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  • Conditioned Subjects: Connolly, the Amygdala, Fear, and Freedom
  • Robert Turner (bio)

In the course of work from Identity/Difference (1991) through Neuropolitics (2002) and after, William Connolly analyzes the process of liberal subjectivation in modern democratic societies, and comes to explain the ressentimentality of our dispositions as an effect of our early and later conditioning – a resilient conditioning that needs to be worked upon through techniques that affect our “linguistic” and “visceral register[s].” On the basis of his understanding of neuroscientific evidence and Bergsonian theory, Connolly recommends specific film viewing techniques, applied to specific films, for changing our dispositions when we are “accessible,” outside of the demands and pressures of everyday life. Unfortunately, Connolly’s examination, like many popularizations of neuroscience, is A) selective and unsystematic; from Connolly’s understanding of neuroscience, it is difficult to know how to prescribe techniques or evaluate their effectiveness. In addition, B) given the ubiquity of behavioral habit and the conventional disciplinary techniques that produce it, Connolly’s almost exclusive focus on the cinematic experience needs supplementing by attention to techniques applicable in more of our everyday activities, especially those in which we face the institutional, freedom-limiting authorities of our lives. But, more importantly, Connolly’s neuroscientific discussion C) implicitly assumes the unconscious domination of our conscious action by a fear conditioning that, by associating more and more stimuli with danger, would practically guarantee our willing docility, the perpetuation of ressentimentality and existing power relations, the inefficacy of intervention by any techniques of freedom, and the impossibility of the respectfully agonist subjects Connolly hopes for.

Connolly’s response to the mostly neglected but crucial question of how the dispositions that establish, maintain, and transform political power are formed and can be changed remains, nevertheless, invaluable. This paper attempts to further Connolly’s efforts, point for point, by: A) providing a more elaborated, systematized neuropsychology (i.e., its conditioning mechanisms) that would allow evaluation of the effect of our dispositional techniques, and their experimental adjustment; B) examining recent evidence that casts doubt upon Connolly’s (sources’) neuroscientific conclusions – which should dictate our pessimism – and instead indicates not the domination of fear conditioning but instead our conscious awareness and the possibility of conscious intervention, even in the midst of (and after) strong emotional reactions; and C) suggesting techniques that are applicable in more of our everyday lives (instead of only when we are allowed private time away from everyday institutional demands) and in our direct relations with the authorities to which we (in varying degrees, ressentimental subjects) habitually defer.

Liberal Subjectivation

From at least Identity/Difference (1991), Connolly has been working to construct a genealogy of Euro-American liberal subjectivity, documenting how the contemporary project of subjectivation “compensate[s] for the loss of transcendental or teleological reassurance by loading secular thought with a [concealed] faith that the world itself is predisposed to be mastered in support of the identities [liberals] favor.”1 They react to the fundamental vulnerability and anxiety of the human condition by attempting to manipulate, control, and coerce humans’ mostly uncontrollable “diversity of forces and energies”2 (which we enjoy but also suffer). Subjects are commanded to experience and treat themselves as fully culpable for their own happiness and suffering, and assume that obedience to a benevolent authority (or benevolent organization of authority) will be rewarded with security from all vulnerability.3 Since the human organism is by nature vulnerable to not just external forces but also its constitutive internal forces, this imperative, the command, which Connolly comes to call “the Augustinian Imperative,” to self-identify as culpable and obedient results in additional, unnecessary violence and suffering. This imperative’s predominance in our culture (i.e., our “contemporary practices of identity, production, responsibility, guilt, punishment, confession, and faith”4) is evinced in our automatic, unquestioning acceptance of Augustine’s interpretation of the Genesis myth;5 we assign sole responsibility for the Edenic tragedy to our perfectly free will, and, conversely, absolute goodness to an all-powerful, all-knowing God, who can save us from tragedy.6 We are shocked – made anxious – by the story’s uncannily familiar, retroactive imputation of guilt. But an upbringing in institutions (i.e., family, school, corporation...

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