SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #10
Anthropocene Objects, Art and Politics
By Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld
Sonic Acts was delighted to welcome Graham Harman to the 2015 festival ‘The Geologcic Imagination’. Harman led a full day masterclass, presented a lecture and participated in a round table discussion. Afterwards he talked to Sonic Acts' Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld, publisher at Leesmagazijn.
Graham Harman at Sonic Acts Festival 2015. Photo by Pieter Kers | Beeld.nu
In his lecture Harman explained how the proposed Anthropocene Epoch is not an Anthropocentric Epoch, because it highlights the fragility of the human species rather than human supremacy. This split between the Anthropocene and the Anthropocentric compels us to recognise an important philosophical distinction that is seldom acknowledged. Namely, the fact that humans are involved as ingredients in the creation of some entity does not entail that the entity has no autonomous reality apart from humans. The Anthropocene climate is generated by humans and independently mysterious to us, and the same holds for other fields that have been ‘anthropocene’ from the start: human society, art, economics.
In the interview Harman elaborates on both art and politics. He explains his idea of why art should not be understood as autonomous from its surroundings, but instead should always be understood in relation to humans. Moreover, Harman explains how thinking about art in this way, leads to thinking about the Anthropocene. In discussing politics Harman talks about Bruno Latour, Hobbes and Carl Schmitt and about how the distinction between left and right is by now less important than the distinction between truth politics and power politics, and while doing this he highlights the importance of Noortje Marres’ dissertation ‘No Issue, No Public’.
LIESBETH KOOT: Today, in your lecture, you talked about Object-Oriented Ontology and the Anthropocene. Towards the end you said a little bit about the relation of these two topics to art. Can you elaborate on that?
GRAHAM HARMAN: Sure. For me art has to do with the separation between the real object and its sensual qualities. The art object itself ‘withdraws‘, to use Heidegger's term. It is not directly accessible to us, and cannot be explained either in terms of its pieces or in terms of its effects. The problem is that most human cognition involves reducing a thing to one of those two roots: if someone asks you what something is, you tell them what it is made of or you tell them what it does. Those are the two basic kinds of answers we can give to any question. But art doesn't give answers. It is not a form of knowledge. When you make an artwork, you're not going to tell somebody that the point of the work is what it's made of, unless this is some sort of contrived Dadaist project in which you're engaged. But you're also not just going to go in the opposite direction and speak of an artwork’s effects: 'this is how it makes me feel' or 'these are the socio-political impacts it has had: Picasso's Guernica is identical with the effect it had on public views on the Spanish Civil War'. Instead, there's something aesthetic in the painting that's unmasterable or unparaphraseable, that keeps challenging us. The better the artwork, the more it challenges us to keep coming back to it, to write more reviews of it, to interpret it in endlessly various ways.
‘Art doesn't give answers. It is not a form of knowledge.’
Since an object-oriented approach likes to speak of the non-relational autonomy of artworks, some readers might conclude that we’re calling for an old-fashioned high formalist criticism, of the sort that accompanied modern art from the late 1940s to some point in the 1960s when most artists and critics turned against it. We could talk about Clement Greenberg in this connection, but let’s speak instead of Michael Fried and zero in on the difference between his position and my own.
Among other things, Fried adheres to one of the pillars of formalist criticism, as do I: an artwork is autonomous from (though not untouched by) its components and its surroundings. The aesthetic character of a work of art, in any genre, cannot be parphrased in any set of prose explanations, whether they be historical, political, semiotic, psychoanalytic, or anything else. In Fried’s landmark essay Art and Objecthood in 1967, he says the problem with minimalist art is that it's both literal and theatrical, and he sees these as roughly the same rather than as two different aspects of minimalism. A minimalist work is literal for Fried because there's no aesthetic depth to it: it's just a block, a pyramid, or a rod sitting right there in front of us: a mere obstacle in our path with no deeper meaning. And as he sees it, since minimalist art has no meaning of its own its only avenue of functioning as art is through its appeal to us as observers its way of getting some sort of rection out of us.
Yet it seems to me that the literal and the theatrical are polar opposites, and this makes it possible to oppose literalness in the arts (as I do) while insisting on rather than rejecting the theatrical character of aesthetics. This is my position, and to some extent it seems to have been Greenberg’s as well, judging from one interview where he distanced himself rather bluntly from Fried’s rejection of the theatrical. In any case, I agree that the art object is not literal, that it has some depth that cannot be exhaustively paraphrased in terms of some paraphraseable content, such as ‘Picasso’s Guernica is an impassioned statement agaisnt the brutalities of fascism’ (or even some tepid relativist banality such as ‘Picasso’s Guernica is whatever each person makes of it’). These aren’t exactly wrong, of course, but Guernica is also an artwork and not just a political statement or a personal experience. Otherwise Picasso simply could have written a flat prose denunciation of Franco, Hitler, and the Luftwaffe and printed it as a newspaper editorial. For this reason, I share the formalist aversion to literalism in any of the arts. I’m also opposed to every form of literalism in philosophy, and happen to think that Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are primarily opponents of literalism, but that’s a different topic.
But along with attacking literalism in the arts, Fried also attacks theatricality, meaning art whose aesthetic character hinges on our human response to it. One of the implications if we reject theatricality is that artworks should be artworks even in the absence of any appeal to humans, and by implication should even remain artworks even if all human beings are exterminated. This is no straw man: one of my favorite philosophers of the younger generation, Tristan Garcia, defends this position in his book Form and Object. Indeed, some readers of my own work have assumed that since I think artworks exist independently of any number of human beholders, then I must also think that art is most art when no humans interact with it in any way at all.
But this is not my position. For me, an artwork is not an artwork when humans are not there, any more than salt is salt when chlorine isn't there. I use this metaphor seriously: what we call art is like a ‘chemical compound’ made up of the artwork and the human. Both sodium and chlorine are needed for salt to exist, and they also exist independently of one another. We could easily demand ‘sodium with chlorine’ or ‘chlorine without sodium’, but it would be bizarre to ask for ‘salt without chlorine’ or ‘salt without sodium.’ Each of these component elements pre-exist their combination in salt, just as art object and the human exist outside the artwork, but there is no artwork if either of these components is missing. Often the artwork is not there even if humans are present. Consider the case of a two-year old child running through an art gallery, or of Joseph Beuys’s coyote doing the same. It is probable that neither the toddler nor the coyote is encountering artworks, though they may be aware of colored surfaces hung from the wall. Or imagine a cultivated adult walking through a gallery while heavily distracted by severe personal problems, not really mentally present.
For these reasons, we must say that there is a split between the literal and the theatrical. I'm in favour of the non-literal art that is theatrical, which means that humans have to be involved as one component. and this is why I spoke today about the Anthropocene in connection with art. Let’s start with a question: ‘Is the Anthropocene era anthropocentric or not?' In one sense the answer seems to be ‘yes’, because humans played a central role in bringing about this probable new geological era. But in another sense the Anthropocene is clearly independent of humans, since we cannot wish climate change away or understand its mechanisms completely. We have various suggestive models of what’s going on with the climate, but can’t know exactly what's going on with any certainty. This is why I find the term ‘Anthropocene’ to be of use well beyond the sphere of climate studies, since there are all kinds of objects that need humans as components without being reducible to what the human gaze discovers in them. In other words, Anthropocene objects are those in which humans play a dual role as both beholder and ingredient. Both of you are Dutch, and thus you are both ingredients in the Netherlands without either of you being able to know exactly what Dutch culture really is, which no one can ever really know completely. Yet as Dutch citizens you presumably take great interest in the possibilities and deficiencies of the Netherlands as currently constituted. In short, your participation in the Netherlands is certainly theatrical (your attention and interest are absorbed in this object) but by no means literal (the Netherlands is much more than the two of you or anyone else can grasp). This is the situation that occurs whenever humans are a component of an object without fully understanding it. Among other things, his counters Giambattista Vico’s claim in the New Science that we should focus on culture and language, because we made these and thus we can understand them, unlike nature which we did not create. By no means is it clear that we understand cultural issues better than natural ones. The fact that we make something doesn't entail that we understand it. Just look at children, for instance. Children have human parents, but these parents do not have the slightest idea what they’re going to get when the child is born, nor will they ever reach an adequate understanding of the child’s personality. Being an ingredient of something does not mean that you are a privileged observer of it.
Graham Harman and Mark Williams at Sonic Acts Festival 2015. Photo by Pieter Kers | Beeld.nu
Today you were in a round table discussion with Mark Williams, who is a geologist, Douglas Kahn, a media theorist, and Timothy Morton, a philosopher. Also, you were in the audience for the session with Kurt Hentschläger, who is an artist... What do you get from being around people working in different fields at the Festival? Of course, the content of your work already moves in different directions, but I'm curious to know how this works for you.
My work has received a hearing in numerous different fields, and has even received a fairer hearing so far in these other areas than in philosophy. The probable reason that object-oriented philosophy has travelled well across the disciplines is that every field in some way needs to negotiate the difference between objects and relations.
The same thing has happened with most recent influential continental philosophers: Derrida, Žižek, Latour... they're more liked at the periphery of the philosophy than at the centre, initially more liked by students than by professors. The centre of philosophy moves slowly, it's always a hundred years behind schedule. This seems especially true in the United States, where both the analytic and continental traditions are institionally somewhat rigid, though for different reasons in each case.
As for how the contact with other disciplines affects me personally, it is highly stimulating. Each field grants itself licence on certain topics but engages in masochistic self-denial on others. When I speak with architects, for example, there are areas where I can help because there are certain possibilities they might not have seen, but there are also vast areas where I find that architects are rolling the dice while I am being too cautious. In this way, it remolds your brain when you enter the conversations of another discipline and try to run at the same speed that they are running.
As philosophers we tend to favor very slow-moving arguments. Other fields do not have this luxury— there are urgent problems to which they are trying to respond. Philosophy is the least urgent discipline because we're dealing with long-term, subtle, slow conceptual changes that might not have much impact for a long time. For example, Leibniz's relativistic interpretation of time and space didn't reach its full glory among scientists until Einstein, which took approximately two hundred years. This is what makes it so absurd when some people try to limit the speculative bounds of philosophy to the most recent findings of relativity, quantum theory, or even the latest findings at the CERN accelerator. Instead of limping behind the sciences and explaining what they have already done, we ought to be inventing the conceptual playground that the Einstein of the year 2215 may wish to inhabit.
‘Philosophy is the least urgent discipline because we're dealing with long-term, subtle, slow conceptual changes…’
During the round table discussion this afternoon, there was a gentleman who was quite angry because, as far as I understood, he thought that particularly you, and Timothy Morton, were trying to get away from the real problem, actually throwing up some kind of smoke screen. How do you react to that?
I’m familiar with this gentleman, because he asked a similar angry question of me in Vancouver a year ago. But today he was angry at Morton, I think. The gentleman’s enthusiasm and sincerity are wonderful, but it’s just not an effective discussion strategy to shout at people in a public forum, especially since he kept boasting about how ‘generous’ he was being, but without showing evidence of generosity at all. He is not a lone wolf, but belongs to a well-developed anti-object-oriented group.
In fact, the new types of continental philosophy have matured to the point that we now see various well-defined camps or schools. There is a camp that generally opposes everything done by me, Morton, Ian Bogost, and others working in a similar vein. Their orientation is rationalist, mathematico-scientific, and is atmospherically and sometimes conceptually indebted to the former Warwick University professor Nick Land and his “dark” interpretation of Deleuze. They have held at least one meeting in London to counter the “cultural faddishness” of object-oriented philosophy— in other words, they realize that we’ve had a wide influence, and have tried to convince themselves that it’s of no durable importance. They have published (even paid to advertise on Google) a lengthy book denouncing me as both a thinker and a person, and held a celebratory launch for this book somewhere near Newcastle; I’m told it was sparsely attended. Soon they will publish a book that apparently tries to portray both object-oriented philosophy and contemporary art as regrettable symptoms of capitalism— a project that does not sound intellectually promising, though it will provide more juicy red meat for those who dislike us already.
In short, a good old-fashioned feud has been underway, and I don’t think it’s been entirely unproductive. There are always moralizers on the scene who are quick to call intellectual fights ‘petty’, but this shows no realization of how harsh polemical life has been among intellectuals at various historical periods. Try reading a bit of Martin Luther or Giordano Bruno, or re-reading parts of Nietzsche. As for the gentleman who went after Morton today (I know his name, but he can announce it himself if he wants) he was proclaiming himself both a Sellarsian and an Accelerationist, and defending these intellectual trends from Morton’s supposed insults. Allow me to explain these terms briefly for readers unfamiliar with them. The adjective ‘Sellarsian’ refers to the late American philosopher Wilfred Sellars, who was a major influence on important analytic philosophers such as Robert Brandom, Paul Churchland, and John McDowell. More recently Sellars has come into vogue among the aforementioned breed of anti-object-oriented philosophers. As for Accelerationism, it refers to a political doctrine spelled out in a manifesto published a few years ago by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, the gist of which is that the best way to destroy capitalism is not to resist it, but to speed it up so fast that it self-destructs.
Panel discussion at Sonic Acts Festival 2015. Photo by Pieter Kers | Beeld.nu
Both Sellars (certainly) and Accelerationism (we’ll see) may have their merits, but neither is of especial interest to me. The short version of my critique of Sellars is that he boils everything down to either a manifest image (the sun seems to rise every morning) or a scientific image (we have determined that the sun does not rise, but rather the earth rotates on its axis). We use various words to refer to our moods and motivations, but many Sellarsians dismiss this as a manifest image or ‘folk psychology’ that will someday be replaced by a better description of our mental life: a description stemming from –surprise, surprise!– the natural sciences. We still call people ‘melancholic’ or ‘depressed,’ but perhaps science will teach us it’s just a matter of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Paul Churchland gives a nice example of how we can actually teach ourselves to experience the night sky differently in terms of what astronomy has learned about the sun, moon and planets moving along the ecliptic. By replacing manifest images with scientific ones, we are supposed to continue the work of Enlightenment, and thus philosophy is primarily about destroying naïve manifest images, even if we can never get rid of them entirely. This is one reason why the new Sellarsian camp has such unremitting contempt for phenomenology, which I take to be the most important development in the past hundred or so years of philosophy. Whereas Husserl’s phenomenology asks us to begin by suspending all judgment on the reality or non-reality of what appears to the mind, the new Sellarsians become quite angry when we speak of unicorns or Popeye as if there were anything for philosophy to say about these creatures: ‘Off with their heads, instantly!’ Indeed, I’ve compared this sort of philosophy to a unicorn slaughterhouse. But the real problem with the distinction between manifest image and scientific image is that both are images. If you confess as these people do that science only give us another kind of image, and that philosophy is all about establishing epistemological criteria for distinguishing between good and bad images, then you’re leaving realism behind and replacing it with a crypto-idealist position in which images are all we ever need. But there is a reality there that's not reducible to the images: that's what an object is. They are sticking with the famous two tables of A.S. Eddington, the scientific and manifest tables, whereas I’ve argued in print that a third table in between these two is the real table.
‘There is a reality there that's not reducible to the images, that's what an object is.’
As for Accelerationism, its proponents are young and just getting started, so let’s see where they end up. But my lack of interest in this new orientation stems primarily from the authors’ excessive certitude about contemporary politics. They write more like activists than philosophers, and unfortunately we are starting to forget the important difference between these two professions— one person might do both, such as Sartre or Foucault, but they are two very different hats. The authors seem confident in what the problems are with ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘capitalism’, ‘climate’, and so forth, and they also speak in terms of ‘cataclysms’ and ‘annihilations’. The philosophical element missing from this picture is any sense of Socratic ignorance. As I tried to show last year in my book Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, politics is not primarily about truth and not primarily about power, but about uncertainty. By contrast, the Accelerationists continue in the basically idealist line of the modern Left start out by assuming that the political truth is basically known and it’s time to strategize about how to implement it in some suitably radical way. The general assumption on the Left is that there are certain corrupt, greedy, ignorant, alienated, or evil interest groups that are preventing an already known ideal political order from being implemented, and hence there is no time to waste on piddling, fruitless, navel-gazing speculation. There are crisis moments when this attitude makes sense, and perhaps we’re in one now. Yet this is still the attitude of the activist, not of the philosopher, who deals with much longer stretches of time than the modern period of philosophical idealism in which the Left was born and raised. Another way of saying it is that the Left misreads politics as being primarily about the implementation of justice, when politics is really about the conflict over what justice is. This is not simply a class struggle or any kind of power struggle (though it’s partly that) because humans are genuinely mystified about what truth and justice are. You can’t make a science out of these; rationalism is even more dead as a political doctrine than it is as an ontological one. Politics is neither primarily about truth and justice (Rousseau, Marx) nor primarily about conflict and victory (Hobbes, Schmitt). Let’s give the Accelerationists some time to see what they come up. But so far they are mostly just preaching to the converted, not getting down to some rock bottom that would offer something to those who are not already on the hard Left— which I for one am not, despite the immense leftward pressures in intellectual life today. As philosophers, we're not supposed to be swept along with the Zeitgeist, we’re supposed to be resisting it. Even if ‘neoliberalism’ has the political Zeitgeist in Western countries since Thatcher and Reagan, the Zeitgeist among intellectuals has been something quite different, and that’s a bigger danger for us.
‘As philosophers, we're not supposed to be swept along with the Zeitgeist, we're supposed to be resisting it.’
Since I mentioned it in passing, let me say a bit more about the political theory of Bruno Latour, which is neither apocalyptic and dramatic, nor even visible in his works on a first read-through. I started preparing my book by asking: ‘Is Latour a leftist or a rightist? Where do you put him on the familiar left-right spectrum? From the Left you'll hear that Latour is a bourgeois neoliberal, but that’s what they call everybody. I knew that wasn't quite the case. And I know Latour personally, and know that his political views are surprising sometimes. You can't put him down as a centrist French social democrat with occasionally conservative leanings. That’s not what he is. Eventually I decided that the reason you can’t classify Latour as Left or Right is that these orientations go back to differing views on the so-called State of Nature. If you think humans are naturally good, as Rousseau does, then you will see human inequality as unnatural, outrageous, and in need of constant moral condemnation and possibly societal overthrow. If you think humans are naturally inclined towards evil, like Machiavelli, Hobbes, or Schmitt, then you will place a premium on order, you will view conflict as a necessary part of life, and you will prefer cautious stability to any attempts at an egalitarian utopia. The problem with imposing this schema on Latour is that he doesn’t really have a theory of human nature, and moreover, he sees humans as only a part of the political sphere. As Peer Schouten so helpfully noticed, you can follow the birth of Latour’s original political thinking in the work he did on baboons with the primatologist Shirley Strum. As they put it, the problem with baboons is that they are too social. Baboons are constantly trying to figure out who's higher on the pecking order. The poor baboon must always wonder: ‘Have I slipped in the hierarchy? Is someone stealing my mate? Who is getting the best food recently?’ Baboons are constantly worried about this unstable situation they face. But we humans don't really have to worry about this most of the time. You wake up, you know what your job is, you know who your spouse is, you know your bank account, your job title, your name, your passport number, your citizenship,... Except in times of personal crisis, these things are known to us, so we don't have to renegotiate our position every day. Latour's interesting idea is that inanimate objects are what usually perform the stabilizing function for us. So we have wedding rings, passports, bank accounts, mailing addresses, a social security number, driver's licences,... This is what makes me who I am. It's inanimate objects. If we were just a bunch of naked people standing together in a field, it would be hard to have any kind of hierarchy or even any kind of identity. You’d hardly be able to recognize the same person twice. Especially if there is no language , which is another important inanimate object. This is where we see that Latour doesn't really have a Left or Right theory of the State of Nature.
‘…we don't have to renegotiate our position every day. Latour's interesting idea is that inanimate objects are what usually perform the stabilizing function for us.’
But while Latour has nothing to do with the Left/Right spectrum, he is very much concerned with what I regard as the more important modern political dualism of Truth vs. Power. Most people we meet are primarily truth politicians or power politicians, even if everyone's a mixture of both. Truth politics, which comes in both Left flavors (Rousseau, Marx) and Right flavors (Leo Strauss) is the idea that we basically already know what the political truth is. Let's say that I think know the political truth is egalitarianism. By nature we're all equal, yet we're not equal now. Therefore, something must have gone wrong: somebody must be exploiting us, or some privileged social class has an interest in suppressing us. Latour doesn't like this sort of talk, because he thinks it short-circuits political discussion. It's like someone bringing in science to trump political discussion and say 'I know the facts about global warming'. But the interesting thing about the climate debate is that nobody really knows all the facts; we’re still trying to figure out the facts, even if a consensus has developed. But there is also a Truth Politics of the Right, more common in America than in Europe. There is Ayn Rand, of course, a very influential if widely derided author, who is quite certain that laissez faire capitalism is the political truth. Perhaps more interesting to mainstream intellectual life are the Straussians, the disciples of Leo Strauss, who fled Hitler’s Germany and set up shop at the University of Chicago, and has long had a deep influence on American conservative thought. If you spend some time reading and listening to Straussians, what you’ll find is that they think Socrates and Plato basically had it right. And what they think Socrates and Plato knew —though I regard this as a complete misreading– is that there’s an eternal hierarchy of human types. There’s no equality between humans. But roughly the same mixture of wise people and fools existing in every historical era. Historicism is wrong. It doesn't matter what we learn, or what technology we develop, since there is a durable pecking order in terms of the inherent value of certain types of people. Philosophers, of course, are placed at the top. The problem is that philosophers are badly outnumbered by the masses, and the masses might easily kill the philosophers— just look at Socrates. The Straussians think this is a real danger, and their paramount political concern is how philosophers can survive in cities ruled by so many vain fools. The lesson seems to be that philosophers should conceal their true danger from the city, go along with its patriotic and religious rituals, and writing their most difficult truths in coded esoteric ways. This also governs their relation to intellectual history, where they try to detect ‘the real views’ of the author in footnotes and deliberately absurd arguments. I know one Straussian who held up a picture of Descartes in class and said roughly: ‘Descartes claims to believe in God, but just look at his face. He's obviously an atheist, he's so sneaky looking’. In individual cases this can be a powerful technique, since there are many cases of coded writing during authoritarian historical periods, and perhaps even now. The problem is that Straussians really think there are certain authoritative teachers who have wisdom, have knowledge that is better than the mere opinion of others. It’s a right-wing version of Truth Politics, and it is strange that Socrates is their hero, since Socrates never claimed to know the truth about politics or anything else.
‘nobody really knows all the facts; we’re still trying to figure out the facts...’
Power politics, the other side of the dispute, is the notion that there isn't really any truth. Crudely put, whoever wins decides what the truth is: ‘history is written by the winners’. This side of the debate is initially Latour’s home. He starts out as a proud Hobbesian, even a brash one, though Latour always adds inanimate objects to the political picture in a manner foreign to Hobbes. Schmitt is also a piece of the Latourian puzzle, especially later. Despite being a Nazi, Schmitt is very popular these days even on the Left due to his opposition to bourgeois liberalism, which Schmitt defines in Hegel’s sense as the standpoint of those who do not want to risk life and limb in politics, but merely have a political stability that allows for material gain. Despite his ostensibly hardball vision of politics, Hobbes is sometimes regarded as the founder of liberalism because his goal is to stop the ubiquitous warfare found in the State of Nature. This is why he wants the state to have not just a monopoly on violence, but on truth itself: no religion, no science can claim to transcend the state. Schmitt doesn't like this because he views this as something less than a full human life. Human life is about struggling for the essence of who you are, and this happens most vividly in the famous ‘state of exception’, when the sovereign proclaims an existential struggle with the enemy. Mind you, it is not a morally evil enemy that needs to be eradicated in a police action, which is what Schmitt claims the liberals always do. And certainly this is true of United States foreign policy: we have a hard time viewing someone as simply an enemy who needs to be defeated, and generally depict our enemies as moral evils who need to be utterly eradicated. Instead of trying to remove violence from the political sphere, like Hobbes, Schmitt is trying to bring it back. The Left likes this, of course, because they think there’s so much class antagonism at work that is simply being repressed or ignored by liberalism. But there are also power politicians on the Left, the sort who are skeptical about ‘truth’ of any sort: numerous postmodern theorists come to mind who see themselves as beyond any naïve belief in truth or reality, but who struggle nonetheless for their preferred groups to gain more ‘power’.
‘Instead of trying to remove violence from the political sphere, like Hobbes, Schmitt is trying to bring it back.’
The young Latour is a remorseless power politician. He says numerous different things in the spirit of 'I'm the Machiavelli of inanimate objects’, or ‘Hobbes is right’. But then he suddenly changes his tune in We Have Never Been Modern (1991), which is perhaps his most famous book. He begins the book by talking about Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer’s famous discussion of the conflict between Boyle and Hobbes. Boyle is of course one of the great early modern scientists, and very much a pursuer of truth. He sets up his experiments with worthy witnesses who affirm a demonstrable truth about the use of a pump to create a vacuum. But then there is Hobbes, who not only thinks that religion needs to be monopolised by the state in order to avoid appeals to higher truths and hence the onset of civil war. More than this, Hobbes also thinks that science should not contradict the state by direct appeals to transcendent truth. The state needs to be the final authority on everything, since otherwise there is going to be a war of all against all, just as in the state of nature. Hobbes even reports Boyle to the English government because this guy Boyle is very dangerous: he thinks he's doing experiments to tell us the truth, and we can't have that because science will then claim a higher truth than the state. Shapin and Schaffer conclude that Hobbes was more right than Boyle, because the definition of what constitutes good science is decided by society. Therefore society trumps both science and nature. And this is a turning point for Latour, because he realizes that he doesn’t agree that Hobbes was right. Despite his fifteen or more years as an explicit Hobbesian, in 1991 he concludes that Hobbes was wrong. Politics is not privileged. Politics does not have direct access to the truth any more than science does. In politics we don't know what the truth is any more than we do in science.
‘[Hobbes] thinks [Boyle is] doing experiments to tell us the truth, and we can't have that because science will then claim a higher truth than the state.’
This is the key point where Latour realises that the polis is not purely immanent, not just self-contained. There has to be an outside that we must keep an eye on, that the polis has not yet recognised. In Politics of Nature (1999), this becomes the task of two basic groups: scientists and moralists. The scientist’s job is to detect inanimate objects that the political sphere has not yet taken account of. Climate change would be a very good example of that. The other group is the moralists. The early Latour thought the moralists were pathetic because they're just whining about everyone being oppressed and defeated, and the early Latour thinks it’s your responsibility to struggle to win, since there’s no point in being right without having the might to back it up. But in Politics of Nature Latour finds himself suddenly enamored of the moralists, because they are able to detect a still unincorporated exterior of the polis.
The next stage of Latour’s political trajectory owes a great deal to Noortje Marres; her doctoral dissertation here in Amsterdam really influenced his political philosophy. If memory serves, Marres’ dissertation was entitled No Issue, No Public, and was completed in 2006. Marres offers a re-reading of the Lippmann-Dewey debate, which is known to academics but not the general public in the United States, the home country of both authors. Obviously, John Dewey is famous as one of the most important American philosophers, and for his international influence in the field of education. By contrast, Walter Lippmann has been somewhat forgotten, though he was a major journalist in the 1920s and 1930s. He was a widely familiar author at the time, and wrote some cynical things about American democracy. The story America tells itself politically is that since we're a democracy in which the citizens rule themselves, there is a paramount need for an excellent public education so that the citizens can vote wisely. We ourselves are the leaders. But of course it doesn't work that way in practice. We actually have a surplus of ignorant and uninformed people who pay no attention to the nuances of policy, and who vote based on the workings of demagoguery and short-sighted self-interest. Any number of foolish decisions have been made by the American public. This leads Lippmann to take the somewhat cynical line that America is destined to be ruled by technocrats. We need experts to run things; the people are too clueless to rule themselves. We’ll pretend we have a democracy, but we actually don’t. Now, Dewey reads this, and he is temperamentally more optimistic, and he thinks: ‘This is a really stimulating book, but Lippmann is wrong. He is setting the bar too high for the people. People were never supposed to be educated in depth about every issue, which is an impossible demand. Even Lippmann doesn’t have the time to master every issue, and he covers politics for a living. Instead, Dewey says, political issues generate their own publics in each case. I might care deeply about seven political issues. I might care about national health insurance, but I don’t care about gay marriage, or vice versa. So I get involved in one debate and not the other. I take the trouble of becoming informed about issues that interest me. And this is how Dewey and Marres see politics as working. Latour calls this an ‘object-oriented politics’. There’s a political object that creates a public, and for that public the object is never directly accessible. There are debates about it; there are compromises about it. And people aren’t just in power struggles with each other over what to do. They are also trying to figure out what the truth is. Humans can never get to the truth, as Socrates teaches us, but we can get closer to it. This is where Latour seemed to be headed, towards this sort of ontologically realist politics, against Hobbes, holding that there is an outside that infringes on politics and we need collectively to work out what that is. Anyone who wants to do so is welcome, but not everybody has to get involved in every issue.
‘There’s a political object that creates a public, and for that public the object is not directly accessible. There are debates about it; there are compromises about it.’
But then Latour seems to shift again when he raises the theme of the Anthropocene, as he does in his Gifford Lectures about Gaia two years ago. Here Latour switches back to his old power politics line, but in a Schmittian rather than a Hobbesian form. This comes up in the form of Latour saying ‘We have a problem with the climate change sceptics. We can’t convince them no matter what we do, but we pretty much know that we’re right. The future of the planet is at stake, even though we can’t quite prove it as scientists could in the past, because climate modelling is a lot harder than rolling balls down an inclined plane’. So Latour says: ‘We need Schmitt here. We need to defeat these sceptics; they’re the enemy. Maybe we can’t persuade them to change sides on the basis of evidence. We’re sick of dealing with these people, it’s time to beat them’. He doesn’t say with violence, but he does say roughly: ‘Defeat them, they’re the enemy’. Like Schmitt, he’s not saying that they are morally evil. He’s just saying that they are endangering all of us, and so they just have to be defeated. We must declare war, in the Schmittian sense.
Somewhere in line with Chantal Mouffe and Bonnie Honig who write about the defeat and antagonism …
I think there ought to be more discussion about the relation between the ideas of Mouffe and Latour. I don’t know if there’s anything detailed that’s been written on those two specifically. It would be interesting. Clearly they both have an interesting relation to the political theory of Schmitt.
Latour ends up with I think too much of a power politics as a way to deal with the Anthropocene, when I think there might be another path to take, which was the one he was already taking, in which reality and its surprises constitutes an outside that belongs to the political sphere, which can never be purely immanent.