Bruno Latour – “Waiting for Gaia: composing a common world through political art”

Via Knowledge-Ecology, who linked to a barely audible mp3 of Latour’s recent talk at the French Institute in the UK recorded by Tim Morton. Thanks for the guerrilla media effort, Tim! I wish the Institute would release their high quality video for free!!

We should be absolutely floored by what Latour has to say here, in the sense of being knocked to our philosophical grounds, forced to think anew the metaphysical foundations we may have been presupposing. His call for political art in the anthropocene, for the composing of post-natural/post-cultural cosmograms by way of the triple representation of science, politics, and art, sounds to my ears a great deal like Panikkar’s cosmotheandric vision. Only for Latour, as for the postmodern psyche in general, human creativity (art) replaces the creativity of God. Or perhaps there has been no replacement; rather, creator and creature are no longer separated, but have been hybridized.

A whole geological age has been given to the human. We’ve measured up to and even surpassed the power of plate tectonics. What was once merely symbolic anthropomorphism has taken industrial strength steroids and become quite real. Global climate change is upon us. None of us, in isolation, is responsible. And so how are we to feel, Latour asks, about a crisis as large as the earth? How can I be rightly accused of a crime of such magnitude without feeling the least bit guilty? Without a moral body or planetary consciousness to take responsibility, climate change simply cannot be felt. It can only be denied–either outright as many conservatives have, or once removed, as those who have adopted an attitude of despondency, having no patience for the romanticization of nature.

Nature, it seems, is no more. Nor is culture. Gone are the Kantian days when we could stand in awe of the sublimity of the natural world while simultaneously raising ourselves morally above it. As Kant commanded, we have now all but manufactured the earth itself in an attempt to know it as ourselves. We have woven facts and fictions so tightly together into the dysenchanted tapestry of techno-capitalist civilization that it has become impossible to tell where culture ends and nature begins. The sublime has reappeared in cosmopolitical dress as the infinitely receding threads of actors tied to actors tied to actors composing our best theories of reality. It is doubtless a durable fabric, but we do not know where it began nor whether we can ever tie up all its loose ends.

Techno-science, by itself, is crazed, even demonic. It pretends ethics can be separated from knowledge, and research from politics. “What we used to call the humanities now composes our sanity,” says Latour. But the humanities, like the sciences, have gone the way of the Dodo. Nature and culture are at best endangered species. Latour prophecies their complete extinction, and indeed prays for their demise. We are a species gone mad, whether we like it or not. Whether caused by dementia or demonic possession, we are a species gone wrong and in need of angelic wisdom, of a message from the divine. But Gaia will not nurture us. As Latour suggests, it is now we who must nurture her. She is no more unified and loving, no more conscious of herself as an agent than human society is of itself.

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8 Comments Add yours

  1. Our compartmentalized society definitely isn’t helping; in such an ‘individualistic’ world nobody feels responsible. I place a lot of blame on the modern conception of ‘individuality’ which itself I believe is largely the result of societal evolution within the parameters of our capitalistic ideals; ideals which select for self-serving and short-sighted profit seekers over those with greater communal and even just long term productive concerns. I think that as we moved from Christian-buffered capitalism to secular capitalism the monkey really sprang the cage. Speaking as a non-Christian myself.

    More technically speaking this shortcoming of pure capitalism is known as the problem of externalities and has much to do with the very limits of capitalism.

    The system also feeds back on itself and makes it far easier for people, on average, to skirt responsibility. People’s role models often got there by being exemplars of the system rather than as dignified people. Meme selection. The system says that money today tells us everything we need to know because money is power and thus money talks in our world. Greenback profit is the new validation, then, rather than social coherence and flourishing.

    The whole social incentive structure must change either away from capitalism entirely or to one which accounts for externalities. The abstract signifier of money has counterfeited actual value in our world – those processes leading to sustainably fulfilled real human lives. Yet we must remember at the same time that money has also been a creative force of its own to improve life. Money is not perfect, but a world without money or some substitute system is far less ‘perfect’. The integrity of money depends on many factors, including the moral environment.

    I submit that the moral environment itself has degraded as the sort of manifest destiny of pure capitalism. Being genuinely moral doesn’t seem to help make extra money so it must not be ‘valid’. It’s a dichotomy of profit/not profit according to this divine abstract signifier.

    I wonder if a system can be implemented which brings out the better and more community-minded sides of people? Something more drastic than mere ad hoc regulation is needed.

    The most obvious possibility coming to mind is for better education of the populace. If they can’t be educated or can’t be bothered to care then the possibilities are quite disturbing a la 20th century dystopian fiction.

    1. couldn’t have said it better…

  2. astrotometry says:

    “People’s role models often got there by being exemplars of the system rather than as dignified people.”

    Of Eagles and Parrots:

    He’s actually very eloquent. A CRIME he chooses to be a Parrot.

    If we could just find a way to enforce and police the massive corruption and fraud, that would be a step in the right direction.

  3. shane says:

    Hey, thanks for posting this. Anyone happen to know if there’s a text of the talk out there, or if the full video has become available anywhere? Tried listening to the mp3 over at Tim Morton’s blog, but can’t quite understand most of it. Would really like to read/see/hear the whole thing, as it looks quite exciting.

  4. mary says:

    TEPCo illustrating Latour
    or….guess the Tepco cosmogram

    http://ajw.asahi.com/article/behind_news/social_affairs/AJ201111240030

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