This collection consists of papers presented at a symposium on William Connolly’s 2013 book The Fragility of Things at Johns Hopkins University. The majority of the contributors here were invited to bring challenging ideas together from multiple fields around the theme of fragility. Aubrey Yee’s paper was added after her presentation at the 2014 International Studies Association meeting in Toronto. This introduction reflects on fragility, the themes that each of these papers invoke, and the interdisciplinary scope of the symposium. It ends with a summary abstract of each paper.
William E. Connolly’s 2013 book The Fragility of Things poses a number of timely questions concerning our contemporary condition. In April of 2014, a symposium was held at Johns Hopkins University to stage a discussion of that book’s themes: self-organization, climate change, religion and belief, human and non-human forces, freedom, neoliberalism, and fragility. A diverse set of scholars working in multiple disciplines were invited to offer reflections on The Fragility of Things: on the tension between the forces that destabilize and shift our world, those that connect it and hold it together, and the energies and opportunities that come out of those encounters. These topics press us today when the feedbacks between human and non-human forces have become drastically intensified. At the same time, politics has entrenched itself in resentful modes of understanding that resist coming to terms with these forces. To help overcome this barrier, the papers also speak to the broader topics of Connolly’s recent work on complexity theory, open systems, tragic politics, and becoming.
The essays in this collection are drawn mainly from that symposium. They have been modified to some degree for print, and incorporate further thoughts concerning the discussion that took place at the symposium, but they have not changed in substance. They range across disciplines and approaches, bringing anthropology, theology, political science, and philosophy into conversation with one-another. Catherine Keller gave the keynote address and the contributions of Daniel W. Smith, Naveeda Khan, and Jairus Grove are included here as well. In addition, while she was not at the April symposium at Johns Hopkins, that same month Aubrey Yee presented her paper, “The Fragility of Things and Capacities of the Micro-Political Experiment,” at the 2014 International Studies Association meeting in Toronto—a happy coincidence that allows us to include her paper in this publication. William E. Connolly’s response to these engagements concludes this discussion.
Each of the papers is an attempt to, as Connolly writes, “engage life in the middle of things.”1 ‘Things’ here takes a broad meaning: as a group, these papers explore a range of existential commitments in contexts that span the micropolitical to the cosmopolitical. As a group, they develop fragility as a concept that carries us along two different movements. In the first, we extend out from our affects and selves to communities and nationalities, then to other cultures, and then non-human systems and cosmic forces. In the second, we come back to ourselves, and learn about who we are and the various fault lines on which we are situated in our cosmic milieux at this point in time. This group of papers develops a critique centred on fragility that tells us about our existing situation even as it places us on the largest scales of space and time. In following this line of exploration, these papers push against the tendency and temptation to grasp a form of mastery or certainty and demonstrate the political necessity of exploring the diverse aspects of the anthropocene. As a group they constitute a series of insightful responses to Connolly, with The Fragility of Things at the center, but each follows lines of thought radiating outward from that point.
Fragility, then, might be seen as a method of critique by augmentation. First, one takes a positive element of a given account, affirms it, and then expands it beyond the domain in which it is comfortably situated. Thus neoliberals are correct to identify tendencies toward self-organization in the market. But those tendencies can be found in a number of other domains as well. In the second move, the connections between these elements become fragile and perspectives that focus on them in just one domain become insufficient. Thus emerges the critique. Finally, fragility exemplifies Connolly’s double-entry approach. The Fragility of Things argues for and affirms a complex and fragile cosmos that contains tragedy and sweetness. But in its wide-ranging explorations and open-ended interludes, it invites a conversation with other perspectives. Some of these perspectives are presented here.
Daniel W. Smith’s “On the Fragility of Things” explores Connolly’s suggestion to work a cosmic dimension into our thinking. He draws on Goya and the Stoics to exemplify the way that the human relation to the Earth has changed, necessitating a new philosophy of nature. As one approach to this, Smith outlines the way that recent technologies have modified our bodies, our way of interacting with nature, and our conception of it, particularly with regard to time. This “tectonic thinking” is a way to get at effects that can suddenly erupt as a result of slower shifts under the surface of daily activity and struggle. Cutting across our traditional conceptions and boundaries, Smith suggests that such thinking in the domains of health, agriculture, transportation, religion, demographics, and history would further elucidate the cosmic dimensions of our contemporary moment. Thus Smith seeks to extend the partiality of our passions beyond the human to confront the difficult but timely task of extending our political sensibility.
Naveeda Khan’s response traces affinities between Connolly’s work, Muslim becoming, and the process of “fragile ensouling.” These concepts find a home in the chars of Bangladesh: silt islands whose normal processes of accretion and erosion have been intensified by climate change. In the midst of these forces, particularly extreme flooding, inhabitants use the notion of batash laga—catching the wind—to capture a diffuse fragility that becomes expressed in a variety of different ways. This pushes them to more open notions of becoming as can be seen in the development of new gardening practices. This becoming is not reducible to the optimism of climate adaptation discourses, but rather opens itself to the vulnerability that these conditions of life entail. As with this figuration of weather, hunger is also ensouled as an impersonal force beyond individual control. In each case, it is a matter of temporality extending into and connecting religion, everyday practice, politics, and natural systems through an internal multiplicity that refigures teleology in a number of non-finalist ways.
Jairus Grove’s paper “Of an Apocalyptic Tone Recently Adopted in Everything: The Anthropocene or Peak Humanity?” explores the implications of Connolly’s use of Alfred North Whitehead’s concept of creative struggle. Following Connolly’s example, Grove comes to terms with the emergence of the human estate on the scale of geologic time, reading a number of catastrophic extinction-events as evidence for the need to re-evaluate the eschatological valence of the concept of apocalypse. Grove examines multiple apocalyptic events both across eras of geologic time (the first emergence of oxygen two billion years ago, which caused the death of an entire anaerobic ecosystem known as the “great dying” of the Permian era, the extinction of Neanderthal and Denisovan humans) and across the nature-culture divide (the plague Europeans brought to the Americas, the devastation of the African slave trade), and concludes that any positive orientation toward the future must account for, as he writes, “just how intimate a creative universe must be with fragility.”
Aubrey Yee’s paper examines Connolly’s project in terms of the micro-political capacities for self-organization available to us now. Yee argues that the key to Connolly’s argument is a slowness that enables militancy in the face of a destructive neoliberal capitalism. The capacities of a micro-politics of instinct, Yee finds, can foster a political militancy that relies as much as markets do on self-organization. Yee pushes on Connolly’s argument insofar as he claims that in the face of an uncertain, fragile world it is necessary to forgo speculation about the distant future in favor of an ‘interim vision.’ Yee concludes that a politics based on a certain slowness and role-experimentation can productively “engage in uncertainty,’ and doing so is not incompatible with interim visions.
In her keynote address to the symposium, Catherine Keller responds to The Fragility of Things with an unlikely but productive combination of theology, political theory, theodicy, and political economy. Her paper is an exploration of the ways in which a process-theological approach to the contemporary condition can resonate with Connolly’s project. Following a Whiteheadian ‘lure’ to consider a “democracy of fellow creatures”2 on a cosmic scale, Keller outlines four areas of productive engagement between process theology and Connolly’s teleodynamic understanding of self-organization. The result demonstrates the potential for a new kind of critique and emergent solidarity borne of the forging of productive relations across disciplinary and existential commitments.
Finally, William E. Connolly’s piece responds to issues raised during the symposium that require further exploration, arguing for a pragmatism that enables us to more clearly elucidate particular situations. He thus argues for a theory of capitalism based on tendencies and axioms to better clarify the way that its neoliberal form intensifies fragility at this point in the anthropocene. To respond to this situation, academics need to break out of sociocentrism, cultural internalism, and scientific reductionism to incorporate a planetary dimension into their work. Connolly suggests that one significant way in which this might work is to engage the debate between emergentism and panexperientialism by moving back and forth between human and non-human actors in an experimental and speculative fashion. Expanding on the call that concluded The Fragility of Things, Connolly lays out what a general strike might look like as part of a counter-resonance machine to respond to the threats posed by neoliberalism and climate change. He closes by considering what role writing might play in energizing advocacy and connecting people to a volatile world, raising the problem of freedom anew as humans reconsider their cosmic situation.
Kellan Anfinson received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University and is a teaching fellow at Sciences Po. His research interests include environmental politics, critical theory, political economy, and American politics. He is currently preparing his dissertation “The Ethos of the Event: From Political Eruptions to Climate Change” for publication. Kellan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Timothy Hanafin is a doctoral candidate in the department of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His PhD research focuses on the intellectual history of aesthetics and political economy, and he is writing a dissertation on the development of the concept of interest. Tim can be reached at email@example.com, and his website is here: johnshopkins.academia.edu/TimothyHanafin
1. William E. Connolly, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, and Democratic Activism (Durham, NC & London: Duke University Press, 2013), 192.
2. Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, eds. David Ray Griffin and Donald W. Sherburne (New York: The Free Press, 1978), 50.