Elizabeth Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and Gender Studies at Columbia University. Her writing has focused on developing a critical theory of late liberalism that would support an anthropology of the otherwise. Most recently, Povinelli is the author of Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism (Duke University Press, 2011), The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Geneology, and Carnality (Duke University Press, 2006), and she is currently working on Geontologies: Indigenous Worlds in the New Media and Late Liberalism, the third and last volume of Dwelling in Late Liberalism. In this series of monographs she is interested in the ways that liberal discourses about alternative social worlds deflect ethical and social responsibility for the crushing, if at times imperceptible harms experienced by communities living at the margins. The volumes integrate political theory and philosophy, anthropology, and cultural and legal studies with ethnographic encounters in Indigenous Australia and queer America in order to understand the transformations that have taken place in how liberal regimes recognize and govern social difference in the wake of the anti-colonial and postcolonial movements—and in the face of the continual emergence of alternative social worlds.
Mat Coleman: In your recent work, and specifically in Economies of Abandonment, you pose a challenge to many theorists of neoliberalism in the sense that you identify the ‘cultural’ problem of late liberalism, i.e. a violent politics of cultural recognition in the wake of anti- and post- colonial social movements, as diagonal to the economic project(s) of neoliberalism as such. Your suggestion is that it is inadequate to see a cultural politics of late modernity as a sort of superstructural ephemera to late modern regimes of accumulation. But what exactly does your disaggregation of late liberalism and neoliberalism allow you to do which other theorizations of neoliberalism, which treat accumulation and regulation together, cannot do?
Elizabeth Povinelli: I must admit I have changed my use of the phrase late liberalism since publishing Economies of Abandonment. Whereas, you’re right, there I distinguished late liberalism from neoliberalism, I now use the phrase “late liberalism” to indicate a period, or development, in “liberalism” that stretches loosely between the late 1950s and the 00s. So late liberalism is meant as a way of periodizing and spatializing liberal formations. The argument is that from the 50s through the 70s, liberal governments—liberal governmentality—were shaken by two severe legitimacy crises. On the one hand, anticolonial, Native, and radical social movements shook the legitimacy of paternalistic liberalism and, on the other hand, Keynesian stagflation shook the legitimacy of the capitalist management of markets. From the perspective of these two slow moving events the politics of recognition and economics of neoliberalism should be seen as strategic containments of potentially more radical futures. It’s unclear whether in the wake of 9/11 multiculturalism remains the key mode of containing the radical otherwise and in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 neoliberal market forms will mutate into something else.
But the question you ask is still important, I think. I do not see the governance of difference as superstructural to the governance of capital markets (accumulation). Nor do I think that all forms of antagonism are equivalent in their social form and process no matter that all forms of antagonism are represented through the so-called play of the signifier—in other words, at the level of socio-material organization and process class difference is not equivalent to settler colonial difference is not equivalent to gender difference is not equivalent to racialized difference no matter that we use the term “difference” in each case. So I think the relation between difference and markets is neither one of determination nor equivalence.
So, then how do I approach the governance of difference and markets? Perhaps it’s useful to remember, first, that on the one hand accumulation is often used to think about the contradictions within the structure of capital and the timing and location of crises within capital. And on the other hand accumulation is used in characterize to capital surplus value and profit. The regulation of difference is then related to these two notions of accumulation: difference is one mechanism through which one mode of accumulation (profit) produces and naturalizes itself (as class ethnic gender sexual difference educational profession) but then creates the conditions for a crisis. But I think these ways of imagining accumulation remain wedded to a structural account of capital and difference. There is capital. It is based on the logic of surplus accumulation. And vis-à-vis this logic it accumulates the contradictions that leads to its crisis. But from a global perspective the liberal governance of difference and markets have multiple genealogies and centers accounting for their dynamic and fitful chronologies as specific techniques and tactics move across and into specific local, national, and regional social arrangements. These specificities lead to not merely the rearrangement of social parts but to the potential emergence of modes of existence errant to these given parts. For example, David Harvey described some of these tactical arrangements between the governance of markets and the governance of difference when he noted that forms of racialized nationalism once vital to capital accumulation became irrelevant with globalization and thus one effect of neoliberal capital was a class-based alliance among a set of transnational actors. Harvey’s argument is that when racialized antagonisms were good for capital we had racial antagonism, when it was bad for capital we did not.
But, and this is my second point, one result of the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of accumulation and regulation of difference and markets is the constant creation of an otherwise along each of their axes—and I do not only mean the rearrangement of forms of self and other—that is the position of “the other” within difference—but also emergence of potential and multiple otherwises to the current organization of difference. In Harvey’s analysis neoliberal capital may well have reorganized racialized national antagonisms but in doing so it seems to have opened the potential for new global forms of identity—the precariates, the new anarchists, the new animists, et cetera. Thus, I am not interested in cultural difference and the cultural other within capitalism, but rather in the otherwise to both.
And this leads to my third point, namely, that each of these arrangements of market and difference are simultaneously analytics and distortions of the current formation of power—the forms of existence and discourses of existence are simultaneously indexing and distorting the form that power is in this moment. Thus it might be more accurate for me to say that instead of deciding beforehand how the governance of difference and the governance of markets are or not related as superstructure to base, epiphenomena to phenomena, difference to equivalence, I am interested in following their itineraries as they pass between and through each other and understanding how these itineraries transform what we continue to liberalism (Williams, 1973).
Kathryn Yusoff: If, I understand correctly, your use of the term “geontology” refers to the interpenetration of biography and geography and as an analytics for how power is arranged around bio-geographical obligation, often in violent confrontation with forms of governance. This obviously makes a distinction between naturalising ways of being to particular geographic/geologic formations and the survival and extinguishment of biographical obligations to particular places. Given the current turn towards the geologic (that is explicit in the nomination of the Anthropocene), is there any potential in considering “good essences” that explicitly recognise the role of geographical materials in biographical possibilities, without reinstating the historical legacy of “bad essences”?
EP: This follows nicely from the last question. I coined the term “geontology” to indicate a disruption of a previous formation of power and an analytic placeholder for the formation of power we are living within and through. Geontology asks, How do we understand the current formation of power when the figures that emerge from its mechanisms are something like the animist, desert, and the terrorist rather than the masturbating child, the
hysterical woman, the perverse adult and the Malthusian couple? The talk at the Haus der Kulteren der Welt in Berlin was a beginning, an outlining of this formation of power through one example. As you say, there I described how, for Indigenous friends and colleagues of mine in Australia, biography and geography are in a relation of extimacy (extimité). There is not biography (life-descriptions) on the one side and geography (nonlife-descriptions) on the other. They do not sit side-by-side like a spoon in a cup or a cup on a table. Their very natures are internal and external to each other simultaneously and thus their distinction essentially without meaning.
This is but one example of multiple actual and potential geontologies. And what I am trying to understand, or indicate, through this concept is something beyond biopower, something more like geontopower.
I think we can begin to understand why we need to rethink the current formation of power by agreeing with a growing number of climate experts urgently calling for new dialogue among natural sciences, the social sciences, the philosophies, humanities and arts. They argue that if we are to alter the coming crisis of an overburdened planet then we need to reopen channels of communication across the disciplines. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, and artists need to gather their collective wisdoms, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages. But once we begin doing so we find that two presuppositions have been conserved across these severed branches of knowledge, first, the distinction between life and nonlife and second a collapse of our understanding of being (entities) into our understanding of a particular kind of being, a life being. Supposedly, the publication of Being and Time marked Heidegger’s decisive turn away from the problem of life (Leben) to the problem of being (Dasein) and within it the re-situation of basic ontology out of time and into there-being. And yet in his work and its legacies, ontology stages the problem of being on the model of a specific kind of being, a life-being, and more specific, the being who pulls its difference out of the absolute difference between life from nonlife beings. And more shocking this difference is based on a set of metabolic processes that I call “the carbon imaginary,” namely the imaginary integrity of birth (event), growth/reproduction (effort, conatus), and death (finitude). In other words, the metabolic processes of birth, growth/reproduction, and death have been transposed onto the problem of event, conatus, and finitude such that we are never in fact talking about ontology so much as we are talking about biontology. So geontology insists that the proper name of ontology in the west is biontology as it indicates possible other arrangements of forms after the distinction between non-life and life.
Of course I am wildly contracting what is a very difficult argument. If I am saying that the natural sciences and philosophy and critical theory share these presuppositional backgrounds then I need to explain how someone like Georges Canguilhem might fit in this argument. After all, Canguilhem abhorred biological approaches to the problem of pathology and sought to articulate a philosophy of life on entirely different grounds. For Canguilhem the biological reduction of life to abstract forms and function of biotic creatures fundamentally misunderstood what was essential to life, namely, the “spontaneous effort, peculiar to life, to struggle against that which obstructs its preservation and development taken as norms” (Canguilhem, 1995) For Canguilhem life is not abstract processes and definitions. Life is the effort of persisting in an ever-altering environment, creatively maneuvering and adjusting and slowly, perhaps at the end, coming to be something different than it was in the beginning.
But it is exactly this preservation of life’s difference from nonlife, from objective parameters, from all that is inert, all that has only actuality and no potentiality, that interests me. In snatching life from the clutches of the normal biological sciences, Canguilhem separated more dramatically the bios and the geos.
But I do not believe there is bios and geos—any more than life and nonlife—or consider these as problematics projected into existences. Thus I don’t know how to think about good and bad essences, honestly. I think more around the problem of arrangements of existence—and the extimate nature of what we divide as biology and geology, life and nonlife, biochemistry and geochemistry within these arrangements of existence. But even here I wouldn’t go to single out good and bad arrangements of existence, although I would say that we have to do something like decide which arrangements we want to support, to try to keep in place—and this was the real point of the HKW talk. If my Indigenous daughter wants to keep an arrangement of existence, a geontology, in place what decompositional forces does she face? And one force is the self-evident division between life (bios, zoe) and nonlife (geos).
MC: Although Foucault explained biopolitics by differentiating it as a management of bodies distinct from the management of space as such, most contemporary deployments of the term make explicit reference to the spatial management of populations, for example zones or regions or territories of exception. In this sense, the ‘capture’ that biopolitics effects is still very much a problem of space and its production. Your examination of the politics of recognition in settler colonies pushes back against this spatialization of the biopolitical insofar as you anchor biopolitics to a certain strategic deployment of temporality, and specifically tense. Hence, your investigation of the multicultural deployment of both the pluperfect and the future anterior to, respectively, fix indigenous peoples to a revered past and then to displace violences done against indigenous communities in the durative present. And yet the problem of space is hardly absent from your work. For example, your discussion of geontology suggests spacings where certain lives may persist or endure in a cloaked or camouflaged state in the midst of violences of tense, as above. In other words, space seems to feature in your work as a remainder to temporality. Could you comment on your temporal definition of biopolitics, and more generally on your use of both time and space to explore the violences of recognition?
EP: Let me try to answer this difficult question by backtracking to your first question about late liberalism and joining it to Kathryn’s question about geontology. Why focus on the governance of difference and markets rather than on the state or capital per se? Or, for that matter, why don’t I simply focus on biopolitics and biopower? Clearly my work has been influenced by Foucault’s concept of the biopolitical as the management of life. But because I am interested in the spatial and temporal heterogeneity of the governance of difference and markets I want to think what the biopolitical looks like within various localities, and settler colonies specifically. And when I looked there it became clear that social tense was a crucial dimension of contemporary governance of difference and markets. Of course, Foucault noticed a similar thing in Society Must be Defended when he noted that in new regime France the political demand would no longer be made “in the name of a past right” but in the name of “a potentiality, a future, a future that is immediate…” (Foucault, 2003: 222). But this new regime of tense, so fundamental to this new form of governance, becomes something slightly different when is circuited through settler colonies. There we find, as I argued in Empire of Love, that the division of tense not only separates the past and future of European forms of governance but spatializes and spatially characterizes forms of existence through the discursive imaginary of the autological subject and genealogical society.
Thus you are right that something like space or territoriality is crucial to what I am doing. In Economies of Abandonment I note that the biopolitical is not a space but a spacing—thus tense is internal to this spatializing function. And within this spacing new formations of existence may be incubated. But they are incubated at high risk. In the book I am currently working on space comes into play slightly differently. And here I return to Kathryn’s question—what is the formation of power that we are currently living in and through and what are its spatiotemporal apparatuses? Here I hope it becomes clear that it’s not Foucault’s conceptual apparatus—or Peirce’s or Spinoza or…—but rather a mode, or spirit, of inquiry, namely: What is this that is governing us, and governing is differentially?
What arrangements of existence does it try to keep in place? What potential arrangements existence and their potential entities does this given forms give us?
I am beginning to think that the territoriality of the biopolitical is not life, or life in and of itself, but the division of life and nonlife. Biopolitics is not something that governs life but something that maintains the division between life and nonlife as necessary essential and formative for difference and markets. Geontology rises up as a refusal of this division—as a placeholder for something like the subjugated knowledge of a positive geontopower.
This division of life and nonlife is spatialized in the governance of markets through specific extractive industries and in the sporadic and spastic response of governments to climate change. And it is socially registered through new, or re-emergent, conceptual terrains—the new animism, new vitalism, indigenous/mestizo theory, security studies (climate, green terrorism). And as I said above, all of these, as they move across and into specific local, national, and regional social arrangements through specific social struggles such as the one I outlined in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt talk, create the multiple genealogies and centers accounting for their dynamic and fitful chronologies of late liberalism or its afterlife.
KY: If we consider the Anthropocene as a monstrous geography (a kind of suicidal exhausting of earth materials), what kind of political reconsideration of geographical obligations might make an otherwise that is not-Anthropocene? (In the context of your work, I was especially thinking about the imbrication of land rights and mineral rights in Australia and elsewhere, and more generally how these mining activities that are fuelling a claim to a place in the strata are happening predominantly in indigenous areas).
EP: I like that you wager the Anthropocene as a monstrous geography! I guess I reserve the idea of the monster for that which decisively disrupts the current organization of the actual—the current distribution of sense. And here I am thinking of those approaches to truth that consider truth not as that which has propositional consistency or referential coherence but as an activity of critical analysis that seeks to give a name to a threshold condition. Thus truth is not a proposition that has more or less referential coherence but an event that has more or less disruptive power depending on its enunciation of its own threshold. But Foucault, Deleuze, Braidotti, and others have noted that these threshold events are experienced at the time as monstrosities, as incomprehensible, as mad. The more event-full and more true it is,the more monstrous the event appears.
And the more severely it is treated.
And part of me thinks the Anthropocene is a name for the effects of the long trajectory of the governance of difference and markets and thus not monstrous at all. But maybe I am wrong, and the Anthropocene is the name that forces us to experience the threshold of a coming impossibility—namely, the impossibility of any longer distinguishing forms and arrangements of life (biology, biochemistery, philosophy of life, biopower, biontology) and arrangements of nonlife (geology, geochemistry, geontology, geontopower). Of course, I would not be the first to notice that the Anthropocene as a name for this threshold also renames the drama as the drama of the Anthropos.
The concept of geontology is meant to disrupt this ease by conjoining the nonliving to a more essential (ha!, maybe here I am doing good essence) being. And this takes a radically de-dramatizing of human life even as arrangement even as we squarely take responsibility for what they are doing. I think this is something Claire Colebrook is getting at in her discussion of sexual indifference, for instance. This simultaneous de-dramatization and responsibilization may allow for opening new questions. Rather than life and nonlife we will ask what formations we are keeping in existence or extinguishing?
MC: One of the exciting moves you make in your work is from an ontology of potentiality focused on the general, pace Agamben, to a sociology of potentiality, focused on the singular. What you seem to be suggesting here is that there has been a paradoxical evacuation of the problem of living at the heart of biopolitics, or at least that contemporary thinkers of biopolitics have glossed over the many specific biopolitical divisions which inhabit biopolitics as such. We might even say that biopolitics provides an oftentimes anemic lens onto the world, in the sense that it can fail to adequately specify biopolitical precarity as stratified by race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. What I’m wondering about is the connection between your approach to potentiality as the sociologically singular, and your critique of anthropological representation in terms of its genealogical tabulation of difference. On the one hand, you seem to suggest that the difference between anthropology and sociology is between an approach that treats life as civilizational and an approach that treats life as a possibility, or better, as a virtuality. On the other hand, as with anthropology, there is a ‘there there’ in the sociological approach in terms of its attention to the variations of life in specific biopolitical contexts. Another way of putting this question is why do you insist on a sociology of potentiality, as opposed to an anthropology of potentiality?
EP: Great question; and one that calls for more than the fumbling answer that I can give you. The short answer is that I vacillated to the very end about whether to use the phrase the anthropology of potentiality, the sociology of potentiality, or some or no modification of “potentiality”—and I use the phrase an anthropology of the otherwise in other contexts which is a stand in for the phrase. So, maybe the reasons for my vacillation are more interesting that what I settle on in one moment or the next—or maybe in the end it’s not interesting at all! The reason I hesitate when I say “the anthropology of potentiality” is that anthropology in the north American context has remained somewhat mired in the culture problem—whether textual or symbolic, it remains transfixed by the meaning of the other. My co-author, Dilip Gaonkar, and I wrote on this point in a Public Culture essay some ten years ago, emphasizing an analytic approach that radically de-emphasized the problem of meaning and elevated the infrastructures of beings (Gaonkar and Povinelli, 2003). Thus instead of asking, what does such-and-such mean, or what are the cultural meanings of so-and-so’s practices, we would ask what are the conditions of formation and movement that allow the visibility and intelligibility of social arrangements. Here we would turn decisively away from the problem of the other and toward the problem of the variations of the otherwise, their biopolitical—or geontological—conditions and struggles. Thus at the time I felt saying sociology of potentiality sounded a little less interested in social meaning.
The potential of the anthropological method to the study of social potentiality shouldn’t be dismissed, however. Secreted into the heart of this method is, perhaps, the ethics of a mutual becoming otherwise via the simple command that all credible knowledge about an arrangement of existence needs is premised on dwelling in that condition and allowing oneself to be altered by that condition. The trouble with certain sociologies and critical theories of potentiality is that they abstract social life from forms of thought—they are not touched by the potential that is, as you say, the variations of “life” (nonlife) across biopolitical (geontopolitical) spacings. As a result sociological and critical theoretical approaches to potentiality can appear to trivialize the ethics of existing as a potentiality. I hesitate using the word “trivialize” lest readers read me as saying that so-and-so is a trivial thinker. What I mean is that the difference between the position of potentiality within thought and within a geontopolitical distribution is rendered without import. It is the only import if we are interested in how the otherwise emerges as a forceful other to a given order!
KY: In your talk at Duke, you suggested that emergent forms of life must endure the conditions of their birth and that what is extinguished at that natal moment is often left unthought. In the context of the “birth” of the Anthropocene, what is born is the human as geologic agent, but what is extinguished is the Holocene (the period of climatic stability in which contemporary social formations are built), so what must also be endured, is perhaps, the end of late liberalism. And, yet, its forms of power seem remarkably resilient in their capacity for duration. Do you see a particular political possibility to be otherwise that is co-terminus with this natal moment of the Anthropocene?
EP: Yes, one of my concerns over the last few years is, what I see as a certain fear within some domains of left thought—the fear that, because we have repudiated any normative grounds for adjudicating between arrangements of existence, we must be blind to how our actions extinguish (kill) another way of life. For example, I said above that the question must be what arrangements of existence do we want to try to pull into place or remain in place rather than disaggregating good essences from bad essences. In other words, the goal for me is not simply to state what I do not want—or how I am or am not more anti-normative than thou—but what forms of existence do I seek to put my shoulder into making normative in Canguilhem’s sense: normativity is the power to establish norms. But aren’t I paralyzed by the fact that I have no transcendental grounds or regulatory norms justifying why I shove here rather than there. And when I put my shoulder here rather than there, I am not shoving against not merely a different position but trying to shove outwards into a new arrangement of existence that will, if successful, extinguish what existed before? So am I not extinguishing others without reason? The answer is pretty much yes. And so I must take responsibility for this, this potentiating and extinguishing, without either shunting responsibility onto a transcendental truth or regulation or onto a denigrated and demonized other. The current emphasis on anti-normativity is, at times, a refusal to accept this responsibility.
And thus with the Anthropocene. If I really want to shove a new geontology into place then I must understand that the world that is becoming will not be the world in which we live. The human can no longer matter so much. The idea of finitude must be abandoned and with it all the philosophical and critical theoretical knowledge built upon it. Materiality must radically reorganize its shape. Of course, currently, what we hear most often is not this. Rather we hear the soothing sounds of apocalypse or adaptation. The apocalyptic allows us to remain with(in) the comforting lullaby of finitude—death, death, death, immediate and decisive! And adaptation allows us to believe that we can continue on without change or major discomfort. Neither is true. Both are false. But both have a power in late liberalism that cannot be ignored. Thus the title of my next book is, Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism!
 For a discussion of Althusser’s influence for instance on Harvey see Resnick and Wolff (2004), especially 60-62.
 See also Roediger (2007).
 Charles T Wolfe (2007) argues that vitalism is a heuristic and ontological position for Canguilhem even as his biophilosophy is fundamentally different than the philosophy of biology. Canguilhem’s biophilosophy is a fundamental “existential attitude”, that allows us to see and conjure beings/entities differently. “The Return of Vitalism: Canguilhem and French Biophilosophy in the 1960s.”
Canguilhem G (1995) The Normal and the Pathological. New York: Zone, p.126.
Foucault M (2003) Society Must be Defended. New York: Picador.
Gaonkar DP and Povinelli EA (2003) Technologies of Public Forms: Circulation, Transfiguration, Recognition. Public Culture 15: 285-397.
Roediger DR (2007) The Wages of Whiteness. London: Verso.
Resnick S and Wolff R (2004) Dialectics and Class in Marxian Economics: David Harvey and Beyond. New School Economic Review 1: 59-72.
Williams R (1973) Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory. New Left Review 82: 3-16.
Wolfe CT (2007) The Return of Vitalism: Canguilhem and French Biophilosophy in the 1960s. Unpublished manuscript.
Kathryn Yusoff is Reader in Human Geography at Queen Mary University of London. She is former open site and reviews editor of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.
Mat Coleman is Associate Professor of Geography at the Ohio State University. He is a former editorial board member of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space.