castling while (the others) were playing dominoes

Today was a momentous occasion for PTSD. For the first time in nearly 1/4 of a year, the two of us met up in real life and went off on a school trip. We went to another uni to attend a talk.

Just like a school trip, it had its moments of fun and laughter--times when we almost bonded with people from other unis, times when we tripped happily across pavements and roads in pairs of two (all bundled up against the cold), times when we sat around a round table and formed little groups which played chess and dominoes simultaneously and times when we felt like just jumping up and down screaming (and, yet, admirably, managed to restrain ourselves--or mostly did) or wishing we had one of those air gun pellets with which obnoxious beings are being pelleted in P.G. Wodehouse novels. Just like school trips from our (well, my) childhood, we managed to lose the transport home and had to walk around for quite a while, trying to find our vehicle. Elizabeth will write (with more humour than I am able to muster up right now, probably) about some of the stuff. Here's my rant. And, Oh yes, it is a rant.

So, what was worth ranting about? Let's start with the easy stuff first: Discourse analysis. Okay, I know that we do International Relations. Yes, I get it that there are long-ranging and bloody paradigm wars being fought. Or, have been fought. But, it's not like discourse analysis is anything new. Really, it's not. People have done it before, they will do so again and are doing it now. People have done it in fields where "sensitive issues" such as racism, police brutality and domestic violence and in the natural sciences. A concern with language is a fairly common concern--after all (and I make my kids get to this so it's not like you lot don't know it), all data is discursive. Where do those nice little numbers that statisticians work with come from, do you reckon?

But, if you're doing discourse analysis, if you're taking the view that "language produces truth", then please take it seriously. Do a good job. There are rules to DA, you know. You can't do a shoddy job--count how many times something's said, figure out how pronouns replace nouns--and then say you've done DA. Just looking at language and figuring out certain terms were used loads of times does not make it correspond to the truth. If you're claiming (and this is a big claim) that truth is constructed through speech,* then play the discourse analysis game. Play it properly. I'd say look at how something is used, rather than what its definition is. Definitions don't much matter--how a particular definition is used is what's interesting. Oh, that's also why DA's useful--it helps you get at how a particular meaning and outcome came about.

This gets to my other issue: saying something like "the word globalisation is an empty signifier" or "globalisation is problematic because it has a vague meaning" is also pretty useless. As is "now we know that people X, Y and Z actually thought such and such about the global war on terror". Well, duh. Of course, words like "terrorism", "globalisation", and such are "vague". Most likely, there will be information about events and policies that change our views of those, at a much later time.** That's the point. If terms already had specific meaning, spread across all sorts of peoples and contexts, then we wouldn't need to do research, would we? eh? We'd already know that meanings, we'd go about using it, we'd all be quite happy little IR folks. The fun stuff's figuring out how does one meaning (and not others) get used? How do meanings change through time? Talk about this.

Another thing here: Discourse analysis is not something where you can separate out the context (the occassions where the term "globalisation" or "terrorist" is used) from the actors (who uses them). This means it's a good idea to clearly lay out your context. Also, pick a level of analysis and then stick to it. If the concern is to trace out how "global war on terror" has been used by the US government, then write who counts as the "US government", what sources you will be using and go on from there. If you are more interested in the "general use" of "GWOT", then define "general" and go on from there. Just because you are "looking at language", doesn't mean anything goes.

Oh, remember too that DA is about public use of language. Intentions in people's heads (or, what did Condi and Rummy really think about the GWOT compared to what Powell thought) are quite boring. Fact construction (and what could be more that than "truth") is a social process. It's embedded in social relations. Looking inside (individual) people's heads isn't going to do much good. But, it could be fun. Poking around in brains is good fun (or so I hear).

I could go on but I won't (for now). I have a related post on being female and doing what we do (academic whatnot) while not having the "proper" set of social skills lined up but yous will have to wait for that. Yous will also have to wait for my (astute observation, even if I do say so myself) view about how everything eventually got turned into a discussion about (US) politics. The name-dropping (and the course number-dropping) was more entertaining than not though it does make me wonder how those of us who a) didn't go to university here (and hence have no names or course numbers to "drop") and b) already drank the "relational Kool-aid" but are disinterested if other people want to or not*** will ever be heard from (of!).

For now, let me end by writing that it's good fun to play chess while the others are playing dominoes but it probably doesn't do much for a future in academia. It's too bad I'm not the one who's a lawyer.

* Thomas Hobbes said this, by the way. Again, not exactly a new notion.

** How do I get to this bit about never having "all the information" in my IR research class? Well, I talk about (and show them) the Zidane-Materazzi "interaction" (headbutt) during last year's World Cup final. I use it to talk about how we usually work with what we have--for quite a while after the event, neither player was admitting what was actually said. That didn't matter for how the incident was used--terrorism, immigrant rights, French multiculturalism, teamwork, family, Algerian versions of "honour", and gender.

In my class, I end with talking about Zidane's interview (in which he finally talked about what was said between him and Materazzi). But, by then, the incident had already been made sense of (and used) in different ways. It really didn't matter what was actually said on the pitch.

*** As long as they play their particular game well. I mean, think about football. For me, it's the "world" version--round ball, eleven players, Liverpool. For E, it's OSU and "Buckeyes". We still manage to talk to each othe, even though we may think the other's game is not very useful.


At 1/26/2007 6:18 PM, Blogger Genealogy Spice said...

I could wax poetic but all it really boils down to is "amen sister P"!

I'll add something to the missive: DA is also not what you specify as a "methodology" (when you mean method) when you run out of things to think of and figure anything goes with this approach. Like you said P, there are rules to the game.

Waiting for the aforementioned female academics post :-).


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