Unmasking Nature: Risking Political Ecology

The short-term goal of this project is to explicate the primary tenets of Latour’s Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. While Politics of Nature is the primary text of this explication and analysis, the broader intent of this project is to synthesize the theoretical perspectives of Harman (Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics), Law (Actor Network Theory and after), Cooper (“Being Linked to the Matrix: Biology, Technology, and Writing”) and Clark (Natural-born cyborgs: Minds, technologies, and the future of human intelligence) with Politics of Nature so as to extend Latour’s theoretical frame; to consider the implications of Latour’s reshaping of the terms “science” and “politics” (among other significant/related terms) as they relate with his proposition for a new “political ecology” [the first legitimate, as he suggests (Latour 2)]: a composition of subjects and objects equally together within the common world, one which is continually being built according to due process. The intention of such a theoretical frame is to illuminate the intricacies (five, in particular) of Latour’s over-arching argument in Politics of Nature. His argument suggests that “the right way to compose a common world, the kind of world the Greeks called a cosmos” (Latour 8) is to practice political ecology, a return to the topos, the oikos, “… to inhabit the common dwelling without claiming to be radically different from the others” (Latour 224). Additionally, the long-term goal of this project is to provide a theoretical frame with which to define (*yet not fixedly/singularly define) political ecology so that it represents a new Constitution – one which succeeds modernism and one that understands ecological crises … one that no longer uses nature to account for the tasks to be accomplished” (Latour 246) and, instead, embraces risking a thoroughly non-modern attachment of subjects and objects that continues to shape and reshape the collective by its learning curve (Latour 235).  Such a frame will provide the theoretical foundation with which to assess how/whether this “new” political ecology is put into practice at the Resilient Tampa Bay workshop, a forum in which “… Tampa Bay professionals and residents [will] exchange ideas with professionals from The Netherlands in developing resiliency plans for the Tampa Bay region. The three-day workshop (Feb. 21-23, 2011) will focus on creating a vibrant and sustainable region by preparing for events such as hurricanes and flooding, while also incorporating long-term adaptation to impacts like sea level rise” (http://patelcenter.rc.usf.edu/). Rhetorical analysis of interactions between scientists and politicians (among others) at Resilient Tampa Bay will constitute the extension and application (“Part Two”) of this project.

Last, before delving into the specifics of each of the five “intricacies” mentioned above, it is necessary to collect these propositions (Latour 83) here, as they constitute the organization/body of this project. They are: 1) “Since politics has always been conducted under the auspices of nature, we have never left the state of nature behind, and the Leviathan remains to be constructed”; 2) “A first style of political ecology believed that it was innovating by inserting nature into politics, whereas in fact it was only exacerbating the paralysis of politics caused by the old nature”; 3) “To give new meaning to political ecology, we need to abandon Science in favor of the sciences conceived as ways of socializing non-humans, and we have to abandon the politics of the Cave for politics defined by the progressive composition of the good common world”; 4) “All the institutions that allow for this new political ecology already exist in tentative form in contemporary reality, even if we shall have to redefine the positions of left and right”; 5) “To the famous question, “What Is to Be Done?” there is only one answer: “Political ecology!” (221) – provided that we modify the meaning of the term by giving it the experimental metaphysics in keeping with its ambitions” (Latour 235).

Ultimately, this project, one which intends to articulate a thorough theoretical foundation with which to use as a foundation for rhetorical analysis, is flawed in that it cannot possibly encompass the full significance of Latour’s Politics of Nature. Of particular concern is Latour’s redefined terminology. Throughout Politics of Nature, Latour’s intention is to “describe the actual state of affairs,” as opposed to “overturn the established order of concepts,” which means that he “lengthens the list” of the collective, that which consists of human and nonhuman beings endowed with freedom, speech, and real existence (Latour 61).  Essentially, he deconstructs the common sense (“common sense:” an example of a term that Latour redefines …) notions of terms like “science,” “nature,” and “politics,” and reconstructs/redefines them as they reflect his agenda: composing of the common world, one that is being built according to due process.  Admittedly, this project is limited its ability to completely justify Latour’s argument as thoroughly as it ought to. However, despite its obvious shortcomings, it is nonetheless worthwhile in that it cites, problematizes, synthesizes, and articulates the specific tenets of a theory that will ultimately provide the direction for assessing the degree to which the Resilient Tampa Bay workshop follows Latour’s theory of political ecology. In essence, this project is an experiment, a risk; it represents just one reality in a web of realities that constitute the process of composing a democratic (and therefore plural, undefined, and thus progressive, experimental) political ecology.

“Since politics has always been conducted under the auspices of nature, we have never left the state of nature behind, and the Leviathan remains to be constructed” (Latour 235).

Before we can begin to understand Latour’s solution, the new Constitution (as he refers to it throughout Politics of Nature) it is important to understand the historical (old) constructions of the terms “politics” and “nature.” As defined by Latour, the “old” politics, one which was conducted under the auspices of nature, was forced upon public life too quickly; it articulated a nature “… already composed, already totalized, already instituted to neutralize politics” (Latour 3). Given such deterministic limitations, the ecology movement (has been, and has continually proven itself to be) unsuccessful because it has been/is too quick to position itself on the “political chessboard” without “… redefining the rules of the game, without redesigning the pawns” (Latour 5). What political ecologists should have done was “… slow down the movement, take their time, then burrow down beneath the dichotomies like the proverbial old mole … where political philosophy of science is concerned, one must take one’s time, in order not to lose it … [one must take things] one step at a time” (Latour 3). Harman’s reading of Latour also reflects this claim: that slowing down will ultimately enable the time that is intrinsic in developing (and redeveloping) the terms of the debate (of science and politics) so that action can more fully accomplish its democratic agenda; freeing itself from the enclosures of epistemology and sociology. Ultimately, they believe, political ecology can work freely with humans and nonhumans’ enclosures, arenas, and laboratories, in such a way as to provide an understanding of ecological crises that “no longer uses nature to account for the tasks to be accomplished” (Latour 246) . Latour concludes his (re-)framing of political ecology by posing the question of what is to be done with political ecology now with an excited and explicit, “Science is dead; long live research and long live the sciences!” (Latour 52).

The distinction between old Science and the (new) sciences is extremely significant for Politics of Nature, because it articulates the flawed (fixed/singular) transparency of Science. Why is transparency problematic for Latour? Because it doesn’t allow for doubt; it doesn’t risk (allow) what may or may not transpire between the steps of the process (i.e. ecology movements). In refusing to engage with the risk of not knowing, Science is too quick to limit itself to an already-unified nature; one that “…makes public life impotent by bringing to bear on it the threat of salvation …” (Latour 249). In contrast, the sciences of Latour’s “new Constitution” [also, the “Republic,” which “ … does not designate the assembly of humans among themselves, nor the universality of the human detached from all the traditional archaic bonds; on the contrary, by taking another look at the etymology of res publica, the public thing, it designates the collective in its effort to undertake an experimental search for what unifies it; it is the collective assembled according to due process and faithful to the order of the Constitution” (Latour 248)] accepts the risks of metaphysics in order to constitute a common/democratic world, one that embraces plural realities.

Harman’s Prince of Networks reflects Latour’s hypothesis: that slowing down the concepts of “politics” and ecology” will enable a more thorough – and a more democratic – conception of what political ecology is becoming. Harman writes, “Deductions too are transformed one step at a time through different layers of concepts, adjusting themselves to local conditions at each step, deciding at each step where the force of the deduction lies and where possible variations can be addressed or ignored. No layer of the world is a transparent intermediary, since each is a medium: or in Latour’s preferred term, a mediator” (15). What’s particularly significant here is Harman’s specification of the way in which Latour’s new political ecology ought to occur – “one step at a time.” Such a characterization reflects Latour’s prescription to slow down the movement so that, ultimately, humans and nonhumans can experiment in developing political institutions adapted to the exploration of the common world. Latour concludes, “In order to force ourselves to slow down, we will have to deal simultaneously with the sciences, with natures, and with politics, in the plural” (3). For Latour and Harman, the merits of slowing down, redefining, repositioning “politics” and “ecology” as political ecology are, ultimately, the successful instantiation of the best of worlds: “… the provisional result of the progressive unification of external realities … what has to be obtained through due process” (Latour 239).

“A first style of political ecology believed that it was innovating by inserting nature into politics whereas in fact it was only exacerbating the paralysis of politics caused by the old nature”

As Law articulates, it is the limits of the first/old style of political ecology that are inhibiting for actionable/democratic politics. To explain: when nature is subsumed within politics, as it is in the first/old style of political ecology, it becomes a secondary agenda of politics; its ability to act becomes futile; impossible. Such organization – such delegitimization – defines (fixedly and situatedly) what will count as simple and what will be conceived as impossibly complex (Law 12) meaning that the possibilities are limited, suppressed, reduced; paralyzed.

“To give new meaning to political ecology, we need to abandon Science in favor of the sciences conceived as ways of socializing nonhumans, and we have to abandon the politics of the Cave for politics defined by the progressive composition of the good common world

To reiterate, the distinction between Science and the sciences, as articulated above, is that whereas Science is defined – limited, fixed, situated, positioned – as a privileged force that has the power to reduce, or ignore, others, the sciences are constituted by a perpetual series of translations between actors, where no thing, no actor, no object, can be reduced (delegitimized) to anything else. At this point, it is necessary to finally explain one of perhaps the most significant terms of Latour’s argument: “actor.” In seems appropriate to cite Harman’s description from Prince of Networks:

In Latour’s own works … the tiresome strife between objective physical matter and subjective social force gives way to a more fascinating theme: objects, which he generally calls “actors” or “actants.” Such actors are not mere images hovering before the human mind, not just crusty aggregates atop an objective stratum of real microparticles, and not sterile abstractions imposed on a pre-individual flux or becoming. Instead, actors are autonomous forces to reckon with, unleashed into the world like leprechauns and wolves. (Latour 3-4)

What does this mean for “ways of socializing nonhumans” as articulated in the premise above? For Latour, the translations, the negotiations that occur between human and nonhuman actors constitute their collective socialization. As opposed to the old Science, which limits (subsumes) nature within politics, research and the sciences value the unknown potentialities of equally capable (human and nonhuman) actors. Such a premise constitutes Latour’s unique object-oriented philosophy, a philosophy that removes the limits – i.e. naming, labeling, fixedly and situatedly defining – and risks a nontransparent unknown; a forever-changing, forever-transforming politics, one that is “defined by the progressive composition of the good common world.”

It’s helpful to cite an example as a further means of clarifying more specifically what Latour’s metaphysics/object-oriented philosophy means for human/nonhuman relationships. In “Being Linked to the Matrix: Biology, Technology, and Writing,” Cooper cites writing as an example of a nonhuman actor/object, one that has the potential to be interpreted and reinterpreted (infinitely) as it is transferred among actants. She writes, “… writing creates distinctions through a process of exteriorization and reification liberating memory by turning ideas and actions into objects that can be passed to others, Latour says, to be reinterpreted and rearticulated into new practices” (25). Because writing is taken seriously as a nonhuman object/actor – an object/actor on equal footing with human objects/actors – it has the potential to affect other objects/actors; its agency reinterprets, rearticulates, realities. In this way, it is socializing – participating in the process of idea-creation and re-creation; it is experimenting with meaning-making. Given this understanding of writing’s potential as an object/actor that turns ideas and actions into objects/actors that can be passed to others, we see writing’s participating in politics, the progressive composition of the good common world.

“All the institutions that allow for this new political ecology already exist in tentative form in contemporary reality, even if we shall have to redefine the positions of left and right”

For Latour, the old dualisms – left and right – are infinitely limiting; as long as they are named (fixedly/singularly defined) as “the left” on the one hand, and “the right” on the other, democratic action will continue to be perpetually paralyzed. For Law, the naming of “left” and “right” – and, in fact, the naming of such (political) theories in general, signals “dead theories,” those that, “… celebrate their identity … hang on to their names, insist upon their perfect reproduction. Only dead theories and dead practices seek to reflect, in every detail, the practices which came before. So, there is, there should be, no identity, no fixed point” (Law 10). In practice, this “redefinition,” essentially, a de-naming, de-identification, of the old “left” and “right” doesn’t mean that the new Collective is going to be simpler, more clear, or transparent. In fact, it risks quite the opposite:

… we still do not have the slightest idea of what the consequences of such a reunion [of left and right], such a resumption of the work of collection might be … Let there be no misunderstanding: political ecology is not going to be simpler, nicer, more rustic, more bucolic, than the old bicameral politics. It will be both simpler and more complicated: simpler because it will no longer live under the constant threat of a double short-circuit, by Science and by force, but also much more complicated, for the same reason – for want of short-circuits, it is going to have to start all over and compose the common world bit by bit. In other words, it will have to engage in politics … (Latour 82-3)

“To the famous question, “What Is to Be Done?” there is only one answer: Political ecology! – provided that we modify the meaning of the term by giving it the experimental metaphysics in keeping with its ambitions”

For Latour, political ecology in its most basic conception is “… the understanding of ecological crises that no longer uses nature to account for the tasks to be accomplished. It serves as an umbrella term to designate what succeeds modernism according to the alternative, modernize or ecologize” (Latour 246-7). The ultimate ambition of political ecology is to redefine traditionally opposing subjects and objects as equal and intricately attached – collective – actants, coming together in a politics (as the “… progressive composition of the common world and all the competencies exercised by the collective” (247). This ambition is only achieved by risking democratic engagement in politics, which requires an engagement in uncertainty. Latour explains, “… in order to begin its civic work of collection, the Republic [that which “… designates the collective in its effort to undertake an experimental search for what unifies it…” (Latour 248)] considers only propositions [(… used here in a metaphysical sense to designate not a being of the world or a linguistic form but an association of humans and nonhumans before it becomes a full-fledged member of the collective …” (Latour 247)] instead of and in the place of earlier subjects and objects” (83). The transformation from the old dichotomy (Science) of subjects and objects to that of the sciences, reflects what Clark articulates in Natural Born Cyborgs: that being human is, in and of itself, the acting out of transformation, especially self-transformation. Clark explains, “It is our natural proclivity for tool-based extension and profound and repeated self-transformation, that explains how we humans can be so very special while at the same time being not so very different, biologically speaking, from the other animals with whom we share the planet and most of our genes” (10). The “tool-based extension” that Clark refers to is analogous to Latour’s “associations” between humans and nonhumans, a term that eliminates the old distinction between subjects and objects and redefines – extends – this dichotomy as a democratic collecting of humans and nonhumans.

Given the preceding frame – the (admittedly reductionist) articulation of Latour’s Politics of Nature as it relates with the ways in which the (five) tenets above are lengthened – how ought we to conceive of political ecology? What ought to be done? Of course, as Latour argues, “political ecology” ought to be done, but what do his theoretical premises do in practice? The conclusion to Politics of Nature revolves around the following question, which may be most representative of his challenge to work toward a political philosophy of objectivity; interacting humans and nonhumans: “Is it not time to free yourselves of that absolutism by rising to the dignity of representatives, each of whom must learn to doubt?” (222)

What does this imply, within the context of Latour’s five tents unraveled above, as they are reflected – and even lengthened (Latour 223) – by the related claims of Harman, Law, Cooper and Clark? Regarding the doubt Latour refers to, Law cites that, “… the real chance to make differences lies elsewhere. It lies in the irreducible. In the oxymoronic. In the topologically discontinuous. In that which is heterogeneous, It lies in a modest willingness to live … to practice in the complexities of tension” (12). Clearly, Law’s “topologically discontinuous” reflects Latour’s “doubt” in that both theorists emphasize the necessity of moving away from “nature” as it is traditionally conceptualized (politicized) within politics toward an engagement with politics, one that challenges, risks, and ultimately values heterogeneity, risk; collecting. Concerning the ways in which power is traditionally exercised by subjects over objects, Latour’s political ecology – in which everything is negotiable, including the terms “negotiation” and “diplomacy,” “sciences” and “democracy” (Latour 221) – is not only intentional in its abandoning of “nature” but, purports that (the reward of) such abandonment of nature is a simultaneous abandonment of the principal cause of political paralysis. In this abandonment – in this freeing of nature from politics, and to an even greater extent, from modernism’s reductionist internalization of it, we can begin to “parley” (Latour 221). Ludi incipiant!



Works Cited

Clark, Andy. Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human

Intelligence. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003, Print.

Cooper, Marilyn. “Being Linked to the Matrix.” Rhetorics and Technologies: New Directions in

Writing and Communication(Studies in Rhetoric/Communication). Ed. Stuart A. Selber, Carolyn R. Miller. Columbia: University           of South Carolina Press, 2010. 15-32. Print.

Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. Melbourne: re.press,

2009. Print.

Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004. Print.

Law, John and John Hassard. Actor Network Theory and after. Oxford: Blackwell

Publishers, 1999. Print.

Resilient Tampa Bay: An Exchange with Dutch Experts. University of South Florida,

2010. Web. 4 Dec. 2010. <patelcenter.rc.usf.edu/rtfconf/index22.html>




About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

11 responses to “Unmasking Nature: Risking Political Ecology

  • long post on Latour, Prince of Networks, other topics « Object-Oriented Philosophy

    […] Langbehn at the Univ. of South Florida outlines her project HERE. Posted by doctorzamalek Filed in Uncategorized Leave a Comment » LikeBe the first to […]

  • Tim Morton

    This is a timely project. Let me know if I can be of assistance. For a kick off I can send you a copy of Ecology without Nature. Or The Ecological Thought, which encapsulates the former’s argument in the intro.

    • klangbehn

      Dr. Morton –
      I received your response to my post while I was in San Francisco this December (*I’m in CA on semester breaks and during the summer months) and I’ve been meaning to respond to you since I received it … you know how beginning of the semester to-do lists go …
      Anyways, Yes! I’m very interested in both Ecology without Nature and The Ecological Thought, especially in light of my research/prewriting/drafting of Part Two of this project; the application of Latour’s political ecology to my analysis of science and politics as practiced during the Resilient Tampa Bay workshop. Is it possible for us to set up a quick meeting, etc. to discuss your research/texts as they relate with my project? I’m interested in your insights and perspective on how I intend to approach Part Two.
      Again, many thanks and I’m really looking forward to hearing from you soon!
      Karen Langbehn
      Doctoral Student: Rhetoric and Composition
      Department of English
      University of South Florida
      4202 E. Fowler Avenue, CPR 238
      Tampa, FL 33620-5550

  • Scandalous (?) Science: Redefining the Kilo and Latour’s Intellectual Paxil « Karen Langbehn

    […] of political ecology frees us from the circular dichotomies of the old politics, the politics that subsumes nature within itself: the politics of nature that is concerned with creating standards that … won’t change […]

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