Down in the Dirt With Bruno Latour

I can imagine Bruno Latour dressed as a musketeer, wearing a felt cavalier hat with showy ostrich plumage and embroidered brown leather coat, flashy purple cape, pantaloons, boots fit for Captain Morgan, entering a room full of critical philosophers and shouting, “Are there any modernists here? If there are, I forthwith challenge them to a duel, pistols or swords, your choice.” A loud rattling of swords is immediately heard.

Bruno LaTour is a gallant French intellectual provocateur extraordinaire. Flowing in the stream of French intellectual sword play and competition to see who’s the most daring and adept, Latour doesn’t disappoint. He pierces his sword into the Habermasian project of rescuing modernity from its derailment. Modernity, he proclaims, is The Problem. Its framework of assumptions and institutional practices is not up to the tasks facing us in the New Climate Regime.

That’s one thing: he also condemns existing forms of politics and ways of conceiving the relationship between theory and practice. He thinks that critique and politics have run out of steam (see “Why has critique run out of steam? From matters of fact to matters of concern,” Critical Inquiry 30, Winter 2004). To put it crudely, in this quirky and enigmatic text Latour argues that humanity is in deep dodo and requires bold and radical new ways of thinking. He wants us to drop down to the earth and rub our noses in its sensuous degradation. Do it quickly, time to act is dribbling away in the desert sands.

Let’s look closely at a few of his provocations in his slightly whacky new book, Down to Earth: politics in the new Climate Regime (2018). Latour tries, desperately, to sort out the “ravages of globalization.” He thinks we, the human species, has lost its way. “We don’t know where to go, or how to live, or with whom to cohabit. What must we do to find a place? How are we to orient ourselves?” Big questions for sure.

But what really gets Latour’s goat is that, precisely at this dangerous moment in global history, those ruining the world are climate deniers. Brilliantly, Latour ties denial of the scientific evidence for calamitous change to the de-regulation of the global economy, the dismantling of the welfare state and the dizzying extension of inequalities. Latour is deeply disturbed that the global elites have fled from the “shared world.” Sword drawn, he shouts out: “These people whom we can call the obscurantist elites from now on—understand that, if they wanted to survive in comfort, they had to stop pretending, even in their dreams, to share the earth with the rest of the world.”

This foolhardy elite can be understood as “extra-terrestrials”—occupants of an alternative reality. They are “out-of-this-world” and have no desire to share it with anyone else. If it all goes up in smoke, then they will disintegrate clutching their goods. The governing ideology (if this term still means anything) of our global rulers (that damnable 1%) is to see to it that profits are for the few. So denying that climate change is real is a necessary step to ensuring that their deluded wretchedness sustains itself.

In Latour’s acerbic phrase, they are in the grip of “epistemological delirium.” We are on the Titanic moving towards the unseen icebergs in the near distance. And Latour tells us that the ruling classes “reserve the lifeboats for themselves and ask the orchestra to go on playing lullabies so they can take advantage of the darkness to beat their retreat before the ship’s increased listing alerts the other classes.” In this dystopic vision we will all drown in the end.

Latour asserts boldly that the public “does not fully realize that the issue of climate change denial organizes all politics at the present time.” This is pretty compelling. Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement of 2016 symbolizes that the elite belong to an “out-of-this-world” reality. Their horizon has departed the “realities of an earth that would react to their reactions. For the first time, climate change denial defines the orientation of the public life of a nation.” Utter indifference to the new climactic regime propels counterrevolutionary actions to distract our minds, dissolve all forms of solidarity and set genders, races and classes against one another. Clearly and diabolically, Trump has turned the US into an un-reality show akin to his previous TV shenanigans.

For Latour, the well-worn term “global” signifies a world order driven by an ever-accelerating progress. Now, the global has reacted back on degraded local milieus (such as tribal life in the Amazon basin) in every part of the world. The people of the world were promised a share in the world’s resources. They were deceived. The idea of a “shared horizon” has disappeared. “People find themselves in the situation of passengers on a plane that has taken off for the Global, to whom the pilot has announced that he had to turn around because one can longer land at the airport.” Nobody, Latour thinks, has a secure dwelling-place.

Latour’s big idea in Down to Earth is that the modernist notion of an earth as mere silent object to be used and exploited for human purposes has disintegrated. The earth, perceived as a vast and endless constellation of elements and substances, has reacted to the actions of human beings over thousands of years. As Latour expresses it, “Humans are no longer the only actors, even though they still see themselves entrusted with a role that is much too important for them.” Latour adopts the Gaia label from James Lovelock to characterize the universe as an all-encompassing political agent (see: Facing Gaia [2017]).

Universal modernization has crashed; the social cannot be separated from nature; nature cannot be unbound from human consciousness; the political cannot be severed from nature as actor. Controversially, Latour thinks that the relative indifference of people to “green politics” has to do with the buying into a way of seeing (or opposing) economics to ecology or the demands of development to those of nature. Our politics lags behind the demands of our time. Ecological movements have “not known how to mobilise on a scale adequate to the stakes.” This statement rings true for Canada’s Green party that limps along with a few elected candidates. Latour is exasperated that socialism and ecology have not joined up effectively.

Latour has written provocative critiques of our ways of doing ethnography (Laboratory Life: the construction of scientific facts [1979] or science (Politics of nature [2004]). Latour accentuates the importance of understanding that facts cannot stand on their own. They require a “shared world”, “institutions” and “public life” to nurture trust. As well, he zeros in how the natural sciences seem to empty their objects of study of animating presence. Abstract analysis “gets in the way of a more intimate, more subjective, more rooted, more global—more ‘ecological,’ as it were—way of capturing our ties to ‘nature.’”

Is Latour returning us to a decidedly pre-modern, mystical, spiritual way of apprehending the richness of the natural world? One immediately thinks of Indigenous peoples in different parts of the world who declare the earth as sacred and alive with spirit. Native peoples perceive a natural world that requires an attentive ear and spirit that senses what is needed for long-time sustainability. Modern science has little place for these latter attributes. These are hotly contested matters.

Contrasting this spiritual sensibility with modern economics, Latour laments how a partially brain-dead modern economics cannot, for the life of us all, calculate scarcity of resources. Latour’s most radical idea is, I think, his idea that nature must be allowed a voice in political decisions about humankind’s future. Who has the right to speak for wolves or bears or coral reefs? This question is even more delicate than the post-colonial biting analysis of Gayatri Spivak who poses the question of who should speak for the marginalized and oppressed sectors of humanity. The subaltern must speak for themselves. But who can interpret the signals of orca whales or the howl of the arctic wolves?

We are currently “living in the ruins of modernity.” Europe cannot hide under the US umbrella. The old ‘West’ has “abandoned the very idea of building a world order—isn’t this actually a more positive version of its age-old history?” Latour imagines Europe re-entering history, this time without dominating history. However, Latour does not think that Europeans can re-enter history without doing some penance for the sins of imperialism. What shape would this take? Canadian political elites have ever so reluctantly done a tidbit of penance for its awful colonialist past by offering a public apology for the residential school policy of cultural genocide. But there are many, many miles to go down the reconciliation road and too much evidence of reluctance to get down in the dirt to transform the conditions that enable the victims of colonial globalization to flourish—everywhere.

Michael Welton retired from Athabasca University.  His recent books include Unearthing Canada’s Hidden Past: a Short History of Adult Education and Adult Education a Precarious Age: The Hamburg Declaration revisited.