Geography and imagined communities

As I suggested in my first post, I am interested in what should count as basic training in political theory. The background political geography of the "history of ancient political thought" is largely restricted to Greece and Italy (Athens, Rome, Milan, Naples, Florence). Courses with a greater emphasis on medieval thought might follow Marsilius and William of Ockham to Munich, or Christine de Pizan to Paris, but even these side trips are rare. I don't mean to suggest this imagined political geography defines scholarly interests in the field. But it constitutes the frame of reference against which we trace the influence of political ideas 'from Plato to Machiavelli.'

It also presumes and establishes a particularly bounded imagined intellectual community (and doesn't the project of "comparative" political theory also presume and establish these boundaries?), offering students raised within the watershed of the Mississippi, for example, the classical traditions of Athens and Rome as the presumptive fons et origo of their own. Thus they are invited to identify with the ancestral Greek founders from whom they inherit the 'gift' of western political thought (a transaction about which Gayle Rubin might have much to say).

And yet, of course, it would be foolish to suggest that we can proceed without drawing any boundaries at all, and any boundaries we draw will inevitably be contested. So, let's draw some. Consider the effect, for example, of plotting our imagined political geography through the travels of three late medieval travelers, Benjamin of Tudela, Marco Polo, and Ibn Battuta:

Image copyright: David M. Lawrence, 2013. Permission requested.    

Image copyright: David M. Lawrence, 2013. Permission requested.    

We could add Gan Ying, or William of Rubruck, but the point is to use the metaphor of travel as a guide to the boundaries of our political community. We can note at the outset that this geography is also marked by exclusions: the Americas, Australasia and (to some extent) sub-Saharan Africa. My current idea is to foreground these exclusions in the second course in the sequence, one that I suggest should begin in 1488 and not (for example) 1517. We will still be giving and receiving gifts, handed down and exchanged, with a variety of trade-offs necessarily entailed along the way. But tracing political theories across the terrain marked out by these journeys asks us to consider alternative routes along which these gifts have been carried, alternative points of origin, and alternative directions of travel.

Further Reading: 

Benedict Anderson,  Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism

Gayle Rubin, "The Traffic in Women" 

William of Rubruck, The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World 1253-1255 

[I don't pretend to have read the accounts of Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, though I have read portions of those of Benjamin of Tudela as an undergraduate, but I list them below for interest. Polo is by a long stretch the least reliable, and it is possible that much of his account is not from direct observation. But since when have political theorists presumed reliable narrators?]

Marco Polo, The Travels of Marco Polo 

Benjamin of Tudela, The Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela 

Ibn Battuta, The Travels of Ibn Battuta 

 

New Coordinates in Political Theory Project

Like many political theorists, I have inherited a curriculum structured around the history of the Western canon, probably formalized in the latter third of the twentieth century.  I am the sole political theorist at Southern Miss, and so I teach the full historical sequence, from Homer to Charles Mills.  The core curriculum is a three course 'history of political thought,' with break points in familiar places: Plato to Machiavelli; Hobbes to Nietzsche; "20th century."  American political thought is segmented off in its own course.  There is no true Intro course. You can find my existing syllabi here.

My 'New Coordinates in Political Theory' project is aimed at redesigning this curriculum, over the course of the next five years.  As the title suggests, the goal is to re-imagine the spatial and temporal coordinates of political theory, with the gamble that doing so will also reconfigure the problems we (students and instructor) theorize and the conceptual resources we bring to bear on those problems.

The project is inspired in part by the work referenced here, as well as more generally by work in Comparative Political Theory.  But while this project intersects with that of Comparative Political Theory (CPT), it isn't defined by it.  This is partly because I am interested in re-thinking what should count as basic training in the field (rather than the creation and legitimation of a subfield within the field); partly because I am at least as interested in non-canonical 'Western' voices (Christine de Pizan, for example); and partly because I share some of Andrew March's reservations about CPT itself.

The whole project is therefore intentionally experimental, and so I plan to blog about it here, and invite comment, suggestions, and criticism. I will post here as I build the syllabus, providing my initial (if inevitably ill-formed) thoughts, as well as some resources for exploring the authors discussed. I hope to continue this practice as I teach the 'ancient' course for the first time, with some discussion of what works, and what doesn't. The five year time horizon will allow me to teach the full revised sequence at least twice. You can comment publicly on the posts here, or reach me directly through the contact page.