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Home arrow History arrow The Art of World-Making: Nicholas Greenwood Onuf and his Critics

On World of Our Making

Introducing this book to a public audience is virtually impossible. The book is impossible to summarize; it does not even have a decent concluding “take-home message” except the evocative quotation from Goethe about theory being grey and the golden tree of life being green. And it’s that way by design, since part of the problem Nick seeks to diagnose is our obsessive desire for simple, even simplistic, solutions, which is itself wrapped up with the classical European Enlightenment “problem of order” and the concomitant faith that we can solve that problem through the proper exercise of scientific reason.

So let me try this: Nick’s goal is to produce, or to start to produce, a way of generating knowledge about the social world that is distinct from both Liberal and Marxist operative paradigms. Nick’s method is typological, based on close readings of foundational texts in political theory and political science; he seeks to extract analytical categories from the accumulated experiences recorded in such texts. Nick’s avenue is the twinning of “rules” and “rule,” a twinning built into the book’s ingenious compositional structure: it pivots around a central fulcrum, an evocative quotation from Foucault about the personal seizing of rules as a key to explaining the “successes of history,” and the successive chapters build up to and then elaborate on that core insight, transforming one another interactively as they go.

Most famously, perhaps, Nick’s theoretical vehicle for this grand revisioning (or, as he might prefer, a “re-touching,” since that would be more of the kind of conjuring that he argues is the especial skill of members of the professoriate) of the study of social life, and of world politics in particular (but not exclusively), is Speech Act Theory Speaking is acting, to speak is to do - speaking is an effort to affect the social world by shaping how we and others act. From the ceaseless morass of doing that makes up social life, Nick extracts three fundamental categories of speech act: instructing, directing, and committing. The balance in a given situation between, and the interactions of, speech acts falling into these three categories produces an explanation of the social world and how it works.

One thing that Nick is very clear on - and in this I think that he is clearer than some others who have utilized his framework - is that simply recoding or classifying speech acts is a necessary but insufficient explanatory exercise. It is not enough to simply describe a set of social relations in terms of the relative prominence of these three types of act, or any of the numerous corresponding trichotomies that Nick elucidates in the text: manners-virtues-rights, shame-fear-guilt, etc. Instead, it is important to take the next step, which is spelled out in my personal favorite of Nick’s many conceptual conjectures, one that occurs right near the book’s center of gravity, its fulcrum, and one that for me encapsulates one of the most important concrete consequences of Nick’s work. This is the metaphorical solution of the liberal-Enlightenment problem of social order, which is the problem of (to quote from the page after the book’s fulcrum) “how any collection of self-interested agents might be capable of co-existence” (1989 [2012], 163). Nick’s solution - but maybe we should say dis-solution, since it dis-solves the problem by shifting its terms rather than by proposing a set of technical adjustments that remains within the liberal-Enlightenment posing of the problem - is to move away from the metaphor of “order” to the metaphor of an “arrangement.” To quote further:

Order is a stable arrangement, and such arrangements are stable not because they resemble nature, which is also stable, but because they benefit those whose arrangements they are. . . . The problem then is not to make social arrangements more stable, for they “really” are stable (my metaphor makes them so). Instead, the problem is to find out why they are stable. This is the same as asking, who benefits from any given set of arrangements? To speak of a “problem” problematizes whatever is asserted. My metaphorical move from order to arrangement shifts the normative weight invested in the term “problem” away from stability and toward the facticity of “arrangements” as having been arranged.

(1989 [2012], 158)

So we do not have an “order”; we have a “stable arrangement,” the stability of which has to be explained, as it were, endogenously, without reference to any kind of natural necessity or transcendent logic of history that stabilizes social life from the outside. To explain that stability (whether in terms of who benefits, or in terms of some other endogenous social mechanism) is the task of research and theory in this newly arranged academic discipline, which takes as its basic principle the operative paradigm of political society as elucidated in the basic slogan: rules make rule, and rule operates through rules.

I could spend a lot of time nit-picking at particular things in Nick’s book with which I disagree, such as his discussion of Weber’s categories of legitimate domination, his perhaps deliberate blurring of the distinction between ideal-typical and typological analysis (a distinction I would prefer to retain on both methodological and ontological grounds), his almost complete neglect of the category of causation, and his unproblematic acceptance of the proposition that the actors in social life are biologically constituted individual human beings. But that would not be very useful here, I think; there are better arenas for robust debate. Instead, I will just note that this book did not, in fact, re-arrange the academic discipline of IR. When people say “Constructivist” these days, they are more likely to be referring to Alex Wendt than to Nick Onuf, although even Wendt acknowledges Nick as the person who introduced the term into IR (Wendt 1999, 1, n. 1). Why it did not succeed in re-touching the field is a complicated question to answer; I will try to do so in the next section. But before turning to that task, I will say: I assert that this kind of work should be more prominent and celebrated in the field of international studies broadly understood. I direct all of you to read it - there are numerous smaller discussions in the text that I have not even touched on here. And I commit myself to working, whenever possible, to open space for this kind of critical and theoretical reflection on the conditions of our global social lives together.

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