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Toxic Late Liberalism and the Four Axioms of Existence


The characterization of late liberalism as toxic may at first seem simply metaphorical. Toxicity technically refers to those substances that are biologically noxious or poisonous—those things that have the capacity to disrupt biological function. The relationship between toxic and nontoxic things is not a line so much as matter of degree. All substances have the capacity to become toxic; all substances can move from medicine to poison, hero to scapegoat. Even the purest water can be toxic to humans if ingested in sufficiently large amounts. Thus, medical discussions of toxicity typically emphasize the means by which toxins enter the body and the amount a body can safely process before becoming overwhelmed. Climatic overheating, while technically external to the body, can disrupt internal biological functions as profoundly as any toxin. High temperatures don’t literally boil the blood, but they put cardiac functions under serious stress even in the healthiest individual as they raise the level of ozone and other pollutants (pollen and other allergens), which can dramatically affect preexisting cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. In this way, the heat index of rising temperatures and humidity are a part of a more general expansion of uninhabitable zones. What surprise, then, that the advice of some policy experts for mitigating the effects of climate change sounds eerily like older advice for interacting with chemical toxins: don’t let them in (seal yourself off with air conditioning and air purifiers) or remove yourself from the contaminated area (join the great climate migration). The eerie similarities to the mitigation and containment strategies of the covid-19 pandemic are hard to miss.

This talk examines the toxicity of late liberal governance from the perspective of a dynamic between its frontiers and horizons, its facts and norms, and its unintended outcomes and promised redemptions, arguing that these dynamics allow the ongoing harms of liberalism to be disavowed, thus separating liberalism from the history of its toxic excrement. Then I examine how these dynamics of disavowal work in capitalist extraction and its geontological underpinnings, powering a perpetual extraction machine and unequally distributing its toxic harvests. The second section examines these dynamics from the perspective of the ancestral catastrophe of settler colonialism in which the toxicity of late liberal capitalism collapse norms into facts, horizons into frontiers, and intentions into outcomes.


Elizabeth Povinelli is the Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University. She is a critical theorist and filmmaker. Her critical writing has focused on developing a critical theory of late settler liberalism that would support an anthropology of the otherwise. This potential theory has unfolded across five books, numerous essays, and a thirty-five years of collaboration with her Indigenous colleagues in north Australia including, most recently, six films they have created as members of the Karrabing Film Collective. Geontologies: A Requiem to Late Liberalism was the 2017 recipient of the Lionel Trilling Book Award and The Cunning of Recognition was a Art Forum Best Book of the Year. Karrabing films were awarded the 2015 Visible Award and the 2015 Cinema Nova Award Best Short Fiction Film, Melbourne International Film Festival and have shown internationally including in the Berlinale Forum Expanded, Sydney Biennale; MIFF, the Tate Modern, documenta-14, the Contour Biennale, and MoMA PS1.