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  • Sometimes It’s Okay to Be Weak: Reply to Stephen White
  • Jane Bennett (bio)


Weak ontology is Stephen White’s term for an emerging genre of political theory that engages in reflection about human being and the fundamental character of the world. What distinguishes weak ontologists from traditional metaphysicians is that the ontological commitments of the former are presented as essentially contestable, as narratives ‘whose persuasiveness can never be fully disentangled from an interpretation of present historical circumstances.’[1] White understands the ontological turn as a response to the criticism that critical theory (in its generic sense) has not done enough to elaborate an affirmative response to the moral dangers and political injustices it exposes. White both chronicles recent moves toward more affirmative theorizing and puts pressure on the theorists he engages to develop that tendency further. White has an rare talent, displayed in this book and in the rest of his work, for interpreting other theorists in a way that is careful, utterly generous and yet still does critical work of its own.

I am, I now see, a weak ontologist. Though I acknowledge that there may be good reasons to resist White’s call to become overtly normative and explicitly ontological. One might, for example, understate one’s moral ideals and underdraw one’s onto-picture for the sake of forging a political coalition between groups with divergent cultural traditions. Or, such reticence might sometimes reflect commitments to moral individualism, pragmatic localism, or moral skepticism. Moreover, one of the things I’ve learned from hanging my weak ontology out there for all to see is that it’s kind of embarrassing. Exposing one’s primary picture of the world feels something like confessing one’s fantasies — sure they’re relevant to thinking, they may even, as White says, ‘prefigure’ political commitments, but they may also reveal more about one’s idiosyncracies, fears, weaknesses, etc. than one might wish. Espousing inherently contestable but deeply held imagery about being makes one vulnerable to a wide variety of charges, ranging from naivete to scholarly irresponsibility to lunacy. You’ll see what I mean in the next section, where I outline my onto-picture in order to contest White’s more human-centered imaginary.


How does White imagine the ontological terrain? We can get a sense of this by looking at the list he draws up of the themes that a good weak ontology will consider:

Weak ontologies ... offer ... figurations of human being in terms of certain existential realities, most notably language, morality or finitude, natality and the articulation of ‘sources of the self.’ These figurations are accounts of what it is to be a certain sort of creature: first, one entangled with language; second, one with a consciousness that it will die; third, one which, despite its entanglement and limitedness, has the capacity for radical novelty; and, finally, one which gives definition to itself against some ultimate background or ‘source,’ to which we find ourselves always already attached, and which evokes something like awe, wonder, or reverence.[2]

Linguistic entanglement, human mortality, the capacity to receive and provoke surprises, and the presence of a larger background against which one positions oneself — an excellent list of the preoccupations proper to political theory done in the weak ontology mode. But it may also be too restrictive. It reduces onto-reflection to reflection about human being , thus excluding those onto-pictures wherein humans figure as cross-species assemblages as well as intersubjective creatures. From my perspective, White’s onto-story is a little too conceited about humans; it thereby underplays the many ways in which we are implicated in, inspired by or overwhelmed by forces inside and outside of us. White pays too little attention to how a nature-picture or a physics, and not just a conception of human self or human agency, affects moral-political judgments.

In the onto-story that excites my affective and intellectual energies, human agency is essentially bound up with nonhuman manifestations of it. I pursue an ethics that applies to cross-species as well as inter-human encounters. I first broaden the sense of what agency means to cover the ability to make a difference...

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