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.’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.

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