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.


  1. Philip, this is such a wonderful article. Quite beautiful writing. 'We screaming angels of the present' - what a phrase!
    I'm so pleased you're raising the question of the genealogy of [REL] (and the genealogy of the Moderns in general), continuing a discussion that was begun some time ago on the AIME reading group. Assmann, presumably, is key (although, I must say that his is not really a name that is common currency in theological circles, make of that what you will). Bruno, when asked, has tended to say something like: 'this sort of question is for other people, specialists probably, to work out'.... Maybe that is the case.
    However, just one thought from me: do we even need to specify a genealogy? Why can we not say that 'le front de modernisation' is a universal division - part and parcel of our coming-into-being as humans, a function of 'hominization' (to use Serres' phrase) - and not a historical one?
    I appreciate that the obvious objection is: 'well, doesn't Bruno himself specify that the bifurcation takes place in the 17th century, as embodied in the Boyle-Hobbes confrontation?' That's why it's called 'Modernity'.
    But why can't we say that such events are nothing more than particularly foregrounded moments in a 'front de modernisation' that stretches back to the midst of time, that has always been in our midst, that is organic to our very human nature? To want to pinpoint a more exact genealogy - entailing a sacrosanct, pristine, Edenic human nature that is untainted by the besmirchment of modernity - would seem to be a Heideggerian and Girardian impulse, but not necessarily a Latourian one. Moreover, it's hard to see how such an originary moment could be theorised in terms of being-as-other...?

  2. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it. I must admit that I often feel horribly pretentious when I write something like that but I can't resist!

    I've just started looking at Voegelin's New Science of Politics. Obviously that's important too. Voegelin makes an appearance at the end of v2 of Sloterdijk's spheres, incidentally. For Sloterdijk it's also Karl Jaspers's Axial Age and Oswald Spengler's Decline of the West. Even Arnold Toynbee. Sloterdijk is wont to insist that little about cultures can be understood except on such timescales. That's a very large part of his whole agenda.

    Regarding genealogy - in its details this is perhaps a question for specialists; however, I'd question to what extend one can separate concept and history. Certainly, I wouldn't think of demanding anything like a definitive timeline (that would be simply conceited). But if we're not certain whether something is 300 or 3000 years old, the concept itself must surely be in question. However, I don't intend this as a criticism, just as an interesting puzzle.

    Modernity and modernism needn't be any one thing, of course, and so it needn't be of any one age.

    There's a venerable tradition of specifying (somewhat) arbitrary dates in speculative philosophy, e.g. A Thousand Plateaus. It needn't be backed up as a historian would back things up in order for it to be meaningful.

    What really interests me in this 'big history' of civilisations and cultures is the parallel with geological time (and, indeed, evolutionary time—one historical detail that is given in AIME is lifted from Leroi-Gourhan's narration of humanoid technicity that is hundreds of thousands of years old).

    So, apparently we can't understand our environment (or ourselves, or anything much) without thinking on scales of at least tens of thousands of years. That is now an indelibly inscribed requirement on thought—I hold this to be true. This breathes a whole new life into these crusty old white men—Toynbee, Spengler, Braudel, etc.

    For a long time all they were dismissed as reactionary (which many of them surely were—but then think of Humboldt, Febvre, Reclus; these are more interesting characters). The progressive historian turned to specific, local experience—that was the future. The anthropologist was a privileged epistemic agent, to the point of making many historians despair at 'postmodernism.' But now the greatest progressive political philosophical demand is to be able to comprehend this huge slabs of time *alongside* and *mixed up in* all sorts of intimate local experience. Not either/or but both—and urgently.


  3. The question of modernity is one element within that set of problems. If we can't refuse the epistemic demands of these slabs of time with regard to the environment then should we be so quick to dismiss the claims of cultural historians who claim that the matters that concern their histories can't be understood on timelines of decades either? After all, le longue durée is well and truly buried. Who believes that 'human' history is infinitely labile compared to the structures of nature any more? Quite the opposite in many respects!

    I'm deeply sceptical of the 'long Anthropocene' argument, which holds that it began long in pre-history, perhaps with the discovery/invention of fire. If that concept has any merit it is to demarcate something occurring within industrialised modernity. But perhaps that is a felicitous phrase—might there be more modernities than the merely industrialised? Might it be not an easily periodised and distinguished phase but a layered series of developments, some very old?

    If, in geohistorical terms, the Holocene was what made civilisation possible and if we can sensibly think about our modern modes of existence as having qualities that have at least a few thousand years of significantly traceable backstory then perhaps 'modern' should simply mean 'civilised' (in as non-ethnocentric a sense as possible). After all, when the word modern first came around, the Earth was held to be just a few thousand years old. Now that we know it to be around 4.54 billion years old surely we must expand our temporal neighbourhood similarly? The past is another country but it turns out that Saturn is actually pretty bloody close in the grand scheme of things.

    So, industrialised modernity is then the latest phase in a civilisationary history dating back as far as history itself—a series of narratable events rendered possible in no small part by a period of unusual geological and climatic stability (although hardly as stable as we've been accustomed to thinking—see Geoffrey Parker's book Global Crisis, for one example).

    I'm just thinking out loud here now but taking geohistory seriously is not incompatible with an equally serious rethinking of large scale cultural history. There are a lot of problems with that—the accusations of reactionism were not for nothing. And yet if the epistemic demands are strong, and I think they are, then I see no alternative but to think through precisely these sorts of questions. E.g. the question of a 'long' modernity layered alongside shorter ones.

    'Eden' was a lava ball!