|Bruno Latour. He seems like an alright bloke, I guess, but his ideas are madder than a bag of cut snakes.|
Not very helpful and, I might add, stupid. There is a world outside of our heads, there appears to be only one of it (in a certain sense), and we seem to be able to investigate it fairly well without indulging in this crazy relativism, wherein everything a community seems to believe is taken at face value as a true statement about the world. Latour routinely says absurd things, including a recent claim that the climate is sentient (and so are forests and IT security systems and corals and...). I don't know how he manages to get away with such things.
So of course I'm somewhat on board with criticisms of Latour because he's a bullshit merchant and Chief Imaginary Tailor to Emperor Anthropology. The trouble is, the blogpost linked above attacks Latour for being a Eurocentric imperialist, claiming for himself and other 'ontological' types the 'discoveries' of indigenous Americans (and others). These discoveries include the idea that the climate is sentient.
This quote gives some idea of the flavour of the criticism:
...it is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn–with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.I'm not so interested in whether Latour is a colonialist or not - I'm rather more interested in the fact that the climate is not sentient and water doesn't possess agency. That's not how the world works, whether the claim is made by Anishinaabe people or Bruno Latour. If Inuit people believe the climate is sentient then this is an interesting thing to note, and it might be an important point in making sense of the ways of life of Eskimo-Aleut speakers (for example), but it probably shouldn't be thought of as an important discovery that Latour and other white academics are claiming for their own glory. It's not a discovery at all. It's just incorrect.
I don't think traditional thought from any society - northern European, South Asian, indigenous American - is particularly useful in terms of actually understanding the world, frankly, and I don't think this is an imperialist position. It just seems to be the case. Belunese people did not emerge from a vagina in the earth seven generations ago, fascinating and wonderful as it is that such a belief exists. There is no such thing as Odin. There don't seem to be any demons, and sickness is caused primarily by germs, not an imbalance of the humours.
|This lovely cumulonimbus cloud doesn't contain a single thought or intention, contrary to Kalidasa and, apparently, Bruno Latour. Wiki.|
The idea that the atmosphere has a mind and intentions like those of a human is to fundamentally misunderstand the atmosphere, humans, and the world in general. I'm okay with exploring how humans come to have agency - ie, consciousness, intentionality, and intention - using such devices as Dennett's intentional stance. But it's important to make clear, as Dennett (a real philosopher) does, that the intentional stance is merely a level of abstraction and not a statement about the actual nature of the world.
I'm totally un-okay with the view that non-thinking things can think and operate in a similar way to people when they demonstably cannot. The fact that academics outside of ashrams are okay with such claims is an absurd situation, and those supporting the 'ontological turn', so-called, should hang their heads in shame.
Indigenous Americans, and others, have had a significant impact on the world, and both pre- and post-Columbian native societies have given us all plenty of brilliant things, things so obviously important and superb that it would be silly to try to list them. It probably isn't a good idea to add to the list of genuine indigenous American achievements a pile of dubious ones, like the 'discovery' that non-sentient things can ratiocinate. Simply put: the best way to stop Eurocentrism and oppression of disadvantaged people around the world probably isn't to open your head up to supernaturalism and belief in the agency of inanimate objects.
Incidentally, I've been contacted by a few academics and grad students who find this 'ontological turn' absolutely ridiculous but feel pressured into accepting it publicly for fear of losing favour in the academy. I won't name any names, for obvious reasons, so I suppose you'll have to take my word for it. I know that every time I write something like this, I feel like I'm being marked down on an academic scorecard somewhere (and you're probably aware that I'm not all that bothered by internet controversy). Anyway: never forget the moralising fairy tales of your youth.