Founded in 2013, the Neal A. Maxwell Lecture Series in Political Theory and Contemporary Politics annually brings groundbreaking political theorists to the University of Utah for a symposium. The lecturers present new and original work from a variety of theoretical perspectives as they experiment with conceptual innovations, pursue normative advancements, and articulate the linkages of both to empirical events and practical political developments. The lectures thus test and push the boundaries of thought in order to enhance our understanding of the contemporary world.
Thomas L. Dumm delivered the 2017 Maxwell lecture, "On the Persistence of the Human: Body, Soul, and Migrations of Sovereignty." The essay continues Dumm's explorations into "what it means to be at home in the world, and on the Earth," the outcomes of which are connected to the fate of the human. Dumm undertakes this project at a potential moment of crisis, in which the dissolution of the human itself is threatened. The core of the essay revolves around an engagement with the recent work of Eric Santner on the question of sovereign power, in particular the relationship between body and soul. To illuminate some of the limitations of Santner's theorizations of the waning and displacements of sovereignty, Dumm turns to Jane Bennett and Bonnie Honig and the implications of new materialism. Their work offers more possibilities for cultivating democratic agency, which includes both a contestation and recovery of forms of sovereignty, than does Santner's human- and male-centric account linked to the preservation of a certain kind of human exceptionalism. Dumm consolidates this theme in the concluding sections of the essay as he turns to Foucault and tentatively explores the emergence of an "identifiably feminine sovereign power."
William E. Connolly amplifies Dumm's critique of Santner, theorizing possible reasons for Santner's misrepresentations of new materialism, focusing on its (feared) consequences for the scope of human agency and thus human exceptionalism. The structure of Santner's thought, mimicking the structure of the classic theorists animating his (body of) work, relies on a network of assumptions about the planet no longer viable in the Anthropocene, a condition that finds no place in Santner's work, rendering him in Connolly's judgment a passive nihilist [End Page 937] when it comes to climate change. Santner's approach to thinking is not sufficient unto itself. It needs to become transdisciplinary in new ways in this moment of crisis. In this respect, Connolly argues, Santner is not alone. He is symptomatic of a larger problem in the social sciences and humanities.
Matthew Scherer likewise notes the rigidities in Santner's thinking, especially regarding the new materialism. Contrary to the ethos that Dumm, following Cavell, practices, which entails an openness and responsiveness to others, to other humans, Santner closes down thought before it can get seriously started. Scherer also appreciates that Dumm's essay involves more than a critical response to Santner. It also speaks to the question of home, to which Scherer confesses a certain apprehension given its problematic moral, political, racial, and class ontologies and histories. Yet home, rooted in the earth, and thus our loved ones, can exceed its problematic dimensions. It enables the human to persist, including as a site of freedom, negotiating the forces and powers that invariably traverse it. In this sense, Scherer happily welcomes Dumm's distinctive contributions to thinking about what it means to be human and at home. [End Page 938]
Steven Johnston is Neal A. Maxwell Presidential Chair in Political Theory, Public Policy, and Public Service in the Department of Political Science at the University of Utah. He is the author of Wonder and Cruelty: Ontological War in "It's a Wonderful Life" (Lexington Books, Politics, Literature & Film series, forthcoming, 2019), Lincoln: The Ambiguous Icon (Rowman & Littlefield, Modernity and Political Thought series, 2018), American Dionysia: Violence, Tragedy, and Democratic Politics (Cambridge, 2015), The Truth about Patriotism (Duke, 2007) and Encountering Tragedy: Rousseau and the Project of Democratic Order (Cornell, 1999). Steven's email address is email@example.com