Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 3

See here for short summaries of chapters one and two. Here is the third chapter, entitled: ‘Terre’ est un nom propre. Please remember: these posts are intended as nothing more than short summaries of the content of the book for those who do not read the French. I will endeavour to post more substantive analysis in due course.

The Samsa Family

At the beginning of this chapter, we pick up again the story of The Metamorphosis. Think about way Gregor and his family occupy space – differently. Gregor’s family (the mother, the father, and to a lesser extent the sister) are portrayed by Kafka as wire sculptures (“silhouettes de fil de fer”, 27), without material substance, skeletal. These physical descriptions echo their spatial existences. They are enclosed, isolated, shut in on themselves (“claquemurés”, 27) in their too-large apartment, struggling to pay for it, frightened by what lies outside the walls.

Gregor in his insect for of course is confined to a yet smaller space: his room. And yet, he can connect with so more things than them (“se relier à bien plus de choses qu’eux”, 27). He is linked in ways that the amortised family could never conceive. Moreover, as Kafka describes, Gregor’s movements around his room increasingly delineate or map out a freedom to occupy space in new ways: “as he moves around his room, he is able quite freely to elaborate niches, domes, bubbles, atmospheres, in short, interiors” (27-28). Latour’s language here is highly inflected by a Sloterdijkian register of course.

Thus we see the contrast: it is the family who are confined; Gregor who is free.

Think for a moment about the surveillance of the planet Earth that is conducted by Google satellites. From a computer located in Silicon Valley, we could localise upon the Samsa household by zooming in. And yet, were we to do so, these characters would represent mere pixels on a screen, none more distinct than any other.

But what is viewed from afar (“le point de vue de Sirius”, the view from nowhere, as Latour never tires of reminding us) is always pixellated in relation to the real image. For Gregor in his insect form has become “terrestre” (29, this is the crucial codeword of the whole book). And so he signifies something quite different from his family (“il se repère tout autrement que ses parents”, 29). Disgusting as it might seem, his footprint is now given by the things he has eaten, digested and left behind as he slithers around his territory (“des choses qu’il a digérées et laisées dans son sillage”, 29). Gregor cannot be so easily reduced to the form of a pixel when viewed from above: “aucune force ne peut l’aplatir ou le réduire à un pixel” (30). No, he truly occupies space. In its full multi-dimensionality. We read the story and seek to understand why we should sympathise with Gregor. But we are getting it the wrong way round: it is his parents and family that becomes insignificant for him, vanishing into nothingness.

It is as if Gregor and his family do not occupy the same Earth: “nous ne vivons plus, littéralement, dans le même monde” (30).

Lockdown

The before-and-after of the pandemic-induced lockdown corresponds to the (let us call them) different generations of characters represented in Kafka’s novel.

  • Most of us believe we are encapsulated and complete selves (as Latour puts it: “leur moi riquiqui”, 30). With this awareness safely in the bag, we then venture out into the world and seek to add to ourselves a material frame, composed of a bundle of inert things.
  • In the experience of lockdown, however, as we were literally confined to our rooms, we began to understand that this never was the case, that subjectivity never was constituted this way, “que personne n’a jamais eu l’expérience de recontrer des ‘choses inertes’” in the way described above (30). We began to realise that everything is arranged, maintained and given meaning by agency configurations (“puissances d’agir”, 31, another crucial but untranslatable Latourian term).

Subsistance

For those inspired by Gregor (if “inspired” is the correct term) all is alive, “tout est vivant” (32), in the sense not only of individuated living beings like termites, but also in the sense of the termitary itself, “en ce sens que, sans les termites, tout cet amas de boue ne serait pas ainsi agencé” (32). We know this because the termites themselves would not survive for one moment outside its confines.

What term can encompass this range of living beings? “Bioclastique? Biogénique” (33). Or “artificiel” (33)?

None of those terms suffice of course. Following on from his ontological nomenclature in the Inquiry, Latour specifies that the correct tern is “subsistence”: “la liaison, l’association, la superposition, la combinaison de tous ceux qui ont des soucis de subsistance et d’engendrement” (34). Subsistence comprises a branching from a predecessor to a successor (hence, it is an issue of “engendrement”, 35), each time via a small hiatus, thereby allowing a “généalogie” (35) to be traced to its origin like a salmon moving upstream. The present moment owes its form to this genealogy; we are “terrestre” in the sense that we owe our existence to those who came before us who created the conditions of habitation that we now enjoy.

Even in lockdown, when other work is denied to us, when we may feel restricted and thwarted by conditions imposed upon us from the outside, we can trace these genealogies. And thus we are free. Like Gregor was. For we may have been shut in, but we cannot be truly confined: “confines, oui, mais chez vous” (36).

Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 2

My previous post began my chapter-by-chapter exploration of Latour’s wonderful new book, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres.

In the second chapter, entitled ‘Confinés en un lieu quand même assez vaste’, Latour shows how the model described in that first chapter, the self-regulating construction of a habitable space, applies to different scales of “outside”: a city, a mountain, the social world, and finally to the Critical Zone of the Earth itself.

The city

To live in a city is to occupy a networked space whose “channels” spread out deep around us. Whether we conceive of these channels figuratively, or as some more material network (like the London Underground tube system), it remains the case that the spread of the city is like a termitary: “la ville est l’exosquelette de ses habitants, comme les habitants laissent derrière eux un habitat dans leurs sillages” (18).

In this description, Latour is drawing heavily on his magnificent earlier book: Paris: Ville Invisible.

The city is almost an organic extension of our own activities. And if the human is removed from this space, which of course is precisely what happened for so many town centres during the pandemic, it no longer has the feel of a city. Thus, “la ville […] émane de ses habitants” (23).

The Vercors Massif

But can we move out of the city to find something that is truly external to us: “rencontrer quelque chose qui soit vraiment dehors” (19)?

Latour recollects the teaching of a geologist friend at le Grand Veymont, a mountain in the Vercors range that has an impressive Urgonian limestone cliff face.

Urgonian carbonate is a lithostratigraphic unit of rock in this area that was formed in the Early Cretaceous when high sea-levels permitted the deposition of carbonates rich in corals and rudists (reef-building organisms). These are called bioclasts: skeletal fossil fragments of once living marine or land organisms laid down in a marine environment, especially in limestone varieties around the globe. This rock therefore constitutes “une autre conurbation géante, depuis longtemps désertée par ses habitants” (19), engendered by “un long travail d’astuce et d’ingénierie d’animalcules innombrables” (20).

Interim conclusion: both environments (the urban landscape described above and this mountain face) are like termitaries: they have been constructed from within by their inhabitants.

Gregor’s labour

We deduce from the narrative of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that Gregor, whom Latour has already introduced in the first chapter above, must have been already alienated in significant ways … from his family, from his colleagues and especially from his mode of labour.

But what is amazing is that once he becomes metamorphosed, he discovers a new form of productive labour. He arranges the clothes and furniture in his room. He literally regurgitates food (which he uses as a sort of cement) in such a way as to mould the environment he inhabits to his personal taste.

Thus, although he remains confined to his room, he regains his freedom: “le confiné se déconfine à merveille. Il commence à retrouver une grande liberté de mouvement” (20).

The walker on the mountain

To ascend le Grand Veymont a pedestrian is likewise engaged in this sort of circulating labour, breathing oxygen offered by atmospheric processes and contributing in return a footstep of carbon dioxide. She is “la piétonne d’une metropole immense qu’elle a parcourue une belle apres-midi” (21) and “logée au-dedans d’une conurbation qu’elle ne pourrait jamais quitter sans aussitôt mourir asphyxiée” (21).

Agency processes

By broadening our horizon (from the city, to mountain, to individual human walker) we can begin to see that these processes are carried out by all sorts of actors. These might be “des travailleurs”, “des animalcules” or “des agencements subtils” (22). The point of unification is that they are all agents that have “la capacité à changer autour d’eux leurs conditions d’existence, à élaborer des niches, des spheres, des ambiances, des bulles d’air conditionné” (22).

Nature as constructed, not providential

We can better understand the condition of “nature” if we understand it as subtended by actors, rather than by (mute) organisms: “elle est surtout composée d’artifices et d’artificiers” (22).

This enables us to avoid the myth of providence that suggests the conditions for life were fine-tuned by “good fortune” (22), “une version si providentielle de l’accord entre les organismes et leur environnement, comes ils dissent” (23). This would be like congratulating the termite or the ant for the fine-tuned conditions of their termitary or ant-colony. What a nonsense!

On the contrary, were we to say that, these insects would surely reply that “c’est elle et les milliards de ses congéneres qui ont émis cet ‘environnement’ qui sort d’elles” (23). And this holds for all environments: “ce sont les vivants qui l’ont rendue favorable à leurs desseins” (23).

Islands

Latour cites the stories of his childhood (such as Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse), where shipwrecked people would first mount to the highest point to ascertain where they were located and to gain their bearings. They are reassured when they realise that the edges of their environment can be spied from the centre.

Similarly, we too are disorientated at the moment, but there is comfort in knowing that the further edges of our environment are still accessible, that “nous devinons le bord depuis l’intérieur, par transparence en quelque sorte” (24). This is the definition of scientific knowledge (to use the language of the Inquiry, that is knowledge in the mode of REF), that is, we look outwards via numerous connections that link us to the “dehors” (23)

The inside and the outside

The inside (“le dedans”), then, is defined as the space that is subject to all these agency configurations, whether it happens to be near to us or far from us in space. This is the space of the Earth, “l’en deçà Terre” (26), and those who inhabit it are “les terrestres” (26): “c’est avec eux que je cherche à entrer en relation lançant mes appels” (26).

It is important to note that “terrestres” does not describe a “type” of thing (such as humans, viruses, animals), “mais seulement une manière de se localiser en déclinant la série d’ascendants et de descendants dont les soucis d’engendrement se croisent un instant” (44).

The only thing that would be outside this space would be that which is beyond the space of the Earth, which we might call the wider universe, “l’univers” (26). This links back to the opening chapter, where we had a guilty desire to look beyond the fragility of existence on Earth in order to sense the stability of the Moon. But although we may know a lot about the universe we do not have “l’expérience directe” (26) of it. That is reserved for the space of the Earth, the Critical Zone we occupy. It is to those who inhabit this space, “les terrestres”, that Latour will offer advice in the rest of this book.

Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 1

In recent weeks I have been tweeting chapter-by-chapter summaries of Latour’s new book, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres. This book is important, I think, because it provides a summary and expansion of a number of articles Latour has recently posted on the pandemic and lockdown, continuing the work of applying the philosophy of “the new climactic regime” to our global political situation (his two most recent long works, including Down to Earth as well as this book, can increasingly be seen as an application to politics and society of his 2015 Face à Gaïa).

A number of people have asked me to post these unwieldy twitter threads here on my blog. In doing so, I have done not much more than fill in some of the original tweets, providing (I hope) readable summaries. In each case, I will not necessarily offer commentary or analysis. I hope this series serves as an introduction to this wonderful book, perhaps for those who do not yet read the French.

The first chapter, Un Devenir-Termite, sets the scene for the novel analysis of the lockdown that Latour will go on to provide.

Lockdown

We come back outside, as if after a long confinement, searching for our bearings.

We cannot bear to cast our eyes towards natural phenomena, the sun, the trees or the landscape in front of us. Not merely because our eyes have become unaccustomed to the outside world during lockdown, but rather because we sense the damage we have inflicted upon it through our own activities in the Anthropocene.

But it seems that we do feel comfortable looking at the moon. Why? Because, perhaps only symbolically, its movement is beyond the reach of our activities: “au moins, il ne se sent pas du tout responsible” (10); “de son mouvement, enfin, tu te sais innocent” (10). That is to say, the moon remains the closest object that is far enough away not to be changed by human activity: “elle est le seul être proche qui soit extérieur à ses soucis” (14). The moon therefore retains an innocence that has been squandered with regard to our own planet.

Kafka’s metamorphosis

To come out of lockdown (itself, as we have seen, a metaphor for coming-to-our-senses with regard to our environmental impact) is to awake from slumber like Gregor Samsa, becoming grimly aware of the monstrous form we now inhabit, and sensing the difficulty of inhabiting the world outside in the same way we did before: “c’est comme si j’avais subi, moi aussi, une vraie metamorphose” (11).

How does this analogy work?

Previously, like Gregor, we might have through we could occupy our own bodies innocently: “je pouvais me déplacer innocement en emportant mon corps avec moi” (11). But now, our bodies have become outward and visible signs of a monstrous metamorphosis.

In the same way, we are beginning to awake to the metamorphosis we have imposed on the world out-there:

  • Our bodies have become “monstrous” in the sense that we have carried behind us a trail of our own atmospheric emissions and pollutants, a disgusting sight for those who had “eyes to see”.
  • And now, in a more obvious sense, we also carry behind us the trail of the virus, threatening to infect others in a more palpable but no lless devastating way.

We emit our “sillages de virus et de gaz” (12); “derrière comme d’avant, c’est comme une carapace de conséquences chaque jour plus affreuses que je dois apprendre à trainer” (11).

And yet, rather than just passing away, we must learn to adapt, as falteringly as necessary, to this new existence, accepting that we are “dans un autre temps, quelqu’un d’autre, membre d’un autre peuple” (12).

Termites

Kafka’s insect image points us to the idea of termites whose termitaries are described as super-organisms because the termites form part of a self-regulating entity: the colony itself. The termites are restricted to the space of the termitary, but can extend themselves further in tht tthat they build outwards; the termitary thus becomes a type of exoskeleton or “corps étendu, en quelque sorte” (13).

Termitary

Part of the burden of this book is to describe and explain and explain the “termite-being” that we must acknowledge and own if we are to face the devastating and urgent challenge of the Anthropocene:

  • Humans too are those who construct and extend outwards the interior of their habitable space: “tu en as fait ton milieu intérieur, ta termitière, ta ville” (14).
  • Of course, we feel ill-at-ease with this idea, as described in the feelings of the one exiting lockdown above (14).
  • But we should not! We are like Gregor and should not feel we cannot exit our room in shame and horror at our modus operandi: “avec tes antennes, tes articulations, tes émanations, tes déchets, tes mandibules, tes prostheses, tu deviens peut- être enfin un humain!” (14). It is the other characters in the story (the parents, the sister, the awful manager who drops in to find out why Gregor is late) who have refused to become human; they should opine who they are and what they have become (15). Thus, we must read the story the other way around: “remis sur ses six pattes velues, Gregor, enfin, marcherait droit et pourrait nous apprendre à nous extraire du confinement” (15).

This self-regulating construction of a habitable space (which Latour calls “ce devenir-insecte, ce devenir-termite”, 14) is the antidote to those who feel their only resort these days is to gaze at the moon in despair at the climate crisis down-here. He is “ce Gregor don’t le devenir-insecte préfigure le nôtre” (27).      

In other words, Latour has presented us once again with his appeal to “retour à la terre” (15).

Lesser-known Pieces by Latour on Religion and Spirituality: Part 2

I continue here a series considering a few of Latour’s lesser-known pieces addressing the topic of religion and spirituality.

In the first post in this series I described my first meeting with Bruno himself, which took place in London in 2014, and the publication that ensued from that event.

In this post, I wish to draw your attention to a very obscure catalogue piece, written in 2000 to support a small exhibition held at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, entitled No1se: Universal Language, Pattern Recognition, Data Synaesthetics, A Series of Exhibitions about Information and Transformation, curated by Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer. The text is not available anywhere to my knowledge and even the exhibition site has now become redundant. I ordered it some years ago via postal order as a bound catalogue from The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (and it is now sitting in a cardboard box in my shed somewhere, as it hasn’t made it onto my “Latour” shelf due to its ring-binding).

The piece itself is called ‘Time for a New Icon? An Apparition, as on a Screen Darkly’. It’s a strange and abstract piece, examining Latour’s interaction with the symbols on the computer screen in front of him and the nature of the “messages” they keyboard delivers to him. Crucially, these messages are described as “angels”. This terminology is important because it is drawing upon a conceptual heritage within Continental Philosophy, where the word was employed as a trope to explore the role of “unexpected message-bearers” serving as vehicles for the transmission of meaning and truth. You need look no further than Michel Serres’ wonderful 1993 text Angels: A Modern Myth, of course, but the same idea is also found earlier in the work of Michel de Certeau (see ‘Le parler angélique’, 1984), where related terminology is used.

But what do “angels” signify for Latour? As I have repeated frequently on this blog, Latour understands religion as a matter of subsistence, not substance. And thus he can propose its derivation from material entities that are not habitually or conventionally understood as being religious. For Latour, nothing can be designated “sacred” or “profane” on the basis of an innate quality that pertains to its essential being. Rather, he considers how different entities, perhaps even unexpected ones, function as conveyors of religious meaning and truth solely on the basis of their interactions with other entities, that is, in their role as actors. In the Inquiry, he refers simply to “the beings of religion”. But this is only a mature nomenclature for what he earlier called simply “angels”. Hence, in this catalogue piece, he argues that material and technological objects that are generally considered neutral with regard to religious values can become “angelic” mediators of religious meaning and truth in particular contexts. Even the symbols on his computer keyboard (the form of which it is hard to imagine, given that this piece was written presumably in the late 90s!).

Latour’s point, then, is that it is possible to democratise the sort of entities that can qualify as emissaries of religious meaning and truth. Any entity in the world can become an “angel”, depending upon its function as a mediator within a network. Or, to put it another way, different material objects, understood as actors, can produce a compositional order that is religious in form.

This is crucial for an understanding of what I have elsewhere called Latour’s “political theology”, that is, his argument that “religion” can safeguard important compositional forms that will be needed if we are to live together and in harmony in the context of the New Climactic Regime.  

So this article is obscure. But it is important, especially when read alongside other articles from this period, including ‘On a Crucial Difference between Instruments and Angels’ and ‘Angels without Wings“. Perhaps I will dig it out of the shed!

New Article: We Have Always Never Been Modern

A new article from me examining how Latour’s work can help us to trace new genealogies of modernity.

Read the article here.

Can the Concept of Gaia be Redeemed for Biology and Earth System Science?

For some, the announcement of the arrival of the Anthropocene has sounded the death-knell for serious consideration of the concept of Gaia. After all, if there is anything that the end of the Holocene demonstrates, it is that the homeostatic stabilisation mechanisms that are enacted in Gaia to regulate habitable conditions for life on Earth have been decisively overwhelmed by the destabilising effects of human-induced activity. [1] What further use can there be for Gaia, then?

But don’t speak too soon. For this forthcoming article in The Anthropocene Review, “Life on Earth is Hard to Spot” (Timothy Lenton, Sébastian Dutreuil and Bruno Latour) makes a case for the ongoing value of the concept of Gaia to the disciplinary fields of biology and Earth System Science (ESS), and to philosophical and theological speculative thought in general.

In broad terms, the authors argue that the productive deployment of the concept of Gaia within the natural sciences has been in eclipse not because of the arrival of the Anthropocene as a fundamental paradigm disrupter, but because “different scientific disciplines have persistently missed the extraordinary and variable influence of Life on the Earth”. Here, the term “Life” (with a capital “L”) is being used in contradistinction to the word “life” or “living beings”. By referring to “life” or “living beings”, biologists and Earth system scientists have construed the biotic component of Gaia too narrowly; what is addressed is this particular living thing as a subset of other living things. The authors suggest this sort of error is found, for example, in “niche construction theory” (pace Lalande), whose examples of adaptive environmental effects are drawn from an overly-localized empirical field: the building of nests and burrows by these particular animals or the alternation of nutrient cycling by those particular plants, for example. No doubt, there is certainly more work needed to formulate and substantiate this accusation.[2] But conceptually the authors of this article wish to contrast this narrow definition of “life” with their own concept of “Life” (with a capital “L”). Here, “Life” denotes the “total ensemble of all living beings”. There are no subsets or genera of “Life”. The context in which “Life” operates is only the abiotic. “Life”, then, becomes a suitable candidate for the role of biotic partner in homeostatic regulatory processes of the sort identified by Lovelock and Margulis. Or, to put it another way, the formula “Life + abiotic environment” can be taken as an apt definition for the mechanism of Gaia.

The bulk of the article goes on to provide a sort of genealogy of the category errors that have been made by confusing “life” with “Life”. By focusing their study on the physical systems of the Earth (biogeochemistry, climatology, oceanography, solid Earth geophysics and so on), ESS, for example, failed to see how the negative entropy of the Earth’s heat exchange had to pass through “Life”. The article points out that, for many Earth system scientists, the raw logic of their work would lead them to posit a “Mars system” as analogous to that of the Earth system, even though there are no living beings on that planet. “Life” indeed! This is an ironic inversion of Lovelock’s original insight about life on Mars made whilst he worked at the JET Propulsion Centre in Pasadena, California. It shows how a basic misapprehension of what constitutes biota has slipped in to ESS. The article provides similar diagnoses of the assumptions lying behind the Earth system models of NASA and the IGBP.

By positing “Life” as the most accurate definition of the biotic component of the Earth, then, the article argues for a redemption of the concept of Gaia within biology and ESS. And yes, even its teleological pretensions! This is where the article gets interesting for political theology. For one of the key reasons why Gaia theory has been dismissed is on account of its invocation of goal functions and the apparent purposiveness that seems to indicate. Conceptually, the very notion of teleology was thought to imply a consciousness that biologists believed could in no way be attributed to the Earth system. How can this be reconciled?

The article merely hints at an answer to this question. But the crucial point is this: Lovelock introduced ideas of feedback, self-regulation, homeostasis and goal-seeking behaviour from the field of cybernetics. The type of functional talk upon which he was drawing does not imply norms: it does not specify what the entity should do in this particular system. Insofar as biologists defer from the teleological implications of Gaian mechanisms, then, the error (so this article claims) comes not from the side of Gaia theory, but from the intellectual history of biology itself. As the authors put it: “the issue of teleology […] is embedded within discussions from 18th century natural theology, where the functions of organs within organisms or of species at the surface of the Earth were designed by God or where the apparent design of a biological entity was used to prove the existence of God”. So there is a political-theological aetiology to biologists’ own critiques of Gaia as teleological.

I think there is great potential in this suggestion. But more work is needed here to show what is meant. How and when did the biological sciences imbibe a concept of teleology that originated in theistic, rationalistic proofs for the existence of God? The article ends with this plea:

Two issues merit further discussion which we leave for further papers: a more detailed history of ESS and its relationship with Gaia, and a serious discussion of Gaia’s teleology, linking the theoretical efforts developed by the Gaian scientific community with philosophical debates on causality and on the way Gaia has changed what we mean by ‘life’.

There is much to be said here. And I will take up aspects of this challenge in my forthcoming book: The Political Theology of Bruno Latour.

But one text that will certainly be useful in this regard is that of French epistemologist of science Philippe Huneman, whose 2008 book Métaphysique et biologie Kant et la constitution du concept d’organisme shows how Kantian notions of “regulatory principle” and “natural end” fed into the early stages of the development of the discipline of biology and inclined it to a certain understanding of teleology.

So more work needs to be done.

But this is an important intervention in the field of Gaia Studies, drawing attention to the value the concept retains at the time of the Anthropocene.


[1]  A classic statement of this is Crutzen PJ (2004), ‘Anti-Gaia’, in: Steffen W, Sanderson A, Tyson P et al. (eds) Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin: Springer, p. 72.

[2]  Is it really the case that evolutional biology can be arraigned for being neglectful of the category of “Life”? Much of this claim rests on a prior argument made by one of the authors, cf. Dutreuil & Pocheville (2015), ‘Les organismes et leur environnement: la construction de niche, l’hypothese Gaia et la selection naturelle’, Bulletin d’histoire et d’epistemologie des sciences de la vie, 22: 27–56.

Notes on Michel Serres, “The Natural Contract”

Recently I posted some of my own written notes on Serres’ 1985 book, The Five Senses. Here, on request, I post similar notes on The Natural Contract.

You will find here a summarised transcript of the text itself, broken down into chapter headings that I have supplied myself. Please note that there is no attempt here to introduce comment of my own of any sort. And I take no responsibility for accuracy! But the document may be of interest to some who are working through the book themselves.

Do check out Chris Watkin’s amazing posts on the same book and his recent interview on the Hermitix podcast.

Exiting from “The Economy”, translation of a piece by Dusan Kazic

I was delighted to read this very interesting article from anthropologist Dusan Kazic published on AOC. Building on aspects of Latour’s work, both in the Inquiry and elsewhere, Kazic presents a compelling vision for exiting from “The Economy”, that artificial metaphysical construction that dissociates us from the interactions that comprise real “economic” activity. Here is a translation. Kazic has a book forthcoming with La Découverte, based on his doctoral research, entitled Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes. Latour has referred to him in some of his recent work.

I hope you enjoy it!


COVID-19, MY AMBIVALENT ALLY
DUSAN KAZIC
PUBLISHED IN AOC, 15 SEPTEMBER 2020

COVID-19 arrived at the end of 2019, at the very moment I was defending my thesis, which set out to describe the multiple dynamic relationships between French farmers and plants.[1]

Barely three months after that defence, COVID-19 became my “ambivalent ally”. Awfully, it confined me to my house, along with half of humanity. And yet, at the same time, it served as a scientific ally by putting a clear stop to what can be called the universalist “grand narrative” of the Economy – to be understood here in the disciplinary sense – which asserts that humanity is obliged “to produce in order to live”.

The COVID epidemic has imposed a hiatus upon this highly naturalized story, which tells us that production constitutes the materiality of humanity, that we cannot live without it, and that we are obliged to produce in order to subsist. In this story, a world without production is impossible to imagine or conceive, for the reason that humanity would starve and life on Earth would be made impossible. All that can be imagined are ways of “producing and consuming differently”, that is, ways of changing “modes of production” and consumption. At a push, we might think about “getting out of growth” or “conceiving of a society without growth”, but getting out of production itself is altogether unthinkable.

And yet, that’s what the issue boils down to. My anthropological work, based on surveys and observations of about sixty farmers in France, breaks with the production paradigm on which the two predominant political regimes of modernity rest – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other – and proposes that we enter new worlds that I have called (for want of a better word) “post-productive”. This term “post-production” does not refer to futuristic or utopian worlds. It refers to present, real worlds, ones which do not exist under the auspice of “naturalistic” epistemologies where humans “produce in order to live”, but by means of epistemologies where we try our best to exist with the other-than-human world through multi-specific links [au travers de liens multispécifiques]. To put it another way, it is about moving from a paradigm of production to a paradigm of relationships with plants, conceiving of an agriculture without production, which at the same time would not prohibit us from feeding ourselves.

In describing the multiple relationships between farmers and plants, I have tried to show that production does not constitute the materiality of our modern world, but rather that it is our relationship with plants that constitutes our true materiality. The concept of production is an abstract, economic, universalist and naturalized concept that has spread on this Earth through two political regimes that emerged with the arrival of modernity – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. These two regimes, which are a priori opposed to each other, agree on one thing (one could say that they share a common epistemology), namely, that they both consider “production” necessary if humanity is to be kept fed.

Contrary to what ecologists and les décroissants say, capitalism and socialism are not productivist regimes, but regimes of production in their own right. They are conceived and designed to produce, not to live alongside the non-human world. By critiquing (only) the “productivism” of these two regimes, both ecologists and les décroissants seek a form of “good production”, and at least for one of them this has to take place without growth . However, this idea of “good production” only serves to essentialise “relations of production” and does not break with the paradigm itself.

Capitalists and socialists have been fighting for more than a century to get hold of the famous “means of production”, all the while being in agreement on the core matter, namely that production constitutes our materiality and that we are obliged to produce in order to feed ourselves. This is why, since the beginning of the COVID epidemic, all leaders – whether they are capitalists, communists or ecologists – have wanted to “restart production”. But none of these regimes take into account our links with the other-than-human world because they don’t think they live alongside them, or rather they consider these to be “secondary” to the production that is supposed to constitute our materiality.

I showed in my thesis that farmers have never been in a relationship of “production” with their plants, but of “co-domestication”. Farmers domesticate plants just as plants domesticate farmers, and this has been going on since the dawn of time. In concrete terms, this means that neither farmer, nor carrot plant, nor tomato plant, nor courgette plant, nor chicken, cow, pig or sheep has ever “produced” a single carrot, tomato, courgette, chick, calf or lamb. If we eat and live on this Earth, it is thanks to our relationships with living beings, without which no-one could live. This is why we cannot say we are suffering with hunger more during the lockdown than before it. As we enter into a new world, then, it is entirely possible “to imagine preventative measures against the resumption of pre-crisis production”, to use the title of Bruno Latour’s article – because we have never lived in production, but always in a world that is about more than merely the human.[2] 

How did we arrive at such a naturalisation of the concept of production such that we have deemed it constitutive of our materiality? What has happened to make this concept of the Economy – which can be defined “as the exploitation of resources of labour and capital in order to produce goods or services” – become so dominant that we have come to believe deeply that it causes us to live?

To do this, we need to reopen a story. This will not be pleasant reading for Marxists. Accusing “capitalism” of all the evils on this Earth in order to place oneself on the right side of history, that is to say on the side of socialism, theirs is a simplified and hazardous story that leads nowhere. It was not the liberals who most naturalized the concept of production, but Marx himself, and the Marxist discourse that ensued.

By calling farmers “barbarians”, by deeply despising them (as did many authors of his time), that is, by understanding nothing of the agricultural world, Marx at the same time made a serious mistake in his analyses of “capitalism”. Capitalists do not appropriate to themselves the means of production in order to create wealth through private property – the commonly accepted definition of “capitalism”  – rather, aided by private property and the concept of production, capitalists make wealth by severing [réduisent]their relations to the world, which is exactly the opposite of what Marx thought. In other words, capitalists ontologically strip living beings in order to reduce them to the status of “resources”, then transforming them into “products” and “commodities”. Marx postulated without any empirical foundation that man is a being who produces in order to satisfy his basic needs. The act of production in the Marxist doxa is a universal and ahistorical anthropological category that refers to humans everywhere, whereas in fact no one has ever produced anything. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor “societies outside the orbit of those developed by the Enlightenment”, in the words of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, are based on production, but on “certain relations of life and death between humans and the non-human world”. There have never been different regimes of production on Earth – there has never been socialist production, there has never been capitalist production, there has never been Asian production – but there are different ways of living alongside the non-human world, as anthropologists have taught us over the last century and a half. By making production the materiality of all humanity, Marx gave the Economy a power it could never have imagined, that of generating naturalized, universalist grand narratives (about the Market, about Production, about Growth, about Consumption) on a gigantic scale, with no connection whatsoever with our “animated world”, cutting us off deeply from a world that is more than the human.

Capitalists and Marxists are heirs to Economists, those formerly called “physiocrats”, who emerged in France in the 18th century by asserting this very strange idea, without any empirical basis, that “agriculture produces to make the nation rich” (while the farmers themselves had never heard of the term production), then opposing it to other sectors considered “sterile”. Instead of criticising the concept of production itself, liberals and Marxists will criticise the physiocrats by stipulating that other sectors are also productive, thereby extending the concept to the whole social domain. After the Russian revolution, the Marxists transposed the concept of production into the regime which was being established, and then to all Socialist countries, by seeking to develop “productive forces”. Capitalists and Marxists are enemy brothers both fighting for the “means of production”.

We now understand why we all agree with the idea that we have to produce in order to live. In this sense we are not all Marxists or capitalists, but we are all physiocrats. We all have the same vision of the Economy down to the decimal point. We just seek to house it in two opposing regimes that are essentially in agreement on the core matter. The physiocrats have locked us into a dead-end story. This is why I became an “eco-agnostic”.

To get out of this naturalised story, it is not enough to get on board with “green socialism” or with “green capitalism”. We will have to re-describe ourselves afresh as being in relation with the non-human world by not believing what the Economy says. This is the meaning of the questionnaire proposed by Bruno Latour at the end of his article on preventative measures, which invites us to imagine the preventative measures that could be taken against the return of pre-crisis production. 

In order to stop being a physiocrat, I proposed to “animate” the plants so that they are no longer reduced to the status of “resources”, as the Economy does, so to be able to enter into relation with them. The concept of production severs us deeply from our relationship with the non-human world and renders us “without ground”. For example, the act of talking to plants, entering into particular relationships of partnership with them or subjecting oneself mutually to them, is not allowed by these epistemologies because it is seen as “far-fetched” or secondary. This is why it is vital to break with the central concept of the Economy in order to plunge ourselves into our true materiality which is constituted through our links with the non-human world.

To begin to uncover this “animated world”, we must stop believing the Economy when it says that humans and corporations produce in order to put “products and goods on the market”. The suspension of this narrative provides an opportunity to account for the world in a different way and to see how we might live when we are not reduced to the status of resource by the Economy. A smartphone, a plant, a cow – these are products and goods for the Economy, but not for the people with whom they are in daily contact. The computer on which I write is not for me a product or a commodity; it is a writing machine that allows me to give shape to what I think.

In order not to fall back into production, that “second nature”, we’ll have to get rid of the prophecy with which Das Kapital began:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.

This must be replaced with a simpler sentence stating that corporations make lots of “animated things” with which people relate in a multitude of ways. This makes it possible to get out of the “second nature” on the one hand, and on the other hand, not to turn things into inert and inanimate objects with no power to act on us. Our world is as animated as that of other peoples, as the philosopher David Abram has shown, but the modes of animation are not the same. In order to achieve a good symmetry between Us and Others, we must get rid of the idea given to us by the Economy (but not exclusively) that we should be characterised as living in a “society of production and consumption” surrounded by “products and goods”. Of course, we are still that white people who have decimated countless indigenous peoples and who are in the process of devastating the world, but “we must reject the idea that we are a people of merchandise” (cited from here).

With this shift in theory, we no longer find ourselves in a production regime or in a “market society”. The question is no longer how to relaunch production or choose which modes of production we should put in place, but to know which animated things we have to make and transform, with which living things we wish to enter into relation, and so on.

To get out of production, we must “get out of the Economy”. The construction site is huge. In order to lay a first stone, we could, for example, advance the hypothesis that the jobs to which such questions inevitably lead us do not depend on the Economy, but on the “state of the world” [l’état du monde]. This is what COVID-19 has shown: jobs cannot be created or maintained without taking into account the state of the world.

With the ecological changes that are underway, as we know, some jobs will disappear and others will be created (this is why I maintain that universal income – with a decent income – must be part of all public policy proposals, because there won’t be jobs for everyone – and that’s a good thing!) What I basically want to say is that we should stop thinking of jobs depending on the Economy, or rather that we must distinguish jobs from the Economy. I am fully aware that this is one of the most difficult theoretical, epistemological and political journeys to make, but COVID helps us to think about this turning point. The idea that “you have to relaunch the Economy in order to create jobs”, the story that the Economy tells, is one where you never know what “relaunching the Economy” means, because you never know what you are relaunching when you say that.

To bring home the strangeness of this fully-naturalized motto, we can make a comparison: it would make no sense to say “that anthropology or philosophy must be relaunched in order to create jobs”. We can deduce from this that jobs are not created by the Economy, but by something else. In order to find out by what, we have to carry out investigations free from the economic episteme. Nor should we believe that the circulation of money depends on the Economy. In his Debt: 5,000 Years of History, David Graeber taught us that the invention of money predates the birth of the Economy.

Economics is a discipline born in the 18th century that tells stories about this world. It’s up to us whether to believe it or not. The problem is that, as physiocrats, we believe much more in the stories that Economics tells than in those told by other social sciences. In order not to fall back into the physiocratic episteme, that is, into the world before, we should not plead for “another Economy”, as many authors do. If we need a slogan, it could be that “nothing is Economic”. At least it leaves the door open to tell new stories.

For example, when Total destroys a mountain to build oil wells, one must resist the hasty claim that this is part of its “economic activities” or even that it is the “fault of capitalism” – socialism would do the same thing. This is part of its problematic relationship to the other-than-human world, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Economy. It can be said that it is an activity that destroys the world, derived from the fact that Total does not live with this mountain, unlike the humans and living beings who do. On the one hand, we are faced by a mountain that has been de-animated by Total so as to be reduced to a resource, helped by the stories of the Economy; on the other hand, we are faced by a mountain that is animated by humans and other living beings who live there. The effect of this displacement is that an “economic activity” becomes an “anthropological problem”, and ultimately a political one, since it concerns our ways of living with human and other-than-human beings. We are no longer in the Economy, but in an animated world engaged in ontological conflict over our ways of living.

Some may object by saying “we can’t escape the fact that the money has to come in at the end of the month so we can eat”. Again, just as it makes no sense to think that eating and earning a living depend on philosophy or anthropology, there is no reason to believe that this is a matter for Economics. We don’t need a “relaunch of production” or an “economic restart” [reprise], but rather a restart [reprise] of anthropology so as to manufacture non-economic realities. Our existence depends not on the Economy but on many other things.

Clearly, we must resist giving Economic explanations to destructive events, just as much as to events where money is involved. Above all, we must resist criticising these realities in order to replace them with other realities, which means that we will have to describe ourselves differently without resorting to Economic notions. In other words, to get out of Economy and out of production, that is, to stop being physiocrats, we will have to enter into a conflict of realities through which we might re-describe “capitalists” in a different way, rather than continuing to criticise them. In his novel Les Furtifs, Alain Damasio writes that the ultimate goal of capitalism is to “sell reality” [vendre la réalité].

To extend this idea and reverse the perspective, one must no longer believe that those who destroy, de-animate and oppress the world are “capitalists”. I leave it to the readers to imagine what else to call them, in the hope that we will be able to describe relations of power and domination between humans, but also between humans and non-humans, in a radically new way.


[1]  See « Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes », soon to be published at Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond.

Notes on Michel Serres, The Five Senses

If it is of interest, here are some of my own written notes on Michel Serres’ 1985 book, The Five Senses.

You will find here a summarised transcript of the text itself, broken down into chapter headings that I have supplied myself. Please note that there is no attempt here to introduce comment of any sort. But the document may be of interest to some who are working through the book themselves.

Interview Recording on Michel Serres, “The Five Senses”

It was wonderful to have the opportunity to speak recently with the Hermitix podcast about Michel Serres’ wonderful book, The Five Senses. You can access the interview here, on YouTube or via any of your usual podcast platforms.

Among other things in a long conversation, we discussed some “tools” by which a reader might approach this book, then embarking on a chapter-by-chapter analysis. So I hope this recording might be useful for new and old readers, and indeed for anyone who wants to dip into the wonderful world of Michel Serres.