Reflections on Latour, Tarnas, and the Misenchantment of the World

Before you read this post, go watch Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, titled “Facing Gaia: A New Enquiry into Natural Religion” (or read the PDF version). I’ve written a few short commentaries on these lectures that may help bring you up to speed if you don’t have the 7 or 8 hours to watch them all just yet: here are my reflections on lectures onetwothreefour, and six).

Next, read my friend Grant Maxwell’s post comparing Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern to Richard Tarnas’ Passion of the Western Mind, both published in 1991. Grant is an editor of Archai: The Journal of Archetypal Cosmology, an academic journal that is continuing to develop the perspective of Tarnas’ last book, Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (2007).

I applaud Grant’s diplomatic effort to bring these two thinkers into dialogue–thinkers who, on the face of it, seem to be engaged in incommensurable projects. While Latour’s Modern aims primarily at the problematization of any simple story about the rise and fall of “Modern Western Man,” Tarnas’ Passion would seem to aim precisely to tell such a story. The story Tarnas tells, of course, is hardly “simple.” He succeeds in brilliantly tracing the grand multi-millennial narrative of Western philosophical history through each of its dramatic dialectical twists: from the strange and unsteady but powerfully dynamic Christian synthesis of Greek philosophy and Hebrew prophecy; through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution; on to the progress of the Enlightenment and the reaction of Romanticism; finally culminating in the hermeneutical sensitivity of our post-modern condition, a sensitivity that entails both the peril of groundless relativism and deconstructive suspicion as well as the soul-healing and world-enchanting promise of post-Jungian depth, archetypal, and psychedelic psychologies (Tarnas develops this “promise/peril” theme in his preface to Cosmos and Psyche, “The Two Suitors”). I believe Tarnas’ motivation for telling his epic history of the evolution of consciousness in the West is not only to argue for the over-all nobility of the Western project, but to prophesy its imminent self-inflicted dialectical sublation by the “otherness” it has for so long been projecting onto “Nature,” “God,” and most especially, “the Feminine” (Passion, 444).  In the final lines of Passion, Tarnas’ writes:

[W]hy has the pervasive masculinity of the Western intellectual and spiritual tradition suddenly become so apparent to us today, while it remained so invisible to almost every previous generation? I believe this is occurring only now because, as Hegel suggested, a civilization cannot become conscious of itself, cannot recognize its own significance, until it is so mature that it is approaching its own death.

Today we are experiencing something that looks very much like the death of modern man, indeed that looks very much like the death of Western man. Perhaps the end of “man” himself is at hand. But man is not a goal. Man is something that must be overcome–and fulfilled, in the embrace of the feminine. (445)

Latour, while he may be somewhat more suspicious of Hegel’s totalizing dialectical philosophy of history, is, in a unique but comparable way, also prophesying the inevitable overcoming of “man” as a result of his terrible embrace by the long-forgotten goddess of earth, Gaia.

From Grant’s perspective, having studied Tarnas’ work deeply but admittedly having just begun his study of Latour’s by reading Modern,

the cores of both works partially intersect and express the archetypal quality of that moment near the height of postmodernism, which has a lot to do with seeing through seemingly airtight modern constructs to a novel vision of reality.

I agree that it is just this potential for creatively seeing through the postmodern condition that makes both mens’ work so relevant to anyone involved in what we could call the “re-enchantment project.” However, whether Latour is indeed involved in such a project or not remains a matter of contention. Grant isn’t at all satisfied with Latour’s seeming dismissal of the need to mourn the loss of an enchanted world (Modern, 114cf.). I suppose I read Latour’s ironic statements about modern science and technology bringing about the disenchantment of the world somewhat differently than Grant. Latour may be a bit flippant at times, but his point is certainly not to “do everything he can to deny enchantment,” as Grant argues. Latour’s point, as I understand him, is precisely the opposite. Drawing in no small part upon the work of his Whiteheadian friends, Isabelle Stengers (see Capitalist Sorcery) and Donna Haraway (see Latour’s review of Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature), Latour argues that we have never been disenchanted, that in fact, modernity has been far more a wayward adventure in mis-enchantment than outright dis-enchantment.

Moderns may have lost their ability to magically participate in the animate powers of the earth and larger cosmos (a loss worth mourning), but the modern world is hardly lacking its own forms of consumer-capitalist misenchantment. Moderns have devised their own, no less enchanted technoscientific magic. This modern magic, with its hybrid factishes and cyborg machines, has allowed for the construction of an immense networked technoösphere whose all-encompassing mediation of human life (by satellite-linked touch screens and the like) has by now all but severed our conscious connection to earth and cosmos. Even the stars are now out-shined by the numinous glow of our gadgetry.

I’d argue, then, that Latour, like Tarnas, is involved in the re-enchantment project. This is especially evident after Latour’s Gifford Lectures on Gaia, as we’ll see below. He sees, like Stengers and Haraway, that the technocapitalist-entertainment complex has been providing humanity with a sort of surrogate enchantment for much of the last century. This makes the task of re-enchantment all the more perilous, since it involves not simply bringing a bit of magic back into a mechanized universe, but rather represents a true sorcerers’ battle pitting light and dark magics against one another. Who will win: Big Oil propaganda, or the world’s indigenous peoples and their reverence for Mother Earth? Or someone else? “Would it be possible,” asks Latour as part of an effort to summon “the people of Gaia,”

to accept the candidacy of those people who claim to be assembled, for instance, by Pachamama, the Earth goddess? May be, if only we could be sure that what passes for a respect for the Earth is not due to their small numbers and to the relative weakness of their technology. None of those so called ‘traditional’ people, the wisdom of which we often admire, is being prepared to scale up their ways of life to the size of the giant technical metropolises in which are now corralled more than half of the human race. (lecture 6)

Grant is put off by the difficult and anxiety-producing academic style of Latour’s Modern, preferring the “classical narrative clarity” of Tarnas’ Passion. There is no question that Tarnas’ book can and has reached a larger sector of the educated general public. But Latour didn’t write Modern for the general public. He wrote it for the modern philosophers, anthropologists, and sociologists who mistakenly enforce the nature/society dichotomy he so detests. We might say that Modern was an attempt to transform the modern Zeitgeist from the top down, while Passion attempted to do the same from the middle up.

As for the anxiety one may feel upon reading Modern, or listening to the Gifford Lectures, Latour might respond by asking if hope might not be our biggest enemy. Hope allows us to wait until tomorrow to face the climate crisis, because maybe our situation isn’t so bad, after all. Like most of the world’s climate scientists, he has recognized the direness of our planetary position, the fact that we are already committed to at least 2 degrees centigrade of global warming, and that in all likelihood, we will be committed to far more before any meaningful action is taken. The changing climate that results from this warming will produce tens of millions of refugees, food shortages, and resource wars. Latour depicts climatologists as the most tragic figures of our time, in that despite their knowledge of the coming threat, they cannot mobilize the political will to do anything about it. They are the first scientists to be accused by other scientists of being a lobby. Latour’s project is an attempt to empower their knowledge, not by pretending to purify it of the vagaries of politics (as modern scientists normally do), but by re-positioning scientists from their disincarnate perspective beyond earth to an incarnate perspective bound to earth. This means admitting one’s local concerns and grounded norms, even and especially when one’s profession is the production of scientific facts. The climatologists are the closest the planet has to a people of Gaia, according to Latour. They are the people who speak on behalf of earth’s health.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Latour was barking up the wrong tree in Modern–that, on the contrary, we have been modern and science once could be purified of politics. In his recent Gifford Lectures, he sets out to prove that, in the age of the Anthropocene, we can no longer be modern because the natural fact of climate change is inseparable from the economic and political values of society. The reason ours’ is such an anxiety-producing time, according to Latour, is because Whitehead’s bifurcation, rather than being brought to its end by the revenge of Gaia, has, in fact, been reversed:

Incredibly enough, the question has become whether humans may retrieve a sense of history that has been ripped away from them by what they had taken until now to be a mere frame devoid of any agency. The Bifurcation of Nature, so criticized by Whitehead, has not come to a close: it has reversed itself in the most unexpected way, the ‘primary qualities’ being now marked by sensitivity, agency, reaction, uncertainty; the ‘secondary qualities’ by indifference, insensibility, numbness. (lecture 6)

In other words, “nature,” for so long merely the raw material out of which the progress of human history was made to take shape, is now, due to the unpredictable nonlinear effects of climate change, beginning to seem far more agential and sensitive than we human beings, our political paralysis and complete lack of serious response to the looming threat of ecological disaster making us seem more like inert and insensitive consumerist robots.

Since the Scientific Revolution, moderns have pretended to possess a “view from nowhere.” This objective view was predicated upon Galileo’s erasure of the primordial dichotomy between the earthly and heavenly spheres of the cosmos. In the beginning of his 3rd Gifford Lecture, Latour offers his non-modern take on the “reverse symmetry” displayed in Galileo’s theory of universal nature and Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Both men, Latour points out, “[turned] cheap instruments to the skies to make radically opposite discoveries.” In a way similar to Tarnas’ astrologically-informed (and so geocentric) participatory perspective, Latour argues that the living earth really does inhabit a special sub-lunary realm. One wonders if Latour’s attempt to return earth to its pre-Galileo status might be of any assistance to those hoping to re-assert the “metaphysical and psychological premises” of archetypal cosmology (see Passion, p. 296). I’ll quote Latour’s 3rd lecture at length:

While Galileo, by looking up beyond the horizon to the sky, was expanding the similarity between this Earth and all the other falling bodies, Lovelock, by looking down on us from one of those heavenly bodies, is actually decreasing the similarity among all the planets and this highly peculiar Earth of ours. From his tiny office in Pasadena, like someone slowly sliding the roof of a convertible car tightly shut, Lovelock brings his reader back to what should be taken, once again, as a sublunary world. Not because the Earth lacks perfection, quite the opposite; not because it hides in its interior the dark site of Hell; but because it has—and it alone has—the privilege of being alive in a certain fashion—which also means, in a certain fashion, being corruptible—that is, animated and also, thus, simultaneously in equilibrium yet brittle. In a word: actively maintaining a difference between inside and outside. Even stranger, the Blue Planet suddenly stands out as what is made of a long concatenation of historical, local, hazardous, specific and contingent events as if it were the temporary outcome of a ‘geohistory’ as attached to specific places and dates as the Biblical narrative, that is, exactly what was not to be taken into account when considered simply as a falling body among all the others.

Is not the reverse symmetry really admirable? Take the cliché of three ‘narcissistic wounds’ celebrated by Freud: first Copernicus, then Darwin and then — somewhat narcissistically — Freud himself? Human arrogance was supposed to have been deeply hurt by the Copernican revolution that had chased the human out of the centre of the cosmos (and hurt deeper still by the discovery, secondly of Darwin, and, thirdly, of the Unconscious that had kicked the human subject out of its privileged position). But in order to invent such a series of wounds, Freud had to forget the enthusiasm with which the so-called ‘Copernican revolution’ had been embraced by all those who had suffered so much for being stuck in the dark centre of a cosmos out of which they had no other escape but the super lunar regions, the only place where incorruptible truths could be found. Out of the hole at last! 

Those familiar with Tarnas’ argument concerning the fundamental ambiguity of the Copernican revolution (representing both a blow to human centrality as well as a boon to human autonomy) will recognize its similarity to Latour’s treatment.

In closing, Latour may not be as optimistic about human history as Hegel, for whom all of natural and human history is “spirit disporting with itself” (as he wrote in the Phenomenology). Latour sees just as much contingency as he does dialectical inevitability in the course of evolution. On the other hand, he is a practicing Catholic, though I’m as yet unable to determine how the doctrine of providence survives his seemingly heretical, almost pagan, natural theology.

“Even Hegel in the Phenomenology of Spirit,” said Latour during his 5th lecture,

did not envision that the advent of the Anthropocene would so radically reverse the direction of the historical project–that humans would be dialectically merged with the geostorical adventure of carbon, oxygen, and metal. Think of that! The whole breath of Spirit now sublated, aufheben, overcome, intoxicated by carbon dioxide

Tarnas, not unlike Hegel, would seem to have a greater degree of trust in the dialectical plot underlying our human adventure, that no matter how dark our plight may become, “it is always darkest just before the dawn.” Personally, I experience equal doses of hope and anxiety when faced by earth’s future prospects. I deeply appreciate the work of both Tarnas and Latour for providing us (those of us engaged in the “re-enchantment project”) with some essential weapons in our ongoing battle for the soul of the world.

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9 thoughts on “Reflections on Latour, Tarnas, and the Misenchantment of the World

  1. Another lovely and insightful post, Matt! While (not surprisingly) I agree with the substance of your argument, I notice that once again I’m annoyed by Latour’s misguided and misleading swipe at Hegel. Sure, “even Hegel” didn’t foresee the advent of global climate change (though he did arguably set the philosophical foundations for rendering the Anthropocene intelligible). But neither did Aurobindo or Teilhard a century later, or even Jung or–Latour himself in the first half of his life. This kind of tired denigration of Hegel is especially unfortunate in this context as Hegel was the first to work out the principles of systemic feedback and dynamic equilibrium later taken up (though unconsciously as to their origins) by Lovelock and current Earth system science. As to Hegel’s purported optimism, once can only assume people who maintain this view have either never really read Hegel or have forgotten what they read. The Owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, and the mature Hegel saw himself and European civilization in a long sunset, with the speculative philosophers a lonely “isolated order of priests”. On the equally tired charge of Hegel’s determinism, please consult Burbidge’s “Hegel’s Systematic Contingency”. The more serious issue for me, however, is that Latour’s argument, though full of flashes of insight and clever allusions and turns of phrase, is lacking in any substantive (that is, sufficiently coherent) philosophy of history or theory of the evolution of consciousness–by this I mean an argument, such as Hegel’s or Tarnas’s or my own (though I of course by no means want to suggest I am in any way the equal of Hegel!), which can account for the very standpoint from which the argument is being made! Lacking such, Latour’s argument unwittingly remains a kind of view from nowhere. I could say more, but have to run!

    • Hey Sean,
      I thought Latour’s swipe at Hegel’s “Phenomenology”–though perhaps rhetorically opportunistic–was nonetheless narratively powerful given the story Latour is trying to tell about the non-modern implications of the Anthropocene. Of course, like most offhand comments about the great figures in the history of philosophy, it is more of an oversimplified caricature than an actual critique.

      The comment about Hegel’s optimism comes from my sense that the dialectical structure and spiritual orientation of his philosophy of history assures from the get go that the good guys will win in the end, so to speak. Not that he is a deterministic thinker (the dialectic is full of surprises), but wouldn’t you say the room he leaves for contingency pales in comparison to the necessary progress of Spirit’s movement through time? I’ll have to track down the Burbidge essay you’ve mentioned…

      You might enjoy this essay by Adrian Wilding in the Journal Cosmos and History that brings Latour into conversation with Schelling and Hegel (Hegel comes out on top): http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/148/278

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  3. Hi Matt, I just posted a response to your excellent response (http://rockandrollphilosopher.wordpress.com/). I’m really enjoying our conversation and I’ll look forward to hearing your thoughts. Also, it’s great to have Sean Kelly here to add some nuance to our discussion of Hegel. And, as you’ll see in my post, I agree with Sean that Latour seems to call for “a view from nowhere,” when I think what we should be striving for is a view from everywhere.

  4. Pingback: More on Latour and Tarnas – Networks, Technology, and the Transformation of Western Culture | Footnotes 2 Plato

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  6. Pingback: “Religion and Ecology: Developing a Planetary Ethic” by Whitney Bauman | Footnotes 2 Plato

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