Latour’s Onus: Naturalpolitik, Imperialism, and Re-Collection

I’m a few months late on writing about this, but earlier this year, Millennium: A Journal of International Studies released an interesting article by Bruno Latour, titled “Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty.” It’s interesting not in the least because it represents an explicit leap into the field of politics, one which has been circled around in many of his works (Graham Harman has deftly illustrated this in Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political) and is even recognized as a distinct mode of existence, [POL], in the AIME project — but here, Latour dives directly into [POL] instead of merely tracing the outline of its conditions. Latour argues that, just as Nature was built up in contradistinction to Culture as the inert, objective backdrop on which science operates, the field of international relations has built its work upon the presupposition of a unitary and objective Globe composed of cleanly divided nation-states who autonomously interact with one another, when the reality of global politics is far more messy. Latour makes some effort to draw out a few paradoxical consequences of this structure regarding issues such as agency and causality, and while some of his arguments aren’t exactly new territory for IR (I was reminded at times of a book I read for my senior seminar in IR, Realist Constructivism by J. Samuel Barkin), it’s still refreshing to see him tackle a new area of study with his trademark argumentative style.

I think this piece becomes particularly interesting in the context of another article, “A Manifesto for Abundant Futures” by Rosemary-Claire Collard, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg. Their Manifesto came out a year or two before Latour’s article, but it anticipates many of his claims in an uncanny way. For Collard et al., declarations of nature’s recent passing made by folks like Latour, William Cronon, Noel Castree, and Gerald Braun (we could, I think, add Timothy Morton and Slavoj Zizek to this list) may unwittingly accomodate or inspire a new movement within centrist environmentalism: what they term “neoliberal conservation,” where non-human plant and animal life is conserved via enclosure within human social and managerial structures. Even if what we have heretofore called Nature is a falsehood (or at least is in fact un-natural), Collard et al. caution that tossing it into the dustbin of history plays too easily into the desires of the imperial geopolitical structures of neoliberalism, which would love nothing more than the opportunity to exploit new lands and species habitats that we had previously protected for the sake of ‘conserving nature.’ What emerges is a new mode of capitalist development that emphasizes conservation driven by economic concerns; not a capitalism willing to run roughshod over the entirety of the environment, but one that recognizes that a modicum of conservation is necessary for general (human) well-being, but offers no concern for non-human life beyond that.

Collard et al. are careful to acknowledge that this is not a necessary conclusion of Latour’s work, and that his philosophies are certainly distinct from neoliberal conservation, but worry that he undertakes particular argumentative moves that open the door to the latter. This is compelling especially in light of Latour’s connection to the centrist environmental think tank The Breakthrough Institute. Proudly sporting praise from the National Review on their sidebar, TBI fuses a decent amount of philosophical awareness with a hyper-pragmatic attitude in their defenses of market-based ecological solutions and critiques of the American left. If you ever thought Nietzschean will to power sounded like neoliberal ‘creative destruction,’ then TBI is the place for you.

Where the parallels between “Onus Orbis Terrarum” and “Manifesto for Abundant Futures” get interesting is in their discussion of the imperial character of Naturalpolitik. For Latour, the “natural Globe” enabled continued European rule over the world even as its colonial holdings whithered throughout the 20th century, and for Collard et al., Nature is “steeped in colonial patterns of power and knowledge,” and must be understood as an “artifact of Empire,” not simply an accident of academic inquiry. Latour continues that the Globe functions as a “ground map” upon which geopolitical positioning occurs, the demoninating element that determines whether an event is ‘local’ or ‘global’ (in a binary fashion, of course.) This Cartesian grid produces relations of distance or proximity, relativisation or universality, and difference or commonality (perhaps influencing, for an example, whether we in the US feel empathy for some foreign suffering, or whether it feels like ‘someone else’s problem.’) It funnels events into predetermined geographic spaces named ‘continent,’ ‘nation-state,’ ‘province,’ and so on, all stacked like Russian dolls (to reappropriate a simile he uses in Reassembling the Social). We might look to scholars like Michael J. Shapiro and his work on ‘violent cartographies’ to explore the actual violence that such an organizational scheme entails.

In response, Latour calls for a “re-call” on the Globe: his explanation here is scant, but he plays upon a double-meaning (as the French love to do) between recalling in terms of recollection of memory and recalling in terms of a company recalling a product. Just as nature needs de-naturalizing, we need a de-Globing, he says, a renegotiation of just how things are on this pale blue dot. What I think he means (or at least, what I hope he means) here is that the origins of Nature as an imperial modality must be re-traced and recognized in order for it to be surpassed; rather than simply scuttling it all and re-starting as if we were once again at the beginning, we need to follow our steps backwards so that we make rework things in a corrective manner. Ideally, this would mean recognizing the imbrication of capitalist development in Nature’s constructions — and equally, its interests in doing away with Nature today. This stance might reflect our obligation to attending to what Collard et al. term the ruinous element of Naturalpolitik, the material and discursive methods by which Nature has propped up colonial accumulation. Thus while”Nature might be dead,” for its colonized objects, “its ruins remain,” and merely whiping away the label of Nature invokes what settler-colonial studies understands as “terra nullius,” a new blank slate for imperial exploitation.

Collard et al. emphasize this notion of ruin to criticize the particular temporal invocations made by particular post-Naturalists, who identify Nature with a ‘Romantic’ attachment to the past and clamor instead for a future-oriented gaze (certainly, the very name of The Breakthrough Institute hints at this sort of attitude). They caution that the past still matters precisely because it offers us an image of an uncolonized world, one where non-European ontologies flourished, and while there might be no going back, we must explicitly draw from our predecessors if we are to move away from the present. Indigenous communities may possess time-tested social practices that provide alternatives to cold utilitarian economics.

What I do find to be problematic in “Onus Orbis Terrarum” is the rather explicit designation of a European audience and a whimsical but consistent reference to the re-call of the Globe as a new “burden of the white man.” My first impression to these remarks, repeated a few times throughout his piece, was one of significant discomfort — and that’s as someone who tries to exercise a little awareness that very occasionally, folks of my generation do lapse a bit too far into being the PC-police that we are so often stereotyped as. On the one hand, it’s nice to see Latour try to confront so directly the specters of colonialism and their particular character within one segment of the academy. That said, I think “white man’s burden” is one of those things that we probably shouldn’t say at all anymore, even when we’re trying to reappropriate it or make it mean something more progressive — the abhorrent racism that undergirds the term’s original meaning is ruinous just as Nature is, and the discursive effects of colonialism surely continue through it even when we try to redirect its specific meanings.

It’s here, perhaps, that one of Collard et al.’s criticisms of Latour really hit home. I’ll quote them at length:

Although Latour claims that we have never been modern, his invocation of a common world presupposes a “we” with sufficient ontological commonality to afford communication across communities. The modern constitution Latour describes was never universal, although imperial regimes of power certainly attempted to make it so (Blaser 2013; Sundberg 2013). As such, Latour risks treating Western thought as a universal frame of reference, which in turn negates the existence of radically different ontologies (Blaser 2009).

Personally, I’m not sure that Latour considers modernity to have been an illusion that was universally effective; I think that I could probably find some quotes going in the opposite direction if I combed through his work a bit. I do, however, think that this critique of a presumed audience  fits quite well with his designation of a new ‘white man’s burden’: if Europe has been responsible for spreading an imperial model of the Globe, why should Europe alone take the reins for clearing the way for alternatives? Why does Latour make this rhetorical move to reassert the border even as he demonstrates its porous character? This is especially troubling in light of how Collard et al. show us that the colonized objects of Nature and the Globe already have strategies for creating “abundant futures” that European theorists like Latour have paid little attention to. Oh, and don’t get me started on the unnecessary gendered language.

In 2004, Latour wrote that critique had “run out of steam,” and what we needed instead was more “carpentry,” more world-building and less world-destroying. The Manifesto for Abundant Futures concludes by outlining several guidelines for such work: first, we must not shy away from the ruins of Naturalpolitik, second, we should act “pluriversally,” and finally, we should support the autonomy of non-human animality. Each intermingles with the other; animal autonomy gains meaning when we surpass prior, ruinous notions of autonomy that may just happen to cater our own interests rather than those of others, and pluriversality takes on meaning when it more than a question of different understandings of the same world, and becomes different worldings that cross and interconnect with eachother. Collard et al. display an admirable knowledge of existing activist movements and ethical possibilities that enable each of us to find our own way to help create abundant futures for ourselves and for others. While I don’t want to dismiss the importance of Latour to my own thinking, I can’t help but feel like these geographers are right to express discomfort at the convenient bridges between elements of Latour’s thought and ideologies of neoliberal expansion.


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