The following are my notes from “Querying Natural Religion: Immanence, Gaia, and the Parliament of Lively Things.” (Live-blogging did not work, as we didn’t have a live internet connection.) These notes are followed by a brief set of post-event summary comments.
The setting: an airplane hangar of a hall in the Baltimore Convention Center. This made the audience of some 120 seem like a puny one.
Ivakhiv: Latour’s Gifford Lectures and the Broader Context (presentation here)
Latour is best known for his work in science studies (or STS), in developing Actor-Network Theory, and in having played a role in the so-called Science Wars. The irony, with the latter, is that he has been adamant in recognizing the power of science, and had long been criticized by many of his STS peers for bending over backwards to welcome nature back into the social.
What Latour recognizes is not the power of Science to access ‘Reality’ or ‘Nature’ directly – but its power to forge the kinds of mediations and translations that build powerfully robust and durable networks of relationality between humans & the nonhuman world. It is those mediations – what science does – that count, not its claims about Reason, Objectivity, or anything else.
The correct question to ask, for Latour, is not: “Is it real, or is it a construction?” but “How, and through what mediators, is it constructed? How does the construction change each of the actors involved? And how well is it constructed?”
Latour latterly has become a poet and rhapsodist of science – or at least of ecology, and certainly of Gaia.
To understand the Gifford Lectures, one needs a grasp of the Latour’s project for last quarter-century of an “anthropology of the moderns” — a ‘comparative anthropology’ that would relativize the set of ideas that have shaped western modernity’s understanding of itself. In place of traditional binaries (mind and matter, subject and object, nature and society, science and politics, reason and faith, facts and values, truth and perception), Latour pays attention not to what is claimed by any ‘regime of truth’ (Foucault) or ‘mode of existence’ (Souriaut), but to what is done by it, with it, and through it. Latour is dedicated to undoing the ‘bifurcation of nature’ (Whitehead) between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary qualities’
A comparative anthropology of the natural-cultural ‘collectives’ asks strange questions: “What sort of people are they?” (people being products of formations in which personhood, subjecthood, of one kind or another, is recognized). “What are the entities under which they assemble?” i.e., to what do they ascribe their assembly as such? “And how do they distribute the agencies making up their cosmos?”
Latour takes as a precondition that we live in perilous times: times when scientists evoke a looming climate catastrophe while others ask them “But why should we trust you any more than anyone else?” His inquiry is intended to answer this question in the only way admissible once the starting points are shifted toward a non-scientistic neutral ground. And the answer is always: look to what they do, not what they say.
Gaia, for Latour, is not a readymade superorganism, nor anything unified, universal, indisputable and indefeasible; not to be found in our “harmony with nature”; nor is it Nature itself, or “the environment” (as if there were a subject – humanity — that pre-existed its insertion into this “natural” something that envelops and environs us). Gaia is a project to be composed, carefully, by the agencies that might allow for its composition or might simply resist it.
The cosmopolitical project is an experiment in “demogenesis.” The great challenge: How does one conduct diplomacy with things that don’t speak, at least in a language known to the parliaments of the Moderns (never-been-moderns)? How can we envision a diplomacy that would translate the languages spoken by all the entities of Gaia?
Latour’s responses have been suggestive: include the tools and practices of scientists (monitoring instruments, observation stations, graphs, models, expeditions, data standards and formats, disputation procedures, and so on); but also a role for artists, and for activities that resemble religion.
What sorts of transformations are needed if this collective venture of an Earthbound collectivity is to proceed forward? What kinds of agents are to be appealed to, under whose jurisdiction we might gather? What sorts of rites, rituals, and cultic practices would guarantee the lines of communication and translation that could make this collectivity robust and peaceable?
Morton: Secret Agents ov Gaia
When you look for Gaia, you won’t find her, as laws, as nature, etc., but will find a tricksy nothingness, a “nihilesque” (Massumi), something ouroboric. Gaia is a secret agent made of other secret agents, secretive in their operations.
Darwin’s message: there are no species, and they have no origin. Species are hyperobjects, massively distributed entities. We humans are a secret agent, secret even to ourselves. Gaia as englobing, encompassing sphere.
Deeper secrecy: inviolable, irreducible – the nothingness, the nihilesque, that is a symptom of an irreducible gap between what an object is and how it appears. A raindrop… is raindroppy. The raindrop is secret even from itself. Philosophy ought to help us tolerate the ambiguity.
Latour moves us toward the thought of Gaia beyond the epistemology-centric way. Some of us have been caught with our Posthuman pants down at the very moment when we need to rethink the human, at the moment of The Anthropocene.
With what logic can Gaia be thought, or is Gaia illogical? We need a logic whereby things can be what they seem and not what they seem. Pieces of Gaia are not Gaia. Gaia not a holistic being. We need self-consciously loopy sentences like “This sentence is false.” Things are agential because they play. There is a play between what the agent is and how it appears. A thing curls and twists all by itself, warping itself into contradiction. Logic needs to accept playfulness. Secret agents play and hide.
The Kantian shockwave is simultaneous with the opening of the Anthropocene. We want our humans twisty and weird, but we want everything else to resemble what comes out of an Easybake oven.
Everything deviates from itself. Everything is fragile. We need playful, affiliative, accommodating dance moves. Gaia is a trickster.
Taylor: Bruno Latour and the Seductions of Gaian Animism
Latour is following broader cultural trends rather than leading them. He is being seduced by Gaian animism, but that is already well under way.
Genealogy of Gaian animism. Organicist philosophy: all things entwined and nested within unfolding systems of universe. Hutton’s idea of Earth as living organism. Thoreau: “There is nothing inorganic,” the earth is “living poetry.” The universe includes intelligences with which we should be in proper relationships.
Ethology has blurred the line between humans and other organisms. Announcements about the world being full of other agents, etc., are not new. Latour recognizes that humans need to develop ceremonies. Latour’s first play “Cosmocolossa.”
John Muir, Rachel Carson, Aldo Leopold, James Lovelock. Whole earth images (Steward Brand, Whole Earth Catalog), astronauts, Voyager’s Pale Blue Dot, Berlin exhibition on Whole Earth counterculture. corporate advertisers including Sanyo have built on this in their PR. Johannesburg 2002 Summit (incl. nuclear power promotion, BMW, Welcome Ceremony, etc.). Captain Planet, Avatar.
Differences between Latour and the others: Latour follows a scholarly fashion to insist there is no nonhuman Nature and that we must embrace the Anthropocene. For Latour, nonhuman organisms are mere background. Despite his theoretical embrace of multivocality, his performances pay scant attention to these voices and what they must say to us if given a chance. Compare unfavorably with Pacific Northwest salmon performances, the Council of All Beings, turtles at Seattle WTO protests, Planetariums and natural history museum theatrical spectacles, the Walk Through Time at Jo-burg Summit, cosmological evolutionary sacred story.
Latour is flirting with these trends, but not ready to go all the way, remains tethered to anthropocentric assumptions. Time to retreat from the AnthroImperium.
Connolly: The Anthropocene, Spirituality, and Bruno Latour
Emerging cadre of the Earthbound, the carriers of a Gaia geostory. Latour promotes a new Schmittian division between friends and enemies, with the latter cadre embracing the Anthropocene as the defining condition of our time. Suppresses afterlife escapes, adopts a new secular image, challenges secular modernists.
Lynn Margulis retreats from calling Gaia a holistic organism and emphasizes its character as intersecting, self-organizing processes, with which we are entangled by numerous threads, ties, and modes, full of incipiencies.
Both stories – human exceptionalism and holism – need to be challenged. Talking about climate change rather than doing things about it is a form of climate skepticism (Latour’s argument). Belief is invested in performances more than in what we say.
But WC worries about his Schmittian division. WC embraces Latour’s onto-creed over several others, but creed and spirituality are interinvolved. A creed expresses intellectualized understandings and is the site of spiritual investments not exhausted by the creedal confession. But it doesn’t capture the nexus of energies from which it emerges. The belief is the site of spiritual investments not exhausted by the confession.
Schmitt vs. Nietzsche both as immanent naturalists. Interinvolvement without complete reducibility. Calls for spiritual affinities across diverse creeds — which won’t fit the line of division within Latour. A positive pluralist assemblage must be multi-creedal. Other lines of social division do not line up neatly either. Social science tends to ignore cross-creedal dispositions/spiritualities.
Spirituality infuses belief with variable degrees of intensity. Spirituality gives an edge to belief; its intensities bathe the quality of our participation in a community. Creed, spirituality, and practice are interinvolved. The hope is for a militant assemblage of multiple affinities of spirituality.
Dilemma of electoral politics: its grid of intelligibility is far too limited. But to forego electoral politics today merely cedes more power and institutional control to the radical Right. So we must participate while resisting the grid of electoral intelligibility.
Most promising way: to multiply the sites and scales of political action through (e.g.,) role experimentation in churches, work, consumption, locality, social movements, electoral and citizen movements, etc. A series of things may happen: we become less implicated in problem roles, helps loosen up the fabric to changes, accumulation of minor experiments can be linked to demonstrations, university/church/union movements, etc. A new Event will erupt. Movements between sites and scales can set stage for shift, for nonviolent general strikes across several countries at once.
WC’s Schmittian division: between neoliberal-evangelical alliance and the more intensely pluralist assemblage responding to the Anthropocene.
Deudney: Reflections on Gaian Planetary Civic Religion
DD does more situated global/international and environmental politics; not high theory nor religious studies. Has a bifurcated reaction to Latour’s Gifford Lectures.
Positive reaction: BL’s bottom line point about climate change is laudable. Latour has been helping to dispel the postmodernism “mistake.” And as lectures, these are a tour de force.
But: several gripes.
1. BL tends to emphasize the novelty of CC and A-cene. But this is costly; the opposite path is more appealing. It’s not novel to the human experience: we’ve always been doing what we now have to do. We’ve been embedded in thick webs of material causality, experienced vagaries of nature, etc. Civilization has been dealing with these types of feedbacks. We haven’t done it well often and there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to do it now. But we shouldn’t downplay the value of a robust set of political traditions and practices. We need to scale up the domestic and the municipal: republican, democratic civic forms of decision-making that have taken feedback mechanisms into account. E.g., good neighbor policies, zoning ordinances, building codes, subsidy/tax systems, land use planning, etc. Our challenge is attending to these on a more expansive level. We need continuity rather than discontinuity.
2. BL’s curious detachment from the materiality of the environmental movement. The movement has been advocating new material practices, and new identities and institutions to support them. There are prototypes for doing all that we need to do; they just need to be diffused into much more extensively practiced forms.
3. BL’s treatment (lack of) of existing literatures. High political/metaphysical/ontological writing is saying things we’ve all heard before, but in different words. Disengagement with previous work. Rhetorical moves that BL and others working in this vein adopt: tendency to straw-man the Modern, Descartes and Kant as embodying these metaphysical mistakes, etc. But what about the little-m modern (more engaged, Montesquieu through Dewey)? Geopolitics has been done from very beginning. Aristotle and Montesquieu are filled with reflection on the webs, loops, etc. Larger body of work on “complex interdependence.” BL is dismissive of “think globally, act locally”; but people who advocate it are making the same point he’s making about feedback loops.
4. BL’s politics are ambiguous, but what I see raises red flags and doubts. High-Parisian claims that everything has to change. Hobbes and Schmitt don’t give us good starting points; Aristotelian-Deweyan traditions just need to be reapplied on successively larger spatial scales. BL seems to be part of the Schmitt boom in academic Left, which is politically horrific (the crown-jurist of the Third Reich!) and radically antithetic to democratic/republican approaches. The sovereign doesn’t decide the exception, the executive does (Lockian prerogative). We need to avoid situations where the executive has to make the exception.
BL on war and “the enemy”: here he’s jumped into a large debate on environment, security, militarization, etc. Will envir. change cause a war or trigger cooperation? Will it desecuritize? BL’s politics appear eco-authoritarian.
Conclusion: there is much less here than meets the eye.
Q & A, discussion
Several issues and points of tension were discussed, including:
Capital-M versus small-m M/modernity: Big-M is Cartesianism, the totalistic Enlightenment power project, scientific perfectibility, technological modernization, etc. Small-m (Deudney) is the modernizations that have become the fabric of governance with knowledges, science, etc.; already embedded in environmental policy, etc., with much to work with. But (Connolly) Deweyan experimentalism is pre-Anthropocene, it’s not enough.
The Anthropocene. Is it new? When did it start? It’s still contested by geologists, but does that matter? TM: It’s defined by a catastrophe. Oxygen is the product of a catastrophic event, the Bacteriacene. Self-replicating life defined by Cyanidocene. Nature (periodic cycling, harmonic) is a product of the agricultural project.
Agency/agencies. WC: need a more modest notion of agency, which encompasses mitochondria, etc.
The economy & neoliberalism: Discussion over the absence of discussion by Latour on the role of the (capitalist) economy, and neoliberalism in particular. (My observation: he does elsewhere recognize that this was an oversight of his earlier work, and that the current economic system is tragic for the project of “ecologizing.” AIME and other recent works make some effort to address this.)
Follow-up summary thoughts (Ivakhiv)*
If Latour is treated as a high-T theorist (of the French kind), he has failed. But his audiences are not necessarily the same as (all of) our audiences, and we need to be willing to step out of our own modes of inquiry. The ambitious/colossal grasp of his AIME project (etc.) is not entirely novel and unprecedented; pieces of it appear in many different thinkers (and indeed he is reliant upon them, sometimes acknowledging them and sometimes not). But his way of working on those pieces is a welcome challenge, a way of setting everything into motion at once (which is impossible! — but exhilarating).
Deudney’s attention to low-m modernist techniques — experimental, pragmatic, Aristotelian-Deweyan forms of decision-making that pay attention to feedback loops — is very welcome. More needs to be done with this (!). But today — as we watch the impotent climate talks in Poland, for instance — these need scaling up in a dramatic fashion, as well as scaling down (affect/psyche) and across (globally, etc.), deepening and thickening.
Latour’s AIME project is intended as an “ontological thickening”. To the extent it succeeds in mobilizing allies across various worlds (and this is still very much in question), it could become a significant intellectual watershed.
Connolly’s and Taylor’s work, in very different ways, points to many of the affective, imaginal, and performative threads that need to be woven into potential eco-political alliances. Connolly on the many points of political-ecological-etc. linkage across credal divides, experimentation with personal and institutional roles and practices (“arts of the self”, “micropolitics,” etc. — all extremely important interventions into political theory), and so on. Taylor on the history of responses to Earth/Gaia well before the announcement of the Anthropocene: the “arts of the self” of the radical environmental movement, which itself ought to be better understood and contextualized within other political movements. (The potential alliance between these two thinkers is itself worth the price of admission!)
And Morton’s very demeanor displays an affective stance that is appropriate to the task: his articulation of the “secret agents of Gaia,” the history of (Romantic, Victorian era, et al.) responses to the chasm beneath & around us, the momentousness of what we need at this time whilst recognizing the paradoxical nature of seeing/being and not seeing/being, the thereness of the things (which need visibility) and their withdrawal.
I am grateful to all the speakers for taking up my invitation to participate (and to Bron for enrolling Dan Deudney into the panel).
Thanks also to Sarah Pike for generously agreeing to moderate despite an already overcommitted presence at the conference, and for her skillful management of the event; to (the essential) Ipsita Chatterjea (many, many thanks!!) and Randall Styers for all their help in making it happen; to Robert Puckett from the AAR, the convention center techies (without whom we’d have been lost), and the audience, with all its interest and questions.
* on the principle that it’s my blog, so I get the last word 🙂