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Five Theses for Political Theory in the Anthropocene
A commentary on “What Time Is It?” by Sheldon S. Wolin, Theory & Event, Vol. 1, No. 1 (1997)

To theorize the inside one must theorize the outside.

Wolin, 1997

In his “brief commentary” on Jeffrey Isaac’s essay, “The Strange Silence of Political Theory,” Sheldon Wolin sets out to change the terms of the debate concerning contemporary political theory.1 Rather than the normative “What is wrong with political theory today?” (which is Isaac’s question), Wolin encourages us to focus on the diagnostic “Why is political theory so difficult today?” His answer hinges on a “language of temporality” that emphasizes the existence of different “time zones.” Whereas “political time”—which also is the time of political theory—moves at a slow pace, allowing for time to reconcile differences and preserve existing ways of life, the outside world, in particular the economy and popular culture, develops according to a logic of innovation and speed. Wolin characterizes this situation as a temporal disjunction in which “political time is out of synch with the temporalities, rhythms, and pace governing economy and culture.” If political theory has become difficult, Wolin concludes, it is because theoretical work no longer has the time needed to compete with the world it hopes to theorize.

The aim of this essay is not to contest Wolin’s general claim—that political theory is difficult—but rather to suggest that a new configuration of temporal experience has arisen, which in turn implies that we must change our understanding of the challenges facing contemporary political theory.2 The Anthropocene is the name commonly used to describe the kind of changes that I have in mind. As a descriptor shared by most disciplines, the Anthropocene invokes the advent of a new epoch in which Nature and human agency have meshed to such an extent that it is no longer possible to consider one without the other.3 The significance of this confluence is surely contested, and it is therefore unsurprising that scholars should disagree about the implications [End Page 129] of living in the Anthropocene. Whereas some point to geoengineering and other human-centered techniques as the most feasible solution to urgent problems such as climate change and rising social inequality, others link the looming extinction of human and nonhuman life to the beginning of a dystopian future driven by melancholia or post-humanism (or both).4 Which of these two approaches has the most promise is difficult to determine, in part because neither seems to recognize that the Anthropocene itself requires a new model of political inquiry. The issue is not simply how society should respond to the Anthropocene; moreover, it is about how to conceptualize politics in a world that no longer adheres to the age-old distinction between the human and the nonhuman. Can political time be simultaneously human and nonhuman? What follows from this with regard to politics itself?

Like Wolin, the starting point for my consideration of these questions is the dictum that “to theorize the inside one must theorize the outside.” The virtue of this dictum is that it places the work of political theory in its proper context—in the liminal space between the flux of worldly events and the sedimentation of abstract thought. However, unlike Wolin, I want to suggest that the reason political theory is such a “difficult” enterprise no longer is that it lacks the time needed to complete its mission, but rather that it has become limited in its outlook and concern for the outside world. More specifically, I want to argue that the conditions set forth by the Anthropocene make it imperative that political theory attends to the entanglements of the human and the nonhuman, and that this in turn necessitates a shift in the theorization of politics, replacing Wolin’s language of “disjunction” and “dispersion” with terms such as “integration,” “intertwinement,” “mediation,” and “resonance.” Such a shift in terminology may well amount to what Wolin describes as a new “vision” of political theory.5 If this is the case, I suggest we call it a political theory for and in the Anthropocene. The following five theses outline the counters of what this might mean, especially with regard to the relationship between time and politics.

1. The consideration of political time must be vertical as well as horizontal

Let us begin by returning to the idea of “time zones,” which Wolin uses to suggest that culture, economy, and politics represent separate spheres of society defined by their own homogenous mode of temporal experience (fast, slow, etc.). No doubt that such a division of time can be helpful if we want to analyze the horizontal differences that occur across the same human-centered level of temporality. But the division has limited value in the Anthropocene where the natural environment has become a social artifact, and where humans interact with—but [End Page 130] never fully control—the structure and composition of nonhuman entities that subsist across all levels of time, including those pertinent to fields of inquiry as different as geology and microbiology. If political theory wants to be relevant to discussions about not only climate change but also ecology more generally, it needs to acknowledge this new situation by expanding the language of temporality. More specifically, like so many other fields of inquiry, political theory must become open to the possibility that while a specific sphere of society often can proceed slowly at one of level of temporality, it may also change rapidly at another level (and vice-versa). A good model for such an expansive approach to temporality is the so-called butterfly effect, which holds that small changes in a small state can cause large differences in a later state.6 But the more important insight here is that the very idea of privileging one level of temporality (and exclude the rest) no longer is appropriate for the theorization of politics. Time, including political time, works vertically as well as horizontally.

2. Intertwinements and resonances are primary

The fact that so much of contemporary political theory remains reluctant to embrace such an expansive approach to temporality may well be the symptom of deep anxiety about the discipline’s status in the broader field of scientific inquiry. One could even formulate the problem as a question of self-confidence, which has come to haunt recent interventions in contemporary political theory7: what is left for political theory to claim as its own subject matter if the temporal scales have become so complex that the theorization of politics must open itself to everything from changes in geological time to the ebbs and flows of bacteria and other microbiological structures? Wolin’s own concerns about this question surface most explicitly when he laments the take-over of “synoptic theory” by “customized theory,” by which he means a mode of theorization that has given up the goal of “cumulative knowledge” and instead embraced the ever-changing demands of “contemporary culture and economy.” Wolin laments this development because it creates a bind between the “global structures of power” and the “local and restricted” outlook of the claims made by some of the, at the time of his own essay, most prominent discourses in contemporary political theory, including those inspired by cultural studies and French critical theory.

The reason I want to caution against this reading is not that its conclusions are wrong per se, but rather that it creates another, more problematic impasse. Indeed, what Wolin identifies as a bind is more likely a double bind: to secure the specificity of political theory by insisting on a separation of society into different spheres is also to blind oneself to the intertwinements and resonances that connect these very [End Page 131] same spheres vertically as well as horizontally. Each sphere may fight for supremacy over the others, but since none of them is ever fully self-sufficient, the real struggle lies in the temporal overlaps between them. An especially promising way to better grasp this struggle is to reverse our terminology and to make the language of intertwinements and resonances primary rather than secondary. Note that the emphasis on primary does not imply that the intertwinements and resonances are temporally prior to everything else, or otherwise more fundamental. Rather, the language of primacy is meant to suggest that they represent the most poignant starting point for theory itself. The reason for this kind of primacy is twofold, both linked to an expansive approach to temporal experience in the Anthropocene. First, the turn to intertwinements and resonances highlights how changes in one sphere or at one level of time can affect the internal composition of all the other ones. Second, the intertwinements and resonances place political theory in the midst of its own subject matter—what we, with a nod to the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, could call the flesh of political time.8

3. The political is integrative and mediating

What, then, is “the political”? The two previous theses provide us with some guidance to this all too often anxiety-inducing question. The political is the integration of—and mediation between—different layers of temporal experience relevant to human and nonhuman life in the Anthropocene. Politics (understood as the practices surrounding the political) is what happens when connections are created across levels of temporality, and when new constellations of human and non-human forces come into being, creating the opportunity for more or less sedimented structures of discourse and embodiment, including culture, economy, and religion. The political is aesthetic in the sense that it gives form to all modes of lived experience, and it is productive in the sense that it endows agents—both human and nonhuman—with the power to act in this or that manner. So much of contemporary political theory, including Wolin’s version, insists on the political as a distinctive activity of irruption (Rancière) and/or division (Schmitt). What these accounts overlook, however, is that every irruption is pre-mediated by a prior mode of being, which not only frames the orientation of social-political forces in the present, but also precludes a strict separation of what-has-been and what-is-to-come. The best way to characterize this confluence of forces, especially considering the conditions given by the Anthropocene, is to say that the political is the historically specific linking of horizontal and vertical levels of temporal experience. None of these levels is ever fully self-sufficient, but always-already intertwined with each other. “Superpower” (another [End Page 132] of Wolin’s important contributions to political theory9) names one such set of intertwinements and resonances. But so do “Black Lives Matter,” “Blockadia,” “Occupy Wall Street,” “Pussy Riots,” and the “Aboriginal Tent Embassy.” Each of these constellations traverses the human-non-human divide, and each of them embodies a set of entanglements from which a particular temporal experience emerges. The upshot is a specific conception of political action, which in turn sets forth a possible response to human and nonhuman life in the Anthropocene.

4. Mood matters for the work of political theory

Before we dismiss some of the latter constellations as somehow peripheral for the analysis of contemporary politics, it is important to note that while each of them, including Superpower, invokes a unique conception of what needs to be done in the Anthropocene, they all share one thing: the ability to notice their significance for the theorization of politics depends on the embodied dispositions of those doing the work of political theory. Here we might learn from a long tradition of philosophical-theological inquiry, which reaches its apex with Spinoza’s account of prophecy as an embodied practice inspired by the prophet’s affective situation. According to Spinoza, “… if the prophet was of a cheerful disposition, then victories, peace, and other joyful events were revealed to him […] If he was of a gloomy disposition, then wars, massacres, and all kinds of calamities were revealed to him.”10

Spinoza’s account of the prophet’s situation is not unlike the one of the political theorist. Wolin seems to acknowledge this when he stresses the visionary aspect of political theory, and then goes on to suggest that the practice of theorization is shaped by its historical context, in particular in times of crisis.11 However, whereas Wolin limits the scope of historical context to a human-centered mode of temporality, Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence is better suited for theoretical reflection in the Anthropocene because it expands the relevant forces to include the nonhuman as well.12 Following this expansion are two insights that are particularly relevant for the link between mood, the Anthropocene, and the work of political theory. First, even though it implies abstraction and second-order reflection, political theory is an embodied experience, which is subject to the same kind of contingencies and externalities as all other modes of embodied experience (nonhuman included). Second, given this dependency, the development of political theory, both as a practice and as a field of inquiry, is dependent on how its practitioners engage the moods and dispositions underpinning their work. To make political theory worthy of its name—to make it critical of contemporary power as well as relevant for participants working toward a better and more just world—political theorists can not only scrutinize the embodied lives of other people; in addition, they must [End Page 133] also interrogate and alter the affects and desires driving their own mode of inquiry.

5. Political time is emergent

One way to bring these considerations together in one thesis is to say that political time is emergent. At one level, this is surely all too trivial: given our historical knowledge about politics, it should come as no surprise that conceptions of the political emerge over time in a manner that is bound by—but never fully restricted to—past occurrences. At another level, however, the issue is far more complex. Indeed, to say that political time is emergent is not only to recognize the significance of history, but also to highlight the way in which politics itself emerges from within divergently located entanglements of human and nonhuman forces spread out across different points in time. Another way of saying this is that political time is both dynamic and plural because it can be experienced differently depending on the situation from which the experience itself arises. While this may have been true before the advent of the Anthropocene, it has certainly become more significant than ever, reinforcing our first thesis—that contemporary political theory must consider political time vertically as well as horizontally.

Moreover, the emphasis on the dynamic and plural character of political time allows us to further specify the challenges facing contemporary political theory, in particular given the challenges associated with the Anthropocene. To capture and scrutinize the many, often divergent, experiences of political time, contemporary political theory must develop a paraliptic language of temporality, which recognizes the prevalence of some temporal experiences, in particular the one suggested by Wolin’s Superpower, while at the same time avoiding the tendency to reduce political time to just one level of inquiry. Contemporary political theory does not possess a God-like ability to capture all experiences of time simultaneously. Instead, it must aim for something more modest but also more difficult: the ability to ventriloquate multiple experiences of time, and in so doing to create an internal dialogue that allows the hegemonic and the non-hegemonic, the sedimented and the non-sedimented, to rub up against each other. Such a dialogue does not guarantee an affirmative outcome. But it does create the insight and friction needed to ignite and to move the thought-processes underpinning political theory itself.

I conclude by returning to the starting point of this essay: that the main difficulties facing contemporary political theory relate to how we conceptualize and deploy terms such as integration, intertwinement, mediation, and resonance—and not, as Wolin suggested in his 1997 essay, disjunction and dispersion. Given the preceding discussion, it should be clear that the intention behind this claim is not to argue [End Page 134] for a return to political theory as a totalizing construct pretending to have captured and synthesized all aspects of the world into one single principle. Rather, by recommending a shift in terminology I wish to propose a new vision of political theory, which operates from within its own emergent becoming, that is, from within the sites where the entanglements of the human and the nonhuman are most intense, and where multiple levels of time come together in a manner that delimits the range of possible embodied experiences. In this context, the interest in integration and other related terms signifies a desire to acknowledge the plurality of the Anthropocene, and to scrutinize how this plurality distributes political theory’s attention to divergent structures of meaning and power. Thus, turning Wolin’s own account of political theory against the very mode of theorization that he favors, we might say that the vision proposed in this essay reorients our approach to the issues raised by the Anthropocene, especially the ones associated with the debate between geoengineering and dystopianism that I mentioned at the outset of the present essay. In line with what we already have seen, the approach to these debates should be one that neither restricts political theory to one level of temporal experience, nor finds hope in emphasizing the extraordinary nature of politics itself. Instead, we should aim for an approach that attends to the emergent character of political time while recognizing the importance of intertwinements, integration, moods, and resonances. Without proper attention to these terms, contemporary political theory may never raise to the occasion that we now call the Anthropocene.

Lars Tønder

Lars Tønder is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen. His research focuses on the “sensorial turn” in political theory and foregrounds affect, perception, and other registers of embodied experience in order to explain how conflict and coexistence are both structured by and exceed their place within social institutions and political regimes. His book Tolerance: A Sensorial Orientation to Politics was published with Oxford University Press. Lars can be reached at lt@ifs.ku.dk


1. Unless otherwise noted, all Wolin references are to his essay,” What Time Is It?” published in Theory & Event, vol. 1, no. 1 (1997).

2. For previous engagements with Wolin’s diagnosis and argument, see especially Mario Feit, “Wolin, Time, and Democratic Temperament,” Theory & Event, vol. 15, no. 4 (2012); and Smita A. Rahman, Time, Memory, and the Politics of Contingency (New York: Routledge, 2015).

3. On August 29, 2016, a working group under the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) published a report that confirms the Anthropocene as a new geological age, dating its beginning to the middle of the twentieth century. The report was the subject of numerous news reports, including The Guardian, “The Anthropocene Epoch: Scientists Declare Dawn of Human-Influenced Age,” September 29, 2016.

4. For a discussion of the geoengineering strategy, see John Shepherd, Geoengineering the Climate: Science, Governance and Uncertainty (Royal Society 2009). For recent discussions of melancholia and posthumanism, see respectively Timothy Morton, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Existence (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016); and Rosi Braidotti, The Posthuman (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). [End Page 135]

5. On Wolin’s idea of “vision”, see Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, Expanded Edition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), esp. pp. 17–20.

6. Debates about the butterfly-effect stem from the atmospheric sciences where the ideas behind it were introduced by Edward Lorenz in “Deterministic Non-periodic Flow,” Journal of Atmospheric Sciences, vol. 20., no. 2 (1963), pp. 130–141. The term has latter been taken up in discussions about chaos theory.

7. A good starting point for grabbling with this anxiety is John Gunnell, “Are we Losing Our Minds? Cognitive Science and the Study of Politics,” Political Theory, vol. 35, no. 6 (2007), pp. 704–731. For a more recent version, see also Linda Zerilli, “The Turn to Affect and the Problem of Judgment,” New Literary History, vol. 46, no. 2 (2015), pp. 261–286.

8. See Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), chapter 4.

9. Wolin, Politics and Vision, p. 591.

10. Baruch de Spinoza, Theological Political Treatise, 2nd edition, trans. Samuel Shirley (Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing Company, 2001), Chapter 2, p. 23.

11. Wolin, Politics and Vision, p. 9.

12. Spinoza’s philosophy of immanence anticipates the Anthropocene in the sense that it, too, rejects a categorical distinction between the human and the nonhuman. However, whereas Spinoza takes this to mean that the human is a product of the nonhuman, and in that sense subject to the laws of Nature, the Anthropocene encourages us to consider a more complex line of causation: the human is just as much the cause of the nonhuman as the other way around. [End Page 136]