Bruno Latour, Peter Sloterdijk, Philosophy

Radical (Work-Out) Pragmatism: Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto

For some time now – a first draft was posted on July of this year – one can find Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto on his website. Or, as himself has titled it, ‘An Attempt at Writing a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’.

Without going into to many details, the article, at first sight, seems to be something of a re-composition of some of his familiar themes and neologisms. That is; it can be read as a fusion of We Have Never Been Modern and Politics of Nature. WHNBM since Latour characterizes the Modernist as the Great Divider, as He who tries to purify the world into two zones, that of nature (non-human matters of fact devoid of meaning; speechless; ultimate reality) and culture (human, speaking subjects embodying meaning). PoN because Latour tries to emphasize the intermingling of nature and culture, their hybrid relation; one should, in the realm of ‘ecology’, not speak of nature in so far as it is being spoken of as something remote, something hidden that can be unraveled. 

There are, nevertheless, two remarkable things going on in this article. On the one hand, an object-oriented metaphysics is lucidly being exposed and, on the other hand, this metaphysics is combined with the question of democracy. ‘Compositionism’ could be thought of as framing a new ontology with the prospect of a new common world. Consider the following remarks:

‘What should appear extraordinarily bizarre is, .., the invention of inanimate entitities which would do nothing more than carry one step further the cause that makes them act to generate the n+1 consequence which in turn are nothing but the causes of the n+2 consequences. This conceit has the strange result of composing the world with long concatenations of causes and effects where (this is what is so odd) nothing is supposed to happen..The disappearance of agency in the so called ‘materialist world view’ is a stunning invention especially since it is contradicted every step of the way by the odd resistance of reality: every consequence adds slightly to the case.’ 

‘Why such a contradictory metaphysics could have the slightest bearing on our ways of thinking? Because it has the great advantage of insuring the continuity of space and time by connecting all entities through concatenations of causes and consequences. Thus, for this assembly no composition is necessary. In such a conception, nbature is always already assembled..’

Here, Latour is firmly arguing that the modernist constitution fully depends on a strict seperation of nature and culture. That is: only culture causes meaning and embodies agency, while nature is considered as being dumb, meaningless and only serving as an intermediary of effects. Latour, perhaps unsurprisingly, wishes to treat nonhuman entities as being full-blown actors as well. What is more, he tries to connect this democratic ontology with a proposal for a new, democratic politics.

‘We need to have a much more material, much more mundane, much more immanent, much more realistic, much more embodied definition of the material world if we wish to compose the common world.’

‘The increase of disputability is the best path to finally taking seriously the political task of establishing the continuity of all entities that make up the common world [..] It is [however] impossible to compose without being firmly attentive to the task at hand’ 

Without a doubt this political task is a pragmatist and, perhaps, republican task. That is; Latour’s compositionism makes clear that political (and: ecological) change requires composing. It is radical in the sense that it is not Marxist or critique-oriented, but consists of a constant effort, a constant care to slowly create and maintain change. This task is radical since the world no longer consists of human intentions and decisions versus a nature consisting of dumbed-down homogeneity, but of a vast amount of heterogeneous parts that need to be worked upon, that need constant attention. I termed this political goal ‘republican’ since Latour – here and in several other articles – uses the objective of a ‘Common World’ that needs to be created (and not – this is what seperates Compositionism from Communism – taken for granted or imposed). Or, as Latour himself states it: it is created by a progressive, tentative and precautionary progression. It is, thus, a constructed world and its politics do not lack anything that comes with construction: its parts are heterogeneous, its construction consists of constant compromise, disputability and de-composition.

Radical Pragmatism, or Compositionism, differs from recent ecological or environmentalist objectives with regard to its most principal starting point: it constantly has to be held together, it is fragile and runs the risk of having to change its modes of operation, its goals and objectives. ‘Compositionism takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered.‘ I think this is the strenght and importance of Latour’s manifesto: it goes beyond resentment-critique, know-it-all-activism or naïeve-idealism. Or, as Peter Sloterdijk remarked in a recent interview, ‘Nicht weil wir Idealisten wären, sondern weil wir Realisten werden wollen, suchen wir nach Formen von Denken und Verhalten, die uns in der aktuellen Globalwelt zur Verkehrsfähigkeit verhelfen.‘ That is: Latour’s Manifesto could be read as a form of Ontological Immunology: the Common World as a body with organs that strives for its own persistence, for its own health. Radical Pragmatism, then, could be thought of as Work-Out Realism: health is not something abstract, a potential, or something that is in a sense ‘already there’; it is something that has to be carefully maintained, something that resides ‘in’ and ‘with’ the body, and something that is as much a ‘material’ as it is a ‘mental’ activity. Perhaps with Sloterdijk in the back of his mind, Latour asks himself: ‘How can a liveable and breathable ‘home’ be built for those errant masses?’           

 
 
 

 

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