Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Articles

The Politics of Avoidance

The Limits of Weak Ontology

Jodi Dean

Judith Butler (Frankfurt, 2012). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Grand narratives and strong ontologies have a remarkable hold on contemporary life. Fundamentalist positions are ever more pervasive and intractable. In the United States, religious and market fundamentalisms impress themselves on global and domestic practices of knowledge, law, governance, mobility, personhood, hospitality, and justice. Add to this the current reorganization of the post–World War Two economic consensus around social welfare, as well as recent challenges to the rule of law and international legal conventions (such that Howard Dean, for example, is chastised for suggesting that Osama bin Laden should receive a fair trial, and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales calls the Geneva conventions “quaint”) and it becomes clear that strong ontologies or fundamentalisms raise moral and political questions that cannot, must not, be avoided. The stakes are high. Without exaggeration we can say that engagement with religious and market fundamentalisms will shape the twenty-first century much as anti-fascism made its marks upon the twentieth.

Some political theorists argue that the proper response to fundamentalism is generosity.11xThe most significant and thorough elaboration of this position comes from William E. Connolly, The Ethos of Pluralization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995) and Why I’m Not a Secularist (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000). See also Romand Coles, Rethinking Generosity (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997). They elaborate ontologies and ethics that eschew fundamentals and urge an awareness of the contestability of one’s own fundaments or a responsiveness to the limits and vulnerabilities that necessarily condition the contexts in which we give an account of ourselves. I consider here work by Stephen White and Judith Butler. White offers the notion of a weak ontology as a contextually attuned and politically minded response to this moment of fundamentalist vitality.22xStephen K. White, Sustaining Affirmation: The Strengths of Weak Ontology in Political Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000). I argue that it is the wrong response, one that turns to acceptance and affirmation at a juncture when the future of hopes for equality, democracy, and a sustainable, common being-together demand a more critical, political response. Critical, as opposed to affirmative, theory is necessary today. White’s approach, one that finds common ground among disparate thinkers, divests critical theories of their oppositional political edge. He makes them congenial to current power relations at a moment when they need to be sharpened and wielded as critically and antagonistically as possible. Butler, one of the thinkers White tames and assimilates, can be read as responding to White’s project for weak ontology. I argue that her Spinoza lectures do this and more as they develop a notion of ethical accountability that highlights the necessity of critique. But even as Butler’s critical ethics improve upon White’s ontology, in these times of fundamentalist vigor, they remain too passive, too acquiescent and compliant. They offer critique, yet avoid the risky political work of condemnation and division, of specifically and decisively rejecting those religious, nationalist, militarist, and market fundamentalisms that are today actively rewriting the very terms of personhood, the very possibility of sustainable living, to benefit the wealthy, privileged few while the majority are rendered criminal, illegal, diseased, and/or disposable.

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