Bruno Latour and his Planetary Sociology

By Andres Kogan Valderrama

HAVANA TIMES – The recent passing of French thinker Bruno Latour is undoubtedly a great loss for those of us who have followed his work and his enormous contribution to current-day thought. This is especially so for those who believe in the urgent need of a change of direction in the way we’ve traditionally understood sociology.

Speaking personally, my first acquaintance with Latour’s work was in 2008, after receiving my diploma in sociology from the University of Chile, when I read the Spanish translation of his book Reassembling the social: an introduction to actor-network theory.[1]

The contents of that book radically transformed my way of conceiving the discipline of sociology. It broadened the sociological principles that have historically been dominated by an anthropocentric conception of what we understand as social, and our view of the environmental as a specific area, merely a sub-discipline.

My formation as a sociologist, at a theoretical as well as a methodological level, incorporated the great epistemological traditions of the European social sciences. However, most of these have been largely incapable of escaping from the modern historic separation between culture and nature. This is true of all, be they functionalists, structuralists, phenomenologists, Marxists, or systematics.

It’s a matter of reviewing some sociological concepts that are fundamental to the discipline, like the class struggle, functional differentiation, the division of labor, social fields, social systems, life worlds, social apparatus, social structures, all of which have excluded from their analysis the capacity for agency of the non-human.

That’s the starting point for Latour’s interesting and eclectic post-humanist critique of a long sociological tradition which has impoverished the notion of the social, reducing it to relations only between human beings, as if human society were an autonomous dominion, capable of sustaining itself.

In the face of this, Latour has offered us a constructivist look at a socio-natural and socio-technical world that incorporates symmetrically the non-human forces in the production of the planet. Without a doubt, that’s an enormous rupture in the traditional separation and dichotomy between the Social Sciences and the Natural Sciences.

It’s no coincidence that Latour has become an author considered essential for offering a response to the environmental crisis we find ourselves in. That crisis has become the principal threat of our times, as well as a problematic that’s impossible to understand using the reductionist views of knowledge.

In other words, Latour’s views help us understand the ecological causes and consequences of the Anthropocene – understood as the geological era generated by the actions of human beings, beginning with the birth of agriculture, and deepening with the Industrial Revolution, which is endangering the continued existence of minimal conditions for the reproduction of life on the planet.

Unfortunately, the environmental continues to be seen as a specific area of research or intervention, where our institutional policies haven’t been capable of developing sustainable alternatives for living on earth. Instead, they’ve deepened the productivist and extractivist economic models we’ve inherited from the anthropocentric foundations of the modern project.

We continue experiencing the world as if we weren’t an integral part of it; as if we were mere individuals, completely separated from what we understand as Nature. We regard the latter as something outside of us, despite the ever more frequent effects of the environmental crisis.

In the face of that, Latour proposes the notion of Gaia, which like other more integral and relational denominations such as the indigenous pachamama or Mother Earth, are much broader than the western and colonial ideas of Nature, since they’re constructs involving all living beings as an intertwined whole, not as something outside of ourselves.

Recent phenomena generated by the environmental crisis such as desertification, deforestation, climate migration, the melting of the poles, the extinction of the flora and fauna, the lack of fresh water, the increase in wildfires, hurricanes, should all be forcing us to reexamine how we’re living, and in that way construct a different horizon.

Considering all of the above, how we relate socio-environmentally is key, especially in a region like Latin America and the Caribbean, due to their enormous biodiversity and the importance of their natural wealth for the entire earth. Reading Latour is an invitation to conceive of and experience the planet from a different standpoint, although, despite everything that’s happened, we seem to want to continue maintaining our distance.

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