Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 1)

Lecture One: Sur l’instabilité de la (notion de) nature


From crisis to mutation

If action had been immediately forthcoming on our part in relation to the warning signals of climate change, we might have been able to have acted so as to restore some kind of peace with the earth.

Instead, we have failed to act, such that:

  • We can no longer consider ourselves merely to be in a ‘crise’ (connotations = temporary, management, resolution possible).
  • Rather, we have to face the fact that we are in a situation of ‘mutation’ (connotations = change in the very relationship we have with the earth, tipping point, apocalypse).

Future generations

By dint of the inheritance of the Modernity, future generations will not be bequeathed the means of handling the radical change demanded of humanity in the Anthropocene.

Thus, it is as if we are condemning future generations to proceed along a trajectory that has been pre-determined for them and that cannot be interrupted: ‘alors que nous nous préparons très mollement à nous intéresser au sort des générations futures, tout aurait déjà été commis par les générations passées’ (my trans. ‘whilst we prepare ourselves rather nonchalantly to consider the fate of future generations, everything will already have been been committed/ put into motion by the past generations’).

We, the Moderns, are therefore imposing a space and a time upon our own (unborn) children, a time and a space that will not allow them freedom of action.


The passage from crisis to mutation can be explained by our tendency to ‘dis-inhibition’.

The term comes from Jean-Baptiste Fressoz: ‘dis-inhibition’ is where an initial reflexive response to an alert (in this case, the warning of climate change given by scientists) passes over in our theory and praxis to a state of normalization, ‘disregard or over-ride’ (passer-outre). In fact, for Fressoz, dis-inhibition is the primary characteristic of Modernity: ‘la modernité fut un processus de désinhibition réflexive’ (my trans. ‘Modernity consists of a process of reflexive dis-inhibition).


Reasons for dis-inhibition

Dis-inhibition can be traced to two motivations, both of which are summed up as forms of quasi-religious ‘madness’:

  • Under-action (disproportionate trust in the intervention of a ‘God’ from beyond, to rectify the situation).
  • Over-action (disproportionate trust in the technological intervention of humans, to rectify the situation).

Both are functions of Modernity. For motivation (2), cf. any number of Latour’s writings. Of primary interest to this book, then, is motivation (1).

The quasi-religious origins of dis-inhibition

Dis-inhibition form (1), the tendency to do nothing but to trust in the intervention of something, comes in two types:

  • In the form of ‘fanaticism’ [une forme
  • In the  form of ‘quietism’ [quiétiste].

Both forms display an inalienable trust in ‘God’ to sort out the mess, buttressed as it were by the promise of Genesis 8-9.


If dis-inhibition is to be avoided and shunned, the very concept of ‘progress’ needs to be recast (cf. the forward/ back dance movements of Ganichaud).

  • We must reformulate the very idea of moving forward: ‘revenir sur l’idée de progrès, à rétrogresser’.
  • We must reformulate the idea of hope (espoir) that was driving forward that movement.

Progress is hampered by the Modern bifurcation, which continues to advocate the separation of humans from the natural, thereby rendering a solution to the challenges of the Anthropocene unlikely.

Representational art

The imposition of the Modern bifurcation, with its attendant dis-inhibition, has been revealed by a genre of writing that has recently come to the fore, namely, studies in techniques of artistic representation (since the 15th century).

One particular focus of some of this writing has the arrangement of known objects in view by a knowing spectator.

Art premised on a knowing subject (= painter) and known object (= paining) enacts a ‘régime scopique’ (cf. the Freudian/ Lacanian idea of schaulust or pleasure in looking).[1]

  • (in the case of a still-life) How absurd it would be to take the fruit, or whatever object was in view, as inhabiting the realm of ‘Nature’: on the contrary, it has been arranged first by a human hand in order to be painted.
  • (in the case of the artist) How absurd it would be to understand the artist himself/ herself as inhabiting the realm of ‘Society’: on the contrary, the artist intended and arranged himself/ herself over and against the object he/ she is painting.

A ‘régime scopique’ necessarily implies ‘un opérateur, une opération, qui répartit objet et sujet’.

In art, the opérateur is the frame of the painting itself:


The opérateur is here ‘distributing’ both knowing subject (the eye of the picture-taker) and known object (causing it to say ‘cheese’, as it were).

The Modern Constitution has basically operated under a Cartesian system with God as opérateur: ‘Descartes imagine le monde comme projeté sur la toile d’une nature morte dont Dieu serait l’agenceur’ (my trans. ‘Descartes conceives of the world as projected on the canvas of a ‘still life’, with  God as the ‘operator’).

Examples of an  ‘operator’ in action 

  • Human ‘nature’.
  • ‘Natural law’ or ‘natural rights’.
  • Food stuffs claiming to be 100% ‘natural’.
  • The ‘natural world’; this is the hardest case, for it lies closest to (as normatively conceived) science, matters of fact, cause-and-effect, etc. Whenever ‘it is just how it is’ is invoked, values follow in the wake (cf. Nietzsche in The Gay Science, where morals underline the objectivity of the scientist): ‘une formidable charge prescriptive véhiculée par ce qui ne doit pas posséder de dimension prescriptive’.

Climato-scepticism seeks to preserve the bifurcation of Nature/ Society

 This lobby takes the cunning strategy of hiding behind the MC:

  • It requires of science some ‘facts’ (= Nature).
  • These ‘facts’ of course do not exist; for truth about facts (that is, referential truth) comes via [REF], not via ‘Nature’.
  • Climate-scepticism therefore arraigns science for its intermingling of facts and values, especially wherever its warnings become impassioned pleas for conscious action.

In this way, climato-scepticism forecloses a politics of the common world: it has ‘compris qu’on ne pourrait jamais plus maintenir la description des faits à l’écart de l’attribution morale—et bientôt de la mise en œuvre d’une politique’.

But in doing so, the climate-sceptics unwittingly involve themselves in politics

Although they don’t avow it, to engage in climate-scepticism is itself to form a political grouping, even we might say a war footing, against another group: ‘ils rassemblent eux aussi un groupe, pour lesquels ils ont défini des tests d’entrée, dessiné des frontières, en répartissant autrement les qualités de la matière’.

This is their ‘cosmogram’ (taken from John Tresch, this is the nomos/ theos/ demos arrangement for those familiar with the Giffords, further explained in lecture 5 below).

Gaia: Global Circus

The interruption of climate-scepticism is dramatized in the intervention of the character ‘Ted’ against the speech of the scientist ‘Valerie’ in the play Gaia: Global Circus:

  • Valerie is conscious of the need to engage in a politics of coalition in order to tackle the problems faced by climate change.
  • She acknowledges that the facts are secured by delicate chains of reference = [REF].
  • She does this in spite of being tempted to regress to a ‘just because science says so’ attitude (which she actually does in her screech against Ted as he is led out of the room, which is a moment of weakness on her part).

Composing the common world

Valerie, then, is one who acknowledges [REF] and therefore makes explicit the ground on which she is arguing her position. That is, she grounds her argument in the common world.[2] Or, to put it another way, she declares her politics.

For Latour, this is what all good scientists should do: ‘vous reconnaissiez que vous aussi vous essayez bel et bien d’assembler un autre corps politique et de vivre dans un cosmos cohérent autrement composé’.

A new bifurcation

For Latour, understanding the common world requires a new bifurcation:

  • This time not between Nature and Culture.
  • But between (A) a multiplicity of existents, housed neither in Nature or Culture; (B) a multiplicity of ways of their existing: ‘ce qui ouvre à la multiplicité des existants d’une part et, d’autre part, à la multiplicité des façons qu’ils ont d’exister’.

Latour proposes calling this an opening out to a ‘monde’ or ‘faire monde’, or, to use Haraway’s term, ‘worlding’.Or perhaps, the ‘multiverse’.


[1]   Latour cites: Descola, La fabrique des images (2010, catalogue at musée-branly); also literature by Panofsky, and also the recent work by Galison and Daston, Objectivity (2012).

[2]   Cf. the concept of ‘connaissance située’ in Haraway, Donna, (2007), Le Manifeste Cyborg.


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