‘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?

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

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