Saturday 7 June 2014

Geopolitics and varieties of soil

In Latour's recent Gifford Lectures he attempts to redefine geopolitics as the politics of the Earth itself, the central premiss of this being that we must learn to understand the 'soil' to which we are attached and then to find ways of defending that soil. He does not, of course, mean 'soil' literally or straight-forwardly; certainly not reactionarily:
To insist on the soil is to be reactionary in the old way—appealing to ‘Blut und Boden.’ Reactionaries of all hues and colours have always insisted on how criminal it was to attempt to leave the ancient land, to abandon the old soil, to forget the limits of the old nomos, to be emancipated and cosmopolitan. (108)
Although Latour channels Carl Schmitt extensively he does not want to go back to that horrendous, reactionary geopolitics of yore.
[...] there might be another meaning to being attached to the old soil, this time to the Earth. (108)
Our 'soil' is everything that we need to survive; it's also the air that we breathe and the climate that we perturb. However, the actual soil itself is also part of our 'soil.' George Monbiot points to how certain farming methods are literally washing Britain into the sea and how the land-owner lobby in the UK has utterly captured its own regulatory apparatus, making matters worse and more stupid by the day.
The people who got this directive ditched claim to love their country. But they’ve ensured that it will continue to run down the rivers and into the sea. You want to get Britain out of Europe? Well how about ensuring that our soils stop ending up on the coastlines of France and Holland and Germany?
This is an interesting confluence of political imagery and an extremely apt issue for considering a post-Natural politics that is resolutely not post-national.

We have certainly come a long way since the days of General Haushofer (from The Geopolitics Reader, p.33):
While the theoretical foundations of Geopolitik were laid only in recent times, its practical application—the instinctive sense for geopolitical possibilities, the realization of its deep influence on political development—is as old as history itself. Geopolitical vision inspired daring leaders who guided their people along novel never-before-travelled roads. Powerful new states emerged because their creators, with the sensitivity of the true statesman, understood the geopolitical demands of the hour. Without such insight, violence and arbitrariness would have charted the course of history. Nothing with lasting value could have been created. All structures of state which might have been erected would sooner or later have crumbled into dust and oblivion before the eternal forces of soil and climate.
To be sure, the powerful will of a great and strong man may tear masses and nations away from soil-bound existence into roads other than nature had provided for them. But such actions are short-lived. In the end every people will sink back into its accustomed ways; its lasting earthbound traits will eventually win out.
Neither the soil nor the climate can be taken for granted; much less can their immutability found the dark dreams of imperial domination—that very dream of imperial supremacy, oriented towards 'nature,' has shattered its own illusion. It is indeed time for a new politics of the soil—but also of the air and the sea and ecosystems and so on. A geopolitics finally worthy of the name—of both sides of the name, geo and politics.

Haushofer committed suicide with his wife in 1946; supposedly he died under a tree, clutching the very Bavarian soil that he so cherished. At the end of the film Gravity, the protagonist clutches the sludgy earth she has landed on between her exhausted, trembling fingers. There are whole galaxies between these two relations to the soil—the departure and the return.

Latour's geopolitics is overly naive in the sense that it doesn't engage with historical (or disciplinary) geopolitics in any way; he simply appropriates the phrase and moves on. This isn't good enough. However, I think that his project is an important one. The soil, in the literal sense, is both the cherished basis of the worst kinds of geopolitics from the past and is, evidently, not something that even a powerful state can simply rely on at present. It is a case that this 'new' geopolitics must somehow pass.

Philosophy-wise I'm quite interested in how Peter Sloterdijk's work can be brought into this debate. Latour dedicated his Gifford Lectures to Sloterdijk and his ideas abound throughout the series. While very different thinkers in some ways their work meshes remarkably well.