Tuesday 15 December 2009

Reply to Michael Dawson re: academic freedom


@Michael Dawson:

My point was hardly that everything published in academic social science journals today is hunky-dory (if you permit me the phrase), nor that there are not serious weaknesses across the (intellectual) board. I myself would not accept the familiar chant you adopt of 'po-mo must go!' as I find many of these theories, if engaged with, are very important; perplexing perhaps but then I get that when I read anything by a hardline rational choice theorist (no less taxing on the terminological front). That said, there is a fringe orthodoxy concerning this sort of (po-mo) work that is somewhat intellectually stagnant, but that's another matter.

In fairness while I did have the po-mo 'critical' brigade partly in mind when I wrote the above, the only name I made reference to was Robert Cox who surely could not, save for causing him extreme offence, be associated with postmodernism yet he would likely share many of my criticisms, I think, with regard to the dangers of reification of objects of study (the state, human nature, etc.) and the strictures (and structures) of academic discipline that restrict the possibilities of knowledge production. One might legitimately disagree with him and all that he stands for but I don't think one can deny his rigour or the vitality of his thought, nor the space he holds open for critical thought. It was this sort of critical-ness I had in mind primarily.

By the way, I know Walt did not mention anything to do with 'critical' theory, I brought this up as a following-on point from my interpretation of Walt's comments, which I interpreted as relating to this point - and this I stand by.

I appreciate your candor, however.

To reiterate: my point (insofar as I intended to convey it) was that to reject in a somewhat ambiguous manner whole swathes of academic literature without naming any names (as your reply also fails to) is not only unhelpful vis-à-vis constructive debate but is in fact dangerous for academic freedom because it plays into the gaping jaws of an increasingly loud narrative which pronounces that the overarching structures of current political life are fine (even natural) and the only valid research paradigm addresses the production of ways of doing things within these wider structures.

In other words: "We've got the polity sorted, go make us some policy". ("Nothing to see here, move along!")

Given the economic, ecological and political problems that we all face, regardless of our nationality (it was this that perhaps irked me the most in Walt's post - the suggestion that academics owe a duty of deference to their nation rather than to their scholarship; this is a dangerous road), we have to consider that the things we take for granted might be involved inimically with the problems we actually face. Narrowly 'policy-oriented' research cannot address this kind of thing (not that such research is without value, of course - I do not believe this at all).

By way of rearguard defence: I would not by any means say that there are no articles published in decent journals that fall below standards I would consider acceptable. I simply consider it hysterical to suggest that this is some sort of cancer that can and must be removed; that there is 'good' research and 'bad' research and that someone (or anyone) should deem which is which so generally without giving good reasons as to why. I do not consider it the role of anyone - a nobody grad student like me or a well-known and respected, tenured, Ivy League professor like Walt - to say what is of value and what is not in such a sweeping manner (throwaway blog-post or not). Ascertaining the value of these things requires much more carefully defined terms and, dare I say it, more rigour.

There seems to be a number of issues that have become merged here and part of that might be my fault. There is a legitimate concern over excessive methodologism; I would accept that and see now that this is perhaps what others were getting at while I waxed tangential. On that I say this: it is important to be self-reflective on how academic knowledge is produced, surely no one would deny this, yet, I agree, in some quarters this becomes all encompassing and the Academy closes in on itself as the weight of its own intellectual circularity reaches a singularity at which point no life nor light escapes its pull (if you allow me the poetics - its late). This problem, if we accept for a moment that it is such a thing, cannot be addressed by wholesale rejection of nameless literatures.

I repeat the main point I was trying to make: I think this is, simply, dangerous. There are forces at work (not all that 'dark' perhaps but no less real or severe for their existing out in the open daylight) that are attempting and have attempted (with a lot of success, it must be said) to restrict the possibilities of academic knowledge production.

I am not a rudderless idealist when it comes to university life, as it happens. I wouldn't even accept that 'knowledge is a virtue in itself' - I just think that you can't always predict what will become valuable. I will defend to the comment word-limit, however, this assertion: universities should not be reduced to being simply and solely places for turning young people into economically utilisable units and turning unreflectively accumulated data into deferentially served-up policy for the same old ways of doing things. Prof. Walt would probably agree with this I'm sure. He just might not agree, and this is my point (if there actually was one after all this), that the manner of his post (I feel fairly silly for expending all this energy on one blog-post, but, alas, it is done) plays into this denigration of the institutionalised production of high-level, high value knowledge.

I do not think prof. Walt 'conservative' or even uncritical on the whole. He is a lone critical voice on a number of issues and I commend him for this and wish others had the same moral fibre. If I thought otherwise then I probably wouldn't read this blog. I just value academic freedom. And this is under threat. Plus it is, of course, possible to be refreshingly outspoken on, say, Middle Eastern politics and conservatively un-self-reflective on other issues such as, say, the historical contingency of realpolitik. But that's a whole other can of worms...

Bottom line(s): Even if there are some elements of academic research that wouldn't be missed if they disappeared, these cannot be fairly singled out as if they carried some distinguishing, essential feature; this kind of question is much to important to jump to such conclusions.

Saturday 12 December 2009

re: 'China is coming!'


I think its a bit unfair to call the public 'dumb'. The derision should be squarely aimed at the media and its associated politicians who have created this impression and, it must be said, the academics who have gone along with this 'China is taking over!' narrative. I've said it before on FP.com and I'll say it again: the extent to which the U.S. has declined economically and (therefore) geopolitically should not be underestimated, however taking that serious decline and comparing it to the fact that the U.S. is still overwhelmingly supreme in more or less every economic and geopolitical sense just goes to show how unbalanced the situation was to begin with.

The U.S. has fallen far - but from such great heights that the bottom remains out of sight.

Of course, this is not sensationalistic enough so the narratives of 'beware China!' tend to take over. Hence the misperception.

Blame the lack of intelligent public discourse, not the public per se.

Response to Stephen Walt re: academic freedom


I can only respond to this argument with incredulity. I would very much like to hear from Prof. Walt (a) some examples of this pointless research he is so disapproving of and (b) a specific defence of just how Prof. Walt's research benefits his 'fellow citizens' in such obvious and complete ways that it goes without saying that his is of the 'good' kind that should be encouraged (and given more funding).

Here in Britain, the government's new research rules stipulate that 25% of all research funding for institutions will be assessed on the basis of its 'economic and social impact'. No one knows quite what that means; most agree it is a stupefyingly reactionary policy masquerading as 'common sense'. Everyone, from Nobel prize winning chemists to cultural studies professors are disgusted. It is a populist move born of total ignorance as to how research works right across the academy from physicists who never know which speculative, almost incomprehensible hypothesis will turn out to be valid in 25 or 50 years to the likes of political science where the most ostensibly 'practical' and 'policy relevant' research projects are actually the least 'political' because they invite little or no critical thinking as to the current state of affairs but take it either (a) as a permanent and unchanging, dare I say 'natural', situation (I'm looking at the so called 'realists' and their crippling ahistoricism here, and that means you too Walt!) or (b) as something which it is not the place of academia to criticise - that is to say, that the study of politics should not be political.

Nobody wants to see universities churning out pointless, introverted, apolitical research but where exactly is this research? If anyone can point to the research that actually deserves this label I will gladly join the chorus (I'll sing tenor), however I think that this sweeping characterisation, without putting too fine a point on it, is hasty, overbearing and, frankly, rude.

It is difficult to argue against Prof. Walt's argument seeing as he doesn't specify any research in particular that is of this meaningless 'ivory tower-ish' quality, however I suspect that those studies against which his populist, common-sensical broadside is directed are of the self-styled 'critical' sort that, I believe quite rightly, refuses to engage with the 'cult of relevance' because they wish to place the state of polity (and the polity of the state) under scrutiny - i.e. they do not take for granted that the problems we face as humans (rather than citizens and patriots as Walt's argument seems to suggest) are born of a lack of, in Robert Cox's terms, 'problem solving knowledge' - they do not assume that political problems can be solved by qualitatively 'better' knowledge which can be simply operationalised within existing political structures. Instead they stress the importance of of 'critical knowledge' - that is, knowledge that challenges the way policy is made and the environment in which it is enacted not just what policy is in this extremely narrow sense implied by the call for 'policy relevance'.

In short, from what is an obviously (and this is not a criticism as such - I am aware this is a blogpost not a journal article but Walt does have form on this sort of argument...) thinly argued and sparsely articulated pronouncement it is difficult to mount a concerted and articulate reply, however, my opinion (for what it is worth) can be summed up thusly:

(a) I do not believe that there is a great deal of literature that conforms to the stereotype Walt articulates here. I especially do not believe that there is a great deal of this literature published in mainstream U.S. international relations journals.

(b) I believe that these disapproving broadsides against certain kinds of ('critical' rather than 'problem solving') scholarship emerge from an intellectually conservative, establishmentarian position that Prof. Walt himself occupies. It is primarily an argument that seeks to enclose legitimate debate within a sphere of comfort for such conservative points of view. It is a move that seeks to exclude alternative points of view simply because their conclusions are not directly and unproblematically applicable to present polity. It therefore valorises and naturalises present polity as the only possible political structure. Now, to argue for this permanent perfectionalism is one thing (and I would be interested to engage positively in this debate), however to dismiss all those who argue against this political articulation because they are, simply, 'irrelevant' to its own ways of functioning is quite another.

That said, I do not dispute that there are serious weaknesses in many areas of contemporary scholarship, particularly in IR. As it happens, I would locate the position Prof. Walt occupies among those weak positions along with, chances are, many of the positions taken up by those researchers Prof. Walt has deemed 'irrelevant'. I am an equal opportunities critic.

Of course, I should stress again that I am aware that this is a blogpost and academic rigour is in this sense unnecessary. However, as I said before, Prof. Walt has form on this sort of argument and it is an argument that is gathering pace on this side of the Atlantic precisely because of its populist, common-sensical (yet covertly ignorant and establishmentarian) appeal. I would gladly engage with this sort of argument in a sustained and coherent way.

I must, therefore, (again, for what little it is worth) respectfully but totally refute the claims made in the above blogpost as reactionary, conservative and posing a serious threat to the possibility of diversity within academia at present.

Friday 4 December 2009

re: Hegemonies

Response to: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/hegemonies

I'm really glad you posted this post because, having been a reader for a few weeks now, I think it really clarifies where I would agree and disagree with your position – and as luck would have it, it is precisely the sort of disagreement I have with just about everyone at the moment (on both/all sides of the argument), philosophically I mean.

Basically, as I understand it, you are arguing against the position (let us, for argument's sake call it 'postie-ism') that, allegedly, reduces everything to 'textuality' – that is, says that language is the be all and end all; language is the ‘really real’; all that materiality is just a product of discourse, of ideas. This is the typical critique of postie positions and it is one a great deal of their writings reinforce by, I would wholeheartedly agree, emanating from cultural studies and literature departments that would dearly love to see the whole world as one giant intertext and adopt the ‘sacred texts’ (/’sacred cows’) of postie-ism as writ (that is to say, unreflexively and uncritically). However, I believe that it is an over-simplistic and, if not 'incorrect', then certainly disagreeable characterisation.

I think a good place to explain what I mean is Derrida's most (mis)quoted phrase "il n'y a pas de hors-texte", usually translated into English as "there is nothing outside the text". From this sentence alone one would surely draw the conclusion that you have – that everything is to be reduced to textuality; that textuality is 'the really real'. However, my Francophone friends inform me that this is a bad translation that loses much of the sense of the original. The phrase is often translated, conversely, as "there is no outside-the-text". At first glance this may appear to say basically the same thing. I believe that this is a big mistake.

The clearest way I can articulate this point (in my own mind at least) is through William James. In his epic work 'Psychology' James describes a hypothetical baby's perception of the world as "one great blooming, buzzing confusion" – in other words, at that stage in a baby's physical and cultural development it cannot perceive anything of what is around it as we would understand it. It must be just flashes of colours and sounds and textures and abstract patterns with no way of assembling the stimuli into any kind of coherent 'reality'. Of course, we can never know how a baby 'sees' the world; it is pure speculation – but this is allowed in these parts, isn't it?...

Taking this as a thought experiment let us suppose (with every sci-fi series ever – see 'Dollhouse' for a good recent example) that one were to take a fully formed adult and wipe away all trace of enculturation and make them a tabula rasa (of course this is an impossible Cartesian manoeuvre, epigenetics alone shows biology and culture to be irreversibly interwoven, but lets just pretend). Would this person then not be like James's baby? Would ‘reality’ then not be "one great blooming, buzzing confusion"? Just textures and colours with no way of understanding it -- effectively no way of establishing a 'self' or a 'reality' at all? It is not that the external world no longer exists – I can still see this poor brain-washed person; I can still make out his form, his limbs, the colour of his hair, etc. – it is that, from this particular, ‘brain-washed’ subject position no knowledge of the world can ever be said to properly exist; ‘reality’ is thus only my ‘property’, not his. This is an extreme thought experiment but it, I believe, holds for less extreme examples too. To put it simply, language is always already ‘there’ (and, by consequence, ‘there’ is always already ‘here’).

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that we can know nothing of anything without enculturation. Of course this was probably never in doubt – who could deny this?

Further, then, it is my contention that the postie attitude towards language follows much this same formula – it is not that language is the totality; language simply cannot be dispensed with. My favourite way of putting this is that it is ‘necessary but insufficient’ (as is so much in life).

Of course this brings to the foreground the most important issue. The above discussion to which I am responding fails to say what 'language' is. Of course this seems like common sense. This is language. And so is this. And this. Yet where do we stop? Is body language language? Is emotion language? Is volition (in the psychological sense)?

It would be an extraordinarily 'thick' definition of language to include all of the above. And this is perhaps where I can pull the rabbit out of the hat and (finally) make my point: the 'text' in Derrida's aphorism is not meant to be taken literally, or at least not as literally as it almost universally has been (by both those faithful and hostile). To say that "there is no outside-the-text" does not mean, therefore, that there is nothing besides language (language defined in any sensible way). It means, I believe, something akin to James's baby: that we can never, ever subtract language from our experiences; that without language ‘reality’ is nothing and therefore language must always have an effect on our perceptions of, well, everything. That language is ‘necessary but insufficient’. Of course we need bodies and those bodies need food and water – this is a given; why would anyone doubt this? The question is whether any of this means anything – indeed, whether any of this can even be comprehended on even the most basic level -- without langauge (or, as it should be clear by now, I would prefer to say 'enculturation' as the 'thick' definition encompassing affect, volition, etc.) Therefore, whether or not objects possess ‘transigent’ and ‘intransigent’ qualities, language can never be legitimately bracketed or set to one side.

From this position, with language being an ever present necessity – the only means by which we can think and certainly the only means by which we can communicate our thoughts, however imperfectly – one must have recourse to transcendental reason to ascertain the ‘really real’. One must somehow pierce this shield of language to get to what is outside of it and then represent this in some clear manner. One must entertain the transcendent; that is, provide a spectacle to cite it, to bring it forth, to make present, in some form, this sublime experience.

In other words, language must possess some quality of Reason by which utterances may be objectively distinguished in terms of truth or [insert your value distinction here]. That’s a whole other story. I’m not going to bore anyone with that now, least of all myself.

A far more coherent and profound description of what I’m trying to say here is offered by Ernesto Laclau in conversation with Roy Bhaskar here:


Here Laclau shows why what I am calling postie-ism (he calls it discourse theory) is not idealist – it is explicitly opposed to idealism. I don’t think Bhaskar really ‘gets it’ but its an interesting exchange.

While I would agree that a great deal of the writings on this postie-ism betray a certain idealism implicitly, if not explicitly, this is because, those that do…well…aren’t very good.

If this is the version of postie-ism that you have left behind recently, Levi, I can see why you did so; its fairly empty of merit as a philosophy goes. Unfortunately I really don’t recognise it; at least not in the major texts. In the multitude of followers, yes, sadly, but this is not an indictment of the whole philosophy.

For what (little) its worth, I see Derrida, despite his status as the archetypical postie-ist poster-boy, as a thinker who does not deny things. He is best read in his deeply ethical, wholly political sense of maintaining the total contingency of discourse and everything else. Everything is ‘to come’. Everything is promised, nothing is wholly delivered and this is fine. All it means is that we can’t take anything for granted and we shouldn’t ever accept being told ‘that’s the way it is’ (Isn’t this the Socratic ideal? Isn’t this why those who teach philosophy teach philosophy?).

The world was no less ‘real’ the day after he published Of Grammatology. The sun was as warm, food tasted the same. He just demonstrated that it needn’t mean the same things all the time. I don’t even see him as that much of a skeptic. If one is to read his interviews he would say much the same (of course its impossible to know if at any moment he is being honest or contrary, but still, its there as a plausible interpretation).

Having said all of that (and golly-gosh, this comment has reached, dare I say it, Levi-esque proportions) I am completely dissatisfied with the prevailing postie-ist positions too. My own personal intellectual project(/hell) is to produce an historical methodology that is consistent theoretically, ethically and politically with deconstruction but notes that it is, in itself, insufficient (there is that phrase again ‘necessary but insufficient’). This is not new. Gayatri Spivak, for one, says that ‘deconstruction cannot found any political project’ (I’m paraphrasing) – deconstruction is therefore, on its own, politically insufficient. Judith Butler (paraphrasing again) says that ‘deconstruction is not a necessary part of any political project’ – it may, therefore, be excluded. It is insufficient and non-necessary; if it is part of a project it cannot exist alone and it need not be a part at all. What ‘idealist’ could maintain this position? Read Butler’s lectures on Spinoza (‘Giving an Account of Oneself’) to see why the idealist label simply doesn’t fit in any way towards (the more brilliantly argued) postie-ist writings; she argues against the opacity of self-knowledge, this refuting any charge of ‘idealism’ (an idealist must presume autonomy and authority over one’s self-perceptions, something which is alleged in Levi’s post above).

Anyhoo, I’ll stop writing now, for the main reason that in the post this morning, I received a fresh, new copy of Meillassoux’s ‘After Finitude’. Also there’s a good chance this will all seem regrettably ignorant to me one day. I hope, soon, to be able to comment on these issues from a position of only partial ignorance rather than total.

Until that halcyon day, a caveat must be added, for my own self-protection:

Of course, I could be wrong.

Wednesday 25 November 2009

Untitled #02

There is a needle - a mile high needle.

Sharp and silver tipped - it rests upon a fine point and rises to a head upon which one may stand but not sit.

Symmetry balances precarity - it hangs upon the stillness of the slightest breeze. It stands in frozen time - awaiting history's touch.

Stand now atop your needle. And draw in a cold breath from your feet to your lungs.

Look down. And stay still.

Untitled #01

apple bloom pitch,
black water,
under crystal,
tree imported oak,
brass latched,
in the morning;
there is comfort now in
this corner.

Tuesday 24 November 2009

'Rethinking Terms?' re: Drezner/Applebaum

Reply to: http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/24/the_costs_of_being_the_default_superpower

Of course this is all premised on the argument, with a logic so twisted it is surely only possible in IR theory, that the leader by leading is, all things considered, somehow disadvantaged and 'put upon'. The leader is the leader because of an overwhelming advantage, not the inverse. This is especially true in what (despite the pessimism displayed here) is still a resolutely unipolar state system (albeit fraying around the edges in the form of increasing regionalism, perhaps). The U.S. remains spectacularly advantaged in more or less every respect, despite its undoubtedly spectacular recent fall. In fact, isn't it indicative of the U.S.'s extreme advantage that it has fallen as far as it has and still remains so overwhelmingly dominant? The vaguely multilateral moves made by the current administration would hardly be considered multilateralist if conducted by any other country - only by the U.S.'s existing standards could they be judged so.

That the U.S. (seemingly) feels so put upon is interesting in itself - is it not logical that an actor that makes the world in its own image (such as the U.S. has undoubtedly done to a large extent), after a time, will become blind to the extent to which that world has become similar to it (because, like one's own accent, one always takes for granted what is most familiar) and see only the differences, which in this context happens to be the disadvantages of its empowered leadership. Not every aspect of the world-made-in-it's-image will benefit the U.S. - perhaps, for instance, if the global financial system had been a little less to the U.S.'s liking previously then the financial crisis would not have been so severe - but a world-made-in-it's-image is surely preferable to the alternative - try asking people from any other country.

Of course, another way of looking at this would be to say 'leadership? what leadership?' - it can only be in a very narrow, realpolitik sense that one can say that the U.S. has provided international leadership in any positive sense recently. Witness the failures in Copenhagen, how little the U.S. position vis-à-vis climate change has actually moved - in fact, how little the U.S. position has actually changed on a whole swathe of issues.

Now, this should not suggest that I am dismissing the negatives of leadership out of hand. Clearly free-riding and such are problems for the actor concerned; however, I would strongly suggest that the negatives are vastly over-represented in public discourse and indeed in American IR theory generally.

The practical consequence of this thought would be that to move 'back' to unilateralism, as has been suggested, grossly underestimates the extent to which the U.S. remains the predominant power and, consequently, grossly overestimates the extent to which the U.S. has moved towards multilateralism at all. The choice, therefore, is not so much between uni- and multi-lateral politics as between (a:) a productive unilateral hegemony that is willing to - in part and with limitations - negotiate with lesser powers and make limited compromises for the common good and (b:) an unproductive unilateral hegemony that rules by diktat and consequently fails to reach agreements on the important issues of the day. Perhaps I am taking the distinction between uni- and multi-lateral a little too far, but I think the point stands. Multilateralism certainly implies an actor existing on at least a similar plane of existence other actors with regard to negotiating power.

The U.S., judged by the standards of any other state, remains overwhelmingly powerful. Personally, as a non-U.S. citizen, I welcome this and look forward to more of it. The usual reaction to such an attitude ('oh p**s off and live in China then') aside, I would welcome any further moves to multilateralism. I simply doubt whether the U.S.'s decline is such that this will become a possibility any time soon.

Wednesday 18 November 2009

re: Trends in the civilian costs of war

Response to: http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/18/trends_in_the_civilian_costs_of_war

Regardless of the accuracy of the data, is this argument surprising? I'm surprised that you find it surprising! Okay, so we were told that all those 'smart bombs' would only kill 'bad guys' and news shows became trade shows for cross-haired destruction from above. Hands up all those who swallowed all that craptastic propaganda...

The most important question is also neglected: what separates collateral damage and war crimes? Eye of the beholder? Dresden: war crime or collateral damage? How about the bombing of Baghdad? At what point do unintended deaths caused by negligence or simply not caring about civilian life become a war crime?

Tuesday 17 November 2009

re: Is the world ending more often now?

Response to: http://drezner.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/11/13/is_the_world_ending_more_often_now

I think it was Slavoj Žižek in one of his films about films who asked: 'why is it so much easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism?' (or words to that effect). It is our narcissism that leads us to always believe that we are at the center of history and hence the that ultimate, unbeatable world changing event - the apocalypse - is happening in our time. There is a certain 'jouissance' (as Žižek would put it) in this, I suspect - a kind of perverse pleasure we take in imagining our own destruction because at least it provides a narrative to what is otherwise incomprehensible (the future). We always feel like we're on the verge of something epochal - it gives meaning to our lives; it attaches us to something larger than ourselves to something 'oceanic' (something incomprehensibly, awe inspiringly vast) to use another word from psychoanalysis. Of course we might be on the verge of this. Europe was in this position in 1989 but didn't know it yet. Although capitalism looks to have survived its shock, for the most part, we still remain incapable of imagining its end. Could the proliferation of disaster movies (and okay, yes, they're always a popular genre) correlate to this? In times of uncertainty when, despite every possible indication and opportunity, we remain incapable of thinking beyond the present and the immediate past in terms of the logic that governs every aspect of our lives we might find in the spectacular (in every sense of that word), cataclysmic yet reassuringly fictional destruction of all that is somehow a comfort. It provides a glimpse of change when such seems implausible.

Response to Nick Srnicek and Paul John Ennis

Response to: http://anotherheideggerblog.blogspot.com/2009/11/politics-and-ontology.html

and: http://speculativeheresy.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/the-neutering-of-politics-a-response-to-some-friendly-critics/

Ontology can only be evacuated of politics if one takes a rather cripplingly 'thin' idea of what politics is. My common sensical reaction to Nick's claim is precisely the opposite and I can't understand how people don't see this as being obvious: politics and ontology are inseparable from the other but do not dominate each other; neither can be reduced to either one nor to some large whole.

Simply put: politics cannot be removed from ontology because ontology (especially under the guise of realism, however 'speculative') restricts political possibility. Ontology does not determine politics - Heidegger's ontology can be appropriated by left or right, same for OOO - but that does not mean it escapes politics because indeterminacy does not mean non-interference. That an ontology does not determine whatever politics may be affixed to it does not mean that it does not preclude many (or even most) political possibilities, nor that it doesn't preference some political possibilities over others.

Wednesday 12 August 2009

From democracy to development.


The U.S. has historically promoted democracy with a missionary’s zeal (hardly coincidentally), but this has never once been divorced from the promotion of American business, ‘free’ markets and, from the twentieth-century onwards at least, capitalism and globalisation. Obama is 100% committed to all these agendas. He is just toning down the fanaticism - he’s already the messiah, he doesn’t need to be a very naughty boy.

Can ‘one man’ change the world? No. Don’t buy the Republican’s rhetoric. He’s not a socialist. By international standards he’s barely a liberal. He is wholly and completely in the employ of American exceptionalism and its capitalist entourage - not in a conspiratorial way … but not in a good way.

Saturday 6 June 2009

'The dangers of identity diplomacy...'


How many 'out' atheists are there in public office in the US? Last time I checked there weren't any whatsoever in Congress.

The notion of any separation of church and state in a country as devoutly religious and intolerant to non-belief as the US is absurd, I'm afraid.

Obama's rhetoric is just as religion-infused as Bush's was. I can't remember a speech by a US President that didn't end with 'God Bless America', or words to that effect, can you?

Like it or not (and I tend not to like it) religion is a way of life, not a lifestyle choice that can be packed away into the background, separated from public life. This is a liberal fantasy peculiar to the US. It certainly has little purchase in the Middle East and falls apart under inspection in the US case too.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm as un-believingly secular as they come but I'm afraid the 'secular state' is a fantasy. There has never been such a thing, so why are we surprised that this is how politics is framed above and beyond the state level?

Framing the whole east-west 'clash' in religious terms also facilitates the illusion that these are simply two alienated sides of one united humanistic coin that must be mediated and reconciled. This trope of 'misunderstanding' deliberately ignores the sorts of issues that speeches can't so easily gloss over like massive socio-economic inequality and decades of imperial-style interference at every level of political life.

'Questioning the Difference between Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy'


Most fundamentally, I think, including the word 'diplomacy' implies a certain semblance of legitimacy.

The EU and NATO use the term 'public diplomacy' to refer to their communications with publics of member states and (in NATO's case) publics in whose countries they are engaged in operations. This is because talking of 'diplomacy' rather than 'affairs' implies that they are legitimate international actors, on a similar level to states.

Within the United States' political discourse 'diplomacy' is usually referred to as being in opposition to militarism thus it is generally seen as the peaceful, liberal option. Talking of public 'diplomacy' then also invokes this implication. Any historian of diplomacy will tell you how weird this interpretation is (one neat aphorism among many on diplomacy is that it is the art of 'saying good doggie until you can find a rock') but that's how its generally talked about nevertheless.

In short, public diplomacy is a phrase used when people want to legitimise and give a liberal sheen to their practices - public affairs is when they don't feel the need to do that so much.

Ultimately PD is whatever anyone says it is. Its most widely held definition is that spoken by the loudest voice - simple as that.

Or as Nietzsche said, "only that which has no history is definable"

Wednesday 15 April 2009

G20 protest police brutality - the ongoing fallout

Where did this idea of a 'protester' come from? Perhaps it should now be written as 'Protester'. When did a person protesting become this definite category with separate legal identity and restricted rights? A person communicating with other people in a public place - it all seemed so innocent.

When the death of a man is defended on the basis that it is difficult to tell who is a Protestor and who isn't we know that a separate category of person has taken shape, a category that is 'kettled' not just within the streets of (the City of) London but in the eyes, fists and truncheons of power. The message is that you are welcome to become a Protestor as long as you don't become a protestor. Be quiet, well behaved and content with standing in a confined space for an indefinite amount of time and say thankyou for the privilege. Shout too much and you'll be slapped with the back of an armoured hand, swatted as if you were a fly. Dead eyed politicians and sweat beaded police chiefs will spout platitudes and promise to 'get to the bottom of things' but the bottom is never in sight - their rhetoric is in so many ways bottomless. They are seeking to discover how one of their children could have swatted the wrong sort of fly - they want to know how their all seeing eyes could have mistaken one face amongst the masses for evil when it was never a Protestor at all. Their investigation may ask why this particular gnarled lump of fluorescence, kevlar and hostility did what they did, why they beat a guy in the wrong way (a failure of technique, surely). They will wonder how a passer-by could be mistaken for a Protestor and think up ways for such a thing to not happen again.

For all the media's mediation no significant heads will fall; the heads aren't even where this beast lives - it lives in The Law.

Protest cannot be in contradiction to the law. Protest is an act which forms the very basis upon which the rule (in both senses of that word - as in edict and as in government) of law can exist. The rule of law in a democracy is not the police, the parliament or the judiciary. It is the will of the people to accept that which is done in their name (and by the names that they are given). The people cannot be outside the law; sometimes The Law is outside the law. Only once the right is given up can the institutions that lay claim to the law truly own it.

Now, it is a mistake to equate mass protests with 'the people' yet protesters are only individuated by police surveillance. In their capacity as protester they are faceless (sometimes literally) and their treatment reflects this. A protestor is The People in the singular and should be treated as such. The police take this facelessness as a threat to be normalised, be it through force or the threat of force (and as we have seen there is very little differential, spatial or temporal gap between these two things in the milieu of contemporary protests - one can turn to the other and back again in a moment).

The facelessness of a protester is taken to be an admission of their threat, their danger when it should be recognised to be the opposite; their facelessness makes them The People, only in the singular.


Pretentious? I prefer 'grandiloquent'.

Jonathan Jones' unintelligent art.

There is no such thing as a purely aesthetic anything. If a work of art is apparently a-political that is political in and of itself. A space apparently 'outside' politics only serves to reinforce the 'inside' of politics. You can't have right without wrong, or left without right or hot without cold; you can't have one without the other and as such nothing ever escapes it - not even art.

All art is political because attributing artistry to a thing (be it a pile of bricks, a shed that used to be a boat or a piece of stencil graffiti) suggests that this thing is worth the time, effort and (perhaps most importantly) money that it takes to constitute that thing - these are political considerations.

To place the artwork in a timeless, spaceless space outside such base, coarse things as society and politics is to exempt art from the same moral and practical ties as everything else. It is to exempt the exclusivist, elitist pastime of high art from social critique, thereby erasing its exclusivity and elitism and fixing the artwork as a thing important beyond the social meaning that people attribute it.

The debate over what 'is' art and what 'isn't' is therefore a statement of political power. It is an attempt to prefer one form of human expression above others not only in terms of quality but of type, of kind.

The relatively simplistic pleasures of a Banksy piece are then excluded from the art club. Such obviousness has no place within the frankly stultifying orthodoxies of high art society.

I suggest, therefore, that we should celebrate Banksy's ineligibility for the Turner prize. It is not a reflection upon Banksy's artistic credibility or indeed his quality. It merely suggests the roles his work performs and the roles it doesn't.

Banksy lightens up otherwise dull parts of urbanity. He brings a smile to passing city dwellers and tourists. He makes otherwise empty social spaces meaningful. He creates space for humour and social commentary where there was before only pollution and concrete.

The kind of 'intelligent' art celebrated by the Turner prize however attempts to situate itself far outside of space, far outside of politics and far outside of humour, pollution and urban decay. It therefore creates a space wherein middle class urbanites can experience a highly restricted, sanitised aesthetic that erases dirt, politics, social meaning, class, etc. This is rather like the desire for such people to live in walled communities ('because you can't put a price on security'), to never take public transport ('because its just so dirty, yuck, and the people!'), to send their kids to public schools ('because those inner city youths just would just ruin poor little Tarquin'), etc.

Jonathan, in not nominating Banksy you have paid him the highest possible compliment. I will take dirty, obvious and political over sanitised, meaningless and vacuous any day. Frankly, the lack of intelligence shown in high art and your defence of it just goes to show that if you've got nothing to say, say it's art.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Saying is nothing without listening


John, if 'reputable', mainstream folks had been shouting from the rooftops vis-à-vis the imminent economic crisis and the disaster of Iraq/Afghanistan who would have listened?

On Iraq/Afghanistan MOST people with half an ounce of sense realised that it would be an utter disaster. The question is why the foreign policy elites were so completely removed from the overwhelming civil society, academic and public opinion.

On the economic crisis, who would have listened when things were still going well? Who would it have benefited to hear that sort of thing? They would have been written off as naysayers, pessimists. And there is nothing American political culture detests more than a pessimist. Its all about hard work, 'can do attitude', motherhood and apple pie ain't it?

The fundamental misunderstanding here seems to be that democratic political culture is attuned to intelligent, rational, objective and longsighted thought. Politicians (and the advisers that say yes to them were in no position to think, say or do anything contrary to the pathological positivity that accompanies a democracy when things are going alright.

On Iraq/Afghanistan i'd say the problem was ultimately a corrupt and out of touch elite that believed its own hype about American hyper-supremacy.

On the economic crisis i'd say the problem was ultimately a corrupt and out of touch elite that couldn't possibly do anything about it anyway. Anyone who spoke up would've been shot down by the logic of the short-termist political culture.

Driverless locomotive metaphors abound.

Its shocking to realise that the most powerful individuals and organisations in the world were by no means even remotely in control of the economy but until something went severely wrong (i.e. for rich/middle class rather than poor people who've been getting screwed for years) nobody COULD do anything about it.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

A well worn cliché


One man's 'well worn cliché' is another man's 'much ignored truism'. Clearly the invocation to "stop lecturing the world on what to do" is one sided and ideological (although what isn't?...) but it isn't far removed from the criticism of the blunt-edged 'marketing approach' of PD often made by large parts of the American PD community. The same community, incidentally, that mentions often the need to 'talk less and listen more' (or words to that effect). Well, what happens when you listen to something you don't like? One calls it tired and passé (a well worn cliché), of course, so as not to take it seriously.

That is the difference between 'listening' and 'hearing'. That is what the contemporary PD discourse is missing, from my point of view.

Sunday 8 February 2009

The PD Discourse Gap

The PD Discourse Gap

Are policy makers capable of overcoming the cognitive dissonance they would experience if they learned Arabic, read some newspapers and spoke to some ordinary Arab people and realised that they're actually intelligent, rational people who mostly dislike US policies rather than US people?

That has got to be quite a shock to the system.

The whole strategic communication system (and more importantly the whole US foreign policy system) is set up on the assumption that they 'just don't get us'. This to-know-us-is-to-love-us thesis allows for the continued belief in both the universality of western ideals and the importance of those ideals to the east/west conflict.

(For the most part) they don't hate our 'freedom', they hate our policies.

Isn't that just the answer nobody wants to hear from a practitioner's perspective? How can you go to your boss and say 'hey, actually we need to stop screwing people around, go and tell Hillary'. It just won't fly very far.

How can anyone genuinely 'listen' (i.e. listen, hear and act) without 'going native'?

Friday 30 January 2009