Narrative, Politics and Fictocriticism: Hopes and Dangers

Anthony Burke

The third post in our mini-forum on critical methodologies and narrative in IR, now from Anthony Burke. Anthony is Associate Professor of International Politics at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia. His works include Beyond Security, Ethics and Violence: War Against the Other (Routledge 2007), a recent essay in Angelaki, ‘Humanity After Biopolitics’ (December 2011), and the narrative essay ‘Life in the Hall of Smashed Mirrrors’, in Borderlands and Meanjin.


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I have long been concerned by the way that language has two potentials with relevance to the study and practice of politics. On one hand, when combined with systems of logic and categorisation, language can construct, imagine, and fix powerful images of the real, and enable their deployment into material formations of industry, political organisation and human action. Language does not translate directly into power or constitute successful actions; it may indeed find contest and frustration. But we should hold this power in awe and watch it carefully, much as we may watch a dangerous animal that comes into our presence — after all, what more dangerous animal is there than the human, given its collective social powers of organisation and rationalisation, powers deployed through and within language?

On the other hand, particular forms and strategies of language have the power to undo and challenge this ontologizing potential: to see meaning defer and slip away, to see truths appear and shimmer into mist, to see its own strategies revealed even as it pursues them, to find itself haunted by thoughts and signs it did not intend. As Michel Foucault describes it in The Thought From Outside, this is language arriving ‘at its own edge…toward an outer bound where it must continually contest itself’. When this takes on the form of fiction, he argues, language is “no longer a power that tirelessly produces images and makes them shine, but rather a power that undoes them, that lessens their overload, that infuses them with an inner transparency that illuminates them little by little until they burst and scatter in the lightness of the unimaginable”.

This points to two strategies: one taking the form of social science, the other, the form of fiction.

I have pursed this project of deconstruction and unmasking in the form of social science, in way that both affirms and challenges its rules: to question ontologies of war and national security, the rationalist pretentions of nuclear strategy, the narrative confidence of American exceptionalism or the ‘good state’. To explore the dangers of all these things, of narrations and categories taken as truth, of choice masquerading as truth.

Yet I was also driven to literature as a possibility…of what, exactly? Continue reading

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