Politics of Nature part 2

Continuing yesterday’s summary of Politics of Nature, by Bruno Latour. Today’s subject: Latour’s proposal for a “Constitution” on how we construct reality in a democratic fashion via due process, one that cuts across science and politics and multiculturalists and facts and values. I’m going to sketch out the process first, and then go back and fill in details.

The idea is that at each point in time, we have a provisional agreement that describes reality for us. Who is the “us” in that statement? Latour calls it a “collective”, a term meant to include both humans and non-humans. It is meant to indicate everything that is part of our currently described reality.

There are things that are covered by that reality, and there are things that the collective has decided to ignore for now. At the beginning of the process, one of the things that we have ignored rises up and demands to be taken notice of. This thing could be composed of humans (e.g. a group of workers unionizing or terrorists trying to overthrow a government), or nonhumans (e.g. prions making themselves known via mad-cow disease, or the negative effects of asbestos). Once it has presented itself to us, it is our responsibility to decide on the relative merits of its claims. This involves finding spokespersons to speak for it, whether scientists using instruments to determine what prions are doing, or union foremen using discussions to determine what the workers want.

Once the demands are made clear, it is up to the collective to decide whether to accept those demands for reification, and to decide how to integrate these new elements into the previously constructed reality. It involves finding a new hierarchy that incorporates both new and old elements. Sometimes it is impossible to find a new order that works, and the new elements are rejected and sent back outside for another round. Other times, a new hierarchy is found, and it is institutionalized as the new provisional reality, ready to handle the next round of supplicants.

This is really fuzzy, I’m sure. So let’s take a concrete example from science, quantum physics. For years, scientists had been noticing all of these anomalies in their experiments, where results were not what they expected. Light was behaving as a particle when they expected it to behave as a wave. The energy spectrum of certain decays was discontinuous. Blackbody radiation theory was predicting infinite energy. Each of these individual results was knocking on the door of the then-current paradigm of classical mechanics, but the scientists had no place for those results in that paradigm, so they were ignored and marginalized. Then came a round of phenomenological observations such as Planck’s suggestion that blackbody radiation was quantized rather than continuous, and Einstein’s explanation of the photoelectric effect. Then Heisenberg and Schrodinger came along, and established a new hierarchy of theory that encompassed all of the new results, providing the new provisional reality for the next round of experimental results. The similarities to Kuhn’s paradigms are pretty apparent, which makes sense given Latour’s background in science studies.

But Latour’s insight is that the exact same process can be applied to human political dynamics as well. A group of people who are currently excluded from the collective demand admittance. They formulate their demands. They negotiate with the collective to find a place for themselves in a new hierarchy. And either the negotiations are successful and the collective is expanded, or the demands are rejected and the supplicants are marginalized again. Whether talking about rebels performing a coup, or union organizers negotiating with management during a strike, the process is general enough to cover the situations.

Several aspects of this process impress me. One is that Latour specifically includes discussion (he calls it consultation) as part of the process. In other words, he thinks that it can only work if the collective is forced to explicitly make choices about what it is or is not included at any point in time. Otherwise, things get swept under the table. The tradeoffs are not apparent. I like his example of automobile deaths:

This is the case, in the example given earlier, of the eight thousand people who die each year from automobile accidents in France: no way was found to keep them as full-fledged – and thus living! – members of the collective. In the hierarchy that was set up, the speed of automobiles and the flood of alcohol was preferred to highway deaths. … for the time being, the rapid use of cars is “worth” much more in France than eight thousand innocent lives per year. (p. 124)

Under our current system, we never examine the tradeoffs of the choices we are making. Under his, we make them explicit. I’ve ranted about this before (using the example of cars, actually), but it drives me nuts to see people making decisions without discussing the tradeoffs.

The process also avoids letting certain people short circuit the discussion prematurely. One short circuit that Latour describes is that of the Scientist, who, in the world of the Cave, is able to dismiss entire lines of argument with the sentence “That’s not objective.” Multiculturalism, anything based on morals, the Scientist waves away. Another short circuit is that of the moralist, who refuses to accept anything less than total victory e.g. if one single snail dies, the entire undertaking is unacceptable. In the real world, compromises have to be made, and it is better that the compromises are made with all parties having a voice at the table.

Another thing that I like about the process is that it is iterative. Things that are dismissed this time around can knock on the door and be let in next time. He uses the example of asbestos:

The case of asbestos can serve as a model, since it is probably one of the last objects that can be called modernist. It was a perfect substance (was it not called a magic material?), at once inert, effective, and profitable. It took decades before the public health consequences of its diffusion were finally attributed to it, before asbestos and its inventors, manufacturers, proponents, and inspectors were called into question; it took dozens of alerts and scandals before work-related illnesses, cancers, and the difficulties of asbestos removal ended up being traced back to their cause and counted among the properties of asbestos, whose status shifted gradually: once an ideal inert materia, it became a nightmarish imbroglio of law, hygiene, and risk. (p. 23)

The original reality of asbestos, as accepted by the collective, was the “magic material”. Only as time went on, and as we proceeded through several iterations, did other properties of asbestos become apparent and added to reality. Latour argues violently against the idea that those properties are inherent in the material. They can be discovered in a process of investigation, but to say they are part of the eternal “essence” of asbestos is a misleading statement, because it implies that we as humans can know the “essence” of an object without investigation. Since that is not possible, assuming that as one of the premises of a system leads to yet another short circuit of discussion.

This temporal nature of an iterative reality is also good because it reminds us that we have to make decisions based on imperfect information all the time. Latour scoffs at the idea of an ideal world, where Scientists can have infinite time to discover everything there is to know about something before it’s used in the “real” world. We know the world doesn’t work like that. We look at what we know, we weigh our options, and then we take our best guess. This is a cooperative effort. Scientists give us their current theories. Moralists serve as spokespeople, speaking for those who don’t have a voice (whether nonhuman, as in the case of the environment, or human, in the case of indigenous natives). Economists try to break things down into a model to give us rough estimates of the various tradeoffs. Politicians work out compromises between the various factions. Everybody brings something to the table.

I think that covers the broad outlines of Latour’s process, and what I like about it. I could spend pages going into more details, but I think I’ll stop the book review here. I’m skipping a lot of his efforts at deconstructing various academic ideas, because I think they’re mostly relevant as responses to other academic works that I haven’t read. But these last two posts capture the ideas that I think are the most important and relevant to my thoughts going forward; in other words, the ideas that have become part of my personal collective.

More tomorrow on ways that Latour’s ideas integrate readily into my own, with references back to previous posts that I think are relevant.

20 thoughts on “Politics of Nature part 2

  1. Sweeeet! I think you’re absolutely spot on with this review — it’s exactly what Bruno is all about. Rock on.

    Now if only we could get four thousand other MIT graduates a year to read it…

  2. Wow! This is really great stuff! It makes sense to me, and it’s great that it explicity acknowledges that we must work with imperfect information.

    So, under the “consultation” process, do we evaluate tradeoffs lazily? (That is, don’t look at them in detail until circumstances require us to.) Because it seems to me like that’s necessary, given finite resources.

    I like the description of problems as a process of entities demanding the attention of the collective, but I think that it implies that we should, as a society, strive to operate in “pull” mode rather than “push”, and seek out those voices before they make demands loudly.

  3. Josakana, out of curiosity, do I know you?

    Beemer, Latour goes into more detail as to which members of society are responsible for looking for entities that are currently outside the collective. Scientists pursue their own goals, pushing the limits of observations. Moralists are looking for a cause to fight for. Politicians remain aware of who was excluded from previous iterations, with the knowledge that they may have to be dealt with in the next one, etc. (this is covered in Box 4.1, so I’m stealing, not interpreting).

    In the “consultation” process, we evaluate tradeoffs to the extent necessary to make our decisions. It’s meant to be a process of bringing all parties to the table, and letting them have their say. In the ideal world that Latour describes, a thoughtful discussion ensues, evaluating the various sides, working through possible tradeoffs, and eventually arriving at a compromise that all sides can live with. This is necessarily not as fleshed out in practice as Latour might like, since right now, each of the various factions don’t talk to each other at all. At best, the politicians may consult scientists and moralists before making their decisions. So it’s a bit fuzzy to me about how this works out in practice, but I think the theory is excellent.

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