Society and Space Editorial Board members, Mat Coleman and Kathryn Yusoff interview Elizabeth Povinelli about her recent and future work on the question of biopolitics, the Anthropocene and neoliberalism.
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.
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[i] For a discussion of Althusser’s influence for instance on Harvey see: Resnick S, Wolff R, 2004, “Dialectics and Class in Marxian Economics: David Harvey and Beyond” New School Economic Review 1 59-72, esp. 60-62.
[ii] See also David R. Roediger, 2007, The Wages of Whiteness (London: Verso). .
[iii] Williams R, 1973, “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory” New Left Review 82 3-16.
Watch out too for Mat Coleman’s forthcoming review essay of Economies of Abandonment in Environment and Planning D: Society and Space