What Makes the World Go Round?

In my last blog post, I wrote about how the discipline of International Relations would always, oh-so-frustratingly, lack any sort of consensus (in terms of epistemology, ontology, theory, etc.), and I absolutely stand by that… with one exception. I think that, demonstrably, the one thing that will forever unite accounts of IR is an emphasis — no, obsession — with power. No matter what account you’re dealing with, what lies right beneath the surface is the power of whatever the discipline happens to hold as its central category of analysis. And this stays true with any account that you take. Marxism deals with the power of class, or the lack of power that comes about via class oppression. Feminism deals with the power of gender, and its influence on the way that people of different genders exercise power within society. Post-structuralism deals with the power of language, and Critical Theory deals with the power of theory itself. In other words, what, for you, makes the world go ‘round?

Why is that important to recognize? Or is that even a valuable observation to make at all? I’ve been thinking, all throughout the term, about how it might be possible to reconcile these disciplines that are so fundamentally incompatible. The closest thing resembling a solution that I have been able to come up with is defining them in terms of power, and then moving forward from there. Epistemology and ontology are two things that theorists are not going to agree on. But maybe if accounts can be boiled down at the very least to the central tenets of their analysis, some more meaningful dialogue can take place. In his International Institutions: Two Approaches, Robert Keohane says “we must understand that we can aspire only to formulate conditional, context-specific generalizations rather than to discover universal laws, and that our understanding of world politics will always be incomplete.” If this is true, then it will only be in starting to utilize the same lexicon (power) that any progress will be made. And at the end of the day, shouldn’t that be the goal?

Pay More Attention to Rousseau

One of the defining features of the discipline of International Relations, I think, is the inevitability of the lack of consensus. And initially, I found that somewhat disheartening. To be clear, I still do… but I’ve found ways to repress it.

It’s pretty clear to me that the reason for this lies in the fundamental disagreement about epistemology that has become a large focus in the so-called “fourth debate.” Generally, in areas of science, consistent epistemology is not a problem. Repeated observations of the same phenomena lead to empirical data that then forms the basis of inductive theories. Here, ‘theory’ is defined as something along the lines of “a system of propositions that serve to explain independent underlying principles.” In IR, ‘theorists’ do the same thing, but their version is much more in fitting with the definition “an idea used to account for a situation, or justify a course of action.” Technically, this difference is nothing more than semantics, but any good post-structuralist would tell you that it is an important one to make. Human behaviour can be reduced and quantified, and we can analyze the actions of states in retrospect ‘till the cows come home. But each approach of IR states that their conceptions of actor ontology and epistemological systems are superior, and none have ever produced any “nail in the coffin” evidence to prove themselves correct.

Personally, I think that Constructivism offers the most compelling account of International Relations on the whole. I think that rational actor models are demonstrably narrow-minded and insufficient, and the premise that (state) actors act only in utility-maximizing, self-serving capacities is unreasonably pessimistic. And maybe that’s entirely due to my perspective, in fact it’s very probable. But through all of the international crises that we see in South Asia, the Middle East, Central Africa… what I still see is that there are humanitarian groups on the ground whenever possible, new aid missions are underway every day, and International Organizations are built exclusively for the purpose of helping those who need it. International Relations is not a zero-sum game because life is not a zero-sum game.

We’re all familiar with Hobbes… Waltz and Morgenthau can quote him all day long (and they do) in support of their realist approaches. But I could just as easily, with just as much authority, quote Rousseau in saying that our only instinct equal to our own self-preservation is our aversion to seeing another man in pain. Furthermore, Constructivism (unlike all other rationalist approaches) includes room for normative judgements via what is called the “logic of appropriateness” as opposed to the traditional “logic of consequences.” Humanity is prescriptive. Humanity is normative. I don’t see why our IR shouldn’t reflect that. It isn’t called International Relations for nothing.

Lyrical Ballads & Romanticism

Wordsworth and Coleridge – Some thoughts, and a few notes

Alternate title: I just really love Rousseau

This is not the first time that I’ve read Lyrical Ballads, but perhaps the first time that I’ve been able to read it critically. All I can remember about the last time reading it was feeling exactly how Wordsworth and Coleridge wanted me to feel – connected to nature, and free as an individual. Well, maybe that’s pushing it a little bit, but I think that inevitably everyone who reads Lyrical Ballads is overwhelmingly struck by their humble use of humble language, and their profound respect for nature.

The Romantic movement (if it was, indeed, a movement at all), can be attributed in part to the influence of authors such as Rousseau, who stressed the importance of the return to thinking of ourselves as part of nature (some of my colleagues might be aware of the fact that I have a particular soft spot for anything concerning Rousseau). Many disparate elements permeate the poems, including the supernatural (such as in “The Rime of The Ancient Mariner”), and death (such as in “We Are Seven” and “Lucy Gray”), however I still feel an overwhelming sense of connectedness to nature, and to the poems themselves. Certainly, the deliberate use of vocabulary that was relatively commonplace, while at the same time thoughtful and deliberate, did a great deal to influence that. However what is also obvious is that all of the poems deal with the individual, and the impact that an individual can have. These are not poems of grandeur, nor of ecclesiastical significance, but rather poems that the average person is supposed to be able to relate to, linguistically and emotionally.

It is perhaps for this reason that I find myself so profoundly fond of Wordsworth and Coleridge (although to use them as the only two spokespeople of the Romantic ‘movement’, and to dismiss authors such as Byron and Shelley, would be, I think, blasphemous). Especially when I compare these writers to authors of prose such as Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, I find that I am almost able to have more respect for the ones who are not trying to use fancy vocabulary and hyperbolic rhetoric for the sole purpose of calling it ‘heightened poetry’, or something along those lines. Reading Lyrical Ballads again has done nothing if not reinforced my appreciation for the poets of the Romantic ‘movement’, and of all of those who influenced it (talking to you, Rousseau…

[The following are notes that I had from the last time I read Lyrical Ballads and studied the words of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which was sometime within the space of a year ago. As far as I can remember, these are actually my notes, and I tried searching for them on the internet and in my textbook but didn’t get anywhere. So I think I came up with them all on my own, but just in case, I won’t quite take credit for their insight. I thought that they might be helpful to share anyways though, so voilà.]

  • William Wordsworth was a young man from the Lake district, educated at Cambridge.  he lived in France when the French Revolution was happening and was happy for a while then became disillusioned
  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in Devonshire, attended school in London when he was ten, and went to Cambridge, but dropped out because he thought the university confining and uninteresting
  • when they met in 1795, their dark and disillusioned lives became brighter, and Coleridge, who had been reading some Wordsworth poems when he was in college, labelled him “the best poet of the age”
  • Lyrical Ballads was published in 1798, and a second edition was published in 1800 with an extensive preface (written by Wordsworth, but planned with Coleridge)
  • Romanticism is best described as ideals that embrace opposite things.  Coleridge says that the power of poetic imagination “reveals itself in the balance or reconciliation of opposite or discordant qualities”
  • the poems in the lyrical ballads are fit “to metrical arrangement a selection of the real language of men in a state of vivid sensation.”  Romantic poets use the common language of people, but they pick words carefully to carry lots of emotion.  this is in contrast to the 18th century poets, who used a “poetic” language which was artificial
  • “Humble and rustic life was generally chosen because in that condition the essential passions of the heart find a better soil in which they can attain their maturity, are less under restraint, and speak a plainer and more emphatic language” says Coleridge
    • Rime of the Ancient Mariner breaks away from this, but Coleridge justifies it by saying that the Rime still dealt with the supernatural and romantic (romantic as in describing knights rescuing dames, not the tenets), and requires the suspension of disbelief on part of the reader (imagination)
  • the natural/commonplace and the supernatural poems are put together in Lyrical Ballads.  they both invoke strong subjective emotion, and write about nature as it affects people
  • the poet’s personal life and emotion show through the Romantic poems, but poetry should not be written when the poet is experiencing the raw emotion – it must be written after pondering (primary and secondary imagination)
  • a poet is distinguished by everyone else not “in kind from other men, but only in degree”.  poets are gifted with powers of observation and verbalization, but that doesn’t make them superior to everyone else as a human
  • romanticism is often defined in contrast with the preceeding ideas of 18th century, of Swift, Johnson, and Pope, who stressed reason and sweeping generalizations as being the most important.  Romantic writers (wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats, Byron, Shelley) emphasized the personal experience and the subjective experience more important than reason.
    • romantic writers strove for freedom while the 18th century people wanted rules
    • took inspiration from the medieval rather than ancient greek and roman authors
    • individualism


Plato’s Republic, Book IV

Book IV of Plato’s republic discusses specifically the city ‘Kallipolis’. Adeimantus begins by arguing that the ruler of the city will be unhappy, given that they are not afforded certain luxuries, such as being allowed to own property, amass any private wealth, or have a mistress. Socrates however responds to this overall argument by saying that the goal of the city is not to make any single person happy, but rather the city happy as a whole, and inso doing, making the individuals happy anyways. Socrates also argues against the use of money in a society, instead suggesting that the the rulers should insure that no one exists at any extreme end of the spectrum, because wealth inspires laziness, and poverty inspires rebellion. Adeimantus argues that this city would not be able to protect itself from outside danger and influence without money, however as usual, Socrates has an answer to that as well. [I find that Socrates spends all of his time refuting arguments, and very little time providing in-depth solutions, if any at all…]

The discussion then turns to the virtues of the city. These virtues are meant to achieve/reflect justice, and are parallel with the sense of justice within the individual, in the form of reason, spirit, and appetite. In the context of the city, they are represented by specific peoples. Wisdom is the virtue exemplified by the ruler(s), as their intricate knowledge of how the city should be run should theoretically always make for a better city. [This is also where the argument against everyone having a say comes into play] Courage is the virtue exemplified by the auxiliaries, and it is a virtue of the city because they are supposed to have the best possible outcome for the city as their sole goal. Moderation is the virtue that is represented by the producers, as a just society takes into account the good of the city above all else.

The idea of moderation is perhaps most important. Balanced and harmonious individuals are what the Kallipolis are attempting to create in the first place.

The Odyssey

In reading The Odyssey, I admittedly did not spend as much time as I probably should have analyzing the themes, noting the recurring motifs, and keeping track of the symbols for later review. I often found myself so utterly enthralled by the narrative that I lost track of time, and I (regretfully) only took about three days to read through the entire thing. I guess, in a way, that seems to be a bizarre echoing of the timelessness of the work itself.

[I must preface my next comment by saying that I unfortunately I was not able to get a hold of the recommended edition of the text (instead I used one translated by Martin Hammond), and therefore I am only hoping that this holds true.] One thing that struck me in my reading of the Odyssey (this being the first time), just like in my reading of Genesis (also, for the first time), was its abiding quality, purely as a work of literature. The language in the Odyssey is vividly descriptive, which is perhaps one of the reasons that it has been enjoyed so faithfully over the last two millennia. I echo Bonney’s blog post on the Odyssey, in which she stated that her understanding of the text might have been different had she heard it performed orally, and wish only that there was some way of experiencing that for myself.

I was familiar with some of the stories of the Odyssey, as many of Odysseus’ individual exploits are main story lines in the literature which I read as a younger reader (namely, the works by Rick Riordan often incorporate stories such as that of the lotus flower that makes one forget one’s home, the controlling witch, Circe, and the Sirens). I did, however, thoroughly enjoy hearing our guest lecturer, Dr. Marshall, an expert on the subject, provide his insights. What I gained from the lecture, that I had not at all garnered when reading the text myself, included, among others, the importance of the theme of ‘xenos’ in Greek culture, and how much that was not just a part of the Odyssey.

If I were to ever read the Odyssey again (which, given the passion of Dr. Marshall, I now feel compelled to do), I hope to read it with more of an attentive mind on the themes, motifs, and symbols, which I might have missed the first time. It would seem to me that the unfathomable efforts of the hero, Odysseus, deserve at least that much.


Reflection is a task that I find to be simultaneously both intensely invigorating, and acutely enervating, and it is a task whose importance I often seem to under-value until having completed it. This is my first attempt at completing this task this year, so please bear with me…

For as long as I can remember, writing has been a medium through which I have felt comfortable expressing myself. In my opinion, there is no single tool more powerful. I find that the opportunity to think through every choice of vocabulary, construct every sentence, and build every paragraph allows a ubiquitous control that is completely unique to writing. J.R.R. Tolkein, Louis Sachar, and Daniel Handler are all among those who have influenced my writing style the most, although I say this with the utmost humility for the superiority of their artistic and literary talent. A few of my own works of which I am most proud include my faithful adaptation of “The Hobbit” into a five-and-a-half-hour play (of which my seventh grade class performed the first hour, or so), and my Alexander Pope-esque mock epic that enraptured all of my waking hours for a period of about five months (I’ll be uploading it as soon as I figure out how to do so).

Perhaps the most easily-identifiably reason for my enthusiasm in Arts One is my love of reading (I’m gonna go out on a limb here, and assume that this is relatively common among people in Arts One). When other children were playing their gameboys, tamagotchi’s, or whatever happened to be the fad at the time, I was begging my mother for the next Hardy Boys’ adventure, the latest novel by Cornelia Funke, or of course, the new Harry Potter book. One of my earliest memories is the moment of profound epiphany that I experienced when I realized that ‘erised’ is simply the word ‘desire’ spelled backwards…

In my short 16 years, I have lived in ‘the Golden State’ of California, the ‘Salmon Capital of the World’, Campbell River, ‘The Harbour City’, Sydney, Australia, and Prince George, BC. Were it not for the Arts One program, I would definitely have accepted the offer of another university and lived elsewhere instead, but I felt like this was an opportunity that I simply could not let slip away, lest I forever regret it. I hope that through the reading and discussion of the texts, I can gain a broader understanding of many different perspectives on the world, while at the same time concretizing opinions and perspectives of my own. I genuinely look forward to doing this with all of you in the coming eight months.

Thank you for bearing with me,

Ryan Miller