The Tragic Political Assemblage: Implications of Contemporary Anthropological Debates on Hierarchy, Heterarchy, and Ontology as Political Challenges


A project conceiving of political assemblages as anything larger than just an object of intellectual history will have to face a question—what is the potential scope and entailments of the idea of political assemblages outside of the very specific late twentieth-century milieu that it was conceived in? And given the present moment, there is also is much more specific question that should well be taken up: what place any project organized as a political assemblage could have in an era of global capitalist accelerated economic inequalities and anthropocentric warming? Drawing on debates in contemporary social and cultural anthropology about Dumont, hierarchy, actor-network theory, and ontology, this essay argues that in the current milieu there is still a role for political assemblages as a purposeful engine of heterarchy. However, this essay posits that political assemblages can only operate as a tragic politics, where political action can only take place with the knowledge that hierarchies of some sort will inevitably return. The question that remains, though, is what hierarchies should be resisted, and what are the ethics of a tragic politics of the political assemblage.

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