The Report of the Death of ‘Polities’ was an Exaggeration: Comments on Laust Schouenborg’s International Institutions in World History

This is the fourth comment, following Laust’s opening post, by Benjamin de Carvalho. Benjamin  is a senior research fellow at NUPI. His research interests are, broadly speaking, between three fields: He works on issues of broader historical change such as the formation of the nation-state in Europe, sovereignty, and the role played by confessionalization and religion.

The other posts for this forum are available here.


Laust Schouenborg invited me to take part in this symposium on his latest book, a request I was thrilled to accept, given that the book had for some time already been on the list of books I wanted to read. Having now read and engaged with Schouenborg’s work, I am very glad I accepted.

International Institutions in World History (IIWH) is an ambitious and thought-provoking work, which I would recommended to any scholar of IR seeking to understand not only the world beyond the state, but also our current predicament. I found his emphasis on social institutions stimulating and on the whole convincing, and really believe he is onto something. That being said, as he himself concludes, the book marks the beginning of an endeavor rather than its end. And as is the case with any broad claim, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Schouenborg’s three cases, while illustrative of his claim about the “universality” of his institutions, nevertheless leave something to be desired. Granted, nomad Central Asia, Polynesia, and the Central African rainforest are pretty much as remote places as one could have picked to engage on such a trip of discovery from New York and Roskilde. And if his framework of international institutions can be found (or even be useful in analyzing) there, then they must be at least fairly universal, is the thought. But then again, while illustrating their occurrence, their utility to the analyst is to me still a bit unclear. While it does structure his accounts, it seems to me that the analysis could have been brought further. Furthermore, for the whole framework to knock out the state (or polities, for that matter) altogether, the book would also have had to tackle some more common cases and demonstrate its utility by superimposing the findings to those of other works in a more sustained and systematic way. Continue reading

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What We Talked About At ISA: Rhythm, Time and History

With thanks to Elisabetta Brighi and Xavier Guillaume for putting together the Rhythms of the International roundtable and their inspiring contributions, to Robbie Shilliam for his song, and Kyle Grayson for his spirited and thoughtful engagement. And by no means least, to the pleasingly sizeable and lively crowd who gave the last panel of the last day such a buzz.

Below is a write-up of my contribution to the roundtable, in which I reflected on the relationship of rhythm and history, and drew out some of the potential disruptions that a different rhythmic sensibility might have on our conception of history.


What is rhythm?

To my shame, colleagues, and partly out of curiosity, I looked it up in the dictionary. Shame, because if you are looking something up in a dictionary before giving a talk on it, you probably shouldn’t be giving a talk on it. Curiosity, because I wanted to know how they would define ‘rhythm’ in words rather than in noises.

The dictionary answers were not particularly edifying. One definition spoke of ‘repeated, regular beats’, another of a ‘regulated succession’ of beats. Thud, thud, thud. Boom, boom, boom. Boom, thud, boom, thud. These definitions felt flat, and rather forbidding. But I suppose this is because they were the generic definitions of all kinds of ‘rhythm’, and not just the samba playing in my head.

Using some thinking developed earlier in some work on music and politics, I started again, with a different question:

What is the relationship of rhythm and time?

This yielded a much more direct answer: it is the production of rhythm that makes time itself knowable. In the making of music, rhythm generates movement and flow, and makes it possible for sounds to synchronise and arrange themselves. Continue reading

What We Talked About At ISA 2012: How Music Brings Meaning to Politics

At this year’s ISA conference, I presented on the panel ‘The Social Technologies of Protest’, with George Lawson, Eric Selbin, Robbie Shilliam and our discussant Patrick Jackson. The full text of the draft paper is available here. Thanks go to the panel and audience for some fascinating questions and discussions.


Music is a world within itself
With a language we all understand
With an equal opportunity
For all to sing, dance and clap their hands
But just because a record has a groove
Don’t make it in the groove
But you can tell right away at letter A
When the people start to move

–          ­‘Sir Duke’, Stevie Wonder, Songs in the Key of Life (1976)

Music is an old and effective technology of politics. This was highly visible in both the recent uprisings and the attempts at counter-revolution; whilst from the beginning Tunisian activists sang their national anthem in the street in anti-regime protest, Assad blasted the Syrian anthem into the cities as a reminder of his position. Rappers and older musicians shared platforms in Tahrir Square, and DJs parodically remixed Gaddafi’s final public speeches into technotronic nonsense. Whilst not all political music is sung of course, songs and the act of singing are particularly powerful in political situations as means and symbols of mobilisation and unification.  Moreover, songs tend to linger in the brain.

But there are at least two ways of thinking about the relationship between politics and music. The question which is perhaps most often asked and answered is: how, when and where is music political? So, why did the Tunisian protesters sing the national anthem in front of the courthouse, how did music support the anti-apartheid struggle, and why did the Haitian revolutionaries sing the Marseillaise? How did the musical character of these expressions facilitate a particular kind of political act? Lots of excellent writers, both scholarly and otherwise, have turned their attentions to the nature of political music, and especially protest music, in a variety of times and places.

However, the question that I want to focus on mainly here though is slightly different: how, when and where is politics musical? This question was stimulated by the general observation that when we try to make sense of politics, we often use metaphors related to music. A common phrase is that a political statement or value ‘struck a chord’ with an audience, or that protesters are ‘banging a drum’. Politicians may or may not be ‘in tune’ with publics, and relations may be ‘harmonious’ or not. Coups will be ‘orchestrated’.

Perhaps surprisingly, in moving from vernacular to scholarly modes of understanding politics, the metaphors of music are no less important. In fact, in some cases they seem to be more important. The genre-defining work of the historical sociologist Charles Tilly in the study of contentious politics is a revealing and fascinating case in point.

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Renounce Spoonfeeding!; Or, What’s Wrong With International Relations Textbooks Anyway?

Term is upon us, and with it new cohorts of students eager for the accumulated wisdom of IR condensed into textbook form. e-IR recently promoted two such texts, and I took gentle exception.

But what’s so wrong with textbooks anyway? It’s not so much the simplification itself. All theory (including some much-lauded high theory) does that. Nor is it any particular problem with the qualifications of the authors (the contributors to Baylis, Smith and Owens, for example, are pretty well the dominant names in their respective sub-fields).

Still, textbooks do seem to take on a strange epistemic authority, at least in undergraduate study. Confused by the relationship between ethics and self-interest in Morgenthau? Settle it with some bullet-points! IR is a young discipline, and none of its canonical texts approach the difficulty of, say, political, social or cultural theory proper. Any competence is going to come from understanding those texts, so why not do it sooner rather than later? Moreover, the relentless simplifications of the ‘paradigms’ debates (can we drop the mutilation of Kuhn yet?) provide an easy tool for obliterating complexity. This is not unrelated to a patronising attitude towards students, gently shepherded through the early years before being told harsher truths.

Textbooks, especially ones recommended at the start of courses as the intellectual crutches of choice, reinforce those dynamics. But it gets worse. Textbooks also lie.

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