Thursday, June 05, 2003

Reading:: War of the Worlds:

Originally posted: Thu, 05 Jun 2003 01:48:00

War of the Worlds: What About Peace?
by Bruno Latour

War of the Worlds is a little pamphlet Latour published in the wake of 9/11, although much of it is based on essays written before the tragedy. It's hopeful. He wants to see this tragedy as a wake-up call, as a way for us to recognize that we are at war -- a war that, he contends, has been waged for a while but that the West has not acknowledged. Once we recognize this war, he says, we can possibly negotiate a peace.

The real value of the book is Latour's examination of ethnocentrism and multiculturalism (two sides of the same coin -- a familiar pattern in Latour's writing). He critiques them strongly, arguing that they rely on the notion that there is one nature but many cultures. That's a notion that the West has embraced, he says, and ultimately both Western ethnocentrism and Western multiculturalism assume that the one Nature is best apprehended by Western ways of knowing. We might appreciate that another culture believes differently about its gods, creation myths, you name it -- but deep down we believe that our methods have allowed us to see Nature more clearly than they. That, Latour says, is not only corrosive but from an ontological viewpoint, inaccurate.

Then we get into the problem of the book. Latour is very attached to democracy and democratic dialogue, as am I, and he wants to use democratic dialogue to negotiate a truce in this once-hidden, now revealed war of cultures. Great. Here's a passage discussing the shape these negotiations might take:

Take the case of religion, which, even more than Science, has to do with earlier, premature modernist projects to unify the planet. Can a positive constructionism be applied in this instance? Might not the nearly fanatical attachment to the non-constructed character of the unity of God be largely a response to the unifying role of nature, which the negotiations have agreed to limit? If the latter becomes negotiable, why not the former too? Do we mandate the diplomats to dare to say, for instance, of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that he is well or badly constructed? .... Why not use [the discourse of fabrication] positively, and reformulate, in the company of the others, the question of the right ways of constructing good divinities? Would we not have here, instead of a hypothetical 'inter-religious dialogue,' a more fruitful and even technical exchange of procedures? The all powerful already existing absolute God sends his devout to holy war, but what about the relative God which might be unified in the slowly constructed future? (pp.45-46)

The quote is shocking, as I'm sure Latour meant it to be, but it also strikes me as naive. Whether there is a war of the worlds or not, those who created the event that frames this booklet were in important ways quite modernist -- well educated, literate (more so than most US citizens), schooled in the sciences and technologies. And their ideology -- this is the important part -- was also quite Western, owing as much to fascist ideologies of the last century as they do to Islam. They bought into modernism as much as the Western world did. (To borrow a mandate from Latour's earlier work: Follow the actors! Follow the texts!) And the notion of renegotiating God with hostile parties would not set well with them or even with non-modern non-Westerners. You'll find quite a few Western diplomats willing to negotiate in Latour's terms, but who will they negotiate with?

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