Political Theology and the Concept of the “Katechon” (part 1 of 2)

Recently a short article of mine was recently published on the excellent Genealogies of Modernity blog. I repost it here, merely with the aim of including some of the footnotes and references that were precluded by that format.

To look up the verb katecho (κατέχω) in a Greek lexicon is to encounter a long and complex entry. Among others, we are likely to notice the following definitions: “to hold back or withhold; to hold down, restrain or keep in check; to put off or delay; to cover, conceal or wrap; to have control over or seize possession of.”

The rich polysemy of the word is instructive when we turn to its various occurrences in the New Testament, and in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians in particular (2 Thess 2:6,7). In this Epistle, the Apostle Paul is responding to rumors about the imminent return of Christ. He reminds the Christian community in Thessalonica that this event will not take place so long as a divinely-appointed restraining force, the katechon, remains in place. Only when this is lifted or removed will there be a final confrontation between Christ and “the lawless one,” followed by the end of the world itself. In this text, then, the katechon seems to refer to a power or entity that is holding back or deferring the eschaton, and whose operation is currently active in the midst of human affairs.

The actual referent of the term katechon, this power or entity that restrains the end of time, is less clear. No explanation is offered by Irenaeus, who was the first to quote the Scriptural text itself, nor by Hippolytus. Tertullian proposes a more concrete idea in his Apologeticum when he suggests it refers to the Roman empire itself.[1] “The tremendous force which is hanging over the whole world, the very end of the age, with its threat of dreadful afflictions…is arrested [retardii] for a time by the continuance of the Roman empire,” he writes. Since Christians have “no desire to experience this event,” and indeed “pray that it may be deferred [differri],” it follows that “we favour the continuance of Rome.” For Tertullian, the Roman empire, being in its essence law, opposes that which is lawless and therefore can be equated with the katechontic force identified by the Apostle. The alignment of worldly imperium with divine providence that is implied here prefigures a number of subsequent political theologies that seek to baptise an earthly sovereign as exclusive guarantor of social order (Eusebius of Caesarea; the Catholic authoritarianisms of de Maistre and Donoso Cortés; Thomistic-Maurrasian integralism).

But there is an alternative strand of interpretation. Here, the katechon is understood not as referring to a secular power, but rather to the activity of God or the spiritual jurisdiction of the Church. Intimations of this are found in Augustine and Chrysostom (although both expressed caution about their exegesis of these verses), as well as in Theodore of Mopsuestia and Theodoret of Cyrus. Later, Calvin makes this idea explicit when he suggests that it is “more probable” the Apostle was announcing “that the light of the Gospel must be diffused through all parts of the earth before God would thus give loose reins to Satan.”[2] Holding back the eschaton was therefore an expression of the mercy of God in allowing time for more people to be converted to faith. The effect on those who understand this should be a renewed energy for mission and good works in the world.

A tension between these two interpretations—the katechon as referring to a temporal or to a spiritual power—is evident throughout the history of Christian thought. That tension has been transposed onto the thinker who has done more than anyone else to revitalize the concept for contemporary political theory: Carl Schmitt.

Writing towards the end of his career, Schmitt proposes that the concept of the katechon provides the key to all his writing: “for more than 40 years I have been collecting materials on the problem, and for all these years I have looked for a human ear that would listen to this question and understand it—for me, it is the crucial question [Kernfrage] of my political theology.”[3] Although it is likely he first encountered the idea in the 1930s via his friend Wilhelm Stapel, a political journalist and member of the German nationalist Conservative Revolutionary Movement, the word began to appear in his own work in the 1940s. For example, in a 1942 article published in the weekly Nazi propaganda newspaper Das Reich he refers to the katechontic role of the German imperial project, whose role was to “prevent the long-overdue apocalyptic end of times from already happening now.”[4] The term then features prominently in his post-war writing, especially in his diaries and in his important 1950 book The Nomos of the Earth.

But what valency does Schmitt claim for this obscure concept in relation to his own political theory?

A direction to answer to this question is often found in an observation made by Jacob Taubes. Scarred by his experience of the disintegration of the Weimar system in the 1920s and 1930s, Taubes argued that Schmitt had one central intention in all his work, namely, “that chaos should not rise to the top, that the state should remain. No matter what the price.”[5] For Taubes, “this is what Schmitt later called the katechon, which is the restrainer [der Aufhalter] that holds down the chaos that pushes up from below.”The assumption here is that Schmitt deploys the concept of the katechon in order to explain the right of a political entity, a nation-state or an empire, to avoid chaos by enforcing order within its boundaries.

Understood in this way, the concept presents itself as a tool for genealogical analysis. For if this is correct, then political order, wherever it is found, must be related in some way to the presence of a constituted power or entity able to restrain the threat of disorder. As Schmitt himself notes in an entry in his Glossarium of December 1947: “we have to be able to name the katechon for every epoch in the last 1948 years. The place has never been unoccupied, otherwise we would not be present anymore.”[6] So whilst there is no doubt that Schmitt’s initial reference is to the German imperialism of his day, it would appear this analysis could be applied to any period of world history, from the Ius Gentium of the ancient Roman legal system to the development of Westphalian sovereignty, and even to the contemporary political project of European union.

However, as other commentators have pointed out, not least in Massimo Cacciari’s provocative study,[7] there is something curiously reductive about the concept of the katechon as a genealogical tool. For do we expect nothing more of sovereign power than that it should merely hold back or restrain that which threatens disruption and disintegration? What resources does this provide for societal progress toward solidarity and maturity in attaining the common good? As Roberto Esposito puts it, “in delaying the explosion of evil [the concept of the katechon] also at the same time delays the final victory of the principle of good. The triumph of evil is held in check, true, but the divine parousia is also delayed by its very existence. Its function is positive, but negatively so.”[8] That is to say, there seems to be an ambiguity about the deferral that the katechon enacts. The threat of violence that is associated with the future is certainly held in abeyance. But as a corollary, the future is denuded of its power to infuse the present, inspiring a sense and a direction in time. The contemporary moment becomes one in which nothing can really happen because the sense of historical becoming, that has its truth only in the eschaton, is indefinitely deferred.

What follows is a curious depoliticization of the contemporary political order. If the eschaton is perpetually to be deferred, the present moment finds itself vulnerable to capture by alternative narratives that offer a direction to history that is fixed and immutable, whether these be economic, social, cultural or political in form. By definition, totalizing narratives like these offer no sanction or encouragement to conceive of alternative futures to the ones they themselves prescribe. As Schmitt himself put it, under a façade of promoting human freedom and choice, modernity tends to generate a “neutralization” and a “depoliticization” of the political domain. This, perhaps, explains the sense of claustrophobia felt by many who experience the neoliberal hegemony of the West. After all, as Frederick Jameson famously quipped, “nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.”[9] There is no reason to think anything significant has changed even under the shock of the global pandemic. For as Adam Tooze notes in his recent book Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy,[10] what is remarkable about the last two years is not so much the actions taken by political administrations around the world, which have often been quite radical in size and in scope, but that in retrospect we can see these were intended not to build a new society but to preserve the old one.

“I believe in the katechon,” wrote Schmitt in 1947, “it is for me the only possibility as a Christian to understand history and find it meaningful.” Yet, as we have seen, when the concept is handled by contemporary theorists it takes on a disappointingly conservative hue. The deferral of the eschaton does nothing but clear the stage for other narratives that are ready to take its place, themselves offering to provide the structure and direction to history time that was previously allocated to providence. There seems to be little room here for political activisms that might seek to challenge the status quo.

So what remains for the katechon today?

In the next article, I will argue that the concept can indeed be redeemed. But only when it is referred back to its original theo-logic and to the (Christian) eschatological vision that first powered it. Indeed, I will show that it is precisely in these terms that the concept has been taken up and embraced in a most surprising way by a number of continental philosophers.

[1]   Tertullian, Apologetic Works (trans. Joseph Daly & Edwin A. Quain, Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1997), chapter 32, section 1, p.88.

[2]   John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Philippians, Colossians, and Thessalonians (trans. and ed. John Pringle, Edinburgh: The Calvin Translation Society, 1851), p.333.

[3]   Alexander Schmitz & Marcel Lepper (eds.), Hans Blumenberg, Carl Schmitt: Briefwechsel 1971-1978 und weitere Materialien (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2007).

[4]   Carl Schmitt, “Beschleuniger wider Willen” in Das Reich, April 19, 1942; republished in Land and Sea (trans. Simona Draghici, Washington: Plutarch Press, 1997), p.8, 43.

[5]   Jacob Taubes, The Political Theology of Paul (2004, trans. Dana Hollander, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), p.103.

[6]   Carl Schmitt, Glossarium. Aufzeichnungen der Jahre 1947-1951 (Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1991), p.63 (cited & trans. in Peter Szendy, 2016, ‘Katechon’ in Political Concepts: A Critical Lexicon).

[7]   Massimo Cacciari, The Withholding Power: An Essay on Political Theology (London: Bloomsbury, 2018).

[8]   Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (trans. Zakiya Hanafi. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2011, 2002), p.63).

[9]   Frederic Jameson, ‘Future City’ in New Left Review No. 21, May–June, 2013, p.76.

[10]   Adam Tooze, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World’s Economy (London: Penguin Random House).

What is the ecological thinking that is required at a time like this?

Perhaps you deem this to be a rather unnecessary question. After all, surely ecological thinking is all that is needed at a time like this!

Here is the story we tell … Once upon a time, we thought in terms of a dichotomy between “humans”, on the one hand, and “environment”, on the other, two separate entities seeking an uneasy accommodation. But now ecological thinking has allowed us to see things differently. We’ve come to appreciate the complex, delicate and inter-connected relationships between living beings and the physical environment. That is, we’ve come to see the Earth as a system. This systems-thinking (codeword: ecology) allows us to move beyond the anthropocentrisms that have haunted us in the past and contributed directly to the crisis we now face. Via ecological thinking, we finally embark on a genuinely new trajectory.

And yet, in some contemporary critical theory there has been a move to query this story a little bit. This line of thought probes ecological thinking, asking where it might be generating unintended consequences that are enabling the former dichotomy to return – however paradoxical that might sound.

This short essay will proceed in two sections. First, I will introduce the critique itself, showing how it may indeed shed light on pitfalls lying in wait for ecological thinking. But in the second part, I will push back a bit, showing how ecological thinking does indeed have resources to resist these pitfalls, and how these may be bound up in interesting ways with the religious concept of transcendence.

My aim, then, is ultimately to renew our confidence in ecological thinking as a means to face the present crisis.

1. What critique can be made of ecological thinking?

As a point of departure, I’ll turn to the work of Frédéric Neyrat, Associate Professor in Comparative Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In his 2016 book, translated in 2019 as The Unconstructable Earth: An Ecology of Separation, Neyrat challenges the idea of “geo-constructivism”, that is, the belief that the Earth, and everything in it, is potentially available for technological intervention by humans.

So far, so good. Neyrat here seems to be echoing well-established critiques of ecomodernist ideologies that encourage human beings to understand themselves as masters, stewards and governors of the fix that is required at the present time.

But what is most interesting here is what Neyrat says about the origins of this sort of thinking. For he does not follow the account given by Whitehead and others that in the early modern period, under the influence of Cartesian dualism, a “bifurcation” of human and material worlds took place, the implications of which are still with us today. Nor does he follow the account of Lynn White and others that arraigns Christian theology for promoting a mode of human exceptionalism over the created order that has persisted to the present day. On the contrary, Neyrat identifies the origins of geo-constructivist attitudes closer to home, namely, in systems thinking. He has in mind the work of Michel Serres, Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, whose ideas can be summarised as (quote) “philosophies of complexity, unstable flows and interconnectedness” (p.12).

Perhaps we might find this surprising. After all, are these ideas not the soil out of which ecological thinking and indeed Earth System Science itself has been nourished? How could these possibly be a trojan horse for the smuggling-in of ecomodernism?

But Neyrat argues that they have been. For these philosophies have led us to understand society as being (quote) “ontologically established […] around the concept of turbulence; chaos, disorder and disturbance” (p.71). “Nothing is ontologically anchored; nothing is definitively stable” (p.73), as he puts it. For Neyrat, this has the effect of submerging humans in a world of endless flux. To survive, “the best we can do is adapt ourselves to this ontological chaos and to its programmed uncertainty” (p.71). And yet, he argues, if all we can muster is a sort of pragmatic accommodation to the complex flows of ecological attachments present all around us, then we lose a sense of discernment as to the effects of particular things. Agency is so dispersed across the broad, interconnected system that we call an ecology, with its vast number of aleatory feedback effects, that individual actors are unable to achieve the critical distance to discern actually what to do. We welcome ever more complexity, we embrace ever more attachments, but we lose discrimination as to which of these lead to positive outcomes for the system itself.

Paradoxically, says Neyrat, this provides an opportunity for those who wish to usurp ecological thinking for their own purposes. He calls these “vertical slippages” (p.112). For here, power has simply been shifted one level up and is now attributed to the Earth system itself. If this can be harnessed, then human-centred managerialism can be smuggled in once again through the back door and used to defend behaviours that are selfish and harmful.

Let me briefly illustrate what I mean. I’ve recently been engaging with an article published in the journal Critical Inquiry written by the environmental historian Leah Aronowsky.

Leah takes us back to the late 1960s, the time when James Lovelock was beginning to formulate his ideas about the Earth as a “biological cybernetic system” (p.313).

At this time, Lovelock was investigating the natural processes by which certain algae and seaweed were excreting sulphur compounds into the atmosphere. What if, he pondered, these biological emissions were having planetary-scale regulatory effects on the climate? As we now know, Lovelock’s work at this time was seeding the ground for his subsequent announcement of the Gaia hypothesis, a concept of great value for all our ecological thinking.     

And yet, there is a biographical detail here that is quite revealing. In the late 1960s, Lovelock was actually working for Royal Dutch Shell, the multinational oil and gas company. Shell had sponsored Lovelock to write a report on the impact of fossil-fuel combustion on the atmosphere and to advise on potential communication strategies to deal with this in the public domain. So, as Lovelock was pondering how the metabolic products of algae and seaweed might contribute to a whole-Earth regulatory system, he was doing so with one eye on the interests of his employers. What if the systemic adaptability of the biosphere was such that it was able to neutralise these emissions, thus restoring the status quo? If that was the case, then the Earth as a system could be harnessed in service of a PR strategy for the company. Yes, our emissions are polluting the atmosphere. But fear not, the Earth is a system that will heal itself. Thus, in his final report, published in 1969 and available in his archives, Lovelock wrote the following: “the ecosystem itself may have the capacity to adapt to the input of combustion gases, and this may prove to a be a message of great value as we seek to manage public relations in the decades ahead”. In her article Leah finds examples of how this strategy was indeed pursued in advertising messages by oil and gas companies, including Shell, right up to the present time.

Now, I would suggest some of this diagnosis needs refining in light of what Lovelock understood himself to be doing at this time (as it happens, I am writing a response to Leah’s article for publication in Critical Inquiry at the moment).

But I think the point stands: even at this early date, fossil-fuel corporations were beginning to sow doubt not by denying the phenomenon of climate change, but by naturalizing it, that is, by promoting an understanding of the Earth as a resilient system, capable of rejuvenation. “Could it be,” Lovelock would later ask, “that pollution is natural? If by pollution we mean the dumping of waste matter there is indeed ample evidence that pollution is as natural to Gaia as is breathing to ourselves”.

This is just one example. But I offer it here as to illustrate Neyrat’s broader point. For even within the highly-developed ecological thinking we associate with Gaia theory, human-centred managerialism finds a way of re-instating itself, not in spite of, but because of, its core commitment to the idea of a system.

2. What resources can ecological thinking show in response?

And yet, I also want to push back. For I believe that ecological thinking, that takes seriously the idea of the Earth as a system, does indeed have resources to resist these pitfalls.

Neyrat himself points the way in the very title of his book, which advertises the need for an “ecology of separation”. Both aspects of the phrase matter. Yes, we must embrace the idea of “ecology”, that is, an Earth System Science that thinks in terms of interconnection, feedback loops and embeddedness. But we must not do so to the neglect of the idea of “separation”. For without the slight gap that is introduced by the idea of separation, we cannot conceive of two things coming together and negotiating arrangements for their co-existence. As he puts it, “there is only relation where beings recognise their incompleteness, that they’re lacking something, and as a consequence are called by the other toward each other” (p.15). If this difference if flattened, the system itself becomes vulnerable to take-over by those with ulterior motive. “So we must indeed return to Earth”, Neyrat writes, “but without returning into the net of a flat world, rendering all beings equivalent and annulling all exteriority” (p.15).

Neyrat himself offers some thoughts in the realm of politics.

But in this final part of this essay, I wish to suggest that theology – and theology alone – can provide the critical nuance that is needed.

Some ecotheology argues for an act of total transference between God and the world, whereby divine qualities are transposed into nature. Nature is God’s face, God’s voice, and the Earth becomes a self-enclosed system with God included in it. This sort of thinking does indeed risk the saturation effect that Neyrat identifies above and, I would suggest, does not take us very far in the direction we need to go.

But I believe that ecotheology at its best offers a more nuanced account of the God-world relation than that. It asserts divine transcendence, but shows how this serves as a guarantor and safeguard of earthly immanence. God is incomparably unlike the world. And yet, He is the one “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). It is not God’s absolute identification with the world, but God’s infinite transcendence over the world, that enables His connection with it, without for a moment intruding on its freedom to act for its own good or harm. 

Ecotheology in this vein, I would argue, provides a foundation for ecological thinking. On the one hand, it joyfully celebrates the complexity, the unstable flows and the interconnectedness of the world as an expression of the super-abundance of the One who created it. And yet, on the other hand, it avoids an excessive sacralisation of nature by asserting the world’s separation from the One who called it into being. This allows the critical distance that is needed for moral discernment. The Earth itself is not the redeemer, in the tradition of John Muir and the Transcendentalists who regarded wilderness as redemptive. On the contrary, an ecotheological response to “the cry of the Earth” is not to resign oneself to the inevitable working-out of the teleology of a system, but to exert oneself afresh, as a moral agent within the system, to judge what is harmful and to exert our will to bring about change. This response will be impossible to achieve if we are immersed in a system that allows no critical distance.

It is odd, then, that Neyrat critiques the work of Serres, Stengers and Latour for confusing this distance. His argument, basically, is that these thinkers submerge us within systems-thought to such a degree that there is no way of lifting our heads to make a moral judgment. With regard to Latour, for example, he writes: “his unilateral taste for association, composition and attachment makes access to any dimension of separation, division or opposition rather difficult” (p.101). For Neyrat, Latour’s world is so flat that it ends up collapsing all distinctions and generating a sort of moral turpitude when it comes to saying no: “nothing in Latour’s discourse allows for any kind of resistance to GMOs, to the hegemony of biotechnologies, and so on” (p.105).

This is odd, for in his recent work Latour is at great pains to emphasise the role of transcendence in facilitating the sort of “ecology of separation” that Neyrat deems necessary. In his Inquiry into Modes of Existence,Latour calls these the “small transcendences”, the hiatuses that exist between individual actors within a system as they encounter one another and make decisions as to how to move forward with respect to each other. There is no automation, there is no determinism, there is no Providence in the thought of Bruno Latour. And yet, there is religion. For Latour, religion is that which draws attention to the myriad links and assemblages that constitute the reality of the world as a system, nurturing a sense of care and responsibility to acknowledge the ongoing, constitutive role we have to play in the flow of these networks over time. Religion is not that which takes us away from the plural world; rather it “sensitizes” us to it. That is its essential moral quality. And it does that by reminding us that we are actors and agents within a system.

The work of Latour is rarely engaged within the discipline of theology. And yes, the language and concepts he employs often strain at the boundaries of orthodoxy. But “I am a professing Roman Catholic”, he announces. And I believe there is great potential for his work to be analysed, alongside Catholic Social Teaching, as a resource for inculcating in us an appropriate sense of our moral responsibility within an Earth system that far exceeds us in size and scale.


But let me conclude.

I think that Neyrat’s critique of ecological thinking is worth considering. It behoves us all to ask where we may have ceded moral responsibility to the idea of system that is above and beyond us, and that asks of us nothing other than pragmatic orientation, thereby opening the door for new schemes for human managerialism. Where might this be detected in the proposals put forward for sustainable finance, in the public policy arena with respect to climate mitigation and adaptation strategies, or in the discourse of sociologists and anthropologists who proclaim that there is no common world and so it is up to us to build one?

And yet, there are resources within ecological thinking to resist this flattening and to safeguard an understanding of moral responsibility within a system. It is perhaps no surprise that those philosophers most committed to “complexity, unstable flows and interconnectedness” also find recourse in the language of transcendence as gifted to us by our religious tradition.

Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 3

See here for short summaries of chapters one and two. Here is the third chapter, entitled: ‘Terre’ est un nom propre. Please remember: these posts are intended as nothing more than short summaries of the content of the book for those who do not read the French. I will endeavour to post more substantive analysis in due course.

The Samsa Family

At the beginning of this chapter, we pick up again the story of The Metamorphosis. Think about way Gregor and his family occupy space – differently. Gregor’s family (the mother, the father, and to a lesser extent the sister) are portrayed by Kafka as wire sculptures (“silhouettes de fil de fer”, 27), without material substance, skeletal. These physical descriptions echo their spatial existences. They are enclosed, isolated, shut in on themselves (“claquemurés”, 27) in their too-large apartment, struggling to pay for it, frightened by what lies outside the walls.

Gregor in his insect for of course is confined to a yet smaller space: his room. And yet, he can connect with so more things than them (“se relier à bien plus de choses qu’eux”, 27). He is linked in ways that the amortised family could never conceive. Moreover, as Kafka describes, Gregor’s movements around his room increasingly delineate or map out a freedom to occupy space in new ways: “as he moves around his room, he is able quite freely to elaborate niches, domes, bubbles, atmospheres, in short, interiors” (27-28). Latour’s language here is highly inflected by a Sloterdijkian register of course.

Thus we see the contrast: it is the family who are confined; Gregor who is free.

Think for a moment about the surveillance of the planet Earth that is conducted by Google satellites. From a computer located in Silicon Valley, we could localise upon the Samsa household by zooming in. And yet, were we to do so, these characters would represent mere pixels on a screen, none more distinct than any other.

But what is viewed from afar (“le point de vue de Sirius”, the view from nowhere, as Latour never tires of reminding us) is always pixellated in relation to the real image. For Gregor in his insect form has become “terrestre” (29, this is the crucial codeword of the whole book). And so he signifies something quite different from his family (“il se repère tout autrement que ses parents”, 29). Disgusting as it might seem, his footprint is now given by the things he has eaten, digested and left behind as he slithers around his territory (“des choses qu’il a digérées et laisées dans son sillage”, 29). Gregor cannot be so easily reduced to the form of a pixel when viewed from above: “aucune force ne peut l’aplatir ou le réduire à un pixel” (30). No, he truly occupies space. In its full multi-dimensionality. We read the story and seek to understand why we should sympathise with Gregor. But we are getting it the wrong way round: it is his parents and family that becomes insignificant for him, vanishing into nothingness.

It is as if Gregor and his family do not occupy the same Earth: “nous ne vivons plus, littéralement, dans le même monde” (30).


The before-and-after of the pandemic-induced lockdown corresponds to the (let us call them) different generations of characters represented in Kafka’s novel.

  • Most of us believe we are encapsulated and complete selves (as Latour puts it: “leur moi riquiqui”, 30). With this awareness safely in the bag, we then venture out into the world and seek to add to ourselves a material frame, composed of a bundle of inert things.
  • In the experience of lockdown, however, as we were literally confined to our rooms, we began to understand that this never was the case, that subjectivity never was constituted this way, “que personne n’a jamais eu l’expérience de recontrer des ‘choses inertes’” in the way described above (30). We began to realise that everything is arranged, maintained and given meaning by agency configurations (“puissances d’agir”, 31, another crucial but untranslatable Latourian term).


For those inspired by Gregor (if “inspired” is the correct term) all is alive, “tout est vivant” (32), in the sense not only of individuated living beings like termites, but also in the sense of the termitary itself, “en ce sens que, sans les termites, tout cet amas de boue ne serait pas ainsi agencé” (32). We know this because the termites themselves would not survive for one moment outside its confines.

What term can encompass this range of living beings? “Bioclastique? Biogénique” (33). Or “artificiel” (33)?

None of those terms suffice of course. Following on from his ontological nomenclature in the Inquiry, Latour specifies that the correct tern is “subsistence”: “la liaison, l’association, la superposition, la combinaison de tous ceux qui ont des soucis de subsistance et d’engendrement” (34). Subsistence comprises a branching from a predecessor to a successor (hence, it is an issue of “engendrement”, 35), each time via a small hiatus, thereby allowing a “généalogie” (35) to be traced to its origin like a salmon moving upstream. The present moment owes its form to this genealogy; we are “terrestre” in the sense that we owe our existence to those who came before us who created the conditions of habitation that we now enjoy.

Even in lockdown, when other work is denied to us, when we may feel restricted and thwarted by conditions imposed upon us from the outside, we can trace these genealogies. And thus we are free. Like Gregor was. For we may have been shut in, but we cannot be truly confined: “confines, oui, mais chez vous” (36).

Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 2

My previous post began my chapter-by-chapter exploration of Latour’s wonderful new book, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres.

In the second chapter, entitled ‘Confinés en un lieu quand même assez vaste’, Latour shows how the model described in that first chapter, the self-regulating construction of a habitable space, applies to different scales of “outside”: a city, a mountain, the social world, and finally to the Critical Zone of the Earth itself.

The city

To live in a city is to occupy a networked space whose “channels” spread out deep around us. Whether we conceive of these channels figuratively, or as some more material network (like the London Underground tube system), it remains the case that the spread of the city is like a termitary: “la ville est l’exosquelette de ses habitants, comme les habitants laissent derrière eux un habitat dans leurs sillages” (18).

In this description, Latour is drawing heavily on his magnificent earlier book: Paris: Ville Invisible.

The city is almost an organic extension of our own activities. And if the human is removed from this space, which of course is precisely what happened for so many town centres during the pandemic, it no longer has the feel of a city. Thus, “la ville […] émane de ses habitants” (23).

The Vercors Massif

But can we move out of the city to find something that is truly external to us: “rencontrer quelque chose qui soit vraiment dehors” (19)?

Latour recollects the teaching of a geologist friend at le Grand Veymont, a mountain in the Vercors range that has an impressive Urgonian limestone cliff face.

Urgonian carbonate is a lithostratigraphic unit of rock in this area that was formed in the Early Cretaceous when high sea-levels permitted the deposition of carbonates rich in corals and rudists (reef-building organisms). These are called bioclasts: skeletal fossil fragments of once living marine or land organisms laid down in a marine environment, especially in limestone varieties around the globe. This rock therefore constitutes “une autre conurbation géante, depuis longtemps désertée par ses habitants” (19), engendered by “un long travail d’astuce et d’ingénierie d’animalcules innombrables” (20).

Interim conclusion: both environments (the urban landscape described above and this mountain face) are like termitaries: they have been constructed from within by their inhabitants.

Gregor’s labour

We deduce from the narrative of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that Gregor, whom Latour has already introduced in the first chapter above, must have been already alienated in significant ways … from his family, from his colleagues and especially from his mode of labour.

But what is amazing is that once he becomes metamorphosed, he discovers a new form of productive labour. He arranges the clothes and furniture in his room. He literally regurgitates food (which he uses as a sort of cement) in such a way as to mould the environment he inhabits to his personal taste.

Thus, although he remains confined to his room, he regains his freedom: “le confiné se déconfine à merveille. Il commence à retrouver une grande liberté de mouvement” (20).

The walker on the mountain

To ascend le Grand Veymont a pedestrian is likewise engaged in this sort of circulating labour, breathing oxygen offered by atmospheric processes and contributing in return a footstep of carbon dioxide. She is “la piétonne d’une metropole immense qu’elle a parcourue une belle apres-midi” (21) and “logée au-dedans d’une conurbation qu’elle ne pourrait jamais quitter sans aussitôt mourir asphyxiée” (21).

Agency processes

By broadening our horizon (from the city, to mountain, to individual human walker) we can begin to see that these processes are carried out by all sorts of actors. These might be “des travailleurs”, “des animalcules” or “des agencements subtils” (22). The point of unification is that they are all agents that have “la capacité à changer autour d’eux leurs conditions d’existence, à élaborer des niches, des spheres, des ambiances, des bulles d’air conditionné” (22).

Nature as constructed, not providential

We can better understand the condition of “nature” if we understand it as subtended by actors, rather than by (mute) organisms: “elle est surtout composée d’artifices et d’artificiers” (22).

This enables us to avoid the myth of providence that suggests the conditions for life were fine-tuned by “good fortune” (22), “une version si providentielle de l’accord entre les organismes et leur environnement, comes ils dissent” (23). This would be like congratulating the termite or the ant for the fine-tuned conditions of their termitary or ant-colony. What a nonsense!

On the contrary, were we to say that, these insects would surely reply that “c’est elle et les milliards de ses congéneres qui ont émis cet ‘environnement’ qui sort d’elles” (23). And this holds for all environments: “ce sont les vivants qui l’ont rendue favorable à leurs desseins” (23).


Latour cites the stories of his childhood (such as Jules Verne’s L’Île mystérieuse), where shipwrecked people would first mount to the highest point to ascertain where they were located and to gain their bearings. They are reassured when they realise that the edges of their environment can be spied from the centre.

Similarly, we too are disorientated at the moment, but there is comfort in knowing that the further edges of our environment are still accessible, that “nous devinons le bord depuis l’intérieur, par transparence en quelque sorte” (24). This is the definition of scientific knowledge (to use the language of the Inquiry, that is knowledge in the mode of REF), that is, we look outwards via numerous connections that link us to the “dehors” (23)

The inside and the outside

The inside (“le dedans”), then, is defined as the space that is subject to all these agency configurations, whether it happens to be near to us or far from us in space. This is the space of the Earth, “l’en deçà Terre” (26), and those who inhabit it are “les terrestres” (26): “c’est avec eux que je cherche à entrer en relation lançant mes appels” (26).

It is important to note that “terrestres” does not describe a “type” of thing (such as humans, viruses, animals), “mais seulement une manière de se localiser en déclinant la série d’ascendants et de descendants dont les soucis d’engendrement se croisent un instant” (44).

The only thing that would be outside this space would be that which is beyond the space of the Earth, which we might call the wider universe, “l’univers” (26). This links back to the opening chapter, where we had a guilty desire to look beyond the fragility of existence on Earth in order to sense the stability of the Moon. But although we may know a lot about the universe we do not have “l’expérience directe” (26) of it. That is reserved for the space of the Earth, the Critical Zone we occupy. It is to those who inhabit this space, “les terrestres”, that Latour will offer advice in the rest of this book.

Latour’s Où suis-je?: Summary of Chapter 1

In recent weeks I have been tweeting chapter-by-chapter summaries of Latour’s new book, Où suis-je? Leçons du confinement à l’usage des terrestres. This book is important, I think, because it provides a summary and expansion of a number of articles Latour has recently posted on the pandemic and lockdown, continuing the work of applying the philosophy of “the new climactic regime” to our global political situation (his two most recent long works, including Down to Earth as well as this book, can increasingly be seen as an application to politics and society of his 2015 Face à Gaïa).

A number of people have asked me to post these unwieldy twitter threads here on my blog. In doing so, I have done not much more than fill in some of the original tweets, providing (I hope) readable summaries. In each case, I will not necessarily offer commentary or analysis. I hope this series serves as an introduction to this wonderful book, perhaps for those who do not yet read the French.

The first chapter, Un Devenir-Termite, sets the scene for the novel analysis of the lockdown that Latour will go on to provide.


We come back outside, as if after a long confinement, searching for our bearings.

We cannot bear to cast our eyes towards natural phenomena, the sun, the trees or the landscape in front of us. Not merely because our eyes have become unaccustomed to the outside world during lockdown, but rather because we sense the damage we have inflicted upon it through our own activities in the Anthropocene.

But it seems that we do feel comfortable looking at the moon. Why? Because, perhaps only symbolically, its movement is beyond the reach of our activities: “au moins, il ne se sent pas du tout responsible” (10); “de son mouvement, enfin, tu te sais innocent” (10). That is to say, the moon remains the closest object that is far enough away not to be changed by human activity: “elle est le seul être proche qui soit extérieur à ses soucis” (14). The moon therefore retains an innocence that has been squandered with regard to our own planet.

Kafka’s metamorphosis

To come out of lockdown (itself, as we have seen, a metaphor for coming-to-our-senses with regard to our environmental impact) is to awake from slumber like Gregor Samsa, becoming grimly aware of the monstrous form we now inhabit, and sensing the difficulty of inhabiting the world outside in the same way we did before: “c’est comme si j’avais subi, moi aussi, une vraie metamorphose” (11).

How does this analogy work?

Previously, like Gregor, we might have through we could occupy our own bodies innocently: “je pouvais me déplacer innocement en emportant mon corps avec moi” (11). But now, our bodies have become outward and visible signs of a monstrous metamorphosis.

In the same way, we are beginning to awake to the metamorphosis we have imposed on the world out-there:

  • Our bodies have become “monstrous” in the sense that we have carried behind us a trail of our own atmospheric emissions and pollutants, a disgusting sight for those who had “eyes to see”.
  • And now, in a more obvious sense, we also carry behind us the trail of the virus, threatening to infect others in a more palpable but no lless devastating way.

We emit our “sillages de virus et de gaz” (12); “derrière comme d’avant, c’est comme une carapace de conséquences chaque jour plus affreuses que je dois apprendre à trainer” (11).

And yet, rather than just passing away, we must learn to adapt, as falteringly as necessary, to this new existence, accepting that we are “dans un autre temps, quelqu’un d’autre, membre d’un autre peuple” (12).


Kafka’s insect image points us to the idea of termites whose termitaries are described as super-organisms because the termites form part of a self-regulating entity: the colony itself. The termites are restricted to the space of the termitary, but can extend themselves further in tht tthat they build outwards; the termitary thus becomes a type of exoskeleton or “corps étendu, en quelque sorte” (13).


Part of the burden of this book is to describe and explain and explain the “termite-being” that we must acknowledge and own if we are to face the devastating and urgent challenge of the Anthropocene:

  • Humans too are those who construct and extend outwards the interior of their habitable space: “tu en as fait ton milieu intérieur, ta termitière, ta ville” (14).
  • Of course, we feel ill-at-ease with this idea, as described in the feelings of the one exiting lockdown above (14).
  • But we should not! We are like Gregor and should not feel we cannot exit our room in shame and horror at our modus operandi: “avec tes antennes, tes articulations, tes émanations, tes déchets, tes mandibules, tes prostheses, tu deviens peut- être enfin un humain!” (14). It is the other characters in the story (the parents, the sister, the awful manager who drops in to find out why Gregor is late) who have refused to become human; they should opine who they are and what they have become (15). Thus, we must read the story the other way around: “remis sur ses six pattes velues, Gregor, enfin, marcherait droit et pourrait nous apprendre à nous extraire du confinement” (15).

This self-regulating construction of a habitable space (which Latour calls “ce devenir-insecte, ce devenir-termite”, 14) is the antidote to those who feel their only resort these days is to gaze at the moon in despair at the climate crisis down-here. He is “ce Gregor don’t le devenir-insecte préfigure le nôtre” (27).      

In other words, Latour has presented us once again with his appeal to “retour à la terre” (15).

Lesser-known Pieces by Latour on Religion and Spirituality: Part 2

I continue here a series considering a few of Latour’s lesser-known pieces addressing the topic of religion and spirituality.

In the first post in this series I described my first meeting with Bruno himself, which took place in London in 2014, and the publication that ensued from that event.

In this post, I wish to draw your attention to a very obscure catalogue piece, written in 2000 to support a small exhibition held at Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge, entitled No1se: Universal Language, Pattern Recognition, Data Synaesthetics, A Series of Exhibitions about Information and Transformation, curated by Adam Lowe and Simon Schaffer. The text is not available anywhere to my knowledge and even the exhibition site has now become redundant. I ordered it some years ago via postal order as a bound catalogue from The Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (and it is now sitting in a cardboard box in my shed somewhere, as it hasn’t made it onto my “Latour” shelf due to its ring-binding).

The piece itself is called ‘Time for a New Icon? An Apparition, as on a Screen Darkly’. It’s a strange and abstract piece, examining Latour’s interaction with the symbols on the computer screen in front of him and the nature of the “messages” they keyboard delivers to him. Crucially, these messages are described as “angels”. This terminology is important because it is drawing upon a conceptual heritage within Continental Philosophy, where the word was employed as a trope to explore the role of “unexpected message-bearers” serving as vehicles for the transmission of meaning and truth. You need look no further than Michel Serres’ wonderful 1993 text Angels: A Modern Myth, of course, but the same idea is also found earlier in the work of Michel de Certeau (see ‘Le parler angélique’, 1984), where related terminology is used.

But what do “angels” signify for Latour? As I have repeated frequently on this blog, Latour understands religion as a matter of subsistence, not substance. And thus he can propose its derivation from material entities that are not habitually or conventionally understood as being religious. For Latour, nothing can be designated “sacred” or “profane” on the basis of an innate quality that pertains to its essential being. Rather, he considers how different entities, perhaps even unexpected ones, function as conveyors of religious meaning and truth solely on the basis of their interactions with other entities, that is, in their role as actors. In the Inquiry, he refers simply to “the beings of religion”. But this is only a mature nomenclature for what he earlier called simply “angels”. Hence, in this catalogue piece, he argues that material and technological objects that are generally considered neutral with regard to religious values can become “angelic” mediators of religious meaning and truth in particular contexts. Even the symbols on his computer keyboard (the form of which it is hard to imagine, given that this piece was written presumably in the late 90s!).

Latour’s point, then, is that it is possible to democratise the sort of entities that can qualify as emissaries of religious meaning and truth. Any entity in the world can become an “angel”, depending upon its function as a mediator within a network. Or, to put it another way, different material objects, understood as actors, can produce a compositional order that is religious in form.

This is crucial for an understanding of what I have elsewhere called Latour’s “political theology”, that is, his argument that “religion” can safeguard important compositional forms that will be needed if we are to live together and in harmony in the context of the New Climactic Regime.  

So this article is obscure. But it is important, especially when read alongside other articles from this period, including ‘On a Crucial Difference between Instruments and Angels’ and ‘Angels without Wings“. Perhaps I will dig it out of the shed!

New Article: We Have Always Never Been Modern

A new article from me examining how Latour’s work can help us to trace new genealogies of modernity.

Read the article here.

Can the Concept of Gaia be Redeemed for Biology and Earth System Science?

For some, the announcement of the arrival of the Anthropocene has sounded the death-knell for serious consideration of the concept of Gaia. After all, if there is anything that the end of the Holocene demonstrates, it is that the homeostatic stabilisation mechanisms that are enacted in Gaia to regulate habitable conditions for life on Earth have been decisively overwhelmed by the destabilising effects of human-induced activity. [1] What further use can there be for Gaia, then?

But don’t speak too soon. For this forthcoming article in The Anthropocene Review, “Life on Earth is Hard to Spot” (Timothy Lenton, Sébastian Dutreuil and Bruno Latour) makes a case for the ongoing value of the concept of Gaia to the disciplinary fields of biology and Earth System Science (ESS), and to philosophical and theological speculative thought in general.

In broad terms, the authors argue that the productive deployment of the concept of Gaia within the natural sciences has been in eclipse not because of the arrival of the Anthropocene as a fundamental paradigm disrupter, but because “different scientific disciplines have persistently missed the extraordinary and variable influence of Life on the Earth”. Here, the term “Life” (with a capital “L”) is being used in contradistinction to the word “life” or “living beings”. By referring to “life” or “living beings”, biologists and Earth system scientists have construed the biotic component of Gaia too narrowly; what is addressed is this particular living thing as a subset of other living things. The authors suggest this sort of error is found, for example, in “niche construction theory” (pace Lalande), whose examples of adaptive environmental effects are drawn from an overly-localized empirical field: the building of nests and burrows by these particular animals or the alternation of nutrient cycling by those particular plants, for example. No doubt, there is certainly more work needed to formulate and substantiate this accusation.[2] But conceptually the authors of this article wish to contrast this narrow definition of “life” with their own concept of “Life” (with a capital “L”). Here, “Life” denotes the “total ensemble of all living beings”. There are no subsets or genera of “Life”. The context in which “Life” operates is only the abiotic. “Life”, then, becomes a suitable candidate for the role of biotic partner in homeostatic regulatory processes of the sort identified by Lovelock and Margulis. Or, to put it another way, the formula “Life + abiotic environment” can be taken as an apt definition for the mechanism of Gaia.

The bulk of the article goes on to provide a sort of genealogy of the category errors that have been made by confusing “life” with “Life”. By focusing their study on the physical systems of the Earth (biogeochemistry, climatology, oceanography, solid Earth geophysics and so on), ESS, for example, failed to see how the negative entropy of the Earth’s heat exchange had to pass through “Life”. The article points out that, for many Earth system scientists, the raw logic of their work would lead them to posit a “Mars system” as analogous to that of the Earth system, even though there are no living beings on that planet. “Life” indeed! This is an ironic inversion of Lovelock’s original insight about life on Mars made whilst he worked at the JET Propulsion Centre in Pasadena, California. It shows how a basic misapprehension of what constitutes biota has slipped in to ESS. The article provides similar diagnoses of the assumptions lying behind the Earth system models of NASA and the IGBP.

By positing “Life” as the most accurate definition of the biotic component of the Earth, then, the article argues for a redemption of the concept of Gaia within biology and ESS. And yes, even its teleological pretensions! This is where the article gets interesting for political theology. For one of the key reasons why Gaia theory has been dismissed is on account of its invocation of goal functions and the apparent purposiveness that seems to indicate. Conceptually, the very notion of teleology was thought to imply a consciousness that biologists believed could in no way be attributed to the Earth system. How can this be reconciled?

The article merely hints at an answer to this question. But the crucial point is this: Lovelock introduced ideas of feedback, self-regulation, homeostasis and goal-seeking behaviour from the field of cybernetics. The type of functional talk upon which he was drawing does not imply norms: it does not specify what the entity should do in this particular system. Insofar as biologists defer from the teleological implications of Gaian mechanisms, then, the error (so this article claims) comes not from the side of Gaia theory, but from the intellectual history of biology itself. As the authors put it: “the issue of teleology […] is embedded within discussions from 18th century natural theology, where the functions of organs within organisms or of species at the surface of the Earth were designed by God or where the apparent design of a biological entity was used to prove the existence of God”. So there is a political-theological aetiology to biologists’ own critiques of Gaia as teleological.

I think there is great potential in this suggestion. But more work is needed here to show what is meant. How and when did the biological sciences imbibe a concept of teleology that originated in theistic, rationalistic proofs for the existence of God? The article ends with this plea:

Two issues merit further discussion which we leave for further papers: a more detailed history of ESS and its relationship with Gaia, and a serious discussion of Gaia’s teleology, linking the theoretical efforts developed by the Gaian scientific community with philosophical debates on causality and on the way Gaia has changed what we mean by ‘life’.

There is much to be said here. And I will take up aspects of this challenge in my forthcoming book: The Political Theology of Bruno Latour.

But one text that will certainly be useful in this regard is that of French epistemologist of science Philippe Huneman, whose 2008 book Métaphysique et biologie Kant et la constitution du concept d’organisme shows how Kantian notions of “regulatory principle” and “natural end” fed into the early stages of the development of the discipline of biology and inclined it to a certain understanding of teleology.

So more work needs to be done.

But this is an important intervention in the field of Gaia Studies, drawing attention to the value the concept retains at the time of the Anthropocene.

[1]  A classic statement of this is Crutzen PJ (2004), ‘Anti-Gaia’, in: Steffen W, Sanderson A, Tyson P et al. (eds) Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure. Berlin: Springer, p. 72.

[2]  Is it really the case that evolutional biology can be arraigned for being neglectful of the category of “Life”? Much of this claim rests on a prior argument made by one of the authors, cf. Dutreuil & Pocheville (2015), ‘Les organismes et leur environnement: la construction de niche, l’hypothese Gaia et la selection naturelle’, Bulletin d’histoire et d’epistemologie des sciences de la vie, 22: 27–56.

Notes on Michel Serres, “The Natural Contract”

Recently I posted some of my own written notes on Serres’ 1985 book, The Five Senses. Here, on request, I post similar notes on The Natural Contract.

You will find here a summarised transcript of the text itself, broken down into chapter headings that I have supplied myself. Please note that there is no attempt here to introduce comment of my own of any sort. And I take no responsibility for accuracy! But the document may be of interest to some who are working through the book themselves.

Do check out Chris Watkin’s amazing posts on the same book and his recent interview on the Hermitix podcast.

Exiting from “The Economy”, translation of a piece by Dusan Kazic

I was delighted to read this very interesting article from anthropologist Dusan Kazic published on AOC. Building on aspects of Latour’s work, both in the Inquiry and elsewhere, Kazic presents a compelling vision for exiting from “The Economy”, that artificial metaphysical construction that dissociates us from the interactions that comprise real “economic” activity. Here is a translation. Kazic has a book forthcoming with La Découverte, based on his doctoral research, entitled Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes. Latour has referred to him in some of his recent work.

I hope you enjoy it!


COVID-19 arrived at the end of 2019, at the very moment I was defending my thesis, which set out to describe the multiple dynamic relationships between French farmers and plants.[1]

Barely three months after that defence, COVID-19 became my “ambivalent ally”. Awfully, it confined me to my house, along with half of humanity. And yet, at the same time, it served as a scientific ally by putting a clear stop to what can be called the universalist “grand narrative” of the Economy – to be understood here in the disciplinary sense – which asserts that humanity is obliged “to produce in order to live”.

The COVID epidemic has imposed a hiatus upon this highly naturalized story, which tells us that production constitutes the materiality of humanity, that we cannot live without it, and that we are obliged to produce in order to subsist. In this story, a world without production is impossible to imagine or conceive, for the reason that humanity would starve and life on Earth would be made impossible. All that can be imagined are ways of “producing and consuming differently”, that is, ways of changing “modes of production” and consumption. At a push, we might think about “getting out of growth” or “conceiving of a society without growth”, but getting out of production itself is altogether unthinkable.

And yet, that’s what the issue boils down to. My anthropological work, based on surveys and observations of about sixty farmers in France, breaks with the production paradigm on which the two predominant political regimes of modernity rest – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other – and proposes that we enter new worlds that I have called (for want of a better word) “post-productive”. This term “post-production” does not refer to futuristic or utopian worlds. It refers to present, real worlds, ones which do not exist under the auspice of “naturalistic” epistemologies where humans “produce in order to live”, but by means of epistemologies where we try our best to exist with the other-than-human world through multi-specific links [au travers de liens multispécifiques]. To put it another way, it is about moving from a paradigm of production to a paradigm of relationships with plants, conceiving of an agriculture without production, which at the same time would not prohibit us from feeding ourselves.

In describing the multiple relationships between farmers and plants, I have tried to show that production does not constitute the materiality of our modern world, but rather that it is our relationship with plants that constitutes our true materiality. The concept of production is an abstract, economic, universalist and naturalized concept that has spread on this Earth through two political regimes that emerged with the arrival of modernity – capitalism on the one hand and socialism on the other. These two regimes, which are a priori opposed to each other, agree on one thing (one could say that they share a common epistemology), namely, that they both consider “production” necessary if humanity is to be kept fed.

Contrary to what ecologists and les décroissants say, capitalism and socialism are not productivist regimes, but regimes of production in their own right. They are conceived and designed to produce, not to live alongside the non-human world. By critiquing (only) the “productivism” of these two regimes, both ecologists and les décroissants seek a form of “good production”, and at least for one of them this has to take place without growth . However, this idea of “good production” only serves to essentialise “relations of production” and does not break with the paradigm itself.

Capitalists and socialists have been fighting for more than a century to get hold of the famous “means of production”, all the while being in agreement on the core matter, namely that production constitutes our materiality and that we are obliged to produce in order to feed ourselves. This is why, since the beginning of the COVID epidemic, all leaders – whether they are capitalists, communists or ecologists – have wanted to “restart production”. But none of these regimes take into account our links with the other-than-human world because they don’t think they live alongside them, or rather they consider these to be “secondary” to the production that is supposed to constitute our materiality.

I showed in my thesis that farmers have never been in a relationship of “production” with their plants, but of “co-domestication”. Farmers domesticate plants just as plants domesticate farmers, and this has been going on since the dawn of time. In concrete terms, this means that neither farmer, nor carrot plant, nor tomato plant, nor courgette plant, nor chicken, cow, pig or sheep has ever “produced” a single carrot, tomato, courgette, chick, calf or lamb. If we eat and live on this Earth, it is thanks to our relationships with living beings, without which no-one could live. This is why we cannot say we are suffering with hunger more during the lockdown than before it. As we enter into a new world, then, it is entirely possible “to imagine preventative measures against the resumption of pre-crisis production”, to use the title of Bruno Latour’s article – because we have never lived in production, but always in a world that is about more than merely the human.[2] 

How did we arrive at such a naturalisation of the concept of production such that we have deemed it constitutive of our materiality? What has happened to make this concept of the Economy – which can be defined “as the exploitation of resources of labour and capital in order to produce goods or services” – become so dominant that we have come to believe deeply that it causes us to live?

To do this, we need to reopen a story. This will not be pleasant reading for Marxists. Accusing “capitalism” of all the evils on this Earth in order to place oneself on the right side of history, that is to say on the side of socialism, theirs is a simplified and hazardous story that leads nowhere. It was not the liberals who most naturalized the concept of production, but Marx himself, and the Marxist discourse that ensued.

By calling farmers “barbarians”, by deeply despising them (as did many authors of his time), that is, by understanding nothing of the agricultural world, Marx at the same time made a serious mistake in his analyses of “capitalism”. Capitalists do not appropriate to themselves the means of production in order to create wealth through private property – the commonly accepted definition of “capitalism”  – rather, aided by private property and the concept of production, capitalists make wealth by severing [réduisent]their relations to the world, which is exactly the opposite of what Marx thought. In other words, capitalists ontologically strip living beings in order to reduce them to the status of “resources”, then transforming them into “products” and “commodities”. Marx postulated without any empirical foundation that man is a being who produces in order to satisfy his basic needs. The act of production in the Marxist doxa is a universal and ahistorical anthropological category that refers to humans everywhere, whereas in fact no one has ever produced anything. Neither capitalism nor socialism nor “societies outside the orbit of those developed by the Enlightenment”, in the words of anthropologist Marilyn Strathern, are based on production, but on “certain relations of life and death between humans and the non-human world”. There have never been different regimes of production on Earth – there has never been socialist production, there has never been capitalist production, there has never been Asian production – but there are different ways of living alongside the non-human world, as anthropologists have taught us over the last century and a half. By making production the materiality of all humanity, Marx gave the Economy a power it could never have imagined, that of generating naturalized, universalist grand narratives (about the Market, about Production, about Growth, about Consumption) on a gigantic scale, with no connection whatsoever with our “animated world”, cutting us off deeply from a world that is more than the human.

Capitalists and Marxists are heirs to Economists, those formerly called “physiocrats”, who emerged in France in the 18th century by asserting this very strange idea, without any empirical basis, that “agriculture produces to make the nation rich” (while the farmers themselves had never heard of the term production), then opposing it to other sectors considered “sterile”. Instead of criticising the concept of production itself, liberals and Marxists will criticise the physiocrats by stipulating that other sectors are also productive, thereby extending the concept to the whole social domain. After the Russian revolution, the Marxists transposed the concept of production into the regime which was being established, and then to all Socialist countries, by seeking to develop “productive forces”. Capitalists and Marxists are enemy brothers both fighting for the “means of production”.

We now understand why we all agree with the idea that we have to produce in order to live. In this sense we are not all Marxists or capitalists, but we are all physiocrats. We all have the same vision of the Economy down to the decimal point. We just seek to house it in two opposing regimes that are essentially in agreement on the core matter. The physiocrats have locked us into a dead-end story. This is why I became an “eco-agnostic”.

To get out of this naturalised story, it is not enough to get on board with “green socialism” or with “green capitalism”. We will have to re-describe ourselves afresh as being in relation with the non-human world by not believing what the Economy says. This is the meaning of the questionnaire proposed by Bruno Latour at the end of his article on preventative measures, which invites us to imagine the preventative measures that could be taken against the return of pre-crisis production. 

In order to stop being a physiocrat, I proposed to “animate” the plants so that they are no longer reduced to the status of “resources”, as the Economy does, so to be able to enter into relation with them. The concept of production severs us deeply from our relationship with the non-human world and renders us “without ground”. For example, the act of talking to plants, entering into particular relationships of partnership with them or subjecting oneself mutually to them, is not allowed by these epistemologies because it is seen as “far-fetched” or secondary. This is why it is vital to break with the central concept of the Economy in order to plunge ourselves into our true materiality which is constituted through our links with the non-human world.

To begin to uncover this “animated world”, we must stop believing the Economy when it says that humans and corporations produce in order to put “products and goods on the market”. The suspension of this narrative provides an opportunity to account for the world in a different way and to see how we might live when we are not reduced to the status of resource by the Economy. A smartphone, a plant, a cow – these are products and goods for the Economy, but not for the people with whom they are in daily contact. The computer on which I write is not for me a product or a commodity; it is a writing machine that allows me to give shape to what I think.

In order not to fall back into production, that “second nature”, we’ll have to get rid of the prophecy with which Das Kapital began:

The wealth of those societies in which the capitalist mode of production prevails, presents itself as an immense accumulation of commodities.

This must be replaced with a simpler sentence stating that corporations make lots of “animated things” with which people relate in a multitude of ways. This makes it possible to get out of the “second nature” on the one hand, and on the other hand, not to turn things into inert and inanimate objects with no power to act on us. Our world is as animated as that of other peoples, as the philosopher David Abram has shown, but the modes of animation are not the same. In order to achieve a good symmetry between Us and Others, we must get rid of the idea given to us by the Economy (but not exclusively) that we should be characterised as living in a “society of production and consumption” surrounded by “products and goods”. Of course, we are still that white people who have decimated countless indigenous peoples and who are in the process of devastating the world, but “we must reject the idea that we are a people of merchandise” (cited from here).

With this shift in theory, we no longer find ourselves in a production regime or in a “market society”. The question is no longer how to relaunch production or choose which modes of production we should put in place, but to know which animated things we have to make and transform, with which living things we wish to enter into relation, and so on.

To get out of production, we must “get out of the Economy”. The construction site is huge. In order to lay a first stone, we could, for example, advance the hypothesis that the jobs to which such questions inevitably lead us do not depend on the Economy, but on the “state of the world” [l’état du monde]. This is what COVID-19 has shown: jobs cannot be created or maintained without taking into account the state of the world.

With the ecological changes that are underway, as we know, some jobs will disappear and others will be created (this is why I maintain that universal income – with a decent income – must be part of all public policy proposals, because there won’t be jobs for everyone – and that’s a good thing!) What I basically want to say is that we should stop thinking of jobs depending on the Economy, or rather that we must distinguish jobs from the Economy. I am fully aware that this is one of the most difficult theoretical, epistemological and political journeys to make, but COVID helps us to think about this turning point. The idea that “you have to relaunch the Economy in order to create jobs”, the story that the Economy tells, is one where you never know what “relaunching the Economy” means, because you never know what you are relaunching when you say that.

To bring home the strangeness of this fully-naturalized motto, we can make a comparison: it would make no sense to say “that anthropology or philosophy must be relaunched in order to create jobs”. We can deduce from this that jobs are not created by the Economy, but by something else. In order to find out by what, we have to carry out investigations free from the economic episteme. Nor should we believe that the circulation of money depends on the Economy. In his Debt: 5,000 Years of History, David Graeber taught us that the invention of money predates the birth of the Economy.

Economics is a discipline born in the 18th century that tells stories about this world. It’s up to us whether to believe it or not. The problem is that, as physiocrats, we believe much more in the stories that Economics tells than in those told by other social sciences. In order not to fall back into the physiocratic episteme, that is, into the world before, we should not plead for “another Economy”, as many authors do. If we need a slogan, it could be that “nothing is Economic”. At least it leaves the door open to tell new stories.

For example, when Total destroys a mountain to build oil wells, one must resist the hasty claim that this is part of its “economic activities” or even that it is the “fault of capitalism” – socialism would do the same thing. This is part of its problematic relationship to the other-than-human world, which has absolutely nothing to do with the Economy. It can be said that it is an activity that destroys the world, derived from the fact that Total does not live with this mountain, unlike the humans and living beings who do. On the one hand, we are faced by a mountain that has been de-animated by Total so as to be reduced to a resource, helped by the stories of the Economy; on the other hand, we are faced by a mountain that is animated by humans and other living beings who live there. The effect of this displacement is that an “economic activity” becomes an “anthropological problem”, and ultimately a political one, since it concerns our ways of living with human and other-than-human beings. We are no longer in the Economy, but in an animated world engaged in ontological conflict over our ways of living.

Some may object by saying “we can’t escape the fact that the money has to come in at the end of the month so we can eat”. Again, just as it makes no sense to think that eating and earning a living depend on philosophy or anthropology, there is no reason to believe that this is a matter for Economics. We don’t need a “relaunch of production” or an “economic restart” [reprise], but rather a restart [reprise] of anthropology so as to manufacture non-economic realities. Our existence depends not on the Economy but on many other things.

Clearly, we must resist giving Economic explanations to destructive events, just as much as to events where money is involved. Above all, we must resist criticising these realities in order to replace them with other realities, which means that we will have to describe ourselves differently without resorting to Economic notions. In other words, to get out of Economy and out of production, that is, to stop being physiocrats, we will have to enter into a conflict of realities through which we might re-describe “capitalists” in a different way, rather than continuing to criticise them. In his novel Les Furtifs, Alain Damasio writes that the ultimate goal of capitalism is to “sell reality” [vendre la réalité].

To extend this idea and reverse the perspective, one must no longer believe that those who destroy, de-animate and oppress the world are “capitalists”. I leave it to the readers to imagine what else to call them, in the hope that we will be able to describe relations of power and domination between humans, but also between humans and non-humans, in a radically new way.

[1]  See « Plantes animées. De la production aux relations avec les plantes », soon to be published at Les Empêcheurs de penser en rond.