‘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…

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

  1. Pingback: Latour Links | (((Knowledge Ecology)))·

  2. Pingback: Bruno Latour’s Gifford Lectures are underway: “Facing Gaia” | Footnotes 2 Plato·

  3. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Never mind of course that human beings are completely embedded/entangled in the entire Cosmic Process, and not just the ecology of the Earth world. We arise simultaneously with all of it in every single moment
    Please check out Fear No More Zoo – Sacred Camel Gardens for a unique Understanding of the non-human inhabitants of this mostly non-human world.
    Space-Time IS Love-Bliss on spiralledligt.wordpress
    The Bridge To God an aboutadidam
    White and Orange Project on the beezone site.

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