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.

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