Monday 19 January 2015

"We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks."—Latour in Le Monde

In an op-ed to appear in Le Monde tomorrow (and somehow already available in English translation courtesy of Tim Howles), Bruno Latour waxes polemical on the Charlie Hebdo murders:
We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks. Yes, we’ve received a wound, but not one that has come from the outside. After all, can it be said that those who marched, with good reason, in protest at the crimes committed by these murderers have never in turn acclaimed the ‘necessary sacrifices’ that have been imposed upon us all by ‘the inevitable march of modernisation’, even if this also had to involve violence? 
If we are to declare war, then, it must be declared against ourselves. After all, what is the origin of the dream (even if it is a dream that long since turned into a nightmare)? It has always had the same source, a source that has not yet run dry: it comes from certain people who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough. We will not be able to fight against these new criminals until we understand that, behind their archaic appearance, they are above all fanatical modernizers. 
As Eric Voegelin has shown, modernity begins in earnest when religion loses its uncertainty and becomes the realization on earth of that which should be kept for the beyond. The modernizer is one who is convinced that he can achieve the goals of religion by means of politics. But eventually, as once again Voegelin has shown, religion is cast aside: all that remains is politics – whether of the left or of the right – claiming for itself the absolute certainty borrowed from a religion that did not possess it.
These arguments are not altogether new for Latour. Indeed, he writes much the same thing in his 2002 pamphlet War of the Worlds: What about Peace? However, this is, I think, the most direct, angry and really quite bluntly pointed political text that he has written to date.

But if modernity begins with the fateful crossing of depluralised religion with violent transcendence then at what precise juncture was modernity inaugurated? To insist upon the historicity of a thing is not, in itself, to historicise it. So, when then? Was it with what Jan Assmann (who Latour cites extensively in his Gifford Lectures) calls 'The Mosaic Distinction' roughly 3,400 years ago?

It is a strange kind of modernity that predates Christ by a millennium and a half. Such a modernity could not be understood as an historical period but rather as an ongoing project, criss-crossing, demolishing and overlapping with all sorts of others. Less a segment of time than a mode of being...

In this case then Islamism and colonialism would be scarcely periodically distinguishable, practically concurrent (and existentially joined at the hip). The distinguishing feature of colonialism would be its more direct entanglement with another historical, or rather geohistorical, period around three times the length of the post-Mosaic era: the Holocene (c. 11,700 years BP).

So Latour concludes:
For ultimately, while the jihadists threaten us with apocalypse, they hardly seem to notice that another apocalypse is looming, compared to which, just like their predecessors, they have no weapons at all.
Turf-wars, Earth-wars, wars of the most pathetic gods—facing their true enemies is seemingly a luxury that human collectives of all sorts refuse to afford themselves.

It is quite a burden on the reckoning, this geopolitical landscape. Concrete chunks of time measuring in the thousands and tens of thousands of years sit alongside the most fragile and exact ethnographies; continent-spanning industrial infrastructures and planet-circling satellite networks abut polite dinner table conversations and the most horrific flesh-splaying bullet scatter as if 'the collapsing of space' had simplified precisely nothing. It is a crushing, tragic vista. Not quite 'inexplicable' but, undeniably, an explanation would be beside the point.

Not to see 'the whole' but to see enough of all the most relevant parts and to make sense of most of them. Every version I've seen yet has been too exclusive, or has excluded the wrong parts in one way or another. But there is something here—a need, at least.

Fernand Braudel once spoke of the "desire and need to see on a grand scale." Draped in the indulgences of his culture and ensconced in the security of his leather-bound centre of calculation, he could afford himself such desires and such needs were self-explanatory. He could not see what we see now on a daily basis, in high-definition, we screaming angels of our present. To rise above and see everything—would not the most ice-hearted weep themselves to nothing?

To see enough. But of what? That's a question few are asking. The right to look and the right to be unseen—these relentlessly dissonate against each other like great forgetful pendula. It would change everything if we understood that understanding is a form of being and that it is truly a variety of thread in the latticework of the planet—a plant fibre among plant fibres. Moreover, that, like any invasive species, if it were to overgrow it would suffocate the world. To know enough. But of what? I fear that there is no good or right answer to that question.

This music is making me melancholic. But I wouldn't change one grain of it.