A Review of Robert Oprisko’s ‘Honor: A Phenomenology’


A Review of Robert Oprisko’s ‘Honor: A Phenomenology’


Robert Oprisko’s book, Honor: A Phenomenology, while published in 2012, offers a fresh new look on how society is structured (from the individual to the international) through the practice of honor. Oprisko carefully outlines the many facets of the honor processes, clearly defining terms that describe how honor shapes our everyday lives. Common words, such as dignity and shame, take on enough meaning to describe each particular aspect of this complex topic. Oprisko engages a tremendous amount of literature on the subject to bring credibility to his argument, and manages to string the various views together in a way that lends itself to a more or less smooth narrative.

Robert Oprisko applies pure theory to situations in everyday life. He dances across a variety of situations, showing how prestige is gained, face is maintained, and academics are linked through affiliation merely by citing another academic journal; such examples help clear up the undefined and disregarded concept of honor. As Oprisko brings to the reader’s attention, “[w]e use multiple concepts interchangeably when speaking about honor, disregarding conceptual differences.” This conglomeration of terms leads to a muddled and confused comprehension of what honor truly is, but the method in which Oprisko designates a specific term to each of honor’s many facets and then proceeds to furnish the definition with a historical or literary example is enlightening.

Another method through which Oprisko manages to create understanding of the topic of honor is the systematic engagement to Homer’s The Iliad, which anchors the multiple conceptions of honor to a common and well known piece of literature. Oprisko’s work illuminates how many of the same motives that spurred the Greeks to Troy can be observed in today’s modern world.

In my opinion, the defining piece of this work is the final chapter, “Lessons from Honor,” in which Oprisko concludes his engagement with honor and simultaneously introduces his grand theory of politics: the Social String Theory. Social String Theory elaborates on Amartya Sen’s idea that every individual has multiple identities, their individual intersectionality, and proposes that each of those relational identities has a certain amount of importance to the individual; Oprisko further elaborates on this paradigm by explaining how these identities link the world together. Sen argues that each individual is complex, and at certain moments one of these identities may eclipse the others and cause extreme behavior.

Oprisko adds to this that while, yes, all people have multiple interests and beliefs, at all points some are larger in importance than others. As is true with actual strings, the entirety of the individual is made up of many different identities, which are equivalent to the threads constituting the string. The individual-threads weave together, connecting shared identities, linking groups together, and drawing lines of loyalty, to create the complex society in which we live. These threads of identity are dynamic, thickening or thinning as the identity gains and/or lose importance to the individual over time.

This idea of all aspects of the international system being connected is a fantastic lens through which to look at international relations. It states that there is a meaning behind every action taken on the world stage, and that those actions will have some effect on everything. There are also implications of how all aspects and ideas of the world in general are fluid; what is vastly important today may be inconsequential tomorrow.

While the ideas expressed in this work are innovative, perhaps the intended audience is not undergraduate students. In my experience while reading this work it is easy to become confused with the quotes and political jargon, and the author’s intended point is lost. For example, each chapter offers the ideas of many different theorists, and often these ideas are conflicting. If not paying close attention to Oprisko’s commentary between the quotes he uses, the counteracting quotations can leave the reader’s head spinning in confusion, particularly if they are not accustomed to the intricacies of socio-political theory.

As an entire work, Honor: A Phenomenology is an excellent first publication from Robert Oprisko in that it establishes a concrete base for his ideas, clarifies the use of terms currently employed to describe the processes he investigates, and diverges from previously existing theories with his addition of the Social String Theory. He is establishing himself as a force in the field of international political theory, and pays homage to the theorists before him by including many of their arguments as either supporting evidence or as a counterpoint to the topic at hand. Oprisko also implies the need for another book to further expand upon his String Theory, which was only a small portion of the final chapter even though it seemed an important part of his political viewpoint.

This book offers a fascinating insight into how the world is run, something that is never as transparent as one would like to believe. Oprisko lifts the veil by means of his analysis, revealing that the entirety of society is run through the mechanisms of honor; the reader gets a peek at the (sometimes unpleasant) truth, and yet something is missing. Perhaps the fact that honor truly is a part of everyday life causes it to seem unexciting. While the ideas fuelling the book are quite excellent, it is easy enough to see their impact on culture and accept their presence in it. This work lacks some element of doubt that would truly engage the reader and seem to open a new world before his or her eyes. In this case, the ordinariness of the existing societal structure, even when the hidden intricacies are illuminated, fails to spur one’s imagination. However, this book will leave the reader inspecting daily relations and activities for further depth and meaning beyond the fact that such actions are part of the daily norm, an impact that Oprisko would surely appreciate.

Dr. Oprisko’s book offers an informative look into the multifaceted world of honor. For anyone who is interested in the topic or even only interested in why people act the way they do, this work is very informative. If the reader is able to focus on the text and is willing to invest the time that is required to comprehend it, the information and understanding that he or she is left with is very rewarding.

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