Sunday, 10 April 2016

International Politics in/and/or the Anthropocene; Thoughts on individuals and historiography

It's Sunday, the Easter holiday is all but over. To be honest, I spent almost the whole time writing – so, not much of a holiday. However, I was able to spend the last few days in Tübingen at the 3rd European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS). More specifically, at the workshop on "International Politics in the Anthropocene."

It was a fantastic event in a beautiful town. This particular workshop was convened by Delf Rothe, who did a wonderful job, as usual.

I presented the first draft of the introductory chapter of my thesis. Essentially, an attempt to articulate what the overall project will look like in terms of structure and content but particularly in terms of conceptual setup. My very generous discussant, Audra Mitchell, gave me a wide range of useful and thought-provoking feedback, as did everyone else.

One question that was particularly playing on my mind on the journey back to Aberystwyth was one concerning historiography. In my chapter, I mentioned that I am thinking of using the idea of a "witness" as a kind of historiographical organising principle. In other words, each chapter would focus to some degree on a specific thinker (for example, Alexander Humboldt, Herbert Spencer, Ellen Semple, et cetera).

It was mentioned that this might risk reproducing a kind of "great man" take on history. Instead, might it not be better to focus on discourses and make individuals secondary?

By taking certain biographical trajectories as privileged focal points, I do not wish to suggest in any way that these individuals are uniquely important or that the historical questions I am asking can be adequately addressed by looking at them alone. My reasoning is rather different.

First of all, and rather pragmatically, I am intending to cover a very large amount of historical ground in not very many words. This approach may help narrow the scope somewhat. Secondly, I am trying to get away from a version of historiography based upon the notion of discourse, which is a very useful concept but has problems accounting for or differentially attributing agency – which is precisely the problem at the core of my thesis.

What if, instead of starting from a "discourse," the existence of which is historically given but geographically vague, one instead starts from actions and events and takes specific trajectories, biographical or otherwise, as opportunities for comparison between and reflection on the entanglements of influences, imitations and infections relevant to a particular question or set of questions?

In other words, I am not really interested in these individuals as such. I am interested in the worlds around them (in their contexts; indeed, their environments). The worlds they are passing through, affecting, being affected by – or not. If aspects of the worlds around them are indifferent to or unperturbed by their actions, then that is just as important as those respects in which these people were influential. And this is something that "discourse" can never capture: indifference, disconnection, parallelism. It assumes connectivity as a given due to temporal coexistence and structural resemblance. Its mode of inference is completely different to that which I am attempting to employ.

However, there is one more thing to be said: were I to adopt the "discourse" conception, it would no longer be possible to subvert the "great man" view of history. To subvert something you have to get close to it. You can deny, denounce, obviate from a distance but you cannot subvert. Subversion requires an initial act of imitation or identification. It is only once that artificial proximity is in place that subversion even makes sense as a concept. It requires that risk. Because the concept of discourse operates at a distance from individual biographical trajectories, proceeding on the basis of a priori assumptions about historically specific but geographically indefinite social relations, it cannot perform this task.

It is precisely the "great man" conception of history that is to be resisted; it is just this kind of distribution of agency that the entire project must actively work against, running right to the roots of its basic performative principles. However, the distribution of agencies operative (methodologically or otherwise) in the concept of discourse is also to be regarded sceptically.

It is an awkward idea to describe – perhaps I do not yet fully understand it myself. I think that it is the kind of idea that can only really be meaningfully unfolded in action, in the actual writing process itself. In any case, it is not a guiding principle but must be continually adapted to the set of questions relevant to each historical period that I am examining.

Many more thoughts are buzzing around my brain but these are those that I felt compelled to immediately externalise!


  1. aren't "discourses" just things individuals said/wrote?

    1. I think with regard to most discourse theory, it might be more accurate to say that discourses produce their speakers/writers rather than the other way around. Or, at least, they cannot be taken as reducible to their individual enunciations.

  2. structuralism lives, no wonder people like Latour are waxing theo-logical, never been postmodern I suppose...