Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Anthropomorphic-paper 13

rokojo's picture

Our current way of living is destroying the world. Our society thrives on the exploitation of others as well as the exploitation of the environment. We have surpassed several of the limits placed on pollution and CO2 levels. There are countless species nearing extinction because of our exploitative ways. However, even faced with these facts, we rarely make changes in our lifestyle. We either don’t want to be inconvenienced or don’t have the means to afford to change the way we live. Bruno Latour has hailed the enlightenment as the turning point in the way the western world thought about the earth. The viewpoint changed from the acceptance of the earth as a being to the viewing of the earth as a combination of non-living “stuff”. The scientific discoveries made during the enlightenment also led to the industrial revolution, one of the most ecologically damaging events in world history. Latour calls for a society wide remembrance of the earth’s “humanity”, a return to accepting the world for the living, feeling agent it is. Although it is hard to accept the idea of the earth as sentient, it could be an important step in the creation of empathy and increase in responsibility for our actions towards the earth.

Some of the points Latour makes in his paper “Agency in the Time of the Antropocene” Seem a little nutty. We have grown up in a society that favors science as an “objective” force. We view the natural world as simply a collection of unfeeling matter that can be measured and calculated and utilized. Because of this, when we are confronted with the idea of the earth as a sentient agent, our first reaction is to reject the claim. One of Latour’s first arguments is that what we know scientifically about the earth is nothing without a certain acceptance that the earth is a being that experiences emotions. He says, “In an academic setting, I don’t need to review those new emotions with which the Earth is now agitated in addition to its usual motions. Not only does it turn around the Sun (that much we knew), but it is agitated through the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms, the whole of which is either called “Earth system science,” or more radically, Gaia” (Latour, 3). This idea of bringing the emotions of the earth into science is not easy to accept. How can the earth have feelings if it lacks a brain? Can a non living object become agitated? Latour elaborates upon this point later, saying, “The slightest movement of any one planet has immediate effects on all the others, whose reactions act unhindered on the first. Through this set of constraints, the Earth comprehends, in a way, the point of view of the other bodies since it must reverberate with the events of the whole system.” (Latour, 6). Upon reading this, the immediate response is one of dismissal of the earlier point that the earth is a sentient being. Of course the earth doesn’t have feelings, he was talking metaphorically about the way that our actions on earth have consequences. He was simply referring to the way in which everything in the world is connected. However, Latour is very clear that he is not being metaphorical, saying; “The problem, of course, is to do justice to this sentence without taking it simply as a clever metaphor. To move on we have to go slowly enough to clearly understand the conditions under which it could be rendered more than an image.” (Latour, 6). So Latour really is calling scientists as well as non-scientists to understand the feelings of the earth. As hard as this idea might be to swallow, I think it’s important to examine the reason Latour is calling for this radical ideological shift.

This shift is really a reversion to an older way of thinking. During the enlightenment, people went from viewing the earth as anthropomorphic and sentient to viewing the earth as simply matter. Latour says that scientists had to give the earth human qualities in order to better understand it before taking those qualities away. “It is difficult to follow the emergence of scientific concepts without taking into account the vast cultural background that allows scientists to first animate them, and then, but only later, to deanimate them. Although the official philosophy of science takes the latter movement as the only important and rational one, just the opposite is true: animation is the essential phenomenon; deanimation a superficial, ancillary, polemical, and more often than not vindicatory one.” (Latour, 7). He says that although our society applauds the deanimation as a rejection of the superfluous animation of the earth, it is really the deanimation that is superfluous. By taking the animation away from the earth, we take away its agency. We lose the ability to sympathize with it. It’s easier to justify destructive tendencies when we imagine the world without emotion. Latour argues that the only way to save the earth is to end deanimation and realize that striving for scientific objectivity is not only harmful, but also impossible. “Earth is no longer “objective”; it cannot be put at a distance and emptied of all its humans. Human action is visible everywhere—in the construction of knowledge as well as in the production of the phenomena those sciences are called to register.” (Latour, 5). Our actions reverberate throughout the whole system, and the very science we use to observe the world is imperfect since it was created by us and is inherently biased.

Because of this inability to be objective, and because of the fact that deanimating the earth allows for it to be exploited, Latour tells us that the only way to save the earth and ourselves is to give into some of the “nutty” ways of viewing the world. Clinging to objectivity as the definition of hard science is not only futile but also destructive. We must teach ourselves to empathize with the earth if we have any hope of making a change in the way we live our lives.


Anne Dalke's picture

Some reading notes on this paper:
* on writing for the web/reeling in an audience: reconsider title? opening lines/orientation?
*”our” first reaction is to reject the claim; “the” immediate response is one of dismissal—for whom do you speak?
* etymology of “motion” vs. “emotion”—what’s the diff? how deep is the difference? what does Latour gain (or aim for) by insisting that the latter is NOT only a metaphorical version of the former?
* is bias “bad”? (you say “imperfect”)
* how much believing happens here? do you buy Latour’s argument by the end? (you don’t return to your own judgments)
* cf. Emily’s critique of the usefulness of empathy!

Some talking notes, from our final writing conference:
* you think a clear change in your writing over the semester is your now using shorter, sharper sentences
* the more successful papers were the one where you were confused while writing, and worked your way to a conclusion, as well as leaving open other possibilities
* you struggled with getting started on the papers: @ first you were trying to something "great" about the universe, but eventually realized that you could focus on smaller questions (while suggesting something about the bigger ones)
* you are really proud of the revised "Bloodchild" paper, because of the increased clarity and focus
* we agreed that you will re-write paper #9, placing the original mission of women's colleges--offering education to the marginalized-- behind the current questions about trans admission, and making (if possible?) some concrete recommendations about how to move forward with that agenda.