Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity
Jason Dittmer and Daniel Bos
Rowman & Littlefield, 2nd edition, 2019
It is one thing to claim that popular culture writes global space, but another to demonstrate the various ways in which this is done. To do this in a way that highlights the complex of social theory, history, definitive concepts and practices that underpin the unfolding of popular culture must be the element of mysticism that forces a constant reference to the second edition of Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity. It makes the book by Jason Dittmer and Daniel Bos from University College London and Oxford University a convincing reference on discourse productivity.
The second edition is a greatly improved version of the first, including the image of Donald Trump on the cover and the objective message relating to the study of popular culture; the innovation of concept boxes for a more accurate feel for slippery concepts throughout the book, and most importantly the whole new chapter on methodology. That is, methodology for researching popular geopolitics, but also as an answer to the crisis of the philosophy of science in social research. Overall, each of the nine chapters of the 2019 publication leaves the reader to ponder, such as linguistic activities generated on popular culture platforms, spatial reality in phrases, clichés, metaphors, narratives, images, sound bites and concepts.
Overall, this book leaves the reader with an increased awareness of why otherwise very ordinary cultural and entertainment productions such as TV soap operas, comics, newspaper articles, films, literary texts, stories, music numbers or internet content could be linked to the struggle for power in world politics. The book explains how this happens through the framework of comprehensibility about a place, a culture or a nation that embody cultural productions that are disseminated on platforms of popular culture and are culturally “read” by their audience in order to participate in the formation of a to be involved in geopolitical identity. This means that binaries of friendly / hostile, hot / cold, civilized / barbaric, rational / irrational, peaceful / violent and many others applied to this or that nation, culture, people or place on popular culture platforms have constitutive power to have.
Exemplary popular culture in action
The reader encounters fascinating examples of the power of action that popular culture can unleash in world politics through such intelligible frameworks embedded in cultural productions. Noteworthy here is the 2014 hacking of Sony systems in relation to the movie The interview, allegedly carried out by the North Korean leadership, who feel uncomfortable when the North Korean leader’s plot is assassinated by his potential interviewees doing a CIA assignment. It’s a very good example of how a typical popular culture product can provoke a high-stakes geopolitical dispute involving Hollywood actors, organizers and financiers of the international film festival, American film buffs threatened by North Korea, the CIA and the American state. Another example would be the importance the North African / migrant identity gained of 17 out of 23 players in the 2018 French Men’s World Cup. Or how today there might be a place known to all as the Middle East, east of a center that was once the British Empire.
The way each chapter in this book moves on to the next makes it difficult to talk about in sections or parts, but it still makes sense to divide the first three chapters into a segment. Chapters four through eight in another, while chapter nine stands alone. The first three chapters form an excursion into the subject of geopolitics as an academic field; the tension in it that created the critical challenge to classical geopolitics; the birth of popular geopolitics as a niche and the issue of how popular geopolitics might be explored. These chapters would fascinate even the less academic reader when it comes to the challenge posed by the critical geopolitics sub-discipline, which argues that geography is what we make of the earth, not what what the earth makes of (world) politics is confirmed in classical geopolitics. Chapter two explains the emergence of popular geopolitics within critical geopolitics as the study of the constitutive power of representations or discourses in relation to global power politics.
Each of chapters four through eight contains a particular concept or practice by which popular culture displays geography and geopolitical identity. Chapter 4 is sure to be devoured with unprecedented attention regardless of the national, cultural, ideological or gender identity of the reader. The chapter tells the story of how the British used popular culture, particularly literature, film and cartoons, to advance Empire despite the Enlightenment principles of the rule of law and the equality of all who opposed Empire. It’s there in contrast between the opulence of the empire, symbolized by Mansfield Park in Jane Austen’s novel with this name and its spatial other, where the life of the character Fanny, for example, illustrates the contrast. The silence about sugar production in the Caribbean as a material source of wealth in the estate shows that literature works to script the world in accordance with the logic of the empire. In other words, imperialism and neo-colonialism became real through a strategy of “subordinating the inferior and keeping the inferior inferior” as articulated in Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism (p. 95). This also applies to James Bond, who illustrates the use of film in Great Britain as an instrument of identity constructivism, with Bond playing the stature of the guarantor of Western civilization even after decolonization. Interesting here is the point about “silence” or non-representation as a form of (false) representation, an example of the fact that Africa is basically missing from Bond’s travel route.
Most readers would find Chapter 5 equally interesting and show how Captain America, the superhero in this comic book series, staged the United States in accordance with her self-image as an innocent nation always threatened by an evil other / outsider and like her it always does prevail. But the point of the superhero in Captain America is that national stories have much less to do with what actually happened in the story and more to do with depicting what might have happened. In all cases, it might not be about rationality or facts, but about how myths and morals are drawn into a narrative and deliberately disseminated.
Popular culture beyond representation
The pace changes in chapters six through eight as the book turns to materialistic geopolitics. Each of the three chapters shows a different non-representative process, beginning with the “affective logic of mediated spaces” (p.123). Chapter 6 uses military-themed video games to show how this hugely popular platform immerses the player in militarism or the beatification of state violence that is not only fun but also entertaining. The resulting militainment – the amalgamation of military technology and entertainment – has the prospect of turning the average gamer into an instinctive promoter of three ideologies. The book lists this as the term “clean war” and implicitly as the insensitivity to the war costs involved. Technofetishism or the celebration of military arms without concern for the victims, and finally the culture of undisputed support for “our troops” based on the national idea or patriotism. While military-themed video games are rarely produced by the military themselves, they are not without the military messages that make them act as a conveyor belt for the militaristic direction of the military-industrial complex that has now been reworked into the military-industrial media entertainment complex.
In Chapter 7, the same topic is further explored under the idea of putting together or thinking beyond the consumer of popular cultural texts to the orientations or moods, narratives, rituals and practices brought into consumption, which is what the related concept of performative consumption justifies (p. 146). This claim is illuminated by how audiences are deciphering a particular cultural heritage – the Australian War Museum. Another realm of materialistic geopolitics unfolds in Chapter 8. This is about the way in which communication technologies – telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and the Internet – address the reality of “distant witness” and thus the possibility of the individual is in several places at the same time, influence and influence, among other things, be affected by others on Facebook, Twitter, Skype. The “distant testimony” turns into the idea of the “networked self” – the individual as an assemblage, which results from the “intensification of social relationships that go hand in hand with social media” (p.167) and the spatial effects due to the large Distances are involved. In geopolitical terms, what is striking here is the way in which the “networked self” gives the concept of the public an online character. Aside from the debate about the control of algorithms by digital monopolies, the big question here is what governments are doing with their own algorithms that, unlike those of social media giants, are not publicly monitored. Taking the concept of digital diplomacy, this book uses the much discussed Russian intervention in the 2016 US presidential election to shed light on this.
Distract criticism, recall controversies
The book’s explanation of the institutions, agencies, and practices by which non-representative processes function frees it from the criticism that representation alone is not enough to take geopolitical outcomes into account. Representation must be theorized along with the complex of structures, institutions, and practices that are responsible for performativity. As much as the three chapters on non-representative theory respond to this criticism, they alike remind readers of the claim made in particular by Charlotte Epstein of the University of Sydney. She argues that the discourse, or the “power of words in international relations” was not exhausted before realizing that there was “a great nostalgia for the concrete and tangible” that has led to the acceptance of unrepresentative theories in the humanities . The Epstein clincher is how the shift had little to do with the history of social thought, in which discourse and practice, or the idea and the material, were in fact indistinguishable, except in what they call the false-headed materialistic criticism of Hegel would denote. In other words, the three chapters collectively raise the question of the extent to which critics of a Chinese wall between representational and non-representational practices have a point in the study of critical / popular geopolitics.
A similar question of a general nature in the discipline, and not a deformity within the book, is the question of whether it is possible to speak of a defining character in popular culture. On the one hand, there is the revolutionary or emancipatory potential inherent in the ability of some popular cultural texts to undermine hegemonic writings. This point has been made well in the book and elsewhere, particularly by Luke and O’Tuathail and Lene Hansen. On the other hand, this tends to be refuted by the chauvinism or conservatism of most of the self-portrayals of geopolitical actors. How far can we then speak of popular culture in an emancipatory way, especially in cases of unequal power relations in view of the shift in power based on hegemony?
Regardless of these types of questions, it is almost certain that this book will appeal to a much wider audience than the advanced undergraduate and emerging postgraduate students targeted by the authors. Editors, journalists who are involved in reporting on distant countries, publicists from military campaigns, diplomats, think tankers, intelligence officers and field workers from INGOs will certainly be fascinated. This is particularly true because of the simplicity of the language and the completeness of the exploration of how popular culture constructs the global space for the emergence of popular geopolitics as such a fascinating meeting place of knowledge. This shouldn’t come as a surprise any longer. Because if the war itself, as Sam Keen argues in his Enemy faces: reflections of the enemy’s imaginationif the practice precedes inventing the enemy and thinking him, her or him to death before inventing the weapons that will eventually bring such enemies to death, as Yugoslavia or Rwanda shows, then popular geopolitics must be the main theme. This is in the light of the degree of construction in world politics.
Popular geopolitics has seen a wave of publications in recent years. Among these are Popular culture and world politics: theories, methods and pedagogy;; Understand popular culture and world politics in the digital age;; Popular geopolitics and nation branding in the post-Soviet realm;; James Bond’s Geographies, Gender and Geopolitics;;Popular Geopolitics: Planning an Evolving Interdiscipline. Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity Certainly serves both as a “basic” text in itself and as a powerful addition to these publications which, individually and collectively, have contributed to realizing Robert Saunders’ vision of the movement of popular geopolitics from the edge to the center in International Studies /. Scholarship for Political Geography. Hopefully, in the event of a third edition or a sequel, the authors will point out that they are unable to increase the cause of geographic inclusivity by resorting to larger areas of popular culture outside of the US and the UK. Although the authors’ fear of the book’s correctness is acknowledged when they rely on cultural spaces outside their discipline, it is doubtful that this can override the case of inclusivity here.
Further reading on E-International Relations