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Political Theory

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.

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.

I haven’t paid enough attention to Chapter 46 of Hobbes’s Leviathan, in English or Latin. This series of remarks from the 14th Latin paragraph are otherworldly:

For after a year or two Pope Leo, in his correspondence, exhorted Emperor Charlemagne to establish universities throughout his dominions, where all letters and sciences would be taught. So he set up, in Paris, the first university; and afterwards other kings set up others, each in his own dominion, which, once the colleges had been set up and organized for study, where to be governed by laws, according to the discretion of the Roman pontiff. Finally, from masters such as Peter Lombard, Duns Scotus, and Thomas Aquinas, was born the theology which they call scholastic, a hodgepodge of Aristotle’s philosophy and Sacred Scripture. In the universities they teach Aristotle’s logic, his physics, his metaphysics, his ethics, and his politics, as if the whole of the sciences were in one man, who was then also the greatest father of the Church, Aristotle. But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanor of deference, they were exercised in public disputations and speeches, by which they could maintain and preach the dogmas of the Roman church. So by the sermons of ecclesiastics, sent from the universities into almost all the cities, towns and parishes of the Christian world, and by published writings, it was fixed inedibly in the minds of all Christians that there is no other rule of just and unjust except the dictates of the Roman church, that kings are not to be obeyed further than is permitted by the Roman church, and kings themselves ought to obey the Roman pontiff like sheep. And they accomplished what they set out to accomplish.

Emphasis mine, on the white-hot fire that Hobbes just threw at Aristotle. A “hodgepodge” of Aristotle and scripture has come to represent the entirety of the contest between philosophy and revelation, Athens and Jerusalem. This is somehow stronger than his justly famous English takedown: “And I believe that scarce anything can be more absurdly said in natural philosophy than that which now is called Aristotle’s Metaphysics; nor more repugnant to government than much of that he hath said in his Politics; nor more ignorantly than a great part of his Ethics. Perhaps the benefits of modern translation vs Olde English explain my impression of the Latin text, but the clear and pernicious influence of Aristotle on the sociology of knowledge at the time Hobbes was writing comes through so loud and clear. And read this phrase again: ”But especially to establish among adolescents a demeanour of deference…" – has the problem of education ever been so pithily explained? Here’s my Hobbesian inspired statement of teaching philosophy from this day forward: to undo the demeanor of deference established among adolescents.

n.b. quotes from Curley’s translation.

It strikes me that I own, have read, and will read, a number of books with the word “Mind” in the title. To wit, a list:

The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt

The Political Mind, George Lakoff

The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin

The Reckless Mind, Mark Lilla

The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom

The Phenomenology of Spirit Mind, G.W.F. Hegel

What should be added? I’m sure I’ve missed some notorious titles.

Purchased Corey Robin’s Reactionary Mind yesterday.  It’s sharing an Amazon box with Lilla’s Reckless Mind.   A list of reviews:

Sheri Berman in NYT

Crooked Timberhere

Mark LillaNYRB

TNC of course

Alex GourevitchJacobin

And Corey Robin‘s response

More from Crooked Timber

Society for U.S. Intellectual History blog

Stay tuned for a Sleet to-and-fro…   Until then some prerequisites:

Robin at Rorty Bomb and Sullivan‘s initial response.

More NYT from Gary Gutting, and here.

Did I miss this?

Feb 6 Update: Robin sends  a letter to NYRB about Lilla’s review, to which Lilla responds.  Robin’s book is now at the top of the pile and front of the line!  Will write soon…