The most recent work by Patrice Maniglier entitled The Philosopher, the Earth and the Virus—Bruno Latour Explained Through Current Events—written during the events which constituted the Covid19 crisis—attempts to clarify the confusion and upheaval which are direct effects of the pandemic with the aid of critical tools developed over the last twenty years or so by the philosopher and sociologist Bruno Latour in close collaboration with Donna Haraway, Isabelle Stengers, Anna Tsing, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, among many others. The concepts forged within this constellation of thinkers are taken up and re-evaluated by Patrice Maniglier in light of the pandemic, which is presented as the intersection between ecological and geopolitical crises.
Patrice Maniglier is a philosopher and lecturer at the University of Paris, Nanterre. His thesis on the work of de Saussure was written under the direction of Étienne Balibar. He specializes in the language of philosophy and the history of structuralism. Alongside Élie During, Tristan Garcia, Quentin Meillassoux and David Rabouin, he co-directs the MetaphysiqueS collection published by Presses Universitaires de France.
You recently published The Philosopher, the Earth and the Virus, in which you mobilise a wide array of the concepts on which Bruno Latour’s theories are built; concepts which you interpret as having become ever more relevant due to the Covid crisis. Your book, rather than simply showing Bruno Latour’s theoretical and political ideas through the lens of the virus, affirms the urgency of these theories—which Latour has been advocating for over the last fifteen years—one which has only been accentuated by this event. The global health crisis, which has blurred the customary boundary between the natural and political sciences, can only be examined through the fusion of these two domains; an intersection which is the very foundation of the most well-known Latourian notion: Gaïa. This concept is indicative of the global system of earthly activities, including other layers which affect and transfigure the geological globe, providing depth through any of the following additional aspects: physical, biological, economical, social, geopolitical, symbolic, technological etc. Would you explain how the appearance of the virus is an event which proves in a most explosive way the heterogeneous networks of agency which are at work within this concept?
I am fascinated by the linkages that exist between a type of thought and a given period of time. I am a specialist on structuralism and have always thought that the fact that structuralism was au courant at one point is very telling; it also speaks of the time during which these ideas were developed. I maintain that we are now in a very Latourian moment. For Latour, it is not sufficient to build up a theory in one’s head; about which one could then ask whether it will prove to be true or false when compared to the real world. He takes a real-world problem we are currently faced with and draws it out from the inside of this world. The best way to apprehend a problem is by attempting to understand how it manages to evade available tools, in order to characterise it. This is why a real problem can sometimes be better evaluated when we examine what is happening on a theoretical level. To put it loosely, it is kind of like a doctor’s visit: a search for symptoms. To say that a way of thinking is a symptom is the biggest compliment it can possibly receive. You know, I would even say that Latour is a symptom of Gaïa, just like the Covid pandemic! A symptom of what I call forced reterrestrialisation which is characteristic of our epoch. We are beginning to understand our terrestrial condition. This forces us to break with the idea that Nature is on one side while Thought (or Society, or Culture or Humanity) is on the other. We are inside Earth, much more than simply on it. Indeed, the virus also made that evident. In the book, I basically try to develop an intuition that a number of us had, I think, which is that the pandemic is directly linked to global warming. I show how the virus is both a metonymy and a metaphor for Gaïa. Gaïa is Earth, however not as an inert reality, but as a capacity for action. What is global warming? The Earth-system’s reaction to human actions! Gaïa is not simply a passive object, she is also a partner who must be negotiated with, an actant, as Latour refers to it. The same goes for the virus: it mutates and that allows it to respond to our reactions, for example to our vaccines, to our distancing measures. Inversely, infectious diseases like Covid-19 are the consequences of modernisation: of deforestation, of global exchange, of political and social choices…Nature is not on one side, along with viruses, for instance, with Culture on the other, along with its laws and science. There is only one Earth, where all of these heterogeneous entities are affecting one another, or better yet, use one another in order to exist; they make alliances, as Latour puts it. The pandemic helps to better understand Latour, as well as the inverse! And both help to understand the Earth, because the Earth is the true subject of my book.
The current health crisis brought an acuteness to the mechanisms which intertwine biology and politics, living and non-living, to the point that you claim it is more necessary than ever to make use of the concept of the Global that Bruno Latour has shaped in order to replace the idea of the Universal. In contrast, the Global notion allows the ultra-singularity of each phenomenon to surface, despite its regularity as a phenomenon. Could you help us unpack this apparent paradox, as well as explain to us how this notion is related to another one—just as important—which is the notion of terrestrial, or terrestriality, which is to say that which anchors each entity to its milieu, or its chains of attachment and opposition?
I do believe that one of the things my book has to offer is help clarifying the complex notion of globality, by taking Latour to the next level. Global warming is a global phenomenon, so is the pandemic (that is the meaning of “pan”). Latour’s idea of the global is simple and profound: what it suggests it that we ask ourselves how we can conceive of global realities in an immanent way, or without leaping above the continuity of our plane of existence. We live on the Earth, stuck in our surrounding landscapes, with our limited, local perceptions. And then suddenly, we see a satellite image of Earth. We may believe that we can see our space from a point which is exterior to it. This is all the more true if you look at a map. In reality this image only exists through a step-by-step construction: the satellite is sent from Earth, the information must then be sent through a network of signals, it has to be translated, re-transcribed, etc. And so instead of two spaces; one local, immersed, subjective, and the other global, seen from above, objective, we have one, made of more or less extensive networks. The “global” is a certain position in a certain type of network: a center in a centralised network. The satellite is also a part of Earth! It assembles information originating from many different places into a whole. This all has to be looked at in a “flat” manner. That being said, the risk is that we miss out on the difference between a map of the world and a perception of a circular landscape. Gaïa is not the ground beneath my feet, it isn’t the totality of the network of earthly beings, either: what it is is a sole actant, sole precisely because it is global! If we try to understand how the Earth manifests itself on Earth, amongst terrestrials, we will see that it manifests itself by upsetting spatial relations, by bringing us closer to the Chinese while moving us farther away from our grandparents (which is exactly what happened with Covid!), by making me come to terms with the effect that I have on both a reef in the Pacific and on the coast of Bangladesh, just by taking a plane.
It does not stop there. Actually, every time you have individual actors saying that the “same thing” is shaking up relations near and far, here and there, you are seeing the global effect. To quote a hunter in the Arctic, who said that “the Chinese are polluting and the innards of our caribous are rotting,” because of the acid rain that modifies the lichens they feed on. So I say that Gaïa exists exclusively in the form of events of this sort, which consist of nothing other than a translation between two ways of referring to the global: for example, IPCC-type views and also those of the hunter I quoted. If we were to believe that the IPCC is the sole truth-teller that we have here on Earth, we lose the “immanent” perspective of the global I referred to earlier. The Earth stands between the IPCC and the hunter, and also you see that your favorite forest is on fire, migratory birds are changing routes, etc. In order to truly understand the Earth, we must take account of both the global and the immanent.
Bruno Latour can be situated in the continuum of the flat ontology movement; he introduces the notion of agency to a large number of entities besides those which are human or living. At the same time, the notion of agency has recently undergone a thorough re-evaluation: modes of action which had gone unrecognised are now being admitted into chains of events, while new forms of negotiation, diplomacy, struggles or collaborations are coming to light. When it comes to ecology, the opening up of the category of subjects with agency could lead to worries about the break with the simple examination of the effects that the human species has on its milieu. For example, if you compare the Western world where humanity’s existence takes a serious toll on its ecological environment with the non-Western world whose ecological footprint is less impactful, a departure from the cause and effect model could prove to be problematic. In other words—and I realise this is among the questions you pose in your work on Latour—how do you plan on introducing a decolonisation of ecology into these concepts?
Indeed, it is essential. My book’s message can be summed up by the following: the more global something is, the more multiplicity there is. Once it becomes clear that there is one singular being, it becomes necessary to accept the different ways this identity is translated on its very surface, through many different versions or variants.
This is particularly true for ecology. We now realise that it has less to do with “nature” than with the Earth. Perfect. However, there is a tendency nowadays to oppose the concept of diversity (which is often reduced to cultural diversity) with that of globality (which is often too readily linked to universality). It is as if, thanks to ecology, we could somehow reconnect with the good old universal truths! And yet, I believe that ecology is necessarily decolonial. If we believe that modern science is going to provide us with home truths about the Earth and that all other manners of speaking about it are mere approximations, then we are going to lose contact with the Earth, because the Earth, as I said before, is global; it is what we are all faced with. Earth sciences are terrestrial! Here is where I believe it could be useful to bring Lévi-Strauss to the ongoing conversation with Latour, or more generally, for ecology to be informed by anthropology. Lévi-Strauss came up with this really great concept, which is the “group of transformations;” he says that the Oedipal myth is not just one among many different versions, or the basis for a set of recurring motifs that exist in all the different versions, but rather a kind of matrix that generates different, divergent versions. Structuralism is based on this idea as well: it conceives of various entities as differential and positioned, systems as matrices of variants, or a group of transformations. The theory of myths as a new variant of the myth. I think this notion is an extraordinary tool which can be used to understand global entities, and especially the Earth. The Earth is the matrix of its different versions which include the IPCC report as well as the observations of the caribou hunter, in their very divergence. Which leads to the Earth sciences (and modern science in general) being relativised to an ensemble of practices and knowledge which belong to the Earth and which includes, amongst others, non-Western cosmologies. This is why anthropology should be included in Earth sciences. We will not be able to understand the meaning of terrestrial if we cannot manage to understand why we are all a part of it in diverse ways. Decolonisation requires the following: we must decolonise anthropology and the Earth at the same time!
In your current book, your objective is to direct the focus of Bruno Latour’s work on describing and defining these heterogeneous agents, you also bring forth other concepts such as embrouillement and enchevêtrement; the former refers to dependent relationships which break down traditionally rigid barriers between different entities, the latter to the intersections which are formed between several chains of embrouilles. It seems to me that the embrouille opens up the Deleuzian notion of symbiosis to a number of actors in addition to living beings, while the enchevêtrement takes up another Deleuzian notion; the model of shots and cuts. It seems as if you’re playing Deleuze against Latour, giving him a kind of afterlife, a contemporaneity which was just beginning to take shape in one of his last writings, Post-scriptum for Societies of Control.
I’m glad that you have picked up on the Deleuzian background of my book; also that you draw attention to the embrouille, which is one of the original concepts from the book that I think can be useful for making sense of the different ways we understand relationships in a terrestrial regime. Deleuze is probably the philosopher that Latour is closest to from all points of view. The same goes for me! As Foucault once said, “Someday, the century will be Deleuzian.” With Latour, this is beginning to become the case. Immanence might be the key concept here. Thinking immanently means to not conceive of thought as a representation of a given reality which is waiting for us to come and lean on it. It means we situate ourselves on the same level as thought, in a flat position, and never above it, in another realm, such as science or globality. And so, there also needs to be a refusal of all of these divisions: such as subject/object, liberty/reality, action/object, etc. Similarly, we want to attempt to achieve a flatness, to stay nearby or next to, in sisterhood, if you will, with everything else. Which, in a sense means admitting that the metaphysical can be found in everything and everywhere, for one simple reason: a final, static image of the world will never be possible. The scientific image of the world is not any more definitive than another. Basically, reality is always in the process of becoming, and it will continue becoming, through our trying to understand it. The metaphysical is this effort to make visible when necessary the importance of incertitude, of contingency, this shakiness, this creativity at work…There might be something that Deleuze has—and Guattari!—that I wish Latour had made use of: his theory on the Earth, which he refers to Schmitt for instead. It would be great to discuss how Mille Plateaux helps us understand our earthly condition. That will just have to wait until the next book!
You claim that the health crisis, with its plurality of factors, can only lead to disorientation if we continue approaching it from a traditional critical perspective; because it means that natural and political philosophy are conceived of as separate. Bruno Latour attempts to form connections between the non-homogenous factors of these two concepts by referring to Gaïa; which is the invention of two people, the first being James Lovelock—who defines it as a multi-force regulatory system made up of different streams of living and non-living terrestrial forces—and the second being Lynn Margulis, who mixes up the categories of living beings via endosymbiotic phenomena and composite existences by studying multiple entities (organisms + microbial flora + parasite, for example). Through this double approach, Latour seasons his sociological method with natural philosophy by including a number of Donna Haraway’s theories, whether it be through the deconstruction of binaries like nature/culture, object/subject, unitary/composite found in her early work like Cyborg Manifesto (1985). There are also the notions of the reticular as opposed to the central, of the hybrid as opposed to the uniform; also there are some ideas from her most recent work, Staying With the Trouble which focuses on heterogeneous chains of causality which exist between thespecies. He also opens up the concept of Gaïa to the work of Italian Marxist feminists from the 1970s; including that of Silvia Federici, who performs a re-reading of Capital in the light of unpaid labour. For precisely this reason, these activities, which exist outside of monetary streams despite actively contributing to production, have remained squarely under the radar of economists. Latour synthesises many of the most notable findings from the field of feminism, referring to different movements, which today consist of on the one hand, the ecofeminist branch; on the other the Marxist feminist and xenofeminist branches. Given that we are already familiar with the density of exchanges he has had with the first group, would you tell us how he is positioned with regard to the latter; and how you yourself are as well?
Feminism is indispensable when it comes to gaining knowledge about the terrestrial condition. Or at least this is the case with materialist feminism. There are several reasons for this. Because it obliges us to recognise the conditions of reproduction within production in itself, whereas the “modern” system erases them, sending them into the private realm, the colonies or the atmosphere. This is why Federici’s work is such a model. Also because feminism calls for the reconstruction of notions of identity, in order to distance ourselves from the opposition between abstract universalism (and the masculine subject) and essentialist differentialism; this is what Butler’s work is all about. As I said before: the Earth is equivocal, it does not accept the ontologies of fixed identities. Xenofeminism is the extension of this. Feminism is indispensable because of its close ties with “situated epistemologies”, in other words, it focuses on never believing that the theoretical act is not localised in its proximity to the supposed object.
Latour does not really deal with these things directly, however he has had them passed down through Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Émilie Hache and many others. In Staying With the TroubleHaraway says that she avoids citing men, and yet, she makes an exception for Latour! Which is a huge sign: Latour is a sister…
I come from an intellectual milieu, because even before I came to know Latour’s work, I was a student of Étienne Balibar, I was already post-structuralist, queer, decolonial, materialist, transfeminist…You could say that I am trying to reconcile Latourian thought with the entire 1960s movement of critique; a milieu from which Latour had to detach in a quite marked way in order to create a path for an orientation which found itself faced incessantly with objections from “critical thought”, often related to Bourdieu and Marxist dogmatism. There are still plenty of people in these types of intellectual families who consider Latour’s work, and ecopolitics in general, to be a kind of class enemy. This is starting to become rare, thank goodness. And either way, there is no future for this. The Earth is now requiring reconciliation. It seems to me that the type of ontological pluralism that I advocate for by trying to pair a radical anthropological relativism influenced by Lévi-Strauss, with the notion of Gaïa which is from Latour, contributes to the carrying out of this task. In any case, that is my hope.
Head image : Yung-Ta Chang, scape.unseen_model-T, 2020. Various materials, variable dimensions. © Courtesy of the Artist and Taipei Fine Arts Museum
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