Sunday, August 17, 2014

Bruno Latour: the new Karl Marx?


While working on my second precis, a weird realization struck me. It began to seem as though the piece that I used for my first precis, Marx's "Theses on Feuerbach," and the one I chose for my second precis, Latour's "Plea for Earthly Sciences," were in part actually arguing basically the same thing, and for basically the same reasons!

In "Theses on Feuerbach," Marx argues against an overly simplistic conception of humans and society, claiming that the essence of humanity is not an "abstraction inherent in each single individual" (for instance, something like Feuerbach's "religious sentiment" which is imagined to be contained in each human individual). Instead, he says the human essence is "the ensemble of the social relations."

And the two concluding theses in Marx's piece are as follows:

10) "The standpoint of the old materialism is civil society, the standpoint of the new is human society or social humanity."
11) "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it."

Marx is asking us to get away from a picture of human society that imagines a bunch of isolated, atomic individuals that are assembled together in a thing we call civil society, and instead look at the big picture, and change the terms we use, toward the aim of making the world a better place to live.

This sounds to me like some of what Latour is saying in "A Plea for Earthly Sciences," which I won't go into too much detail about here since I did in my precis just below a few minutes ago. But although the details are different, it seems the basic gist is the same: We've been thinking of humans and society in terms that are too simplistic, and this has resulted in ineffective social science in the face of global problems. We need better tools for making the world better.

So what's with Latour's beef with Marx? In "A Plea for Earthly Science," Latour actually calls Marx out for being himself too simple:

"How ridiculously timid does Karl Marx’s preoccupation with the mere 'appropriation of means of production' seem, when compared against the total metamorphosis of the entire means of production necessary to soon adjust nine Billion people on a livable planet Earth?"

Latour seems to say that Marx was one of these social scientists who were guilty of the oversimplification of the social that has been a major flaw in the tradition of the social sciences -- the sin of not taking enough into account and viewing the "social" as a realm unto itself.

So it seems like there is a progression here, from Marx saying that we need to not think of individuals as isolated, but the social as a whole is its own thing, to Latour saying that we need to not think of the social as an isolated thing either, but that we need to think of all of the things, together, as the varied assembly of all of the things!

Boom. Wait, what? Where then do we go from here? Is there anywhere else to go? What is there, besides: All of the things. Together. In various ways. ??

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