Monday, September 3, 2012

On the Politics of Latour - Reflections on the Things of Nature, Nature of Things

As Sarah Nuttall noted, panelists Annie Leatt, Daniel Roux, Meg Samuelson, Mandla Langa and Hylton White addressed the “nature of things” in many different registers: the sociological, the autobiographical, the literary and the (explicitly) theoretical. I focus here on some of the issues that two of these speakers raised, that returned me, in different ways, to theorizing from the South, conflicts in reading Latour, and the ambiguities in the “objects” and “natures” that concern non-subject-centered thinkers.

In the closing lecture of the panel, Hylton White expressed his dissatisfaction with Bruno Latour’s analytic effects in the humanities. Latour’s mistake, for White, lay in the idea that in “fetishism”, the subject is casting her representation onto things. As White argued, fetishism for Marx (and for critical theory) is a fetishism of commodities: it is not a general fetishism of “objects”, but a specific form of fetishism, in a specific –capitalist –context.
Quite unexpectedly, White’s critique of Latour took me back to a conversation with a friend in my hometown in India last summer. This friend and I had both recently proceeded from the Sociology department at JNU (Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi) to Euro-American universities; she joined the PhD program at the University of Heidelberg and I joined the New School. Our interactions with graduate students had led both of us to conclude that Latour was read in the Northern university context in a very different way than he was read in our university context in India. In the Northern academy, we thought, Latour was too often depoliticized, with Latourian approaches conceiving of the ‘agency of materials’ as if in a political vacuum, “distributing” agency between subjects and objects at the cost of attending to the power relations between subjects.[1]
In reflecting on this, what interested me was that White’s critique of Latour –his suggestion that when it comes to theorizing objects, it is necessary to pay attention to specificity, to the specific political and cultural contexts in which humans have specific relations with specific objects –bore a resemblance to many an Indian graduate student’s critique of Northern Latourians. At the same time, I was also struck by the divergence in the two contexts in how Latour’s work itself was read. Was there something, apart from the historical particularities of different academic cultures, that allowed for this quite stark difference in the reading of this particular author? 
To read Latour as if he himself pays no attention to broader political context is, I personally think, to misread him: The Latour of We Have Never Been Modern does call for an attention to networks of subjects and objects keeping in mind their political environment. Suggestions of this can be found in his discussion of the possibility of the creation of dangerous hybrids with consequences that the ‘moderns’ refuse to account for in the process of their innovation (exhibit: perhaps the hole in the ozone-layer itself) (see Latour 1993, 41), the modernist conceptualization of the ‘premoderns’ (part 4 of the text), and the endeavour to establish a ‘nonmodern constitution’ (138), that challenges “the great narrative of the West” (112) and guarantees that “the production of hybrids, by becoming explicit and collective, becomes the object of an enlarged democracy that regulates or slows down its cadence” (141, my emphasis).
At the same, what I think does allow for a reading of Latour as if he were politically vacuous is a central ambiguity in his own text: his tendency, throughout We Have Never Been Modern, to conflate ‘nature’ with ‘objects’, and the ‘subject’ with ‘society’. It is this conflation that I think makes it possible for a certain strand of Latourians to speak of  nature/object and subject/society –terms that have been falsely rendered synonymous in absolute abstraction, allowing for a vehement but extremely vague invocation of the ‘agency of things’. It seems that in post-Latour social science, even the staunchest critics of the nature-culture binary effect a different kind of categorical confusion in equating “nature” with “things”; so that even Achille Mbembe, in his incisive introductory lecture, critiqued in one sentence the “separation between us and nature, us and things”.
It is, finally, in this context that Annie Leatt’s talk, opening the panel, was particularly instructive. Through her interest in secularization and her ethnographic examples (deforestation and the ecology monks in Thailand; Jae Rhim Le, the Korean “scientist-artist” who thinks of the effect of the toxification of the human body on the environment)  Leatt makes a case for theorizing “nature” and “objects” together, instead of assuming a synonymity between them.  
Marx, one of the “moderns” that Latour critiqued and that Hylton White then used to critique Latour, was exceptionally careful in working out the relations between the subject, the object and nature. “Nature”, in Marx’s work, is both human nature and the external environment, and it is through his theory of labour and estrangement, particularly in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts, that he shows us how (for him) they are connected.  If we are to think seriously about the “future of nature”- if we are to know the future of which “nature” we are talking about, rather than using the term to allude either to “objects” writ large or to an abstract, external environment –then it is to these kinds of connections, to the particular meaning of particular terms, in particular political situations, that we need to attend.  It is this that Leatt and White, in their otherwise very distinct discussions of their very distinct concerns, managed together to suggest.
Katyayani Dalmia

[1] Take, for example, the very popular 2005 essay on the North American blackout by Jane Bennett, where Bennett attempts to “distribute” agentive capacity, including the capacity for political transformation, between subjects and objects {“…though human reflexivity is indispensable for transforming political life, on many occasions and in a variety of ways the efficacy of political change is not a function of humans alone…effective agency is always an assemblage (Bennett 2005, 454)} Bennett is sensitive to the question of power, and to the critique that allowing for the agency of objects may undermine the political responsibility of subjects. And, she does specifically observe that “power is not equally distributed across the assemblage” (ibid, 445). Nevertheless, there is nothing in her method that in fact, allows for an accounting of the effect of this differential distribution of power {What, for instance, would Latour-inspired approaches such as Bennett’s make of gender?}