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Colonizing nature's language: The problem with Latour's anthropomorphic animation

amanda.simone's picture

Two summer’s ago, between eleventh and twelfth grade, I held an internship in a malaria vaccine research lab. The laboratory was testing a self-assembling protein nanoparticle vaccine, and my job for eight weeks, as told to me by the lab’s principal investigator in an email, was to “characterize the protein.” At that point, I knew how to analyze the characterization of Lady Macbeth, Huck Finn, and Nick Carraway but I had no idea what it meant to characterize a protein. Was I to determine its personality? And how did the researchers not know the personality and nature of the protein if they so specifically engineered it?

Similarly, in “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene,” Bruno Latour considers what it means when scientists characterize proteins – or rivers or other “actants” on earth for that matter (12). In his analysis of a professional paper by one of his former colleagues at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, he illustrates how conventional “objective” scientific writing about protein characterization can be interpreted (reread) as animating objects previously considered inanimate (Latour 10):

Here you have actants – first CRF [Corticotropin releasing factor] and later in the paper the receptor for CRF – that have all the animation of the Mississippi… so much so that the CRF receptor has eluded the ingenuity of this team for half a century! For an inanimate object, to be “implicated” in “appetite, addiction, hearing, and neurogenesis” and to “act peripherally” within “the endocrine, cardiovascular, reproductive, gastrointestinal, and immune systems,” that’s quite a lot of “animation.” (Latour 11)

It is through this example, and various others, that Latour demonstrates the action potential, and thus linguistic subjectivity, of many things that humans treat and study as pure objects. Characterization, then, means studying what these agents do to determine what they are like:

There is no other way to define the characters of the agents they mobilize but via the actions through which they they have to be slowly captured…The reason is that the dumbest of reader is able to imagine, no matter how vaguely, a Russian marshal or the Mississippi River by using his or her prior knowledge. But that’s not the case for CRF. Since there is no prior knowledge, every trait has to be generated from some experiment. The CRF receptor has been a “name of actions” long before being, as they say, “characterized”; at which point competences begin to precede and no longer to follow performances. This is why the official version of “writing objectively” seems so much out of date. (Latour 11)

Through this defense of the scientists (and writers and scholars) who “commit the sin of ‘anthropomorphism’ when they ‘attribute agencies’ to what ‘should have none,’ Latour ask all people to consider our ways of language and thinking (12). He argues that we should continue using constructions of language to give inanimate objects human-like abilities and actions in order to return agency to the non-human agents of our lives and our world.

On some level, I agree with Latour that anthropomorphising proteins, mountains, microbes, and rivers is a way to affect social understanding of the forces on earth. By giving these newly discovered bodies human-like characteristics, we should be able comprehend their interactions and perhaps relate to them better. In other words, it is a way for us to understand scientific concepts and relate to them in an equalizing way. His vision for us, the Earthbound, is a deconstructed hierarchy and a common language: common verbs with which to tell our common geo story in a way that is “compatible with the articulation of Gaia” (Latour 16). However, my concern is that by giving Earth’s agents personified animation - thus creating a common playing field - we are reducing them to only what we can comfortably comprehend without cultivating true respect for the world. Latour’s dissolution of the object, subject hierarchy seems good and fair initially, elevating former objects to our level and giving us all the same power to act upon this world. But by equalizing all acting bodies on Earth through anthropomorphism, we are limiting the earth and its ecological agents from attaining a higher level of agency which we humans would actually have to respect.

Where Latour sees empowerment of non-human agents, I continue to see a trend of humans dominating (and thus maintaining a separateness from) the natural world. For example, when the scientific community seeks to describe a discovered protein like CRF, personification demystifies the scientific functions in a way that makes it pleasing and intelligible for humans, diminishing the complexity of the protein into our terms in our language that we understand. But there is something quite powerful about eluding human understanding - being something so vital for humans but remaining intellectually out of reach - and the anthropomorphism in science that Latour describes removes this power. While Latour sees the characterization of this protein as distributing agency away from humans and to the protein itself, it seems to me that this system only continues to serve humans by making them increasingly powerful with knowledge and understanding.

Other instances of personification, such as Jonathan Weiner’s description of our antibacterial worldview, demonstrate how anthropomorphized language is actually a violent tool against nonhuman entities. As Weiner notes in his New York Times review of Ed Yong’s book I Contain Multitudes, after Anton van Leeuwenhoek discovers microbes, Louis Pasteur begins a war on them with the development of germ theory - the theory that some diseases are caused by microorganism (Weiner). Weiner describes this war strategy, which he says is still our general platform today, as, “Shoot to kill. Build a wall!” (Weiner). Although Yong, the book’s author, and Weiner, the favorable reviewer, are in fact trying to dismantle this attitude toward microbes, this is still an example of precisely the kind of personified language that people often use to bring microbes onto a human-like level. By characterizing them as invading armies or undocumented immigrants, the microbes are seen through an intelligible lens of human-human interaction, thus justifying a militant attack on them not unlike how people treat other humans that threaten their dominance.

These two examples are not to say that I do not support humans’ efforts to understand science, gain knowledge, and keep ourselves healthy, but at the same time I believe it is necessary for us to stay humble and recognize that humans are not going to be capable of deciphering and conquering every mystery of “the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms” (Latour 3). While our increasing knowledge of the world’s inner workings is vital, it does contribute to a false sense of possibilism, or as The Collapse of Western Civilization calls it, “human adaptive optimism,” the “archaic” or naive idea that humans can change (or perhaps sanitize) their environment to serve their needs (58). As the recent microbiome research shows, we humans are not nearly as in control as we think, considering that half our body cells are actually bacteria completing vital functions (Weiner). Furthermore, we are not even who we think we are, with enough bacterial cells in our organs “to make you wonder what you mean by ‘you’”(Weiner). Nevertheless our egotism and entitled sense of being “separate from the broader world,” as Larval Subjects puts it, is fueling disastrous climate change and destruction of the biosphere (LarvalSubjects).

Building upon this sense of separateness, Larval Subjects contends that, “There’s a tendency in the humanities to see matter as a blank slate contributing nothing of its own, but simply serving as a screen upon which humans project meanings, significations, and that humans transform into their technologies.”  I think this speaks to the colonizing aspect of Latour’s anthropomorphizing, which is essentially projecting meanings and significations - so that we can understand - onto ecological agents that have their own significations that we cannot completely understand. It is this act of co-opting the agency of nonhuman actants that makes me fear we will not actually be motivated to truly respect the forces of nature and ecology for their inherent, independent agency.

As powerful as language is, it really only serves those who speak it. The effect of animation and anthropomorphism of ecological agents through our written, spoken and thought language is in a way an act of colonizing the languages of others we do not understand. When we dominate the natural world by reducing or simplifying it all to actions that we can understand and express in our human language, we are creating a very limited vocabulary with which to characterize the scientific agents inside us, around us, those that preceded us, and those that will outlast us. Ultimately, we will be creating an inaccurate picture of the world under the false pretense of equal agency for all the characters in our geostory. Until we devise a way to gain understanding on others’ terms, we will not be changing the dialogue and truly living with Gaia.


Works Cited

Larval Subjects (Levi R. Bryant). "Stacy Alaimo: Porous Bodies and Trans-Corporeality" (May 24, 2012).

Latour, Bruno.  "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene." New Literary History 45, 1 (Winter 2014): 1-18.

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2014). The Collapse of Western Civilization: A view from the future. New York: Columbia University Press.

Weiner, Jonathan. "Human Cells Make Up Only Half Our Bodies. A New Book Explains Why." New York Times, August 15, 2016.