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Body Politics, Essays

Subjectivity, Affect, and Exhaustion: The Political Theology of the Anthropocene

…placing the feeling of exhaustion as the central organizing principle hails a subject as experienced and expressed through divisions and differences

In this paper, I want to briefly outline a theory of an affective political subject, introduce one potential form of this subject, “the exhausted”, which I consider to the most plausible and potentially-powerful subject for our moment in the Anthropocene, and consider what political theory derived from political theology can contribute to an ecological politics of the left in the 21st century. I wish to propose that this subject formation, “the exhausted,” is connected far more through ties of affective feeling than precise phenomenological experience, common lineage, or even social position (although this last category can have tremendous influence.) This is a vast potential political subject that can be found across disparate lines of Global North and South, of gender, class, race, nationality, religion, sexuality, and so on.  These are people who feel the overall system-exhaustion characteristic of our global human ecological niche, who can act politically, and are driven, through differently articulated interests by a desire for an anti-exhaustion agenda. Here, I offer a framework for thinking through a political theology of just such a subject for our moment in the Anthropocene.

Lauren Berlant introduces the idea of affect as central to a “crisis-shaped subjectivity” in “adjudication, adaptation, and improvisation,” with an increasingly untenable relationship between ideological fantasy and daily life (54). I wish to place this idea within a broad context of ecological niche exhaustion. As I have argued elsewhere, the present global human ecological niche is best characterized as a kind of extractive circuit where resources – not limited to fuels, petrochemicals or rare earth metals but also including a linked set of sites from mental health conditions in the Global North to agricultural communities in the Global South – are exhausted at increasingly high rates to maintain profitability long past the point where it would have “naturally” collapsed. A full examination of this economic, sociological, and ecological portrait goes far beyond the scope of this paper. But here I wish to discuss how such sites of extraction and exhaustion can be understood also as sites of potential subject formation. While other contemporary attempts for a mass, hybrid subject – “the multitude,” etc. – attempt to traverse or jump-over the deep grounds of division and difference within such a mass, placing the feeling of exhaustion as the central organizing principle hails a subject as experienced and expressed through such divisions and differences. No assumption is made that these differences efface or elide. Rather, it is the affective connection which is most communicable and capable of political intensification.

As Berlant notes in discussing the Marxist notion of class, it is assumed in much of Marxist literature that there is a gap between the direct, phenomenological experience of labor – it certainly cannot be claimed that such experience is historically or empirically correct qua itself – and the “communally generated class feeling,” that would mark the boundary in the distinction between a class-in-itself and a class-for-itself (64). That is to say, there is already within the Marxist idea of the class subject, an affective bond which is then articulated politically.

Although affect theory as a discrete field is quite young, political history and theory have, more frequently than is often discussed, placed affect at the center of political identification. Certain kinds of feelings are acknowledged almost without question in much popular political discourse: national “pride” for example, so-called “tribal” feeling, familial “concern” and so on. Probably most famous in the political theory canon are Machiavelli’s discussion of the love and fear a people might have toward their prince (and the fear or love a prince might have of his or her people) and Hobbes’ placement of anxiety (and his underexplored desire for “commodious living”) as the central connective motivation for his theoretical commonwealth to form.

There is nothing inherently radical about an affective political subject just as there is nothing inherently emancipatory about the expression of affects. Nor does affect, any more than social location, automatically produce political subjectivity. Sianne Ngai has persuasively argued that there are a whole host of “ugly feelings” whose political efficacy and valence is far from clear. And Ngai would be far from the first to suggest, as well, the reactionary potential in affective politics: Walter Benjamin described fascism as an “expression” of class grievance without its resolution; Theodor Adorno similarly describes an affective pay-off in fascism in which the recompense for continued oppression is the rechanneling of antagonistic energies into vicious emotions – rage, cruelty, etc., brutalizing an other sanctioned by existing power (and therein proving the brutality of the world); W.E.B Du Bois famously argued for a “public and psychological wage” formed through white race pride; Edmund Burke’s political philosophy is in part predicated on an aesthetic pleasure in the right-ordered hierarchies which itself helped spread “sentiments which beautify and soften private society.” While some contemporary affect theorists – particularly following Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari – try to leverage affect as against subjectivity altogether and the flow of affects as emancipation itself, it is rather that affect is inchoate until organized. Certain affects, especially as placed within sociohistorical circumstance, have what one might term political predilections – a fear-based politics almost always leans towards system preservation or restoration, a flight to “safe” shores. But the idea that affect itself – free of context, system, channel, restriction, direction – is political misunderstands the political itself.

This does not mean, as it is sometimes supposed, that affect should be avoided in politics (as if this was possible) or that only “good” affects have a place in the political, although both of these positions are exceedingly common. You can find liberals, Marxists, anarchists, and so on who all embrace the desirability of an affectively neutral politics (usually portrayed as a rise above subjectivity) but equally, and perhaps more common in political theory itself, you can find rigorous defenses of, for example, “love” as inherently political. Again, this has no coherent mapping; Martha Nussbaum makes the case for love as underwriting a contemporary liberalism; Giorgio Agamben makes it for “radical democracy.”   Both are cases of what Franz Neumann – an author who took very seriously the intersection of affect and politics – calls the desire for a “riskless” politics, which is also to say a self-defeating apolitical politics. It wants “to achieve everything, but risk nothing,” that does not know “or does not want to know that the struggle for political power… is the agent of historical progress (264).” It is itself a desire, the desire to be released from the anxiety that is a general condition of the political. While politics of anxiety are most frequently associated – in no small part through Neumann’s own essay on the subject – with reactionary mass movements, anxiety itself takes at least three forms, according to Neumann, in political society: (a) general condition – as in Hobbes – of why the political exists in the first place; (b) the “true anxiety, which has been produced by war, want, hunger, anarchy,” that people feel in a system in which they have little say and little access to the forces that determine their fate; (c) a specific form of “neurotic anxiety” that binds such a mass with a specific leader through an inaccurate account (279). This last form most frequently takes the form of “conspiracy theory” in which the real causes of (b) are increasingly falsified, “the falser, the more regressive (279).”

At the same time, “negative” affects need not be avoided. Ngai notes – in her discussion of disgust – that the focus on desire and on pluralism, on positive as opposed to agonistic affective flows and communities, is deeply consonant with, not critical of, our historical and economic moment. Following Ellen Rooney, Ngai is (rightly) suspicious of the equation of artistic, cultural, critical, and ethnic pluralism with a pervasive “hegemonic pluralism” that treats all “oppositional or exclusionary formations” as inherently totalitarian or authoritarianisms-in-waiting. What Ngai observes in a “poetics of disgust” is not inherently radical in one way or another. But, in this moment, it is political. A return of agonism is the foundation of the possibility of radical politics: “The poetics of disgust seem to have drawn us closer to the domain of political theory, perhaps, even of political commitments than these others. In its intense and unambivalent negativity, disgust thus seems to represent an outer limit or threshold of what I call ugly feelings, preparing us for more instrumental politically efficacious emotions (354).” Again,  the argument is not to supplant “desire” with “disgust” or – more broadly speaking – positive affect with negative affect; in my formulation of the exhausted desire plays as much role as agonism. But it is the latter which disrupts apolitical pluralism. It is the sine-qua-non for political struggle.

One of the most common misconceptions concerning climate change is that it produces, or even necessitates, a united humanity. In this tale, the crisis in the abstract is a “common enemy” and a perfectly universal subject is finally possible in coming to “experience” ourselves “as a geological agent,” through which a universal “we” is constituted through a “shared sense of catastrophe (220-221).” The most prominent scholarly expression of this idea can be found in a series of essays on the Anthropocene by Dipesh Chakrabarty. Capitalism, according to Chakrabarty, is incidental, not causal in terms of climate crisis, compounding not central, unintended instead of political:

“Climate change, refracted through global capital, will no doubt accentuate the logic of inequality that runs through the rule of capital; some people will no doubt gain temporarily at the expense of others. But the whole crisis cannot be reduced to a story of capitalism. Unlike in the crises of capitalism, there are no lifeboats here for the rich and the privileged (witness the drought in Australia or recent fires in the wealthy neighborhoods of California). The anxiety global warming gives rise to is reminiscent of the days when many feared a global nuclear war. But there is a very important difference. A nuclear war would have been a conscious decision on the part of the powers that be. Climate change is an unintended consequence of human actions and shows, only through scientific analysis, the effects of our actions as a species. Species may indeed be the name of a placeholder for an emergent, new universal history of humans that flashes up in the moment of the danger that is climate change (221).”

Chakrabarty is incorrect or inaccurate in all of these claims. As put succinctly in their recent article for the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” popularly known as the “Hothouse Earth” paper, Will Steffen et al. argue “the present dominant socioeconomic system, however, is based on high-carbon economic growth and exploitative resource use.” As they note, it is this system – capitalism, particularly contemporary globalized neoliberal capitalism – and attendant “technological lock-in” – that is at the center of climate change. The recent IPCC 1.5 degree report makes the same point frequently. While neither Steffen and his team nor the IPCC authors are explicitly political or economic thinkers, they do represent an increasingly broad consensus among the natural and social scientific communities that capitalism as we know it is the driving force behind global climate change and that existing political institutions and trends seem incapable of responding to the ongoing crisis. Furthermore, as I have argued elsewhere, the idea that there are no “lifeboats” for “the rich and the privileged” is simply untrue. There are (a) actors who stand to not only survive but to profit tremendously from some of the worst climate outcomes and (b) these same actors – primarily through global wealth concentration and the suprasovereign system of globalized capitalism- currently wield tremendous power both directly, and through the domination and transformation of states.

Chakrabarty is closer to the mark when he mentions the “anxiety” associated with climate change. But his analogy with the Cold War is flawed in that nuclear apocalypse did indeed function universally – there was no potential escape – and in his claim that climate change cannot be a conscious decision by “powers that be.” Although climate change is, as economists would say, an “externality,” and certainly not a goal, the agents of private power do decide on it, formally speaking. There is tremendous evidence that people represented in categories (a) and (b) above – people deeply invested in fundamental system preservation – do consciously proceed with “business-as-usual” knowing with a reasonable degree of certainty the likely climate outcomes. Or they choose not to know. The quite-intense anxieties associated with climate change are not universally shared. Indeed, Chakrabarty’s nuclear war (inaccurately presented as only a past-tense possibility) analogy can be quite elucidating in a different direction. The period of the Cold War under discussion, perhaps best exemplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis, was one in which the primary anxiety of ruling political actors was one of management and containment. Although, as noted above, this anxiety was joined with a genuine catastrophic dread, the affect of an anxiety of management and containment is shared with contemporary climate management from a system preservation point-of-view. I would argue that the affect most shared outside of the ruling class – when it is shared – is, instead, one of exhaustion.

As with a conventional Marxist understanding of the proletariat, a political subject like the exhausted is conditioned and generated through the very processes and material conditions they have a collective and individual interest in undoing. And, as with a Marxist account, this interest could be described as “general,” at least insofar as it carries a foundational – if not all encompassing – agenda for a mode of human flourishing in the Anthropocene. Similarly, there is nothing automatic about the constitution of the exhausted into a political subject. Furthermore, one could map the exhausted onto class categories only in the loosest sense of the term and this would likely not be determinate but merely predictive. My theory of the exhausted is constituted on two simultaneous planes. The first I have discussed so far: the exhausted have individually and collectively a self-interest in an anti-exhaustion agenda, including the rearrangement and assertion of state power necessary for such an agenda. But second, the exhausted are bound by affect, through feeling, as it intensifies into a political distinction. And the exhausted are constituted as a political subject through recognition and struggle with an enemy that fundamentally does not share that affective bond. Thus, to return to our discussion of affect and political subjects, there are inchoate, positive affects, desires already circulating among the exhausted and inchoate negative affects, which can coalesce in and through political struggle.

“The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy…the distinction of friend and enemy denotes the utmost degree of intensity of a union or separation, an association or dissociation…The political enemy need not be morally evil or aesthetically ugly; he need not appear as an economic competitor, and it may even be advantageous to engage with him in business transactions. But he is, nevertheless, the other, the stranger; and it is sufficient for his nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflict with him are possible (26-27).”

Carl Schmitt’s famous formulation of the friend / enemy distinction is at the heart of “the political.” The Concept of the Political was written several years after Schmitt had claimed that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts,” and the strengths and weakness of Schmitt’s position can be derived from the mode of analogous theological reasoning that Schmitt engages in this period of his work. The theological nature of the argument, unsurprisingly, in “Political Theology” is more overt: God is to the laws of nature as the sovereign is to the laws of the state; the miracle – whereby the laws of nature are temporarily abrogated by God – is analogous to the state of emergency – wherein the laws of the state are temporarily abrogated by the sovereign. Thus, as God is to nature, the sovereign is to the state. This lends the argument a rather transcendental hue as if Westaphalian nation-states and their qualities stretch back to the beginning of time. But surely “the political” itself is counted within a set of all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state. If so, how should we understand Schmitt’s analogy here?  

Although much attention is often payed to the enemy vis-à-vis Schmitt’s own discussion of the difference between hostis and inimicus, the key word, at least for my purposes here, is “stranger” [Der Fremde]. The enemy is “the stranger,” “existentially something different and alien.” Schmitt – a more convinced, if idiosyncratic, antisemite than is often discussed – seems to have in mind something very much like the “strangers” [Fremdlinge] in Exodus 22:20. That is, Schmitt has in mind the Jew as the enemy and not simply qua Christian anti-Judaism but by the very nature of the idea of (a) the Jews as strangers – aliens – wandering in the land of Egypt and (b) the implication that all peoples are actually like, or could be made to be like, “strangers,” and not Egyptians. That is to say, as against the ideals of national community. As Tracy Strong notes in the forward to Schmitt’s The Leviathan in The State Theory of Thomas Hobbes, Schmitt, who in his early writings had a favorable interpretation of Hobbes, eventually came to see Hobbes (as Hobbes was seen by many of his contemporaries) as deeply subversive. His account is ultimately rational, not “purely” decisionist. Hobbes’ Leviathan may have been written with a Biblical flourish, but its account is materialist and mechanistic. This leaves open a crack, according to Schmitt, for “the glance of the first liberal Jew,” – that is, of course, Spinoza – who will use it to ‘Judaize,’ and ‘liberalize,’ the peoples of the world. As long as sovereignty rests on rational grounds, it will always be dependent, always adjudicable, always subject to something outside itself.  Similarly, to hold up the Christian-theological analogy, “the political,” for Schmitt, must worm its way out of the knowable world into the mists of the existential. Like sovereignty, the friend / enemy distinction must lie outside the realm of reason or even discourse: “These can neither be decided by a previously determined general norm nor the judgment of the disinterested and therefore neutral third party. Only the actual participants can recognize, understand, and judge the concrete situation and settle the extreme case of conflict (27).”

Although many still argue the contrary, the utility of political theology has extremely little to do with religious belief. Similarly, the power of Schmitt’s arguments lie in the clarity of his examination of political conflict not in the religious content. Schmitt himself seems to understand the gap. He may write transhistorically of sovereignty but admits (for example in The Dictator) that the sovereignty of a Sulla or Ceaser is fundamentally unlike modern sovereignty. Regarding “the political,” Schmitt notes that of course it is Marxists who have best “elevated” or “intensified” a singular political divide – the class conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat – into “a mighty friend-enemy grouping (74).” Can an affective subject, as I have briefly sketched here, similarly “intensify”? Schmitt explicitly rejects “private emotions” as a basis for political distinction. However, he also stipulates that all his other categorial separations – morality, aesthetics, economics – can be intensified into political conflicts. For example, even with its apolitical rhetoric, “bourgeois liberalism” (Schmitt treats the entire range of thinking from Locke to Hegel to Marx and so on as “liberal” and thus, like Marxists, specifies “bourgeois liberalism” when he wishes to discuss liberalism in the conventional sense) actually invites, paradoxically, absolute, total political conflict since its enemies can never merely be “strangers” but must be evil. (It is worth noting here the turn in the Cold War and among many contemporary liberal thinkers to a mode of “liberal nationalism” in which enemies must be both “strangers” and “evil.”)

Although Schmitt’s arguments about intensification are elegant (and helpful for seeing how Schmitt’s political theology is greatly clarifying for political understanding and strategy for any number of political positions), in the case of the affective subject we are not discussing exclusively “private emotions” (although they are almost certainly experienced individually) but rather “public feelings” however inchoate. What makes the condition of the exhausted particularly interesting is its already quite prominent public expression – in popular discontent, in the destabilization of regimes (towards any number of political vectors), in cultural expression, in medical, sociological, and economic evidence, in an increasingly generalized global legitimation crisis, and, of course, in direct experience of ecological crisis. We have no more reason to accept the quasi-mystical existential definition of “the enemy” than we have to accept an ahistorical notion of “the political” as extending beyond the logics of post-Westaphalian states.

Schmitt’s great fear was depoliticization. But this was not, for Schmitt, a fear based in instrumental logic, strategy, or goal. Far more romantically, Schmitt believed that the loss of political conflict – much as contemporaries like Ernst Junger discussed literal combat experience – was a diminishment of human life as a whole. This goes much further than even the classic Aristotelean idea of humans as zoon politikon– which frames politics quite precisely as administration through public action and dialogue among equals. Schmitt’s antipathy towards Marxism wasn’t that it was impractical, unjust, or untrue; it was that it might work. With a final resolution of conflict – “the political” would, much as Marx and Engels suggest, wither away.

The problem with “bourgeois liberalism” is not only expressed in Schmitt’s unique form of what some critical theorists would recognize as ideology critique – the pose of parliamentary discussion as ruse for decision already determined through economic interest, the liberal guise of neutrality for a highly normative position – but that it would inevitably confirm or develop a rule of “dominium” over “imperium” or of economic power over state power. In his quest to see “the political” perfectly independent of other realms – especially economic – Schmitt could not see – as some of his Marxist students and other more economically minded thinkers could – that unchecked private economic power would always dominate “the political” in capitalist society. However, Marxists and leftists to a considerably broad degree, particularly in the post-Cold War era, have significant difficulty understanding that it is only through “the political” that anything even approximating “class struggle” is possible. One need not delve too deeply into the contemporary literature to understand that 21st century capitalism looks very little like 19th century capitalism, that dominium is well and truly ensconced above imperium. As I argue elsewhere, although this does mark a significant qualitative shift in the history of capitalism, “it would be a mistake to treat this, as if capital has become purely ‘detached,’ existing in some kind of digital ‘ether’ or that the imperial structures of the 20th century have no meaning any longer.” States have not so much “shrunk” rather than been reconfigured. Public-private boundaries blurred; coercive powers towards populations massively increased; popular sovereign ones sidelined and subordinated as much as possible.  

The question of depoliticization then is paramount but simply not on the terms Schmitt demands. It is not a question of something existential or eternal but rather that “the political” is certainly necessary, if also independently insufficient, through which substantive change is possible. We do not have to follow Schmitt down his existential road either with regard to seeing a horizon for the waning of the political (even if not in any near foreseeable future) or in understanding the “enemy” as like “the stranger” wandering in Egypt. Rather, one can lift Schmitt’s framework from this sludgy mystery-religion mess and see better its clarifying logic of the political itself. Indeed, as many Left-Schmittians have argued, Schmitt’s logic (much as Stuart Hall argued of how Gramscian strategy can and is utilized on the right) can be employed for precisely opposite ends. One can even use Schmittian thinking to, in the language of the far-right, “Judaize” just as Schmitt accuses Spinoza of utilizing Hobbes.

However, one of the greatest shortcomings of much Left-Schmittianism, as perhaps best exemplified by Chantal Mouffe and her “agonistic pluralism,” is to be both too Schmittian and not Schmittian enough. Like Schmitt, Mouffe views with dread the dissolution of “the political” not on existential grounds but because she, very much in the vein of what Ngai and Rooney discuss, views any constraint on political pluralism as inevitably a constraint on all forms of difference. She refuses to countenance the idea (which is even present in Habermas’ ideal speech situation) that there might potentially be an equality through which political conflict of the Schmittian type might cease and in which there truly could be merely “adversarial” or administrative discussion among “friends.” However, in grounding her theory in this way, she also refuses the idea of the institutionalization of political gains. In the struggle between the exhausted and those invested in, or firmly committed to, fundamental system preservation, nothing less than a reformulation of the way in which humans organize our global ecological niche must be institutionalized.

Schmitt’s “homogeneity” is predicated on the preservation of a national community and its collective power; Mouffe’s “pluralism” is, in effect, if certainly not intent, the rejection of political forms capable of displacing current power. Mouffe’s revitalization of agonism and “the political” on the left cannot be underplayed but she does so on liberalism’s terms; rejecting a priori those “exclusionary politics” that are precisely necessary for fundamental system change. In this, she mirrors – probably more closely than she likes – many of her liberal counterparts who wish to retreat to a neutral, safe, riskless territory. (For just one example from my broader work on climate politics, surely a goal would not be to merely legally suppress fossil fuels and to promote renewable energy but to do as much as humanly possible to make permanent that condition, institutionally, physically, and economically. Even if one is open to the theoretical possibility – however implausible – that this debate might be reopened at some later time – one should be closed to a politics which seeks to include that possibility within it.) Similarly, and closer to both Schmitt and Marx, there are whole ways of life, for example those of the top income decile in the United States, which will be fundamentally and irrevocably altered through confiscatory tax and wealth policies and so on. Like Schmitt, Mouffe does not wish to acknowledge an outside rational framework even loosely informing political goals. Schmitt does this because he idealistically believes that “the political” will therein be safeguarded against domination by other spheres. Mouffe does this because she fears that even the most tenuous, critically reflective rational scaffolding will exclude. In effect, as Ngai noted, these seemingly opposed positions – pure dictatorship and perfect pluralism – both exclude radical politics, both are modes of preserving actually-existing-power in whatever form.

The affective subject as discussed here has more potential to bind and identify through shared feeling, desires, and antipathies than many previous possibilities predicated on social position or status alone. These affects are not simply circulated but are produced through the specific material conditions of this moment – our overall ecological niche exhaustion in particular. Furthermore, the political task at hand in this moment is neither a full revolutionary overturning as commonly envisioned in Marxist literature nor the fundamental system preservation much cherished by liberal thinkers. One of key values of this theory is in organizing affects – both in desire and agonism – around the subject itself. Although produced through the material conditions of contemporary life and understood through difference, they have the potential to bind to a specific, complementary program, and to promote identification within the subject category and within political struggle. One of the strengths of an affective subject, as discussed here, is enmity and increased mutual recognition within the “friend” group. Agonistic recognition through struggle with the “enemy” group marks the reintroduction of “the political” amidst the fraying of some four decades of effective consensus in the Global North. It reintroduces hegemonically suppressed negative affect as arrayed against enemy formations such that “in the extreme case, conflicts with him are possible.” The political conflict of how to organize the global human ecological niche in the Anthropocene is just such a case.

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…placing the feeling of exhaustion as the central organizing principle hails a subject as experienced and expressed through divisions and differences

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