Respecting the Outsider

Will Moore’s passing is tough to process, not just because he was such a wonderful mentor to so many people, but also because of the conversations he has started or reignited.  Especially the conversation on depression, mainly driven by the Duck of Minerva with posts by Emily Ritter and John Busby.

Even those who do not suffer from clinical depression do get to feel tinges of it given the bipolar nature of our jobs.  One day it is a lecture in front of hundreds of students (or three star generals) paying attention to every word, the next you are at a Starbucks trying to get 500 words in so you can at least feel productive. Another day you might get a journal acceptance email that was five years in the making and then, two hours later, a grant rejection email.  The highs are high and the lows are low, but they come fast and quick in academia.

Yet, there is another conversation we need to have, one about being an outsider in academia.  This is something Will suffered from given his personality. He was would say and do things that some people found shocking. (I was quite heartened to see that one of his last on Facebook posts was about dildos.) He did not hesitate to tell you the worst things about your work or say (and blog) shocking things in public.  In short, he behaved quite the opposite of many in the field.

Will’s background was a bit unconventional from the dominant Ivy League type perspective common in the field.  Those that go to top schools are institutionalized early on how to behave and survive in academia. Those that are outsiders, whether that be because of economic situation, biological determinants (depression or autism), or ethnicity and culture, all obviously have something important to offer the field.  The problem is they are often rejected and belittled.  A friend reminded me that moving to the United Kingdom resulting in many conversations where the answer was simply, that is the way it has always been done.

What Will gave us was valuable, his perspective was different, he didn’t want to do things the way they had always been done.  He pushed us, called us out, Will Moore’d us. The outsider is needed because they think unconventionally, approach problems from different angles, and challenge us in ways that most the field avoids because they are just too polite.  The outsider will reject conventional wisdom. Look at things differently because they are different. Will was a great activist for social justice because he was an outsider. He could see the problems with the dominant structure and the police state, trying to do something about them.  But he suffered because of his outsider views.

Academics need to learn to the respect the outsider.  What outsiders offer is important but they can also be tough to deal with. There is no easy solution beyond awareness that differences make us stronger.  Diversity is a strength, and it applies to academia in different ways. Without outsiders like Will, our field is worse off.  I will mourn the lost perspective that Will Moore offered most.  The bravery to challenge everyone in the room and say they were wrong. We all must do better to be like Will Moore and to respect the future Will Moores that develop because being on the outside is not fun.

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(Self) Reflections on Alexander Wendt’s book Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology

This is a guest post by Matt EvansProfessor of Political Science at Northwest Arkansas Community College (in Bentonville). Dr. Evans he holds an MA in political science from the University of Louisville (where he was first introduced to Wendt by Dr. Rodger Payne) and a PhD in the same field from Northern Arizona University.

Ecce homo!

The Latin phrase means “behold the body” – it was what Pontius Pilate said to the jeering Jerusalemites in presenting Jesus Christ’s tortured body, and what Friedrich Nietzsche’s used to title his intellectual autobiography. It denotes a defense of oneself and others to an unsympathetic public, and parallels what Judith Butler said about “giving an account of oneself” (that presenting oneself creates an impossible singular task where we must invoke others and the broader web of sociality to know ourselves in public and private).

In the paragraphs below, I want to explain my own use of the phrase – in a review of Alexander Wendt’s recent book Quantum Mind and Social Science: Unifying Physical and Social Ontology. Of course, this book review will not only explain some of Wendt’s basic ideas in this quantum project, but also reveal something inter-textually that exists beyond and between the texts/text (thus the infinite number of spaces that we need to look to explain what something means). Examining Wendt’s most recent book tells us something about the writer, the book reviewer, and some of the social contexts in which both emerge.

More than any other writer, Wendt made me the political scientist I am today. His work on structuration, scientific realism, and constructivism unraveled my thinking on how to approach American diplomatic history. Before reading his work, I wanted to be Noam Chomsky with a political science PhD. After reading his works, I wanted to be a political theorist. Every political problem appeared, at its roots, to be a philosophical problem (that addressed both the way we did science, the way we construct causality, ontology, metaphysics, ethics). I thought all political scientists were just bad theorists, bad historians, or a combination of the two. Certainly reading King Keohane and Verba made me very amenable to some of Wendt’s denaturalization of the orthodoxies of the study of international relations and global politics. It also opened the door to an idea that political scientists could not adequately study political problems – the major paradigm shifts occurred metaphorically by connecting contents and contexts that clearly were not part of political science into the field (in a way that draws upon the insights of conceptual blending and conceptual metaphor research). Thus, Wendt had to remind everyone of the importance of philosophy of science, specifically scientific realism (from British philosopher Roy Bhaskar) and structuration (from British sociologist Anthony Giddens). He was breaking apart what counted as international relations – along with others opening the door to a wider conception of political science – and creating space for me to do whatever I would be doing to complete my MA and a PhD in political science (and thus spend much of my time taking philosophy, linguistics, sociology, gender studies, ethnic studies, communications courses). Of course, I probably stretched scientific realism and constitutive theory to their breaking points in justifying my own projects (like my dissertation). His cleaver-ness, though, was always creating a false nostalgia in making the new concept or issue appear like it had just been lost in the shuffle of the field’s creation and was always there in plain sight (kind of like Winston’s role in utilizing the memory hole in the book 1984).

The metaphoricity of Wendt’s recent project on quantum social science seems potentially ripe for contributing to the growth of the field of not just political science (but all of social sciences). He examines the mind-body problem – one of the central and intractable problems of Western philosophy – and finds it lacking for being entirely based on Newtonian physics (for example, see his Q&A here and his lecture here). The Newtonian should be replaced by the quantum. The latter challenges many of the basic assumptions of the former. All social explanations are constrained by the laws of physics, according to Wendt, and thus physics lays at the base of everything social, large and small (Wendt 7). In laying out this challenge, Wendt brings into question the broader project of social sciences (in all of its disciplines). If the social sciences are largely based on a Newtonian metaphysics (at least implicitly at their root), then the larger project of social sciences loses its purchase in explaining the world. Wendt, thus, is correcting philosophers and social scientists for not thinking through the implications of the quantum that ultimately undermine explanations about the world. We must look to the quantum, a world of potentiality and contingencies.

What is the new quantum IR Wendt world? From this perspective, humans are “walking wave functions” and thus all that can be known about a quantum system before it collapses and decoheres because of measurement (Wendt 3). Individual minds “are entangled through language and context and thus not fully separable”; “there is no need to infer the speaker’s meaning, since it is contained right there in her words and context, which are picked up non-locally, i.e., directly, rather than transposed through the speaker’s mind” (Wendt 237). Speech perception happens through gestalts “which sub-consciously relates what is being said backwards to what they have already said in the past and also anticipating what they are going to say in the future,” following the work of Francesco Ferretti (Wendt 240). Individuals exist ontologically prior to the state and society (Wendt 244), a point he made in his first book but not his initial formulation of constructivism (in saying it might be ideas all the way down). The state is a hologram where the hole is encoded in the parts; thus, “the policeman’s practices enfold the history of the whole state” that are decoded through our psychological perceptions of waves cohering in our brain around this phenomenon (Wendt 272-273) – a much less Marxist explanation of interpellation, perhaps. We do not literally see the state, but the act itself that implicates the state and thus we perceive the underlying phenomenon because of its holographic encoding on the smaller, more localized phenomenon (Wendt 274). Methodologically he suggests moving past his previous suggestion of via media (a middle ground between positivism and interpretivism) to “both/and” – “only question then is which incomplete stance to take for a given problem” (Wendt 286). Causes are non-efficient, and non-local within this perspective. They happen downward through what he terms “weak downward causation” where the whole describes the arrangement or constitution of the parts (Wendt 262). Temporal holism suggests that history is “a series of events that are logically or internally related to one another” and “what comes after those events plays a role in not just in how we describe them today but in making them what they actually were” (Wendt 196). In total, Wendt tells us that he is out of the constructivism business (though there are elements of his previous projects on display in this book).

The problem with moving across and expanding contexts is translation. Something gets lost when shifting and connecting registers, accents, languages, modes of thinking, ontologies, epistemologies, metaphysics, and ethics. Contexts are structured and created through the specificity (or backgrounding) of these things. The implications of grand claims, at the root of Wendt’s new project, cannot be adequately addressed. Wendt suggests a second volume that works more specifically through these issues might come years later. To be fair, one can only address so much in a book and certain things will always lie outside the narrative. On the other hand, as WEB DuBois knew well, connecting two contexts can be extremely violent psychically and physically – leading to the mental experience of the veil of distancing and obstructing one’s own view through the alienation of one’s very being.

As such, I want to raise some issues of what gets left behind or overlooked (and perhaps what might get resurrected and addressed in Wendt’s sequel).

PERFORMATIVITY. Wendt connects the interactive production of individuals with the performative theory of Judith Butler:

on the specific issue of how she [Butler] conceives the relationship between agents and agency, there is a strong parallel to quantum reading of the preference reversal phenomenon. Moreover, one of the issues Butler struggles with in response to critics is the age-old tension between voluntarism and determinism, both of which she wants to avoid. As we will see in the next chapter on free will, a quantum model of agency provides a way to threat this needle, and as such would contribute to further development of her approach. (Wendt 163)

Wendt draws upon a previous book on quantum theory and performativity by Karen Barad to connect her notion of intra-action to game theory inter-action (in threading this needle for Butler):

Human beings only become who they are through collapse of our wave functions into well-defined states, which happens as a result of continuous measurements on and by our environment. She then points out that as quantum systems we are entangled with the social world and thus not fully separable from each other. This vitiates the premise of “inter” action and by the same token motivates the neologism of intra-action, since who we become through measurement on each other is internal to our shared relationship – our entanglement – rather than something that happens outside. (Wendt 172)

Thus, “her argument suggests that the effect of playing a quantum game is to create the separability requirement of classical game – even if that game can never be played” (Wendt 173). This gives rise to cooperation through entanglement that challenges the atomistic notions of traditional game theory; strategies are intertwined between players and their deployment only becomes clear as a result of the game itself (Wendt 170).

Of course, I am not sure I understand how he works through the aspects of Butler’s work (and those following her like Saba Mahmood) about the nature of what exists prior to the interaction and what weight it possesses and what constraint it offers. Wendt suggests that she works against voluntarism and determinism, but within her own discussion she works through notions of grids of determinability and in others applying her theory we see notions of how the performance cements over time making it harder to change. If we are left with flat ontology (“in which individuals are the only real reality” Wendt 33; unlike some of his previous claims about states being real), how do we work through some of the wisdom of the last 25 years on performativity? Are there things beyond the individual and mind that stay and exist beyond the hologram? Is the division between the real, the social, the ideal much more fluid than Wendt wants to claim within his framework?

Most problematically he says: “I know of no interpretivist, post-modernist, or other critic of naturalistic social science who says that social phenomena can violate the laws of physics” (Wendt 10). For such a statement to make sense, we have to know physics, how it can be violated, and how we know it was violated (as do all the theoretical positions laid out in this sentence). Epistemologically I am not sure that every theoretical positions follows the winding metaphysical systems implied within their social ontologies. In a sense, Wendt seems to attribute a certain narrative totality to particular traditions across all the traditional philosophical categories (when such traditions may have avoided, challenged, or radically transmuted such categories from natural objects, as they were, to sites of power construction) – and thus he is smuggling in some overarching, loose, metaphysics to put over all these diverse approaches to discovering/formulating the world.

MONADS. Wendt’s utilizes monads (from Gottfied Leibniz) to make claims about the social positions of individuals and their experiences:

We might call leaders dominant monads, which contain within themselves the reasons for the collective actions of the members. Other monads defer to the dominant, giving the latter “first mover” status in collapsing the state’s wave function and by implication giving up their own right to act against the chosen path (at least at that moment). In quantum terms this may be understood as a system of entangled particles in which, by virtue of its internal structure, when measurements are made on the system by the environment the choice of how to respond is not made locally by the particles on the spot, but centrally by the leaders. (Wendt 270)

Additionally, Wendt tells us the dominant experiences the whole decoherence into experience, “instantiating the consciousness of the collective, not a single cell” (Wendt 281); and anyone can experience the state and what it is like to be the state (but this point of view is the subjective experience of the state, not the actual experience of the state).

Such claims about monads (however grounded in mannish European early modern philosophy of Leibniz) suggest an abstract affinity for standpoint theory (that emerged out of George Lukás and various feminists of the 1970s and 1980s), but that a flat ontology seemingly undermines some of the parallels between these two theories (while simultaneously harvesting the epistemic point from standpoint theory about social position and knowledge about the system). Beyond the flat ontology, should we acknowledge that the unprivileged have a stronger claim on knowledge than the privileged in explaining the nature and logic of the social system? How can we do so within a flat ontology?

SPEECH ACTS. Wendt draws upon speech acts in explaining wave collapses in quantum physics and his own project:

In quantum mechanics measurement is what brings about a wave function’s collapse, which is inherently contextual process that involves first deciding particular question to ask of nature and then preparing the experiment in such a way that it can be answered; if these steps are done differently, then a different result will be obtained. Similarly, in language what brings about a concept’s collapse from potential meaning into an actual one is a speech act, which may be seen as a measurement that puts it into a context, with both other words and particular listeners. (Wendt 217)

This suggests some affinity with securitization theory (that explains the dis-empowering impacts of particular types of speech acts towards referent objects). Does Ole Waever’s existing conception of securitization (and the broader literature around it) remain consistent with Wendt’s metaphysical and ontological claims in the book? What are the overlaps and the differences? My sense is that there are some things I am not seeing, but thinking through on security seems to say, at least from memory, that it could be made to work fairly directly and easily with mind entanglement through the ontological claims that securitization makes at its most basic levels.

TRUTH. Wendt’s general disposition — taking a stand that something is true — is parsimonious and useful for tracing out a clear position on what QT means and its implications for mind/body and social theory. But is there a stronger claim for ontological muddle and epistemic humility in following some type of philosophical wager for a particular commitment to pluralism for different possibilities of the way the mind works consistent with quantum theory (parallel to what PTJ does with his different scientific ontologies — trying to keep several conflicting ways of doing science and approaching the world in the same tent).

EMERGENCE. Wendt’s claims of emergence offers a new explanation for mutual constitution, as the relation between agents and social structures is a “nonlocal synchronic state from which both emerge” (Wendt 260). This makes me think of conceptual blending and conceptual metaphor theories — as ways to explain emergent meaning — that hit on something of the boundaries of context. So much of meaning connects structures that we thought were separated to create new meanings. As such, there are deeper implications for the connection of semantic context through the process of interaction and meaning. Should we consider the role of metaphor in quantum theory in some deeper way? Additionally, why should this be treated differently than the sort of theorizing on assemblages, rhizomes, and lines of flight in the post-Marxist/speculative realism literature?

SUBJECT/OBJECT. Is there an irony with establishing the collapse of wave functions as a measurement problem and then creating a scientism that cleanly separates the researcher from the world out there? Thus, even though he suggests the problem of de-coherence, he offers a position to explain the way reality ultimately is from a knowledge position not fully within the field of quantum physics and thus as an anthropologist outsider engaging a world of texts (Wendt 36-37), where he asks the reader to cobble together a new view of the world from reading his text (that surely represents what the world “is” by offering explanations of quantum physics and social theory). Would Wendt just be better served by reading Campbell’s engagement with him 25 years ago (about how the posts were part of the constructivist project, drawing on Foucault’s notion of the “Blackmail of the Enlightenment”) and taking up his interlocutor’s project of a thoroughly performative series of claims about the world jettisoning all the different layers of physics concepts?

ALIEN ANTHROPOLOGY. The fact that Wendt suggests that aliens could not find or see the state seems a bit ridiculous (even against his discussion of alien encounters and UFOs elsewhere). Do anthropologist not reconstruct social structures that are unfamiliar through ethnographies or gathering artifacts (a point he affirms in his introduction of what he is doing method-wise in his book)? Why would aliens not see the state in the same way that outsider anthropologists do?

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Addressing the gender gap in academic service

A just-published study — Inside Higher Ed story here — confirms, with data, something that I think is pretty obvious to many academics already: women do more service, on average, than their male counterparts. According to the study, that relationship holds true across faculty ranks, even as the amount of service overall increases as one ascends the Assistant-Associate-Professor ladder. And it is driven, conclude the authors, by “internal” service rather than “external” service, that is, by service that one performs by serving on committees and the like within one’s department or university, rather than by serving in such capacities for community groups or professional associations. Even though the results of the study are a serious indictment of the academic life, it is always nice to have data to validate one’s intuitions and link one’s local experiences to broader patterns.

I am less concerned with the fine-grained distinctions among possible causes for this gender gap than others might be (the authors of the study test hypotheses about proportionality and the gender of academic unit leadership, as well as issues related to adopting an administrative career track). I want instead to take the descriptive findings as a point of departure and propose a potential solution that intervenes directly in the moment when a member of the professoriate is asked, by anyone, to engage in internal service. (I am setting aside external service, largely because the study doesn’t find a significant gap between male and female academics in the amount of external service — although it does suggest that different kinds of external service are chosen by men and by women, which is intriguing on its own.) This doesn’t just address gender differentials, but any categorical differentials in service, because what I am proposing is that we generate impersonal metrics for internal service that allow everyone to ascertain whether they and their colleagues are doing an appropriate amount of such service.

But before I do that, we need to be clear on what an impersonal metric actually is, and what it does in practice. Continue reading

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The Importance of Water (In)Security

Cross-posting with International Relations @ UIowa

Given that yesterday was World Water Day, it is a good time to reflect on the importance of humans’ access to clean water and the security threats that unequal access to water resources can create. While countries like Canada and the United States are fortunate to have large internal supplies of fresh water, many states like Iraq and Syria depend heavily on rivers that cross international boundaries. One third of the 263 international river basins in the world contain three or more countries, making negotiations over shared water resources complex. Israel’s seizure of the Jordan River headwaters area in the 1967 Six Day War created concerns that many more “water wars” would emerge. Yet while academics and pundits warned that water conflicts would increase in the decades to follow this conflict, most interactions between countries over shared river resources have been cooperative.

Ataturk Dam

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For Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto

The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation. It’s not at all that I needed to be convinced of the value of such an approach; rather, it’s that I was somewhat blissfully unaware of the extent to which the current wave of populist politics was almost completely untroubled by notions of factuality. Sure, I had known that there was a hard core of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism that felt that scientific results and verifiable pieces of information were matters of opinion or belief — anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, people who worried about the U.N.’s supposed fleet of black helicopters that were waiting to swoop in and destroy national sovereignty — but I guess I always believed that such a minority would be held in check by the good sense of the rest of the electorate, even those with whose policy positions I disagreed. Apparently not. Apparently significant numbers of people in the U.S. were willing to vote for a demonstrated purveyor of convenient falsehoods — convenient in the sense that they support his, and their, preferred positions on a whole slew of issues. Welcome to the post-truth era.

Or: welcome to an era in which truth, and the earnest seeking after truth, is under assault, and under assault not for anything like defensible reasons. Instead, the political order of the day seems to be to make up whatever claims support one’s conclusions and then pass them off as “facts.” In my view what has changed is not politicians; politics was never about seeking truth, and frankly, shouldn’t be about truth but should instead be about making compromises and balancing priorities in order to make our common lives together work as well as they can. Believing that you and you alone have the truth makes you a poor politician, because you can’t compromise, and if you had the truth, why would you even want to? Politics is messy and imperfect, so we should never expect it to conform to ideal standards for the production of factual knowledge. Indeed, I suspect that most politicians would lie about and misrepresent situations as much as they could get away with doing so in pursuit of their agendas, because the central virtue in politics is effectiveness rather than integrity — and in the first instance that means effectiveness and gaining and retaining political power and influence.

All of which means that if we the people want our elected officials to make policy that engages facts instead of just making stuff up, we cannot rely on politicians or on the political process to defend that stance. We have to instead actively advocate and diligently defend the proper role of facts and factual explanations in relation to political contestation. Continue reading

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Caging Confessions: My Womanhood in David Lake’s White Man’s IR

(A really long caveat): I have nothing but respect for David Lake. In the last few years, I have interacted with him professionally on a number of occasions. I have found him to be generous, open-minded, and self-reflective. I have found him to intend inclusion at every time possible. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field either fail to reflect on the issues that David does or fail to take the risk of sharing their reflection. Many people in David’s position of privilege in the field fail to do the hard work to make the field better that David does every day. I have rarely met a more thoughtful leader, and appreciate the work that he does in the field. I think that the field is better off for David’s leadership, and significantly so. I say this because I think David’s piece is a brave thing to have done, and something he did not have to do – and it is important to note that the critique that comes here is only possible because David took that risk, and that my critique should be (and is) louder towards those who failed to take the risk. That said, I couldn’t read David’s confessional and not react. My reaction is partial – it is my experience and my confessional, rather than a full-scale engagement with the argument. Particularly, I didn’t comment extensively on the discussion of race in the confession, because I don’t think I would/could do that justice. Like David, I benefit from many of the discipline’s axes of power, and its important then to recognize that this critique can always be only partial. RelationsInternational would be happy, however, to publish both further discussion and any engagement David might want to have with this conversation.

David Lake’s White Man’s IR: An Intellectual Confession suggests that the exclusion of women and minorities from the field of IR results in intellectual convergence, “leaving other questions unasked because they do not appear relevant, other theories unexamined because they do not resonate with our intuitions, and other predictions untested.” Dr. Lake then suggests that he would be a better scholar, and IR would be a better field, if it had more a more diverse representation of scholars. As he critiques the “practices and privileges” that keep IR largely white and largely male, Dr. Lake admits to having been complicit in those practices and privileges, and benefitting from them. He then also suggests that little he writes about making the field more diverse is new, suggesting that “it is precisely as a beneficiary of the ‘system,’ however, that I hope my remarks might have some impact. I apologize nor for the lack of originality in this essay, only for my tardiness in understanding the issues and why they are important.” Lake goes on to recognize that disciplinary hierarchy and gate-keeping reify a lack of diversity, and should be questioned – “white man’s IR begets white man’s IR.” He suggests that, even when it is non-white or non-male scholars doing IR, they are constrained by disciplinary and job-related incentives.

This premise for the article, I think, is impressive: a recognition of the substantive need for diversity and an apology for not coming to that conclusion earlier. It is when Lake goes on to explain why he sees diversity as substantively important that I stop being on board with the article. His argument (paraphrasing here because this is likely already going to be a long blog post) is that lived experience shapes intuition, and intuition shapes theorizing. Because “the lived experience of white males in the US during the twentieth century, for instance, share similarities that are different from those for women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities,” their different lived experiences will cause them to contribute different theorizations.

It is true that lack of representational diversity makes for a lack of substantive (and, though not recognized by Lake, epistemological and methodological) diversity. But that realization does not necessitate an essentialist claim that women, blacks, Hispanics, and other racial minorities (either across groups, which could be read into the comments, or, more likely what Lake meant, within groups) necessarily have something in common. There’s a reason there aren’t a lot of standpoint feminists left in academia – because of the realization that there is violence in assuming that there is a standpoint which women have. That violence is three-fold: first, it suggests standards that legitimate (and therefore delegitimize) claims to womanhood exist and can be deployed; second, it suggests that biological sex is a clear and primordial thing; third, it suggests that gender maps onto sex one-to-one.

So, in one sense, I’m exactly the woman that Dr. Lake is talking about – someone whose intellectual interest is in gender, which is a topic that was traditionally ignored by the white men who constituted the field, and is getting more attention as the field gets more (but still embarrassingly not enough) diversity of scholars. On the other hand, my interest in gender in global politics comes less from being a woman than from being a person who was labelled a woman but felt intensely uncomfortable with that label itself and the expectations of femininity that come with it.

Why does that matter? Is it just that one confessional deserves another?

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What Happens When the Hegemon Abdicates?

There’s a lot of speculation about what the incoming Trump administration will or won’t do in the realm of international relations and foreign policy. My friend Steve Saideman had an interesting piece on his blog recently suggesting – as most experts in the field are at this point – that if trajectories are left unaltered, things won’t go well.

Part of the discussion of any new Presidency is, of course, an analysis of the broader situation it finds itself in. While the newspapers are focused on the micro, we should remind ourselves as IR scholars that our work ranges from micro to macro levels, and that we should probably step back to look at the bigger picture. Structural realists have argued that individual leaders don’t matter very much; this is a good opportunity to test that hypothesis. So what kind of world is President Trump faced with?
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Hope: Rogue One and the Vocation for Politics

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. — Hebrews 11:1

I will confess that I had more than a little trepidation going into Rogue One. When the first trailer dropped, I complained to a Facebook group that it looked like an action flick that just happened to be set in the Star Wars universe, and didn’t seem especially Star Wars-y at all. I mean, I was sure that the production design people at Lucasfilm would do their usual commendable job building the “lived-in universe” and as such the film would look like it belonged in the world that the previous films had explored, and the folks in charge of overall continuity would ensure that the story would fit into the timeline. But what bothered me in the trailer was the absence of any obvious references to the Force, the Jedi, and the other parts of the central mythological backbone of the Star Wars saga. The soul of Star Wars, the thing that makes it different from basically any other outer-space adventure series, has always been the Force, and the eternal struggle between its dark and light aspects has always provided the engine that drives the overall plot.

Successive trailers and leaks about the film gave me a little more confidence that we’d still be in the space-fantasy realm in the final version of the movie, but I was still bothered by the apparent absence of anyone definitively Force-sensitive in the main cast of characters. When opening day finally arrived, I sat in the theatre with my family and watched an opening sequence that was about as un-Star Wars-y as I’d feared, despite the armored stormtroopers and the blue milk: no opening text crawl, no soaring theme music, and most jarring of all, after the quick flash of the movie’s title on screen, the name of a planet displayed as a way of explaining to the viewer where the action was taking place. Why was this last one so jarring? Because until this point the only on-screen text we’d ever seen in a Star Wars film was to translate some alien language. Identifying locations with on-screen text overlays is a typical science fiction convention, and Star Wars has never been science fiction; instead of having things explained, we were always dropped into the middle of the action and basically left to figure things out en route. Mystery, not explication — a trick that George Lucas learned from Akira Kurosawa.

Rogue One walks a very fine line between space fantasy and science fiction, and this presses the Star Wars franchise someplace it hasn’t gone on screen before. And as it does, Rogue One is able to do something no previous Star Wars film has been able to do: show us characters wrestling with the dilemmas of practical political action. Where previous Star Wars films were like sacred scripture, Rogue One is a story about the lives of the faithful. Which makes it a perfectly appropriate film for our times.

[From here on in this is not a spoiler-free zone. You have been warned.] Continue reading

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TIFU: Gender, Justice, and the Wars in Iraq

TIFU … or 11 years ago, and I survived.

So I promised that my first post in this series would be of a piece of work with which I now disagree. It is – it is about my first book (and second publication), Gender, Justice, and the Wars in IraqI decided to write about this for a few reasons … in order: 1) the anxiety people have about sending something imperfect out for publication ; 2) the worry people have about early publications defining careers; and 3) the idea that people have that admitting weakness constitutes failure. I’m going to talk about all three of those in some detail, but, first, to what I don’t like about this book almost eleven years later …

Many people would tell me that the biggest mistake of this book is the publisher, Lexington Books – I signed a quick contract with a commercial publisher rather than wading through the difficulties of the University press revision process while a 1L in law school. While it might not have been the best move in terms of impressing those who might hire me, looking back at the reviews I got from University presses at the time, I don’t think that responding to them in depth actually would have fixed the problems I now have with the book. Others would wonder if it is the literature-review-like quality, or the immaturity of the writing, that make me now unhappy with it. While part of me does wish that I’d had a decade’s worth of academic experience when writing that book, I was 25 and 26 – and it sounds a little like that. That’s fine. My disagreement with it now is both better (that is, not an embarrassment over the outlet or writing) and worse (that is, substantive).

That is, I now think that the argument is wrong. Particularly, I think that there are two serious issues that I did not see at the time: 1) that just war theorizing may well not be worth saving; 2) that the problematic relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello means that I see just war theorizing as self-defeating if not war-justifying. This post probably is not the time for deep discussion of either of these points, but a couple of sentences will help show the depth of my current disagreement: at the time, a memory of classics classes in college and an interest in religious philosophy made me think that just war theory was a-ok, and just needed feminism to make it better. The question of whether it was fixable or not never occurred to me. Which brings me to the second one: the idea of a just cause, and of levels of justice of a cause, seems to me, in ‘real war’, to inspire unjust in bello behavior proportionate to one’s conviction about the justice of one’s cause. That is – just war discourse, I think, is complicit not only in inspiring wars but in inspiring their brutality. I’ve written a little about this with former graduate student Jessica Peet.

The point isn’t whether 2006-me or 2016-me is right. In fact, I’ve found more people susceptible to convincing by a refined version of the older argument than by the newer one. The point is having published something with which I now have both serious intellectual and serious normative issues – is that a bad thing? How do you look forward? What do you do? Does this mean I should sit on other ideas I have rather than put them out there? What does it mean for professional development. I have some ideas …

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IFjP Call for Editors

This is me shamelessly using IR to post the IFjP Call for Editors. Think about running IFjP. We’ve had a blast of a six years.

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