IR is a discipline that operates with extremely constricted notions when it comes to determining what politics is or where politics takes place. It’s largely relegated to the formal institutional environments which constitute the governments and relationships among significant actors, such as corporations, NGOs, and more. However, the dysfunctions or disagreements within the sphere then sometimes spill over. In addition, within this particular configuration, culture is considered a variable to which one can turn when other forms of explanations fail.
Simultaneously, culture is deemed as a site of suspicion. IR treats culture as a black box of primitivism, irrationalism, and mystification, which is drawn to its political utility as a means of marking a difference. Just like Homer J. Simpson, the great existential philosopher, said, “Culture is the solution as well as the source of all problems of the IR.”
However, culture’s relegation within IR is rather a curious, yet fatal, oversight. On the one hand, IR sets itself as a discipline that focuses on understanding power and its impact on a global scale. Yet this two-dimensional instrumentalist view about power doesn’t account for the ways power works through alienation, discipline, normalization, control, affect, representation, mythologization, production, performativity, and the processes of constructing the political imaginations central to global politics.
Let’s proceed with this argument by refusing to artificially impose boundaries between culture and politics, sensation and power, texts and identities, or practices of order and artifacts. And popular culture is one of the most important sites for circulation, contestation, and production of relations of power. Here are a few issues that need to be flagged with respect to the study of rising pop culture within the IR discipline.
As this area is gaining gradual popularity, we can see various replications of readings pertaining to cultural artifacts to reinforce quite an orthodox vision of what politics and IR might be. Jacques Ranciere believes that we often get accounts of policing regarding ways of perceiving people or things from within the set parameters of the status quo rather than the political. While these allegories might certainly be valuable or at least entertaining when used for pedagogical purposes, they’re simply not sufficient. Further, it’s critical to understand how the artifacts or sites of pop culture might reproduce the exiting representations, affects, and understandings to aid in the maintenance of different forms of hegemony while examining ways in which they provide alternatives, ask different questions, or critique where politics is located, what it does, or what it is. To put it simply, what do the popular culture artifacts present as being common, natural, and deviant? What do they allow or enable us to feel, sense, and articulate, and in what ways do they engage us?
There’s also a tendency in recent research work to treat pop culture as being constituted by film or TV series. Stuart Hall argues that culture is rather a set of practices, a process that’s concerned with the production as well as the exchange of meanings—“the give and take of meaning”—among members of a group or the society. According to him, the culture then depends on the participants interpreting what’s around them meaningfully and then “making sense” of the world around them in broadly similar ways. This implies that we must be reflexive and upfront about our own interpretative practices and also what shapes them. But too often, work related to the rise of pop culture in IR is premised on the Ersatz version of New Criticism, with texts meaning what they mean without any socio-historical consideration or its audience, producer, and context of reception.
If it’s the pop culture that makes world politics what it is today, it’s important then to be prepared to question the various assumptions that might underpin our understandings of both disciplines when we seek to analyze what’s at stake when one gets rendered in terms of the other.
Interested in learning more about popular culture in the context of IR? Head on to Ted Hopf’s official website to navigate incredibly informative blogs, articles, research papers, and books edited that were co-authored and co-edited by the professor cum researcher himself.