The Mischief and the Manyness
by Adam Robbert
Our purposes in the following exploration will be to trace the development of a particular approach to philosophy and politics first exemplified by William James, and then later developed by Bruno Latour. The central focus will be to first articulate the cosmology described by William James in A Pluralistic Universe, with specific attention paid to James’ commentary on ontological pluralism as well as his thoughts on cosmology and human psychology. James offers a cosmological view that suggests the “pluriverse” is, when investigated empirically, conforming to an organization such that we might call the cosmos itself a “society” of diverse entities. Likewise, Bruno Latour, following in part the work of James, suggests that we must risk a form of “empirical metaphysics” in which Latour suggests that, with regard to political ecology, we must abandon both the notion of an independently existing “Nature” apart from society, as well as an anthropocentric relativism which excludes any notions of a real world independent of human interpretation. In place of both these notions, Latour is in favor of what he terms a “collective,” or a diverse assemblage of human and nonhuman actors. Both Latour and James offer us a way to consider politically issues relevant to developing democratic institutions of organization that can better deal with ethical issues central to the intersection of nature, science and politics.
Let us begin with a brief description of the worldview described by James in his work A Pluralistic Universe. James offers several noteworthy contributions to a political engagement with cosmology. For James, all perspectives are partial and rooted in the psychological character of individuals. James describes a cosmos of process that forever outruns our capacity to explain it. The partiality of perspective is not simply epistemological, however. A true pluralist account of the universe, suggests James, is not simply an acknowledgement of the multifaceted nature of interpretation. Rather, the universe is itself multiple, or in other words it is a pluriverse. Ontologically speaking, an empirical investigation into the cosmos reveals that difference is grounded within reality itself, and is not, as some epistemological models suggest, a product of improper methods or subjective interpretation (though of course interpretation can still be more or less accurate, given certain parameters).
Though first articulated in the beginning of the 20th century, I don’t think we have adequately internalized the radical notion that James is suggesting with regards to difference and ontology (witness for example the debates over naturalism and relativism in philosophy or essentialism and constructivism in anthropology). Perhaps this is why Latour’s work, published for the first time almost eight decades after James’ major writings, is still mired in disputes over the nature of his ontological claims. Lets push this pluralism a little further to see if we can’t shed light on the usefulness of both James and Latour towards a political ontology of science and nature.
It is not the case, for James, that because we are asked to view the pluriverse as ontologically different to itself, that our cosmologies must therefore be fragmented, relativistic and anthropocentric. Rather, James asks of us something that is from the outset more radical, but in application much more elegant than most avant-garde epistemological coup d’états performed by much of 20th century philosophy. What is this move that exhibits such radical simplicity? The Jamesian move occurs, I argue, by emphasis on three crucial elements: individuals, process and society.
The concept of the individual, which for James is mostly considered in human terms, but as we shall see later with Latour, can be applied to any entity in the universe, is central. If we stick with humans for the sake of consistency with a Jamesian perspective, then we can say, “individuality outruns all classification” (p.3). James’ move here is towards an anti-reductionism of identity that posits an “overflow” of characteristics that always escape definition. Thus it is not that an individual is merely epistemologically vague to description, rather the individual itself is always appealing to extra-individual elements of its being. No entity is self-contained for James; all things exceed their own boundaries and bleed into the tertiary entities that surround them. This is a key element of his pluralist ontology, and in fact forms the basis of description for his entire cosmology.
Individuals exist, but they always exceed themselves and encounter other entities that are themselves constitutive elements of other individuals. For this reason, James suggests, “the common socius of us all is the great universe” (p. 31). Rather than a cosmos of discrete hard entities, or an undifferentiated flow of cosmic waters, the pluralist cosmology is one of an articulated democratic republic that exists cosmologically in a genuine form of “cosmopolitics” (to borrow Isabelle Stengers’ phrase). For James, then, cosmos and socius are interchangeable notions that comprise a universe of diverse individuals for whom negotiation and encounter with difference are inevitable conditions of existence, not epistemological errors of perception. This negotiated (because always encountering other entities) and collective (because always already multiple) nature of all individuals is what leads James to cosmologize our notion of society away from the merely human towards the more than human world. I should cater to the skeptics here and mention that this is not so much an anthropomorphizing of the universe, and is more a cosmologizing of the human.
Furthermore, because James acknowledges the processual complexity of the cosmos, he also suggests that there is an impossibility of full disclosure in any description of the universe. Let us reiterate, this is not simply an epistemological distortion that hides from us a singular, objective reality beyond human comprehension, rather the perspectival nature of philosophizing becomes an astute commentary on the distinctly plural, though connected nature of reality. Thus perspectivalism is innate, but also temporal in that perspectives are themselves not fixed either. “Perspective” in this sense is itself subject to the shifting flow of the cosmos such that “philosophy is itself an intimate part of the universe” (p. 35). In my own words I would describe the Jamesian epistemology as a flowing perspectivalism that must negotiate both space, since all perspectives are a located “from somewhere” and in time, since all perspectives are always adrift amidst the chunky ice-flow of temporality.
Situating language, knowledge and philosophy as ontological rather than epistemological elements is necessary for James since, on the basis of his account of pluralism, no entity can be self-contained and is in fact an other to itself. This is as true of human individuals as it is of artifacts of knowledge or philosophical systems! Thus an ontological account of language, knowledge and philosophy means that these three entities are themselves not just commentaries upon a universe happening behind the glass of some abstract scientific aquarium, rather these elements are actual actors behaving multiply in the complex society that is the universe they are trying to describe.
For James, there is no “outside” to the aquarium of the cosmos; we are necessarily behind the glass, swimming with the all the other fish, kelp, sea urchins and radiolarians of existence. To be consistent, and to close our section on James, we must also then add that the glass of the aquarium itself cannot even be on the outside of some ultimate, final aquarium. For as James says “nature is but a name for excess; every point in her opens out and runs into the more; and the only question, with reference to any point we may be considering, is how far into the rest of nature we may have to go in order to get entirely behind its overflow” (p.286). Thus we must also note that if it is, as James suggests, true that “nature is but a name for excess” and the aquarium has no final outside, then we might also consider the reverse; the extent to which all individuals might themselves be aquariums, each one home to myriad bacteria, organelles, cell bodies, virus and DNA (aquariums all the way down?).
Let us hold James’ philosophical contributions for the moment, which we will return to later, and consider now Bruno Latour’s work in Politics of Nature. Latour, as will become evident, shares much in common with James, the differences between them are more disciplinary than philosophical. James is often thought mostly in conjunction with his research in psychology, Latour more often with anthropology, science technology studies (STS), and actor-network theory (ANT). Philosophically, they share a similar mountain terrace, overlooking a unique view of the cosmos.
Latour’s aim in Politics of Nature is to address head on central problems in political ecology, namely how to situate the relationship between nature, science and society (where his first move will be to suggest that we need eliminate the notion of “nature” itself). Latour’s concern is precisely that ecology must become political, and that the political must awaken to its ecological responsibility. Here, Latour has a great deal in common with James in that politicizing ecology means, for Latour, exactly what James meant by extending the concept of society to the whole cosmos. Latour uses the word “actor” defined “above all else as obstacles, scandals as what suspends mastery, as what gets in the way of domination, as what interrupts the closure and the composition of the collective. To put it crudely, human and nonhuman actors appeared first of all as trouble makers” (p.81) The actor denotes any entity, human or nonhuman, that has effects on any other actors. The reader ought to recognize here the similarity between James’ notion of the “individual” and Latour’s actors. But why would Latour insist on the move to actors (sometimes also called “actants” to lessen the anthropocentric connotations of the former term)? It has everything to do with the entangled complexities that crop up when dealing with issues of political ecology.
In order to “bring the sciences into democracy” and to explore what “nature, science and politics have to do with one another” (p. 6) we must, says Latour, invoke not only the notion of the actor, but also the notion of the “collective,” those diverse arrays of actors that are heterogeneously natural; cultural, technological; social, human; nonhuman. Latour’s appeal here is toward a genuine democracy of actors that is capable of negotiating the “two poles” (or “two houses”) of modern political society: a unitary and determined “nature” juxtaposed with a politically negotiable and multiple “culture.” The former, for Latour, cannot be politicized precisely because in being defined as “nature” a whole domain of reality is denied entry into debate and negotiation. The latter, on the other hand, is presented as always subjective, infinitely multipliable and perspectival with no ontological anchor to which it must adhere, arguments can proceed ad infinitum.
Latour’s solution is to the problem of the two houses is the collective, at first a complex notion, but one that reveals its usefulness once one drops the hegemony of the two house system. In order to drop this modernist distinction, Latour raises an unpopular subject: “I need only to invoke this sort of difficulty to bring a dreadful specter into view: the obligation to engage in metaphysics, that is, to define in turn how the pluriverse is furnished and with what properties the members of the Republic must be endowed” (p. 60). By invoking the Jamesian language of “pluriverse” and “Republic” Latour engages in his own round of cosmopolitical discourse, anchored this time in distinctions between nonhuman “nature” and human “society.”
Latour’s collectives are attentive to the problems of extending “nature” to encompass society, or conversely, the equally problematic move of permitting a merely “social” interpretation of natural world (Latour calls this “the slender bridge of reference”). The first move, argues Latour, leaves humans bereft of autonomy, free will and agency. Naturalizing society extends the model of objects (and these are not sophisticated Harmanian objects mind you), throughout the whole biosphere and shrouds the freedom of humans and other actors into the mechanisms of evolutionary reductionism or deterministic physical laws, neither of which political discourse has access too. Likewise, extending the social (and here Latour means social not in the Jamesian sense, but in the relativistic sense of “social constructivism”) beyond the human disables the ability to create ontological statements about the conditions of nonhuman actors or ecosystems. In this second move politics is stifled not by inaccessibility, but by overaccessibility. Without an ontologically real nonhuman world, perspectives can only multiply into the absurdity of a flat and absolute relativism.
Latour’s move towards the collective is the ecological version of James’ cosmological extension of society. It is true that humans must negotiate politically their relations to complex ecological systems, to which they are forever embedded, but that does not mean that the ecological only shows up within the confines of an anthropocentric, epistemological lens. Instead, nonhuman actors continue to resist, surprise, and entangle us in nonpredictable ways.
Witness for example the current crisis in Japan at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Here we have a perfect example of a “matter of concern” instead of a “matter of fact” (Latour notes that when we consider only “matters of fact” we have fallen into a wager with the objectivist paradigm we cannot hope to win. “Matters of concern,” on the other hand, are instructive in that they teach humans to relate to phenomenon as complex negotiations of humans and nonhumans. The concerns are then negotiations between these diverse actors).
The Fukushima meltdown is precisely the type of political ecology that Latour’s methods can aid us in grappling with. In this crisis, it is not just humans negotiating the realities of nuclear meltdown but also marine life, cooling rods, containment teams, atmospheric scientists in California, fisherman, local peoples, concrete, the nuclear lobbying agency, the ecologies engulfed by the fallout zone and more. This, for Latour, is a collective. It’s not a bounded unity with a single body or teleology, but rather a heterogeneous actor-network engaged in complex negotiations on multiple levels with other networks. We could call the collective a kind of ecology, so long as we understand that invoking the term “ecology” is not a move to naturalize a complex environment into a more primary “nature.” It is rather a move that promotes an awareness of the complex, interdependent qualities of all environments, human and nonhuman.
Lets review what we have covered. For James the universe is a pluriverse, multiple ontologically and not just epistemologically. There are many points of view, but these points of view do not a collect around a single, unitary “out there,” instead those multiple points of view engage a reality that is also multiple. This multiplicity is a flowing negotiation of perspectives and emergent realities that bear out in such a way as to warrant the term “society,” that we have also described as a kind of cosmopolitics. We have also seen, in addition to the multiplicities of viewpoints and ontologies, that language and philosophy are themselves real entities that are participant in phenomena (we are always inside the cosmic aquarium).
Latour then reframed both the subject/object distinction and the nature/culture distinction by displacing both with the terms “actor” and “collective.” We have also seen that in order for nature, science and politics to get along, we must break with the old two-house system that strangles democracy with determinism and suffocates reality with relativism. Instead, we followed Latour in creating what we could now call, using his language, a “parliament of things,” to avoid the short-circuiting of democracy (disabled in one of two directions: by a naturalizing objectification or the loss of reality through the paralysis of social relativism). The former, we can now say, collects “truth” into a notion of “nature” to which politics has no access, and the latter forecloses an engagement with a nonhuman world by multiplying secondary qualities, perspectives and relativity.