Imagining a Gaian Reality After the Virus
by Matthew Segall
What follows is a brief paper outlining a path forward for post-pandemic humanity. It attempts to integrate Marxist critiques of capitalism with the efforts of contemporary Whiteheadian philosophers to compose an alternative ecological civilization.
A specter is haunting modern civilization—the specter of Gaia. All the powers of the global capitalist market have been entering into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. The name “Gaia” is borrowed from the scientific hypothesis of James Lovelock, who himself borrowed it from author William Golding, who in turn borrowed it from Hesiod’s telling of ancient Greek cosmogony. Do not imagine an anthropomorphized goddess, “Mother Nature,” when you hear this term. Imagine instead a gigantic, even monstrous assemblage of coevolving lifeforms precariously perched upon a complex, self-organizing set of geochemical feedback loops necessary for maintaining the habitability of this planet. For several hundred years, this living Earth has been treated as a mere background to human activity, a storehouse of raw materials to be violently exploited, a passive stage upon which our technological progress could unfold indefinitely. But Gaia could not be dispelled by the industrial might or monetary magic of global capitalism. Gaia has only been further provoked by it.
Despite the wishful thinking of capitalist economists, the market is not a “perpetual motion machine” insulated from the biophysical inevitabilities of entropy and extinction. Since the end of the last ice age 12,000 years ago, the human economy has always existed at the grace of the Earth’s ecology. Whether agricultural, industrial, or informational, our species has undertaken each new mode of production with tremendous Promethean creativity, but also with increasing ignorance of the geophysiological conditions making it all possible.
“Gaia’s intrusion,” as the philosopher Isabelle Stengers has referred to it, has always been inevitable, but until very recently, it was for the most part only decipherable scientifically through complex data sets and computer simulations of global temperature rise, biodiversity loss, and many other relatively abstract metrics detailing the fraying of its feedback loops. Timelines stretching to the end of this century warned of the dire consequences of failing to take bold action to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reverse other ecologically unsustainable practices. Insurance companies were beginning to feel uneasy about the increasing severity of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes, but surely Gaia could wait for the market to adapt.
With the rapid and virulent emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic (likely a spillover effect of habitat loss*), the situation is just as it was before, only massively accelerated. After a decades-long trial period, planetary transformation is now no longer optional: “we do not have any choice, because [Gaia] will not wait.”
What remained a specter only a few weeks ago—a barely perceptible threat safely hidden behind the noise and smog of business as usual—has now brought the entirety of modern human civilization to its knees. The immediate public health threat posed by the virus is potentially catastrophic on its own. And with most of the world’s human population unable to consume or produce at the ever-increasing rates required of a capitalist system, the economic fallout threatens to become even more severe.
Marxist philosopher Fredric Jameson once said that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” Jameson’s statement was borrowed from H. Bruce Franklin, whose original utterance was composed as a question: “What could [our species] create if [we] were able to envision the end of capitalism as not the end, but the beginning, of a human world?” With the old world now on the brink as humanity is brought to its knees by Gaia,—the for too long taken for granted ground beneath our feet,—our species has a fateful decision to make. Will we continue to pray to the God of the Market by imposing another round of what Naomi Klein has called “disaster capitalism,” or might we invoke an older god?
To Marxist ears, the invocation of a god, especially one with the mythic residue of “Gaia,” resounds of ideology. Why leave our capitalist chains behind only to succumb to a new, or ancient, opiate of the masses? Worse, my narrative account of our current situation as the disruption of the human political economy due to the intrusion of a seemingly outside natural power appears to be a textbook case of the process Roland Barthes warned about more than half a century ago, whereby “the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature”; this, according to Barthes, is “the very principle of myth: it transforms history into nature.”
But Gaia has not come in any form recognized by the terms of the modern constitution, signed by Marxists and capitalists alike, which placed a metaphysical chasm between human society and physical nature: the historical realization of freedom on one side, mere matter to be mastered by it on the other. “If man is shaped by the environment,” Marx wrote, “his environment must be made human.” Even Marx’s dialectical materialism remains insensitive to Gaia’s non-modern mode of composition. Gaia is not “the environment,” not “Nature” as modern people have conceived of her. Gaia does not passively suffer our historical projects. Nor has Gaia come in the ancient form imagined by our ancestors. Gaia is not natural and not mythical. Gaia is a geohistorical hybrid, to use Bruno Latour’s favored definition. Latour asks us to face Gaia not as a transcendent mythical or immanent natural unifier, but as a call to return to concrete, earthbound existence as members of a Whiteheadian “democracy of fellow creatures.” Gaia is just as much a historical agent as we are, if not more so.
Finding ways to get along with the bizarre biological neighbors modernity has for several centuries prided itself on ignoring will not be easy, as the still unfolding COVID-19 crisis exemplifies. Human survival in this new/old Gaian reality will require reimagining our political, religious, scientific, and artistic forms. Our concept of “society” will need to be expanded to include non-humans. Time itself will need restorying: History has always been ending; myth endlessly beginning; and creation forever ongoing. We are not the rational animal capable of calculating profit and loss in advance of our exchanges. We are not lords of the land and owners of private property. We are coevolving creatures like all others, bound by a single atmosphere, of a kind with the bacteria that fertilize the soil, with the wheat and fruit trees, with the bees that pollinate their flowers, with all the other plants and animals. Becoming Gaian is not so much a matter of reinventing ourselves as “merely” biological organisms as of shedding our god-like Promethean ambitions, of learning to settle down here on the earth beneath the sky instead of setting sail once more, this time beyond all finite horizons, as if Mars, too, could be colonized and capitalized. Contrary to the dualisms of the modern world view, the capitalist economy cannot float above its material conditions like a perpetual motion machine. Contrary to Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, our species is not destined for space capitalism. All that is solid has not melted into air. Even the “cloud” that hosts our digital economy depends upon massive super-cooled server farms and undersea cables to power its invisible network.
Marx and Engles could not have foreseen the specific condition—a viral pandemic—that would finally initiate the dialectical self-overcoming of capitalism. But they did predict that capitalism, by expanding the market over the entire surface of the globe and establishing connections everywhere, would at last compel each of us to face with sober senses our real conditions of life, and our true relations to others of our kind. Our conditions of life, and our shared vulnerability, have never been been more apparent than during this planetary quarantine. Millions of people will soon find themselves in need of medical care, and billions more will need an economic lifeline. All humanity, despite our social distancing and our cultural diversity, must now unite against a common enemy. But who is this enemy? COVID-19? If we are no longer modern, we cannot so easily disentangle ourselves from this viral agent, as though “Nature” had raised a microscopic army against us. After all, maybe we are the virus. Maybe COVID-19 is a Gaian antibody. Nonsense: we, too, are Gaians. We, too, have a place on this planet, if only we would learn to inhabit it more humbly.
What would it mean to be civilized in a humbler non-modern, or ecological way? Alfred North Whitehead was willing to consider that even some squirrels may be capable of it. For Whitehead, civilization implies conscious participation in the creative power of ideas—like freedom or love—to shape history. Whitehead is not an idealist, however. He is an organic realist. Ideas only have power when the material and historical conditions are ripe, when a particular habitat is capable of supporting their ingression.
Many moderns, Marx included, have too anthropocentric an idea of ideas. Ideas were already active in evolutionary processes long before conscious human beings emerged on the scene. Ideas are not just conjured up in human heads or typed into computers by human hands. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism is an invitation to consider the possibility that the idea of the Good participates in generating the light and warmth of the Sun no less than the nuclear reactions and electromagnetic radiation known to physicists, that the idea of Beauty is at work in the evolution of peacocks, butterflies, and roses and not just in Beethoven’s 9th or the Mona Lisa. Ideas don’t just shape history, they shape geohistory and indeed cosmic history.
Whitehead: “The basis of democracy is the common fact of value-experience, as constituting the essential nature of each pulsation of actuality. Everything has some value for itself, for others, and for the whole.” Every bacterium enriching the soil, every bumble bee making honey in the hive, every human laboring in the economy, every star spiraling in the galaxy has value for itself, for others, and for the whole. Nonhumans not only have value, they are agents of value creation.
What is value? Debates continue to rage among economists about the differences between use and exchange value, or between objective and subjective value, but ultimately Marx locates value in a social relation determined by the amount of labor time required to produce a commodity. So far so good. But the implication is that only humans create value by working on raw material or dead nature.
Is all value really produced by human labor alone? Is there nothing extra-human that supplies value? In Whitehead’s cosmos—and the Gaian reality we moderns are falling into—there is no more mere matter or dead nature, no inert or raw material to be appropriated by someone called Man. “We have no right,” Whitehead admonishes us, “to deface the value-experience which is the very essence of the universe.” Value is typically linked to agency. Moderns, whether Locke, Marx, or Hayek, have limited agency and thus value creation to human beings (or worse, as within capitalist social relations, value creation is even further delimited to those lucky enough to be owners of capital).
Despite his recognition of metabolic rift, Marx was fully modern in his commitment to what Latour calls the “double task of emancipation and domination.” The emancipatory task was political: to end exploitation of humans by humans. The task of domination was techno-scientific: to become masters of nature.
Gaia’s intrusion in the form of a viral pandemic is turning our lives upside down and inside out. Perhaps now, from the perspective it has granted us, we will come to see that we are in a crucial sense surrounded by the Earth, enclosed within it, trapped, earthbound. We cannot escape to a beyond, Musk and Bezos’ extra-terrestrial utopianism notwithstanding.
We must re-think human freedom and human-earth relations as though Gaia mattered. Humans are not as free and teleological as moderns have imagined; nor is nature as dumb and deterministic. Marx said that the worst human architect is distinguished from the best honey bee by the fact that the former designs his building ideally before constructing it materially. Man has a plan. Bees, apparently, are simply automatons obeying blind instinct. But is this really how human or bee creativity works? Organic architect Christopher Alexander studied how medieval cathedrals were generated over generations in a purposeful but not centrally planned way. This is akin to the way insects build their nests, following a simple organizational patterning language out of which emerges enduring forms of beauty. Buildings that are designed and built in the way Marx imagined tend to be dead structures meant for money-making rather than living. Consciousness of the power of ideas does not mean mastery over ideas. Ideas possess us, purpose us; we participate in their power, co-workers and not free inventors.
Where to go from here? In place of deterministic teleology, we need processes of relational creativity. In place of individual competition and class hierarchy, democracy and social solidarity. In place of a Big Plan from on high, playful kin-making with the community of nonhuman beings we breath, kill, eat, love, and otherwise share this planet with. Instead of providential history, we must settle for what anthropologist James Clifford calls “big enough” stories that remain “ontologically unfinished” and “situated in zones of contact, struggle, and dialogue.”
We need new practices of aestheticization, new stories, new rituals (or perhaps we need to respectfully recover “old” practices, stories, and rituals) to help sensitize us to the values of nonhumans. Our survival depends on it.
Becoming sensitive to the values of nonhumans doesn’t mean we don’t still have a hierarchy of values that in many cases puts humans at the top. As Whitehead says, “life is robbery.” But, he continues, “the robber needs justification.” What is the human, anyway? Are we one species among many? In an obvious sense, of course we are; and we ignore our dependence upon and embeddedness within wider ecological networks to our own peril. In another sense, we are not just another species. We have become, for better or worse, a planetary presence, a geological force. How are we to justify our presence on the Earth? What does ecological justice look like when the idea of justice is expanded beyond just human society? These are questions any civilization hoping to survive the next century is going to need to answer.
Human history is a geophysical event. Whether we date the history of this event to the emergence of symbolic consciousness 200,000 years ago, the Neolithic revolution 12,500 years ago, the capitalist revolution 500 years ago, the industrial revolution 250 years ago, the nuclear age 75 years ago, or the information age 30 years ago, it is clear that the Earth has by now at least entered a new phase of geohistorical development. Whether we call it the Anthropocene, the Capitalocene, the Plantationocene, the Chthulucene, the Entropocene, or the Ecozoic, diagnosing the metaphysical roots of the present ecological catastrophe is a necessary (though not sufficient) part of imagining and materializing a post-capitalist world.
Marx, of course, was not unaware of our profound connection to the Earth: “Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say, nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature . . . and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.” In Capital, he writes of labor as a process “by which man, through his own actions, mediates, regulates, and controls the metabolism between himself and nature. He confronts the materials of nature as a force of nature.” I do not mean to downplay the extent to which Marx’s dialectical understanding of the human-earth relation goes a long way toward describing our new Gaian reality. But he still could not shake the all too modern tendency to treat Earth as dead and awaiting the value-creating power of human consciousness. So with Whitehead, I have argued that value is not just a human social construct or free creation of human labor or desire (modern thinkers as diverse as Locke, Marx, and Hayek agree on this) but a cosmological power from which our human values, and our human power, derives.
* “horseshoe bats are the natural reservoir for SARS-CoV-like virus and that civets are the amplification host highlight the importance of wildlife and biosecurity in farms and wet markets, which can serve as the source and amplification centers for emerging infections” (from a meta-analysis of medical studies on coronaviruses).
Neil Irwin, “One Simple Idea That Explains Why the Economy Is in Great Danger” in the New York Times, March 17th, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/17/upshot/coronavirus-economy-crisis-demand-shock.html?referringSource=articleShare
Sarah Zohdy, Tonia S. Schwartz, Jamie R. Oaks. “The Coevolution Effect as a Driver of Spillover.” Trends in Parasitology, 2019; 35 (6): 399 DOI: 10.1016/j.pt.2019.03.010
Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times, 50. https://meson.press/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/978-1-78542-010-8_In-Catastrophic-Times_Stengers.pdf
Fredric Jameson, “Future City,” New Left Review 21 (May/June 2003), 76.
Franklin, “What are we to make of J.G. Ballard’s Apocalypse?”; https://www.jgballard.ca/criticism/ballard_apocalypse_1979.html; credit is due to Matthew Beaumont for pointing out Jameson’s sources (see “Imagining the End Times: Ideology, the Contemporary Disaster Movie, Contagion” in Zizek and Media Studies: A Reader (2014).
Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine (2007)
Roland Barthes, “Myth Today,” in Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers (London: Vintage, 1993), 141, 129.
Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia (2017) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993)
Whitehead, Process and Reality and Modes of Thought
Karl Marx, “Estranged Labor” (1844).
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.
“…there is nothing about the Earth as Earth that we don’t know through the disciplines, instruments, mediations, and expansion of scientific networks: its size, its composition, its long history and so on. Even farmers depend on the special knowledge of agronomists, soil scientists and others. And this is even truer of the global climate: the globe by definition is not global but is, quite literally, a scale model that is connected through reliably safe networks to stations where data points are collected and sent back to the modellers. This is not a relativist point that could throw doubt on such science but a relationist tenet that explains the sturdiness of the disciplines that are to establish, multiply and do the upkeep of those connections.”
-Bruno Latour, “Waiting for Gaia”
A talk I gave for ERIE at CIIS a few months ago building on (an admittedly loose interpretation of) Andy Clark’s extended mind thesis and Richard Doyle’s ideas about the role of psychedelics in human evolution:
It’s got me reflecting on what the “creaturely” might mean/be after the death of God (the Creator), or what the “facticity of matter” might mean/be after its traditional opposite, the activity of spirit, has been reduced by natural science or deconstructed by post-modern philosophy. What is the “creaturely,” the “material”? Can they have a definite meaning without consideration of the (real) nature of their opposites? Do they have a ground internal to themselves? Or are they groundless? I’d say not only spirit, but matter, too lacks an internal ground. They are both grounded outside themselves, by each other.
Might we say that the need for a post-nihilistic praxis has arisen for (post)modernity precisely due to its encounter with groundlessness (i.e., the “unprethinkable,” the non-reason-able), both the groundlessness of spirit (=freedom) and the groundlessness of matter (=gravity)? The Modern project is driven by the feeling of vertigo associated with the Abgrund, which is to say the entire enterprise of Enlightenment society to manufacture a more hygienic “second nature” to replace the first has been driven by a sort of nihilism, a desire not only to kill an all good God but to kill an entirely feral Gaia, to replace him with our own intelligence (=techno-science) and to replace her with an entirely domesticated techno-oikos. A post-nihilistic praxis, or at least a rhetorical gesture towards one, seems to me to have been well expressed by Latour during his Gifford lectures. I tried my hand at such a praxis in this essay on what I’ve called Gaian praxecology.
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.
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 one, two, three, four, 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.
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…
Latour is introduced by professor of physics Wilson Poon, who publicly confesses to being a great admirer of Latour’s work. Latour, thinly veiling how tired he is of the “Science Wars,” thanks him for the “rare confession”: “I don’t have many friends among physicists.” Poon contributes to a course at the University of Edinburgh on the relationship between Science and Religion, a favorite inter-disciplinary topic of my own. A quick google search turned up a sermon by Poon, titled “Giving Voice to Creation: A Christian Vocation in Science,” delivered at his local Episcopal Church in 2008. He speaks humbly on behalf of sand granules for their role in God’s creation (his scientific research specializes on fluid dynamics). Strange what can happen to natural scientists after they embrace a politics of nature…
In his second Gifford lecture, Latour rehearses David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Practicing the art of philosophical fiction, Latour re-constructs the history of philosophy (in much the same way that he helped reconstruct the Bergson-Einstein debate), wondering if Hume’s reflection on natural theology was really enough to stir the sage of Könisburg from his dogmatic dreaming, or if, in fact, he and all other Enlightened moderns are still sleeping, still spellbound by the pleonasm of natural religion, still stuck within the paradigm of design (by mechanistic de-animation or deistic over-animation), still paralyzed by the false split between science and religion, matter and spirit, fact and value, etc.
I haven’t read Hume’s dialogue since college, but Latour has made it seem like necessary re-reading. I’m particularly fascinated to expand Philo and Cleanthes’ discussion concerning the scope of analogical reasoning in cosmology. Is the universe more like an animal (a world-soul), or a plant (a giant vegetable)? Hume leaves the matter undecided, all the worse for the supposed speculative power of analogical reasoning. The Naturphilosoph is left wondering whether his imaginal methods of conversing with nature, namely correspondance and analogy, have any basis in reality. Hume argues that they cannot be justified. Poetic metaphors cast too wide a net to catch the certainties sought by calculative mathesis. This is no refutation of the power of imaginal methods; it is only to say that, if analogical reason and speculative philosophy are to be productive of knowledge, they can only achieve this result through a cognitive magic still too occult for conscious reasoning to dispassionately reflect upon (see Hume’s Treatise, i. Sec. 7). The possibility of reasoning about the cosmos analogically in a scientific way depends upon the possibility of scientific genius. In his Critique of Judgment, Kant defines genius as “the inborn predisposition of the mind through which nature gives the rule to art.” He grants genius to the artist, but denies it to the scientist, since for the latter, “rules that are distinctly cognized must come first and determine the procedure in it.” So whereas in artistic creation, the soul of the genius rises to a state of infinite free play that links it directly with the naturans of nature, in scientific research, the finite soul must work to mechanically imitate nature according to the limits of its own merely reflective organs of knowledge. The possibility of a Naturphilosophie capable of determining the animality or vegetality of the universe depends upon the possibility of scientific genius, on the possibility of what Gaston Bachelard has called the “material imagination.”
The material imagination is alchemical. Christian alchemists are both the agents and patients of the incarnation of Imagination. They seek not to understand the Trinity abstractly, in merely theological terms, but concretely, physically. They search for it, summon it, in plants and animals, in human communities, because they are called by it (this is Latour’s dynamic of co-relative construction between a people and an entity). They pay as much attention to the close at hand (their many neighbors) as to the far away (the one globe).
I’m reminded here of what Schelling has one of his own conceptual personae say in his non-modern dialogue concerning natural religion, Clara, Or on Nature’s Connection to the Spirit World. Here is a speech by the Naturphilosophic doctor to Clara about how modern philosophers have neglected the concrete elements of the cosmos in favor of the abstract forms of the spirit:
How much happier most people would be, how much pointless longing would come to an end, how much easier would life be borne and relinquished, if everyone continually kept in mind that here anything divine is only appearance and not reality, that even whatever is most spiritual isn’t free, but arises only conditionally—that it is the blossom and here and there even the fruit, but not the trunk and the roots…[Instead,] they start with what is most general and spiritual and are thereby never able to come down to reality or particulars. They are ashamed to start from the earth, to climb up from the creature as if from a rung on a ladder, to draw those thoughts that are beyond the senses first from earth, fire, water, and air. And so they don’t get anywhere, either: their webs of thought are plants without roots, they don’t hang onto anything, like spiders’ webs do on shrubs or walls; instead, they float in the air and the sky like these delicate threads here in front of us. And yet they believe they can strengthen man thereby, even help advance the age that nevertheless suffers by the very fact that while one part has indeed sunk completely into the mud, the other has presumed to climb so high that it can no longer find the ground beneath it. (28)
Schelling sought, much like Latour, to bring the natural sciences back down to earth. Also like Latour, he engaged natural philosophy (what has since become ecology) as a work of political theology. As Latour mentioned in his first lecture, political theology is articulated in the trinitarian terms of theos, demos, and nomos, or God, people, and land. In his preface to Clara, Schelling composes his own work of philosophical fiction concerning how the moderns had set apart ancient (Aristotlean) metaphysics from their own transcendental epistemology (a veiled metaphysics founded on bifurcation):
Through its name the old metaphysics declared itself to be a science that followed in accordance with, and that to some extent also followed from, our knowledge of nature and improved and progressed from that; thus in a certain competent and sound way that is of service only to those who have a desire for knowledge, metaphysics took the knowledge that it boasted in addition physics. Modern philosophy did away with its immediate reference to nature, or didn’t think to keep it, and proudly scorned any connection to physics. Continuing with its claims to a higher world, it was no longer metaphysics but hyperphysics. Only now did its complete incapacity for its proposed aim emerge. Because it wanted to spiritualize itself completely, it first of all threw away the material that was absolutely necessary to the process and right from the very beginning it kept only what was spiritual…In this state of affairs there was indeed no other means of restoring philosophy than by calling it back to earth—albeit not from heaven, which it had renounced, but from that empty space in which it was suspended between heaven and earth. This happened through the philosophy of nature. Nevertheless, it was only to be expected from the general order and run of things that the spiritualizers of this time would clamor that this beginning was bringing philosophy down, denying everything spiritual, even denying what was holy and divine…Just because of that we declare that however far we may care to drive the edifice of our thoughts in what follows, we will still only have achieved something if the temple whose last spire disappears into an inaccessible light is, at its very deepest foundation, wholly supported by nature. (3-5)
Schelling’s “nature,” of course, is not the unified, undisputed, externalized nature of the moderns. Schelling’s nature is a dynamically evolving pluriverse of potencies. Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is perhaps the first “post-epistemological science,” as Latour calls it: it is the first science to be done with the modernist images of spirit “in here” and nature “out there.” For Schelling, the human is the turning point between the physical and the spiritual. I quote the doctor at length:
…shouldn’t we suppose that a divine law prescribed that nature should rise up first to man in order to find within him the point at which the two worlds are unified; that afterwards the one should immediately merge with the other through him, the growth of the external world continuing uninterrupted into the inner or spirit world?… Man would have lived both a spiritual and bodily life at the same time, even here; the whole of nature would have risen to heaven or to an enduring and eternal life in and with man. God did not want a lifeless or necessary tie (between the external and inner world), but a free and living one, and man bore the word of this link in his heart and on his lips. Thus the whole of nature’s elevation, too, depended on man’s freedom. It rested on whether he would forget what was behind him and reach toward what lay before him. Now, however, man reached back (how this happened and why God permitted it, I do not ask); man even called for and hankered back to this external world, and by stopping not only his own progress, but that of the whole of nature, he thereby lost the heavenly world. Whoever has seen with their own eyes what terrible consequences a constricted development has on the human body, a development that nature strongly desires; whoever has seen how a crisis in an illness remains, due to an inept treatment or to a weakness already present, making the crisis unmanageable, and how such a crisis immediately causes the body’s strength to relapse to a mortal frailty unfailingly resulting in death; whoever has seen this will be able to get a general idea of the destructive effects that the constriction of evolution suddenly entering in through man must have had on the whole of nature. The strength that had emerged fully and powerfully, ready to rise up into a higher world and to reach its point of transfiguration, withdrew back into the present world and consequently suffocated the inner drive toward life. This drive, though still like a fire enclosed within, now acted as a fire of pain and fear looking everywhere for an outlet because it was no longer possible for it to rise up. Any stage leading upward is delightful, but the one that has fallen is frightful. Doesn’t everything point to a life that has sunk downward? Have these hills grown just as they stand here? Has the ground that carries us come about by rising up or by sinking back? And, in addition, surely it’s not that a stable, constant order prevails here, but that chance, too, set in once the lawful development had been constricted? Or who will believe that the waters that so obviously have had an effect everywhere, that have severed these valleys and have left behind so many sea creatures in our hills, are the result of everything working in accordance with an inner law? Who will suppose that a divine hand has laid hard stone on top of slippery clay, so that the rocks would subsequently slide down and bury in terrible ruins not only the peaceful valleys dotted with people’s homes, but also the walkers happily going their way? Oh, the true ruins are not those of ancient human splendor that the curious seek out in the Persian or Indian deserts; the whole Earth is one great ruin, where animals live as ghosts and men as spirits and where many hidden powers and treasures are locked away as if by an invisible strength or by a magician’s spell. And we wanted to blame these powers that are locked up rather than thinking about freeing them within us first? Certainly, in his own way man is no less spellbound and transformed. Because of this, heaven sent higher beings from time to time, who were supposed to undo the spell within his inner being and to open up to him a glance into the higher world again with their wonderful hymns and magic charms. Most people, however, are completely captivated by external appearances and think that it is therein that it is to be found. Just as farmers creep round an old, destroyed, or enchanted castle with divining rods in their hands, or shine their lamps into chambers buried underground, and even go with crowbars and levers in the hope of finding gold or other valuables: so, too, does man go about nature, entering some of her hidden rooms and calling this search “natural science.” But the treasures are not covered by rubble alone; the treasures have been locked up in the very wreckage and rocks themselves by a spell that only another magic charm can undo. (23-24)
Schelling here hints at the connections only now becoming obvious to us (we the people of earth) between our way of knowing and our way of dwelling. Do we dwell on the earth? That seems obvious enough. But do we know earthily–that is, do we think nature heartily, with heart (the organ of imagination), rather than resentfully, with hatred for our fallen condition? Do we tell our theostories as if from nowhere (history), as if from an aerial vantage point looking back at earth as we flee from her terrors and repress our own humble origins from out of her soils? Or do we set our stories in place, telling them while firmly planted on this planet among its human and non-human people (geostory)?
Latour is asked at they end of his talk [1:09:00] a rather simple question: What of magic? He jokes that he was too fearful for his life to bring it up having recently learned of Edinburgh’s history of witch-hunting. I get the impression, though, that an earthly science would have more in common with the ancient relational knowledges of elemental alchemy and geocentric astrology than it does with the alienating informatics of modern techno-industrial capitalism.
“Just think,” continues Schelling’s doctor, “of nature’s many bright and beneficent strengths…
She still hasn’t forgotten that through man she shall be raised up further and freed, that even now the talisman still lies within him through which she will be redeemed. That is why she comes to man in thanks when he scatters seeds on the earth, tills and waters the wild and arid ground, and why she rewards him with extravagant abundance. It seems to me that her feeling for man is essentially one of friendship and often of sympathy…on her great path to the common good nature can perhaps only seldom take part in the fate and mood of an individual. But perhaps important changes have never happened in whole nations without there being a general shift in nature at the same time. History books are full of this; how many signs from heaven, in the air and on earth, have presaged these fateful times. Everything speaks to us and would so much like to make itself understood. (26)
Magic, according to the Whiteheadian poet Charles Stein, can be defined as “the art of producing ontological shifts in public.” I’m more and more convinced that Latour’s tactic is to bring magic back into the matter of science so as to better publicize its powers.
Bruno Latour (the infamous sociologist of science, …or famed political ecologist and anthropologist of the moderns) is delivering the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Above is his first lecture, “Once Out of Nature: Natural Religion as a Pleonasm.” In these lectures, Latour is attempting to prepare us (we moderns? we humans?) to meet the terrible face of Gaia. To do so, he first has to compose us, that is, to concresce us as a political fiction, a people, the people, of Earth.
No longer content to remain the storehouse and dumpster for modernity’s noisy industrial parade, Tellus is returning to tell us of her 4.5-billion year “geostorical adventure.” From primeval fireball in the Hadean, to bacterial superorganism in the Archean, to a lush, oxygenated animal habitat in the Proterozoic; now, at the height of the Anthropocene, just as her wild vitality appears to be succumbing to the technoöspheric control of the “perfectly” self-regulating global market, she is showing non-natural signs of shape-shifting.
Climatologists–the people of Gaia if there are any–are attacked by other scientists for being a lobby. The climatologists have a choice, according to Latour: they can respond by saying “No, no, we are not a lobby, we are just scientists!” (But who are the scientists? They are just people with no specific boundaries or biases, which is literally “everybody.’) Or, the climatologists can accept themselves as a people trying to articulate the face of the earth.
A people is not ‘everybody,’ since that would be no one in particular. A people is not composed by the autonomous rational subject of the moderns, it is composed by the earthly ‘commonplace’ norms to which we each belong.