Lecture on Latour's Gaia Series
// PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR
Today in M.Phil program. I post for those interested.
September 21, 2016
Latour's "Facing Gaia"
Any discussion of the Anthropocene and anthropogenic climate change risks a melange of different authorial or professorial voices, ones seen time and again in the literature on environmentalism. There is the cloying, bereaved writer who mourns the loss of large parts of the earth to hyper-industrialization, as if nature were this or that patch of land she can no longer trammel and she is lost for all that. There is the moralizing "god be thanks, I am not like that" sermonizing: we know what can easily be done if only reactionaries bumpkins such as Trump or Bush or Harper or Sarkozy just finally recognized the consensus of a science they can't begin to understand. Then there is self-regarding academic, who takes the current and coming calamities as a good time to give real-world import to whatever it is they were studying before ("What John Donne can tell us about living green" is no doubt somewhere in the literature), or worse, as an opportune time to do us the pleasure of inventing new words to understand old ideas. This is not to deny the sincerity of any of these types of writers–at various moments, I am one or more of all three–not least since I can never sincerely question anyone's sincerity. Rather our reactions to the anthropocene, as philosophers and theorists, is shaped by the sheer ubiquity of the problem, of a size and scope our nation-state systems are too-outdated to begin to approach. Latour puts the conundrum well in the lectures we read:
We are all climato-sceptics. I certainly am. …So is the climatologist I was interviewing a few months back [who said], "I am a sceptic, nonetheless, since, from the fully objective knowledge I contribute to producing, I do nothing to protect my two kids from what is coming." This is the terrible quandary in which we find ourselves: being either one of those who deny that there is a threat, or one of those who, knowing full well the extent of the threat, do nothing to meet it. Nothing, at least, that could be at the right scale. I am not sure what is worse: to be a denier or to be impotent? (109)Moreover our various forms of media (FB, twitter, and so on, all with the same font for anything that pops up) have leveled down the problem to one media event among others. I mean, sure the Earth is warming at a rate unseen in millennia, but Brad and Angelina did just break up. (I haven't seen them, but is the language of the headlines and their size any more or less dire than any recent article on climate change? When all is hyperbole–as we Americans in the age of Trump can quickly attest–then attempting to shout just a bit louder about a problem is like trying to breath harder to counteract the wind.) Thus the theorist or philosopher is led to the last pose, perhaps in what is the last stage of grief when dealing with the anthropocene: brushing right past what can and should be done, since it can't and won't be done in our literal political climate, to theorize the end itself. Like Christian millenarians of the Middle Ages, the end is ever nigh, thus the many deaths in recent decades in what gets called theory: the end of the author, the end of the human, the end of nature, and now the end of the world.
We will see just what Latour does with this problem, calling for something like a strategic use of millenarian apocalypticism. But first, let's back up to discuss Latour's political ecology. In important works in the 1980s, Latour helped to form what became known as both Act Network Theory and Science and Technology Studies. For Latour any thing, event, etc., exists only through "trials of strength" with others. His method was avowedly anthropological, which is still the case in the Gaia lectures. How would we explain the religious beliefs of a community to which we didn't belong? We wouldn't treat their practices as unreal, since of course they have performative effects in terms of family rearing, political practices, and so on. They are very much real, but the anthropologist brackets out any reference to an outside: she discusses these practices without adjudicating the truth of these beliefs, which are besides the point. Latour does much the same for science (or Science) as he does for religion, the law, and ecology in his different writings over the last thirty years. Latour argues that things only exist through alliances, through acting on others, through getting things to engage with them. There is no "out there" of a nature that Science describes, but rather those things that science describes exist only through a network of relations between the human and non-human, between that which Science describes and the actants through which it makes new relations: the scientific institutions, people, and so on, that make its "discovery possible." In this sense, for Latour, the germ didn't pre-exist Louis Pasteur, but came to form alliances in and through him, through the real relations to a given network of actants. Without those actants, no bacteria. So too with God: Latour, a devout Catholic, does not think religion is about belief, but about the practice of community; it's not about a great outside that religion points to, but something like an internal sphere (to use a metaphor that comes up often in these lectures) that has its own felicity conditions of right and wrong conduct. So too with science: there are only its practices and the task of those who study science is not to bow down to external "facts" but to politicize science, to show how it gets underway, to demonstrate the alliances that make possible some discoveries, while others never do, and for all that, in the strict sense do not exist.
Latour's version of STS has always faced the charge of relativism: that there are truths only insofar there are human and non-human actants forming alliances that keep it going. In this way, the God of the Catholics was very much real, and the death of God as churches turn to mausoleums is also very much real. In terms of political ecology, Latour's striking claim is not that nature or science is a social construction, but a construction among and between non-human and human actants. This is the core of his thought, one that is easily missed by critics who can't handle subtlety in thought and less so in action: Latour is a constructivist, but social constructionism, he thinks, makes the mistake of following modernity in making a binary split between nature and culture, between science and politics, between facts explained by science and the values we cherish in our encounters. Latour argues, to cite the title of one of his most famous books, that we have never been modern, that there never has been a major split between nature and culture simply because the human exists, such as it is, through more-than-human actants that in turn are influenced by it. Our modern era is characterized, then, by one basic split: the division of the collective in which we are into Society and Nature, politics where we shape values and science that describes the facts of nature. In his 2003 book, Politics of Nature, Latour argued for politicizing science–to show how it depends on power and practices that it nevertheless denies in the cool rush for objective and bloodless statements of facts: water is H20, and so on, even as this is a revisable proposition that exists only so long as a network of actants continues to engage practices that make it true (produce textbooks, convince others of its validity, and so on). What Latour argues for in Politics of Nature is to show how we can advocate what he calls a "parliament of things" where the non-human and the human are not so split off, and the facts of the sciences are seen as hybrids among and between nature and society.
Latour's enemy is one confusing labeled "epistemology," those who think they can have transcendental notions of Science and Nature, that is, a pointing to something that transcends the practices that bring it about. This view is self-evident, but the moment the practices of sciences go away, so too goes away its view of nature, and Latour is scathing about what he calls the "epistemology police" who stammer about Truth in ways reminiscent of Plato: there is something beyond appearances that we few witness and any discussion of practices and institutions is all-too-worldly, all-too-contaminated with values, all-to-relative to a here and now to deliver the Truth or Facts. This policing of what is True–this matters to Latour, because there are many different modes of life that provide truths beyond Science–is inherently political. To borrow a phrase Charles Taylor once used about liberalism: Science is not neutral; it is a fighting creed. Science avers that it is a-political, even though the sciences in the plural form the very alliances that are the stuff of our politics, the "techno-scientific" hybrids that would include mad cow disease, the cod fishery, and so on. In the Politics of Nature, Latour asks us to get rid of the idea of nature in the name of ecology: nature is that which stands over and again the human, waiting for some philosopher or scientist to detail the facts about this dead, inanimate set of things over and which we are free and very much animated. Over and against this dead nature, Latour proposes the parliament of things as engaging in a experimental set of processes and see how science is brought into the political and vice-versa. He argues the examples are too numerous to mention of members of this parliament, from climate change to HIV. Against the hierarchical Platonism, dependent on theorists and scientists to deliver a truth that we mere mortals cannot access, this parliament would be "democratic" in recognizing the trials of strength that make both science and politics possible. This does not make Latour anti-realist, that is, denying a reality to which we belong. As can be seen above, he likes the paradoxical type of statement that throws us off our usual understanding in order to rethink staid categories. For example, what ecologist would tell us nature is dead? What scientific anti-realist would deny that science describes a reality beyond it would claim to be the true realist? Latour's rhetoric is meant to get us to quit the alliances that we have formed in the modern world–say with a belief in a Nature that transcends us–in order to form other collectivities, that is, theories, apparatuses, things, events, and so on, based on what he calls a Dingpolitik (a politics of things) where we recognize facts are, etymologically, things that are facere, made. He writes, "this is common to all entities: they have to be made, constructed, elaborated, fabricated" (15). This does not mean that science is only about power. Rather, in a parliament of things, the point is to produce new, healthier hybrids, in particular those that are not destructive of what he believes we too quickly call the Earth.
This brings us to his writings on Gaia in his Gifford lecture series from 2013 and what he dubs his cosmopolitics. Cosmos means a well-ordered world, but Latour argues there is no pre-given whole, no pre-given universal (as Kant and others believed). Rather a cosmopolitics looks to fabricate a politics for what he dubs the Earthbound, given that the industrialisation produced by techno-science threatens any future collective. This brings us to a choice, he believes: either we continue to modernize modernization, that is, double down on collectivities that are destructive, as when we want to produce nature in our own image, e.g., thinking we can simply invent some new geo-engineering to get out of the problems of the Anthropocene, or we see that our lives are already ecological in the strict sense of that term: caught up in webs of relations without tight borders and always in uncertain, fragile conditions. In the lectures we read for today, Latour revisits this ground, arguing that our notion of nature is theological. Indeed, polemically he tries to show those who most critique religion reproduce a thinking of a Nature, an external third party to our practices that will be able to settle all of our political problems, i.e., if we just say one more time it's a damn fact that there is climate change, then we will have settled everything. He writes in the first lecture:
[T]he question of politics will not be limited to humans but will be extended to non-humans as well, that is, to all the agencies that make up the cosmos inside which humans do reside. Such an extension will force us to disengage political theory from its long attachment with an epistemological definition of Nature. If Nature known by the sciences is no longer the ultimate referee able to settle conflicts, then politics has to take over and the common world has to be progressively composed. (8)In Latour's phrasing in the lecture course, the point is to see science as performative, as enunciating and creating networks, composing them. In fact, by composing ecological networks, those fearing the worst of climate change will not only be unable to "settle conflicts" by pointing to external facts, but will have to go to war. He argues that far from dealing with an inanimate nature, the sciences (note the multiple) multiply the actants, since they bring more to our attention:
[T]he practice, here again, is exactly the opposite [of dealing with a dead Nature]. Even if you factor in duplication, replication, and the race to 'publish or/and perish,' a calm and cold consideration of the scientific literature shows that it ceaselessly multiplies the number of agents that have to be taken into account for any course of action to be achieved. If you now replace the technical name of each of those agents by what they do, as the simplest semiotic method requires, you are not faced by the oxymoron 'inanimate agencies' but, on the contrary, by a fabulous multiplication of the potentials for action. This is exactly what allows so many engineers, inventors, innovators, and investors to devise unprecedented, improbable, and surprising courses of action. The net result of the scientific disciplines is an immense increase in what moves, agitates, boils, warms, and complicates; what in brief, yes, animates the agencies making up the world. (17)In the third lecture, this brings Latour to the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, one that has been treated as thinking the Earth (the god of earth being Gaia; see p. 57 for a rendition of the myth from Hesiod) as a single living organism. Far from revolted by this quasi-new-age idea, Latour argues that Lovelock's notion of Gaia has been misunderstood simply because scientific and other critics of Lovelock remain too modern, too quick to separate the sciences and what they describe. What Lovelock shows is not that the Earth is one unimportant speck among others in the universe, but rather is quite special and fragile: it is a fragile composition–a continuing thing under construction–of living and non-living, which as yet we cannot find anywhere else in the galaxy. For that reason, the collective to which we belong could exist nowhere else.
You may still spend huge budgets on what used to be called, ironically, the 'conquest of space,' but it will be to transport, at best, half a dozen encapsulated astronauts from a live planet across inconceivable distances to a few dead ones. Where things will happen is down here and now. Don't dream any more, you mortals. You won't escape to outer space. You have no other abode than down here, the shrinking planet. You can't compare it with any other. Earth is what in Greek is called an apax — a name used once — and that's the name that your species, Earthlings, deserves as well — or if you prefer a word with the same etymology: idiot. (p. 56)We are all idiots in the Greek sense of the term: we can't leave home, we can't leave this assemblage we call the earth, but we should see the earth as itself an assemblage of earths, of "agents that" should not "be prematurely unified in a single acting whole" (59). Gaia, he argues, is not a sentient being, as some have supposed, but
every organism intentionally manipulates its surroundings to its own benefit. No agent on Earth is merely superimposed on any other as a brick juxtaposed on another brick as would be the case on a dead planet. Each of them acts to modify its neighbours, no matter how slightly, to render its own survival slightly less improbable. This is where the difference lies between geochemistry and geophysiology. It is not that Gaia is some 'sentient being' but that the concept of 'Gaia' captures the distributed intentionality of all the agents that are modifying their surroundings to suit themselves better. (67)For this reason, Latour, as does Lovelock, argues against any thinking of the environment, since in the age of the Anthropocene, there is no environment outside of us, but rather every organism is itself has effects on what is outside of it: the environment is a part of the ecological, not outside of ecology. This means we have gotten rid of levels:
Climate is the historical result of reciprocal, mutually interfering connections among all growing creatures. It expands, it diminishes or it dies with them. The Nature of olden days had levels, layers and a well ordered zoom; Gaia subverts levels. There is nothing inert, nothing benevolent, nothing external in it. If climate and life have evolved together, space is not a frame, nor even a context. (71)Following others, then, Latour argues that Gaia has a history, just as humans were supposed. We are part of that "geostory," those changes occurring within a long political ecology that arrived long before what we too quickly dub the human. The irony is that the Anthropocene at once brings the "human back on stage" ("we" actants produce carbon emissions that lead to climate change) but also "dissolves the idea that [the human] is a unified giant agent of history" (79). There is no view from nowhere, no view from on high, and neither a god nor the human as instrument of history can save us. What then is to be done? This long summary out of the way, I wish to discuss the last sections of his work, where Latour, too quickly takes up the work of the Nazi philosopher Carl Schmitt. It is notable in this work that Latour leans heavily, when it comes to composition, on Hobbes and Schmitt, who put sovereignty and the friend-enemy distinction at the heart of their politics. No doubt, like the earth itself, Schmitt's thinking of the decision and the friend-enemy distinction exerts a gravitational pull on all those who read him; his categories seem inexorable. But while we are in a state of exception, Schmitt's "nomos of the earth" is not the model for a new politics, as he avowedly is for Latour (e.g., 105, 119, 135, and especially 138, but indeed all of the last chapters). What Latour wants, it seems, is a declaration of a new enemy–the Earthbound versus the Human, he says–who uses a strategic use of the end of the world to name enemies and "kee[p] politics alive" (113), since politics requires not homogenization, but rather places and territories to be protected, all in the name of a universal, a mundus or cosmos towards which we, little by little, assemble our way. Gaia would be this new sovereign, in the strict Schmittian sense, as that which provides for the decision and the state of exception (135). This decisionism is as dangerous in our time as it was in Latour's. Breaking off here, there are other ways of thinking the political than Schmitt's decisionism, other ways to think without a third-party outside the politics in which we exist. It's my wager that if all we are left with is Schmittianism, we're better off with the end of the world.
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