Friday 7 March 2014

Latour's Inquiry into Modes of Existence: A second attempt

I'm just starting to re-read Latour's AIME book for an article that I'm writing. When I get to the chapter on technology [tec] I'm going to write up a short post for the AIME Reading Group, which fell into something of a deep freeze at the end of last year. Presumably most of those who were participating have now finished the book; it'd be nice to get that discussion back on the road as we only covered a small part of the text (and it gets more interesting in the later parts).

Initial (second) impressions of the first few chapters: I'm liking the book a lot more the second time around, now that I know where it's all going. I found it to be a very frustrating read last time. It doesn't really show its hand with regard to its purpose and goals until right at the end and many of the modes are described with such circuitous opacity that I felt like giving up once or twice! It's not just a difficult book, at times it's an exhausting one.

However, having finished the book, and having had several months to mull it over, I think the whole apparatus is actually pretty simple. It's broadly continuous with Latour's previous ANT work in two ways. First, ANT is incorporated in the [net] mode. Secondly, AIME is, as Latour himself puts it, the 'colour version' of ANT, which sees the world only in black and white. AIME turns up the contrast. Where ANT simply and freely traces all the heterogeneous relations and transformations that go into or are implicit in any given event or occasion, deliberately disregarding the form, kind, register, resonance of those relations, AIME demands attentiveness (via the [pre] mode) to the particular ways in which things relate, transform, translate, become, etc. Each mode discerns a particular way of becoming; AIME documents these ways, collaboratively.

Many of the modes ([tec] [ref] [pol] [law] [rel] [org] and [mor], at a minimum) are nothing new to readers of Latour's work; AIME simply gives them an explicit, quasi-systematic framework. The political mode [pol], for instance, is expounded at length in Latour's 2003 article 'What if we talked politics a little?' (published in French in 2002); [ref], meanwhile, is worked out in chapter 2 of Pandora's Hope, in the essay on circulating reference (published in French in 1993).

AIME and ANT aren't really separate projects; ANT is simultaneously prelude, parallel and part with regard to AIME, depending on how you look at it.

I still think that there are a lot of problems with the project but I've warmed to the philosophy and am looking forward to the rest of the re-read.

Monday 3 March 2014

From the Earth/of the Earth; Earthling/Earthbound

Another really interesting post at knowledge-ecology on Kant, Sloterdijk, Whitehead and geocentrism.

I find 'monogeism' to be one of Sloterdijk's most useful coinages.  I don't think it's overstating the point to say that every philosophy must henceforth recognise the profundity of this condition: we are fundamentally bound to one planet, one earth; we are Earthbound, in Latour's terms.

And that very geocentrism is actually a necessary precondition of recognising the brutal indifference of the rest of the universe to us.  Planet Earth in its Gaian understanding is the only speck of existence that's even partially disposed towards our well-being - and its good favour is not guaranteed, indeed it's precarious.

That's not just an ecological or practical truth; any metaphysics that recognises life as something that figures on its register must now see that even if there is life 'out there,' or if, somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos, there is another celestial object that could possibly support life, it doesn't particularly matter.  Even if there are countless inhabited or potentially inhabitable orbs in existence the distance between them is almost certainly so vast that they effectively inhabit separate universes; and even if we find a planet or moon within a useful distance that has just the right mass, chemical composition, day and nighttime temperature, geological stability, shelteredness with regard to asteroids, etc. etc. Gaia-type theories tell us that even all this won't be enough to recreate another Earth.  And, regardless, we're now pressed into a civilisationary timescale where such fantasies as meeting aliens and colonising other planets seem utterly ludicrous and, worse, beside the point.

I think it says a lot that sci-fi is increasingly turning away from the old-school Star Trek groundplan of a lush, teeming universe towards an empty, impersonal universe, even one where the danger comes from exploration itself.  Gravity is an obvious case that springs to mind but there are more.  There are many, many differences between the original Battlestar Galactica and the remake but perhaps the most significant one cosmographically and dramatically is that the latter inhabited a largely empty universe without alien species, creating a feeling that was simultaneously claustro- and agora-phobic as the survivors cling to the insides of life-support systems that are always on the brink of failure.  Even the very Earth-like planet they colonise midway through the series is a harsh place unfit for much in the way of lifemaking.  Dr Who still operates in a lush, teeming universe but it realises a pure escapism; the TARDIS transcends time and space rather than travelling through it; it opts out of our situation rather than working through it.  Danny Boyle's Sunshine is an interesting one, too.  There's a moment when the crew are about to investigate an abandoned ship and are debating whether to split up or stick together; one of them says to another something along the lines of 'what, are you afraid we'll get picked off one by one by aliens?'  Obviously this sends up an old sci-fi cliche but, more than that, it demonstrates how far this universe is from the imaginaries of yore; the perils on which the drama hinges are technological, astronomical, elemental, psychological (and perhaps supernatural) but they are not alien.  Indeed, further on we learn that the central metaphysical question of the film itself (or at least of one of its characters) is that of human consciousness being universally sui generis and, consequently, imminent human extinction meaning the end of all awareness altogether.

It's a very different space we're in, these days.

I suppose it's the difference between being from the Earth and of the Earth; from being an Earthling and being Earthbound.