Tuesday 24 July 2007

Acting responsibly in an entangled world

“Perhaps the responsibility of individual humans may reside most significantly in one’s response to the assemblages in which one finds oneself participating – do I attempt to extricate myself from assemblages whose trajectory is likely to do harm?.... In a world where agency is distributed, a hesitant attitude towards assigning blame becomes a virtue…. Outrage will not and should not disappear completely, but a politics devoted too exclusively to moral condemnation and not enough to a cultivated discernment of the web of agentic capacities can do no good. A moralized politics of good and evil, of singular agents who must be made to pay for their sins – be they Osama bin Laden or George W. Bush – becomes immoral to the degree that it legitimates vengeance and elevates violence to the tool of first resort. A distributive understanding of agency, then, reinvokes the need to detach ethics from moralism, and to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, cross-cutting forces.”

—Jane Bennett, “The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout,” in the stunning new 800-page anthology, Political Theologies: Public Religions in a Post-Secular World, ed. Hent de Vries and Lawrence E. Sullivan (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006), p. 615.


Bruce Yabsley said...

Great quote: thanks for the pointer.

It's good to see that at least someone with a moral sense is trying to think before they blame ...

Anonymous said...

John Milbank makes a similar point in the introduction to his essay "Sovereignty, Empire, Capital, Terror." He argues that the reaction of the US after September 11th is one of trying to cut the nation-state out of the web of globalism and reassert itself as an independent power in the world.

Anonymous said...

Interesting quote. I'd have to read more of Bennett's essay to know how much I agree or disagree with her. For example, I think I agree with her when she says we need to be aware of assemblages and "the web of agentic capacities" involved in politics, but I wonder whether or not I agree with her when she explores the issue of "extrication" and when she appears to downplay issues of "outrage" and "condemnation." To be honest, this quote reminds me a lot of Glenn Tinder's argument in The Political Meaning of Christianity, which also reminds me of Reinhold Niebuhr... which makes me sort of uncomfortable.

Grace and peace.

Anonymous said...

The insufficiency of outrage only; the retrieval of responsible, discriminating, and constructive moral but not moralistic agency; the warning against Manichaean ideologising; the condemnation of a politics of vengeance; and I'll assume "extrication" does not refer simply to strategies for keeping my hands clean and conscience clear - all this sounds pretty good to me. I'm a bit worried about conceding too much to violence ("last resort" language can be a soundrel's refuge) and the silence about active-peace making. But then it's just a quote. Tell me more.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Dan and Kim -- if it helps, Bennett does in fact affirm that "outrage" plays an indispensable role in any democracy, and she gives several examples of the "outrageous" (e.g. torture, preemptive military strikes, etc). And as well as talking about "extrication" from certain assemblages, she affirms the importance of active participation in those assemblages which tend towards better ends.

I'd have to read more of her work to understand exactly where she's coming from politically. But I liked this essay's idea of assemblages of "distributive agency", both because it makes sense from a Marxian perspective (where social relations exercise something like real "agency"), and because it simply rings true for me as a description of how we go about making decisions in a globalised environment.

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