3:1–Postmodernity–3 of 3


I have to admit, I wanted to post a blank page. Would that be post-Dada poetry in a post-paper world? I decided to save my cheeky response about simulacra and how this blog didn’t really get written for another time, and briefly discuss what “postmodernism” might mean in International Relations (IR).  Or at least, how I imagine the huge and varied response to high modernism that emerged in the last century in architecture and art most notably, finds its way to IR.

International Relations Theory is organized around these semi-fictional “debates” that may or may not have happened.  Certainly they were not debated in the usual sense, but the common understanding of our discipline comes from organizing it into a first debate where “idealism” took on “realism” (and lost); debate two between the “behaviorists” and the “traditionalists” (no clear victor), the third debate between the neorealists and, um, the rest, I guess (new theories attack! Go Marx! Go Bull!), and finally the great fourth debate the positivists and the post-positivists duke it out over methodology and the role of science in International Relations (by some accounts this is the really the third debate and we are still in it.  Just ask anyone with a critical project trying to present work at a conference or get a job in US without a bunch of wonky quant in your work).

So, here we pause and see if this fourth (third) debate is where we can locate the postmodern as such in IR. Not as a facile periodization around the word “post,” but rather as interpretive strategies and analysis that engage with modernity and the changes it wrought. Generally framed as “poststructuralist” or “post-positivist,” this type of analysis finds many sites in IR, especially those engaged in emancipatory or critical projects. Think of it less than a theory and more of an attitude. A perking up of the ears to marginalized voices and perspectives. This is a profoundly ethical engagement with the world. A postmodernist critique would want you to feel unsettled and challenged. To look at those common sense assumptions about the world “out there” and question how power operates in seemingly simple common sense assumptions. Oh, and you’d want to understand that power isn’t monolithic and traded in blocks by sovereign states by the pound, but rather seductive and productive and pleasurable….and intertwined with knowledge….

This returns us to methodology. For IR, the “critical turn” would encompass seeing knowledge as fractured and epistemological claims as dependent on relations of power. These claims are not “countable” or empirical as a positivist would understand it, but rather they wrestle with the “real” and what it means to shape the real into reality.


8 thoughts on “3:1–Postmodernity–3 of 3

  1. was at a terrible IR presentation the other day where some poor grad students and their pompous twit of of a prof. couldn’t get how international slave trafficking isn’t in reality (as opposed to in their pitifully simplistic flow model) a closed system or even really a system at all, they kept telling me the algorithm (not a mathematician in the group) proved their theory correct as I kept telling them they hadn’t really identified a subject/population, nor a real-world intervention/experiment to have actual results to test their model against, oh did I mention that they started by explaining that the rationale (other than the pressures for quantification from publishers) for the modeling route was the dearth of accurate data. All of which to say that if one doesn’t grasp basics like framing, complexity, process, outliers, and all there isn’t much point (outside of publish or perish) in going on with research. Now if one isn’t doing traditional research there are all kinds of rhetorical experimental possibilities in the realm often thought of as propaganda, participant-research, performance-studies or ya know politics by any other name that could be well suited to advancing pet causes/populations that might well be understood in a neo-pragmatist way as post-modern, one could even following STS/ANT frame the scientific/quant activities along these lines as Isabelle Stengers and all have shown.


    • There are some amazing IR projects like that — and I’m sure the FBI or CIA is practically banging down the door of that twit prof to “gain further insight” into this closed system modeling! uber-ugh!


      • yes he was bragging about meeting with local FBI but they are really serving the big-data folks in the NSA who I imagine are a bit more thoughtful (or at least more technically sophisticated) but still fully vested in maps(nets) over terrains (tho more aware of how many false-positives they will get) and not probably deep into the hermeneutics of the alltoohuman assumptions they are working under and or which will make use of their results. Jaron Lanier has pointed out that we don’t actually have AI but rather ways of harnessing the work/thinking of many people into networks and I for one am not sold on the “wisdom” of crowds.
        The problem with these sorts of academics is that they aren’t even competent modernists/technocrats.


  2. “A postmodernist critique would want you to feel unsettled and challenged. To look at those common sense assumptions about the world “out there” and question how power operates in seemingly simple common sense assumptions.”

    Indeed, but I would argue that this has always been the core task of any social science…and it is not such a hard task at all. Feeling unsettled and challenged is what drives the modern (and the postmodern and the post-postmodern) condition in the first place … which is why the “common sense assumptions” (a world out there, reason and rationality, power of subversion, the logics of endless reference) are what the Moderns and the Postmoderns invented to cope with that unsettlement. So what social science can do (and even did back in the days of Simmel and Benjamin, even Durkheim has his moments) is to lift that veil and uncover the horror again and pick apart the veils cloth


    • can’t say I have run across a lot of social science research that shows much in the way of horror and all in fact the theorists (as much as the quants) seem to be hellbent on abstracting away all of the visceral qualities of their subject/content and so their reader’s responses, good reporting seems much better at showing things in their more fully-fleshed out states:


  3. “International Relations Theory is organized around these semi-fictional “debates” that may or may not have happened.” Oh, that is beautiful — serious humor is my favorite!


  4. Pingback: How French Postmodernism “Ruined the West” | Installing (Social) Order

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