Dipesh Chakrabarty: Modernity and the non-human in South Asia

Latour’s new book assembles big names to “Reset Modernity!”

MIT Press has its new site live for Bruno Latour’s new book Reset Modernity! The book has many leading thinkers making contributions; description below for what looks like a provocative new work:


Modernity has had so many meanings and tries to combine so many contradictory sets of attitudes and values that it has become impossible to use it to define the future. It has ended up crashing like an overloaded computer. Hence the idea is that modernity might need a sort of reset. Not a clean break, not a “tabula rasa,” not another iconoclastic gesture, but rather a restart of the complicated programs that have been accumulated, over the course of history, in what is often called the “modernist project.” This operation has become all the more urgent now that the ecological mutation is forcing us to reorient ourselves toward an experience of the material world for which we don’t seem to have good recording devices.

Reset Modernity!
is organized around six procedures that might induce the readers to reset some of those instruments. Once this reset has been completed, readers might be better prepared for a series of new encounters with other cultures. After having been thrown into the modernist maelstrom, those cultures have difficulties that are just as grave as ours in orienting themselves within the notion of modernity. It is not impossible that the course of those encounters might be altered after modernizers have reset their own way of recording their experience of the world.

At the intersection of art, philosophy, and anthropology, Reset Modernity! has assembled close to sixty authors, most of whom have participated, in one way or another, in the Inquiry into Modes of Existence initiated by Bruno Latour. Together they try to see whether such a reset and such encounters have any practicality. Much like the two exhibitions Iconoclash and Making Things Public, this book documents and completes what could be called a “thought exhibition:” Reset Modernity! held at ZKM | Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe from April to August 2016. Like the two others, this book, generously illustrated, includes contributions, excerpts, and works from many authors and artists.

Jamie Allen, Terence Blake, Johannes Bruder, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Philip Conway, Michael Cuntz, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Didier Debaise, Gerard de Vries, Philippe Descola, Vinciane Despret, Jean-Michel Frodon, Martin Giraudeau, Sylvain Gouraud, Lesley Green, Martin Guinard-Terrin, Clive Hamilton, Graham Harman, Antoine Hennion, Andrés Jaque, Pablo Jensen, Bruno Karsenti, Sara Keel, Oleg Kharkhordin, Joseph Leo Koerner, Eduardo Kohn, Bruno Latour, Christophe Leclercq, Vincent-Antonin Lépinay, James Lovelock, Patrice Maniglier, Claudia Mareis, Claude Marzotto, Kyle McGee, Lorenza Mondada, Pierre Montebello, Stephen Muecke, Cyril Neyrat, Cormac O’Keeffe, Hans Ulrich Obrist, P3G, John Palmesino, Nicolas Prignot, Donato Ricci, Ann-Sofi Rönnskog, Maia Sambonet, Henning Schmidgen, Isabelle Stengers, Hanna Svensson, Thomas Thwaites, Nynke van Schepen, Consuelo Vásquez, Peter Weibel, Richard White, Aline Wiame, Jan Zalasiewicz

The hydrosocial cycle & why to rethink some versions of it

I’ve mentioned my comings and goings with the concept of the hydrosocial cycle before. And I mentioned last week that a new paper of mine would be out soon. It’s here. Well, technically it is here [pdf]. It is an open-access article from Water Alternatives (which is currently transitioning its website to a new server so if it isn’t a smooth link, it should be soon). The special selection of papers on informal water spaces also looks really interesting in this issue of the journal.

My essay makes an argument about some of the current ideas popular in the literature that suggest a key feature of modernity was that water (and nature in general) was understood as a passive and inactive thing. From this premise, there is often an attempt to re-read history with contemporary understandings of water (and nature in general) as a more active player. In this paper I suggest the former view is wrong. Water was understood as an active planetary agent in precisely some of the cases theorized as exhibiting the modern society/nature divide. Because of this, the attempt to re-read history needs to be rethought with these earlier understandings of water in mind. All comments welcome. Here is the abstract:

Historicising the hydrosocial cycle

This paper examines the historical claims made in support of the hydrosocial cycle. In particular, it considers how arguments advancing the hydrosocial cycle make historical claims regarding modernist conceptions of what water is (i.e. H2O) and its fit with society. The paper gives special emphasis to the society/nature dualism and to the notion of agency as key sites of contest in arguments regarding the hydrosocial cycle. It finds that, while several versions of the hydrosocial cycle seek to advance a political ecology more sensitive to non-human actions, these same accounts often do not address the robust account of non-human agency in the historical record. Evidence is presented regarding water’s agency amongst late 19th and early 20th century architects of key water management norms in the United States. This evidence troubles accounts of the hydrosocial cycle that critique the US experience and suggests new directions for rethinking the role of historical and institutional norms in water policy.

Economentality: how the future entered government

Today I made the classic sort of mistake that comes when you’re doing fairly focused reading: I read a word I was used to seeing instead of what was written. Fortunately for me, it landed me in a great talk by Tim Mitchell, the author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.

What was my mistake? I read the title of his talk as ECO-mentality when it was ECONO-mentality. Fortunately I at least got the subtitle right: how the future entered government. But, whereas I was expecting a talk on how time entered ecological governance, what I was treated to was how the future entered economics. I must confess, given the way that ‘ecology’ is often couched in narratives that beg some hard to stomach assumptions (like nature being the washing machine in which the language of ecology is wrung through), this talk may very well have been better.

It was interesting because it was about how the economy became an object, and how that object bent time to fit it. Mitchell didn’t make the connection I would have to Einstein, who first pointed out that neither space or time are independent of things. And so my driving question – what kinds of things? – was not what Mitchell was interested in.

Rather, his argument was that the broader project of development, christened in Truman’s famous post-WWII speech, was part of instantiating the economy as an object that was not just a set of material processes. That is, as the sort of thing that had its own relations that could be measured, correlated, put into metrics, but not directly known.

As a bit of background, the reason time became so important to the “economy” (as an object)  was that the first calculations of national economic activity took place shortly after WWII and worked retroactively to generate a growth curve from the late 19th century (1875 I think, but don’t quote me). That growth curve showed 3.75% annual growth. And that meant that when it was put on a graph with time on the x-axis and productivity on the y-axis it formed an exponential curve that went almost vertical in the very near future. So these economists were stuck with the problem first identified by Malthus: geometric growth in an arithmetic earth. The solution was to create a logarithmic scale: one that would turn growth into growth rates. In this way they brought the future into the object called the economy because future time could be credited or debited by arranging all of the things that measurements of  the economy correlated with (i.e. the metrics of GDP) into ascending or descending rates of growth. The economy, and its time, became governable. So the cyclical notion of time in Keynesian economics – where the market cycles through periods over overproduction and too much effective demand – was replaced alongside a new thing: the economy.

I am of course not doing justice to the nuance or scope of his argument, but hopefully I have not lost too much of it. Mitchell worked out these arguments in a fascinating bit of history of oil development where the predominant problem of the 20th century has always been abundance and where the task has been to make it scarce (and to keep it that way). The parallel to be drawn was that the abundance of time – the exponential curve that accompanied the economic object – required discipline in a manner similar to the way that an abundance of oil required discipline; by governing these objects through techniques that made them scarce, and which would endow them with a certain kind of anthropocentric (more accurately Eurocentric) value. He had lots of other great examples that I am churning over (specifically how the Aswan High Dam in Egypt is a pivotal instance where the future value of money in the new object “economy” first intersects with World Bank Loans that tie “development” to financial speculation).

His arguments touched on and off of modernity (that period Heidegger spoke of as, “defined by the fact that man becomes the center and measure of all beings. Man is the subjectum, that which lies at the bottom of all beings, that is, in modern terms, at the bottom of all objectification and representation.”). I tend to think modernity isn’t only about time, since neither space or time are independent of things.

But quibbling to yourself is a good way to stop thinking about a superb talk. And this one gave me lots to chew on.