Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Politics of The Event

William E. Connolly 
  Johns Hopkins University

The rebellions in Eastern Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rapid rise of neoliberal capitalism in Eastern Europe, Tiannamen Square, the birth of gay rights movements in the United States and Europe, the formation of the evangelical-neoliberal resonance machine in the United States, the claim to a right of doctor assisted suicide in a world in which many thought the list of human rights was complete, the (nearly) world wide economic meltdown, the rebellion in Iran, the popular transformations in Tunisia and Egypt, the birth of a civil war in Libya, the eruption of protests in Wisconsin, the earthquake, Tsunami, nuclear crisis in Japan...

Each of these moments embodies the essential characteristics of an event: it happens rather rapidly; it throws regular institutions into turmoil, uncertainty or disarray; its antecedents often seem insufficient to explain the course of its expansion and amplifications; its settlement, when underway, is uncertain; it makes a real difference in the world, for good or ill. 
Each time an event unfolds or erupts hope and anxiety accompany it, in different ways and to different degrees during each event. And many initially outside its compass are rapidly moved to intervene, in attempts to support it, to redirect it, or to squelch it. An event starts out of apparent uncertainty and foments a wider band of uncertainties as it expands and morphs. Events emit contagious and infectious energies. Sometimes democracy or dictatorship hangs in the balance. Or the creation of a new right, faith or identity. Or the denial of one or more of those.
Events startle, provoke and energize; they can also disturb, defeat, alienate and sow resentments. They, therefore, form part of the very essence of politics. A secondary effect is how events often throw Intelligence experts, media representatives, political leaders in other places, and practitioners of the human sciences into intense bouts of self-doubt and self-scrutiny. “How come we did not anticipate this,?” ask the Intelligence agencies. “What were our leaders doing?,” say media talking heads. “And what about those of us in the media?” “How come we did not predict this?”, whisper political scientists to each other, before they catch themselves enough to recall that they only promise to predict hypothetical events under conditions in which the “variables” are strictly specified, not to explain actual events in the messy, ongoing actualities of triggering forces, contagious actions, complex and floating conflicts, obscure purposes, subterranean anxieties, and contending hopes. But why do so many remain committed to these protective maneuvers in the domains of the intelligence, the media, political leadership and the human sciences? Do they demand a world in which they can be in charge so much they are hesitant to sink into the messy reality of things underway?
At The Contemporary Condition we are magnetized by the politics of the event. We strive to dig into it, think with and against it, even sometimes to nudge it in this way or that while it is underway. We are mesmerized by its combination of uncertain origins, messy modes of self-amplification, and fateful possibilities. Sometimes an event fills us with hope, sometimes foreboding, sometimes with despair. But how should we grasp the very idea of an event? What about those of us located within departments of the human sciences, such as political science, economics, sociology, anthropology and geography? Each unexpected event, in fact, creates a flurry of discussion in the human sciences between those who think politics can be comprehended in classic categories of explanation and prediction, those who wish they could believe that but actually doubt it, those who adopt qualitative or interpretive approaches, and those, most recently, who think that attention to the event carries you into territory that is not entirely reducible to any of these dominant perspectives. These conversations go on between us and within us when a fateful event occurs. 
Are regular processes periodically punctuated by protean moments in which a degree of real uncertainty in this or that domain arises, accelerating fluctuations within a domain, or between two domains, until the event could really tip in one of two or more directions of real potentiality? Or is uncertainty “in principle” fully explicable by reference to limitations of available “data,” deficiencies in available techniques, a lack of information, or ethical limitations that disable hard scientists from “disaggregating” complex formations to discern how they have hold together. Like poor old Humpty Dumpty who was intact at one moment but too complicated to put back together after he fell. Do practitioners of predictive explanation promise to predict hypothetical futures when in fact they typically explain past events to defer this task indefinitely? Are you bored by rational choice theorists who continue to “retrodict” the origins of the civil war in America, implicitly feeding off the fact that the actual outcome is known in advance ?
Perhaps we periodically live into futures replete with elements of real turmoil and uncertainty. Even more, perhaps those same strategic moments sometimes secrete a degree of real creativity, for better or worse. Perhaps vague frustrations and volatile energies were in the air the day before Mohamed Bouazizi immolated himself in Tunisia. Too intense to be ignored, too vague to be defined. Did that sad event, in turn, help to trigger something that would not have arisen a month earlier or a year later? Even more, were protean energies floating around before the event too vague to enable an “ideal observer” before the fact to predict what combustible processes would be set into motion by the event? Perhaps the rebellion in fact arose through a surprising condensation of vague, intense, collective energies. Maybe it then became contagious beyond anybody’s ability to predict before the event? Perhaps it became consolidated through processes of self-amplification and self-organization that both exceeded the triggering moments and contracted those vague intensities into something that did not preexist the event.
Are there sometimes protean moments in politics in which real creativity comes into play, propelling a new formation, regime, identity. movement, right, or meltdown into being, for good or ill? 
Many practitioners of the human sciences increasingly believe that proponents of classical practitioners of quantitative, predictive inquiry in those sciences simplify the world to make it clean enough for them to use their preset categories and demands. Maybe when they played in the mud as young boys their mothers called them in too soon to wash up. We even suspect that some established regimes of qualitative inquiry, while indispensable, rich and subtle, are too tied to the pursuit of a stable nation, a fixed locality, a stable tradition, or nostalgia for long, slow modes of temporality.
Perhaps it is timely today, then, to draw selective sustenance from work in complexity theory in neuroscience, biology, geology, and critical philosophy, as well as from minority movements in the human sciences themselves. Doing so to reconfigure our own practices and role definitions. Stuart Kauffman, the biologist and complexity theorist, provides a fine place to start. (See Reinventing the Sacred) Maybe it is timely to transfigure our own activities and selves so that we can come to terms in more supple ways with the politics of the event, and so we can pursue thoughtful responses to some uncertain situations as they are unfolding into the mystery of the future. We seek to participate in the human sciences while dropping the hubris of explanatory sufficiency in principle. To pursue such a trail we must supplement modes of efficient and probabilistic causality with an idea of emergent causality that requires us at key moments to follow real modes of creativity as they unfold to produce new outcomes. In between those events–because there are periods of relative regularity in several domains--we seek to show people why so many are driven to these hubristic images of the human sciences and to learn with others how to think and act creatively within the compass of the event while it is underway. (Connolly, A World of Becoming)
We expect the open systems which we study and in which we participate to go through periods of relative stability, only to be punctuated at key moments by surprising accelerations and accentuated instability. Such accelerations can be triggered when one open system is touched or battered by another with which it is imbricated, as when the effects of climate change, itself intensified by capitalism, sends pressures back to capitalism, and it in turn responds. There is an event in the making. Sometimes vague intensities not yet condensed into precise focal points, accumulate below the radar of effectivity and discernibility. Sometimes both things happen together, composing a dissonant connection with pluripotentiality.
When such moments of disequilibrium arrive, notions such as criticality, asymmetrical rhythm, vague intensities, vibration, condensation, resonance between systems, self-organization, amplification, emergent causality, and real creativity become particularly pertinent. Not merely as metaphors, but as operative in real processes during moments of phase transition. Admission of these notions into the human sciences, in turn, must be joined to a willingness to act sometimes into the future during unsettled circumstances. Instead of always waiting until the issue is settled in this or that way so that the established “tools” of hubristic science acquire some plausibility again. Yes, those latter tools do have limited applicability in between events, but lose it during the advent of the event.
Some colleagues in the human sciences scoff at such formulations, particularly after things have settled down in this or that domain. Economists take cover for a year or so after the latest meltdown, only to re-emerge with confidence when things settle down. Political scientists repeat the word “in principle” to each other until it infects their dream lives. Here are a few questions to both types: Do you scoff because of the real achievements of your model of explanation in settled and unsettled times, or to protect professionals from the responsibility to act during this or that moment of phase transition? Do you in fact believe that there are elements of real creativity in the plastic arts, in music, in literature, in philosophy? Have you yourself, indeed, not periodically had a new thought or idea come to you, as if from nowhere, when you were walking or going for a long, slow run? If so, is it not possible that the modes of real creativity in the activities noted above also find degrees of expression in politics, ethics, regime formations, and economic processes? If these latter things seem plausible, is it not likely that any interpretation of culture, agency, political movements, surprising eruptions and the like that attains plausibility will do so because it forges a valuable interface with relevant literary, philosophical, artistic and ethnographic work? For if there is an element of real creativity in politics and ethics, literary and artistic activities both make contributions to that element and need to be folded into the very lifeblood of the human sciences. How could these two domains remain compartmentalized now?
Okay, so what about natural events? The sciences of complexity in some zones of natural science, such as neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and geology, locate whispers of the same processes in natural events. Perhaps, as James, Whitehead, Bergson, Nietzsche, Deleuze, Stuart Kauffman, and Ilya Prigogine each thinks in his own way, there are also moments of criticality in species evolution, climate change, geological processes, ocean current shifts and so on that also contain elements of real uncertainty and real creativity. But that issue must await a future post. (As a preliminary see “The Fragility of Things” and “Hyperobjects")


  1. Seeing the wasp-orchid picture caused me to feel as though my finger had been stung.

  2. Thanks, Bill, for these reflections, which I think hit upon crucial distinctions among different senses of event, or maybe, between events and Events.

    At first we have to distinguish 1) events as changes in a system's behavioral repertoire -- a move from one behavior pattern and another already established though momentarily latent (e.g., moving from a walk to a trot to a run) and 2) Events as changes in the repertoire itself.

    And here we have another distinction with the realm of Events, between 2a) changes in the repertoire that are characteristic of systems of a certain type (an infant learns to stand, then to walk, then to run) -- let's call this "learning" or "development" -- and 2b) changes that introduce a behavior pattern never before seen -- let's call this "novelty" or "creativity" or "revolution."

    I think then that all these are relations of virtual and actual, but with important differences: 1 = virtual qua latent; 2a = virtual qua developmental potential; 2b = virtual qua resource of creativity.

  3. William E. ConnollyApril 9, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    Yes, that makes sense to me. I think Deleuze's discussion of the powers of the false heads in that latter direction in Cinema II. I try to pursue it in chapter 4 of A World of Becoming. This involves a mode of incipience that started once but did not take because another dimensiion emerged, resonating with a contemporary context in a way that produces the new. Proust and Nietzsche critical here. I hope this connects to your last mode of virtual as resource of creativity. I am sure there is much more to do.