Latour and the non-space and non-time of Modernity (part 2 of 3)

See my first post on the topic here.

Latour’s appropriation of the concept of utopia is quite different from what I described in my previous post.

Latour understands utopia to be a representation of a certain spatial conditioning effect that is imposed upon the human subject by the epistemological regime of Modernity. Unlike the social theorists mentioned in my previous post, then, Latour dismisses the possibility of utopia functioning as a resource by which alternative futures might be mapped and by which constructive political forces might be motivated. On the contrary, he shows how the discourse of utopia, wherever it is found in the contemporary West, refers to a territory that has already been mapped out for its inhabitants and thus contains within itself no internal dynamic for change. The idea of utopia does not facilitate a social imaginary in which a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived might be thought and through which progressive action to achieve it might be unleashed. Instead, it functions to neutralize all thought of an alternative future, thereby de-animating the associative ‘political’ forces that would be required to bring it about. For Latour, utopia is therefore subservient to the teleology of Modernity, whose end is always to abridge and curtail the generative complexity of the ‘political’ movements of plural actors in favour of an account of the world that is imposed upon it ‘from above.

Latour’s description of utopia in this negative sense develops out of his analysis of globalization, which he interprets as a vehicle for the epistemology of Modernity in general.

What is globalization? It is a logic of commerce and exchange that promises a large and unambiguous net gain for everyone. Because globalization allows different kinds of producers and consumers to inter-connect across borders, so the celebratory narrative goes, all would ultimately enjoy the benefits of progress and growth that globalized economic and trade networks would facilitate.

For Latour, however, that narrative is idealized, its promise of some kind of integrated wealth distribution being ultimately unrealizable. This is because, far from mobilizing associative forces, globalization has in fact already defined territories within which its various stakeholders must operate, thereby foreclosing the possibility that these same stakeholders will define any other future for themselves than the one they are currently experiencing. For all its expanded borders, globalization imprisons us all within a territory. Globalization thus imposes a utopia upon those who live within its reach, in the negative sense that I defined in my previous post.

In order to illustrate why globalization functions in this way, I will consider some of the expressions of utopia that Latour identifies and describes in our contemporary globalized world.

The 1% of Global Elites

The first is the utopia of the global elites, the 1% who are able to profit from the wealth generated by globalized networks of capital flow. Whilst their rhetoric has warmly embraced the concept of globalization as an opportunity for the material benefit of the whole, this minority section of society was really leveraging globalization for its own end and had no will to see greater wealth and resource distribution to the majority. For these elites, globalization was a utopia that only they would be inhabiting in the end. The self-interested and exclusionary utopic vision of these global elites was exposed by the global recession of 2008–2009 and by the retrenchment of capital flow that followed, when the myth of the progressive spread of wealth to the whole was suddenly and brutally revealed as hollow. Latour makes this point in a recent article on the future of the European project, where he observes that “si la mondialisation était une utopie—elle était réservée à ceux qui avaient abandonné jusqu’à l’idée de faire monde commun avec les masses” (my translation: “if globalization were a utopia—it was one reserved for those who had abandoned the idea of making a common world with the masses”).

The Fragmented Remainder of hte 99%

But there is also a second utopia. This is the utopia of the fragmented remainder. After the recession of 2008–2009, having realised that the project of globalization would not be serving their interests in the way that had been rhetorically mooted, those who were not global elites found themselves regressing to an alternative vision of utopia, which would be a space that this time they themselves would occupy and call their own, and in which they would not be beholden to the global elites as previously. This was the utopia of the nation-state, with the protections that are implied by its clearly-defined and firmly-policed borders. As Latour puts it in that same article, the utopias of the fragmented majority are the various spaces of “ceux qui fuient à rebours vers la protection, elle tout à fait imaginaire, assurée par les frontières nationales ou ethniques” (my translation, “those who flee backwards towards the completely imaginary protection offered by national and ethnic borders”). Latour proposes this second utopia as an explanation for the populism that has surfaced in contemporary British (post-Brexit), European and Trumpian politics, which is characterised by its promise to uphold the identities of those who are threatened by globalizing trends precisely by returning to or re-instating a narrower definition of what constitutes a valid social community, often couched in terms of nationally- or ethnically-based identity markers and anti-immigration policy platforms.

Donald Trump

But in both cases—the minority utopia of the globalizing elites and the populist, border-orientated utopia of the fragmented majority who have been left behind—these utopias symbolize singular, monistic and defensive occupations of a territory, where the impetus to include or to represent the interests of other actors, those who are not yet incorporated into the territory, is diminished and sometimes even halted entirely. In other words, Latour identifies globalization as a generator of utopias that (A) are already fully realized in the present; (B) are premised on a gesture of exclusion of new entrants into the utopian territory that has been established; and therefore (C) cannot be vehicles for the sort of future-orientated, associative politics that is envisaged by the social theorists described above, and that Latour himself encodes in his concept of nonmodernity. In this way, Latour offers a revisionist critique of the contemporary project of globalization.

Latour advances one additional, but very important, point about the utopias that have arisen in the contemporary globalized world: they must actually be understood as non-spaces, in the sense that those who inhabit them find themselves removed and dislocated from the concrete space of this world in which ‘political’ existence can take place. Hence, as Latour puts it in his recent text, to invest in “l’utopie de la Modernization” (whichever version of utopia is in view) means that “l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible” (my translation: “access to the earthly has been made impossible”). When he refers to “le terrestre” (or, in other formulations, to “the Earth” or to that which is “Earthbound”), Latour is describing how the utopias of globalized Modernity cause human beings to be dislocated from their attachments to this world as if they were finding themselves dislocated from physical existence on the planet Earth itself and elevated to a realm located somewhere else. Perhaps this accounts for trends in the genre of ‘utopian’ writing itself, whose internal geography, it seems to me, has had to become more and more fantastical over time as it has begun to exhaust or exceed the boundaries of this Earth (think of Hollywood). Whereas for the Renaissance utopias the exoticism of the New World sufficed, the genre has since then found itself increasingly having to explore other or parallel worlds in various modes of avant-garde, symbolic or science-fiction writing.

Utopia must therefore be understood “au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part”. Or, as Latour put it in a lecture delivered in 2009:

For me, the whole history of the Moderns offers up a most radical utopia in the etymological sense: the Moderns have no place, no topos, no locus to sit and stay.

The idea of the planet Earth as the literal, physical site (Latour sometimes refers to the “soil” that lies “under our feet” to render the image as clearly as possible) on which human existence must be elementarily grounded is a hugely powerful one in his recent work. Its opposite or negation, namely, human existence as that which has become displaced or dislocated from its situatedness on Earth, is a good description of Modernity and of the gesture of transcendence that lies at its heart and that functions as its operating principle. This idea has already been encountered in this chapter in the idiom of “le point de vue de Sirius”, which is the cosmo-eccentric vantage-point from which Modernity artificially fixes the movements of actors in the space of the ‘down below’.

This same utopic space, and its implications for what might be called ‘Earthbound’ existence, is also explored by Carl Schmitt, with delicate irony, in the foreword to a book he wrote in the context of the post-war political situation in Europe, published in 1950, entitled The Nomos of the Earth.

nomos

In this very interesting text, Schmitt provides an idiosyncratic historical analysis of European political order. His argument is that, even though there have evidently been many regional conflicts and wars between European countries, a state of general stability has nevertheless been maintained within the European mainland over many centuries because of a particular spatial configuration that he calls a “nomos”. His argument is that this (relatively) stable order was made possible by the fact that extra-European territory was available in the New World and elsewhere for “discovery, occupation and expansion” by the primary European powers. This provided an ‘outside’ that guaranteed a flow of (relatively) stable political forces ‘inside’ Europe. At the time of writing, however, with evidence of the chaos of post-war disintegration all around him, Schmitt diagnoses this particular spatial ordering as rapidly coming to an end. Pondering the possible shape and form of a new nomos, he ruefully suggests that it would require some “fantastic parallel” to the previous one, such as could only be conceived “if men on their way to the moon discovered a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on Earth”. In other words, Schmitt acknowledges that European political order (and, by implication, the nomos of the entire world) had been premised on a utopic ideology in which a new space, situated somewhere else, always had to be found. Since that new space was no longer available in the twentieth-century (short of rapid progress in technologies by which humans might be able to colonise other planets!), a perpetuation of that same nomos was no longer feasible. Instead, for Schmitt, a process of de-utopianization must take place: “human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now”, he writes in the Foreword, so as to re-conceive “the normative order of the earth”.

The analysis, and critique, of utopic space as being, literally, a space of ‘no-where’, is a unifying feature of all Schmitt’s post-war writing. For example, in a 1955 radio broadcast entitled ‘Dialogue on New Space’, Schmitt contrasts two modes of understanding of space that correspond exactly with what I have described above. The first is embodied in dramatic terms by the character of ‘MacFuture’, whose understands the maintenance of post-war global order in terms of American cultural and economic exceptionalism, and the possibility of forms of technological progress that would enable advanced nation-states to move beyond the restrictions imposed upon them by their own boundaries. This character is therefore an advocate for the utopia of globalization. The second understanding of space is voiced in dramatic terms by Schmitt’s own mouthpiece, a character called ‘Altmann’, who advocates instead for an associative mode of politics that takes place in the concrete space of this world, and not in a utopia that abridges or curtails this activity by situating actors in a ‘nowhere’ of transcendence: “the new spaces, out of which this new call comes, must therefore be found upon our Earth, and not outside in the cosmos”, as this character prophetically announces.

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