Wednesday 11 August 2010

re: Failed State of Political Theory

re: Failed State of Political Theory

A very interesting document on 'Failed States' is Foreign Policy's "Failed States Index":

It appears on their website with the tagline "The World's Most Vulnerable Nations -- And the Bad Guys Who Keep Them That Way". (Because we know that the world's problems are all down to evil black men, obviously.)

It ranges from the insensitive and oversimplifying to the overbearingly orientalist (not to say borderline racist), but that is the 'failed state' thesis all over.

Whoever heard of, instead of a 'failed' state, a 'successful' tribal structure? Presumably because such pre-modern notions are inherent failures -- only states can either fail OR succeed.

The state is the only game in town even when it's not.

There is a large body of literature on this topic within security studies but it hasn't made a dent on the neoliberal mainstream (which Foreign Policy embodies thoroughly).

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Derrida et al.

The Derrida debate:

For some obscure and possibly pathological reason this debate recalls to my mind a cliché often found in car adverts:

"It's all the car you'll ever need..."

Is deconstruction "all the [philosophy] you'll ever need"? Can anyone make that claim of any philosophical position or any one thinker? If so that pretty much precludes the claim to be a philosopher. Yet a great many people (and I am not necessarily including anyone in this debate in this generalisation) seem to think that deconstruction is 'all the car you'll ever need' and that we should pretty much just stop looking for anything else. The only legitimate task ahead is to iron out the creases in the theory and get on with 'destroying in slow motion', as Latour likes to say. (For anyone who thinks this is an invalid generalisation I know a notable professor of political theory who has said pretty much exactly this to me in the past; I have no reason to believe that it is an isolated belief -- in fact I expect the contrary.)

It is an odd sort of 'end of history' movement and it cropped up around the same time that Francis Fukuyama revived that tired old Hegelian trope (and for probably very similar reasons). Fukuyama declared the end of history for geopolitics; Derrida, if you believe the hype, declared it for philosophy and literary and social theory alike. Strident rightists and confused leftists have this in common. I think this says a lot.

I have nothing against Derrida, only against Derrideans. He was a first rate philosopher but a limited one. If he can be said to be a great philosopher that greatness surely comes from an unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable attention to detail and a close concentration on a handful of very particular problems. For this he should be celebrated.

He is not, however, all the car I will ever need; nor is his work all that useful for what I am interested in right now. The problem is that his work has achieved such a hegemony that I have to prove that he is not relevant to my work than the other way around. The burden of proof with regard to his ir/relevance is on me, as far as far as past supervisors and many of my peers are concerned. This too says a lot, I think.


The thing we commonly see with advocates of deconstruction and hermeneutics is, whenever faced with any criticism, is to call for a return to the careful reading of the text. But this is a trap. Whether intentional or not, it is a trap designed to insure that we never move out of the history of philosophy, an established canon, and the text.
This sort of thinking is also, I regret to report, increasingly widespread in social science and the influence here is even more corrosive because there is an added dimension: an avoidance of doing any actual research.

The 'there's nothing outside the text' crowd are a minority, yes, but they're a growing one; their cherished 'theory' provides a good excuse to never actually leave the campus or delve into primary research. A box set of The Wire and some theory textbooks and you're good to go. No need to go to the effort of speaking to 'real' people (what a regressive, rationalist notion!).

Of course I do not think that that textual analysis is a bad thing; rather, I am concerned that because of the narcissistic excesses of the 'textualists' the whole concept becomes ghettoised, making it extremely difficult for any fresh thinking to break through.

As a grad student or early career academic either you submit to the empiricist mainstream, which comes out in a rash at the sight of anything remotely 'continental', or shipwreck yourself on one of a handful of 'discourse friendly' institutional islands where you're not allowed to 'go outside the text' or make any positive claims about the world at all -- if it's beyond the horizon (of discourse) it doesn't exist!.

It's no wonder it all ends up going a bit 'Lord of the Flies' in these places.

PhD woes/lack of them

Peter Gratton's PhD experiences certainly seem to be exceptional. I'm not even sure if it is possible to finish a PhD inside eighteen months in the UK -- in political science at least. Most departments would not want to lose the funding for one thing (and so would surely attempt to refuse early finishers if at all possible) and any students with Research Council funding are funded for three years so it wouldn't make any sense for them to finish early even if they could -- they might as well work on something else in the meantime and finish the thesis off at the three year point.

I am not currently a PhD student but I have many friends that are and it seems that their supervisors expect them to work their thesis over and over several times before they actually commit to a topic or a question firmly, let alone complete the thing. This may be due to badly thought through ideas but it certainly seems that this is seen as being a formative experience that all but the most utterly exceptional students are expected to go through.