Melt Our Guns

Or, “in which PTJ attempts to use some reflections on the aesthetics of progressive rock to flesh our a way for international studies scholarship to ‘go on’ in these turbulent times.”

Our wide eyes
Aren’t naive
They’re a product of a conscious decision
The welcoming smile is the new cool
The key left in the outside of the unlocked door
Isn’t forgetfulness
It’s a challenge to change your heart
There’s always a price to pay
Living in f e a r is so very dear
Can you really afford it?

The band Marillion is probably not one that you are familiar with. Outside of a very passionately committed fan base, most people have either never heard of them or have vague memories of their song “Kayleigh,” which was a #2 hit in the U.K. in the summer of 1985, a top-10 hit in Ireland, Norway, and France, and made it to #74 in the United States later that year. Since that period of popular success, and after replacing their lead singer due in part to the traditional problems of a successful rock band (ego, drugs, and the pressure to repeat their triumph), the band has recorded 15 additional studio albums, played numerous shows all over the world, and generally continued to make compelling melodic “neo-progressive” rock music. If Bob Dylan set out with “a red guitar, three chords, and the truth,” Marillion persists with a lot more than three chords, numerous synthesizers and keyboards to go along with several guitars including a 12-string, and a preference for longer, more complex musical arrangements than are common in mainstream popular music.

Marillion’s latest album is entitled FEAR, which is an acronym standing for “f*** everyone and run.” That latter phrase is a lyric from one of the album’s songs, “The New Kings,” which deals with the lives of the world’s super-rich elite and the impact that the wealth gap has on the daily lives of the rest of us. The album opens with a long suite entitled “El Dorado” that links the pursuit of gold with militarism, global poverty, and various forms of violence. On their current concert tour, Marillion is playing both of those songs, and not playing the less explicitly political tracks from the new album: “The Leavers,” about a band on tour, and “White Paper,” about a relationship that ends because the narrator can’t find a way to be content given all of the horrible things going on in the world. From the new album they are also playing a song entitled “Living in FEAR,” which lead singer Steve Hogarth introduces at the live shows as “the antidote to our new album.” While “El Dorado” and “The New Kings” indict and lament the current state of things, “Living in FEAR” presents an alternative way that we could choose to live:

We’ve decided to risk melting our guns as a show of strength
We’ve decided to risk melting our guns as a show of strength
As a show of strength!

One of the main reasons I have been attracted to international studies over the years is its core concern with, as I would term it, “the encounter with difference across boundaries.” Despite lots of theoretical and methodological controversies, the field is (weakly) held together by that common topic, often inflected — this is the more conventional notion of “international” bleeding through — by a focus on sovereign territorial states and their adventures in time and space. Sometimes this means “great power politics” concentrating on diplomatic and military maneuvering among European states; sometimes this means colonialism and imperialism and their ongoing legacies; sometimes this means the rise and fall of empires and civilizations in broader historical perspective than the three-hundred-odd years of the Eurocentric “international system.” Sometimes it means the evolution of global governance to address challenges not effectively handled by putatively independent sovereigns. Sometimes it means trade arrangements between those sovereigns; sometimes it means war; sometimes it means collaboration and pooling and integration. But the thread running through all of this is that we have difference — different social arrangements, different moral visions, different ways of organizing political and military and economic and cultural relations — and we have socially produced and reproduced boundaries between those differences (and, I would say, partly productive of those differences, but that’s a nuance that need not concern us for the moment) and we have engagements, transactions, encounters across those boundaries. There is no international relations in a world where the different actors simply have nothing to do with one another, and completely ignore each other as they go about their business in isolation.

This is an important point so I want to linger on it for a moment. The only places where one would have nothing like international relations would be in the complete absence of any of the three components of my definition: difference, boundaries, and encounter. Complete homogeneity means that there are no differences to encounter. No boundaries, the complete absence of us/them or I/you distinctions, means much the same, because there are no ways to distinguish anything…so no differences to encounter there either. As for “encounter,” I would argue that one cannot avoid encounter at some level except through complete ignorance of the other’s existence, even a fanciful or imagined other — stories about barbarians, savages, monsters, or aliens are also “encounters” with others, and if they become salient as ways of legitimating social action, they are as much a part of international studies as more familiar forms of physical encounter such as war or trade or diplomacy. After all, those more familiar forms of encounter are themselves framed and shaped and shot through with stories about otherness; we regard certain actions (the acquisition and possession of nuclear weapons, to use a famous example) as threatening when performed by certain people or states, but not threatening when performed by other people or states. So the actually non-encountering polity would have to have no stories that referred to anything besides itself, not even fairy tales about supernatural dangers lurking in the woods just outside of town.

Our wide eyes are not so weak
They’re a product of a hard-won wisdom
So we will turn the other cheek
The apple pie cooling on the windowsill
Is such a welcome change from
Living in f e a r
Year after year after year
Can we really afford it?
Can you really afford it?

The encounter with difference across boundaries might take one of several forms, ranging from violent to peaceful, from mutually enriching to genocidally disastrous. In important ways these differences depend on two things: how fixed and firm the boundary of the polity is thought to be, and how the polity’s decisions are supposed to be made. For ease of presentation we could put those two features together to form a simple chart of what polities encountering one another might look like:

autonomy attunement
solid billiard-balls rational actors in rational institutions
permeable community members collaborators

The basic idea here is that the kind of encounters with difference that a polity and its citizens can have depends on whether its borders are supposed to be solid and impervious to outsiders or permeable and open to outsiders, and whether the polity insists on making its own decisions without input from others or orients its decisions towards others. These are of course both descriptions and idealizations, so a call to make the boundary less permeable or a call for greater attunement to the actions of others look like calls to move around in the chart, towards the top in the former case, and to the right in the latter case.

Obviously the polity most open to peaceful encounter is the one in the lower-right-hand box, attuned to others and relatively unconcerned with making its boundaries into solid borders. Those in the upper-right-hand and lower-left-hand box are partially open in different ways, but the polities in the upper-left-hand box are the toughest nuts to crack: their insistence on autonomy and solid borders makes any encounter with others that is anything but conflictual and violent incredibly unlikely.

We have decided to start melting our guns as a show of strength
As a show of strength
We decided to leave the doors unlocked, our face unlocked
As a show of strength.

We’re not green
We’re just pleasant
We’re not green
We’re just pleasant
We’re not green
We’ve decided to start melting our guns as a show of strength.

At its most basic, then, international studies in my view is the contemplation of the possibilities of encounter, both between polities and between citizens of those polities, in relation to the character of the polity whether in isolation or in an interactive system of polities (like “the international system”). Over the years, there have been many different combinations of boundary-solidity and decision-making-orientation across many different polities. And there have been many different political movements intending to reshape either boundaries or decision-making in different directions. Calls for multilateral free trading arrangements typically sacrifice decision-making autonomy but retain effective national borders; globalists and integrationists want greater attunement as well as an increase in cross-border flows; nationalists and mercantilists typically call for firmer boundaries and increased autonomy; participants in a “security community” emphasize coordination that is made possible by their common participation in a wider community. Inequalities and power differentials play a role here too, of course, but it’s more indeterminate; it’s easier to have open borders when you don’t have to worry about being attacked all the time, but by the same token it’s easier to contemplate a campaign to wipe out the other when you have more guns and bombs than they do.

The condition of possibility of international studies, in some ways, is that not all encounters be violent and eliminationist, because if they were then international studies would collapse entirely into the study of war and military strategy — a very narrow kind of “encounter” indeed. Fortunately a quick scan of world history reassures us that not all encounters between polities and among the citizens of various polities have taken that violent form; there are ample instances of contentious-but-not-openly-conflictual, wary but respectful standoffs, exchanges that benefit all sides albeit unequally, and even the occasional mutual learning from one another — together, of course, with mutual pacts to oppress and enslave and destroy third (and fourth, and…) parties for the benefit of the powerful and dominant. There is also the cold comfort of the fact that actual historical encounters are rarely pure, and usually feature multiple strains and streams that allow them to be plausibly read in a number of different ways; nothing is ever as uniformly good or as uniformly bad as it seems on first glance, which is part of the reason why scholarly investigation of these encounters rarely if ever concludes in some definitively settled account.

Our wide eyes aren’t naive
They’re a product of a kind of exhaustion
Will there come a time when we believe
The only way ahead is to put down our arms
When we finally know
The bitter consequence of not doing so
There’s such a price to pay
For living this way
Living this way

So what happens to international studies if the most powerful state in the international system decides to move into the upper-left-hand corner of my typology? When the President-elect of the United States declares that “America First” will be a central theme of his administration, and explicitly calls for a foreign policy that focuses on strengthening of the “national community” by disparaging the very notion of the global — “There is no global anthem, no global currency, no certificate of global citizenship…We pledge allegiance to one flag, and that flag is the American flag. From now on, it’s going to be America first.” — what becomes of a focus on encounter? Others, other-than-America, generally only show up in the President-elect’s speeches in the guise of threats to be defended against or disloyal residents who have to be disciplined and punished. So the only encounters such a country will have will be hostile ones, ranging from openly violent to tacitly waiting to become violent. And when the most powerful country on the planet adopts such a stance, how long before other countries follow suit, if for no other reason than simple reciprocity? A hardening of the U.S. border and a renewed proclamation of U.S. autonomy does not augur well for the system as a whole — especially since some other countries had already started to turn in that direction before the U.S. election: the Brexit vote in the U.K. and recent Russian moves generally are just two of the most prominent examples.

Faced with such a prospect, does international studies simply become the study of violent encounters?

We don’t invite crime
We don’t invite crime

Will you let one lost soul change what we stand for?
I don’t think so.

I think not. Our scholarly vocation means that our task is contemplation and clarification of possibilities en route to explanation of actualities. If we want to understand why we see one kind of outcome rather than another, we have to at least envision if not concretely explicate other, “counterfactual” options that did not in fact occur. If we want to make plain the rules defining and constituting different encounters, we have to be clear about what kinds of situations and scenarios are and are not envisioned within a given set of social norms and conventions. So whether we seek causal or interpretive explanations — whether we aim to help people bring about outcomes or whether we aim to help people “go on” in relation to some set of social rules — we are not confined to a description of what actually happens. We cannot be so confined without giving up the epistemic ambition to explain in any sense. Our theoretical imaginations must be broader than actuality in order to make any sense out of the world that we actually have.

In a way this makes scholarship and the scholarly vocation oddly akin to progressive rock of the sort that Marillion produces. “Progressive rock” can be defined in a lot of different ways, from the absurd to the more serious and technical, but running through all of those definitions is a common thread involving exploration and experimentation, and a certain eclecticism that allows the imperfect translation of a variety of musical styles into a broad rock idiom. To be a progressive rock band, to compose and perform progressive rock, is to be open to novel modes of musical expression, and to explore unconventional possibilities of what might be done with otherwise-conventional musical instruments. Steve Hackett, the celebrated former guitarist for the progressive rock band Genesis, joined the band after placing an ad in a music industry paper declaring that he was looking for a band “determined to strive beyond existing stagnant music forms”; that basically sums up the spirit of progressive rock in a nutshell. If mainstream popular music is using drums, guitar, bass, keyboards, and vocals in relatively conventional ways — song-structures that go verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus, standard chord progressions and time-signatures, relatively simple lyrics — progressive rock bends and breaks some or all of those conventions in pursuit of different kinds of songs. Those songs, in turn, show possibilities that weren’t on display in mainstream popular music, although sometimes mainstream music incorporates some of those techniques and gestures and thus makes a little “progress” of its own.

Now, I am not suggesting that scholars are exactly like progressive rock musicians. Music isn’t an explanatory endeavor, but an expressive one; the aim of composing and performing music is to give voice to experiences and emotions and perceptions. That’s not what scholarly explanation is for. Explanation aims to alter or enhance the capacity of the recipient of the explanation to *do* something, and while music can certainly also change people, it would be odd indeed if hearing a piece of music somehow made the listener more competent at some practical activity. But when we scholars construct an explanation of some event or outcome, that kind of practical competence is precisely what we are aiming to affect and enhance. That said, the dependence of explanation on unrealized possibilities (so that we can make clear why those unrealized possibilities did not come to actuality) means that, like progressive rock musicians, scholars have to entertain unconventional notions in the course of explaining those things that we actually have in the world. So our explanations feature the same kinds of exploratory flights of expression as any progressive rock opus — it’s just that our instruments are words and sometimes graphics.

What a waste of time
The Great Wall of China
What a waste of time
The Maginot line
The Great Wall of China
Что за трата времени
Берлинская стена
What a waste of time
Die Berliner Mauer
What a waste of time
What a waste of time

Exploring possibilities and keeping alternatives alive. That isn’t “political” in the conventional sense, but it is a contribution to the political landscape inasmuch as it preserves options that might otherwise disappear under the pressure of events. It is precisely when the international arena seems to be teetering on the edge of a return to something like the old-fashioned “billiard ball” model of interstate interaction — in which the only encounters between hard-edged, insistently autonomous sovereign entities involve striking and deflecting and impacting that may alter the direction of travel but not the basic character of the traveler — that we international studies scholars need to insist most strongly on both the contingency of that way of being in the world (it can be, and has been, different, and one day it could be different again) and on the dependence of that kind of global arrangement on debates and discussions, carried out in part through the ballot box, about the kinds of differences and boundaries we should recognize in the world and how we should respond to them. Identity, in this broad sense, is critical to international studies, and we scholars have to therefore keep the political efforts to answer the question “who are we?” at or near the forefront of our analyses.

This does not in my view mean that we should become politicians ourselves, and shift our research towards attempts to answer those identity questions. Unlike musicians, composing and performing songs that resonate with a broad audience of non-specialists is not generally our forté. (Maybe it is for some of us, and if it is for you, and if you feel called to move away from scholarship in order to intervene more directly in the present politics of turbulent times, more power to you. Since that’s not me I am instead endeavoring to write my way into a sharpened and re-visioned scholarly vocation appropriate to these turbulent times.) And effective political interventions by musicians amount, in large measure, to a descriptive highlighting of problematic or unacceptable situations, or the affirmation of desirable arrangements or goals; that might spur a listener to action, but it doesn’t do what good scholarship invariably does, which is to contribute to knowledge. That’s not a criticism of musicians, of course — it’s just an acknowledgement of the different vocational orientations of our distinct worlds.

Marillion’s most recent album features, as I said already, two more directly “political” songs about inequality and the cash nexus. “Living in FEAR,” which I have quoted throughout this essay, is different: it’s a song that aims to remind the listener of unrealized, and perhaps even apparently “unrealistic,” alternatives. Hard borders (along both the physical boundaries of a polity and the conceptual boundaries of membership in the polity) and autonomous decisions are not given in the nature of things; they are not inevitable. We could choose to “risk melting our guns…as a show of strength.” In explaining why we don’t and aren’t at the moment, we preserve the possibility that one day we might — a course of action that would come with its own challenges, of course, because it would no longer be especially clear who “we” were afterwards. But in any case holding open the possibility of a world without hard borders and jealously autonomous decision-making is likely a more powerful response than simply advocating that we alter our ways of being in the world and then being dismissed as naive. “We’re not green, we’re just pleasant,” and it’s enough to raise the question and keep raising the question of why we raise walls (against “those people”) instead of opening ourselves up to a broader range of encounters. Keeping that question alive during these turbulent times is perhaps the most important thing that a scholar of international studies — or a musician! — can do.