THEATER OF OPERATIONS:
on Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth
Herring weirs built offshore used to be a common sight around the island. As recently as the 1930s there were nearly one hundred of these graceful structures built of tall timbers driven into the sea floor, topped with birch saplings that hold the twine that catches the fish. This was a commercial adaptation of aboriginal fishing methods. It made this small island in the Bay of Fundy the Sardine Capital of the World in the 1800s. But fish are dwindling and deep water seiners can chase the remaining fish out in deeper waters, making weirs a fading art. In recent years there have nine or ten weirs built around the island, and no one feels optimistic that they will again be central to the island’s economy. The tale of loss tolls and tolls. And it makes me wonder what has already been lost in this place that no one remembers.
From 500 feet up, the shapes do not resolve. At 1,000 feet, as the little plane tilts for a more precise view, suddenly the stones jump into view, a huge circle with a broad mouth from which two long wings stretch out. Then another and another. Then a bar weir. The shapes are beautiful, the craft so refined that these stone remnants of ballasted weirs have stood up to the tides for as long as one hundred years. They are oriented so that when herring come into the channel stemming the tide, as is their nature, the wings guide them into the circle where they are trapped. At low tide, men would bring ox carts into the passage, load them to the brim, and haul the fish off to smokehouses. It was an industry perfectly suited to its time and place. The beauty of the structures—or at least their remains—says that the builders were masterful, artisans of refined skill, who knew something profound in their bones about the relationship between form and function.
The point of telling this story is to say that sometimes it is necessary to get a bird’s eye view, a view from a particular vantage, in order to see clearly something that should be obvious but has remained obscure. And this leads me to Bruno Latour’s brilliant essay Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate Regime. I am a partisan of this kind of essay of ideas. While the vogue today is to ground essays in image, scene and story, I’ve had my brain pleasantly rearranged numerous times over the years by essayists who can pick up an idea and hold onto for a hundred pages or so: Emerson, Hannah Arendt, Gaston Bachelard, Octavio Paz come to mind. This is a good moment for good thinking, when the public discourse has become a content-free nonstop argument fueled by outrage and ridicule.
How are we to think about the enormous challenges civilization faces, a constellation of pressures that Latour summarizes as the trifecta of globalization, migration, and inequity? It seems head-scratchingly impossible to get away from the struggle between Local and Global, Left and Right, Modernity and Traditionalism. All is a contest of opposing forces, when none of the forces are clearly understood or articulated. It is a content-free free-for-all. Meanwhile suffering mounts, the planet degrades, and democracy fails to give confidence in the future. Reading Latour’s hundred-page essay is like taking a flight in a small plane from which one can see the territory laid out clearly below.
And it is territory, literally, upon which he grounds his argument—territory Earth, the new “theater of operations,” the degradation of which is the wellspring of the flood of conflicts we face. “Migrations, explosions of inequality and the New Climate Regime: these are one and the same threat” (Latour’s emphasis). The Earth seemed stable, a place we occupied, colonizer and colonized alike. But the New Climate Regime makes clear that a new story is writing itself, a co-production of human beings and planet. “But how are we to act if the territory itself,” he writes, “begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us—how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us.”
The Earth is rising up as actor and agent in resistance to our dysfunction. It is not a matter simply of taking care of the Earth, as if it were just one more possession the maintenance of which is our duty. There is not enough planet to support the project of globalization. And yet a return to the local, as the nationalist impulse promises, will not satisfy the drive for the advantages of the modern age. And modernity’s disdain for anyone attached to the land as being backward keeps the polarization rolling. It’s a lose-lose proposition to suggest the future must choose either the Global or the Local. There is a matter of definition here to be considered—and Latour has created a tour de force in defining the terms of engagement that have become so hollow in the argumentative sphere. Globalization should not be exclusionary but rather lead us “to cherish a maximum number of alternative ways to belong to the world.” Globalization cannot be oblivious to climate, which Latour defines as “the relationship between human beings and the material conditions of their lives.” It is insanity to destroy that on which we depend for our subsistence. The polis we inhabit now is not the nation-state nor the ethnic state but the Terrestrial, a territory that is atmospheric and will not be denied. The Earth speaks back with increasing force and violence in reaction to what globalization has done to it.
What are we to do with these insights? Investigate, interrogate, catalog grievances, redefine “where you would like to land and with whom you agree to share a dwelling place.” I cannot do justice to the essay without noting the Monson-worthy schematic diagrams (vectors and attractors) he uses as his argument unfolds—a template of the flow of ideas and the force that might come from taking the trifecta of critical concerns out of the theater of oppositional vacuity and into a politics that leads toward the Earth. The new task of politics is to bring us down to the reality of being terrestrial. “Saying ‘We are earthbound, we are terrestrials amid terrestrials,’ does not lead to the same politics as saying ‘We are humans in nature.’” Can this idea give meaning and force to political action that has floundered in the face of a crisis in which all forms of belonging are called into question?
Latour is a French philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist, and framing his arguments through a European gaze is very helpful. His take on the migrant crisis in Europe is bracing. The colonized have returned to haunt the colonizers. Trump’s election—and the ensuing “epistemological delirium that has taken hold of the public stage”—was the catalyst for this book. Latour thanks Trump for placing Earth in center stage by his renunciation of the Paris Climate Accord. Trump has forced the issue with his ignorance, greed and recalcitrant defiance. Is any nation counting on America to bail it out of crisis? Responsibility is diffused now and that may be a good thing, though I don’t want to suggest America is not responsible for bailing herself out from this damaged and reckless ship of state.
An essay of ideas can be confounding and obtuse. Latour’s is lucid and brisk. He interrogates words and fills them up with new ideas. He deploys metaphor artfully. “When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, you understand at once that you are going to have to be concerned with the floor.” And he asks hard questions without polemics, making the questions feel like invitations rather than indictments. “How can we reassure those who see salvation only in the recollection of a national or ethnic identity, always freshly invented? And, in addition, how can we organize a collective life around the extraordinary challenge of accompanying millions of foreigners in their search for lasting ground?” Latour’s thinking is fueled with urgency, his questioning a means to liberate the mind from calcified polarities. I did not know how starved I was for the nourishment of good ideas until I sat down to this feast.
Alison Hawthorne Deming's most recent books are Stairway to Heaven and Zoologies. She is Regents' Professor at University of Arizona.