Tag Archive: Connolly


The following are my notes from “Querying Natural Religion: Immanence, Gaia, and the Parliament of Lively Things.” (Live-blogging did not work, as we didn’t have a live internet connection.) These notes are followed by a brief set of post-event summary comments.

The setting: an airplane hangar of a hall in the Baltimore Convention Center. This made the audience of some 120 seem like a puny one.

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Imminently in Baltimore

Get ready for the lively parliament of immanent Gaianly agents…

Querying Natural Religion: Immanence, Gaia, and the Parliament of Lively Things” will take place this Saturday afternoon in the Baltimore Convention Center (right after Karen Armstrong’s plenary in the same room, on “The Science of Compassion”).

The revised speaker line-up is below. Unfortunately, Jane Bennett will not be able to present. And Bruno Latour cannot make it as respondent, but we hope to get a response from him in the special issue of the JSRNC (and/or book) that will be developed from the talks.

I plan to live-blog the proceedings as best as I can.

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A little riot going on

Little time this week, unfortunately, for me to keep up with the Pussy Riot conviction (as promised here) or anything else. But I recommend Charles Cameron’s series of posts (six so far, and counting) over at Zenpundit, including his annotated summary of their closing statements. The statements themselves are very lucid and articulate, as one should expect from women who can quote Rosi Braidotti *AND* Nicolai Berdyaev.

To get a sense of what the PR girls are up against, have a listen to radical traditionalist philosopher Aleksandr Dugin on the “holy war” Pussy Riot have started. “Geopolitician” Dugin’s political advice gets into Putin’s inner circles, even if Dugin’s attitudes toward Putin himself have sometimes been ambivalent.

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A world of becoming

William Connolly’s A World of Becoming arrived in the mail yesterday. It looks wonderful, and only two chapters appear to include material that has been previously published in any form (both very recent), which means this is all quite new. If I had the time and the energy, I would try to organize a cross-blog reading group or something of the sort, as was done with the book that serves as its “companion piece” (of a sort), Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter. (On that reading group, see here and follow the links.)

Just as Bennett had included her own “credo” in the latter part of her book, Connolly includes something like that in his “Postlude”:

Do you know what the world is to me?

A colossus of diverse energies, without beginning or end, with each flowing over, through, and around others, generating new currents and eddies.

A play of waves, forces, and perceptions on different scales of complexity, endurance, and time, with some swelling as others subside, with perhaps long cycles of repetition, but none that simply repeats those preceding.

[. . .]

The longest index entries include the names Nietzsche, Whitehead, Deleuze, Charles Taylor, Bergson, Merleau-Ponty, Hegel, and the terms time, process, becoming, capitalism, force-field, God, faith, perception, agency, human predicament, and of course immanence. I will have more thoughts on it as I read it (informed no doubt by the anticipated objections of the objectologists, which I have internalized by now), but I have little doubt that it will be a significant contribution to process-relational theory as this blog has defined it.

See the Connolly tag for previous mentions of his work here.

What books, published over the last ten years, have contributed most cogently and profoundly to our thinking about the relationship between culture and nature, ecology and society? (That’s to name just two of the dualisms this blog regularly throws into question.) Who have been the most important ecocultural theorists so far this century? And which are the most important publishers in this area?

Below is a highly subjective “top 10″ (sort of) of the books that have most influenced my own thinking on these issues. It aims for a certain representativeness, a balance between the rigorously theoretical and the  theorized-applied, the established names and the new, and between the many fields and styles of thinking I’m aiming to encompass on such a list.

This is followed by a longer list of some 50 additional nominees. These include books that almost made the top ten and others that I haven’t read yet, but that have gotten enough mention in one or another of the fields and subfields I try to monitor to warrant their inclusion. Those fields include philosophy, social/cultural theory, geography, science and technology studies, environmental history, environmental anthropology and sociology, cognitive science, and emerging or interdisciplinary fields like ecocriticism, environmental communication, political ecology, biosemiotics/ecosemiotics, critical animal studies, affect studies, religion and ecology, and ecopsychology.

All are monographs (or close to it) first published in the English language between 2000 and 2010. In including titles published this year, I’m keeping in mind that a book can be influential even before it comes out, since the author is likely to be preparing the way for it — in articles and public presentations — for some time in advance.

I’m interested in hearing your suggestions for other books not on this list, as well as comments and votes “yay” and “nay” on any of the following. If there are enough “seconds” on any of these 60 or so nominations, or on any others anyone would like to add to the list, I’ll run a Survey Monkey style vote (and share it on relevant listservs) to see which book wins.

Finally, with such a long list, I’m bound to offend everyone who’s been left off. My apologies in advance. Remind me of your book (or, better still, send me a copy! ;-) ).

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My article “From Frames to Resonance Machines: The Neuropolitics of Environmental Communication” is coming out in the next issue of Environmental Communication. Here’s the abstract:

George Lakoff’s work in cognitive linguistics has prompted a surge in social scientists’ interest in the cognitive and neuropsychological dimensions of political discourse. Bringing cognitive neuroscience into the study of social movements and of environmental communication, however, is not as straightforward as Lakoff’s followers suggest. Examining and comparing Lakoff’s “neuropolitics” with those of political theorist William E. Connolly, this article argues that Connolly’s writings on evangelical-capitalist and eco-egalitarian “resonance machines” provide a broader model for thinking about the relations between body, brain, and culture. Environmentalists, it concludes, should pluralize their “frames” and pay greater attention to the micropolitical and affective effects of their language and practices on the communities within which they act, communicate, and dwell.

And a couple of excerpts from the article:

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plutonomy, Michael Moore, & Canada

I’ve written before about William Connolly’s notion of the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine, a description of the cozy relationship that’s developed between the economic right and the social-moralistic right over the last couple of decades in the U.S. It’s not merely an alliance of converging interests, since the two groups’ interests don’t always align with each other at all; nor is it only the kind of discursive alliance that poststructuralist analysts like Laclau & Mouffe describe with their notion of hegemony as a process of co-articulation of interests between differently positioned subject-groups. For Connolly, there is also a micropolitical level of resonance that takes in affect, feeling, sensibility, ethos, and other things taking place in pre- and sub-rational dimensions of individual and collective life. (The updated version of Connolly’s piece is found in his book Capitalism and Christianity, American Style.)

Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which I just saw a few days ago, is a good example of the effort to forge a popular alternative to that. Moore tries to work on both the cognitive-discursive and the affective levels to, in effect, forge a kind of Christian-socialist-populist resonance machine — Christian in that it explicitly and repeatedly invokes the Jesus of the gospels (in a kind of reclaiming of the “what would Jesus do” discourse of the evangelicals), socialist in the small-s sense of valuing public control of our institutions, and populist in the way its critical barbs are aimed at, well, mostly bankers.

(On the Christian bit: see Moore’s interviews with Sean Hannity, rounds one and two, where the two tangle, sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes less so, over which of them carries Christianity in their heart (among other things). It makes for fascinating viewing…)

(And on the ‘socialism’: Every political-economic system in the developed world includes some mixture of small-s socialism and small-c capitalism, i.e., some combination of public and private ownership, management, and/or oversight of institutions, where “public”, in a democratic context, means by elected officials and “private” means by individuals or corporations pursuing their own goals. The difference is in how the lines are drawn between the two, with the U.S. erring on the side of minimizing the public role and most other countries seeking greater balance. Moore comes in somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, but what he explicitly advocates is not socialism but democracy — which is another word for public oversight with the details being determined according to what’s in the public interest, not in the interest of the wealthy few.)

As a result of its discursive-affective strategy (with part of the latter being citizen Moore’s persona) the film won’t convert the unconverted unless they’re already leaning in this direction. But he does present a handful of tasty informational morsels that will hopefully send some viewers to their computers — as they did me — to find out more about them. One of those interesting bits is the idea of “plutonomy,” which comes out of a piece of political analysis developed by a trio of Citigroup financial advisors in 2005, well before last year’s economic crash. Jodi Dean has helpfully posted the group’s report here, along with its follow-up, and I highly recommend reading them. “Plutonomy” is similar to “plutocracy” (rule by the wealthy) and “oligarchy” (rule by a dominant class), except that it is not the direct power of the wealthy as it is its economic force that drives things (thus the “-nomy”). Investopia defines plutonomy as

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I recently worked my way through Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, which, since its publication in 2007, has become one of the most widely reviewed and critically lauded books on religion and secularism — and which, in a tangential way, was one of the provocations that led me to start this blog in the first place. What follows are some thoughts on Taylor’s notions of immanence and transcendence, and on the “third way” of radical immanence, or immanent naturalism, that has become an important conversation partner in the debate that has arisen in the wake of Taylor’s book. (See The Immanent Frame for some of this debate, especially the contributions by William Connolly, Elizabeth Hurd, Lars Tonder, Patrick Lee Miller, and Taylor himself.) These thoughts are taken from a longer argument that I presented at last week’s ISSRNC conference in Amsterdam.

It’s rare that a nearly 900-page tome of dense and circuitous philosophical and historical prose gets the kind of attention A Secular Age has gotten, and the fact that Taylor is as brilliant, respectful, and nuanced a thinker as he is makes it a book well worth celebrating. Conferences have been held in its honor, and the Social Science Research Institute-supported blog The Immanent Frame, on “secularism, religion, and the public sphere” and named after one of the book’s central concepts, has attracted the contributions of dozens of high-profile thinkers to weigh in on the themes raised by Taylor. (The list includes Talal Asad, Arjun Appadurai, Robert Bellah, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Martin Marty, Wendy Brown, Craig Calhoun, Jose Casanova, William Connolly, Saba Mahmoud, Donald S. Lopez, Jr., Roger Gottlieb, Timothy Fitzgerald, Todd Gitlin, Christina Lafont, and Taylor himself.)

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Descartes3.jpg

In Why Environmental Understanding, or “Framing,” Matters, published today on the Huffington Post (and on AlterNet), liberal framing guru George Lakoff provides a useful critique of a forthcoming EcoAmerica report on the framing of environmental and climate change issues. While his conclusions are perceptive and make the article a valuable read — I’ll get to those — I find the assumptions underlying his critique worthy of examination. Lakoff is a cognitive linguist, and he contrasts his use of the term “frames” with sociological work on “discursive frames,” rather unfairly biasing the comparison in his favor by suggesting that the sociological approach is “superficial” while his is rooted in the neurobiology of brain functioning.

We think,” he writes, “mostly unconsciously, in terms of systems of structures called ‘frames.’ Each frame is a neural circuit, physically in our brains [sic]. We use our systems of frame-circuitry to understand everything, and we reason using frame-internal logics. Frame systems are organized in terms of values, and how we reason reflects our values, and our values determine our sense of identity. In short, framing is a big-deal.

All of our language is defined in terms of our frame-circuitry. Words activate that circuitry, and the more we hear the words, the stronger their frames get. But if our language does not fit our frame circuitry, it will not be understood, or will be misunderstood.

In translating science for a popular audience, especially in a political context, one of course has to simplify. But I find Lakoff’s simplifications here a bit jarring. They remind me of those Cartesian diagrams of human mental circuitry by which a physical stimulus leads to a neurochemical response leads to a physical reaction (see illustration above), with no place for culture or for a feeling human agent in the middle of it. Lakoff reduces all of our understanding to words (“all of our language” works this way) activating distinct neural circuits called “frames,” which are “organized in terms of values,” with the latter in turn “determin[ing] our sense of identity.” It’s not clear where these “values” come from, or if values and identity have their own separate neural circuits or, if not, what exactly they are. According to Lakoff, “two competing value-based systems of frames,” and therefore two identities, are available “in our politics”: a conservative one and a progressive one. (See his Moral Politics for more on these.)

But my quibbles here are not so much with the simplification of our politics or of the “neural circuitry”; I’m content to acknowledge that a quick polemical Huffington Post article is not the place for articulating a thorough and coherent model of language, selfhood, and society. What’s more important to me, though, is that there seems little role in Lakoff’s model for affect, that is, for individual and collective emotional response, in people’s processing and use of language, concept, metaphor, and image.

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Immanent naturalism

“Immanent naturalism” is political theorist William E. Connolly’s term for a tradition of thought that doesn’t seek ultimate explanations, ahistorical forces, or transcendental frameworks to give meaning to the world; rather, it finds meaning enough in the world as it is experienced by mortals like us.

The general idea is that the world itself is richer, more mysterious, and more radically open — to change, emergent complexity, and innovation — than we tend to think, and that by opening ourselves to that richness and mystery, we extend our capacities for deepening the experience of life for ourselves and those we interact with. In a sense, immanent naturalism is another term for an earth- and life-embracing ethic that conceives of the universe as fundamentally open and pluralistic, and that refrains from any form of closure including the closure that thinks it’s figured it all out.

Connolly’s writings on immanent naturalism include sections of Neuropolitics and Capitalism and Christianity, American Style; follow the highlights in the linked book excerpts. See also his reply to Charles Taylor’s book A Secular Age at the Immanent Frame blog.

“Immanent naturalists,” Connolly writes, “such as, variously, Epicurus, Lucretius, Spinoza, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Deleuze ground ethics in the first instance in an attachment to the world or a gratitude for being that includes and exceeds the identities infused into them. We do not ask, in the first instance, why we should be moral. We ask, in the first instance, how to enliven and cultivate care for an abundance of life over identity that already infuses us to some degree.” Connolly writes of being guided by a “visceral gratitude” and “care for a protean diversity of being,” and his various writings work out the implications of what that might mean for politics and culture, and by what methods and techniques we might be able to get better at it.

On this blog, I use the term “immanent naturalism” a little hesitantly and experimentally, thinking it through as I speak/write, to see if it makes sense and if it might catch on (with me, with others) or not. Part of my hesitation comes from the dualistic implications of naturalism (natural versus supernatural or unnatural, naturalist versus idealist). Connolly’s point, like the Spinozist and Deleuzian traditions he draws from, is that nature includes everything that is. For Deleuze, it’s not just everything that is, but everything that has the potential to be, that is virtually there in the structure of the universe, i.e., the structure of becoming (whether it ends up becoming actual or not). Naturalism, therefore, doesn’t have to only deal with empirically knowable existing things; it can be a matter of recognizing that the world is process, and that the invisible and unknowable, for partial and situated observer-participants like ourselves, is also part of that world.

Conceivably, this “immanent naturalist” rubric might fade into others over time here – which makes sense, because I intend it to cover such a broad range of thinking (process philosophy, “social nature,” actor-network theory, autopoietic systems theory, ecosemiotics, embodied cognition, etc.).

See also On immanence.