‘Gaia: neither flat, nor round, not spherical. Loopy.’ Bruno Latour, Gifford Lecture 4

In Lecture 4 of the Gifford Lectures, The myth and the destruction of the image of the globe, Latour began by affirming that pronouncements of the Anthropocene belie the “puzzling continuity” of Gaia’s metabolism, and that neither Nature nor nature, nor the human can enter the Anthropocene intact. As ever, lecture prosthetics available here.

Under what, then, can we unify during the Anthropocene? This lecture was, in essence, a restatement of Latour’s on-going multinatural democratic dream, a “thought experiment” that Noel Castree memorably called ‘as exciting and mad cap as cold fusion’. This involves at heart three steps: asking what sort of people are being called (demos); asking what entity they are being assembled under (theos); and ascertaining through what principles their agencies are distributed (nomos). It is a politics denuded of the cover of “what simply is”, a proper cosmopolitics in which the constitution of common forms of life is precisely what is at stake.

Foul break in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia. Awesomely bonkers: the earth reaches its revelatory disintegration, or for Latour and Sloterdijk, the death of a sphere (a “dangerous prison” of an aesthetic) becomes the birth of many new earths comprised of loops.

Latour had a lot of cajoling, complimentary, things to say about geo-scientists. They, and other convenors of networks that disclose the metabolic state of Gaia, have been thrust into a new epistemological era in which, for example, their pronouncements of geological epochs shake the foundations of politics. Perhaps, Latour dares hope, the “very visibility of their networks may now make scientists wholly credible”, and that they will own up to being a special interest group.

I’ve never been convinced by this hopeful vision of science. I want to hear more about the darkness of scientific practice; for Latour to be more, well, anthropological, when it comes to that thing he calls ‘science’. Maybe he should come and meet some of the ‘exploration geo-physicists’, petro-geology bods or carbon profiteers at my institution. These scientists are deeply implicated in shadowy networks of petroleum capital, committed to the intellectual challenge of getting carbon, be it oily, gassy or non-conventionally liquid, out of the ground. Perhaps under a Gaian parliament scientists like these would be diminished – but they are part of the reason we don’t live in a Gaian parliament. Science isn’t just about knowledge, it is also about labour and the production of surplus value. I’m getting tired of hearing how a secular anthropology of science can save us all.

The original move this evening, at least to me, was using a riff on Sloterdijks’s Spheres trilogy (Bubbles is in my reading heap) to demolish the idea of the ‘globe’, or as Latour called it, the “Atlas malediction”. Instead of a pre-given globe, which could act as a secular (ultimate, closed) authority (the great sphere is “what we passively contemplate when we are fed up of history”), we have merely a great and growing number of ‘loops’ which have collectively elevated worlds to a sphere. These layered loops run all the way from Magellan to recent statements about ocean plastics, the N cycle, carbon, to the irreversibility of anthropogenic soils.

The Burren, Co. Clare. Where an Englishman talked to an Irishman about a hare loop.
The Burren, Co. Clare. Where an Englishman talked to an Irishman about a hare loop.

This reminded me of Robert MacFarlane’s description of an Irishman’s tale of the “hare’s run”. When startled a hare will run, faster than a shotgunner can track, and trace a long, long, ground-thumping arc out across the land, before looping back to come to rest exactly where it began. Like the hare, Gaian loops must come back to their point of origin, their network must hold, for a world to be rounded. Just like we need donnish nature writers to sense the hare, we need infrastructure to sense these loops: be they made through art, science or theology.

Thus, if there is a globe it is one fabricated in these extended networks of sense-making. This shifts the Anthropocene from a gesture of thrusting a tiny human into a reluctant role of planetary master, to a bigger ‘anthropos’ deeply implicated in making measurements of and reading Gaia. This “slow wrapping” of the earth has nothing to do with being ‘human’, a pre-given being in a nested hierarchy all the way to God. Rather, each loop makes us ‘sensitive’ to our mutual, if uneven, constitution with(in) Gaia. Our job, then, is to become more sensitive, more attuned to these loops, more deeply implicated in their making.

Neatly, of course, Gaia – after Stengers – is a ticklish goddess. Thus Gaia too is sensitized, perhaps distressinly so, to certain, new loops. She might be angry. We should therefore be modest, cautious and sensitive. Those who deny their sensitivity to and the sensitivity of loops are criminal, even evil.

The battle-lines are set. Next will come cosmopolitics, to be concluded with peace, or at least an armistice, on Thursday.

I left this lecture troubled though. If Gaia is a ticklish goddess, is she not also a trickster goddess too, capable of camouflage and deception? Might some important loops begin but not come back to their point of origin? Might a hare – in trying to run around the world – make some mistake, break a bone and crumple, panting and exhausted, to be pecked over by crows? Of course this is Latour’s point, we have no guarantees; each loop is “a chance to comprise universality”. But where is the room in geostory for error, for glorious failure, and for the stuttering, malformed network?

In taking the position of messianic critic, the risk is in making the diagnosis of our predicament too seamless, too all-encompassing. Where is the humility that is preached – is there not something rather aggrandising as well as elegant in a loop that discloses a world? What, too, about absent loops: dead species, or house sparrows gone from cities? Of loops gone or soon to go, like the becalmed energies of ‘carboniferous modernity’? Can we be tickled by these; can we be touched by the absences that lurk beyond sensitized/ing networks? My point is that if we rely on sense and sensitisation to inform our sense of Gaian dwelling and politics, that leaves the insensible un-summoned – as indeed it must be. So what is to become of all those beings and things, or their shadow – absent things – that cannot enter Latour’s multi-species, Gaian, parliament? And surely, if everything potentially can enter this parliament, if there is no constitutive outside, does it not then become just another secular authority?


‘Can we face Gaia yet? No.’ Bruno Latour, Gifford Lecture 3

A Greek villain. Not Gaia. Equally bitchy.

The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaiathe third of Bruno Latour’s six Gifford Lectures was yesterday. They’ll all be up here in due course. We’re getting round in this first week to ‘facing Gaia’.

So who is this Gaia? She is not Hesiod’s Gaia, the greek goddess, who was a vengeful, scheming monster who bade her family kill and eat their kin. No, that Gaia is a ‘dangerous figure; not to say a bitch’.

To get to face this Gaia Latour is flirting with, we need to up the stakes, to go celestial. Latour bookended his lecture with talk of two telescopes. One was used by Galileo in his heliocentric revolution, and gouged a famous wound into humanity’s primary narcissism. After Galileo the Earth was just one of many heavenly bodies arcing along merrily, like galactic billiard balls.

Fast-forward to the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, in the 1960s. Planning for the Viking mission to ascertain whether there was life on the Red Planet, we find a young jobbing scientist, James Lovelock. By focusing a simple electron capture detector and using telescopic observations of Mars, he argued, you could detect the chemical reactions that would indicate life – no need to go there. And by the way, in fact, Mars was dead.

The white-maned maverick then inverted a question: not why is Mars dead, but why is the  earth not dead. What gives life?

Latour’s account of Lovelock’s answer was supplemented with the celebrated biologist Lynn Margulis, and had implicit debts to geo-philosophers like Deleuze. The answer we now know lies in geo-physiology and the mutual calibration of all sorts of forms of life and their environments. Gaia emerges, messily, haphazardly and in no pre-determined way, from a long chain of events seizing on other events. The humblest props, such as microbes, are now no longer the background, but are brought to the foreground as agents in the emergence of life: they are also what keeps Gaia in productive disequilibrium.

This, Latour made clear, is the generous reading of Gaia. (Not the eco-fascist one where life is sacrificed for the survival of a super-deity.) It’s one Latour likes because it points out what should always have been so obvious – only through a radical distribution of agency can we understand why the earth is not dead. He quipped here that what is surprising is not that many things have agency, but that this seems surprising. The biggest surprise of all is then why some people continue to dis-believe agency is radically distributed (though there can’t be many of these people left).

Several of Gaia’s curious features required questioning.

  • Vitalism. Is Gaia ‘other-animated’ or ‘de-animated’? In other words, is Gaia simply reducible to the interactions of its parts which add up to make a seamless whole (like dead clockwork or cybernetic machine)? Or is Gaia animated by some ‘other’ force of vitality (Gaia as superorganism). While ‘yes’ is a possible response to both questions in Lovelock’s Gaia, for Latour’s Gaia the answer is no, twice. There is more to life than simple adaptation and natural selection, but that ‘more’ doesn’t need some external supernatural animator to explain it. Latour’s Gaia is ‘secular’ – again drawing on his definition of ‘secular’ as that which has no recourse to an ultimate authority – because there is no ‘outside’ theological skyhook, nor is it merely a brute chain of cause and effect.
  • Multiplicity. He didn’t use this word but it lay behind the lecture. Indeed, he could have also used assemblage, but one has the feeling Latour doesn’t like borrowing other people’s terminology. His point here is that the relationship of beings to Gaia is not one of parts to a whole – there is not ‘the system’ and ‘individuals’, rather there is an open whole. That is, things in Gaia are not characterised by relations of interiority but through relations of exteriority – form evolves out of interactions of matter and energy, but form exceeds its relations to others and to the whole. Gaia is an on-going system evolving out of intensive differences and interactions between matter/energy, not a stable ‘made object’. And this is what allows him to steer between vitalism and reductionism.
  • Biology remains haunted by the semiotic. Science is always an enterprise in metaphor, trope, and being trapped in an ‘as if’ way of presenting the world. Thus the planet is to be written and read, as well as simply taken to exist. This combines with the fact that Gaia’s geo-physiology has evolved along particular pathways – it has a history, one which cannot be re-engineered, and one which could not have been designed to end up this way by some blind watchmaker. Thus, “Gaia is in its very fabric a narrative.” And we need “geostory” (an ugly elision of geo into history) to understand how we can face Gaia.

I thought this was an elegant statement of what is fairly uncontentious biophilosophy.  I certainly buy the way he renders the world here. My dry summary here scarcely does justice to the humour and style that were at play.  The epochal flourish of comparing Galileo and Lovelock was matched by an equally inspired microbial riff juxtaposing Pasteur’s ‘no fermentation without yeast’ and Lovelock’s ‘no Gaia without micro-critters’. Brilliant.

But the question is of course not to recast Gaia as a super-assemblage, but to work out how to deal with the radical asymmetrical capacities things have to shape their environments. What will be interesting, then, is not more ontological re-description, but how he gets into “the politics of making a whole a whole” in the second half of the lecture series. Is he going to be offering more than his existing pseudo-parliament of things?

And, where’s the geography? Why do we need a monstrous neologism ‘geostory’ when we already have geo (earth) graphia (writing). And given that many geographers have been grappling with the politics of ‘making a whole a whole’ for some years now, I hope they appear at some point, at least implicitly. Ok, I admit it, that’s a plea to cite some geographers.

More, more! Not till Monday…

Preparing to face Gaia: Bruno Latour, Gifford Lectures 1 and 2

Tonight was Bruno Latour’s second of six talks as part of the Gifford Lectures on natural theology here at Edinburgh. I missed yesterday’s opener, but picked up enough today to get the gist of it. It should be up here with the rest in due course.

http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures/series-2012-2013I’m hoping this Lecture Series will end with Latour throwing off his brown suit and revealing his shining, transformative, messianic body beneath, as he shows us how to ‘live on this world’, a task which he told us tonight ‘seems so impossible’.

Thus far, it seems, has been all about laying the groundwork for understanding the ‘conditions under which we can face Gaia’. By this I think he means to formulate a new kind of natural religion that has no recourse to secular authority, where he defines secular as the absence of an ‘always already accepted referee’, such as god or a pre-given world. Its fair to say, this Gaia won’t be a green goddess, or even a greenish cyborg.

Lecture 1 recapped the story about how ‘nature was decanted into god, and then spilled over into science’ so that both God and Nature were the same kind of theos or foundation for human existence. Tonight was mostly about alloying the Politics of Nature, the lessons of STS, to what he admitted was a ‘much simplified natural theology’ through a didactic diagram that I couldn’t read. There were also some funny jokes.

In a phrase – don’t worry about mixing religion and science, because they’re already mixed.

His main complaint was that both dominant science and natural religion (which is what we can work out about God from the world / history / reasoning – apart from the Bible or revelation [thanks PS]) assume some pre-existing whole that their task is then merely to narrate through chains of reference: both devolve into a meek kind of ‘information transfer’. Like science, natural religion is merely a question of little leaps from scraps of history to sacrament to body to congregation to soul to worship and so on.

Other kinds of science and religion are possible, of course. They are more concerned about ‘transferring transformation’ – that is, with an on-going struggle not to narrate an existing cosmos, but to bring into being one kind of cosmos. A climate science that fears not to declare, “Yes we speak for the climate and we are political.” And a climate science that operates without the magic “as if”: as if the climate could appear without scientific instruments. Similarly, spiritual religion, for example, with a never-ending mission concerned with resuscitating and re-birthing, contrasts to natural religion.

I’m on very shaky ground here, but I wasn’t that sure about his classification of modes of Christian religious talk – surely they are all united by some kind of eschatological tension, not continual performance without end. I also couldn’t help wonder much how, as Politics of Nature was underwritten by a messianic belief in French democracy, his views on natural theology are Catholic rather than catholic… I presumably need to read more.

To sum it up, his point thus far was that – ever the fan of symmetry – any attempt to ‘face Gaia’ with a new natural religion needs to meet the anthropology of science in the same world. This is, he noted, very difficult: mostly because of the way that science has wanted to void the world of spirit and ‘speaking religiously’ because they answer to ‘other gods’.

So the prologue is hopefully done, and we now have four lectures to go, and as Latour quipped,

“they will be difficult… but there will be no more diagrams, I promise you”

He also joked that if the Lecture series was 12 sessions long, as it used to be, then we’d all really be in trouble. Other points that will be explored are what the anthropos of the anthropocene might be, and whether or not ‘climate’ is a suitable cosmopolitical concern around which any new natural religion should cohere.

And I can’t believe I’ve never seen him speak before. He is funny, gracious and a great orator.

Some recent sf: eco and otherwise

I have finished reading Reamde, Neal Stephenson’s latest door-stopper.

Stephenson’s books are usually like the third season of Battlestar Galactica: silly, epic, genius, immersive, and addictive. Although his breakthrough 1992 book, Snow Crash, is usually seen as a seminal cyberpunk novel (it coined the use of ‘avatar’, for example) – it isn’t. Stephenson was always too erudite to be a proper cyberpunk believer, though he played its conventions well: libertarian capitalism cross-fertilised by post-human, urban Darwinism, and an anti-materialist disdain for the flesh.

ReamdeWhich is why it was so great to see Stephenson out to play in Reamde. He makes William Gibson’s prolific recent output look like throwback chaff (Gibson’s books seem to be populated by the same boring archetypes – Case by a million other names).

I won’t even begin to summarise the crazy plot. One central character, Richard Forthrast, has made $ billions through an MMOG, T’Rain. Central to the success of T’Rain is that players can make real money in its imaginary world. Forthrast makes gem and $-farming not just legal, but part of the game’s lore and life. T’Rain even comes replete with a crazy temple where in-game riches get whooshed into the sky as offering to the ‘gods’/paypal accounts.

“Video games were a more addictive drug than any chemical, as he had just proven by spending ten years playing them. Now he had come to discover that they were also a sort of currency exchange scheme.” p34

To cut 1050 densely typeset pages short, the message is: ultimately, virtual reality doesn’t help when Jihadists invade North America. When that happens you need guns, lots of guns: preferably described in salacious, pornographic detail. Although amusingly, both the Jihadists and Forthrast’s survivalist relatives (or, as the Russian Sokolov wryly dubs them, the ‘American Taliban’) get armed up at Walmart. (In fact, the whole plot arc was quite like Anathem, his brilliant previous novel, in which a cadre of bookish monks morph into space-swimming, martial arts experts, before dishing out some hurt to the alien baddies, waxing philosophical even as they capture the bridge of spaceship).

Anyway, it was nice to see some online shenanigans divested of the usual sf hyper-libertarian, ‘wouldn’t-it-be-great-if-we-could-all-like-download-our-brains’ ideological façade. Reamde, the biggest ever MMOG (bigger than World of Warcraft…) is about $$$.

Reamde is worlds apart from Peter F Hamilton’s latest book, which I also just finished. Hamilton is best known for his Night’s Dawn trilogy, which while awesome also polluted the science fiction genre with all the worst hallmarks of fantasy: over-sexed teenage-brained protaganists, pneumatic air-brushed female characters, derivative plots and bad writing. (There must be an equation somewhere in which you can plot the quality of the sf inversely to the number of zero-g sex scenes). Still, Hamilton’s books are a guilty pleasure.

The bloated Great North Road has lots of silliness to commend it. Newcastle (the upon-tyne version) has become a pan-galactic hub for bioil, which flows in via some gateway-thingie from the planet St Libra. St Libra, luckily, has no sentient life to colonise, just lots of spiky but virginous green. And its of course the only place where the spice melange bioil can be manufactured, distorting free market forces and shoring up a nasty oligarchy of cloned corporate uber-barons.

What happens when you mix Avatar, Call of Duty, and ‘Survivor 10: The Amazon Heats Up’?

There is a truly dreadful ‘police investigatory’ side-plot, but the main ‘story’ is revealed slowly. Giving it all away, the plants of St Libra turn out to be a gestalt consciousness. For narrative purposes the gestalt is embodied by a wood-skinned, dagger-fingered villain who goes around gutting, eviscerating and generally behaving un-hospitably. Tssk, pesky native.

It turns out that this ‘being’ knows how to defeat the real villain, the trans-dimensional Zanth who threaten not just the galactic economy, but the survival of humanity (the Zanth? Seriously?). So a bargain is struck: St Libra is turned into a wilderness park, humans learn how to make bioil on a terraformed planet instead: deal done. There probably is some tortuous eco-message in here about that which we recklessly exploit being the only thing that can save us, but after 1085 pages of sexist drivel I couldn’t be bothered to think about it.

As a palate cleanser I’ve looked out some good old feminist sf to read: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and Sheri Tepper’s Grass.