Commonplace - Week Beginning 15 September 2019

Human and non-human politics

Alyssa Battistoni reviews Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth for Dissent. A common theme in the age of ecological catastrophe that we find ourselves careening towards (or are already in) is the question of how the human relates to the non-human. Latour’s critique of modernity has always centred on this problematic relationship and his analyses are naturally productive for understanding the state of our world.

Conceptualising the Earth is one of the many important decisions that ultimately inform much of what we believe. Latour’s use of the term Gaia appears to be an attempt to break us free from an overly simplified view of the Earth:

Gaia names a hypothesis advanced by the chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis; in simplest terms, it suggests that the Earth functions as a living organism that maintains its own homeostasis. The Gaia theory is immensely controversial among scientists, and its label doesn’t help. Named for the Greek earth goddess, Gaia suggests an insight arrived at by a stoned hippie communing with Mother Earth rather than a data-driven analysis. Nor does Lovelock’s prose convey scientific objectivity: he frequently suggests that Gaia is a semi-conscious being actively manipulating “her” own conditions in order to achieve the right balance—turning up the oxygen here, turning down the temperature there. Against Lovelock’s many critics, Latour has become his greatest defender. Gaia, after all, is a theory entirely in line with what he has long argued: that agency is not confined to humans alone. “The Earth’s behavior is inexplicable without the addition of the work accomplished by living organisms,” Latour observes. “The Earth ought to be like Mars, a dead star. It is not.” Why not? Because the actions of millions of organisms, from amoebas to woolly mammoths to sequoias to humans, have shaped the very geology and atmosphere so significantly as to make the Earth a qualitatively different kind of planet than Mars or Venus.

It seems trite to say, but a fundamental breakthrough is to become aware that humanity is a part of a broader system:

On this planet, what we humans do matters immensely—but not simply because we mold the world as we choose, exerting our will upon matter and seeing our dreams made manifest. Rather, what we do affects what everything else does. We are constantly manipulating our environment, but so too are the earthworms in the soil, the plankton in the sea. Without them we would not only not have, say, trees and dolphins—we would not have an atmosphere or oceans at all.


If the Earth is reacting to what we do all the time, Latour argues, we must figure out how to react to it in turn rather than fruitlessly attempting to control it. We must figure out how to conduct our collective lives in a way that represents all these agents. This, he thinks, means reimagining what we expect from politics. The future long envisioned by modernists has been cut short by the prospect of looming apocalypse, and we no longer know what kind of future we should want.

Neither globalisation nor localism will be able to resolve these issues:

The vision of the economy pushed by globalization’s boosters is simply not compatible with the actual earth we live on. It would take too many planets for everyone to live as global capitalism promises. The Local, meanwhile, is too narrow, focused on provincial concerns rather than looking at the vast complexity of the Earth. The old projects of either advancing globalization or retreating from it are thus equally fantastical.

Latour calls for a “third attractor”, an additional dimension that politics must attend to, in order to account for the coherence and interdependence of the human and non-human:

By this [ie, the “third attractor,] Latour means the planet Earth in all its material reality, though he rejects the terms Earth, Nature, Land, and World—too planetary, too expansive, too ambiguous, and too prosaic—in favor of “the Terrestrial.” The Terrestrial, Latour argues, is not simply the backdrop for “geopolitics,” as the globe has become, but—classic Latour—“an agent that participates fully in public life.” As the seas rise and fires burn, the land is “occupying us.” Nature is no longer a distant ecosystem that we can choose to care about or not, but terrestrial: what is now threatened is the very ground beneath our feet.

Just as the dichotomy between globalisation and localism is unable to capture the eco-political problems that we face, politics should not have to choose between liberation and environmentalism:

But why should we have to pick either the social question or the climate crisis? According to Latour, we don’t. “We don’t have to choose between workers’ wages and the fate of some little birds,” he admonishes, “but between two types of worlds in which there are both workers’ salaries and little birds, but associated differently in the two contexts.”

How then should we react? One of the concerns that emerges clearly above is the issue of representation, which is met by Latour’s politics — somewhat formalist and procedural, his proposals focus on some form of congress that will allow various interests to be represented, including non-human interests as well:

So what exactly are Latour’s politics? He usually describes himself as a liberal, and his language—of “public things,” “Dingpolitiks,” “bicameral collectives”—suggests an understanding of politics as parliamentary. Facing Gaia (published in France in 2015) ends by describing a simulation of an alternative process for international climate negotiations where “Land,” “Ocean,” and “Endangered Species” are represented alongside China, the Maldives, and France. Next to his sweeping rhetoric about an entirely new politics, it seems rather tame. But Latour has long been fascinated by Carl Schmitt, the Nazi jurist and one of liberalism’s most scathing critics. He likes to invoke Schmitt’s fundamental question: who is your friend, and who is your enemy? And like Schmitt, Latour believes that politics goes all the way down—that there is no foundation of truth or right on which to ultimately rest one’s appeals. […]

In fact, who Latour often sounds like is Chantal Mouffe, another thinker who has sought to revive Schmitt for a post-Marxist left. Since the 1980s, Mouffe has sought to describe a political subject that can replace the Marxist proletariat, suggesting that left collectives must be radically democratic and “anti-essentialist,” forged out of disparate social concerns rather than a taken-for-granted universalism (“workers of the world, unite!”). Latour, in turn, imagines collectives so non-essentialist that they can include nonhumans, and pays a surprising amount of attention to the process by which they might be composed. What Latour has in recent years called “compositionism” aims to rebuild a common world that has been almost demolished. It is a project that “takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered.

Battistoni summarises,

What he offers, then, is not a program (“no political lie is more brazen than proposing a program”) but a method. Radical humility is called for, he argues: no one has faced climate change before; no society has ever existed alongside 9 billion other people who share a planet and a world. We must start not from a position of certainty but by describing the world differently: by describing where we live, with who, and what we need to live there. By looking at the world anew, perhaps we can begin to see it in common.

This, she feels, is inadequate. In many ways, she argues, Latour’s politics is naïve — he is “curiously unsophisticated” about the dynamics of power — and the process to reach the formation of “non-essentialist” collectivities may well require some of the tools that he eschews. And that is all probably true. The barriers that have been put up between the interests of people and the land, the dichotomies that are drawn between progress and nature, the imbalances between the North and the South (broadly speaking), are all hurdles that prevent the kind of descriptive work that Latour calls for.

What struck me in Latour’s politics is that idea that the non-human should be represented, so that the voiceless can be given a voice. This form of representation can concretise the interests of these other integral elements of the ecosystem, of Gaia, without which human beings would never have been able to live. Some connections may be made to:

  1. Legal theories which ascribe standing and rights to non-human objects: see eg Christopher Stones, Should Trees Have Standing?, that is, legal standing (locus standi);
  2. Theological views of mankind’s responsibilities vis—á-vis the non-human: see eg the Sabbath commandment that extends to the animals and beasts. Consider also Adam’s role in cultivating the Garden and caring for the animals.
  3. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s idea in Ribblesdale that man is Earth’s eye, tongue and heart: “And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, heart else, where / Else, but in dear and dogged man?”

Engaging with Catholicism

This article in First Things by Onsi A Kamel, “Catholicism Made Me Protestant”, has been making the rounds. I leave it here without comment, because the entire thing deserves careful reading. This story is one that is close to my heart as I’ve traversed many of the same areas as Kamel has.