Latour and Mathews again: some notes

To summarize (which is only a beginning): Latourʻs Inquiry will take you on an arduous climb over the mountains, from one way of knowing and being to another possibility, a country strange and new; Mathews is already there in that new/old country and her book will show you that a part of you has always lived there.  Also that a part of you longs to be a native of that place, which is really this place, where you have lived all along, seen with other eyes.  

Mathews and Latour share much in common: a common desire, for instance, is to open a space for another kind of knowledge – a non-alienated, non-objectifying science –  to emerge.  To do that just about everything we think we know about knowing must be gently disassembled.   As Latour asks: “”Why has the advent of Science made it so difficult to grasp the other modes (of knowing)”  And Mathews points out that Science is “a privileged mode of understanding reality.”  Pointing out the privilege, and the blindness that privilege engenders – to do this is to be marked and labelled as “anti-science” and to begin to believe it oneself.

Latour helps us to see the network that brings things into being, not just the thing as (matter/material/product/commodity)

Latour imagines an anthropologist attempting to write a ethnographic description of us Moderns.  What are the beliefs that structure our culture?  This ethnographer finds that what we say we value is not aligned with what we do. We are a strange tribe with our incessant counting, by which it seems we call our world into being, (if we can count it, then it is real, right?) and with our fetishes and talismans that we call technology.  

“Now, as we well know by now, nothing is less widespread through the world than the notion of matter or even that of production.  The Australian aborigines whose toolbox contained only a few poor artifacts – made of stone, horn, or skin – nevertheless knew how to establish with technological beings relations of a complexity that continues to stun archeologists: the differentials of resistance that they arranged were located rather in the tissue of myths and the subtle gestures of kinship bonds and landscapes.” Latour, 231. 

To explain Latour a bit, in this new country technology is not something that we have or that we build or that we use, but rather technology is something that we practice and that makes and unmakes us as we practice it.  A technological being is a composite being – two (or three or four, etc.) beings as they work together to live in the world. One can speak of and value a mythical technology that aligns living within the landmarks of a world, or a kinship technology that binds humans together in commonality, just as much as one values a material technology of talismans, tools, and instruments.  Material technology – which in the story of our civilization always seems to start with the sharp edged choppers and scrapers of our hominid ancestors (why not their paintings, or their beads, or other tools?) – is just one kind of technology.  But because we Moderns are obsessed with the manipulation of “matter,” what we search for is the earliest evidence of that manipulation.  

There have been other technologies all along, other technological beings, fighting for recognition under the onslaught of the story of Modernity which wants to turn everything into our version of a material thing – something that can be counted, controlled, managed, bought and sold.  This is the Empire of Modernity, of which we are all citizens, all inhabitants, even as we begin to realize that it is an Empire of Ecocide. But where else to live?

“In order to begin truly to respect the world as it is given to us, to regard it as a “spirit thing” with ends and means of its own, which it can in principle communicate to us and in which we can participate,  we can simply honor and cherish the place in which we find ourselves, whether that place happens to fall in the degraded heartlands of the inner city or the pristine expanses of the outback. To affirm the life and integrity of the world is to reinhabit it just as it is, via the local modality of place.” Mathews, 200. 

Mathews’ re-inhabitation is a technology to revive our world(s)/places in all their diversity of dimension and modes of being. Or rather, it can be such a technology, if we choose to re-inhabit the places we live and slowly build up the practices and institutions to continue or reproduce, as Latour would term it, this re-inhabitation.

Latour’s inquiry allows us to see the “spirit things” of our own world, how our beliefs, especially our belief in “matter,” have led us into a double-bind – a kind of trap that prevents us Moderns from accurately evaluating the actual physical situation of overshoot that we are in and changing our trajectory accordingly. When we are being the most hard-minded and ‘practical,’ invoking the economy, the law, science, etc. we are are also being the most abstract and ‘spiritual,’ invoking, and placating the invisible spirits of these concepts.  The rigidity of our concept of matter hides its weakness – how it is based on a very odd and Western-tradition-specific distinction between matter as Other and (human) consciousness as God/the Divine/the Mind.  Hence the need for an anthropology of ourselves.  That this is urgent, should be, I hope, clear, given the multiple breakdowns – of climate, biodiversity, civil society, etc. – that seem to be getting worse by the day.   Escaping the trap that alienates us from our world and from each other, what could be more urgent?

6 Replies to “Latour and Mathews again: some notes”

  1. Yes. I love it. I now have a copy of Latour’s Inquiry and am eager to begin. Farm work intrudes! I think it will be easy to sink into that other world, which was always our own. I found the book on a real shelf, in a real bookshop and paid for it in cash , hand to hand over a counter. I doubt I’ll be that lucky with Mathews, but who knows? Thank you.

  2. This sounds somethnig like Stuart Kauffman’s Humanity in a Creative Universe Oxford U. Press 2015.

    Other ways of knowing, and some specific ways where science lets us down (from a scientist who would know).

  3. Thanks for the tip, Clem. I have just finished the Latour book, now I have to try to understand it! More to come…

  4. Very interesting read posts several times gleaning. Have to find copies and absorb. See if I can start scaling this literary mountain and try remolding perceptive bias. As a modern indoctrinate, find truth in start of all searches as scraping and shaping to manipulate environs. While pulling away from and neglecting to see other evidence. Seems the ecocide is well on its way and seldom a week goes by with out learning of acceleration. The need to find and distribute a new vision and adapt to alter our shared trajectory Is upon us. Reinhabit our spaces, act locally, think globally, resistance is futile.

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