From this moment forward I’m going to make a concerted effort to abandon the terms “society” and “culture”, replacing “society” instead with “hominid ecology” (unless I or someone else comes up with a better term that contains the term “ecology” in it). There are a few reasons for such a move. First, as Latour has tirelessly argued in texts like We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature, modernity is premised on a split between nature and culture where both nature and culture are entirely distinct from one another and are governed by entirely different principles. Nature, it is said, is governed entirely by brute matter (a now outmoded conception of matter) and mechanical causality (an outmoded notion of causality). Culture and society, on the other hand, are governed by norms, beliefs, ideologies, language, signifiers, rituals, and so on. The modernist framework is premised on keeping these two domains entirely separate. When speaking of society or culture, the story goes, we will only speak of mental entities, norms, ideologies, and linguistic entities. We will here only speak of texts. When speaking of nature we will only speak of causes and so-called “material things”.
The problem is that this way of proceeding entirely distorts our understanding of society. We speak as if the glue that holds people together were only beliefs, ideologies, norms, texts, language, signs, etc. Yet as Latour argues in texts like Pandora’s Hope, societies wouldn’t hold together for a single moment were it just these things that held them together. Groups are also held together (and separated) by rivers, mountains, various plants and animals (cf. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel), roads, telephone lines, waste and sewage systems, mediums of communication, microbes, parks, oceans, climate regularities, etc. The problem with the modernist framework is that it renders these things largely invisible, and also renders the organizing and separating power or gravity they exercise invisible. For example, you seldom hear an analysis in the social sciences but especially in the humanities of how the layout of roads alone in a particular city bring certain people together and keeps certain people elsewhere. Instead, those working in the tradition of the early Frankfurt School (and primarily Horkheimer and Adorno), post-structuralism (Foucault, Derrida, Butler, Baudrillard), structuralism (Althusser, Levi-Strauss), and psychoanalysis (Zizek), tend to treat the social world as merely a text to be deciphered and power as residing in texts alone. Althusserians can insist that ideologies are material, yet strangely they only ever seem to focus on ideologies imbedded in speech, laws, texts, ignoring the other material things– generally nonhuman –that exert power and that organize lives in particular ways.
Thinkers like Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway, and Karen Barad, have gone a long way towards showing us how we can think about society differently as, to use Latour’s term, “collectives of humans and nonhumans”. Following Bennett in Vibrant Matter— and as I also tried to argue in my article “The Ethics of the Event: Deleuze and Ethics Without Arche” in Nun and Smith’s Deleuze and Ethics –this entails that we need to think about the public differently. A public here is no longer something composed of humans alone, but something composed of humans and nonhumans and sometimes just nonhumans (like a coral reef), but never just humans alone. The advantage of attending to these nonhuman things in our hominid ecology is that we open the door to a much wider variety of political strategies that aren’t immediately visible in a modernist framework). Rather than just engaging in critique (which should not abandon), rather than simply debunking or revealing the fetish behind an artifact we took to be “natural”, recognizing the role that nonhumans play in hominid ecosystem opens the possibility of introducing new nonhumans into these ecosystems or getting rid of them as a way of producing change in these systems. Building a rode or transit system can sometimes be a more radical intervention than debunking an ideology. Missionaries and humanitarian workers have known this for decades, but those in the humanities and social sciences seldom seem to listen.
Second, the problem with the modernist schema is that it seems to render the manner in which societies are imbricated with “nature” completely opaque. It’s as if this signifier, “society”, had a force and agency all its own that ineluctably leads us to think that nature is something over there and society is something over here. We then claim that there’s a distribution of labor. This scholar studies “society” and “culture”, while that scholar studies “nature”. Yet as theorists such as Tim Morton have argued in The Ecological Thought, nature is not something outside of society, but rather society is something that is pervaded by “nature” through and through. First, like any dissipative system, societies must draw all sorts of energies from the natural world to sustain themselves. It is astonishing that there has been so little work in the humanities and social sciences on these dependencies… How many social relations might we explained based on fluctuations in these flows through the social system? How much does limitations on calories and material sources of energy like fossil fuels contribute to people not challenging oppressive ecologies? So far we have Negerastani’s obscure work in the Cyclonopedia and perhaps Bataille’s work in The Accursed Share. We need more. On the other hand, the productions of societies never simply remain in “society”, but rather flow throughout the entire world. The division between nature and culture is counter-productive when trying to think the manner in which we are embedded in the world. It is for these reasons that I’ve tried to develop the concept of flat ontology, as well as that of the “wilderness“. The wilderness is not elsewhere, but is rather everywhere. We’re even in the midst of the wilderness in the middle of New York City.
Finally, third, the term “society” is just too monolithic. We tend to think of society as a “thing” that does things through “social forces” without specifying the mediators through which these things are done. The term “ecology”, by contrast, suggests inquiry into how things are actually assembled together (which also entails that the social and political theorist can no longer simply rely on texts to make pronouncements on the world). What are the elements that compose this particular homined ecology? This would require us to discern material-semiotic components or texts, but also buildings, roads, technologies, features of the “natural geography”, the different groups, the different institutions (corporations, businesses, governmental agencies, etc), food sources, energy sources, fences, domestic and wild animal life, microbes, etc. And, above all, we need to know how these things are related together, how they are assembled, what the tendencies of these assemblages are (virtual cartographies), and how these elements interact with one another. It is a massive project that requires a new sort of cartography.
The advantage of the term “hominid ecology” as opposed to “society” is that it both breaks habits of thoughts, assumptions, and draws us towards concrete forms of analysis. It also reminds us that we are not entities distinct from the world, we are not privileged entities, but rather that we are beings amongst all sorts of other beings and that we couldn’t be what we are without all these nonhumans. In a strange way, it seems as if all of Judeo-Christianity and modernity has been designed– or has at least functioned –to repress this amongstness. It is time to begin changing that.