The Books That Influence Nikolaj Schultz

Ahead of the release of his new book Land Sickness, the author shares the books that have inspired him

BY Nikolaj Schultz in Books , Opinion | 20 MAR 23

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth (2018, Polity Books)

In his short book Down to Earth (2018), Bruno Latour enters the terrain of political science in the tradition of the German philosopher Eric Voegelin. For Voegelin, the main task of political science was to delineate the political principles by which societies orient themselves – a task that must be renewed if a society enters a moment of crisis or destabilization. In Down To Earth, Latour takes up precisely this task in the light of our rapidly transforming historical situation. The result is an exercise in re-orientation, an attempt to create a sort of political map with which we might orient ourselves in our ‘new climatic regime’. This epoch in which we find ourselves is characterized by climatic disasters, and a ‘wicked universality’ of ecological destruction that is both commonly felt – because it is happening everywhere – and unevenly and unequally distributed in its effects.

Bruno Latour, Down to Earth, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Polity Books, Oxford 

Latour’s map consists of four political coordinates – the local, the global, the off-shore, and the terrestrial – representing different signposts for politics. According to Latour, modernization was one long passage from the ‘local’ towards the ‘global', but today, the dream of this horizon has burst; climate change and global inequalities have proven that we cannot keep on globalizing. Yet returning to the local and the nation state is an even less realistic possibility; one can neither escape the interconnections globalization has brought with it nor build a wall against climate risks. As an alternative to these dead-ends, Latour suggests recalibrating our political compass towards what he calls the terrestrial, the meeting point of politics, people and their earthly conditions of habitability – a coordinate based on the planet’s reactions to how we are inhabiting it. In other words, Latour takes us on a political flight, then suggests that politics needs to come to land.

In a time of political bewilderment, Latour’s political compass orients us toward more or less realistic horizons of politics. Down to Earth remains a crucial read, a book with which Latour established himself as one of the most important thinkers of our times, both in and outside the academy. On a more personal note, this is where he first introduced the notion of ‘geosocial classes’, a concept he and I would go on to develop together in the final years of his life, resulting in a set of co-authored articles, and in his last book, our On the Emergence of an Ecological Class: A Memo (2022).

Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants (2018, Polity Books)

Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Polity Books, Oxford

A new movement of thinkers have emerged in France in recent years, following in the footsteps of Latour and his long efforts at integrating non-humans into social theory and sketching out the philosophical and political landscape of our ‘new climatic regime’. Not unlike the existentialists of the 20th century, they are interested in ‘being’ and ‘existence’, but in the light of the anthropocene and the unfolding planetary tragedy, they are approaching these topics in a novel manner. Instead of focusing on the meaning of human existence as the ‘old existentialists’ did, these thinkers practice a sort of new existentialism that focuses instead on the beings that allow other beings to exist; they direct attention to the plurality of living beings with and on which humans coexist and depend.

One of these thinkers is Emanuele Coccia, who in his seminal The Life of Plants (Polity Books, 2018), rethinks the very conditions of being. Again, the focus is existence, but he directs attention to what enables and makes it possible  and that is plants! By placing plants, which have largely been ignored in Western thought, at the centre of a philosophy of life, he reinstates them as a cornerstone of existence itself. It is all a question of what makes up the world: as cosmic, cosmogonic and cosmological powers, plants offer us an understanding of the continuous making of life, of being and of the world. The plant, as he writes, is the most intense, radical and paradigmatic form of being-in-the-world. That is certainly one way of turning existentialism upside down! An essential read, in the shape of an elegantly written cosmological treatise  a book about how the world breathes.

Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes and Axelle Gregoire, Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps (2022, MIT Press)

Frédérique Aït-Touati, Alexandra Arènes and Axelle Gregoire, Terra Forma: A Book of Speculative Maps, 2022, book cover, translated by Amanda DeMarco. Courtesy: MIT Press, Cambridge, MA

Imagine if Earth was an unknown planet – how could we discover, explore and map it? Terra Forma plays on, and seeks to hijack, the seemingly never-ending appetite for space discovery. The book unfolds along the lines of an expedition, proposing a set of stories or ‘re-readings’ of the terrestrial condition, a notion the writers inherit from Bruno Latour. In a ‘space-counter-conquest’, the book leads the reader through a kind of terrestrial science fiction story, in which the goal is not to discover or understand other planets, but the Earth we already inhabit.

A main feature of this expedition becomes the redefinition of the notion of space and how to map it. Throughout the book, the authors break with the traditional cartographic idea that one should see the Earth from the sky. Instead, they offer seven models for re-drawing and re-describing territories through the movements of various forms of life: through ‘points of life’ rather than ‘points of view’, as they put it, echoing Emanuele Coccia’s work. Maps as we know them describe empty spaces, which are first and foremost available to humans to inhabit, use and occupy. According to the authors, to describe the Earth anew, the first, crucial step is to repopulate the maps by bringing back into them the multiple lifeforms formerly excluded from the geographical imagination. Why? Well, for the simple reason that these beings are the very makers of space itself.

Thus, to explore the Earth again is to encounter a space that is already inhabited by others: the non-human entities that shape and share the Earth with us. This entails not only a redefinition of space, but also includes a redefinition of ‘terraforming’, a concept originating in science fiction denoting an ultra-technological process by which the atmosphere and conditions found on a planet such as Mars are transformed in order to make it habitable for humans. Yet Terra Forma defines terraforming as a terrestrial activity, performed on Earth and co-constructed by a set of other living beings.

As we saw above, Latour in Down to Earth proposes a remapping of the political principles after which we orient ourselves in a climate-exhausted world, while Coccia in The Life of Plants draws attention to plants as world- and space-making entities. Borrowing from both of these authors, Aït-Touati, Arènes and Gregoire propose a cartography fit for the anthropocene – one that includes the remapping of all the space-making beings that make up the Earth. In doing so, Terra Forma participates in a collective endeavour to redescribe the world, to map its borders and territories anew, doing so through a strikingly original set of ‘potential cartographies’ or ‘speculative visualizations’. It is the Earth as you have never seen it before, even if it’s right there, in front of your nose and under your feet, moving.  

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet (1991, Pantheon Books)

Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: W. W. Norton & Company

All of these books influenced me while writing Land Sickness (2023). Written as a sort of ‘auto-ethnografictive’ travelogue to a climate-damaged Mediterranean island, Land Sickness is an attempt to map some of the sociological and existential issues of the anthropocene. What happens to the self when it is exhausted by the crumbling natural world on which it depends? How is the figure of the human transformed as the world mutates into something different, when that mutation is a consequence of the human species and its actions? This is what I try to capture with the nautical metaphor of ‘land sickness’ – the double trembling of the human and the Earth simultaneously.

To capture these sets of transformations, we need not just new analytical frameworks but also new ways of writing. In this context, while trying to give shape to the experience of suffering from ‘land sickness’, I was struggling to pin down the right tone. During a trip to Lisbon, I discovered Fernando Pessoa. Though nobody – alas – can match his style, Pessoa offered numerous clues on how to describe the fragmentation and shattering of what I would call life terrains. Of course, Pessoa knew nothing of climate change, and his book describes a completely different situation than the one in which we find ourselves today. But he writes with monumental weight, describing the fracturing of emotional landscapes and existence, the feeling of having lost your bearings and the pain of trying to recover them in the dark. Why is this important? Well, because if you want to stich back together a life terrain, you must first describe how it splintered apart. I would go as far as saying that Pessoa is the existentialist that does this best – which says a lot, because I am from the country of Kierkegaard, so that’s almost committing treason!

Nikolaj Schultz, Land Sickness, 2023, book cover. Courtesy: Polity Books

Main image: Emanuele Coccia, The Life of Plants, 2018, book cover. Courtesy: Polity Books, Oxford

Nikolaj Schultz is a Danish sociologist. With the late French philosopher Bruno Latour, he is the author of On the Emergence of an Ecological Class (Polity Books, 2022), translated into ten languages. He recently published Land Sickness (Polity Books, 2023), an auto-fictive investigation into some of the sociological and existential issues of the anthropocene.