Latour, Bruno. Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).

US anthropology was already suffering the “suffering subject” when the abject cruelty of fascist culture warmongers assumed power here in the grotesque form of our Erdoğan, our Putin, our Bolsonaro: Donald Trump.[1] After this hard-right turn, appeal to a political imaginary of the late-1990s and early aughts might seem, to put it mildly, a neoliberal nostalgia. All the more so if this political philosophy identified an a priori distinction between politics and science as the problem paralyzing democracy and portending a climactic horizon of climate disaster. How quaint!

Today, nonetheless, such disaster abounds and subjects suffer profusely across our political surrounds. So we can’t afford to shelve, a priori again, serious thinking that might inspire other modes of anthropological care, other methods for recomposing anthropology’s history, and, above all perhaps, other means of organizing our societies–political and professional. I’d aver, then, that we shouldn’t yet shelve Politics of Nature, by Bruno Latour (1947-2022), published first in French in 1999 and in English five years later.

Cover of Latour's book Politics of Nature

Politics of Nature has, understandably, something of a millenarian tone. It’s a sequel, more or less, to We Have Never Been Modern and it might not make a lick of sense for novitiates to Latour’s thought.[2] But for those of us who spent too much time in this corner of science studies, it still reads today as a deeply imaginative, relentlessly optimistic effort to reconstruct the work of science and the work of politics. It’s a Catholic liberal reformer’s attempt at a utopian tract. And utopia, for Latour, means dispensing with the false modernist notion that Nature exists in the singular, to be represented by Science in the singular, while societies exist in the plural, to be represented by a plurality of political apparatuses (and, perhaps redundantly, the social sciences).

It follows that this false notion, so elementary to our civic construction as political subjects (let alone as anthropologists), butchers the vital, creative work of both scientists and politicians. Scientists, after all, are much more than philosophers transiting between an external Nature and a Platonic cave where the rest of us babble away senselessly in the shadows. The sciences, plural and methodologically-disunified, work passionately to persuade that matters of fact–today Covid comes to mind–are matters of collective concern.  

In lieu of the prevailing non-democratic separation of powers, Latour hatches a political ecology reformed by the “aid of comparative anthropology” (42). Comparative anthropology aids by revealing the cultural non-universality of Nature as a form external to and separate from the human cosmos. The anthropological abandonment of a transcendent Nature opens space for the composition of a “common world” through a finally-democratized procedure that empowers “citizens” to propose the orderly incorporation of new actors into the “parliament.” For Latour, this parliament, divided into houses tasked with taking new matters into account and putting them into order, shapes into a metonym evoking our worldly work composing a collective, a Leviathan infinitely open to human and beyond-the-human beings that’s structured by the struggle to render peace perpetual. This is what Latour means by “cosmopolitics.”

Relevance Today

For anthropologists, I suggest, Politics of Nature can be read as a didactic work of method constructing ethnography as a labor, both political and scientific, of adding new actors to our dynamic collective, i.e., the composition of a “common world.” This anthropology need not be saturated by the suffering subject, but it would nonetheless do well by embracing the subalternists’ critical-moral injunction to transform our institutions in ways that continuously redress the violence of constitutive exclusion.[3] If we read the project as more didactic than utopic, this deeply-generative text fashions a figure of the anthropologist–inclusive of the historian of anthropology–as both scientist and joyful tinkerer continuously proposing new modes of attachment, care, and peaceful cohabitation.

Selected Reviews

Flower, Michael J. Political Theory 33, no. 1 (2005): 140-143.

Jensen, Casper Bruun. “Experimenting with Political Ecology.” Human Studies 29, no. 1 (2006): 107–122.

Moore, Kelly. Contemporary Sociology 34, no. 2 (2005): 168-169.

Russill, Chris. “‘Now Back to Pragmatism…’: Thinking About Publics with Bruno Latour.” The Communication Review 8, no. 2 (2005): 265-276.

[1] Robbins, Joel. “Beyond the Suffering Subject: Toward an Anthropology of the Good.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 19, no. 3 (2013): 447–62.

[2] Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

[3] Watson, Matthew C. “Cosmopolitics and the Subaltern: Problematizing Latour’s Idea of the Commons.” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 3 (2011): 55–79; Watson, Matthew C. “Derrida, Stengers, Latour, and Subalternist Cosmopolitics.” Theory, Culture & Society 31, no. 1 (2014): 75–98.

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