When I started graduate work many, many, years ago, I wanted specifically to write a project on Thucydides and Aristotle, and what they had to say about the passions, politics, and the philosophic life. What I didn’t realize at the time was how the path to this project would make an important detour through international relations theory.

I took the core IR Theory course specifically so I could fill my requirement for a minor field. It was soon clear to me that what I thought International Relations meant and how I thought about International Relations were severely underdeveloped and juvenile. The professor during that course work went on to become my PhD Supervisor. That early encouragement from him that my interests aligned with IR theory in more ways that were immediately clear to me was a pivotal moment in my education and training.

However, there was one particular moment when I could see the path forward for myself, and how to frame the problem of politics and passion that I wanted to write about. That moment was when I read Roland Bleiker’s seminal essay, “The Aesthetic Turn in International Political Theory“.  The key point that I took away was this: Aesthetics and aesthetic representation conceal the entirety of the political problem. The movement from original thing to represented thing requires, as a matter of responsibility, a logos; it requires a reasoned and rational account of what the differences are between original and copy. Of course, this isn’t new. At the same time that I was reading Aesthetic Turn essays in IR I was also preparing a presentation on Book VI & VII of Plato’s Republic. Circumstances!

This notion of aesthetic distance concealing the political is the thread that wove together everything for me – from Aristotle’s teaching on the passions in Book 2 of his Rhetoric, to Rousseau’s teaching about masks and amour propre in Emile – and made the project that I wanted to write intelligible to an audience I wouldn’t have expected.

With all of this said, it’s wonderful to see this topic revisited so many years later by Bleiker and others in Millennium.  Here is a quote that inspired this post:

the aesthetic turn was and should continue to be about opening up thinking space…Opening up thinking space inevitably involves risks. It is to embrace creativity, and the uncertainty associated with it, over the comfort of time-honoured procedures and disciplinary conventions. It is to never stand still and to search for ever new ways of writ-ing, sensing, seeing and hearing the political.

There’s clearly an ethics, a morality, a duty upon writers, researchers, and practitioners, that is demanded by the aesthetic turn, once one is attuned to it.

51etmw-kbml-_sx323_bo1204203200_For many months now I’ve been slowly but surely making my way through The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I’ve reached the chapter titled “Black Muslims” where Malcolm is describing the public reaction to the Nation of Islam, and his response to the documentary, “The Hate that Hate produced”. What’s been striking for a long while in this book is how the scripting of dissent is framed not just in racial but in religious terms.

ISIS  Apocalypse_MECH_01.inddThis leads me to the most recent book purchase of mine: Will McCant’s The ISIS Apocalypse.  I’ve followed him for a while on the Twitter, and he knows of what he speaks. But really that’s just a segue for this point that’s been at the back of my mind for a while: the American anxiety over terror hits on a deep rooted identity crisis at the heart of the self-image of the republic. But as it seems to me the special anxiety that’s gripped American for the last 15 years, and the narrative of the War on Terror, didn’t end with the killing of Osama bin Laden because it touches a special nerve in American identity politics.  So we have the spectacle of adherents of the same religion scripting dissent from within, and security threats from without.**  To use Foucault’s phrase, society must be defended.  (Malcolm X – Martin Luther King is as good a stand in for the Foucault – Habermas debate that never was).

My thoughts here are admittedly crude and unrefined, and I would be very grateful to be put in the direction of good work and commentary that concentrates on this theme.

**I leave aside the doctrinal details here, somewhat unjustly, as I’m thinking mostly of the reaction that the average citizen with only a superficial understanding of these things might have. Doubtful that such a person would make it past the world how both groups self-identify, despite the obvious murderous messianism of ISIS versus the legitimate protest of Malcolm X.  

Read the “Ten Rules of Writing” by Amitava Kumar.  Pay special attention to number six:

A bookshelf of your own. Choose one book, or five, but no more than ten, to guide you, not with research necessarily, but with the critical matter of method or style. Another way to think about this is to ask yourself who are the writers, or scholars, or artists that you are in conversation with. I use this question to help arrive at my own subject matter, but it also helps with voice.

That is a fantastic idea.  I think it’s worth reflecting on this and then coming up with my own list.  Off the top of my head, Williams James and CS Lewis would be way up there for tone and rhetoric. But I need to think much longer on it, if we’re talking about 10 books (and I won’t be cheeky and say the 10 books of Plato’s Republic or something, though that can totally count).

Mark Kelly has some very interesting thoughts at Contrivers’ Review and some very worthwhile reading on the “Foucault as neoliberal” debate that was (re)ignited thanks to that Jacobin interview a few months back.  A quote:

In The Birth of Biopolitics, Foucault neatly summarises this problem by noting, in relation to the Left-wing coalition that was on the verge of winning state power in France at the time of the lectures, that there had never been a socialist form of governmentality.  That is, socialists have never had their own form of government appropriate to their aims, but rather in practice have either been liberal capitalist governors or had taken the route of the totalitarian party form of government also adopted by fascists. Some readers of Foucault’s lectures seem to have taken him here to be recommending neoliberalism itself as the appropriate governmentality for socialism. That such a view could be imputed to Foucault boggles the mind. He was clear enough that he thought the existing centre-right regime in France in the 1970s was already neoliberal: then as now, it is a socialist alternative to neoliberalism that is needed. The dual danger for Podemos and Syriza is that, on the one hand, they contain enough orthodox Marxists, particularly Trotskyists, that they will repeat mistakes of past attempts to govern in a socialist way, or on the other hand, that they contain enough political naïfs that they will simply fall into standard, which is to say neoliberal, ways of wielding governmental power. Of course, it remains opaque what it can mean to have a socialist governmentality: Foucault never provides us with a solution, only the means for analysing the problem.

Read the whole thing.

Lawrence Serewicz has written an incredible commentary on the first half of Howse’s “Leo Strauss: Man of Peace”. The commentary must be 10,000 20,000 words and has ~50 footnotes, and he’s only halfway done. There are many points of disagreement that I have with his treatment of some of Howse’s points (the use of transcripts, for one), some of his interpretations of Strauss (the status of Socrates v. Aristotle, for example), and whether these constitute a refutation of Howse’s project as a whole. But, overall, the quibbles are with details rather than intention. This is a serious treatment of a serious book, that takes no question for granted. Professor Howse is lucky to have such a thoughtful critic, a testament to the quality of his book. I will add one point, in the event I don’t get to writing a longer response. Serewicz’s review has convinced me (and I’m not sure what his intention is, here) that people like him and me are not the intended audience of Howse’s book. Readers capable of the care that he demonstrates in his review would never have been seduced by the popular narrative of Strauss-as-immoderate-neoconserative-imperialist. In a way, debating Howse on the particulars implicitly grants Howse the big picture. This happens to be a big picture I agree with, though one that is for the moment on shakier ground thanks to Lawrence’s review. You should follow him on twitter (@lldzne) and the debate he’s currently having with Rob Howse about this commentary:

Philosophical Politics

Leo Strauss Leo Strauss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Prefatory remarks.[1]

Professor Howse has written an ambitious book to make the case for Leo Strauss as a man of peace and to defend him from his critics. That he has to meet both charges is indicative of the state of American politics and academics. In these prefatory remarks, I want to sketch my limited and indirect relationship to Leo Strauss’s students and by extension Leo Strauss before commenting on Professor Howse’s book.

In the early 1990s, I studied at Claremont Graduate School. At the time, a number of Strauss’ students and students of his students were associated with the School. Leo Strauss had taught at Claremont McKenna College for a year in the early 70s. [Correction LS was at CMC in 1969] Since I left, the School became University. However, my time at Claremont had a lasting impact on me. Even though my…

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If you’ve found your way to this space, then you’re likely already familiar with the work of Sergei Prozorov.  The depth of his thought on International Relations as Political Philosophy is hard to match.  I’d say that he has, more explicitly than any other writer, taken up Rob Walker’s call in 1993 to do IR as Political Theory.  After all, that is all that “international relations” is, and it is certainly all that the discipline of IR theory is. We have not benefited one iota from the separation of Political Theory proper from IR Theory, in the academic world or outside of it.  I have taken to describing my self as a “political theorist” whose area of concentration is “IR”, and I think that this descriptor would fit a great many.   But the occasion for this post is the review of both volumes of Prozorov’s Void Universalism (the first volume is Ontology and World Politics, the second is Theory of the Political Subject) that appeared today in Contemporary Political Theory, written by my friend Dr Robert Oprisko.  You can read it here.  I will pull out only one quote from the first volume of Void Universalism that picks up some of my favourite themes:

In this classic article Wight (1960, ‘Why is there no International Theory?’) famously distinguished between ‘domestic’ political theory, whose object was the territorially delimited state, as the theory of ‘good life’ and ‘international’ theory, whose object was the relations between these state with no overarching authority above them, as the theory of ‘mere survival’… More important for our purposes is Wight’s constitution of the domain of international theory by the subtraction of all positive content of ‘good life’, reserved for political theory proper, which leaves ‘international theory’ reduced to a theory of mere survival.  International theory is thus from the outset conceived in the privative mode as ‘political theory minus’.

This is exactly right.  I don’t say that often, so it’s important to do so when appropriate. Now is such a time.  I’ve tried to make this point in a different and much more inelegant way by arguing that sovereignty and security are one-and-the-same concept, and the question of the good life, ‘how must one live?’, is answered with one word: securely.  But I will restate this formulation of mine, which I have yet to improve on: the logic of inside/outside is made possible by the noetic heterogeneity of the good.  Prozorov destroys the intellectual borders and boundaries of IR by giving IR a more important role in the enlightenment of the human race than we usually accord it, or than it usually allows itself.  That is no small feat.  Read the books.  Both of them.  I am.

One writes as one reads. Few are the things I like reading more than a great review. Take Samuel Moyn, recently, in the Boston Review on Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism:

Yet there is little insight in this book into how liberalism in the past half century has risked becoming illiberal precisely in response to external threats that, its political theorists insisted, demanded a return to basics. In response to Communism, Isaiah Berlin did not so much defend as deform the liberal tradition, which to that point had focused less on the fight against ideological enemies (except Christianity itself) than on the institutionalization of freedom and equality. Siedentop’s conviction that radical Islam prompts the West to respond with moral clarity about what it represents is the continuation of Berlin’s project: the reinterpretation of liberalism in the face of presumed enemies. Siedentop dallies in the Middle Ages in implausible reaction to anxiety and worry, distorting the history of liberalism and omitting how much further it had to go—still has to go—to take individual freedom and equality seriously.

That is an amazing paragraph. I think a good review should give the reader as sense of 1) the original text as it understands itself and 2) the unvarnished judgment of the reviewer. Judgment is the key, because often academic journals are littered with faint praise and faint criticism, or superficialities that teach us nothing. I don’t care if you liked the book, or hated it. How do you judge the work, in your capacity as a learned individual, with some expertise in the area?  This is what matters.  I don’t want compassionate reviewers but humane ones, who know who to praise and blame.  The modern ur-text here is Miguel Vatter’s review of Paul Kahn’s Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty:

First, I wish to say something about the book in terms of its exegesis of Schmitt. I don’t think Kahn is claiming to be saying anything “new” about Schmitt, either in general or on Political Theology in particular. Since there exist by now hundreds of books and articles on Schmitt and his political theology in German, French, Italian, Spanish (and, since the late 1980s, English), and since Kahn’s thin book lacks even a basic bibliographical treatment of this material and one that does not go beyond secondary literature in English, one would have to assume that this text is not really intended to contribute to the scholarly literature on Schmitt.

This is how you review a book.  If you have a better example I’d love to read it.

I’ve never re-blogged anything in this space, but this post on book annotations and marginalia from the JHI blog is worth it. Especially since John Winthrop’s “Model of Christian Charity” is on my desk, in preparation for class this week!


by guest contributor Frederic Clark

The history of reading has recently witnessed an explosion of interest, doing much to transform and reinvigorate the practice of intellectual history. Although recent histories of reading range across every conceivable genre and period, early modern Europe has played a starring role in the rise of this field of study. This is due above all to the fact that many early modern readers were prodigious annotators.

But we, with our taste for self-reflexive inquiries, are hardly the first to contextualize the acts of readers. Early modern annotators often obsessively detailed the circumstances of their reading—recording where and when they read their books, what other books they owned, and in turn what other books the authors themselves had read. Such annotations wove together an elaborate web, linking multiple books and readers to one another, while fixing each respectively in space and time. These meditations on reading…

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From the autobiographical preface to his mammoth History of England:

I resolved to make a very rigid frugality supply my deficiency of fortune, to maintain unimpaired my independency, and to regard every object as contemptible, except the improvement of my talents in literature.

I usually post about books I have read or I am currently reading. So here’s a first: a book that I’d definitely like to and need to read.  New in paperback, from Princeton University Press, The Symptom and The Subject: The Emergence of the Physical Body in Ancient Greece, by Brook Holmes.  If you are a Foucaultian, Platonist, or Thucydidean, this is probably going to be an enlightening argument.  A quote from the introduction:

I explore and defend the claim that the physi­ cal body plays a pivotal but unacknowledged role in ideas about the human in the fifth and early fourth centuries, as well as in the formation of a new kind of ethical subjectivity centered on practices of caring for the self. I explain the strength of its influence in terms of its dual identity. On the one hand, the phys­ical body is a model of intelligibility: although its workings are hidden, a physi­cian trained in the medical tekhnē, “science” or “art,” may reconstruct them through reasoning. Doing so allows him both to intervene in disease and to manage health. On the other hand, that body is an untrustworthy and unfamil­ iar thing: it is prone to disorder, largely estranged from consciousness, and ani­ mated not by intentions but by impersonal, asocial powers. Its very strangeness, I argue, encourages ancient thinkers to take an increasing interest in the psukhē as the locus of the person.

As with all PUP book, the intro is freely available. Scroll down to pages 24-5 and you’ll see some thoughts on the role that the body plays in Thucydides’ account of the politics of the plague and presentation of the Funeral Oration of Pericles.  Biopolitics in Ancient Greece is worth attention, hence the project on “Periclean Biopolitics” that I’ve been saying is “the next project” for a couple of years now. Anyways, based on the introduction, Holmes looks to have written a very interesting and important book.