Though we are still a week and a bit away from the first theory class in January, I did the first reading for the class and want to talk about it now. Thus I am putting this out there and hope that my class mates reading this have already done the same and wish to talk about it while it is still fresh.
The article can be read here. What follows is my dissection of the article, followed by a few points of concern.
The world is changing quickly – perhaps faster than any of the theoretical pieces that we are reading this semester could ever account for, and so what do we do about it? Do we continue on as if nothing has changed (which seems to be the position that many academics take, for better or for worse), or can we start thinking in new directions? What good is theory if it is theorizing about a world that no longer exists, or is, at the very least, disintegrating. This is something that I have been thinking about a lot this semester. In fact, one of the first conversations I had with my officemate Mark was this overwhelming sense that things were changing, especially within our chosen field.
“War of the World: What About Peace” By Bruno Latour
What was “brought to light” by the September 11th attacks?
Latour’s answer is that we in the West have been removed from the complacency of a half-imagined “peaceful future” with the world converging towards “fuzzy modernist ideals” (p. 2). September 11th should serve as a reminder that unity has to be made, and that it is made only through diplomatic efforts (as opposed to unity being an uncontroversial, uncontested starting point). September 11th was not the first strike in a “war of civilizations” as this war has been raging all along, and thus our best reaction is to explicitly address this battle in order to bring about “new kinds of negotiation, and a new kind of peace” (p. 4).
Thus, if we are in a state of war, who is engaged in the conflict? In earlier times, war was a simple matter because, despite their diversity, humans shared “a common world” linked against the background of “natural unity” (p. 5). Latour writes that:
Conflicts between humans, no matter how far they went, remained limited to the representations, ideas and images that diverse cultures could have of a single biophysical nature. To be sure, differences of opinion, disagreements and violent conflicts remained, but they all had their source in the subjectivity of the human mind without ever engaging the world, its material reality, its cosmology or its ontology, which by construction—no! precisely, by nature—remained intangible (p. 6).
The solution of conflicts in this era is reason; “when disputes occur, we need only to increase the relative share of scientific objectivity, technical efficiency, economic profitability and democratic debate, and the disputes will soon cease” (p. 7). Post WWII, unity had been constituted, the world unified. The only remaining task lay in convincing those who were reluctant to join the party.
These resistances were seen as “values” which were to be “respected.” Latour notes examples such as as “cultural diversity, tradition, inner religious feelings, madness, etc.” (p. 8), and states that Anthropologists, artists, curators and the like could even enjoy “respecting” these values because they “never threatened to stake a claim in the order of the world” (p. 8). Therefore, diversity could be handled by tolerance, “but of a very condescending sort since the many cultures were debarred from any ontological claim to participate in the controversial definition of the one world of nature” (p. 9).
The contradiction of a senseless — but unifying — nature, and cultures packed with meaning but “no longer entitled to rule objective reality” was solved by making the notion of “culture” sacred (p. 14). This gives rise to “multiculturalism,” which Latour argues is “nothing more than the flipside of what may be termed mononaturalism” (p. 14). That is, the notion that where there is one world, now there are multiple.
Latour is highly critical of multiculturalism, which he sees as another form of the condescension of ethnocentrism (in the West’s “respect” of diversity), and he states that “in this combination of respect and complete indifference, we may recognize the hypocritical condescension of cultural relativism” (p. 15). When the West says that “the one world is ours, the many worlds are yours; and if your disputes are too noisy, may the world of harsh reality come in to pacify your disputes” (p. 16), Latour remarks that this is “a peculiar offer of peace, one which had never recognized the existence of a war in the first place!” (p. 16).
Thus, we arrive at the paradox of the rise of both “globalization” and “fragmentation.” Latour argues that in complaining so unfairly against both globalization and fragmentation,
we identify precisely the deep transformation that took us out of modernism and the convenient solution it offered to the problems of unity and multiplicity. Fragmentation shatters mononaturalism; globalization destroys multiculturalism. On both sides, whether the aim is to create multiplicity or unity, opponents, fronts and violent contradictions are finally starting to appear (p. 24).
As a result of this convergence, we have then seen last of tolerance, the “hypocritical respect” of anthropology, and “smug assertions” about humanity; Latour argues that human rights will eventually come from a deep understanding that we are all inhabitants of the same world (p. 24).
In my favourite section of this pamphlet, Latour argues that because the modernists (and the West) believed that they were alone in definint the nature of the world, they managed to wage war “without ever coming into conflict with anyone, without ever declaring war” (p. 25-26). Latour notes that:
All they did was to spread, by force of arms, profound peace, indisputable civilization, uninterrupted progress. They had no adversaries or enemies in the proper sense—just bad pupils. Yes, their wars, their conquests, were educational! Even their massacres were purely pedagogical! We should re-read Captain Cook or Jules Verne: there were fights everywhere and all the time, but always for the good of the people. “That should teach them a lesson…” (p. 26).
Thus, Latour raises the question: how can we end war that has never been officially declared? (p. 27). How do we achieve peace when one side refuses to acknowledge that they are even at war?
To achieve peace, Latour states that the West “has to admit to the existence of war…to accept that it has had enemies, to take seriously the diversity of worlds, to refuse to accept mere tolerance, and to resume the construction of both the local and the global” (p. 29). This is a tough pill to swallow for a people who had no idea that they were hated in the world. What about Bush declaring that the Iraqi’s would be greeting American “liberators” “with open arms?”
Latour points us in the direction of diplomacy, makes a number of suggestions as to how, now that we see “others” as others, we can try and meet in the middle. Through diplomacy, Latour argues that we can start a dialogue of how the world is constructed, moving away from the cheapness of “facts” that only one side controls. For Latour, diplomacy cannot begin “until we suspend our assumptions about what does or does not count as difference…there are more ways than one to differ—and thus more than one way to agree—in the end” (p. 43).
Here Latour moves through possible meeting points – for example with the abandoning of “Science” in favour of “sciences” which make suggestions or “propositions” that lengthen the list of beings with which the common world must be pieced together” (p. 44). He also says the same of Religion:
Do we allow them to point to the objects, the rituals, prayers and the manufacturing kits that would allow it to be compared with the ways of producing other kinds of divinities? How could such an offer not be revolting, scandalous, blasphemous? Would it not amount to a reversion to the horrible archaism against which the great religions of the Book took their stand? And yet, the comparison with nature is enlightening. If “nature” was a political concept that tried to unify too quickly and without piece-by-piece composition of the common world, could not the same be said of the unity of God? (p. 45).
The construction of divinity would work in the same way as “sciences,” and would allow for diplomats to construct a common future. In a similar fashion, Latour sees similar potential in psychology, economics and politics.
Though I see potential in diplomacy, I am somewhat skeptical to believe that all it takes is acknowledgment that we in the West have been waging war. This is especially true when it comes to a diplomatic arrangement to co-construct our gods. Does Latour actually believe that either the Americans or the individuals who constructed the events of September 11th would be willing to discuss this?
Yet, saying this, I do think that Latour is on to something here. I want to share in Latour’s optimism; yet I think that Latour has “jumped the gun” a little. I think that a meeting to discuss “construction” is impossible without first constructing the table around which this conversation could occur.