Associating with Objects

by Randall Honold

As you read this I’m in India co-leading a group of 20 undergraduate students on a three-week study abroad trip. We’re there to investigate Indian environmentalism: ecological restoration, tribal community sustainability, and urban remediation. But that won’t be all. Many of our group haven’t been outside the U.S., and only a couple have traveled to a non-Western country (Mexican vacations don’t count.) They’re in for it. Lots of “its.” What a sensual overload India is – there’s just more of everything there, constituting an ongoing case study of George Bataille’s theories of excess.

India, like China, is a nation with serious environmental challenges. You can look up the stats yourself, but there’s no skirting the fact that a human population of over billion and growing – not only in numbers but material wealth and accompanying aspirations – on a land mass that size portends crises. Considering China again for a moment, with its similar economic impetus, demographics, and ecological stressors (granted a very different form of government), and between the two countries we’re glimpsing a possible trajectory of the planet’s future.

Next month I’ll share reflections on India, but here and now, I want to return to some of ideas I left way undercooked in my first entry, coming again from Bruno Latour. I invoke them to help us think about objects, not least of which is the planet and its future.

Why do we think there is nature?

But isn’t even asking if nature exists just kind of dumb, especially politically, nowadays? Do we want to give the reactionary climate change and evolution deniers more fuel for their dark, twisted fantasies (sorry, Kanye)?

Let’s barge ahead with the question anyway, with Latour as our navigator. In Politics of Nature, he coins the term “multinaturalism” to help us face our fears of losing a singular nature. Like “multiculturalism,” which arose “against the background of prematurely unified nature” and allowed “prematurely fragmented and incommensurable cultures” to stand out in light of Western monoculture predominance, “multinaturalism” helps us counter the historical and conceptual weight of the natural attitude. By this I mean the bolus of natural law and scientific authority that ostensibly tells us how things really are. But a funny thing happens when we multi-ply. We see nature and culture linked in a false conceptual dichotomy. If we rid ourselves of the notion of a univocal, foundational nature, then we shed standard notions of society and its work on us as well. Both social constructionists and the scientists who abhor them are pushed to the sidelines. (I’m not sure what happens to the reactionaries, since they’re not in the game. Do we really have to talk about them? Ok, I’m whining here.) Multinaturalism demonstrates that we were hasty in assuming nature to be a unity. We are not yet so natural or cultural. Latour uses insights from comparative anthropology to demonstrate – counter to popular environmentalism’s gauzy vision of non-Western cultures as more at one with nature – that only Westerners have constructed the category of nature and set it over against the category of culture. For non-Western cultures, all objects were hybrid objects, mashups of nature and culture: collectives.

Why should we think there ought to be collectives instead?

In contrast to the perspective that the two worlds of nature and culture are different, Latour proposes instead a single collective replete with an endless number of associations, all of which scale up, down, and in all directions. In one of his more mind-blowing moves (and the fact this is still mind-blowing speaks volumes about how our commitments to nature and culture have superglued our synapses in place) he proposes we grant agency to extra-human actors and networks. Seriously. If it’s right that “the social world is no more made up of subjects than nature is made up of objects” we can look at objects, complex ones in particular, in new ways. Climate change, for example. Regardless of the point at which we enter this issue, it can be seen to have multiple cultural and natural aspects. Objective temperature, local economic conditions, resource degradation, disruption of communal norms, and intensifying anxiety can be studied piecemeal and/or as a set of interrelationships. What happens to a modern, Enlightenment, democratic notion of agency as the framework through which we see an issue like this? When a human – or a non-human, or a domain of inquiry, or a network – is always already enmeshed in a multiplicity of associations with other social and natural (if this distinction still means anything) actors we shift from a starting point of settlement between nature and culture to the ongoing political effort of setting up associations into collectives. (Here we can see how Latour has contributed to the most newish discipline of “political ecology” which frames resource use within self-shaping social forces, as well as the even more newish “object-oriented ontology” which develops new materialist metaphysics).

In Latour’s view, common collectives are ahead of us. We create associations which coalesce into collectives. What he calls the “pluriverse” (yeah, go, man!) contains the humans, non-human, relations, and networks that we finesse into a common collective. We add more and more perspectives all the time. The collective will be more complex tomorrow than it is today. There is no end to this, “no Apocalypse to fear: it comes back home, to the oikos, to ordinary dwellings, to banal existence.” All without recourse to an external authority. Or, to be more precise, any authority to which we look for guidance is already an associate being brought into the collective. The work he describes is, in another word that he not surprisingly redefines, politics (which I’ll return to in a future post).

Spending all your time associating with objects – is that how you plan to live the rest of your life? Banal existence indeed!

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One response to “Associating with Objects

  1. Christine Skolnik

    I’m thinking about the interior/subjective/sacred formation as a compulsory but perhaps restrictive order (like sex/gender/desire, speaking of multi-plying). Can we have an objective interior life? Do objects have secrets? Can the sacred be found in the banal, in matter? If holy men heal the body (the bulk of Christ’s miracles), can we have compassion for objects . . . as objects . . . as flesh?

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