Archive for the ‘Bruno Latour’ Category

“The Great Pan is dead”: A rebuke of the myth of natural balance. Part 2

December 8, 2009

Arcadia: (Greek: Ἀρκαδία) refers to a Utopian vision of pastoralism and harmony with nature


Peter Kennard's 'Haywain with Cruise Missiles'

What is nature? has 17 different definitions    HERE

The first four definitions make no room for man in nature. Five is a correlationist universe of appearing phenomena. Six is a Newtonian universe of quantifiable forces. Seven defines nature as opposite to culture. Eight defines nature as the present-at-hand. Nine defines nature through conforming to an innate pre-determined behavior. Nine to fourteen define nature through a norm or original consistency. Fifteen defines nature as barbarism. And lastly, seventeen, nature as the absence of God’s will. The distinct thread running through all these definition is that nature is something Other to human beings or that human beings are in but out of joint with nature and with the natural.

These definitions support the idea of Bruno Latour that all discourses in nature and ecology point to a multiculturalism of the human world against a mononaturalism outside of human control. It is us verses it. I agree with Latour that a separation between multiculturalism and mononaturalism leads us only back to the Cave (i.e. to a Platonic fundamental dualism) and that ‘political ecology has not begun’ until abandons ‘Nature’. Thus object-oriented philosophy (OOP) should be a strong guide in defining nature and the natural via an ontology with a radically inclusive depth.

I will start this investigation with a quote from Eric S Nelson’s paper Responding to Heaven and Earth:

Heidegger and Laozi spoke of Sein and Dao rather than of nature. The English word “nature” is derived from the Latin “natura,” which if Heidegger is correct about its import, needs to be placed in question precisely for ecological reasons. Heidegger analyzed the word natura, and its modern derivatives, as a basic misunderstanding and mistranslation of the archaic Greek disclosure of phusis. The word “nature” is already a denial of the sense we want to give it (i.e., what nature is intended by us to say), because natura is already a transformation of being that reduces it to the purposive, the pragmatic, and the useful—that is to the human. Nature thus has to be reinterpreted according to phusis, and I will argue later the Dao, which means the holding sway and upsurge of being rather than the raw stuff or material of cultivation and formation implied by the Latin understanding and use of natura.

The word nature is a product of translation from Greek to Latin to English. There can be no translation without transformation. Thus, the word nature loses the essence of the Greek word phusis, which comes to play an important role in the work of Heidegger and the OOP of Graham Harman. Aristotle was the first to define Being as presence, which would have a knock on effect to phusis which was, until then, a concealed primordial structure. With Being as presence, phusis becomes physics and thus nature become the world of scientific inquiry.

Phusis must be understood in OOP terms as the ‘real object’ or as Harman suggests, ‘unnatural object’ – the core ‘character’ of objects remains unknown and always unnaturalized. Real objects are the “serving bearer of being” (the concealed Heideggerian earth). logos is the sensual relation that performs semantic articulations of phusis: as Harman notes in Tool-Being, all objects are Dasein. Dasein ‘speak out’ the prevailing “growing growth” (that which has been born and has the propensity to grow) of phusis. It is the nature of phusis to come forth through logos as something at all or in particular. Objects form the world through the universal structure of semantic logos which articulates phusis as something-at-all. The logos can be considered something inclusive of but not exclusive to human Dasein. Just as “Language in its essence is neither expression nor a human deed. Language speaks” (Heidegger, Language).Language operates ontologically the same way as art. Language reveals the tension/strife between world and thing, logos and phusis, sensual object and real object. Therefore, logos partly naturalizes unnatural objects and forms them into worlded things as particular objects.

We must take seriously the claim of Harman’s that retroactive causation is a universal principle, because it allows us to think nature as Zizekian barred nature applicable to all object-object relations: all objects abstract and phantasize the isness is the other object and thus engage in brutal acts of instrumentalized reduction. We should not look to ‘nature’ for a model of balance any more than we should look to capitalism as a guide for a fair and ethical society.

I shall now propose some propositions regarding nature:

>There is no holistic totality of Absolute being known as Nature.

>Objects are not all interconnected. Mystical Oneness is a “pathological exacerbation of the ego” that ignores mind-independent reality in an act of narcissistic presumption (Ray Brassier, Nihil Unbound)

>Balance cannot be an ontological principle (such as ‘natural balance’).

>All objects exist in-themselves prior to being part of an assemblage; yet are themselves assemblages ‘all the way down’.

>Objects are finite.

>Objects are in-themselves prior to human praxis.

>Nature does not equal God.

>Nature should not e thought as inaccessible and barred (such as the Zizekian barred nature: nature does not exist as nature).

We cannot talk of an all inclusive nature in our discourses concerning ecology. In realist terms, nature is a double edged sword, it provides a basic cognitive feature which proposes a reality externally existing to that of human consciousness, yet it excludes human beings from the process entirely, thus generating a binary between nature and culture. For ecology to operate proper, human being must be seen to operate within a chaotic and continually shifting assemblages of objects and their relations, where remedies to environmental problems cannot be seen as a movement back to a balance state of ‘scared’ nature, but to a state of banal coping. Coping with problematic naturalizations which erupt from being caused by human and non-human world forming logos. This must be done not through the idea of human being’s control over nature. Bringing human beings into balance with nature, which, as described in the previous post, is not only a myth, but leads to not nature qua nature, but a naturalization of something unnatural, the object in-itself. The result of a naturalization of the unnatural is a human projected nature based upon the fantasy of balance and peace. Nature is made present and predictable, in tune with a denial of the chaotic. Being One with nature is thus not a state of nature balance, there is non, but recognition of the independence and impossible Real kernel of objects which remains forever unnaturalized by any relation. Ecology should not be a focus on a phantasmatic natural world, but a engagement with a turbulent reality of effervescent change and always temporary attempts at order. We cannot tell ‘Nature’ what to be: we cannot tell real objects what they are.

“The distinction between “natural” and “artificial” always struck me as somewhat… artificial”    HERE


Review of ‘Politics of Nature’ by Bruno Latour

September 24, 2009

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.