Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Chapter 1 of the New Latour Available, Apocalypse Awaits


Catherine Porter is translating Latour’s An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence to be published by Harvard University Press in 2013. A provisional translation of the introduction and first chapter is now available at Latour’s website (link at bottom of the page).

I’ve just started reading it. As the first page is strongly marked “NOT FOR QUOTATION” I won’t. But I will say that the opening is JUST SO.

Latour talks of a recent meeting where a climate scientist is explaining climate change to a small group of on the whole sympathetic industrialists and businessmen. One of them asks why they should believe that scientists rather than the skeptics. The scientist pauses for a bit and then observes that if people don’t trust the institutions of science, we’re in trouble. He then launches into an explanation of how those institutions work and points out that the skeptics have no comparable institutional infrastructure.

Latour observes—and I believe he’s right about this—that only five or ten years ago such a researcher would have invoked Science itself, not the institution, and he certainly would not have gone into an account of how the institution works.

That’s pretty much as far as I’ve gotten into the introduction, a scant three pages. So I don’t know what Latour went on to say, though he did say that the researcher was quite right to make the answer that he did, and that despite the fact that those institutions are frightfully complex. It’s as though—I’m speaking in my own voice now—under the dual pressure of climate chaos caused mostly by carbon emissions and skepticism about the consequences, Science has decided that it must come clean about its inner workings, must cease presenting itself as a secular theology to be taken on faith by the unwashed masses.
Could this, I wonder, be what’s driving the new atheists, outrage that their science is no longer being taken on faith, that they are being asked by the public to explain themselves?
But that’s an aside.

That Latour should have chosen THIS way to start his book seems to me a bit eerie. After all, only two weeks ago I was without electrical power, and so without the internet and the web, without light at night, and without hot water. I was witness to the apocalypse, not the full-on apocalypse, but a mini apocalypse, a preview if you will. Me and millions of others. And it will happen again and again, with greater frequency and scattered irregularity—such is this chaotic dynamics brought about by increasing energy levels in the system.

As Latour notes, we must now make the most consequential of decisions, decisions that reverberate throughout our lives and across the globe, decisions that will change the way we live. I wonder if those first European colonists made such consequential decisions when they first decided to emigrate to the New World? I suppose they thought of themselves—at least those who made the choice rather freely—as setting out to live their familiar life in a new setting, one that would that would allow them life that life more freely. Perhaps that’s what they thought, perhaps that’s what happened.

If so, then what they faced is perhaps not so radical as what we are faced with in climate change. To change everything–not all at once, but inexorably so, and without full confidence that things will work out as we desire–that is awesome. Those European colonists set out to create a New Jerusalem. To make the changes we must, we must acknowledge that a New Jerusalem is not ours to make. A New Jerusalem may well emerge—in some sense it must, given enough time, no?—but it will not be our New Jerusalem, made according to our plans. It will be the World as New Jerusalem, made according to no one’s plan. That is NO ONE will make it.

* * * * *

Many of us have read science fiction stories about small bands of explorers traveling on starships to other worlds, whether merely Mars or worlds circling around far stars in distant galaxies. We read those stories knowing, if only subliminally, that we are those explorers and the ever changing earth is the distant world we are about to (re)colonize. The weird aliens have come home to roost.


  1. The only thing that ever worked out as planned was going to the moon: aliens landed. Everything else has been a surprise, so we shouldn't be surprised that the aliens have landed again, them is us, and their New Jerusalem is not the one we expected, as you say, Bill.

    Nature was finished, in both senses, when it invented the human brain.