Monday 31 October 2016

Bruno Latour on geo-logy in a neo-Humboldtian university

In her book The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, Laura Dassow Walls writes:
"By asserting that nature is independent of humans in a difference that is profoundly generative, [Alexander] Humboldt is trying to bridge the impasse reached by Kant, who had deepened the Cartesian dualism of mind and nature into an unbridgeable abyss by arguing that the nonhuman or “noumenal” world could never be reached or conceived. We could see only its phenomenal shadow, the mask, what little was open to the human senses. As Margarita Bowen details, Humboldt bridged this Kantian impasse by showing how humans developed their concepts over time, in a historical process by which they “are generated, tested and incorporated into the sphere of ideas.” Through this historical process, ideas forged in the crucible of physical nature made the world of thought part of the process of nature. As Bowen observes, Humboldt sees the very gulf between mind and nature “as the locus of the sciences.”"
In an endnote to this passage, she adds:
"I would argue that in this respect Humboldt’s philosophy anticipates that of the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour. A Latourian analysis of Humboldtian science would be a very productive project."
Walls is surely not the first to find affinity between Humboldt, whose leitmotif was Alles ist Wechselwirkung [everything is interrelated], and Latour, the famous thinker of networks.

In a recent talk at Cornell, Latour himself has reflected on the contemporary relevance of Humboldt with regard to the challenges of Anthropocene affairs, particularly regarding the question of how to organise training and knowledge production in a world where words like "world," "nature" and "earth" have been challenged on the most fundamental level. This connection presumably derives from the suggestion of Cornell's Aaron Sachs, whose book The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism establishes Humboldt as something of a 'founding father' of North American environmental thinking.
This is a felicitous happenstance for this blog (as long-term readers will probably have noticed). I'm currently writing what began as a chapter (and is ending up as six chapters) on Humboldt's work. It is not my intention to directly compare his thinking with that of Latour; however, there is an important connection.

My thesis, such as it currently exists (13 months into my PhD), asks a very simple and very complicated question: What is the history of the concept of environment? The basic philosophical idea that runs through the whole project derives from a paper by Latour and Michel Callon from 1992, Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath School! – specifically, "the distribution of agencies." In short, I understand the evolution of the concept "environment" (and its various equivalents, cognates and associates) in terms of variations in the distribution of agency between domains (particularly "society" and "nature").

In writing this I am attempting to engage with a whole range of questions and debates. However, one book in particular that stands out is The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. This is, as I have written previously, not just another Anthropocene book. It is an excellent piece of work and covers much the same sort of territory that I am attempting to examine; however, it has some serious limitations. First of all, I'm not convinced that the critique it makes of the works of Latour and Ulrich Beck stand up. What they call "environmental reflexivity" seems to somewhat misrepresent what these two authors were saying.

However, the important point for my project is that while they do a very good job of demonstrating that capacities for sophisticated modes of thought and action concerning "environment" are nothing new, they do little or nothing to establish what, in statistical language, we can call the incidence or, simply, the relative importance of environmental concepts, practices and concerns within their particular historical epoch. They seem to me to be operating within an epistemological conception of historiography (à la Bachelard through Foucault) that primarily concerns itself with establishing what is "thinkable" and "unthinkable" in any historical period. That is to say, an historiography for which incidence is largely irrelevant.

This is why I am interested in Humboldt – and why my initial single chapter has ballooned to six. I am attempting to set the aspects of his work that can, anachronistically, be termed "environmental" or "ecological" within a fuller account of his life, works and networks. By doing so, I will be able to show the relative importance (or otherwise) of these aspects for Humboldt and, by a more tentative implication, for his historical epoch.

Needless to say, this has been quite a challenge! Not only are Humboldt's own works voluminous in the extreme but the figure of this "great man" has been claimed and re-claimed so many times that the layers of interpretation form strata that are themselves formidable. My agenda is not really to criticise the spectacular plume of recent writings that have reclaimed Humboldt once again for the ecological age we seem to be in. However, I cannot help but be struck by how different my approach and the reading that results is from most if not all of these writings.

Humboldt is, undoubtedly, quite a likeable chap. However, Humboldtography has a definite tendency towards sanitisation, sometimes turning over into outright hagiography. My objection to this is not so much that one should not attempt to reclaim aspects of the past for the present. Rather, it is, I think, that the version of Humboldt that results from this purification is substantially more boring than the "warts and all" version that results from a more thorough and less tendentious reading. Quite often, the specifics of Humboldt's work simply disappear by his being interpreted through more contemporary modes of thought.

This is, I think, what happens in the passage from Walls quoted above. It is deeply misrepresentative in a whole number of ways. Primarily, presenting Humboldt as somehow overcoming Kant (even in intention) is quite implausible. He constructed his magnum opus Cosmos (written in the final years of his life and never finished) on explicitly Kantian lines, strictly dividing the objective and subjective elements into separate works. Yes, he was attempting to reconcile the opposition – but so was everyone else (including Kant). Nothing could have been further from his mind than the project we inherit from Whitehead (circa 1919) of overcoming the bifurcation of nature.

Once again, I have no problem with creative readings of past thinkers. However, there is a risk in this: making the past an extension of the present and thereby erasing the possibility of encountering historical difference.

And so, I think there is much to recommend revisiting the Humboldtian project (evidently!). Latour is careful to distinguish Alexander from his brother Wilhelm, who was a statesman, linguist and political theorist. However, I would argue that this separation should not be undertaken too hastily. It was Wilhelm who founded the University of Berlin (later Humboldt University) and was principally involved with educational reform (Alexander worked, before his South American journey from 1799 to 1804, reforming mining and industrial practices). True, Wilhelm was known as the "humanist" in a disciplinary sense – they were both humanists in the philosophical sense. However, Alexander explicitly joins the two projects in Cosmos, extensively quoting his brother's works (and, after Wilhelm's death, editing and publishing his most important works).

I would also, on the basis of the above, have to question Latour's statement that:
"What I propose to do, then, is to introduce a division between nature and the natural sciences, on the one hand, and phusis and the earthly sciences on the other. A fully geo-centric move, if you wish, provided that you take geo not as a globe but as a critical zone. It is not as speculative as one might think, since there are lots of good technical reasons to utilize such a partition. Witness Timothy Lenton’s version of the same divide in his book: “For many Earth system scientists, the planet Earth is really comprised of two systems -the surface Earth system that supports life, and the great bulk of the inner Earth underneath. It is the thin layer of a system at the surface of the Earth -and its remarkable properties- that is the subject of my work” 
This is something that Humboldt would have understood easily."
Humboldt was nothing if not an open-minded empiricist and, so, would undoubtedly have been delighted to encounter the geo-logy of today. He did as much as anyone in his era, both intellectually and infrastructurally, to enable the contemporary earth sciences. However, it is, I think, important to remember that his "climate" was nothing like ours – nor was his "earth." Moreover, his geopolitics (to use another anachronistic term) was a very, very long way from what is needed today. If there was ever a more enthusiastic advocate of modernisation than Alexander von Humboldt, I have never encountered them.

In short, if we are to learn from the likes of Humboldt we must not get hung up on those aspects that echo with reassuring familiarity. We must, instead, be attentive to the differences – encounter that historical difference. Doubtless, we share some of Humboldt's problems but we should not, as his hagiographers all too often do, suppose that we have much "common ground" with him or his epoch.