Latour on Earth, Brexit and Sensitivity

Finally catching Latour in the flesh for PSi22 was as thrilling as I’d expected. He’s even more funny, modest, self-deprecating and incisive than you might guess from print. Thanks to Brexit his career spent poking fun of the British — insofar as the stoushes between SSK and ANT involved such jokes — have taken a renewed lease on life. Hopefully the lecture notes will be published alongside the video. Lesley Head’s tweets capture his 6 main points.

1. Latour’s ‘Sensitivities’ are embodied in disciplinary modes, not individual bodies.

Latour’s current incarnation of Sociology of Associations inherits more from scientific disciplines in the context of what Ulrich Beck has termed Reflexive Modernization than may be immediately obvious to those picking up his work today. Latour carefully explained to the most frustratingly obvious question of the night that his concept of the nonhuman owes more to Whitehead than classical sociological questions of agency. But Latour repeatedly stressed the fact that our knowledge of the ‘new climate regime’, a term he’s used interchangeably with ‘Earth’, is mediated by scientific disciplines in ways that were absolutely central to Beck’s work on reflexivity. In this late/high modernity, we’re entirely dependent upon science to fix disasters of its own making: radiation monitoring after Fukushima; nanoparticles to deliver cancer medicine to workers exposed to industrial toxins; new scientific sensibilities to find dependencies between plants, soils and atmosphere that may form the basis of carbon markets and other climate mitigation strategies. Latour’s sensitivity is based on form of trialogue based on science, politics and arts as outlined below.

This attention to complexity makes more sense if you start from ANT/STS and work down to scientific practice, and its necessity to learn to be affected:

Latour’s Three Aesthetics to render us publicly sensitive to a New Climatic Regime/’earth’ (image: Declan Kuch at PSI22 5 July 2016)

2. Bruno Latour turns to soil in times of crisis: this time it’s Brexit and Trump.

The Science Wars were a political crisis for science studies, albeit one the titans in the field dealt with deftly. The second chapter of Pandora’s Hope following scientists through the Boa Vista remains one of the outstanding pieces of STS from this period. It’s the central empirical chapter of the book, and contains many of Latour’s most inventive and enduring concepts, chiefly that of circulating reference (see Levi Bryant’s excellent exegesis of that chapter).

Latour’s now back in the soil with the fungi and microbes. This time he’s back there via the Stratigraphers [pdf] deciding the epoch of the ‘Anthropocene’: the scientific tribe he’s now following as an Anthropologist of Modernity. For Latour, soil serves two functions. Firstly, it’s convenient site to show the commonalities in epistemology between artistic and scientific work. Scientists he’s spoken to routinely imagine strange associations between different nonhumans in quasi-artististic ways. On a trip to the Yarra Valley, they ask him to imagine the hillsides with only networks of fungi stretching across them, as if they’re rendered only in black pencil. ‘Is this contradiction and dialectic, as per Cultural Studies, or a potential site of strategic positivism?’ he rhetorically responded to one questioner who asked whether we should be banging the table more about Climate Change, as per the mainstream centre-left response.

For Latour, reactionary rightwing movements — in Italy, Denmark, Phillipines, the United States, Australia with One Nation, Poland, France with the National Front etc. etc. — are something new, rather than the return of something old. Modernity’s frontier, with its dichtomies of modern progress versus archaic knuckle-dragging reaction, needs a new attractor: Gaia, or Earth.

Epistemologically, for Latour, this means multiplying objective realities, rather than bifurcating the lived experience from scientific objects — the 20thC solution to problems that has run out of steam with problems like climate change. Performance arts are well equipped to achieve this multiplication. Think Climate Guardians blockading drill rigs.

Politically, the Sensitivity demanded by the trialogue he’s attempting to establish, involves protection of the Earth. He urges a rejection of the modernising line, and instead building alliances between those attracted to ecological understandings of nonhumans and those accused of reaction, archaism and retreat. I’m not sure Trump supporters and soil scientists have a shared definition of ‘protection’ here but his point is that we need to devise tests about what sorts of things we can hold onto in the maelstrom of contemporary politics.

3. Latour’s Third Attractor is Volumetric

The final section of his Futures seminar/lecture embedded above encourages us to ‘look down’, rather than staring up with res extensa. His PSi22 Lecture used a lot of terminology such as lateral/sideways views, the thin layer of varnish on the globe, critical zone etc. but it’s clear that he’s a theorist of Volume, following explicitly from Sloterdijk’s Bubbles. Latour’s interested in the smooth spaces of disciplinary interiors, as per the story of fungi above. His concept of soil is not just dirt, but covers the sediments on ocean floors and the networks of life that rely upon them. As a symmetrical anthropologist he’s not there to reassert the rationality of scientists, nor to ‘be a priest’ … instead he’s argued ‘We have to bring into our texts a little bit of the practice of the people we study. If we succeed in doing that, we deserve our meagre salaries.’

4. Does the ‘Third Attractor’ need a Jus Soli?

Finally, I was struck by the extent to which Latour’s Earth marginalises law. He has repeatedly emphasised phusis and techne, perhaps at the expense of nomos or law. What might a citizenship of Gaia look like? I’d like to think organisations like the Australian Earth Laws Alliance, alongside my work with Professor Bronwen Morgan, is perfectly equipped to address such a question insofar as it refuses the dichotomy between parochialism and modernisation, instead attempting to carve out protected, autonomous, sustainable economies where nonhumans are respected.