Politics Down To Earth

“Right and Left have ceased to function today because they have failed to specify the material framework through which to differentiate themselves from each other. Ecological change obliges us to raise more material questions: How many of us are there? Where do we live? What is the climate where we live? What do we eat? How do we exploit each other? How can we place limits on exploitation? These questions are all to do with what we used to call the ‘social question’, but with a definition of ‘social’ that was so narrow that we forgot all the other factors that necessarily constitute the collective.” // Bruno Latour 

Bruno Latour is one of the world’s leading sociologists and anthropologists. He is Professor and Vice-President for Research at Institut d’études politiques (Sciences Po). My favourite Latour books include We Have Never Been Modern, Reassembling the Social, and Facing Gaia.
His latest, Down To Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018), frames all future politics in terms of the absolute necessity to realize climate change and ecosystemic collapse as the defining issue of the day.
This from the publisher:

The present ecological mutation has organized the whole political landscape for the last thirty years. This could explain the deadly cocktail of exploding inequalities, massive deregulation, and conversion of the dream of globalization into a nightmare for most people.

What holds these three phenomena together is the conviction, shared by some powerful people, that the ecological threat is real and that the only way for them to survive is to abandon any pretense at sharing a common future with the rest of the world. Hence their flight offshore and their massive investment in climate change denial.

The Left has been slow to turn its attention to this new situation. It is still organized along an axis that goes from investment in local values to the hope of globalization and just at the time when, everywhere, people dissatisfied with the ideal of modernity are turning back to the protection of national or even ethnic borders.

This is why it is urgent to shift sideways and to define politics as what leads toward the Earth and not toward the global or the national. Belonging to a territory is the phenomenon most in need of rethinking and careful redescription; learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge. Bringing us down to earth is the task of politics today.

10 responses to “Politics Down To Earth

  1. sad how Bruno (not unlike David Graeber) has moved so far away from doing fieldwork style research to find out what’s actually happening on the ground in all the diversity and complications that arise in human affairs, if only we could convert the masses and makes them see the light, ever the dream of theo-logical thinkers everywhere.
    Adding more ‘actors’ more factors to the already oversaturated mix of politics makes things harder not easier, never got that part of the “democracy of objects” style propaganda we can’t manage the diversity of interests we now have in our politics why/how on earth would more (both in numbers and kinds) be easier to manage?
    And what’s with the editors “What holds these three phenomena together is the conviction, shared by some powerful people, that the ecological threat is real and that the only way for them to survive is to abandon any pretense at sharing a common future with the rest of the world. Hence their flight offshore and their massive investment in climate change denial” hyping up a tiny handful of tech-billionaires, this isn’t even the worst part about what people like Peter Thiel (google palantir surveillance) are up to, the real threat from that general demographic is more from the more common billionaire technocrats who think they are the new philosopher kings and will fix problems like global warming with an app or AI or some other nonsense and buy and sell politicians and regulators.
    https://cassandralegacy.blogspot.com/2018/09/plastic-pollution-age-of-unsolvable.html
    “If the campaign to keep fossil plastics will work, then the only way to get rid of the stuff will be a full-fledged Seneca Collapse — that, too, has happened in the past to take care of the things that humans were unable to care for by themselves. It can surely happen again. Even in the age of unsolvable problems, collapse is a feature, not a bug..”

  2. when Latour and company went to do ethnography/STS in labs they found that the doings of science weren’t like the reporting on/of Science, there was no unity of motivations, interpretations, techniques/method, materials, agents, patronage, contexts, etc. all of which gets smoothed away in most accounts of (justifications for) Science, one has to wonder where did all of that go?
    https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-to-think-about-science-part-4-1.465007
    “First, we hear from Ian Hacking, widely regarded as Canada’s preeminent philosopher of science, and later in the hour we talk to Andrew Pickering, author of The Mangle of Practice.”

  3. larval-levi got into this some a while back and starts out well getting right to the point with “I proposed what I called the “Hegemonic Fallacy“. There I wrote that the Hegemonic Fallacy consists in “the reduction of difference to one difference that makes all the difference or one difference that makes the most important difference. This fallacy arises from failing to observe Latour’s Principle and the Principle of Irreduction, thereby ignoring the singularities of the assemblage to which differences from another assemblage are being transported.”
    but then gives Latour too much credit for not falling into the same trap by taking Bruno at his word that “This [situation of hybrids] would be a hopeless dilemma had anthropology not accustomed us to dealing calmly and straightforwardly with the seamless fabric of what I call ‘nature-culture’, since it is a bit more and a bit less than a culture. Once she has been sent into the field, even the most rationalist ethnographer is perfectly capable of bringing together in a single monograph the myths, ethnosciences, genealogies, political forms, techniques, religions, epics and rites of the people she is studying.”
    but of course this godlike synthesizing power isn’t what we find in ethnographic work (that’s what Rabinow and co. are wrestling with in their work on what, if anything, could an anthropology of the contemporary be like, in what manner/attitude could it be done?) and the “hopeless dilemma” is where we dwell if we insist on generalizing insist on committing the “hegemonic” fallacy, tragic really.
    https://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/04/29/latour-hybrids/

  4. Hey Dirk,

    I wouldn’t want to go so far to say that Latour is out of touch with empirical research on “what’s actually happening on the ground in all the diversity and complications that arise in human affairs”. His institute isn’t just some english department speculating about speculation. They have a whole research team doing fieldwork and analyzing studies. So, i’m sure he has his pulse of data about what’s happening.

    The whole “convert the masses and make them see the light” is a completely bunk project now, I agree. At least on the scale previously considered. The goal among serious activists has always been local “consciousness raising” – affecting the the ‘hearts and minds’ of people around local issues, that might lead to change. Now, i think, we just need a new vocabulary; a set of bridging discursive habits to motivate and collective without triggering old ideological values. BUT all that has to be hooked to how people eat, drink, live, and relate. The psychosocial has be be ‘ecologized’ into an infrastructural approach to ‘worlding’ alternatives.

    This is very important:

    “Adding more ‘actors’ or more factors to the already oversaturated mix of politics makes things harder not easier, never got that part of the “democracy of objects” style propaganda we can’t manage the diversity of interests we now have in our politics why/how on earth would more (both in numbers and kinds) be easier to manage?”

    I agree. We need a simple language when communicating to citizens – but in the service of a politics of “exit” (alt-habitation), rather than one of “voice” (democracy). The key is to shift registers of reference without making it too complicated. There are ways to do this.

    The editors are right, in my view. The powerful know exactly what is coming, and they are extracting as much material resources and power as they can before it comes. The editors are suggesting, quite rightly, that the idea of a global or even national commons is pure fantasy under conditions of fragmentation. I think of this in terms of the movie Elysium: technocratic exit leaving the toiling masses to suffer at the fringes. An implicit depopulation approach.

    “Even in the age of unsolvable problems, collapse is a feature, not a bug..”

    Yep. that’s why collapse-oriented patchwork adaptation strategies are my only real focus now. Designing and preparing for forced transition.

    I don’t think macro-analysis is all about “godlike synthesizing power”, Dirk. That is a bit of an unfair characterization of researchers who seek to understand larger patterns. Generalizations aren’t always about fashioning truths no much as they are about drawing conclusions for further empirical inquiry and action, and sometimes for sussing out additional problem areas and potential comparisons.

    You seem to have strong hate on for pattern-seekers and meta-analysis, and I don’t know why. Even what you are saying about the ‘truth’ of fragmentation and the inability of researchers to draw general conclusions IS a general conclusion about the state of affairs we are in. You chastise these approaches while masking claims that suggest you have the have the inside scoop on what is possible methodologically and discursively.

    • If you’re still a believing structuralist you can generalize about social affairs but if you attend to actual happenings you will note that there are no such structures at work (part of the sales appeal of “smart” cities, the internet of things, and cybernetics broadly is that there might be the engineering of such structures since they don’t yet exist but look at facebook failing to engineer algorithms that can match all of the diversity of uses and setting they encounter in their very restricted, in terms of what it allows, platform and you get a sense of the futility, if only they had read Wittgenstein or Dreyfus), as for ” They have a whole research team doing fieldwork and analyzing studies. So, i’m sure he has his pulse of data about what’s happening” perhaps but where do you find this in his recent books or talks?
      The editors are wrong about at least the public face of the leading monied figures (Bezos, Gates, Zuckerberg, etc) they all are self-proclaimed technocrats and when they discuss climate change and the like it is to reassure their stockholders/consumers that there will be a fix coming from someone like them:
      https://www.ft.com/content/78f1441a-b7a4-11e8-b3ef-799c8613f4a1

      • I never used the term ‘structure’. But I would use the term ‘structural’ for multi-scaled patterns and coupled systems tendencies. I have asked you to consider swarms and ‘swarm dynamics’ as aggregate patterning before but that research never seems to move you. Nothing changes the fact that causality is complex, demonstrating distributed regimes of attraction/patterns of temporally consistent relations between things, and not simply just about things bumping into each other things, like billiard balls, as you seem to suggest often. That’s a centuries old view of causal relations.

        Think about how electromagnetism works, or climate, or schools of fish, slime molds, etc etc.. Do you dispute that systems couple together, are capable synchronization, or as I have suggested “hang together”? Do you deny the scientific consensus on the irreducible causal efficacy of ecosystemic relations, which suggests certain biomes are uniquely interlocking assemblages behaving in coordinated ways?

        Your radical reductionism is simply way behind complexity science, imo. It comes off as more fundamentalist object-oriented than even the most ardent OOOer. In contrast my ontology includes a wide spectrum of existants, from loose to tightly woven systems and assemblies, and all the complex relational causal configurations in between, ALL corresponding to different states of matter and relational patterns.

        • Do you deny the scientific consensus on the ecosystemics – suggesting that certain biomes are uniquely interlocking assemblages behaving in coordinated ways? I do, deny that is the scientific consensus, where are these studies and more importantly what do they have to do with human behavior? humans aren’t bees or ants or robots or any of the other things you mentioned, there is no physics of human behavior no matter how much you wish there was.

          • This is the problem Dirk, you seem to want everything to align with a simple narrative of physics, or the issues of multi-leveled causal complexity don’t even register for you. Physics is not the only scientific endeavor or legitimate body of knowledge. Chemistry then biology as fields of inquiry exist because there are emergent properties among aggregates and groups of aggregates that physics couldn’t explain.

            I have never wished there was a “physics of human behavior”, nor do i believe it is possible. My ecological realism accounts for multiple kinds of relations and properties, without reducing complexity. And suggesting that there are complex causal dynamics (multi-leveled patterns) influencing behavior is not the same as saying a particular ‘society’ exists, or that everything is part of one tightly coupled system. You are tilting at “structuralist” windmills here. It simply doesn’t follow that the physical boundaries (‘skin’) of any given object blocks off casual relations (influence). There exist systems within systems, actualizing patterns and exercising powers that are irreducible to one particular sub-component. Non-local entanglement and distributed systems couplings are things, Dirk.

            Again, your extreme ontological individualism (object-oriented metaphysics) makes no sense to me, and if adopted would throw us back to Victorian era kinds of causal explanation.

            Moreover, humans are animals, and subject to the same causal flows as any other bodies – such as bees and fish and birds and someday robots. Are you saying that we are somehow unique among earth fauna in that we don’t fall prey to group dynamics (crowds) and patterns of influence beyond strict billiard ball causation, or individual operations?

            Multi-scaled non-local systems (what I call, following Morton, “hyperobjects”) have detectable and definable properties. Hierarchy of function is an important one, persistence of relations (what I would call temporal consistency) is another. In fact, every *thing* is a hyperobject – an assemblage of potent materials exerting and existing in overlapping matrices of causal relation, with expressible powers afforded in situ. Reality is thus intrinsically (ontologically) irreducible at any level. Welcome to the quantum entangled hyperverse.

            Researchers apply a combination of multivariate statistics and classification techniques to track non-local causal dynamics between aggregates to provide an objective characterization and classification of “ecological structure” (pattern). Ecologists also use the concept of “ecological integrity” to denote non-local patterning.

            The classic definition of an ecosystem was stated in 1953 by Odum: “any unit that includes all organisms (i.e., community) in a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to a clearly defined structure, biotic diversity, and materials cycles.” [see here: http://environ.andrew.cmu.edu/m3/s5/01ecostructure.shtml%5D

            For the hard science start with this one, then branch out: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0034425708001557

            This one is good for looking at forests as interlocking systems with structural properties: https://books.google.ca/books?id=E4_fp3fU05QC&dq=biomes+as+systems&lr=&source=gbs_navlinks_s

            Again, Dirk, it is YOUR insistence that non-local systems be evaluated ONLY via their obvious and banal boundaries – revealing, imo, an ocular-dominant and anthropcentric metaphysical bias against complex causality.

            And this is why debates about ontology are still relevant and required. People can’t even conceive of what is going on in/as the world because they reduce everything to habitual conceptions reinforced by a bias for ocular evaluation. If ontography has worth it is in using methodological pluralism to fashion new habits of consideration, reference and imagining that changes the way we relate to each other and the world.

            • “Moreover, humans are animals, and subject to the same causal flows ” what are causal flow and how if they exist are they not subject to physics and if its not a matter of physics why keep referring to physics in yer replies?
              I couldn’t access the oceanic study but clearly back when they did this it was still an open question “Based on the view of ecological pattern being steady state, rather than an equilibrium phenomenon, we assert that, if real, ecological biomes and provinces in the ocean should be detectable in surface fields obtained from satellite data as coherent, co-varying spatial regions with a high degree of permanence. Likewise, hierarchy is an important property of ecological systems that should be exhibited by such patterns if they represent real ecological structure. ” whether or not such things existed and not settled in 1953, can you share their results? Here again “this book links the emerging concepts of complexity, complex adaptive system (CAS) and resilience to forest ecology and management. It explores how these concepts can be applied in various forest biomes of the world with their different ecological, economic and social settings, and history.” the concepts (not the proofs) are “emerging” not finished let alone established, any others?

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