I have been reading two extraordinary and very different writers lately who are both engaged with questioning Modernity -the capitalist, industrial civilizational model which we are all so familiar with here in the West – and which can now be found just about everywhere in the world as a “modernization front,” as Latour terms it.
To demonstrate one small place where these writers overlap and yet are very different in their approaches, here are two quotations:
“The present global environmental malaise has come about, at least in part, according to the argument in the previous chapters, because we moderns, the people of the industrialized nations, no longer revere our world or engage communicatively with it. Over the last three hundred years or so, we have been taught to see the ground of being in materialist terms, as in itself void of significance and presence – as mere externality without an animating principle of its own.” Freya Mathews, Reconsidering Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, 49.
“It would not be wrong to define the Moderns as those who believe they are materialists and are driven to despair by this belief….When everything is submerged in matter there is no raw material, no accessible reality, no experience to guide us.” Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns, 105-106.
I should mention that the ellipse in the Latour quotation is substantial* but it makes for some difficult reading, especially out of context. Latour himself compares the effort that the reader must expend upon his book to crossing a mountain range. Mathews’ writing is easier on the reader, although no less erudite, sophisticated, and inventive.
Where these quotations overlap is in a questioning of how we Moderns see matter and “reality” itself. What is matter, and what is our relationship to matter? Are humans the only conscious beings in the world? Is matter simply a lot of dead stuff? Are our own bodies “just meat” encasing and transporting, more or less effectively, these minds of ours that somehow or other have non-material experiences? This strange and yet familiar dualist world-view – in which we humans are Mind and everything else is Mindless matter – is as absurd as it is arrogant, and yet it is the Standard Operating Philosophy for us Moderns – the underlying ideology beneath the goal of economic growth that goes virtually unquestioned in mainstream discourse about our political, economic and social goals.
What is this thing called growth? The scientists tell us that the universe is expanding, but is it growing? Can you really grow matter? Is burning fossil fuels to do work to move or transform matter really growth? Is building a highway or a bridge or a housing development growth? Is consuming (manufacturing, shipping, selling) more this year than last year growth? These projects are what is called growth but what exactly is growing? What are we growing? Our economy perhaps, but what exactly is our economy? Is it matter that we are trying to grow, or is it an idea that we are growing? Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that what we are aiming to do is re-appropriate matter for our own ends. But what ends are those? What is it that we mean to do with matter in the end? What are our ends?
“Grow or die,” the business people all say. Growth, whether it be measured in agricultural product, debt portfolios, or reported sales, is their unquestioned prime directive. Admittedly, the ideology of economic growth is a relatively peaceful way to compete and strive, compared to actual warfare. For many people competition and warfare, whether actual or sublimated, is way of finding purpose and motivation. Not to mention that for countless ages of human history, warfare was an effective means of “creating prosperity” for yourself and your tribe/clan/walled city/kingdom. We can congratulate ourselves on channeling the warlike impulses of our kind into economic competition, but the period when unlimited economic growth can be pursued without ill consequence is over. We are in a new period of gathering environmental crisis – of pollution, species extinction and resource depletion – as well as social crisis. Our old warlike tendencies live on in our approach towards non-human matter/“nature” and even towards those humans that we perceive as “other.”
I didn’t really mean to write about growth when I started this post; I merely meant to say that I will be reading and thinking about Latour and Mathews together. But how we perceive matter has important consequences for how we understand our lives and the goals towards which we work together. What is important to say about Latour, Mathews and many other eco-thinkers like them is that this is not a retreat to some kind of irrational spiritualism, but rather to argue that our current idea of matter is not materialist enough, our current idea of reason is not rational enough, and that our current practice of modernity is not modern enough. All of these deficiencies are fully on display everyday in our inability to respond in a materialist, rational, modern way to the climate emergency.
*The full quotation without ellipse: “It would not be wrong to define the Moderns as those who believe they are materialists and are driven to despair by this belief. To reassure them, it would not make sense to turn toward the mind, that is, toward all the efforts they have deployed as a last resort, all the lost causes (and causes are indeed at issue here!) in order to situate their values in “other dimensions,” as they say – dimensions other than that of “strict materialism” since matter, as we are beginning to understand, is the most idealist of the products of the mind. The operation we must undertake leads us in exactly the opposite direction: we have to de-idealize matter in order to arrive at immanence and find the means at last, to follow experience. When everything is submerged in matter there is no raw material, no accessible reality, no experience to guide us.” Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 105-106.