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International Relations and the Challenge of Postmodernism: Defending the Discipline.

International Relations and the Challenge of Postmodernism: Defending the Discipline. By D. S. L. Jarvis, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000. 288p. $34.95.

Over the past twenty years, the so-called third debate, or the constructivist turn in international relations theory, has elicited a great deal of attention. Various critical theories and epistemologies--sociological approaches, postmodernism, constructivism, neo-Marxism, feminist approaches, and cultural theories--seem to dominate the leading international relations journals. Postmodernism (also called critical theory), perhaps the most radical wave of the third debate, uses literary theory to challenge the notion of an "objective" reality in world politics, reject the notion of legitimate social science, and seek to overturn the so-called dominant discourses in the field in favor of a new politics that will give voice to previously marginalized groups.

D. S. L. Jarvis's book is a wake-up call to international relations scholars who have become increasingly preoccupied with meta-theory and epistemology to the detriment of explaining "real world" phenomena, such as the causes of war and the conditions for peace. Jarvis offers a lucid and highly critical appraisal of the rise and fall of postmodernism in the study of world politics. For Richard K. Ashley and Robert Walker, the postmodernist challenge signals "a crisis of confidence, a loss of faith, a degeneration of reigning paradigms, an organic crisis in which, as Gramscians would say, `the old is dying and the new cannot yet be born'" (Richard K. Ashley and R. B. J. Walker, "Speaking the Language of Exile: Dissident Thought in International Studies," International Studies Quarterly 34 [September 1990]: 259-68). Jarvis persuasively argues that news of the discipline's demise and the ascendancy of postmodernism are greatly exaggerated.

Jarvis begins by tracing the history of international relations as a field of inquiry distinct from philosophy, international law, and history. "Rather than strong foundations and the building of a robust stock of theoretical knowledge, international theory looks to be cracking at the edges, its foundations crumbling amid the onslaught of perspectivism and epistemological debate" (p. 43). He then traces the evolution of postmodern theories and their importation to international relations in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Next, through a close examination of the writings of Ashley and Christine Sylvester, Jarvis traces the effect of "subversive and deconstructive" postmodernism on the field. In doing so, he is unsparing in his criticism of the extreme relativism (and in many cases nihilism), excessive jargon, polemical argumentation, repudiation of basic social science canons, lack of empirical evidence, and tortured prose that have come to characterize the so-called postmodern school. Finally, he concludes with an appeal to the continued utility of positivist research programs.

It is important to note the scope and limitations of the analysis. Jarvis does not launch a broad assault on the rise of constructivism and critical theories in international relations in general. For example, he does not take issue with the so-called conventional constructivism of John Gerard Ruggie, Alexander Wendt, Ted Hopf, and David Dessler. These scholars argue that discursive practice can fundamentally change states' foreign policies but seek a middle ground between the mainstream research traditions in international relations (realism, liberalism, and Marxism) and critical theory. This, however, is the portion of constructivism that has had the more lasting influence on the discipline. As Hopf notes, "to reach an intellectually satisfying point of closure, constructivism adopts positivist conventions" and, by doing so, can challenge realist, liberal, and Marxist theories of international politics (Ted Hopf, "The Promise of Constructivism in International Security," International Security 23 [Spring 1998]: 171-200).

Jarvis focuses on what he terms "subversive-deconstructive postmodernism," a body of scholarship that "displays a thematic concern with negation and resistance to modernist practices and discourses, primarily via a deconstructive-textual analysis of logocentric practices, modernist knowledge systems and language" (p. 66). Drawing upon the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida, as well as the deconstructive literary theory of Frederic Jameson, postmodernists repudiate and seek to undermine the entire intellectual tradition of the Enlightenment. Instead, all knowledge is located in the fact of textual analysis and situated in the subjectivity of each individual.

Jarvis presents a detailed critique of Ashley, who in the 1980s both brought constructivist accounts of the state, political power, and the practice of realpolitik into international relations and raised questions about construction of knowledge, meaning, and truth. "Never before have international theorists been so assaulted by excursions into meta-theory, especially when the depth of this excursion questions not only the ontological but also the epistemological and `axiological foundations of their scientific endeavors'" (p. 90). Jarvis divides Ashley's work into two parts. In the "heroic" phase (the late 1970s to early 1980s), Ashley sought to highlight many of the epistemological and ontological premises upon which neorealist theory rests. In his seminal essay, "The Poverty of Neorealism," Ashley criticized the theory for its undeveloped treatment of the state and showed how Hans Morgenthau's classical realism and Kenneth Waltz's neorealist balance-of-power theory rested upon normative assumptions (Richard K. Ashley, "The Poverty of Neorealism," International Organization 38 [Spring 1984]: 225-86). Jarvis notes that this stage of Ashley's research had a profound and positive effect on both the emergence of constructivism and the subsequent refinement of realism.

Jarvis is sharply critical of the second, or poststructuralist, phase of Ashley's work, which draws upon postmodernism to overthrow the dominant epistemology in international relations. By doing so, Ashley eliminates the "real world" problems of war, violence, poverty, and bigotry. Jarvis rightly asks: "Is Ashley really suggesting that some of the greatest threats facing humankind or some of the greatest moments of history rest on such innocuous and largely unknown nonrealities like positivism and realism" (p. 128)?

The main strength of this book lies in the author's efforts to assess the effect of postmodernism on the study of world politics against the standards set by Ashley, its foremost proponent. Paradoxically, this also is the book's main weakness. Postmodernism has not transformed the study of international relations, let alone the practice of statecraft, for two simple reasons. First, most international relations scholars are unwilling to wade through the postmodernists' abstruse prose to uncover the substance of their arguments. Instead of engaging Ashley, Walker, and others, most scholars (even their fellow constructivists) are quite content to ignore them. Second, by waging war on positivism, rationality, and realism, postmodernist scholars have marginalized themselves. As Jarvis himself acknowledges, "these are imagined and fictitious enemies, theoretical fabrications that represent arcane self-serving debates superfluous to the lives of most people and, arguably, to most issues of importance in international relations" (p. 128).

Jeffrey W. Taliaferro, Tufts University
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Taliaferro, Jeffrey W.
Publication:American Political Science Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
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