Daring to Deconstruct: The Rise of Postmodernism in Theory

Harvard International Review, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

Daring to Deconstruct: The Rise of Postmodernism in Theory


THE INTERNATIONAL REVIEW EDITORIAL STAFF

Isaac Asimov, one of the most famous and brilliant science fiction writers of all time, knew what it meant to think big. Though his fantastic worlds pioneered how we think about robotics (a term he coined, naturally), space travel, and the future, he also spent much time thinking about the world in which we live. "The times make the man," he wrote, nearly 27 years ago, in the pages of this journal while reflecting on the nature of human progress. "I would like to see us move out into space, make use of new resources, new sources of energy and materials ... The only trouble is that things move so quickly now, that by the time we recognize a crisis that requires a remarkable man and hope that he shows up, it may be too late."

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Asimov was not proclaiming pessimism but rather a prescient point about the reality of the times. As a scientist and thinker, international relations were not his profession. But he nonetheless entered the discourse in "My Planet, 'Tis of Thee" (HIR, Spring 1983), and reflected, as a student of the human condition, on the possibility of nuclear extinction. He predicted that the times would soon make a new kind of man.

We are the beneficiaries of some of Asimov's visions. And as we reflect upon the type of thinkers we have become since then, we find that the most interesting, generalized trend across the field over the last two decades has been the infiltration, at long last, of postmodernism into the theory and practice of international relations.

By the 1960s and 1970s, as other social sciences accepted the challenges and difficulties raised by the blurred conceptual lines of postmodernism, the discipline of international relations lagged behind. Indeed, it was not until Richard Ashley's "The Geopolitics of Geopolitical Space: Toward a Critical Theory of International Relations" in Alternatives (1987) that postmodern perspectives began to seriously venture into the arena of international relations. The world, to the international relations theorist's eyes, still held promise of operating in a parsimonious way. The field long maintained that the workings behind daily international affairs might be captured in an elegant way, if only the right model could be found--and clung to these hopes long after other social sciences discarded them. But what is postmodernism in the context of international relations? And how has it served the field?

A Word on Hubris

If we have learned one thing from our observations over three decades of analyzing international affairs, it is the folly of arrogant assertions when forecasting the future. The future is not a stable entity that takes kindly to hubris, and so we willingly limit our boldness to that recent history that still awaits interpretation. Nor can we reflect on the entirety of the international relations discourse in which we have participated. But we can hope to offer observations that may give pause to that discourse for some self-reflection. Bolder still, we may be able to tease out a hint as to the direction of such discourse--how our contributors, our readers, and we editors ourselves discuss, think about, and even understand international relations.

Before exploring these questions, we must duly acknowledge that our claim does not exist in a vacuum. Scholars have previously argued for the importance of postmodernism. As early as 1996, Richard Devetak's Theories of International Relations lucidly and concretely captured postmodernism's contributions to the field, which he identified as "the problematization of state sovereignty ... the problematization of the sovereignty/anarchy opposition ... [and] theorizing the constitution of sovereign states." Nonetheless, we still assert that this trend remains an underrated one and will grow more important in shaping international relations discourse, including that of non-academics. …

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