of deans and down pillows: violent entrepreneurship in community’s great war

When I last assessed Community‘s civil war, that post was also an elaborate effort to avoid an assortment of homework assignments. Twoscore and one week later, the stakes are higher, but the analytic appeal of Troy and Abed’s fratricidal violence remains unshakeable. In rapt anticipation of next week’s Community relaunch, I recently revisited my “Pillows and Blankets”-inspired guide to mass atrocity mitigation. In the course of my brief reconsideration, I noticed–to my fond surprise–that a fellow Redditor had approvingly re-upped the post, provoking a brief, if useful discussion on its analytic shortcomings. While Ennil, the commenting Redditor, +1’ed my analysis, he questioned my dearth of detail on the contributions of “external actors.” As Securing Rights readers may have observed, I’ve recently approached comparative political and foreign policy analysis from various indirect standpoints, including American history, science fiction, and popular culture. To the extent that Ennil’s critique allows me to continue this trend, and given the timeliness of the cultural reference, I’d like to offer a brief reassessment of Community‘s external conflict drivers.

Indeed, although my initial post highlighted an iterative relationship between local and international conflict dynamics, I reduced my analysis of external drivers to a brief aside on “conflict entrepreneurs,” seeking to emphasize localized drivers. As Jason Stearns has observed in the context of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this analytic inclination is all-too-frequent among conflict watchers, who for various reasons view particular conflict components as more or less responsible for violence than others. Where Community is concerned, I prioritized the localized elements of the Pillowtown/Blanketsburg conflict, likely in an effort to simplify the war’s didactic purpose. On first view, a localized analysis is not hard to achieve, and bears out in an anthropological survey of both Pillowtownian and Blanketsburgian institutions, networks, and collective cultures. The Burnsian narrator conveys the existence of norms of military combat, which prove locally insalient: “rules are agreed upon, but casualties are inevitable,” he says, detailing Pierce’s unfettered melee during the Battle of Big Bulletin Board, after which the Show’s Worst Character experiences an “inaugural” case of erectile dysfunction. And, as I mentioned in the initial post, battles’ causes and drivers appear localized, oriented around the protection of particular pillow/blanket fort segments, rather than a supralocal structure (the blanket-state, as Troy might describe it).

A revised perspective on the Community civil war, however, bolsters a pluralistic interpretation of political violence, one which acknowledges the varied and dynamic salience of local, national, and international factors in facilitating and driving conflict. In my initial post, I described Pillowtownian and Blanketsburgian identities as “contested, yet transient,” whatever that means. At any rate, my initial interpretation cast the divided societies’ communal identities as intensely localized, dismissing supralocal networks’ political relevance. On second glance, this analysis does not hold, and I’d like to apologize to those for whom Pillowtownianism and Blanketsburgianism are historically, personally, and culturally salient. In reality, “Pillowtownian” and “Blanketsburgian,” like “Union” and “Confederate,” are both positive and negative constructs–that is, each identity is defined by what it is (positive), as well as by what it is not. To be Pillowtownian is, as Abed would say, to embrace the true meaning of “pillowness,” while Troy’s “blanketness” possesses its own, internally coherent cultural, social, and political characteristics. Pillowtownianism’s existence, however, is also explicitly contingent on the genesis of Blanketsburgianism: according to the Burnsian narrator, Pillowtown, née New Fluffytown, emerges as a political institution only after Blanketsburg’s secession. For comparative perspective, consider James McPherson’s linguistic analysis of the Civil War’s impact on American identity: “Before 1861 the two words ‘United States’ were generally used as a plural noun: ‘the United States are a republic.’ After 1865 the United States became a singular noun.” Extracting localized identities from their supralocal context, therefore, diminishes their political meaning.

In addition to their social efforts, the political contributions of external actors are also difficult to pin down. Much due to Human Rights First’s research,  policy and non-governmental actors over the past half-decade have exhibited a mounting interest in mass-atrocity enablers. As the term “external actors” implies, analysts often view “enablers” as ambiguous third parties, operating at a calculated distance from violent conflict. Community‘s civil war reveals a flip-side to this analysis, one which, in evading definitional certainty, bears important considerations for conflict mitigation. In contrast to my initial assessment, in which “conflict entrepreneurs,” the Dean’s Guinness World Record aspirations, and mercenary networks play a marginal role, the external involvement of conflict third-parties varies, often dynamically, between embedded engagement and cautious detachment.

In my initial post, I referenced Chang’s Changlorious Basterds as a “pubescent group of rag-tag mercenaries,” using “mercenary” as a pejorative, rather than analytic term. On second glance, Jeff’s mercenary role is more revealing of the political dynamism of external actors. Vadim Volkov uses “violent entrepreneurship” to refer to Russia’s post-Soviet criminal networks, which filled political, social, and economic space made vulnerable by the Russian state’s institutional absence. However, as the Pillowtown/Blanketsburg war indicates, “violent entrepreneurship” also conveys an interaction between international material networks, national opportunists, and local perpetrators of political violence, each of whom wield conflict as a means towards political and social control. Jeff, for all intents and purposes, is an entrepreneur of violence, inciting both Pillowtownian and Blanketsburgian forces in a cynical, elaborate truancy effort. Prior to the “Pillows and Blankets” episode, John Goodman’s Vice Dean Laybourne, who seeks Troy’s air-conditioning repair talents, is the ultimate violent entrepreneur (a less-poetic variation on Ice-T’s Original Gangster), as he exploits Troy and Abed’s pillow/blanket dissonance for his building-maintenance ends. Jeff and the Vice Dean’s diverse conflict engagements underline a typology of violent entrepreneurship, through which conflict’s local, national, and international levels interact.

Also, no one likes Britta.

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