Wednesday 17 June 2015

What is 'International'? A few reflections on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson's 'Must International Studies Be a Science?'

I didn’t go to the Millennium Journal of International Studies' conference at the LSE last year. (I did in 2012 and intend to attend this year.) However, a selection of the papers from the conference have just been published, including the keynote by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson ‘Must International Studies Be a Science?’ (His short answer: no.)

I don't want to go into the whole thing (or even the main of the thing) but just to draw out a few points that interest me.

The essay is set up with a good mixture of sweeping breadth and due humility:
“Depending on which authority one consults, ‘we’ are a group of scholars held together by our ‘great debates’, by our concern with the implications of inter-state anarchy, by our implication in a (neo)colonial project of establishing European hegemony, by a set of so-called ‘paradigms’ which almost no one claims to adhere to any longer even though we keep organising our introductory textbooks and courses according to them, etc. […]
I do not propose to resolve this controversy here. Instead, I will circumvent it by simply elucidating what I mean by ‘international studies’ so that my answer to my initial question becomes clearer.”
So, first of all, what about that troubling term ‘international’?
“The way I understand it, the term ‘international’ picks out those aspects of anything that involves cross-boundary encounters with difference. The international aspect of a military manoeuver or a financial transaction does not simply begin at the moment that a formal territorial border is crossed, but as soon as the existence of some other—the alien, the foreigner, the stranger—is taken into account in the operation. Representations of otherness, which shape and structure what we come to regard as legitimate or acceptable or appropriate action towards or in reaction to those others, are the common thread connecting all of our myriad substantive concerns, and the ‘return’ of culture and identity to the scholarly agenda is better thought of as a clarification of what we were all already interested in in the first place.”
A commendably open definition though this is, what portion of the human sciences does not deal with otherness (or, indeed, boundaries)? One might admit that anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. do not primarily deal with otherness across 'boundaries' as such (although what is a boundary?); however, I think that the pivot point ‘primarily’ is a rather vulnerable 'single point of failure.' The question becomes: Why does one need a distinct discipline to deal with such things? Perhaps the answer could be that cross-boundary otherness comes in many forms and, while of course it is dealt with in a wide variety of epistemic milieus, it is important enough to demand a particular disciplinary focality, a programme of concentrated examination that would think through such phenomena taken together, regardless of their usual disciplinary partitionment.

IR (or IS) would then be essentially interdisciplinary. It would not have its own ontological ‘turf’ (the Durkheimian dominion-making assumption that a ‘science’ must have its own distinct ontological domain has dominated the discipline since at least Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics [1979]). Instead, it would draw together a range of concerns that no other discipline examines in an assembled and focused manner. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, literature theory, etc. etc. – all these encounter ‘cross-boundary otherness’ but severally. This would be an interesting proposition. However, I’m not sure that this is what PTJ is arguing.

He does note that “the term [international] does not pick out a discrete realm or region of social life” (i.e. the boundaries in question are not just state boundaries). However, he redefines it (having first undefined it) not quite as I have described but rather:
“I would therefore locate the ‘international’ in ‘international studies’ not in the object of study, but in the way that we approach the object of study—which means that virtually everything has an ‘international’ aspect, potentially, depending on how we look at it.”
He goes on: “After all, ‘physics’ does not name an object of study, but a way of studying objects; why should ‘international’ be any different?”

I find this to be a strange and sudden segue. ‘Way of studying’ suggests methodology – and this is, of course, the theme on which the talk was to be given. However, there’s a confusion here between methodology and ontology, at the very least. Is physics a ‘way of studying’? This is a rather obscure abstraction. PTJ seems to want to avoid the ontology of domains by talking about methods (or at least practices) but this won't work. The whole notion of a ‘physical domain’ as categorically distinct from the chemical and biological is indeed rather outdated. However, the ‘monist’ claim that these disciplines engage ‘the same’ things from different perspectives leads us back down precisely the wrong path. A lamentable regression.

We should shed the terms ‘physics’ and ‘chemistry’ here. Every scientific research exercise addresses distinct entities. These are not the ‘domain’ that grants or guarantees scientificity and I do not deny overlaps all over the place but to sever science from its particular objects, or to melt everything into a single ‘world’ that is only broken apart again when engaged by human agents is, in my view at least, completely wrongheaded. Sciences are established neither by domains nor by ‘ways’ (whatever they are). The only means of making sense of what sciences are without the traditional distinctions is as networks and assemblages (here I am of course betraying my own philosophical preferences) – networks and assemblages that include distinct objects, distinct practices, distinct epistemic standards and norms…; none sovereign or permanent but none to be unduly confused or conflated, either.

PTJ goes on to discuss his heuristic take on knowledge production, expanding on technical and epistemic 'ways' of knowing and building on his The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics (2010). I will skip over this as I want to concentrate on the aforementioned issues.

Long story short, I find that, ‘otherness across boundaries’ seems to overemphasise the ‘inter-’ and wash out the ‘national’ (or leave it crucially underexamined), leading to a disciplinary vision that at least risks being somewhat superfluous. PTJ does not note the etymology of ‘nation’; however, it is instructive:
“c. 1300, from Old French nacion ‘birth, rank; descendants, relatives; country, homeland’ (12c.) and directly from Latin nationem (nominative natio) ‘birth, origin; breed, stock, kind, species; race of people, tribe,’ literally ‘that which has been born,’ from natus, past participle of nasci ‘be born’ (Old Latin gnasci; see genus).”
Perhaps there is something in this (though we must tread carefully). We could say that where IR/IS/IP went wrong was in assuming that ‘national’ meant ‘nation state,’ or at least nation in a modern, mass mediated sense where humans are symbolically and technically conjoined in their millions. Tribe, village, family, city – these might all be involved in ‘international’ relations – and relations on their own scale, of their own kind – in this expanded sense, tied more definitely perhaps to a sense of birth and nurturing, culture and cultivation.

(Incidentally, this could be related to the world history interpretation offered by, for example, Barry Buzan and Richard Little in their International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations [2000], where they explode any hint of presentism in the study of the relations between human groups in the longue durée.)

But, again, don’t think that what I’m describing here is what PTJ is arguing. He is in no way trying to prescribe what others should mean by ‘international’ (and the studies thereof); he is only articulating what he means by that term. However, he is nevertheless setting out his stall by articulating a kind of ideal typical vision of what ‘International Studies’ would be, then later breaking that down by proliferating 'ways' of knowing (and only of knowing). I wonder if this is not precisely the wrong way to approach disciplinarity; it is at least the wrong starting point. It is effectively saying: ‘here is my vision of disciplinary identity; you will surely have your own’ – and that’s commendable to some degree but the underlying assumption is that disciplinary identity is the issue at hand; that it is on this level that discussion should proceed.

I would prefer to begin by understand disciplinarity in a very particular manner, which only partially matches up to PTJ's arguments (and then only in his concluding remarks). A discipline can be understood as an environment, a milieu of sorts. It is a space within which knowledge production occurs. Its prevailing conditions, accidental or designed, variously enable, disable, orient and disorient the many actual and possible courses of research that are undertaken under that more or less actively conducive, more or less permeable, more or less flapping, fluttering, stuttering membrane.

Seen in this way, what a discipline ‘is’ is purely and simply a means of formatting that space. It is secondary and it is one formatting operation among others.

Given these principles, we might be able to think of efforts such as PTJ's as being interventions towards the pluralisation of the epistemic-possibilistic space that is the discipline of International [Whatever] (the fact that the name is variable doesn’t necessary meant that we’re not talking about a particular space – just more permeable). Indeed, he writes in conclusion:
“[…] the field should contain space for all of these kinds of knowing, and should resist the call to be exclusively a form of aesthetic expression, a mode of technical practice, a normative enterprise—or an epistemic science.
Instead of intending to produce one homogenous body of knowledge, the field of international studies and we scholars within it should work to become more comfortable with the irreducible plurality, plurivocality, and diversity of knowing. Such an attitude can, I think, best be cultivated not merely by our paying lip-service to the existence of other forms of knowing, but by our actively seeking to position ourselves as scholars in the spaces between these diverse ways of knowing.”
I couldn't agree more; however, this affirmation clashes, I think, with some of the presuppositions from which it issues (as I have attempted to explain, however inchoately). 'Ways' of knowing are too quickly abstracted from the rest of the world; 'the world' is too quickly defined as something singular that is only broken up by ways of knowing. 'Ways' are given too much credit, things not enough. He sets out his terms and definitions before he explores what the act of terming and defining does. As I hope I am making clear, I have many sympathies with this approach but find that it comes up short in a variety of ways.

I was first drawn into this epistemic-possibilistic space over a decade ago, during my undergraduate degree. It has for some time seemed to me that IR as a discipline has always been about 10-15 years behind the curve of the rest of the human sciences. It is an oddly introverted intellectual culture, especially given how quintessentially outward facing one might think it would be given its matters of concern (political geography, for example, is far better connected with its neighbours). Now that I am heading back into the hothouse, I do feel a little bit like holding my breath. However, the particular pocket into which I am to be immersed is a peculiarly breathable one. This much is reassuring!

Monday 15 June 2015

The Look of Silence – a world-changing piece of cinema

Yesterday evening, I went to the Watershed cinema in Bristol to watch The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing (2012). The screening was followed by a live satellite stream of a Q&A with Oppenheimer and Silence's protagonist, the incomparable Adi. It was hosted by fellow documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux. (I presume that the Q&A will be put online at some point but has not yet been, as far as I'm aware.)

The films concern the massacre of as many as one million 'Communists' that occurred in Indonesia in 1965-66. However, they are not, as the director is keen to make clear, historical documentaries as such. They concern Indonesia's relationship – or, in a way, non-relationship – with these events in the present.

The most crucial aspect of the history is that the killers won. They crushed their opponents ('realised their political ideals,' as one interviewed politician puts it), were richly rewarded and remain in positions of power to this day. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls it "a gerontocracy of tyranny."

The first film centred on a group of killers and particularly on Anwar Congo, a gangster who claimed to have killed as many as one thousand during the massacres. Extraordinarily, because of their positions of success and safety, the killers were happy to talk freely, openly boasting about their perceived accomplishments, gleefully recounting how went about it, and even being persuaded to elaborately re-enact their crimes in what has to be the most mesmerisingly surreal and horrific am-dram ever committed to film.

The Act of Killing explores how these men live with what they did in this almost unique situation of total impunity and suggests the dark, necrotic guilt wretching and writhing beneath their bombast and bravado.

The Look of Silence is not nearly as overtly horrifying, although it is just as moving in its own way. It follows Adi, an ophthalmologist whose elder brother Ramli was slain in an especially brutal fashion – so brutally that his name has become a quietly whispered watchword of resistance in that region.

Adi is filmed watching footage of the men who butchered his brother re-enacting their deeds with a casual and almost carefree air of nostalgia. Building on the reputation of Oppenheimer's first film, Adi also meets, interviews and provides free eye tests to the commanders and politicians who presided over the events in his region, some of whom remain extremely powerful and one of whom openly threatens Adi when his questions push too hard.

We also meet Adi's family; his young children and his elderly parents. We get to know him and feel intimately part of his world. The effect is a filmic experience that is emotionally moving beyond description.

Last night I felt utterly without words. Now I am just starting to process it. However, I still feel completely overwhelmed. In the Q&A, Oppenheimer referred to The Look of Silence as a poem dedicated to the lost. It is not didactic; it mentions the geopolitical context and opens the door, I hope, to a third film that deals with the silence in the US and the wider West on these events – a deplorable hush no less profound and no less important (although perhaps less easily broken).

Adi's family have since been moved to another part of Indonesia and, while they have allies in the country, their lives were endangered by their participation in this film. Oppenheimer himself says he felt his life to be under threat. The main thing protecting these brave souls seems to be their new-found fame and notoriety.

Nevertheless, the films have succeeded beyond any possible expectation. Both have, with some difficulty, been screened widely within Indonesia and young people are having an open conversation about their own relation to the actions of their grandparents. Reactions of family members of killers in the film range from the most heartbreaking contrition to angry dismissiveness. At the film's climax, Adi meets the wife and two sons of his brother's killer (now dead). One of the sons wants nothing to do with it but the other is drawn to remark: the wound is now open, and we are here together.

This short note doesn't even begin to do justice to the force and poetry of Oppenheimer's film-making. His dedication to his project is a wonder to behold and the bravery of his cast and comrades is awe-inspiring.

I can only add, in what I find to be an oddly profound banality, that I've never seen an audience pay such rapt attention to the credits of a film. Rapt attention to what was not there. Line after line after line: 'Anonymous'...

With only a few exceptions, all the names shown unredacted are European. The film derives from an international movement of resistance with deep local roots. I'd love to know more about how it came about and came together, although a degree of secrecy seems to be essential to the safety of those involved.

This is a film of dignity, beauty and boundless importance, both artistically and politically. However, I do feel that the two films, taken together, are incomplete. Oppenheimer described them as a diptych; it seems to me that they should become a triptych.

The director's passionate and erudite comments during the Q&A demonstrate his understanding of how this wound goes far beyond Indonesia. The massacres developed out of the vicious mixture of Cold War realpolitik and capitalism-driven neocolonialism. Western businesses were getting up to precisely the same kinds of slave labour practices in the forests of Indonesia that fascist industries had been in Europe only two decades before.

Oppenheimer started working on these issues in 2001, when he travelled to Indonesia to make The Globalization Tapes, a film about oil plantation workers being poisoned and killed by the chemicals they are forced to work with. Their brief attempt to unionise in order to resist their own slow, horrible deaths were quickly dissuaded by the same networks that committed the massacres in the '60s. These people never went away – and nor did the corporations.

Of course, all of this has been known for years but now someone has given these issues an emotive force that no amount of didactic documentation can produce. It is so much more than a documentary. It is soaked in themes of memory, loss, ageing, love and, above all, living with the unfathomable. I cannot recommend it enough.