Tag: science fiction and politics (page 1 of 2)

Arguments for a New STAR TREK Series

Cardassia RuinsBecause “53 reasons” is just plain stupid, and increments of five are basically listicles, I provide three.

1. We are heading straight for maximum Star Wars saturation. Despite its ham-handed didacticism,  Star Trek‘s values are far preferable to those of Star Wars. We cannot allow aristocratic fantasy to bury republican virtue.

2. JJ Abrams is a pretty good action director, but he doesn’t seem to understand the intellectual possibilities of science fiction. At its best, Star Trek has been one of the few non-cable programs to explore those possibilities. And it has almost invariably done so better within the format of episodic television than that of the “major motion picture.”

3. Onward toward the 25th Century! By the third season of The Next Generation, it was pretty clear that the political communities of Star Trek — including the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire — are themselves important “characters” in the franchise. We’ve seen the Federation evolve –and not always for the best — in light of the Borg and Dominion threats; we’ve learned just how much its status as a “post-scarcity society” rests on maintaining a Terra-centric utopia within a much harsher galaxy. We’ve watched the Klingon Empire repeatedly fail to reconcile the theory and practice of honor. Cardassia has broken our hearts time and time again.

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Podcast No. 12 – ISA-NE2012 SF and Pedagogy Panel (mp3)

This is the audio (in mp3 format) from the Speculative Fiction and Pedagogy panel at the International Studies Association-Northeast 2012 convention. The panel featured Henry Farrell, Dan Nexon, Jennifer Lobasz, and PTJ.

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Podcast No. 12 – ISA-NE2012 SF and Pedagogy Panel (m4a)

This is the audio (in m4a format) from the Speculative Fiction and Pedagogy panel at the International Studies Association-Northeast 2012 convention. The panel featured Henry Farrell, Dan Nexon, Jennifer Lobasz, and PTJ. Continue reading

Alastair Reynolds, Blue Remembered Earth

I think Duck of Minerva readers will really enjoy this podcast. Lots on the near-future imaginary, technological change, and other topics of interest.

From the write up at New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy:

Blue Remembered Earth (Gollantz, 2012) takes place roughly 150 years in the future. Climate change, as well as the political and economic rise of Africa, have transformed the planet. Humanity is colonizing the solar system. Geoffrey Akinya, grandson of a visionary businesswoman, cares most about his scientific work with elephants. His sister, Sunday, pursues the life of an artist in an anarchic commune on the moon. But their grandmother’s death sets in motion an interplanetary treasure hunt with the potential to change humanity’s future.

Alastair Reynolds‘ latest book has received much critical praise; there’s a sense among some science-fiction writers and fans that Blue Remembered Earth marks an important development in the genre itself. Whatever readers may think of it, Reynolds is a gregarious and fascinating interview subject, and I’m very pleased that he agreed to record this podcast.

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The Politics of the Hunger Games

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the projects that I’m working on now is a book provisionally entitled “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” PM and I are overdue in submitting a full proposal to the press. In an earlier post I sketched out some provisional chapter titles. Here I provide a more complete list and a synopsis of the final chapter.

This is definitely a “crowdsourcing” post, so comments are appreciated. Details and spoilers below the fold.

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Quick Questions (More SF&F Podcast Blogging)

When I asked for suggestions for interview subjects for the NBinSFF podcast, Alastair Reynolds was high on the list (albeit mostly over email channels). Well, he agreed, and I’m scheduled to interview him  tomorrow. The focus is Blue Remembered Earth. If anyone has suggestions for questions or themes, let me know. Also, this seems as good a time as any to ask for more suggestions for interview subjects.

A few additional items:
  1. Interesting thing I’ve learned so far: the PR people at Tor? Aggressive. Very aggressive. Many of the other major SF&F publishing houses? Not so much. 
  2. The “New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy” has a very lonely Facebook page. You should go “like” it.
  3. Because I believe in saturation linking, I should note that the podcast on The Night Sessions includes discussion of themes close to many of our readers’ hearts, including religion and secularism, terrorism, and whether or not we should be optimistic about the future. 
  4. Comments at NBN are moderated. Very slowly. 

My Interview with Ken MacLeod

The New Books in Science Fiction and Fantasy channel of the New Books Network launched today. In its inaugural podcast, I interview Ken MacLeod about The Night Sessions. From my summary:

As I hope comes through in the interview, I found The Night Sessions (Pyr, 2012) both fun to read and intellectually stimulating. It centers on DI Adam Ferguson as he investigates the murder of a priest in a near-future Edinburgh. Following the “Faith Wars” of the early twenty-first century the world has experienced a “Second Enlightenment” and aggressive secularism enjoys intellectual and political hegemony. But not every soul, whether organic or mechanical, is happy with this state of affairs….

This was my first interview, and I have to admit that I’m pretty rough (in fact, I’m still pretty early on the learning curve even now). Ken is terrific, though, and makes up for my foibles.

So, in an act of shameless self-promotion, I ask that our readers not only listen to the podcast, but tweet it, google+ it, like it on Facebook, and so forth. Ken is the first of a terrific series of guests. The only way to do justice to authors is to promote it heavily. For that, I need your help.

Podcast No. 3: Elkus and Atherton on “Grand Blog Tarkin”

The third episode of the Duck of Minerva Podcast just went live. This one is longish. Adam Elkus (and numerous other places, e.g.) and Kelsey D. Atherton talk about their group blog devoted to the intersection of strategic studies and speculative fiction. They also answer some questions about the “Nat[ional] Sec[urity]” social-media scene.

Note that the publication date of the podcasts remains in flux, but I am aiming to have them appear Friday-Sunday each week.

A reminder: I am running the podcast feed on a separate blog. You can subscribe to our podcasts either via that blog’s Feedburner feed or its original atom feed (to do so within iTunes, go to “Advanced” and then choose “Subscribe to Podcast” and paste the feed URL). Individual episodes may be downloaded from the Podcasts tab.

Communities and otherness: a typology

I have long been intrigued by Orson Scott Card’s typology of relations to the other, as expressed in his novel Speaker for the Dead. I like it so much that I used it as a central part of my argument (in Chapter 2 of this forthcoming edited volume) that the depicted relations between Colonials and cylons in Battlestar Galactica can tell us something about how to construct a more humane social order. But teaching the novel for the umpteenth time in my sci-fi course this week — it and its prequel Ender’s Game have been in every iteration of the course since I wrote the first draft of the syllabus when I was about fifteen — it occurred to me that the Card typology needed some analytical tightening before it could be truly useful. I did a first run at working through the issues in class on Wednesday; this post is my second attempt. And it has prettier diagrams than the ones I scrawled on the whiteboard in class.

Card’s typology contains four orders of otherness or foreignness:

The first is the otherlander, or utlanning, the stranger that we recognize as being a human of our world, but of another city or country. The second is the framling…This is the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another world. The third is the raman, the stranger that we recognize as human, but of another species. The fourth is the true alien, the varelse, which includes all the animals, for with them no conversation is possible. They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.

The major advantage of this typology, and the potential that I find in it, stems from the fact that it is a typology of relations, not a typology of already-fully-formed communities.
There is no danger here of reifying a contingent social arrangement, and imbuing it with more stability and solidity than it warrants; a community is, in this approach, more or less completely endogenized to the relations between and among its members. Community is a function of how we relate to one another, and is as such located “between” us rather than “outside of” us. The other thing I particularly like about this typology is that it does not make the self a residual effect of differentiation from the Other; exclusion and separation are not the fundamental or foundational aspect of identities and communities, but emerge instead as one possible mode of relation. There can thus be identities and communities that are not premised on deliberate exclusion as much as they involve a focus on “internal” matters — a potential that often gets minimized or sidelined in certain kinds of poststructural and critical accounts of identity. (There’s a very nice 2005 APSR article by Abizadeh — couldn’t find a link that wasn’t behind a paywall, sorry — that makes this point quite cleanly.)

That said, there are three problems with the Card typology. First, although he refers to it as a “hierarchy of exclusion” and thus implies a single criterion that gets more or less intense as we move up and down the scale, the typology actually contains two quite different logics and thus envisions two very different kinds of communities emerging from two different kinds of relations. Second, and related, Card hasn’t actually presented four different types of relation; he’s only presented three (utlanning and framling actually collapse into one another), and only two of them are related to possible communities (no conversation with the varelse means no community with the varelse). Finally, because Card treats this as a classification of actually-existing relations rather than as an ideal-typical typology of possible relations, he is unable to really probe the intriguing dilemmas that arise in actual communities that are never completely characterized by any one kind of relation. The right question is not “what kind of relations to the other do we have in our community?” but instead is something like “what kind of community is envisioned by our ways of relating to the other?” and the reformulated ideal-typical typology helps us sort out the answer to that second question.

I’ll take these in sequence. First of all, notice that both utlanning and framling are relations that presume a shared connection between the people involved, and that the shared connection in question is more or less “backgrounded” or naturalized in the course of any interaction that people engaged in performing or enacting that relation have. In Card’s terms, this prior connection is that both parties are “human,” but I want to suggest that the specific character of the prior connection is less relevant than the fact of its existence as a taken-for-granted presupposition. Relations of the utlanning and framling type actually both look basically the same:

In this diagram, A-D are the relating parties, and for the sake of visual clarity I have drawn their network of relations as a maximally connected one. The green circle around A-D represents the common membership of all of the relating parties in some broader set characterized by something that they all have in common — some attribute or feature by virtue of which they are all members of a single category that is larger, conceptually speaking, than each of them themselves. Call this a categorical community: differences between the relating parties are in a sense overshadowed by their common membership in a broader community, and note that in order for this to work the category in question has to be socially/culturally/politically salient — mere physical resemblance will not cut it. In fact, in a categorical community, the relating parties in some sense think of themselves as belonging to that broader category; if they do not, it matters not at all whether the relating parties share some characteristic in common. (I am setting aside for the moment the complexity of how one recognizes common characteristics and how they become socially/culturally/politically salient, because I am ideal-typifying the kind of community envisioned by the utlanning and framling modes of relating to the other. My point is that in utlanning and framling relations, there in some sense already is a salient category.)

The reason that this diagram could be both utlanning and framling — and, if we get less interplanetary about things, it could be states within a region or civilization, towns within a nation, individuals within an organization, etc. — is that utlanning and framling relations only differ from one another in their physical and geographic size. Utlanning relations are bounded by a planet, which would be the green line in the diagram; scale up, make A-D planets instead of states or cities or countries, and for have framling relations. Scale down to get one of the other varieties I mentioned a moment ago. All of these are relationally similar, and all feature the same basic arrangement: the relating parties may differ from one another on a whole variety of issues and attributes, but their commonality provides a broader basis on which to recognize one another as in some sense belonging together.

Belonging to a categorical community makes possible one of the most striking (and arguably one of the most effective) types of rhetorical coercion: the “nesting” gesture in which a speaker appeals to the broader category as part of a socially sustainable argument about a proposed course of action. In some of my work I have explored this gesture in some detail, as nesting is what makes appeals to “the West” so politically effective during the post-WWII era and well into the Cold War. Nesting is the inner logic of claims about civilizational identity, regional solidarity, national unity, etc. In all of these cases and many more besides, nesting works as a rhetorical gesture because the relating parties in some sense understand themselves to belong to a larger category, which makes possible the appeals to that category that can function as a rhetorical trump card in a public debate: we have our differences, but now the tribe/nation/planet/species to which we all belong has need of us, so we have to put aside those differences for the sake of the greater whole.

Lose the salient category and you lose this possibility, along with the categorical community itself. What you have instead is a category of relating parties that only share in common their ability to relate to one another, and nothing more fundamental than that:

Again, for visual clarity I have drawn this as a maximally connected network, but it need not be. The key point is that in this kind of noncategorical community there is no agreed-upon categorical boundary within which and on the basis of which all the parties can relate; there is just the web of relations itself. Obviously there’s no nesting here.

This is, I would say, a diagram of the community envisioned by Card’s raman relations. The word “human” in “human of another species” doesn’t mean the same thing as it meant in Card’s definitions of utlanning and framling relations; indeed, “human” in raman relations seems to mean nothing other than the ability to converse and communicate, since the primary conceptual distinction is between raman and varelse on the grounds that varelse relations do not include the possibility of conversation. (“They live, but we cannot guess what purposes or causes make them act. They might be intelligent, they might be self-aware, but we cannot know it.”) There would thus be no community envisioned by varelse relations, and no categorical community envisioned by raman relations.

Of course, any student of world politics will have already recognized the parallels here: a categorical community is like “domestic politics,” and a noncategorical community is like “international politics.” Unlike Waltz, what I am prioritizing here is categorical membership, not hierarchy/anarchy, but the basic opposition is the same: presumptive commonality inside the state, and something much more explicitly process-dependent outside. (Again, remember that I am not describing actually-existing entities yet. Actual communities inhabit the tension between these ideal-types.) Precisely because there is no readily-available salient common category to appeal to in a noncategorical community, relations have to be conducted on the basis of ongoing diplomatic negotiation, and the only controlling authority would be the previously-agreed-upon consent of the contracting parties, a.k.a. “precedent.” (This is perhaps starting to sound even more familiar to IR folks.) And any hierarchy would have to be either illegitimate or a-legitimate — or a temporary exigency that was extremely fragile, dependent on independent calculations of benefit and interest…

So what have we learned? Raman relations, which envision a noncategorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “international relations” — states in anarchy, sure, but more to the point, independent entities that only share in common the ability to relate to one another. (I am quite deliberately shifting to the more generic “relate” rather than Card’s “conversation,” because there is an implicit teleology in Card’s formulation: “conversation” makes violence less likely, because — and this is a general theory of Card’s — understanding makes conflict evaporate. I am not so sure about this, and more to the point, my argument doesn’t depend on it: the “diplomacy” in a noncategorical community could easily consist of an exchange of gunfire, as long as the various parties involved thought of one another as actors rather than as natural forces or something.) Utlanning and framling relations, which envision a categorical community, are similar to what we IR scholars often imagine to be “domestic politics,” with the hierarchy that we sometimes think of as characteristic of domestic politics linked to legitimation claims involving the rhetorical gesture of nesting. And encounters with “true aliens,” the varelse relations: no community is envisioned. Three categories, not four, and two logics: a logic of scale for utlanning-framling, and a logic of recognition for raman-varelse. (And note that Card implicitly realizes this; at the beginning of the first chapter of Speaker he has the author of the typology point out that “When we declare an alien species to be raman, it does not mean that they have passed a threshold of moral maturity. It means that we have.”)

I presume that anyone who has made it this far into this essay has already raised about a hundred objections to the distinctions I am drawing here, all of which boil down to some form of “but actual communities don’t look like this!” Precisely. I agree. The point of an ideal-typical typology is not to describe actually-existing objects or entities or relations; the point is to tease out certain logical relations which can then be used instrumentally in the course of an explanation of some puzzling actual situation or case. It is doubtful, for instance, whether there is any such thing as an actual noncategorical community; international society developed a “standard of civilization” detailing who could play and who could not play, and liberal societies with roots in a social-contractarian understanding of social order and government have tended to rest, even if only implicitly, on some categorical community to determine whose voices needed to be taken into account: white people, men, property owners, etc. Indeed, I would speculate that, precisely because categories are so useful in managing daily social relations, a noncategorical community, by virtue of repeated transactions among its members, might incline toward being a categorical community at some point, as raman relations gave way to utlanning or framling relations. But by the same token, a categorical community might break down if one of the relating parties did something that was simply so beyond the pale that it appeared to be the action of an inhuman alien (utlanning/framling -> varelse) or, less dramatically, something happened that revealed that the presumptively stable category on which the community was based was in fact considerably more evanescent (utlanning/framling -> raman). How particular people react to changing situations, and how particular institutions and practices function, would then be explicable in terms of the tension between these different visions of community and the different relations that give rise to them.

The reason this isn’t just redescription, or recoding in exotic language, is that the perspective I have sketched here does three things with respect to thinking about identity and community that other typologies do not do, or at least do not do as well:

1) community here is a function of social relations, and not an ex ante presumption. The kind of community that is envisioned depends on the kind of relations its members have to one another.

2) community here is not necessarily premised on exclusion — what matters is less who we don’t incorporate, and more how we relate to one another. A categorical community can exclude, sure, but that exclusion is a consequence, not a cause.

3) the important empirical questions to ask about a community are not where its boundaries are and how it maintains them. The important empirical questions are instead: a) how is the category on which a categorical community is based made to seem natural and inevitable to the members of that community? b) how is the determination made that a given other is raman and not varelse, or vice versa? (In this last register especially, I wonder about the principle of indefinite detention and the preference for “surgical” drone strikes and other targeted killings of alleged terrorist masterminds, but I have gone on long enough so I will leave that as an exercise for the reader.)

Final thought. The idea of a noncategorical community, although it may lack an empirical referent, serves an important moral function. If we are actually committed to the idea of a community in which the members share in common only their capacity to converse and communicate — their moral worth and practical agency — then we have to be perpetually on guard against the all-too-human tendency to fill the “human” in “human of another species” with specific categorical content. It matters not at all whether that content comes from some presumptively natural attribute (as though the question of what constitutes a human or a sentient being with moral worth could be definitively answered in some objective manner) or from some presumptively transcendental exercise of pure communicative reason (Kant and Habermas, you’re on notice here) or doctrinal revelation (the traditional “faith-based” solution to this conundrum is to have some deity show up and simply tell you who is worthy of moral recognition, and perhaps more importantly, who is not worthy). Instead, if we have the courage of our convictions, we need to oppose any and all attempts to unequivocally bound the human, rather than staking everything on some categorical definition of who and what we are. Perpetual negotiation in a noncategorical community of raman relations may be uncomfortable and murky, but such a vision — one might even call it a prophetic provocation — might be the only way to preserve our humanity, and to stay open to possibilities yet unknown.

Academic Rigor in the Classroom: Time to Get Serious?

Star Trek convention Las Vegas 2009
Charli, Dan and Patrick at ISA 2013?

The academics/educators who write this blog often locate their research and teaching interests in texts from popular culture. Dan has co-edited a book on Harry Potter and IR. Patrick teaches a course on science fiction and social science. Dan offers a course on science fiction and politics. Charli blogs frequently about science fiction and has a working paper on “Security or Human Security? Civil-Military Relations in Battlestar Galactica.” I’ve frequently taught a class on “Global Politics Through Film” and am working on a project about “the comedy of global politics.” I could go on and on, referencing most of the bloggers on the sidebar.

But you already get the idea. Nerdy Duck of Minerva bloggers like to think about popular films, television series, and novels through the lens of international politics. Resistance is futile. We are serious about nonsense, or at least that is likely how critics and skeptics would view these efforts. The other bloggers at the Duck have frequently explained why they do what they do, but I’d like to revisit the issue in light of some recent social science research.

So, here we go again: Given what we know about the ability of higher education to achieve its aims, are we letting our students and colleagues down by focusing on battle stars, death stars, dark materials, the dark side, hunger games, super-heroes, wizard worlds, or zombies?

I have sometimes heard colleagues in the hard sciences snicker at the unusual titles and subjects of courses, papers, and conferences in the social sciences and humanities. Many assume we are all practicing post-modernists, dedicated perhaps to the reification of fantasy. Many colleagues in IR want all of us in the field to spend much more time thinking about the policy relevance of our work. Even sympathetic friends in the social sciences fear that paying parents will be unhappy when they hear about the courses their offspring are taking next term. We had a big debate about this at Louisville when trying to name the new Peace Studies program.

Granted, much of this is familiar ground on this blog and elsewhere. Thus, I’d like to consider the topic in terms of basic student learning outcomes.

A few weeks ago, I attended a talk by Richard Arum, one of the co-authors of Academically Adrift, the much-discussed recent work demonstrating that colleges are failing a huge portion of their students. Perhaps even worse, the work explains the problems Arum and colleagues identify by finding that too many college classes lack basic rigor. Long-time readers may recall that I previously blogged about Arum’s work with Josipa Roksa back in February 2011.

For those unfamiliar with their study, Arum and Roksa used “measures developed by the Collegiate Learning Association (CLA)” to determine what students are getting out of college. They tested students entering school and then tested them again two and four years later. The results were troubling as more than one-third of respondents ‘did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning’ over four years of college.

Keep that basic point in mind: apparently about 35% of students are wasting tens of thousands of dollars and four years of their lives to gain almost nothing from higher education.

It gets worse.

While speaking in Louisville, Arum revealed that he and his colleagues have continued to follow the student cohort that they started studying in 2005. In other words, they have data from the sixth year after entry into college and now know more about graduation rates, (un)employment, and graduate school entry.

The results are again disturbing, especially for the students who did not significantly improve in college:

Graduates who scored in the bottom quintile of the CLA were three times more likely to be unemployed than those who scored in the top quintile on the CLA (9.6 percent compared to 3.1 percent), twice as likely to be living at home (35 percent compared to 18 percent) and significantly more likely to have amassed credit card debt (51 percent compared to 37 percent).

They also found that their results had political implications, at least for those of us interested in the responsibilities of citizenship, the state of deliberation in the public sphere, etc.

Graduates who exhibited high academic engagement/growth in college were significantly more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students who displayed low academic engagement/growth. Graduates who scored in the highest quintile on the CLA in their senior year were more likely to read the news and discuss politics and public affairs compared to students in the bottom quintile.

Obviously, the students entering college in 2005 started exiting college at a particularly bad time, economically.  Indeed, the latest  news about college student unemployment is even worse than Arum and colleagues report. From the Associated Press:

According to the AP’s analysis of government data, about 53.6 percent of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees and are 25 and under are unemployed or hold lower-wage jobs, like waiting tables or serving as office receptionists, that don’t require a degree. That translates to about 1.5 million young people who have not, or not yet, gotten the payoff they expected from a college education.

Who should be blamed for all this misery?

As they do in their book, Arum and colleagues continue to argue for more rigor in the college classroom. The standard employed in the study is not all that difficult to meet — 40 pages of reading per course per week and 20 pages of writing per course. Arum emphasized in Louisville that there is nothing magic about these particular numbers, but they they found that many students had actively sought out courses to avoid anything like this kind of workload. And generally, students had no difficulty finding plenty of courses that do not require them to work very hard. This is true even at good schools as fewer than half of seniors in the sample had completed over 20 pages of writing for a course in the prior semester.

To reiterate, colleges are failing their students because too many instructors fail to make their courses sufficiently rigorous — and many students are flocking to them so that they can complete degrees (and likely earn high grades).

In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa point out that a liberal arts education is highly correlated with rigor and learning. Students pursuing traditional liberal arts majors showed “significantly higher gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills over time.” Oddly enough, students pursuing degrees in practical and applied fields — business, education, social work, and communications — were more likely to be at the bottom of the rankings.

So, what does this research say about the politics of popular culture? When Duck of Minerva scholars take these texts seriously, they think critically and ask their academic audience and students to do the same. Indeed, in the classroom, they ask students to read a healthy amount of material with the aim of analyzing and applying abstract theoretical ideas to texts that they might enjoy reading or viewing. The students read and write and think. Getting serious in the classroom is a matter of critical and analytical pedagogy, not a matter of studying practical and serious subjects.

According to the analysis of Arum, Roksa, and colleagues, the Duck of Minerva bloggers are apparently on the right track.

Live long and prosper. May the force be with you. Yada yada yada.

A Dothraki Complaint

Drogo as angry brown man.
Source: dothraki.org

Graddakh! We the brown people of Vaes Dothrak collectively curse the producers of HBO and the slanderous “creator” of our world, which you call the Game of Thrones.

We know that your people have a long standing tradition of questionable and objectionable racial imaginings in your “fantasy fiction” genre.  So we are not surprised by your ifaki ignorance of our civilization.  Anyway, we have also come to understand that much of your television programming broadcasts an unreflective and unapologetic world of whiteness, so maybe you can’t help but reduce us to barbaric caricatures. Some of your smarter viewers (and there are really so few) and scholars have been drawn to the Machiavellian elements of the series, but like Saladin AhmedPablo K, and Alyssa Rosenberg, we cannot help but linger on the way our “horde” has been depicted in the series.

We the Dothraki are portrayed as undifferentiated mass of colored people at the periphery of an otherwise lily white medieval world.  (It is not that the white characters are all portrayed in a glowing light, all the characters are obviously flawed, but the Dothraki stand in for an undifferentiated mass representing the entire non-white world.)  We are portrayed as a fierce Mongol-like people, except that these are not the historic Mongols of your world.  You know, the people who introduced your hopelessly barbaric and quarrelsome Europeans ancestors to firearms technology and whose massive naval armada twice attempted to cross the seas and conquer Japan. Rather we Dothraki are portrayed as a technologically backward collection of clod-hopping barbarians who embody a range of degrading caricatures based on your own trite knowledge of Native American, Sub-Saharan African, and Arab societies.

In particular, we Dothraki seem to be driven purely by the thymotic aspects of our soul. We seem barely able to reason and need to be guided by a foreigner who goes “native.” We are shown enjoying acts such as publicly fornicating while dancing at weddings and murdering one another on the slightest provocation.  According to the depiction on television, no Dothraki wedding is complete without at least three murders. You are even told blatant lies. Who says we “have no word for ‘thank you'” or ‘throne’?   Me nem nesa, we have those words!  And we have plenty more for idiot, choyo nerds like George R.R. Martin and the producers of the show. I would rant more, but that would only play into your lame and dismissive stereotypes about belligerent brown people.

Look if you’re going to be racist, perhaps you could show a bit more creativity? Repeating the classic mid-twentieth century American variety of racism is just boring.  Might we suggest that you overlay the racist tropes with a highly gendered discourse in the manner of the British imperialists?  Which is not to say that you’re not sexists with your whore/matriarch/whore-matriarch triads, but you don’t really combine the two discourses very well. Even the British got bored with just using a martial races trope. Or perhaps you could try hipster racism?

SF, IR, and Pedagogy

After Charli’s video mashup this feels pretty lame, but I did promise the slides from my talk. Thanks again to all those who responded to the bleg. If it isn’t obvious, I should note that everything I said is influenced by PTJ and his course.

The basic takeaways?

1. Science Fiction (SF) has close ties with social-scientific inquiry and, in general, has lots of political and international-relations content. It is therefore well-suited for these kinds of courses.

2. We need to be less focused on using fiction to teach intro to international realism (bad isms!) and more on choosing works that communicate interesting international-political and political ideas. Teaching The Hunger Games, for example, isn’t about stretching for realism or the state of nature, but exploring ‘organic’ themes about the dynamics of empire, revolution, games and politics, roleplaying and narrative expectations, voyeurism, etc. Good novels or films, like Charles Stross’s Halting State and Iain M. Banks’ Player of Games have a lot to say for themselves. Lots of SF deals with state formation, problems of the “other,” and states of exception… so teach those things.

3. Students are smart and creative; render them collaborators in the course by letting them explore themes that they want to pursue.

4. Make the course lots of work to deter students who think that taking a class like this will be a way to bypass serious intellectual engagement.

Slides below the fold.

UnChristian Content

Christian conservative crusaders have targeted Electronic Arts for its inclusion of LGBT relationships in its games, including Bioware’s Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Old Republic series. A notable feature of all three series is that they allow players to make “evil” choices: killing innocents, betraying comrades, profitting from illicit ventures, and even contributing to genocide.

So, in short, this is apparently worthy of protest:

 But this is not:

Happy day-after Easter.

Pop Culture Narratives in World Politics: A Bleg

I will be on a panel at 1.45pm in Indigo A with the following description:

There has been a growing body of work in world politics that relies on or analyzes fictional narratives. To what extent can cultutal phenomena like Battlestar Galactica or Harry Potter be used as for pedagogical purposes in the classroom? How useful are such narratives as data points to either explicate or substantiate theoretical claims in world politics? This roundtable weighs the costs and benefits of using popular culture narratives inside the classroom and in publications.

Charli Carpenter will be discussing her work on the intersection (PDF) between Battlestar Galactica and real-world politics. I assume that Patrick James will tell us about his forthcoming book on teaching international relations through The Lord of the Rings. I expect that you all can guess what Dan Drezner’s role on the panel will be. I’m not at all sure what Jonathan Cristol will present — perhaps something on Philip K. Dick?

Here’s my question: what should I talk about? I don’t have any interest in revisiting the substance of Harry Potter and International Relations, which leaves four options:

  1. Methods and Methodology. In essence, I could discuss my thinking — six-years on — about the framework Iver Neumann and I developed for HP&IR. If Steve Saideman will allow me to present last, this might be a nice way to close out the disparate panel presentations.
  2. The Hunger Games. My guess is that I would talk about the series from the perspective of the four  approaches to popular culture and politics referenced in the first option.
  3. Interstellar Relations: The Politics of Speculative Fiction. The substance and pedagogy of the class I teach, with ample kudos to PTJ’s influence.
  4. Strange IR: International-Relations Theory as Speculative Fiction. A discussion of a paper idea that PM came up with after we finished a brief comment on whether the nineteenth century was the most important  (.doc) “turning point” in international politics. In brief, why a number of over-the-horizon developments — the “great convergence,” climate change, the end of the “Age of Efflorescence” — might alter the constitutive rules of international politics and how coming to grips with that requires practical science fiction. 

Feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Yes, Matt Yglesias, Panem is an extractive, totalitarian empire

[UPDATED] Yglesias asks if “any real country could have an economy like Panem’s?” His answer comes via a synopsis of Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson’s Why Nations Fail:

The places that are rich today were poor then, while those that are poor today were generally rich in the past. This, they argue, is no coincidence. When Spanish conquistadors showed up in the prosperous areas of Latin America, they stole all the gold they could get their hands on and then set about putting the native populations to work. They set up “extractive institutions” whose purpose was to wring as many natural resources (silver, gold, food) from the land as possible while keeping power in the hands of a narrow elite. These institutions discourage savings and investment, since everyone knows any wealth can and will be arbitrarily expropriated. And while the injustice of it all led to periodic revolutions, the typical pattern was for the new boss to simply seize control of the extractive institutions and run them for his own benefit.

In short, Yglesias thinks that Panem makes sense when it comes to raw-materials extraction and agriculture, but less well when it comes to the production of complicated manufactured goods.

Collins wisely avoids going into detail about what life is supposed to be like in Districts specializing in luxury goods or electronics. It’s difficult to have a thriving economy in electronics production without a competitive market featuring multiple buyers and multiple sellers. 

Absent market competition, personal computers never would have disrupted the mainframe market and the iPhone and Android never would have revolutionized telecommunications. Entrenched monopolists have no interest in developing new technologies that shake things up. It’s difficult to get real innovation-oriented competitive markets without secure property rights, and exceedingly difficult to have secure property rights without some diffusion of political power. That needn’t mean real democratic equality—a standard the United States and Europe didn’t meet until relatively recently—but it does mean fairly broad power-sharing, as the U.S. has had from the beginning.

Yglesias’ line of analysis is pretty unobjectionable, but it does run into a few issues.

First, in relative terms, Panem’s core and inner-periphery appear to have developed consumer markets.  Capitol itself is given to conspicuous consumption and its elite enjoy a particularly high standard of living, even by contemporary US standards. The low-numbered Districts, particularly Districts 1 and 2, are far more prosperous than District 12. Just because a polity engages in significant economic extraction does not mean that its metropole and more prosperous peripheries cannot produce market forces that drive at least some innovation, as was the case with European colonial empires and any number of city-state empires.

Second, the more interesting interaction is, as Yglesias touches on but doesn’t give adequate attention to, whether Panem’s totalitarian impulses discourage innovation. This is a much broader topic, but my sense is that we shouldn’t confuse the “innovation gap” between, say, the United States and the USSR with a claim about lack of innovation in the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was, for much of its life-cycle, reasonably innovative on a number of scientific fronts. Given Panem’s apparent lack of full-fledged international competitors–and hence fears about a technology gap with other states or empires–I don’t see a major problem for Collins on this front.

Indeed, as one of Yglesias’ commentators points out, Panem exists at least a few centuries in our future in a post-collapse environment.

My reading of the technology of Panem is that it is largely stagnant itself, much of it the remnants of a more enlightened time before what seems to have been an somewhat apocalyptic event. What advancement their is is indulgent and trivial. It is implied, for instance, that life in District 12 has not changed much for a long time – no new ways of mining, neither more nor less oppressive than it had been, no indication of technological progression. You can imagine an electronics district that is like Foxconn etc; capable of competently creating electronics with all the necessary precision, but not particularly invested or interested in *what* they are making.

Third, Yglesias misses one of the more important consideration regarding Panem’s plausibility: the size of its population. District 12’s population is around eight thousand. One impressively obsessive estimate places Panem’s entire population at no more than four million–a number that strike me as extremely high from the scattering of information found in the novels. This high estimate would make Panem’s population roughly that of late medieval/early modern England, less than half that of New York City. This is an exceedingly small population, and one dispersed over a territory the stretches from at least modern-day Colorado to to eastern Kentucky. I am not convinced that Panem’s population, which may very well number in the low hundreds of thousands, could sustain its economy.

All of these speculations run into a fundamental problem. We are discussing a society with extraordinarily advanced genetic engineering, let alone other futuristic technologies. Moreover, Panem resides in a world with a much diminished carrying capacity. We should not assume that the economic logic of the present, let alone the premodern past, provides us with clear guidance for assessing Panem’s plausibility.

[UPDATE]: I hope that PM has more to say about this later, but one implication of Panem’s low population should be very expensive labor–which raises questions about the Capitol’s choice of labor-intensive production techniques, most notably in the Districts devoted to raw-material production and basic manufacturing. But this isn’t really much of a mystery once we recognize that Panem’s economic system is subservient to its political structure. The Capitol’s segmentation of the Districts by position in the chain of production, its creation of artificial energy scarcity, and its monopolization of the flow of resources among the Districts… these are classic, if rather extreme, forms of divide and rule. So if we want to assess Panem economics, we need to do so through the lens of political economy. Or as Aristotle might say, politics really is the master science.

(Some of) The Politics of the Hunger Games

As regular readers know, I assigned The Hunger Games in the last iteration of my SciFi class. Ever since then, I’ve been thinking about doing a short book with, one hopes, a less boring title than “The Politics of the Hunger Games.” Indeed, I just finished talking to an editor about it. Unlike the Harry Potter and International Relations volume that I co-edited, or the Battlestar Galactica volume that I co-wrote the conclusion for, this would be a short monograph intended for a non-academic audience.

So far I’ve sketched out chapters with titles like “Capitol Rules: Panem as Empire,” “Capitol Punishment: Panem as Totalitarian State,” “Playing by the Rules: Manipulation through Narrative,” “Capitol Falls: Revolutionary Politics,” “Katniss is not Bella: Class and Gender,” and “Bread and Circuses: Resources and Economics.” Obviously, some of these themes are pretty obvious (and covered in The Hunger Games and Philosophy), but for this kind of book, its less about originality than quality.

Thinking that I should probably find out what the interwebs are saying about the subject, I recently did a trusty google search. Turns out that the top hits include debates (e.g.) about whether the books are “conservative” or “liberal (uh, ok); an interesting, but rather strained attempt to link The Hunger Games to the politics of food; a somewhat disappointing New Yorker piece with “counterinsurgency” in the title; and a very wrongheaded analysis of Panem as an example of “asymmetric federalism.” So I guess there’s room here.

(Previously at the Duck, Charli talks Hunger Games.)

Geeking Out on the Theory-Policy Divide

As I gathered content today for my upcoming ISA presentation on social media, I was delighted to discover that my “Blog Wars” video from few years back (a response to a theory-policy debate stirred up by Joseph Nye and Dan Drezner) is cited in an academic paper as an actual contribution to the debate!

The paper itself is quite good: Bradley Parks and Alena Stern conduct one of the few empirical studies I’m aware of how scholars actually interface with the world of policy. They use as a hook the debate over policy relevance sparked off by Joseph Nye’s “Scholars on the Sidelines?” op-ed back in 2009, Dan’s response and the following ripostes by Jim Vreeland and Raj Desai, and others. Unlike most of these scholars and prior literature on the subject, they test causal propositions rather than engage in prescriptive argument, with rather interesting findings. In particular, they show that leaving academia for policy work results in a likelihood of later publishing in policy journals, whereas mere consulting doesn’t apparently impact scholars’ likelihood of publishing outside the academy.

I have only one quibble with their argument, which is that they can’t really tell us whether “in-and-outers” publish in policy journals because they want to more than “moonlighters” or whether both groups attempt to do so but only “in-and-outers” have mastered the requisite skills. Or maybe both. The answer is relevant to thinking about how to restructure doctoral studies in the profession to both incentivize and train young political scientists for this type of technical writing, something I’m experimenting at present. In general, however, this is precisely the kind of work I’ve been telling my students we need to see in IR journals: empirical studies of the discipline itself and how it interfaces with the real world. Kudos to the authors.

Two additional things about this paper, and in particular the debate the authors use as a jumping off point:

1) the citations in this paper itself signal that user-generated media (blog conversations, blog comments, tweets and YouTube videos) are being genuinely interpreted as academic contributions these days, and that’s a fascinating shift that frankly I think has some bearing on the closing of the theory-policy divide since the use of social media by academics has broadened our audiences, changed our discourse and altered our communication styles. (I guess it’s good that MLA just came out with its guidelines on how to properly cite tweets: here. Not sure when they’ll have rules on YouTube videos, although to be fair the authors didn’t cite the video itself but rather the blog post where I disseminated it.)

2) the satirical and geeky nature of that debate as it played out in the blogosphere when it occurred strikes me as itself an interesting counter-point to David Newsom’s claim way back that

“IR scholars appear caught up in an elite culture in which labels, categories and even the humor have meaning ‘for members only’… they speak to each other rather than a wider public.”

I hypothesize that the increasing use of pop culture allegories and satirical arguments to make political points is an example of the exact opposite – the widening of academic and policy discourse to express debates through humor that appeals to a much broader audience.

However these are only hypotheses, since unlike Parks and Stern I’ve not constructed a research design to investigate whether they’re actually true. Whether they are (and whether or not that’s a good thing on balance) will have to be explored by future studies. But if you want to hear my rambling thoughts on the subject thus far, come to Henry Farrell’s roundtable on “Transnational Politics and the Information Age” Sunday April 1 at 1:45 at the International Studies Association Annual Conference. (Or, simply wait for the post-conference YouTube version, which you can obviously cite to your heart’s content.)

Sunday Nerd Blogging

 A monologue from Julian Comstock, Robert Charles Wilson’s fascinating novel of post-scarcity America:

You might want to consider your tone of voice, Private Commongold. May I offer you a lesson in Civics? There are three centers of power in the modern Union, and only three. One is the Executive Branch, with its supporting host of Owners and Senators. One is the Military. And the last is the Dominion of Jesus Christ on Earth. They’re like the tripod feet of a stool: each supports the other, and they work best when they’re equal in reach. But you’re not a propertied person, Mr. Commongold, as far as I know; and you’re certainly not a Clergyman; and the Army in its wisdom has put you in the lowest possible rank. Your position doesn’t entitle you to an opinion, much less the loose expression of it.

Upon reading this, all I could conclude was that Rick Santorum had read this passage and decided to take it literally.

Cyber Nerd Blogging: Neuroscience, Conflict and Security

Antoine Bousquet has a fascinating post at Disorder of Things on developments in neuroscience and how they are being used by militaries to 1) enhance their own soldiers and 2) degrade the abilities of their opponents. The post is in response to a report by The Royal Society on Neuroscience, Conflict and Security which outlines these developments, speculates on the future and the ethical implications of these developments.

As Bousquet notes, it’s some pretty hairy stuff:

Yet perhaps the most potentially consequential developments will be found in the area of neural interfacing and its efforts to bring the human nervous system and computing machines under a single informational architecture. The report’s authors note here the benefits that accrue from this research to the disabled in terms of improvements to the range of physical and social interactions available to them through a variety of neurally controlled prosthetic extensions. While this is indeed the case, there is a particular irony to the fact that the war mutilated (which the Afghan and Iraq conflicts have produced in abundance – according to one estimate, over 180,000 US veterans from these conflicts are on disability benefits) have become one of the main testing grounds for technologies that may in the future do much more than restore lost capabilities. Among one of the most striking suggestions is that:

electrode arrays implanted in the nervous system could provide a connection between the nervous system of an able-bodied individual and a specific hardware or software system. Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware, a neurally interfaced weapons systems could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy. (p.40)

In other words, human brains may be harnessed within fire control systems to perform cognitive tasks before these even become conscious to them. Aside from the huge ethical and legal issues that it would raise, one cannot but observe that under such a scheme the functional distinction between human operator and machine seems to collapse entirely with the evaporation of any pretense of individual volition.

Noting scientific developments aimed at altering the sensory perception of enemies on the battlefield, Bousquet concludes: “The holy grail of military neuroscience is therefore nothing less than the ability to directly hack into and reprogram a target’s perceptions and beliefs, doing away even with the need for kinetic force. So that when neural warfare does truly arrive, we may not even know it.”

A couple of thoughts:

First, The Royal Society Report is interesting for its inclusion of a relatively decent overview of the applicable law that would apply to such weapons. Ken Anderson at Lawfare disagrees – suggesting that “The legal and ethical issues are of course legion and barely explored.” However, considering the report is relatively brief, the legal and ethical section does proportionally take up a large chunk of it. in addition, the report includes no less than four recommendations for suggesting improvements to the Chemical Weapons Convention and Biological Weapons Convention regimes. Interestingly, they do not suggest any improvements for law of war/IHL as opposed to arms control. I find this surprising to a certain extent. While there are principles that always apply to ALL weaponry (distinction, proportionality and necessity – and, of course, prohibition of unnecessary suffering), I would argue that neuro-non-leathal weapons are a definite grey area. (As The Royal Society report notes, altering someone’s sensory perception has radical implications for notions of responsibility in the prosecution of war crimes.)

Second, Bousquet’s last point is interesting in that it reflects the constant quest over the last century and a half to develop weapons that would end the need for the use of kinetic force. I’m presently reading P.D. Smith’s Doomsday Men a social history of the application of science to warfare and weapons of mass destruction which traces the development and logic behind such weapons that were supposed to be so terrible that they could never be used – or if used, would be so terrible as to inspire an end to warfare. This was the case for chemical/gas weapons and eventually the atomic bomb – the thought behind many of their creators that their mere possession would be enough to stop countries from fighting one another full-stop because the consequences would be so terrible.

As Smith demonstrates in his book, such a theory of non-use of weapons was a frequent theme of the science fiction literature of the time, particularly that of HG Wells:

The United States of America entered World War I under the slogan of ‘the war to end all wars’. Never has idealism been so badly used. From Hollis’ Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (1908) to H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914), the idea of fighting a final battle to win universal peace had gripped readers in Europe and America. Wells’s novel even introduced the phrase ‘war that will end war’.
Once again, science played a vital role in these stories. A new figure emerged in pre-war fiction – the saviour scientist, a Promethean genius who uses his scientific knowledge to save his country and banish war forever. It is the ultimate victory for Science and Progress…

As James writes, these works of science fiction promoted the idea that “through revolutionary science and the actions of an idealistic scientist, war could be made a thing of the past.” In some works a terrible war is required to win the peace through science, but it is clear that in the view of many of these pre-War “science romance” novels (which would go on to inspire many of the future atomic scientists working on the nuclear bomb) that super weapons could stop war.

Should we then read neuro-weapons in this light – as part of the constant scientific quest to develop weapons which will end the need to fight?

Friday “I Really Am Just a Nerd” Blogging

I was shocked, shocked to read Brian Rathbun’s characterization of me in a recent Canard as a “robot” who has only been posing as a Battlestar Galactica addict as part of my cover (!):

The academic and foreign policy worlds were rocked today by the news that Charli Carpenter — prolific academic, policy wonk, and mom — is in fact a robot. An anonymous source told this paper: “There were the academic writings, then all the policy work, the grant writing and management. She never missed her son’s soccer games though… it was just too much. Her makers made a mistake by not giving her any weaknesses.”

The revelation replaces the previous rumor among academics that Carpenter was actually an alien from the series Battlestar Galactica that she loves so much. That appears to have just been a hobby for the robot… Our CIA source said, “There is no room in this country for relentlessly hard-working academic robots raising well-adjusted families, no matter who it turns out they work for.”

This bit of yellow journalism, peppered with conjecture and misinformation, regurgitates a malicious leak from the alleged intelligence community without corroboration, and ill-befits a blogger of Rathbun’s caliber. The saddest part is that colleagues I know and love (to watch sci-fi with) have apparently taken these rumors at face value and are now doubting my status as a bona-fide nerd:

Friends were shocked, but not necessarily surprised. Dan Nexon, a professor at Georgetown University, said, “We always joked that Charli was a machine. She writes like a book a week. And good ones, too. Not the usual schlock we turn out.” He added, “She was always so good with technology. And she really likes science fiction. We all hoped she was just a nerd though. I guess we were fooling ourselves. I feel so betrayed.”

Well, to Dan and to anyone who has fallen victim to this conspiracy theory, I offer up the following as proof of both my humanity and my authentic nerd-dom:

1) Rathbun’s source is mistaken in claiming that I never miss a soccer game. In fact, I missed one in April 2011 to attend a panel on Zombies and International Relations and one the previous year to attend a panel on Battlestar Galactica, both at the yearly geek-fest known as the International Studies Association Annual Convention and both about as nerdy as one can get.

2) Rathbun erred in taking Dan’s statement that I write “good” books (that is, serious works of political science) every week at face value. A quick fact-check would have shown that I’ve written exactly three books since 2006, and one of those was only an edited volume – a weekly book-production rate of only .0096 even if you consider an edited book a book. In fact a comparison of my publishing record to those of my Duck colleagues suggests that if I’m an academic robot, they probably all are too, especially Patrick Thaddeus Jackson and Rodger Payne (and these numbers do not even include their ‘other publications’):*

Note however that my publications in the less-than-serious area of science fiction and politics outweigh those of several Duck colleagues, placing me firmly within the Duck nerd block – PROOF OF MY NERD CREDENTIALS.**

3) Regarding the robot conspiracy, nothing could be farther from the truth. While Rathbun unblinkingly echoes the CIA’s claim that I’m heralding a robot takeover, I have in fact been constantly at the vanguard against such a threat, studiously tracking developments in autonomous lethal systems, training my son in weaponry and small-unit tactics in preparation for Judgment Day, and even sounding the alarm when powerful members of our own profession exhibit cyborg-like tendencies.

4) Additionally, I most emphatically dispute Rathbun’s claim that “Battlestar Galactica is just a hobby” for me. This would be like saying that Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly or Game of Thrones are “just hobbies” for me, or that Harry Potter is “just a hobby” for Dan Nexon. Perhaps if Rathbun would spend more time watching Portlandia and less wasting brain-cells on Downton Abbey, he would understand.

5) Finally, Rathbun might have thought twice about his source’s credibility when s/he referred to my children as “well-adjusted.” Clearly this is not a person who has ever had a look at my Friday Nugget Blogging posts from my days at Lawyers, Guns and Money.

Indeed this piece of writing is so far beneath the quality of Rathbun’s usual astute investigative journalism that one wonders whether Rathbun himself is actually the author. I suggest instead that this particular Canard may be a politically motivated attempt by actual undercover robots within the (artificial) intelligence community to divert the general population from their impending takeover.

Note how the author of this post (whoever it is) makes it sound as if the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica are mere “aliens” rather than themselves lethal autonomous robots. I suspect government elements (including possibly Dan Drezner, a known CIA schill), are behind this blatant attempt at misinformation and mass distraction. I urge my good friend and co-blogger Brian Rathbun to check his anti-virus software, reinforce his fire-walls, and change his passwords. Networked computers will be the death of us all, and this Canard is likely just one more sign of the looming apocalypse.

*Data includes only those Ducks whose complete CV I could find online; it excludes those who list only ‘selected publications’ on their websites.
**Of course, I’m clearly not as nerdy as Dan, but remember this is someone who named his child after a character in a fantasy novel so frankly I’d be out of my league trying to compete with him.

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