(by Adam Elkus)
Daniel Nexon’s recent piece at his new blog asks a depressing question: why do so few political scientists that write on popular culture regard methodology as an afterthought? When not justifying the study of popular culture, people that write “____ and my favorite subject” pieces become literary scholars:
[S]cholars advanced social-theoretic arguments — almost always linguistic-turn in nature — for close readings of popular-culture texts. At the extreme you find what Iver and I refer to as “radical intertextuality.” If everything is intertext, then why study a foreign-policy speech when you can study Killzone? Why read the FOMC minutes when The Wolf of Wall Street beckons? These approaches are deeply theoretical, but they often aren’t terribly interested in methodology. Indeed, some variants of the “aesthetic turn” are inflected by an anti-method stance. Analyzing popular culture becomes a subversive act aimed at those who insist on ‘rigorous science.’
One possible answer is that even intertext is actually simply a means to an end. In video game studies, there is a split between those that focus on narrative and those that focus on gameplay mechanics — though many bridge the gap. But when a natsec writer or scholar writes “what ___ teaches us about my pet subject” pieces (I often am guilty of falling into this category), they are often taking an instrumental approach to the object they are trying to explain. They want to use it as a prop to advance some point they are interested in making, and could easily have made elsewhere. If they are diligent, they will try to use close reading of the pop culture artifact to back up their points — as they would in a high school English class term paper. But they are still mostly imposing a reading of the narrative as to bolster their larger points about the academic or current-events subjects that really interest them.
The problem with this is that something like Star Wars is a world model with its own rules and mechanics. If you try to write a piece for Foreign Affairs about what the Deep Blue-Kasparov chess game tells us about the future of artificial intelligence in world politics — and somehow totally ignored the rules of chess in doing so — your piece would be of little value to anyone. One of my lessons from the Hoth roundtable in Danger Room I participated in was that the dynamics of the world model matter. Almost everyone ignored the Jedi-Sith conflict’s centrality over the Rebellion vs. Empire. Similarly, neglecting to mention Minovsky particles in my io9 piece on Gundam was fatal to the credibility of my argument. Without Minovsky particles, there is no justification for close-in robot or space fleet battles. The tactical and strategic system of the Gundam animes is built around the implications of long-range firepower being negated by Minovsky interference.
Of course, a world’s rules may not be coherent or consistent for a variety of reasons. The writer may have a muddled idea of how the world works, so like a perpetually glitchy computer program there are aspects of the fictional world that are aberrant or inconsistent. The probability of such “glitches” occurring approaches 1 if the world model tackles questions such as time travel that are actually the source of substantial debate in the sciences and philosophy. Second, for reasons external to the fictional world rules might be ultimately inconsistent. A reader familiar with the entire Marvel Comics canon might find it difficult to detect any underlying structure or regularity in a universe full of reboots, characters brought back to life, multiple conflicting timelines over different comic book titles, and various supernatural, mythological, extraterrestrial, and extra-dimensional lifeforms. Given the multiplicity of writers and artists that worked/work for/in the Marvel community and the commercial ups and downs of Marvel as a corporate entity, this is to be expected. The latter factor is particularly important, given that Lucas famously structured many aspects of Star Wars (the controversial Ewoks and the much-loathed Episode I) to sell kids’ toys.
Actually using methodology beyond just close-reading implies comfort with four dimensions of analysis:
1. The narrative of the pop culture object (the who and the what)
2. The underlying mechanics, rules, and laws of the pop culture object’s world
3. Basic subject matter expertise in the discipline you are trying to explain in terms of the pop culture object
4. Analytical methodology
This is a bridge too far for most people looking, as Nexon implies, to get out of the academic or analytical requirements of their own disciplines. But it’s a problem that really goes far beyond just the issue of “International Relations of Westeros”-esque pieces. It’s about the problem of assuming an a symmetry between one’s own world and that of the object of study. And it’s something that comes up quite frequently in history and area studies. Ignoring the underlying rules and mechanics — and by implication filling them in with your own.