Latour’s New Project

Continuing his anthropology of modernity, but now looking at different modes of existence instead of (but also in addition to) investigating heterogeneous networks (as in ANT).  The excerpt below is from his Summary of the AiME (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence) Project:

It seems that those who define themselves as possessed by rationality have defined reason by the worst possible shibboleth: a transport without transformation, a direct access to truth without any mediation. As a consequence, every practice, by comparison with this ill adjusted standard, becomes a lie: religion, law, fiction, but also, strangely enough, science and technology as well. The paradox is that by considering knowledge as the supreme value, the Moderns have rendered unfathomable the production, maintenance and extension of every one of their most cherished values —including knowledge!— hence the deep obscurity that the Moderns have generated about themselves. Those who constantly speak of enlightenment have obscured the many sources of reason.

Looks interesting – apparently this project has been hiding in the background of ANT for the past two-and-a-half decades.  No publications to date have addressed it, but Latour is working on a book for it which will hopefully be published in French later in 2012 and in English early in 2013.  I look forward to seeing this book in print – it will be fascinating to know where Latour is going from here!

The Anthropological Thought

The following is the text of a talk I will be giving at the Anthro(+) conference this coming Friday.  It’s a rough draft, and will be edited and improved over the next few days, but I wanted to share it here now and see if anyone has feedback that might help me make it better.  I combine a number of ideas under “the ecological thought” – most explicitly, Tim Morton’s work, but also Latour, Haraway, Stengers, and Bryant – so the ecological thought here is not exactly reflective of Morton’s ecological thought.  I appreciate any comments or questions.

The Anthropological Thought

The title for this talk – The Anthropological Thought – is a mutation (a replication with difference) of the title of Timothy Morton’s book The Ecological Thought. In the next few minutes, I will explore the significance of the ecological approach, as described by Morton, for anthropology – how it is similar to and different from current anthropological practice. Ultimately, I call for a reclamation of the concept of an ecological anthropology – one that would run through, like a thread, all of anthropological thought and practice.

For Morton, the ecological thought is “the thinking of interconnectedness.” It is a “thought about ecology, but it’s also thinking that is ecological.” It “doesn’t just occur ‘in the mind.’ It’s a practice and a process of becoming fully aware of how human beings are connected with other beings – animal, vegetable, and mineral.”

The ecological thought is made possible by the environmental crises we have created – global warming, deforestation, water, air and soil pollution, etc. But it is not exclusively about these crises. It’s about all relationships and interconnections that contribute to the composition of the world.

The image associated with the ecological thought is not the organized hierarchies of traditional science and social theory, nor a phallocentric network (with lines and nodes) associated with theories of complexity. No, the image Morton calls to mind is of a “vast sprawling mesh of interconnection…” – like a textile of threads interwoven together. A flat-ontological web of associations “without a definite center or edge. It is radical intimacy, coexistence with other beings, sentient and otherwise…”

But intimacy, coesixtence, and interconnectedness – these are not unilateral relationships. Like Deleuze’s wasp and orchid, the ecological thought recognizes that all beings – strange strangers as Morton calls them – are engaged in a perpetual process of “becoming with” one another. In that sense, the ecological thought finds a kindred spirit with what Levi Bryant refers to as a wilderness ontology. That is, an ontology that rejects the sovereignty of humans – indeed the sovereignty of any being – in favor of a sense of “amongstness.” Wilderness, for Bryant is not opposed to civilization – “is not somewhere one can go, nor can one ever be outside the wilderness … Wilderness signifies not the absence of humans or civilization, but rather the entanglement and separation of beings without any entity, God or human, occupying the place of sovereign. In this regard, a city, a computer, a blog, and an institution are no less of the wilderness than wild wolves, blue whales, ant eaters, red cedars, or electric eels.”

The ecological thought calls for an acute awareness of this amongstness of beings; a continual, intentional recognition that we share this world with others, and that we are engaged with them in its co-creation. Not paralysis, but humility in the face of the vast complexity of the universe.

It’s with this sense in mind that I would like to call for a reclamation of the term “ecological” as a descriptor for anthropology.  This would not be the old ecological anthropology that treats humans as functional populations within ecosystems, nor would it be the new environmental anthropology that focuses primarily on addressing environmental issues.  Rather it is an anthropology that is attentive to interconnectionwith the thread of the ecological thought running through it.

Anthropology was always meant to be ecological. Indeed, in practice, it always was. Anthropologists, more than any other discipline, have brought together complex assemblages of different kinds of beings in the name of ethnography. They have combined mollusk shells with social and economic value, pigs with ancestor spirits and warfare, cows with Eastern religious beliefs, household architecture with concepts of gender and nature. Your typical ethnography reads like a litany of heterogeneous entities in an unimaginable array of combinations.

This is the ecological thought in its finest – attentive to the diverse interconnections between different kinds of entities. However, what hampered anthropology in the past – what continues to do so today – is an obsessive desire to place these assemblages into containers: Nature, Culture, landscapes, institutions, social structures, or systems. This has generally lead anthropologists to identify one agent in the mix of assemblages that seems to consume all of the others in order to fit the whole assemblage into one box. Thus the value system of the Kula consumes mollusk shells; the rumbim ritual consumes pigs and ancestor spirits; the Hindu belief system and ultimately economic decision-making consumes cattle.

The underlying realization of the ecological thought, and the ecological anthropology that I would like to propose is not that these “containers” do not exist – to the extent that they are constructed, they do – but that they are ultimately incapable of capturing the monstrous assemblages described above. No single agent in the assemblage consumes the others – rather they all consume one another in veritable orgy of mutual consummation that breaks apart any container – even socio-ecological or coupled human and natural systems.

The new ecological anthropology treats all entities as actors in their own right – as beings capable of altering and affecting us just as we alter and affect them. Not inert matter which we fill with meaning and value, but active agents in a process of “becoming with” one another.

The new ecological anthropology does not have to do only with human relations to the natural world – it has to do with the intertwining of beings in all areas of existence. It has to do with human bodies and political institutions; with food and health; with museums and communities; with race, class and gender; with warfare and diplomacy. What I call for is an ecological anthropology that runs through all of these issues, topics and ideas – seeking interconnection and avoiding reductionism, transforming and being transformed by others.

Currently, I am working on research involving live bait and aquatic invasive species. The bait – bloodworms in this case – are collected in Maine, and packed in life-support systems: kept cool to reduce their activity, kept moist to prevent drying out, and packed in seaweed – called worm weed by those in the industry and Ascophyllum nodosum by the scientists – to keep them from devouring one another. They are then sent off to distant worlds – the Mediterranean, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Southern Pacific coast of the United States. Within these life-support systems in which the worms are packaged, there are often stowaways. While the worms themselves may be familiar to the areas to which they are sent (the Mid-Atlantic at least), these stowaways are often not, and soon they begin to colonize the new worlds that they encounter – sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile to the natives who already inhabit these worlds. As a result, we have effectively extended the ecology of these organisms – creating new possibilities for interconnection that could fundamentally alter existing sets of relations.

The purpose of the study, then, is to find a “diplomatic” solution to the potential threat of invasion. This has involved developing a better understanding of live bait industry – that is, how the people in Maine – the harvesters, and the dealers, connect with the people in the Mid-Atlantic – the retailers and anglers. But it’s more than that. It’s also about understanding how the scientists, policy makers, and regulators relate to those in the industry. It’s about understanding how we ourselves – the anthropologists – related to all of them. But even more, it’s about how all of these people relate to, and interact with all of the various non-humans – the worms, the seaweed, the snails, the fish. All of these beings – human and non – are intertwined in a mesh of relations – active participants in the co-creation of a world.

In order to find a diplomatic solution, as I’ve said, we must act as mediators in Latour’s sense of the term – translating and transforming relationships. As a result, we have begun to imagine interventions – the creation of new relationships, or the introduction of new actors to alter the existing set of relations. In order to make an effective difference, we have to view ourselves as being intertwined with this system as well – working with the other entities to create a new ecology. In this approach, all entities are seen to be equally vulnerable – that is, capable of being altered and affected – the humans no less than the worms, the scientists no less than the harvesters, and the anthropologists no less than any of them. As a result, the interventions we propose – anything from washing the seaweed to informational and social marketing campaigns – must ultimately be negotiated with the others involved – both human and non. This is not, then, a matter of imposing “behavior change” upon a population – in this case the anglers and worm dealers – but of entering into relationships with those groups and working with them to create a novel solution.

The new ecological anthropology offers not only a better understanding of environmental and social conditions, but also a better position from which to act. By being attentive to the interconnections between different entities, we can begin to craft ecologies in a variety of ways while understanding that these attempts are uncertain and contingent upon the participation of other beings within the system. As a result, anthropological research becomes a practice of relating to and working with others – human and non-human – to co-create a better world.

Everything I Needed to Know…

… I learned from The Old Raja’s Notes on What’s What (and what it might be reasonable to do about what’s what).

Some favorites:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

Conflicts and frustrations—the theme of all history and almost all biography. “I show you sorrow,” said the Buddha realistically. But he also showed the ending of sorrow—self-knowledge, total acceptance, the blessed experience of Not-Two.

And Another:

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

And another:

Me as I think I am and me as I am in fact—sorrow, in other words, and the ending of sorrow. One third, more or less, of all the sorrow that the person I think I am must endure is unavoidable. it is the sorrow inherent in the human condition, the price we pay for being sentient and self-conscious organisms, aspirants to liberation, but subject to the laws of nature and under orders to keep on marching, through irreversible time, through a world entirely indifferent to our well-being, toward decrepitude and the certainty of death. The remaining two-thirds of sorrow is homemade and, so far as the universe is concerned, unnecessary.

And another:

We cannot reason ourselves out of our basic irrationality. All we can do is learn the art of being irrational in a reasonable way.

And another:

The dancer’s grace and, forty years on, her arthritis—both are functions of the skeleton. It is thanks to an inflexible framework of bones that the girl is able to do her pirouettes, thanks to the same bones, grown a little rusty, that the grandmother is condemned to a wheelchair. Analogously, the firm support of a culture is the prime-condition of all individual originality and creativeness; it is also their principal enemy. The thing in whose absence we cannot possibly grow into a complete human being is, all too often, the thing that prevents us from growing.

And another:

Faith is something very different from belief. Belief is the systematic taking of unanalyzed words much too seriously. Paul’s words, Mohammed’s words, Marx’s words, Hitler’s words—people take them too seriously, and what happens? What happens is the senseless ambivalence of history—sadism versus duty, or (incomparably worse) sadism as duty; devotion counterbalanced by organized paranoia; sisters of charity selflessly tending the victims of their own church’s inquisitors and crusaders. Faith, on the contrary, can never be taken too seriously. For Faith is the empirically justified confidence in our capacity to know who in fact we are, to forget the belief-intoxicated Manichee in Good Being. Give us this day our daily Faith, but deliver us, dear God, from Belief.

And finally:

Dualism. . . Without it there can hardly be good literature. With it, there most certainly can be no good life.

“I” affirms a separate and abiding me-substance; “am” denies the fact that all existence is relationship and change. “I am.” Two tiny words, but what an enormity of untruth! The religiously-minded dualist calls homemade spirits from the vasty deep; the nondualist calls the vasty deep into his spirit or, to be more accurate, he finds that the vasty deep is already there.

The Construction of Truth

Levi Bryant has a great post up today riffing off of an forthcoming book by Adam Miller called Speculative Grace.  In particular, Bryant is interested in the conception of truth put forward by Miller drawing upon Latour.  The first part of the post is an explanation of Plato’s conception of truth – that truth is a property of things rather than of propositions.  That is, it’s not that propositions are true relative to things, but that things are true relative to their ideal forms.  This is a bit of a tangent, but relevant in that, for Latour and Miller, truth is a property of things as well.  Where Latour and Miller differ from Plato is that, rather than being a relation between a thing and its ideal form, truth is a construction – an assemblage of entities that stands.  This means that all of the entities – human and non – must be engaged in the construction (Bryant says that they must be “persuaded”), and it is only through this engagement (through their collective work, I would say) that they are able to stand (i.e. resist entropy).  The post is excellent, and this is just a schematic description, so go read it for yourselves.  The real reason I’m writing this is to lend an example from some of my own work.

Cave Lake State Park, Ely, NevadaI’m currently in the process of finalizing a paper on the work I did in Ely, Nevada two summers ago.  For this work, I studied traditional cultural properties (TCPs) for the bureau of land management (BLM) and area Shoshone tribes.  Through this research I became acquainted with the many issues and debates in the field of cultural resource management (CRM – I know, so many acronyms… it’s what I get for living in DC…).  What I realized (partially as a result of having read Latour) is that the typical approach to cultural resources is that they are objective facts (though they may have been constructed in the past, they now simply exist) that we as anthropologists attempt to “validate” – that is, assess their truth.  Generally, this involves doing ethnographic research and/or archaeological research on the sites to find out if the propositions said about them are “true” or if the people are just making it up to get in the way of development (in this case a water pipeline to pump water from the desert to Las Vegas).  So for the general practice of CRM research, we are trying to assess the “truth” of propositions about the site.  I think this is problematic for all sorts of reasons: 1) it assumes that sites are “not true” until proven otherwise, 2) it assumes that sites are homogeneous and that their protection is a uniform practice, 3) it recognizes no voice to the communities (tribes, etc.) except to tell stories which may or may not be “true”, 4) it grants no role to anthropologists except communicating (translating) information about the sites from one group (tribes) to another (BLM staff), 5) it doesn’t account for the process of CRM itself as a process of construction, 6) it suggests that the only thing that needs to be done to fix the problems with CRM is to change laws … and so on – for more see my forthcoming paper.

What I’m arguing in my paper – what I’ve argued elsewhere – is that cultural resources do not simply exist; that they must be constructed, and that it is through CRM that this is done.  This is, furthermore, a heterogeneous process of assembling heterogeneous entities (laws, artefacts, stories, regulations, individuals, communities, landscapes, plants, animals, ethnographic reports, historical accounts, …) into an assemblage that can “stand.”  In this case, to “stand” means to resist the onslaught of development.

By changing our conception of cultural resources, we can begin to see different roles for communities – they actually practice CRM themselves, not just by trying to get sites on the National Register, but by engaging in lawsuits, by protesting, through direct action, through alliance building, etc.  We also see, for the Federal Agency staff, that CRM is not simply a matter of putting things on the National Register – that these sites must be composed, and recomposed continually.  Furthermore, it’s not sufficient to simply change the laws and be done with it – because the laws are only one part of the process and product of the assemblage and not always determining factors.  For anthropologists, we see a role beyond translation: the construction of relationships between different entities.  This may be between the sites and the National Register, or between agency staff and ethnographic research, but it may also involve building relationships between agency staff and the communities, or between two disparate communities, or between developers and communities.  This brings in my conception (drawing upon John Law) of methods as interventions, but I’ll not go into that here.  Suffice it to say that Latour and Miller’s conception of truth applies here, because the truth of a resource is its ability to stand up to development through a heterogeneous assemblage – not in the ability of propositions about the site to match up with the data about the site (though that may be part of the assemblage…).

Note: The conception of truth outlined by Bryant, Miller, and Latour is similar to pragmatist notions of truth – i.e. William James‘.  I believe Latour draws on James – at least in his later work – but it would be interesting to explore this relationship more.

Gregory Bateson’s Flat Ontology

I think one of the reasons I was so receptive to Bruno Latour’s work is that I had read and struggled to comprehend Gregory Bateson prior to encountering Latour.  I find a lot of similarity between the two (as well as a lot of difference, of course), and I would say that Bateson primed me for Latour, who, I think, continues Bateson’s project of understanding the relationships between beings while taking that project on a very different trajectory than Bateson himself did or would have if he were around today.

One example where I think the two thinkers feed into one another (not literally, since Latour doesn’t mention Bateson much, and Bateson was not, as far as I know, aware of Latour) is in the concept of a flat ontology.  Of course this is a relatively recent term that post-dates Bateson, so he never used it himself, but, nevertheless, I believe there are elements of a flat ontology in Bateson’s work.

Gregory Bateson

Here’s an excerpt from a section of Bateson’s book Steps to an Ecology of Mind titled “Pathologies of Epistemology”:

They say that power corrupts; but this, I suspect, is nonsense.  What is true is that the idea of power corrupts.  Power corrupts most rapidly those who believe in it, and it is they who will want it most.  Obviously our democratic system tends to give power to those who hunger for it and gives every opportunity to those who don’t want power to avoid getting it.  Not a very satisfactory arrangement if power corrupts those who believe in it and want it.

Perhaps there is no such thing as unilateral power.  After all, the man “in power” depends on receiving information all the time from outside.  He responds to that information just as much as he “causes” things to happen.  It is not possible for Goebbels to control the public opinion of Germany because in order to do so he must have spies or legmen or public opinion polls to tell him what the Germans are thinking.  He must then trim what he says to this information; and then again find out how they are responding.  It is an interaction and not a lineal situation.

But the myth of power is, of course, a very powerful myth and probably most people in this world more or less believe in it.  It is a myth which, if everybody believes in it, becomes to that extent self-validating.  But it is still epistemological lunacy  and leads inevitably to various sorts of disaster.”

This follows from his notion of learning (including social or cultural learning) as a stochastic process.  As he describes it, a stochastic process is one which is characterized by a fundamental randomness (or complexity) with some kind of selecting mechanism that holds things together.  If this is the case, then anything that is part of the system is simply one random element among other random elements – there is no position within the system from which to capture the whole system.  Those in power – though they may have a wider influence than others – are situated within the system and have no more ability to control a system than anyone else.  As a result, the system is essentially flat with varying degrees of influence due primarily to the ability to mobilize other beings to work with you (i.e. Goebbels’ spies, legmen and public opinion polls), but even these other beings are never wholly under the control of another since they will also translate, interpret, mediate, and provide feedback.

Bruno Latour

Latour describes his flat ontology in terms of a war room situated close to the front lines.  The war room is the place where the generals sit – far enough from the front to be safe, but close enough to know what’s going on.  There they peer over maps and scour through data to see how the war is progressing – they seem to take a birds eye (strategic) view of the war – and they then send out orders that seem to determine the course of the battle.  But this strategic view is constructed for them by various mediators (data gatherers, map makers, analysts, as well as non-humans such as the maps themselves, computers, charts, and graphs), and their orders also depend upon mediators to be put into place.  These generals have a great deal of influence but their sense of control is an illusion since all of those mediators is capable of transforming the outcome in slight, but potentially far-reaching ways (that is, they are capable of making a difference –  the film The King of Hearts is an excellent example). In other words, in spite of their far reaching influence and the masses of data and such that are compiled to give them a strategic view, these generals are situated within the system and have no more ability to control it than any other being.

War Room

This follows from Latour’s principle of irreduction: that nothing is reducible to anything else.  Which is a kind of indirect reiteration of the stochastic principle that Bateson refers to.  If nothing is reducible to anything else, then a system is characterized by heterogeneity, complexity, and randomness.  As a result, there is not position within a system (or even outside of it, I would argue, since there can be no outside – as soon as you engage with it you are inside) from which one can grasp the system as whole.  We can talk about patterns, we can represent them, but these representations are always incomplete, and, once they are produced, they themselves become a part of the system.  Thus the map becomes a part of the territory that it attempts to represent – and this makes a difference.

When I first read Bateson talking about the “myth” of power, I was taken aback.  How, I wondered, could we hope to resist injustice without a good concept of power?  Does this make Bateson and Latour apolitical, as some have suggested?  But thinking about it, I realize that it does not.  In fact, I think it makes Bateson and Latour far more radical than any of the critical theorists who valorize power.  Their flat ontology makes it apparent that people in power or structures of power are not transcendent beings – that they are just as fallible, and incompetent as the rest of us.  Their influence is contingent – based on a number of mediators that could at any time turn against them – and their control is an illusion.  This is a kind of power that we can do something about – by acting upon and as mediators to transform its scope and direction – as opposed to the transcendent power that is ultimately beyond our capacity to resist or overthrow.   This is why I like these two philosopher-anthropologists so much.


Note: Just as a side note, I’m not really convinced that Bateson’s ontology is actually flat given the attention he pays to “orders of abstraction.”  However, the concept of a stochastic system that he describes is, I think, characteristic of a flat ontology. 


In a recent post, Levi Bryant describes entropy:

Entropy is not merely the tendency of systems towards heat death, but is more profoundly the measure of order within a machine. The more improbable relations between elements or parts within a machine the higher its degree of order, while the more probable the location of elements within a system the higher its degree of entropy.

This is something I’d like to expand upon, as I have been thinking a lot in the last several months about this concept of entropy (derived from nonequilibrium physics) and the idea of work.  For most social scientists – particularly those who study the relationship between people and the environment – work is important because it generates knowledge; a farmer knows the land because s/he works the land.  I don’t dispute that, but I think this is not the only reason we should be interested in theorizing work.  Furthermore, I would argue that a focus on the work as knowledge production tends to lead to a valorization of laborers that isn’t necessarily justified in terms of environmentalism or social justice.

My thoughts on work are derived from the theory of entropy described above, and from notions of embodied and situated practices.  For me work is two things: 1) it is the way we alter and affect others, and 2) it is the way we are altered and affected by others.  Work is the way we create order, and the way we are ordered – through flows of energy and resources.  In the most fundamental sense, work is the way we create a world – including ourselves, and in collaboration with other beings around us.  Through work we build, maintain, and destroy relationships.  And we can’t help but do work.

This theory of work includes work as knowledge production, but is not limited to that.  Instead it forces us to open our view to the many ways that we do work, and the many different results of that work.  Whether you’re out in a field planting crops, chopping down trees, building a house, or sitting in an office, you’re doing work and that means you’re making a difference.  The question is, what kind of difference are you making?

Work is directly relevant to almost every aspect of my thought, including the basic premise of this blog – Utopia as a continual process of building a better world.  Making the world better takes work, and it takes paying attention to the ways in which we work and the consequences of that work for ourselves and others.  We want simple solutions and easy answers, but to make a difference takes work.

Aldous Huxley – Mind at Large

Just posted this video to the Inspiration page.  Huxley conceived of mind as permeating the universe. The function of the brain, then, is to filter down this “mind at large” to a manageable proportion for day-to-day existence. So, rather than being the source for consciousness (as is the dominant understanding in science), the brain acts as a sort of receiver for consciousness much as a radio antenna acts as a receiver for radio signals that are all around us.  Hoowever, Huxley believed that we are capable of receiving much more of mind at large than we normally do – this is the source for spirituality and enlightenment.

Struggle Forever!

This website marks a new beginning.  Over the last few years, I feel my thought has coalesced on a new level – one that requires a more focused, more disciplined approach.  As a result, I’m putting aside Eidetic Illuminations (which will remain archived for the time being), and initiating Struggle Forever!: A Guide to Utopia.

This site will allow me to focus my attention on the theoretical and practical engagements that are important to me.  It will serve as a base for all of my future work – inviting others to comment, share, critique, and egg on.  My hope is that it will become a place full of rich thinking and intensive action, where relationships are built and change is begun.

If you were a follower of Eidetic Illuminations, there is no need to change your feed – I’ve already done it for you.  If you were not a follower, but want to follow me now, use the link on the right sidebar.  Please, explore the site, and feel free to leave comments or questions as needed.