A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth

“How could we deem ‘realistic’ a project of modernization that has ‘forgotten’ for two centuries to anticipate the reactions of the terraqueous globe to human actions? How could we accept as “objective’ economic theories that are incapable of integrating into their calculations the scarcity of resources whose exhaustion it had been their mission to predict? How could we speak of “effectiveness’ with respect to technological systems that have not managed to integrate into their design a way to last more than a few decades?  How could we call “rationalist’ an ideal of civilization guilty of a forecasting error so massive that it prevents parents from leaving an inhabited world to their children?” – Bruno Latour

Our rationality is leading us…to where? If rationality is a mental discipline, a method, then we must ask what purpose does it serve?  Where does it begin and where does it go to? If we don’t know in what our rationality is rooted and where it is leading us, then what good is it?  Or if our rationality is leading us somewhere that we don’t want to go, then it is worse than useless.

The anthropologist and historian of science, Bruno Latour, has written a political essay: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. This brief but fascinating book begins by invoking the results of the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “From the 1980’s on, the ruling classes stopped purporting to lead and began to shelter themselves from the world.  We are experiencing all the consequences of this flight, of which Donald Trump is merely a symbol, one among others.  The absence of a common world we can share is driving us crazy.”

In his view climate change and its denial are the key issue of the last 50 years, and “we cannot understand the explosion of inequalities, the scope of deregulation, the critique of globalization, or most importantly, the panicky desire to return to the old protections of the nation-state – a desire that is identified, quite inaccurately, with the “rise of populism.””  The consciousness of climate change and resource limits has been shadowing us and worming itself  into our politics, despite all attempts at denial, and  has emerged in the vicious polarization of politics. It would seem that we can no longer even dream of a common world of environmental and social stability.  “If the anguish runs so deep, it is because each of us is beginning to feel the ground slip away beneath our feet.  We are discovering, more or less obscurely, that we are all in migration toward territories yet to be discovered and reoccupied.”

Latour presents us with a complication and update of the modern political schematic of the Global and the Local as poles of attraction and political organization. “To proceed toward the Global was previously to keep advancing toward an infinite horizon, to keep pushing outward a limitless frontier. If, on the contrary, one turned in the other direction, toward the Local, the hope was to recover the old security of a stable frontier and an assured identity.”  This spectrum, more or less corresponding to the Left/Right political axis, has served to map the political territory for the last few centuries, but has been disrupted by the realities and consciousness, even if furiously ignored or denied, of climate change.  In Latour’s view, another axis has emerged at a right angle to the old Global/Local spectrum.  On one end is the emerging attractor which Latour calls the Terrestrial, which calls out to those who see that we must come down to Earth in order to deal with the disruption of our once stable climatic framework, and on the opposite end of the spectrum is an attractor that Latour calls Out of This World, which brought us to Brexit and which Trump so helpfully crystallizes with his isolationism and obsession with border security, with his Space Force and tariff wars, his corporate deregulation and tax giveaways.

Fleshing out a vision of the Terrestrial as the drive toward an inhabited and inhabitable Life-World is the project of our time, and will require careful thought and communication with those who still think in terms of the dichotomy of Global/Local or who dream of Out of This World escape.  As Latour points out, the Terrestrial overlaps significantly with the Local attractor, but is not to be confused with it, especially its retrogressive elements. “On the contrary, there is nothing more innovative, nothing more present, subtle, technical, and artificial (in the positive sense of the word), nothing less rustic and rural, nothing more creative, nothing more contemporary than to negotiate landing on some ground.”

For most of us, Latour’s schematic will echo our own intimations of the need for a New Politics.  It is not perfect, of course, as any such big picture schematic will be.  It does not address, for instance, the bizarre obsession with gun rights that enforces the Left/Right divide so fiercely in the US.  But can we see gun-rights differently in light of his schematic?  As a personal defense of the Local against the might of the Global, or a way of enforcing the individual’s right to choose the Out of This World option?  Do guns have a place in the Terrestrial vision, perhaps placed back in their proper context as  an occasionally useful tool, rather than as a potent symbol dividing the Right from the Left?  Perhaps Latour’s schematic has some explanatory power even for so parochial and yet divisive an issue as Second Amendment politics. 

I am a fan of Latour’s work in the history of science such as The Pasteurization of France and his engagement with the ontological turn in anthropology, so I came to Down to Earth with high expectations but also with some trepidation, as the forays of highly specialized thinkers into the fray of politics can often be somewhat disappointing.  However I find his schematic and the book itself to be very useful.  The notes with their references to further reading are fertile ground all by themselves, and Latour’s essay is packed with further insights which I will leave for you, dear readers, to  discover, if you so choose. 

3 Replies to “A Review of of Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth”

  1. Solid stuff from Latour, and Down to Earth is an apposite title. I’ll have to look him and it up.

    I wish D Trump was “merely a symbol” though!

    Thanks for posting by the way – it’s gone a bit quiet recently. I always appreciate a good stick in the ribs from Anima/soul.

  2. It’s, to quiet. In the movies it would be time split up and walk down the dark hall ways alone. Much as the polarization of tribes in the U. S., have abandoned common and agreed upon facts. Will have to look into Latour, but the emergence of a perpendicular political axis, will serve well as a framework for thought. As our collective global billions continue to expand and consume. Our biome while find, an equilibrium what species will survive the adjustments, there’s the question. I’m always hoping we’ll figure this out. Great hearing the anima voices as always.

  3. Hi Chris and Colby, thanks for the comments.
    Trump is both an improbable but potent political symbol and a crass, blundering, destructive national embarrassment. It is all very trying, sigh. I do think that there is possibly a silver lining in the fact that the climate conflict is out in the open, rather than suppressed under a “mediocre neoliberal” totality.
    I think you are right, Colby, the operative question is what species will survive and what can we humans do to help as many of them survive as possible.

Comments are closed.