- The Swarming of Mimesis. A review of William Connolly, Facing the Planetary:Entangled Humanism and the Politics of Swarming
Despite—or rather because of—the cosmic scope of William Connolly's latest book, Facing the Planetary does not propose a reflection on universal, transcendental ideas about what the planetary condition is, or should be. Nor does it encourage readers to advance to "the edge of the universe" (13) in search of alternative, habitable planets. It is rather from within a gravitational pull of immanent forces faithful to planet Earth that Connolly, in his singular and plural voice, invites us to explore "a series of attempts to face the planetary" (9) and to reevaluate the dicey entanglements of political, cultural, and natural processes that are currently giving new speed to the age of the "Anthropocene."
Adopting the eagle-eyed perspective of a political theorist who remains true to the ancient vocation of this term (theory, from theaomai, to behold, and horaô, to see), Connolly aspires to make us see our fragile and beautiful planet from the temporal distance the Anthropocene imposes. He does so by plunging, with intellectual courage, theoretical sophistication, and deeply felt appreciation for the human and nonhuman forces that tie human destinies to what he calls "the planetary," by which he means "a series of temporal force fields, such as climate patterns, drought zones, the ocean conveyor system, species evolution, glacier flows, and hurricanes that exhibit self-organizing capacities to varying degrees and that impinge upon each other and human life in numerous ways" (4).
The task of articulating the plural modalities in which self-organizing planetary processes impinge on human processes of becoming, while humans are simultaneously acting as aggressive geological forces on the planet, calls for an open, experimental, and transversal disciplinary approach. Swimming against mainstream academic tendencies that all too often still confine research to narrow territorial turfs, Connolly establishes much-needed "heterogeneous connections" that straddle the science/humanities divide. In particular, he draws on a "minor tradition of Western philosophy" (from Nietzsche to Whitehead, Foucault to Deleuze) "that resists dominant nature/culture and nonlife/life division" (97), while at the same time engaging with recent developments in the earth sciences, evolutionary biology, and the neurosciences. This cross-disciplinary assemblage allows him, in turn, to face a multitude of entangled (non)human problematics central to the contemporary condition as diverse as climate change, tectonic plates, the ocean-conveyor system, neoliberal capitalism, free will, consciousness, and different spiritual creeds by moving back and forth between macro- and micro-politics. "My aspiration here," he writes, "is to face the planetary while connecting that face to regional, racial, and urban issues with which it is imbricated" (33).
Connolly's aspiration rests on a pluralist, materialist, and immanent ontology that will be familiar to readers of his latest books—Pluralism, A World of Becoming, and The Fragility of Things—and that continues to inform Facing the Planetary as well. At the most fundamental level, this political ontology is succinctly articulated in the opening affirmation that this book posits the "primacy of forces over forms" insofar as these human and nonhuman "forces . . . both enable and exceed a stability of forms" (6). For Connolly, then, there is an excessive, protean, and unpredictable power animating planetary forces that always threatens to disrupt the equilibrium of rational human forms. Creatively convoking advocates of an ontology of becoming to face the specific challenges of rapid human-induced climate change and its devastating effects (global warming, polar ice-cap melting, ocean acidification, rising-sea waters, hurricanes), Connolly posits an unstable world of immanence over a stable world of transcendence; the power of a material world that has been considered ontologically "false" in the past over intelligible ideal "Forms" that are currently proving illusory in the present; horizontal, rhizomatic assemblages over vertical unitary ideas; in short, forces over forms. While the ontological opposition could not be clearer, the agonistic (yet respectful) confrontation could not be more ancient—and contemporary.
It is thus no wonder that Connolly does not open his book by proposing a stabilizing, unifying meta-theory...