Weak Ontologies   /   Summer 2005   /    Articles

White Noise

William E. Connolly

Man with a cat in front of a mirror. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In Sustaining Affirmation, Stephen White distills the ontological orientations that inform several political theories, including mine. In doing so, he plays up the importance of language to ethics, identity, and politics. In the novel White Noise, Don DeLillo portrays both the contingency of many events and the noise that precedes, permeates, and limits them.11xDon DeLillo, White Noise (New York: Penguin, 1985). He thinks, among other things, about the pertinence and insufficiency of language to being. My aspiration is to place these two shades of white into communication.

In reading White, I became aware of a strategy of response I commonly adopt. First, I now see, I announce where the critic misrepresents my work. Then I correct the misrepresentation while slipping in a couple of points, hoping the latter hold until I skip out of town. On the way out, I may even glimpse how misrepresentation occasionally contains a compliment. It can point obliquely to something in your work that worries the critic. But White refuses me the honor of misrepresentation. I start, then, by reviewing a few ideas that he and I either concur upon or that he finds worthy of tolerance.

First, we agree that the affective and the ideational are mixed together on several layers of being. Each layer is marked by affect-imbued ideas moving at a distinctive speed and level of refinement; each communicates with the others across these differences of complexity and speed; and the whole complex enters into multiple relays and feedback loops with the larger cultural matrix. We participate in a body / brain / culture network that confounds or challenges the reductionism of sociobiology; the eliminative materialism of physicalists; the stark dualism of Cartesians; the explanatory hubris of classical empiricism; the flatness of rational choice theory; and, perhaps, the quest for deep, authoritative interpretation in some versions of phenomenology. The complexity of this network points to the recurrence of surprising events in political life, the non-coincidence of thinking with itself, and (to use White’s term) the “stickiness” of identity as a series of passive syntheses formed below reflective attention that become consolidated into habits and dispositions. Because there is stickiness in identity, arts of cultivation are needed to craft a decent ethical sensibility, and micropolitics forms a critical component in the activation, success, and depression of political constituencies. These points show why “voluntarist” readings of Nietzschean and “neo-Nietzschean” thought are so far off the mark, as they project consequences and dangers into it that reflect their own anxieties. But there I go again, looking for misrepresentation….

To read the full article online, please login to your account or subscribe to our digital edition ($25 yearly). Prefer print? Order back issues or subscribe to our print edition ($30 yearly).