Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Brains: “an entity yet to be seen in world politics”

August 20th, 2009

International Relations Theory
(political science)

The quote above is from a comment by blenCOWe to a blogpost, Theory of International Politics and Zombies, by Daniel W. Drezner. Drezner’s blog entry is an example along the lines of this youtube video, Gay Science Isolates the Christian Gene, and a powerpoint presentation made by MJ Bienvenu at the recent biennial convention of the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, in which she offered deconstructions of audism from the organization’s official website. For example:

“English is not ASL on the mouth.”

The pedagogy of this style of teaching is aptly captured by Erin in her comment to Drezner:

“As Daniel Nexon and Iver Neumann write, “The mirror approach is broader than simply deploying popular culture artifacts as a teaching aid. IR scholars can examine popular culture as a medium for exploring theoretical concepts, dilemmas of foreign policy, and the like.” (12).”

The mirror approach operates on the simple principle of substitution: take an existing discourse, and

    a) reverse the key tropes (as in “Gay Science” or unveiling audism in “The Heart of the RID Organization”),

    b) replace the key actors with an abstraction, or

    c) combine both.

A View from Communication Theory
The engagement spawned (ha) is impressive. A communication theorist has many choices for analysis: as a media text, from the viewpoint of audience, in terms of effects, as a language game (Wittgenstein), as a social use of information and communications technology, not to mention the rich data seeded throughout regarding regional, national, and gendered points of view (classist, ableist, etc), and the production of online identities. It can be critiqued from a variety of viewpoints, including (for instance) political economy, pragmatism, or cultural studies, and at differing levels, such as mass media or interpersonal communication.
My own take is to regard the entry and comments as an instance of discourse: academic, specific to one discipline, and (probably, as goes the zeitgeist) rooted more in space than time. The use of wit (humor) to display breadth, depth, and precision of one’s knowledge in fast repartee is the most valorized contemporary mode of intellectual engagement. Everyone who can find a way in, does, and those who can’t find their way quickly enough, don’t. By the time the entry point clarifies into a path (or the perceptible path finds its entry point), the exchange is over, the event is closed. The instigators and participants have moved on to the next sexy thing. The normative behavior is that the immediate “space” occupied by this interaction has been effectively controlled: everyone (who matters?) has had their say in shining flashes of inspiration.
What strikes me, as an action researcher and a constructivist, is multileveled. First, unadulterated admiration. I envy the lightening comprehension and instant formulation of coherent, contextualized, educative information. Second, awe. We know so much. Ok, so I’m liberally folding myself into the “we,” but seriously: look at the range of knowledge pouring out! It isn’t as if there aren’t tons of “us” out here who understand the historical momentum of the social forces we’re working with – or against, as the case may be. blenCOWe continues:

In terms of his liberal institutionalist and constructivist analyses, Drezner is counting on the fact that the zombies would have the cognitive ability to calculate the benefits and drawbacks to collaborating with other actors. As such, any ideas of building an international organization, including the presence of zombies, to deal with the presence of zombies or to build a world state inclusive of zombies appears to be quite impossible.

Lastly, when he addresses neoconservatism he recognizes that the zombie threat was an existential threat, noting that the threat from zombies is from their jealously over our freedom and not from their desire for our brains. Like the faults with the other theories, this analysis is based on the faulty assumption that zombies have the ability to make cognitive decisions like that. The unavoidable fact is simple, zombies pose a threat to humans because of their desire for brains and for no other reason.

Zombies pose a threat not only because of their desire for eating brains, but – crucially – because that primal desire is coupled with an accompanying lack of brains. The implicit message in the IR discourse about Zombies is that there are, already, zombies among us. I suggest there are three broad types:

  • the undead who have accepted a singular social and ideological “programming” as the one and only way to make sense of their lives,
  • the undead who have embraced a particular intellectual framework in order to cope with existential anxiety and/or the evolutionary pressures of anarchy, and
  • the undead who have selected to master the terms of the zeigeist, “Let’s get cynical!”

Now what?
With the “what” of varying ideological understandings so thoroughly grasped in the space of two days’ interaction, enter the dimension of time. I’m speaking of deep time (esp. deep history), small time (i.e., Bakhtin), and time inclusive of the future. Politically, time is apprehendible in norms of culture and forms of institutions. Simply, what changes and what stays the same? As the Human versus Zombie IR debate unfolds, applications are posed or elaborated, such as two-level game theory and accepting Zombies as a new class to be integrated into the existing global structure. Erin, quoted above, offered

“a brief survey (n=3) I conducted in the last 5 minutes unanimously suggest[ing] that zombies should probably be considered alongside Kosovo to understand IR theory.”

She also adds “an important caveat,” to her random sampling:

“…2/3 of respondents volunteered that they conditioned their response on zombie attacks, unlike extraterrestrial visitations, remaining confined to the realm of hypothetical thought experiments.”

While I agree with the pedagogical impulse, the effect of continuing to deploy only such discrete strategies extends temporally into the future, replicating the same momentum of monological thought that substantively prevents us from finding collective means for creatively managing the diversity of human ways of being. In other words, will the brilliance of insight and potential demonstrated by Drezner & Company be translated into wisdom with a voice?
Engaging intellectual battle in the abstract can be deeply satisfying and even entertaining, the case of Zombies in point. But what about those of us who don’t speak that language? Why must we continue to demarcate the differences in such ways as to reinforce the space of separation between them? This is an illness of extreme disciplinarity. There will always be gaps. Can we ply them creatively? To do so, I suggest we need to consider multilingual models, in particular the potential of interpreted interactions. In The Language Barrier as an Aid to Communication, Rodrigo Ribeiro argues the importance of not understanding in a case study involving the steel industry, technology transfer, and Japanese and Brazilian forms of life

the ‘language barrier’, which is normally thought as a problem, can aid communication by preventing people who hold potentially clashing concepts, beliefs and customs from directly confronting each other.

While I support Ribeiro’s conclusion of value based on non-confrontation and interpreters’ strategies of mediation, I suggest this is only one manifestation of the intercultural communication practice of multilingual/interpreted interaction. The Japanese and Brazilian interlocutors are learning – through this process – how to be with difference. What we academics need to help politicians create are systems that can deal fluidly with difference – ideological, linguistic, cultural, etc – that are, in essence, multilogical rather than monological. Among the strategies that could work are finding ways among ourselves to communicate with each other across, among, and between our fields of expertise.

Leave a Comment

Categories: (hardly) all the isms, Diss Me Baby!, Interpreting, teaching
Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply