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  • Five Theses for Political Theory in the Anthropocene
  • Lars Tønder (bio)
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...


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