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Colonizing nature's language

amanda.simone's picture

Two summer’s ago, between eleventh and twelfth grade, I held an internship in a malaria vaccine research lab. The vaccine the laboratory was testing was a self-assembling protein nanoparticle, 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?

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.

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 (and probably the only way) for us to understand scientific concepts and relate to them in an equalizing way. His vision for us, the Earthbound, is a common language - common verbs to tell our common geo story 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 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 ecologic 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 way that makes it pleasing and intelligible for humans, diminishing the complexity of the protein into our terms in our language that we understand. 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.

This is not to say that I do not support humans’ efforts to understand science and gain knowledge, 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 every mystery of “the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms” (Latour 3). Our egotism is what is fueling disastrous climate change, and 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 their environment to serve their needs (58). If 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. We will be creating an inaccurate picture of the world under the false pretense of equality of all the characters in our geostory.


Works Cited:

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.


Anne Dalke's picture

I’m utterly charmed by your opening story, the challenge of “characterizing” a protein, and impressed by your using it to introduce and anchor Latour’s arguments about both the agency of all beings, and the subjectivity of all researchers. You do a nice job of showing how he turns “the sin of anthropomorphism” into a virtue—really, moralizing aside, a necessity we cannot avoid. (I’d say that he’s not advocating our giving “human-like characteristics” to other bodies, but rather acknowledging that what we have thought “human” is not just that; rather, that all beings share agency that has mistakenly, in the past, been attributed only to humans.)

Where your essay really gets exciting, though, is after you acknowledge the value of recognizing the “personified animation” of all of Earth’s agents. Your argument makes a decided “turn” here, in claiming that Latour’s intellectual move---motivated by a desire for “equality”—only reduces “the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms” to something that “we can comfortably comprehend,” by making them more “like us.” This is an astute argument, one I’d enjoy exploring with you further (and I think you should take Ecological Imaginings next fall!)

Your argument puts me in mind of the plenary talk that Stacy Alaimo gave @ the first eco-conference I attended (in Lawrence Kansas in May 2013). My memory is that she was insisting on not working w/ recognizabl,e fuzzy creatures, but with those deep water ones that seem unimaginably bizarre to us Earthbound ones. I see that she’s now got a book in progress with a similar title, “Composing Blue Ecologies: Science, Aesthetics, and the Creatures of the Abyss.” This seems to me akin to your claim that there are mysteries that “elude human understanding,”  that a central part of eco-intelligence is acknowledging the powerful limitations of what we can comprehend. Failing to admit our egotism here can “contribute to a false sense of possibilism,” yet another form of “human adaptive optimism.”

I’ll be intrigued to see where you go with this, and agree with your proposal that working further on this essay-- complexifying and continuing to support/clarify it--is just what you should do for your final revision. (There’s no “supposed to” in this process; you are just taking two weeks to finish a very complicated paper!) And I’m very much looking forward to it! Anne