“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Friday, October 21, 2011

Latour Mainz Lecture Notes

By the resourceful Angie Lewandowski.

20 October 2011
Bruno Latour: “Is it Possible to Get Our Materialism Back? An Inquiry into the Various Idealisms of Matter”
(Part of SoCum’s series on “materiality”)
Notes: Angela Hume Lewandowski


Inquiry into idealism and materialism of matter has nothing to do with the spiritual.

History of empiricism as an art form. The typical activity of empiricism—the seated artist views “the dead piece of meat.” The object is well lit, and the only activity is getting the object onto the flat surface (canvas). This is our last emblem of empiricism. Idealistic origin of matter: matter as what is seen by fixed spectator, who seeks to make a “copy” on a flat surface. This is the way objects are represented. There only two points: the object, the spectator. The whole idea is based on the notion of making a copy. What we mean by matter comes from the history of art, a specific moment in art, the still life. Gibson: “the notion of the image as a flattened out object.” It’s not actually like this. “The information for the perception of an object is not an image” (Gibson). Furthermore: “the information to specify something does not have to resemble it”; vision is not an image (Gibson).

The idealism of matter: We access things through geometrical means, as a definition of how things move through existence. But science thinks things very differently. Scientific images are non-mimetic. The lack of mimicity defines scientific images. How we inscribe—draw—really has nothing to do with how we actually see. And yet this history of art—of the still life—has guided the way we think about perception for so long. The still life—such a completely bizarre way of handling data! When you go to scientific practices, you get an entirely different take on what vision is. Transcription is never mimetic in science. It’s an entirely different way of “accessing data.”

The odd situation of how we traditionally produce subjects and objects (in the still life arrangement, e.g.). But there are other ways of producing subjects and objects—and other ways of not producing subjects and objects. Res extensa, how things stand. Primary and secondary qualities: these are the product of art history, of print culture, etc. They should not be confused with how things actually stand. The object in res extensa, how the object actually stands.

“Modes of existence”—thinking this way allows us to get out of the subject-object idea, two modes of existence (as only subject or object). Ways of being matter: this is what we need to learn to think. Think of all of the things that don’t fit into the subject-object dichotomy—science, religion, etc.

The anthropocene. The era of geological sciences. Going to geology, for example. What does it mean to be a materialist when what we must face today is the fact of the anthropocene? Human beings are such a huge geological force. And this is real! (And here we are talking about posthumanism!) Materialism is completely changed by the fact of the anthropocene.

Getting our materialism back. So we had earth at the center of the universe; then we had the Copernican revolution. But now, we are largely back to earth at the center (see illustration). The fragility, uncertainty of habitat. Our “ecologized cosmos.”

It’s more realistic, objective, to talk about the lived world. We need to rethink our “lived world.” What this means.

What it is to live in a cosmos with a strong boundary: we will never escape from earth. We must ecologize what it is to live in our world. It’s just the earth. It’s something incredibly local—to talk about objectivity is to talk about something local, objects that have to cohabitate. We are much closer to the Renaissance right now, the idea of the earth as the center of the universe.

Materialism of people who live here, as geological forces. And this isn’t very good news. “This is actually very bad news.”

Gaia is local. It is about the earth.
Gaia is highly re-active (contrary to the idea of the indifference of nature).
Gaia is fragile. We can’t talk about nature without thinking this fragility.

Nature as fierce and violent—vengeful. Gaia targets humans and terrians as what makes it impossible to go on. “This isn’t very nice for us.” We have to really start thinking this reactivity of nature. Humans and terrians are not at war. “The lived world is not a nice world to be lived in. It’s a highly disputed world to be in. Once we get our materialism back, we also get back war, because the lived world…is uninhabitable.”

The terrians are those who have only one earth.

A little note of hope: Whatever we mean by materialism means we take on our shoulders the cosmos. It’s not the cosmos of the old matter. The “lived world”: the most dangerous, the most contested, but also the most interesting materialism of the future.

Humans: Have several earths in reserve
Terrians: Have only one earth
Dis-community between humans and terrians.


Thinking the fact that we—as geological forces—are killing, will kill, 7 billion people. What it is to be many.

Where are the social sciences in the time of the anthropocene?

Latour, on technology: Going back to the lab. We have to love the technology. If anything, we don’t have enough technology. More technology is better.

A question I have for Latour: What does “getting our materialism back” mean for environmental ethics?

More specifically: When we acknowledge the anthropocene, “ecologized cosmos,” the “lived world,” what we are really acknowledging is that so much of what we’ve done, so much of the damage we’ve done, may very well outlive us—chemicals, Styrofoam, dams. And so: with reparation off the table, what happens to environmental ethics? What kind of ethics does such a “materialism” entail?

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