Review of ‘Politics of Nature’ by Bruno Latour

POLNAT‘Political ecology has not begun’, says Bruno Latour, so he is going to start it. ‘The politics of nature’ looks quite alien from anything else I’ve seen. It proposes something quite radical yet remarkably simple. It is not a work of political philosophy as such, but an inter-disciplinary challenge to politics, economics, philosophy and science to organize themselves so as to formulate a non-discriminative collective of the common. The problems arise from the concept of nature. For Latour, this word is more trouble than it is worth. As he exclaims ‘Thank God, nature is going to die. Yes, the great Pan is dead’ (p. 25). I will explain this using a diagram provided in the book. This diagram is really all you need to think about to understand his entire argument.

politics of nature 01

On the left we have the current political model. Nature is split off as something that requires the philosopher-scientist hero to go out into this hidden world of primary qualities and bring back precious knowledge. This as Latour makes clear is reminiscent of Plato’s Cave allegory. This makes a true democracy of actors impossible from the start, as some people are prioritized over others by their access to ‘reality’. Things and humans are separated in order to support the notion of multiculturalism against mononaturalism. The notion of nature thus is shown to have always been an illusion. The natural world is set against culture as either a chaotic force that needs to be controlled (i.e. modernism) or mother nature is in balance and we need to become attuned to her laws so as not to destroy her and ourselves (Gaia spiritualism). For Latour this distinction is something that only the west has done. It is not that non-western peoples are better at living in tune with the environment and listening to mother nature. No, they are capable of vicious acts of environmental degradation and disequilibrium as western civilizations. We should not aim to marry culture and nature together, but to dissolve the distinction entirely. Non-westerners do not have problems with nature, as they have never divided the world in such a manner.

On the right side of the diagram we can see what it means if we don’t split culture and nature and instead have a collective of non-human and human actants. The collective is in charge of collecting the multiplicity of associations between humans and non-humans. This is because the subject/object distinction has been removed and a politics proper can begin. Politics is ‘the entire set of tasks that allows the progressive composition of a common world’ (p. 53). Constructing the common must be done through an experimental metaphysics, where things are no defined permanently, but can engage in exchanging properties. The common is formed through articulations. These are not linguistic statements, but uncertain propositions, speech impediments, which do not take positions in polemical style. These propositions push forth matters of concern, which replaces matter of fact. Facts neglect the theoretical work that is needed for their construction. Therefore, propositions must be put forth by spokespersons, but these are not just people (as if people can be separated from the world) but relations between humans and non-humans. This is what is meant on the diagram by ‘collective in the process of exploring’.

Latour wants to reorganise how the roles of politicians, scientists, moralists and economists are complimentary and only become disordered when they try and do each others jobs. They should not put into a hierarchy of importance, but given a reciprocal relationship the collective must utilize to the maximum capacity. This will allow us to articulate and represent the common. Politicians can compromise and make enemies, as an enemy is ‘one who is rejected but will come back the next day to put the collective at rick’. An enemy is not human specific (Latour uses the example of prions and mad cow disease). Economists must economize and offer scale models of precisely what is taken into account by the collective. They make sure the collective knows what is internalized and what is externalized using a common language and make the collective describable. Moralists venture out of the collective to see things from the outside. They ask ‘what do those things want?’ and make sure we treat all things as a means and an end, not just humans. Scientists have the instruments and laboratories to detect new things, and so can tell us of anything that should be taken into the collective and naturalized. Put very simply, all these things are brought together and kept consistent by good administration.

One of the main arguments in this book is against Realpolitik. Political ecology is in favour of a ‘politics of reality’ which is ‘nourished’ by moral issues not distracted by them. However, Latour does not intent this book to be anything revolutionary. He wants its banal message to be read and understood as a simple reflection which aims to rid us of concepts which have and are continuing to handicap any chance of a true politics. As he says ‘I have no utopia to propose, no critical denunciation to proffer, no revolution to hope for’ (p. 163).

This book is a fascinating yet simple thought experiment that needs serious consideration. It does not promise a perfect world, only a chance to push towards the best of all possible worlds. As the collective is defined by movement, there is no teleological end point or utopian moment, but the perpetual throwing out of entities by the power of rank ordering where, if they must, they can return as appellants in the next iteration, to trouble the power of the collective into taking into account. This banal process never stops. This is a kind of all embracing realism that makes power politics look like children squabbling in a sandbox. I think he is right that things need to be reoriented away from the unfreedom of supposed democracy we have now toward a more inclusive common world. I suggest if you want to get a glimpse of a new type of world based on a proper attempt at political ecology that doesn’t rehash the old myopic visions of the deep ecologist and the Gaia spiritualists, read this book.

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