The aim of this book is to argue that the mind-body problem is not just a local problem, having to do with the relation between mind, brain, and behavior in living animal organisms, but that it invades our understanding ofthe entire cosmos and its history. The physical sciences and evolutionary biology cannot be kept insulated from it, and I believe a true appreciation of the difficulty of the problem must eventually change our conception of the place of the physical sciences in describing the natural order.

So begins Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (2012). I have thus far only read small chunks of Nagel’s book. I also found myself reading several reviews, including this one by biologist H. Allen Orr in The New York Review of Books, this one by conservative journalist and former Bush Sr. speech writer Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard, and this one by Grant Maxwell.

Since I’m writing my dissertation on Schelling and Whitehead, I was curious to peek into Nagel’s text to see what he had to say about them. The largely negative response to Nagel’s book (at least among scientific materialists) is regrettable, but not surprising. I largely agree with Nagel’s criticisms, but I think there are more historical resources available for thinking natural teleology and the connection between consciousness and cosmos than he lets on. Much of the necessary philosophical work has already been done. The process tradition, including first and foremost the work of Schelling and Whitehead, represents an extremely well-developed alternative form of science that doesn’t fall prey to the theoretical or practical shortcomings of mechanistic materialism and yet remains fully consistant with all the latest scientific data.

He mentions Schelling on page 17:

The view that rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order makes me, in a broad sense, an idealist–not a subjective ide­alist, since it doesn’t amount to the claim that all reality is ultimately appearance–but an objective idealist in the tradition of Plato and perhaps also of certain post-Kantians, such as Schelling and Hegel, who are usually called absolute idealists. I suspect that there must be a strain of this kind of idealism in every theoretical scientist: pure empiricism is not enough.

I think it is interesting that he aligns himself with Schelling the Absolute Idealist rather than Schelling the Naturphilosoph. As I am coming to understand Schelling’s philosophy, its major contribution was not to Absolute Idealism (a school which belongs to Hegel), but to the process-philosophical tradition running through Bergson and Whitehead. For at least the late Schelling, as for Whitehead, Reason is not self-grounding, but dependent at every step upon experience. The transcendental structure of the rational mind and the intelligible structure of phenomenal Nature alike emerge from the “unprethinkable” depths of divine yearning. Reason, then, cannot provide the necessary and sufficient ground for Nature. Nature is no longer conceived by these thinkers as simply the sum total of phenomenal objects whose properties can be categorized by the mechanical understanding, nor as the finished whole or unified system that Reason thinks it ought to be. Schelling imagined Nature as productivity (Natura Naturans) as well as product (Natura Naturata), just as Whitehead imagined Nature as a Creative Advance conditioned by finite creatures. Rather than conceiving of Nature as an appearance projected by our own intellectual activity, or as a mere “check” upon our will, Schelling and Whitehead saw the human mind as an evolutionary expression of Nature’s own creative potency. So it is not “rational intelligibility” that is at the root of reality for Schelling, but the infinitely polarized unity of Nature’s original scission of forces, which is nothing other than the triune God’s eternal self-begetting as Nature (see this post on the influence of the theosophist Jakob Böhme on Schelling).

“…give me a nature composed of antithetical activities, of which one reaches out to the infinite while the other tries to intuit itself in this infinitude, and from this I will bring forth intelligence for you”

Certainly, Schelling spills much ink attempting to wrap words around the creative mystery of a self-intuiting infinity. He did not mean for us to conceive of it negatively as irrational or mystical (in the etymological sense of mystery or “mute”), but neutrally as other-than-ratio and so beyond the grasp of reflective thought. Instead, Schelling articulated a “metaphysical empiricism.” The immediately experienced fact of free will within us, which Schelling defined as the decision between good and evil, is a recapitulation at a higher potency of Nature’s original scission between gravity and light. It is out of this scission that all visible Nature continues to unfold. The scission is not approachable through theory, but only through art and action, through the cultivation of one’s aesthetic sensitivity and moral freedom.

As for Whitehead, Nagel mentions him in a footnote:

White­head argued that to identify the abstractions of physics with the whole of reality was to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness, and that concrete entities, all the way down to the level of electrons, should all be understood as somehow embodying a standpoint on the world.

I agree with the second clause about electrons, but it seems in plain contradiction with the first clause about the abstractions of physics. Whitehead didn’t dismiss the abstractions of physics in an effort to make everyday psychological life the foundation of metaphysics. His goal was to re-interpret the abstractions of quantum and relativistic physics so that physics might become the most general possible description of concrete experience. I describe the result of his attempt to universalize an experiential physics in my essay “Physics of the World-Soul.”

I’ve just read Grant Maxwell’s critique of a HuffPo piece by Matthew Hutson.

I enjoyed his rebuttal of Hutson’s blanket rejection realism regarding teleology. I am also enjoying the discussion Grant is having with Hutson down in the comments. I do not think Hutson has read the work of organic/creative finalists like Bergson or Whitehead. His concept of teleology is very mechanical and industrial, very Anglo-American; it totally lacks the Franco-German flavor of Whitehead and Bergson’s organicism, which has its modern origins in the Naturphilosophie of Goethe, Novalis, and Schelling (and its ancient origins in alchemy and hermeticism). If you’ve read those guys, or their more recent incarnation Teilhard’s “The Human Phenomenon,” its impossible to think of creationism as somehow necessarily opposed to evolutionism. It begins to seem, rather, that they imply and require one another.

I heard a lecture by professor of German literature Fred Amrine tonight on Goethe’s Color Theory. Prof. Amrine quoted Goethe (usually known for his poetry and artistic genuis and not as a pioneering natural scientist) as having asserted towards the end of his life something like “It is for my theory of colors, and its refutation of Newton, that posterity will remember me.” Goethe described his color theory as a “sensory-moral” account of natural phenomena such that the “physical laws” those phenomena “obey” are seen to emerge from out of one’s conscious perceptions themselves, rather than being imposed upon them from outside as in Newton’s mechanistic theories. Goethe’s scientific method “makes phenomena transparent to their own lawfulness,” as Prof. Amrine put it. Instead of the deistic-mechanistic metaphysics and calculative-quantitative methods that came with the Galilean-Newtonian scientific revolution, Goethe developed his own processual and organic approach to nature (an approach whose philosophical implications were first developed by Schelling and later made more explicit by Rudolf Steiner). His organicism was rooted in the qualitative structure-dynamics of experience itself, rather than the calculable motion of “external matter.” “External matter,” I’d argue, is among the most abstract concepts imaginable by the human mind. Goethe instead remained faithful to appearances and to common sense, as Aristotle long ago prescribed. The Faustian magician-priests of the modern techno-scientific revolution, of course, had other plans. External mechanistic matter was as real as it gets, and modern science’s job was to gain control over it. Modern science is a stunningly beautiful and devastatingly powerful belief system. We should dream it and use it more wisely than we do.

How could Goethe have been so mistaken about his future influence? He is not remembered as a great scientist, as the creator of an alternative but no less “modern” scientific worldview and methodology. Newton’s Optics is still esteemed as the paragon of scientific treatises by most historians and philosophers of science, while most people have either never heard of Goethe’s color theory, or have summarily dismissed it as some kind of an alchemical throwback.

But maybe this is the wrong question… Is Goethe really mistaken? It could be that he is still ahead of his time scientifically. Could it be that, in another generation, not only Darwin but Goethe too will be celebrated as a discoverer of “evolution”? Actually, Darwin only used the word “evolution” once in the 6th edition of Origin of Species. For good reason (at least from the perspective of the mechanistic metaphysics he inherited from the scientific revolution): the concept of evolution is inherently teleological in that it implies the unfolding of something enfolded, the rolling out of a plan, etc…. ya know, “teleology.” Goethe’s natural science, like Schelling’s and Whitehead’s and Bergson’s and Teilhard’s, does not attempt to explain away meaning, purpose, and value in the universe, but rather aims to simultaneously elucidate and deepen our understanding and experience of human teleology by rooting it in the teleogenic capacity of the cosmos itself. The question is no longer “What must human meaning/purpose/value be if nature is really mechanical/dull/void?”– The question rather becomes “What must nature be such that human teloi are possible?”

Of course, I just disqualified myself in the eyes of the scientifically-minded for admitting to belief in teleology. “Evolution teleological? Clearly you don’t understand science and evolution! Or worse, you’re not even being scientific at all, you’re being religious!”

Only a scientifically illiterate religious nut could believe, for example, that “The sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesize.” Hutson uses this example (it originated in a 2009 study by psychologists from Boston University) in one of his comments to Grant in an effort to display the absurdity of teleology. He suggests Grant’s [and my own, in this post] assumption about such nut cases and their beliefs “is not that they have made a common mistake but that in some sense the sun would not have come to be if plants had not evolved three billion years later.” Teleology does seem absurd when framed in such a way. But it need not be framed in such a way. Hutson himself relies upon a teleological argument of a different sort when he mobilizes the idea of transcendentally imposed universal and necessary “physical laws” that contingent and particular natural bodies are required to obey. This is pure deism, regardless of Hutson’s preference for the Spinozist flip that has nominally replaced Deus with Natura sometime between Newton’s and our own day. The telos in modern science’s view of nature is the cosmic machine’s pre-planed “design.” For Newton, this telos was designed by an all-powerful “designer” or “divine engineer.” Hutson, I assume, prefers to speak of random quantum fluctuations giving rise to the laws governing our universe, which is just one of infinitely many more randomly arising universes, most of which have no order at all and certainly do not have intelligent life. This is a strange sort of teleology, whether in its early modern deistic or late modern atheistic phase: it makes the human seem a stranger in nature by transforming our common sense experience of ourselves, the earth, and the cosmos as alive into an epiphenomenal illusion projected upon what is really just mechanical matter in motion. How strange, that rather than looking deeper into nature to understand how our human teleological creativity is possible, modern science has denied such creativity to nature, thereby detaching human egoic consciousness both from its own creativity, as well as from the unconscious (but still experiential!) creativity of nature.

There are yet other ways of framing teleology, like that of the organic evolutionary thinkers I mentioned above. Whitehead and Bergson in particular offer devastating critiques (both philosophical and scientific critiques) of the “spatialized” conception of time guiding modern mechanistic science from Newton to Einstein. Rather than thinking that the future somehow reaches back in time to cause the past (as when the evolution of photosynthesis somehow causes the sun to exist), they came to think of future possibilities as luring the present decisions of every organism, such that plant life is understood to be the further expression of an activity that, 4.5 billion years ago, had only achieved the sun-like phase of its organic development. Plants are quite literally the further flowering of the sun. You could say, then, that plants are part of the sun’s purpose. As Goethe said in a slightly different context (eye-sight instead of plant photosynthesis): “The eye must be something like the sun, otherwise no sunlight could be seen.” This is not to imply that the future can somehow be seen in advance, as though the sun knew life was coming. It is more as if the light of the sun discovered for the first time what it truly is only once it had created life on earth. Life is the dreaming of light, not its “design.” Indeed, this process of the universe’s self-discovery through evolution may only have just begun. As Teilhard de Chardin put it: “The history of the living world can be summarized as the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes within a cosmos in which there is always something more to be seen.”

For those who live in the Bay Area, the next PCC Forum (hosted by my partner Becca and I) will feature Prof. Fred Amrine, a Goethe scholar from the University of Michigan’s German department. The lecture is open to the public and will take place at the California Institue of Integral Studies (1453 Mission St., San Francisco, CA) this Thursday, March 21st, at 6:30pm in room 306. Prof. Amrine has lectured for us before on the history of imagination in philosophy from Kant, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Goethe in the 19th century, to Rudolf Steiner in the 20th. You can listen to that lecture HERE. See the flyer below for more information. 


Grant Maxwell has responded to my reflections on Richard Tarnas, Bruno Latour, and the Re-Enchantment Project.

Grant wonders what I meant by referring to Tarnas’ archetypal cosmology as a “middle up” approach to transforming culture, and to Latour’s anthropology of the moderns as a “top down” approach to the same. I appreciate Grant’s use of Latour’s own network analysis to deconstruct my construal of the two thinker’s relative positions within academic and popular culture. Latour has been problematizing the politically enforced boundaries between natural science and folk psychology (i.e., between elite knowledge and mass opinion) for most of his 40-year career. 

My vertical metaphor may have been misleading: I intended it as a reference to the size and shape of their respective audiences, not as a reference to the degree of their value or profundity. Tarnas’ bestselling Passion of the Western Mind has been read by hundreds of thousands of college educated people. It is bar none the most balanced, insightful, and well-written gateway into the long arc of Western intellectual history that I have ever come across. I characterized Tarnas’ impact on culture-at-large as “middle out” because Passion has succeeded in offering a coherent and carefully argued meta-narrative that many people can accept as basically true. The archetypal depth and conceptual clarity of its mythico-dialectical structure works like magic to compel its readers to accept the strength of the 2,500-year long thread of historical meaning it weaves from Socrates and Jesus through to Jung, Hillman, and Grof. 

As for Latour, one 2007 study showed that he was the 10th most cited humanities author of the year. I presume the study included all languages, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Latour was also on the top of an Anglo-only list considering the important influence of post-war French thought on the American academy. If you feel like following that particular thread, check out Francois Cusset’s French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, & Co. Transformed the Intellectual Life of the United States (2008). What Cusset means by “intellectual life” in his title is a bit more concentrated than what I meant above by “college educated,” and by “concentrated” I mean in terms of the number of readers who are both capable of and interested in reading authors like Latour, Deleuze, or Derrida. Their work appeals to (relatively speaking) a very small number of highly educated graduate students, professors, and conceptual artists. Latour’s influence has been “top down” in the sense that it just isn’t accessible to many people (which is ironic considering his desire to make knowledge political–that is, to bring science to the people!). 

A reviewer of Cusset’s book offers a story that is relevant enough to Grant and my discussion that I will quote it:  

Artist and activist Jean-Jacques Lebel, who had imported beat poetry into France from the United States, once invited Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari to a 1975 concert held in Massachusetts, where the two had the opportunity to meet Bob Dylan and Joan Baez backstage. Somewhat unimpressed with the two French philoso- phers, the folksingers had not bothered to read Anti-Oedipus, and likewise the two theorists were unfortunately not interested in smoking marijuana: an inadvertent misalignment of social interests, creating a somewhat awkward encounter for all parties involved. This anecdote of an ill-conceived compatibility epitomizes the spirit of comprehending the objectives of French theory and prompts an inevitable query: have we on the U.S. side of the Atlantic been able to come to terms with the French, their traditions of intellectual thought and their philosophical legacy?

The reviewer (as well as Cusset) suggets that much of what the French have to offer to we American theorists has indeed been lost in translation. Latour is certainly easier to read than a Derrida or a Deleuze, but his writing is still full of stylistically rich ironies and affective potencies. In such a textual environment, sometimes creative misreadings are the only available option (I’ve been offering my own no doubt often erring reflections on Latour for a while on this blog). Nonetheless, in the spirit of moving the discussion forward in a productive way, I’m going to risk contesting Grant’s reading of Latour’s analysis of knowledge-networks as somehow purely horizontal. Grant writes:

I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections.

I’ve noticed that Deleuze and Guattari’s related notion of the “rhizome,” developed in A Thousand Plateaus (transl. 1987), is also usually interpreted as though it were a purely horizontal structure. This despite the fact that the final pages of the introductory chapter on the rhizome read as follows:

If it is a question of showing that rhizomes have their own, even more rigid, despotism and hierarchy, then fine and good: for there is no dualism, no ontological dualism between here and there, no axiological dualism between good and bad, no blend or American synthesis. There are knots of arborescence in rhizomes…despotic formations…and channelization specific to rhizomes…(p. 20).

Latour has clearly been influenced by D & G’s account of the rhizome in his own analysis of networks. In Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society (1987), Latour first introduces his concept of the network to English-speakers:

If technoscience may be described as being so powerful and yet so small, so concentrated and so dilute, it means it has the characteristics of a network. The word network indicates that resources are concentrated in a few places–the knots and nodes–which are connected with one another–the links and the mesh: these connections transform the scattered resources into a net that may seem to extend everywhere. Telephone lines, for instance, are minute and fragile, so minute that they are invisible on a map and so fragile that each may be easily cut; nevertheless, the telephone network ‘covers’ the whole world. The notion of network will help us to reconcile the two contradictory aspects of technoscience and to understand how so few people may seem to cover the world. (180)

Latour’s analysis of networks finds in them precisely the sort of power distribution that Grant does. His goal has never been to relativize the natural or cultural power of certain concentrations of scientific or academic knowledge. He is fully cognizant of the forever advancing dialectic of discovery and invention underlying the technoscientific process of knowledge production. If he is arguing for any kind of relativism, it is that all knowledge (whether scientific or folk) is constructed out of what at first may be fragile relationships–relationships that are only gradually forged through repeated acts of translation between and among various sorts of human and nonhuman actors.

To be fair to Grant, Latour would seem to prefer a “multi-narrative” to a “meta-narrative” perspective on knowledge. This resistance to telling a simple story sometimes makes his ideas hard to track. Judging by the audience’s question after Latour’s first Gifford lecture on Gaia theory, it appears many of them were stunned, as Grant put it, “by a mixture of reverence and bafflement.” Grant wonders how many people actually grasped exactly what Latour was on about (the fellow who introduced him certainly didn’t seem to). Personally, I love his style, and I don’t think in this case aesthetics is just the icing on the conceptual cake. If, following Whitehead (as Latour does), aesthetics is first philosophy, then we should proceed carefully whenever we try to distill the pure logical essences of flowery rhetoric. We may find that much is lost in translation whenever the supposedly pure conceptual content of an argument is purified of the metaphors and imagery that originally delivered its meaning. Maybe I’ve read too much “post-modernism,” but I’ve come to understand philosophy as a kind of dramatic performance art. After reading Deleuze, I can’t help but notice the personalities of concepts. I agree with the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman’s comments in an interview about the importance of style in philosophy:

there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice… Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims. (the rest of Harman’s thoughts on style are here).

Another point of contention between Grant and I is the role of technology in the evolution of consciousness. While its true that technology needn’t necessarily disenchant (indeed, as I argued in my first response to Grant, it is itself a very powerful form of enchantment, whether mis-directed or not), I passionately reject the thesis that technology is in any way neutral. It’s precisely because I agree with Grant’s comparison of technology to psychedelics that I can’t accept their supposed neutrality. Like psychedelics, media technologies (which includes everything from the alphabet, to the printing press, radio, TV, PC, and smart phones) have radically called into question our understanding of human agency. Media theorists like McLuhan and Ong have shown that, for instance, the relationship between alphabetic print and literate consciousness cannot be understood in a linear way as though the print medium merely amplified the innate capacities of an already internally constituted rational individual. Media also amputate formerly endogenous capacities (Plato long ago realized the risks posed to memory and learning by writing). Media technologies are not neutral because our very sense of identity, and so also our values, have always already been shaped by the medium carrying the message. Technologies are actors in their own right with their own effects independent of what their human inventors or users intend. As I see it, consciousness is way too mixed up in a co-evolution with its media for us to pretend we can disentangle what is “me” and what is “media.” Someone with a more mystical leaning like Jean Gebser is going to privilege the agency of consciousness in its evolution, its ability to chose to use this or that technology in whatever way it sees fit, while a Marx or a Latour is going to try to reveal the way the evolution of consciousness through its magical, mythical, mental and post-modern/deficient phases has more to do with the widespread cultural shifts in material practices associated with humanity’s development through song and dance, hieroglyphic symbolism, alphabetic script, the printing press, and electronic screens. I wouldn’t want to dismiss Gebser’s more consciousness-centric position, but I think it is just as important to pay attention to the way seemingly external media technologies transform the very shape of our inner lives in powerful and often unacknowledged ways.

In closing, I definitely agree with Grant that the translation table Latour constructs to bring the religious people of God, the scientific people of Nature, and the Earth-bound people of Gaia into diplomatic conversation may benefit from a more archetypal sensibility like that offered in Tarnas’ Cosmos and Psyche. As I understand it, Tarnas is creatively carrying forward an ancient tradition dating back to Plato that looks to the meaningful motions of the stars and planets above for a universally available source of cultural and political orientation here below. I believe any future people of Gaia would benefit greatly in their struggle to find meaning in chaotic times by practicing the psychoplanetary therapy Tarnas has helped to birth.

I liked Harman’s reflections on style in philosophy so much I thought I’d paste them here. They are originally from this interview by Brian Davis conducted last year.

BD:  Michel Serres has said “philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices… Not only must philosophy invent, but it also invents the common ground for future inventions.” Much of your work can be seen as an effort to develop a philosophy that gets beyond critique and analytical thought and instead seeks to develop a sort of creative or generative philosophy.  In this project you place a special emphasis on style. What is the role of style and aesthetic experience in a creative project?

GH: We recognize a new philosophy when we hear the sound of a new voice, not when we hear a series of propositional statements that we happen to regard as accurate. Everyone knows this experience. You pick up a book by a philosopher you’ve never read before, and within a few pages you’re thinking “this is the real deal,” even before you’ve fully understood the content of what they’re saying, and even if you explicitly reject much of what you are reading.

Why does it work this way? Because there are immense pressures working on us at all times to shape us as if with cookie cutters. There are three or four readily available opinions on most issues, and at best we are usually only imaginative enough to choose the least common of those three or four options. But the sign of a genuine thinker is the ability to develop a new option, never heard of before. When this happens, the thinker has broken away from the robotic array of available opinions and made some sort of contact with the real. And how do you know when someone may have done this? You recognize it by a certain freshness in the style, a directness and honesty of testimony, a streak of the unexpected or original in the thinker’s voice.
This cannot be faked simply by making contrarian propositions, since contrarians are always parasites on the status quo. The contrarian aims at causing shock and dismay among other people. He or she (but the contrarian is usually a “he”; it’s a predominantly male vice, just like fistfights) simply wants to draw the attention of other people by reversing the conventional wisdom on this or that point. The original thinker has no interest in doing this, because here the primary motivation is not to shock other people; at best, this is an intermittent practical tactic. Instead, the primary motivation is to break out of the closed circle of stale options and sink one’s teeth into the real and draw nourishment from it.
Some see it differently. Some think that philosophy should result in a set of correct propositions about the world. And as a general rule, they think it is they themselves who possess more of these correct statements than anyone else. As a result, they tend to become dogmatic enforcers of their own favored orthodoxy. They denounce everyone else as ideologues even though they are usually the world’s greatest ideologues themselves. They have no hard-won taste for the originality that may be at odds with their own dogmas, but from which almost everything of value is obtained.

This is the key role of style in philosophy, no less important here than it is in the arts. The style of an artist or writer is something deeper than the sum total of works that they happen to have produced. Other Shakespeare plays could have been written (and may in fact have been written but not yet discovered), but they would have to be animated by that Shakespeare style. Heidegger is not a sum total of propositions, but a voice. His propositions often contradict one another, as is true of all thinkers. But the voice is always lying there underneath, animating all the contradictions.

Everything in the world has a style. You can see an apple from different angles at different times, but there’s a certain style of the apple underneath its various profiles. But we’re speaking of philosophers. Arguments are secondary in philosophy; failure to realize this is the central flaw of the hegemonic school known as analytic philosophy. (The continental tradition has signature weaknesses of its own, of course.) You can refute Plato’s “weak arguments” twenty times per day, but Plato remains fascinating nonetheless. Why? Because his voice is unique and it speaks from the depths of the real, not just from the tabletop of refuted propositional claims.

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 men’s 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.

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 out.

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 lead to crop losses, food shortages, resource wars, and tens of millions of refugees. 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 geo-/gaia-centric) 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-Galilean 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/expressions in our ongoing battle for/courtship of the soul of the world.

Whereas the Atlas of the scientific revolution could hold the globe in his hand, scientists of the Gaian counter-revolution, I am sorry to say, look more like ticks on the mane of a roaring beast. -Latour

Who are the people of Gaia?:

…if the agent of geostory had to be the revolutionary humanity of the Marxist utopia…[that is,] had the proletariat succeeded in destroying Capitalism for good, pollution would have been even greater than it is today thanks to the fact that vast masses have remained in abject poverty! Would it be possible 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.

This little snippet on Whitehead wasn’t read by Latour in the live lecture, but was included in the PDF version of his talk:

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. To the point where I could invert Whitehead’s quote I used in the first lecture: ‘so that the course of [humanhistory], [he had written nature]is conceived as being merely the fortunes of matter in its adventure through space.’

And this on power sharing with Gaia:

the Earthbound are tied to Gaia in a very different way than Nature used to tie Humans to Her. Onone hand, Gaia is much less personified than Nature, but, on the other, it does not claim to be outside or undisputable and does not pretend to be indifferent to politics. Whereas Nature could lord over Humans as a religious power to which a paradoxical Cult had to be rendered, Gaia commands, orders, binds as a secular not as a religious power. The translation table does not go from God or from Nature to Gaia, it comes from the more humble tradition of the body politic to the Earth by which this assembled body accepts solemnly to be definitely bounded. Even though so far there is no cult, not even a civic one for such a self-imposed tracing of ‘planetary boundaries,’ it is fascinating to imagine through what sort of public ceremonies such self-imposed limits would be be sworn and enforced. The rituals to be imagined might not fill the churches, but they will shake the scientific disciplines quite a lot and extract from ethnography a rich lore of practices. When we begin to gather together as Earthbound, we realize that we are summoned by a power that is a fully political one since it possesses what is called in Anglo American law ‘radical title’ to the whole land, that is, a legal claim that has precedence over all the other property rights. Faced with such a title, the Earthbound understand that, contrary to what Humans keep dreaming, they will never play the role of Atlas, nor that of a Gardener of the Earth, that they will never be able to fulfill the function of the Master Engineer of Spaceship Earth, not even that of the faithful and modest Steward of the Blue Planet. It is as simple as that: they are not alone in command. Someone else has preceded them, even though they learned of its presence and precedence long afterward. It’s called power sharing.

And this on “Creation” as a replacement for “Nature”:

…the belief in Creation as an alternative to Nature is a powerful way to make certain that the converting power of Incarnation is not limited to the inner fold of the psyches, and that it may extend finally to the whole cosmos. But only on the condition that Creation is not another name for Nature, distinguished from it only by the presence of over-animated agencies and packaged by Design. The Holy Spirit may ‘renew the face of the Earth’ but He is powerless when confronted with faceless Nature. It is because Gaia is such a secular figure, that it may allow the dynamic of Incarnation to resume its movement in a space freed from the limits of Nature. If we really‘know that the whole creation groans and travails in the pain of child birth until now,’ it means that it is not yet achieved and thus that it has to be composed, step by step, soul by soul, agency by agency. How strange is it that theologians fighting against paganism don’t realize that they are the ones that have built up, over centuries, a real Cult of Nature, that is, a search for an outside, immutable, universal, indisputable entity in contrast with the mutable, local, entangled, and disputable narrative which the rest of us, Earthbound, inhabit. By accusing ‘pagans’ of being close to Nature they have deprived themselves of millenaries of precautions, rituals, institutions, inventions that had much less to do with Nature than their own definition of transcendence. They have tried the impossible political theology of associating a people —the Church —with a place of no place, a Globe of God that has all the characteristics of Nature, what I have called Deus sive Naturasive Sphaera. To save the treasure of the Faith they have given it over to eternity. By wishing to migrate to this supernatural world, they did not notice that what was ‘left behind’ was not the sinful but everything for which, according to their own narrative, their own God had let his Son die, that is the Earth of His own Creation. They might have forgotten that another rendition of the word ‘ecology’ —to use Jurgen Moltmann’s beautifully invented etymology—could be oikos logos, that is, the ‘House of the Logos,’ this ‘house of the Father’ of which the Gospel of St John writes that it has ‘many mansions.’ I hope you have understood that to occupy the Earth, no, to be occupied and preoccupied by the Earth, we need to inhabit all of those mansions at once.

Yesterday I found myself reading The Silmarillion, an unfinished collection of Tolkien’s mythopoeic writings depicting the creation of Ëa and its passage through the first of the three ages of the world (The Lord of the Rings trilogy depicts events at the end of the third age). The stories, posthumously published by his son Christopher in 1977, are prefaced by a letter sent by Tolkien to the editor Milton Waldman in 1951 in the hopes that he would agree to publish The Lord of the Rings. “My dear Milton,” began Tolkien, 

You asked for a brief sketch of my stuff that is connected with my imaginary world. It is difficult to say anything without saying too much: the attempt to say a few words opens a floodgate of excitement, the egoist and artist at once desires to say how the stuff has grown, what it is like, and what (he thinks) he means or is trying to represent by it all. (xi)


Despite the brilliant summary provided in the letter, dear Milton decided that, due to the medley of mythic “stuff” woven into Tolkien’s trilogy, it was, after all, too long and “urgently wanted cutting.” LoTR was of course published several years later, in full, and has by now sold more than 150 million copies.

Despite my several year long research focus on the power of imagination, I’ve only very recently begun exploring Tolkien’s work. I completed my first reading of his trilogy just a few months ago with my partner Becca (check out her blog). Her graduate work also orbits around Imagination, with a particular focus on Tolkien’s relevance to the task of articulating an enchanted ecology. After a bit of effort, she has succeeded in awakening me to Tolkien’s genius and to the archetypal vitality of Middle-Earth (thanks, Becca!).

I’m fascinated both by the Art Tolkien sub-created, and by the creative process through which it was brought to term.

“In order of time, growth and composition,” wrote Tolkien to Waldman, “this stuff began with me.”

“This stuff”? Is this Tolkien’s choice of words, or is he echoing Waldman from a prior letter? Do I detect a soft hint of sarcasm in Tolkien’s tone as he responds to Waldman’s patronizing request for a résumé of his “make-believe” world? Judging from Waldman’s refusal to publish the trilogy, I get the sense that he lacked the historical sensitivity to recognize the significance of what had happened to Tolkien, as well as the imaginal organ required to participate in the world Tolkien had brought forth.

“This stuff began with me,” he wrote. “I do not remember a time when I was not building it…I have been at it since I could write” (xi). The imaginal flowering of Tolkien’s mythopoeic world was never something external to or separate from his real life identity. His very sense of himself was coëval with his sense of the story. His autobiography and his archeology of Middle-Earth were as one, at least in Imagination (though I challenge you to point out anything that isn’t). From Tolkien’s point of view, Art is not simply the vocation of a few artists. Art, or sub-creation, is a universal human calling. Unlike every other creature on Earth or above it, our purpose is not pre-determined by our species. To be human, as Pico della Mirandola taught us, is to lack any such purpose but that we create for ourselves. In a participatory universe like that envisioned by the organ of Imagination, the only purpose given us by our Creator is to become like him, to become a subcreator.

The subtending power of Imagination over human life and death is such that, lacking a positive desire for creation, we quickly sink into the darkness of world-negating nihilism. Cosmic meaning is never prescribed; we are called instead to participate in its making. It isn’t that the lack of a creative desire to participate in life dissolves the illusions of Imagination, leaving behind nothing but bare biological survival and pure physical reality. It’s that, for better or worse, there is no escape from Imagination: it encompasses the whole of both life and death, body and soul. To be sub-creators is our doom, whether we use our power to create beauty or to destroy it. 

Reality is never pure: it always comes mixed up with Images. Reality, it turns out, is not a finished unity, but a plurality of processes. Every supposedly simple and complete reality is just a self-created image, an idol. What happens is that an ongoing creality is mistaken for a completed reality. This mistake leads not only to nihilism, but to ressentiment of the world’s becoming (see William Connolly’s A World of Becoming, 2011). Ressentiment or re-enchantment: these are the two paths open to we earthly sub-creators. Both bring forth a certain shape of subjectivity: the former that of an embattled ego who has externalized blame upon an enemy in order to feel expiated for its own failure to faithfully participate; that latter that of an ego innocently open to the eucatastrophic surprises of a cosmic story still in the proces of being told.

The chief import of Tolkien’s Art, as I understand it, is that its example invites us to step into our own roles as cosmic artisans, just at that moment in world history when so much seems headed for disaster.

Tolkien’s Art is not what it at first appears. More artisanal than artistic, the products of Tolkien’s sub-creation “arose in [his] mind as ‘given’ things.” He continues: “…always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there,’ somewhere: not of ‘inventing'” (xii). Tolkien’s mode of creation is then just as easily characterized as a mode of discovery. This seeming contradiction is easier to grasp if we consider it alongside Tolkien’s belief that “myths are largely made of truth” (xv). The “wide-spread motives or elements” expressed in the world’s mythologies (known to Tolkien’s contemporary Carl Jung as “archetypes”) are such mythic truths. It is no surprise, then, that these archetypes were in some sense re-discovered by Tolkien in the course of his imaginal descent into Middle-Earth. We need not decide whether sub-creation is true creation, or simple discovery, since Imagination functions according to its own oscillatory logic allowing it to hover indeterminately between pairs of seeming opposites (creation/discovery, self/world, intellect/senses, spirt/matter, etc). It is from this unruly oscillation that all of Imagination’s mysterious power derives.

There is also a spiritual side to the strange logic underlying Tolkien’s sub-creative vocation. He says of all his “stuff” that it is “fundamentally concerned with the problem of the relation of Art (and Sub-creation) and Primary Reality” (xiii). Primary Reality is the world of daily life, of biological struggle, and, eventually, of death. The sub-creator, in bringing forth a Secondary Reality (made not of solid matter, but of story and myth), expresses a desire which not only has no ordinary biological function, but which indeed usually finds itself at strife with these functions (xiii). Despite its spiritual motives, the sub-creative desire “is at once wedded to a passionate love of the real primary world, and hence filled with the sense of mortality, and yet unsatisfied by it” (xiii). Death, even if imaginary, is no less real for all that. We human sub-creators have, again, two paths open to us upon encountering it.

The first option is to resent death as a curse, and so to “rebel against the laws of the Creator” by employing various devices meant to mechanically stave off the inevitable. This is a fallen form of creativity in service of the denial of death, which cannot but lead to the desire for ever more Power. For Tolkien, this desire for Power can lead only to an obsession with what Tolkien calls “the Machine.” The Machine necessarily possesses its master (and so inverts the master-slave relationship). It represents a form of black magic that is concerned only to make the will more quickly effective, a technological magic accomplished by external devices, rather than by the innate power of Imagination.

The second option is to accept death as a gift from God, to sub-create out of sheer love of this world without jealousy or possessiveness. This is easier if we follow Tolkien’s advice by looking at things “through Elvish minds” instead of our own. The object of Elvish magic “is Art, not Power, sub-creation, not domination and tyrannous re-forming of creation” (xii). Though “it is not the legendary mode of talking,” Tolkien assures us that his “elves” are really nothing more than “an apprehension of a part of human nature” (xvi). No doubt it is the higher part, though of course, the Elves were the first to fall.

There cannot be any ‘story’ without a fall…at least not for human minds as we know them and have them.” (xv)

In the mythic mode of speaking, the Elves are said to be the Firstborn of Ilúvatar, humans their Followers. Taking the Elvish view on things gives we mere mortals the opportunity to raise our attention from the mud into which we have fallen to dwell again at least for a moment beneath the stars in the sky and to contemplate the heavenly mission their light was sent to earth to share with us.

“The doom of the Elves,” writes Tolkien,

is to be immortal, to love the beauty of the world, to bring it to full flower with their gifts of delicacy and perfection, to last while it lasts, never leaving it even when ‘slain,’ but returning–and yet, when the Followers come, to teach them, and make way for them, to ‘fade’ as the Followers grow and absorb the life from which both proceed. (xiv)

“The Doom (or Gift) of Men,” he continues,

is mortality, freedom from the circles of the world. Since the point of view of the whole cycle is the Elvish, mortality is not explained mythically: it is a mystery of God which no more is known than that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and an envy to the immortal Elves.

From the Elvish perspective, death is Ilúvatar’s Gift to humans. They envy us because our love for the world is, at least potentially, so much more beautiful than theirs. Why? Because we mortals have the choice to love one another, and to love the world, despite death. Eucatastrophe, it seems, is the highest of the Arts. Only by incarnating into the physical world and passing through the finitude of death could God’s Love become truly infinite. This is the Creator’s great secret, kept even from the angels until (if I might risk an allegorical translation) the Christ Event. Until that “turning point in time,” the Drama had remained incomplete…

“incomplete in each individual ‘god,’ and incomplete if all the knowledge of the pantheon were pooled…For the Creator had not revealed all.” (xiv)

Embracing death lovingly despite not being certain of its meaning requires a redemptive act of Imagination. As such it depends upon a sort of faith, since for Imagination believing is seeing. 

The same sort of imaginal faith is required to appreciate the moral of Tolkien’s cosmogony. I realize that here I risk another allegorical interpretation despite Tolkien’s “cordial dislike” of allegory. But even Tolkien admitted that “any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language,” and that “the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations” (xiii). Tolkien recounts the creation of the world through the musical call and response of Ilúvatar, the One, and his noetic offspring, the Ainur, or Holy Ones. Together, all the Ainur sang in accord with Ilúvatar’s theme:

…a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights, and the places of the dwelling of Ilúvatar were filled to overflowing, and the music and the echo of the music went out into the Void, and it was not void.

But then, Melkor, the Ainur with the greatest gifts of power and knowledge, began to

interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself. (16)

Not only Elves and Humans, but even Angels are subject to the mythic law of the Fall. Like all evil, Melkor’s fallenness stems from a good root. He only began to sing out of tune with the other Ainur after going off alone in an effort to fill in the emptiness of the Void where Ilúvatar’s song had not yet reached. His efforts made his heart grow hot with possessiveness. Alas, his will was lost to the lure of Ilúvatar’s music and he turned selfward, instead. Melkor’s rebellion caused heaven’s harmony to falter as many of the other Ainur began attuning with him. Soon, all about the throne of Ilúvatar “there was a raging storm, as of dark waters that made war upon one another in an endless wrath.” Ilúvatar contended with Melkor, not by negating his “loud and vain” improvisations, but by weaving even the most triumphant of Melkor’s notes into the deeply solemn and for that reason immeasurably beautiful pattern of His cosmic melody.

“Might are the Ainur,” said Ilúvatar,

and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar…And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined. (17)

The moral, then? It seems simple enough: trust the creative process, even when its path seems dark, even when its products seem measly and powerless before the weight of the primary world. Embrace mortal sub-creation without ressentiment for the task. Realize that death only appears to the fallen ego as an enemy. To the redeemed Imagination, death is revealed as God’s greatest gift to Creation, a sacred secret entrusted not to gods but to humans, those made in His Image and after His likeness.

“The great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world,'” wrote Tolkien,

are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak–owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama. (xvii)

*All citations from second edition of The Silmarillion ed. by Christopher Tolkien (Houghton Mifflin, 1999).

My summary:

By 2016, the world’s geologists will officially decide whether or not Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. From Latour’s non-modern perspective, neither “nature” nor “society” can enter this new epoch unscathed. The theater of Modern history has been destroyed and must be re-constructed from scratch. Gone is the passive stage, “nature,” upon which the actors, “rational animals,” have for so long waged their wars and signed their peace treaties. The Anthropos is no longer in nature, nor outside of nature. Latour heralds the coming of an entirely new kind of political animal, a novel form of political body. They are a people to come, the people of Gaia, agents of an impatient planet.

Is climate change “anthropogenic”? No, says Latour. That the supposedly incontestable category, “human,” does not apply universally could not be made more evident than by the notion of “human-caused climate change.” Responsibility for the climate catastrophe is obviously not evenly distributed among “humans.” Unfortunately, its effects will not be evenly distributed, either. Sea level rise, food shortage, disease, etc., will disproportionately affect precisely those sectors of the world population that are least responsible for causing the catastrophe. Climate change has been caused by certain industrialized sectors of the human population, that is, by a particular people (consumer-capitalists) summoned by a particular God (Mammon, the market).

Gaia will not provide “humanity” with some sort of political magnet that might swiftly, as if by magic, unify a global people. Gaia, now fully sensitive to the presence of the people of Mammon, is growing increasingly impatient with that presence. Latour quotes Matthew 10:34, where Jesus says: “Do not think that I came to bring peace on Earth; I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

We’ve permanently entered a post-natural, post-epistemological era: Unlike nature, whose ways were clearly and distinctly knowable to modern reason, the face of Gaia is as obscure as the face of any ancient God or Goddess. Her motives are unknown to us; she could care less about our human comforts, or about justifying her ways to us. “My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the LORD, “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine” (Isaiah 55:8).

The people of Gaia do not assemble under a unified globe or a continuous sphere. The noösphere, “the true white man’s burden,” is supposed to include all that is true and beautiful, to smooth out all the discontinuities that threaten to cloud our human knowing and all the localities that threaten to multiply our human being. But where is the providential mountaintop one might stand on to take in the view of this neatly composed, ahistorical whole? It is precisely nowhere. The globe is an architectural impossibility: it always requires a foundation, a ground upon which to rest, and so it inevitably crumbles under its own weight.

Latour prefers a geostorical connective tissue woven out of “loops” to the historical-spherical project of globalization. Spheres, “from Plato to Nato,” have disconnected us from the local, narrative knowledges of the Earth Community. In the rush toward “global thinking,” Man has tried to unify too quickly what should have been composed slowly, taking great care to follow the networks, the feedback loops, that tie us to this planet and her uncanny life. This work of composition is not simply cognitive (i.e., scientific), but also affective (i.e., political).

Gaia has no central control station. She is not an all-seeing sphere, but a complex assemblage whose life is precariously composed by an indefinite multiplicity of chemical, microbial, and, increasingly, human teloi. She is not a unified actor; Her agency is fully distributed, which is why her face is so frightening.

Latour marvels at the reverse symmetry of the discoveries of Galileo and Lovelock. Both transformed humanity’s perspective of the Earth (and itself) by pointing cheap instruments to the sky. In the 17th century, Galileo dissolved the lunar membrane that had separated heaven and earth. He expanded the laws of nature into the distant reaches of space, dislodging Earth from its cosmic perch. No longer unique, Earth became just another falling body obeying the universal law of gravity. In the 20th century, Lovelock’s discovery of Gaia put Earth at the center again. He disturbed the homogeneity of Galilean space  and re-established the uniqueness of the sub-lunary world. Earth was not simply one falling body among others; Earth is a living body. 

After Lovelock (and Latour), nature is no more. We live not in empty space, nor as “cosmonauts ensconced in spaceship Earth.” We live, earth-bound, within Gaia, subject to a new kind of geocentrism. She is a strange entity: neither a supernatural goddess or a unified organism. She has been improvisationally assembled over the course of billions of years through a series of contingent events whose effects have interlocked her processes into complex systems of planet-wide feedback. The only way to understand a creature of this type is mythically–that is, through narrative. Latour’s “geostory” is a non-human narrative fabric, a fabric woven of tectonic plates, meteorite impacts, and ice ages. Geostory foregrounds all the actors backgrounded by history. In an ontology of events, the past is understood as a story which could have been otherwise, a story whose endurance in the present depends on its constant re-telling. 

Having helped us to see the shifting shape of Gaia, Latour wonders: “What type of political animal does the human become after he has been coupled with an animated Gaia who is no longer natural?” Paradoxically, it seems the human will have to morph into a new shape just as the Earth is entering the Anthropocene. 

On to lecture 4…