Wednesday 15 July 2015

"[T]ouching down on Planet Latour"—Nigel Clark's response to my "Back down to Earth"

As regular readers will surely be aware, I recently published an article with the wonderful journal Global Discourse titled "Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic geopolitics(it's currently available online; it'll appear in print in the near future). This journal has a policy, unusual in the social sciences, of commissioning short replies to each article published.

I have been fortunate enough to receive two such responses, the first by Simon Dalby ("Taking Gaia seriously in Bruno Latour’s Geopolitics") and now a second by Nigel Clark ("Metamorphoses: on Philip Conway’s geopolitical Latour").

(If you'd like a copy of any of either of the replies or my original article and don't have institutional access, just get in touch via email and I'd be happy to oblige.)

Nigel has been a sympathetic critic of Latour's works for some time and I make reference to several of his works in my article. He most generously writes that:
"Reading […] ‘Back down to Earth’ I feel like I am touching down on Planet Latour afresh and discovering that it has been wildly terraforming itself while I’d popped out."
I am very glad that my work has made this impression. It was a large part of my intention with this article to demonstrate and articulate some of the richness evident in Latour's later works—a wealth that numerous people have confessed to me, Nigel included, that it is difficult to keep up with (it is worth mentioning at this point that Latour's Gifford Lectures, which a large part of my article was based on, are to be almost completely rewritten and expanded for publication)! Modesty dissuades me from quoting his comment that Back down to Earth is "the single most illuminating text on Latour’s work that I have ever encountered," however vanity evidently gets the better of that instinct on this occasion. Kind words!

Nigel, however, remains unsatisfied with aspects of Latour's work. Does the figure of Gaia really do enough to absorb into thought not only the non-human but also the inhuman in the world?
"Raised in the Pacific Ring of Fire, living on islands shaped and reshaped by ongoing crustal collisions and episodic volcanic activity, and intrigued by the way biological life rafted across the Earth’s surface on mobile tectonic plate fragments, I hungered after accounts of agency that put the incontrovertibly inhuman machinations of the Earth high on the agenda. All that talk of laboratories, of world-shaping events migrating outwards from European research centres, the endless reference to the co-constitution of humans and non-humans, never did quite enough decentring of the human for me. I wanted to ask not only how do scientists give rise to worlds, but how does the Earth give rise (maybe, maybe not) to a scientist?"
The most provocative point that Nigel makes, for me, concerns the conceptualisation of strata (after Deleuze & Guattari but also Elizabeth Grosz) as geopolitical or geo-ontological conditions of possibility and as radical wells of potentiality. He urges that we think:
"[…] through ‘strata’ – by which I mean not simply the layering of the lithosphere but the more general way in which earlier physic-material events lay down the conditions of possibility for what may later come to pass. Or what we might call subtending relations. […] it is this positing of an antecedent or underlying region of potentiality that is for me the real revelation."
This links interestingly with another of my present projects on matters of determinism and possibilism in geopolitics (materialising at the RGS-IBG conference this year, which, incidentally, Simon Dalby is involved with and, I hope, Nigel will be able to participate in also).

My initial reaction would be that I would resist focusing too much on this sense of profound, boundless 'potentialities' in the abstract (while not at all denying the near-unfathomability of such depths) and instead try to follow the trajectories by and through which potentialities are turned into determinations. This historical and sociological task seems, to me, to be one that resonates well with the Latourian corpus and links, indeed, with his recent encounter (or might I say collision) with the 'politics of possibility' of the Breakthrough Institute and their 'ecomodernism.'

One last critical question that Nigel raises is, I think, fair and important.
"Finally, how far do we want to extend the notion of ‘political power’? Is politics not also, sooner or later, about giving reasons: the justification of our actions to others – which would seem to be a vital part of the appeal to strangers implied by the notion of convening publics? Do we want to see Gaia and all Gaians as literally ‘geopolitic’ – as Conway reads Latour? Or might we wish to draw a sharper distinction between that which triggers or energizes the political, and that which a particular kind of negotiating, desiring and reasoning being actually makes of this excitation?"
The part of my essay that he is referring is close to the culmination of my narrative; I write:
"Human politics explicates, amplifies and formalises what was already happening – non-human Gaians already format their spheres, adore their attachments, adapt their environments, measure their means, cultivate their cultures and nurture their natures. Each in their own ways, at wildly varying intensities, through spiralling, sinuous movements that ensnare, ensphere, entwine and envelop, all Gaians ‘geopolitic.’"
The 'scare quotes' here are carefully placed. In earlier drafts I had written "all Gaians, in a sense, 'geopolitic'," to doubly emphasise the hesitancy I have in making this leap into suggesting that all Gaia's constituents are 'geopolitical.'

Last week I read Brian Massumi's recent essay What Animals Teach Us about Politics. My criticism of Massumi's argument is that, in order to affirm that there is no total, radical, transcendent break between animality and humanity but rather a continuation, amplification and transformation of certain mutually shared capacities, he makes pretty much anything that any living being does into 'politics.' So, when two wolf cubs are play-fighting, this demonstrating sophisticated and complex kinds of inter-personal relations, this is said to be a kind of animal 'politics.' I find that this is the wrong option. It would be better to argue that politics derives from capacities and practices that are part of a common ecology but that are not reducible to the same elements of that heterogeneous web—a pluralising, particularising, historicising gesture.

In other words, my 'scare quotes' indicate my hesitancy on this point and, in hindsight, I agree with Nigel. However, the really important part is, as I've mentioned, the affirmation that politics is not something imposed upon a reality with which it has little or nothing in common but a creative rupture—a metamorphosis, indeed—that derives from a plural reality that has many kinds of tangled relations of kinship and inheritance.

So, all in all, I can only express my gratitude to Simon and Nigel for their generous responses, and to Global Discourse for having such an excellent policy in this regard! Long may it continue and far may it be imitated.