As a political philosopher and a historian by training, it is not what is stable and eternal but what is precarious and contingent that holds our interest in the face of crisis. We look upon a world that is shifting more quickly than we can consider. In such a time of flux, as states increase emergency measures, the risk of analysis remains worthwhile, lest we relinquish the vocabulary that frames the present simply because we will make errors as the terrain shifts beneath us. Toward description and contestation, we offer points of departure.

  1. Catastrophe is not “to come,” but here and now. Before the current pandemic, our way of life was already killing life on earth. State selections of who shall live and who shall die already produced medical shortages. “That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe. It is not an ever-present possibility but what is in each case given” (Walter Benjamin).
  2. Crises are contingent. Those with power have declared a crisis — but, we must always ask, crisis for whom? The last financial crisis started years early for those the system kept down; a crisis is declared when bad things start to happen to privileged people (Dara Strolovitch). Better: Leaders declare a “crisis” when there is a threat to domination.
  3. History orients us in contingency. The past offers not “lessons” for the present, but “potential histories” that point to how this moment could yet be otherwise. It allows us to see that disaster is social as well as “natural.”
  4. Theory has a temporal core. It should be humble enough to pivot as the situation shifts. As the facts change, so should our strategies and interventions. We cannot afford the retreat of thinking into “bare theory.”
  5. Analysis involves mistakes. Conditions are moving too quickly for theorists to grasp the gravity and the duration of current changes. While some pause is justified before offering a diagnosis, we think offerings in theory are worth the risk of erring in analysis, lest we grant official vocabularies a monopoly on framing the present. Correctives always can be — should be — issued.
  6. Contest the rhetoric of a return to normal. Normal — where Joe Biden is “the avatar of normalcy” — has meant forever wars, healthcare for some, credit card and student loan debt for all.
  7. Avoid the rhetoric of resilience. Harnessed to latent normalcy, the resilient individual springs back to a pre-crisis state. To call for resilience is to place the burden on those already burdened. To call for institutional transformation is to place a demand on those who claim to be public servants.
  8. Resist the “shock doctrine.” Emergencies have been declared before and will be again. This is a time to make demands on, more than to rely on, governments. Reliance is passive. Demand is active. This distinction reminds those of us in precarious positions — nurses lacking masks, retail workers riding the bus to work, students kicked out of dorms without alternative shelter, contingent faculty members facing university budget cuts — of our collective power.
  9. Regard the pain of others. This is not a crisis of perception but a crisis of interdependence. When the virus had already devastated China and Italy but just landed on other shores, too many leaders responded with indifference and denial. Yet the virus implicates us all, albeit with radically unequal effects (Judith Butler). Not all state action is discipline  — but bourgeois coldness, the antithesis of compassion, contains a suicide wish (Adorno and Horkheimer).
  10. Seek out those who have been muted, excluded from the frame of TV news, podcast bites, radio interviews. Politics, as what we do, depends upon what is visible as well as what is legible on and off a “progressive” continuum. Politics, in a time of crisis, is constituted by whose suffering merits recognition and intervention and whose remains ignored — or worse, justified (Lauren Berlant).
  11. Share small stories, and tell your own. There is more to a crisis than the headlines. Possibilities for alternative futures are hidden in the granularities of day-to-day life. Cuba’s medical brigade to Italy belies nationalist border-building as effective policy; Fang Fang’s diaries exemplify the need to keep unofficial records. The preservation of social scenes in memory is the archive of and for the future.
  12. Cynicism courts a politics of catastrophe, while hope is the most essential antidote to such resignation. Possibilities for how the world could be better are the most powerful prism through which to critically refract the present. It is the task of theory to sustain them.

Benjamin P. Davis is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Philosophy at Emory University writing an ethics of responsibility with the concepts of Édouard Glissant. His writing can be found on his website.

Jonathon Catlin is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University writing a history of “catastrophe” in modern European thought. Follow him on Twitter @planetdenken.

2 thoughts on “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis

  1. I really like this piece, although I do not agree with all of it nor understand all of it. It is a treasure trove of interesting links, although links to Chronicles sadly leave many of us non-subscribers in the dust (I will have to go elsewhere to find out what bare theory is in the context of political philosophy). If I were editing it? I’d put #12 first *and* last. Good thinking.

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