Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Latour Comments (long form)

Latour sets out to redefine political ecology as something that “has to let go of nature.” (9) In fact, he cites Nature as the chief obstacle in public discourse. As will be restated throughout, Latour wants the environmental argument to be heard, and to do so, he is stripping it of something that seems fundamental to it, yet is actually a hindrance. Part of this will mean dissociating the sciences from Science. (9) That is go from “brandishing Science” (as in “she blinded me with Science”) to “clinging to the twists and turns of sciences as they are developed.” (10) One is removed from humanity, a mythical Ideal, while the other is real, human, and messy. Latour defines Science “as the politicization of the sciences through epistemology in order to render the ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature.” (10) Science capitalized is derived from Plato’s allegory of the Cave, and it’s this he seeks to get us out of. He addresses “two points of rupture” of the allegory. The first being that in getting out of the cave to find truth, “There exists no possible continuity between the world of human beings and access to truths ‘not made by human hands.’ The allegory of the cave makes it possible to create in one fell swoop a certain idea of Science and a certain idea of the social world that will serve as a foil for science.” And secondly the Scientist goes back to the cave with “incontestable findings that will silence the chatter of the ignorant mob. Once again, there is no continuity between the henceforth irrefutable objective law and the human…” (This brings to mind the shift in research practices to those of a more participatory nature – rather than coming from above with Wisdom, helping people empower themselves.) Scientists can thus go back and forth between worlds like Moses carrying scientific laws “which are not open to question, for the tyranny of ignorance. Without this double interruption there can be no Science, no epistemology, no paralyzed politics, no Western conception of life.” (11) Latour argues that this has to change to redefine public life. There is the fear that if Science is open to messiness, uncertainties that (12) “Science can survive only as long as it distinguishes absolutely and not relatively between things ‘as they are’ and the ‘representation that human beings make of them.’” Latour says, if one suggests “they are dealing rather with a seamless cloth, you will be accused of relativism; you will be told that you are trying to give Science a ‘social explanation’; …” Calls this sophistry – and this connects to Pirsig’s description of Plato’s attack on Sophists in Z&tAoMM. Platonists – the West really – see relativism as a threat. It’s interesting to think of how scientists actually, had called into question perfect truths and certainty for some time. Think of Heisenberg and uncertainty, Godel and incompleteness, and even more recently fractals and the butterfly effect, the world is not “cold and austere” truth and beauty as Bertrand Russell put it – it’s messy, crinkly… Latour says “not smooth.”

Latour states the persistence of the allegory of the Cave because “It allows a Constitution that organizes public life into two houses.” (13) Ignorant folk on one, and the outside Idealized world. Thus “the myth of the Cave makes it possible to render all democracy impossible by neutralizing it; that is its only trump card.” So power is given only “those who can move back and forth between the houses.” (14) This speaks to a notion of Power Elite, how people justify their rank in society. Latour’s solution “we need not climb down into it [the cave] to begin with!” (16) This is what is “you are trying to organize civic life with two houses, one of which would have authority and not speak, while the other would have speech but no authority; do you really think this is reasonable?” (17) It’s time to get past the power of this myth. Latour sets up his argument and offers a powerful definition of politics (reminiscent to Wilson’s consilience): “Just as we have distinguished Science from the sciences, we are going to contrast power politics, inherited from the Cave, with politics, conceived as the progressive composition of the common world.” (18) Like Pirsig and Wilson, Latour is out to show the artificiality of dualities and the harm they’ve created. (19) Thus he seeks to show “political ecology has nothing to do, or rather, finally no longer has anything to do with nature, still less with its conservation, protection, or defense.” He speaks of environmental movements seeking to restore a political dimension to nature, but it’s because of the inclusion of “nature” that they can’t succeed: “Under the pretext of protecting nature, the ecology movements have also retained the conception of nature that makes their political struggle hopeless.”

“Thus we cannot characterize political ecology by way of a crisis of nature, but by way of a crisis of objectivity. The risk-free objects, the smooth objects to which we had been accustomed up to now, are giving way to risky attachments, tangled objects. Let us try to characterized the difference between the old objects and the new ones, between matters of fact and what could be called matters of concern.” (22) Furthermore, he defines matters of fact, risk-free objects as clearly defined boundaries, invisible people behind them, risks in separate universe, later consequences of object never impacted initial definition of object. Asbestos is a strong model of a risk-free object. (23)  In contrast to these are risk-free objects, with matters of concern – these are not smooth but messy! They lack clear boundaries, more like rhizomes in their connections to other things, producers are visible, part of their definition from the beginning, they don’t emerge from the sky or the “cave” but are part of world from the beginning, and they are attached to their consequences from the beginning. (24) Therefore, “Political ecology does not shift attention from the human pole to the pole of nature; it shifts from certainty about the production of risk-free objects (with their clear separation between things and people) to uncertainty about the relations whose unintended consequences threaten to disrupt all orderings, all plans, all impacts.” (25) Hence, “An infinitesimal cause can have vast effects; an insignificant actor becomes central…” Things are messy and as the butterfly effect hints little things can cause big things: “a snail can block a dam” “Nothing can line up beings any longer by order of importance.” As well as “the progressive transformation of all matters of fact into disputed states of affair, … which nothing, precisely, can naturalize any longer.” If political ecology persists in sticking to modernist theory, the idea of the cave, then he suggests whenever it encounters “Beings with uncertain, unpredictable connections, it is thus going to doubt itself, believe it has been weakened, despair over its own impotence, be ashamed of its own weakness.” (27) However, Latour argues this is where it needs to be: “It is precisely in its failures, when it deploys matters of concern, with unanticipated forms that make the use of any notion of nature radically impossible, that political ecology is finally doing its own job, finally innovating politically, finally bringing us out of modernism, finally preventing the proliferation of smooth, risk-free matters of fact…” This is essential – having made this shift from the cave, we can finally talk. On (28) Latour points out that nature has been invoked by politics long before the 1960s. It’s always been there – “natural law” “natural order” etc. In fact, “Conceptions of politics and conceptions of nature have always formed a pair as firmly united as the two seats on a seesaw … There has never been any other politics than the politics of nature, and there has never been any other nature than the nature of politics.” Nature and politics have ever been set us false opposites.

Latour does a great bit of lateral thinking in replacing nature with its plural. (29) ie: “the laws of natures” “The plural is decidedly unsuited to the political notion of nature.” For “starting with the myth of the Cave, it has been the unity of nature that produces its entire political benefit, since only this assembling, this ordering, can serve as a direct rival to the other form of assembling, composing, unifying, the entire traditional form that has always been called politics in the singular.” Great debate – never solvable. But his move “Instead of two distinct arenas … political ecology proposes to convoke a single collective whose role is precisely to debate the said hierarchy – and to arrive at an acceptable solution.” Again, similar to the notion of consilience. Remaining under the myth of the Cave, “We are still expecting our salvation to come from a double assembly, only one of those houses is called politics, while the other one simply and modestly declares its determination to define matters of facts; we have no inkling that this hope of salvation is precisely what threatens our public life…” (31) But this new conception of political ecology can put an end “to the domination of the ancient infernal pairing of nature and politics, in order to substitute for it, through countless innovations, many of which remain to be introduced, the public life of a single collective.” (31) This is not a denouncement of scientific work and its importance, but a restoring of it to a human position, so that it can play a useful role, and a role desperately needed, in political ecology. – Nick 

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