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Nature as Dogma

Yaron Ezrahi

Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Bruno Latour. Translated by Catherine Porter. xii + 307 pp. Harvard University Press, 2004. $55 cloth, $24.95 paper.

As a thought experiment on the connections between nature, science and politics in contemporary democracy, Bruno Latour's Politics of Nature is exceptionally brilliant and thought-provoking. As a critique of modern conceptions of and practices pertaining to those relations, it is nearly always compelling. But as a recommendation to the public to adopt a radically alternative model of thinking about, and relating to, nature, science and politics, I found it neither persuasive nor feasible.

Latour, one of the most original contemporary thinkers in this field, invites us to abandon what he regards as the metaphysical universe of modernity and to deliberately adopt a new metaphysics to guide our lives and to relate the world to our concerns. In the new world he conceives, Latour banishes both the concept of nature as an objective entity that obeys its own laws and scientists who claim a privileged authority to represent the facts of this external realm and to interpret their implications for our lives. He advises us instead to imagine ourselves as living in a world in which facts and values, reality and morality, science and politics, and causal necessity and freedom are seen not as dichotomous but as inseparable aspects of the same things, processes, choices and actions.

Latour believes that his new metaphysics will liberate us from the fiction that nature is nonnegotiable. He maintains that both as a category of thought and as an idea that regulates practice, nature has been functioning in the universe of secular modernity as a dogma. By presenting external reality as an objective limit on human freedom, he insists, nature and its representatives, the scientists, have actually limited rather than expanded human options. If the right to represent nature is expanded to include not just scientists but also ethicists, poets, farmers, architects and laypeople, then things that have in the modern system been regarded as inanimate external objects imposed on us as incontestable givens will become "humanized" as more integral, elastic and "articulate" components of our world.

Latour expects that such a development will result from the adoption of his new metaphysics and will be "the simple consequence of the disappearance of the notion of external nature." He adds that "There is no longer any space set aside where we can unload simple means in view of ends that have been defined once and for all without proper procedure."

Latour gives asbestos as an example of a "modernist" object. It was used extensively for years in construction and for other purposes without its multidimensional character and effects being adequately assessed. In the beginning it was welcomed as an "inert, effective and profitable" entity that could be usefully integrated into human environments. But over the course of many years, the status of asbestos shifted radically, and now it is categorized as a major health hazard associated with serious lung problems, including cancer. Latour suggests that in the modernist framework, the procedure that allowed asbestos (and many other now unwelcomed substances, technologies and nonhuman entities) to enter our world was too narrow in scope and failed to take in consideration the many perspectives and concerns that eventually led to their exclusion.

In the postmodernist conception, the notions that nature is an object and that the scientific priesthood has a privileged authority to represent it are banished, and we move to a scheme in which both human and nonhuman agents can be more inclusively, equally and harmoniously woven together. This is a universe in which the scientific, technological, ethical, political, aesthetic and economic aspects of any entity, agent or action that is a candidate for passing through the entrance gates to our common experience are considered simultaneously and continually. This new world is, Latour says, a better one than the one we are used to living in: It is more respectful of the multitude of diverse viewpoints, more egalitarian and more deliberative, and its denizens are ready to resolve conflicts through compromise rather than by appealing to unchallengeable knowledge or final truths.

Since Latour's preferred world is one in which both nature and science are politicized, where Science is replaced by many sciences, Nature by many natures and the Public by many publics, it is no wonder that some scientists, academics and other surviving modernists have regarded Latour's vision as a casus belli.They view his breaking up of the conventional dichotomies (facts and values, science and politics, the discourse on causality and the discourse on responsibility) as an assault on the greatest achievements of progressive modernization. Those achievements include having replaced mythological, magical or religious notions of agency and causality with secular, mechanistic or organic ones; having made knowledge and instrumental rationality the new basis of public affairs; having guaranteed the autonomy of science and academic institutions vis-à-vis church and state; and having checked arbitrary political authority by speaking truth to power.

Nevertheless, this intense science war and particularly the predictable attacks on Latour and other philosophers, historians and sociologists of science appear to me to be misguided and intellectually shallow on a number of counts. Although Latour's "experimental metaphysics" is an exceptionally incisive critique of modern conceptions of nature, science and politics, many similar critiques of heg-emonic "modernist" practices and of the science-based "solution approach" to social problems have been made since the early decades of the 20th century by such influential figures as John Dewey, Charles Lindblom, Don K. Price, Daniel Moynihan, Aaron Wildavsky and Edward C. Banfield. Moreover, such procedures as "Technology Assessment" and "Evaluation Research," as well as the very tendency to replace the word "nature" with the word "environment," have long pointed to shifts in sensibilities and practices that have echoes in Latour's politics of nature.

Instead of attacking Latour, his critics should respond to his challenge and try answering the question of whether his new metaphysics offers a feasible and a desirable alternative to the modern metaphysics whose weaknesses and anachronisms he so effectively exposes.

On the issue of the feasibility of convincing the public to shift its allegiance from modern to "postmodern" metaphysics, Latour seems to be vulnerable to criticism on the grounds that he ignores the characteristics of common sense as a cultural system that cannot be engineered by philosophers and other intellectuals. Also, the modern popular metaphysics that he criticizes did not become the hegemonic common-sense metaphysics in the West by fiat—it took several hundred years for the premodern notions of causality and agency to be replaced—although, as Latour himself notes, even this process of conversion has never been complete, and in some sense (as the title of one of his earlier books puts it) "we have never been modern." The public is unlikely to leap from a tested system of beliefs that have survived the trials of experience to a largely untested radical alternative.

But suppose it were feasible for the public to make such a clear-cut public choice between alternative metaphysical systems. Is the option offered by Latour preferable to the existing one? Because he admits that the choice is between two systems that are equally metaphysical—each consisting of fictions and beliefs, not facts—it is clear that we need not decide on the grounds of which of the two is true and which is false. Rather, we must consider which is more advantageous or beneficial in making sense of our experience and guiding our conduct. We need to perform a sort of a cost-benefit analysis of alternative metaphysical systems, examining their relative responsiveness to our concerns.

Here Latour is least persuasive. Using very belligerent language against modern metaphysics and especially against the imagining of nature as a lawful, objective realm of necessary facts, Latour neglects to consider that historically, precisely this conception of nature has served as a powerful resource of modern democratic political culture. As I have indicated elsewhere, nature as represented by science has been used as a powerful means for inducing consensus, coordinating behavior in nonhierarchical social systems, empowering the rights of individuals against arbitrary power and authority, grounding criticism of institutions and practices that violate "nature" conceived as a universal norm (Thomas Paine), creating an imaginary space outside society as a cultural-psychological resource for the development of the modern individual (Jean-Jacques Rousseau), and facilitating the rise of the modern press based on the useful fiction that facts can be separated from opinions. Surely nature has also been used to defend "bad things," such as monarchy, ruthless market practices and war. But a serious consideration of a world without "nature" and external factual "reality" requires a comprehensive examination of these factors and of many others that Latour neglects, such as the impact of the mass media and globalization.

Still, Politics of Nature constitutes a major contribution to contemporary thought and discourse. Although I question some of the book's key premises and recommendations, I anticipate that it will increase recognition that we can make our institutions and policies more responsive to our concerns by taking a deliberative, critical approach to the metaphysical foundations of our attitudes toward nature, science and politics.—Yaron Ezrahi, Political Science, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

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