Belonging, Politics, and the Affective Dimensions of Power: Elizabeth A. Povinelli

The work of cultural anthropologist, Elizabeth A. Povinelli (see profile:, has, since I began reading her latest book, “Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism” (2011), become a new personal favorite of mine. Both challenging and immensely productive in its complexity, Povinelli’s scholarship moves to define the significance of “late liberalism”, the term which she uses to describe the particular shape “that liberal governmentality has taken” in response to crises of legitimacy it has encountered continuously “from the 1950s onward” (Povinelli 2011:25). Particularly, she says, such legitimacy crises provoked the modern liberal state to institute an array of new “formal or informal policies of cultural recognition (or cognate policies such as multiculturalism) as a strategy for addressing the challenge of internal and external difference” (p.25). Drawing on years of engaged ethnographic fieldwork in Aboriginal Australia and in the United States, which constitutes the basis of her preoccupation with settler nationalism, Povinelli analyzes alternative potentialities of social existence through the context of late liberal governing strategies and techniques of “making live, making die, and letting die” (p.29). In many respects, I see this work as an important extension to thinking about biofallibility more fully, in terms of understanding both why and how radical alterities persist under totalizing forces of biopower.

An additional piece by Povinelli, which I have chosen to read alongside this latest book of hers, is a fairly short journal article from 2001, called “Radical Worlds: The Anthropology of Incommensurability and Inconceivability”. It is an Annual Review of the anthropological work on radical alterity, and is a helpful read for better understanding the academic genealogies behind the sort of social projects of life otherwise, with which Povinelli is chiefly interested. Focusing here on the linguistic, metapragmatic, and discursive fields of power in late liberal societies as the stage upon which the negotiated inconceivability of radical worlds has been theorized, this piece constitutes a useful expansion to understanding some of the key themes developed in “Economies of Abandonment” from a different angle.

The core concerns of Povinelli’s work, which are heavily biopolitical, circle—she says— around the following questions (2011:5): “How do specific arrangements of tense, eventfulness, and ethical substance make affectively and cognitively sensible and practical, late liberal distributions of life and death, of hope and harm, and of endurance and exhaustion across social difference? Given these arrangements, what are the conditions in which new forms of social life emerge? And, if we believe that all potential life is material, that it is embodied, then how does the materiality of the social otherwise matter to critical theory?”.

An important component of Povinelli’s multifold answer to these questions, which I have found to be especially pertinent and useful to thinking about my own work, is the notion of cultural recognition and the late liberal governing “modality” of what she calls the “larger triadic dynamic of recognition-espionage-camouflage” (2011:30). She argues that these modalities, which become inseparable in moments of crises of cultural recognition in late liberalism, surface visibly as a bracketing, or redlining, of the subjects of difference, and that this constitutes a fundamental form of governance by means of managing cultural Others through the power to delay the Other’s tense.

In my own research interests, racial redlining through colorblind (and consequently, content-less) interpretations of U.S. law seem, to me, to appear to offer a wide context in which I might usefully further examine and apply this framework of governmentality. Particularly, as post-racial ideologies increasingly penetrate new projects of state power, I am intrigued by the possibility of seeing this as a contingent form of bracketing that is made, through ‘public reason’, into a manageable line “between policing and politics in order to make difference intelligible” (p.43). Moreover, I am left with questions concerning what types of social divisions in tense-laden national discourses of the unfolding present such projects manifest, and the types of social projects that are left therein either to start belonging, to endure, or otherwise be an abandonment of late liberal intolerance.

For further reading on Povinelli’s work, an interesting interview with her can be read at…/2012_02_07.pdf .


Povinelli, Elizabeth A.
2001 “Radical worlds: the anthropology of incommensurability and inconceivability.” Annual Review of Anthropology 30:319-334.
2011 Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

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1 Response to Belonging, Politics, and the Affective Dimensions of Power: Elizabeth A. Povinelli

  1. Pingback: Medicine, Citizenship, and Race | The Anthropology of Biopolitics

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