Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 2)

Lecture Two: Comment ne pas (dés)animer la nature

face

Humans as a new historical force

 The long history of the planet must be juxtaposed with the short, but very influential, history of humans. Humans have interpolated themselves onto geological history in an unprecedented way:

  • Humans are now ‘une puissance géologique sans précédent’.
  • Humans have now become a ‘giant Atlas’.

This contrasts with the vision of history given to us by the Modern Constitution: ‘le grand paradoxe de la ‘vision scientifique du monde’ est d’avoir réussi à retirer l’historicité du monde aussi bien pour la science que pour la politique et la religion’.

Geohistory

Thus, there is a new track of ‘history’ that we must understand as being situated inside the previous track of deep history. This new track has a different calibration of humans and Earth, or Nature and Society, than the one that has been assumed previously.

This new track can be called ‘geohistory’ and contrasts with ‘history’: ‘le rythme de l’histoire et celui de la géohistoire’.

The error played out by the ecological movement

The ecological movement wants to make use of the available science to prompt humans to do something about the threat of climate change.

However, they are misinterpreting what the science itself is telling them, namely, that the answer is not as simple as humans acting:

La question devient par conséquent celle-ci: pourquoi ceux qui décrivent les actions de la Terre affirment-ils tantôt qu’il ne s’y passe rien de plus que le déroulement de ‘strictes chaines de causalité’, tantôt qu’il s’y passe infiniment plus? Ce qui revient à se demander pourquoi, si la Terre est animée de mille formes d’agents, a-t-on voulu la penser comme essentiellement inerte et inanimée.

In a long section Latour takes three examples of how humans and nonhumans are now acting equally, such that there is no more Nature and no more Society: Tolstoy, the Mississippi and CRF.

On account of this error:

  • The ecological movement re-introduces the concept of ‘Nature’ and therefore de-animates matter: ‘les écologistes ont trop souvent repeint en vert cette même Nature grise qui avait été conçue au 17ème siècle’.
  • In doing so, the movement ends up doing nothing but parodying the old religious settlement, that is, Religion One (the concept given by the Gifford Lectures): the ‘Dieu-qui-voit-tout-et-qui-englobe-tout des temps anciens’. This is not a programme of action but of dis-inhibition.

Ecological science

By contrast, the ecological movement should be thinking in terms of a science which understands its implication in politics, that is, Nature Two.

The ‘data’ provided by the science of Nature Two (or, better, we might call this its ‘sublata’, which implies its generation via [REF] will not take the form of an ‘énoncé constatif’ (that is, a raw statement of fact, what Latour calls ‘matters of fact’). Rather, it will take the form of an ‘énoncé performatif’, demanding political assimilation and action.

Thus, whenever there is true science, that is Nature Two, we will find a link between ‘being moved’ (émouvoir) and ‘moving in response’ (mettre en mouvement). True science will prompt compositional action in the ones receiving it.

Serres

Michel Serres is the first proclaimer of the earth as a ‘fully-fledged actor’ and therefore of Nature Two.

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He is prescient of the absurdity of the Modern bifurcation of Nature and Culture, object and subject.

This is exhibited in the comparison of Galileo (Nature One) and Serres (Nature Two):

  • Galileo pronounces ‘and yet it moves’ (et pourtant la Terre se meut): he thus reveals himself as a representative of Nature One and therefore of Modernity. This is because, for him, the world moves but does not act: ‘elle avait un mouvement, mais pas un comportement’.
  • Serres pronounces ‘and yet it is moved’ (et pourtant la Terre s’émeut): he thus reveals himself as representative of Nature Two, that is nature mingled with human activity and therefore of nonmodernity. This is because, for him, both the world and humans move and act all the time: ‘c’est cette même subversion des positions respectives du sujet et de l’objet’.

Serres model of agency here is given by his grand concept of ‘translation’: ‘le moyen de comprendre par quoi nous sommes attachés et de qui nous dépendons’.

Quasi-objects and quasi-subjects

Serres thus presents us with a model in which ‘object’/ ‘subject’ (as predefined and required by the epistemological structure given by Nature/ Society) become instead ‘quasi-object’/ ‘quasi-subject’:

Impossible désormais de jouer à opposer dialectiquement les sujets et les objets. Le ressort qui faisait marcher Kant, Hegel, Marx, est maintenant tout à fait distendu: il n’y a plus assez d’objet pour s’opposer aux humains, plus assez de sujet pour s’opposer aux objets. Tout se passe comme si, derrière la fantasmagorie de la dialectique, la zone métamorphique redevenait visible.

Gaia

In describing Nature Two, Serres thus prefigures Latour’s concept of ‘Gaia’, which can now be described as:

  • une enveloppe active, locale, limitée, sensible, fragile, tremblante et aisément irritée’.
  • une Terre qui rétroagirait à nos actions’.

Of course the concept of Gaia is not banal hylozoism, but an acknowledgment of the way we must ‘comprehend’ or even ‘appréhend’ the ‘retentissement’ (impact, force) of the Earth itself.

What links Nature One and Religion One?

The idea of causality that lies behind the concept of ‘Nature’ looks curiously similar to the idea of causality that lies behind creationist Religion: ‘chose étrange, sur laquelle je reviendrai plus tard, cette forme de récit causaliste ressemble beaucoup aux récits créationnistes par lesquels on attribue à une cause première, à une création dite ex nihilo toute la série de ce qui suit’.

Thus the ideas of ‘Causality’ and ‘Creator’ are both metaphysical impositions, not given by ontological pluralism: ‘peu importe alors qu’on le nomme Créateur tout puissant ou Causalité toute puissante’.

What is the programme for theology?

Two important consequences for theology follow:

  • We can dispense with the idea of inherent conflict between science/ religion: ‘même si l’on s’est habitué depuis la Révolution Scientifique à opposer la science et la religion, l’idée de matière—car c’est d’abord une idée—participe des deux domaines.
  • We have a positive programme for theology: ‘c’est pourquoi, en cherchant à nous défaire de l’idée de ‘nature’, il faudra aussi se défaire de la théologie qui s’y trouve accrochée—sans oublier la politique qu’on y a mêlée!’.

Political theology

In fact, given that the old certainties of the human position in nature are now gone, what’s needed are new mechanisms of composition, which Latour here calls ‘political’: ‘il faut se préparer à refaire de la politique’.

Total war

The disruption caused by the collapse of the Modern bifurcation does not promise to be peaceful or easily-handled. Rather, in a very important phrase, Latour suggests it will provide: ‘un état de guerre généralisé’, the non-state deterioration of politics that Schmitt suggested came about following the end of the nomos in the twentieth-century.

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