International Relations versus Punk Rock

Today I was re-reading a piece by Kevin Dunn, “Never mind the bollocks: the punk rock politics of global communication,” and it lead me to wonder how far one’s route into the study of world politics affects how one perceives the “object” of inquiry. Dunn starts out by stating:

I am increasingly concerned about the ways that International Relations (IR) as a discipline seems unable to communicate to everyday citizens about issues of tremendous importance. I am repeatedly struck by our inability to speak to the people whose lives are affected daily by the issues we are supposed to be studying. More importantly, I am struck by how irrelevant we and our work can seem to the world’s population.

In 2003, I grappled quite openly and vocally with this alienation. The annual International Studies Association (ISA) Conference was being held in Portland, Oregon that year. Throughout the hallowed halls of the soul-numbing conference hotel, the discipline of IR was displaying its strengths and weaknesses. The US and its ‘ coalition of the willing’ were on the verge of invading Iraq. But within the ISA, there was little attempt to grapple with what this meant. My few attempts to stage some form of protest and intellectual outrage proved heart-warming but ineffectual. Then, at the end of the week, I went to a punk club a few blocks from the hotel to see a Joe Strummer tribute show. Joe Strummer, the frontman for the Clash, had died suddenly a few months before, and now over twenty bands from all over the region were coming together to play a benefit show. Each band performed two or three Clash songs; one band getting up after the other, sharing amps and a drum set. On stage, the bands were using the songs to make sense of the dangerous world we all found ourselves in. The in-between song banter reflected this – comments about President George W. Bush, remarks about American fascism, concerns about the impending war on Iraq, and pleas to register to vote. The kids in the club were using the Clash and punk rock, much as I did years before, to help them understand the world they were inheriting. While the discipline of IR pontificated down the street to itself about world affairs, I swirled in the mosh pit wondering: what relevance did I and the ISA have to these kids? Sadly, it seemed to me that we as a discipline were doing a poor job communicating with most of the people outside that conference hotel.

Leaving aside Dunn’s very interesting analysis of punk rock’s role as a form of counter-hegemonic global communication and subversive political message, the opening lines resonated in a profound way for me, as I share Dunn’s experience of punk music providing a frame for engaging with world politics. This leads me to the question: how does our route into the study of world politics affect our work? Continue reading