Category Archives: ecology

Agency, Nature and Emergent Properties

An Interview with Jane Bennett

by Gulshan Khan

Jane Bennett is Professor of Political Theory and Chair of the Department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, USA. In 1986 she received her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Massachusetts. In the following year her dissertation was published with New York University Press under the title Unthinking faith and enlightenment: nature and state in a post-Hegelian era. Her subsequent published books include Thoreau’s Nature: Ethics, Politics, and the Wild (Sage Publications, 1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments, Crossings, and Ethics (Princeton University Press, 2001). Her new book, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, is forthcoming from Duke University Press. In 1988 Bennett became an Assistant Professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, where she also became the Elizabeth Todd Professor in the year 2000 until 2004 when she moved to John Hopkins. She has been a visiting fellow at universities in Britain and in Australia. Bennett is on the editorial and advisory board of a number of prestigious journals and book series ranging from Political Theory to Critical Horizons.

Bennett co-edited The Politics of Moralizing (Routledge, 2002) with Michael J. Shapiro and co-edited In the Nature of Things: Language, Politics and the Environment (University of Minnesota Press, 1993) with William Chaloupka. She and William E. Connolly are in the beginning stages of co-writing a political theory textbook, Friends of the Earth: Minor Voices in the History of Political Thought. These encounters have contributed to Bennett’s distinctive notion of ‘vital materiality’. Her intellectual trajectory is also indebted to aspects of the work of Lucretius (1995), Spinoza (1949), Diderot (1996), Nietzsche (1994), Deleuze and Guattari (1987), Henry Thoreau (1968) and Bruno Latour (1993). Her notion of ‘vital materiality’ also builds upon Michel Foucault’s notion of bio-power and Judith Butler’s early notion of ‘bodies that matter’. Conversely, the notion of agency that stems from Bennett’s work makes an important and substantive contribution, away from the politics of performativity associated with Butler and towards a politics of nonhuman matter and agency. She invokes a new and different political imaginary outside the Hegelian and psychoanalytic framework of the subject and object/other. In this sense her work shares a ‘subject matter’ as well an intellectual affinity with Elizabeth Grosz’s (1994) Deleuzian inspired works. Following a long tradition of thinkers who have sought to de-centre ‘the human’ (for example, Louis Althusser and Michel Foucault), Bennett’s emphasis on nonhuman matter challenges the ontological privileging of ‘the human’. However, her approach creatively affirms the necessity of human embodiment, understood as one site of agency within and across a multiplicity of other material bodies and formations. Her notion of agency also seeks to avoid reducing politics to morality, which has implications for the predominant analytical framework that is heavily underpinned by a Kantian conception of moral agency with its emphasis on intuitions, duties and obligations. Bennett’s contribution to political theory with its emphasis on nature, ethics, aesthetics, environmentalism and vitalism is inter-laced with a political interest in the literary writings of Kafka, Coetzee, Thoreau and Kundera, on whom she has published several articles and essays. Her work has clear implications for re-thinking our relations to and engagement with the vitality of nature.

 GULSHAN KHAN: Jane, thanks for agreeing to this interview. I would like to begin by exploring some of the themes you are currently working on in your new book and issues raised by your paper presented at the ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics’ conference at Nottingham University in 2007.1  I will then move onto questions about your theory about the enchantment of modernity, nature and agency.

You are currently working on a book entitled Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things (2010), and I find myself drawn to your version of post-structuralism, which does not reduce life or matter to the play of language. Instead, you outline a layered notion of reality and in particular you delineate a conception of matter as a lively force present in all things. You seem to want to challenge our received notions of the distinction between nature and culture. For example, in your article ‘The force of things’ (2004) you confront Theodor Adorno’s (1990) point that we cannot make any positive claims about the ‘non-identity’ between the concept and the thing. By way of contrast, you offer an affirmative account of this non-identity understood as the play of lively animate forces. Can I press you to explain your notion of ‘things’ or ‘vital materiality’ and how it differs from contending versions?

JANE BENNETT: I’m trying to take ‘things’ more seriously than political theorists had been taking them. By ‘things’ I mean the materialities usually figured as inanimate objects, passive utilities, occasional interruptions or background context – figured, that is, in ways that give all the active, creative power to humans. I focus on five exemplary ‘things’ in the book: stem cells, fish oils, electricity, metal and trash. Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a ‘partition of the sensible’. In other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane, or the way omega-3 fatty acids can transform brain chemistry and mood, or the way the differential rates of cooling organize the unpredictable patterns of granite.

My experiment is this: What would the world look and feel like were the life/matter binary to fall into disuse, were it to be translated into differences in degree rather than kind? And how, in particular, would our political analyses of events change were they to acknowledge an elemental, material agency distributed across bodies, human and nonhuman? Who or what would count as a ‘stakeholder’? How would a ‘public’ be constituted? Would politics become less centred around the punitive project of finding individual human agents responsible for the public problems of, say, an electricity blackout or an epidemic of obesity, and more concerned with identifying how the complex human–nonhuman assemblage that’s churning out the negative effect holds itself together – how it endures or feeds itself? Until we do that, political attempts to remedy the problem are likely to be ineffective.

An ‘assemblage’ is an ad hoc grouping of an ontologically diverse range of actants, of vital materialities of various sorts. It is a vibrant, throbbing collective with an uneven topography: some of the points at which its diverse affects and bodies cross paths are more heavily trafficked than others, and thus power is not distributed equally across its surface. An assemblage has no sovereignty in the classical sense, for it is not governed by a central head: no one materiality or type of material has sufficient competence to determine consistently its trajectory or impact. The effects generated by an assemblage are, rather, emergent properties, emergent in that their ability to make something happen (a blackout, a hurricane, a war on terror) is distinct from the sum of the force of each materiality considered alone. An assemblage thus has both a distinctive history of formation and a finite life span.

To be clear: the agency of assemblages of which I speak is not the strong kind of agency traditionally attributed to humans or God. My contention, rather, is that if one looks closely enough, the productive impetus of change is always a congregation. As my friend Ben Corson helped me to see, not only is human agency always already distributed to ‘our’ tools, microbes, minerals and sounds. It only emerges as agentic via its distribution into the ‘foreign’ materialities we are all too eager to figure as mere objects.

It is, I think, the ‘responsibility’ of humans to pay attention to the effects of the assemblages in which we find ourselves participating, and then to work experimentally to alter the machine so as to minimize or compensate for the suffering it manufactures. Sometimes it may be necessary to try to extricate your body from that assemblage, to refuse to contribute more energy to it, and sometimes to work to tilt the existing assemblage in a different direction. In a world where agency is always distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning moral blame becomes a virtue. Outrage should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do little good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, re-invokes the need to detach ethics from moralism.

KHAN: What kind of materialist are you? How does your work differ from other models of materialism, for example: the Marxist model of ‘dialectical materialism’ and what we might call the ‘materialism of the body’ expressed in the work of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler? I am particularly interested to know whether or not you think we can make qualitative distinctions between desirable and non-desirable forms of matter? If all matter is characterized by an intrinsic vitality of forces, do these differ only in terms of their relative quantities and intensities, or could we perhaps use Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of active or reactive forces to evaluate them?

BENNETT: Mechanistic materialism does not attract me; it implicitly returns us to the status of consummate agents who run the machine. I am indebted to Spinoza’s idea of a world of bodies that strive to enhance their power of activity by forming alliances with other bodies, to Diderot’s picture of matter as a spiderweb of vibrating threads, to the Nietzsche for whom nature is a ‘play of forces and waves of forces, at the same time one and many’, to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of a ‘material vitalism that doubtless exists everywhere but is ordinarily hidden’, and to Bruno Latour’s idea of nonhuman ‘actants’.

I’m also drawn to Epicurean materialism because of its naturalist, immanentist sensitivity, because of its idea that there is a swerve or unpredictability built right into the heart of matter (the clinamen), and because of its faith that everything is made of the same quirky stuff, the same ‘building blocks’, if you will. Lucretius speaks of primordia; today we might call them atoms, quarks, particle-streams, matter-energy. This same-stuff claim, which insinuates that deep down all’s connected, resonates with an ecological sensibility, and that is important to me. But in contrast to some versions of deep ecology, the oneness to which Epicureanism attests is neither a smooth harmony of parts nor a diversity unified by a common spirit. It is (as Michel Serres (2001) says about it in The Birth of Physics) a turbulent field in which various and variable materialities collide, congeal, morph and disintegrate.

Epicureanism is too simple in its imagery of individual atoms falling and swerving in the void, but I share its conviction that there is a natural tendency to the way things are – and that human decency and a decent politics are fostered to the extent that we are tuned-in to the strange logic of turbulence.

This ontological field of turbulence is heterogeneous, with lots of internal differences and differentiation. This differentiation is profound in the sense that there is no one key difference, no single red thread – ‘this is human, this is not’ – running through it. Any assemblage that forms and operates is a joint effort of human and nonhuman elements. An especially dogged resistance to anthropocentrism is perhaps the main difference between the ‘vital materialism’ I pursue and Marx’s materialism, Foucault’s biopower, and Judith Butler’s early notion of bodies that matter. I emphasize, even over-emphasize, the agentic contributions of nonhuman forces (operative within ‘external nature’ but also within our bodies and artefacts), in an attempt to counter the narcissistic reflex of human language and thought, as well as the conception of a humanity created in the image of a god who cares about us above everything else. What counts as the material of vital materialism? Is it only human labour and the socio-economic entities made by men using raw materials? Or is materiality more potent than that? How can political theory do a better job of recognizing the active participation of nonhuman forces in every event and every stabilization? Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?

More needs to be said about historical materialism and the place of a notion of active materiality within it: Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (2008) address this in an edited volume entitled the New Materialisms. I’ll also demur on the complicated question of the materialism of the body in Foucault and Butler, except to say that the more one focuses on the activeness of the elements that compose the human body, the less sufficient the notion of the ‘incorporation’ or ‘materialization’ of human ideas and practices seems. The bodily incorporation of cultural processes is only one side of the story. Equally important are the persistent lines of connection between us and interior forces (for example, hormones, chemicals, micro-organisms) and between us-and-our-interior and the exterior milieu. What becomes appropriate is to explore the affinities between our bodily composition and that of nonhumans, both natural and artificial. I agree with Deleuze and Guattari when they say that ‘a fibre stretches from a human to an animal, from a human or an animal to molecules, from molecules to particles, and so on to the imperceptible’.

One additional point about this ‘vital materiality’: I’ve found a rich source of ideas about materiality also in the tradition of ‘vitalism’ even though I do not endorse that tradition finally. Especially important are those early 20th century strands called ‘critical’ or ‘modern’ vitalism, whose advocates included Henri Bergson and Hans Driesch. These vitalists distinguished themselves from the ‘naive vitalism’ of soul by means of their close engagement with experimental science. They of course were anti-materialists of a sort, for many of the ‘materialists’ of their day (and some of our day) were mechanists for whom materiality is something that was in principle fully calculable. The critical vitalists did not think that nature is that simple. And so they struggled mightily both to remain scientific and to appreciate the incalculable dimension of things. They were attuned, not to an intrinsic purpose in things but to an excess that escapes quantification, prediction and control. They name that vital force ‘life’, entelechy, elan vital.

In their subtle attempts to give philosophical voice to the vitality of things, Driesch and Bergson came close to a vital materialism. But they stopped short: they could not imagine a materiality adequate to the vitality they discerned in natural processes. Instead, they dreamed of a life force of a non-material nature. Their vitalisms nevertheless fascinate me, in part because we share a common foe in mechanistic or deterministic materialism, and in part because the lively materiality of which I dream hovers close to a notion of vital force.

KHAN: Over the past 20 years a number of themes and concepts run through your work, which point in the direction of the notion of ‘vital materiality’. These themes reappear in different ways in Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment (1987), Thoreau’s Nature (1994) and The Enchantment of Modern Life (2001). Could you please elaborate a little on the genealogy of this concept? Is the notion of intrinsic ‘inter-connectedness’ developed in Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment a precursor of the idea of vital materiality? How has this idea been modified over time and who or what has shaped the development of this idea into its current manifestation? What added directions does this concept take in your new book?

BENNETT: When I wrote Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment, I was trying to ‘unthink’ my way out of an oscillation, identified by Hegel in Phenomenology of Spirit, between two responses to a modernity conceived as haunted by meaninglessness, suffering, that is, from ‘disenchantment’. On the one side was the ‘enlightenment’ response, which attempted to restore meaning by mastering or more thoroughly humanizing the world; on the other side was ‘faith’ or the attempt to re-enchant the world with a more modern (less sensuously present) form of divinity. In that book I didn’t question the diagnosis of modernity as disenchanted (later I would); I accepted it, examined the pros and cons of the two responses, and then, finding both wanting, tried to imagine a better response (outside of a Hegelian frame).

The enlightenment response had negative implications for my ecological commitments, but the faith response conceived of nature as more purposive than my encounters with it warranted (especially with regard to my brother’s struggle with schizophrenia). I then affirmed a stance called ‘fractious holism’, which remained true to the ecological slogan that everything is connected but rejected the idea that the connections were part of a pre-given, intelligent plan. The idea was that we should try to discern, and then more carefully engage, the frictions, noises, excesses and (though this idea was underdeveloped) surprising powers circulating through nature-culture.

Later, I turned to Thoreau’s notion of the Wild to develop the idea of that fractiousness: yes, humans were ‘part and parcel’ of nature, but (internal and external) nature included that which was perverse or uncanny to it. Thoreau celebrated this wildness for the moral refreshment it could bring to a self that was also naturally attracted to conformity. Thoreau’s idea of the Wild morphed, I now see, into the idea of ‘vital materiality’, a notion I first evoked in The Enchantment of Modern Life. That book was not an attempt to re-enchant the world with divinity but to bring to the fore the ways in which ‘modernity’ is always already filled with lively and enchanting, albeit non-purposive forces. In the book in progress now, I try to position the idea of lively matter within a larger history of philosophical materialisms. I guess that in each book, my ultimate aim has been to find ways to better cope – more artfully, more wisely – in a world that’s neither a divine creation, docile matter, nor completely lawful.

KHAN: You say that your brother’s struggle with schizophrenia caused you to question the idea of nature as purposive. I hope you don’t mind if I probe you a bit further on this. Could you elaborate on the problems associated with understanding nature as having an explicit design and how this has influenced you in theorizing an alternative conception of nature that cannot be fully mastered and has no inner telos? How have your experiences with your brother’s struggle with schizophrenia led you to question or support medical discourses on ‘madness’, ‘abnormality’ or ‘difference’?

BENNETT: To put the point bluntly, a sustained encounter with madness will eventually erode belief in a providential nature. And it makes belief in classical scientific conceptions of a law-like nature more difficult too. Or at least that is what happened to me. Like most people in my (Italian-Catholic and Irish-Catholic) neighbourhood, I grew up with the idea that the world was a divine creation and that external nature, or the animals, vegetables and minerals that surrounded us, was designed according to a divine plan. This article of faith was for me set in a liberation-theology-inflected Catholicism (a Catholicism pretty much dismissed by the Vatican today), according to which Jesus is a counter-cultural peace activist, a nature-lover who, like the Franciscans, Gandhi and Thoreau, practiced ‘voluntary simplicity’ when it came to the consumption of material goods. These beliefs were an important part of the rationale for the Earth Day environmentalism I affirmed in the 1970s: if nature was God’s handicraft, it was worthy of care and protection, and we ought to tread lightly upon it.

It was in 1980 that my then 16-year-old brother (a common onset age for schizophrenia) had his first psychotic episode. (He jumped off the garage roof because he thought he could fly.) He has been in and out of madness, in and out of hospitals ever since. (Though in the last 10 years the legal policies in the US are such that it has become effectively impossible to hospitalize someone against his/her will, which means that the jails are filled with people suffering from mental illness.) If you live with a person living with a brain that periodically malfunctions in dramatic ways – coherent sentences can no longer be formed, laughing loses its link to a funny situation or even an amusing thought but erupts independently of any social or psychic meaning, the movement of ants on the sidewalk or cars on the highway appear as sinister plots – you can easily lose interest in the idea of a purposive or providential natural order. (The notion of nature as a purposive plan starts to seem like the mirror image of my brother’s perverse conviction that the impersonal behaviour of ants and the anonymous movements of traffic are out to get him. Both assume purposiveness.) And the classical science figure of nature as law-like also loses much of its power.

The misery caused by the diminishment of the lives of those whose brain doesn’t work right will make it hard to believe in either a benevolent god-creator or in a Newtonian world where the eternal laws of nature correspond to the mind of a law-giving God. The figure of matter as an active power capable both of (undesigned) self-organization and of aleatory alteration becomes more credible if and when you forsake those two contending conceptions of divinity.

I support medical – in the sense of bio-chemical – discourses on schizophrenia. Though of course it is true that social conditions, family contexts and psychic structures are also involved, they do not alone seem to have the power to fix many types of breakdown of the organic machinery. I support research in brain science and experimentation with pharmacological agents that might re-calibrate the delicate chemistry that makes thinking possible – or, I would go so far as to say, that (almost) is thinking.

The political–theoretical impact of my experiences with schizophrenia is this: I needed to find a new basis for my lingering commitment to a green politics, to a way of life that was more ecologically sustainable, less poisonous of the water, air, soil and thus of human bodies. I needed a figure of nature that did not rely so heavily on what my friend Hent DeVries calls a ‘theological archive’ of images, concepts and narratives. The figure of ‘vital materiality’ or lively matter is one such candidate for that role.

KHAN: Throughout your work you have suggested that an appreciation of the liveliness of nonhuman matter can help us to live ethically, and you maintain that we ignore this at our own peril. Could you explain how an understanding of the vitality of matter enables us to live ethically? Perhaps you could answer this with reference to the environmental crisis, the problems of climate change, exponential human population growth and so on? For example, you share Martin Heidegger’s (1977) concern that modern science typically treats nature as ‘standing reserve’ as a passive object to be manipulated and controlled for basic human utility. His ideas have been mobilized by some in the direction of a deep green political praxis. Does your work point in a similar direction? Or do you see a more positive role for modern science and technology, understood as one force amongst many in the world? Should we extend ethical generosity to all living matter including those which are harmful to human beings such as viruses, diseases and tropical storms?

BENNETT: I think that the relationship between an enhanced sense of the vitality of things and ethical life is indirect, although indirection can sometimes be the most effective tactic. It is a matter of possible alliances and mutual reinforcement of tendencies – an ancillary and meandering connection subject to many intervening forces. In the context of, in particular, an American political economy, there seems to be a resonance between the idea of matter as dull stuff/passive resource and a set of gigantically wasteful production and consumption practices that foul our own nest. These practices endanger and immiserate workers, children, animals and plants here and abroad. To the extent that the figure of inert matter sustains this consumptive style, another figure might disrupt it. It isn’t a coincidence that Kant, when he talks about natural objects at the end of the Critique of Judgment, affirms together that ‘(the essential character of matter is lifelessness, inertia)’ and that man, as ‘the only being on earth that has … an ability to set himself purposes in his own choice’, holds ‘the title of lord of nature’.

With regard to Heidegger’s notion of standing-reserve, I agree that it can be put to Green use, though I don’t pursue that task. I don’t because Heidegger longs to recapture a sense of the universe as an encompassing whole in which nature and culture engage in a kind of primordial cooperation (even if that system of relations fades off into indefiniteness and incalculability). I too am critical of the picture of nature as calculable mechanism. But I am attracted to a more ‘pagan’ conception of materiality – as turbulent, energetic and capable of emergent forms of self-organization. It is worthy of our respect because we are composed of it, because we enter into various relations of dependence with it, and because its force fields can turn on us if we don’t attend closely to them.

So, should we, for example, love HIV? I don’t know if we should love HIV – I don’t believe in a creator God and so I can’t imagine the universe as an intrinsically moral order – but I don’t think that we can love HIV. It is associated with too much suffering. But its vitality nevertheless demands respect, more respect than was at the base of our initial attempt to eradicate the virus, which often resulted in killing the patient. The more effective therapy now aims to keep the viral load low, enabling a tense coexistence between human and nonhuman. It is also good to recall the vast array of vital materialities that were enlisted in response to HIV, the condoms, the laboratory instruments, the animals tested, as well as the revised sexual practices and rituals of human bodies.

KHAN: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you develop a polemical critique of the idea – associated particularly with Max Weber (1981) (but also many others) – that modernity is characterized by a progressive disenchantment of the world. Common to the various narratives of disenchantment is the idea that the emergence of modern scientific rationality has radically transformed our understanding of nature, greatly extending the capacity for human agency in a world, but at the cost of devaluing nonhuman matter, which has come to be seen as lifeless, inert and devoid of enchantment or vitality. Your alternative narrative emphasizes the enchantment of the modern experience of the world. For example, you suggest that claims about the uniqueness of modern rationality are exaggerated, and that under conditions of modernity social and political systems have become more complex but there is no fundamental break with the enchanted world of pre-modernity. However, for many theorists such as Jürgen Habermas (1987) modern rationality is also bound up with the question of political legitimacy and with the potential for an emancipated society free from arbitrary forms of power. He argues that under conditions of modernity political power is progressively disentangled from established tradition and ‘irrational’ forms of knowledge and superstition, and tied instead to rational procedures and due process. Does your counter narrative of the various continuities between modernity and pre-modernity enable us to draw a distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of power?

BENNETT: I’m not exactly saying that there is no fundamental break with the enchanted world of pre-modernity. Clearly things have changed, especially with regard to what is plausibly considered to be the ultimate source of the power of things to provoke a mood of ‘enchantment’ in humans. If the natural world was once enchanted with divine will and intentionality (forming an episteme that Foucault called ‘the prose of the world’), my claim is that something akin to that wonder can persist even without the postulate of a God who is actively infused into all facets of the sensible world. Today things can and do enchant people by virtue of their material complexity, or by their sheer this-ness, or by their refusal to fit into the categories we bring to bear upon them.

I think that those moments when things call us up short and reveal our profound implication in nonhumanity are relevant, perhaps even indispensable, to ethical action. For such action requires a bodily comportment conducive to the enactment of ‘good will’ or generosity toward others. What Spinoza called the ‘joyful’ affects are needed to feed or energize a body called upon – by reason, habit, sympathy or some unnamed motive – to love, forgive or treat with compassion others, or to do as little violence as possible in one’s actions.

So of course I affirm the ‘rationalizing’ project of disentangling political power from oppressive traditions, and of the norms of due process and the rule of law. But the will to contest oppressive effects must itself be induced, and the norms of due process and democratic rule are not self-enacting. In each case, they require aesthetic-affective energy to spark or fuel them. If, for example, the American public is to be aroused to repudiate torture as a tool of foreign policy and re-endorse the Geneva conventions, the fearful and vengeful mood now prevalent must be altered. If Americans are to change established modes of energy production and consumption (to avoid catastrophic climate change and to decrease the social violence it is already entailing), we will need to stop thinking of earth as a basket of passive resources for the satisfaction of desires.

KHAN: For many modern thinkers, the distinction between the human and the nonhuman remains highly significant. For example, Heidegger (1998) insists on the uniqueness of Man as a ‘being that questions its own Being’, Hannah Arendt (1958) demarcates humans from other creatures in terms of the ability to act together politically, and Habermas (1984) singles out the fact of communication – understood as action orientated towards reaching understanding – as the specific faculty that raises humans out of nature. By way of contrast, you have sought to deliberately challenge the distinction between human and nonhuman matter and instead emphasize points of commonality between them. Furthermore, many thinkers attribute a capacity for agency – and particularly the faculty for responsible (moral or ethical) action – solely to human beings. Again, by way of contrast, you draw attention to the fact that (despite their best intentions) the actions of human individuals often have effects beyond their intended consequences, and you suggest that forms of nonhuman matter possess agency to a certain degree. Indeed, one innovative (and highly provocative) element of your approach is that you do not restrict the notion of agency to humans alone. Do you think there is any distinction to be drawn between the human and the nonhuman in terms of a capacity for agency? By attributing agency to nonhuman matter is there not a danger that the criterion for responsible human action is dissolved?

BENNETT: I think that human agency is best conceived as itself the outcome or effect of a certain configuration of human and nonhuman forces. When humans act they do not exercise exclusively human powers, but express and engage a variety of other actants, including food, micro-organisms, minerals, artefacts, sounds, bio- and other technologies, and so on. There is a difference between a human individual and a stone, but neither considered alone has real agency. The locus of agency is always a human–nonhuman collective. One example I work with in the Vital Materialism book is the agency behind the electricity blackout in 2003 in North America (and later in the year, in Europe). The government and industry response in the US was to identify some human – some Enron executive or energy trader – who was responsible and then to punish him. Meanwhile, the relations between the infrastructure of the grid, the legislation deregulating energy trading, the structure of consumptive desire and the natural tendencies of electricity remained unchanged. The danger of blackouts remains the same. The fetish of the exclusively human agent and the tendency to define social problems as moral failures – and their implicit assumption that we are in charge – prevented us from discerning the real locus of agency and attempting to alter its configuration. I don’t say, then, that single, nonhuman actants are agents. I do say that agency itself is located in the complex interinvolvement of humans and multiple nonhuman actants, which together form an effective assemblage. So, an actant is any single force with the capacity to make a difference, and an agent is a more complex formation made up of a variety of actants. Humans too are emergent and complex phenomena, which means that the intervener does not fully pre-exist the intervention.

My point is really a pragmatic one: ethics and politics have more traction on material assemblages and the way they reproduce patterns of effects than they can have on that elusive spiritual entity called the ‘moral subject’.

KHAN: In The Enchantment of Modern Life you explore the power of commodities to enchant us. You agree with Marx about the mystifying nature of the commodity. However, you argue that his understanding of commodity fetishism – as well as Adorno and Horkheimer’s (1972) work on ‘The Culture Industry’ that builds up upon Marx’s analysis – is insufficient to explain the fascination with commodities and the power of advertising in contemporary capitalist society. As you see it, there is something extra in the modern desire for commodities that escapes the deadening power of mystification, and if I have understood you correctly your approach does not seek to eliminate the commodity form, but rather to reform commodity culture by making capitalism more ecologically sustainable and by drawing out the ethical potential with it. How would you respond to a leftist sceptic: can advertisements really generate ethical forms of behaviour when the objects they promote are likely to have been produced in the developing world under conditions of sweat shop labour and gross exploitation? Is it not true that advertising creates and generates desires whose fulfilment manifests as consumption patterns that are destructive of human life and the environment? How can your emphasis on the elements of enchantment in modern capitalism help oppressed people resist and challenge the superficial desires created by capitalist entrepreneurs and help bring about a more equitable society?

BENNETT: Since I had been arguing that cultural artefacts (and not only nature) had the power to enchant and that this power could become ethical, I wanted to examine a hard case: enchantment issuing from the commodified object. In particular, I focused on the GAP’s khakis pants, or, to be more precise, on the television advertisement for them where young men and women clad in beige material danced to swing music.

I don’t believe in God, magic, pantheism or the (almost-convincing) panpsychism defended by Freya Mathews in her For Love of Matter (2003) and Reinhabiting Reality (2004). I am a materialist girl living in a material world, and I take my enchantment where I can get it. When I watched the GAP commercial, I was enchanted. It animated in my body, and presumably in others, a certain pleasurable energy or vitality. But what kind of relationship did this affect bear to the intentions of its artistic creators? My answer was that, like electricity, the charged affect generated by the commercial was an unruly, swerving force, one apt to overflow the design of its corporate sponsor. This suggests that corporate capitalism cannot be all-powerful, and that the affective energy it generates might be put to other uses. For affects, once let loose or put into play, have a degree of independence from their creators. To be too committed to the idea that capitalism recaptures entirely all the forces it unleashes is to turn capitalism into a (perhaps evil) god and us into its servants or victims.

My aim was not to defend existing capitalism or even to idealize a more ecologically sustainable form of capitalism, though I do think it would be foolish to oppose the latter just because you favour more radical changes in the political economy. My goal was to explore how the mood of enchantment works: what were its tendencies, its typical path of development, its aetiology? How does it sometimes manage to activate or enliven human action?

In your question, you worry that even if enchantment can sometimes motivate acts of ethical generosity, doesn’t it matter whether the source or provocateur of enchantment is itself an ethical agent? Could generosity issue from an encounter with an advertisement designed to get consumers to desire khakis for this season only (designed, that is, as part of an economy of waste), and also designed to obscure from view the working conditions of the people who assemble the slacks (designed, that is, as part of an economy of exploitation)? My ‘yes, it can’ answer is based on a theory of affect as a wayward force able to ally itself with a wide variety of semantic contents and political projects. I also said that acknowledgment of the attraction of commodities needs to be combined with a commitment to reorganize work and the established patterns of consumption.

The point I elided when I wrote the chapter, however, was this: the promiscuity of affect means that it will also be unfaithful to any ethical re-deployment of it. I should have thought more about how to cope with or compensate for that fact, and because I didn’t, it sounded easier than it is to transform commodity enchantment into non-commercial or counter-hegemonic modes of activity.

What I continue to affirm is the way commercials, by technologically animating the materialities that we normally experience as inert, dead or beneath notice, pose a challenge to the life/matter binary, which is also at the base of the system of exploitation. I found in this high-tech refusal to depict matter as merely passive a potential ally in my own project to re-think what materiality is and does in the world. The infectious energy of the GAP ad issued from the moving human bodies on the screen, from the sounds and rhythms of the humanly composed music, but also from the khakis themselves.

This animism was what the ad men sought: viewers would associate vitality (or youth or life) with GAP khakis and, because vitality is attractive, desire the pants. This would not work were the dancing pants to be joined, in the full picture, by the exploited, fatigued and stressed bodies of the assembly-workers. But in calling its viewers to a pagan sensibility – to the childhood idea that matter is alive, that ordinary, nonhuman things have powers over us – the advert nevertheless produced affective effects in excess of its intentions or of the moral compass of its authors.

Let me end by saying that what I try to do when I write is to call myself and others to a different direction, to point to those uneven spaces where nonhumans are actants, where agency is always an assemblage, where matter is not inert, where man is not lord, where everything is made of the same quirky stuff. We regularly traverse these spaces but tend to pass through them without paying attention. To inhabit them more fully is to find ourselves speaking new words, having new feelings, taking on new postures and practices, making adjustments to the pace and scope and ranking of our encounters with the ‘outside’. I can’t predict what kind of politics would result from this. My hunch is that the grass would be greener in a world of vital materialities.



1. Bennett was in residence at the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham between 14 and 18 May 2007. She was the keynote speaker at the 1-day conference ‘Stem Cell Identities, Governance and Ethics: Implications for Social and Political Theory’, which was hosted by the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), and funded by the CSSGJ, The School of Politics and International Relations. She also took part in a postgraduate workshop on 16 May 2007 at the School of Politics and International Relations.


Adorno, T. (1990) Concept and Categories. Translated by E.B. Ashton. Negative Dialectics. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Adorno, T. and Horkhiemer, M. (1972) The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception. In: T. Adorno and M. Horkhiemer (eds.) and translated by J. Cummings Dialectic of Enlightenment. New York: Herder and Herder.
Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Bennett, J. (1994a) Unthinking Faith and Enlightenment: Nature and State in a Post-Hegelian Era. New York: New York University Press.
Bennett, J. (1994b) Thoreau’s Nature Ethics, Politics, and The Wild. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Bennett, J. (2001) The Enchantment of Modern Life: Crossings, Energetics, and Ethics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bennett, J. (2004) The force of things: Steps toward an ecology of matter. Political Theory 32(3): 347–372. | Article |
Bennett, J. (2009) Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Coole, D. and Frost, S. (eds.) (2008) New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1987) The Question Concerning Technology’s. Translated by B. Massumi. A Thousand Plateaus. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Diderot, D. (1996) Rameau’s Nephew and D’Alemberts’s Dream. London: Penguin Books.
Grosz, E. (1994) Volatile Bodies: Towards a Corporeal Feminism. Indiana: Indiana University Press.
Habermas, J. (1984) The Theory of Communicative Action: Reason and Rationalization of Society, Vol. 1. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heidegger, M. (1977) Translated by W. Lovitt (with an Introduction). The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. New York: Harper Row Publishers.
Heidegger, M. (1998) Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Being and Time. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lucretius, T. (1995) De Reurm Natura. In: J. Gaskin (ed.) The Epicurean Philosophers, Book 1, no. 1021, London: Everyman Libraries.
Mathews, F. (2003) For Love of Matter. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Mathews, F. (2004) Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1994) On the Genealogy of Morals. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Serres, M. (2001) Translated by J. Hawkes. The Birth of Physics. Manchester, UK: Clinamen Press.
de Spinoza, B. (1949) Ethics. New York and London: Hafner Publishing Company.
Thoreau, H.D. (1968) The Writings of Henry David Thoreau v: Excursions and Poems. New York: AMS Press.
Weber, M. (1981) Science as Vocation, The Social Psychology of World Religions, The Political Sphere, The Intellectual Sphere. In: H.H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills (eds., and trans. and with an Introduction) From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Leave a comment

Filed under ecology, ontology, politics

Agonism, Pluralism, and Contemporary Capitalism

An Interview with William E. Connolly

William Connolly

William E. Connolly is a political theorist known for his work on democracy and pluralism and Krieger-Eisenhower Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His book ‘The Terms of Political Discourse’ won various awards in 1999, and is widely held to be a major work in political theory. Connolly is also a contributing writer to The Huffington Post and a founding member of the journal Theory & Event. Connolly’s recent turn towards philosophies of ‘immanence’ and creative process will be on full display is his forthcoming A World of Becoming (2010). More here.

Mark Wenman is a Lecturer in political theory in the School of Politics and International Relations and Associate Dean in the Faculty of Social Sciences. He is a Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice (CSSGJ), and a member of The Analysis of Democratic Cultures Research Group.He completed his Ph.D. in the Ideology and Discourse Analysis Programme at the University of Essex in 2005, and before that he was educated at Birkbeck College (London), the University of Westminster, and Christ’s Hospital.

MARK WENMAN: Bill, thank you for agreeing to this interview. I would like to take up some of the themes we discussed when you visited Nottingham in 2007.1 Perhaps I can start by asking you questions about the development of your work and about how you see the different elements of your project fitting together. I will then move onto questions about your theory of ‘immanent naturalism’, and also your recent work on capitalism.

For a period of more than 30 years you have made important contributions to the discipline of political theory, you have engaged in many different debates, and — since the publication of Identity/Difference (Connolly, 1991) — you have developed your own distinctive ‘post-Nietzschean’ account of late-modern politics. One theme you have returned to repeatedly in your writings is the concept of ‘pluralism’. This has been of interest to you since your earliest publications — for instance The Bias of Pluralism (Connolly, ed., 1969) — and since the mid-1990s you have established your own account of ‘multi-dimensional’ or ‘network pluralism’: most notably in the Ethos of Pluralisation (Connolly, 1995) and Pluralism (Connolly, 2005). Over this period, the concept of pluralism has also undergone a remarkable series of developments in Anglo-American political thought more generally. In the late 1960s this term was associated with American political science, with the work of Robert Dahl, David Truman and others who were criticized by radical thinkers — including you — for their narrow conception of the political and their naive behaviouralist assumptions about the operations of political power. Subsequently, this term has undergone a renaissance, so that it is now used widely — and in a positive manner — by analytical liberals, deliberative democrats, and by those — such as you — who are inspired by post-structuralism. This development is surely related to the rise of identity politics and multiculturalism, as John Rawls would have it: we now live in a society defined by the ‘fact of pluralism’. However, we know from Friedrich Nietzsche that there is no such thing as facts, only interpretations, so could you please say something about your distinctive understanding of ‘pluralism’ and how it differs from these other approaches? What exactly is pluralism? And to what extent do contemporary liberal democratic societies approximate the ideal of pluralism? How have your thoughts changed on these issues over the past 30 years?

WILLIAM CONNOLLY: My thinking about pluralism has, as you say, shifted over the years, as I have encountered new events and have moved through intellectual encounters with Hegel, Marx, Wittgenstein, Taylor, and Hampshire to those with Foucault, Nietzsche, Deleuze and James. Early on, I sought to show how ‘the fact’ of pluralism was exaggerated and how this exaggeration also served to obscure inequality. Most pluralist theory focused on a diversity of interests brought to the ‘governmental arena’. It seemed to me that when the independent power of corporations and other elites to shape the world was combined with their governmental power to veto policies that might rectify the adverse effects of those initiatives, the stratification of power became more transparent. I was also concerned, along with Peter Bachrach and Steven Lukes, with the ‘other face’ of power ignored by pluralist theorists of the day, power as the ability to stop potential issues from achieving sufficient definition to reach the public arena for decision.

It soon became clear to me that these concerns suggested a significant revision of democratic pluralism rather than its replacement. The rise of gay rights movements in the 1970s helped to prod me to dramatize how resistance to diversity flows from the visceral register of presumptive judgment into more refined modes of argument. To me, pluralism includes several dimensions. First, a pluralistic society is not merely one with multiple interests. It is multidimensional, involving diversity in the domains of creed, sensual disposition, gender practice, household organization, ethnic identification, first language, and fundamental existential orientations. The activation of multidimensional pluralism helps to open up public arenas and to ventilate the internal life of numerous organizations. Gays bring pressures to bear upon their churches; church activists apply it to their work place; feminists bring it to bear upon both, and so on.

Second, a pluralistic society is marked by recurrent tension between already existing diversity and new movements that press upon this or that established assumption about God, freedom, identity, legitimacy, rights, and the nation. This torsion between the politics of pluralism and that of pluralization is constitutive. Those who think we already have access to a definitive list of rights, for instance, miss how new rights periodically surge into being through a complex political process. The right to sexual diversity, to gay marriage, and to doctor assisted suicide, precarious as each is, were not even on the liberal list of rights a few decades ago. Drives to install them were launched below the register of legitimacy. One could pretend they were ‘implicit’, but to me such an assertion insinuates more logic into social and political processes than their real messiness allows. Movements of this type uncover power sedimented into established practices of identity, rights, and creed. Such an insight eventually invites you to rethink the logic of morality itself, perhaps supporting a shift from a fixed morality of principle, replete with previously unstated ‘implications’, toward an ethic of cultivation as you become alert to new forces arising in the world.

Third, attention to the first two dimensions pressed me to come to terms with the need for a positive ‘ethos of engagement’ between diverse, interdependent constituencies. This is particularly pertinent to a world in which the secular separation between private and public is exaggerated and secular proceduralism is insufficient to itself. Such an ethos solicits participants to recoil back upon their most fundamental creeds or philosophies — the two terms now move close together for me — to affirm without existential resentment the profound contestability of each in the eyes of others. Many priests, theorists, philosophers, economists, and media talking heads find this difficult to do. Such a bicameral orientation to citizenship is fundamental to the politics of pluralism. It is more difficult in circumstances where numerous forces press militantly against pluralism itself.

Thus, the other side of the theory is that many of the same forces that create opportunities to extend and heighten pluralism today also intensify the anxieties of those who resent the presence of living counter-examples to their own identities, faiths and household practices. Today pressures to pluralize and to fundamentalize the present encounter each other. This is a struggle that goes on within as well as between us.

Those are some elements in my rendering of pluralism. I should say that I also believe that numerous contemporary forces — including the globalization of capital, the rapid movement of people, things and affects across official borders, and the growing income differentials between regions of the world — intensify pressure for pluralization within and across territorial regimes. Pluralism is also connected to other practices. For instance, drives to reduce inequality within a state today are not likely to be successful unless a positive ethos of engagement is negotiated between multiple minorities of different types. The aspirations to pluralism and equality thus speak to each other now, despite what those who treat the highly centred nation as a precondition of equality say. Under contemporary conditions, without an ethos of pluralism, the drive to equality falters as chauvinist elites use opposition to immigrants, gays, single mothers, Muslims, and atheists to turn back egalitarian pressure. Similarly, without pressure toward a more egalitarian society one support for a positive ethos of pluralism is pulled away. So pluralism and egalitarianism now set conditions of possibility for each other.

The very forces noted above also make it essential for more citizens to participate periodically in cross-state citizen movements to put pressure from the inside and outside simultaneously upon states, corporations, and international organizations. That means that today, both the scope of diversity and the sites of political action have expanded. You might call that the fourth house of pluralism, as I construe it.

WENMAN: The thinkers who appear to have had the deepest and most lasting impact on your thought (as it has developed since the mid-1980s) are Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, and Gilles Deleuze. Their ideas have been at the forefront of your work, and your engagement with other thinkers — for example, Rousseau, Marx, Tocqueville — has been developed through the lenses of your explicitly ‘post-Nietzschean’ perspective. This has taken you further and further away from the concerns of the mainstream in Anglo-American political thought towards an interest in the politics of becoming, embodiment, and affect. Your positive reception of these thinkers also distinguishes your work from other strands within post-structuralism, for example those who are influenced by Derrida (with or without Levinas) and/or Lacan. The ideas of Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze resonate closely with one another; nevertheless there are also differences between them. Foucault was careful to avoid engaging in questions about the transcendental, while he strove to unearth the cultural and historical contingency inherent within established claims to truth and seemingly stabilized social practices. By way of contrast Deleuze has focused on the classical controversies of metaphysics, developing his own account of the fundamentals of Being, albeit one that remains intrinsically open and irreducible to the principle of identity. Could you say something about your understanding of the relationships between these thinkers? Presumably you see them as forming something like a coherent assemblage. But where do you see the critical points of tension between them? Has there been a development in your thought — perhaps over the past 7 or 8 years — away from the critical genealogy of Foucault towards Deleuze’s ‘transcendental empiricism’?

CONNOLLY: I encountered Foucault first, Nietzsche second, and Deleuze third. As these engagements unfolded, I found myself focusing on sites at which each complements or corrects the others. These complementarities and corrections, of course, are filtered through my own sensibility, as it has also been affected by them. So I sometimes lose a sense of where they fade and I begin. That is why, for instance, I occasionally speak of ‘my Nietzsche’, not always worrying too much about whether I am representing his work or drawing selective sustenance from it in the interests of my project. He, of course, commended this sort of relation to his work.

When I began to read Foucault in the late 1970s, my initial intention was to overcome the challenge he posed to my left Hegelianism, drawing some of his themes into a more encompassing and coherent theory. The idea, of course, was to show how he succumbed to a series of performative contradictions. That seemed to work fairly well when I engaged The Order of Things (Foucault, 1970). But it collapsed under its own weight when I read Herculin Barbin (Barbin, 1980). I then carried the shift in sensibility that began to accrue back to the first book and to The History of Sexuality (Foucault, 1979, 1986, 1988). Hearing Foucault for the first time at Dartmouth in 1980 helped. As I read Herculin Barbin, the autobiography of a 19th century hermaphrodite who committed suicide, accompanied by a series of journalistic, legal and medical reports on ‘her’ condition and a brief statement by Foucault, I experienced turmoil in my gut. That is, I sensed vaguely how my visceral understandings of normality and morality delimited my theoretical judgments. I was a carrier of judgments that contributed to a life of hell for Alex/ina, and many others too. I felt pressure to work on the images of normality, biology, ethics, freedom, and politics with which I was imbued.

It soon became less a matter of convicting opposing theorists of a series of performative contradictions, more that of working tactically on the visceral sensibility that infused my orientations to ‘immanent critique’, judgment, and politics. I eventually saw how often the charge against others of a performative contradiction involves a focus on one dimension of their thought joined to other assumptions unconsciously projected into it because you have not yet conceived of alternatives to them. How many theorists in the 1980s, for instance, convicted Foucault of contradicting in theory his own practical judgments without first coming to terms with his distinctive conception of ethics? If you treat a theory as a ‘problematic’, consisting of multiple, connected elements with loose ends, remainders and paradoxes, to that extent you see how the master tool of critique advanced by rationalists and dialecticians easily devolves into a mode of self-conceit. To change a theory involves many things, including work on the visceral register of prejudgment that becomes sedimented into as us as we breathe the air, absorb the culture, encounter new events, and experience bouts of suffering, rebuke, praise, and exaltation.

Foucault thus started me on a journey to challenge Kantian and neoKantian theories of morality with an ethic of cultivation, linking that to efforts to rework some affect-imbued prejudgments about biology, culture, and politics into which I had been inducted. Neuropolitics represents the latest upshot of those efforts (Connolly, 2002).

Nietzsche came second. I read him to challenge a series of dispositions of judgment lodged in contemporary culture and political theory. The question was whether it was possible to draw selective sustenance from his work without committing myself to every priority he embraced. Since Foucault and Deleuze had already started this process of agonistic indebtedness, as I came to call it, it did not turn out to be that difficult, even though I still occasionally encounter critics who say that Connolly ‘says’ Nietzsche was a democrat, or that he ‘domesticates’ Nietzsche. It is fascinating how many theorists insist that you must either swallow Nietzsche whole or spit him out entirely, even though they do not bring that same insistence to readings of Augustine, Kant, Hegel, Marx, Arendt, or Rawls. To me, such an inordinate demand expresses the desire to ward off the challenge posed by Nietzsche’s fundamental ontology before you have engaged it. So I have been selective, ascertaining as I proceed whether the insights selected can be folded into a problematic he himself did not entirely share. Nietzsche’s themes of time as becoming, nobility as a positive relation between multiple nobilities, the cultural dangers of ressentiment, a pathos of distance, the spiritualization of enmity, gratitude for being in a world of becoming, tragic potentiality, becoming your own guinea pig, the place of existential affirmation in ethical life, the ‘unequal’ as difference even more than inequality, the immorality of morality, the insufficiency of both mechanical and organic conceptions of nature, and the torsion at key ‘moments’ between being and becoming have all infected me. I rework those themes to draw them into a theory of democratic pluralism, doing so because classic theories of democracy, pluralism, and morality urgently need infusions from elsewhere today.

I did not turn to Deleuze until the early 1990s. I was dazzled by the way Difference and Repetition tracked and challenged the Kantian and neoKantian problematics at each critical point (Deleuze, 1994). Each time Kant encounters a flash point and resolves it in one direction, Deleuze first hovers over it like a hummingbird and then flies in a different direction. I later became fascinated with his work on capitalism, and after that, the groundbreaking work on film and time. His engagement with experimental films teaches us more about duration and time as becoming than philosophical analysis does by itself. Indeed, Deleuze mixes dramatization into analysis, showing us how new thoughts bubble into the world and helping to usher some in as he goes. If he is right about the complexity and irreducibility of the virtual/actual relation, dramatization is part of philosophy itself. In this he follows Nietzsche, who wrote in a cinematic style before the rise of film.

Deleuze has not been engaged often by analytical philosophers because many have a visceral commitment to the sufficiency of analysis that is challenged by his practice. On the other hand, it is fascinating how young Anglo-American philosophers with an analytical background are effective at bringing Deleuze to a wider audience. I mean those such as James Williams, Paul Patton, Jane Bennett, Dan Smith, and Nathan Widder with several others in the wings. For, again, the kind of philosophy Deleuze practices involves delicate variations in the mix between dramatization and analysis, depending on the assignment. It takes close analysis to identify the flash points in Kant. However, when Deleuze enacts the highest purpose of philosophy as he defines it — to introduce new concepts into life during a period of heightened disequilibrium in this or that zone — experimentation and dramatization gain priority. The point of the suggestion is that we live in a world of becoming, where periods of relative equilibrium in this or that zone are periodically interrupted by those of sharp disequilibrium. When the latter occur in a zone, we may need a new concept or two to help negotiate the terrain. Their invention involves dwelling in fecund moments of duration, as layered elements from the past reverberate in a new situation, sometimes encouraging something new to surge into being. That is why Deleuze is so taken with irrational cuts, flashbacks and crystals of time in films, as well as with the work of Proust, Bergson and, of course, Nietzsche. For, as already intimated, Nietzsche reintroduced the method of dramatization into modern philosophical discourse. Sophocles was a noble predecessor in that regard.

While I have paid more attention to Deleuze recently, my debt to all three is fundamental. Together they advance what I call a philosophy of immanent naturalism, placing it in contention with other philosophies of the day on the ontological, ethical, religious, and political registers. They help to set an ethic of cultivation into competition with the morality of duty; and they provide cues to follow as we enter into the live experiments upon the visceral register such an orientation suggests, both with ourselves through techniques of the self and with and others and ourselves together through micropolitics. Each plays up the visceral register of relational life while refusing to link it authoritatively to a divine injunction.

Sometimes, I find Deleuze to be too reckless, and Foucault becomes a valuable corrective. Sometimes, I become frustrated by the bellicosity or aristocraticism of Nietzsche, and both Deleuze and Foucault help out. Sometimes I think that Foucault’s engagements with discipline, normalization, and surveillance, invaluable as they are, do not address sufficiently the centrality of the media in contemporary life, and Deleuze once again becomes valuable. And if you seek to place the revolution in contemporary neuroscience into closer conversation with cultural theory, all three thinkers are useful, augmented by Bergson, Proust, Merleau-Ponty and James. Above all, these three join the vision of a world of becoming replete with tragic possibility to the commendation to cultivate further that gratitude for belonging to life and the earth that already simmers in us when we are lucky. For all three are concerned about the recurrent political danger of what Nietzsche calls ressentiment, a covert resentment of the terms of existence as you yourself conceive those terms.

I am a bit less drawn to Derrida and more wary of Lacan. I sense a tendency to authoritarianism or dogmatism in the latter and I pursue articulation of a more robust, dissident metaphysic than Derrida allowed. Interpretations in the 1980s and early 1990s of Nietzsche as a post-metaphysical philosopher have always seemed exaggerated to me. He is a philosopher of immanent naturalism, who challenges the Christian background of most theoretical stances in the history of the west. He also acknowledges that neither he nor his opponents has proven the philosophy embraced. That’s why he invites a ‘spiritualization of enmity’ between protagonists of different theo-metaphysical doctrines, while noting how many priests, theologians, and philosophers refuse the invitation. Perhaps I still have things to learn from Derrida and Lacan. Certainly, Derrida’s essays on white mythology, differance, violence, and friendship have touched me. I also appreciate his attempts to identify those pregnant points of ‘undecidability’. But since I emphasize the power of (what Deleuze calls) ‘passive syntheses’ that flow up into refined cogitation I suspect that we are already strongly inclined in one way or another at these very points. That is why micropolitics and macropolitics are both pertinent to the quality of democratic life, and why the drive to reach a point where we can acknowledge without resentment the deep contestability of our basic faiths too. I also see the point of the Levinasian focus on the face of the other. But as I understand him, at least, the experience of alterity is not extended sufficiently to our implication in and imbrications with nonhuman nature, perhaps because he resists the Nietzschean image of a nonhuman world set on multiple tiers of becoming to which we are joined by a thousand affinities, pressures, and dissonances.

WENMAN: One of the principal motifs of your work since the early 1990s has been the notions of ‘agonistic respect’ and ‘critical responsiveness’. In Pluralism you describe these as the ‘civic virtues’ appropriate to conditions of multi-dimensional pluralism (Connolly, 2005, 126). Elsewhere, you have said that these virtues resemble an ethic of cultivation rather than a command morality, but that this is an ethic that cannot be reduced to a fixed teleology. In short, you counsel competing social forces to strive to accept contingency in order to circumvent the ever-present temptation to seek revenge against others for the precariousness of their own identity and their most fundamental beliefs. This idea is indebted to Nietzsche’ reflections on ressentiment. However, you have turned these ideas in many interesting directions and given them your own inflection. Could you say something about how you first arrived at the notion of ‘agonistic respect’? What kinds of political conflict did you have in mind? Also, how does this concept differ from contemporary liberal theories of tolerance, and of the public/private divide? At times you have intimated that the widespread dissemination of agonistic respect would be sufficient to bind the diverse moral and cultural constituencies together in contemporary societies. Is this a position you explicitly endorse? Could you perhaps answer this question with reference to the current context, which has seen a rise in the level of conflict and antagonism since 9/11, the war in Iraq, and the so-called ‘war on terror’?

CONNOLLY: In Identity|Difference I sought to come to terms with how every identity, whether religious, gender, sensual, or ethnic, is defined in part against an array of differences. Not yet the register of difference as a swarm of virtual forces, but difference in its mode as the alter-identity you need to define to be. The most profound temptation of identity is to secure its self-certainty by negating, punishing, or conquering those differences that threaten its self-confidence the most by the mere fact of being in the world. Out of this living paradox, the ethos of agonistic respect emerges as a civic way to both affirm our own identities (for identity always has relational, collective dimensions), while providing presumptive space for different and sometimes contending identities to be.

The dynamic in question is clear in religious engagements. But it is both present and obscured from itself in secular practice and theory. The assumption of a set of rational public principles around which a diverse set of private faiths revolve misreads much about both private and public life. For instance, Christian notions of free will, freedom, punishment, gender, marriage, sexuality, and responsibility are active in each domain in Euro-American cultures, as they also flow back and forth across the porous membranes between them. The liberal idea of tolerance is set in a public/private matrix. It assumes that secularism can be sufficient to itself, even as it quietly smuggles its own substantive views into the public realm. That is how it depresses the agonistic element of public life. Everyone, says Rawls, participates in the image of justice he advances, while particular aspects of their comprehensive views can contribute to the overlapping consensus. In fact, however, everyone, including secularists, brings this or that chunk of faith into public life with them as they engage specific issues. It is not, to me, whether we do so but how we do so. In these ways hollow secular assertions of neutrality (and allied notions) have made a partial contribution to the theocratic responses they protest against. The point is not to accept the theocratic agenda, but to revise secularism.

The idea of agonism conveyed there has two sides: the disturbance it poses to constituencies that initiate these engagements and the disturbance to the others they address. Agonism as suffering and engagement.

In a political relation of agonistic respect, each constituency absorbs the discomfort posed by an alter-identity that challenges some of its own commitments, as it actively contests some assumptions and priorities of the other. It brings pieces of its own articles of faith into the public realm when it is pertinent to do so, and it recoils back on itself to acknowledge without deep resentment the comparative contestability of some of its fundamental articles of faith. This is where the respect side of the agonistic relation appears. So the popular coinage of ‘agonistic democracy’ does not suffice for me. ‘Agonistic respect’ emphasizes the torsion built into the heart of the relation. People ask sometimes from whence the element of respect arrives, if I do not endorse Kantian morality. But respect can flow from multiple theistic and nontheistic sources; it is a conceit to pretend that it can only come from one source. I know Buddhists who convey profound respect for the preliminary bearings of others, even as they contest some of them without embracing Kantian or neoKantian philosophy. It is difficult to cultivate the presumption to agonistic respect and to pursue such negotiations between constituencies. And it takes at least two parties to promote such a relation. But it does not usually take heroism. It is about as difficult as it is in the teleological tradition to cultivate the virtues of community. It is just that, in my view, that latter tradition dramatically overplays the potential for consensus residing in politics. In fact, we encounter examples of agonistic respect all around us, even as we face bellicose constituencies who seek to degrade and erase those very examples.

Critical responsiveness is the twin of agonistic respect. If agonistic respect speaks to relations between already established constituencies, critical responsiveness is a civic virtue to practice when a movement seeks to move an incipient identity, faith, right, or sense of the good from below the threshold of articulation, legitimacy, and justice onto those registers. ‘Incipient’ here means a pluripotential movement underway, rather than something that is implicit. Critical responsiveness speaks to the politics of becoming or pluralization, during those protean moments when it is in the middle of self-exploration and consolidation. When you are on the initiating side of becoming, your own feeling-imbued ideas and judgments often change as the movement unfolds. When you are on the receiving end you may find some sedimented judgments about nature, biology, morality, the good, rights, or the cultural limits of diversity jostled or disturbed by the new movement. By internalizing a portion of that disturbance you allow the injuries that occasioned the movement, your own assumptions about universality in one or two of the above domains, your presumptive care for the diversity of being, and your concern to redress suffering to reverberate back and forth for a time. On some occasions you may find your thinking about rights or identity loosening up in this way or that, allowing you to admit a new candidate onto the register of legitimacy, even if you yourself do not seek to exercise, say, the new right you embrace. Millions of people go through this ringer from time to time.

Theorists who equate morality with the provision of sufficient criteria to resolve each issue in advance dislike the open, exploratory character of this process. They want to close down the politics of becoming in the name of morality. But in the instances under discussion overweaning confidence in universality and closure is one of the problems. Perhaps you will eventually decide that some visceral dispositions need work under new, unanticipated circumstances, or that this same register alerted you from the start to a danger that you must resist. In a world of becoming — where periods of relative stabilization in this or that zone are periodically punctuated by more active disequilibrium — theory can often point the way but not settle the issue. At such a point you try to draw presumptive care for the diversity of being and sensitivity to a new, surprising situation into collaboration. Perhaps something creative will emerge from this gestation.

I do not think, however, that in a culture of robust pluralism everyone must accept the fundamental ‘contingency’ of things. That would make it less pluralistic. My theory has been interpreted this way before, though, and I must accept a portion of responsibility for that fact. I emphasize branded and sedimented contingencies as I challenge elements in philosophies of providence, extreme voluntarism, and genetic determination. But many others embrace a more fixed biology, the sufficiency of philosophical analysis, or a transcendent vision. They evince respect for others when they acknowledge the contestability of that creed in the eyes of others and enter into thoughtful, comparative engagements with them. The appreciation of contestability, not universal acceptance of contingency, sets a key condition of pluralism and pluralization. Its appreciation does not introduce mindless relativism into the world, as Straussians sometimes love to insist. For to say that a vision, faith, or philosophy is contestable is to admit that it can be challenged at numerous points, including new evidence, immanent critiques designed to press for clarifications, citations of unexpected suffering that it promotes, reference to other traditions that also make a claim upon the holder, and dramatization of loose strands of feeling and thought circulating in it that have not been heeded sensitively before. The number and variety of modes of contestation means that several traditions are apt to survive these engagements. It is also difficult to draw a definitive line in advance between acceptable and unacceptable candidates. At least previous attempts to do so have faltered. So you take these issues as they arise. The established terms of contestation may shift again when a new competitor arrives.

Would the widespread dissemination of these virtues suffice to produce pluralism? The most I can say is that they would help. Extreme inequality militates against pluralism, and so it sets a condition too. What else? Well, not too many things can be put up for grabs at the same time. That is because too much public disorientation in too many zones at once is apt to foster either a breakdown or the rise of an authoritarian regime, or each in turn. A certain fragility stalks the politics of pluralism, a fragility that Foucault became alert to in his later work. Much of the time, in the countries that I know best, pressures of the day point toward consolidation and preservation at all costs. That is why many of my critiques take on those arrangements. Nonetheless, we also live in a time when the acceleration of pace, the repetition of natural disasters, state and non-state terrorism, and a simmering culture of ressentiment, aids and abets attempts through the media-state-corporate-church apparatus to foment radical change from the right. The susceptibility of panic stricken constituencies to such pressures is a key danger of our time. At its best, the balance between pluralism and pluralization invokes a public life in which not too many things are thrown up for grabs at the same time.

September 11 was a big event in American life. Bigger and more ominous was the use by the Bush regime of the fear and loathing it fomented to launch the invasion and occupation of Iraq. The United States, under Bush and his corporate-evangelical-media allies, has become a very dangerous country. An attack by a rogue minority has been converted into a product called ‘Islamofascism’. The ethos of public life has been set back by the refusal to admit or care that hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, the state use of torture, the expansion of domestic surveillance, and the progressive militarization of American life. The regime first inflated the threat it loves to hate and then helped to enlarge the phenomenon it purports to fight. The Bush regime could have tried to root out Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, pushed very hard for an Israeli–Palestianian settlement, curried favourable relations with moderate Muslim regimes, consulted Muslim leaders of international stature, and opened new lines of diplomacy. This would have reduced the threat, made it unnecessary to exaggerate it, and protected the structures of open politics. I am fearful how the populace will respond to the fear and hate mongers when the next event of non-state terrorism occurs in the States.

WENMAN: Since 1999 you have been developing a materialist ontology of ‘immanent naturalism’ (Connolly, 1999). This is inspired by Deleuze to a considerable degree, but also by developments in contemporary physics and biology. You invoke the term ‘naturalism’ to point to a world without divine purpose or direction, and the notion of radical immanence denies any element of transcendence from a materialist universe replete with multiple energies and protean forces. Alain Badiou has argued provocatively that Deleuze’s philosophy is ultimately a philosophy of the One, of the ‘univocity of Being’, that — despite his persistent emphasis on multiplicity — the forces that make up the Deleuzean cosmos are all ultimately ‘local intensities of the One’ (Badiou, 2000). Of course, this is a form of Cosmological unity that remains open and is essentially irreducible to the principle of identity, but nonetheless resembles the Spinozan idea of the multiple qua the actualization of substance (Spinoza, 1955). Could I ask you to reflect on the significance of Badiou’s claims for your own work? Your conception of immanence is indebted to Spinoza, and in Pluralism you elaborate the idea of the ‘pluralistic universe’ understood as a single Cosmology. Is this ultimately a form of ontological monism? Or how do you conceptualize the relationship between ontological monism and pluralism? What are the political implications of this conceptualization?

CONNOLLY: I cannot respond intelligently to the question about Badiou, because I have not yet read his account of Deleuze. One suspicion is that he plays up the analytical side of Deleuze while downplaying the indispensable role of dramatization in his work. Perhaps that suspicion is unfounded.

Deleuze says somewhere that philosophical monists support ethical and political pluralism while dualists support more hierarchical, national conceptions of politics. This is better treated as a tendency in my judgment than a law; there are numerous positions that do not fit these tendencies. William James, for instance, embraces a trace of transcendence while contending that the universe itself is pluralistic (James, 1909). Strong dualists often do treat their reading of the Transcendent as authoritative and commanding, calling upon us to obey unchangeable laws, tame desires and passions at odds with them, and obey fixed terms of order. Does monism support pluralism? It may point in a variety of directions. Deleuze himself projects protean, energized forces into the basic composition of the world, moving him toward what might be called protean monism. This version of monism can be specified further by calling it immanent naturalism. It is only, however, when that philosophical stance is joined to a sensibility that overcomes visceral resentment of such a world that its pluralist potential begins to sing. Creed and sensibility, here as elsewhere, are interinvolved. So, it is also possible to find dualists whose sensibilities support a mode of pluralism.

I seek to render immanent naturalism as credible as possible, so that it can compete actively with the theo-philosophies currently circulating in public life. Immanent naturalism breaks with mechanical and eliminative modes of naturalism. It differs from the former in investing more vitality and volatility into the basic constituents of the world. Jane Bennett and Brian Massumi have explored this issue. It breaks with the latter by treating consciousness, ethical judgment, and artistic achievement as refined emergents in a universe of immanence. Just because thought and language have evolved from less refined modes of complexity, and still depend upon them, does not detract from their value. Such a philosophy, in fact, enlarges our appreciation of multiple affinities between us and other parts of nature. To me, it is helpful to work back and forth between leading philosophers of immanence, among whom I include Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze, others who fold a large dose of immanence into their experience of transcendence, such as James, Bergson, Taylor, and Whitehead, and a growing list of scientists who stretch classic images of science by concluding that we live in a world of becoming, among whom are Ilya Prigogine, Brian Goodwin, Stephen Jay Gould, and Lynn Margulis.

By a world of immanence, I mean a world of becoming in which the existing composition of actuality is exceeded by open, energized potentialities simmering in it. You can compare an immanent process, perhaps, to a stem cell just as it migrates to another zone to be fashioned into a blood, brain, or skin cell. The movement is replete with pluripotentiality but not infinite plasticity. In politics, too, the interplay is between the virtual and the actual waxes and wanes. This is what makes it possible to hover in a period of duration, allowing layers from the past to reverberate in an unexpected situation, to see if a new idea, judgment, feeling or intervention bubbles up for further tests and existential experiments. Immanent naturalism and time as becoming form two sides of the same philosophy. To a philosopher of immanence time itself is ‘out of joint’.

Of course an immanent naturalist does not anchor morality in transcendent commands or universal laws generated by a consummate subject. We support an ethic of cultivation and a generous ethos of engagement between diverse constituencies. The obligations, responsibilities, and guilt we experience are treated as second-order formations infused into our characters and intersubjective relations. Sometimes they provide us with invaluable cues from which to proceed; sometimes a new, surprising encounter may press us to work upon something in those dispositions. That is why an affirmative sensibility about the most fundamental terms of human existence itself is so important to cultivate and why a culture infused with the spirit of existential revenge is so dangerous. A Kantian infused with the spirit of ressentiment could easily interpret a principle so that it commands an ugly imperative, while one with a more noble sensibility will interpret it differently. A Spinozist who has encountered too many ‘bad compositions’ may parrot the ideas of Spinoza while expressing a sensibility of resentment and punitiveness. All these things were understood by Spinoza, and there are moments in Kant, too, when he talks about the importance of tactical work on the sensible register to prepare the self to accept the moral law. The examples given above are individual, but the issue is also collective. A noble or exclusionary ethos of engagement operates on several intercoded levels in a media saturated society.

These disputes between dualism and monism, and between a morality of law and an ethic of cultivation, are apt to remain with us in some form as long as human beings explore the human condition. They may have acquired another new twist, however, as work in neuroscience, biology, and evolutionary theory point toward new conceptions of nature/culture relations and breathe new life into the fecund idea of time as becoming.

WENMAN: In your early work — most notably The Terms of Political Discourse (Connolly, 1993; original 1974) — you developed a critique of the positivist idea (characteristic of the mainstream in American Political Science) that key terms — such as ‘power’ and ‘interest’ — can be operationalized in a neutral fashion. Since that time your work has moved in many interesting directions — for example, the work on the politics of becoming, on secularism, on neuroscience, and on the politics of ‘brain-body processes’. This has taken you far away from the concerns of the mainstream discipline of political science, which has become increasingly dominated by rational choice theory. Could you discuss your perception of developments in the discipline of political science over the period of your career? Where do you see the discipline headed in the future, and do you see prospects for greater diversification in the kinds of methods that are employed within the discipline? Can recent developments in political theory be brought to bear on empirical political science? For example, do you see prospects for your own approach — of immanent naturalism — to have a wider impact on the mainstream?

CONNOLLY: I started teaching political theory during a time when many behaviouralists insisted that ‘traditional’ political theory must be replaced by a new science of politics. David Easton was one leader; Robert Dahl presented a more muted version of that view. Dahl has since recanted, and he now emphasizes how complex politics is and how numerous the contingencies that shape it are. I wrote my dissertation in a predominately behaviouristic department in an attempt to crawl out from under that stone. The dissertation and the book that grew out of it were themselves more positivistic than I realized. I took another step with The Terms of Political Discourse, written under the influence of Wittgenstein, Gallie, Hampshire, and Taylor. At that time rational choice theory was making inroads in the profession. Its proponents took temporary cover when a group of philosophers, anthropologists, and theorists criticized these assumptions, only to return in a more formal guise 15 years later without, to my knowledge, really engaging those critiques.

Today political science is a mixed bag. In some departments, including the one in which I work, there is considerable interplay between people in comparative, IR, American politics, and theory. In others, theory is relegated to a ghetto. To me, the way to respond is not simply to oppose political theory to a rigid image of science. It is also to engage exploratory movements in the natural sciences themselves, particularly those indissolubly linked to cultural life such as biology, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience. When I started to address neuroscience several years ago, some friends in theory worried that I was going over to the dark side, and a few associates in political science politely suggested that I was getting in over my head. I was, certainly, over my head. But that research impinges upon central issues in cultural theory, particularly on how fears, anxieties, and positive aspirations can be communicated and amplified by multimodal means operating below the most refined intellectual capacities. Neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio welcome the interchanges between cultural theory and neuroscience. The more complex their conceptions of the body/brain/culture network become, the more they pursue engagements with contemporary theorists. Our debts to them are at least as important.

There is considerable interest in these issues in literary theory, anthropology, and geography. Political theorists can cultivate relations with these fields further, working to ventilate received images of science in political science as they do so. I speak from a fortunate departmental location in saying these things, but they may make sense nonetheless. I also doubt very much that immanent naturalism will take over the discipline! But it may make inroads among some political scientists discontented with the image of science into which they have been inducted.

What about the vocation of theory itself? It is fascinating how large ideas set to the side by many theorists for a few decades have now returned to the centre of attention. ‘Time’, ‘ontology’, ‘capitalism’, ‘nature’, ‘Christianity’, ‘Islam’, ‘explanation’, ‘evolution’, ‘sovereignty’, and ‘the earth’ are just a few. Of course, each idea undergoes change as it resurfaces, and it is imperative to address several together under new conditions of being. More theorists see a need to extend the spatial, spiritual, and temporal horizons of our vocation as we explore positive possibilities of being under new conditions. All these things go together. The promise of theory grows as we move through debates between advocates of positive systems and practitioners of deconstruction to contending articulations of what might be called ‘positive problematics’. A problematic consists of a series of loose connections between multiple elements, falling below a tightly structured system and above a set of discrete ideas. Most canonical theories turn out to be problematics upon investigation. They include an ontological dimension without being reducible to it. A problematic can provide guidance as you intervene in events. Its revision, in turn, can be triggered by a variety of things: criticism of it; events that surprise you; new social movements that unnerve you; loose ends that now captivate you; a strategic concept in another field; and several of these in conjunction. Its mode of being means that it is open to contestation. To the extent that more theorists come to terms without resentment with the deep contestability of contending problematics, including their own, to that extent we can simulate in intellectual life the relations of agonistic respect urgently needed in politics. The relations between political theorists and political scientists might take another step forward as well. For the first thing a political scientist resents in a theorist is the disposition of intellectual conceit. And vice versa.

WENMAN: I would like to close with a question about your most recent work, where you have analysed the modalities of power characteristic of contemporary capitalism. You are interested in the affinity between economic interests and religious faith and especially the relationship between capitalism and Christianity. You explored some related issues in your early work — most notably in the Politicised Economy (Best and Connolly, 1976) — but these themes have not been prominent in your work over the past two decades. Why have you turned to these issues at this particular time? Are you concerned about the intensification of capitalist processes in the context of neo-liberal globalization, and related problems such as growing inequality and an intensification of the environmental crisis? You have said that the classical analyses of capitalism — Marx and Weber (e.g.) — are insufficient to conceptualize the current operations of capitalism, and that this requires instead new accounts of ‘emergent causality’ and of the capitalist ‘assemblage’. Could you say something about the development of these new concepts and how these differ from the classical analyses of capitalism? Also, how do you see the future development of these ideas in your new book?

CONNOLLY: I turned from The Politicized Economy, written with Michael Best, to questions of identity, pluralism, the visceral register of cultural life, and a new cosmopolitanism partly because I thought that political economy is never sufficient to itself and partly because political issues of the day pressed themselves upon me. The ‘detour’ took longer than I imagined as it opened more avenues than I anticipated. I did not guess at the outset that the new neuroscience would turn out to be so pertinent. Nonetheless, I tried to keep one finger on political economy, devoting chapters in some books to the issue. In the first book, we warned that a portion of the white working class could be captured by the right unless liberals and leftists changed course. Those warnings were updated in parts of later books (e.g. ‘The Politics of Reindustrialization’, ‘Fundamentalism in America’, and ‘Democracy, Equality, Normality’).2 The more robust return occurred as the Bush regime, the evangelical movement, and neoliberalism extended and intensified an assemblage that had already been formed in America, pushing investment priorities, consumption practices, church assemblies, think-tank enunciations, media polemics, and state policies in new directions. These changes affect both the United States and the rest of the world, as each American induced financial crisis shows. After the second election of George Bush — if you can call the first installation an election — it seemed imperative to take the measure of what might be called ‘the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine’.

My new book begins by placing Deleuze and Weber into conversation about the nature of capitalism, with appearances by Marx, Fred Hirsch, and others as well. I move through those discussions to explore the intrinsic volatility of capitalism, both in its ‘internal’ mechanisms and its close imbrications with nature, science, education, churches, and the news media that periodically face their own moments of disequilibrium. I resist the suggestion that a specific spirituality only played a role in the formation of northern, European capitalism and that capitalism later became ‘disembedded’. There is no such beast as a disembedded economy. The idea that there is may be part of an academic drive to protect sharp boundaries between disciplinary fields. Rather, the ethos Weber identified in early capitalism, growing in part out of relays between an emerging formation and the Calvinist tradition, differs from that propelled by the evangelical and capitalist right today as its priorities become installed in theo-economic practices.

Today the right edges of evangelism and capital resonate together, with each pushing a bellicose spirituality that draws energy from complementary tendencies in the other. One discounts our responsibilities to the future of the earth by looking to its end amidst the fiery, divine punishment of nonbelievers; the other demands extreme entitlements for itself as it obscures the probable effects of its priorities upon the earth and collective future. Together they exacerbate popular resentments created by some features of late-modern life, including the growing minoritization of the world and the acceleration of pace in several zones of life. They also obscure the role that capitalism itself plays in fomenting these two effects, identifying a series of scapegoats to blame for the results. As these complementary drives resonate back and forth a machine emerges that is larger and more intense than the sum of its parts. The results become embedded in church sermons, media debates, sensual dispositions, investment priorities, electoral campaigns, consumption habits, state priorities, and the constant resonances back and forth between them. The term ‘resonance’ is thus not merely a metaphor to me. It, along with a larger family of notions, is designed to displace mechanical concepts of causality, to show how reverberations between various practices can set processes of self-amplification into motion irreducible to the triggers that launched them. That is, approximately, what I mean by emergent causality. The evangelical-capitalist resonance machine is an emergent formation.

To take on this machine is difficult, because it must be countered and reversed at so many sites. But it is essential to do so. One way is to search for openings and ambiguities within its core constituencies. Another is to acknowledge the element of faith in a variety of other existential stances, including the ones you and I adopt. Another yet is to advance positive themes and strategies that speak to the contemporary condition, seeking to recapture a segment of white working and middle-class males who defected to this machine in the 1980s. The goal, not realized entirely in this study, is to chart multiple sites and modes of communication adopted by the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine to help illuminate what it would take to create a counter machine today. The democratic left, for instance, has been tone deaf to the importance of micropolitics, while the right has been engrossed in such practices.

The study is one entry into intercoded practices that must be engaged in multi-disciplinary ways. Recent work in economic anthropology and economic geography is promising in that regard. New movements in theology and some churches are encouraging too. Today it is also essential to draw upon phenomenology, media analysis, and neuroscience to come to terms with how the media inflect the perceptions and dispositions embedded in investment priorities, consumption practices, foreign policy and electoral campaigns. The evangelical-capitalist machine works on all these fronts, even as it thumbs its nose at that kind of academic study. Those on the democratic left now see the need for that kind of study, but we often remain word strong and image weak. I include myself, certainly, in that judgment.

WENMAN: Bill, thank you for sharing your thoughts with me on these issues, and for your exemplary contribution to political theory. I very much look forward to reading your new book.


Badiou, A. (2000) Deleuze: The Clamour of Being, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Barbin, H. (1980) Herculine Barbin: Being the Recently Discovered Memoirs of a Nineteenth Century French Hermaphrodite, R. McDougall (trans.), New York: Pantheon.

Best, M. and Connolly, W.E. (1976) The Politicised Economy, Lexington: D.C. Heath.

Connolly, W.E. (ed.) (1969) The Bias of Pluralism, New York: Atherton.

Connolly, W.E. (1987) Politics and Ambiguity, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1991) Identity/Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1993 [ 1974] ) The Terms of Political Discourse, 3rd edn, Oxford: Blackwell.

Connolly, W.E. (1995) The Ethos of Pluralization, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Connolly, W.E. (1999) ‘Brain waves, transcendental fields and techniques of thought’, Radical Philosophy 94(March/April): 19–28.

Connolly, W.E. (2002) Neuropolitics Thinking, Culture, Speed, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.

Connolly, W.E. (2005) Pluralism, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Deleuze, G. (1994 [ 1968] ) Difference and Repetition, London and New York: Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things, London: Tavistock.

Foucault, M. (1979) The History of Sexuality Vol. 1: An Introduction, London: Allen Lane, Penguin.

Foucault, M. (1986) The History of Sexuality Vol. 2: The Use of Pleasure, Harmondsworth Middlesex: Viking.

Foucault, M. (1988) The History of Sexuality Vol. 3: The Care of the Self, London: Allen Lane, Penguin.

James, W. (1909) A Pluralistic Universe, London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Spinoza (1955) The Ethics, New York: Dover

SOURCE: Contemporary Political Theory 7, 200-219 (May 2008)

1 Comment

Filed under ecology, ontology, politics, sociology