Res Extensa to Res Publica
by Adam Robbert
If you have not had a chance to read it, Bruno Latour’s COMPOSITIONIST MANIFESTO is, and I do not mean to be uncritical, a work of genius. If you have spent any time reading this blog then you know I have been hunting down the connection between actors, objects and ecology for some time (still flashing lights into the darker corners of language for the right name: ecological realism? object-oriented ecology? the ecology of objects? rooted networks?).
Recently I have also found renewed interest in William James’ A Pluralistic Universe, precisely because so much of Latour’s work is rooted, in part, in a pluralistic cosmology and also through Latour’s commitment to a radical democracy. My LAST POST focused on beginning a conversation between the common use of “pluriverse” in both James and Latour to explore a politics of nature, science and society. All of this has led me to consider not just the political link between democracy and ecology, but also their ontological link. Is ecology, finally, a kind of democracy? Is democracy a kind of ecology? The radical implication of asking such a question, I think, lies less in the intuition that we need to risk socializing “Nature” or naturalizing “Society,” but rather in considering them already as public spaces of interaction that care not for demarcations between cosmos and socius.
I have suggested previously, and am still working out the details, of a three-fold structure of ecology (Nature, Media and Knowledge), so while I’m all for making ontological distinctions so as not to blur together disparate domains, as I think it through, ecology and democracy seem more like consilient concepts everyday.
In the Compositionist Manifesto, Latour has updated and streamlined many of his arguments in Politics of Nature (though to Latour’s credit I don’t think he has sacrificed any of the nuances of his argument.) Latour writes:
This is precisely the point where compositionism wishes to take over: what is the successor of nature? Of course, no human, no atom, no virus, no organism has ever resided “in” nature understood as res extensa. They have all lived in the pluriverse, to use William James’ expression —where else could they have found their abode? As soon as the Bifurcation had been invented at the time of Descartes and Locke, it had been immediately undone. No composition has ever been so fiercely decomposed. Remember: “we have never been modern”, so this utopia of nature has always been just that, a utopia, a world of beyond without any realistic handle on the practice of science, technology, commerce, industry (p. 6).
Here again we see the res extensa and the pluriverse encountering one another suggesting the need for a new account of “the real” totally different in character from Descartes famous extended substance (this substance for Descartes is the mechanistic and determined functioning of a nonhuman cosmos, freedom and the soul are anchored only in the divine nature of human beings, who through this relation are capable of such things as thought and free will, all else is conceived as an enormous machine grinding away surreptitiously). The res publica on the other hand takes as its starting point an entirely different view of the cosmos and of matter:
It is no longer possible to build the cage of nature —and indeed it has never been possible to live in this cage. This is, after all, what is meant by the eikos of ecology. Call it “animism” if you wish, but it will no longer be enough to brand it with the mark of infamy. This is indeed why we feel so close to the 16th century, as if we were back before the “epistemological break”, before the odd invention of matter (a highly idealist construct as Whitehead has shown so well). As science studies and feminist theory have documented over and over again, the notion of matter is too political, too anthropomorphic, too narrowly historical, too ethnocentric, too gendered, to be able to define the stuff out of which the poor human race, expulsed from Modernism, has to build its abode (p. 12).
Simply thinking out a move from a worldview that sees the nonhuman as res extensa to a worldview that sees this cosmos as res publica is not enough to salvage the multiple crises of modernity and globalization, but it is surely a step towards a geological epoch worthy of a different name than simply the “Anthropocene.”