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Philosopher Bruno Latour on Challenges of Identity Politics in India

Discussing Gaia-politics, the BJP’s myth about identity and the transformation of Indian local politics with one of the most prominent thinkers of our time.

B latour

Bruno Latour. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Bruno Latour is regarded as one of the most prominent thinkers of our time, weaving together philosophy, anthropology and sociology. Seen as one of the founders of science and technology studies, and the actor-network-theory, his 2013 book ‘An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence’, tries to offer a new philosophical anthropology of the ‘Moderns’. In 2015, building upon his The Gifford Lectures, he published ‘Face à Gaia’, which tries to explore what it means to live in the Anthropocene and face ‘Gaia’ – a term which he borrows from Isabelle Stengers and James Lovelock’s the Gaia Hypothesis. He often calls himself a disciple of John Dewey, the great American pragmatist.

Currently, Latour is the director of médialab at Sciences Po, Paris, and professor-at-large for five years at Cornell University. In this exclusive interview with one of his students, Gaurav Daga, Latour discusses the challenges India faces in terms of identity politics, ecological mutation, and the philosophy of pragmatism.

Gaurav Daga: I want to start this interview by asking a few questions on identity politics. John Dewey and his student, B.R. Ambedkar, were great fans of the French motto – liberty, equality and fraternity. They believed that these ideals would bring ‘social endosmosis’. These ideals are even inscribed in the Indian constitution. But the unprecedented change in the Earth systems, that is, the great acceleration and the rise of neo-Hindus, socially and politically, challenges these ideals. Therefore, how can we construct new imaginaries and narratives in this context?

Bruno Latour: I don’t think identity politics is specific to Indians. I think it is everywhere. The BJP is one case [of religion-based identity politics], but in France we have a similar movement towards identity politics. We have the same in the USA with Trump and Sanders, or in Poland. It is of course very striking for observers that even Hinduism, which was never a religion associated with the European tradition of political theology, has been absorbed by this tradition and reinvented as a political theology, just like Islam or Christianity in Europe. So in a way, the more the BJP has brought religion into the Indian polity, the less Indian it is. The BJP has succeeded in banalising or losing some of the process and originality of Hinduism.  It was not in the nature of the religion to tempt its followers to form an identity group and then associate with the state.

The loss of originality of India in that respect is very unfortunate, but it is quite understandable because few resist the disappearance of politics and its replacement by identity politics. When Dewey was speaking of politics, he was saying something completely different, which was pragmatism. For him, politics was issue-based and consequences based, and had nothing to do with identity.

GD: In your recent exhibition on the ‘Reset Modernity’ at ZKM Karlsruhe, one of the procedures you propose to follow is by becoming ‘secular at last’. You argue that religion and politics have the potential to unleash enormous energy, but one needs to be careful when mixing the two. Do you think, Jan Asmann’s tables of translation, is one way to shift from names to agencies, and becoming ‘secular at last’ since politics is being replaced by identity politics, for good and bad reasons?

BL: Well, ‘secular at last’ is not a good term. I will say that in English, the word ‘mundane’ or ‘earthly’ is better. It’s a very complicated question because we have no idea of what politics is nowadays if it is not linked to political theology, which was not the case with Dewey if I come back to the first question. Dewey had a secular, mundane, issue-based, pragmatist definition of politics as a normal activity. Everybody now believes that politics is something which is beyond the everyday, oriented towards modernisation, a turn towards the globe. India is interesting because simultaneously you have a complete transformation of the Indian local politics into a global horizon, which is basically modernisation. And simultaneously, as everywhere else, you have backlash – which says we don’t want globalisation, we are Indian. We invent an identity, which is a paradox of this reaction. But everywhere it is the same. If you are Polish, Indian, American, French or English all react in the same way – Identity defines us. Everybody is defined by identity and there is no difference anymore.

GD: Is this also linked to the argument you make in ‘Face à Gaia’, and more recently, in your Le Monde article of January 2016 and the Mosse lecture at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, where you argue that we are back to the age of discovery, which is not a 16th century case of spatial extension or ‘plus ultra’ but ‘plus intra’, a geostorical extension. You develop the idea of a third pole, ‘new attachments’ as a way of moving away from the old poles of ‘imagined globe’ and ‘imagined land’.

BL: Well, I’m not a political scientist, but as someone interested in ecological mutation, I think the reason why people have so much difficulty in identity politics versus pragmatist politics is largely because the horizon of the globe can mobilise people only if it has no content, if it is completely empty – a horizon. It’s not a real globe. It’s literally a utopia, in an etymological sense. It’s nowhere. Now people react to that. They feel they are sent back and therefore adopt ethnicity and identity. For me, the reaction to this feeling which people very easily have, especially now after the ecological crisis, is that it is impossible to land on the globe because it’s a utopia – not a real place. So it is as if one is in a plane, which is going somewhere, except there is no place to land. And it doesn’t require great imagination, when you are in a country like India of one and a half billion people arriving late in the problem of American-type-development that the promise of this horizon is nowhere and will never materialise. So we are in a sort of cargo cult. I don’t know if you know about cargo cults.

GD: No, I don’t.

BL: It’s a very interesting type of religion.

And now we suddenly realise that this thing is impossible. My hunch, which is no more than a hunch, is that we need to define different access to the land, to the soil, to the territory which makes a lot of sense for people in India, because you still have a population on the land. This doesn’t mean going back to the land, because the land has to be developed, but it means interpreting and understanding what the land or the soil is made of very differently. So it’s not a land which is surveyed by geography or surveyors. It is not a land appropriated by the law. It is a land which has some of the characters of the country side – territoire – as we say in French, and some of the elements of hi-tech modernisation. But it is very hard to visualise this new land because it doesn’t fit into the archaic versus modernisation model. Which is why I call it Gaia and it has some properties, which were very different from the old countryside of land, or the globe. This is what I have tried to convey in a little triangle.

GD: But I’m still trying to figure out how shall one compose Gè or Gaia-politics? Or ways in which we can make that shift in terms of everyday politics?

BL: [laughs] That I don’t know. But for me, the connection between Dewey and ecological politics is important. Dewey at that time was trying to envisage not identity politics, but politics as modus vivendi and issue-based politics. Disagreements are absolutely possible. There is no one identity possible. Every issue has a public. We produce consequences which are badly understood. So we fumble collectively in the dark.

But importantly, politics has nothing messianic about it nor does it involve bringing extraordinary things, and absolutely important for India, it has to be as uncorrupted as possible. Because that’s the only way to explore the unintended consequences of actions. Then linked to this question of what I call mundane politics is the question of ecological mutation. Territories are made of a lot of other entities than humans, which is not something which would surprise someone literate in Indian culture. It has nothing to do with the BJP myth about identity. And probably not something which is modern, in the sense that it is land freed from all its activities, values, rituals, presence. So in a way, it will have aspects of older land, the one we have left behind – which could be called archaic but also aspects of hi-tech, which could make a new composition. So it is a new land.

It is completely absurd for an Indian politician to say we cannot develop because we arrived late. But I think it makes sense to say that the land which you left for the globe will also not be there either. So we have now to reinvent and reselect from our old habits and discover new ones. They might orient progressive politics, but it is very difficult to invent a new progressive politics which is not directed towards the globe.

GD: But toward Gaia-politics?

BL: Yes. Gaia or I don’t know how to call it.

GD: Might this also be linked to different entities coming together and talking about knowledge and translation? Because what a farmer might possess may not be possessed by a scientist. Therefore, in a certain sense, knowledge at a marginal level can contribute to the dominant narrative and imagination?

BL: For me, it’s not a question of values but a question of defining the territory in which we want to land. This is what I call the third attractor, because it’s very difficult to sort out. I mean, the example of agriculture is a complicated case in India. It is obvious that agriculture cannot be archaic (in the sense of traditional). It has to be modernised. It has to be transformed. It has to be hi-tech. But the question is what you select [from the existing practices]. The case around genetically modified organism (GMOs) in India is a nice example. So are the issues around water disputes or dam disputes or forest disputes.

Now, when there is a ministry in India which tries to shortcut those debates by saying ‘we should modernise and avoid this discussion’, it is wrong. It doesn’t mean we have to stay backward but the negotiations should start on how to go about this. People know they have to live in a land which will never be global for which the modernisers are asking them to sacrifice. The modernisers are extending cities and destroying vast amount of resources, the land, the soil in which people live. It is as if Indians were being asked to move out of their country and to move to another country, which is called the globe. Few can or will. As a policy for one and a half billion people, you know that this globe is simply not available (in terms of resources etc.). So people feel that. They feel that there is a sort of lie in this modernisation. But no one tells them any other counter truth, so to speak. And another lie is telling them to stay as they are or go back to what they were, which is in fact a completely reinvented identity. It is very clear in India. The BJP is inventing a whole past, which is a complete fiction. So you have one fiction, which is globalisation and another fiction involving a reinvention of the archaism, when it was never that way in practice. Therefore, it is pretty normal that people are worried. They cannot move either way.

GD: It is a situation where you don’t know which way to go, because every action will have serious consequences. Like the ‘Angel of Geostory’ video by Stefany Ganachaud, which you directed, where the dancer is fleeing backwards seeing the catastrophe but when she turns around, she sees things and she is horrified, and doesn’t know what to do.

BL: Now I will revise my dancer’s movement a little bit. She was moving away. But what we see arriving in front of us – Gaia – is also a different land. It defines the land differently. This is what I’m trying to work out [laughs]. It has some qualities of the world, the globe. But it also has other virtues, one of them is protection. You cannot ask people to abandon their protection for the so-called infinite horizon of the global, where no one lives or ever lived. So in a way the eruption of ecological crisis is a great chance to think about the multi-folded challenge. It seems to me that the little I know about Indian culture, that if only India could rely on its own culture and not feed on the BJP’s invention of identity, it would not be so disconnected with the question of ecology. India knew what it was to be on the land.

GD: Right. The last question I want to ask you, as a disciple of John Dewey, is how you would define pragmatism in this new context of the Anthropocene or Gaia-politics?

BL: I don’t think Dewey would have been extremely surprised by the Anthropocene. He would have seen the Anthropocene straightforwardly, as an extreme case of the consequences of our actions, going back to you and forcing you to modify everything you used to do.

Dewey was a consequentialist in the theory of politics. The Anthropocene is sort of the ultimate consequence of our actions. He would have said, well we now have to build the ‘Great Community’, as he said in ‘The Public and its Problems’. And he, of course, would have diagnosed, as I do, that to make a public at the same size as the climate consequence of our action, is a nightmare. But he would not have been surprised.

Pragmatism is built on pragmata, on things, ‘matters of concern’, as I say. And the Anthropocene is a matter of concern around which a public has to be assembled. The problem, in my view, is that politics has disappeared. Politics is not identity politics. Identity is something else, which has to be produced with other anthropological resources. We are talking about psychology, religion or maybe fiction, but we are not talking about politics. To use the terms of AIME, we are not talking politically.

GD: Could you elaborate a little further?

BL: The catastrophe is that everywhere at the moment people have stopped doing politics, because they are simply expressing their values. For Dewey, the habits of politics were arriving at a modus vivendi, through secular, mundane negotiations. The problem is that people have lost the ability to speak politically for two reasons. One of them is that they have been asked not to speak because of moral dictates, which happened in Europe.

It happened recently in Austria. People say things they were not allowed to say before, which means they had been silenced by moralism. They were pre-emptively forbidden to say things. Now they say things but they are not political things. They are moral things. How can you do politics if people have values? It’s impossible. You have values against values? That’s not politics. It’s a juxtaposition of indifferent strangers.

GD: So to do politics in Dewey’s sense, would be object oriented democracy?

BL: Yes, you turn around things. Each thing has a different interest, a different range of people. But this doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.

GD: Thank you

Gaurav Daga will soon join the University of Cambridge for his MPhil in Modern South Asian Studies.

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Comment (1)


    Prolific interview. Latour is spot on about the spread of fundamentalism through out the world.

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