After Lockdown is a slim analysis of life under covid, against the ongoing backdrop of the climate emergency. Latour offers us the possibility that this experience of remote working and super spreading could all offer a lasting change in our mentalities. It could be so radical we swap our human outlook for that of a bug, more specifically the bug into which Gregor Samsa transformed in Kafka’s wildest story, Metamorphosis.
It might not be appealing to wake up as a cockroach, but perhaps that overnight change is as defiant, in its way, as it is to wake up late and attend an online meeting in pyjamas. In Kafka’s story, Samsa’s boss sends the chief clerk to look for his employee; the roach fails to show up. His parents are at a similar loss; the roach is free to hide under the bed.
If one cannot stomach the cockroach; perhaps we should draw inspiration from the termite. Latour notes that they live in their mounds, as we do in cities. They cannot really be thought of independently of these giant nests, which they build as they eat, encroach and excrete. We in turn may be considered connected at every turn with the human settlements we so relentlessly build and occupy. Termite and nest are one; human and human environment likewise.
This seemed one of the book’s most important ideas: that like the termite, our entire habitat is artificial. We must therefore consider ourselves as existing with Earth, rather than on Earth, with a whole network of agents (human or otherwise) and not off them. Latour uses the word holobiont to describe the complex living systems to which each one of us plays host: with bacterial, viral, fungal guests. Likewise we form a chain of dependency with humans and animals near and far. Latour rejects the idea of discrete individuality.
Unfortunately we live among some rampant individualists. Latour is no fan of the billionaire class and their childish obsession with space travel. It arises, he notes, from a desire to leave our wasted planet as the horizon of ecological collapse draws ever nearer. It’s a fantasy of course. But it indicates a total disregard for what might happen to the rest of us, were Musk, Bezos or Branson actually able to simply escape to a post-apocalyptic base on Mars.
For Latour, space travel is a desperate, quasi-religious attempt to extend the shallow layer of habitable planet which humanity is currently able to occupy. This so-called critical zone, which extends from bunker to penthouse across the cities of the world, accounts for just 0.14 percent of the earth’s mass. From the point of view of a physicist, or when compared with the universe, we are as lichen to a boulder.
Once you’ve read about this, it surely increases your feelings of roachlikeness. And once you gather that we each carry around an ecosystem with our bodies, you realise how complex this life on earth is. It’s no wonder that our politics have become enmired in contradiction; naturally, climate change is a war, but who is the opponent? After Lockdown implicates us all in an imbroglio. I came away thinking of the finitude of our space on this planet and the rapid erasure of borders by coronavirus.
He may invoke Gaia, but Latour is no new age thinker. He endlessly complicates our position with regards to a planet full of microbes and microchips, blue whales and oil refineries. But he offers the prospect of freedom, following a lockdown that resets our engagement with the planet. If we can consign The Economy to history, we can subsist he claims, together, in new ways, and also in new places, under the sun, or better still, under the moon: that poetic body which remains, as yet, unspoilt.
After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis is published by Polity. (c) 2021. pp.148, available from all good bookshops.