“Every Practitioner of International Relations Should Major in Literature” (essay)

Emanuel Pastreich

“Every Practitioner of International Relations Should Major in Literature”

May 14, 2012

The Study of Literature and International Relations

There is a general assumption in the study of international relations that one should have a strong background in economics, development policy or the study of international relations if one wishes to play a significant role in diplomacy or security, whether that role is in government itself, or in the broad range of disciplines related to the global exchanges between NGOs, governments and corporations.

Well, as someone who did not take a single economics class as an undergraduate, and who did not start following international relations with any real seriousness until I was already a professor at University of Illinois, I feel a need to justify why I came to both write about international relations, and to be involved in a variety of activities related to international relations and diplomacy, rather late in my career. Actually, being by nature a rather pugnacious personality, I would rather counter-attack, claiming that in fact anyone who is serious about international relations should not only take a few humanities classes in the course of his or her career, but should major in the field of literature (or maybe art or philosophy) in order to be effective—especially today.

Of course the fact that it may be true that majoring in literature is the best first step towards diplomacy, it may not be obvious to anyone. Perhaps this bit of advice may seem a bit odd, but in fact, whether in Korea and China, or in Italy or France, it was not that long ago that a humanities major was requisite for government overseas service. In the early twentieth century, even, a deep knowledge of the Latin and Greek tradition in the European case, or of the classical Chinese tradition in the East Asian case, was essential to finding common ground—common ground far deeper than one can hope to find in a similar affection for Starbucks or the Economist. That common culture based in literature and philosophy, a common set of terms and philosophical and scientific principles, helped to establish universal norms that made communication possible.

The Rectification of Names

Let us consider just how important the manipulation of language can be in international relations. The manipulation of language, is, after all, what we learn from the study of literature and composition. Look at this quote from one of the great experts on international relations: Humpty Dumpty from Alice in Wonderland.

“There’s glory for you!” said Humpty Dumpty.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’ ” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’ ”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’ ” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty. “which is to be master—that’s all.”

The essential point that Humpty Dumpty makes here, and that Lewis Carroll draws our attention to, is that the act of defining the meaning of words is the most essential act of politics and of power and that although it operates often in an invisible manner (because ideological shifts are by nature invisible to the naked eye) such transformation of meaning takes place at the deepest level. Controlling the meaning of words, Humpty Dumpty suggests, is the essence of power.If one were to make an analogy, changes wrought be the redefinition of terms takes place at the nuclear level (far more powerful but invisible) whereas changes brought about in day to day diplomacy take place at the chemical level, more visible, but less profound.

The ability to set the meaning for terms like “United Nations,” “War on Terror,” “International Community,” “honest broker” etc. is the ultimate power in international relations, and the degree to which these terms are undermined, or undercut by irony, or implication of hypocrisy and inaccuracy, they cease to function as terms to use in understanding the world. The issue is essentially one of literature.

Confucius also identified early on the importance of terms to any form of power or discourse, and his writings may well be the primary reason why the study of “wen” (문 文) was so central to the Confucian project, even to the degree of excluding technical training as a prerequisite for service in government. The term that Confucius employed was “The Rectification of Names” (정명 正名) and he held that it was far more critical for maintaining peace and bringing justice to the world to make sure that the terms employed to describe people, institutions and practices were accurate, than was any particular act of benevolence of feeding the poor or opposing perceived injustice.

So what did Confucius mean by the “rectification of names,” and what is that idea relevance to the current age? At the most basic, level, I would argue that most of the serious problems we face today grow from a serious, and growing, gap between the original meanings of terms that we use in everyday speech and the actual nature of the objects they are used to describe in the real world. I would go as to say that this gap defines most moral problems we encounter, and that Confucius’ approach is quite practical in helping us to get to viable solutions.

Here are some examples of terms that are central to our daily lives, but whose meanings have shifted considerably over the last twenty years:









The shifts in the meaning of these terms is the source of our unhappiness. If the meanings were stable, there would never be a sense that things do not work the way they did before. Much of the frustration that we feel with institutions that do not function (the way we think they should—they do function!) and the disgust we feel for a perceived lack of ethics, or for the cruelty of the modern world, is related at an essential level to the gaps between what we think institutions are suppose to do and what in fact they actually do.

Ogyu Sorai and the game of chess

Ogyu Sorai (荻生徂徠; 1666-1728) was one of the great thinkers in the Japanese intellectual tradition, the thinker who set down many of the principles of epistemology that set Japan on a trajectory towards a a modern world view and towards modernization. Ogyu Sorai once wrote, of what we now call Chinese Chess:

“There are two ways to master chess: the first is to master the rules of chess perfectly so that one can play flawlessly and defeat any opponent; the second is to make up the rules by which chess is played.” (not exact quote)

Sorai was writing about politics, in specific, and strategy in general, but the application of his remarks to international relations should be obvious.

There are two aspects of human action in international relations. One is playing perfectly by the rules of the game, flawlessly at times. That is the world of the diplomat and of the general, of the president and of the prime minister. The second domain is that of literature, of philosophy, of ideas. Although the realm of words and ideas may seem weaker than that of tanks, presidential palaces and limousines, it can be on occasion stronger (the relationship between the two realms is like that between like physics and chemistry: chemistry seems stronger in that it involves the release of energy form the breaking of chemical bonds, but physics can be even more powerful and fundamental).

So, I would argue, the ability of literature to help us define what its significant is as powerful a tool in international relations that we can find. However, more often than not, the practitioners of diplomacy are repeating ideas and configurations of ideas that they have learned from others, rather than creating something anew. They may appear on television, but they are not the ones in charge of the discourse.

The primary tasks in international relations are:

To change how events are perceived

To change or modify the meaning of past historical events

To create meta-narratives of nation, region and globe that give meaning to the actions of individuals and groups and suggest a direction forward that has meaning and promise.

These acts may be carried out for a variety of reasons, but the tasks are the same.

Literature as an aid in interacting with people

Literature also allows one to experience more than is possible for an individual through normal lifetime. That quality of literature should not be underestimated. If one reads many novels, one will know what it is like to be president, or to be thrown in jail, or to fly a jet fighter from what one reads. For someone working in international relations, one will never have a chance to go behind the scenes and learn what the president of China, or Kenya or New Zealand is actually doing, but if one has read many novels, one will have a pretty good sense of what they might actually be thinking or doing.

By extension, literary skill as a reader and a writer allows one to imagine what conversations take place that one does not actually hear! This point is absolutely critical. If you, as a diplomat, try and pry into the hidden realm behind the scenes, you will completely ruin the delicate diplomatic situation. But, if you can use your literary experiences to imagine what those people behind the scenes are saying at meetings you were never invited to, then you can recreate the picture quite effectively. And, I would say, if you employ your imagination to create the four or five possible scenarios of what is going on behind the scenes, and then compare each scenario with the facts on the ground, that over time you can eliminate the unlikely scenarios and get a pretty accurate picture of what is actually happening, perhaps more accurate than the assessment you would get if you were spying.

And then literature is also about creating world that people can believe in, producing words that will move people to see things in a different way. Literature can help people to imagine, and form a consensus about how things could be even when those things do not exist yet. Let us say we want to go beyond the Six Party talks, those talks that just go on and on. Well, imagining something different is perhaps the first step towards moving forwards. Everything from the United Nations to manned space flight is ultimately the product of people’s ability to imagine something that does not exist yet. That skill is in a sense primarily literary—as we can see from the role that science fiction writers play in science.

As Peter Drucker once put it, “The best way to predict the future is to make it.” We can predict the future by laying the foundations for its development and its progress at the level of ideas and concepts. It is our literary training allows us to anticipate potential and then actively change the future.

Challenges for today and our literary response: 

There are many challenges for us at the start of the 21st century, but I would argue that many of them can be traced back to the phenomenon of rapid change in society and institutions that is driven by technology. The world is growing ever smaller because of technology and at the same time our discourse about what we should do to respond is becoming ever more complex. We need to create a global common society and a sustainable environmentally-friendly world, we need to develop a new civilization to meet the challenges of this age. But those changes cannot come through elections, or through laws passed by the national assembly. Those changes cannot be brought about by a single charismatic leader or by a committed political party. Those profound changes can be brought about only through literature or art, or songs or movies—media that change how people perceive the world and themselves. If you want to bring about a fundamental shift in how large numbers of people perceive the world, literature (in the broadest sense) is the only way.

3 responses to ““Every Practitioner of International Relations Should Major in Literature” (essay)

  1. Sarah Liu May 15, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    “Literature” or “wen” also implies an aesthetic component to this form of writing. What role do you see aesthetics playing in contributing to the power plays of international relations? I’m particularly interested in this question because I’m writing a paper on Wittgenstein’s cryptic comment “ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.”

  2. Morton K. Brussel May 16, 2012 at 3:15 am

    The uses and misuses of language are only components of other factors that are in play in international relations: self interest, racism, the wish to control,… But it is good to see again the warnings that Orwell wrote about with respect to language.

  3. Emanuel Pastreich May 16, 2012 at 1:47 pm

    I personally believe that aesthetics is the primary question in ethics, international relations and politics, bar no other factor. Aesthetics is concerned with the hierarchy by which we assign significance to images, symbols and texts. It determines what we take seriously and what is essentially invisible for us.

    The difficult question is where literature ends and aesthetics ends. In classical Chinese, “wen” covers both domains.

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