Is This a Dress Rehearsal? – Bruno Latour on the Pandemic

Published on the website for  Critical Inquiry

Bruno Latour

The unforeseen coincidence between a general confinement and the period of Lent is still quite welcome for those who have been asked, out of solidarity, to do nothing and to remain at a distance from the battle front. This obligatory fast, this secular and republican Ramadan can be a good opportunity for them to reflect on what is important and what is derisory. . . . It is as though the intervention of the virus could serve as a dress rehearsal for the next crisis, the one in which the reorientation of living conditions is going to be posed as a challenge to all of us, as will all the details of daily existence that we will have to learn to sort out carefully. I am advancing the hypothesis, as have many others, that the health crisis prepares, induces, incites us to prepare for climate change. This hypothesis still needs to be tested.

LENT

What allows the two crises to occur in succession is the sudden and painful realization that the classical definition of society – humans among themselves – makes no sense. The state of society depends at every moment on the associations between many actors, most of whom do not have human forms. This is true of microbes – as we have known since Pasteur – but also of the internet, the law, the organization of hospitals, the logistics of the state, as well as the climate. And of course, in spite of the noise surrounding a “state of war” against the virus, it is only one link in a chain where the management of stocks of masks or tests, the regulation of property rights, civic habits, gestures of solidarity, count exactly as much in defining the degree of virulence of the infectious agent. Once the entire network of which it is only one link is taken into account, the same virus does not act in the same way in Taiwan, Singapore, New York, or Paris. The pandemic is no more a “natural” phenomenon than the famines of the past or the current climate crisis. Society has long since moved beyond the narrow confines of the social sphere. Continue reading “Is This a Dress Rehearsal? – Bruno Latour on the Pandemic”

Bodies of Infection

Last Sunday afternoon I came across a yellow-white dog lying hidden in a patch of tall grass. Someone’s hunting dog that had gotten lost and never found in all likelihood. It was emaciated and clearly very sick.  Probably I should have just left him there to die.  It would have been the wise thing to do, in retrospect, but also something that I don’t know if I am capable of doing, wise or not.  So I brought him home, locked him in the bathroom in my carport, and tried to help him.  He was so weak he couldn’t walk or even hold his head up for very long. He had beautiful brown eyes. When I tried to open his mouth to get some electrolytes down his throat I saw that his gums were ivory-white.  Not good.  I made a boot-bath of chlorinated water outside the door so I would  not be tracking pathogens out of the room.   I gave the dog a shot of penicillin hoping that it might help him, although it was pretty clear he was a goner.  In the process of re-sheathing the needle, I grazed my finger.  A tiny graze, I wasn’t sure if I had even pierced my skin.  I was horrified at my carelessness.  I went into the house and scrubbed my hands with soap and scalding water.  Should I go to the emergency room?  It seemed like an over-reaction since I wasn’t sure I had even  infected myself. That night it rained like the devil, 4.5 inches.  The dog died in the night.  It was some consolation that at least he was somewhere warm and dry in his last hours, although perhaps he was too far gone for it to have mattered much.  The next day the pinprick on my finger was red and swollen.  I had infected myself with something.  Over the next day I felt it traveling up my arm, making my muscles ache.  It was a startling sensation to feel oneself being infected, and especially so given the general anxiety about infection in these recent days. I was lucky that I could get a prescription for a broad-spectrum antibiotic via telemedicine that stopped the infection. Continue reading “Bodies of Infection”

Listening to the Coronavirus

Humans have seemed unable to get a handle on climate change, with global emissions of greenhouse gases continuing to grow every year. But a microscopic pathogen, so structurally simple that it does not even have a single cell and is arguably not even alive, may be capable of accomplishing what our political leaders thus far cannot.

If I appear to minimize the suffering caused by the coronavirus, it is not my intent, and I also fear what the virus may wreak on those most vulnerable in my community and family.  But I do think we need to say it out loud:  this small being has opened possibilities for change that didn’t exist a month ago. I hope we can learn from it. Continue reading “Listening to the Coronavirus”

Barramunga

“Why do I want to come away alone like this, I wonder? And when I do, why this preference for old shepherd’s huts or abandoned camps or shell-shocked farm houses?…Is it somehow by  passing dark nights and wandering under vast skies alone, that one comes into the presence — the inner presence, the nurturing, beautiful, poetic presence — of reality?”  Freya Mathews, “Barramunga: Return to the Doorstep of Night” in Reinhabiting Reality: Towards a Recovery of Culture, 197. Continue reading “Barramunga”

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.  

Continue reading “Latour and Mathews again: some notes”

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. Continue reading “Reading Freya Mathews & Bruno Latour”

Thanksgiving

Here in the crazy US it is Thanksgiving again, a holiday that, in its simplest form – taking some time to gather with family and friends to share a meal in the spirit of gratitude – is based on the most benign of impulses.

I am grateful today for the monarch butterflies that at least here on the ranch seem especially numerous this November. Continue reading “Thanksgiving”

The Speech

About six months ago my friend and mentor Donna called to ask if I would be willing to give one of the keynote speeches at this yearʻs agricultural conference.  Donna is one of those people with excellent people skills, which means that it is very difficult to say No to her: one because she will already have cultivated a relationship with you; and two, she will come armed with persuasions tailor-made to your psychology.  She will appeal to your higher instincts for public service and your lower instincts for ego-gratification.  Also of course it was an honor to be asked. So I agreed to give a  speech. Continue reading “The Speech”