Bruno Latour died in October, aged 75, without a proper species classification. L’Obs described him as a sociologist; Le Monde praised his distinguished career in sociology, anthropology and philosophy. To some, political theory was another of his accomplishments, though he wasn’t so sure. He called what he did ‘anthropology of science’ and sometimes ‘science studies’. By the 1980s, he was associated with the burgeoning field of science and technology studies, an interdisciplinarian with a keen interest in ‘ecology’ – a word he liked, though his sense of it became more narrow as the effects of global heating grew more pronounced. In Latour’s most recent work to appear in English, On the Emergence of an Ecological Class, written with Nikolaj Schultz and published after his death, ecology is more or less synonymous with environmental activism; you could even think of it as a programme. But not all his writing is so easy to follow. He can be perfectly clear as he leads you through a complicated exposition, yet opaque when the argument seems plain sailing. There are passages that read like coded text in the satchel of a worn-out courier: he has crossed mountains and forded rivers to carry the message to its destination but forgotten parts of the cipher along the way. His last works are elusive and magnificent by turns, as he tries to get his bearings in the fog of climate change.
Latour’s first resounding success, co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar, was Laboratory Life (1979), a close-up study of applied science. The lab in question was at the Salk Institute, where Roger Guillemin, an endocrinologist, had been at work on a project that later earned him a Nobel with his rival Andrew Schally for ‘discoveries concerning the peptide hormone production of the brain’. Latour embedded himself in Guillemin’s lab, describing his research ‘as analogous with that of an intrepid explorer in Ivory Coast … living with tribespeople, sharing their hardships … almost becoming one of them’, and eventually returning from the field ‘with a body of observations’. Guillemin’s tribespeople emerged with reliable results that Latour never disputed, even if he kept asking how the ‘facts’ of science were constituted.
From the start, he saw the laboratory as a space with a history and a social context, rather than a hermetic capsule where scientific truth could bring itself into existence: ‘hard’ science was no different in the end from any other intellectual activity. Over and above the business of growing cell cultures and isolating molecules, ‘the main objective of their activity’, the lab workers told him, was the publication of scientific papers. Latour ploughed his way through these ‘inscriptions’ only to find that the ‘facts’ themselves were better described as ‘claims’, while the statements of fact were more like statements endowed with ‘fact-like status’. (Or, as Donna Haraway put it, reviewing the book in 1980, ‘scientific production seems more closely to resemble exegesis than discovery.’) ‘What processes operate,’ Latour wondered, ‘to remove the social and historical circumstances on which the construction of a fact depends?’ In his view, the production of knowledge, in the form of a scientific paper, was part of a negotiating process with other scientists working in the same area – and often a bid for funding.
None of this was ‘history of science’, or even ‘philosophy of science’, which was mostly a matter of indifference to the postwar generation of French thinkers. Foucault was preoccupied by the ‘human sciences’, but less as a philosopher than as a historian of systems of thought who came at them with a radical libertarian parti pris. The most committed analyst of science was Michel Serres, with published works on Leibniz (1968) and Lucretius (1977), and a lifelong preoccupation with scientific ethics. In Éclaircissements (1992), a round of interviews with Serres conducted by Latour, Serres distinguished his ‘intellectual’ interests, shaped by turning points in scientific discovery, from his ‘philosophical’ inquiry into ‘the relation of science to violence’ (he mentioned Hiroshima). He wasn’t sure about the onward march of progress in the sciences and neither was Latour. By the time Éclaircissements appeared, Serres had turned back to an earlier interest in ecology, convinced that humans were not the only species on the planet that should enjoy rights in law. Sooner or later there would have to be a ‘natural contract’ to sit alongside the social contract and end the war humans were waging on nature.
Latour was preparing to take a similar turn. He was already involved in Actor Network Theory (ANT), an open-ended way of thinking that redistributes agency to all the players in the drama of the sciences. As well as the people conducting the study, this includes the disciplines involved (e.g. sociology, biology, ethnology) and the more or less complex technologies to hand (from scribbled field notes to intricate laboratory equipment). All are bound in a skein of relations that we may as well regard as social, except that the social is no longer the proprietary realm of human beings. Crucially, the objects of study themselves must be seen as actors. ANT envisaged interactive networks, in which humans and other creatures – or ‘critters’, as Haraway calls them – were on something like an equal footing. Scientific inquiry had always been conducted de haut en bas; the time had come to converse with its silent objects. For laypeople in an age of species extinction this feels like a crucial shift, yet it’s more often systems and technologies that ANT likes to explore, and it’s difficult to form an accurate picture of the networks if you’re not on the team. I think vaguely of Hegel’s dialectic being the wrong way up and Marx announcing that he had stood it on its feet. But in the ANT model there are so many feet for a dialectic to stand on that it could easily trip over itself. Or run amok. I think next of the sorcerer’s apprentice scene in Disney’s Fantasia (1940), where ‘things’, animated by the science of magic, rapidly get out of control.
Bipeds can get off on the wrong foot if they take Latour too literally. In We Have Never Been Modern (1991), it turns out that we were indeed modern, by dint of aspiration, but that modernity had many unforeseen consequences. Then, too, the riot of agency that ANT whisks into life may only be a way of telling us that the hard sciences and their objects must come to a rapprochement with the humanities and their objects – politics, art, philosophy – in a ‘non-modern’ or ‘a-modern’ truce that makes no firm distinction between the two regimes. Neither prefix quite catches what Latour was driving at. ‘Not modern’ – like Haraway’s preference for ‘not human’ rather than ‘non-human’ – is nearer the mark. (Latour and Haraway were friends; she introduced him to her world-famous dog, Ms Cayenne Pepper.) Postmodernism, Latour argued, remains in thrall to the central claims of modernism and never superseded its parent: instead, it clings to the idea of the human being as the authoritative subject and fails to grasp that subaltern species, assembled under the rubric ‘nature’, fall foul of our recklessness and might have something to say for themselves. Modernity cut the epistemological knot, establishing a crude division between the knowledge of things and the study of human activities (politics, for instance). Postmodernism had no issue with the split. The next step – après-postmodern – was to pick up the severed parts and weave them back into a complex ensemble.
There was a hint in We Have Never Been Modern that science found it hard to converse with the rest of society. If so, whose fault was that? Not Latour’s, surely: he had tried to make the procedures of the hard sciences intelligible to scientists themselves and to the rest of us, though he worried that he could have done more to stand up for the accuracy of scientific facts (he had been misread too often as a science sceptic). But you couldn’t blame science either. Thirty years on from We Have Never Been Modern, Latour and the ‘scientific community’ were faced with an onslaught of social media tribes who saw Covid vaccines – and immunology in general – as experiments at their expense. Climate change denial prepared the ground for this.
Not everyone found Latour convincing. For Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont in Impostures intellectuelles (1997), he was merely a dabbler in the sciences. In Science of Science and Reflexivity (2001), Pierre Bourdieu – his most dedicated critic – scolded him for finding ideas more interesting than knowledge; he called Latour a ‘radical constructionist’. More generally, Latour was faulted for being a relativist and, of course, an empiricist; worse, to his detractors, this was empiricism in a silly hat with a party horn. But he was highly regarded in the Anglosphere, and had a strong francophone following, especially in his late years, when his work was anchored by climate change. In France environmentalist activism – ecology – had taken off in the late 1960s. It had to bide its time before it gained a foothold as a minority party-political movement, and even then at local, regional and European rather than national level. In round one of this year’s French presidentials, the candidate for Europe Écologie Les Verts took 4.7 per cent of the vote. Two months later, in the National Assembly elections, the Ecologist Group (four parties, green and/or left) ended up with 23 out of 577 seats. It wasn’t what Latour had hoped for when he and Schultz addressed their memo on the eve of the campaign to ‘members of ecological parties and their present and future voters’.
Latour had long been intrigued by the Gaia hypothesis and gave it an authoritative role in his Gifford Lectures in 2013, reworked as Facing Gaia (2017): our ideas about ‘nature’ were up for radical review now that we were living in a ‘New Climatic Regime’, an expression he preferred to the Anthropocene or Capitalocene. If Gaia was a delicate system of living organisms constantly shaping their environment, the challenge for science was to go about its work with far more nuance and sense of complexity, a bit like Gaia itself. (ANT, too, seems analogous to the complex system that James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis intuited as they built out their hypothesis in the early 1970s.) The days of the garrulous sciences returning from the field, or the lab, to announce their findings about objects unable to speak for themselves were over. So was the very idea of ‘nature’: it had ceased to serve a useful purpose, Latour began to think, along with the jumble of obsolete attitudes – mystical, quasi-religious or scientific – piled up around it.
As climate change shadowed more and more of his thinking, Latour began to draw up an inventory of possible responses: despair, indifference, militant environmentalism. None was associated with moral qualities: they arose organically from the new climatic regime, which was bringing about a ‘cosmological mutation’ in the way we conceived of ourselves and our place in the world. After Facing Gaia, he was grappling with an immense range of topics, leaving little room for hard sociological content but plenty of scope for politics. In Down to Earth (2018), he argues that we have been captive for years to three simultaneous processes: deregulation by ultra-liberal market regimes, ‘the vertiginous explosion of inequalities’ and ‘systematic’ climate change denial. The ruling classes of the Global North have conspired to abolish a ‘common world’ and the results are ‘driving us crazy’. Brexit and Trump’s withdrawal in 2017 from the Paris Accord were last-ditch moves by wealthier countries to barricade themselves against the effects of the present climatic regime.
Migration is one big consequence. The urge to shut down free movement across borders has reset us as homeland fundamentalists with grave misgivings about globalisation, even though we’re happy to pick and choose the ‘global’ goods that take our fancy. For migrants from former colonies, moving to Europe is in Latour’s view a reciprocal right, derived from the period in which metropolitan bureaucracies and white settler populations fanned out in the wake of conquest. At the same time, inward migration to Europe makes it possible for us to imagine a new path through climate-degradation for the ‘Old Continent’. Europe, Latour believes, must become a ‘refuge’ not only for incomers displaced by history, conflict and global heating, but for Europeans themselves. Its wildlife populations, fauna and flora, are already undertaking internal migrations as earlier habitats wither; humans will not be far behind. ‘Our only way out’, Latour believes, is to discover ‘in common what land is inhabitable and with whom to share it’. That ‘whom’, by the way, is generously inclusive of human migrants: the possibility that further large-scale migration to Europe might be a violent process is never spelled out.
For Latour the big three – inequality, climate denial and the restless migration of species – were primarily evidence of climate catastrophe. They also blurred the vista of modernisation and ‘economisation’ that Europe and the US had found so transfixing. Trumpism sharpened an insurmountable contradiction between the desire to go local and the urge to press on as selective globalisers into the ‘unreality’ of globalisation. But the ‘infinite horizon’ of globalisation was already curtailed, while the haven of the local was prey to chauvinist fantasies and no guarantee against extreme weather events. In Latour’s symptomatic reading, the Trump administration was ‘the first government totally oriented towards the ecological question’, in a spectacular performance of climate change denial that announced the unspeakable thing – ‘backwards, negatively’ – by attempting to close off its many contingencies, migration above all. For Latour this wasn’t just ‘post-truth’, it was ‘post-politics – that is, literally, a politics with no object, since it rejects the world that it claims to inhabit.’
Trump has come and not quite gone; a lot of climate change denial has been hurried out through the service entrance, but during Trump’s term in office Latour sharpened his sense of ‘allies’ and ‘enemies’. His main enemy is the fossil fuel industry, but he notes that in the heyday of coal it was easier to know your adversaries and take them on: miners blocked production, families came out in support, railway workers refused to load the product. Oil and gas extraction at home takes place in well-guarded sites with downsized workforces; overseas deposits are exploited by expatriate engineers operating in oil-rich, ‘corruptible’ regimes. ‘Visible with coal,’ Latour wrote, ‘the enemies have become invisible with oil.’ It’s an anachronistic comparison at first sight, but for Latour the two struggles, one of them against the exploitation of human labour, the other against the race to habitat destruction, are inscribed in the long unfolding of modernity, which we shall have to exit as austere, imaginative non-postmoderns.
No sooner is it raised, however, than the notion of environmentalism as embryonic class struggle is eclipsed by a larger sense that climate change has cut the ground from under humans. In Down to Earth, we’re airborne. The question, as we circle, isn’t just where to put down, but how. The landing, Latour said elsewhere, must place us ‘inside’ the world we believed we stood apart from as a discrete species. We will have to broaden ‘the notion of the social to include non-humans’. A ‘new type of composite people’, he argued, can ‘fight against their condition’. If this seems like another Disney animation in which we’re marching shoulder to shoulder with the ghost of Haraway’s dog (sadly deceased), we can always try to see it as a conversation along the lines set out in We Have Never Been Modern: humans whose immediate survival depends on the rainforest speak in its defence, those who depend on stable temperatures and low acidity levels in the oceans speak for marine life, and so on. I could be wrong: in his last books Latour skimps on the practicalities of his omni-species call to insurrection.
But the image in Down to Earth that has us turning in thin air remains very powerful. Of course we know we’re in a fatal holding pattern; of course we know the cabin crew are running out of ways to keep us entertained. But where do we touch down? We can no longer land in an idealised ‘global’ configuration, Latour argues, since there won’t be a planet in good enough shape ‘to host the dream of globalisation’. Nor can we land in the broken idyll of the local, which is already a site of blood and soil conservatism at the heart of the nation-state with its superannuated rules about who may or may not belong. Latour’s shorthand answer is that we must make our turbulent descent into what he calls ‘the Terrestrial’, a space we will discover and invent as we come to terms with other species along with (some of) our fellow humans.
On the way down, we should think about what we need and what we could live without. This means drawing up lists of essentials. What can’t we forego? The answers depend on who we are. We might say simply food and water, a roof over our heads, medical care, a judiciary, breathable air, internet access, a future for our children if we have them. Someone else might want to add a mosque, a church, a library, a concert hall, transactable air miles or a World Cup in 2026. A catalogue of needs, in Latour’s view, would be the basis of negotiation in each community that touches down and brings the new Terrestrial into existence. If that sounds like a rejig of the local, Latour’s point, presumably, is that all kinds of people on the move will have to land together. Again, the possibility of negotiations giving way to violence isn’t raised.
Down to Earth was followed this year by After Lockdown. Here the emphasis is on the productive labour of non-human life forms: anything (I’m guessing again) from viruses, through insects, vermin, charismatic wildlife species, peat deposits and ocean ecologies to icecaps. Even in adversity, these entities build and adapt with such energy that we should think of nature not as an organic ‘outside’ but an immense 24/7 project of ‘manufacture’ that has kept our space, as well as theirs, in habitable shape. But After Lockdown is framed by a disturbing allegory: we wake one morning to discover, like Gregor Samsa, that we’ve been turned into insects, and there’s no way back to being unambiguously human. We must ready ourselves for a different future. At last humans can take stock of their shared habitat (much reduced) and their acute isolation. In Latour’s account, the Covid lockdowns made Gregors of us all: we underwent a kind of trans-speciation and were becoming hybrid beings. Latour was trying to flag the urgent need for human adaptation – maybe also for equality of species – under the new climatic regime, but unwittingly he talked us into pessimism of the will as well as the intellect. Who wants to be a human bug on its carapace with its legs gesturing at impending catastrophe?
On the Emergence of an Ecological Class revisits much of Latour’s earlier thinking, including the possibility, raised in Down to Earth, that environmental activism could become a form of class struggle. In the new book, he and Schultz explore this idea more urgently. ‘Marx,’ they write, ‘remains an indispensable guide,’ but if ‘the production and reproduction of human beings alone’ destroy the material conditions on which human societies (and class struggle) depend, there will have to be a new materialism that encourages them to take up ‘engendering’ practices. Latour had used this term before. Engendering, it seems, is roughly everything that old industrial and current modes of production have failed to do. ‘Living things’, he and Schultz remind us, have engendered everything around us: ‘climate, atmosphere, soil and ocean’. In other words, balanced planetary ecologies tell us all we need to know about engendering. Still uncertain, I turned to an interview from 2018 in which Latour summarised engendering as the wish ‘to generate, grow, cultivate and care for everything from food to animals and soils’. History, he added, offers precedents for a politics of engendering. Feminism has stood its ground on issues of human reproduction and the right to choose. Global anti-racism was engendering because it was always pitted against non-engendering processes (discrimination, obviously, but also land expropriation). So was the industrial proletariat, Schultz and Latour argue, even though it claimed a share of the profits from non-engendering forms of production. Postcolonial movements that focus on the legacy of colonialism and extraction are engendering by definition; they’re also key contributors to a putative ‘ecological class’.
Engendering habits, the theory runs, enable humans to forge alliances in a virtuous space of dependency with other life forms – Schultz and Latour call it an ‘apprenticeship in dependence’. Humans will learn to defend the precarious planetary habitat built by non-human species on which our own terrestrial colonies rely. Yet again, we’re urged to take careful stock of what we think is indispensable: without this descriptive ‘groundwork’, the programme of a new, aggressive ecological class will fail to coalesce. But the authors are in no doubt that such a class is taking shape, or that organised labour and the trade unions have handed on the baton. ‘A sign that this take-up has … occurred,’ they write, ‘is that there are now many more ecological activists being assassinated than unionists.’
The way they see it, there’s no shortage of recruits to an ecological class struggle. In wealthier parts of the world, the young regard baby boomers as ‘spoilt, immature teenagers’ and blame them for the fact that ‘the future has been used up in advance.’ Then there are the ‘indigenous peoples – a quarter of a billion of Earth’s inhabitants’, who have borne the brunt of climate change and dispossession (‘indigenous’ is a term Schultz and Latour leave under-explored). Next come ‘large swathes of the intellectual classes’ who doubt ‘the “rationalist” pretensions of the old ruling classes’ – not just earth-systems scientists, but thousands of researchers and academics across the disciplines who are starved of money by reactionary economies of knowledge. And finally, ‘all the activists, militants, people of good will, ordinary citizens, peasants, gardeners … not to mention all those who’ve seen their territory disappear before their very eyes’. In this account, the ecological class is ready to roll. All the same, it leaves you wondering.
In 1996, at a conference of anthropologists in Brazil, Latour was taken aside by a developmental psychologist who asked him whether he believed in ‘reality’. He was worried that Latour was a science denier, even though all Latour had done was to ask how scientific findings were advanced as facts. Latour reassured his interlocutor that they were both on the same page and firmly inside the real. But what page are we on, what world are we in, when we read this new programme for a geosocial struggle whose front lines are thousands of miles apart? Politics is a high ambition of social science and philosophy. It is also a treacherous space where practitioners can become enthusiastic captives to their dreams, like miners and traders inside the Bitcoin bubble. If hope is always the next great opportunity, Latour and Schultz are predictable investors, but they have the wit to hedge their bets – for three reasons.
First, as they admit, there can’t be class struggle until a class war has begun. But this is impossible while the struggle against climate change remains a ‘phoney war’ (their term), in which fossil fuel companies pretend to sue for peace and greenery as they push forward with extraction. (As Laleh Khalili noted in the last issue of the LRB, ‘more than six hundred fossil fuel lobbyists, the most at any COP conference, registered as delegates’ at Sharm El-Sheikh – ‘a quarter more than the year before’, according to the FT.) Second, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has in their view brought a long postwar period in Europe to an end and opened a new interwar period, with further military conflicts in the offing. Unlike the last one, which took class struggle to a pitch, this interwar period may not be conducive to the rise of an ecological class unless it morphs into a warrior protest movement ‘without resorting solely to the militaristic ethos’, which sounds like a tall order. Third, they argue that ‘political ecology’ has so far only succeeded in ‘panicking hearts and minds or making people yawn with boredom’.
Boredom is a greater obstacle than panic, at least in the Global North, but is it fair to blame it on green politics? The accuracy of disaster modelling has made boredom inevitable. Forest fires in Europe and America, drought in Africa, floods in Sindh and Balochistan, the plight of archipelagos in Micronesia were all forecast long ago, and here we are, bang on target. Year after year, environmentalists in the Global South have explained to the Global North that it is threatening the lives of disadvantaged people. Now citizens of the developed world are on the line. And yet all this undoing, as we watch it happen, is obscurely boring: it was in the diary before the turn of the century. Even Mia Mottley, prime minister of Barbados and a hero of COP27, may have felt a twinge of boredom as she repeated the case she’d made in Glasgow last year for ‘loss and damage’ – a win in principle for vulnerable countries, thirty years after the Earth Summit in Rio, but for the moment little more than ‘an empty bucket’, in the words of the journalist and climate activist Mohamed Adow. We’re in no doubt that it will take a miracle to fill it. In fact, there’s nothing anyone can tell us about the politics of climate change that we don’t already think we know, and this is a problem. All the more reason, as Schultz and Latour see it, to build a new class movement – quite possibly the last of its kind.
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