‘Atmosphere, atmosphere, do I look like an atmosphere?’


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Bruno Latour
An entry for the catalog of an exhibition at New Tate by Olafur Eliasson

here is an AtmosphereAtmosphereFullVersion as I have discovered a lack of detail and continuity in my excerpts.

  • Once objects and subjects are defined or assembled, nothing is resolved yet: the most important question remains: how are they going to survive, in what sort of interior milieu should they be insulated? Since the sciences have expanded so much that they have transformed the whole world in a laboratory, artists have per force become white coats among other white coats, namely, all of us engaged in the same collective experiments.

  • This year, it is the SARS epidemy which traces commercial, social, legal, medical relations all over the world: a collective experiment had been tried out where farmers, consumers, cows, sheep, pigs, veterinarians, virologists had been engaged together. The question then is the following: has it been a well or a badly designed experiment?

  • The problem is that while we believe we know how to conduct a scientific experiment in the narrow confines of a laboratory, we have no idea how to pursue collective experiments in the confusing atmosphere of a whole culture.

  • First, the laboratory has extended its walls to the whole planet. Instruments are everywhere.
  • Second, the question of scale. Experiments are now happening at scale one and in real time.

  • The sharp distinction between, on the one hand, scientific laboratories experimenting on theories and phenomena inside their walls, and, on the other, a political outside where non-experts were getting by with human values, opinions and passions, is simply evaporating under our eyes. We are now all embarked in the same collective experiments mixing humans and non-humans together and no one is in charge. Those experiments made on us, by us, for us have no protocol.

  • Contemporary scientific controversies are designing ‘hybrid forums’. The sharp difference that seemed so important between those who represented things and those who represented people has simply vanished. What counts is that all those spokesperson are in the same room, engaged in the same collective experiment, talking at once about imbroglios of people and things.

  • This is what has changed so much: there are still people who oppose the ‘two cultures’ of science and humanity, but the strives have now moved inside the sciences themselves which, in the meantime, have expanded to cover the whole of culture and politics. The new political, moral, ethical, artistic fault lines are now inside the sciences and technology, but to say ‘inside’ means nothing any more since it is also everywhere in the collective experiments in which we are all embarked.

  • If, in the depth of your heart, you are convinced that, whereas yesterday things were a bit confused and entangled, tomorrow facts and values, humans and non-humans, will be even more entangled than yesterday, then you have stopped being modern. You have entered a different world or, more exactly, you have stopped believing that you were in a different world from the rest of humanity. By stopping being modern, we have become ordinary humans again.

  • What is a cosmos? As we know from the Greek and from the word ‘cosmetic’ it means a beautiful arrangement, the opposite of which being a kakosmos, a horrible shamble as Plato calls it. Politics, if I am right in my interpretation of the present, no longer resides in defining what humans values should be, once we have taken for granted that there exist only one cosmos, known by a unified science and simplified as one nature, but in drawing, deciding, proposing a cosmogram, a certain distribution of roles, functions, agencies to humans and non-humans.

  • By ‘Nature’ I mean this unified cosmos which could shortcut political due process by defining once and for all which world we all have to live in. Nature, contrary to superficial impression, is not an object out there but above all a political animal: it is the way we used to define the world we have in common, the obvious existence we share, the sphere to which we all equally pertain. In addition to Nature, we used to say, there exist what divides us, what makes us enemy of one another, what scatters us around in a maelstrom of controversies: namely passions, subjectivities, cultures, religions, tastes… Nature unifies in advance and without any discussion nor negotiations ; cultures divides. « If only, so the modernist dreams, if only we could all be children of nature, forget about our cultural, subjective, ideological, religion divisions, we will all be unified again, we would all zoom on the one same solution. » More nature, hence more unity. More cultures, hence more divisions.

  • We all know from our reading of the Bible that the Tower of Babel has been destroyed by God and that, from then on, people have been scattered around the world, prisoners of their differing dialects and of their incommensurable cultural biases. Yes, but no one has told yet the terrifying story of the fall of the second Tower of Babel, when Nature, yes Nature Herself, as a united endeavour which should have reached to the Heaven and made all of the people of the world agree again, has been destroyed under the weight of its own ambition and lie everywhere in ruins ? To multiculturalism born in the aftermath of the first Babel, one should now add the many tribes of multinaturalism born in the wreck of the second Babel.

  • It is my sentiment that we now live in the ruins of Nature — in all the meanings of this expression — and also more and more in the ruins of those sciences, for which the last century has been so prolific, which dreamed of prematurely unifying the cosmos, without taking the pain of doing what Isabelle Stengers has called cosmopolitics. By reusing this venerable word from the Stoics, she does not mean that we should be attuned to the many qualities of multiculturalism and internationalism, but to the many worries of multinaturalism as well. The whole civilisation that has been devised under the heading of cosmopolitism, because it was obvious we all shared one nature, and especially one human nature, has to be reinvented, this time, with the added terrible difficulties that there are many competing natures and that they have to be unified through due process — an agonizingly slow endeavour. The common world is not behind us as a solid and indisputable ground for agreement, but before us, as a risky and highly disputable goal, that remains very far in the future.

  • As long as the two Towers had not been smashed to the ground together, it remained difficult to begin again and to define politics as what I now call the progressive composition of the common world. As long as one of them remained standing, it was impossible to secularise politics at last. You always had to defend hybrid forums against people, coming from the ranks of the social or natural sciences, who claimed that elsewhere, outside, in another place, in their discipline, existed a pure and perfect ‘assembly’ in the midst of which agreement could be obtained by ‘simply’ behaving rationally and by gathering people, in a reasonable manner, around ‘indisputable matters of fact’. This miraculous recipe was enough to disqualify by contrast all the other attempts to reach an agreement over states of affairs. As long as this phantom forum existed, all the others were deemed inefficient, irrational and impure.

  • Although, at first, it sounds like a negative progress only, it is for the monitoring of collective experiment a huge advantage not to be threatened again by the promise of any salvation by any science —neither physics, nor biology, nor sociology, nor economics, nor even procedural rationality. Now at least, there is no other alternative. We are embarked. We cannot hope for the transcendence of nature, for the transcendence of rationality to come and save us. If we don’t discover the ways through which the world can be made common, there will be no common world to share, it is as simple as that —and nature will no longer be sufficient to unify us, in spite of ourselves. To sum up, I could say that when Galileo modified the classical trope of ‘the Book of Nature’, adding that it ‘was written in mathematical characters’, little could he anticipate that now we should have to say that the ‘Book of Nature’ is in fact a protocol book, a huge and complex ledger, that should be written in a mixture of legal, moral, political and mathematical hieroglyphs… It is still a Book, but how different it reads…

  • To explore what could be called a completely new form of idealism. Idealism used to entertain the rather silly idea that the whole outside world exists only inside the mind thus elevated to the level of an omnipotent demiurge. Idealists were wrong about the mind’s power of course, but they were right on one thing: interesting things happen inside not outside. Because of the simultaneous extension of science and of the ever increased entanglement of human activities with things, there is no outside any longer. The remaining inside is to be explored in great detail and with great caution because it is neither a mind nor an ‘outside world’ as the tired old modernist quarrel would have it, but rather a delicate sphere of climate control.

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