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A Postmodernist View Of International Relations Politics Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Politics
Wordcount: 3376 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Some scholars argue that alternative approaches to IR theory have not made any significant contributions to the theorization of IR. Moreover, these approaches lead our IR theory into disorder and we are left with a lack of direction. However, focusing on Postmodernism, we find it has produced the idea of the power-knowledge relationship to criticize the “absolute truth” which is proposed by Positivism, and also provides us with different methodologies such as genealogy, text, narrative, discourse, deconstruction and double reading to explain world politics. Besides, Postmodernism has utilized a variety of methods such as deconstruction of text to overcome the theories and concepts that people believe (Der Derian and Shapiro, 1989).

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In the past international theory has been dominated by four main theories: Realism, Liberalism, Marxism and Constructivism. However, in the last two decades there has been a dramatic change to this picture. A range of new approaches has developed to aid understanding of world politics. In the context of globalization, even Realism seems inadequate to explain issues like the rise of non-state actors, identity politics, transnational social movements and information technology. The new major development is not only underway in the academic discipline of social science but also in the philosophy of social science, in a movement known as Positivism. Thus many alternative ways of thinking about the social sciences have been proposed and since the picture of IR theory has changed a series of alternative approaches has emerged as more relevant to world politics in the twenty first century (Smith S, 2008).

Until the late 1980s, most social scientists in International Relations tended to be Positivists. But since then Positivism has been under attack. The assumptions made by Positivism met with dissent as criticism of the IR theories led by Positivism began to emerge (Smith S, 2008). This is the so-called “the third debate” (Ashley R., 1987; 1990; Walker R. B. J., 1993). It can also be called the Positivism and Post-Positivism debate (Lapid Y., 1989; Jim G., 1990; Smith S., 1995).. The dissent from Positivism prominently contains Feminism, Critical theory, Post-colonialism, Poststructuralism and Postmodernism. Their common idea is that they all see the world as something external to the IR theory (Smith S., 2008).Postmodernism is the term used by sociologists and others to describe a way of thinking that has become pervasive in the Western world in the last twenty-five years. It is an approach to reality that is having a significant effect on architecture, art, education, law, literature, psychotherapy, science, theatre, and the study of history and people’s view of religion (Exploring Christianity-Truth, n.d.). It reached IR theory in the mid-1980s, but can only be said to have really arrived in the past fifteen years (Smith S., 2008).The term “Postmodernism” first entered the philosophical lexicon in 1979, with the publication of The Postmodern Condition by Jean-François Lyotard (Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy, 2005). Other significant writers who have promoted Postmodernism are De Man, Elshtain, Geoffrey Hartman, Harold Bloom, Michel Foucault, J. Hillis Miller, Jacques Derrida, Habermas, Richard Rorty and Rob Walker. Postmodernists who have made important contributions to IR theory are Richard Ashley, James Der Derian, David Campbell and William Connolly. Its origins are found in the philosophies of Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx and Freud (Exploring Christianity-Truth, n.d.; Smith S., 2008).

As cited in Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy (2005), “That Postmodernism is indefinable is a truism. However, it can be described as a set of critical, strategic and rhetorical practices employing concepts such as difference, repetition, the trace, the simulacrum, and hyperreality to destabilize other concepts such as presence, identity, historical progress, epistemic certainty, and the univocity of meaning.” Until today there is no fit definition for the “Postmodernism” because it appears to be so open a theory that not even its advocates can agree upon how to define it (Geuras D., 2002). Some define Postmodernism as distrustful of all authority and dogmatism. Jean-François Lyotard defined it as incredulity towards metanarratives and essentialism (1984: xxiv).

The following paragraphs will discuss the significant contributions that Postmodernism brings to IR theory and use the methods that Postmodernists provide to deconstruct the Iraq war.

1. Power-Knowledge relationship and the non-existence of absolute truth

Postmodernists emphasized the power-knowledge relationship and criticized the notion dominant in rationalist theories and Positivism that knowledge is irrelevant to the working of power; they also opposed the existence of absolute truth.

From the rationalists’ and Positivists’ perspective, knowledge is not related to power and “truth” exists. However, Michel Foucault (1977, 1978, 1984, and 1994) totally disagreed with this idea and argued that power in fact produces knowledge. There is a well-known saying from Foucault that “All power requires knowledge and all knowledge relies on and reinforces existing power relations”. Thus, no truth exists outside power. To paraphrase Foucault’s idea, Smith (2008) provided another saying, “how can history have a truth if truth has a history?” Whilst Marxism, -Sandpoint feminism Critical theory and Freudian psychoanalysis all support the existence of some fundamental truth about the world, Postmodernism still quarrels with direct access to truth.

This aspect is stated most clearly by Stanley Grenz (1995) in a Primer on Postmodernism: ‘Postmodernism affirms that whatever we accept as truth and even the way we envision truth are dependent on the community in which we participate . . . There is no absolute truth: rather truth is relative to the community in which we participate’ (summarized in Dean G., 2002).

The Postmodernists use Foucault’s approach which is known as ‘genealogy’ to register and expose the significance of history in the light of this relationship between power and knowledge. Genealogy helps us to realize the process whereby the origins and regimes of truth edge out other discourse and are constructed into the so-called truth. Postmodernism focuses on how fragmental facts dominate others in very concrete ways (see, for example, Edwards P. 1996; Devetak R., 1996, pp.184-188). Postmodernists apply the genealogy approach to doubt the “unity” and “certainty” of national identity and explain how the existing appearance of unity and certainty is not natural but artificially constructed (Huang C. C., 2009: pp.138).

Richard Devetak (1996) has mentioned that “different configurations of power and knowledge give rise to different conceptions of sovereignty, statehood and intervention”. Postmodernists always focus on counter-histories, seldom portray the impossible-to-get-to “truth”, but emphasize the existence of multi-histories, not just the one grand-history (cited in Pölling-Vocke B., 2005b).

Take the ongoing war in Iraq for example; it could be an interesting field of study for Postmodernists to think about its shifting justifications. The US administration’s purpose in making war upon Iraq has shifted from Iraq’s disarmament to the spread of democracy. Public support from US citizens is essential throughout the ongoing war in the aftermath of 9/11 and “Operation Enduring Freedom” (Afghanistan and the Philippines), and it is reasonable to explain that the “power-knowledge relationship” contributes to the absence of outcry from US people. People have no means to access what they do not know about (Pölling-Vocke B., 2005b).

2. Divergent methodologies on analyzing text

In addition to elaborating the power-knowledge relationship, Postmodernists are also concerned with the “textual interplay behind power politics” (Pölling-Vocke B., 2005b; Derrida J., 1976). They believe that the world needs to be understood as a “text”, and all references to it are interpretative. Postmodernists claim that the best explanation for the text does not exist because the world is plural and explanations must be plural (Luo Li, 2009). All the interpretations of the world are meaningful and equal thus they use many ways to realize the world, and Postmodernists use techniques such as deconstruction and double reading in explaining the text (world) (Smith S., 2001: 240).

2.1 Deconstruction

Postmodernists suggest deconstruction as a method of showing how all discourses and theories depend on artificial stabilities produced by means of seemingly objective and natural oppositions as well as a way to help us realize that there is not only one but always more than one truth behind an event (Smith S., 2008).

A good summary of postmodern thinking is given by Os Guinness in Fit Bodies, Fat Minds:

‘Where modernism was a manifesto of human self-confidence and self-congratulation, Postmodernism is a confession of modesty, if not despair. There is no truth, only truths. There are no principles, only preferences. There is no grand reason, only reasons. There is no privileged civilization, only a multiple of cultures, beliefs, periods, and styles. There is no grand narrative of human progress, only countless stories of where people and their cultures are now. There is no simple reality or any grand objectivity of universal, detached knowledge, only a ceaseless representation of everything in terms of everything else. In sum, Postmodernism…is an extreme form of Relativism.’ (Cited in Exploring Christianity)

People always accept language or concepts constructed with the concept of binary opposition (such as black/ white, public/ private, right/ wrong, male/ female, homosexuality/ heterosexuality) as a matter of course. Constructivists make one of the binary privileged over the other by means of degrading the latter one. For example, in order to diminish “white”, Constructivists enhance the value of “black” (Luo Li, 2009). This concept is commonly used in contemporary political systems. When a dominant authority intends to intensify the reliability of a certain interpretation with respect to an event, it puts down the other possible but contrary interpretation.Jacques Derrida, a French Postmodern philosopher, originated the idea of deconstruction (Cky J. Carrigan, 1996). He himself found it difficult to explain the concept, and perhaps the clearest and most succinct definition comes from The Gale Cengage glossary:

‘A method of literary criticism…characterized by multiple conflicting interpretations of a given work. Deconstructionists consider the impact of the language of a work and suggest that the true meaning of the work is not necessarily the meaning that the author intended.’

Whilst the approach has been widely criticized and indeed ridiculed, for example by Anthony J. Fejfar (2006a, 2006b), it is an important tool in understanding what a text may be hiding. What Postmodernists try to do is to use deconstruction approaches to seek the truths behind an event that have been forgotten or deleted, and to explore the idea that a text is not a discrete whole but includes several irreconcilable and contradictory meanings; there is always more than one interpretation behind an event.

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Through the process of deconstruction, several explanations for the first occurrence of war in Iraq are revealed. From the standpoint of the Iraqi government, it was a matter of getting back their territory. For the elite members of an Iraq army group, it seemed a good opportunity for praiseworthy achievement. From an Iraqi general’s perspective, it was a good opportunity for promotion. On the other hand, the women of Baghdad who suffered and became homeless may have attributed the terrible war to their fate or to America or may have seen it as a punishment from Allah. English and Egyptian soldiers may have seen different truths behind the war. American Ex President G.H.W. Bush claimed that the purpose of the Gulf war was to prevent the emergence of a dictator like Hitler in Middle East area (Nicholson M., 1998; Yuen H.L., 2006).

The deconstruction approach can be used again to seek out more than one truth about the Second Gulf War in 2003. On 5th of February, 2003 United States Secretary of State, Colin Luther Powell proclaimed that the declaration of war was because of Iraq’s possession of Weapons of Mass Destruction. The American government claimed that they were going to destroy the connection between Saddam Hussein’s Government and Al Qaida terrorists. American Ex President George Bush claimed that the war was inevitable in order to turn Iraq into a democratic nation. Some scholars argued that America intended to plunder Iraq’s large oil reserves (Cited in Chui A.T., n.d.).

The American administration tends to exclude many other possible interpretations of an event by only presenting the most favorable one with the assistance of the media (Nicholson M., 1998; Yuen H.L., 2006). While G. Bush refers to “good and evil” and frames the world in such terms, techniques as used during the Cold war, Postmodernists argue that neither term is pure or complete, but only becomes so in contrast to the other (Pölling-Vocke B., 2005b). Behind any event there is always more than one truth, as with the Gulf War and the 9/11 terrorism attacks on the New York Trade Centre: the reason broadcast to the world by the American administration was not the only one. The American government tends to intensify the reliability of certain interpretations with respect to these two events, and puts down the other possible but contrary interpretation. There are still lots of truths behind these wars that have not been exposed; Postmodernists try to use deconstruction to excavate truths (Nicholson M., 1998; Yuen H.L., 2006).

2.2 Double Reading

Double reading is the other means used by Postmodernists to read a text more deeply and realize how there is always more than one reading. After the 1980’s, Postmodernists started to use this method to analyze aspects of world politics like “the anarchy problematique” of dominant IR theory (Ashley R., 1988) and to explain international events such as the Kosovo War, the Gulf War or Nazi issues.

Double reading and deconstruction are both methodologies used by Postmodernists to focus on texts and help us to realize that there is no absolute truth. These two ways of elaborating texts are both from Derrida. Derrida used this technique to show how these stabilizations operate by subjecting the text to two readings. The first time of the reading is only a repetition of the dominant concept and text and shows how it achieves its coherence (Smith S., 2008). The second time of reading is trying to read the text deeper and find the obvious contradictions from the first reading. All ideas in the text via the first reading seem natural stabilization; however, utilizing the second reading can help scholars to find some differences. From the double reading approach, people can realize that this way of reading the same text can reveal not only one seemingly natural idea but also can explore the other, contradictory ones.

Double reading is a useful, Postmodernist tool to illustrate the shortcomings of the dominant analytical languages. For example, the anarchy problematique- no existence of central government or hegemonic nation in the world- rests on a series of questionable, theoretical suppositions or exclusions, and sovereignty and anarchy are mutually exclusive concepts, which have to be deconstructed (Pölling-Vocke B. , 2005b). In International Relation Theory, Richard Ashley has performed exactly such a double reading of the concept of “anarchy”(on the state-level). He first provided the reading of anarchy based on traditional IR theories and then went through the second reading which showed that the seemingly natural opposition between anarchy and sovereignty in the first reading is in fact false opposition. Ashley showed that the truth of the traditional assumptions made about anarchy is arbitrary (Smith S., 2008).

While the dominating, orthodox analytical languages of the modernist project analyze the war in Iraq in neo-realistic terms, Postmodernism would use double readings to make visible the assumptions underlying such interpretations (Pölling-Vocke B., 2005b).

Double reading is a useful tool for analyzing the post-war-war (May 2003 onwards) and illustrating that the “reality” is not as it is perceived by mainstream media (Pölling-Vocke B., 2005a). Postmodernists would also focus on analyzing the different interpretations of current affairs in Iraq and other world affairs.


Post-Positivism movements including Critical theory, Feminism, Post-colonialism, Poststructuralism and Postmodernism (which are so-called alternative approaches of IR theory) emerged as a reaction to the methodology led by Positivists and rationalists. .

Some scholars have argued that Postmodernism does not have anything significant to contribute to the theorization of International Relations. Not only that, it also leads IR theory into “chaos”. However, the supporting evidence presented in this essay suggests that Postmodernism effectively provides many different ways of explaining and understanding systems of world politics.

Postmodernism can be described as a challenge to the prevailing modernity project. It focuses on counter-hegemonic-theories and explains how conclusions perceived as rational only work within certain parameters. Postmodernists criticize the statement proposed by Positivism and Rationalism that power and knowledge are irrelevant. They present the Power-Knowledge relationship to let us understand that power in fact produces knowledge and they also propose the idea that there is no existence of absolute truth.

From the Postmodernists’ perspective, there is always more than one truth existing in an event. Postmodernism also teaches us to employ techniques such as deconstruction and double reading to deconstruct texts and re-consider concepts that are seemingly natural and a matter of course.

With regard to the war in Iraq, Postmodernists prefer to portray a wide array of descriptions and explanations than providing just one as the “truth”. With the world understood as a text, it is important that the textual interplay behind power politics is clearly seen and that we realize that all the references to this text are interpretive. Politicians always provide a reason for the war in Iraq such as “It is about democracy and freedom” or “It is about the abundant oil”. Postmodernists do not believe in the existence of only one truth behind the war and try to utilize genealogy, deconstruction and double reading to deeply analyze the text and explore the multiplicity of reasons.

Although there are so many controversies surrounding the emergence and existence of Postmodernism, it is absolutely wrong and unfair to say that Postmodernism does not bring any significant contribution to our IR theory. During the past 20 years, Postmodernists have provided intelligent methodologies like double reading and deconstruction that may enable us to better analyze contemporary political issues. Obviously, Postmodernism plays an important role in the theorization of IR especially since economic structures, media, political and diplomatic systems have evolved into completely different forms from what they used to be, and they can no longer be easily analyzed by traditional IR theories.


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