realism, noun. 1. The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. [...] 2. The quality or fact of representing a person or thing in a way that is accurate and true to life.
–The New Oxford Dictionary of English, second edition
Seeing things as they are — isn’t that a marvellous concept? I mean, honestly, who could be against that? Only the kind of starry-eyed dreamers who should not be allowed within a 20-mile radius of any serious decision. It’s high time to dispense with comforting lies and antiquated superstition; a clear-headed thinker in the 21st century understands that we must secure the existence of our people and a future for–
Laying claim to “realism”, as I’ve hopefully just demonstrated, is a powerful rhetorical strategy. If I’m being realistic, and accepting the world as it is, and you disagree with me, then you are being unrealistic, and quite possibly illogical, irrational or possessed by the demons of Ideology. It’s such an effective trick because we all care about what’s real, how the world works and how to make it better, for ourselves if not for others. The opposite of reality, after all, is “fantasy”, an unproductive and pointless waste of time, the domain of children, not serious adults. (You’d think I’d be tempted to make a quip here about how this happens to be absolutely true of fantasy fiction, but no. That would not only be insulting to children, but also wrong. Fantasy literature isn’t bad because it’s escapist; it’s bad because it has a socially regressive streak a mile wide.)
But beyond such trickery, is there anything more to “realism”? I’d say yes, and quite a bit, but to extract that meaning we’ll first need to look at some things that have taken to calling themselves “realist” in foreign policy theory, literature or legal theory.
Realist state relations theories differ on the particulars, but they typically share most of the following assumptions:
- The primary actors in international relations are sovereign states, not people, groups of people, companies or institutions.
- There is no meaningful authority above the state level; hence, the international system is often called “anarchic”.
- Material conditions are predictive and meaningful; culture and ideology are incidental.
- States are interested in self-preservation.
- A state’s internal workings are irrelevant and have no bearing on its behaviour on the international scene.
- The international system is amoral. Ethical considerations in foreign relations can only obscure practical realities, often leading to far worse outcomes than if the state had pursued solely its own interest.
- The closest thing to a guarantee of self-preservation is attaining the greatest relative power in the international system.
- Hence, states are in constant competition for power and resources.
The European antecedents of modern realism, tellingly enough, are Thucydides, Machiavelli and Hobbes, and some realists do indeed hold that the above assumptions are true because of human nature, which is inherently self-centered and power-seeking. Others make no such claims, but instead maintain that the structure of the international system itself forces states to behave in a self-interested manner or be annihilated. (I would argue that the latter position is actually less coherent; it accepts the former’s conclusions more or less wholesale while erasing a central, if distasteful, premise.)
Basically, realism in foreign policy is a sort of institutionalized paranoia. “There are assholes in your neighbourhood out to get you”, it says. “They can smell the slightest sign of weakness. It stands to reason you’ve got to be the biggest asshole around.” “What if there aren’t actually any assholes?” is not considered a serious question.
There is a great deal to be said about the impact of realism on international relations, and in particular about whether it’s as thoroughly corrupt and contemptible as critics would make it out to be. (Short version: I’m not completely convinced that it is; I have a much bigger problem with liberal approaches, which purport to stress cooperation, absolute gains and peaceful coexistence, but apparently don’t prevent you from supporting military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Let’s stick to the simple stuff, though: realism may be ruthless, bloodthirsty or responsible for Kissinger, but what it isn’t is realistic. It may very well be true that Weimar Germany would have behaved in an identical way as Nazi Germany had the NSDAP not risen to power, but that sort of claim requires at least a bit of proof; instead, realism would have us accept this as self-evident.
Legal realism, an early 20th century current of legal thought which I am almost completely unfamiliar with, was a sort of a stab at a sociology of law, before European eggheads with names like Adorno or Foucault made this kind of analysis fashionable. (Actually that’s a misrepresentation; as I gather, legal realism gave a lot of weight to considerations of individual psychology as well.)
The whole point of this particular “realism” is that “the law” is not what the legislator creates, but what judges and legal practitioners do, and as such is open to a vast range of influences: political, economic, personal, historical, whether the courtroom walls are yellow or beige, etc.
This happens to be how I think about the law as well, so I could get behind this sort of realism. Note however the tremendous difference between this realism and the previous one; while they both claim to represent “reality as it is”, they share basically no other characteristics. (Or almost none; bear with me here.) I also get the feeling that certain people who are very much in favour of the international relations one would sneer at the legal one, possibly by invoking some malign hobgoblin of “judicial activism”.
Literary realism, and Realism in the arts in general, was a 19th century trend that arose in response to the predominance of Romanticism, with its subjectivity, sentimentalism and flights of fancy. Ask a literature nerd to provide examples of realist writers, and they’ll probably say Balzac, Flaubert, Eliot, Chekhov or Tolstoy, or maybe Zola, Dostoyevsky, James, Dickens or Crane. If there’s a second literature nerd within earshot, a debate is likely to erupt: surely I didn’t just hear you say Dickens? All he wrote was a load of sentimental drivel!
This debate, of course, would be a result of people taking the realism of Realism at face value. Dickens relies on implausible coincidences and innocent starving children overdrawn to the point of hilarity — not a realist. Crane and Zola were doing “naturalism”, which is more gritty and about poor people — not realists. Dostoyevsky is metaphysical, religious and symbolist — not a realist. And so on.
Critical careers have been made on demonstrating how realist fiction wasn’t actually about truth to life at all, or rather, how it defined, not described, “real life”; how it had an implicit class allegiance; how it relentlessly reinforced patriarchy; how it was haunted by the age of European colonialism. It would be fairly pointless and extremely boring to recapitulate all of those arguments here, but if you ever have a spare month or two in your life, get yourself a copy of George Eliot’s Middlemarch and read it carefully, paying special attention to how it depicts both the old landed gentry and the new bourgeoisie. It’s fascinating stuff.
Bottom line: realist fiction has never been any more “real” than To the Lighthouse. Surely a significant proportion of readers would more easily relate to that meandering and melancholy stream of consciousness than to the fate of le père Goriot.
Where am I going with all this?
First of all, back to my initial thesis: whenever “realism” is invoked, it has very little to do with verisimilitude, and a great deal to do with portraying one’s own beliefs and perceptions as objective truth. This needs to be repeated, and repeated a lot.
Second, have you noticed the common theme? All realisms seem to be based upon some sort of claim about human nature: either that it’s selfish, that it’s kinda-sorta complicated, or that it’s defined as “the way people act in realist novels”. I’m willing to bet that other common uses of “realism” would share this theme. (I’ve encountered people calling themselves “race realists”, for instance, which basically means “white supremacist but not willing to admit it” — and racism is, after all, a set of beliefs about the inherent inequality of various kinds of human natures.)
There is a certain seductive quality about human nature claims, isn’t there? A responsible skeptic will probably reject all but the most cautious and demonstrably true ones — like “most people are prone to very basic logical fallacies in experimental settings”; almost anything broader than that is easily falsified through counterexamples, which the variety of human experience provides in abundance.
And yet we are drawn to such generalisations. Sometimes we will say that this or that glaring injustice had “made us lose hope in humanity”, or that some act of goodness had restored that hope. The preamble to the US Declaration of Independence still resonates powerfully with many of us, even despite the overt sexism and the erasure of the facts of slavery. Some of us even watch Doctor Who.
So if you take one thing away from this post, make it this: a system of beliefs is well-served by having its own narrative of human nature. Even if that narrative isn’t, to put it strictly, true.
“But do you have such a narrative, know-it-all Internet person?”, I hear you ask. “You keep exhorting us to analyze this and that, to argue in such and such a way, to tell others and ourselves this or that story, but you never give any specifics. What’s your story about human nature, then?”
Well, it’s kind of complicated, but… have you read Antigone?