Methodological implications of Otherness

One of my favorite things about teaching the "social science fiction" seminar every couple of years is that it gives me an opportunity to revisit old favorite novels and films. Speaker for the Dead certainly qualifies; besides being one of my favorite novels period, it had been four years since I last read it. In preparation for this week's (snow-cancelled, unfortunately) class I "had" to read it again, for about the fifteenth time. In a lot of ways, I think it stands up better than most novels, even if you know what's going to happen -- the plot is engaging, the characters are beautifully drawn with their flaws fully intact, and the philosophical issues are posed in ways that are neither cursory nor overbearing.

Central to the novel, of course, is the typology of ways of relating to the Other that Demosthenes provides: utlanning, framling, ramen, and varelse. Given that I am supposed to be participating in a panel next Saturday at the International Studies Association conference in New Orleans that is going to consider the television series Battlestar Galactica and how it relates to world politics, and further given that my particular brief on this panel is to talk about science fiction in general and BSG in particular as sources of inspiration for our social-scientific methodologies, it may not be a surprise that one of the things that struck me on this reading of Speaker was how one might use Demosthenes' typology as part of a social-scientific study.

Now, many social scientists -- especially in IR -- equate (wrongly, but that's material for another time, or better, for another book) doing social science with the testing of hypotheses about how variables are associated across cases. This kind of "neopositivist" mode of research would, I think, turn Demosthenes' typology into a classification scheme for coding a discrete variable, either a variable attribute of the Other or a variable attribute of us describing how we relate to that Other. And then one would have to plug that variable into some kind of causal hypothesis -- "way of relating to the Other" or "kind of Other" either causes something, or is caused by something -- and look for cases to which to apply the hypothetical generalization. For example: we don't go to war with utlannings or framlings; we only go to war with ramen and varelse. (Call this the "Utlanning/Framling Peace Hypothesis," if you will.)

But this is clearly not what card wants us to do with the typology. Indeed, for Card this is more of a measure of moral maturity, as in the epigraph to Chapter 1. The typology functions as a mirror, as an occasion for self-examination, and it has a clear evaluative dimension: a lesser people would regard all aliens and foreigners as varelse, where a more advanced one would have the capacity to designate some of them ramen. (The "threshold" seems to apply to the varelse/ramen transition more than to any of the others.) Implicit here is that a morally mature people have some reliable way to distinguish between the two categories in a specific case; if they don't, then we are both back in Schmitt-land (who decides, and can they be second-guessed?) and left with the agonizing problem of mistakenly regarding an Other as ramen and trying to negotiate with them when we would have been better off regarding them as varelse and just going about our business the way we might when dealing with animals or plants or rocks. (Is it a sign of moral immaturity that we regard animals -- including gorillas, dolphins, elephants, whiles, etc. -- as varelse rather than ramen?)

All of this leads me to wonder: is there something else that one could do with this typology, something that is neither coding a variable or engaging in moral self-criticism? I think that there is, and it involves a disciplined imagination of what ways of relating to the Other would look like. But more about that when I post again in a couple of days.

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