Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Reading:: Politics of Nature

Originally posted: Tue, 20 Apr 2004 09:04:39

Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy

by Bruno Latour

"To keep this book to a reasonable length," Latour says of his latest book in its introduction, "I have said little about the field studies on which it has been based." I was disappointed to see this. Like other commentators, I miss Latour's field studies from his earlier books (Science in Action, Laboratory Life, The Pasteurization of France, Aramis) and have been less interested in the more generally philosophical bent of his later work (We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora's Hope, War of the Worlds). Although I have found much to admire in these later works, I really like having solid book-length studies to nail down the points. So it was with mixed feelings that I took this book out of the Amazon.com box and began reading.

The book did grow on me. It very much continues the work of the later Latour books, especially Pandora's Hope, with its talk of Parliaments of Things and the modernist Constitution. Like Pandora's Hope, Politics of Nature takes the principle of symmetry to the level of politics. It attempts to answer the question: What do we do about modernism?

Modernism, according to Latour, is based on the fable of the Cave. You remember the one, the story that Plato spun about how human beings are metaphorically chained in a cave our whole lives, forced to face the back wall, where all we can see is the shadows of the real things held up at the mouth of the cave. Not knowing any better, we take these shadows to be the real thing. This fable isn't just the basis for a lot of speculative fiction (from Nine Princes in Amber to The Matrix) but also, Latour asserts, for the current separation between Society and Nature. We are all trapped in Society, the modern version of this fable asserts, and here we engage in politics, speculate, and wallow in our own subjectivity. A few of us, the fable asserts, can apprehend objective Nature through Science, and those people can bring insights back from it into Society. These insights are called facts.

The separation rests on several assumptions, and I'll go over just a few. One is that we can and should separate people on one side and things on the other. Another is that there may be several cultures (multiculturalism), but they all live in and interact with the same reality (mononaturalism). A third is that nature does not speak -- it is silent -- and so scientists must speak for it. Ingeniously, Latour makes an enormously difficult argument: all of these separations are not just demonstrably false, they are ludicrous on their very face!

He pulls it off.

By the end of the book, Latour has argued passionately and convincingly that the Nature-Society division -- in political terms, a bicameral political body in which one side (Nature) is silenced so that Science can speak for it, and the other side (Society) is allowed to speak freely but is always trumped by these pronouncements made on behalf of nature -- is essentially faulty. In fact, Latour says, the arrangement only works because the Moderns do the opposite of what they say: science (with a small "s" this time) has always functioned as a sort of speech prosthesis, a way of setting up a series of trials that allow nonhumans to speak for themselves. With a slight twist, Latour says, we can come up with a workable bicameral separation in which one house takes into account ("How many are we? What goes into our collective?") and the other house arranges in rank order ("Can we live together? Can the collective hold?").

Yes, this sounds loopy. Read the book. This is Latour's most ambitious and detailed attempt yet to grapple with the question of how Nature and Society interact -- the question that (judging by the examples he provides) has often been phrased as invitations for him to jump out the window and see how socially constructed gravity is. Clearly scientific facts are "constructed," constructivists say: look at the historical record, look at how we used to believe X where now we believe Y. But clearly scientific facts exist apart from us, empiricists reply: we live in a common world and gravity is in force whether you "construct" it or not. Latour's ingenious solution is to make gravity an interlocutor, to give it the opportunity to speak for itself in this collective of humans and nonhumans, and to continually be ready to negotiate what constitutes this collective, who or what we should let in and take into account, what should be related.

Latour says in the Introduction that the book's argument proceeds like the tortoise rather than the hare, and now I can see why. It's almost impossible to summarize coherently. But it's also almost impossible to put down.

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