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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.

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I’m struggling with how to “introduce” my dissertation, now that it is finally, officially, the end game for writing. Looking through notebooks and old files I found my preparatory work for my Proposal defense. It isn’t quite appropriate for the dissertation itself, but it’s always nice to revisit the clarity with which one thought about a project at its beginnings, as opposed to the layers upon layers of literature that obfuscate at the end of it. Here’s what I had to say, then:

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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.

Rousseau ends The Social Contract by saying that he has yet to speak about the state’s foreign relations, international law, rights of war, commerce, and so on. In short, he can write an entire treatise on the ideal sovereign state without addressing these questions. This puts the matter too simply, of course. He does not go so far as Aristotle does, imagining a city with no foreign relations whatsoever – that would be a true Utopia, because it would never exist. But it serves to show the extent to which Rousseau thought the questions that we present-moderns take as primary – security, war, peace, external relations, markets, trade, THE ECONOMY – Rousseau thought to be secondary to the important question of the just and good regime.

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I’ve read a lot of Rousseau. Far more than most but also less than those self-identifying as “Rousseau Scholars”. Still, I think I understand him once in a while. Reading his Statement on St Pierre’s Project, that is, Rousseau critique of the idea of Perpetual Peace, I see Rousseau confirms something that I was accused of getting wrong in a public setting. Sour grapes this is not. Rousseau is exasperating and confusing. He means everything he says and refuses to say everything he means. Once in a while I get confirmation from him that I was on the right track, and this just happened once again. (n.b. I say this in full knowledge that he’ll pull the rug out from under me soon enough – but this is the price you pay when studying him).

The point at issue here is the status of International Relations in his thought. I am returning to some research on Rousseau and Schmitt re: Sovereignty pretty soon, so I thought I’d give the St Pierre commentary a closer read than I previously have. Now, one of the points that I thought was clear to me was that foreign relations in Rousseau are totally subordinate to the pursuit of the good and just society. What matters is approximating the society of the General Will in one’s particular community and international relations matter only insofar as they impact this pursuit. I thought this was suitably clear from The Social Contract or his fragmentary essay The State of War. When I made this point in a public setting it was met with bewilderment. “This isn’t IR…” Sure, but that’s because Rousseau doesn’t see it as a separate domain of politics. Anyways, I offer this quote, pp.37–38 of Vaughan’s translation:

No man can have thought long upon the means of bringing any Government to perfection without realizing a host of difficulties and obstacles which flow less from its inherent nature than from its relations to its neighbours. The result of this is that the care which ought to be given to its internal warfare has to be largely spent upon its outward security; and we are compelled to think more of providing for its defence against others than of making it as good as may be in itself.

All I have ever done is try to understand Rousseau’s books as he did.

Over the last couple of months I’ve had a couple of reviews published. Both books are excellent. And they are quite related. The first is Nicholas Rengger’s Just War and International Order: The Uncivil Condition in World Politics for the Review of Faith and International Affairs. The second is Robert Howse’s Leo Strauss: Man of Peace for E-International Relations. Both are published with Cambridge University Press. I want to say a couple of things that didn’t make it into the reviews for the sake of space.

First, regarding Rengger’s book. It is remarkable the extent to which just war is totally misunderstood, and the reasons causing us to misunderstand it. His point is, essentially that once politics began to question the morality of certain tactics of war, the big question of whether a war was just became displaced by the question of whether our actions were legal. This is a hugely important change because it is no longer easy or clear that we should ask whether or not to allow violence to enter politics but how and in what way politics is violent. This is quite obviously related to the question of security, which only arrives in full bloom once Machiavelli and Hobbes have had their way with the holy books. Violence is permitted too easily. Far too easily. I’m writing this post under the environment of the American Senate releasing the executive summary of its committee report on torture. The questions, “is it worth it?” or “Is it permissible?” miss the moral point. Merely posing them means some kind of moral introspection about the relationship between politics and violence has been lost.

This relationship between politics and violence is a running them in Howse’s book. Strauss, it turns out, has a great deal to say about international politics, state violence, international law, and so on. Howse covers an incredible range of material, in Strauss’s written work and in his newly available lecture transcripts. One point which I left out of the review is that using the transcripts is not as difficult as at first seems, despite their quasi-private character. This procedure is perfectly legitimate, as Strauss used it himself. In his introductory essay to Mendelssohn’s The Morning Hours and the Friends of Lessing, Strauss uses the private correspondence between Jacobi and Mendehlssohn to clear up ambiguities in the public record regarding Lessing’s “Spinozism,” that is, whether he was an atheist. Certainly if private correspondence is suitable for that weighty subject, the less private character of classroom conversations can be used for insights regarding questions of everyday political relevance.

The one thing I loved about Howse’s book is how it puts to rest any doubt that Strauss resembles the caricature usually represented in popular media. The polemical case against this has already been made by a handful of others in the aftermath of America’s invasion of Iraq, but now we have a philosophical case against this nonsense. Any writers who continue extolling that simplistic tripe demonstrate the shortcomings of their reading habits. To wit, this bizarre review by Richard Wolin in the Chronicle of Higher Education. We leave this review learning more about Richard Wolin than either Leo Strauss or Rob Howse’s book. Though Wolin has faced criticism recently about his reviews.

Two reviews well worth reading are from Steven Smith and Benjamin Wurgaft.

Video of a dialogue on the book held at Penn State with commentary from Anne Norton is available here.