Facing the Planetary

Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming

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William E. Connolly
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , February
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $24.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780822363415.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

William E. Connolly begins with a Prelude in which he moves strategically to mythic language—specifically the Book of Job—to deliver a crystalline hermeneutical quandary: what are we to make of the Nameless One bellowing unanswerable questions to the devastated Job, who feels he does not deserve the arbitrary catastrophes of health and property that have reduced him to despair. Connolly poses a reading of Job appropriate to our current political and moral situation, as we face the coincident crises of abrupt climate catastrophes and mass extinction, a situation caused by the few, which adds insult to injury as these damages indiscriminately impact hardest those who have produced the fewest emissions and consumed the fewest commodities. Once confronted by the primacy of God’s force over all the forms of Job’s life, Job finds comfort in seeing himself as dust (a situation that Connolly goes on to develop in great detail as entangled humanism). Connolly suggests we take Job’s comfort as a sign—comfort is found in facing the truth of one’s relationship to what Connolly calls the planetary: “a series of temporal force fields, such as climate patterns, drought zones, the ocean conveyor system, species evolution, glacier flows, and hurricanes that exhibit self-organizing capacities to varying degrees and that impinge upon each other and human life in numerous ways” (4). Hence, Facing the Planetary

In six chapters, Connolly delivers an ambitious applied political philosophy drawing in major theoreticians of human and natural sciences, weaving together studies of the themes: Sociocentrism, the Anthropocene, and the Planetary; Species Evolution and Cultural Creativity; Creativity and the Scars of Being; Distributed Agencies and Bumpy Temporalities; The Politics of Swarming and the General Strike; and Postcolonial Ecologies, Extinction Events, and Entangled Humanism. The book concludes with an interview between Connolly and Bradley Macdonald that tracks the contributions of Connolly’s work in political theory and ecology, while delivering some critiques and identifying current foci, such as the power of debt in structuring the human condition. 

From Prelude to Postlude, Connolly engages mythic frames in order to think in temporalities that are geological and abrupt, at spatial scales that include intimate entanglement, socially mobilized movement, and tectonic spans. While Connolly does an admirable job introducing the work of Lynn Margulis, Michael Benton, Alfred North Whitehead, Anna Tsing, Mahatma Gandhi, Wangari Maathai, Pope Francis, Bruno Latour, and Naomi Klein, the text is not a primer for students. Rather, it serves as a capstone for a course on political theology or religion and ecology for which students have rigorously studied at least some of these major theorists. It might be used as a pulse point by a researcher who could bring their expertise to bear on the thematic studies. Connolly takes these issues and theories in rapid succession. Requisite foundations are summarized and need be further interrogated. 

After decades of engaging with Indigenous Studies theory, I am leery of the delight taken by contemporary scholarship with the poetic and constructive power of Deleuzian assemblages and quantum uncertainties. From all that Connolly writes, this is a welcome critique in his desire to stretch political theory “into new intellectual domains today, doing so to render more of us worthy of the events we encounter” (13), as well as his one reference to important Indigenous theorists and the significant leadership role of Indigenous activism on the global stage (34). Connolly raises these voices as important to the militant, pluralist assemblage required for adequate political response in our time, while also noting that the scales at which Indigenous communities organize themselves means their worldviews will require the complementary insights at the scale of social and natural sciences. What is suspect is the confidence in pluralism that is carried forward with a temporality of “progress”; a confidence that does not take time to study the insights of those who have already undergone the decimation of their ecological fabrics in situations of conquest. As Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson argues in We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance (University of Minnesota Press, 2017), colonial science and social science have been very slow on the uptake with regards to ecology. Indigenous people saw through colonial behavior and predicted apocalyptic destruction if natural resources were treated as dead commodities with a price. Their mythic appreciations of the spirit of matter predate Connolly’s move to Job. Indigenous cosmologies locate thinking in specific ecologies entangled with animal and elemental spirits, resisting evangelical desires, unlike the legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery people whose myths served to  decimate ecosystems. We repeat imperialism when Indigenous voices are tapped only for membership in what is presented as a progressive plurality. The moral critiques of accumulation-based society are delivered consistently over centuries by Indigenous communities. Connolly’s proposed assemblages move across Indigenous lands. By restoring their status as coeval, with founding myths that provide pre-modern meanings of matter and relationships, one will alter the assemblage itself, rather than add Indigenous voices to the progress proposed. 

If we acknowledge forty years of UN activism by the Indigenous Peoples movement, we see an older, critical foundation that ought inform the first world ecological turn of late 2018. Connelly’s project calls for cross-regional strikes, provides a genealogy that includes Gandhi and Maathai, assesses striking as an “improbably necessity,” and voila ... Greta Thunberg illustrates the militancy for which Connolly advocates, and her tweets organize global school strikes. Extinction Rebellion is successfully organizing globally, with significant  actions disrupting urban centers on every major continent. This is a timely gem for bringing together exciting and intriguing modes of thought and action, as long as one is also facing the Indigenous for the sustained critique and radical insights therein offered. After all, who would know better the impacts of swarming. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary L. Keller is Associate Academic Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming.

Date of Review: 
June 12, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

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

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