status of Nate Silver’s election forecasts, this tends to manifest either as amusement (perhaps chuckling at a Daily Show interview of deluded rally attendees or a screening of Idiocracy), or as disgust and horror (perhaps soberly staring into one’s craft IPA when the debate watch party gets too real). How, liberals wonder, could anyone vote for Cheeto™ Hitler?

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But of course they do not wonder too hard – it is obvious to most liberals that Trump voters are simply ignorant and stupid, an apparent truism of which comedians, political scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists constantly assure us. Everyone knows that Trump supporters are less well-informed than liberals – if only they read the New York Times and listened to NPR instead of watching Fox News! But the deeper problem, allegedly, is that Trump voters are simply not intelligent enough to realize how ignorant they are. Psychologist David Dunning explains that

[t]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.

According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, this Dunning-Kruger effect “helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.”

At base, then, it is the Trump voters’ fundamental and impenetrable stupidity that causes them to ignore the experts – highly credentialed neoclassical economists, experienced military and intelligence figures, beneficent billionaires, esteemed members of the mainstream American political establishment and independent press, and Neil Degrasse Tyson – who obviously know far better than the plebian masses. Indeed, many liberals secretly believe it might really be better if the experts just ran things and we revoked the cretins’ right to vote.

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What We Talked About At ISA: Political Speech in Fantastical Worlds

Game of Thrones - Race as a Floating Signifier

Four years ago, I tried to capture a discomfit with the new embrace of the pop-cultural within IR. The focus then was on the way putatively mainstream categories were put to use in the interpretation of science and speculative fiction. This year at ISA (see passim), I extended and nuanced that view, to account both for the great rise in pedagogical uses for the pop-cultural, and to push more forcefully at ‘critical’ approaches to the same.[1]

Like others, I am hostile to the success of zombies (or, to be frank, Dan Drezner’s version of zombies) as a useful way to stimulate reflection on world politics in all its variety. For zombie-IR, elements of the speculative and the fantastical are recruited to make sense of world politics not because they trouble or undermine or reimagine it, but because they replicate it in a way that is taken to be more easily digestible than speaking directly of world politics itself. Such simplification has come under challenge (here, here, and here, for example) and so cannot be said to characterise all approaches to the speculative. But the trend – what I term the speculative as descriptive analogy – certainly appears to be the most popular one. Let us call this Drezner’s Law: the more directly an ‘analysis’ of pop culture reflects dominant categories and concerns, the more broadly that analysis will be consumed.

Despite a single footnote on the zombie as metaphor, and a small gesture towards them as expressions of capitalist consumerism, the main accomplishment of Theories of International Politics and Zombies is to reify monolithic theories, which are taken to be no less than ‘paradigms’. In a feat of definitional feat, those dominant ‘paradigms’ (Realism, Liberalism, Constructivism, Neo-Conservatism, Role Theory) in turn hold the key truths to world politics “whether researchers admit it or not” (really?). It seems churlish to deny the usefulness of pedagogical lubricant, but it also becomes hard to avoid the sense of scholars bored to tears by the delivery of paint-by-number theory courses and the yearly task of boiling down paradigms and lineages into the simplest distinctions (Realists think states matter, liberals are interested in cooperation, constructivists believe in, well, social construction). Articulating these ideas through a new universe alleviates the boredom, however fleetingly, and raises a wry smile at the comparisons. The popular appeal of shows like Battlestar Galactica or Game of Thrones also makes it possible to generate interest in more complex themes through blog and social media ‘outreach’, as if mobilising cultural artefacts to recruit students or prove that scholars are somehow ‘in touch’. The human face of political science.

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Living Knowledge Traditions and the Priestly Caste of the Western Academy

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The Western Academy, especially in its social science and humanities wings, incorporates as a priestly caste. Perhaps Kant is the first high priest of this caste when he argues for the Aufklärer to become a corporate entity equivalent to the hierocracy and nobility but exceptional in its duty to provide a truly public service of reasoning. The psalm of this priestly caste is “have the courage to use your own understanding”, its catechism: to singularly possess and hold aloft the flame of revelation, known as science, or, nowadays, the modern episteme. Even Marx holds the flame aloft when he takes Hegel’s Philosopher, who breathes world spirit, and makes him inhabit the skin of the Communist.

This priestly caste, as it founds the church of modernity, is instantly and integrally involved in founding a broader colonial division of labour.  These new priests conjure up the traditional/modern divide by the use of history –  differentiating old and new European Western societies – and by the use of anthropology (later, sociology too), by differentiating the colonized from the colonized. The living knowledge traditions of the colonized are pronounced dead on arrival in the present. And their cosmologies, philosophies, social practices – are entombed into opaque “cultures” the contents of which can only be clearly illuminated by the keepers of the flame. 

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Ultimately this mapping of difference works through race, gender and class coordinates so that even the “poor” living in the West, as well as un-mastered women and single mothers intersect with (post-)colonized subjects to become part of this opacity. The episteme of the Western Academy thus differentiates between the knowers and the known.

In this respect, the modern episteme is as seminal as gunboats to the maintenance of colonial difference. Key to this difference is not just the attribution of extra-ordinary exploitation, oppression and dispossession to colonized peoples but also their epistemic erasure, i.e., the outlawing of the possibility and desirability of intentional self-determining community amongst the colonized and their post-colonized descendents. It is in the colonial world and not Europe where Europeans develop the art of objectifying peoples into populations such that the basic competency of the colonized to self-define is deemed absent by the instruments and mores of European sanctioned international law. Postcolonial populations have only been able to become peoples under very specific conditionalities; and many who make the transition become the new police of colonial difference. Those who fall between or prefer a third way become the ungoverned, or ungovernable.

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The Office Of Blood; Or, ‘The Act Of Killing’ (2012)

The images and scenes we discuss below are not those of a conventional film plot. Nevertheless, *spoiler warning*.


Act Of Killing Anwar Screen

It’s hard to know how to write about The Act Of Killing, the unsettling, surreal, humanising, nauseating portrait of an Indonesian death squad that is generating such interest. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and the mainly anonymous Indonesian crew (anonymous for fear of retribution) have conjured something quite extraordinary into the world. Laced with caustic insights into atrocity, empathy, memory, commodification, artifice, power, solidarity, fear, self-deception and play.

One million people were killed in Indonesia in the mid-60s following a military coup. The massacres which aimed at obliterating “communists” (along with ethnic Chinese and intellectuals) have been largely undocumented, with many of the perpetrators occupying prominent positions in the Indonesian government. Without wishing to give too much away or to channel and pre-empt the multiple, contradictory emotions that it is bound to elicit, the main conceit is a film within a film where the murderers re-enact their murders, all the while debating whether to recreate this method, or whether that victim would have cried out in that way, and sometimes whether they might just be showing us too much truth in their performances of the past. At one point there is the satisfied declaration that these scenes of re-articulated horror will be seen as far away as London! Part voyeurs, part students, we are thus implicated in their narratives, viscerally. Aghast, covering our eyes, retching when they retch, laughing guiltily at moments of shared humanity.

The Act Of Killing is a deliberate move from the ‘theatre of the oppressed’ to the ‘theatre of the oppressor’, a move that is challenging not simply because we – those ostensibly passive spectators – are made to face deeply uncomfortable ‘truths’ but also because it is above all a movie that painstakingly documents what Hannah Arendt, in a different context, called the ‘banality of evil’. Whilst there is nothing anodyne or sanitised about these gruesome renactments, they are almost flippantly juxtaposed with the mundane rituals, pedestrian encounters, and even moments of compassion and kindness that make these men all too human. The result is an audience suspended between empathy and disgust, between acceptance and incredulity, and between the absurd and the quotidian.

The Act Of Killing, for us at least, is a gut-twisting manifestation of sometimes nebulous socio-political insights. Insights such as Agamben’s ‘camp’ or Foucauldian ‘state racism’: concepts that suddenly unfold themselves before us on film, embedded as they are in a context otherwise deeply unfamiliar to us. But although seemingly focused, somewhat narrowly, on Medan, Indonesia the ambit of The Act is far greater: it offers a compelling commentary on the connate imbrication of capitalism, commodification, legality, sexual discrimination, racism, and their inescapably violent manifestations. It is less a document-ary about Indonesian history than a meditation on violence, memory and subjectivity themselves, a provocation made universal precisely because of its lingering gaze on these few aged torturers.

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Gender Trouble, Racial Salvation and the Tragedy of Political Community in ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2012-2013)

A shamefully-delayed commentary on Game Of Thrones, Seasons the Second and Third, since the first one went so well. As before, *great clunking mega spoiler alert*. You have been forewarned.


Recall three justifications for an analysis of pop culture politics. First, for all their superficial escapism, cultural products represent political ideas and ideologies, and do so in ways that may matter more than what we receive through the news. They are full of desires and fantasies that refract and reflect (and to some extent are themselves) real politics. Second, you can criticise the thematics of the show without hating the show. In fact you can do it while loving the show (and finding the fact of that love interesting in itself). In other words, look, I really like Game of Thrones. Moreover, that as great as comparisons with the source text can be, a TV series is a different kind of beast and is entitled to judgement on its own merits. Third, objections that “it’s just a show” don’t wash. If you’re reading this it’s because you have some sense that there are ways of understanding and being embodied in even the lowest of cultural objects (paging Dr Adorno!). That doesn’t mean that the substance of the relationship between media and politics is simple or settled, but it’s there.

Let’s start where we left off last time. It was claimed in some quarters that the plot subverts – even refutes – certain standard typical ideas about the feminine, and critiques feudal social relations along the way. So, rather than being a “racist rape-culture Disneyland with Dragons”, the many strong, complicated, agentic female roles in fact set Game of Thrones as a critique of patriarchy. But only the most one-dimensional of sexisms regards women as utterly abject. The mere presence of intelligent, or emotionally-rounded, or sympathetic female characters is not enough (and that it might be taken as inherently ‘progressive’ probably tells us a lot about contemporary gender politics). No, the issue is how a cultural product deploys some common tropes of masculinity and femininity and, with appropriate caveats about not reading every plot twist as an allegory, how those celebrate or reinforce certain orderings of gender. So a narrative which makes the family the primary unit, and which does so in a conventionally heteronormative register (twincest notwithstanding), is selling a particular idea of gender (and of community and nation and legitimate violence and…).

In Seasons 2 and 3, a few female figures threaten to upset the patriarchal framework. As before, there is Arya, astute, principled, fierce, and eager to promise death to her enemies. Brienne of Tarth, giant, loyal, lethal, dismissive. Ygritte, rugged, capable, sexually dominant, a hardened killer with no respect for rank (“If you ripped my silk dress, I’d blacken your eye”).[1] And yet in each case the threat is contained and wrapped in some familiar gender constraints.

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In Praise of Question Marks: Reflections on ‘Critical Methodologies: Narrative Voice and the Writing of the Political – The Limits of Language’

Jennifer RigganThe sixth post on critical methodologies and narrative, by Jennifer Riggan. Jennifer is an Assistant Professor of International Studies in the Department of Historical and Political Studies at Arcadia University, where she began teaching in 2007.  She holds a Ph.D. from the Education, Culture and Society program at the University of Pennsylvania, where she received training in political and educational anthropology and African Studies. Her ethnographic research addresses a variety of issues including nationalism, citizenship, state formation, militarism, development, and education. She has published on the changing relationship between citizenship and nationalism and on the de-coupling of the nation and the state. She is currently working on a project entitled The Teacher State: Militarization and the Reeducation of the Nation in Eritrea which explores the role of teachers in state-making in the east African nation of EritreaThis research has been funded by a Fulbright research fellowship, a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Field Research Fellowship and a Spencer/National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship. Dr. Riggan earned a B.A. in English from Trinity College in 1992 and served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Eritrea from 1995 to 1997.


Alienation

I show up at the workshop on October 26th, not quite sure what to expect. I have gone through the ritual preparations for a conference. I have crafted a carefully cultivated appearance—professional, but not formal attire. Light makeup, hair blown dry, hopefully neat but not overly coifed. Glancing around the room, I’d say many of us have made the same preparations. This is a conference. We all know how to perform ourselves for this venue. The ritual is familiar to us. Notebooks at the ready. Cups of coffee in our grips. A firm handshake of greeting when we meet someone. A socially acceptable hug or kiss if we know someone well. Small talk about our institutions, our research, our teaching. Occasionally our children make a brief appearance in the conversation. When we sit down to introduce ourselves, my voice emerges from my mouth, confident and assertive. I hear myself speak and I don’t recognise the sound, even less the tone. How certain this person sounds, I think, I could be convinced by this person.

For me, the ritual is essential to make me believe in the performance. After all, I have no idea why I’m here and I assume, as usual, that some mistake was made when they invited me. Do they really know who I am? The preparatory rituals, the carefully calibrated appearance, the performance of being academic acts as a talisman against someone pointing the finger at you and crying, “imposter!” I say it to myself all the time. But in an odd form of ritual alchemy, I become what I perform. I fake it until I make it and then I actually believe in this ‘I’ that I barely recognized a moment before. I have become the performance. But when I get lost in my performance, where have I actually gone?

Question Marks

We are here to talk about stories. Some of us tell stories. Some of us make arguments about stories. Stories, like academic rituals, are performances. Are they any less alienating than the ritualization of self? The most honest of us raise questions about stories or tell stories that ask questions. Himadeep Muppidi’s poignant and simple assertion, “empire tells amazing stories,” has stayed with me since that day like a song whose words you can’t get out of your head. We are all penetrated by the empire’s stories. They make us cry and fill us with pride or righteous indignation. They have answers. But how do we tell stories that perform less and question more? This is hard to do in a world, and a profession, that prefers periods or exclamation points to question marks. Our language limits us. What is the point of a question without an answer? What do we become in the absence of our performances of certainty?

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