Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Prison as Metaphor: Recasting the "Dilemma" of International Relations

Academic journal article Alternatives: Global, Local, Political

The Prison as Metaphor: Recasting the "Dilemma" of International Relations

Article excerpt

Michael P. Marks (*)

Metaphors are useful for theory creation. They minimize circular reasoning because the analytical deductions derived from them are based on empirical observations distinct from the phenomenon to be explained. Much of IR theory is based on metaphors. From political realism's appeal to the Hobbesian metaphor of anarchy to liberalism's appeal to the metaphor of the market, the way that scholars conceptualize international affairs is rooted in metaphorical allusions to related realms of human interaction.

As useful as metaphors are for thinking about international politics, scholars have a tendency to reify these metaphors. This takes place to such an extent that interstate relations cease to be thought of as if they are, for instance, anarchic jungles or economic markets, and the metaphor itself is taken to be the actual reality of international relations. In this article I will examine one particularly popular metaphor for international relations, the metaphorical image of the prison. The prevailing prison metaphor for international politics is embodied in the game-theoretic "Prisoner's Dilemma" model. I will argue that this model presents a caricatured image of inmate life. In its place, I will suggest an alternative metaphor of the prison based on a range of more plausible contemporary accounts of how prison inmates lead their lives. (1) My intention is to consider an alternative conceptualization of international politics based on images generated from a particularly striking metaphor.

Metaphors in IR Theory

The Generative Character of Metaphors

Aristotle defined a good metaphor as one that "implies an intuitive perception of the similarity in dissimilarities." (2) Metaphors aid in advancing knowledge by alerting observers to previously unnoticed similarities in two sets of phenomena. As Nelson Goodman observes, metaphor "participates fully in the progress of knowledge: in replacing some stale 'natural' kinds with novel categories, in contriving facts, in revising theory, and in bringing us new worlds." (3) Therefore, on one level, a good metaphor for international relations is one that produces new ways of thinking about the categories that constitute relations among actors on the world stage.

However, recent scholarship in linguistics has also shown that metaphors do more than simply provide a heuristic function. Metaphors, and other tropes such as metonymy and synecdoche, serve a generative function in providing meanings to help understand the world. (4) In this sense, metaphors do not merely arise spontaneously from the imagination; they are part of an ongoing process in which humans interact with the physical environment. This "experientialist" approach to metaphors, as George Lakoff and Mark Johnson call it, allows the world to be understood metaphorically when the patterns experienced in one domain are structured through language to provide meaning to another. (5) Drawing on his work with Lakoff, Johnson further incorporates the human body into metaphor analysis. Metaphors resonate with the human experience because they are encountered in the flesh:

Understanding is an event--it is not merely a body of beliefs (though it includes our beliefs). It is the means by which we have a shared, relatively intelligible world. The basic epistemological finding of this "experientialist" (cognitive semantics) approach is that knowledge must be understood in terms of structures of embodied understanding, as an interaction of a human organism with its environment (which includes its language, cultural traditions, values, institutions, and the history of its social community). (6)

Therefore, it is not enough that any metaphor provide an internal logic to furnish a coherent set of understandings. To have their greatest impact, these understandings must accord with the lived experiences of real people.

And yet, since humans engage in contestation over how experiences should be interpreted, metaphors have an ability, simply by framing an issue through language, to reflect political differences. …

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