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Bruno Latour’s War of the Worlds: What about Peace?

Latour, Bruno. 2002. War of the worlds: what about peace? Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press. (available for free pdf download).

In this little pamphlet, Latour restates many of the same points that were inherent in his book We have never been modern. It’s a provocative piece, which attacks the practice of the West in order to save it.
His points are that:

  1. The West has predicated itself on an idea of universal nature which allows for no essential difference between peoples, no autonomous insistence on essential difference, that is not a form of falsity. So, when indigenous peoples, or muslims, for instance, insist that they are different from us, we say you only think you are. We, the possessors of reason, know that these are only superficial differences which are mediated and undermined by the existence of a single universal nature revealed by reason.
  2. This insistence on ‘mononaturalism’ results in the incapacity for the West to recognize itself at war, at the same time that it engages in warfare constantly. Our insistence on mononaturalism and universal reason means that we have access to a justified reason which overrides all superficial differences, and can justify our destruction of difference (with force, as is all too often in colonial and postcolonial histories). But this destruction of difference can never be understood as warfare, because how can you war against something which does not exist?
  3. Yet, we hear constantly, from those most bellicose among us, that we are at war, against terror, against drugs, etc. Fine. Let’s accept that we are at war. That would necessitate rethinking our attachment to mononaturalism, since we cannot be at war with those who are identical to ourselves.
  4. Can we ‘win’ the war? This is possible, and perhaps even desirable. But regardless of whether we win or lose, the point is achieving the Peace. This cannot be achieved in the image of the scientist, or the ambassador of Reason, but only in the figure of the diplomat (I think he overstates his case – it can also unfortunately, be achieved in the figure of the soldier conqueror who destroys utterly what he conquers).
  5. So let’s engage with our others in a diplomatic fashion, allowing for compromise (and implicitly, though he does not say so, with a respect for mutual autonomy).
  6. This would allow ourselves to return to ourselves. Europe has not been ethnocentric for centuries. Our attachment to universal reason has denied our ability to be ethnic. We can return to the ethnic only by allowing others their ethnic essentiality. And by respecting the process of diplomacy and the autonomy of the other, we can achieve a peace.

He has a number of good little phrases, such as describing the excess of culture (that which does not conform to the dictates of universal reason) as ‘leftovers’ to be stored in museums, or religion, etc.
He also provocatively returns again and again to the image of the West mourning a unity lost. This mourning process is necessary for us to engage in real politics – the constructivist building of a common world.

In contrast to the history that sought to modernize, the West has to admit to the existence of war in order to make peace: to accept that it has had enemies, to take seriously the diversity of worlds, to refuse to accept mere tolerance, and to resume the construction of both the local and the global. And it is true that, for this operation to begin, the West will have to go through the most painful period of mourning  a unity lost. The common world we took for granted must instead be progressively composed, it is not already constituted. (29)

And again

This is where the mourning should take place, le travail de deuil, because this result leaves Westerners without what they believed was their highest virtue. They must face their loss-the loss of the possibility of reaching assent by an appeal to external nature. (41)

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One thought on “Bruno Latour’s War of the Worlds: What about Peace?

  1. Pingback: Deathpower in Cambodia » Blog Archive » Who are the “Former Khmer Rouge” who are still alive?

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