The Empirical Site of Religion

In recent posts, I’ve laid out the [DC:REL] crossing. This is the pernicious amalgamation to which religion has been subjected in Modernity and that has caused its rationality to be obscured and abused.

Having provided this diagnosis—and with the bitter taste of its artificial expression in our mouths, in the form of fundamentalist violence—I think it’s time for us to move on, to the promised land, to religion itself.

So let’s talk about religion as a mode of existence: [REL].

But let’s pause again… For the first step in detecting [REL] will require the identification of (what I like to call) an ‘empirical site’. To explain why this is necessary, it will first be useful to recap the definition of a mode of existence. For Latour, modes of existence are revealed where experience registers a discordance with the way in which it has been officially described, designated and contained within the Modern constitution (the famous ‘practice’ versus ‘theory’ divide), that is, at moments where it finds itself ‘corseted by too narrow a set of legitimate agencies’ (Latour, Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME, 2013, p.3). Modes of existence can be dis-amalgamated at points of discordance like these.

This empirical methodology is constantly foregrounded in the Inquiry: Latour whimsically describes it as being akin to the gentle tapping of Nietzsche’s hammer or the delicate wielding of Occam’s razor upon the surface of Modern experience, sounding it out in such a way as to determine where its claims to rationality ring hollow.[1] Where it does sound hollow, the value of a mode of existence can be extracted.

The notion of an empirical site has been highly contested in responses to Latour’s Inquiry. I would refer you in particular to Terence Blake’s blog (I can’t recommend Terence’s trenchant analysis highly enough, even if we have different evaluations of Latour’s writing on religion), see here or any number of related links you will find from there. I’m not going to wade that controversy here: my aim is more to outline something of the structure of these empirical sites—and why on earth Latour deems them worth the trouble (for indeed he does deem them worth the trouble, in fact, they are intrinsic to the methodology).

The notion of an empirical site should be understood in a twofold way. First, it is a concrete, geographical location, one that can be visited and documented via processes of thick description. But second, it represents a kind of abstract, quasi-laboratory environment, one in which the thick descriptions provided by respondents in situ are put under the microscope and examined for their ontological consistency. This twofold function mirrors the job specification required of the co-enquêteur for the Inquiry, which should be understood as being a synthesis of the roles of ‘anthropologist/ ethnographer’ and ‘philosopher’.

Every single mode of existence Latour identifies is activated at an empirical site. For example, the detection of [REF] was activated by fieldwork carried out in the laboratories of the Salk Institute in California and the detection of [LAW] was activated by participatory observations carried out over a two-year period spent in the Conseil d’État in Paris.

In fact, in an early work Latour recounts a strange story that took place in his own life and that can be read as a proto-‘origin’ or proto-‘legitimation’ narrative for his entire method of enquiry, perhaps akin to Descartes’ poêle narrative (Latour, The Pasteurisation of France, 1993, pp.174–176). This story carefully incorporates the twofold structure of an empirical site described above and therefore seems to represent a sort of ‘macro’ site that pre-emptively orientates and envelopes the whole method of enquiry that will be pursued in the corpus that follows (Graham Harman is therefore right to describe this narrative as the ‘primal scene of Latourian philosophy’).

The movement by which modes of existence are extracted from empirical sites is crucial to grasp. Latour does not propose that an empirical site will straightforwardly yield a mode of existence to the enquêteur: after all, an empirical site still resides within Modernity and will correspondingly be subject to its institutional purification. Thus, it would be a mistake to suppose that an empirical site can be mined as a ‘representative cross-section’ (échantillon représentatif) of a mode of existence, in such a way that it might be scaled up and generalized at any point (Latour, Pour une ethnographie des modernes, 2008, p.4).[2] This would be a confusion (and it is often confused in this secondary literature). No: an empirical site must be understood as furnishing a ‘contrast’ (contraste) (Latour, Pour une ethnographie des modernes, 2008, p.4). This term is to be understood in the mundane sense of holding up a sample or swatch to the light in order to ascertain where the fabric is lighter or stronger: empirical sites are not themselves modes that can be compared against each other, rather, an empirical site contains in nuce the value that inheres to a particular mode of existence. Thus, what matters is not so much the accumulation of examples (how many case studies can be secured and documented from this empirical site so as to validate a theory about its operations?) as an intense form of immersion (how does the actual performance of entities within this empirical site reveal a value different to the one instituted by Modernity?). This generates the necessary ‘contrast’: ‘a contrast is obtained because one has progressed far in an example, and not because one has generalized out from a cross-section’ (un contraste est obtenu parce que vous avez descendu loin dans un example, et non parce que vous avez généralisé à partir d’un échantillon’) (Latour, Pour une ethnographie des modernes, 2008, p.4). A contrast enables an empirical site to be ‘shifted up’ to a mode of existence.

What, then, provides the empirical site for religion as a mode of existence? It turns out that the situation here is complex—and part of the question we will have to tackle is whether this complexity is productive (generative, fecund, exciting) or problematic (infective, self-contradictory, collapsing in on itself). For in the case of [REL] the twofold definition of an empirical site seems in danger of failing. What is the concrete, geographical location from which Latour proposes to extract the contrast? It is not immediately clear. One candidate is found in Rejoicing, where Latour recounts (without specific detail) his visit to an ancient church in Montcombroux-les-Mines in the Allier department of central France (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013, p.10). There are alternative candidates: for example, during the course of a private interview I have conducted with him (and hinted at here and there in his private writings), Latour has recounted private experiences of his own where it seems he first identified some of the rationalization and derationalization procedures characteristic of the Religion of the Moderns. The work of Charles Péguy would be another. In none of these cases, however, does Latour seem to delineate these as empirical sites with the same rigour as he does elsewhere.

The reason for this soon becomes clear. In the case of [REL], rather than a concrete, geographical location, Latour will specify an abstract, non-specific human experience to serve as empirical site. This turns out to be the experience of words of love that are shared between two people. Latour gives a different nomenclature to this situation in different texts, but here, for the sake of convenience, it will be referred to as ‘amatory speech’.[3]

Before proceeding, it is important not to pass by too quickly the idiosyncrasy of this situation within the framework of Latour’s thought. Why is it the case that [REL], alone among the fifteen modes, should be characterised by such an abstract—rather than concrete, geographical—empirical site? At various points Latour attempts to neutralise this as a potential problem or abnormality within his own system. He suggests, for example, that amatory speech can be taken as concrete insofar as it is a universal human situation, understood by all people at all times and places in the same way (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.307). And yet, having said this, he then seems to qualify this assertion by suggesting that amatory speech represents merely a ‘prefiguring’ or ‘scale model’, thereby somewhat undermining the claim to universality he had previously made for it (Latour, Rejoicing, 2013, p.118; also cf. p.48).

It seems to be the case, then, that a certain ambiguity inheres in the empirical methodology that pertains to [REL]. This tension, if it cannot be resolved,[4] would bear serious consequences, for if it could be shown that [REL] is derived as empirical correlate of a prior hermeneutical decision then its veridiction would be compromised.

That is the question that we will have to face as we begin to delve into [REL] more and more in the posts to follow.


[1]   For references to Nietzsche’s hammer; cf. Gifford Lecture 4 (2013), pp.75, 78. For references to Occam’s razor; cf. Waking up from ‘Conjecture’ as well as from ‘Dream’: A Presentation of AIME (2013), p.1.

[2]   The various references in French here are to the very interesting article of 2008 entitled Pour une ethnographie des modernes, my translations.

[3]   ‘Amatory speech’ as empirical site does not imply a reduction of [REL] into merely a discursive phenomenon. The words of love that are communicated in amatory speech are understood by Latour as ‘entities’ performing according to the logistics of [NET:PRE], and thus as equivalent to any other sort of material entity.

[4]   Which does seem to be acknowledged by the fictional ‘enquirer’ that is used as a mouthpiece in the Inquiry, who is described as being ‘[…] a little annoyed with herself for having to limit [religion as a mode of existence] for the moment to the intimacy of love crises’, in Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, 2013, p.305.

The Other State of Emergency

In typically apposite fashion, Latour has just published an opinion piece  on the repercussions of the 13-11 Paris attacks on the COP-21 civil society protests, which develops his Schmittian understanding of the ‘state of war’ or ‘state of emergency’ that we currently find ourselves in. See here for the article in English. See here for some summary tweets that will save you the trouble of reading it if you’re pressed for time.

Face à Gaïa: A Review by Patrice Maniglier

As readers of this blog will know, Bruno Latour’s recent book, Face à Gaïa, is not due for translation into English until next year. I will be posting various thoughts on it from my own reading in the weeks to come. Until then, and with kind permission from the author, here is my translation of one of the recent academic reviews of the book, published in Le Monde on 28 October. I hope this might serve to whet the appetites of those awaiting the English translation!

Bruno Latour thinking in a new way about the ecological crisis
Patrice Maniglier, Université Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense

Those who complain about the lack of intellectuals in politics are really doing nothing more than revealing how they themselves have slipped into that mixture of ignorance, laziness and disdain that we tend to settle for these days in regard to ideas. All such people need do, in fact, is open one of the books of the most cited and translated French author in the world at the moment, that is, Bruno Latour: there they will encounter a thinker who, although somewhat uncategorisable, manages to deploy his immense capacity for conceptual innovation and theoretical discovery in the service of a deeper appreciation of the great questions of our time.

His latest book, Face à Gaïa, is particularly pertinent in this regard. It aims to shed light on what is perhaps the most pressing issue of our time: the global ecological catastrophe (is there a better word to use than ‘catastrophe’ for something that is causing such a loss of biodiversity that we are now facing a situation of ‘mass extinction’?), the one that has been brought to the attention of the general public by means of the concept of ‘climate warming’. Following from the work of Isabelle Stengers in her Au temps des catastrophes (2009), Latour calls our attention to a somewhat unexpected conclusion that can be drawn from the work of the Groupe d’experts intergouvernemental sur l’évolution du climat (GIEC) , namely, that a new actor has entered into human history—the Earth itself! The Earth, which has for a long time provided the neutral and silent backdrop for the agency of societies, has become an actor that responds to us. The fuel that you put into your car engine does not only impact the quality of the air around you (as the old concept of ‘pollution’ suggested), but rather it impacts the climate regime at the level of the planet. The political and economic decisions that we take today will determine the face of our world for thousands of years. Geological time is now on a scale with historical time, such that we now must speak of the ‘anthropocene’ in order to designate this geological epoch in which human beings have become the primary geophysical force.

In referring to this new actor Latour, like Stengers, proposes taking up the term formerly coined by the British geophysicist James Lovelock: Gaia. Why this term?—especially given the way the scientific community has reproached Lovelock for having done nothing more than reviving the New Age fantasy of a super-organism? First of all, because Gaia evokes the idea of an animated being—and this is precisely what we need to become aware of: what we used to understand merely as inert décor is now in motion. Next, as Latour demonstrates quite brilliantly in the early chapters of the book, because the reproach heaped upon Lovelock’s concept really stems from a shoddy reading of his work. For Lovelock does not suggest that living beings are the organs of some gigantic animal, but rather that they contribute towards the habitability of their own living space: the terrestrial atmosphere is the outcome of relations between living beings. We are not in Nature, rather we are with a whole range of other beings: we ourselves make up each other’s landscape. Which is what the notion of the anthropocene points out in in a rather bucolic way…

Considering the matter in this way allows us to approach the political problems posed by climatic warming in a different way. For if we move away from the idea that on one side there is Nature, and on the other side humans, if the ‘environment’ taken as a whole must really be understood as an alliance between actors that are sometimes are a very far remove from each other (for example, huntsmen in the North Pole who are realising their reliance upon a particular level of acidity in the oceans), then we begin to appreciate the extent to which we have failed to respond to a catastrophe that has already been declared to us (in one sense it is already ‘too late’). It’s as if the interests that have a real stake in the matter are not being represented.

A politics based around the model of a United Nations can only work with territories defined as areas marked out upon the surface of the globe. And yet our real relations of dependence smash through such borders: inhabitants of the French seaboard perhaps have more vital interests in common with humans who live in the Arctic that with humans who live in Paris. And they might even have more interests in common with nonhumans of various types—clouds, algae, bacteria, not to mention machines and ideas—than they do with humans. Here we encounter the ‘Earth sciences’, which now can help us appreciate where our most important relations are located, that is to say, Gaian territories.

And yet we must not hear in this a claim that there exists some kind of higher interest, that of humanity in general, perhaps, or that of the Earth itself. We must hear it instead as a vital call for us to redefine warring parties. With this, we can see that Latour is at some distance from the irenics that usually accompany these matters, that which trusts itself to the hope of some kind of depoliticised world government. It’s only when we appreciate the radically martial character of the problem that we can begin to tackle it correctly. We must aim for nothing less than a new constitutional epoch.

And yet there’s more. Gaia is also the name of a goddess, and one of the more curious and intriguing parts of the book has to do with the idea that our inability to address the problem has to do with the conception of time that we have inherited from monotheism. It is not possible here to do justice to the line of reasoning, but it prompts Latour to see in Gaia the opportunity for a revival of Christianity, allowing him to articulate in a new way a sense of a rupture in history and a fully immanent earth.

Face à Gaïa is a must-read. It exemplifies what it means to be an ‘intellectual’ (without any of the snobbish connotations that sometimes go with that term): it is someone who, by means of their erudition, does not merely ‘defend his own position’ in the standard debates, but who sheds new light on our problems, who incites us to think more. Certainly this takes some effort, not because of the style of the author, which is of such clarity that it verges on being deceptively simple, but because of the very novelty of the ideas themselves. But is that not what it means , precisely, to think…?

With thanks to Patrice!


The Terrorist Attacks in Paris

This was a poignant series of tweets from Bruno Latour and the AIME team, posted a couple of days ago in response to events in Paris. For more context on Bruno’s diagnosis of (religious) fundamentalism and its misplaced (and pernicious) rationality, see the post below.

May the Lord have mercy.

Fundamentalism: Too Close to Home for Comfort?

In various posts below I’ve described how, for Bruno Latour, the religion instantiated within Modernity is upheld at the [DC:REL] crossing. Extending this analysis, it will now be shown that the religious situation in general that results in Modernity (and, indeed, the one that is prevalent in the world of ‘secular modernity’ that we all inhabit) can be called ‘fundamentalism’—however paradoxical this might seem to be in our age of pluralistic toleration.[1]

Latour’s re-allocation and re-appropriation of the febrile and toxic concept of ‘fundamentalism’ is one of the most interesting aspects of his recent work. According to its technical usage within the Inquiry into Modes of Existence, fundamentalism does not indicate a ‘return to the past’, that is, it should not be understood in the narrow sense of adherence to an original movement or tradition. Rather, within the Inquiry, fundamentalism refers to the attempt to stabilise a regime of truth in the public space by means of the logic of [DC]. It does not have creedal definition so much as a performative one: it describes the efforts of the Moderns to base epistemology on a foundation other than the logistics of [NET:PRE]. Thus, fundamentalism should be understood as a recent production, or at least as one that is contemporaneous with the advent of Modernity and le front de modernisation.

The logic of fundamentalism can hitch itself to any regime of truth: law, politics, science, or indeed religion.

What is more surprising, however, is that, when it comes to fundamentalist religion, Latour accuses secular modernity itself of being its generator and sustainer. Once again, this conclusion is warranted by the methodology of the Inquiry. It can be demonstrated in three steps. First, as has already been seen, Latour has demonstrated the way in which the Moderns have encoded religion as referential informational correspondence via the [DC:REL] crossing (albeit they have done so in the spirit of ‘pious’ countermeasure to the perceived encroachment of Science). With this in mind, a second step follows: Latour argues that the Religion of the Moderns is ‘undiplomatic’, that is, it asserts religious truth apart from the negotiated logistical operations of [NET:PRE]. Unmoored in this way, no control whatsoever can be exerted on unilateral religious claims (for more on this, cf. Rejoicing, or the Torments of Religious Speech, 2013, 2001, p.65). The third step is the inevitable correlate of the second: the Religion of the Moderns is rendered susceptible to vicious feedback cycles initiated by those who wish to usurp its authority in the interest of a particular expression of power or domination.

As far as Latour is concerned, then, fundamentalism is not at all a description of a religious sensibility that has been overcome in Modernity but that threatens to break out primordially in parts of the world awaiting the advent of the Modernization process for themselves; rather, it is a description of the pharmakon that lies at the heart of the very religion that is promoted and justified by the Moderns within secular modernity.[2]

By inscribing fundamentalism in this way, Latour is able to make a controversial connection between violent religious extremism—including the phenomenon of Jihad-inspired terrorism—and secular modernity. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015 Latour argues that the rationality of those criminals is ultimately the same (albeit in mutated form) as the one that is secured by the Modern constitution and espoused by those promoting the Religion of the Moderns:

It comes from those who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough. (op.cit)

The hegemony over the interpretation of religious truth claimed by the Jihadists stems from a disregard of the delicate and dispersed rationality of the modes of existence.


The violence they exert upon the Other is justified by their privileged claim to referential informational correspondence to the command of their ‘God’. Latour’s startling claim is that this informational claim derives from the same amalgamation as that which determines the Religion of the Moderns, namely, [DC:REL]. The skewed and bastardized rationality of the Jihadists is no different in kind from the sanitized and widely-disseminated rationality that is proudly espoused by the Moderns. So, on the one hand, he can propose that the Jihadists, ‘behind their archaic appearance must be understood above all to be fanatical modernizers’. And, on the other hand, he can propose that secular Moderns ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah—the parallel is uncanny—rejecting the efforts of diplomats, want to claim the whole land for themselves’ (‘Thou Shallt not Freeze Frame‘, p.35).

For Latour, a phenomenon like Jihadist religious violence must be appreciated for what it really is: not a return to a pre-modern (pre-Enlightenment) worldview, but the logical instantiation of a Modern one.

You might like to consult as well an earlier post by Philip Conway on Latour’s very interesting and poignant response to the Charlie Hedbo massacres.

[1]   The term ‘absolutism’ is used in a nearly analogous way in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013, English edition), p.94.

[2]  For more on this theme, cf. ‘Why has Critique Run Out of Steam?’, (2004), p.239; An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, (2013), p.260.

René Girard and Bruno Latour: An Intellectual Kinship?

I don’t know if Bruno will write a few words of reflection following the sad news of the passing of René Girard last week. He has done so before for those he has considered intellectual companions of one sort or another. Perhaps he will do so again

At any rate, we might take the opportunity to consider for a moment the extent of the potential cross-pollination between their two bodies of work—these two quintessentially French thinkers whose oeuvres seem, in many ways, more at home in an Anglophone register.


As it happens, I’ve raised the subject of Girard with Bruno during interview—his response has bespoken both personal respect and more than a passing scholarly interest in mimetic theory, albeit that he has always chosen to interact with it somewhat from afar. In addition, on an intellectual biographical note, it’s interesting to note the triangle that encompasses these two with Michel Serres (although it should be remembered that Girard was a generational peer of Serres in a way that Latour, being the ‘next generation down’, wasn’t; see Latour’s reminiscence of attending Serres’ seminars as a beguiled student here, p.10; or James Williams’ fascinating reminiscences of Stanford life in the shadow of Girard and Serres as collaborative intellectual titans here).

Of course, the primary reference to Girard in Latour’s work is found in the second chapter of We Have Never Been Modern (1991, 1993), where it crops up in the context of a discussion of Modernity and its capacity to sanction critique.

But first, a brief digression to another text entirely … Latour’s wonderful discussion with Michel Serres entitled Eclaircissements (1995). There, the following comment is made about the ‘sanctioning’ of critique:

Have you noticed that the term ‘sanctioned’ comes both from the law and from religion, to reaffirm the ‘sanctified’? (Eclaircissements, p.53).

In considering this matter of Modern critique, then (that is, the capacity of the Modern constitution to sanction critique against itself, against others, or whatever), we immediately find ourselves in the somewhat Girardian register of the ‘sacred’.

Well then, turning back to We Have Never Been Modern, we can now see that it is within the framework of the Girardian ‘sacred’—this quasi-religious pharmakon mechanism of humanity, both fully operative and fully concealed to the self-consciousness of those practising it—that the Moderns’ capacity for critique must be understood. Modern critique, in Latour’s terms, most certainly is a sacred phenomenon:

  • On the one hand, the Moderns use ‘the power of critique’ to barefacedly assert their transcendence and finality over other collectives: in this sense, critique is a tool, it has provided them with ‘justification for their attacks and for their operations of unveiling’ (We Have Never Been Modern, p.43, and all subsequent references).
  • And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns have simultaneously closed down and concealed the functioning of critique. It is that ‘thing hidden before the beginning of the world’. We’ve already seen some of this in our study of the various ‘locks’ enacted in the Modern constitution. As with the entire epistemology of the Moderns, its functioning is hidden to themselves, and thus sacred: ‘the very foundation of the modern critique […] turns out to be ill-assured’; ‘the upper ground for taking a critical stance seems to have escaped us’ (We Have Neverp.43). As a result, the practise of critique is really wielded as a weapon in order to scapegoat others: ‘critical unmasking […] was only a matter of choosing a cause for indignation and opposing false denunciations with as much passion as possible. To unmask: that was our sacred task, the task of us moderns’ (We Have Neverp.44).

Pace Boltanski and Thévenot (2006, 1991), then, Latour sees his task in the Girardian register as one of revealing, unveiling, laying bare, disclosing, publicising, exposing, ‘debunking’ the power of critique—or better, getting alongside a dispensation of history that is doing that work anyway (the Anthropocene). The ‘scapegoating mechanism’ (We Have Neverp.44) of Modern critique ‘no longer has the privilege of rising above the actor by discerning, beneath his unconscious actions, the reality that is to be brought to light’ (We Have Neverp.44). This has eerie resonance with the late-Girardian (by which I mean Achever Clausewitz, 2007) diagnostic of secular modernity as characterised by a progressive draining-away of the protection that was previously offered by the sacred against the inevitable escalation of mimetic contagion, and indeed by an increasing disregard for the katéchon potential of the Gospel itself.

For both Latour and Girard, then, the simple fact is that the Moderns can no longer make sincere accusations—the very ground on which they have done so up to now has been eroded from under them. That particular arrow of ‘progress’ has turned around (as Latour demonstrates via the choric movements of dancer, Stephanie Ganachaud).


Or, to put it another way, we might say that both Latour and Girard are apocalyptic in their commitment to ‘unveil’ (We Have Never, p.43) the chimera of a supervenient, sacred power that humanity has claimed to itself as a function of its own putative hegemony over a scapegoated other.

It is a little unfortunate that in We Have Never Been Modern Latour then slips into accusatory mode against Girard: the accusation he advances is that, according to Girard’s formulation, the object of Modern critique is faceless and arbitrary: it doesn’t really matter who or what the victim of the group lynching is, only that he/ it is available to be used for the scapegoat mechanism. Latour condemns Girard in this way for overloading the theatre of the human subject. Subsequent analysis (remember, Latour’s text is over 25 years old now) has shown that mimetic theory has a far greater role for the nonhuman object than this (see, for example, Girard’s own response in the excellent Evolution and Conversion, 2007). But this shouldn’t conceal the schematic synergies of their concepts of Modernity at large.

Requiescat in pace.

‘Laudato Si’ and a Political Theology of the Anthropocene

In the last few posts I’ve been embarking on a rather systematic survey of Bruno Latour’s concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’, [REL]. But every now and then I’ll jump off that carousel in order to consider or apply some aspect of Latour’s political theology as a whole—that is, I’ll assume some of what I haven’t yet demonstrated.

So today: some thoughts towards a political theology of the Anthropocene.

It was wonderful last Saturday at an Oxford Theological Seminar to be involved in a discussion with Oxford University academic Myles Allen. Myles is Professor of Geosystem Science in the School of Geography and the Environment, as well as being Head of the Climate Dynamics Group in the University’s Department of Physics. He has served on both the third and fourth IPCC assessments. In particular, his work proposes the use of Probabilistic Event Attribution techniques to quantify the contribution of human and other external influences on climate. (And here he is explaining the science of the carbon cycle to for good measure).


Myles’ sober description of the politics of emissions targets was based on the indubitable authority of his own personal involvement in various commissions and panels since the 1980s. And what really stood out in his various reports was his residual optimism: we can act now, he said, and what’s required is more (not less) of the dirty work of assembling governmental actors in the room in order to qualify these targets. In response to my own, impish question, Myles strongly disavowed the role of apocalyptical language in this operation. There’s no need for shock tactics in the way politicians or scientists communicate with the public, he argued, after all, that sort of rhetoric hasn’t caused us to shift our behaviour so far, so what’s to say it ever will? No, what’s required is more down-to-earth and hopeful: working now, with respect to the energy requirements of developing nations, and with an agreed framework in place. There’s a useful, short summary of his position here if you’re interested.

Myles confessed himself to be on the ‘soft’ side of this debate, even as it is understood within his own field. But his basic trust in the power of politics reminded me of aspects of the Good Anthropocene strategy: the eco-modernist idea that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth might throw up in the future, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. With eco-modernism, there are no planetary boundaries that need limit the advance of the human race and its consumption requirements: instead, the human will increasingly be decoupled from nature, through the construction of  eco-citadels that are maximally efficient and minimally spatially burdensome, in such a way that nature will finally be allowed to go its own way in peace. Indeed, for eco-Modernists, as we enter the Anthropocene, the only barrier to a grand new era for humanity would be self-doubt—self-doubt fostered, it would seem, by the climate change scientists themselves, forever bombarding us with their gloomy statistics and dystopian predictions, rendering the general public frightened and even supine in the face of such apparently overwhelming odds.

(If you want a summary and critique of the eco-modernist manifesto, do check out Philip Conway’s superb series of posts from earlier this year).

Of course, there is surely much to be celebrated in such a strategy. For one thing, at least it doesn’t shy away from the problem. And anyway, pragmatic optimism doesn’t sound like a bad bet—or indeed, might we not even say that it sounds like good politics? If history shows anything, it shows that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if at the same time they’re allowed to continue  (or even up-scale) their current trajectories of consumption and development. Wouldn’t this represent a more durable and functional political movement than one assembled, say, around sacred, moral or ideological reasons? Eco-modernism sounds like something that could work, doesn’t it? Shouldn’t we go ahead and get on-board?

And yet, I wonder if it is not precisely because it self-consciously withdraws from the sacred, the moral and the ideological that the Good Anthropocene strategy falls short. Its politics may sound convincing, but it simply cannot provide the political theology that is needed at the time of the Anthropocene.

To show why, we need to consider an alternative perspective on the science of the Anthropocene, one that has been helpfully outlined for a layman like myself by Clive Hamilton (for example, here) and is being increasingly taken up in a philosophical register by Latour (for example, here). We might call this an Earth-system strategy.

The idea here is as follows. Where the Good Anthropocene strategy has gone wrong is in failing to make the cognitive leap from ecological thinking to Earth-system thinking. Ecology is the science of the relationship between organisms and their local environments. Earth-system thinking, by contrast, is the science of the whole Earth as a complex system beyond the sum of its parts.

In making the shift to Earth-system thinking, we’d be beginning to appreciate that, however much humans may be able to have a positive impact on some of the local ecologies in which they themselves are embedded, by means of their techno-utopian interventions, it doesn’t really count for anything if this does not address the Earth-system, that is, the Earth as a totality, as a unified, complex system comprised of atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and biosphere, all dependent on each other in their mutually-interacting operations.

And when you think about it, isn’t it the case that Earth-system thinking (as opposed to ecological thinking) is precisely what the Anthropocene is now demanding us to think about? What we’re facing in the Anthropocene is not just a collection of local environments susceptible to recovery and amelioration if only we could gather enough political will to do it. Rather, what we’re facing in the Anthropocene is a single, integrated, dynamic, volatile system. An Earth-system strategy shifts us out of eco-modernist thinking and into an appreciation of the world as interconnectedness, from top to bottom.

And this, I think, is where the recent encyclical, Laudato Si, begins to make a contribution. In fact, we might provocatively say that Laudato Si should not really be considered an ecological treatise at all (even though that’s what it’s always called)—but rather it should be considered an Earth-system treatise, in the sense defined just now.

Perhaps this explains why, in spite of its call for constructive political engagement by us all in our local and national contexts, as much as we can, at various points Laudato Si complicates the idea of a purely political solution to the problem of climate change. In paragraph 106, for example, we’re reminded that various options are provided to us by science and technology to tackle the problem. But will we fall into the trap of using them according to ‘an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm’? What is this paradigm that we should be so careful to avoid? LS goes on to explain: it’s the assumption that ‘a human subject, using logical and rational procedures, can progressively approach and gain control over an external object’. The language here is fascinating: ‘logical and rational procedures’, ‘gaining control over an external object’—perhaps we could just about say that a human collective could manage such things for a local ecosystem (although it would require time, money, and a lot of political consensus), but to do so over the ES? This would be beyond possible. And so the paragraph continues: ‘to think that way is to suppose that the human subject might find himself in the presence of something formless and completely open to manipulation’. The language of ‘formlessness’, with its echo of Genesis 1, seems most apt here: to act providentially over the Earth-system would be the preserve of the Creator alone, the very one who hovered over a scene that was ‘formless and void’ and made order out of it. For humans to think that they might do the same is an overstepping of the mark, a libido dominandi we might say.

I think this is what I most appreciate about Laudato Si—the subtlety of its diagnosis. It doesn’t fall into the trap of demonizing the usual targets: those who just don’t care about the Earth, the capitalists, the corporations, the Protestants, those who show only brute rapaciousness and greed concerning the materials that the Earth offers up to them. A critique like that would be so easy to make. And yet somehow it seems to smack of a politics that has been superseded and that needs to be shifted up to a new realm of subtlety in the time of the Anthropocene.

Rather, Laudato Si gently reminds us that all human action on climate change is liable to overstep the mark, that all human action is subject to the charge of libido dominandi, even when it is carried out for the most pious and well-meaning of reasons. This occurs whenever we believe that we can act upon the Earth monolithically. Or, to put it another way, it occurs whenever we mistake the Earth-System for ecology.

In paragraph 111, Laudato Si calls this the error of ‘globalized logic’. I like that phrase a lot, especially having spent the last month of my life working through Peter Sloterdijk’s monumental Spheres trilogy, in which he seeks to recalibrate the metaphor of human agency away from its fixation with the shape of a globe, with its connotations of navigation, conquest and achievement, and towards structures that are more aware of their delicate, contingent, local construction.


The same ‘globalized logic’ can be seen in the well-meaning clarion call of the eco-modernists for us to take responsibility for the future we want to inhabit. Once again, this betrays their assumption that politics, somehow, ought to be sufficient to get the job done. If only we would take responsibility, then the human race would be mobilised to put into practice the techno-utopian vision they have enunciated.

And yet, as Latour has reminded us, as soon as that word ‘responsibility’ is uttered, hundreds of different people will at once raise their voices and say that they feel no responsibility whatsoever for those deeds at a geological scale.

Here again, Laudato Si demonstrates its awareness that the political solution proposed by the Good Anthropocene strategy is inadequate. In paragraph 49 it makes the following bold statement:

Today we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor. (Laudato Si, paragraph 49)

It won’t work to assume that all humans are ready to assemble as one to face the Anthropocene together, as the eco-modernists seem to assume. We can’t even agree on emissions targets, as will be painfully obvious once again at the end of the month in Paris. If there is to be any political unity to face the challenge of the Anthropocene, it will be hard won, and it will come not as a small group of humans propose a techno-utopian future that will sweep us all up on its triumphant progress, but rather it will come as the whole of humanity opens itself up to the possibility of new unscripted and non-controlling forms of reciprocity not just between humans and nature, but between people themselves:

In this universe, shaped by open and intercommunicating systems, we can discern countless forms of relationship and participation […] and it is faith alone that allows us to interpret the meaning and the mysterious beauty of what is unfolding (Laudato Si, paragraph 79).

I think that this second strategy, what I have called the Earth-system strategy, is really where the theology of Laudato Si begins. That is to say, Laudato Si takes us out of the realm of politics (which is the best that the Good Anthropocene strategy can offer), and into the realm of political theology. In this realm, there is no less requirement on humans to act. But they must act with an awareness of their own finitude and limits, and with an openness to new forms of interconnectedness that come from seeing the Earth not as an territory to be managed, but as a creation to be shared.

Perhaps that is what Laudato Si means in paragraph 10 when it proclaims its aim to show us ‘just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’. To have only a politics is to have humans without nature; but to have a political theology is to have humans with nature.