May 2012

William Connolly

[Political Philosopher]

“The soft spots in a hard structure may not show until they are tested.”
Several fallacious divisions:
Public and private
Church and state
Reason and feeling

William Connolly, professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, has argued persuasively in a number of books, including Why I Am Not a Secularist and A World of Becoming, that rethinking some of our dominant ideas about the self and the self’s place in a world with others will give us a better picture of how we actually relate to each other as human and political beings. His goal is to open us up to exploring the ways in which we are animated by passions such as love, disgust, contempt, and care. When we base our ideas of justice and politics on the unlikely premise that we can and should keep reason utterly separate from such “private” feelings, we may fail to see how our feelings are precisely what drive certain political beliefs and commitments, and then we may not understand how politics really works for us, or why our political relations to others matter to us so deeply.

Judith Butler has written that Connolly “moves us all to consider what it might mean, radically, to live democratically.” Cornel West adds that Connolly “is a towering figure in contemporary political theory whose profound reflections on democracy, religion, and the tragic unsettle and enrich us.” At times it takes work to follow his thinking: he asks readers to question things they think they already know. He does this, at least in part, in order to make us work harder for the meaning we make for ourselves.

Our conversation began one summer across a table strewn with bar food and beer bottles in Manhattan, continued by email throughout the following fall, and concluded over wine and Indian food in suburban Philadelphia in the spring.

—Jill Stauffer

I. Your Love And Your Disgust, Together, In Public

THE BELIEVER: We’ve all heard that the personal is political, but the message doesn’t seem to have gotten through to many people involved in politics these days, where there is a widespread tendency to assert that we all have public personae, and what we do in our personal lives has nothing to do with politics. You have said that the predisposition to think in this way is a mistake both strategically and dispositionally. Why?

WILLIAM CONNOLLY: There are several intercoded divisions that come to us from secular liberalism that need to be reconfigured. The public/private divide is one, and the church/state divide is another. We have to look at these divisions differently, because no one consistently abides in either in its pure form. For instance, people are very interested politically in what TV programs others watch, in some cases because of a concern about the transmission of dispositions to violence, in others because of a concern about loosening sexual mores.

BLVR: So a lot of people care, politically, about the “private” choices other people make. For instance, if I, in my private life, were to think that the Christian god is a vengeful god, I’d be inclined to have views on capital punishment or sentencing guidelines that would reflect that, but I wouldn’t be permitted to justify those beliefs in that way publicly. But that wouldn’t stop me from holding them. And that would have political resonance. We can’t separate public and private so easily.

WC: Right. One of my concerns with the public/private divide revolves around the issue of our culture’s widespread dispositions to punishment and violence. And this concern points to a reason for reconfiguring these divisions. To a certain extent, this is about secularism. I am a nontheist, so don’t get me wrong. But contemporary secularism, in idealizing those two divisions—public/private, church/state—carries, along with those binaries, another tacit division: the difference between the kinds of reflective judgments and arguments which are said to mark public discourse, and the affective dispositions of care, disgust, revenge, love, contempt, and hubris which are tacitly thought to be attached to private life.

BLVR: We can’t keep our love and disgust separate from our judgments. Private goes public, whether we like it or not.

WC: At least part of the time. This mistake of thinking that we can keep the two separate is what William James called “intellectualism”: the inability to see and feel how affective dispositions help to shape our public intellectual orientations as they become infused into them. Put another way, today we have to think about the quality of the spiritual orientations that infiltrate into voting habits, consumption priorities, TV commentaries, investment portfolios, tolerances of diversity, and attitudes toward the future. The right implicitly understands these connections and works hard in a variety of media to infuse punitive, revenge, and hubristic orientations into many areas of private and public life. Indeed, such private and public orientations work back and forth upon each other so that your church, hobby, and business activities both flow into and are worked upon by political campaigns, consumption practices, and demands for public laws.

BLVR: Can you give me an example?

WC: You already mentioned capital punishment. Many who are soaked in the revenge themes of the Book of Revelation seem to treat death itself as a punishment, a penalty. Such an abstract orientation can readily become infused into your attitude toward public punishment for murder. You not only favor capital punishment, you demand it with total fervor.

Or maybe you’re against universal health care and welfare because those things remind us of inescapable human vulnerability, while “small government” and unregulated markets that take care of themselves are like heroes from the myth of self-reliance. Or take the view, widespread in evangelical circles, that God provides a backstop to the market and that nature is not influenced by human activity. This translates into a disbelief in the relation between capitalist expansion and climate change, and virulent responses to those who claim otherwise. That, in turn, flows into your consumption priorities, supporting SUVs over hybrids in a bellicose way, and opposing state involvement in new, sustainable energy production. These dispositions, in turn, are supported by FOX News. The public/private and church/state divisions, then, are less territorial boundaries and more like very porous membranes, with the flows moving in both directions. Politics is part of the process by which we affect, divert, and amplify such flows.

BLVR: Politics is also how we live together.

WC: Sure. But what kind of politics will we have? Fragility is part of the human condition, especially as it relates to the larger world. Human activity has set in motion nonhuman forces like climate change that may not be controllable. And then things like earthquakes and tsunamis disrupt human-made things like nuclear energy—and that is beyond our control. We do not like feeling fragile. But a politics that denies fragility will tend to put us on a disastrous course.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jill Stauffer teaches philosophy and directs the program in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College, near Philadelphia. She’s currently writing a book called Ethical Loneliness, about how we might learn to listen to testimony about violence.

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