Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Latour and Frankenstein at Columbia

The following guest post is from a new contributor to French Politics, Alex Gourevitch, who is a graduate student in political science at Columbia. Alex has his own blog, Gorby's Corner, to which you can find a link in the blogroll to the right. This post is a summary of a lecture by French sociologist Bruno Latour on environmentalism, anti-environmentalism, and Cartesian Reason.

It may be unfair, but when a speaker is introduced as zany and unconventional I steel myself for an unsystematic exploration of incomprehensible thoughts. (It is probably an American prejudice of mine that this is especially the case when the speaker is French.) So it was with special trepidation that I sat down for Bruno Latour's lecture on 'Ecology and Democracy' last night after hearing Michael Taussig introduce Latour as "a zany, a really zany, and original thinker." It was with even greater pleasure, however, that I then sat through one of the best lectures I have heard in a long time. Latour is on to some extremely interesting, absolutely reasonable, but quite original thoughts about the relationship between environmentalism and democracy.

Latour's premise is that awarding Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is proof positive that environmental ideas are mainstream. The question to be asking is not "whether environmental concern" but "how and what environmental concern." Using the "Death of Environmentalism" book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger as a springboard, Latour spent the hour giving an unconventional answer to the question. The puzzle, for Latour, is that there is a contradiction between the hopeful, future-oriented, emancipatory thrust of democratic politics and the doomsday, philosophy of limits, pessimistic cast of environmentalism. The rhetorical means by which environmentalism has won the day has undermined its ability to generate a democratic attitude towards nature. "It is strange," said Latour "that just at the point when we are about to achieve our dream [control of nature] we should be afraid of it."

Although these opening thoughts seemed exactly the right question, none of it sounded that original at first. Where Latour really shined was his refusal to propose a simple synthesis between environmentalism and democracy. Instead he wove a complex argument about the problem both with environmentalism and its critics. It went something like this: Nordhaus and Shellenberger have rightly identified a deep flaw in the pessimistic attitude towards technology that plagues environmentalism. However, the problem goes deeper. For Latour, environmentalism has introduced some very important ideas about the way in which we can have a democratic relationship with nature. Through the idea of the precautionary principle, environmentalists have introduced the idea that political decisions about new technology cannot be grounded on scientific guarantees of certainty. This explodes, for Latour, the specially French idea that Reason, in the form of science, can provide us with absolute guarantees of the rightness or wrongness of a policy. For Latour, the classic French attitude towards science is undemocratic; not only does it remove real choice from politics, and reduce disagreements over value to scientific questions of facts, it also deludes itself into thinking we do not need to confront the uncertain character of human action.

What the precautionary principle does, according to Latour, is reintroduce politics into our relationship with nature, because it makes uncertainty, rather than certainty, the defining issue. It demands, as Latour put it, that "we follow through our actions through all its consequences." (Latour made the interesting claim that it is only in France, where the religion of reason is so developed, that the counter-reaction has also been so developed – hence the adoption of the precautionary principle into the French Constitution.) However, the environmental right hand taketh away what the environmental left hand giveth. Environmentalists have also championed the idea that there are "natural limits" to what we can get from nature, that we have caused endless suffering in our quest for dominion over nature, and that the lesson of the past is that if we continue in this way we walk straight into catastrophe. Here is where Latour really got interesting.

First, he pointed out that this reintroduced the idea that science and nature impose limits on us – the very error of Reason turned on its head. Questions of value and possibility are transformed into the ineluctable fact of catastrophe. This is why, according to Latour, the precautionary principle is misinterpreted as an inescapably environmentalist tool for restraining technology, and never intervening in nature. Second, and even more interesting, Latour thought the proper position is not simply to reject his as unfounded pessimism, but rather to embrace the unknown: "we must bring emancipation and catastrophe together." Environmentalists have learned the wrong lesson from Frankenstein. In Latour's telling, the story of Frankenstein is not of creation gone wrong, but rather that Dr. Frankenstein repented for a sin he did not commit and failed to repent for the sin he actually committed. It was not creation that was the sin, but that he abandoned his creation: "why, why father have you abandoned me?" This, according to Latour, is what is wrong with the current environmentalist attitude. At the very moment when we have brought into view the unintended consequences of our intervention in nature; once we have become aware that our freedom entails not absolute, certain mastery, but a messy, risk-laden process of intervention and experimentation, we have suddenly run screaming from our powers of creation. In doing this, we simply run from ourselves, from our own freedom, and from democracy.

I took Latour's argument to be for a democratic appropriation of the precautionary principle. Instead of allowing decisions about science and technology to be decided either by technocrats or misanthropes, we should embrace risk and uncertainty, and see it as an opportunity rather than a danger. There was much more to Latour's presentation, and I will admit to not understanding all of it. But as far as I know, nobody has put the argument quite this way. It is, of course, indeterminate. Does this mean we should embrace stem-cell research and not worry so much about climate change? I don't know, and I don't think it was Latour's intention to give us anything so concrete. Instead, he performed a much more important service: navigating the Scylla of technocracy and the Charybdis of environmentalism in the name of democracy itself.

-- Alex Gourevitch


Anonymous said...

Bruno Latour is, in my view, one of the most brilliant contemporary french thinkers. Thank you for posting this review.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alex,
thanks for your article.
I was in the same room than you listening Latour last night. I found his argument very interesting but too I had some problem to understand all. I spent sometime today on the internet to find some reference of his speech.
I first found your article, then I found his text. So here it is: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/articles/article/107-NORDHAUS&SHELLENBERGER.pdf
Hope you'll enjoy.