Punk Political Science – Worldmaking, Worldbreaking and Living on the Edge

Posted on January 12th, 2016 by Férdia Stone-Davis

In a recent blog post, Dangerous minds: ‘Public’ political science or ‘punk’ political science, Matthew Flinders responds to Jeffrey C. Isaac’s editorial in Perspectives on Politics which calls ‘For a More Public Political Science’. Flinders seeks to revive the larger vision motivating the idea of a public political science (one inspired by the movement in sociology towards a more public sociology) by asking whether ‘what we need is not public political science but a form of punk political science that challenges all conventional ways of doing the study of politics just as the punk movement challenges conventional ways of doing politics’. In doing so, Flinders backs the drive to transmit research beyond the bounds of academia, but stresses that transmission must not be for its own sake (contrary to what measures of impact might suggest) but must derive from the fact that what is communicated is worthwhile (and therefore worthy of transmission). In the face of a higher education system that ‘has become trapped in a market-led cycle or spiral of its own creation that promotes conformity over difference, results over risk, customers over citizens and “safe bets” over “creative rebels”’, Flinders suggests that a punk political science might serve to renew the ambition and scope of research and its results by reviving ‘intellectual spirit’.

But what does this mean? What would a punk political science, or indeed a ‘punk political scientist’, look like? And more broadly, what might constitute punk scholarship? Flinders gives a clue elsewhere, in his consideration of ‘engaged scholarship’, where he proposes a return to a model of scholarship that has ‘a broader social purpose and visibility’. Significantly, this is to be achieved through the exercise of an imagination that emphasises ‘breadth of perspective and daring of thought’, more than adherence to disciplinary strictures, and excels in the application of insights across a range of areas. Whilst Flinders is clear that the article does not propose ‘a new form of punk political science – some Hunter S. Thompson inspired model of scholarship’ – he encourages political scientists to trespass disciplinary borders, to aspire to a mode of hyphenated scholarship, and in doing so to become ‘more wobbly’. To possess imagination is, in short, for Flinders, ‘to assume the position of the outsider’, and it is this that perhaps underpins the punk political science that his recent blog post advocates, and, indeed, which might support the practice of punk scholarship more generally.

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Image courtesy of Nadja Varga via Flickr

Flinders’ blog post resonates not only with a recent article of mine –  ‘Worldmaking and Worldbreaking: Pussy Riot’s “Punk Prayer”’ – but also with my status as a disciplinary outsider. The two things are not disconnected and are, I think, useful to give some flesh to what Flinders alluringly dubs punk political science. What can be learned from the spirit of punk that might inform political science? The punk strategies of challenging and transgressing established norms are evident from Flinders’ discussion, but Pussy Riot’s ‘Punk Prayer’ performance in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (2012), especially when set in the context of the series of performances leading up to it, perhaps give sharper articulation to these strategies as well as bringing to the fore others that might be transferable to the realm of political science. Pussy Riot demonstrate the ambition to break open contexts of established meaning by de-familiarising and challenging them: the group’s performance in the already constructed material, intellectual and symbolic environment of the cathedral space fractures its configuration, interrupts the mode of thinking, feeling, seeing and hearing usual to such a space by de-familiarising its usual patterning, brings a broader intellectual frame into view – namely, the complicity of church and state – and challenges it. This is done through a performative juxtaposition of the space’s usual musical, lyrical and gestural elements with Pussy Riot’s own means of punk expression. Importantly, Pussy Riot remain committed to their ambition even when the odds are stacked against them and failure is deemed likely due to the monolithic nature of what they challenge; they will be satisfied even if the performance exists only in its fullest form in their imaginations.

How do these strategies translate to political science? It would seem to me that most immediately they can challenge the balance of power within the field between the ‘professional’ and the ‘lay person’. This rebalancing of power relates not only to those lay people like Pussy Riot (or the Occupy Movement for that matter) who do politics through performance in everyday situations, but to those within academia who are strictly speaking outside the domain of political science, such as myself, but who work with materials that hold political scientific import. Undoubtedly, the position of ‘outsider’ to the domain of political science can encourage an open mind as well as enable a creative freedom that is not available to someone within the discipline. The rebalancing of power also affords a space of co-existence between the professional and the lay person in which engaged dialogue can take place, and in which equal weight can be given to the particularity of events via thick description, to the political issues with which they interact, and to methods used.

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Image courtesy of Deepwarren via Flickr

 

And what of punk scholarship? Here the sentiment expressed by C. Wright Mills speaks volumes in relation to my own situation: ‘I am an outlander, not only regionally, but down bone deep and for good’. I moved to Germany to take up a fixed-term academic post in a musicology department over three and a half years ago and have recently returned to the UK. My academic positioning in both Germany and the UK is precarious, for not only am I a disciplinary outsider to political science but I am at the periphery of (at least directly) three disciplines (music, philosophy and theology). In the UK, my interdisciplinarity has proved a challenge to fitting into institutional academic life: I have published and taught in all three disciplines but am not considered native to any of them since I do not adhere to one particular set of core approaches. In Germany, even though located in a musicology department, the range of my musicological methodological tool kit meant that I implicitly contested the boundaries between the sub-disciplines of historical, cultural and social musicology (which are more rigidly adhered to in Germany than in the UK), leaving me in no-man’s land.

The emphasis upon conformity, underpinned to varying degrees in both countries by the refashioning of the higher education system in market-style terms, the proprietary defence of academic territory, and entrenched modes of scholarship, mark me out as one of ‘the square pegs that cannot be knocked into round holes’ of which Flinders speaks. As one with a ‘restless mind’ the limits to my creative freedom are given with one hand and taken away with the other, since I am not bound by a single discipline but will ultimately be forced either to assimilate in order to survive or abandon the interdisciplinary enterprise altogether. Thus whilst I admire the optimism with which Flinders writes elsewhere that ‘the 21st century will generally reward those scholars and disciplines with the capacity to “trespass across borders” and who nurture intellectual imagination’, interdisciplinary aspirations can only truly flourish when university structures evolve sufficiently. In the meantime, the promise of hyphenated scholarship remains more imaginary than real.

 

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Férdia Stone-Davis is an interdisciplinary researcher; she publishes regularly on music, philosophy and theology.

 

Note: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.

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