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Bruno Latour: Occupy Earth

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Caspar David Friedrich, Das Grosse Gehege (detail).

Any history of the concept nature would be a history of western civilization itself. It is, as Raymond Williams once observed, one of the most complex of terms. It can mean the quality inherent in a thing. Or the force that directs the world. Or the world itself. It can be used in ways that include or exclude the human. It can include or exclude culture — another complex word with a rich history.

Timothy Morton proposes an ecology without nature. Donna Haraway thinks a natureculture as one concept. Isabelle Stengers prefers the intrusion of Gaia. I have written elsewhere about those. Here I want to look at Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climactic Regime (Polity 2017), in which, like Stengers, he displaces nature in favor of Gaia, for “the peoples who are struggling to occupy earth.” (4) I would make the same claim with Latour as with these others: nature as a concept will not go quietly into the night, and attempts to displace it end up reviving one or other of its aspects under another name.

My own approach is to think instead of an inhuman zone that mediates between the nonhuman and the human. The inhuman is a bundle of flesh-tech agencies that are also called labor, working in-and-against nature, producing the appearance of a world apart from nature, yet always extruded from it and venting back toward it. Other kinds of life may do much the same. The only reason to make (in)human labor a central concept is that it is (part) of who we are. It’s the situated thought of the labor point of view.

Labor is largely absent from Latour. He speaks of operations that distribute agency to one side or another, to nature or culture. Latour: “If only we could approach this core, this differential, this apparatus, this manipulator, we could imagine how to get around it.” (20) Over the course these lectures, this "operator" becomes less a network of actors and more a metaphysics from an old-fashioned history of ideas.

There’s passing mentions of the mode of production, the fossil fuel business, and the agents of climate denial whose disinformation they fund. But even here, Latour is more interested in getting in some pot-shots at intellectual enemies. Climate skeptics, he claims, exploit a language from the spontaneous philosophy of the scientists themselves. Denialists say science should "stick to the facts," and refuse an admixture of politics. But I think it fair to say denialists also abuse the language of Latour’s own science studies just as much, when they point out that science is just another institution.

Latour says climate science brings with it a need for a frank acknowledgment of the connection between science and politics, although one might ask why the dense fields of social-technical relations and forms that he might once have called actor networks or that I call the inhuman is here collapsed into the one-dimensional category of politics. Latour is insistent on stripping science of its metaphysics of scientism, but that of politics — the political — is not only tolerated but celebrated. Science has to admit that it is always political, but politics need not confront the possibility that it is always dependent on some inhuman field of forces to generate the surplus with which it plays.

Despite ironic appeals to novelty, Latour deploys a very old fashioned politics, and a quite familiar nature. Latour: “We would have to be able to introduce an opposition, not between nature and culture this time (since the incessant vibrations between the two are what drives us crazy), but between Nature/Culture on the one side and, on the other, a term that would include each one of them in a particular case. I propose to use the term world, or ‘worlding,’ for this more open concept, defining it… as that which opens to the multiplicity of existents, on the one hand, and to the multiplicity of ways they have of existing, on the other.” (35) Only it is not a matter of two multiplicities meeting, but of a multiplicity reduced to particularities whose synthesis is forced onto the terrain of the political, whose essence is metaphysical.

The fate of the world hinges on rival metaphysical conceptions of nature, a good old one and a bad modern one. Latour: “To sum it up rather too quickly: for Westerners and those who imitate them, ‘nature’ has made the world uninhabitable.” (36) Not the mode of production, or colonial extraction regimes, or the ruling class. Everything now rests on a comparative metaphysics. The sovereign discourse here becomes a western history of ideas, with occasional gestures in the footnotes to cultural anthropology.

Latour: “In practice, we are all counter-revolutionaries, trying to minimize the consequences of a revolution that has taken place without us, against us, and, at the same time, through us.” (4) Who the fuck is this "we"? Latour writes from deep in the heart of European reaction, and from its distaste for modernity in many of its forms, such as a science that did not limit its ambitions, or the melting into air of tradition by capital, and not only distaste but outright hostility to labor. Latour is left with a highly unstable concoction, a desire for restoration and territorialization, but one which knows that there’s nothing left to conserve.

Only the Gods can save us. Their name is Gaia: “We had heard about the acceleration of history, but the idea that this history could also accelerate geological history is what leaves us stupefied.” (45) We can no longer pretend that only human actors matter. There is a metamorphic zone (58) of actors, which is close to what I call the inhuman. Latour attends to an “exchange of forms of action.” (58). Just not of production, which is never mentioned, and hence Latourian politic drifts back to being a merely human affair, and a matter of "ideas." Saying that there are myriad actors ends up being much the same as saying there are none: the result is a contemplative rather than active thought.

The scientific revolution gave us the objectivity of the world, with humans subtracted, as a ground for natural law. Subjects (such as those of politics) appear as spirit against the background of a nature, a world of objects. “It is the material world that we have rendered mute in order to avoid answering the questions: Who or what is speaking? Who or what is acting?” (67) But Latour himself still partakes in one flavor of this “muting of agencies” the muting of labor. (68) The “zone of common exchange” (69) the metamorphic zone, is supposed to be not just a property of language but of the world, but oh, how language has intervened, via the word exchange, to exclude production and labor! Latour can only extend politics and spirit metaphorically across the divide, from politics back to nature, as he has obscured the material practices of inhuman labor that mediate and produce this division.

For Latour it is a problem that the sciences withdrew from historicity and lost connection with a lived world, but there is a risk here of losing touch with the deep strangeness of the nonhuman world that the inhuman practices of labor and science touch and model. In their contact with the nonhuman, the inhuman practices of science and labor go beyond the secondary qualities of touch and sight and sound. They appear to know and move a world of primary qualities beyond the senses, but they only ever do so via tertiary qualities. The earth is only known to the extent that it can be mediated by inhuman practices that mix labor and technics.

Latour wants to replace Galileo as scientific hero with James Lovelock. If for the former, the earth was an object, just another planet, for the latter, it is a subject, and a planet like no other. What is ambiguous here is how much Latour intends this as a restoration and how much as a new revolution in thought. Must this be a reterritorialization? It is certainly a turn away from the infinite, toward a situated thought. There is no dwelling place for our species-being other than this, other than Gaia. Latour reminds us that Hesiod’s Gaia is no figure of harmony. She is always an antecedent and contradictory figure. What Latour extracts from Lovelock’s use of this figure is an animated earth, but an earth of soil, not soul. A secular earth, but one not free from the problem that religion poses, which one might short-hand as the problem of what binds us.

If there is an abiding enemy in these lectures, it is the figure of totality. This can only ever be an expressive totality for Latour, where all the parts are in their essence the same and marked in their essence by the spirit of the whole. Totalities must necessarily imply an engineer or designer for him. “And as Gaia cannot be compared to a machine, it cannot be subjected to any sort of re-engineering.” (97) There are only parts, not wholes. But there might be a lot of other totalities one can imagine besides the expressive: ones that have unassimilable supplements, or parts ordered by their differences rather than a shared essence, and so on. Nor does totality have to take on an ontological priority. Nor is it necessarily the case that totalities imply a creator or single cause.

In Latour, intentionality is withdrawn completely from the totality. It becomes an attribute only of actors, all of whom become animated. It’s a term used repeatedly but never much examined. Unlike in the new materialism, Latour is aware of the dangers of vitalism — how could be not after his magnificent study of Pasteur? But a certain vitalism may creep back in, unbidden.

Latour is never very clear about what Gaia intrudes into. It does not seem adequate to say it intrudes into the political as understood in Hobbes. Rather, it intrudes into a world made of what Benjamin Bratton calls the stack, that layered, global infrastructure that sucks resources in at one end as if they were objects and puts them at the disposal of what it addresses as subjects at the other, then dumping the waste back anywhere it can. The stack appears to loosen the grip of nature upon the human, who now inhabit a second nature built over and against it. The stack makes both that second nature of built form and the nature underneath it that appears as mere resource apparent in the form of a third nature, a sphere (or smear) of information. The earth is already massively geo-engineered, that may be what the word Anthropocene actually means.

For Latour, what I am calling third nature points away from the earth and the earthbound, and is what needs to be overcome. I would say rather that it is with the aid of this simulation of the totality that we might understand the finitude of the earth. As Paul Edwards notes in his account of it, earth science is a simulation science. It is dependent on the inhuman technics of the stack, of third nature, of planetary computation, satellites, the no less difficult technics of international scientific cooperation. Stack-based, information-based conflict puts one simulation up against another: earth science versus financialization.

The stack now runs on about seventeen terrawatts a day, not a negligible amount of energy. This inhuman assemblage of flesh with tech, capital against labor, has created (but can also detect) changes in ocean acidity, previously unknown compounds, ruins of vast infrastructures, underground and atmospheric nuclear tests, a rise in atmospheric carbon, mass extinction — all of that is now coming into view. But, contra Latour, one can say that what makes the Anthropocene apparent is its tertiary qualities, mediated forms of knowledge, indeed even simulations of a totality. Through the fates of worlds modeled in computation, we have in outline the likely fates of the actual one. No amount of agential complexity or empirical complication really disturbs that big picture.

Rather than perceive and think the actual world via the artificial, Latour wants to think without any sphere at all, drawing on the reactionary philosophy of Peter Sloterdijk. In his immunology, we live in an internal milieu that protects its boundaries to maintain a homeostasis, at least temporarily. This comes to be imagined as a sphere, one that includes everything true and beautiful, but which pays no attention to its conditions of existence. The global view of the universe is one that is abstract, universal, and not situated. It ignores the immunological functions necessary to life. And indeed that may be the case. The decision here is whether to further develop the artifice of the sphere to include in the simulation its conditions of existence, or to think without it, and return to the territoriality of the past — and all that implies.

This bubble world, inherited from Christianity, has an odd complication. It is reversible. Are the heavens or the earth where God is to be found? What is peripheral to what? It’s a duality that persists into modern philosophy: Materialism versus idealism. Is nature or reason at the center of the sphere? Latour: “Let us recall how precarious the ‘Copernican revolution’ that Kant claimed to introduce into philosophy has always been: how could he have made us believe that making the Object revolve around the human Subject could count as an abandonment of anthropocentrism?” (126)

The solution of the "Machists," which I follow in Molecular Red, was to make the labor of perceiving and recording that which is most verifiably real, and the object and subject extruded out of either end of that process secondary effects. There’s something analogous in those versions of science studies, of science in action, that focus on laboratory lives, even if it is not often thought in such circles actually to be about labor. But it may be an important detail. The ambition of progressive movements of scientific workers — those neglected ancestors of science studies — was to resist territorialization, and its links to nationalism, militarism, and even fascism.

So while I would still call it nature rather than Gaia, I think there’s a parallel between the Machist-Marxist attempt to think a realism of science as labor with science studies’ attempts to think science as situated. But where the former wants to think the totality to which scientific labor, like all labor, belongs as the equivalence forced upon it by the false totality of capital, the latter is content to dissolve the unity of labor into an empiricism of the local and particular. Latour insists rather dogmatically that nature cannot be thought globally, which seems to me quite contrary to what Paul Edwards shows earth science as actually doing. The simulated earth modeled by earth science shows what the history of commodification has wrought, up to an including the latest iteration of stack-based commodified and financialized information.

This has consequences. In Latour, only the local and territorial are left on the table as a form or remediation. “It is rather that we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and of the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence and be experienced as urgent… the global, the natural, and the universal operate like so many dangerous poisons that obscure the difficulty of putting in place the networks of equipment by means of which the consequences of action would become visible to all the agencies.” (139, 141) This seems to me to have the lesson for the rest of us from climate science exactly backwards.

The problem may lie in these lectures being yet another attempt to use the Anthropocene as a pretext to nominate a sovereign discourse. “The true beauty of the word Anthropocene is that it brings us very close to anthropology…” (143) Rather than think anthropology within the field of the sciences, Latour thinks the sciences within the field of anthropology. He merely exchanges one claim to be the sovereign discourse for another. But what seems particularly dangerous here is the running together of the particularity of indigenous or colonized peoples with the territoriality of reactionary and conservative traditions in European thought, from whom Latour increasingly draws succor. As someone situated in the new world, it seems to me in rather poor taste to recruit the indigenous to a revival European anti-modern reaction.

This shows up most clearly in Latour’s geopolitics of the Anthropocene, conceived as a state of war, for which he proposes conditions for diplomacy. Latour starts with a questionnaire for the warring parties: who do you follow, who are your people, what is your territory, what is your time, what is your cosmogram? The latter might mean something like metaphysical commitments, or what Bogdanov called worldview. It might almost mean faith. We all have a religion, in the broader sense of something that binds us, attaches us to somewhere and some place, even if some of us are negligent about it. Indeed, as Yves Citton would have it, our attention ecology, that layer of the stack that addresses us as users, may be designed for negligence.

It is through the translation between the gods that civil peace might prevail among those with multiple attachments, and that entails diplomacy. Here Latour forces everyone onto the same anthropological ground. This excludes in advance those who understand the ground otherwise. The enemy of all the others for Latour are those who recognize only one God. This is a fault Latour lays at the feet of Moses and all who follow after him, as the same mosaic division into the one true God and a plethora of false ones he thinks part of modernity as well, even if for the moderns the one God becomes nature or evolution or market. Those with one true god cannot be at peace with others, so the others must declare war on them. This is the irrational will around which the whole book revolves.

The moderns believed they could do away with religion, but as they of all people should know — believing does not make it so. For the moderns, (“these people” (162) as he calls us), nature became a god. Here Latour comes close to Williams: “Nature, despite its reputation of incontrovertibility, is the most obscure concept there is.” (158) But then he flattens nature back into just one of its multiform senses. Nature as the god of the moderns is unique and universal, for a people without a place. “They are at once everywhere and nowhere, absent and present, invasive and stupefyingly negligent.” (160)

The modern cosmogram is a reversible sphere with two competing focal points, an echo of the odd dualism philosophy inherits from Christianity: external nature and internal Man. The moderns live with an unstable Copernican revolution, one that bifurcates object from individual, inanimate nature and active subject. Latour thinks this is an obsolete worldview, for while it professes to love science, science does quite the opposite. Science multiplies agents, increasing that which moves, and is animate. Science multiplies matters of fact that are also matters of concern.

The modern people, the people of nature as a thing apart, cannot be convened for this particular diplomacy. It is not a collective. No process of composition enables it to be collected. It cannot occupy the earth. Latour: “it never knows whether it is supposed to escape from the present time through a new revolution or escape from the very idea of radical revolution.” (166) It thinks it alone occupies the world when actually it is stranded in its imaginary globe.

Latour thinks there are four kinds of "natural religion," whose peoples may be at war with each other, and who in acknowledging that war, might think about who they could live in peace with. First there is the God of nature who is singular, embodied in law, whose people are everyone, whose place is no place but an abstract globe, whose epoch is one of rupture, and whose cosmogram is external, unified, deanimated, indisputable. Against which one can oppose the Gods of nature who are plural, a multiverse, whose people are just scientists, whose place is a network, whose temporality is a multiple one, whose cosmogram is internal, multiple, animated, controversial.

Against these two version of science as religion, there might be two kinds of religion as such. The first has a God who is an ordering one, whose people are everyone, whose world is another world, and whose time one of rupture. Their cosmogram is external, unified, over-animated, indisputable. Then there is another kind of religion, where the gods are plural, the people are congregated, the ground is particular, and the time one of reprise, the cosmogram is local, multiple, animated and interpreted. For Latour, the first version of nature above derives from the first of these kinds of religion. And what might be preferable is a version of nature more aligned with the second kind. This would be a cosmogram of nature less derived from the monotheism of the west and more from what anthropology has come to know of more diverse parts of the earth and its peoples.

This is an exciting project, but the olive branch of diplomacy is only offered to some. Some of us are excluded altogether. For instance, those of us for whom our God is the future, our people are labor, whose ground begins with the earth but also looks beyond it, whose epoch is (the ends of) capitalism and whose cosmogram is internal, multiple, conflictual, and disputable. Latour thinks that since 1989 we have ceased to exist.

The main thing proposed here is an armistice between science and anthropology, requiring of science that it give up on an absolutist or epistemological worldview, and adopt the one that science studies has crafted for it instead. “We haven’t finished absorbing the diversity of ways of occupying the Earth. The Anthropocene is first of all the opportunity to listen seriously at last to what anthropology teaches us about other ways of composing worlds — without depriving us, nevertheless, of the sciences, which are radically different only in the epistemological version.” (182) But the sciences have to acknowledge the sovereignty of anthropology, its version of earth, and no other form of knowledge of it will be recognized.

But then anthropology finds itself subsumed within a rather Eurocentric history of ideas. Latour’s new dispensation is actually an old one. He finds support in Stephen Toulmin’s work for harking back to the good old days of pluralism and skepticism, before the age of reason and its more robust demands for certainty and universality. Montaigne rather than Descartes, then. “What the humanists have conceived has been aborted by the rationalists.” (189)

Latour extracts from Eric Voegelin the idea that it all goes wrong once the apocalypse is thought as actually bringing the heavens down to earth, rather than spiritually opening of the two worlds to each other. Eternity can be realized in history, rather than the other way around. The kingdom of spirit will be realized down below. It is an abandoning of St Augustine, for whom the city of man offers nothing and the city of god everything, a “wise and precarious solution.” (198)

The bad guys in this epic are the gnostics, and their assured knowledge. (no mention is made of Christianity’s vigorous suppression of them, or of the more delightfully fleshy version of their heresies, about which I have written in Excommunication). Modernity is not a passage from mystification to enlightenment, but rather a passing from mutual revelation of the city of man and of god, to that of realizing city of god on earth. For Latour, utopia is only this attempt to bring the heavens down to earth. It is not, as I have suggested in The Spectacle of Disintegration, also the attempt to work through earthly problems with rigor.

Latour: “What is called the demiurgic spirit of the Moderns would be of little import if that demiurge were not the one of the Gnostic tradition, brimming over with the malignity that has transformed this earthly world into a cesspool from which one has to try to escape by all possible means. The Gnostics can no longer enter into any contract with the terrestrial. They may aspire to escape toward the transcendent by way of utopia, they may try to create their utopia for real, they may despise the world and violently reject matter as unfit to be transformed by Ideas: whatever they do, every solution they invent is more calamitous than the last! You rightly suspect that it would be totally useless to talk to these Gnostics about ecology, about the terrestrial world, about uncertainty or fear and trembling before the ongoing distribution of agency.” (209) The moderns are too rootless, too cosmopolitan, apparently.

The moderns, heirs to the gnostics, are fanatics in their will to realize another world. “The moderns are irreligious only in this: they neglect materiality.” (211) Everything is made to depend on going back to the spirit of a Renaissance love of things earthy, to a Gaia that is not the profane, the archaic or the pagan, but is that which intrudes. The injunction of Gaia is the only way to make a civilization: “we have to become present again to the situation of terrestrial rootedness.” (212) The virtues of the people of Gaia is that they are specific, rooted, visible — like an old world family of landed property. Latour does not mention their corresponding vices.

Latour’s highly prescriptive, and actually not very pluralist means of shedding the habits of the old climate regime pays some amount to attention to climate science, but spares only a paragraph or two on the attacks it is now under. The emphasis is on reterritorialization, diplomatic obligation, introductions only among peoples with territories. Barred are the partisans of science, progress, history, and nature.

Politics is somehow the magic key. Other forms of the social-technical are rarely mentioned. Politics seems strangely restricted to the human, abandoning the multi-agent approach for which Latour was once justly famous. Politics is then reduced to the friend-enemy distinction (the non-friend and the non-enemy do not appear). Politics is to be a convocation of distinct peoples who have to agree to talk about war — but never class war.

Holding up the far-right end of Latour’s parade of conservative and reactionary thinkers is Carl Schmitt, “toxic but indispensable… it is all a matter of dosage!” (228) Unlike Benjamin Bratton, Latour has not rethought Schmitt’s geopolitics in the era of information technology; unlike Chantal Mouffe, he does not emphasize Schmitt’s diagnosis of the internal tensions in liberal democracy. Latour: “Schmitt resisted the scientism of his time.” (231) Which in these neo-reactionary times hardly seems like a virtue.

Schmitt appeals to Latour as someone who understands politics as a space-making activity. What Schmitt calls nomos, which perhaps we could render for present purposes as the appropriation and distribution of territory, is also that which distributes agency between nature and culture. To occupy the earth is to sue for a new nomos of the earth. Not that of extensive colonial acquisition this time, but one of intensive discovery. There is no sovereign agency over the earth, above its law but with the capacity to enforce it, so what we have is a state of war.

For Latour, it is time to welcome “the perilous virtue of reactionary thinkers” forcing us to make choices. (21) This he prefers to the moderns: “They see the future only in the form of futuristic fiction… They resemble astronauts preparing to take off without space suits. The Moderns are extraordinarily clever at freeing themselves from the chains of their archaic, provincial, enclosed, local and territorial past, but when their task is to designate the new localities, new territories, new provinces, the narrow networks toward which they are emigrating, they settle for utopia, dystopia, advertising, the great heavings of breasts, as if they really had lungs suited for breathing in the subtle, toxic air of globalization.” (243) Rather a revision of Schmitt’s western-centric territoriality than those clever nomads and the gender panic they seem to induce.

As a modest contribution to modeling the new diplomacy, Latour gestures toward a very interesting theatrical work by Frédérique Aït-Touati, Making It Work. Latour sees it as an update of his own idea of a parliament of things. In Aït-Touati’s performance, delegates represent not just territorial states but also agents such as oceans, endangered species, or cities — a little like in the utopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing by Starhawk. Interestingly, labor is not a delegate. (It has no homeland). Neither is science, although those playing the scientists are distributed throughout the other delegations, thus forcing science into a territoriality.

Making it Work is designed to elicit no agreement upwards, toward a state of nature, but only downwards, towards shared territories. But is the commons negotiable without a concept of totality, even if that totality is only a simulation? Can there be a way of negotiating among multiple and not just human actors when only human actors play them? Can there really be a pluralism when it is forced onto the monolithic ground of a western politics of space and an anthropological conception of difference? Maybe the new kinds of agents don’t need to be represented as if they were states but simulated as if they were stacks.

What we have here then is not a genuine pluralism, but the Anthropocene used as an alibi to revive a premodern cosmogram. One which was, incidentally, incapable of generating an earth science that might detect the signs of the Anthropocene itself. Latour challenges the sovereignty of modern mode of existence, but in doing so tries to make another one sovereign. He appears to subsume the sciences within a ground that gives priority to the anthropological, but the indigenous or the colonized never rise above the footnotes.

The anthropological ground is governed by a will to power that makes an interrogation as to one’s territory and identity a condition of gaining a visa. Only a restricted set of human agents are invited to parley. The role of inhuman mediation is eliminated in favor of a politics limited to the intersubjective. The political is in turn governed by a quite particular and restricted sense of the religious, one that is all about what binds and not about the unbound sense of the numinous. All of which is a bit disappointing. The work in which Latour most explicitly addresses the Anthropocene turns out to be his least useful work for thinking about it.