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An Interview with William Connolly

[Political Philosopher]
“The soft spots in a hard structure may not show until they are tested.”
Several fallacious divisions:
Public and private
Church and state
Reason and feeling
by Jill Stauffer
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with William Connolly

[Political Philosopher]
“The soft spots in a hard structure may not show until they are tested.”
Several fallacious divisions:
Public and private
Church and state
Reason and feeling
by Jill Stauffer
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with William Connolly

Jill Stauffer
15 Snaps

William Connolly, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, has argued persuasively in a number of books, including Why I Am Not a Secularist and A World of Becoming, that rethinking some of our dominant ideas about the self and the self’s place in a world with others will give us a better picture of how we actually relate to each other as human and political beings. His goal is to open us up to exploring the ways in which we are animated by passions such as love, disgust, contempt, and care. When we base our ideas of justice and politics on the unlikely premise that we can and should keep reason utterly separate from such “private” feelings, we may fail to see how our feelings are precisely what drive certain political beliefs and commitments, and then we may not understand how politics really works for us, or why our political relations to others matter to us so deeply.

Judith Butler has written that Connolly “moves us all to consider what it might mean, radically, to live democratically.” Cornel West adds that Connolly “is a towering figure in contemporary political theory whose profound reflections on democracy, religion, and the tragic unsettle and enrich us.” At times it takes work to follow his thinking: he asks readers to question things they think they already know. He does this, at least in part, in order to make us work harder for the meaning we make for ourselves.

Our conversation began one summer across a table strewn with bar food and beer bottles in Manhattan, continued by email throughout the following fall, and concluded over wine and Indian food in suburban Philadelphia in the spring.

—Jill Stauffer

I. YOUR LOVE AND YOUR DISGUST, TOGETHER, IN PUBLIC

THE BELIEVER: We’ve all heard that the personal is political, but the message doesn’t seem to have gotten through to many people involved in politics these days, where there is a widespread tendency to assert that we all have public personae, and what we do in our personal lives has nothing to do with politics. You have said that the predisposition to think in this way is a mistake both strategically and dispositionally.Why?

WILLIAM CONNOLLY: There are several intercoded divisions that come to us from secular liberalism that need to be reconfigured. The public/private divide is one, and the church/state divide is another. We have to look at these divisions differently, because no one consistently abides in either in its pure form. For instance, people are very interested politically in what TV programs others watch, in some cases because of a concern about the transmission of dispositions to violence, in others because of a concern about loosening sexual mores.

BLVR: So a lot of people care, politically, about the “private” choices other people make. For instance, if I, in my private life, were to think that the Christian god is a vengeful god, I’d be inclined to have views on capital punishment or sentencing guidelines that would reflect that, but I wouldn’t be permitted to justify those beliefs in that way publicly. But that wouldn’t stop me from holding them. And that would have political resonance. We can’t separate public and private so easily.

WC: Right. One of my concerns with the public/private divide revolves around the issue of our culture’s widespread dispositions to punishment and violence. And this concern points to a reason for reconfiguring these divisions. To a certain extent, this is about secularism. I am a non-theist, so don’t get me wrong. But contemporary secularism, in idealizing those two divisions—public/private, church/state—carries, along with those binaries, another tacit division: the difference between the kinds of reflective judgments and arguments which are said to mark public discourse, and the affective dispositions of care, disgust, revenge, love, contempt, and hubris which are tacitly thought to be attached to private life.

BLVR: We can’t keep our love and disgust separate from our judgments. Private goes public, whether we like it or not.

WC: At least part of the time. This mistake of thinking that we can keep the two separate is what William James called “intellectualism”: the inability to see and feel how affective dispositions help to shape our public intellectual orientations as they become infused into them. Put another way, today we have to think about the quality of the spiritual orientations that infiltrate into voting habits, consumption priorities, TV commentaries, investment portfolios, tolerances of diversity, and attitudes toward the future. The right implicitly understands these connections and works hard in a variety of media to infuse punitive, revenge, and hubristic orientations into many areas of private and public life. Indeed, such private and public orientations work back and forth upon each other so that your church, hobby, and business activities both flow into and are worked upon by political campaigns, consumption practices, and demands for public laws.

BLVR: Can you give me an example?

WC: You already mentioned capital punishment. Many who are soaked in the revenge themes of the Book of Revelation seem to treat death itself as a punishment, a penalty. Such an abstract orientation can readily become infused into your attitude toward public punishment for murder. You not only favor capital punishment, you demand it with total fervor.

Or maybe you’re against universal health care and welfare because those things remind us of inescapable human vulnerability, while “small government” and unregulated markets that take care of themselves are like heroes from the myth of self-reliance. Or take the view, widespread in evangelical circles, that God provides a backstop to the market and that nature is not influenced by human activity. This translates into a disbelief in the relation between capitalist expansion and climate change, and virulent responses to those who claim otherwise. That, in turn, flows into your consumption priorities, supporting SUVs over hybrids in a bellicose way, and opposing state involvement in new, sustainable energy production. These dispositions, in turn, are supported by FOXNews. The public/ private and church/state divisions, then, are less territorial boundaries and more like very porous membranes, with the flows moving in both directions. Politics is part of the process by which we affect, divert, and amplify such flows.

BLVR: Politics is also how we live together.

WC: Sure. But what kind of politics will we have? Fragility is part of the human condition, especially as it relates to the larger world. Human activity has set in motion nonhuman forces like climate change that may not be controllable. And then things like earthquakes and tsunamis disrupt human-made things like nuclear energy—and that is beyond our control. We do not like feeling fragile. But a politics that denies fragility will tend to put us on a disastrous course.

II. EVERYONE BLAME EVERYONE ELSE

BLVR: Why can’t we leave spirituality out of things when it comes to politics?

WC: Anyone’s philosophy or creed, as a set of operational beliefs about the most basic character of human existence and the cosmos, is involved with one’s spirituality but not entirely reducible to it.

BLVR: So even if I were the type to have a faith or a set of ideas that explained everything about the world to me, I would find myself at odds with that faith or that set of ideas part of the time, perhaps despite myself?

WC: Some Christians, for instance, may believe in the Trinity and life after death. But at another level, they may unconsciously resent the God they define for making things so hard and uncertain. This spiritual uncertainty, since it is frightening to articulate, might find expression in intense hostility to non-Christians whose very modes of existence exacerbate those inner tensions.

BLVR: You can’t be mad at God, so you’re mad at people who aren’t bothered by why a God would make things so hard and uncertain?

WC: Yes. Of course, other believers may be infused with more gratitude for being on earth, and more receptivity to others. Both spiritualities can have important effects on the actions we take and the politics we support.

BLVR: One shouldn’t make the error of thinking that believers are all the same.

WC: In a similar vein, some non-theists, expressing belief in a world without a divine force or eternal life, might, at another level, profoundly resent the world for not providing these very possibilities. Again, since it hardly makes sense to resent the world directly, such burgeoning feelings are apt to be displaced upon other constituencies.

BLVR: “I don’t believe, but I’m mad about the spiritual fullness of those who do!”

WC: In a pluralist society—one in which multiple creeds encounter each other in many venues regularly—the quality of the spirituality or ethos that inhabits consumption practices, campaigns, church assemblies, orientations to penal punishment, and so forth, is very important. If your faith is both important to your identity and filled with a sense of uncertainty, it can be very painful to rub shoulders regularly with those of other faiths. So you become responsive to TV slogans about how the U.S. is a Christian nation, even though many of the founders were in fact deists. They thought God wound up the world and installed laws governing it and then did not intervene again. The spiritual quality of the existential faiths that infuse a regime are fundamental to the ways its participants either care about others and about future generations or refuse to adjust their own modes of behavior to the needs of the future.

BLVR: What does my spirituality have to do with the level of care I feel for future generations?

WC: If you exude gratitude for being and a sense of receptive generosity to others, that is apt to be carried forward into your orientations to the future. On the other hand, have you noticed how many cranky old white men today either deny climate change or insist that the market will take care of its effects automatically? Or how often they resist new sustainable energy initiatives on the grounds that they are not needed? Their professed beliefs about the present and future make it unnecessary for them or the whole polity to adjust its behavior now in response to the needs of the collective future. They pretend to monopolize patriotism while denying the needs of the collective future. These tendencies often have existential dispositions poured into them.

BLVR: What does all this have to do with the “affective” or “visceral” register of being?

WC: The visceral register of cultural life consists of affect-imbued thoughts of high intensity and low cognitive complexity that always float around in our brains and culture.

BLVR: Whoa. Allow me to try to parse that. In our cultural lives, there we are walking around the world, each of us full of thoughts and feelings. As such, many of our ways of relating to the world are visceral—they strike us as bodily senses that we may feel intensely but without giving much thought to where they come from and what they mean.

WC: That works. The visceral register communicates with the more refined intellectual and cultural life. Yet the visceral depositions are not themselves moveable by reason and argument alone.

BLVR: Then if a person had the deeply felt bodily sense that two guys kissing each other is wrong, it would take more than reasoned argument to change that reaction, in part because the reaction would be experienced in the gut, and not just in the faculty of reason?

WC: Right. As William James knew, intellectualism is the hubris of the academic and the intellectual: it is either the idea that argument alone can change our fundamental dispositions or that our private dispositions can be quarantined from political life. Neither assumption is true. There is never a vacuum on the visceral register, and that register is not reducible to the private life of the individual, either.

BLVR: What can a person do to modify what strikes her on a visceral register? Can I change my own gut?

WC: To work upon existential orientations as an individual is to forge tactics of the self that touch the visceral register. You might meditate, prime your dream life, change your everyday friendships, shift your role performance in this way or that—as when you sell your SUV and buy a Volt instead. TV, film, and other public media touch our visceral registers in more collective ways. The mixtures, in the visual arts like film, of rhythm, image, intensities, words, and bodily demeanor work back and forth upon each other, helping to magnify some public dispositions and to divert others.

BLVR: A film is not just an idea. It operates on you on multiple levels, some of them visceral—and that has political resonance.

WC: Yes. I call this micropolitics. In the highly mediated culture of today, the democratic left must learn how to engage in micropolitics. The right already has those skills highly honed, with effects that are visible for those who have eyes to see.

BLVR: Can you give me an example of how the right has succeeded where the left has failed in this regard?

WC: Constant repetition in a bellicose way is one of their strategies. Think of how often and intensely the themes of unregulated market capitalism are repeated everyday on FOXNews, in evangelical churches, and in daily financial reports. We are encouraged to forget the numerous times—starting with the Great Depression and continuing through the present day—these same practices have created huge, dangerous meltdowns. We are encouraged to think that unemployment and irresponsibility go hand in hand. And we are pressed to think that the state is always clumsy and the market is always rational, when in fact the evangelical-capitalist machine requires huge state support of the military, massive corporate subsidies, and a large punitive apparatus to control those left out of the system.

BLVR: The invisible hand is getting a lot of invisible help!

WC: And very soon the cause of the last meltdown becomes the cure for its aftereffects. It’s a very dangerous combination.

III. RESONATING

BLVR: How would you describe what you have called “the evangelical-capitalist resonance machine”? What is resonance, anyway?

WC: One commentator on my book gave a good example of resonance. The Millennium Bridge in London, crossing the Thames, was designed to be highly flexible, so that it would adjust to winds and sway with them. This design would strengthen the bridge—and indeed it did. But the crowds who walked across it unconsciously adjusted their walking rhythms first to its swaying and then to each other, creating modes of amplification that kept feeding back and forth upon each other. Finally, the city had to close that bridge for a year to repair it, because these unanticipated processes of mutual amplification threatened to bring the entire structure down.

The evangelical-capitalist resonance machine began to develop in the late 1970s, and has been a powerful force since. The Tea Party is merely a recent manifestation. It works in a way analogous to those resonances on the Millennium Bridge. The right edge of the evangelical movement is infused with intense feelings of revenge toward the conditions of late modern life, such as the more rapid pace at which social life is being diversified along several dimensions. The neoliberal edge of finance and corporate life is filled with hubris, in that it thinks corporate autonomy and market self-regulation are the keys to a good life. Revenge and hubris. If, as I think, each of these dispositions has some degree of affinity with the other, then they can work back and forth upon each other to foment an assemblage that is irreducible to some simple notion of common interests that preceded these developments.

BLVR: So it’s not just common interests but a set of predispositions, fears, and hopes that feed off each other and create a movement across diverse groups? But say more. Why do you think evangelicals and neoliberal corporate-finance types have an affinity for each other?

WC: Today, the evangelical movement, which had quarantined itself from public life in the 1950s and ’60s, is convinced that a providential God protects unregulated markets, and that state regulation of markets is a source of evil. The neoliberal right had already anchored such views in market hubris, and some of its leaders are now responsive to the themes of a punitive state in other domains of cultural life. So the two wings of this movement share affinities which resonate back and forth until a new powerful movement is formed, finding expression in churches, campaigns, TV news reporting, corporate boardrooms, investment practices, and consumption priorities. The affinities become sharply visible when we see how Alan Greenspan resists state involvement in climate change on the grounds that the market will take care of it, and how evangelists such as Tom DeLay militantly deny climate change on the grounds that God would never allow mere human activity to change natural processes in such a fundamental way.

BLVR: Interesting!

WC: No one, to my knowledge, as late as the 1970s, predicted the emergence of such a machine. Many evangelical leaders even opposed participation in politics until the late 1970s. Accounts of the evangelical/neoliberal machine anchored in the mere aggregation of preexisting interests do not adequately capture its energies and dangers. The right is so effective in part because it has a huge think tank, FOXNews, churches, the Party, and a financial and corporate network to draw upon. Check out the financing of the Tea Party by the Koch brothers.

But it is also effective for reasons that cut more deeply into the fabric of contemporary life: shifts in global power that make it more and more clear that America will be unable to preserve its preeminent presence in the world for much longer; a sense of anxiety that reactivates festering national resentments and belief in world entitlement; the realization by more and more Americans that Christianity is a minority religion in the world at large; the powerful pressures to diversification of territorial states along multiple dimensions which have, ironically, been accelerated by the globalization of capital which American capitalism helped to promote, putting people of diverse faiths, gender orientations, and sexual affiliations in more regular contact; and the complication of the image of a world of sovereign/ national states entering into market exchanges created by network practices of migration, conversion, and terrorism, that exceed the traditional paradigm of the territorial state. All of these pressures sow anxieties which can, if primed, flow back into the intensification of evangelical faith, fantasies of special American entitlement in the world, and dreams of the self-sufficiency of unregulated markets.

BLVR: It’s like a conspiracy theory without the conspiracy. And all of those things can then feed off of each other, or resonate with each other, creating powerful forces that are more than just the sum of their parts.

WC: Right. Just think, that last dream about the self-sufficiency of unregulated markets has been shattered several times definitively—from the Great Depression to 2008, when the world teetered on the edge of collapse. But the power of these myths to inspire allegiance is shown by how rapidly a vigilant minority renewed its faith in them. It is a dangerous time.

BLVR: What, in your estimation, would be the best way to counter such a phenomenon?

WC: We need detailed exposés and implacable opposition to anti-pluralist, anti-egalitarian, and anti-environmental movements. We need experimental micro-politics: blogs, art forms, social movements, church meetings, media reporting, and strategies not yet imagined.

It is a hard task. The think tank/FOXNews/church/ corporate connections on the right are very effectively organized, while the pluralist, egalitarian left both lacks many effective media outlets and no longer has one large, key constituency it can count upon as its base. The dispersal of the classic labor movement has taken care of that. We need to build a new pluralist assemblage of multiple constituencies who support pluralism and who care about the future. We have strengths in cities, labor, universities, and the comedy channels, with perhaps new possibilities emerging in the activation of Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and nontheistic constituencies who have previously been drowned out by the religious right. There is also the discernible sense of shame many young evangelicals feel about some of the priorities of their elders.

It is a tough proposition, but not without hope. The soft spots in a hard structure may not show until they are tested. It is perhaps through a combination of right-wing failures and excesses and a new generation of media-savvy activists that something new will be forged.

This conversation occurred prior to the emergence of the Occupy movement. I contacted Bill to ask what he thought about it in light of our discussion, and he said, “The Occupy movement, coming as if out of nowhere, shows some potential in this regard. It is grounded in a plurality of constituencies, and it joins that plurality to a high degree of militance. For it to maintain its energy, I imagine, its members may need to help seed some of the ‘tactics of the self’ and the experimental micropolitics we discussed in the interview.” —J. S.

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