Politics of Nature part 3

Okay, I said yesterday that part 2 would end my book review, but I lied. There is one crucial aspect of Latour’s book that I didn’t cover yet. To review, part 1 essentially covered chapters 1 and 2, part 2 covered chapters 3 and 4, and today we’ll cover chapter 5, which covers how to handle the meeting of two collectives, and then move on to how this work ties into some of my previous thoughts.

For the purpose of yesterday’s discussion, I made the assumption that we were dealing with a single collective, but the examples I gave should have made it clear that there can be many such collectives. Whether you call them different cultures, different paradigms, or even different reality coefficients, it is apparent that there can and will be conflicting versions of reality in play among different people. How should this situation be handled?

Latour suggests that the ancient art of diplomacy provides a solution. Diplomacy is valuable for a couple reasons; for one, it is a negotiation that does not necessarily assume anything at the start, and two, the diplomat is unabashedly a representative of his/her culture or collective, rather than making any claims towards objectivity. Since Latour has spent the entire book tearing down the claims of objectivity, this is a key distinction. Latour contrasts it with a parody of anthropology as now practiced:

“Thanks to nature, I know in advance, without needing to hear what you have to say, who you are; but tell me anyway what representations you have made of the world and of yourselves – it would be so interesting to compare your visions to the equally factitious ones of your neighbors.” (p. 210)

The diplomat, on the other hand, is exploring a new reality. He/she is also at a distance from his/her own collective, knowing that not everything currently in the collective reality is essential to that reality, and that, through a process of negotiation, two collectives can agree to merge, throwing away what is painfully decided to be superfluous, and keeping what is deemed to be truly essential. By both being an open representative of his/her collective, and yet detached from it, the diplomat is essential to the negotiations necessary for two collectives to communicate rather than fight. As Latour says,

Apart from a diplomatic trial, no collective can differentiate between what is essential and what is superfluous: it will go to war over anything, because it sees everything as equally necessary. Only slowly, through preliminary negotiations, pourparlers, will a collective agree to reconsider its own constitution, by differentiating what is essential from what is superfluous according to other principles.” (p. 214)

The first part reminds me of “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” or of the Israeli/Palestine conflict. Or even of the Christian fundamentalists, insisting that every word of the Bible is true. Every part of their reality is equally necessary.

Moving onto my personal take of Latour’s work, I think that it is so important that people are aware of the provisional nature of reality established by a collective. That they understand that there is not a “One True Reality” that only they are privy to. I also think that it reminds us to go humbly when we enter the realm of a different collective.

I also like Latour’s discussion because it fits so well with my friend’s theory of reality coefficients, where I said “My friend’s insight was that when you don’t share the same set of reality coefficients as another person, the two of you essentially live in different worlds/realities.” Here’s where I think I’d like to extend Latour’s theory, because if I can make a mapping between reality coefficients and collectives, it implies that people can simultaneously be members of multiple overlapping collectives. And then things get really interesting.

The logical extension is to have each person be their own collective that negotiates with other collectives to form unions of collectives on certain issues. What does that mean? I’ve already covered it, in my cognitive subroutines extensions post, where I hypothesized that our brains take in parts of the external world for use internally, from walking sticks for the blind, to virtual prostheses such as browsers and email for people like me (inspired in part by the book Me++). We have integrated nonhuman aspects into our personal collective. And the process that I mentioned in that post maps really well to what Latour suggests:

By expanding the scope of the cognitive subroutines to include external influences and external controls, we then build in the power of the collective learning machine, because each of us will choose which elements of the external environment to leverage. … It gets incorporated into their internal cognitive subroutines, and soon it is embedded so deeply that they can’t distinguish it from “reality”.

In Latour’s terms, various external influences and controls apply for membership in my internal collective. Those that make sense to me, that I can find a place for in my internal hierarchy, I integrate into my collective, and they become so embedded that they are now part of my reality. This idea of a personal collective has been a running theme for me, all the way back to this conversation where I speculated that my self was a mosaic that I composed out of bits and pieces I found in the world around me.

I think Latour’s work also may give some clues as to how to move forward with negotiating between various factions in society, a problem I lamented in this post:

both sides need cognitive tools to help understand the others’ perspective. Otherwise, we are forced to treat them the way we treat anybody that is delusional – we declare them insane. Insanity is society’s way of saying “Your way of viewing the world is not valid.” When somebody says that space aliens are talking to them, necessitating an aluminum foil hat, we don’t give credence to their thoughts, even if they are lucid in all other ways. When a conservative claims that “We had to invade Iraq to keep its WMDs out of the hands of Al-Qaeda!”, a liberal often dismisses them in a similar fashion as the aluminum-hatted gentleman. I’m not sure what such cognitive tools for understanding look like. But they are clearly necessary as we drift further and further apart in our basic assumptions about how the world works.

It sounds like we need both sides to develop better Latour-ian diplomats.

I think I’ll stop here for the day. I’ve got one more post in this thread, where I go into a little more depth into how our internal collectives affect what we see and perceive. Plus, I’ve got a couple more references to old posts that I think are relevant. But I have to pace myself and my readers.

12 thoughts on “Politics of Nature part 3

  1. You. RAWK!

    So synthesizing all these things and translating them into vernacular is what your book is going to be about, right?

  2. Thanks!!

    I’m still working on that synthesis, yeah. It’s gratifying to me as I go back and read through old blog entries and old ramblings how the viewpoint hasn’t changed much, but my ability to express it has gotten better.

    I think my best bet towards the book is starting with the idea of cognitive subroutines, but incorporating some of Latour’s ideas, some of the information carnivore stuff, and at least a little smidgen of the Global Brain stuff. Of course, the terminology will all probably change again with the next serious book I read.

  3. where did you get this quote? By expanding the scope of the cognitive subroutines to include external influences and external controls, we then build in the power of the collective learning machine, because each of us will choose which elements of the external environment to leverage. … It gets incorporated into their internal cognitive subroutines, and soon it is embedded so deeply that they can’t distinguish it from “reality”.

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