Rethinking nature, and everything else, with Bruno Latour

I‘ve been thinking about Bruno Latour just lately, never a thing to try unless you feel wide awake, and that led me back to this first take on his Politics of Nature. As this little piece indicates, I tend to find him a wild mix of intriguing insight and passages which leave me feeling I am missing something important in what he is trying to convey.

The revisit is partly because, admirably, he keeps trying hard to tell us what it is he is getting at – and I do have a sense that it is getting easier to understand. That’s to do with the deepening discussion of the anthropocene and earth systems science as descended from Gaia theory, among other things. His just-delivered Gifford lectures, which centre on Gaia, are being a big help, as is this recent (and currently open access) paper in Social Studies of Science. But here is how it all seemed to one sympathetic but slightly confused reader a few years back.

Climate change, mass extinction, avian flu as harbinger of global pandemic: take your pick. Whichever issue troubles you most, it quickly becomes apparent that it is not to be understood as part of a “nature” somehow separate from “society”. Human habits and human actions are inextricably bound up with the way the rest of the ecosystem or the biosphere behaves.

Understanding how each affects the other is immensely complex. And developing that understanding when the stakes are so high lays bare the ways in which politics enters into science and science into politics.

Bruno Latour wants to raise the stakes higher still, but conceptually rather than in terms of ecological risk. Despite all our concern, our pressure groups, non-governmental organisations and ministers for the environment, he maintains that political ecology is paralysed by established categories of thought. Only a radical rethink will enable us to grasp the import of ecology and launch a new approach to the maintenance of a tolerable life.

And what might that rethink look like? This is not easy to sum up. Through all his work on science, technology and society, Latour has developed a style of writing that is an unusual and often startling combination of remarkably acute observation and analysis of science in action (to quote an earlier title), of metaphorical flights and rhetorical flourishes, of aperçus, of exhortations to relinquish familiar concepts, categories and meanings and of what, as a non-philosopher, I take to be breathtaking philosophical presumption. Straightforward, it isn’t.

This latest English volume on the Politics of Nature (first published in French in 1999) is no exception. In fact, it takes the more abstract aspects of Latour’s approach to new heights. There are long stretches with hardly any empirical reference points and, despite the excellent translation, passages that at first reading seem deliberately gnomic. Even in context, elucidations such as “the object was the non-human plus the polemic of nature imparting a lesson to the politics of subjects” take a good deal of decoding. And despite a summary and a 70-term glossary, mostly of relatively common words that Latour wishes to use in uncommon ways, it is hard to keep track of the argument.

Thus, one does not so much review Latour, as offer one possible reading. I read his books as part of a larger endeavour of dealing with particularly troubling kinds of uncertainty that appear to be special to our current situation, and with the uneasy relation between democracy and expertise. It is precisely expertise that he wants to democratise. As he puts it, we need to find a way to establish a parliament for the laws of nature.

One fundamental point in his work is that the nature of things cannot be used to settle an argument because what is the natural case is settled only through argument. Here this is explored via the idea that our worldview is wedded to “mononaturalism” as a complement to “multiculturalism”. Nature is universal, societies and cultures vary.

But anthropology shows that this division is peculiar to our modern version of reality. “Traditional societies do not live in harmony with nature; they are unacquainted with it.”

What he proposes, using an elaborate terminology I am not going to introduce here, is a way of treating inquiry about what is the case and what needs to be done, which at least to begin with operates as if a host of categories are in suspension. Most crucial, non-humans have the same initial standing as humans. To dissolve that division, he argues, one must also reappraise other familiar pairings, between subjects and objects, facts and values, nature and culture, politics and science. This goes beyond the point that nature is a historical category to a more far-reaching redrawing of boundaries between the given and the chosen.

This reader was left feeling very English, very empirical and alternately beguiled and baffled. There are no really convincing case studies here, although Latour suggests that all the elements of his new protocol for dealing with the myriad entities of our world are in place, unrecognised, in some discussion or other. Yet some of the symmetries he sets up do seem to fit what we see happening around us. In his world, non-humans need spokespersons (most often scientists) just as humans do (usually politicians). There is a kinship, in his terms, between representation in the epistemological and political senses of the world – if only that both sets of spokespersons will represent their constituents imperfectly. The implication is that we should listen sceptically, alert to speech impediments, but that it is unrealistic to hope to hear any of the actors, human or non-human, truly speaking for themselves.

An illuminating idea? I think so. Others may differ, though perhaps they will take different elements out of this rather grand scheme. There will need to be more, and more detailed, readings than mine before we have the measure of this complex, often intriguing and occasionally infuriating book. (2005)

(Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Harvard UP)

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