James Watt’s shed: Anthropocene wormholes in the Firth of Forth

As ruins go, this one isn’t up to much.

The visitor can find it a short distance off the A993, a main road running along the southern coast of Scotland’s Firth of Forth.

James Watts' Shed, 2014Walls have been shored up with indelicate licks of concrete, and shorn of graffiti well enough. The visitor should spot a ubiquitous relic, cider – lively at 8.4%.

Cider, James Watt's workshopNo patina of time-worn memory clings to this ruin. The walls wear no shroud of melancholy; no barely felt absent-presences linger to move the seeker of ruinous pathos. The stones definitely don’t vibrate with emotional or affective force; they just sit there in a bored kind of way.

A passing dog-walker looks skeptical when I ask if this is James Watts’ shed. He says maybe, who knows. Nice day though, isn’t it?

The Council or Some Other Body has provided an interpretive sign for the visitor, but its text has dropped off, disappeared, or simply given up.

Sign, James Watt's workshop

I imagine that the sign, when it was alive, would have told me a tale of Scottish engineering prowess. It might have read something like this:

“Here lies the shed of James Watt, father of the steam engine. Here this plucky Scot overcame the straitjackets of Guild power and social hierarchy; here he incubated the industrial revolution; here he began the epochal shift from horse power to fossil fuel power.”

It is James Watts’ shed, yes – the man whose improved steam engine became instrumental in the industrial revolution. More accurately, it is the shed where Watt worked for his patron and financial backer, the industrialist John Roebuck, between 1767 and 1773. Here Watt spent long years improving Newcomen’s steam engine, tinkering, trying to get his new pipe-condensers, plate-condensers and drum-condenser to work properly.

Watt’s dreams ran ahead of his powers. His image of the technology-to-be called him, urged him stutteringly forward – an address from the future that he grasped for, night by night, experiment by experiment, trial by trial, slowly assembling his powers of invention, patronage, investment and capital. Watt wrote:

“I can think of nothing else but this engine.”

With each setback Roebuck became more impatient, Watt more tenacious in his grand tinkering. When Roebuck went bankrupt in 1773, Watt was distraught (he wrote that he could not “bear the thought of other people becoming losers by my scheme”). But one of Roebuck’s creditors, another industrialist, Boulton, took Watt on, “for love of you and love of a money-getting ingenious project.” Boulton knew that a properly efficient machine would allow more unlucky miners – men, women, and children alike – to burrow quicker and deeper into the Earth.

Watt and Boulton began to sell their engines, the shed traded up for a northern England factory. Watt wrote how

“The velocity, violence, and magnitude and horrible noise of the engine give universal satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not … the noise serves to convey great ideas of power to the ignorant.”

Watt was never simply  the author of a new machine. Rather, he was a subject emerging from his own works; less a genius who made a machine, more a machine that made a genius.

Watt and Boulton sold ten of their steam engines a year, rising to make a cumulative total of 451 – enough for Watt to buy a small mansion that he never really lived in.

Today, Watt’s patenting of his steam engine in 1769 is invoked as a politico-geological Cape Canaveral for the Anthropocene. Commonly, accounts have the steam engine unleashing a slow but irresistible wave of modernisation: a cascade running from a small invention to planet-encompassing processes. Watt has come to occupy a pivotal point in a fable of geo-history.

Such a fable would suck the unwary visitor to this dull ruin down a worm hole: he or she need not be transported not very far, emerging perhaps less than a mile away to the Grangemouth Refinery. This belching metropolis is a mature, fair-sized oil plant, with a capacity to process 205,000 barrels a day. Grangemouth’s history of disputes between labour, capital, and geology make Watt’s eighteenth-century problems with restive Cornish workers and reluctant pumps look like insignificant hiccups.

Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS
Grangemouth Refinery, Copyright RCAHMS

In going down this wormhole, Watt’s engine becomes transcendent, an angel of modernity grown to straddle the globe (even though its form changes and multiplies along the way, this is mere evolution of pre-given form). As Bruno Latour puts it, effectiveness is to technology what objectivity is to knowledge. When networks of knowledge are well composed, objectivity emerges. When technology “works”, all the twisting, discontinuous, folding, puzzling zig-zags of its making become invisible. Instead of mistaking effectiveness for technology, more properly,

the adjective “technological’ does not designate in the first place an object, a result, but a movement that is going to take from inert entities and from living ones – including the body of the artisan, which becomes more skillful by the day – what is needed to hold together in a lasting way. (Latour 2013, p225)

Although in the end it gave him more, the steam engine also took much from Watt – his time in the shed was not a happy one.

To fund his tinkerings, Watt surveyed for new canals between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and undertook other odd jobs, “honourable and perhaps profitable employment” as he called it. Away on one such trip, Watt received news that his wife was dying; in fact she had passed away during childbirth even before he received the news, and he hurried home in vain. Watt felt his absence as a tragedy inseparable from his thirst for the steam engine. Watt’s early engines were unsatisfactory, clumsy, his time dominated by “intermediate failures and uncouth constructions”. He was a fanatical worrier, money and the lack of it gnawed at him constantly – debt and ruin often loomed large. Though he was no solitary recluse, Watt was prone to depression, anxiety and ill-health, “plagued with headaches and sometimes heartaches,” as he put it, and often filled with dread “for his approaching doom” – the failure of his engine.

Watt’s technical gropings, his setbacks, and his depression. The way his dream of mechanical elegance – and of riches to come – called him on into his uncertain future. This being of technology is a long way from the author of a geological epoch. These stutterings do not map on to an Anthropocene wormhole – to invoke James Watt as some harbinger of a new earth is to remain deaf to his disappointments and triumphs, to the intimate foldings of man and machine.

Perhaps the sign might better read:

“Here James Watt tinkered with the engines that called him into being, beings that egged him on; here he was consumed by anxiety, and got a bit depressed. He left to make a lot of money by pumping water out of holes in the ground.”

James Watt's shed, sign


Carnegie A (1905) James Watt (Doubleday, Page & Company, New York).
Latour B (2013) An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).
Tann J ed (1981) The selected papers of Boulton & Watt (MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.).
Webb R (1972) James Watt : inventor of a steam engine (Franklin Watts, London).

With thanks to Julian for taking point on the cycle there and back…

‘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…