Stephen Muecke on Bruno Latour’s Modes of Existence

I have enjoyed what pieces of the book are available in English so far – here is a review

I am what I am attached to’: On Bruno Latour’s ‘Inquiry into the Modes of Existence’

RIGHT NOW IN PARIS, Bruno Latour is being fêted. “One of the great intellectual adventures of our epoch […] the Hegel of our times,” enthuses Patrice Maniglier in Le Monde, who finds him a much more entertaining read than the dour German.

Curious, the way the French worry about their intellectual standing, for which they use the English word, taking their philosophers to be the barometers of the national reputation. “Is France still thinking?” worries Le Magazine Littéraire, as it too comes up with Latour as a rare savior. His new book, Enquête sur les modes d’existence (An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence), sold out of the first print run of 4,000 in 10 days. But it is not just a book; it is also a project in interactive metaphysics. In other words, a book, plus website. (Unheard of! A French philosopher using the Internet!) Intrigued readers of Latour’s text can go online and find themselves drawn into a collaborative project (so far only in French, but the English web pages will be up soon, and Catherine Porter’s translation of the book will be out from Harvard University Press in the spring). Simply register on the site, and you are free to offer commentary, counter-examples, snippets of movies, images, whatever. You may possibly graduate to the status of co-researcher, and even be invited to a workshop in Paris down the line, to thrash out the thornier problems.

Collective collaboration — some would call it “crowdsourcing” — is rare in philosophy, but Latour, a sociologist and anthropologist by training, is used to collaboration with scientists. (He was one of the founders of the new field of science studies and a veteran of the “science wars” of the 1990s.) And An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence is not really philosophy as understood by the dustier denizens of the Sorbonne, where nearly everyone and his other is a phenomenologist. Latour’s subtitle is An Anthropology of the Moderns, and it continues the project he began with 1993’s We Have Never Been Modern, an anthropological account of western European culture, with serious metaphysical implications, that attempts to answer the question: who do we think we are? “We” — however vague that occidentalist umbrella term may be — are the ones whose style of modernization was destined to take over the rest of the world. But the project has hit a dead end: the planet itself is protesting, and we are going to have to think again about our technological, economic, philosophical “universals.” We will have to choose between modernizing and ecologizing, says Latour, a theme he has been sounding at least since 2004’s The Politics of Nature.

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The Best-Laid Plans

While reading “Cities For People Not Profit: Critical Urban Theory and the Right to the City” by edited by Brenner, Marcuse & Mayer, Routledge 2012, I found a reference to this book review by John Gray of James Scott’s “Seeing Like a State” that succinctly articulates the problems with planners and politicians utopian dreams and why cities need to be shaped by people for the people, it is especially prescient, in having been written in April 2008 before the full impact of the  global economic crisis had become well known, in its critique of neoliberal economics and free market theories:

The contemporary cult of the free market is just as radical an exercise in social engineering as many experiments in economic planning tried in this century. Like other kinds of high modernism, it rests on a confident ignorance of the immensely complex workings of real societies. Governments throughout the world are being advised by transnational organizations to reconstruct their economies on the basis of free markets. But no government or transnational organization can know what will be the results of promoting free markets in societies in which they have never before been central. What will be the effects on family life, on crime and on the economy itself?”

How Certain Schemes to Improve
the Human Condition Have Failed.
By James C. Scott.
Illustrated. 445 pp. New Haven:
Yale University Press. $35.

The 20th century has seen many grand schemes for improving the human condition. The collectivization of farming in the Soviet Union, compulsory ”villagization” in Ethiopia and postcolonial Tanzania, the construction of Brasilia according to Le Corbusier’s theories of urban planning, Maoist China’s Great Leap Forward and the self-sufficient rural economy that was the goal of Pol Pot’s Cambodia were ambitious efforts to better the lot of humankind. The ideas inspiring the schemes and the regimes that attempted them were highly diverse. The human costs of the experiments varied from an immeasurable toll in broken lives in Russia and China to a farcical waste of effort in Brazil. Despite their differences, these bold experiments had one thing in common: all failed. Why is it that such grandiose schemes of human betterment came to nothing? And can we be sure we have learned the lessons of their failure?

In what must be one of the most profound and illuminating studies of this century to have been published in recent decades — ”Seeing Like a State” — James C. Scott contends that these apparently disparate experiments exemplify a single body of ideas. He calls this system of beliefs ”high modernism,” and he tells us that it inspired such different figures as Robert McNamara, Walther Rathenau, Jean Monnet, the Shah of Iran, David Lilienthal, Lenin, Trotsky and Julius Nyerere. Scott identifies the birth of high modernism with the economic mobilization of Germany during World War I, and describes Nazism as ”a reactionary form of modernism.” As he goes on to show, high modernism is found not only in totalitarian regimes. He sees evidence of high modernist ideas in what he terms the ”Soviet-American fetish” of ”industrial farming” — the enthusiasm for mass production in agriculture that led some American agronomists to support Soviet collectivization. What is this set of beliefs that so easily crosses boundaries between regimes, economic systems and political ideologies?

For Scott, high modernism is the attempt to design society in accord with what are believed to be scientific laws. Typically, high modernists think that the best way to meet human needs is by expanding production in agriculture and industry. They want society to be governed not by the practical intelligence of its members but by scientific knowledge. Some believe that production itself should be planned. All are convinced that society must be reshaped according to a rational design. Seeing the apparent disorder of societies that are not governed by some overall scheme as a sign that they are not yet modern, they believe that in a truly modern society everything that is traditional or accidental will have been rendered obsolete.

Read the full review

Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Polis’: A Recorded Presentation by Erik Swyngedouw

From [polis} a  dissertation on alternatives to top-down design with the limited purpose of serving vested financial and political influences for the benefit of its population – this is particularly relevant to our situation here in Cape Town with the current emphasis on Central Improvement Districts, IRT systems which serve more affluent suburbs rather than the urban poor stuck in ghettos on the periphery and Soccer World Cup stadiums that are now white elephants and a financial noose around the cities neck while the profits accrue in the hands of vested international interests – is there a way to resist this is the focus of a recorded presentation by Eric Swyngedouw on “Designing the Post-Political City and the Insurgent Polis.” Swyngedouw is a professor of geography at the University of Manchester School of Environment and Development.

Swyngedouw points to a climate of global consensus that has become pervasive over the past twenty years, effectively suppressing dissent and excluding most people from governance. He explains this consensus as limited to a select group (e.g., elite politicians, business leaders, NGOs, experts from a variety of fields) and perpetuated through “empty signifiers” like the sustainable/creative/world-class city. He argues that this consensus serves a “post-political” neoliberal order in which governments fail to address citizens’ most basic needs in order to subsidize the financial sector and take on grandiose projects designed to attract global capital. He adds that the flipside of management through limited consensus is rebellion on the part of the excluded, which he views as insurgent architecture and planning that claims a place in the order of things. Swyngedouw calls for open institutional channels for enacting dissent, fostering a democratic politics based on equal opportunity for all in shaping the decisions that affect our lives. He envisions the city as “insurgent polis” — a new agora where democratic politics can take place, where anyone can make a case for changing the existing framework

Listen to the presentation and read more on [polis]

Racial fireworks in Politics and Business: John Galliano & Dior – Trevor Manuel & Jimmy Manyi

This week has seen the reemergence of of globalization’s ugly hidden face: Racial tensions, conflicts and resentment both locally in South African politics and internationally in business: Can anyone be surprised when the legacy of global imperialism surfaces in diverse forms:  be it the centuries old colonial “coloured” or “creole” or the millennia old anti-semitic forms? History seems intent on not allowing these urban dragons or gremlins to lie sleeping!

In Paris John Galliano is fired for anti semitic remarks captured and aired on a You-Tube video which prompted first his suspension as Dior’s lead designer and then firing after their perfume celebrity and Oscar award winning actress, Natalie Portman, herself  of Jewish decent descried the star fashion designers actions:

In South Africa  Cabinet Minister , ex Minister of FInance and  veteran of the apartheid struggle,  Trevor Manual, causes a furor  with an open letter published in the Cape Times newspaper on Wednesday, accusing the ruling ANC parties spokesman Jimmy Manyi of being a racist: The original letter can be read here on SkyscraperCity:

What deep tensions and bitter feuds are buried in the bricks and mortar of our cities?

If we dig deep down in the layers of programming that has been laid down by our ancestors prejudice will we maybe not all find some wound of this thorn in our flesh – then will we think is it best to remain silent or since the first stone been cast….?

I think it is right to lance these festering boils and bring them out into the open!

What do you think?

Donovan Gillman