Politics of Nature, by Bruno Latour

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I started this book more than a month ago, as I mentioned at the end of this post. It’s incredibly dense. I don’t think I could have even started on it without having been trapped on that crowded bus with no other options for a few hours. Even once I got started, it was very slow going. Using the BART ride to my former workplace as a metric, I had about an hour’s worth of reading time (40 minutes on BART, 20 minutes on the shuttle bus). On a typical book, I would read about 60 pages during that time. On a fluffy book like scifi or McGinn’s book, it’s more like 100 pages. On this book, I was lucky to get through 15 pages in that hour, just because I had to crossreference the glossary and the footnotes, and sit back and think about what he was saying, and then re-read the last few pages to see if it made more sense in light of what I now thought I understood. Tough sledding. But well worth it.

As I mentioned in a comment in an earlier post, Latour’s viewpoint has infiltrated my brain to the point where I’m seeing everything through his prism right now. I also have another post which I had been kicking around, exploring why everything I read is placed in relation to my internal hierarchy, that I can now explain using his terminology. And I can relate what he’s saying to everything from an old conversation about identity to Howard Bloom’s Global Brain. Unfortunately, this is not an easy book to summarize. I think I’m going to have to do it in a couple parts, with more posts afterwards to elaborate on applications.

Let’s start with why Latour wrote this book (as a warning, I’m going to be paraphrasing wildly with my own interpretation of the book – this is not meant to be a definitive review or anything to replace reading the book, especially since I’m going to have to make some major leaps to avoid writing a review that’s as long as the book itself). He wants to explore the consequences of what he calls modernism, where science and reason will determine everything if only we could get past our fuzzy thinking. That there is an eternal unchanging Nature out there that our scientists explore and bring back definitive answers from. And that multiculturalism is mucking about aimlessly because it’s talking about artificial “socially constructed” viewpoints that are meaningless when they clash with the obdurate reality of Science. It’s a similar question to the one I posed towards the end of this post on conservative postmodernism, where I wonder how to reconcile my affinity for postmodernist contextual viewpoints with my belief in the power of reason and truth.

He relates this current situation to Plato’s parable of the Cave, where all we see are shadows of the true Reality on the wall. In his telling of the tale, modern scientists are given the privilege of going to explore Reality and then come back to tell us poor humans what’s going on. The rest of us are left to construct our own interpretations of the shadows in our postmodernist contextual way. He contrasts mononaturalism (One True Reality) with multiculturalism (different interpretations).

But given Latour’s background in science studies (as described in Science in Action), he’s immediately skeptical of the scientists’ view of the One True Reality, since he’s spent time studying how a fragile scientific consensus is constructed. It’s not merely a matter of going and looking at Nature and shouting “Eureka!” It’s a continual process of feedback between theories and observations, with construction of new instruments always changing what we see and how we see it. Latour wonders how something so socially constructed can possibly be the voice of the One True Reality.

His answer? It isn’t. There is no One True Reality that trumps anything we can say. There are nonhuman things that demand our attention, but they require the human intervention of scientists to be able to speak. And here’s where things get really interesting, because he observes the congruence between scientists speaking for nonhuman things and politicians speaking for groups of humans. Both are spokespersons, using the tools at their disposal to determine what their subjects are expressing, and presenting it. Presenting it to who? That’s the subject of the rest of the book.

Before I continue down that path, let me take a moment to explain why I, a confirmed rationalist and believer in Science, can accept what Latour has to say about the constructed nature of science and what it implies about the non-unity of Nature. For one thing, I’ve worked in various science labs for most of my adult life. I know all too well the contortions that happen between the initial observations in the laboratory and the wonderful, clean results that get presented in journals and at conferences.

For another, Latour makes the excellent point that we don’t see what we don’t look at. We only look at things that matter to us at any given point in time. While I was visiting Jofish, I was talking to one of his friends, who is doing research on the implications of biologists’ switching over the past few decades from studying planaria to C. elegans (as an aside, I was proud of myself for being able to identify C. elegans as the worm she was talking about without prompting). Her thesis is that C. elegans presents a rationalist view of the world, one where genetics and neurobiology is destiny, where the effect of each gene can be tracked. Planaria, on the other hand, are completely messy, because you can cut them into pieces and each piece grows into a new organism with some of the knowledge of the old. There is no easy cause and effect here, as behavior and function is distributed across the whole organism. Scientists don’t want that sort of messiness interfering with their triumphant march towards genetic determinism, so they ignore the planaria. It is relegated to non-existence in scientific papers.

Latour observed such behavior and realized that scientists are not the dispassionate observers and recorders that mononaturalism would imply. They have theories and preconceptions, and go out searching for bits and pieces in nature that would support or contradict those theories. It is anything but a value-neutral process. They are just as much in the business of social construction of reality as the multiculturalists. And having realized that, Latour set out to determine the process by which both sides construct reality. And even better, he laid out a “Constitution”, a process in which every voice, human and nonhuman, gets a hearing as to whether it should be included in a version of reality.

And, wow, this post is getting long. I’m going to put the actual reality construction process in another post, because I have a lot to say about it, as it’s the part that has totally infiltrated my thinking. And if I make this post ten pages long, nobody will read it. I’d make a comment here about how nobody reads my posts anyway, but then Jill would give me a well-deserved whap upside the head, so I won’t.