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LEARNING FROM LOCKDOWN

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By Gerard de Vries

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The Montréal Review, November 2021

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Christopher Clark, the Regius Professor of History at the University of Cambridge, began in March 2020 a series of podcast conversations titled The History of Now. His aim: to explore with colleagues how reflecting on past epidemics might help to understand the current predicament, brought about by Covid-19. In the preface to Prisoners of Time, a collection of essays Clark composed during the lockdown as well, he shortly reflects on his podcast conversations and on the place of epidemic catastrophes in modern history.1 “There exist many wonderful studies of the impact of epidemic disease,” he writes. “But it was striking how little trace even the most horrific encounters with deadly pathogens had left on mainstream historical narratives and on public memory.” How come? “Historians, and humans generally, are addicted to human agency,” he suggests; “they love stories in which people bring about or respond to change.” A narrative centred on humans, Clark’s colleague Sujit Sivasundaram had argued on the podcast, will never be capable of making sense of a phenomenon like Covid-19. What was needed was a different way of telling history, one that made space not just for the disruptions wrought by humans, but for nonhuman agents as well. For a start, one might look into environmental history and the history of human-animal relations, Sivasundaram suggested.

In After Lockdown, the French philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour takes a more radical stance. With the current pandemic we experience a dress-rehearsal for what climate change has in store, he thinks. So, we’d better learn to re-orient ourselves and take stock of our lives. For that, we need a new compass, an entirely different cosmology, he claims – different, that is, from the metaphysics which provides the basic conceptual framework of most modern thought.

In 2018, Latour published Down to Earth, a plea to put concerns about the Earth – rather than global or national matters – at the centre of politics.2 In After Lockdown, he tries to specify more precisely where we ‘land’ when we come ‘down on Earth’ and how to orient ourselves then, politically.

To introduce the new cosmology, Latour re-reads Kafka’s novella Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis). In this story, as Gregor Samsa awoke one morning, he found himself transformed into a monstrous insect. His back is hard and as it were armour-plated; his legs are numerous and pitifully thin. Although the room in which he woke up is still his old bedroom, Gregor encounters a new world. He has to learn how to live as an insect. So, once he has discovered how to control his numerous legs and how to get out of bed, he starts groping around.

Latour writes that he, too, has found himself transformed into some monster, namely one that hauls a long trail of CO2 along his back. Almost all his actions produce detrimental effects for the environment or the climate. Moreover, since January 2020, with every breath he may spread viruses capable of killing people, who would suffocate in their beds, overrunning ICUs and other hospital services. The countryside of his youth is in no better state. The only way to escape his torments, he has discovered, is to gaze at the moon – as if it was the only thing he still could contemplate without feeling uneasy. Latour, too, realizes he will have to re-learn how to relate to the world. How? Like Gregor Samsa, by groping around – how else?

Latour is internationally known for drawing profound philosophical lessons from his ethnographic fieldwork, conducted in science, law and other domains of life. In the 1970s and 80s, he shook up science studies by studying closely how scientists conduct their daily work in laboratories. While most philosophers of science still wondered how to account for the claim that scientific knowledge truly mirrors nature, Latour shifted the attention to the other side of the equation. Most philosophers of science tend to think too easily about ‘nature’, he argued. They conceive it as something given, out-there, as a reality waiting to be discovered and mapped by clever people. However, as his ethnographies showed exhaustively, it takes a lot of hard work to make reality visible, to interact with it, and to objectively measure it. The idea that scientists study ‘nature’ is misleading, he concluded. It is the product of what the German philosopher Frege once called ‘the wonderful faculty of not paying attention’ applied to all the manipulations and complicated instruments which are needed to bring about reliable, stable scientific results.

Out of his work in science studies Latour developed a relationist ontology. According to this philosophy, continuity of existence is not guaranteed by some pre-given, hidden essence, but by a being’s relations with other beings. To sustain, to maintain itself and to continue its existence, a being has to relate – and to remain related – to other beings. What we experience as ‘reality’ is made up of networks of beings defined by their (for the time being) stable relations.

In After Lockdown, Latour’s ontology remains mostly under the hood. Presented as a “philosophical fable”, it aims at developing an empirically informed worldview that will allow us to position ourselves on a planet that is facing climate change, if not a climate mutation. Empirical details are drawn mostly from research projects of Latour’s many friends and colleagues, rather than from fieldwork he has conducted himself. Part of the book reads as the travelogue of a virtual journey. A reasoned bibliography of 20 pages provides suggestions for “a little further reading”. Prominent among them are references to Critical Zones, a voluminous, multi-author catalogue which accompanied an exhibition Latour curated in 2020 in ZKM, the Zentrum für Kunst und Medien in Karsruhe, Germany.3

“Kafka hit the nail on the head,” Latour writes; “becoming a bug offers a pretty good starting point for me to learn to get my bearings and to now take stock.” What kind of bug? He singles out termites who live in symbiosis with fungi able to digest wood (which is turned into a compost that the termites eat) and who build vast nests of chewed earth, inside which they maintain a kind of air-conditioning system. Mound and termite – habitat and inhabitant – are in continuity, the relation defines both. A termite mound without termites is a heap of mud, whereas the termites live in, through and partly thanks to the mound. The same applies to a city and city-dwellers. The urbanite lives in his city the way a hermit crab lives in its shell. “So where am I?” asks Latour. In, and through and partly thanks to my shell. “I can’t even take my provisions up to my place without using the lift that allows me to do so. An urbanite, then, is an insect ‘with a lift’ the way we say a spider is ‘with a web’? The owners still have to have maintained the machinery. Behind the tenant, there is a prothesis; behind the prothesis, more owners and service agents. And so on. The inanimate framework and those who animate it – it’s all in one. A completely naked urbanite doesn’t exist anymore than a termite outside its mound.” But beyond the city, in the country, wouldn’t one find lots of things that stand completely on their own – inert, autonomous, sovereign? Mountains, for instance? Visiting the Vercors region in France with a geologist friend, Latour learns at the foot of the Veymount mountain that the entire top of this spectacular cliff was a graveyard of corals, whose remains had engendered the beautiful Urgonian chalk. Bioclastic, the calcareous sediments are called, that is, made of all the debris of living beings.

The conclusion Latour draws from his excursions is that wherever we go on earth, we’ll find that the world we experience shows the traces of the past or present work of living organisms who have the capacity to change the living conditions around them. Even the oxygen one inhales is the product of processes in which innumerable organisms have been involved. Living agencies have completely transformed the original geology of the earth. “It’s through them that we can better understand the nature of ‘nature’. Nature is not first and foremost ‘green’; it is above all composed of manufactures and manufacturers – provided we leave them the time,” he concludes. Latour’s 1970s and 80s critique on the concept of ‘nature’ used often in discussing science, is shown to apply more broadly. We’re not ‘in’ nature, nor ‘out’ of it. We’re with Earth.

‘Earth’ (capital E), a proper noun, designates a planet which (as far as we know) is unique for its thin layer of a few kilometres above and below the planet’s surface, a composite of soil, water, gases, cells, organisms, as well as the effects of their actions, all connected, that is crucial for sustaining life. This layer, which the US National Research Council called in 2001 the ‘Critical Zone’, has been generated for eons by organisms who changed the living conditions around them, while – unintentionally, blindly – making the earth habitable for lifeforms that came along after.

“On Earth, nothing is ‘natural’ if we take that term to mean not having been touched by any living being: everything is raised, put together, imagined, maintained, invented, intricately linked by agencies which, in a way, know what they want, or in any case aim at a goal that is exclusively their own, each agency for itself,” Latour writes. To find ‘inert things’ that unravel without a goal or will, we’ll have to leave the Critical Zone – either up above towards the moon, or down below towards the centre of the globe – to enter what Latour suggests to call – “why not?” – the Universe.

The distinction between ‘Earth’ and ‘Universe’ is the pivot of Latour’s argument. He thinks the two should be separated clearly. They are associated not only with different locations (Earth / outer space), but also with different types of metaphysics, epistemologies, and politics. That’s quite a bit – and asking for trouble.

First, the fact that he associates different types of metaphysics with, respectively, earth and outer space, may make one wonder whether Latour is endorsing a pre-Copernican worldview. At some point he even declares that “‘infra-lunar’ and ‘supra-lunar’ weren’t such bad terms.” Has he been gazing at the moon perhaps too long, conceiving it as the last thing left uncorrupted? Quite unlikely. As someone who loves science, Latour knows, without doubt, that the earth is one planet among several others moving in orbits around the sun. But this particular planet, Earth, stands out from the other ones for its Critical Zone, which emerged while life evolved. For that reason, he argues, it deserves a metaphysics of its own, one that diverges from the metaphysics of the ‘Universe’.

The metaphysics of the ‘Universe’ was developed in the seventeenth century with the advent of modern science. Inspired originally by observing heavenly bodies, it conceives a world of moving matter in infinite space, of things that move, combine, and fall apart according to laws in calculable ways. To expect the same conceptual apparatus to apply to Earth is a mistake, Latour claims. “We always have a bit of trouble calculating the agents that raise and maintain the Earth. As they always go against the cascade of entropy, you’re always in for a surprise.” And not only you. The same holds in a sense for all living beings. As continuity of existence is not guaranteed, they are confronted, time and again, with what Latour calls engendering concerns and subsistence issues. To overcome the hiatuses in existence which come with having to pass through multitudes of others demands adaptation, innovation, or recreating one’s habitat. Indeed, as Popper had it, years ago, “all life is problem solving.”

This, however, may give rise to another concern. Does Latour suggest that we should revitalize nineteenth century vitalism, which sharply distinguished between living organisms and the non-living world? No, he does not, but it is a close call. He re-interprets the concept of life in terms of his relationist ontology and proposes to understand the adjective ‘living’ to refer – without ever separating them – to both inhabitants and their habitat, thus to both the termites and their mound, to the oxygen bacteria give off as much as to bacteria themselves, and to both Prague’s Charles Bridge and the crowds swarming it. Plus to the fact that the termite mound, the oxygen, and Charles Bridge hang on longer than those from which each of them emanates, that is, provided other termites and bacteria keep the momentum going and the engineers from the city of Prague continue to do the maintenance work.

But why would we want another metaphysics, instead of the one which has served us quite well for centuries, the sceptic may ask. The metaphysics Latour wants us to exile to outer space has guided a lot of science and technology that proved successful in helping to improve living conditions on earth (and yes, the sceptic knows, to cause quite some destruction as well). To know that in burning fossil fuel hydrocarbons react with atmospheric oxygen to create CO2 and water, we don’t have to know that oxygen is the product of processes in which innumerable organisms have been involved, do we? Indeed, we don’t. But it’s quite useful to know that the CO2 that has been produced will be processed again by innumerable organisms into oxygen again – oxygen which we need in order to not suffocate. Over millions of years, this cycle has led to a fairly stable balance between the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide which has made life on Earth possible. By now this cycle is in danger of becoming disrupted – among other things because we’re burning much too much fossil fuels. So, there’s the reason for claiming we need another cosmology: if we don’t “grasp what enables the living to make the earth habitable, we will make life impossible for ourselves.”

Perceived from the history of ideas, what Latour proposes is a pretty revolutionary move. Modern science abandoned Aristotelian metaphysics, which analysed earthly phenomena in terms of growth and decline. Galileo’s use of mathematical equations to describe moving bodies introduced thinking in terms of relations, rather than essences. Hence, the focus was shifted to matter that moves, interacts, combines, or falls apart; continuity of existence didn’t need attention anymore. Very clever, but not when you are concerned with Earth’s Critical Zone. There, continuity of existence is a serious issue. To not perish, living beings need to have organized some habitat for themselves, or to have adapted to the conditions that be.

Gregor Samsa found himself transformed in a monster. Step by step he had to learn to live under the new conditions. Confined, he discovered some new tricks – for example, to walk through walls. But in the end, he is finished. Greta, his loving sister, betrays him; his father tries to hit him with his cane; an apple, thrown at him, is rotting and sticks to the plates of his back. He dies and at the end of the story, the charwoman finds him, ‘dead and done for’, and gets rid of him. In Kafka’s novella, the humans are the real monsters.

Confined during the 2020 lockdown, Latour discovers how not to turn into a monster. We have to agree to remain inside, to be “earthbound”, “terrestrial”, to be with Earth – that is, to accept being confined to a planet that is still nice and fine because of its Critical Zone. We’ll have to learn how to “reposition ourselves while staying in the same spot” – like we were forced to do in 2020, during the lockdown.

We’ll have to unlearn some bad habits though as well. Two of them Latour discusses at length.
The first one is to imagine an escape from confinement, to get away from this vale of tears, to go off elsewhere, ‘up to Heaven’, to leave this world for a ‘spiritual’ one. In previous works, Latour had already criticised his (Catholic) church for inventing a realm that was supposed to compete with the ‘material’ realm claimed by modern science. Now, he argues that what caused the religious to wander off towards a spiritual world is a misunderstanding which arose from confusing the movement of things in the Universe with the engendering of living things with Earth. For the secularized versions of the inclination to long for another world – as in the utopia of infinite progress, or in Elon Musk’s dreams to colonize Mars – he has harsher words. His message to both religious believers and dreamers of a secularized paradise is the same, however: “go back home, to the place where you are, the place you’ve never left.”

The second habit that gets the axe is the belief in ‘the Economy’ – the magnification of the idea of distinct, calculating ‘economic agents’ who are not only fully aware of their interests, but also capable of achieving them, the idol of modern liberal governments. For Latour, the idea is too ridiculous to be taken seriously. “All living things are, if you like, selfish and self-interested, since they’re all trying to go on living, but none of them fits snugly into clear enough lines to be able to calculate its interests without getting it wrong.” Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s “as sloppily written as horribly effective” novel, gets Latour’s full scorn. While the ‘economic dimension’ of things is met with respect almost everywhere, time and again it turns out that ‘other dimensions’ need to be considered to straighten things out: social, political, psychological, ecological ones – you name it. So, to uphold the idea of the ‘economic agent’, a whole infrastructure had to be built.4 In 2020, however, that infrastructure turned out more fragile than anyone expected. A tiny virus, proceeding from mouth to mouth, brought in a few months the economic infrastructure of the powerful and wealthy nations to its knees. The reaction of public authorities to the outbreak of the virus showed that one could do without ‘the Economy’.  Confined in 2020, Latour notes the lesson to be learned: “This time round, it’s not just a matter of improving, changing, greening or revolutionizing the ‘economic’ system, but of completely doing without the Economy. Instead of pretending that we can calculate what comes next, we’d better learn to describe the relations that matter to us up close.”

The Economy and spirituality having done with, the question to ask is ‘where am I?’ – Où suis-je? – the title of the original, French, edition of the book. “Who are you,” asks for an identity-card, or for someone’s deepest self; it’s a question an essentialist will pose. “Where are you,” asks for one’s relations. For an answer, neither a look at a map, nor a specification of one’s GPS-coordinates will do. One’s ‘territory’ is not what you occupy, but what defines you: what you depend on to subsist. The answer will seldom refer to what in the usual metrics is called ‘local’. As we may have enjoyed products originating from several countries before we have finished breakfast, if not two or three continents, the beings we depend on may be quite far away. The world we live in only rarely overlaps with the world we live off.

The world we live in, provides us with a passport; the world we live off is to a large extent terra incognita. To explore the world we live off, Latour has developed a game, a kind of compass, drawn on the ground, in which people, by stepping in some quarter, show their dependencies and thus define who they are, that is, with whom, against whom, and for whom they are. The game helps to make the conflicts that are involved public, and open for debate. The political and moral question then becomes: what do we do with this second world, the world we live off?

Indeed, what to do? “Go straight ahead, as Descartes advised those lost in a forest? No! You should scatter as much as you can, fan out, explore all your capacities for survival, conspire, as hard as you can, with the agencies that have made the places you’ve landed on habitable,” is Latour advice in the last paragraph of the book. In the last sections of the book, the language becomes at times somewhat feverish. One should orient oneself, unplug, turn around, go back on failures, grope, experiment, test, innovate, develop a new common sense. The common denominator is that the reader is addressed as an individual; the message: you must (and can) change your life.

Du mußt dein Leben ändern” (You must change your life) is a line from a beautiful poem, by Rilke. As a political program, though, it is pretty meagre.

Max Weber famously wrote that “[..] very frequently the ‘worldviews’ that have been created by ‘ideas’ have, like switchmen, determined the tracks along which action has been pushed by the dynamic of interest.”5 Having understood Latour’s message that behind the political crises we’re confronted with almost daily there is a crisis of cosmology, Weber’s observation may provide some solace for the politically minded who is looking for action. We know the tracks that have brought us where we are. The world we live in is divided up by sovereign states, which offer their inhabitants citizenship and rights. A modern nation restricted to its borders couldn’t live, however. The ecological footprint of its citizens in the territories they live off is much larger than the jurisdiction of the state they live in. So, the politically minded might start asking along which new tracks the interests of the multitude of agents (human as well as nonhuman ones) that populate the world we live off can play out fairly, sustainably. That is, some institution, an institutionalized praxis, a ‘mode of existence’, which for the world we live off can play the role which in civilized states is performed by law. For a start, we might look into the role of standards in supply chains and question who or what controls them.

In the last essay of Prisoners of Time, Christopher Clark notes that the stories that used to comfort us no longer do. “Modernity has turned out to be dirty, unsustainable, choked with discarded plastics and heading for planetary catastrophe.” He points to the amazingly high number of books that have appeared in the last three years with the word “end” in the title – The End of Politics, The End of Liberal Democracy, The End of the Left, et cetera. What concerns him, he writes, is “the death of stories that gave us a future and proposed a means of acting in a politically efficacious manner. The effect of this narrative withdrawal is a besetting anxiety, an inability to replot our course after every disturbing incident.”

Latour’s rich – and occasionally overly rich – After Lockdown is motivated by the same scepticism about modernity and the same concerns. It certainly provides a new narrative, a promising metamorphosis, a lesson learned from confinement. A big idea, indeed. But as the IPCC reports make crystal clear, to re-plot and re-occupy the future, time is pressing. One doesn’t want humanity to be betrayed and to end like Gregor Samsa, to be left dead and done for at a garbage dump. So, for the next decade or two, waiting for some new institutionalized praxis to take care of the world we live off, some old-fashioned modern tricks, like international agreements, technological innovation, and a Green Deal, I’m afraid, will have to do.

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Gerard de Vries is emeritus professor Philosophy of Science at the University of Amsterdam and the author of Bruno Latour (Polity, Cambridge 2016).

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1 Clark, Chr., Prisoners of Time – Prussians, Germans and Other Humans. London: Allen Lane, 2021.

2 Latour, B., Down to Earth – Politics in the New Climate Regime. (Orig. Où atterrir? Comment s’orienter en politique. Paris, 2017. Transl. by Catherine Porter). Cambridge: Polity, 2018.

3 Latour, B. and P. Weigel (eds.), The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth. Cambridge (Mass.): MIT Press. 2020.

4 Cf. e.g. MacKenzie, D., Material Markets – How Economic Agents are Constructed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

5 Gerth, H.H. and C. Wright Mills (transl.), From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1946, p. 280.

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