We Have Never Known Mother Earth

In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Bruno Latour aims to reintroduce us to our own planet. The Earth emerges as a bizarre and ...

In Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime, Bruno Latour aims to reintroduce us to our own planet. The Earth emerges as a bizarre and unfamiliar presence, dimly glimpsed but exerting a colossal and uncertain pressure on all our actions. Though its unpredictable effects promise no meaning or redemption, this alien power forces our attention to the immediacy of terrestrial life.

Latour’s work has set the pace for science and technology studies since his ethnographies of laboratories in the 1980s and 90s; since We Have Never Been Modern, he has upended received wisdom about the bond between science and progress, challenged academic habits of critique, and inspired radical approaches to objects and ontologies across the social sciences and humanities. The concern for ecology that runs throughout these works takes center stage in these much-awaited lectures, pushed forward by what Isabelle Stengers calls the “intrusion of Gaia”—the catastrophic fits of an Earth whose tolerance has been exceeded.1

Human-caused climate change reawakens an apocalyptic sensibility, altering everything we do, think, and feel, whether we acknowledge it or not. “We have become the people who could have acted thirty or forty years ago – and did nothing, or far too little.” Political cataclysms are as much part of this “new climate regime” as hurricanes and wildfires: after the US election, Latour described the “innovation” of Donald Trump as “a mad dash for maximum profit while abandoning the rest of the world to its fate.” Trump would be the first truly ecologically-oriented president, through pure negativity: “For the first time, climate change denial is determining all political decisions.”2

What would it take to shake us out of our denial, delusional hope, or numb passivity—all these ways in which “ecology is making us crazy”? We need new senses and new tools for thought, Latour contends. Not just more carefully verified observations and arguments, but “plays, exhibitions, art forms, poetry, and maybe also rituals” that can sensitize us to the feedback loops between our smallest actions and their consequences near and far.3 “Gaia” is one such conceptual experiment.

The Greek goddess of the Earth, the mother of the Titans, Gaia was reclaimed by the chemist James Lovelock and biologist Lynn Margulis to describe the earth’s unique status as a symbiotic system, where living things co-evolve with their geological and atmospheric conditions. Despite its New Age echoes, Latour seeks to dispel any cozy reassurance: the first of the Gods to appear after Chaos, Gaia was a vicious troublemaker, giving her son Cronos the stone sickle he used to castrate his father Uranus. Likewise, in his reading of Lovelock and Margulis, Latour guillotines any idea of a harmonizing designer, thermostat, or clockmaker overseeing the feedback loops through which organisms and environments alter each other. Even if relatively stable equilibria hold sway at times, each entity of the planet, down to the outer shell of its molten core, acts with and on the others; actor and context, figure and ground are constantly reversing their hierarchies.

The new climate regime reverses the direction of imperialism’s land-grab: the land now grabs the profiteering settlers, depleting soils and stocks, eroding coasts, flooding plains.

After centuries of stony sleep, this altered assemblage demands to be heard and seen. Latour does all he can to keep Gaia weird—to define it such that it always escapes definition. “Facing Gaia” means “instituting” and “inaugurating” this elusive entity, establishing its place in our affairs. Yet even as we roll out the red carpet we realize, as in a tale of gothic horror, that the visitor is already in the house: it’s the carpet itself, the floor, the walls, and the foundations, and has taken over our bodies and minds.

Sketching Gaia’s portrait, Latour’s strongest lines are erasures; he emphasizes what Gaia is not. Against the habit of Western metaphysics to try to master the cosmos by gathering it into a sphere, Gaia is not a totality, whole, globe, system, container, or organism. Most crucially, it is not the “Nature” of science: dead matter ruled by mechanical laws. In the age of the Anthropocene, the “external” nature we confront in rising temperatures, extinctions, salinization, and erosion is partially the result of human industries, policies, and ideologies. We walk a Möbius strip in which “everything is looking at us,” where “we are so mixed up with [Nature] that it has become internal, human, all too human, provisional perhaps, in any case sensitive to everything we do.”

Even Latour’s most faithful readers may need to squint to bring Gaia’s positive features into focus—for example, his puzzling refrain that Gaia is the first “finally secular” figure of nature. Gaia was a goddess, after all, and Latour has repeatedly highlighted resonances between religion and science. Facing Gaia began as the 2013 Gifford Lectures on “natural theology,” launched in the 1890s to reconcile Christianity with post-Darwinian science. He earlier argued that science and religion both depend on “factishes”—material, human-made objects and the powers seen to animate them, which, through proper ritual administration in laboratories or shrines, set parameters for the actions of their adepts.4 Latour has also acknowledged the influence of Catholic essayist Charles Péguy: just as the interpreter of religious texts must restate, update, and transform them to allow their message to endure, scientists speak reliably about their objects only by translating them through fragile, constantly-maintained chains of instruments and inscriptions.5

If the “flat ontology” of his earlier Actor-Network Theory blurred the worlds of science, religion, and politics—treating all entities as networks of humans and nonhumans—he is now keen to establish their limits. Yet Latour’s Gaia does not herald a social order safely “disembedded” from the cosmos in Charles Taylor’s sense of “secular.”6 Gaia is “secular” because it compels us to abandon the sub specie aeternitatis perspective from which moderns have considered the universe as a whole.

To prepare his project to “re-set modernity,” Latour sketches the emergence of its supreme authority, “Nature.” According to Egyptologist Jan Assmann, in ancient polytheistic empires a “moderate relativism” allowed for conciliatory translations between divinities: “our Ra” is “your Apollo,” more or less. With the appearance of Mediterranean monotheisms and their jealous god(s), religion became “counter-religion”: an ever-vigilant struggle to purify the true faith and denounce false idols. In the West, this zeal eventually morphed into a rage against all idolatry and superstition, until science became a further “counter-religion” against religion itself, with “Nature” the new standard of truth. The 17th century’s experimental science arose as a solution to the wars of religion, shuffling relations among Nature, politics, and God.7 Matter was defined as dead and inert, while humans were granted all freedom of action, thought, and will (at least until the human sciences detected the “mechanisms” of economics, social structure, ideology, and the unconscious). God was chased from the earthly scene to a heavenly (or imaginary) world beyond; both creationists and militant atheists now share the view of Nature as a lifeless machine.


How to Live in Uncertain Times

By Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

For decades, Latour has been chopping away at this resilient but deceptive “distribution of agency”—his general term for the order that every collective, including ours, establishes to divide up “powers, aptitudes, and capacities, among things, gods, humans and classes.”8 He now takes a positive and constructive approach. His previous book aimed to reinstitute modern values and ontologies—what the West holds dear—on a more realistic, pluralist basis.9 Clearing away the phony touchstone of scientific “Nature”—the unitary truth supposed to lurk beneath the multiplicity of partial and contradictory interpretations—allows for a “redistribution of agency” which more closely follows the contours of our actual practices.

Facing Gaia continues the project of redefining science, religion, and politics, clarifying the West’s self-understanding to prepare for a franker negotiation with the rest of the planet on matters of shared concern—climate change, for starters. Once “the comparison of collectives [is] finally freed of the obligation to locate any one collective with respect to the others according to the sole schema of nature (singular) and cultures (plural) … Politics can begin again!” This slogan rejoins his longstanding experimentation with the “parliament of things”: a notion of political debate and legislation in which the interests of trees, mice, anemones, bacteria, atmospheric gases, and oceans would be represented on a par with those of humans. Latour has lately expanded this parliament’s constituency to the entire planet.10 Taking off from Michel Serres’s observation of the etymological link between “religion” and “negligence,” Latour proposes a minimal definition of religion as “that to which one clings, what one protects carefully, what one thus is careful not to neglect.” He elaborates a project of “comparing collectives” according to what they cling to: their “supreme authorities,” the land they inhabit, the entities and capacities of action they recognize and administer.

He imagines convening them all—in a trans-ontological climate summit—to work out what they are willing to give up and what they will fight to keep, “composing a common world” by a “redistribution of agency” on a planetary scale. To avoid granting one collective’s supreme values authority over all the others, this conversation must occur without any standard or arbiter, whether science, God, or a “universal” framework of right or law. Instead, like Hobbes’s humans before the Leviathan, we must “go through a state of war in order to search, afterward, through diplomatic transactions, for peaceful solutions.” Supported by a reading of Nazi lawyer Carl Schmitt’s geopolitics, Latour’s emphasis on declaring enemies and waging war adds a troubling note: the specter of armed, life-destroying conflict seems a perverse prelude to cooperation.

In 2015, before the Paris Climate Summit, Latour and a few hundred volunteers tested these ideas with a “Theater of Negotiations”—a cosmopolitical Model UN. Stretching the concept of “sovereignty” beyond nations or human collectives, the interests represented were not only “France,” “India,” and “Indigenous Peoples,” but “Forest,” “Endangered Species,” and “Oceans.” The participants agreed “to define a territory not as a two-dimensional segment of a map but as something on which an entity depends for its subsistence, something that can be made explicit or visualized, something that an entity is prepared to defend.” Working out the relations among the “several overlapping authorities” summoned by the debate opened a multidimensional space of exchanges that would make M. C. Escher dizzy.

Latour declares the experiment a success (there were, apparently, no actual brawls between either humans or geological entities). Yet he gives little indication of how to make such a theater more than a simulation. His proposal seeks to give a voice to “the wretched of the earth” who have contributed least to the Anthropocene, but who will most painfully feel its effects.11 Given the short-term greed, duplicity, and iron-fisted threats in international politics, what could compel the current lords of the earth to join a frank debate and abandon the arguments of economic necessity, scientific certainty, technological inevitability—or, when those fail, brute force—which have served them so well?

Latour asks, “can we return to humility, three times in a row—for sciences, for politics, and for religion—instead of the deadly amalgam that has mixed up their virtues but has succeeded only in poisoning us?”

Though Latour does not spell it out, this may be one of the most important roles Gaia is destined to play. The new climate regime reverses the direction of imperialism’s land-grab: the land now grabs the profiteering settlers, depleting soils and stocks, eroding coasts, flooding plains. These effects bleed from weather and science headlines to those in industry, politics, and finance. The obscure yet terrible effects of Gaia—if only it can be adequately named, drawn, and instituted—might force the Rex Tillersons of the world to loosen their grip on the helm.

Gaia is not a god or entity like any other. It has no borders, it belongs to no one collective, yet it possesses an incomparable power to command: “While [Gaia] has no sovereignty, it may at least have what the Romans called majesty.” Historian Yan Thomas glossed this “empty place of Majesty, which projected its sanctified circle around power” as “a plenitude affirmed only as untransgressible, through a prohibition”; we recognize Gaia in part by what threatens its open-ended fullness.12 On this point, Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro take Latour’s talk of “friends and foes” very seriously, explicitly naming Gaia’s most devastating enemies: Exxon, Gazprom, “the sinister Koch brothers,” Monsanto, Dupont, and “147 banks and other corporations” — and, we might add, climate deniers, the IMF, market fundamentalists, and other willful enablers whose actions are spurring the “great acceleration” to ever-more suicidal speeds.13

By contrast, those who might wish to act as the as-yet unseen “people of Gaia” must set aside the tricks that make it possible to imagine an escape from the constraints and unpredictable feedbacks of terrestrial existence: “To live in the epoch of the Anthropocene is to acknowledge a strange and difficult limitation of powers in favor of Gaia.” Gaia forces us to turn our gaze away from the infinite spaces of science, the eternal laws of the state or the market, the transcendence of otherworldly religions, and return to the humbling dirt, or humus. Where Stengers urges a slowing down, Latour asks, “can we return to humility, three times in a row—for sciences, for politics, and for religion—instead of the deadly amalgam that has mixed up their virtues but has succeeded only in poisoning us?”14 In place of the moderns’ imperious command to push ever plus ultra, Latour’s new slogan is plus intra—to burrow into our Earthbound condition.

Earthbound sciences would abandon the inhibiting bifurcation between primary and secondary qualities, “facts and values.” Rather than a view from nowhere of a pre-assembled Nature, objectivity can be recognized in the quantity and rich variety of mediations that establish and maintain robust chains of reference. Scientists must foreground the instruments, institutions, and relationships that form the sciences’ lifeblood; they strengthen their power by realistically presenting their limitations.


Even Broken History Is History

By Jenn Stroud Rossmann

Political life undertaken in the face of Gaia requires “a body politic that finally recognizes in the Earth that through which this assembled body solemnly agrees to be definitively bounded.” A truly Earthbound collective would abandon the fantasy of a state regulating itself through automatic procedures or ruled by impersonal economic laws; instead, politics would be recognized as a circle through which the “general will” is negotiated between leaders and led, public servants and their constituents. The state, redefined beyond traditional notions of sovereignty, might then restrict itself to the ratifying of international treaties.15

A religion reinvigorated by the tremors of Gaia would not deny the world in favor of an afterlife or secret realm of spirit. Nor would it allow itself the moderns’ self-satisfied conviction that the end of times has already arrived through the gnostic revelation of technoscientific facts (here, in fascinating if demanding pages, Latour draws upon philosopher Eric Voegelin). Instead, Gaia summons a delicate state of suspension: a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling, not towards the inscrutable will of God, but towards the earthly conditions of an “end time” into which we may have already tipped: “the apocalypse is a call to be rational at last, to have one’s feet on the ground.” Whatever its content, a religion careful of its limits is a bulwark against fundamentalism—theistic and atheistic alike.

Like the life-changing injunction to use your death as an adviser, Latour presents Gaia as a reminder of the finitude of our knowledge and beliefs. As a tutelary presence keeping us attuned to “materiality, the earthbound, the ordinary, the mundane,” Gaia also names the “metamorphic zone,” the shifting ground that all collectives and modes of existence share. It resembles mana or wakan, the “floating signifiers” that Levi-Strauss pulled from Marcel Mauss’s theory of magic. But Gaia, “the secular aggregation of all the agents that can be recognized thanks to the tracing of feedback loops,” is no mere sign. Palpable in all the universes of what William James named the pluriverse, Gaia may be materiality itself: the possibility of sensing what makes worlds possible.

“We have become the people who could have acted thirty or forty years ago – and did nothing, or far too little.”

Though Latour arrives here by a route all his own, this many-faced operator is concrete, a morally and aesthetically compelling way to flesh out the “negative universal history” that Dipesh Chakrabarty enigmatically proposed as the basis for a planetary confrontation with the Anthropocene.16 For their part, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro, responding to Latour’s original lectures, suggest we listen with more credulous ears to the preoccupations of those outside the dome of modern Nature—such as the animist cosmologies which tell of an original peopling of the world before a split into distinct species of plants and animals. Granting epistemic weight to the natures of indigenous collectives, as well as their “minor” means of “subvival,” might prepare the way for an as-yet unseen “people of Gaia.”17

Facing Gaia marks significant new turns in Latour’s bold, generous, and tirelessly creative philosophical project. The book’s challenges mimic those of the situation it seeks to describe: just as climate change unleashes unpredictable, tangled, contradictory forces that we struggle even to observe, readers may stumble as Latour races to catch Gaia—or at least to tag it, like a migratory bird whose redrawn yearly journey obliquely tells the tale of planetary upheaval.18 Translated from six hour-long lectures in English into French and back, the book would now take twice as long to read aloud. Some turnings of the gyre are more revelatory than others; the attempt to deliver a “proper dosage” of Carl Schmitt leaves a nasty aftertaste. Yet as always with Latour, readers will be rewarded with insightful juxtapositions, bons mots, and provocations, and find themselves swept along to unexpected vistas by their guide’s staggering purpose: to reframe the vertiginous present as an anthropological ensemble, in its fragmentation, dangers, contradictions, and potentials.

Facing Gaia makes clear that there is no more urgent task than to grasp the Möbius-strip entanglements of climate change—and that our inherited conceptual, political, and affective equipment is not up to this task. Until we abandon “Nature,” we cannot inhabit the Earth. With a necessary audacity, Latour’s book reckons with a situation—the situation, from now on—at once immediate and diffuse, undeniable but indeterminate, human-caused yet out of our hands, mundane and apocalyptic. Does Latour complete Gaia’s portrait? No, and that’s the point: “Gaia, the outlaw, is the anti-system.” Facing Gaia lets us glimpse some of the most telling and fearsome aspects of this unruly visitor. It points to the radical conversions in our institutions, acts, feelings, and thoughts that we will have to undergo in order to invite Gaia, this intimate alien, to welcome us back to our home. icon

  1. Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard University Press, 2012); “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, no. 2 (2004), pp. 225–248. See also Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, translated from the French by Tom Goffey (Open Humanities Press, 2015), pp. 43–50.
  2. Bruno Latour, “Europe as Refuge,” in The Great Regression, edited by Heinrich Geiselberger (Polity, 2017).
  3. See Émilie Hache and Bruno Latour,“Morality or Moralism? An Exercise in Sensitization.” Common Knowledge, vol. 16, no. 2 (2010), pp. 311–330.
  4. Latour, Bruno, Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (Harvard University Press, 1999.
  5. Henning Schmidgen, “The Materiality of Things? Bruno Latour, Charles Péguy and the History of Science, ” History of the Human Sciences, vol. 26, no. 1 (2013), pp. 3–28.
  6. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2007).
  7. His discussion of Descartes—with reference to Stephen Toulmin, Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity (University of Chicago Press, 1992)—enriches his recurrence to Shapin and Schaffer’s canonical treatment of Boyle and Hobbes in Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Princeton University Press, 2011).
  8. He uses this expression interchangeably with “nomos” and “cosmogram.” The quoted passage comes from the book under review.
  9. Bruno Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, 2013).
  10. Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature (Harvard University Press, 2004); Bruno Latour, War of the Worlds: What about Peace? (Prickly Paradigm, 2002).
  11. Donna Haraway, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Plantationocene, Chthulucene: Making Kin,” Environmental Humanities,vol. 6, no. 1 (2015), pp.159–165; Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (Harvard University Press, 2011); Christophe Bonneuil and Jean- Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us (Verso Books, 2016).
  12. Latour quoting Yan Thomas, “L’institution de la majesté” (1991). The Romans defined this “plenitude” by acts which violated it—the treasonous crimes of lèse-majesté. Latour’s invocation of majesty as a kind of political sublime seems at odds with his suggestion that we no longer have recourse to the sublime, because “we are henceforth a geological force with a grandeur comparable to mountain chains, volcanos, erosion.” Yet for Burke the sublime could be just as much a human-made as a natural power, in art as well as statecraft: “Those despotic governments which are founded on the passions of men, and principally upon the passion of fear, keep their chief as much as may be from the public eye,” Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). An intriguing, unstable motif of Facing Gaia is its references not only to the 17th century’s Descartes and Hobbes, but to the cosmological upsets of the early 19th century indexed by “the sublime”; allusions to Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, and the disorienting embrace of Caspar David Friedrich’s “Great Enclosure” on the book’s cover all hint at how artificial, humanized, and unheimlich the nature of romanticism (during the transition to coal) already was.
  13. Déborah Danowksi and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, The Ends of the World, translated from the Spanish by Rodrigo Nunes (Polity, 2017), pp.102–3. In a recent interview, Latour spells out in greater detail the terms of the war in which he sees us all engaged: Jop de Vrieze, “Bruno Latour, a Veteran of the ‘Science Wars,’ Has a New Mission,” Science, Oct 17, 2017.
  14. Isabelle Stengers, “The Cosmopolitical Proposal,” in Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy, edited by Latour and Peter Weibel (The MIT Press, 2005), pp. 994–1003.
  15. On Latour’s “re-instituted” politics and economics, see An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (327–356; 413–474).
  16. Dipesh Chakrabarty, “The Climate of History: Four Theses,” Critical Inquiry, vol. 35, no. 2 (2009), pp. 197–222, 222.
  17. The Ends of the World, pp. 62–72, 92–95, 122–3; see also Philippe Descola, La composition des mondes: Entretiens avec Pierre Charbonnier (Flammarion, 2014).
  18. Kristoffer Whitney, “Domesticating Nature?: Surveillance and Conservation of Migratory Shorebirds in the “Atlantic Flyway”,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, vol. 45 (2014), pp. 78–87.
Featured image: A Los Alamos resident watches the Jemez Mountains burn just a few miles west of town, 2011. Photograph courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory / Flickr