Posts Tagged ‘bruno latour’

“One common accusation leveled against Latour is that he promotes a more or less neoliberal, market-driven ontology in which all things are actors who meet on equal footing in order to exchange, translate, arbitrate, and indeed flesh out their very existence. To these accusers Latour’s chief flaw is a political one, for at best he abstains from the political question by naturalizing it, and at worst he unwittingly assists the dominant ideology by endorsing and recapitulating it. I’ll admit I’m persuaded by such accusations, and find Latour’s work shallow because of them. But it is one thing to crab and complain about one’s political enemies. It is another thing to investigate why such positions are malformed. So let’s suppress the epithets for the moment–bourgeois, neoliberal, Hobbesian, or otherwise–and instead try to clarify Latour’s chief defect. Hint: it has nothing to do with the postmodernism wars or the veracity of scientific fact.

Latour still believes the old myth that systems are disruptive of hierarchies, that bazaars are better than cathedrals, that networks corrode the power of the sovereign, that markets are the most natural, most democratic, and most scientifically accurate heuristic for redistributing and indeed defining knowledge. Such claims are often necessary to make, and are often true within a certain limited arena. Yet Latour is unable or unwilling to move beyond them, to take the ultimate step and acknowledge the historicity of networks. Such a step requires a number of things, but most importantly it requires an acknowledgement of the special relationship between networks and the industrial infrastructure, a relationship that began in the middle twentieth century and has become dominant now after the turn of the millennium. On this score, then, Latour has never been postmodern, not that he ever wanted to be. (He is, like Deleuze, often inaccurately lumped into that tradition.) Latour has never been postmodern because he won’t admit the contingency of one particular grand narrative, systematicity. He would never agree that there is an historical phase “after decentralization” has taken place. And even if we might convince him of such an historical periodization, he would not likely agree that this new reticular infrastructure should itself be the object of criticism. Latour views the reticular infrastructure as the real world, literally and explicitly.”

– Alexander R. Galloway, “Theory Hot and Cold.” Culture & Communication, October 28, 2018.

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“In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Bruno Latour aims to reintroduce us to our own planet. The Earth emerges as a bizarre and unfamiliar presence, dimly glimpsed but exerting a colossal and uncertain pressure on all our actions. Though its unpredictable effects promise no meaning or redemption, this alien power forces our attention to the immediacy of terrestrial life.

Latour’s work has set the pace for science and technology studies since his ethnographies of laboratories in the 1980s and 90s; since We Have Never Been Modern, he has upended received wisdom about the bond between science and progress, challenged academic habits of critique, and inspired radical approaches to objects and ontologies across the social sciences and humanities. The concern for ecology that runs throughout these works takes center stage in these much-awaited lectures, pushed forward by what Isabelle Stengers calls the “intrusion of Gaia”—the catastrophic fits of an Earth whose tolerance has been exceeded.

Human-caused climate change reawakens an apocalyptic sensibility, altering everything we do, think, and feel, whether we acknowledge it or not. “We have become the people who could have acted thirty or forty years ago – and did nothing, or far too little.” Political cataclysms are as much part of this “new climate regime” as hurricanes and wildfires: after the US election, Latour described the “innovation” of Donald Trump as “a mad dash for maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate.” Trump would be the first truly ecologically-oriented president, through pure negativity: “For the first time, climate change denial is determining all political decisions.”

What would it take to shake us out of our denial, delusional hope, or numb passivity—all these ways in which “ecology is making us crazy”? We need new senses and new tools for thought, Latour contends. Not just more carefully verified observations and arguments, but “plays, exhibitions, art forms, poetry, and maybe also rituals” that can sensitize us to the feedback loops between our smallest actions and their consequences near and far. “Gaia” is one such conceptual experiment.

The Greek goddess of the Earth, the mother of the Titans, Gaia was reclaimed by the chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis to describe the earth’s unique status as a symbiotic system, where living things co-evolve with their geological and atmospheric conditions. Despite its New Age echoes, Latour seeks to dispel any cozy reassurance: the first of the Gods to appear after Chaos, Gaia was a vicious troublemaker, giving her son Cronos the stone sickle he used to castrate his father Uranus. Likewise, in his reading of Lovelock and Margulis, Latour guillotines any idea of a harmonizing designer, thermostat, or clockmaker overseeing the feedback loops through which organisms and environments alter each other. Even if relatively stable equilibria hold sway at times, each entity of the planet, down to the outer shell of its molten core, acts with and on the others; actor and context, figure and ground are constantly reversing their hierarchies.

After centuries of stony sleep, this altered assemblage demands to be heard and seen. Latour does all he can to keep Gaia weird—to define it such that it always escapes definition. “Facing Gaia” means “instituting” and “inaugurating” this elusive entity, establishing its place in our affairs. Yet even as we roll out the red carpet we realize, as in a tale of gothic horror, that the visitor is already in the house: it’s the carpet itself, the floor, the walls, and the foundations, and has taken over our bodies and minds.

Sketching Gaia’s portrait, Latour’s strongest lines are erasures; he emphasizes what Gaia is not. Against the habit of Western metaphysics to try to master the cosmos by gathering it into a sphere, Gaia is not a totality, whole, globe, system, container, or organism. Most crucially, it is not the “Nature” of science: dead matter ruled by mechanical laws. In the age of the Anthropocene, the “external” nature we confront in rising temperatures, extinctions, salinization, and erosion is partially the result of human industries, policies, and ideologies. We walk a Möbius strip in which “everything is looking at us,” where “we are so mixed up with [Nature] that it has become internal, human, all too human, provisional perhaps, in any case sensitive to everything we do.”

Even Latour’s most faithful readers may need to squint to bring Gaia’s positive features into focus—for example, his puzzling refrain that Gaia is the first “finally secular” figure of nature. Gaia was a goddess, after all, and Latour has repeatedly highlighted resonances between religion and science. Facing Gaia began as the 2013 Gifford Lectures on “natural theology,” launched in the 1890s to reconcile Christianity with post-Darwinian science. He earlier argued that science and religion both depend on “factishes”—material, human-made objects and the powers seen to animate them, which, through proper ritual administration in laboratories or shrines, set parameters for the actions of their adepts. Latour has also acknowledged the influence of Catholic essayist Charles Péguy: just as the interpreter of religious texts must restate, update, and transform them to allow their message to endure, scientists speak reliably about their objects only by translating them through fragile, constantly-maintained chains of instruments and inscriptions.

If the “flat ontology” of his earlier Actor-Network Theory blurred the worlds of science, religion, and politics—treating all entities as networks of humans and nonhumans—he is now keen to establish their limits. Yet Latour’s Gaia does not herald a social order safely “disembedded” from the cosmos in Charles Taylor’s sense of “secular.” Gaia is “secular” because it compels us to abandon the sub specie aeternitatis perspective from which moderns have considered the universe as a whole.

To prepare his project to “re-set modernity,” Latour sketches the emergence of its supreme authority, “Nature.” According to Egyptologist Jan Assmann, in ancient polytheistic empires a “moderate relativism” allowed for conciliatory translations between divinities: “our Ra” is “your Apollo,” more or less. With the appearance of Mediterranean monotheisms and their jealous god(s), religion became “counter-religion”: an ever-vigilant struggle to purify the true faith and denounce false idols. In the West, this zeal eventually morphed into a rage against all idolatry and superstition, until science became a further “counter-religion” against religion itself, with “Nature” the new standard of truth. The 17th century’s experimental science arose as a solution to the wars of religion, shuffling relations among Nature, politics, and God. Matter was defined as dead and inert, while humans were granted all freedom of action, thought, and will (at least until the human sciences detected the “mechanisms” of economics, social structure, ideology, and the unconscious). God was chased from the earthly scene to a heavenly (or imaginary) world beyond; both creationists and militant atheists now share the view of Nature as a lifeless machine.

For decades, Latour has been chopping away at this resilient but deceptive “distribution of agency”—his general term for the order that every collective, including ours, establishes to divide up “powers, aptitudes, and capacities, among things, gods, humans and classes.” He now takes a positive and constructive approach. His previous book aimed to reinstitute modern values and ontologies—what the West holds dear—on a more realistic, pluralist basis. Clearing away the phony touchstone of scientific “Nature”—the unitary truth supposed to lurk beneath the multiplicity of partial and contradictory interpretations—allows for a “redistribution of agency” which more closely follows the contours of our actual practices.”

– John Tresch, “We Have Never Known Mother Earth.Public Books, December 1, 2017.

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