"International Relations in Uncommon Places" by J. Marshall Beier (Maria)
J. Marshall Beier, International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology, and the Limits of International Theory (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, forthcoming 2005). – presented by Maria B. Stoianova
In his book, International Relations in Uncommon Places: Indigeneity, Cosmology, and the Limits of International Relations, J. Marshall Beier exposes the ways in which International Relations (IR) has internalized many of the enabling narratives of colonialism in the Americas, evinced most tellingly in its failure to take notice of Indigenous people (Lakotas in his case). Beier identifies the master discourse guiding the discipline of IR as the “hegemonologue: a knowing Western voice which, owing to its universalist pretensions, speaks its knowledges to the exclusion of all others” (3). The hegemonologue works by effecting violent erasures on all knowledge that does not fit within the dominant discourse of the discipline. Thus, indigenous people’s self-knowledges are ignored or, if addressed, they are subsumed under the general heading of a master narrative informed by colonial modes of understanding.
The colonial practices that have guided our understanding of post-colonial subjects are mimicked, in academia, by a similar system of “advanced colonialism” that perpetuates “the reproduction and reinstitution of hegemonic cosmological commitments” that are, by extension, “complicit in the denial of Lakota cosmology as well” (4). Beier’s work contributes to the resistance against the violences of advanced colonialism by pointing to the necessity of an “ethics of responsibility,” that is, an ethics that understands our responsibility to the Other as “the founding condition for our own subjectivity, itself possible only as an outcome of a relationship with the Other” (37-8). Postcolonial theory, for Beier, gives political meaning to an ethics of responsibility by engaging unequal relationships between people and by critically interrogating the cultural outcomes of those relationships (41). Postcolonial theory destabilizes the “hegemonologue.”
Beier recognizes his own position within academia as a privileged one, that is, he is always immediately implied in sustaining and perpetuating the violences inherent in teaching, writing, researching, and publishing. His recognition of his complicity with the colonial project’s practices of oppression does not, as is often the case with academic writing, stop short of moving beyond self-criticism. He manages to salvage his academic endeavor, though he is highly critical of conventional IR and its methodologies, and extend it beyond the boundaries of the discipline and into the cosmology of the indigenous people themselves, that is, the Lakotas. Conversation is his preferred way of engagement because simply representing Others leads to a situation where “voices speaking from the margins become audible only when they mimic those of the centre – when they retain too much that is ‘foreign’ or arcane to the Western ear they are typically reduced to artifacts of the exotic, charming perhaps bur hardly authoritative” (46). Through conversation, Beier hopes to find a dwelling place for the security of the “self” that does not automatically suppose the insecurity of the “other.”
Beier juxtaposes learning to understanding, the former being a passively acquired and communicated knowledge, academic terms presupposing certain modes of knowledge acquisition. The former, on the other hand, is an interchange, an exchange and itself always a subject to change, it defies its own authority to speak as “ours can never be a substitute for the voice of the Other” (48). Relying heavily in Derriderian deconstructionist strategies of critique, he reviews some of the objections raised against poststructuralism and in the end, though with some reservations, he argues that post-colonial theory, infused through an ethics of responsibility, furnishes the needed corrective. The unreflective reproduction of authoritative voices within the discipline, Beier argues, has left students and scholars of International Relations ill-equipped to the kind of field and ethnographic research that “refuses the pretension to appropriate the voice of the Other, working instead toward its audibility alongside our own” (10).
Beier’s work is a cautionary tale of the dangers inherent in the academic tendency to speak from the position of a knowing subject by referring to the findings of participant observation in ways that serve only to advance the authority of a master narrative within Western discursive spaces. More specifically, he examines the ways in which popular culture (re)presentations of Indigenous North Americans impart knowledges which, rendering them as spectacle, contribute to their consummate objectification, essentialization and commodification. He exposes such practices for being inherently violent in that they promote the confinement of Indigenous people(s) to a limited range of temporal and spatial contexts of popular imaginary (11). The voice of the hegemonologue is found to be active through popular culture and orthodox social theory alike in ways that render traditional Lakota lifestyles as implausible.
Interestingly, Beier suggests that even the terms of engagement are suggested from the relatively privileged position of critical theory, that is, critical approaches are also in need of deconstruction as far as they tend to substitute one master narrative with another, reverse categories of opposition without always problematizing the legitimacy the concept of the category as such, and deny “subjectivity” altogether in somewhat of a nihilistic manner (Irrigaray 1985, Sokal 1996, Hartsock 1987, Krishna 1993). Following Derrideian deconstruction, Beier maintains that, in the end, “all knowledge is violent” and that only by deconstructing binary oppositions can this violence be interrupted. The binaries that command our understanding of the world enable definitions of rational, masculine, civilized, orderly Self in opposition to emotive, feminine, savage and chaotic Other. The ways in which these binary categories map onto each other lead to the creation and justification of unitary categories of belonging that normalize opposition and alterity. Again, he calls for an “ethics of engagement.” An alternative approach to understanding difference would be to approach it with the understanding that “every text is inherently intertextual, bound up in a complex web of referential and deferred meaning. . . If texts are not hermetic, nor is international theory” (24). Thus, categories of belonging are exposed for their arbitrariness, for their historical insensitivity and for their artificially-hierarchical camps.
The discourse from within which we operate and from within which we understand others is the same discourse, the same territorial space that imprisons us within its epistemological and ontological commitments. In the end, all theory is violent and we would do well to dispel the “damaging and self-defeating assumption that theory is necessarily the elite language of the socially and culturally privileged” (283) and move beyond the usual predisposition of emancipatory discourses in favor of empowerment. As Beier puts it, “the task ahead is to work for polyphony” and not egocentrism (284).