Archive for the ‘History’ Category

The Terrestrialists – Bruno Latour’s new-materialists

Regular readers will know that I have taken a little time out away from my regular work to read a few books to try to get an understanding of where we are, how we got here and how we might get out of here. Alive. Some discomforting answers are supplied in the reading of Eatwell and Goodwin’s book on nationalist populism; the latter, I think, can be extracted from Bruno Latour and his new book (left). I am sure there are many others, however (for example, Kate Raworth’s Doughnut Economics and Diane Coyle’s (2014) unpackaging of GDP as a measure of  national wellbeing).

Both Eatwell and Goodwin and Latour are pretty clear that liberal democracy is a cause. Moreover, we must keep reminding ourselves, for example, that liberal democracy is relatively new in human history. Baby boomers and their offspring (myself included here), however, have no experience of other forms of democracy, illiberal or otherwise (illiberal democracies are now to be found in Hungary, Poland and increasingly in Italy). It has been the underpinning of economic growth and – what seemed until recently to be – inexorable globalisation. I am grateful to a single essay by John Gray to help me with this also.

I have not really had much reason to consider Latour’s work; I have probably been more scared of it than I should have been. I was nudged towards it after reading an article in the NYT magazine about him, his methodological perspective (actor network theory) and its applications. Often seen as post-modern French philosophy – now conveniently rebranded by others as a philosophy of post-truth – it can be inaccessible.

Bruno Latour, 2017

There are four major events that Latour uses in constructing what he deems to be a hypothesis. Hypothesis because he does not try to prove anything. He recognises that he comes from a landed bourgeois family and is, himself, a boomer. But dismiss him – or his reasoning – at our peril, I sense. So, the events are: the Brexit vote in the UK; the election of Trump in the USA; the resumption of mass migrations caused by wars, failed attempts at economic development and climate change. The fourth event, however, is the most significant for Latour and it, itself, comes in two parts. First, the signing in Paris on 12 December 2015 of the Climate Change Accord; second, Trump’s policy to withdraw from the Accord.

On the former Latour says: “…on that December day, all the signatory countries, even as they were applauding the success of the improbable agreement, realized with alarm that, if they all went ahead according to the terms of their respective modernization plans, there would be no planet compatible with their hopes for development. They would need several planets; they have only one.” (p. 5). On the second, “By pulling out of the Paris Accord, Trump explicitly triggered, if not a world war, at least a war over what constitutes the theater of operations. “We Americans don’t belong to the same earth as you. Yours may be threatened; ours won’t be!”” (p. 3).

Latour’s method is systematic, if a little post-modern and hence, non-linear. Liberal democracy is capable of delivering the Climate Accord, but not implementation. Even if all signatories tried to implement the Accord, liberal democracy with its growth, modernisation, globalisation and universal wealth (measured in material terms) philosophy is incompatible with delivery. At some point, leaders – obscurantists, in Latour’s parlance – have to tell electorates that under the current economic and political models, “climatic catastrophe” is unavoidable. Latour, however, interprets Trump in an interesting way. I have often thought that climate change deniers actually believe that climate change is not caused by human activity out of ignorance and failure to look at the evidence. For them, it is merely a natural phenomenon that governments need to prepare for. Depriving people of the benefits of capitalist modes of production, trade and consumption would, therefore, not help the environment. However, my naïvety, as is often the case, is clear. The actuality is that the climate change deniers are of two kinds – literally for Latour – the “Out-of-this-World” types who care little for evidence (p. 34, and maybe Trump is the cheerleader here?) and those who know only too well that human activity is the cause not only of climate change, but also of the increased rate of change and the cause of the 6th Great Extinction.

Let us add more to this; socialism is no better at dealing with climate change than is economic liberalism. The left, just like the right, is bi-directional. There are those deep internationalists who believe that modernisation, which usually incorporates economic and political globalisation, is equally important for the socialist realisation of equality (just like the economic liberals). There are also those who think about the local – tradition, the familiar, predictable, local production, etc. Increasingly this perspective captures the so-called “left behind” or “abandoned” on the left who seek controls on immigration, protection for strategic industries and sovereignty (whatever that is). As Latour puts it, “those who value ethnic homogeneity, a focus on patrimony, historicism, nostalgia, inauthentic authenticism”  (p. 53). The UK Labour Party is trying to reconcile these two perspectives against the backdrop of Brexit and goes some way towards explaining the Labour leadership’s support for withdrawal. Many modern social democratic parties in Europe are trying to do the same but losing out to overtly populist parties and Greens alike. For Latour, they are un-reconcilable in one party.

So far there have been three “Attractors” – global and local (both with plus and minus elements, winners and losers) and “Out-of-this-world” those for whom reality triangulated by science and presented by educated elites, scientists, publishers and seemingly opaque institutes has no meaning. There is one more Attractor; namely the Terrestrial (p. 40). This is neither left nor right. In Actor Network terms, Latour’s thing, the Terrestrial is an actor itself. The other attractors are all about human history, human geography, human advancement, the modernisation of the human condition. The Terrestrial, argues Latour, puts human beings back into nature. That nature includes living things as well as the biosphere. It is the critical zone on the planet that makes life – human, animal and plant – possible. The Terrestrial, therefore, is an actor because, in Latour’s terms, it has agency and fights back (p. 41) – or at least responds to stimuli, largely human induced. Civilisation (human of course) is the product of the last 10 millennia of human (often brutal) interaction.

Terrestrialism is, essentially, a third-way. We’ve seen third-ways before. New Labour in the UK was packaged as such back in the late 1990s informed by the work of Anthony Giddens. But that was perhaps a third way in name only. It was an old consensus, a neo-liberal one at that. Latour’s Terrestrialism is a third way not between left and right, but between global and local, plus and minus and climatic catastrophe. Nice theory, but as Latour honestly notes, this is an essay written from the comfort of a Paris residence with no empirical underpinning. There are a few suggestions for how “we” might become Terrestrialists. That is the subject of another – later – blog entry.

References:

Diane Coyle. GDP: A Brief but Affectionate History. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014

Anthony Giddens. Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 1998

Bruno Latour. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge, England, UK: Polity Press, 2018

Picture: Latour KOKUYO

Women Fashion Power – Design Museum, London (part 2)

DSCF0981The second part of the show continues the chronology but also introduces biography. So for example, various designers are introduced; notably Coco Chanel on the one hand, and Vivienne Westwood on the other. Chanel drew her inspiration from the functional male wardrobe including cardigans, waistcoats, tweeds, trousers, cufflinks, etc. Not forgetting her iconic Little Black Dress of 1926 (left is a version of the LBD from Chanel’s chief designer, Karl Lagerfeld of 1991).

There are some lovely garments capturing the ‘flapper’ period in the 1920s. This seems to have been a opportunity to work shoes into the story. Even I was taken by some of them (see right)DSCF0962.

DSCF0964Elsa Schiaparelli, a name with which I was not familiar before the exhibition, designed on the basis that clothes had to be architectural. The body should never be forgotten and must be used as a frame as used in a building. Whilst I am not entirely sure what this means, and hence convinced, she had a most exquisite jewellery box (left).

Zips arrived in the 1930s along with Rayon, a cheap alternative to silk. There is a whole section on nylon stockings, naturally! And then on to Dior’s so-called New Look. This was, of course, an old look and reverted back to hour-glass figures and generated a market for ‘waspie’ corsets, with Triumph International leading the market.

The 1930s also saw the influence of Hollywood. Female stars were becoming important figures for designers to be associated with. Their ability to popularise designs is familiar to us today. Madeleine Vionnet is credited in the exhibition for introducing the bias cut enabling a flattering cling of clothes to the body and a further release from strict undergarments enabling ever-more revealing evening wear to be worn by the stars. Marlene Dietrich, Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis are three of the stars featured.

DSCF0970However, these clothes were still out-of-reach for many women. Publishing houses like Condé Nast guided women in the art of dressmaking and the Hollywood Pattern Company sold patterns to make the stars’ dresses at home (left). All that was needed was a sewing machine.

This link with fashion, entertainment, industry and machines is fascinating. The power, element, however, short of progressive loosening of undergarments, is less well articulated. The re-emergence of the corset in the 1940s indicates how fashion has power over women rather than the other way around. One way of getting round this for the curators of the DSCF0974exhibition is to dedicate a large section to the dress selection of modern powerful women. A couple of dozen women – for example, designers Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood, lawyer Shami Chakrabarti, journalist Kirsty Walk, children’s campaigner Camila Batmangehlidjh – donate a garment and explain why it is important to them. This is a bit self-indulgent, a bit of a filler. That said, as the picture (right) shows, one can get up really close to the garments and look at that stitching.

I would say visitors need at least 2 hours to do the exhibition justice. There is a café in the museum, it is worth visiting half-way through to recharge. There is a lot of information to process. A break is needed.

Germany: Memories of a nation exhibition at the British Museum

GermanyNaturally, this exhibition displays an authentic VW Beetle; though you do not need to pay the £10 admission fee to see it. It merely entices visitors in.

First, let me say that I went with my German partner. Her endorsement of the exhibition is praise indeed, knowing all too well that the English, particularly, focus on the country’s Nazi past. This exhibition has something else important to say about the German Nation’s history.

Okay, now to a few quibbles. First, normally I expect to be able to take photographs in an exhibition, not least to upload to this blog. But,book here, photography is not allowed. And it is enforced. One assumes this is to protect the value of the accompanying products that one can buy in the shop including Neil MacGregor’s thick tome (right).

Second, the British Museum is huge. For some reason, the powers that be at the Museum have located this exhibition in, what amounts to, a cupboard. The space is far too small not only for the numbers of visitors, but also the exhibits themselves. And for some inexplicable reason, the British Museum does not seem to have learned too much about exhibiting.

For example, in the years of German hyperinflation, German towns produced their own currencies -they being as valuable as the national currency. Such is the nature of hyperinflation. The towns printed their own bank notes. They were often colourfully printed with very particular designs. In essence, they demanded a very close scrutiny. But the museum has made it virtually impossible to scrutinise these artefacts. They are locked in a glass case set against a wall. They are three or four abreast. Unless one is 2 metres tall, inspecting the detail is impossible.

Strasbourg_clockAnd even those artefacts that are not in glass cases (most seem to be), they are not exhibited at the height that best suits most of us. Take, for example, the exquisite Strasbourg Clock (left). This image features Neil MacGregor, the boss of the British Museum and the author of the book and presenter of the 30-part BBC radio series accompanying the exhibition. The clock enjoys amazing detail in terms of figures and engravings over-and-above the feat of timekeeping technology that makes it work. And rest assured, it is amazing. But actually, I saw more of it on the BBC website (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p028bdxq) than I did at the exhibition. I’m just not tall enough.