Friday, June 6, 2014

Bruno Latour, the Anthropocene, and The General Strike

William E. Connolly
Johns Hopkins University

The humans, the bifurcation of nature and culture, the modernists, the abstract scientists, the theo-escapists. To Latour, in his recent Gifford Lectures on the Anthropocene, this cadre of escapists faces an emerging cadre of the earthbound, the Anthropocenists, carriers of a Gaia geostory, labcentric scientists and new secularists. The latter are spiritually attuned to the dangers of the Anthropocene, to the roughly two hundred year period when human carbon production has triggered significant shifts in climate that will last for centuries.
The latter cadre, barely underway, acknowledges the Anthropocene as the defining condition of today; it acknowledges the absence of either a providential cosmic order or one predisposed to our mastery; it shucks off fantasies of escape to an afterlife or another planet. It adopts a new secular image as it sees how the sciences are key in the struggle against those who deny evidence of climate change. And it challenges modernists who emphasize the past we have escaped to avoid thinking about the future looming before us.
I learn from Latour. I think that there is something to the Gaia story as modified by Lynn Margulis, when she retreats from calling the biosphere an organism to focus on its character as intersecting, self-organizing processes with limited powers of self-sustainability. I agree that climate denial finds varied degrees of expression, from outright denial to official acceptance joined to refusal to do anything about it. And yet...
I suppose that the onto-creed I myself embrace is closer to that of Latour than to most others floating around. But this preliminary agreement does not exhaust the issues. My sense, rather, is that struggles are being waged within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, nontheism, and Hinduism as much as between any of them and something called the new secularism. How so? Well, each creed (including secularism) expresses a set of formal understandings, say, of an omnipotent God, or of a limited God, or of the ability to define the contours of public reason without drawing upon “private” resources of faith. Each set of believers is also invested with spiritual dispositions not entirely exhausted by its formal creed. An Augustinian may confess omnipotence and salvation and fill that doctrine either with love of this world and a diversity of life or, say, deep resentment of alternative doctrines and the intrusion of the Anthropocene. An immanent naturalist might resent the world for lacking a salvational god or love it for the sweetness of life it secretes.
The fact that creed and existential spirituality are interinvolved but not equivalent opens up the possibility of a new pluralist assemblage. The new assemblage will not be organized around one class, one party, or one secular creed. Rather, in an age of multiple minorities of multiple sorts diverse constituencies may draw upon spiritual affinities across differences to form the assemblage.
Not every creed is apt to sponsor many participants in that assemblage. Neoliberals and the right edge of evangelism are improbable candidates. But many pledging support to diverse creeds might hear a call to respond resolutely to the Anthropocene. We thus don’t need a new secularism as much as we need spiritual alliances forged across multiple lines.
I also doubt that scientists divide on this issue in conformity to Latour’s distinction between lab and theoretical scientists. Some lab scientists may be too narrow to care much about climate change. And some abstract scientists may care a lot even though their accounts of it will vary from Latour’s. Diversities of spiritual focus and intensity make a difference here. For that matter, other lines of social division such as class, education level, gender, race, sexuality, age cohort, religion, and ethnicity may not correlate that closely in the future with a favorable stance on climate change. You also need to fold the tricky dimension of spiritual disposition into the calculus. Something contemporary social scientists often resist.
But isn’t spirituality itself infused with belief and creed? You adopt one version of Augustinianism by playing up the importance of love while others focus on excommunicating heretics? Or some “new” atheists dismiss theists while others pursue relations of presumptive generosity across such differences. Yes. But spirituality also infuses belief with variable degrees of intensity; its variable intensities bathe the quality of participation in creedal communities. That is why arts of the self and micropolitics are so important to the quality of political life.
Today spiritual struggles over the appropriate response to the Anthropocene are increasingly waged within church communities, scientific practices, families, university courses, labor unions, age cohorts, and some businesses. The need today is to mobilize a militant pluralist assemblage composed of diverse constituencies with affinities (not identities) of spirituality.

Today, as discussed in an earlier post we face a dilemma of electoral politics: 1) The logic of the media/electoral/corporate/neoliberal/evangelical/filibuster/gerrymandering complex makes it extremely difficult to pursue a broad time horizon, to express attachment to the earth, or to address the Anthropocene within the grid of political intelligibility supported by the electoral system. The scandal focus of the media, the power of corporations to take market initiatives and protect them by exercising veto power in the state, the gerrymandering of seats and the filibuster, the strategic role of uniformed undecideds in elections--all of these work to make electoral politics dysfunctional.2) But to forgo electoral politics merely cedes more power to the radical right. It gives it another institution to enact an extreme agenda. So the new assemblage to be constructed must both participate in electoral politics and resist the grid of political intelligibility it secretes.

How to pursue such a tricky combination? To me the most promising path, out of perhaps a bad lot, is to multiply the sites and scales of action, moving back and forth between role experimentations in churches, work, consumption, locality and the like, participation in new social movements, involvement in elections, and forging a cross-state citizen movement. Take role experimentation. You may bring new visitors, issues and themes to your church, mosque or temple, support the farm to table movement, buy a hybrid or join a zip car collective and tell others why, put up solar panels if you can afford them or sign up for wind power where available, shift a larger portion of your retirement fund to sustainable investments, write for a blog like the Contemporary Condition, and so on. I have enumerated additional examples elsewhere.
Such experiments are radically insufficient to the scope of the problems, as many social scientists and erstwhile revolutionaries combine to tell us everyday. “They make you feel good but do not resolve the issue,” couch objectivists say. ”You can shift a few role performances, but your authenticity is suspect unless you transform the system,” revolutionaries say. Or, “now that you have dropped out you have lost purchase anywhere to make a difference.” Ignore such attempts to place you in a double bind.
They do not understand how social movements emerge. As you proceed (the “you” is both individual and collective) a series of things happen. First, you now become a bit less implicated in role performances that contribute most to the problem; second, you may find that the shaky belief/spiritual perspectives from which these experiments were launched have become more entrenched; third, you may now be primed to participate in larger, militant movements. For example, the new student movements in universities to divest them of stocks in fossil fuels could spread fast.
At some point as such actions proliferate a new event will surely erupt, such as a devastating hurricane, a severe drought, an even greater surge of migration attempts, a new series of wild fires, radical protests in poor countries against rich countries for imposing the burdens of climate change on them while escaping the worst effects themselves, a more radical acceleration of glacier flows, or a dangerous deceleration of the ocean conveyor system. Now, if the seeds of a critical movement have been sown, the stage may be set for more militant action. 
Spiritual affinities, role radicalizations, enhanced knowledge about the Anthropocene, a precipitating event. Will it now become possible to mobilize a cross-country General Strike, pressing from both inside and outside international organizations, states, corporations, churches, political parties, unions, consumers, investors, and universities? The goal would be to defeat neoliberalilsm, to curtail climate change through radical changes in the energy grid and ethos of consumption, to reduce inequality, and to install a more vibrant pluralist spirituality into democratic machines that have lost touch with the vitality of being.
It seems urgent today to project a time when it becomes possible to enact a nonviolent General Strike across several countries. Of course, such an action is improbable. It is an improbable necessity. It is essential to envision and support that possibility to speak to the urgent needs of the day.
Don’t refuse such an agenda in the name of realism and probability unless a) you think that climate change is unimportant, or b) you believe there are already adequate policies in place, or c) you don’t really care much about its severe, differential effects on people now and in the future, as long as you can escape the worst effects. If you are gripped by the last spiritual consideration don’t forget to factor in the forced population migrations, wars, crises in food supply, and civil unrest that will accompany consolidation of the Anthropocene.
I am glad Bruno Latour gave these lectures. They focus attention on the severity of the planetary issue and the denials and evasions attached to it. I am also moved by the spirituality that infuses them.


  1. "f I were facing an oncoming car, I would not spend too much time on the spectatorial question of optimism or pessimism. I would try to turn mine in the most promising direction as fast as I could..."

    William E. Connolly, FB post about climate change, June 5, 2014


  3. Nice work; my colleague, Stef Fishel (an IR type) just reblogged this at our blog (installing social order, a blog about infrastructure, which is a topic of considerable relevance to these discussions about our future). It is here:

    Out of curiosity: and I realize in advance how unfair it is to ask someone to hazard a totally unscientific guess, but approximately how close do you think "we" (in the Latourian sense) are to achieving the first steps toward this new future? (i.e., a time when neoliberal considerations don't automatically drive the majority of decisions)