Derided as a neoliberal by the radical Left, an unwavering Catholic and anti-modernist, but with a fondness for cyborg theorist Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour’s politics resists being polarised into Left/Right categories. Graham Harman, author of Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political examines his paradoxical politics.
‘In Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political, I claim that Latour’s approach to political theory poses a strong challenge to reigning paradigms in the discipline. Politics since the French Revolution, whatever the complexities of any given historical moment, has habitually been carved up into “Left” and “Right” orientations. Indeed, this is how all of us instinctively classify each person we meet in political terms. As Emerson famously put it, every nation has its progressives (“The Party of Hope”) and its conservatives (“The Party of Memory”). Bruno Latour has always been difficult to place on this familiar spectrum. Clearly he is not a radical Leftist, having little in common with Jacobin countrymen such as Alain Badiou and Jacques Rancière, who are prepared to sacrifice everything in the name of egalitarian principle. In fact, Latour is sometimes tarred by the Left as a “neo-liberal,” though this label is always too vague and too broadly applied to anyone who pulls up short of calling for instant Revolution.
Yet Latour also cannot plausibly be viewed as an adherent of the political Right, despite his unapologetic Catholicism and his famous polemic against modernism. One can hardly imagine Latour signing up for a “Party of Memory,” in view of his fondness for novel hybrid fusions of humans and non-humans: it is not for nothing that cyborg theorist Donna Haraway is an enthusiastic reader of his work. The difference between Left and Right actually has less to do with hope and memory than with the conception of human nature as basically good or basically troubled. In the former case, as for example in the writings of Rousseau or Marx, the innate goodness of humans is alienated or crushed by some external corrupting force— whether agriculture, metallurgy, society, ideology, or capital. In the latter case, as in the works of Hobbes or Carl Schmitt, the human being is viewed as a basically dangerous entity, and hence an iron fist is preferred to the innate corruption and disorder of our natures. These two opposite theories of human nature already show us why Latour is hard to classify as Left or Right: namely, Latour has no theory of human nature. The topic does not seem to interest him much, or at least has little place in his philosophy. What matters for Latour instead is the constant reshuffling of human and nonhuman actors in various networks; as they enter and exit various networks, actors change their character accordingly, including human actors. They do not have some inherent good or evil nature that would be either oppressed or restrained by authority.
Yet there is a different polarity in modern political theory, one that cuts across the Left/Right distinction and is also of far greater relevance to the political theory of Latour. I speak of the difference between what we might call Truth Politics and Power Politics. I have already mentioned Rousseau and Marx as exemplars of the Left version of Truth Politics: the truth is basically already known, but is prevented from becoming reality by various social, economic, or ideological obstructions. Yet there are also Right versions of Truth Politics, as found for instance in the teachings of Leo Strauss. Here Socrates is interpreted not as someone who seeks the truth without finding it, as the name philosophia suggests. Instead, Socrates already knows the truth: that humans are not equal, but are arranged in a permanent hierarchy of types that transcends all historical context. Philosophy is dangerous for the masses, yet philosophers must conceal this fact with coded writing and esoteric signals, convincing the masses that they are normal patriotic and religious citizens in order to avoid the fate of Socrates himself. But this elitism is merely the reverse of the supposed egalitarian truth, since both think the truth is already known to some smaller or larger group. This sort of Truth Politics has nothing at all to do with the thought of Latour, who completely forbids any direct access to a “truth” that might trump the uncertain struggles between competing actors.
Power Politics also comes in both Left and Right flavors, though it is perhaps more common on the Right. For Hobbes, nothing can be permitted to transcend the Leviathan. To appeal to a religious truth beyond the edicts of the State, or even to a scientific truth beyond such edicts, is to risk a bloody civil war of all against all. Transcendence is therefore forbidden. In the case of Schmitt, politics begins only in the sovereign’s decision that it is no longer possible to reason with one’s enemy, so that an existential struggle commences. We see Left versions of this Power Politics in various postmodern theories that dispense with the category of truth altogether. While Latour is naturally allergic to any form of Truth Politics, he remains permanently tempted by Power Politics, and fights these temptations for the remainder of his career. The young Latour shows open delight in defending the claims of Hobbes and Machiavelli, in erasing the purported distinction between Might and Right, in admiring a hypothetical Prince who would not just destroy or manipulate his human rivals, but would successfully arrange gas, water, and electricity lines as well. This early phase, in which Latour broadens Hobbesian politics to include inanimate beings alongside humans, ends in his 1991 classic We Have Never Been Modern. When Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer claim that the power of Hobbes outstrips the truth of scientist Robert Boyle, Latour suddenly intones: “No, Hobbes was wrong!” This is not because Boyle was right instead, but because both Hobbes and Boyle are wrong— by reducing the world either to Irrefutable Right or Irresistible Might. Both truth or power are employed by turns to efface the always uncertain play of political networks, in which rhetoric and proof, strength and weakness, all stand on the same footing.
Post-1991, Latour searches for a way to incorporate a reality external to Hobbesian power-plays. Yet he remains a Hobbesian at heart, just as suspicious as Hobbes himself of any court of appeal beyond the immanent world and its actors. Thus, the most Latour is ever willing to grant is a “mini-transcendence.” In his Politics of Nature (first published in French in 1999), it is scientists and moralists who are given the task of detecting new candidate entities for inclusion in the body politic. Not long afterward, Latour turns to the “object-oriented politics” of Walter Lippmann and John Dewey, for whom the “public” is constituted differently on an issue-by-issue basis. The political issue or object is that which gathers various stakeholders around it, gradually composing and clarifying the issue by determining what is truly at stake.
However, in both of these phases Latour tends to identify the political with reality as a whole. There is nothing in his early celebrations of Machiavelli and Hobbes that is any truer of “politics” in the strict sense than of science, sports, or amorous life. This remains the case even in Politics of Nature, whose parliamentary terminology does not stop its basic concepts from being applicable to even the least political portions of everyday life. Yet everything changes with Latour’s 2012 treatise An Enquiry Into Modes of Existence, or AIME, as it is usually known in Latourian circles. The goal of the AIME project is to draw up a list of fourteen or fifteen modes of existence, each with its own truth conditions that cannot be transferred to the other. Politics is no longer Latour’s nickname for the whole of reality, but becomes a special mode of existence different from science, religion, and law. Politics is characterized by what Latour will call “the political circle,” in which ruler and ruled each translate the wishes of the other and thus necessarily betray one another’s literal wishes. The search for a new political transcendence, so characteristic of Politics of Nature, is weakened in AIME though still present. The role of Lippmann and Dewey now feels less emphatic than that of the troubling Schmitt, invoked by Latour in his 2013 Gifford Lectures as a strategic ally in the coming war against climate change skeptics. To summarize, Latour begins his career as an unapologetic Power Politician. From roughly 1991 until just before his early 21st century article “What if we Talked Politics a Little?,” there is an attempted correction that tries to allow for some reference to an extra-political reality, though only in the manner of a mini-transcendence, with the assistance of Lippmann and Dewey. But then this reference to the outside turns into REF (reference), a mode assigned by Latour to science, while POL (politics) pertains instead to the circling movement of translation between represented and representative. Thus it is not surprising that Latour drifts back toward his more natural inclination of Power Politics, though with the great politiciser Schmitt becoming more prominent than the great depoliticiser Hobbes.
There is a lazy tendency in our era to moralize every political issue, as if politics were merely the implementation of an already understood justice, rather than –as Latour holds– the place where the nature of justice is determined. Someone is always held to be morally at fault whenever a political situation goes wrong; politics becomes an actual knowledge of the morally right, whose truth is opposed only by those corrupted through inferior character or vested interests. Schmitt is certainly a good antidote to this customary excess: for Schmitt, the political begins only where the posturing over right and wrong ends. The enemy is declared, but the enemy is only to be defeated rather than dehumanized and annihilated. Schmitt is invoked in Latour’s Gifford Lectures because climate change skeptics have become the enemy with whom we can longer reason, and with whom we are locked in existential struggle in our effort to compose Gaia.
A lurking contemporary example might be useful. Since too many recent political issues are easily translatable into moral terms, let’s choose one that is not so easy to moralize. For some years there has been a dispute between Egypt and its sub-Saharan neighbors over how much water each nation is entitled to take from the Nile. Egypt has long pointed to a treaty, signed by all of its neighbors, that guarantees it the right to a sizable portion of the water. Beginning under President Sadat in the 1970s, it was the stated policy of Egypt to bomb any dam constructed on the Nile by any country other than Egypt itself. Over the past decade, the sub-Saharan countries began to chafe at this implied threat, and to demand that Egypt negotiate the issue. When Egypt points to the treaty that speaks in its favor, the southern neighbors counter that this treaty was signed under British Imperialism and is therefore no longer binding. If Egypt responds by saying that unlike its neighbors it receives little water from rain, the other countries complain that Egypt wastes too much water through inefficient irrigation practices— though of course Egypt can make the same complaint in reverse. In the meantime, climate change threatens to reduce the amount of available water even as regional populations boom.
Now, there may come a breaking point at which negotiations remain deadlocked but the ratio of population to water becomes critical. There may not even be a way for outside observers to decide who is right and who is wrong, unless through the moralizing finale that “both sides are wrong” if a peaceful solution is not reached. A Schmittian approach might shed greater light on the predicament, concluding grimly but clearly that there is no solution other than for each nation to view the others as the “enemy,” and to resolve on a struggle to preserve their way of life. We would then seem to find ourselves on the side of the Power Politics with which Latour is more naturally comfortable. But then again, Might does not entirely make Right. As Strauss properly noted in his critique of Schmitt, and as Socrates noted long ago in his response to Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic, the distinction between friend and enemy is subordinate to knowledge of the good, since one should hope to defeat true enemies rather than merely apparent ones. As Strauss puts it, the question of the enemy owes its seriousness to the seriousness of the question of right and wrong. In this respect, policy can never just amount to a death match between competing and equally valid interests: one’s sense of these interests must be open to transformation by what transcends them. Latour is nothing if not the thinker who tries to overcome our self-understanding as moderns. In the case of politics, that means overcoming our conception of the political as being made of either Truth or Power, or even of a mixture of both.’
Graham Harman is Distinguished University Professor at the American University in Cairo, Egypt. He is the author of Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Open Court, 2002) and Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (re.Press, 2009).
Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political is available from Pluto Press.