Why embracing an apocalyptic future is the only way to be committed to the present (1 of 2)

I’ve recently exchanged some communication with long-term friend and reader of Latour, Professor Michael Flower, in regard to this wonderful lecture delivered by Latour last year, and in particular a series of diagrams that Latour employs right at the end of the lecture.

What is the lecture about? A rough sketch might help to situate us.

  • First of all, Latour acknowledges that his recent work is situated in the realm of the ‘apocalyptic’.
  • Enter: righteous indignation from all and sundry. Is it not the case that to import apocalyptic discourse is to resort to scaremongering? Or perhaps to sensationalism? Or perhaps (what is worse still) to non-verifiable religious metaphysics? At any rate, is it not the case that to dwell in apocalyptic is to remove oneself from the here-and-now?
  • Latour is not surprised by such accusations. But see how he turns the tables. As far as he is concerned, those who dismiss the category of the ‘apocalyptic’, attempting to live as if the in-breaking of an eschaton was not upon them, are in fact the least equipped to face the here and now.[1] This is the crux of his lecture. It is the in-breaking of the end-of-time into time that generates a capacity for action. And that is what apocalyptic discourse resources.

So the Moderns need a good dose of apocalypticism. And not least in the time of the Anthropocene, when the earth itself is threatening our existence in the most apocalyptic of tones! As Latour said in his 2013 Gifford Lectures: ‘the fireworks of the Apocalypse are not there to prepare you for a rapturous upload to Heaven, but on the contrary, to make you ready to avoid being chased off the Earth by Earth’s own reaction to your presence’.

With this context, we can now turn to the diagrams themselves.

1. How the Moderns inhabit time

Voegelin 3

First reaction: *$!*£$*!

Well, what’s being represented here, let’s try to unpack it.

This diagram represents the situation of Modernity: the Moderns’ own account of themselves and why that account is insufficient to face the anthropocenic future that is baring down upon them..

Let’s explain it as follows:

  • The blue horizontal line represents the flow of time. History, if you like.
  • The first yellow vertical line represents an historical event, a ‘cut’ in time, something that has already taken place in this history of the Moderns. Thus, we can suppose that the Modern subject is somewhere to the right of this ‘cut’ (but not yet in the bundles of yellow verticals that is further to the right still: we’ll see what they are in a moment).
  • What was this ‘cut’? It was a transcendent event that has come to define the entire flow of history that follows. To use Latour’s own nomenclature, it was the advent of the ‘bifucation’ of Modernity. So let’s say it was the beginning of the scientific revolution in the seventeenth-century (as described by Toulmin). Or let’s say, if you are religious, it was the incarnation of God in the person of Christ. It doesn’t matter which it is, really: remember, for Latour, you can be either a scientific or a religious Modern (these two positions are represented by the constructs Nature One and Religion One in the second Gifford Lecture). The historical precision of this moment is not necessarily uniform. The point is that a Modern is always situated after a moment of transcendent clarification.
  • Now, because the Modern is situated after that ‘cut’, it follows that he will see himself on an inevitable journey of ‘progress’ (this is a highly loaded word for Latour). The Modern is always moving forward, intrepidly, into new lands, plus ultra. Why? Because of the ‘cut’, the vertical yellow line! Modern progress is always guaranteed by a metaphysics that is already given, rather than one that is progressively composed.

OK, so far so good. But let’s now introduce something disruptive.

2. The (impossible) threat of a second apocalypse

All of a sudden, the smooth horizontal progress of the blue line is interrupted. It is threatened. By what? By the advent of the Anthropocene.

Now, we have a warning to the Moderns (issued by scientists, no less). They are being told that their forward  progress must be tempered. That it cannot proceed as it used to. Tht the former world is going to end. Why? Because now the earth is fighting back, challenging the concept of ‘inert matter’ that had underpinning the first ‘cut’. Progress now (if there is to be any) will result in patient indwelling of a much more immanent space than their own transcendent back-story will allow: the critical zone of Gaia.

This is an existential threat to the Moderns: the progress guaranteed by the yellow vertical cut and moving forward in the blue line is now impossible.

And yet, Latour’s point is that the Moderns cannot grasp this message. They cannot heed this warning. The idea that ‘the former world is going to end’ is incoherent with their own epistemological undergirding, which is given by the yellow vertical ‘cut’. How can something be about to supervene upon a history that has already been determined by a supervenient power? Or, to put it another way, how can our progress by checked when we are beyond the point of no return? As Latour himself puts it in the lecture ‘nowhere is it written that there will be two apocalypses’.

But look at the diagram again. There, to the right of the blue line are a jumble of yellow vertical cuts, falling over, tumbling, higgledy-piggledy. These represent the disruptive transcendences of the Anthropocene. And in the midst of these, the blue arrow of time has begun to swing down. The Moderns’ commitment to inevitable progress is bound to lead to their losing of the very conditions in which progress actually takes place. Catastrophe.

For Latour, pace Voegelin, this is Gnosticism par excellence: if the eschaton has already been immanentised, one ends up floating in an ethereal domain that has lost all mooring from the need for action here and now, in this earth. Hence, catastrophe.


So this first diagram helps us diagnose the situation of Modernity. In the next post, I’ll continue with more diagrams, this time showing the positive situation of nonmodernity, the one the Latour shows us in AIME. With that, we will be able to see how the apocalypse can and must intervene into the present in order to guarantee a future that we can all inhabit.


[1] In Face à Gaïa, Latour uses Jean-Baptiste Fressoz’s concept of ‘dis-inhibition’ to explain this: ‘la modernité fut un processus de désinhibition réflexive’ (chapter 1).

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