“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Reflections on Bruno Latour’s 3rd Gifford Lecture – “The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaia”

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…




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4 responses to “Reflections on Bruno Latour’s 3rd Gifford Lecture – “The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaia””

  1. Eilif Verney-Elliott Avatar

    It seems that Latour has become more of interesting – and precise – thinker since the Sokal affair.

  2. Reflections on Latour, Tarnas, and the Misenchantment of the World | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] have the 7 or 8 hours to watch them all just yet: here are my reflections on lectures one, two, three, four, […]

  3. Reflections on Bruno Latour’s “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence,” Ch. 4: Learning to Make Room | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] only so the Moderns (or the people who come after them) might reawaken to the multi-billion year geostory they have been sleepwalking […]

  4. Nietzsche’s and Whitehead’s post-nihilist pluralistic process philosophies (part 2) | Footnotes 2 Plato Avatar

    […] The problem with this assessment of Whitehead’s scheme, as I understand it, is that the story of modern scientific rationality and its technological mastery over matter has itself already been made irretrievably irrelevant by the planetary scale of the ecological crisis. Nature is not at all like what the moderns thought she was. Her mechanical “laws” turn out to be more like organic tendencies–tendencies whose stability we, as living earthlings, are beginning to have the power (conscious or otherwise) to alter, both at genetic and geological scales. The supposedly secularized concept of Nature invented by Descartes, Spinoza, Newton, and Galileo proved to be utterly unprepared for the thermodynamic, electromagnetic, quantum, relativistic, and complexity revolutions of 19th and 20th century science. Nature can no longer be depoliticized, denuded of all subjective quality, moral and aesthetic value, and creative potency. Nature is more like a goddess than a machine. […]

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