Like most academics, I’ve long had a university-based website (now at Ohio State), where you can find my publications, teaching and research interests, and all that. [https://polisci.osu.edu/people/wendt.23] I never thought much about it, but I had a personality change recently (INTJ → INFJ), and since then I’ve felt that the purely professional persona I have to project on my “corporate” website is not even who I am as a professor, much less as a person, and as such offers little insight into me or my work. Growing up before the internet my first instinct is to simply take the website down, but today that’s not an option. So if I must have one, then I want one that doesn’t separate my work from the rest of me and others, but connects it.
So with a good shove from one student to get started and then the designer’s eye and hard work of another to finish, I’m painting this more personal representation of myself. It’s still mostly about my work, but instead of a two-dimensional stick figure, I hope what emerges is a more holistic, and human, being. Plus, now I have an excuse to talk about metal :).
Of Mind and Metal
Ever since a childhood fascination with Bigfoot, I've been drawn more to the possible than the actual, to what might be than what is. Yet it was only after getting my Ph.D. in political science in 1989 – the year the Berlin Wall fell down, much to literally everyone's surprise – that I realized that the future is not what my shiny new career was about. Most social science is about explaining the past, ideally by showing why it had to be exactly the way it was. I believe in free will, so I don’t think the past had to be any particular way at all; it all depends on our choices. But free will aside, what’s the point of telling someone why they “had” to do what they did? As a role for social scientists it’s a little strange when you think about it, like driving with the rearview mirror. It might make sense if the road’s future will be just like its past, but in today’s world forks, twists, and outright breaks seem more likely. So while I’m interested in what did happen, I’m even more in what didn’t – or hasn’t. Military history is a hobby; war gaming (mostly WWII Eastern Front) is a passion.
If the past is not a reliable guide to the future, then the intellectual challenge as a social scientist is to free oneself from the “tyranny of the real” in the present. By that I don’t mean stop believing in reality, but to see it as only the starting point for the imagination, not the end. In retrospect this “alt” mentality has been there since my earliest work on international politics. Against Kenneth Waltz and other Realists, who argued that the anarchic structure of the international system has a single logic of behavior which condemns the world to perpetual conflict, I and other social constructivists argued that “anarchy is what states make of it.” For me that work ended soon after publishing my 1999 book, Social Theory of International Politics (link), which, although it became a widely used text, left me intellectually restless. I knew most of the book’s flaws before it went to press (and those I didn’t others were happy to point out); and I also didn’t want to spend the rest of my career defending a book I wrote in my 30s. I needed a Monty Python moment – “…and now for something completely different.”
I found it in random encounters between 1999 and 2001 that crystalized three conjectures, gut feelings really, which I have pursued in my work ever since, and are described under the tabs above: 1) that consciousness is a macroscopic quantum mechanical process, which means that contemporary social science – which assumes that we are classical mechanical beings – is based on a fundamental mistake; 2) that in 1000 years it is inconceivable that the international system will still be anarchic, and so somewhere along the way a world state is inevitable; and 3) that some UFOs might be extra-terrestrial in origin, and so not only is it puzzling that a taboo exists on studying them scientifically, but given the potential stakes, it is positively urgent that we do so.
While different in content, these ideas have three things in common. First, they are all disciplined by the spirit in which I was raised at home and then trained at school – of science. My work might not look like the same science of my colleagues, but it’s science just the same: a systematic inquiry into the world that tries to be as rational as possible under the circumstances. Second, for me personally, as someone with a secular background, these projects are ways to find meaning in an otherwise meaningless world. Finally, and most obviously, they are all highly speculative. Even if they might be true, conventional wisdom says there is little to no chance they are true. In each case I offer a strong and spirited dissent, but since the stakes are high and evidence is thin, it’s no surprise my recent work has provoked mixed reviews. However, that’s to be expected when you think not just outside the box, but out of line.
For at this stage of my career that is my goal, to think out of line. Not for its own sake (in that case I’d rather play wargames), but because it is only by not thinking in line that I can see past the tyranny of the real to the freedom of the possible. I believe human beings know much less about ourselves and the world than we think we do, but that’s partly because to get ahead, most of us can do little but just look straight ahead. Academics, in contrast, are given the most precious of all things – permission, and time, to step out of line and try to see it all. There are lots of ways to do that, of course. For me, I like to step out straight, at a right angle to the orthodoxy- deliberately, methodically, and one step at a time.
However, it turns out that thinking straight is not the hard part, but stepping out of line at all. In my experience it is undergraduates who are the best at this, probably because their brains have not yet been disciplined by academic “disciplines.” However, as graduate students young academics quickly learn not to rock the boat, and to fit into the mainstream of their fields instead. So the task of challenging orthodoxies, versus just tweaking them, falls to older, tenured faculty. But the warm embrace of academic respectability is seductive, and can easily turn potential subversives into members of the Establishment, blunting both their creativity and radical edge. So how to sustain a “beginner’s mind,” while constantly “disciplining” its output?
Everyone has their own way of trying to stay creative; for me it has always been metal (the music, not the substance), which I have listened to almost exclusively since I was 15. My tastes in metal are mainstream, and my approach to it purely experiential. I don’t play any instruments, I can’t read music and know nothing of music theory, and sometimes don't even understand the words of my favorite songs. All I know is what I like, which continues to evolve with metal itself.
So how does metal cultivate stepping out of line? Well, trite as it may sound, in part it really is just performing the words. In this respect one could hardly top Joan Jett’s description of rock more generally:
“I come from a place where rock and roll means something. It means more than music, more than fashion, more than a good pose. It’s a language of a subculture that’s made eternal teenagers of all who follow it. It’s a subculture of integrity, rebellion, frustration, alienation, and the glue that set several generations free from unnatural societal and self-suppression. Rock and roll is political. It is a meaningful way to express dissent, upset the status quo, stir up revolution, and fight for human rights.”
With that pretty much summing up everything, let me just add two personal reflections on the creative power of metal, both of which stem from the dissonant quality of the music itself.
One is the particular kind of connection it forges between mind and body. On the one hand, click any of the video links I’ve helpfully provided under “My Metal” above, and I think you will agree that, no matter how harsh to the ear, it is almost impossible for your body not to move to a good metal beat. The result is a certain kind of unity of mind and body – but not a perfect one, because of the dissonant sound. Consider that many academics play classical music in the background while they work. Metal, in contrast, even as background music (but then what’s the point?!) makes it impossible to work. So rather than a simple unity of mind and body, metal is also a jarring complementarity, a mutual exclusion, which literally forces me from my head, where as an academic I can easily get lost for days, through my body and out into the world. And that encounter between mind and world is in my view a quantum process, where the possible becomes the actual, and as such creativity emerges.
The other way I like to think about this, due to a friend, is that the orthodoxy is confined to seeking consonance in its music, a perfect meshing of sounds (theories) that will be euphorically received by the people standing in line (the mainstream audience for our work). In music the mind apparently gravitates naturally toward harmony, which is why it’s easy to hear metal as mere noise.. But in the end, metal is still music, and a kind of music that is cognitively challenging precisely because it is dissonant. So making metal is a kind of alchemy, a process of transforming noise into music, or nothing into something. Academics – especially scientists – can probably never hope to pull off that trick. But the experience of metal is an inspiration for me, knowing that somewhere it can be done.