Sunday 9 February 2014

Latour on why international negotiations on the environment fail; redefining territory for Gaia-politics

The audio quality is not great (don't just film that microphone, use it!) but here's an interesting little bit from Latour giving three reasons why international negotiations, such as the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, fail.

First, because of the separation of science and politics; second, because the issues involved don't exist at a single spatial scale; third, mountains, glaciers, rivers, etc. have no real political standing in negotiations. The basic point seems to be that traditional representational political regimes can no longer deal with the issues that concern them, that twenty-first century politics are radically different to those of the past century and need an altogether different political theory.

The solution (or part of a solution), as detailed elsewhere (in French), is to redefine territory not as a bounded plot of the Earth's surface that's calculated, owned and guarded by a state but conceived in network-terms as all those attachments that are necessary for any entity to exist. These tangles of attachments are the proper referents of geo-politics qua Gaia-politics, Latour claims, and a new representational regime is required in order to deal with these issues that lack simple location (to borrow Whitehead's term).

While I think that this is all very interesting and provocative I have numerous problems with these ideas, not least the reduction of political questions to finding the correct design for the representational apparatus.  If only we could figure out the right forum, the argument seems to go, then all these problems could be settled.  But the most beautifully crafted platform in the world is for naught if we don't look at why some agents have such loud voices and others are silent, why some are so strident and others so stifled. Secondly, while territorial, state-based political apparatuses are easy to criticise and find inadequate they're much more difficult to think around or beyond. Indeed, Latour's own work presupposes the state as a political backdrop/guarantor/calculative-mechanism-among-others.

It all comes back, I think, to questions of force. Even if the proper institutions can be designed and their means of representation (in all senses of the word) invented what will give them the capacity to decide? And in asking that question we're drawn straight back from geo-politics qua Gaia-politics to geopolitics as it has been more traditionally understood ‒ questions of power, authority, sovereignty and violence raise their ugly heads again.

Latour has spent his whole career trying to ignore these kinds of questions but the deeper he delves into the political the less justifiable this aversion becomes. Now he is talking of geopolitics and territory (even if these terms are defined somewhat idiosyncratically) I think these issues have become truly unavoidable.

Marx, Weber, Schmitt, Foucault and all those theorists of the 'old' politics (as Latour would have it) are beating at the door of cosmopolitics! Perhaps it is time to let them in.