Monday, August 16, 2010

The Fragility of Things

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

We inhabit a time when things have become more fragile and urgently in need of delicate tending. At the same time, a large section of the populace is belligerently opposed to recognition of this condition. It is a time when militant pressure to engage the fragility of things must be joined to acknowledgment of the limited ability of the human estate to master the world. It is thus a paradoxical time.
What are some sources of the refusal to recognize this feature of the contemporary condition? First, some popular versions of the three monotheisms militate against it, acting as if God will take care of us no matter what we do to the rest of the world and, in the worst cases, defining those who bring such news to be enemies of God. Second, neoliberal ideology does so too, with its henchmen on the media acting as if markets can allocate prices, production, worklife, and consumption in a rational way without significant regulation. Third, the time scale and corporate dependence of the media does so, as it spins out scandals and neoliberal fantasies. Fourth, the divisions and methods of the human sciences make a contribution, so that the fragility of things too often gets lost in the gaps between them. Fifth, the sharp boundaries between the social sciences, humanities, and natural sciences do so, diverting our attention from numerous interactions between the human estate and non-human systems with their own powers of self organization. Fifth, intense desires by several constituencies to believe that things will take care of themselves so as long as we pray and support corporate/market hegemony over the culture folds into this mix, fueling support for churches, media talking heads, political leaders and popular writers. There are numerous voices who fight against these trends, including by way of a sample Stuart Kauffman in biology, Catherine Keller in theology and biblical studies, Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, Timothy Morton, Brian Massumi and Steven Shaviro in English and media studies, John Buell and Mark Blyth in political economy, and Jane Bennett in political theory. They remain voices in a larger wilderness to date, but the cumulative potential of their work should not be underestimated.
The disparate pressures listed above screen too much of public culture from fragilities that penetrate numerous aspects of life. The dangers and uncertainties are too much for many to face; the risks to future generations too abstract to be internalized; the changes that are needed in the American way of life too severe to be admitted. To change this situation would require concerted change in several of the above domains, with each adding energy to the others in a series of positive loops. As a few take off, they might spur other movements in churches, universities, investment communities, consumer groups, states, and the media to revise established private and public priorities.
What, then, are some of the fragilities created by conjunctions between unfettered capitalism and several non-human systems? One instance resides in the failure to turn to renewable energy resources that many started pressing for in the early nineteen seventies. Now late capitalism is compelled to drill oil in ever more treacherous zones, triggering destructive eco-events that careen out of control. The 2010 BP disaster in the Gulf, for instance, was triggered by the explosion of a gas bubble that surprised the engineers, overwhelmed available safety devices, and outstripped the capacity of the company to repair. The complex interfaces between oil, water, wetlands, species life, and human welfare are not readily susceptible to human control after the fact because each of these systems has some degree of autonomy and because they all interact. There are at least 3500 other wells in the Gulf tapped temporarily without being supervised closely by corporations or the state. The response this event generated was revealing: many demanded a rapid state resolution of the problem joined to an immediate return to drilling under the same old rules.
The fragility, too, resides in the perverse relation between the terms of capitalist expansion and the acceleration of climate change, with implications for world temperature increases, the decline of fertile soil, the loss of habitable zones, and a possible diversion of the Gulf stream that could trigger a new ice age in Europe. Each of these implicated systems, by the way, has its own mode of self-maintenance and fragility. The fragility resides as well in regional economic inequalities, exacerbated by regional religious differences and the differential effects of climate change on soil and habitation in vulnerable zones, finding variable expression in massive migrations, imperial pressures, terrorist movements and regional religious resentments. It finds expression, too, in the shrillness adopted by media defenders of neoliberalism, amply primed by tea bag anger. It resides in the more rapid border crossings of people, arms, drugs, ideas, music and goods that challenge the terms of territorial order upon which neoliberal state capitalism rests as it also generates bellicose drives to reinstate those borders. It resides even in the complex loops between bees, viruses, and pesticides that derange the brains of bees, leading to rapid decline in bee population and decline in the pollination of crops and fruits. It resides, too, in intensified efforts to manage and control the populace as the distributive effects of these fragilities pile up.
Such a list constitutes a mere sample of fragilities stalking the human estate. And it must be emphasized again how each of the processes listed in subordinate clauses of the above sentences constitutes a force-field of its own, with a degree of autonomy and some capacity to morph under new conditions of stress.
I have written elsewhere about how the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine supports a public culture of vigilante blindness. Today it is necessary to focus on how the human sciences--at odds with this machine in several ways--nonetheless contribute to this condition. In general, the social sciences are either too enclosed upon some aspect of human culture or, if and when they attend to human/non-human interfaces, predisposed to underplay how nonhuman systems have self-regulating powers of their own, interact with other such non-human systems, and periodically reach tipping points that recoil back on the human estate. 
Such tendencies are loosely connected to another disposition, itself connected to the desire to construct several self-enclosed sciences. Inattention in the first respect often leads to a tendency to underplay the contribution that the quality of role performances in every aspect of cultural, economic and political life makes to both the tonalities of public culture and sensitivity to human/nonhuman interfaces. Paul Krugman, for instance, is one of the few journalists who takes on neoliberal capitalism on a regular basis, and he folds ecological awareness into his economic analysis. Much to admire there. But in a recent piece on the economics of ecology in the New York Times Sunday Magazine he underplays the powers of self-maintenance and self-adjustment in non-human systems and fails to come to terms with the contribution that the quality of ethos makes to every aspect of economic life.
The contemporary fragility of things can now be stated in stark terms: As neoliberal capitalism expands, as it assumes hegemony over more aspects of life, as it fosters visible inequality between regions, and as it supports rapid growth in the world’s population, particularly in areas that are ecologically challenged, its intersections with a large number of self-regulating, non-human systems become more strained and precarious. As those force-fields recoil back on it, the fragility of things becomes accentuated and more visible to those with eyes to see. 
The answer is not to turn to a classical model of socialist productivism, nor to the themes of deep ecology with its assumption that nature tends towards a stable equilibrium. The first continues the growth imperative by new means; the second underplays the extent to which a variety of interacting fields contain independent powers to morph in this way or that. Fred Pearce, in With Speed and Violence, provides a powerful review of both slow and rapid periods of climate change over the last 100,000 years, with several instances triggered by a volatile intersection with other, non-human force fields. Only during the last 200 years has the human estate had such profound effects on these other systems. The Pearce study thus cuts between those who say that climate change is only “natural” and those who say it is determined by humans. It is both, today at least, which makes the contemporary fragility of things more severe than it would otherwise be.
If socialist productivism and deep ecology are both deficient and neoliberal capitalism is the worst of all, what is the answer? I do not have a perfect recipe, only possible directions to pursue. Today we must amplify cultural recognition of the limited power of the human estate in its close interactions with a world composed of innumerable force-fields with volatilities and pluripotentialities of their own. Such recognition must then be folded into production priorities, consumer choices, market regulations, investment decisions, church activities, generational relations, university education, high school courses, media reporting, state policies, and international organizations. That such a shift in operational priorities could make a real difference is supported by the fact that contemporary American capitalism would be quite different today if economic and cultural institutions were not so infused with the hubris and existential resentment that propels the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine. It will take a strange combination of political militance and ecological sensitivity to move in the needed direction. And success in this respect will only provide a start...
Let’s return, then, to the positive role for the human sciences in this larger scenario. Today to participate wisely in the human sciences we must also select some non-human systems to study in relation to the human estate. That in turn means reform of the professionalization and coarse methods that govern too much work in these sciences. The task is to cultivate new sensitivities to human/nonhuman imbrications in ways that draw the humanities and the human sciences closer together. For much work in the humanities focuses on how to enlarge human sensitivity in a culture that otherwise often works against it. As we come to appreciate the differential powers of self-regulation and potentialities to morph in a variety of non-human systems, we will acquire the existential modesty, political courage and ecological sensitivity to cope wisely with the fragility of things. That is one needed interface, then. But the new fragility of things also means that the human sciences must become more attuned to complexity theory as it unfolds in several natural sciences, incorporating some aspects of it into our own portfolios. The most profound versions of complexity theory discern what might be called degrees of cultural complexity ranging beyond the human estate. These sciences in the domains of biology, ecology, neuroscience, geology and climatology both speak to cultural theory and need infusions from it. A close exploration of the potential intersections between the human and non-human sciences must await a future post. But the larger point is that contemporary fragility of things means that the human sciences must alter their traditional sense of what it means to be “between” the humanities and the natural sciences. That word must now shift from its sense as the declaration of a boundary to its other sense of pointing to a space of movement and crossing that links different processes.
To attend to the fragility of things today is to fold literary and artistic sensibilities into the human sciences as you also attend to complexity theory in the natural sciences. Such crossings will improve the quality of the human sciences, as they help us to focus on a defining characteristic of the contemporary condition. It will not be easy to negotiate such a plurality of interfaces, given the professional grooves into which each science has settled and administrative pressures within universities to make the human sciences conform to the demands of neoliberal capitalism. But the effort is worth it: a degree of success could spur broader recognition of the fragility of things and new efforts to address this condition. For, as the list at the outset of this piece suggests, resistance to acknowledgment of the fragility of things comes from several, intercoded sources.



  1. Great post, love your work.

  2. Respect! Was this the text you delivered during the recent conference Taylor at 80?

  3. Great post indeed. Was this the text you delivered at the recent Charles Taylor conference? I have started reading/following your work, als in relation to your ongoing discussion with Taylor.