I’m sharing two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.
I’m sharing two lectures recorded for my online course this semester, Process and Difference in the Pluriverse. In these two modules, we are studying Latour’s recently translated book Facing Gaia.
The Function of Reason and the Recovery of an Earthly Architecture
By Matthew David Segall, PhD
“[The] relatedness between us and the world…which begins to exist wherever there is living structure is as important in the sphere of building as it is in the sphere of nature…[Our]…daily proximity with so many non-living structures—freeways, motels, traffic lights, office buildings—dominates our awareness, [cauterizing our] capacity to enter into this relatedness, to see it and feel it…[It] is the presence of living structure in our built world that decides the extent of our relatedness with earth.”
-Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order, Vol. 4: The Luminous Ground, 57.
The function of Reason, according to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, “is to promote the art of life.” In the context of Whitehead’s cosmological scheme, Reason is no longer a uniquely human capacity to survey and judge the world as if from above the world. Rather, Reason is implicated in the world-process and is a factor in the evolution of all life on earth. The involvement of Reason in the world-process would seem to conflict with Darwin’s doctrine of evolution by natural selection, a theory summed up by the phrase “the survival of the fittest.” Organisms, so the theory goes, battle for position in a fixed environment with limited resources, and those organisms that happen to be most fit survive in greater numbers. Whitehead does not mean to contradict this theory of the origin of species. On the contrary, he celebrates it as “one of the great generalizations of science.” The effect of the struggle for existence “stares us in the face.” He only means to warn against the theory’s over-application.
Unlike the methods of the specialized sciences, Whitehead’s cosmological scheme attempts to interpret all the evidence. The evidence includes the upward trend of evolution: more complex organisms have evolved from less complex organisms. The doctrine of the survival of the fittest cannot account for this trend, since it is often the case that the most complex animals are deficient in survival power. “In fact,” writes Whitehead, “life itself is comparatively deficient in survival value. The art of persistence is to be dead.” Living organisms did not appear on the earth because they were better at surviving than the rocks around them. To account for the urge of life toward complexity—that is, life’s tendency to increase the qualitative intensity of its existence—it is necessary to acknowledge an additional factor in evolution. In its human form, this factor is called “consciousness.” Moderns are discouraged from attributing consciousness to the non-human world. To do so is considered childish and regressive, a relapse into primitive animism. Whitehead invites us to consider the possibility that human consciousness is not a chance anomaly alone in the cosmos, but the most complex expression of an originally unconscious urge of life operative in lesser degrees throughout the physical universe.
It is evident that the more complex organisms have not evolved simply by adapting themselves to the environment. Instead, according to Whitehead, “the upward trend has been accompanied by a growth of the converse relation. Animals have progressively undertaken the task of adapting the environment to themselves.” The primary evolutionary function of Reason is thus to set to work transforming the environment so as to promote the art of life. In the case of human organisms, this task takes form through our building practices. Human architecture is one of the most advanced arts yet invented by earthly life. For much of our species’ history, architecture has functioned to shelter and enhance our various cultural activities so as to afford us not only more safety from untamed nature, but more social cohesion and religious awe. Structures were built for the purpose of facilitating human flourishing. But in the modern age, with the shift out of the ancient world-picture into the mechanistic view of the cosmos, a new approach to architecture has taken hold of our building practices. Because our modern imaginations have lost the ability to perceive the life animating the earth and wider cosmos, our built environment has been designed without life in mind. As the architect Christopher Alexander warns us in the epigraph that opens this essay, the more we deaden our environment by surrounding ourselves with non-living structures, the less capable we become of perceiving our relationship to the living earth. Worse, the more these dead structures are allowed to proliferate across the planet, the less life it is able to sustain.
The skyscraper is the structure most emblematic of the modern world-picture. Architect Cass Gilbert described their main rationale: “The skyscraper is a machine that makes the land pay.” The function of the skyscraper is not to facilitate human flourishing, but to accumulate capitalist profits. Built of glass and steel, their structure is generally a standardized, repetitive series of floors designed to reach the maximal height with a minimum of materials. They are an expression of modern humanity’s technological power and dominance over nature. Indeed, no other built environment compares to the skyscraper in its ability to alienate its inhabitants from the life of the earth. Rather than dwelling on their alienating consequences, 20th century architects and their financiers understood these mammoth structures in terms of the Darwinian doctrine of the survival of the fittest. The taller the building, the more successful the builders. From their perch in the clouds, businessmen look out, godlike, upon the world below, which from that height resembles a game of Monopoly. In Whitehead’s terms, the skyscraper embodies Reason in its function as “[the director] of the attack on the environment.”
Nikos A. Salingaros, a close collaborator of Alexanders’, argues that industrialization ushered in a new method of building focused on copying form rather than generating form, the latter having been the norm in vernacular architecture for thousands of years. Industrial design therefore ignored local needs, conditions, and complexities to focus instead on the mass production and “monotonous alignment of identical copies”:
Monotony in our environment has profound consequences on our psyche. A worldview that exalts visual monotony has taken over an earlier environment shaped by the variety of natural forms. If industrial production tied to economic growth and prosperity necessarily generates monotony, then design variety is sure to be considered a drag on the operation of our economy.
Organic form, while it also follows design templates (e.g., statistically lawful physical norms, DNA, etc.), never produces exact copies. Nature brings forth its forms anew with each generation, only succumbing to the “life-tedium” of repetition when the “urge toward novel contrast” has been thwarted. The organic world evolves not to secure efficient survival power (the inorganic world is far more efficient in this respect), but to intensify its capacity for novel organization and experience.
As Whitehead describes it, the industrial age coincided with the canalization of the 17th century scientific outlook “content to limit itself within the bounds of a successful method.” Metaphysical speculation beyond the mechanical lawfulness of measurable material objects was forbidden. Modern industrial architects were thus driven to continue their work “in the secure daylight of traditional practical activity.” The practical function of Reason thus overshadowed its speculative function. Whitehead’s cosmology is an invitation to think differently, a call to adventure beyond the steel glass boxes of modern industrial consciousness, beyond even the projected screens of postmodern electronic consciousness. Whitehead’s heresy is to re-assert the speculative function of Reason in an effort to awaken us not only from the monotony of the modern world-picture, but also from the nihilism of our postmodern rejection of all world-pictures. His efforts are not merely speculative, since they also have a pragmatic aim: to prevent our nascent planetary civilization from burying itself beneath the smoldering rubble of fallen skyscrapers. Another world is possible, a world wherein evolution entails the enhancement of earthly life, rather than the attempt to escape from earth in shining elevators to the Sun.
Speculative Reason is no less heliocentric, but rather than attempting to “secure daylight” from darkness, its pragmatic attitude leads it to seek a mode of existence in concert with what Whitehead calls “The Way of Rhythm” pervading all life and indeed the physical universe itself. On planet earth, there is no escape from the tidal rhythm of day and night: the daylight washes in, and then recedes revealing the subtler light of the Moon and other stars. The speculative philosopher is tasked with rescuing the facts as they are for the whole of our experience of life from the facts as they appear under the bright noon light of a work day:
[We] view the sky at noon on a fine day. It is blue, flooded by the light of the sun. The direct fact of observation is the sun as the sole origin of light, and the bare heavens. Conceive the myth of Adam and Eve in the Garden on the first day of human life. They watch the sunset, the stars appear:–‘And, Lo!, creation widened to man’s view.’ The excess of light discloses facts and also conceals them.
Speculative Reason thus avoids the deadening monotone of modern industrial consciousness. It is “a tropism to the to the beckoning light—the sun passing toward the finality of things, and to the sun arising from their origin. The speculative Reason turns east and west, to the source and to the end, alike hidden below the rim of the world.”
Alexander leans on Whitehead’s new world-picture to argue “that we will not have a proper grasp of the universe and our place in it, until the self which we experience in ourselves, and the machinelike character of matter we see outside ourselves, can be united in a single picture.” Our grasp of the evolution of the cosmos and of life on earth must make room for more than the collisions of material surfaces: it must include the creative interiors of things, that is, their life. Only then can we truly understand the relational patterns of wholeness that these living creatures enact in their collective bid for freedom: whether it be the atoms of hydrogen and helium that coalesced to generate the first stars, the proteins and nucleic acids that coalesced to generate the first cells, or the hunter-gatherers who coalesced to generate Gobekli Tepe, the earliest known human temple structure built approximately 12,000 years ago in modern day southeastern Turkey. If we fail to adapt our methods so as to include our experience of living process, our own and the earth’s, then we will continue to build dead structures, further deadening our souls and their earthly habitat. It is a vicious cycle of self-amplifying self-destruction. It is practical Reason run wild, undermining its own basis of survival by forgetting that no final separation exists between an organism and its environment. The life of our own body “is part of the external world, continuous with it…, just as much part of nature as anything else there—a river, or a mountain, or a cloud.”
What would it mean to build with the earth, rather than against it and beyond it? It would mean entering into conversation with the river, the mountain, and the wind before breaking ground in the rush to build a towering monument to solitary power that is deaf and dumb to the life processes of its environment. It would mean building ecologically at an earthly pace for the purpose of human flourishing, rather than mechanically at an industrial scale for the sake of economic mastery. Unfortunately, even today, a hundred years after Whitehead’s writing, our theory of political economy remains “under a cloud,” since “it limits its view to the ‘economic man,’”—the individual worker-consumer monetarily isolated from family and community, psychologically alienated from their own labor and physically dispossessed of the very ground upon which they walk. The built environment of our civilization’s great cities reflects the economic values of the industrial growth society, values ignorant of the need all species have of remaining in intimate relationship with their earthly habitats. For now, according to Alexander, “Whitehead’s rift remains.”
Though still drowned out by the cacophonous light of electrified cities, increasingly lucid intimations of a new world-picture continue to flicker on in the night sky above us. It is possible that these lights will constellate into a new cosmological vision to guide our planetary civilization through the coming ecological bottleneck, and that this realization will come with such a sudden “shock” that it will “[transmit itself] through the whole sociological structure of technical methods and of institutions” within the span of a single generation. If human beings are to survive—and, more importantly, if we are to thrive—we must become aware, upon considering the evolutionary history of the earth, that “the struggle for existence gives no hint why there should be cities.” We must become aware that some “counter-agency” to entropy in the universe and in ourselves is the only factor that could explain the evolutionary emergence of novel complexities like stars and cells, temples and cities. Only with this awareness of the cosmic extent of our own creativity can we “convert the decay of [our present] order into the birth of its successor.” Today, the function of Reason must become the recovery of an earthly architecture: in all our building we must promote and exemplify the art of life. The other option is extinction.
 The Function of Reason, 4.
 The Function of Reason, 9-10.
 The Function of Reason, 6.
 The Function of Reason, 4.
 The Function of Reason, 5.
 “…the trained body of physiologists under the influence of the ideas germane to their successful methodology entirely ignore the whole mass of adverse evidence. We have here a colossal example of anti-empirical dogmatism arising from a successful methodology. Evidence which lies outside the method simply does not count…The brilliant success of this method is admitted. But you cannot limit a problem by reason of a method of attack” (The Function of Reason, 15).
 The Function of Reason, 4.
 The Function of Reason, 24-25.
 The Function of Reason, 7.
 Sharon Irish. “A ‘Machine That Makes the Land Pay’: The West Street Building in New York.” Technology and Culture 30 (April 1989): 376-397.
 The Function of Reason, 8.
 “The 21st Century Needs Its Own Paradigm Shift in Architecture,” Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 6/5/2016: http://www.metropolismag.com/Point-of-View/October-2015/The-21st-Century-Needs-Its-Own-Paradigm-Shift-in-Architecture/
 The Function of Reason, 20.
 The Function of Reason, 65-66.
 The Function of Reason, 66.
 “It has been urged in these pages that there is no true stability. What looks like stability is a relatively slow process of atrophied decay. The stable universe is slipping away from under us” (The Function of Reason, 82).
 The Function of Reason, 21.
 Adventures of Ideas, 155.
 The Function of Reason, 65.
 The Luminous Ground, 13.
 Modes of Thought, 21.
 The Function of Reason, 75.
 The Luminous Ground, 17.
 The Function of Reason, 87.
 The Function of Reason, 89.
 The Function of Reason, 90.
Thinking provokes general indifference. It is a dangerous exercise nevertheless. Indeed, it is only when the dangers become obvious that indifference ceases, but they often remain hidden and barely perceptible inherent in the enterprise. Precisely because the plane of immanence is prephilosophical and does not immediately take effect with concepts, it implies a sort of groping experimentation and its layout resorts to measures that are not very respectable, rational, or reasonable. These measures belong to the order of dreams, of pathological processes, esoteric experiences, drunkenness, and excess. We head for the horizon, on the plane of immanence, and we return with bloodshot eyes, yet they are the eyes of the mind. Even Descartes had his dream. To think is always to follow the witch’s flight.
So the movement is one from the transcendent to the horizontal? No, it can’t be that simple…
What moderns lost in verticality for their thought they gained in fact by the invention of the spaceship. The transcendental has not been replaced by the horizontal; rather, the horizontal has been brought to its completion in a noöspheric earth, a “transcendental star,” as Sloterdijk calls it: “A star on which the theory of stars appeared, the earth shines with self-generated phosphorescence” (p. 25, In the World Interior of Capital).
Horizontality, so long as we conceive of it as a going and a return, shares an essentially circular structure with verticality. Its just transcendentalism with more speed, with escape velocity. Still, whether Platonist or Humean, we ascend and descend, we travel far away and we come back home again. Sure, sometimes we get bored and give up. Sometimes we are blinded by the light on approach. Other times we die on the way back (and what unimaginable lines of flight might draw us then?). But if there is a flat plane before philosophy, there must be a curved sphere after it.
Were we to take flight toward the fading sun at the precise rate of earth’s counter-rotation, time would appear to cease and we would feel as though we needed no sleep. But when we finally came down from our magic flight, our friends back on solid ground would see the dreamlessness in our eyes. Though their subjectivity is nothing like the chains of common sense, even sorcerers are subject to the grip of gravity. Earth holds us all.
I am more inclined to bear the cross of horizontal heavens with transcendental planes than I am to let one tip the other over on its side…
The transcendental and the horizontal meet in the terrestrial.
I’m headed back to Black Rock City for the 3rd time in 4 years later this week. I’ll be camping with Cosmicopia at 7:15 J if you want to stop by. I’ll be giving a brief talk on the need to ecologize economics on Tuesday at 11am. The title of the talk is actually a set of related questions: “Why is the sky blue? Why is money green?” The sky is blue because of the way Earth’s atmosphere scatters the light streaming in from the Sun during the day. At night, the sky turns black to reveal the swarm of distant suns populating the Milky Way. All the energy powering the human economy, and the greater part of the intelligence engineering it, originated in the sky. The daytime Sun is the most important source of free energy for all living things, while for one species in particular (ours) the rhythmic revolutions of the nighttime stars served as the catalyst for the evolution of symbolic consciousness (some of the earliest known forms of writing, for example, are marks carved into bone, apparently to count the phase cycle of the moon). Gazing at the stars and planets circling overhead night after night taught us how to keep track of time and how to travel long distances over land or sea. Our ability to plan months and years in advance, to draw maps and send satellites into orbit: we owe it all to the stars. And to the Sun we owe our very life, our vitality, our source of absolutely free energy. The original biotic economy of Earth (here long before the emergence of the human economy) consists of two main economic actors: the Sun and the photosynthesizing plants. This cosmic economy is the original gift society. The Sun is slowing burning itself up to release the warmth and light necessary for life on Earth. It asks for nothing in exchange for its exuberance. Plants absorb this free energy, transforming themselves into food for the rest of the biosphere all the way up the trophic ladder to Earth’s apex predator, the human being.
American money (at least for a little while longer the world economy’s gold standard), like plants, is green. Perhaps this is just a coincidence, but if we consider the capitalist world system as a form of sorcery (as Isabelle Stengers does), then this choice of color reflects the extent to which money has been fetishized, as though the symbolic power of green paper was somehow a replacement for the photosynthetic energy captured by the leaves of plants. General purpose money truly is the life blood of global capitalism; but plant-like it is not. It should be printed red, instead. That would remind us how much blood has been spilled on its behalf.
Political ecologist Alf Hornborg (author of “The Power of the Machine”) describes general purpose money as an “algorithm of destruction” because of the way it systematically cancels the living diversity of both culture and nature by converting usable energy (labor, soil, minerals, trees, rivers, etc.) into disposable products sold in order to make more copies of itself. For this reason, an increasing GDP is typically a great indicator of decreasing societal and ecological well-being. Global capitalism is converting more and more of the free energy brought into the biosphere by plants into money. To date, geneticist David Suzuki estimates that the global economy has re-directed about 40% of the net energy intake of plants to serve its higher purposes (i.e., accumulating money). Its no wonder the planet is entering the 6th mass extinction.
In my talk at Burning Man, I hope to make apparent how incongruent the human economy currently is with the earth ecology. I also want to begin a discussion about the role of Burning Man in all this. According to the festival’s founder, Larry Harvey, the Burning Man ethos is just good ol’ fashioned capitalism. He’s not entirely off the mark. I’d agree that the extravagance of Burning Man wouldn’t be possible without the huge surpluses produced by California’s digital economy. But this is not the same old capitalism… I’ll be trying to dig deeper into these and other internal contradictions.
“In my view the creation of the world is the first unconscious act of speculative thought; and the first task of a self-conscious philosophy is to explain how it has been done.” -Whitehead
Four of us met a few days back to discuss the first 75 pages of Ed Casey’s The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History (1998). I’ve heard there will be more of us next time. We talked about several ancient texts: the Babylonian Enuma Elish, Plato’s Timaeus, and Aristotle’s Physics.
We discussed the potential efficacy of ancient place-making rituals, such as that of the Australian Achilpa tribe (Fate of Place, 5). Can a single staff really found entire worlds? If a society’s world-staff were to break, would the people of that society’s world end? Would they all fall to the ground and die?
What is the modern scientific equivalent of a place-making staff stuck into the center of an aboriginal nomadic campsite? Perhaps it is geometry, the mathesis of points, lines, and planes used to draw the modern map of the globe? But what then is calculative science to make of the incalculable?: of perfect circles, infinite curves, and evolving spirals?; of real black holes and spiral galaxies?; of living organisms?
The modern scientific earth-measuring staff, the Cartesian coordinate grid, was meant to raise the human animal beyond erotic imagination into the heights of disinterested reason. But this staff has broken and can now only be used for firewood. Once turned to ash it should be scattered in a plurality of places. Chaos is the place-maker (not the place-made or the place-less), and its unruliness now and forever rules upon the earth beneath the sky. Chaos is the generative source of each and every topocosm, the place from which all order emerges.
Plato notwithstanding, the demiurge’s perfect forms of geometrical reflection have proven themselves unable to supplant geology and astrology as the philosophical foundations of cosmology. The volcanic instability of the earth and the angelic stability of the sky forbid our human pretenses to cosmic wisdom. We can only love wisdom and follow her; we cannot measure her. She is too deep.
The outer motions of earth and sky always already shape the inner emotions of humanity. We learn the God-poet’s ways first of all from Gaia and Ouranos. All other happenings are their child. We cannot invent geometry inside our heads ex nihilo, measuring the earth in some invented pseudo-space or Void, until we have first marked out our territory in the dirt and built a hut to block out the stars overhead. Only then can we place such heavy concentration on such airy abstractions.
Geometry need not lead to misplaced concreteness, of course. We need only remember that the staffs we plant in the sand can never stand the test of infinite time. Staff planting is a creative gesture, but every such planting already assumes sunlight and warm soil to feed the hand who hammers it. Staff planting is never ex nihilo.
Catherine Keller’s The Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (2003) is a great example of how one might try to weave the living Word into place without getting tied in the literalistic knots of monolithic meaning. When speaking of angels, for example, we can follow her in drawing upon the rich tradition of hermeneutical heretics who turn to angelology in order to refute ex nihilo creation theories. Keller dwells rhapsodically upon the meaning of Elohim (Face of the Deep, 173-182), which is plural for Eloah (not a personal name, since it can be used to describe any deity). The plural noun is accompanied by a singular verb, bara, “create.” Some interpreters, like the 11th century Spanish-born poet Abraham Ibn Ezra, have claimed that Elohim refers to God’s angels. Keller’s Whiteheadian understanding of God as persuader rather than commander shines through when she writes regarding the implications of the Angelic/Elohimic plurisingularity:
Crowding and complicating the hermeneutical time-space, the turbulent swarm of godhood has always transgressed any possible boundaries between the One Original Creator and the many derivative creatures…According to this imaginary of bottomless process, the divine decision is made not for us but with and through us. Amidst the chaosmic committee work of creation, what work remains for a creator to do–aside from its decisive delegations (“let the earth bring forth,” etc.)? Can we say with process theology that the creator emits an eros…to which every creature willy-nilly responds? …Some respond more responsibly than others to the cosmic desire. Committees and democracies make a lot of messes…Our responses…generate our own plurisingular inter-subjectivities–out of the multiples of elemental energies, codes, socialities, ecologies that any moment constellate our cosmoi…Elohim arises out of those unruly depths, over which language catches its breath. The creator, in creating, becomes. In singular plurality (178-182).
Keller is a skilled hermeneut, capable of holding her breath long enough to dive into the polysemic depths of scriptural meaning, and of surfacing to tell the story of her journey without superficially collapsing it into a monotone theology or exploding it into relativistic jelly. She carefully unwinds the palimpsestic threads woven into the poetic phrase that begins the Biblical book of Genesis, tohu vabohu, to discover evidence of a goddess’ murder.
The Hebrew poet who wrote Genesis was clearly influenced by the Babylonian Enuma Elish, which depicts the warrior God Marduk’s slaughter of Tiamat (related to the Semitic Tehom, “abyss”). The traditional interpretation of the phrase, under the monotheistic pretense of demythologization, denies all agency to the Tehom. The ex nihilo doctrine requires that God be alone in the beginning, the sole creator of everything, even that out of which creation is shaped. Keller, like Casey, reads into tohu vabohu and uncovers its prepatriarchal significance enfolded just beneath the surface. Rather than traditional commentators, who point to the monotony (“God said…God said…God said…”) of the creation narrative as evidence of its utter transcendence over any other merely mythic event, Keller focuses on the “flirtatiously alliterative wordplay” (116) of these same verses. The “monotonotheism” (Nietzsche) of the ex nihilo tradition is replaced with the participatory eroticism of Elohim’s creative persuasiveness: let the earth produce (tadse) vegetation (dese) (1:11); let the waters produce (yisresu) sea creatures (seres) (1:20). Tohu vabohu is read with the “shinning wake” of its animistic origins in tact, such that the precreation elements are read not as “formless and void,” but as active participants responsive to God’s angelic call to cosmos. In effect, Elohim had to ask permission before creating. The God-poet, no matter how genius, always sings with a chorus, remaining forever placed in the chora, located in cosmic imagination. No creative act is ever from nothing.
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.
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.
Bruno Latour is about halfway through his lecture series on natural religion. Videos of the lectures should be posted by the University of Edinburgh any day now.
Here is a good review of lecture 3, titled “The puzzling face of a secular Gaia.” I especially like Latour’s neologism “geostory,” meant to replace the bifurcated notion of “history” on the one hand and “nature” on the other:
Biology remains haunted by the semiotic. Science is always an enterprise in metaphor, trope, and being trapped in an ‘as if’ way of presenting the world. Thus the planet is to be written and read, as well as simply taken to exist. This combines with the fact that Gaia’s geo-physiology has evolved along particular pathways – it has a history, one which cannot be re-engineered, and one which could not have been designed to end up this way by some blind watchmaker. Thus, “Gaia is in its very fabric a narrative.” And we need “geostory” to understand how we can face Gaia.
Gaia as narrative fabric… that is music to my ears.
The scientific revolution, beginning perhaps with Copernicus’ rediscovery of the heliocentric model of the solar system early in the 16th century, and culminating perhaps with Newton’s formulation of the laws of motion and universal gravitation towards the end of the 17th century, fundamentally transformed humanity’s sense of its relationship to the universe. “In the year 1500,” writes Whitehead, “Europe knew less than Archimedes who died in the year 212 BCE.”1 The commonsense assumption of a person living in 1500 was that earth stood stationary at the center of a sacred series of eternally circling heavenly hosts. Below the moon, four elements composed everything; above it, something far subtler was thought to be at work. “Yet in the year 1700,” continues Whitehead, “Newton’s Principia had been written and the world was well started on the modern epoch.”2 Earth was thrown into motion, now a planet like any other, a material body wandering through the void of space around the sun. After a mere two centuries of furious intellectual upheaval, the entire theological basis of European civilization, built up over the course of the prior two millennia, was thrashed to pieces. A new civilization, and a new cosmos, was dawning.
Three hundred years later, we find ourselves at or nearing the noon hour of modern industrial civilization. At the highest point of the arc of the modern project, we can see clearly the historical morning behind us, full of even more war and empire than the prior millennia of supposedly un-Enlightened races; and we can see clearly enough before us the inevitable future course leading to our demise: nuclear war, ecosystem collapse, political tyranny. Among academics, the optimistic certainty of our fathers’ deistic-mechanistic image of the world has been succeeded by the cynical irony of postmodern relativism.3 Though the deistic-mechanistic mythos of Galileo, Descartes, and Newton was persuasive to a few educated elites, and though its technological utility would be responsible for unleashing an energy-transformation event unlike any the earth had seen before, it has not provided a meaning-producing, value-imbued cosmological story capable of infecting the social imaginary at a deep enough level to replace that provided to medieval European civilization by Aquinas and Dante.
Despite the evidences of modern physical science, a normal 21st century person still unhesitatingly refers to the setting of the sun, to the red hues of its surrounding sky, and to the waning of its warmth as it sinks beneath the horizon. From the perspective of the well-trained mathematical physicist, such a person’s commonsense is mistaken: the sun does not set, nor is it warm, nor is its ambiance red. Its sinking, like its warmth and color, are only subjective appearances, artifacts of our perception and not facts of nature. “If the living creature were removed,” says Galileo, the first to formalize nature’s bifurcation in terms of primary physical and secondary psychical characteristics, “all these qualities would be wiped away and annihilated.”4 The warmth and hue of a sunset, according to Galileo, “are no more than mere names so far as the object in which we locate them are concerned.”5 They reside not in the essential nature of the cosmos, but in the arbitrary names consciousness.
Following Copernicus’ and Galileo’s astronomical and physical discoveries, Descartes brilliantly articulated the ontological and epistemological underpinnings of modern science. The eclipse of the illusory geocentric cosmos by the mathematical truth of the heliocentric model made it clear to Descartes that sensory perception could not be trusted for scientific purposes. Science was to become the study of the mechanical “how?” of extended things (res extensa), a study guided by the exact mathematical measurement of primary qualities like length, width, height, mass, and motion; religion, on the other hand, was to retain responsibility for shaping the substance of the soul, providing answers to the moral “why?” questions that trouble thinking things (res cogitans). Secondary qualities like color, sound, and taste were left to the free play of artists to be combined and recombined for the purpose of heightening the pleasure of appearances, rather than penetrating deeper into the archetypal sources of reality.6
In the intervening years since the scientific revolution, a new civilization guided by the ideals of the Enlightenment has taken root on every continent. But even today, at the height of humanity’s technoscientific7 mastery over nature, a coherent cosmology has not yet arisen to guide the adventure of civilization safely into the next millennium. Our knowledge remains fragmented, our society teetering on the brink of self- and world-destruction. What seemed like the cure for all ignorance in the 17th century has since become a curse. Our technoscientific way of knowing, with its bifurcation of subjects and objects, facts and values, meaning and matter, is killing humanity and earth alike. As late as 1882, Nietzsche was still one of only a handful with the spiritual courage to confront the cosmic disorientation characteristic of the modern age and to cry out on behalf of life:
…how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning?8
Whitehead came to philosophy in the first quarter of the 20th century with questions very similar to Nietzsche’s. He interrogated modern science and the Enlightenment, not to dismiss them, but to remind them of what they had dismissed. He asks: “What has happened to us?” According to his interpreter, Isabelle Stengers, this question is not an attempt to find some final explanation for the wayward course of civilization, but is rather
a resource for telling our stories in another way, in a way that situates us otherwise–not as defined by the past, but as able, perhaps, to inherit from it another way.9
Whitehead’s creative retrieval of the history of science and philosophy (natural philosophy) is organized around a new concept of nature and a novel way of framing the activity of science. Instead of construing the task of science as that of overcoming subjective illusion in order to reach objective reality, as many modern thinkers have done, Whitehead takes the speculative risk of defining nature differently: nature becomes, quite simply, “what we are aware of in perception.”10 “Everything perceived is in nature,” says Whitehead, “We may not pick and choose.”11 This reframing of science’s understanding of nature cannot be judged as “true” or “false” a priori; to judge it fairly, we must first trust it enough to take the “leap of the imagination”12 it implies, waiting eagerly to see how it transforms experience. Passing judgment on the veracity of Whitehead’s new concept of nature requires first deploying it, experimenting with its effects in the world, establishing its relevance to actual life. The materialist enemies of his philosophy tend to lack the negative capability13 required to pursue the consequences of Whitehead’s unbifurcated image of the universe; they refuse to pay attention to what Whitehead’s concepts make important. Instead, they remain bound within the limits of the same old poorly composed problems (e.g., “how does the brain produce consciousness?”, “what sort of stuff is space-time?”). Whitehead’s cosmology requires the invention and deployment of novel concepts of space, time, and consciousness. These concepts pose new problems for science, allowing it to become attentive to the importance of both mathematical patterns and sensual perceptions in nature, releasing it from the irrational and polemical desire to explain away mental quality by reduction to mathematical quantity.
Equipped with a new kind of science, we can ask again, “What has happened to us?” We must be sensitive to both what Whitehead’s concept of nature discloses and what it makes recede into silence. How does it transform the adventures of science and civilization? What becomes important when the task of natural philosophy is not to explain away value, meaning, and subjectivity at all costs, but rather to avoid the bifurcation of nature at all costs? Whitehead’s new concept of nature, should we commit ourselves to it, implies that
the red glow of the sunset should be as much part of nature as are the molecules and electric waves by which men of science would explain the phenomenon.14
Whitehead’s reframing of the task of science together with his redefinition of nature should not be construed as the imposition of limitations upon scientific knowledge. His aim is not to restrict what science can know, but to remind science what it already knows, and what its knowledge presupposes. By defining nature as “what we are aware of in perception,” Whitehead explicitly brackets “mind” (i.e., “that which perceives”) from nature. This bracketing is done in order to avoid struggling to answer badly formulated problems, such as the problem of how the brain produces the mind. Posing such a problem immediately drags science into metaphysics, into reflection upon “both what is perceived and what perceives.”15 Metaphysics seeks after the nature of nature beyond what we are aware of in perception, and so pursuing such questions would negate the philosophical wager whose consequences for experience Whitehead is trying to discover. Later in his philosophical career, when he turns to full blown cosmological speculation, Whitehead will be forced to tackle such metaphysical issues; but in his early philosophy of science, he keeps his eye on the prize: scientific knowledge of nature. From Whitehead’s reformulated point of view, the questions of science “do not enable [it] to formulate the problem of the ‘mind’ because these questions and their answers presuppose it.”16 Science is a way of knowing nature; therefore, the pursuit of knowledge of nature presupposes that there is a knower, i.e., a mind.
Knowledge is ultimate. There can be no explanation of the “why” of knowledge; we can only describe the “what” of knowledge.17
If science is going to commit itself to the pursuit of knowledge of nature, there can be no going behind knowledge to explain it by some more fundamental activity (e.g., neurochemistry). The possibility of explanation cannot itself be explained. This is not to say that science might not find out a great deal about the mind by studying the brain; its just that it makes no sense to seek a cranial explanation of the mind when it is before the mind itself that science would have to defend its explanation. Whitehead’s decision to bracket mind from what we are aware of in perception is not the same as the materialist’s decision to bifurcate nature into primary (physical-scientific) and secondary (psychological-artistic) qualities. Whitehead’s refusal to drag the scientific concept of nature unknowingly into the metaphysical disputes of philosophy (as materialists do) prevents him from reducing the creative advance of natura naturans to the deterministic mechanisms of natura naturata. Instead of turning science against common sense experience through “heroic feats of explaining away,”18 Whitehead defines the truth of science in terms of its experimental achievements and experiential disclosures.19 The numinous glow of the sunset as experienced by the poet comes again to be rooted in nature, no less an aspect of what we come to be aware of in perception than the wavelengths of the photons detected by the sophisticated instrumentation of the physicist. The data of science, no matter how abstract and seemingly removed from everyday experience, must ultimately be translatable back into some operational technique or direct observation. “If the abstractions [of science] are well-founded,” says Whitehead,
that is to say, if they do not abstract from everything that is important in experience, the scientific thought which confines itself to these abstractions will arrive at a variety of important truths relating to our experience of nature.20
The “photon,” for example, is not just an invention of the physicist, nor is it simply a fact of nature. The “photon” is what the physicist has come to be aware of in his perception of light as a result of certain replicable scientific practices, laboratory situations, theoretical images, and mathematical equations. The “photon,” as a scientific-object, is said to be abstract only in that it cannot be grasped in isolation from the “whole structure of events” or “field of activity” (i.e., the passage of nature) to which it belongs and through which it endures.21 From the perspective of Whitehead’s philosophy of science, the abstract will never be able to offer a satisfactory explanation for the concrete.22 The wavelength of a photon does not explain the perception of redness, nor does even a connectionist model of neurochemistry explain the artist’s encounter with a beautiful sunset. Whenever scientific materialists try to offer such heroic explanations, they succeed only in offering descriptive commentaries in terms of the scientific objects most fashionable in their time–commentaries that presuppose the very thing they pretend to have explained away: consciousness. The only valid method of explanation from Whitehead’s point of view is the reverse of the materialist’s, an explanation which traces the genesis of abstractions back to the concrete consciousness and perceptual presences from which they emerged.23 A science that seeks to explain the concrete by way of the abstract all too easily falls prey to a form of knowledge production whose adequacy is judged economically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to transform and control nature (usually for private profit), rather than ecologically, i.e., in terms of its capacity to understand and relate to nature (for the common good).
Whitehead’s aim in pursuing the philosophy of science was largely in service of pragmatic experience and common sense: he sought to leap across and straddle the fissure bifurcating nature into the facts of physical reality on the one side and the values of psychical appearance on the other.24 In order to achieve this end, he struggled to imagine a new, participatory mode of attending to nature, a nature no longer objectified into the inert stuff instrumentally attended to as in the alienated technoscientific mode of knowing; instead, Whitehead sought to disclose nature to awareness as a community of relationships shaped by the social desires and individual decisions of living organisms. Organisms are beings characterized by more than mass, extension, and velocity; they are beings with presence, prehension, and purpose. Contrary to Galileo, Descartes, and Newton, Whitehead’s vision of the cosmos is ecological: the final real things are each and all alive.
Eventually, Whitehead gave up on the problems that framed his inquiry into science in order to pursue the riskier adventure of metaphysics. Riskier because “the recourse to metaphysics is like throwing a match into the powder magazine. It blows up the whole arena.”25 For the later, more explicitly metaphysical Whitehead, “mind” can no longer be bracketed from a neatly delimited “nature.” Even the aesthetic enjoyment of the poet and the theoretical reflection of the physicist must be understood as ingredient in the creative advance of the universe. Whitehead would venture upon the great work of every true and genuine philosopher-poet: the creation of a coherent cosmology justifying the civilized phases of human society.
1 Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925/1960), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 13.
3 We have only the insufficiently cosmological depth of the great archetypal psychologists to lead us through the maddening maze of “posts” populating the contemporary academic scene (Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Hillman).
4 Galileo Galilei, The Assayer (1623), translation by Stillman Drake, in Discoveries and Opinions of Galileo (1957), New York: Doubleday, 274.
6 Prior to the differentiation of art, science and religion in the modern period, art served primarily a religious purpose, functioning as a sort of window from the earthly into the archetypal realm. See also Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 20. Art also served science by mastering perspective, allowing for realistic representations of nature (ibid., 45).
7 Unlike traditional science, still the cousin of philosophy, which sought to “confer an intelligible order on what confronts us,” for technoscience “to understand is to be able to transform” (Isabelle Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts (2011), Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 11).
8 Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882), sec. 125, translation by Walter Kaufmann, in The Nietzsche Reader (2006), Malden: Blackwell, 224.
9 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 14.
10 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature (1920/1964), Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 28.
11 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
12 Whitehead, Process and Reality (1929/1978), New York: The Free Press, 4.
13 See John Keats’ letter to his brothers, December 21, 1817: “Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”
15 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 34-36.
16 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 35.
17 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 32.
18 Whitehead, Process and Reality, 23.
19 Or, in William James’ terms (a major influence on Whitehead), scientific truth becomes subject to the tests of pragmatism and radical empiricism, respectively.
20 Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, 58.
21 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 170-171.
22 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 99.
23 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 110.
24 Stengers, Thinking With Whitehead, 38.
25 Whitehead, The Concept of Nature, 29.
I walked to the top of Grand View Park here in the Sunset district of San Francisco. I wanted to clear my head by ascending to the mountaintop, where place expands into space and time transforms into history. History, as we know it, has a beginning and an end. Civilizations, and the cosmopolitical habitats they enact, are always a temporary affair. Their spatial constructions of time into the civilizing myths of liberation from “nature,” “the gods,” or “barbarism,” however, are falsifications of time (see Jean Gebser‘s Ever-Present Origin). As scientific cosmology has tried to suggest, it turns out that time has no beginning or end. Time is creation itself. Time is Origin, in Gebser’s terms. Time is “a moving image of eternity,” in Plato’s terms.
From up there, thoughts were produced in me that conceptually crystalized the Occupy movement. I believe I can see more clearly now that it is a planetary movement that did not begin a month or two ago in New York City; it has been in the works in an occult form everywhere forever. Occupy camp activism is a form of occult amplification: the silenced, the unheard, and the invisible are being given a voice, made audible and visible. What had been privatized is being made public again.
Some complain that Occupy remains a leaderless and somewhat amorphous movement. I do not think it is so much amorphous as polymorphous; and it is precisely this protean and processual nature that defines its demand. Its demand cannot be listed like legislative proposals, since the movement is apolitical at heart (at least in the sense that contemporary “politics” survives in the market-subsumed polis of the global corporatocracy). Occupy rejects all political solutions as part of the problem, since they are made only within the context of techno-capitalist civilization. The economics of this civilizational system have been just as deficient as its politics, since the accumulation of money has now come to supersede the exchange of actual energy in importance. We have an economy designed for Empire and corporations, unfit for Earth and its creatures.
Occupy is rejecting this late industrial capitalist “system” from the ground up. The message the movement is trying to articulate is bound up with the question it is attempting to formulate. It goes something like this: “The civilization of old has failed; now, how are we to (re)make the cosmos?” Answering this question is the ultimate creative act, and amidst a world in decay, it requires the utmost courage.
I do not know to what extent my own cosmopolitical (even cosmotheanthropic) angle here could be readily extracted from polling a sample of Occupy supporters, but to my mind, it is cosmic change that is being demanded, rather than cosmetic re-legislation within the existing order. I phrase the question above as one of creative remaking because I believe our task to be at least partially religious in nature, in the sense of the Latin religare, “to bind.” Our task is profoundly artistic, but we cannot create ex nihilo and expect to flourish within the long established ethos of the Earth Community (see Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story). The ecological catastrophe brought forth by industrialism has already shown the dangers and limitations of any supposed “second nature” created atop the first. Kant suggested that “to know the world we must manufacture it”, thereby neglecting the extent to which, both culturally and biologically, we are creatures of the past, shaped and nourished by the words and worlds we inherit from our ancestors, human and -non.
The re-interpretation of tradition is just as important as the critique of tradition. Perhaps it is true, we needed a good dose of nihilism to fully realize the severity of our collective wrong turn, our civilizational sin. The military horrors and political failures of the 20th century, and the coming trauma of ecosystem collapse (due to the compound crisis of climate change and mass extinction), all continue to remind us of the persistence of chaos and injustice. But I think what would be more helpful at this point is a healthy dose of theology, though theology in the interests of re-establishing a humane cosmology. We need constructive philosophy (like Speculative Realism/Object-Oriented Ontology, Enactivism, and Process-Relationalism), but not just that. We need a renewed aesthethical orientation, a sense of the Good and of the Beautiful that corresponds with and even informs our understanding of the True. Metaphysics must be thoroughly soaked in aesthetics, but also in prophetics (i.e., something like the cosmo-ethical cries of the Jewish prophets).
Occupy is not just the protest of a dying kingship, it is also the prophecy of a living kinship to come. It is time to descend from the mountaintop, like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, to proclaim that Empire is dead, and that Earth is dying. We are responsible for their demise, but can also resurrect and re-imagine a new Heaven and a new Earth. As Amos prophesied, “The eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the face of the earth (9:7)…[because] they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of shoes…they…trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth (2:7). “But,” he continues, we are learning to “let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (5:24).
A message to the heart of Wall St.: To the bankers, the executives, the shareholders, and the politicians, I do not want my money back. I will gladly give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. I only want what is the earth’s, what is the sky’s, what is unowned and unownable. I did not invest in a university with the expectation of a corporate job–I invested in the vitality of the universe and the beauty of the earth community. I want back what was never for sale; what was a gift to each and all of us and can never be taken away. Earth cannot be mortgaged. I am an earthling–we are earthlings–and we want our earth back.
I screamed so loud,
I could taste the sky.
The stars became buds of light on my tongue,
And the clusters of galaxies
Poured into the tangled sinews of my brain.
I became one of billions of sons,
All circling the heavens
In praise of our life.
I was alone;
My father and my mother
And though brother and sister spun beside me,
Our wandering was without course;
Our wishes were without wisdom.
We were blind;
We had not been raised
By the stories of ages.
We had come of age
In a time of tragedy
And of sober revelation.
I screamed so loud,
I could taste the sky,
And I cried so long
That a sea of sadness
Nearly washed away the world
From the valley of my soul.
I saw, as I swallowed the horizon
And unspun the earth from the sun,
That the future cannot be held
But by a bleeding heart.
For the survival of our species,
I prophecy our death:
And when we rise again,
The earth will smile like Zeus
And heaven will shine its light
Upon each and all of us
Adam writes that “OOO is greatly enriching our sense of cosmos, whilst (somewhat) impoverishing our sense of anthropos.”
I’ve had similar reservations about Harman’s anthrodecentrism (if I may diagnose it): Harman and the Special Magic of Human Knowledge.
Harman’s is an ontology that re-orients our human-centricity relative to objects in general, such that objects become full, autonomous participants in the cosmic drama right along side us. Humans are not ‘up ahead’ of objects in general, not the leading edge of evolution; neither are they any closer to Being than every other being. Harman’s is a sorely needed intervention into the philosophies of access currently dominating the Academy, especially in light of the difficulties faced by phenomenology and scientific naturalism alike when it comes to devising an actionable ethical response to an increasingly inevitable natural/ecological catastrophe. But in order to avoid spinning into the nihilism of some speculative realists, where human values are a fluke in an uncaring and fundamentally entropic universe (I’m thinking more of Brassier than Harman here), I think OOO needs to unpack its own theological and anthropological implications. Whitehead’s cosmic realism/object-orientation is brought into harmony with the fact of his own conscious knowing of the universe; but this scheme only holds together if, as Whitehead speculates, God’s primordial aims and consequent feelings are ingredient in our human experience, such that we become fully conscious of God’s envisagement of and suffering in the Universe. Meillasoux may not actually be so far from suggesting something similar to this polar Whiteheadian God.
I think a realism as regards Cosmos requires a realism in regard to Anthropos and Theos as well. Otherwise our conception of the Cosmos becomes impoverished, and our ethics dwell on passion (suffering) instead of compassion (love). Whitehead does bring God fully into relation with the World, and even though he is fully invested in the adventure of rationality precariously supported by our civilization, in the end he seems to deny human Consciousness any special role in the drama of creation. Eventually, our species may simply go extinct, making way for some as yet entirely unimaginable adventure in Creativity upon the Earth. Perhaps machines are awaiting the nuclear disaster that makes most organic life on this planet impossible, just as mammals once hid in the shadows of the dinosaurs to await their chance to rule the world.
Teilhard plays up the importance and inevitability of Consciousness a bit more, but only because it is the necessary condition for Christogenesis. Why is the Human really so important for Teilhard? Because like Matter for Life, and like Life for Thought, the Human provides the womb within which the Cosmos is able to turn in on itself again, gaining a deeper dimension of interiority (more vision, more feeling). Human consciousness (which in actuality is a collective phenomenon–in its full deployment is the Noosphere, the Planetary Mind) is the birthplace of Christ.
There is one point in particular where I think Harman implicitly recognizes the unique capacity of the Human. Are we not the only object who is capable of conceiving of “real,” as opposed “sensual” objects? Are we not the only things in the world who know the world withdraws from us and from itself, that things are always more than they at first appear to us to be? Are we not, in short, the only sort of object that can have an object-oriented metaphysics? Fire always thinks it is burning the paper, but it is only burning what was already fiery in the paper. It seems like a good place to start recognizing the “special magic” of the Human is our capacity for wonder and awe in the face of the sublime, our ecstatic participation in the infinite, our comprehension of the fire’s finite prehension of the paper.