Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming

Facing the Planetary: Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming

by William E. Connolly

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In Facing the Planetary William E. Connolly expands his influential work on the politics of pluralization, capitalism, fragility, and secularism to address the complexities of climate change and to complicate notions of the Anthropocene. Focusing on planetary processes—including the ocean conveyor, glacier flows, tectonic plates, and species evolution—he combines a critical understanding of capitalism with an appreciation of how such nonhuman systems periodically change on their own. Drawing upon scientists and intellectuals such as Lynn Margulis, Michael Benton, Alfred North Whitehead, Anna Tsing, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, Pope Francis, Bruno Latour, and Naomi Klein, Connolly focuses on the gap between those regions creating the most climate change and those suffering most from it. He addresses the creative potential of a "politics of swarming" by which people in different regions and social positions coalesce to reshape dominant priorities. He also explores how those displaying spiritual affinities across differences in creed can energize a militant assemblage that is already underway.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822373254
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 02/02/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 814 KB

About the Author

William E. Connolly is Krieger-Eisenhower Professor at Johns Hopkins University where he teaches political theory. He is a former editor of Political Theory and one of the cofounders of Theory & Event. His recent books include The Fragility of ThingsA World of BecomingCapitalism and Christianity, American Style; and Pluralism, all also published by Duke University Press.

Read an Excerpt

Facing The Planetary

Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming

By William E. Connolly

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7325-4



Michel Foucault explored the politics of the disciplinary society within enclosed institutions such as monasteries, madhouses, prisons, factories, schools, and localities. Later he began to address the related politics of impersonal control by which the behavior of entire constituencies is channeled in some directions rather than others. From disciplines within closed institutions to impersonal, probabilistic controls distributed across an entire regime. The simplest model of the latter would be an air terminal where people appear to be running around in different directions even as the plane schedules and gate locations pull them into discernible patterns. A street version would be an array of cameras, cops, arrest records, and traffic signs in the inner city that record anonymous movements, regulate trajectories, and create police questioning of "suspicious people." The patterns of control that emerge are probabilistic because they establish general trends while many escape, ignore, bypass, or flout them. I use the word discipline to capture both modes of containment: the institutional politics of normalization and the probabilistic processes of impersonal regulation.

I also need to explore diverse models of belonging that have attracted different thinkers and constituencies to this or that mode of discipline. The idea is to discern how diverse practices of belonging, while competing with each other, have often also commonly participated in what I call sociocentrism. In its most extreme form, sociocentrism is the propensity to interpret or explain social processes by reference to other social processes alone. It is often connected to perspectives that treat nature as a set of resources to extract. A less dramatic version occurs when you acknowledge that this or that social order is profoundly affected by its climate, fauna, and soil systems but act as if that environment is set on long, slow time. A more attenuated version yet is when you acknowledge that capitalism has become a geologic force exerting profound effects on climate and many other features of the environment but ignore or minimize the self-organizing amplifiers and internal volatilities of planetary processes themselves. Yet another version is to acknowledge modes of self-organization in species evolution but to minimize such capacities — and the periodic volatilities attached to them — with respect to climate, oceans, glacier flows, and the like.

Sociocentrism is often bound to notions of human exceptionalism and nature as a deposit of resources to use and master; in it humans are treated as the only entitled agents in the world. Those themes in turn are often linked to specific visions of freedom and belonging to the world. To dramatize diverse renditions of the connections among sociocentrism, exceptionalism, freedom, and belonging I focus on four classic models that competed for hegemony before the actual and potential ravages of climate change were widely recognized. The affinities across radical difference among Rousseau, Isaiah Berlin, Hayek, and Marx may help us to see how much work must still be done to reconfigure sociocentrism, human exceptionalism, and dominant modes of belonging. Where pertinent, I will note recent work within the relevant traditions that begin to make the needed adjustments.

Belonging to a Free Nation

Foucault, of course, was not the first Western thinker to study discipline in relation to freedom. Rousseau did so when he asked, in The Government of Poland, how to lift an entire population in an autocratic setting geographically vulnerable to invasion into a unified, territorial state in which each adult male member could eventually hope to become a qualified citizen of the nation. His goal was to bring a territorial people to a point where their national mode of belonging could set the unreflective background from which the free participation of all could proceed. Freedom through national identification and regimentation, you might say. The goal was to bring freedom, participation, belonging together into the nation.

Because of contingencies of history — which included the large size of the territory, its climate, and its geographic vulnerability to invasion — the Polish people were not yet ready to become citizens of a democratic nation, in Rousseau's judgment. A host of state and local disciplines were needed to lift them gradually to the necessary level of political intelligence, local initiative, and national belonging. Each young male Pole, for instance, was to serve in the militia for a short period. Such service would ensure the defense of the country against predatory powers such as Russia; it would promote male identification with the nation; and the short-term character of the service would curtail the danger a standing military poses to the spirit of the nation.

The leaders of the nation-in-waiting should also set a national style of dress. This would discourage people from becoming attracted to those from other countries and, in general, discourage cross-national travel, sexual intercourse, and marriage. Landholdings should be reduced from their current size, which made land available only to a few, and gradually distributed much more broadly. This feat would decrease the power of the nobility and prepare peasants to become citizens through identification with the nation. Yearly festivals were to be held to dramatize the nation; at these festivals a few members who had demonstrated love of country were to be lifted to full citizenship during a public ceremony. Rousseau loved public ceremonies.

Paper money was to be eliminated because it allows lords and entrepreneurs to transfer holdings outside the territory and because the very mobility of money creates financial bubbles that eventually burst. Rousseau was a smart guy. Get rid of paper money, he said, if you seek to generate probable behavior conducive to formation of an egalitarian nation. Rousseau believed in private property, but he was not a capitalist theorist of endless growth. His Discourse on Political Economy, for instance, celebrated small, privately owned farms and campaigned against the fetish of economic growth. The latter project always works against equality.

Men were to be retained as the official head of each family so that internal conflicts within families were curtailed and so that internal family disputes would not spill over into the common life. Even if the innate differences between men and women were minor, Rousseau insisted, the male gender must prevail in order to foster the unity of the family. The power of the Catholic Church — a church Rousseau did not admire — was to be decreased gradually so as to reduce conflicts it might pose to the unity of the nation. Its historic presence in Poland presented a dilemma for him. To dismantle it rapidly would disorient adults whose lives had been structured around its authority. But to keep it as it had been in Poland up to that date would be to run the risk of church-state conflicts that could tear a nation apart. So retain the church and gradually defuse its power.

There are several other disciplines and impersonal regulations advocated by Rousseau, but I think the point is clear. An "individual" (male head of family) cannot be free unless he belongs to a nation governed by a common ethos; a nation cannot be free unless it is roughly egalitarian economically and its male citizens identify with it above all else as they participate in it. Such an improbable combination cannot be engendered unless a whole series of social disciplines and impersonal controls are introduced to support it.

The Government of Poland, in effect, provides a series of disciplines to negotiate the paradox of politics Rousseau had already identified in The Social Contract. The paradox was that before citizens could will and obey good laws they needed to have been imbued with civic virtue, but before they could be imbued with civic virtue they needed to have been governed by good laws and disciplines. He had, in that utopian context, sought to resolve the paradox in principle through mediation by an almost divine legislator who could lift people beyond their historically imbued limitations. Every people has a history, and most of those histories point in specific ways against promotion of the highest human possibility. Poland was specific in its modes of deviation but typical in its fact of deviation.

The paradox of politics in principle is given a more deep and historical gloss with respect to Poland, which has a contingent history replete with multiple unfortunate happenstances; that territorial history contains many elements that push against the needed confluence of belonging, egalitarianism, freedom, participation, and nationhood. If the Legislator provides a fictive "as if" resolution of the paradox in Rousseau's ideal republic, The Government of Poland pursues a rocky route toward a less complete achievement as it struggles with and against the contingent installations of actual history to forge a nation. To be free is to belong to a nation, and to participate wisely in the nation to which you belong is to internalize a host of collective disciplines.

The anxiety that infuses Rousseau's explorations of gender, sexuality, freedom, participation, belonging, and nationhood are abundantly on display in The Government of Poland. The anxiety is that conscious and unconscious modes of resistance to the needed disciplines could undermine the things he most wants to pursue: civic virtue, belonging, and nationhood.

Rousseau's anxiety is exemplary, even for those who do not support the mode of national belonging he pursues. How so? Well, it is impossible to be free without internalizing some modes of discipline, belonging, and attachment. Belonging both enables and constrains freedom, then. It both supports and threatens it. That is one of the paradoxes to be engaged with respect to freedom, belonging, participation, citizenship, and equality. Indeed the paradox has become more acute today, when it also becomes incumbent to range beyond the modes of sociocentrism that convinced so many modern Western thinkers that they could limit attention largely to internal social processes or, in a more attenuated sense, that the natural forces most pertinent to social life move along gradual trajectories. Today the question becomes how to renegotiate persistent tensions between freedom and belonging during an era when fateful intersections between the social organization of life and planetary processes of climate, ocean currents, tectonic plates, glacier flows, and species evolution with powers of their own have again become so palpable. It is hard to see how a communitarian could come to terms with these conditions without making radical changes in the notions of community, belonging, and attachment that infuse these traditions.

Belonging to the Normal Self

It may seem to a few that pursuit of the nation is the chief problem, that to drop that pursuit is to resolve the issue. Well, pursuit of the nation — and of any singular identity — does pose a series of major problems today. But to dissolve those collective pursuits into a plurality of identifications still does not suffice. Some will say that individualist or negative images of freedom, as they are sometimes called, escape the living paradoxes Rousseau and other nationalists encounter. But individualism actually relocates the issues rather than eliminating them.

To avoid the dangers of pursuing nationhood Berlin, Richard Flathman, and Hayek deflate positive, collective freedom in order to protect the freedom of individuals. But when you scratch these theories it becomes clear that they too presuppose a context of belonging in which individual freedoms are set. Thus Flathman in his early work did emphasize the priority of negative freedom as the space to do what you want. But later he acknowledged the central role for disciplines that enable us both to be free individuals and to obey the reasonable dictates of the state. A set of disciplines, Flathman came to see, actually set intrinsic conditions to individual freedom. To expand upon Flathman, you might say that you can't even do what you want unless you have internalized a set of disciplines and norms that allow you to set priorities among the mad rush of desires that would otherwise circulate through you. Indeed you can't perceive what you want until your eyes, ears, skin, and nose have been disciplined through prior activities to organize multiple portals of the sensorium into memory-saturated, intersensory perceptions. A "haptic image," for instance, is an image in which a memory of the texture of that which was felt before — say, the texture of the skin of an old person — now enters into the quality of the visual image itself. Without tactile experience folded into tacit memory the visual image would lose its texture. Discipline of the senses is thus an ineliminable part of freedom, even as many of its modes also constitute constraints on freedom.

Let us pursue the problem of individualist belonging through one strain in the work of Berlin, the defender of freedom from collective restraints who might be assumed to be an outlier on the issue of belonging. There is much to admire in his classic essay "Two Concepts of Liberty." Berlin worries productively there about the authoritarian proclivities of those who think that the diverse human goods can fit readily into the unity of one society. He is a pluralist, though not, unfortunately, of the sort who plays up the productive tension between the politics of established diversity and the disruptive politics by which new identities, faiths, rights, and aspirations periodically surge into being to jostle established balances. His basic idea (at least in the essay under review) is that the essence of freedom, or liberty as he prefers to call it, is the provision of social space in which individuals can do what they want. Limits on this space are necessary, but there is not much to freedom unless that space is ample.

The republican critique of Berlin — with which I concur as far as it goes — is that he does not appreciate enough how the space of negative freedom rings hollow if citizens reside in an authoritarian regime whose rulers can take those very liberties away if they choose. Moreover, even when such a risk is low — if it ever is — freedom is not at home with itself until participation in self-governance is operative. So now freedom involves both spaces of action and the right to participate in self-governance.

Note, though, that both Berlin's position and the republican critique of it remain contained largely within the assumption of sociocentrism. Sociocentrism, in individualist, nationalist, communist, neoliberal, and republican traditions, assumes that a political economy is either in charge of nature, or that the limits nature poses to it are set on long, slow time, or, in a more attenuated version, that if we lift the human footprint nature will settle down into patterns that are benign for us. Given any of these assumptions, questions of agency, explanation, and belonging in practice tend to devolve around attention to internal cultural practices. The debates between different types of sociocentrism are over which internal factors are the most important.

Let us turn, then, to Berlin on the question of belonging. Since he is critical of the pursuit of nationhood — as a pluralist should be who seeks to allow a diversity of values and constituencies to negotiate political settlements — it may seem that belonging does not achieve much priority within the pursuit of negative liberty. But it does, even as Berlin relocates the site on which it is set. Consider a few quotations from the essay in question.

The essence of the notion of liberty, both in the "positive" and "negative" senses, is the holding off of something or someone — of others who trespass on my field or assert their authority over me, or of obsessions, fears, neuroses, irrational forces — intruders and despots of one kind or another.

If I wish to preserve my liberty, it is not enough to say that it must not be violated unless someone or other ... authorizes its violation, I must establish a society in which there must be some frontiers of freedom which nobody should be permitted to cross. ... What these rules or commandments will have in common is that they are accepted widely and are grounded so deeply in the actual nature of men as they have developed through history, as to be an essential part of what it means to be a normal human being. Genuine belief in the inviolability of the individual entails some such absolute stand.


Excerpted from Facing The Planetary by William E. Connolly. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Prelude: Myth and the Planetary  1
1. Sociocentrism, the Anthropocene, and the Planetary  15
2. Species Evolution and Cultural Creativity  37
3. Creativity and the Scars of Being  63
4. Distributed Agencies and Bumpy Temporalities  89
5. The Politics of Swarming and the General Strike  121
6. Postcolonial Ecologies, Extinction Events, and Entangled Humanism  151
Postlude: Capitalism and the Planetary  175
Acknowledgments  199
Notes  201
Bibliography  217
Index  225

What People are Saying About This

Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism - Elizabeth A. Povinelli

"The theory that emerges from Facing the Planetary accepts the force of the human impact on contemporary geological, biological, and meteorological forms and forces while insisting that the world also periodically wreaks havoc for its own reasons and cannot therefore be made subject to human (in)action. The range of William E. Connolly's encounter with past and present political theory and contemporary evolutionary, ecological, and climatic science is impressive and reflects the intellectual powers of one of our major American political theorists."

Nomad Citizenship: Free-Market Communism and the Slow-Motion General Strike - Eugene W. Holland

"A most important work, both for its timeliness and for its breadth—for the breadth of its sources, ranging from the Book of Job, through modern philosophy, to the latest climate science; for the breadth of the planetary forces taken into consideration, too numerous to mention; for the breadth of the obstacles it identifies to adequately addressing the Anthropocene, including sociocentrism, human exceptionalism, geogradualism, religious and secular dominionism, and the 'two cultures' separation between the humanities and earth sciences."

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