Tag: culture and IR

‘Kangnam Style’s Irony is Missed b/c of the Publicity Wave

I try to avoid K-pop on my website, because I find far too many foreigner websites in Korea focus on the silliest, shallowest elements of what is around us – probably because the language is so hard, Korean pop culture is the easiest for us to understand. But I keep getting asked, and it is huge hit, so here a few thoughts:

1. Thank god ‘Kangnam Style’ shows a level of irony, self-awareness, humor, and creativity that K-pop normally lacks. That alone is enough to value it, given how shallow, idiotic, and pre-packaged almost all Korean pop is otherwise. K-pop is wasteland IMO. (Try it yourself; tell me how long before you cringe.) None of these carbon-copy bands like the Wonder Girls or Girls Generation or whatever would even get considered for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (I’m from Cleveland, so I thought I’d add that little plug). K-pop slavishly copies from the boy-band/girl-band model that began in the US 20 years ago and crossed-over to Japan. The hair, the synched dance-moves, the gratingly cutesy presentations, the insipid teen love-story lyrics – it’s awful. None of them can play an instrument; they are recruited solely because they’re hot, and the music-machine does the rest. Continue reading

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Hu’s Culture War

Building on PM’s earlier post, “Cultural Weapons and International Relations” I’d like to look at an example that helps to illustrate the ways in which Realism misunderstands the role of culture in global politics. In his blog post titled, “China’s War Against Harry Potter,” Stephen Walt analyzes President Hu Jintao’s attempt to defend Chinese culture by increasing its production of local culture. What is interesting is that Walt has plenty to say about culture, but he wants to separate cultural production from the state and to portray the state’s attempt to manage culture as irrational.

First, Walt argues that cultural and artistic production is something which authoritarian states cannot manage well. He writes, “What Hu doesn’t understand is that you can’t just order creativity up by fiat or by making a cheerleading speech.”  For Walt, the cutting edge of creativity comes autonomously from the state.

Walt’s argument is flawed because all states are involved to varying degrees in cultural production, including liberal democratic states. Canada and France are perhaps the most prominent examples of states that seek to enhance and shape cultural production through bureaucratic regulations. Other states effectively subsidize the arts and cultural activities through tax codes as well as national institutes and the US is no exception. Even the general income tax code can provide incentives for artists to be innovative and unique so that they can try to join the top 1% of the income bracket. The same tax code can provide incentives to patrons of the arts when they decide to donate their purchases so that they can be viewed by the plebeians. Moreover, cultural production does not have to be at the cutting edge of global culture to serve the interests of the state — particularly when the Chinese state’s main concern is to defend against a growing domestic preference for American popular culture.

Why might Walt view cultural production as ideally a distinct activity from the state? The answer probably lies in Realism’s relatively narrow and often materialistic conceptualization of power and its understanding of the proper functions of a statesman. Of course, we’ve known at least since Gramsci (and probably as far back as Plato) that states are not merely territorial actors; states must secure allegiance by colonizing the minds and  tongues of their inhabitants. This is why all states are concerned with the cultivation and preservation of culture, although some states may have a relatively more sophisticated and indirect approach.

Second, Walt depicts President Hu’s defense of culture as somewhat irrational or at the very least misguided.  Walt writes, “Forgive me, but China’s leader sounds a lot like a stodgy high school principal trying to stop teenagers from wearing gangsta rap T-shirts, and telling the Music Department to get more kids into the marching band instead. More importantly, this campaign is a losing game.”

I would argue that Hu’s speech is in no way irrational — far from it — it was entirely predictable. Hu Jintao is widely expected to retire in 2013 when he will most likely be replaced by Xi Jinping, the son of Xi Zhongxun, a founder of the CCP. Any China expert worth his salt would already have predicted that we should expect to see increased efforts to stabilize domestic politics (through the repression of dissent) and a non-confrontational foreign policy until the transition in power is complete. As an institutional actor and a value rational actor it makes sense for the President to ensure the longevity of the regime.

Hu’s focus on culture as a key mechanism to ensure domestic stability at a time when China is being rocked by protests is not at all an irrational impulse. The management of culture is at the heart of statecraft. Moreover, claiming that protesters are only protesting because they are misguided by foreign ideas is a classic deflection strategy. Even states in a global economy can manage the production of domestic popular culture and prevent much of the penetration of foreign cultural products through censorship, although perhaps not quite as bluntly as Hu may desire. Nevertheless, the attempt to reinvigorate Chinese popular culture at this point in time may ultimately prove futile as Walt argues, but one can understand why it is a pressing concern for the Chinese Premier President simply by adding culture to the domain of state power.

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Lost in the Clouds

Drew Conway discusses the evils of word clouds. He doesn’t go far enough: the meaning of speeches and texts depends on the order and proximity of words, not the frequency of their appearance.

Consider the two wordles below of famous addresses.


Wordle: Ihazdream

Wordle: Ihazbloodswettears


They’re both meaningless hash. They tell us virtually nothing of any importance about the two speeches.

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A gulf in understanding?

Last week I participated in a workshop at the Al Jazeera Center for Studies in Doha, Qatar, which brought to an end the ESRC’s Radicalisation & Violence programme of research projects, led by Prof. Stuart Croft. I was one of several researchers invited to present recent research on ‘terrorism, resistance and radicalisation’. My fledgling experience of academia has thus far been that debates rarely get politicised. It is noteworthy when it happens, triggering a visceral thrill or horror as we depart from our scripts of professional civility. The Radicalisation & Violence programme has been politicised from the outset. Anthropologists and sociologists were unhappy that researchers might apply to carry out fieldwork in dangerous regions, that the FCO was offering some funding towards the programme and hence it was ‘state-sponsored’ to an extent (although so is the ESRC), and nobody carrying out research could be unaware that in the UK in the 2000s people at universities were being arrested for having ‘radical’ material on their computers, even if they were carrying out legitimate research. It is no surprise, then, that the concluding event retained this political edge. Talking about terrorism in this particular region could not be otherwise.

The event was a success, but I came away with two reservations. The first concerns the possible failure of Anglophone security studies to find ways to engage with the rest of the world in ways that don’t come across as dominating. Croft has written about this himself recently (chapter in here), noting that ‘interdependence’ is a concept we in elite universities in North America, Europe or S.E. Asia might be comfortable with, but might seem threatening to others. Our research might contribute to the very problems of international conflict and cooperation it seeks only to explain. Sure enough, in Doha the Arabic professors consistently argued that the migration of Western terms like ‘terrorism’ and ‘radicalisation’ is itself aggressive, a continuation of colonial practices. ‘They begin in English dictionaries but are applied in Arabic countries’, said one participant. And the fact that ‘we’ don’t provide clear definitions is an act of power: ‘The vagueness is deliberate. They [Western academics] want to hold in their hands what is legitimate’, said another. Western academics will define terrorism to suit our states’ interests. From this perspective, perhaps, for us ESRC-funded researchers to go to Doha and use such terms was an affront.
We can easily contest these claims. How can ‘they’ so lazily conflate Western researchers with their national governments? How can anyone expect a consensual definition of terms that are political and essentially contested? But at the same time, do we have a duty to discuss politics and security in other discourses? How can all parties translate and recognise each other’s vocabularies, histories, and problem framings? Without some thought about this, a space is created for pointless misunderstanding and mutual aggravation.
And it’s in this space, marked by the lack of shared terms and meanings, that my second concern emerges. Misconceptions about ‘the West’ were used so routinely, by individuals who could be considered opinion leaders in Arabic media, individuals who are familiar enough with life in North America or Europe to know that these are misconceptions, but who continue to perpetuate them in a manner that reifies the notion of a war between Islam and the West. As mild instances, the notions that ‘Westerners burn Qurans’ and ‘the West is Islamophobic’ were raised several times. A colleague pointed out, if you try to burn a Quran in the UK you will quickly be arrested, and if a person or institution discriminates on religious or ethnic grounds then legal proceeding should kick in. This is not to say Islamophobia doesn’t exist, but that it can be challenged and is challenged. Everyday multiculturalism has survived the war on terror. And does it make sense to even talk of ‘the West’ now anyway? Well, from those outside it, who feel on the receiving end of ‘Western’ action, it seems so. But there is a danger of explaining the world through Orientalism and finding the world is Orientalist.
These reservations aside, such events are a useful platform for overcoming mutual blind spots and only highlight the need for more engagement. 
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The Colonial Fleet Colonizes UN Headquarters

I kid you not. The Chicago Tribune reports the following:

“On March 17, there will be a “Battlestar” retrospective at the U.N. in New York and a panel discussion of how the show examined issues such as “human rights, children and armed conflict, terrorism, human rights and reconciliation and dialogue among civilizations and faith,” according to Sci Fi.

The “Battlestar” contingent on the panel will consist of executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, as well as stars Mary McDonnell (who plays president Laura Roslin on the show) and Edward James Olmos (Admiral William Adama).

UN representatives on the panel are Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Craig Mokhiber, deputy director of the New York office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights; and Robert Orr, assistant secretary-general for policy planning, executive office of the Secretary-General.

The panel will be moderated by “Battlestar” fan Whoopi Goldberg.”

Comment away.

P.S. Hat tip to Greg Niermeyer, Polsci 121-A student and bigger geek than me.

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Next Nostradamus

What are you watching?

I’m tuned to the History Channel’s “Next Nostradamus“:

Two men sharing startling visions of the future possess distinctly different backgrounds: Michel de Nostradamus was a French apothecary and healer in the 16th century; he would become the most famous seer in history. His 21st century counterpart is Dr. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a renowned political scientist who teaches game theory at New York University and Stanford. While Nostradamus looked to the stars and mysticism to divine his apocalyptic revelations, Dr. Bueno de Mesquita relies on the most omnipotent tool ever designed by man to predict future events: the computer. This special explores not only the commonalities of these men’s visions about World War III, famine and the coming of the Anti-Christ, but it also traces the evolution from mysticism to hard math, and determines whether science has always existed in prophecy, manifesting itself in different forms through the ages.

I was on the phone and watched most of the first hour with the sound off.

However, in addition to Bueno de Mesquita, I know the program also features John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and at least one on-screen appearance each by Ethan Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith. Historian Pamela Smith and a few other scholars are also interviewed.


If you missed the program, it is on again at 1 am ET and Saturday December 6 at 5 pm ET. Check it out. You can also buy it.

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Serenity Now

At the urging of a friend, I have recently finished consuming the complete box-set of Joss Wheddon’s now-defunct Firefly TV series plus the feature film Serenity. (Totally missed this show in 2002 while writing my dissertation.)

Though my partner can’t quite see what I like about Firefly/Serenity(and didn’t accept my claim that I was viewing it as a mere artifact of popular culture – really), truth is it’s a damn cool series that should have survived beyond one season.

If you’re unfamiliar with Firefly, here’s the premise: humankind has colonized a new solar system, characterized by a strong, centralized, bureaucratic, quasi-authoritarian “Alliance” that governs the central planets through an elaborate system of surveillance and benevolent but Orwellian incentive structures. However the Alliance struggles to maintain control over the outer planets, which are largely characterized by tribalism and vigilante law akin to the U.S. Wild West or, for those on whom the metaphor is not lost, ungoverned spaces of today’s globe in which criminal networks, banditry, slavery and insecurity thrive. In other words, the political geography of the series rather resembles Thomas Barnett’s distinction between the “Functioning Core” and the “Non-Integrating Gap.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the “good guys” of the show are not the Alliance civilizers, keen to spread rule of law throughout the fringe, but rather the crew of a smuggling ship captained by a one-time anti-Alliance insurgent and his sidekick, plus various crew and passengers picked up for utilitarian reasons along the way. The series follows their everyday life skirting Alliance officials, bartering, smuggling, and shooting when necessary.

But the series seems less about a band of criminals than about survival of kin-groups under failed state systems. Of particular interest to people concerned with governance under anarchy is the complex way in which honor codes come to check otherwise self-interested rationality.

I haven’t (yet) delved into the considerable fan writings on Firefly/Serenity, but I did discover a brilliant gender analysis of the series published last year in the British Journal of International Relations. (It came to my mind as I considered the bleg PTJ posted recently about how to teach globalization and security.) Christina Rowley writes:

“[Joss] Whedon’s vision appears to share much in common with Cynthia Enloe’s (1996) appeal that we focus more of our analytical attention on the ‘margins, silences and bottom rungs’ of world politics, in order to illuminate the amounts and varieties of power that are required to be exerted in order to keep the world functioning as it does…. The Issues with which F/S engages – e.g. travel and migration, trade and smuggling, crime and terrorism, prostitution and sex work, individual and societal security – are simultaneously local and international – or, rather, post-national.”

The show is also, Rowley argues, “post-feminist” insofar as:

“the individuals who comprise Serenity’s crew and passengers, and the situationg in which they find themselves, provide critiques and alternative visions of what it means to be gendered.”

She fleshes out this claim with reference to Zoe the warrior wife, Kaylee the sweet, sensitive ship’s mechanic, Inara the high-class Companion (geisha/prostitute) and various other protrayals of women and gender issues in the show. (Rowley spends only one paragraph on the men of Firefly, unfortunately, although in my mind different constructions of good and bad masculinity underpin the show, and Jayne Cobb’s gradual conversion from greedy, Neanderthal-esque cretin to good guy sidekick is one of the most interesting themes.)

At any rate, perhaps partly due to the misfit between “post-feminist” narratives and an increasingly retro gender culture characteristic of post-9/11 US political culture, the series failed after one season. But thanks to the show’s strong and growing cult following, this could change. Fan organizations such as Browncoats.com and Fireflyfans.net are dedicated to “keep[ing] the fandom growing” not just in its own right but also to bring back the show by demonstrating that “we Browncoats are a mighty force of consumers.”

One site exhorts fans to “throw a conversion party,” “make your own bumper-stickers,” “call Universal” or (two of my favorites):

“Any time you rent a sci-fi, western or action movie, put a small flyer or sticker on the case underneath the DVD. Where the renters will see them, but employees inspecting the cases won’t.

Type in www.whatisfirefly.com into any public access Internet computer you come into contact with (libraries, computer stores, cyber cafés, etc) and leave it on the screen when you leave.”

(Geez, the SaveDarfur coalition could take some pointers from this movement.)

Such efforts (and this blog post should in no way be construed as guerilla marketing of this type) have not yet succeeded at either reviving the series or securing the right to produce Season 2 informally, but they did result in a major feature film.

As Americans grow weary of the US government’s Alliance role, might there may indeed be more mass support for pro-libertarian shows of this type? I suppose that depends on your estimate of the relationship between foreign policy and popular culture, on which I’m no expert. Thoughts?

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Ruminations from Yasukuni

While I was in Japan last week interviewing government officials about their “human security” foreign policy agenda, I visited the Yasukuni shrine. Readers may be aware that this memorial to modern-era Japanese war dead has been controversial in the region: victims of Japan’s imperial wars see it as a salute to war criminals, and the opposition in Japan considers any national monument to militarism a violation of the post-war constitution.

A Chinese documentary film about Yasukuni was released over the weekend in Tokyo amid stringent opposition from nationalists.

Most of the controversy focuses on the shrine itself, but I found Yushukan Museum much more disquieting. Although my guidebook told me that the shrine honors Japanese soldiers and civilians who died defending the Japanese empire, I found the museum focused on soldiers to the exclusion of civilians. Among the lauded artifacts is a steam locomotive from the Thai-Burma “Death Railway,” built by Allied prisoners of war. And told through the lens of Japanese nationalism, the history of Japan’s imperial wars looks rather different. For exampe, here is how the siege of Nanking is described:


Yet not all of the warrior imagery seemed propagandistic. I found myself contemplating a bronze statue near the entrance to the museum.

This is not an image of self-serving militarism, but of just warriorhood: the young man with the sword is assisting an injured elder, and sheltering a mother with children; he is showing the younger boy how to behave correctly with a weapon.

One might argue that such representations have some place in an international society that places value on the protection of human life from the worst of what armies do.

At any rate, pure pacifism must be a hard sell in a society whose members still recall fighting in the last of Japan’s great wars. My brother and I noticed old Japanese men reading the placards with great solemnity.

For them – perhaps even for a younger generation inured to the horrors of battle, such memory-keeping is vital.

What struck me most tooling aroud Tokyo beyond the shrine was how quickly the Japanese remade themselves as a society after World War II, forsaking their former militarism. Today, the emphasis in Japanese culture is on courtesy and “cuteness” or kawaii. (For a scholarly treatment of kawaii, see Anne Allison’s work in Postcolonial Studies.)

It is as if Yushukan contains all those feelings that have been so self-consciously excised from the rest of society. Perhaps, in that sense, it plays a role of some value despite the arguments of its critics.

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