Bruno Latour – We are all reactionaries today
An interview with the vanguard contemporary thinker, Bruno Latour, on the end of progressivism, the limits of representation, the irrelevance of contemporary parliaments, the politics of things…
(The interview is also available on podcast)
An interview to Konstantin Kastrissianakis for Re-public
Konstantin Kastrissianakis: If today we live in the era of simultaneity, in a space where everything is contemporary, can we use the terms “conservative” or “regressive” or should we abandon them altogether?
Bruno Latour: Everybody is reactionary today. The problem is not there: the problem is which ones to choose. The division of things between progressivist and reactionary ought to be abandoned precisely because the topography of time, the repartition of political passions, has been overturned. Because in modernism, we were relatively easily oriented towards a progressivist direction. So we could distinguish between progressivist and reactionary attitudes with relative ease, reactionary being linked to the attachment to the past and progressivist to future emancipations. Today, however, things have changed to the extent that attachments are not only in the past but also in the future. For example, ecological questions, issues concerning the city and urbanism etc. As I have said in “making things public”, we have gone from a time of Time to a time of Space, from a time of succession to a time of co-existence. As a result the differentiation is now based on the type of attachment rather than on the old reactionary and progressivist scenography. So we are obliged to change the political passions while they still remain relatively classic, attached to the whole package of progressivist/reactionary, liberal/neo-liberal, anti-globalising/globalizing. In effect, in the details, we have to open the package to understand the allocation of attachments and the dose of emancipation and attachment they presuppose. These developments are not necessarily due to the emergence of instantaneity but primarily to the end of modernism, to the disappearance of the arrow of time, of emancipation as sole political horizon.
K.K.: Was it also a period where differences or oppositions were clearer?
B.L.: We considered them clear, but they never were. Only retrospectively do they seem clearer. Modernism was always a different thing from what it pretended to be. “We were never modern”.
K.K.: Now, if the watch, the calendar, technological inventions are symbols of the time that passes, what are the objects that represent your notion of multiple temporalities?
B.L.: The fact that progress is no longer the horizon does not mean that we abandon the notion of time. It means that time is no longer the carrier of emancipation solely, but that it carries both emancipation and attachment. Therefore time is still there; the direction of time is still there. We continue to die. We are still mortals. However, what has changed is the repartition of time: the great narratives that resolved people’s differences and positioned them on the basis of their relation to the future have been replaced by their position in relation to objects, to issues. Today in order to see if someone is a good or a bad reactionary, we must know where his attachments lie. Ecology, illustrates this very clearly. We can now have odd configurations: one can be both pro-nuclear and anti-global warming. Today there is no longer a single object that rules, that gives rhythm to the repartition of time or to the direction of time. On the contrary, politics turns around objects of interest, “issues”, “affairs”, “things”, αιτία in ancient Greek. So it is of no importance to know whether one is a reactionary or not, but to know what those objects are that one holds dear, and the types of things to which one is attached.
The proliferation of hybrid forums
K.K.: These are political, affective things?
B.L.: Of course, political, affective. They were always interrelated: to use Peter Sloterdijk words, they are relations of habitat, of spheres, of atmosphere. Politics will become what he calls “spherology” which is about the habitats, artificial environments, artificial surroundings in which we are and co-exist. In arguments of this type, it is true that the central metaphors tend towards space rather than time. They are formed primarily in architecture and in co-existence rather than in the great revolutionary narratives that reigned for centuries in their left or right versions of history. Sloterdijk proposed another more interesting term to replace that of revolution: “explicitation”. The history of explicitation is made increasingly intelligible in the spheres and objects to which we are attached. Therefore the problem is not to order things according to time or space. It is no longer hierarchical but heteriarchical. Rather, today we must try to approach these new attachments, these new political passions. The categories of the French revolution, the left and the right, with their specific categories and particular techniques of classification, of positioning, no longer correspond to the order of things. Whether we talk about global-warming, delocalisation, GMOs (genetically modified organisms), habitat or public transport, there is each time a different configuration of these positions. It is not that these divisions no longer exist, but that they have been drowned in the multitude of other attitudes.
K.K.: Is it possible to argue therefore that positions are thus based more on the substance of these “matters of concern”?
B.L.: I don’t know where the influences come from. Politics always was object-oriented. It is simply that in the modernist scenography, where politics was one sphere amongst others, such as those of civil society, economy, nature, we were under the impression that we could define politics in a procedural manner. An arena through which all kinds of affairs could pass but representatives would treat them in such a way so as to standardise them. What happens today is that the techniques of political representation no longer seem capable of absorbing the multiplicity of positions and, in any case, they are no longer capable of standardising them. If you take for example the associations of patients: today, each illness has its own association. This is “politics” in a very vague sense, consisting of people who get together around “matters of concern”. But it is no longer political in the sense of something completing itself according to a particular technique of representation such as the parliament, the executive, the law. While some might reach this point, they are rare compared to the mass of hybrid forums that, as Sloterdijk puts it, proliferate.
K.K.: But it is not necessarily their objective to get into parliament.
B.L.: No the Parliament is a place where very little happens. We could argue that it has become largely irrelevant. Not because the Great Politics has been sidestepped by economic forces, but because the techniques of representation of the official political arena have not evolved in the same speed as the multiplication of hybrid forums around “matters of concern”. This is what we tried to stage with the exhibition “Making Things Public”. The Parliament was there as a particular technique among the multitude of other hybrid, non-official, not necessarily legitimate forums which are very effective involving a variety of things: from the supermarket, and finance to law, technology, debates over nature, etc. Therefore there is a proliferation of “micropolitics”, to use Urlich Beck’s word. In my opinion the dream of macropolitics, the sphere that could cover all these forums, has disappeared.
K.K.: In this new configuration, how can we re-imagine a democracy capable of accommodating the co-existence of different temporalities or of different “matters of concern”?
B.L.: Intellectuals cannot answer this question. Anthropologists, sociologists, philosophers can follow what is already going on. In practice politics was always about “matters of concern”. It was always “issue-oriented”. The village mayor has always been aggressed or alerted by his co-citizens on problems of garbage, roads, schools, factories, etc. It is primarily a question of representation of what always happened in politics, a problem that we could not see clearly as long as politics was thought of either as covering the totality of activities (the “everything is politics” of the 1960s) or, in the opposite, as being uniquely oriented towards the official, parliamentary version of representative government. Therefore in these two positions, which broadly cover the ideals of the previous century, it is difficult to discern how to nourish the requirements of democracy by new means. This is because either we were within the “everything is political”, a perspective that was revolutionary without taking into account the institutions of democracy – as we know, revolutionaries are never good democrats – or we were under the impression that democracy in its official representative form could absorb all questions that passed through its procedure and became politics when they arrived at the desks of ministers or deputies. Suddenly, we pause and raise the issue of democracy whereas, in effect, people always posed the question of democracy in different ways. That is, through organizing simultaneously hybrid forums around subjects which do not constitute objects of politics as classic notions would have it.
We can take the contemporary situation regarding patient associations, no one imagined that politics of health would be organized on a one-to-one basis. No one imagined that food, as it has become in Italy with “slow food”, would become an object of politics. No one imagined that something like the climate would become an object of politics. It is a kind of pixelisation of politics. The form of politics has changed to such an extent that each pixel has its proper autonomy. And the question of democracy is posed within all these spots. Therefore we could either say that this is no longer democracy and rather “écume”, as Sloterdijk argues, or alternatively we could argue that in the essence of politics, democracy carries our passions, our beliefs, our attachments, our engagements, issue by issue. Therefore we are not in a pure situation. It is a different situation. There are those intellectuals that work empirically who try to capture again these new enclosures, the new forms of democracy. There are those who do it on the web, which permits a cartography of many states of democracy in the making. In our exposition we mobilized a lot of those sites. Some of them were really interesting, containing issues that resemble a kind of prefiguration of this very practical democracy. They were all issue-oriented. Many people work on these issues: this is the web. But in associative life there is a multitude of other elements. The great obstacle is that we cannot do the same with the economy. It remains, in the beliefs of the old left and the old right, a system obeying laws in a way that nature no longer is. The contemporary paradox is that nature is clearly politicized whereas the economy remains rigid to the extent where laws are put into effect without anyone being able to express his opinion. It is rare to find the idea that the same pixelisation can take place in the economy whether within the Marxist left or the Marxist right. Whereas in practice, of course, the economy is pixels. It consists of small aggregates, collections, new hybrid forms, etc. It is an amusing paradox of the era that the economic nature resists more than nature itself.
K.K.: Why then do you remain sceptic as to what the internet can do?
B.L.: Because we are not completely “uploaded” on the web. Despite all, life on the web is still a very small segment of our common existence. We continue to live in relatively traditional atmospheres: the walls, the air, heating, people who meet, who talk etc. Therefore, if democracy should also be the power to co-exist, to use Sloterdijk’s expression “while waiting one’s turn”, without reaching a situation of extreme violence we cannot imagine transposing all our democratic habits on the web. In addition, the web is not a subject of passion. It is a very small passion.
K.K.: But it is a tool of expression?
B.L.: An answer would be that it is more than what you are saying: it is a real space, because it is hierarchical and mimes very well a decentralized character without utopias, without relations of zoom between places, because we can intervene in a blog at the other end of the planet. Its form is interesting from the point of view of contemporary issues. Nonetheless, it is only a first prefiguration of future spaces in which it would be possible for democracy to be exercised. It is a good model. But there is a bit of an exaggeration when we hear about the web as offering the universal forums that we have lost. The notion of a universal forum is probably a notion that we should lose. We should not wish to go back to the “global.”
K.K.: For example, have you heard about this site which is called Second Life?
B.L: Yes. Ségolène Royal has set up an electoral desk there.
K.K.: Does it represent something new or is it only a logical continuation?
B.L.: All those things that materialize the symbolic spaces, in which we live, all those things that make them intelligible and shareable, and countable, are interesting for the understanding of society. I suppose that today there are probably as many sociologists who study Second Life as there are users. Certainly, there are many economists and they find economic models remaining practically unchanged. Second Life is indeed not very original from the point of view of economic relationships. It is, however, interesting because we can see the rematerialisation, layer by layer of what existence in a virtual world means. The term “virtual” is, in fact, not appropriate because it is the normal state of affairs. “First Life” is virtual whereas Second Life is material since one is obliged to pay the price. Not very much, but a cost nonetheless. All those things that facilitate the replacement of virtual relations between symbolic and material are of interest because they preclude a lot of the nonsense that suggests that we are moving from a real world into an imaginary world.
The Greeks taught us that we were in an imaginary world many years ago. Today we pay for a connection and so we can see more clearly what it is all about. Also I think there is now a small police in Second Life. Not yet real politics but there is a set of rules, of exclusions. One can be excluded as bad alias, bad avatars. There were acts of violence, strikes, sit-ins. Therefore we find certain elements of “First Life”. But it is not particularly original, in a strange way it is hardly utopian. The study of second life will not be easier than that of first life. From that perspective, Second Life resembles a lot “Biosphere II”, which was an attempt to reconstitute an artificial biosphere, not virtually (not on the web) but in a situation of controlled urbanism which would play an important role in the ecologists’ imagination. All these difficulties in order to construct a second biosphere, all these efforts to constitute artificial islands are interesting.
The politics of things
K.K.: You talk about the demon of the political and how the phantom of the public could loosen it. Through a passage from Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, you explain how we could realistically “make things public”. What is exactly the notion of Dingpolitik and can the political be tamed?
B.L.: The etymology of the word demon carries two meanings: to cut and to share. Though we understand why, it is interesting to note that this term is equally articulated in two opposing meanings. We see that the demon of the political cannot be simple. It is necessarily a monster. Political philosophy is a teratology, the apprenticeship of monstrosity. Those who are dangerous in political philosophy are those exactly those who think that it is not about monstrosity. Historically, in the political realm, monsters have emerged from reason, rather than through monstrosity itself. Therefore the question which was raised by the Dingpolitik, by the “politics of things” is the one that we just posed.
The political was always about “things”. However, when we read political philosophy, we do not hear about “things”. There are innumerable treatises addressing how we will create the procedure which is going to absorb different affairs as if the procedure itself was set. As if whichever matter entering the parliamentary, executive machine would come out in the form of laws and solutions. This is what we now call governance. It is a managerial version of politics. Underlying this understanding of politics are a number of presuppositions: the existence of institutions, instruments and techniques of representation, which are “across the board”, which would equally absorb questions of ecology, economy, everyday life etc. The word Dingpolitik signals the implausibility of this theory of the political. It is not a new politics but what I call object-oriented politics. Since the very nature of the political always was to be concerned with objects, can we imagine techniques of representation – including artistic and scientific representation – that appropriately render this new pixelisation of the political? The politics of things is not a novelty. It was always there: the ding, and exists in all European languages. In Greek, αίτια. Does it also mean an assembly? It is a juridical term.
K.K.: Today it means the “cause”.
B.L: It is the cause that we bring to the tribunal. We find ourselves somewhere between sharing and being opposed to.
K.K.: It is the cause but it can also mean the reason.
B.L.: It is a beautiful etymology that we should not lose from our sight and that was always, in essence, active in politics. However, there was a time when we wished to separate the two arenas: on the one hand, that of the narrowly conceived political and, on the other, that of things and causes in their modernist version, which also corresponds to a division of tasks of the political to laws and conflicts while guarding the cause outside, in the scientific domain. Whereas it was not clearly visible at the time it is now clear that all “things” have become causes. All “matters of fact” have become “matters of concern”. The enormous problem that our generation faces is to find the conceptual and physical architectures that absorb this experience.
It is not an easy task because people continue to over-invest in traditional politics, which is a very local technique, as we can see with the ongoing French presidential campaign. It shows how complicated it is to give relevance to “matters of concern” with a very archaic technique and localized style. At the same time, however, we have also lost the great techniques that ought to still be used today, that of eloquence, of rhetoric. Instead, we have reached a slightly discouraging amalgam of governances. This is all the more obvious in the programs presented to us. We are being asked to imagine that politics is set of programs that we must apply in a problem-solving fashion. Therefore there is no longer the technique of eloquence or spin that gives the quality of everyday life to the political. At the same time we have a technique that remains very archaic. One could say that we are in the worse situation imaginable. We have lost the passion of the political – something which is not necessarily bad because political passions can also bring about disaster – and have not found the institutions and the technical forms that will allow us to make the system representative of all those other objects of disagreement in which we are already involved. This is the operation that the exhibition “Making things public” tried to put in place and, at least at a conceptual and visual, level was successful in doing. Parliaments are only one technique amongst others but I can hardly see anyone trying to make these techniques pertinent for all other assemblies. The definition of the political is reduced and consequently people complain that they are not sufficiently represented. The crisis of representation is increasingly eminent because of this kind of reduction of politics to techniques of representation that no longer seem legitimate.
K.K.: But is it also because we expected too much from representation itself?
B.L.: We expected too much and too little. On the one hand, we expected a lot in terms of covering the totality of human life. This is Sloterdijk’s inflatable parliament, an enormous parliament, where everyone would debate about everything, of contracts between all, of respecting each other while sitting around a gigantic table at the scale of the globe. This is too much. On the other hand, not enough because the innumerable assemblies formed around all these sets of disputes are considered as being an inferior form of politics. This is where Beck’s interesting argument on micropolitics lies. Whether it is feminism or something else, it is never considered sufficiently political because it is too local. Thus we accuse them of having particularistic interests, as if in the big sphere we had only general interests. For this reason, the phantom I staged in this exhibition, which is drawn from a book by Walter Lippmann, is a reminder of the fact that politics should not be seen as an immense body covering the totality of public life, but as a passage, as a movement. A movement, which Lippmann tried to describe in his book The Phantom Public. The public is necessarily a phantom, it cannot be a body. It is constantly at the stage of being restarted, of being a passage, of being an assembly of all the other assemblies that are in the process of revealing new issues.
Architecture and coexistence
K.K.: Do you see any leads for a conceptual or physical architecture to “make things public”?
B.L.: Architects have an important role to play because the notion of architecture, which was always important as a metaphor for public or private space, or for the repartition between public and private space, becomes today something more than a metaphor – whether we are talking about virtual architecture or the architecture of cities and parks. A few days ago, I met a student in Houston who studied people doing space architecture at NASA. This means architecture of the space around the earth. They work at the scale of the solar system. There are architects paid by NASA to imagine the repartition of beings, objects, stations in the solar system. This means that the notion of architecture, the work of architecture realizes the metaphor as defined by Sloterdijk. One where we are always looking for spaces of coexistence. Therefore, architecture must play a role, but I am not adequately informed to know which architects we must follow. There is an immense distance between the problems that we are discussing here and the building of a construction site. In addition, architects have a peculiar relation to theoretical work. A casual one.
K.K.: Sometimes also with the public.
B.L.: I collaborated with DOMUS for two years and thus I have read a bit of architecture, and strangely enough I know quite a lot of architects, but still not enough about architecture. Design, as a kind of architecture, is very important. When it comes to natural parks, nowadays it is a question of design. Whether it is collective design or collaborative design, there are so many schools to be found almost everywhere: landscaping, management of natural spaces, urbanism, they are in a process of being mixed because it is a question of constructing artificial surroundings to life. “Life support” that captures the space of politics. What would be interesting for architects is to reach a point where they would be interested in “matters of concern”. Meanwhile the aesthetics of architecture remain the aesthetics of objects. In design magazines we always see objects. We do not yet see many “matters of concern”. However, when we talk with architects, we realize that this is what it is about.
K.K.: But do you think that they can create these spaces, these architectures?
B.L.: Not alone, but they are already part of the “atmospheres of democracy”, of this collective space. It was always their job after all to constitute spaces. They take seriously the notions of space and life: they are almost defined by coexistence.
K.K.: Yes, but not necessarily. There are those who consider that if they were to take all these things into account, they would end up never building.
B.L.: Yes, but if you are able to build a single house it is because you take seriously the question of coexistence. There are always walls, interfaces, neighbours. Architecture takes seriously the word coexistence even if it involves simply building a house. It is not only the case when they build parliaments. In fact, most parliaments are constructed in a very archaic manner. The one by Norman Foster, in the Reichstag is clearly a caricature. Using glass to say it is transparent is a silly metaphor. There are one or two other parliaments constructed recently which are interesting, though they are rare. I don’t know how a “parliament of things” should look like. We had a bit of this in our exhibition, but it was a simulation for a few months in the exhibition space. It was done with the help of architects who gave the exhibition its shape and created semi-transparent panels in a very interesting manner. Are you at the A.A. (Architectural Association)?
K.K.: Yes. In fact, we are trying to re-think the habitat, the house in its relation to the community. The link between domestic life and public life. The technique proposed by our professor is to explore the different typologies, how different offices, hotels, hospitals, monasteries, squats work, map them, and see how individual spaces are organized in relation to communal and public spaces in order to propose new typologies through which to speculate on relationships between domestic and public. We want to see if we can re-think these spaces.
B.L: For me it was always a pleasure to go to Schools of architecture and I have been in many such schools. I gave a conference entitled “Paris: Invisible City”, it is a book now. Whenever I can, I try to visit architectural studios to see the projects students are undertaking. What is interesting now is the politics of co-existence, cohabitation being a key word. I have one or two students who are working in architecture. But I am already out of fashion, because architects consume very quickly. It was for two years that I was really in fashion but now they do not speak of me very much. Practically, what I do now is not architecture, but websites of controversies. My aim is to build websites by schematizing spaces of co-habitation of the range of uncertainties pending on technical controversies. I am therefore using sociology of sciences. This object can also become a debate in architecture. When I was in Houston, I saw that architects have access to visualization programs which would be instrumental for the social sciences but we are still lagging behind. We are still doing simplistic statistics, while we can create databases, we can create virtual spaces, future spaces, where we can explore hierarchies and the ad hoc character of matters of concern. Therefore my contribution to architecture lies in a metaphorical sense of democracy; to somehow create a “écume’, specific for each subject.
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