FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

Photo by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemin | CC BY 2.0

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.

More articles by:

Thomas S. Harrington is a professor of Iberian Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut and the author of the recently released  Livin’ la Vida Barroca: American Culture in a Time of Imperial Orthodoxies.

Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
April 19, 2018
Ramzy Baroud
Media Cover-up: Shielding Israel is a Matter of Policy
Vijay Prashad
Undermining Brazilian Democracy: the Curious Saga of Lula
Steve Fraser
Class Dismissed: Class Conflict in Red State America
John W. Whitehead
Crimes of a Monster: Your Tax Dollars at Work
Kenn Orphan
Whistling Past the Graveyard
Karl Grossman - TJ Coles
Opening Pandora’s Box: Karl Grossman on Trump and the Weaponization of Space
Colin Todhunter
Behind Theresa May’s ‘Humanitarian Hysterics’: The Ideology of Empire and Conquest
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail