I read an interesting article today about South Carolina refusing to nominate “Green-Ribbon Schools under a new federal awards program.” Essentially, the nomination would fund, as well as “encourage schools to improve their energy efficiency” and “create healthy environments.” The state superintendent seemed to summarize South Carolina’s opposition to the nomination by saying the “initiative has too many “burdensome” requirements… a dollar spent ‘greening’ a school is a dollar not spent in the classroom improving educational outcomes for students.” I feel that this article provides an interesting example of the ways in which we divide the modern world into the natural and the human, which relates to Latour’s theories (I know my past few blog posts have all been about his theories, but I’m primarily using him in my paper so they have been on my mind).
It seems here that the two worlds are in opposition with each other. The human world is seen as distinctly different, which allows it to become much more important in the eyes of our state’s Superintendent. In his opinion, making sure that the students of our state get a quality education is more important than making sure our schools are environmentally friendly, and that the so called natural world is harmed as little as possible. I’m certainly not saying he should be condemned for his opinion, because this is a very complicated decision to make, but what if the two worlds were not seen as distinctly different, but in a common assemblage? What if one world was not seen as more “real,” or more “unstable,” or even more important, because the divide simply didn’t exist? Maybe then, our education system would be more aware of the detrimental effects that civilization currently has on the planet, which inadvertently has a detrimental effect on us as humans. Still, from a modern perspective that acknowledges a distinct social and political world, ‘greening’ our schools, and improving education systems are both great ways to distribute funds. However, it doesn’t seem that we are spending dollars “in the classroom improving educational outcomes for students” anyways.
When reading Virginia Woolf’s novel To The Lighthouse for another literature class, I felt that there were some very interesting connections between the novel and some of Latour’s arguments that are presented in Graham Harmon’s essay “We Have Never Been Modern”.
One of the main themes of the novel is the destructive power of nature over human lives and art, and Woolf seems to consciously be aware of the interconnectedness of the human world and the natural world. Part of the second section of the novel titled “Time Passes,” depicts a summerhouse that has been abandoned for almost a decade, and the effect that nature has on it. Woolf personifies the wind from the sea entering the house and asking the objects there, “Will you fade? Will you perish?” and they answer, “we remain.” As the house begins to decay the books begin to get moldy and the garden becomes overgrown, and Woolf writes, “It was beyond one persons strength,” to repair the house. It seems to me that Woolf is depicting the natural world projecting its agency over the human world, and noting that when humans are not present action does not simply cease to exist, but nature still exerts its force. However, Woolf does not seem to be fully conscious of the fact that, “There are not two mutually isolated zones called ‘world’ and ‘human’ that need to be bridged by some sort of magical leap” (Harmon, 57). She seems to understand that the two worlds are connected, and that the human world, or culture, and the natural world are both simultaneously unstable. However, she does depict the two as opposing forces. The human life, as well as art, which are struggling to somehow be eternal, are opposed to the destructive forces of nature. As Harmon says, “there were never two opposed zones in the first place” (58). Considering Woolf was a modernist writer, this is a great example of modernism separating the human from the natural, although she does reveal that the two are in some ways connected, and both are constantly changing and unstable.
Latour wants us to do some major changing as humans when it comes to looking at innate things and for that matter so does Jane Bennett. The idea of granting power to where it seems to be coming from was exceptionally foreign to me before this class. While Jane Bennett’s motives for granting power are ethically driven, the motives of this class seem to focus more on creating a novel way of reading literature. It amazes me that we have the ability to take a fairly new and steadily emerging theory and apply it to texts that are 100s of years old.
Latour and Bennett both point out the heterogeneous nature of assemblages and the necessity of disentangling them in order to be able to see the agency of everything involved. I feel like this is one of the most important concepts in the entire class because without it I felt somewhat lost. The agency of things seems so much more comprehensible when you take into account the array of actants affecting the final outcome. It seems impossible to look at one particular thing and give it all the agency and power but people tend to do this all the time by giving all the power to humanity.
The rocks in The Franklin’s Tale were revisited during Monday’s class and I think they are a perfect example of the power of assemblages. The rocks never actually hurt anyone but the assemblage that they possibly unknowingly participated in caused a great deal of turmoil. The wife in this tale did not recognize the assemblage and placed all the power on the rocks claiming that they killed people and brought her great troubles. The rocks alone did not do these things. They worked within an assemblage of things such as the ocean, the boats, the men, and even the wife’s blame that caused them to be a burden. It’s interesting to think that if the wife had of never involved them in the relationship between her and her immoral suitor she may have never been faced with the obligation to betray her husband.
The power that the wife gave the rocks seem to be very much like the power that both Latour and Bennett are encouraging society not to give humans. The recognition of assemblages seems to be vastly important to successful thing theory readings of texts, social matters, and ethical matters.
In the introduction to Part I of Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social, the author emphasises the importance of not warping social processes with our expectations, and warns the reader to “Be prepared to cast off [...] every [...] philosophical and anthropological category, no matter how deeply rooted in common sense they may appear to be.”
This approach carries with it the explicit message that humans, and specifically traditional sociologists, are all too willing to place wildly varying phenomena in fixed categories, for ease and comfort. The way we think about different nations highlights this fact, especially if we have not studied or visited a specific country for any lengthy period of time. Rather than using Latour’s method of tracing associations as they happen, in reaction to their changing nature, we instead hold on to a collection of facts, for definition’s sake. These may include semi-permanent details, such as capital cities and the weather, but we also rely on fixed cultural notions, like the idea that Germans enjoy beer. Despite having a lack of meaningful evidence to back up this sort of concept, we are greatly troubled when distinctions are blurred, and preconceptions questioned. The Arab Revolutions of this year provide a good example of this, as they display the ever-changing structure of society, and our resultant inability to permanently categorise it.
This impulse is a natural one, as simplifying different subjects allows us to have a broader range of knowledge, but Latour is right to state that such actions equate to “the traveler [cheating] by surreptitiously getting a ride from an already existing ‘social order’”. Though it is hard to look past our entrenched discriminations to view Latour’s coastline as it really appears, it is necessary if we wish to gain a truer perspective of the way in which society works.