Reading Freya Mathews & Bruno Latour

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.

8 Replies to “Reading Freya Mathews & Bruno Latour”

  1. Lots of great questions here!

    Re. the main one, how we Moderns (it’s good to have a label for this) see matter and reality, I think it’s right to link it with the conundrum of economic growth – something so self-evidently destined for implosion as well as being implicated in every aspect of the gathering crisis, yet still virtually impossible to challenge,

    I think the old follow-the-money diagnostic can help. If money is a proxy for ‘success’, where success is measured above all in (unearned) status and material accumulation, then the Standard Operating Philosophy (neat phrase!) we end up with comes embedded with the pursuit of ever more money, aka economic ‘growth’.

    It’s when we find other things of value as the markers of ‘success’, like spiritual and community well-being, and properly-earned status within a community of equals, that we see the cost and danger of endless economic growth.

    Maybe that’s when we begin to quietly decouple ourselves from the SOP, reaching out for better tested, more holistic, less material ways of understanding. Only to find that we’re not taken seriously if we then question the SOP because like all faiths it’s a hermetically sealed belief system with short shrift for heretics!

    1. Thanks, Chris! Yes, I keep trying at biz meetings to pry at that hermetic seal just a bit, without going to far and getting the “Has she lost the plot?” look. I think the seal is leaking for the millennials and younger, which is hopeful.

  2. Aloha, Michelle – Since your speech appeared as an article in the Ka’u Calendar, I’ve been looking for other things you’ve had to say over the past so many years, and, while I am not at all a fan of Modernity, or reliance on technology in general, I truly appreciate the Internet for making this possible. We don’t live too very far from each other, but may not have otherwise even known of the other’s existence. I really like knowing that you are here on this island, too!
    Another thing I appreciate with this technology is access to information you don’t find much in mainstream culture or the mainstream news that informs it.
    In regard to climate, I’ve been interested to find out something about solar forcing, how our star system swings north and south of the galactic plane in it’s movement around the galaxy and so encounters different energetic environments. According to geology most of this planet’s history has been one very long ice age after another, with relatively brief periods in between, and we are still in the long process of coming out of the last ice age. CO2 levels have gone up and down. Temperatures, too – there was even a time for a few hundred years BC when they were much warmer than now, with apparently no catastrophic effects on flora and fauna. Catastrophic events? Yes, but as to mass extinctions, according to paleontology they go along with pole shifts, too, and that’s what we are currently in the midst of right now. As to civilizations, it seems there have been far many more, and for far many more thousands of years, than academic mainstream archaeology has told us.
    So where does this kind of perspective lead, for me? Well, not to worry, or to fear. It’s been said we believe either that the universe is benevolent or that it’s not. I’ll go for benevolent. It’s also been said that when one civilization falls another rises. Does that sound like opportunity? I’d like us (that means all of us) to create something new, different, maybe even never before seen around here.

    1. Aloha Chia, thank you for your comments and sorry I thought I wrote a reply to you a few days ago but I guess it got lost somewhere… Yes, Iʻm absolutely on board with creating something new and different, and hopefully just a bit better than the status quo.

  3. I’m anxious to read both those authors. I’ve also been considering capitalism in Adam Smith’s sense. His “invisible hand” has been almost universally misunderstood – the hand steered, stirred and mixed the ingredients of matter and energy both of which he regarded as capital. Adam’s energy was the ingenuity and dexterity of cultural commons – it was as much spiritual, as merely energetic. It was essentially moral. He proposed that such a system would fail 1 – if money became rentable property (usury) and not limited to a medium of exchange. 2 – if shares and bonds were traded in a casino. 3 – if currencies were manipulated beyond this truth – “Goods can serve many purposes, besides purchasing money, but money can serve no purpose besides purchasing goods”.

    It seems to me that Adam’s primal capitalism is a more subtle and a truer vision of equable trade that that of those, who’d escape modernism today – the circular, steady state and doughnut economists! It was intended to remove the tyranny of empires and kings and it relied on the deep understanding of communities for their terrains. How else could they understand the workings of comparative advantage? He also thought that human capital (spiritual, pragmatic and ancestral) should be rewarded and so respected and inspired – “Nations with the highest wages and the lowest profits, achieved the greatest wealth of nations, whereas those with lowest wages and highest profits achieved the least”. I think I know what Adam would think of “economic growth” crashing ecologies and climate heating. And I think he’d “de-idealize matter in order to arrive at immanence and find the means at last, to follow experience.”!

  4. Hi Patrick, I will have to add Adam Smith to the reading list, sounds like he needs reconsidering. That last quote should be inscribed on the door of every corporate boardroom and legislative chamber in the world.
    I would recommend reading Latourʻs “The Pasteurization of France” to start with (thatʻs what I started with). Itʻs one of his earlier works, and some of his ideas have evolved since, but it is highly readable and you will never think of Pasteur or even science the same again!

  5. Interesting that you have a Latour book in front of you at the moment. I have a copy of: Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime on the nightstand at the moment.

    Not too far into it yet, and am finding it a bit challenging to wrap my head around completely. I think my difficulties stem from the language differences rising from his French mind being expressed in English prose (and my inability to acculturate to a Francophilic thought stream). But given that – I do like the way he pulls seemingly disparate things together. His spin on matters is refreshing… so I’ll keep plodding through.

    On a different front – you sometimes see corporate growth indicators differentiated as ‘organic’ meaning the increase is due to success in the activities of the business enterprise and NOT the result of buying up other businesses. And within a limited consideration of the two growth forms I’d have to prefer the former. I’d also add that some level of ‘growth’ needn’t be automatically disdained. As populations flourish (all life… not just) the increase in numbers alone suggest we will need more material for the support of the newest. To provide more in one realm of a zero sum arena then someplace else must do with less. And thus we have tradeoffs.

    Now we have to be concerned with at least a pair of thoughts – 1) limit the growth in ‘support materials’ to achieve a fair distribution and something far short of conspicuous consumption. 2) honestly assess the value of the tradeoffs we have to make.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Clem. “Honestly” assessing the trade-offs is exactly the difficulty. I would argue that we Moderns donʻt have the intellectual tools to be honest at this point, having been seduced and corrupted by our own ideology. It is going to take a lot of work – by all of us, French, Australian, or Swedish – to construct the tools of honesty.

Comments are closed.