Der Derian, James. “The (S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance and Speed”
International Studies Quarterly, 1990, 34, pp. 295-310
annotation by Laura Smith (Theories of Media, Winter 2003)

James Der Derian’s merging of media theories with theories of international relations provides a prescient analysis to situations on the global scene today. Although Der Derian wrote “The (S)pace of International Relations: Simulation, Surveillance and Speed” in 1990, his thoughts are eerily relevant to the present “War on Terrorism” and potential war with Iraq. Colin Powell’s February 2003 PowerPoint presentation to the United Nations, making a case for war against Iraq, exemplifies the role of surveillance in international relations decision-making today. Its centrality to Powell’s case – really, the crux of his argument rested on the “proof” provided by intelligence surveillance of Iraqi activity (via telephone taps and photo surveillance) – gives reason to pause before being swept into supporting the call for war, especially after reading Der Derian’s piece.

Der Derian’s piece is effective on several levels. First, he demonstrates how adopting a poststructuralist view of international relations allows for an analysis of the effects on IR of three dominant “forces” of technology – simulation, surveillance, and speed – by outlining the limitations imposed by other theories of IR (particularly, realism, neorealism and neoliberalism). He discusses the three technological forces as “(post)modern practices” that are “elusive because they are more “real” in time than space, their power is evidenced through the exchange of signs not goods, and their effects are transparent and pervasive rather than material and discrete.” (297) He goes on to say that “a poststructuralist analysis of discourse is called for to show how these new technological practices mediate and often dominate our relations with other states,” (ibid) because unlike realist discourses of international relations, poststructuralism does not restrict analysis to “binary oppositions” like self-other, domestic-international, and war-peace (297 and abstract).

His examples of the way in which the forces of simulation, surveillance, and speed affect international relations are effective, in that they highlight practices that are presumably widely in use today (although they appear anecdotal in the article). However, Der Derian’s argument falters a bit when he cites examples from pop culture (e.g. political thriller films) to highlight instances of surveillance, simulation or speed at work in international relations. This inclusion weakens his argument (as it is difficult to equate cases of surveillance in political thriller movies with real-life examples), thereby lessening the effectiveness of the weightier, more substantive cases he outlines.

Students of media theory might find of particular interest Der Derian’s discussion of hyperrealism, as well as his argument that these technological developments (especially “simulation”) tend to make events in international relations more real than what is real – becoming “hyperreal.” He cites Baudrillard in this discussion.

Der Derian concludes the article in a rather disappointing way, admittedly offering “no conclusions” to the preceding discussion, only rearticulating the key questions raised by his theory merger. He does not attempt to answer these questions, but proceeds to negate their importance through the following last two sentences of the article: “This is not to pretend that the boundaries do not ‘really’ exist, or that they can be synthesized away. Rather, it is to see and study them as mythic markers for differences that we need but need not war over.” (309) Der Derian seems to be saying that the mere recognition of the “mythic” nature of the previously established boundaries in IR theory is what is important; and as long as this is recognized, his goal is accomplished.

Finally, while Der Derian’s analysis offers a valuable starting point from which to bring IR theory into the twenty-first century to account for the significant effects of technological forces on issues of international relations, two disturbing themes underscore the entire article: hyperreality and paranoia. He states the following on page 301:
The object of this inquiry is not to conduct an internal critique of the simulation industry, nor to claim some privileged grounds for disproving its conclusions. Rather, the intent is to show how, in the construction of a realm of meaning that has minimal contact with historically specific events or actors, simulations have demonstrated the power to displace the “reality” of international relations they purport to represent. Simulations have created a new space in international relations where actors act, things happen, and the consequences have no origins except the artificial cyberspace of the simulations themselves.

Any student of IR theory – or any person, really – should be alarmed at this state of affairs. Der Derian is saying that these technological forces have, in a way, supplanted reality; but that their effects are still very real. He goes on to discuss the way in which surveillance works through, and symbolizes, the medium of paranoia, and claims that the system of surveillance “can induce paranoid behavior” (306). He concludes this section by speculating, not unlike Walter Benjamin or Jean Baudrillard, about a possible solution to the problem, almost a revolution: “But what kind of feedback can possibly cure the modern cyber-paranoic? Perhaps our best hope and the best elevation for understanding the other at the highest reaches remains the much-maligned ‘summit.’” (306)