What care do we owe for the world we have made?

“Dr. Frankenstein’s crime was not that he invented a creature through some combination of hubris and high technology, but rather that he abandoned the creature to itself. When Dr. Frankenstein meets his creation on a glacier in the Alps, the monster claims that it was not born a monster, but that it became a criminal only after being left alone by his horrified creator, who fled the laboratory once the horrible thing twitched to life. “Remember, I am thy creature,” the monster protests, “I ought to be thy Adam; but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed… I was benevolent and good; misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.””

– Bruno Latour

Latour uses the story of Frankenstein as a parable about what we owe the political ecology our inventions have created. We cannot separate ourselves from the world. To try to separate his invention from himself is the great sin of Dr. Frankenstein. It is in our nature to be creators, inventing new things and changing the world around us. As such we have taken on the role of Creator upon ourselves. Latour’s essay is no plea to reduce man’s role in the world but only to accept the responsibility that comes with it.

In modernising modernity, Latour calls us to be compositionists taking on the complexity of the world by mixing its various protagonists at increasing scales and levels of detail. This is a view against a modernism which tries to minimize our entanglements.

The view of the emancipation of Man from Nature through Science, manifest through the belief of Progress, is flawed. The view of the past as “archaic and dangerous” puts mankind into conflict with the natural world.

The positioning of the future as something objective, unconstrained by the subjectivity of the past, is at the heart of the confusion in our attitude towards nature. This confusion is compounded by our failure to fully master what we find unruly: as our inventions are seen to cause ecological damage, we are forced into retreat into a human world divorced from the natural world. We become more and more dependent on human solutions to problems caused by previous human solutions. Instead of bringing order and control to the world, we experience and fear more chaos from the world around us. A world we are ever more estranged from:

“Just at the moment when this fabulous dissonance inherent in the modernist project between what modernists say (emancipation from all attachments!) and what they do (create ever-more attachments!) is becoming apparent to all, along come those alleging to speak for Nature to say the problem lies in the violations and imbroglios — the attachments!”

Instead of deciding that the great narrative of modernism (Emancipation) has always resulted in another history altogether (Attachments), the spirit of the age has interpreted the dissonance in quasi-apocalyptic terms: “We were wrong all along, let’s turn our back to progress, limit ourselves, and return to our narrow human confines, leaving the nonhumans alone in as pristine a Nature as possible, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa…”

The modernist picture is an attractive one as emancipation from the constraints of the past and ultimately, of the final constraints of death, drives human invention. For any successor of the modernist narrative to be accepted, it must maintain that emancipatory vision:

“What the emancipation narrative points to as proof of increasing human mastery over and freedom from Nature — agriculture, fossil energy, technology — can be redescribed as the increasing attachments between things and people at an ever-expanding scale. If the older narratives imagined humans either fell from Nature or freed themselves from it, the compositionist narrative describes our ever-increasing degree of intimacy with the new natures we are constantly creating.”

Latour points to the failure of the traditional environmentalist movement to achieve this emancipatory narrative and in fact, shows how it is working within the same modernist division of Man and Nature. Traditional environmentalism sees nature as a sacred category that must be made distinct and separate from human agency except in our role as preservers and maintainers. We must abstain not only from our actions which harm It (the Environment) but also from It wholly. The divorce must be finalised, the alimony paid.

“The word “environmentalism” thus designates this turning point of history when the unwanted consequences are suddenly considered to be such a monstrosity that the only logical step appears to be to abstain and repent: “We should not have committed so many crimes; now we should be good and limit ourselves.””

That this is an unsustainable illusion is evident enough by an examination of the eco-tourism industry that stultifies life and exhibits signs of a neo-colonialism in poorer regions of the world.   What is called for is a new postenvironmentalist movement:

“Environmentalists say: “From now on we should limit ourselves.” Postenvironmentalists exclaim: “From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever-increasing scale, namely, intervening, acting, wanting, caring.””

The upshot is a reexamination of the role we see for our technologies in the natural world. The view of human beings as masters of the natural world, rooted in theology and our view of technology, is older than modernism. It was the modernist view of this mastery as emancipatory that was particularly pronounced:

“The dream of emancipation has not turned into a nightmare. It was simply too limited: it excluded nonhumans. It did not care about unexpected consequences; it was unable to follow through with its responsibilities; it entertained a wholly unrealistic notion of what science and technology had to offer; it relied on a rather impious definition of God, and a totally absurd notion of what creation, innovation, and mastery could provide.”

Bibliography

Latour, B. (2012) ‘Love you Monsters: Why we must care for our technologies as we do our children’, Winter: Breakthrough Journal, Available at https://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters

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