Poli-Sci  and the Propagation  of “Promontory Views”  of Reality

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In one of her many thought-provoking essays, Mary Louise Pratt explains how, over the course of the 19th century, accounts written by British travelers in Africa evolved from discourses characterized by intimate engagements with the land and its people, to ones dominated by what she calls “promontory views”. She goes on to suggest a that the onset of this visual distancing in travel literature effectively parallels the implantation of British Imperial institutions on that continent.

The implication is clear: in order to teach their fellow countrymen to rule the natives with the requisite degree of sang froid, the British needed to edit out the intimate and oh-so-human details of African lives and cultural structures from their renderings of the colonial reality.

Political Science emerged as an institutionalized discipline during the same late 19th century era, and become consolidated in the academy as the US began its rise as an imperial power at the start of the 20th century.

A mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.

One of the core conceits of   political science   is that vastly complex and highly diverse human behaviors are amenable to theoretical modeling. There is, of course, nothing wrong with seeking to diagram complex   comportments across cultural boundaries.

The problem arises when the institutional incentives for developing such theories begins to greatly outstrip the extant mechanisms for empirically verifying their claims.

Take for example, the issue of sub-state identity movements in today’s Europe. The Lega Nord, Viktor Orban’s Fidesz and the drive for independence in Catalonia are all taking flight at more or less the same time.  For the political scientist, the key to making sense of these things lies in discovering the “universal”, albeit at times locally-inflected, structures and forces that drive these phenomena.

In this frame of analysis, the particular cultural, linguistic, and historical realities of the societies where these movements are taking place are thrust into a decidedly secondary space.

Put another way, Political Science specializes in the creation of “promontory views” of reality, and rewards it practitioners for their audacity in generating the neatest and most narratively enveloping explanations.

That these “explanations” can work to seriously denature and distort the particularities of certain of the phenomena under analysis—e.g. lead to the portrayal of Catalan nationalism as a blood and soil movement or one led by economic elites—often seems to be beside the point.

If you think I am exaggerating, go back and look at the record of the discipline when it came—to name just two examples—to explaining the empirical realities  of the late-stage  Soviet Union or the dynamics of Iraqi society  under Saddam.

So why then are these often linguistically and culturally handicapped people almost always favored by the media over historians and true cultural experts when it comes time to explain the outside world and its ways to the masses?

Because the people at the highest levels of power like it that way.

They realize that providing simplistic, context-free explanations to complex and variegated historical phenomena makes their ability to stay in power and control the general course of social evolution that much easier.  These bite-size and overwhelming “presentist” explanations also greatly facilitate their ability to wage war—be it of the economic, diplomatic or military variety—when they deem it necessary.

Political science was, in large measure, promoted by the powerful to generate storehouse of simplifying and face-erasing promontory views. And, at least in the countries in the closest orbits of  US power,  these same patrons make sure that the discipline’s practitioners are embraced and promoted in a way that those from other humanist disciplines seldom are.  Think about this the next time you are listening to “expert” analysis on this or that global hotspot  from a Political Scientist.

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  A Citizen’s Democracy in Authoritarian Times: An American View on the Catalan Drive for Independence  (University of Valencia Press, 2018).