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!