You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 5: A Professor's Guide to the Galaxy

A Professor's Guide to the Galaxy

From hyperdrives to the Vulcan salute, science fiction and fantasy have provided the abundance of worlds and characters that comprise our pop culture. But can these genres inform or reflect our thinking about international relations?

In this episode, Professor Jackson joins us to discuss the ways that pop culture intersects with international relations, including how Star Trek reflected the discussion on Vietnam in the ‘60s (05:36) and how the Star Wars universe takes place in a morally ordered reality (08:45).

Learn how Battlestar Galactica sparked conversations on terrorism (15:29) and how Ursula Le Guin’s books encourage readers to reflect on society and themselves (18:36). Also, consider the kinds of topics that future science fiction writers might need to grapple with based on today’s world (21:12).

We ask Jackson about the ways he would change the study of international affairs in our “Take Five” segment (11:00), and we learn why it’s important for international affairs scholars to read and take part in conversations in other languages.

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World, where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Today, we're talking about pop culture and international relations. I'm Kay Summers and I'm joined by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson. Patrick is a professor in the School of International Service. He teaches— he researches international relations (or IR theory), the role of rhetoric in public life, and most critical to our conversation today, pop culture and IR. I also know from working with Patrick, that he places a tremendous value on teaching and learning. He's one of the founders of the international relations blog Duck of Minerva, and really importantly for today- he's a sci-fi geek.

0:46      KS: Patrick, thanks for joining Big World.

0:48      Patrick Thaddeus Jackson: Thanks. It's gonna be fun.

0:50      KS: I want to spend a couple of minutes establishing your bona fides in this fan space. This is very important... this is so important. It's the most important thing we're gonna do.

0:58      KS: First, have you ever dressed in garb in public?

1:01      PTJ: Yes, and not just on Halloween.

1:05      KS: Okay.

1:05      PTJ: So.

1:07      KS: Also important, right? Have you ever attended a fan convention or a Comic-Con?

1:11      PTJ: Several.

1:12      KS: Several? Can you put a number on it? I'm guessing it's more than 10. What is the most impressive toy or action figure you own?

1:22      PTJ: Oh my goodness. The most impressive... I have a number of really, really, cheesy Jar Jar things. Just because Jar Jar's such an interesting character.

1:36      KS: He's a lightning rod.

1:37      PTJ: Yes, and so if you're going to grab any Jar Jar things, you want like the limited edition Taco Bell Jar Jar Binks squirter from one of the initial Episode 1 previews, and I found that at an antique shop a couple of years ago and they were like, "Oh, you know, nobody wants this." And I was like, "I'll give you five bucks for it." And they were like, "Five bucks?" And I was, "Okay, I'll just take it. No-no problem at all. No problem at all."

2:01      PTJ: Though, probably my favorite one and this is something a student made for me one year. There is an action figure of Obi Wan Kenobi in Clone Wars get up, except the head of the action figure is 3D printed from a picture of me.

2:18      KS: Oh, wow.

2:19      PTJ: So, it is me as Obi Wan. That sits upstairs on my desk. That's something.

2:25      KS: Place of honor. That sounds cool.

2:27      PTJ: I guess if I had to choose... in terms of action figures in particular, that would be the one I would go for.

2:32      KS: That's a good one. No one else is gonna have that. Alright, very seriously. I say that we talk about things that matter on this podcast, so tell us why an examination of pop culture and IR matters?

2:43      PTJ: I think there are two reasons. One of them is because as psychologists and sociologists have been telling us for a long time, people develop their sensibility about the world, not necessarily from dry, abstract, academic text or lectures, but from entertainment. From reading, from watching television programs and movies and such. Particularly in the kind of media saturated environment we live in, nowadays. I think more people pick up their understanding of otherness and diversity, from watching popular representations of them, than they do from reading philosophical texts about popular diversity, or taking classes on diverse experiences, or whatever. Not that those classes and the scholarship is unimportant, but in terms of direct transmission, or the material that people used to build their sense of the world, I think that is an important vector. Not the only one obviously, people pick things up... their moral sense of the universe, also, from things like attending religious services and participation in politics and so on but, I think that pop culture angle is really important particularly because it's a source of metaphors. And the metaphors that people then draw from different kinds of popular culture, franchises and artifacts then circulate through these other source of spaces.

4:01      PTJ: My favorite example being the Republicans for Voldemort bumper sticker, which is a bumper sticker that makes perfect sense if you know Harry Potter and if you are not a Republican. But, if you don't know Harry Potter, then you don't really understand what's being said there. It becomes a really useful way of transmitting and telegraphing a certain sense of reality, by using a piece of common reference point. And of course, good politicians have known this forever, so they'll sprinkle things into their speeches, whether it's drawn from a piece of popular culture science fiction type things, or whether it's draw from other kinds of cultural notions. I think that's really just important empirically.

4:43      PTJ: I also think it's really important for scholars and students of international affairs to take pop culture seriously, because what a good novelist, a good artist, is doing... though not exactly the same as what a scholar is doing, they're certainly wrestling with similar kinds of materials. And there are things I think, that we can learn from how a novelist or a film maker wrestles with the same sorts of topics and questions, that we scholars or we students, wrestle with.

5:13      PTJ: So, two different angles of why I think it's important.

5:15      KS: And you've written a lot about this. You've written that the intersection of politics and speculative fiction can be an irresistible area of conversation for some political scientists. I know that there are a variety of approaches to this intersection. Would you briefly describe two, that you write about: the internalist and the externalist approaches?

5:36      PTJ: Yes. So, this is a fundamental distinction when we try to think about this. The externalist approach to thinking about popular culture would suggest that cultural products... cultural artifacts, are simply functions of the context in which they find themselves. So, Star Trek- if we want to talk about Star Trek in the 1960s, we would look at what's going on in politics and economics and culture and such, during the 1960s and say, "Star Trek is just a translation of those things." So externalist approaches tend to be reductionist about pop culture.

6:10      PTJ: The internalist approach- which I'm generally more a fan of, would suggest that instead, a popular cultural artifact is a contribution to a conversation. So, instead of simply being reducible to sets of background conditions... so when say, sticking with the Star Trek example, when you have Star Trek episodes that are clearly playing with the kinds of things that are going on in US foreign policy- questions of interventions... there are several Star Trek episodes of the old series that are very much about Vietnam, or similar to what's going on in Vietnam.

6:41      PTJ: Instead of explaining those as saying this is just a translation of what's going on in the quote unquote real world, treat what Star Trek is doing as an element of a conversation about what we are and should be doing in a place like Vietnam. Now, that's the way certainly, Roddenberry and other folks who were involved in creating Star Trek thought about what was going on- that Star Trek was supposed to be a way of dramatizing in a way of getting people to think about these things. The externalist approach would be, "we couldn't really take that seriously." Because we'd simply reduce the science fictional or other fantasy product, to just a function of broader phenomena rather than a contribution.

7:20      KS: We're gonna hit on a few fandoms now. So, we're gonna start with everyone's favorite- Star Wars...

7:26      PTJ: Certainly mine.

7:27      KS: I know. I'm looking at a Washington Post monkey cage piece that you co-wrote in 2015. 2015, just to set the time for everybody. So, you wrote that "real world comparisons to Star Wars fall short because they fail to recognize that within the Star Wars universe, there is a dichotomy of dark versus light, driving everything. So, Emperor Palpatine isn't just another politician, he's an evil Sith Lord. So he's gonna do evil things, and we have to realize that he's not doing it because he's seeking leverage in the next election, he does evil things because he subscribes to a philosophy that power's the only thing worth having, anger is the best emotion to channel, people's emotions exist, only for him to manipulate. And he's evil and he shoots forced lightening from his fingers". Right? I mean there's rules. So am I paraphrasing that argument correctly?

8:13      PTJ: That's absolutely correct. Absolutely correct.

8:16      KS: So, it was 2015 when you wrote that. Which feels like a bit of a different world from this side of 2015. So, in the past couple of years, I believe that we've seen a move towards more of an evil versus good dichotomy, in the ways that people describe our politics. We have a good chunk of Americans who don't just think that our current President is wrong, they think he's evil and they think he's committed to breaking down the structures of our representative democracy. So, I don't know if this is even possible, but can you say- are we closer to a Star Wars world now?

8:45      PTJ: That's a good question. I don't think I would say that we as a whole, are closer to a Star Wars world, because the universe in Star Wars, as with other elements of fantasy, and yes... I'm calling Star Wars a fantasy rather than science fiction because Star Wars takes place like Lord of the Rings takes place... in a cosmos- a morally ordered reality. In the Star Wars universe, like in Lord of the Rings, there are things that are good and evil and really, even if there's ambiguity, there's not the ambiguity... it gets straightened out in the course of the plot. So, Luke is unsure about what the dark side or the light side is saying but we, the audience, figure out what's supposed to happen and the plot leads us to be able to figure this out. Similar to that scene in Lord of the Rings where Boromir is like, "We should take the ring." And if you're reading the book you already know, "Don't take the ring." Because it's evil... you don't take it.

9:38      PTJ: The backdrop that allows that to be the case, is that the universe itself is morally charged. In order for our world to be more like the Star Wars universe, we would have to say that our world was morally charged. And, what we have in our actual reality- differently than in these novels, is much more controversy about how the charging works, and what the moral boundaries of things are. In a fantasy universe an important way is there's no ambiguity. I would argue that sci-fi is closer to our world because we're never quite sure in our actual reality, whether or not there's transcended moral value in things. And those moments where they happen, are individuated and contested. Unlike in a fantasy universe, where suddenly the blinders drop and there is actual power that you're in touch with, and it's become sort of incontrovertible.

10:38      KS: Patrick, it's time to take five. Time to reorder the world as you'd like it to be. If you could, right now, single-handedly institute five policies or practices that would change the world for the better, what would they be? Specifically for you, what five things would you change in the study of international affairs?

10:57      PTJ: Only five?

10:58      KS: Only five.

11:00      PTJ: Because I think of so many that I would change. Okay, the first thing I would change is I would relax what you might call the scientism of so much of our academic study, where often people who work on pop culture or people who want to use pop culture artifacts in their teaching, have to be put on the defensive because, "Oh, that's not science." Scholarship on international affairs should be understood more broadly than just being the science part.

11:25      PTJ: So, the second thing I would change, is I would institute a clear understanding among international study scholars, of both the benefits and limitations of the scientific approach. We get very unclear about what these things are. We toss the word "science" around without really putting any real philosophical weight behind it. Sometimes, perhaps even reading novels about science might be a better way of getting people into this so they can see what the difference are between these things. And then that would set up third- drawing more clear boundaries between different kinds of knowledge of international affairs.

12:02      PTJ: We have scholarly knowledge, but we also have artistic knowledge. We have ethical knowledge, we have practical knowledge and these are not necessarily the same thing. We should appreciate that these are different and not try to reduce them all to each other and we need as many different ways of knowing about the challenges facing the world as we can possibly get our hands on, so... confining them all to one, strikes me as a huge problem.

12:27      PTJ: Four, I would mandate that everybody in international affairs, learn how to read at a level sufficient that they can process scholarly arguments. Not just one, but at least two other languages because there's a lot of stuff that goes on in the non-English language world and because English has become the lingua franca of so much of academic debate, and yes it's greatly ironic that English is the lingua franca rather than the language "Englica". But, scholars who speak English have a bit of a structural advantage. Everybody else has to speak English. So, a fifth point would be, in addition to scholars reading other languages and having conversations in other languages, they should have a certain openness to the plurality of ways in which international affairs is conceptualized beyond that Euro-American core. And this loops back to the first couple of things I was saying because often, there's distinctions that we draw, between science and art or science and practice, are not as firmly drawn in other places as they are in some of our academic institutions and some of our philosophical debates- for very specific historical reasons. And, if we go into those other situations with those firm boundaries in mind, then we're gonna miss stuff. And, I think missing stuff is a problem. I think we should be broader, so that we can encounter what it is that's being said and then we can have some really interesting discussions about it.

14:00      PTJ: We're not at that point yet. We don't really have those engagements, but overall, all five of those things would be (at least for me) about trying to promote broader engagements within international studies, globally.

14:13      KS: Thank you. So, how about Battlestar Galactica? And I'm talking about the 2004 reboot, not the original. In Battlestar Galactica, we see a series that appears, at first blush to be about artificial intelligence gone wrong. But, the longer the show goes on, the more it becomes about a lot more. There were themes about cycles of violence that never end. There was this question of who was here first and who gets to claim that they own the world. When find out that Cylons were an ancient species, there's this threat of religious conflict that I really thought this was a red herring. I thought this was not going anywhere. And then it stayed in the plot forever. It was monotheism versus polytheism versus atheism. And there was this overwhelming theme of migration which just lays over everything. What is home? And who gets to decide what you get to call home? So, is there anything you think we can take from the BSG universe as we grapple with contemporary issues surrounding religion and migration. Is there any application at all for us there?

15:15      PTJ: Well, it depends what you mean by application. I think it's a mistake to look to pop cultural products for policy [crosstalk 00:15:21] recommendations. If answers were for policy recommendations. "It worked in middle earth, so why won't it work here?" That's not really the way.

15:28      KS: That is solid reasoning.

15:29      PTJ: Totally, totally. Right, sure? Obviously. The Federation once did this and so, therefore, we should have the following sets of development policies. I'm not sure that's the best way to go about it and certainly, there are people who would like to, but the way I think is more helpful to approach this, is to think about what we take away. What we take away from reading a fictional text that is grappling with some of these issues is a more nuanced sense of the dimensions of the issue.

16:02      PTJ: So, with Battlestar Galactica, one of my favorite moments in this, is... there's a specific episode mid-way through the series where the humans area all basally in a refugee camp that the Cylons are running. And, there's debate among the Cylons about whether this is part of God's plan and what they should be doing with respect to the humans. Some want to eliminate all the humans and others are saying "No. We've got to save the humans." The humans are also having these sets of debates internally, and what some of them have come to realize is the only way that you can actually strike a blow against this terrible overwhelming enemy, is- suicide bombing. And if you look at the time when this was done, and if you look at what else is going on in the world and what this is dialoguing with, that moment brings an audience who, probably otherwise, wouldn't think suicide bombing was an acceptable military tactic and would be inclined to condemn it in moral terms and say, "Wait a minute. Wow. Gosh, I never really thought about that." But these characters that I've been identifying with, suddenly there in that situation and they're coming to that conclusion. And it's really hard to argue with them, because it's a very compelling case.

17:07      PTJ: What does that do? It doesn't necessarily give us policy recommendations, but it does mean that the next time one of the people who's watched this goes into a conversation about terrorism and about suicide bombing, they are going to, hopefully, be able to think about it a little more broadly. It's like meeting a really interesting person... you've been changed somehow- in the meeting. But as Ursula Le Guin once said, "It's hard to say how. It's hard to say how you've been changed, but you have been."

17:34      KS: That's an excellent pivot, because we're gonna talk about Ursula Le Guin right now. And I know that she is near and dear to your teaching heart. So I am not gonna pretend that I have a ton of familiarity here, I've just read The Left Hand of Darkness and based on that I'm really excited to read more, particularly in the Hainish Cycle because I'd like to read more about this world. But research about her, tells me that Ursula Le Guin was known for world building- unusual social structures that challenge our concepts of gender and cultural identities. And it led to the critique that she was a soft science fiction writer. The critique, as I understand it, is that the most fantastical aspects of her science fiction, like the role of gender and sex in The Left Hand of Darkness. Or oligarchy versus anarchy in The Eye of the Heron, are only and I'm quote fingering "only" here, explorations of social sciences, rather than technology or engineering, which I guess in that critique is inherently superior.

18:27      KS: So, two questions. First, what do you think of the soft science fiction label? And second, what do you make of this critique of Ursula Le Guin and her work?

18:36      PTJ: I think anyone who uses the hard versus the soft science fiction label, needs to go back and take a little gender studies 101. It's pretty obvious right? It's a very, very clear gender binary polarity of the hard stuff versus the soft stuff. It seems to me that science fiction that takes social science as a point of departure, is just as science fictiony as the science fiction that takes natural science as a point of departure. To me, the real power of the genre of science fiction, is the speculative way that it allows us to explore questions of selves and others, which is why you end up with aliens being a really interesting site for this but also, the futural setting being about future humans- what does it look like if we develop in particular kinds of ways? So, there is a speculative thought experiment aspect to this. So, I think that Le Guin clearly is basing a lot of what she's doing on notions in anthropology, notions in sociology, notions in gender studies... is what she's engaging with. She ends up... there's a story cycle that she writes about- a planet called "O" in which the form of marriage it's four people- two male, two female.

20:00      PTJ: They have to be from different subparts of the population and it's very complicated to put them together and so on. And then she writes multiple stories, which are just like, "So, what would the implication of that look like? What would that world look like?" That's kind of cool. I think that's cool because it gives us a way of reflecting on our own understanding of how we think marriage and family work, and the way we've built up a set of political and social arrangements around a notion of what counts as acceptable marriage. That isn't the sort of thing you're gonna to get if you then take 20 pages to go talk about the internal dynamics of the flux capacitor or whatever.

20:35      PTJ: But, certainly Le Guin does some of that.

20:39      KS: This is kind of to sum it all up here. Bringing the discussion to a conclusion. Issues of morality and revenge- major drivers in most science fiction plots. As you look at our current political situation, pulling back out, what do you believe will most effect future science fiction writers? We talked about Star Trek for example, having episodes that were clearly based on Vietnam. What do you think's gonna most effect future science fiction writers and do you think we're gonna be the good guys or the bad guys?

21:12      PTJ: The good thing about science fiction as a genre, is you often don't have to choose between the good guys and the bad guys. You can have things that are more ambiguous and you can explore the ambiguity of that and I think that's the way that a future historian, let alone a future science fiction writer, is going to have to write about the sorts of things that we're going through now. It's a mixed bag. It's always a mixed bag. But I think the rise of a deliberate rejection of science and reason, as a viable political position is the sort of thing that, well though certain science fiction authors have occasionally pondered it... they usually just introduce it to satirize it and say, "Well, obviously, that's not what we're going to do." I think future writers are going to have to take that a little bit more seriously. I also think, and we haven't talked much about the rise of social media and the way that's changed how we communicate with each other, I feel like future authors... in terms of wrestling with these sorts of issues are gonna have to deal with what you might call the epistemic flatness of social media- things are just presented. They're just stated, and it's really unclear how you're supposed to deal with those things and that really changes the valance of a lot of these conversations.

22:35      PTJ: So, we can't just assume that eventually the reason and the science will triumph, because people will be scientific and reasonable. Maybe they won't. Maybe they will, but, maybe they won't. And that ambiguity- opening that up, I think is something really significant for authors to grapple with a little bit because again, in sci-fi, you can't simply have God show up and fix it. Any novel, or film, or class, or piece of newspaper, or anything that puts you in the position of having to grapple with those issues- I think that is the way to go.

23:12      KS: To sit in the ambiguity. To sit in the discontent and be content with it.

23:17      PTJ: Exactly. Exactly.

23:18      KS: Patrick Jackson- thank you for joining Big World. I have truly enjoyed it.

23:21      PTJ: Thanks. A lot of fun.

23:23      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is- "It was just cold" by Andrew Coleman. Until next time...

Episode Guest

Patrick Jackson,
professor at SIS;
founder of Duck of Minerva blog

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