Politics as an Empirical Phenomenon

In response to an earlier post, DMF poses a very apt question regarding Latour’s politics in the ‘comments’ section. How can it be diagnosed? Or, as he puts it, ‘any way to test this speculation?’

First of all, please remember that I am using ‘politics’ not in the narrow sense, as referring to the human organisation of society, which is embodied in the mode of existence [POL], but in a broader sense, to describe what Latour calls ‘the progressive composition of the common world’. Thus, the politics we are talking about here refers to the axiomatic ontological thesis that undergirds Latour’s entire work. The distinction is one that Latour himself makes:

We should not confuse […] the idea of multiplicity of beings and the consequent abandonment of the human-nonhuman distinction with any position about how to organise the polity. This is an entirely different question [….] it relies on the specification of what is original in the political mode of existence, as different from laws as it is from reference, and so on. (The Prince and the Wolf, p.97).

This is the type of politics that contributes to the concept of ‘political theology’ – and this is the concept that I think is going to be most heuristically valuable in the future as we apply Latour’s work to the problems of the contemporary world.

To state it briefly, I think Latour provides us with two diagnostic tools for a politics of non-Modernity. Both are empirical: but one is empirical in a ‘quotidian’ sense, and the other is empirical in an ‘analytic’ sense, if you like.

On the one hand the diagnosis can take place at the level of quotidian experience. To open and read a newspaper is immediately to recognize that contemporary debates in the domains of public policy, education, economics, society, health, sport and culture resist specification and demarcation according to the purified categories of Modernity. Politics cannot proceed as if controversies in such areas might be resolved by proxy with the apodictic certainty of ‘Nature’. Rather, politics proceeds via complex negotiations between competing centres of value. In making this argument, Latour is building on the work of his former doctoral student, Noortje Marres, that it is precisely via the negotiation of values that the constitution of a body politic is made possible at all.

But on the other hand, Latour also suggests that the non-politics of Modernity can be diagnosed at the level of philosophical anthropology. Of course, his own anthropological work in Guillemin’s laboratory and then on every other ‘site’ since (eg. the Conseil d’Etat) is one example of this. But he also interacts with a wide range of authors in the field, including Boltanski and Thévenot,  Viveiros de Castro,  Kohn and, most crucially of all,  Descola. In Beyond Nature and Culture, Descola proposes an anthropological matrix in which four ontologies are distinguished. Of particular interest to Latour is the one called ‘naturalism’: Descola argues that although this is assumed to be the normative ontology within Western political society, it actually represents ‘a highly localised and historical production that is not shared, or so it seems, by any other collective’. Latour directly appropriates Descola’s philosophical anthropology to argue that the categories of the Modern Constitution have no explanatory or heuristic value in themselves and, as a consequence, that any politics that is formatted onto them will be truncated and hegemonic. The Moderns live under ‘une Constitution bancale’ (trans. ‘a delicate/ precarious Constitution’), as he puts it in Face à Gaïa. This constitution provides an unreliable representative assembly for the housing of ontological pluralism, as well as for the associated regimes of truth that ontological pluralism allows us to consider—including morality, politics and theology:

Cette ‘nature’ dont nous savons maintenant qu’elle n’est que la moitié d’une définition symétrique de la culture, de la subjectivité et de l’humanité, et qu’elle véhicule depuis plusieurs siècles tout un barda de morale, de politique et de théologie dont elle n’a jamais pu se défaire. (Latour, Face à Gaïa)

We understand now that this ‘nature’ is only half of a symmetrical definition of culture, subjectivity and humanity, and that for many centuries it has transported a great deal of moral, political and theological baggage of which it has never known how to rid itself. (my trans)

When the ‘non-politics’ of Modernity is associated with ‘the Religion of the Moderns’, we get the disastrous phenomenon of political theology A. When the true, representative politics of immanence is associated with true religion, that is [REL], we get political theology B. This latter is a situation in which rationality can flourish and justice can be done to the real experience of the Moderns. This is what I tried to explain in this post.


Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 7)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.

Lecture 7: Les États (de nature) entre guerre et paix


Caspar David Friedrich

Das Große Gehege bei Dresden, ‘The Great Enclosure’ (1832 painting):


  • The receding lines of convergence make it difficult for the spectator to determine the situation of the flooded river in the foreground vis-à-vis the receding horizon of the sky in the background.
  • This parodies the pictorial image of the globe as taken from space, where continents and oceans seem to merge into each other in a general situation of in-distinction.

Thus, the paining makes the point: it is as if nature herself were resisting containment within a framework, let us say the framework of a globe.

And it portrays the impossible task of ‘viewing’ our situation within a globe, as if global vision introduces a confused spatiality in which the human condition cannot be pinpointed in any meaningful way: ‘dans la nature, personne n’a de place’.

Global vision is impossible

The painting therefore reminds us that it is impossible to look down upon nature from a vantage point ‘above’, one that sees what lies below holistically, or as a globe: ‘le génie de ce tableau, c’est d’avoir ainsi marqué l’instabilité de tout point de vue, qu’il s’agisse de voir le monde d’en haut, d’en bas ou du milieu’.

In fact, not even a ‘God’s eye’ view would be assured this kind of global vision: ‘celui qui croit voir le Globe terrestre d’en haut, se prend pour Dieu—et comme Dieu lui-même, bien sûr, ne voit pas la Terre ainsi, la vision globale est à la fois mensongère et impie.

Global vision is state-like

The claim to global vision (or God’s eye vision) is now described as state-like (how ironic given the emancipation promised by the phenomenon of globalization), in that both (A) global vision and (B) the state prescribe boundaries of identity for their inhabitants (we can see that it will be a short step from here to associate global vision with the liberal, juristic state that Schmitt condemns).

Thus, conflating the two, we live in (what might be called) a globe-State, ‘à l’intérieur des frontières d’un quasi-État’.

The globe-State enables only an ‘artificial’ peace

The globe-State does grant a certain amount of stability and peace for those inhabiting it, but only in the way that the liberal, juristic state does, ‘dont les lois universelles pouvaient être invoqués par n’importe quel individu rationnel pour mettre fin aux disputes et amener ses adversaires à résipiscence’.

This is an artificial or superficial stability and peace, however, because it is based on the deferral to a non-spatially orientated metaphysical principle: we all find ourselves ‘sous l’égide d’une autorité […] qu’il faut bien appeler souveraine’. Thus, the ‘globe’ or the globe-State is always given as a negative phenomenon for reasons of spatiality (nomos): ‘le Globe offre une figuration en quelque sorte géométrique de l’arbitre souverain qui règne au dessus de tous les conflits—et qui, par conséquent, les dépolitise aussitôt’.

Latour calls the peace that the globe-State brings an ‘armistice’, in the sense that it is a peace that can never hold because it can not differentiate plural modes: ‘l’Ancien Régime Climatique n’était rien de plus qu’un armistice, en attente d’un traité de paix qui n’est jamais venu, car il aurait obligé à distinguer précisément les vérités contrastées de la religion, de la politique et de la science’.

Globe-vision is a pernicious amalgamation

Globe-vision prematurely unites things that have different regimes of truth: it is a ‘stupéfiant amalgame des pouvoirs religieux, scientifiques et politiques’.

The globe-State is revealed as non-representative

The Anthropocene reveals that the globe-State never did manage to include representation for all its beings, both human and nonhuman: ‘avant l’Anthropocène, on ne se rendait pas aussi clairement compte de l’existence de ce Dôme virtuel, car on limitait l’existence des États aux seuls assemblages humains’.

We need a Gaian politics, not a globe-State politics

The sovereign Gaia must replace the sovereign Nature (as given by the globe-State), with the consequence that it will require us to do a radical rethink of the conditions of political life: ‘c’est parce que Gaïa n’est pas la ‘nature’, ni aucun de ses succédanés, qu’elle oblige à reprendre la question de la politique et à chercher un autre principe de souveraineté’.

Thus, Gaia can be understood as the antonym of this situation of the globe-State or (to put it simply) ‘the global’: it is the *‘anti-Globe’.

Gaia reintroduces conflict

If we deconstruct the previous sovereign (the globe-State), and replace it with Gaia:

  • We move from a position of apparent harmony (albeit we have seen that this is nothing other than an ‘armistice’) to a situation of for the first time possible war and peace.
  • But at least this new situation provides the condition (albeit distant and to-be-achieved) for the possibility of peace; it is therefore a cautiously healthy situation: ‘j’hésite à le souligner, mais c’est en ce sens que la ‘reprise des hostilités’ pourrait nous apparaître comme un bon signe’.

This is summarized in the following statements: ‘à condition d’accepter de passer d’un régime de paix apparente à un régime de paix possible’; ‘dans le premier régime, la Paix est donnée d’avance ; dans le second, il faut l’inventer par la mise en place d’une diplomatie spécifique’.

The Hobbesian interlude

The new situation of Gaia is a return to a pre-Hobbesian situation, in which the war-of-all-against-all prevailed: ‘par une torsion inattendue du célèbre concept de Hobbes, nous sommes rentrés dans cet état de nature qu’il plaçait dans un passé mythique, avant le contrat social, et dont le modèle lui était donné par les mœurs (mal comprises) des Indiens de l’Amérique’. The Hobbesian Leviathan might therefore be seen as an interlude between two iterations of Cosmocolosse (first, the state of war-of-all-against-all; second, the Anthropocene).


However, this observation is not advocating an ‘interlude’ model, in which it might be suggested that with the advent of Gaia we are actually merely returning to a state that previously existed.

Instead, it is more that we are brought back to an awareness of the need to construct a common world that Hobbes shared, but which was lost under the shadow of the Leviathan-solution that he proposed (which ultimately was incorrect): ‘l’armistice proposé par Hobbes n’est jamais parvenu à obtenir, par un traité en bonne et due forme, une situation de paix durable entre les exigences contradictoires des différentes formes de contre-religion’.

  • The Leviathan-solution he proposed never held; the arbitration of Nature was only a chimera: ‘la sécurité apportée par l’État de la Nature n’a jamais été obtenue en réalité’.
  • Thus, we are really in the situation of being the ‘contemporary’ of Hobbes, in the sense that we are just as much on the threshold of attempting to construct a new order as he was.
  • The only difference is that whereas Hobbes was battling a religious a priori order, the situation has now shifted for us, insofar as we are now battling a scientific a priori order: ‘dans le nouveau Léviathan, les violentes disputes sur l’exégèse de la littérature scientifiques remplacent les disputes à couteaux tirés sur l’exégèse de la littérature biblique’.

Introducing Schmitt

The situation of (potential) war that we find ourselves in facing Gaia can be explained with reference to Schmitt.


What does Latour want to use Schmitt for?

  • Latour is not so interested in Schmitt’s concept of the ‘state of exception’. This is because he supposes that, in defining the ‘state of exception’ as that which is brought about by the periodic intervention of a head of state, Schmitt misunderstood that in fact the ‘state of exception’ applies to every banal moment in the life of politics. The ‘state of exception’ is in fact the hiatus across which [POL] always passes for its veridiction. In Latour’s opinion, Schmitt therefore has little light to shed on that.
  • Instead (and even though Schmitt himself was minimally concerned with ecological implications in his own day), Latour is more interested in his concept of ‘nomos of the earth’: this is because that concept gives us a handle on how to think about space in light of the advent of Gaia without the interruptive confusion of ideas about ‘Nature’.

The value of Schmitt to Latour can therefore be summarized as twofold:

  1. He understands his concept of ‘nomos’ as being before the bifurcation, such that it is not subservient to ‘global’ thinking: Schmitt’s quality is always to appreciate the latter as a hegemonic gesture akin to a land-grab (= ‘prise du terre’).
  2. Schmitt appreciates the need for religion, in the form of apocalypticism, in order to understand our contemporary situation: ‘derrière le fatras de sa mythologie, il a parfaitement saisi qu’on ne peut pas penser la politique si l’on cherche à s’évader du temps de la fin’.

Schmitt and space

The concept of ‘nomos’ thus gives a useful way in to thinking about Modern space: ‘Schmitt est probablement le seul penseur politique à ne pas s’être laissé prendre par le cadre spatial’.

For Schmitt, space is not the neutral backdrop in which human action (politics, religion, etc) plays out. Rather, space is what is produced by those actions:

Pour lui, comme pour les historiens des sciences les plus récents, la res extensa n’est pas ce dans quoi se situe la politique—le fond de carte de toute géopolitique—mais ce qui est engendré par l’action politique elle-même et par son instrumentation technique.

Thus, for Schmitt: *‘l’espace est fils de l’histoire’.


Schmitt’s work therefore searches for a pre-Modern conception of space: ‘il cherche à creuser avant l’invention du territoire conçu comme un espace transparent qu’un souverain considèrerait depuis la fenêtre de son palais’.

In doing so, he is looking not for one unified space, but for a proliferation of plural spaces defined by relation: *‘des rapports d’espacement particuliers’.

Schmitt’s proposed terms of peace

Latour considers the foreword of The Nomos of the Earth as a way-in:


  • In that foreword Schmitt reveals himself as being sceptical about a solution that is premised on accession to some other space, the idea being that we might resolve our differences simply by finding some new place to go; not least because (in a literal sense, now that the era of colonization is ended) there really is no new place to go in the world.
  • Instead, the positive solution comes through a new appropriation of the space that we have according to the principle of Sinnreich der Erde (‘le règne du sens de la terre’, in English translated as ‘the normative order of the earth’, but probably weakly) (241). Those who can achieve this will be the new ‘artisans of peace’.
  • Latour’s interpretation of this space-ordering, which is precisely the nomos in question, is that Schmitt intends it to be a pre-bifurcation sentiment: ‘avant l’invention de la distinction entre nature et politique’.
  • Nomos thus equates to Latour’s own term of ‘redistribution des puissances d’agir’ or ‘cosmograme’.

However, for Schmitt, in order for there to peace there first has to be war

Avant de nous intéresser à ce qui va permettre aux territoires d’expliciter leurs lignes de front, essayons de comprendre pourquoi l’accès aux négociations de paix exige la reconnaissance préalable d’un état de guerre’.

From Schmitt’s The Concept of the Political:

  • If the police-state rules, there is always a ‘third’ arbitrator who can prevent true politics from taking place.
  • A state of war can accede when there is no ‘third’ arbitrator, such that situations of genuine conflict can ensue: ‘la guerre commence quand il n’y a pas d’arbitre souverain, quand il n’existe pas de ‘normes générales’ qui puissent être appliquées pour rendre un jugement’.

In the Anthropocene, we have an enlarged Schmittian war

In the Anthropocene:

  • The former policing has disappeared: ‘le Dôme de la Nature, sous lequel tous les anciens conflits avaient lieu, a disparu’.
  • Gaia rejects the role of being a policeman. Thus, the only possible consequence is that Schmittian war of some sort will ensue.

Tel [the Anthropocene] est le point de bascule [tipping point, pivot point] entre la ‘nature’ unifiée, indifférente, impartiale, globale, dont les lois sont déterminées à l’avance par le principe de causalité; et Gaïa qui n’est pas unifiée, dont les boucles de rétroaction doivent être découvertes une à une, et dont on ne peut plus dire qu’elle soit indifférente à nos actions, depuis que nous sommes obligés de définir l’Anthropocène comme la réaction multiforme de la Terre à nos entreprises.

But a Schmittian war expanded in scale

This ‘war’, however, as prompted by the Anthropocene, is cast in terms not of human-to-human (which naturally is the only thing that Schmitt could conceive of), but in terms of human-nonhuman.

What will this Schmittian war achieve?

The effect is not mutual destruction, but a grappling between all entities in order to define how we can live: ‘il faut se battre point à point, pour découvrir—et non plus appliquer—les réactions des puissances d’agir les unes sur les autres’. The Schmittian war in view, then, is a (potentially) positive one if it induces this reaction.

In the time of the Anthropocene, however, this does have a life-or-death zero-sum feel: ‘la ‘nature’, du moins la Terre sublunaire, a été placée dans une situation qui oblige tout un chacun à prendre des décisions au sujet des ‘extrêmes’ de la vie et de la mort face à des étrangers qui prétendent nier leur condition existentielle’. This is an important point: for what Gaia is really doing us reminding us of our existential limits, our finitude, the necessity of co-operating and knowing our place, etc: * ‘ce qui vient, Gaïa, doit apparaître comme une menace, parce que c’est le seul moyen de nous rendre sensible à la mortalité, à la finitude, à la « négation existentielle », à la simple difficulté d’être de cette Terre’.


Schmitt was correct in foreseeing that a world in which there was no possibility of war as just defined would be a worse world, precisely because it would enable the unchecked growth of MPs, that is, aggressors who were free, essentially, to destroy (not just battle) the other: ‘un monde d’où l’éventualité de cette lutte aurait été entièrement écartée et bannie, une planète définitivement pacifiée serait un monde sans discrimination de l’ami et de l’ennemi et par conséquent un monde sans politique’ (from The Concept of the Political).

This is the position of the eco-modernists: the seek to create a ‘utopie’ and in doing so bypass entirely ‘politics’ (as defined by Schmitt). Thus, *utopia = the opposite of politics, the state induced by metaphysics.

Schmittian war vs ecomodernist utopia

The choice is difficult, but clear: ‘la périlleuse vertu de penseurs réactionnaires comme Schmitt, c’est de nous forcer à faire un choix plus radical que celui de tant d’écologistes, toujours animés par l’espoir de s’en sortir sans jamais politiser les questions de nature’

What can Schmitt teach us in practice?

In order to survive in the time of the Anthropocene, then, we will need to act in a Schmittian way, that is, to define who we are vis-à-vis a (potential) enemy.

It is as if we need a new nomos (the one that no longer pertains, according to Schmitt, in the twentieth century): ‘les Terrestres seront-ils capables d’inventer un successeur à ce jus publicum, en vue de limiter les guerres à venir pour la désappropriation du monde.

This brings us back to the three key principles of composition, that is, the cosmogramme mentioned earlier: ‘il faut qu’ils acceptent de préciser l’époque où ils se situent, le nom qu’ils donnent à leur peuple, et, surtout, qu’ils parviennent à tracer l’espace qui est le leur pour que les autres comprennent quel est le territoire qu’ils sont prêts à défendre’.

  1. Time/ history

Where are the Moderns in history?

  • The are engaged in the movement of the dancer, that is, failing to look in front of them: ‘contrairement à ce qu’ils disent souvent à leur sujet, les Modernes ne sont pas des créatures qui regardent vers l’avant, mais presque exclusivement vers l’arrière et, curieusement, en l’air’.
  • Thus, they are failing to under ‘passing time’ and the challenges that it presents to their present. Rather, they are operating in a kind of freeze-frame present that fails to respect the future that is to come: ‘le futur des Modernes n’est pas devant eux, confié à une vision réaliste, hésitante, du temps qui passe, mais il est fait de cette transcendance inaccessible qu’ils cherchent néanmoins à situer dans le temps pour remplacer le cours de celui-ci’.
  • Thus, for the Moderns, the future (l’avenir) cannot in an important sense take place (devenir): rather, it is pre-ordained. They cannot face the future as agents (250).
  • What they need to be facing is ‘apocalypse’, which is a state of affairs of flux, becoming, change, responsibility, etc. Instead, the find themselves placed in a kind of post-apocalyptic world: ‘les Modernes ne sont jamais de leur temps, mais toujours de l’autre côté de l’Apocalypse’.

Conclusion: ‘en bref, le temps des Modernes est étrangement intemporel’.

It is precisely the non-temporality of Modernity that Péguy’s Clio diagnoses and provides the antidote for: ‘rentre aux Modernes un temps’.

  1. Space

Corresponding to the attitude towards time/ the present, the Moderns also are those who are always looking to find a new space, but have no means of actually inhabiting the space that is given to them (this planet). In this way they are like astronauts with no idea how to get back to earth.

  • Whereas space used to be that which the Moderns were seeking to quit, now that same space (the Earth) is coming back at them with new demands: ‘les choses se renversent, et la terre qui était auparavant ce que l’on devait quitter pour profiter de la modernisation, devient la nouvelle Terre qui vient à vous’.
  • Whereas the Moderns think that Modernity has prepared them well to really understand and inhabit the world as it is, and thus to be the masters of realism and materialism, in fact the opposite is the case: ‘comme il est étrange qu’après avoir entendu tant d’appels en faveur du matérialisme, nous nous trouvions totalement démunis pour aborder les conditions matérielles de notre existence atmosphérique’.
  • The Religion of the Moderns was in cahoots with this attitude, in that it sent people away from this world to another: ‘la terre qui était auparavant ce que l’on devait quitter pour profiter de la modernisation’.


What Gaia, and in particular REL (that is, the apocalyptic element of REL), gives us then, is proper adherence to the planet Earth: *‘une conduite mondaine, terrestre, incarnée’. One of the values instituted by REL = time of the end, that is, it prepares us now to find out position in relation to what is to come. This is the purpose of apocalypse as Latour understands it: ‘les feux d’artifice de l’Apocalypse ne sont pas là pour nous préparer à une élévation extatique vers le Ciel, mais au contraire pour nous éviter d’être chassés de la Terre réagissant à nos efforts de domination’.

  1. Collective

All this prevents a premature identification of who the anthropos of the Anthropocene actually is.

Instead, it requires that a collective is named according to its agency: what is causing you to act (as a group). *Crucially this includes as a sub-element the nature of the deity that is causing you to act: ‘et, en plus, s’il vous plait, dites-nous enfin clairement par quelle déité vous vous sentez convoqués et protégés’. Thus, Latour is clearly not denying that there are metaphysical principles of collection out there: he is just asking us to be explicit about which one is causing us to act.

The Earthbound

The collective that Latour is interested in being a part of is the one that is most explicit about its cosmogram: the Earthbound (les Terrestres in French).

War of humans vs the earthbound

Je sais qu’il est périlleux d’énoncer le problème aussi brutalement, mais je suis obligé de dire qu’à l’époque de l’Anthropocène les Humains et les Terrestres devraient accepter d’entrer en guerre. Pour dire les choses dans le style d’une fiction géohistorique, les Humains qui vivent à l’époque de l’Holocène sont en conflit avec les Terrestres de l’Anthropocène’.


Europe as a Theological Project

In the midst of our shock, anguish and grief at last week’s Brexit verdict, it behooves all followers of Latour to check that we are not mourning a progressive vision of the future that was after all Modern.

This article on Europe as a ‘theological project’ is therefore timely.

As we know, Latour has much to say about ‘forward progress’ as the chimerical medicine that is administered to itself by the Moderns. Forward progress is the movement of those who have been equipped with certainty about the direction of history, precisely because they believe themselves to be heirs to an event of historical rupture that has already uncovered the normative law of the unfolding of history. As Latour puts it in Face à Gaïa, the Moderns are those who accept:

[…] ce thème étrange que l’histoire serait déjà finie, qu’il existerait une rupture totale et radicale qui aurait définitivement brûlé nos vaisseaux derrière nous. C’est le cliché bien connu de l’irrésistible ‘fuite en avant’ .

[…] this strange idea that history should be already finished, that a total and radical rupture should have taken place that definitively burnt the bridges with what was behind us. This is the well-known cliché of the irresistible ‘headlong rush’ (my translation)

(On a point of detail, the phrase ‘fuite en avant’ comes from Danowski, Deborah, & Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo, (2014), ‘L’arrêt de monde’ in Hache, Émilie, (ed.), De l’univers clos au monde infini: textes réunis et presents).

Thus, for Latour, the concept of forward progress is artificial, precisely because its transcendental grounding in the event of a rupture forecloses the logistical movement of ontological pluralism that is continually at play in the material and historical situation of the present. In place of this idea of forward progress, then, Latour will advocate the need to ‘revenir sur l’idée de progrès, à rétrogresser’ (my trans. ‘to come back to the idea of progress, to retrogress’).

The article makes a correct diagnosis of the danger for people (like myself) who are mourning the loss of an apparently progressive ideal. In doing so, are we in fact elevating a utopia over and above the nuture of the local, the secular and the immanent, which are our real responsibilities of care? Are we secretly Hegelian? In doing so, are we compromising the very mechanism by which politics can take place and flourish?

The progressive future will even result in the end of politics itself — at least if politics is understood as encompassing more than the jostling of interest groups, bureaucratic administration, and the management of government benefits. Politics in that narrow sense will remain. But politics in Aristotle’s sense — this particular community in thisplace with this history and heritage, determining its own character for itself, deciding who is and who is not a citizen, who will rule, and in the name of which vision of the good life — that existential form of politics will cease to exist in the progressive future.

This is the Schmittian fear of the global and the universal as that which forecloses the possibility of politics, and thus loses that which is essential to human society and subjectification: ‘a world state that embraces the entire globe and all of humanity cannot exist’ (The Concept of the Political, p.53). It is the basis of Schmitt’s critique of democracy, via Rudolph Smend, in The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy.

And yet, all followers of political theology can rest assured. Political theology is the safeguarding of both politics and theology, precisely because it refuses the Modern idea of ‘progress’ and brings us back to the fully rational logistical mechanism by which the common world can be composed. That is the sort of progressive I want to be. And it is the progressive Europe that I wish we could still be a part of, warts and all.

For more detail, see Bruno’s article here.


Brexit and Political Theology A

Here is a sign on a gable wall in Belfast’s Loyalist Tigers Bay urging voters to leave the EU:


As you can see, it cites Revelation 18:4:

Then I heard another voice from heaven say: ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues’.

What an example of political theology A this is! A voice from above – devoid (you will note) of exegetical context or nuance – is adduced in order to forestall the progressive composition of the world. A most unholy alliance of theology and politics, because both have been misconceived.

Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 6)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.

Lecture Six. Comment (ne pas) en finir avec la fin des temps



  1. To diagnose the religious (or ‘counter-religious’) origin of Modernity, and in particular its tendency to generate disinhibition (cf. Fressoz) in the face of climate change: ‘je vais tenter, dans cette conférence, probablement plus difficile que les autres, de continuer à explorer l’origine religieuse, où, plus exactement (contre)-religieuse de cette remarquable indifférence de nos contemporains à la mutation écologique’.
  2. This counter-religious origin of Modernity comprised a mistaken understanding of the spatio-temporal nature of immanence: ‘c’est dans un certain rapport avec la notion d’immanence, que nous allons trouver la clef de l’indifférence au terrestre. Cette indifférence est bien d’origine religieuse’.
  3. However, this is not true Christianity, which (when it is understood correctly) offers a proper understanding of the spatio-temporal nature of immanence:‘mais pas du tout pour la raison d’habitude invoquée pour faire peser sur le Christianisme la responsabilité de l’oubli du monde matériel’.


This year has significance in the history of Modernity for at least three reasons:

  • Galileo and the Modern Constitution: in this year Galileo moved us out of the ‘closed world’ into the ‘infinite universe’ (Koyré); promising to take us beyond (arracher) the limits of this world alone; initiating the drive towards the movement of plus ultra; and so on.
  • The Anthropocene: this year was also offered in a recent Nature article as the beginning of the Anthropocene, caused by a spike in CO2 due to reforestation of the Americas (enabled, we might add, by the destruction of local Indians); reminding us that contrary to what Galileo suggested the earth is reactive.[1]

And the third? Interestingly, this is the same date as the regicide of Henri IV pace Toulmin.

1610 as transition between two ages


Toulmin argues that the assassination of le bon roi in 1610, and the thirty-years war that followed, marks a transition from one age to another:

Former Age New Age
Characterized by pluralism and healthy skepticism, ‘ouverture d’esprit, de relativisme, d’expérimentation ou de tolérance’. Characterized by the requirement of certitude, even if it wasn’t necessarily clear or even important what that certitude should be in.
Represented by the humanisms of Montaigne, Erasmus, Rabelais, Palissy. Represented by Descartes, wars for the definition of ‘true religion’ (Reformation and Counter-Reformation), Hobbes, and the peace of Westphalia.
Features the mixture and compatability of different regimes of truth: ‘mélangeant les découvertes en science comme en religion ou en politique’. Rendered different regimes of truth (science, politics, art, religion, etc) incompatible with one another.
Spatio-temporal grounding: (A) the particular; (B) l’enracinement dans le temps. Spatio-temporal grounding: (A) the universal; (B) une vision intemporelle.
The ‘true’ Revolution. A pernicious ‘Counter-Revolution’.

The latter spelt the death-knell for the former: ‘une nouvelle forme de certitude absolue qui met fin au pluralisme et au scepticisme’.

1610 as foreshadowing our own time

In our own time, we have similar movements: ‘il est difficile de ne pas lire cette citation, sans la rapporter au temps présent’:

  • The hegemony of certitude.
  • The threat posed by the recalibration of agencies threatened by the Anthropocene: ‘que la Terre puisse réagir à nos actions embarrasse tout autant les intellectuels d’aujourd’hui que l’autonomie de la matière embarrassait jadis les tenants de l’ordre établi’.


What is the nature of the ‘certainty’ that Toulmin thinks was introduced at this time?

  • Inertia of matter: a commitment to rendering matter de-animated such as to be able to produce ‘matters of fact’.
  • Reduction of autonomy: the creation of matters of fact enabled society to reduce ‘l’autonomie’ of human behavior, and thus to prevent the freedom of composition that had led to war.

Thus there was a political motif behind the transition to certainty.


Ironically, by introducing the discourse of certainty, this transition lost rationality (as it is defined by AIME): ‘la Raison devient l’interdit de suivre les raisons’.

What does Toulmin diagnose?

Toulmin diagnoses a historical moment:

  1. This moment does succeed in securing an ‘armistice’.
  2. But it is at the cost of amalgamation of modes: ‘ce fut au prix d’une paralysie de la pensée figée pour plusieurs siècles dans une répartition malencontreuse des fonctions entre la politique, la science et la religion sous l’autorité protective de l’État’.

What does Toulmin propose?

The final part of his book proposes as it were that we go back to 1610 and before, in order to recapture science, politics and religion before they were captured by certainty: ‘il faut accepter de se replonger dans le maelstrom de la Renaissance […] c’est la seule chance de rattraper ce qui a été perdu en un tel moment par cette demande de certitude indifférenciée, seul moyen, après 1610, d’empêcher les guerres de religion’.

A second candidate for the transition

Toulmin’s reference to 1610 as the ‘Counter-Revolution’ reminds us of another thinker: the ‘counter-religion’ of Assmann. Thus, now Latour proposes to go back further than merely 1610 in order to trace the moment at which this transition occurred: ‘pour découvrir l’origine de la désinhibition, il faut donc remonter encore plus loin, longtemps avant la solution apportée par l’État’.

Religion is the original site of the transition

By going back to Assmann, Latour shows that the transition (exemplified by 1610) actually goes back to religion as an original site: ‘qu’il faille chercher dans la religion l’origine de cette forme curieuse d’indifférence aux alertes sur l’état actuel de la nature’. That is to say, religion was the original vehicle by which the concept of ‘certainty’ was carried through.


Religion was originally loaded in this way by a mutation in time, which might might characterize as ‘apocalypse’. Thus, we now shift to a consideration of apocalypse.

We might define apocalypse as Latour’s trope for a form of existence that is open to change from the outside.

  • It is lived, present, historical reality that some inhabit, and others don’t: in fact it represents ‘la révélation d’un certain régime d’historicité’.
  • However, apocalypse as lived, present, historical reality has been obscured by John’s Revelation, which has transmuted it into a future event to come.

Modernity and Apocalypse

  • Moderns live ‘après l’Apocalypse’, in the sense that they are located after a cut that ensures the forward progress of everything.
  • Thus, the forward march of time, le temps qui passe, is in realization of a future that is already determined: ‘un certain nombre de peuples se disent désormais absolument certains d’avoir atteint la fin des temps, d’être parvenu dans un autre monde, et d’être séparés des temps anciens par une rupture absolue’. This is the march of plus ultra.
  • But this is paradoxical: the Moderns are living in time but not in time: ‘il est paradoxal, en effet, de vivre le temps qui passe, à la fois comme ce qui distingue radicalement du temps des fins, et, néanmoins, comme ce qui réalise ces mêmes fins’.

This attitude is highly religious, in the sense of Religion One, that is, it is undergirded by transcendence, belief and certitude: ‘rien ne peut plus leur arriver. Ils sont déjà et pour toujours dans un autre monde’.

[REL] and Apocalypse

By contrast, [REL] is able to handle the idea of living ‘in’, not ‘after’, apocalypse. Thus, [REL] when it is properly understood is a vehicle for immanence, and thus for political theology.

The key formulation is as follows: [REL] makes the discovery

*‘que l’on peut vivre, que l’on doit vivre dans le ‘temps de la fin’, en ce sens, à la fois très précis et terriblement instable, que les fins sont atteintes définitivement, au sein du temps et ne peuvent être réalisées que grâce à lui’.

In other words, [REL] is the ultimate vehicle by which the outside can be brought to the inside and made to change.

‘End of time’ or ‘time of the end’

The apocalyptic distinction is brought out between:

  • Modernity: the end of time, ‘la fin des temps qui passe’.
  • REL: the time of the end, ‘le temps de la fin dans le temps qui passe’.

 The only sense in which ‘the end of time’ can be conceived is as a provisional macro assemblage in time (and subject to change in the future): the concept of ‘fin’ can only be validated ‘toujours dans et avec le temps et surtout par son truchement’. Another way of putting this is that what endures only by dint of what is temporary: ‘ce qui dure pour toujours ne dure que par ce qui ne dure pas’ .

Voegelin and the end of time


Voegelin understood the problematic political theology of Modernity in precisely these terms: ‘ce n’était plus le temps de la fin dans le temps qui passe, c’était la fin, l’interruption finale du temps qui passe’.

  • He pointed the finger at Joachim de Fiore, who he deemed to have initiated a system ‘of the Spirit’ in which time could be understood as cause-and-effect, that is, as definitely moving forward in a fixed way to a fixed end, thus ‘la fin des temps’. This was realized eschatology, assuming the Augustinian ‘Cité Céleste’ on earth: this was the bad form of political theology.
  • For Voegelin, this is exactly the political theology of contemporary fundamentalists who wish to realize some eschatology here and now on earth and who are not prepared to live with the form of political theology that has a delicate compositional flavour: those who are ‘définitivement immunisés contre le doute, puisque qu’ils seront passés de l’autre côté de l’incertitude concernant le temps et sa direction. Les fins ne sont plus ce qu’on attend, mais ce qu’on possède’.
  • Thus, Modernity had not passed therefore from the religious to the secular, but from a tentative and hesitant grasp of the end of time to the end of time being secured in the here-and-now: ‘il nous dit que nous sommes passés d’une situation où l’immanence et la transcendance, le passage du temps et le temps de la fin, la Cité Terrestre et la Cité Céleste, étaient dans un rapport de révélation mutuelle—c’est le sens propre du mot apocalypse—à une situation toute différente, où l’on croit pouvoir saisir dans l’ici-bas la promesse certaine de la présence réalisée de l’au-delà. D’après lui, les Modernes ne sont pas sécularisés—et c’est l’objet d’une vaste dispute—mais à l’inverse immanentisés’.

Voegelin’s target was therefore a political theology defined by over-realisation of the present time, such that it would foreclose progressive composition in favour of certitude.


The political theology diagnosed by Voegelin has at its heart the curious process of ‘immanentization’:

[…] cette curieuse façon d’échapper à la fois à l’immanence par un appel déplacé à la transcendance, et à la transcendance par un court-circuit trop rapide avec l’immanence.

In other words, Voegelin’s observation was that immanentization actually served not to be immanent, but to lose all connection with the world, precisely because its immanent was given by a MP, not by progressive composition: ‘tout le paradoxe de la modernisation, c’est qu’elle a perdu de vue, chaque fois davantage, tout contact avec le mondain, la matérialité: elle ne voit plus dans ce bas monde que l’autre monde simplement immanentisé’.

Modernity and apocalypse

The Modern cannot handle the apocalyptic, the irruption of change in his life, because, as far as he is concerned, the future should be mapped out according to linear coordinates:

Allez dire à des Occidentaux—ou à ceux qui viennent récemment d’être occidentalisés avec plus ou moins de violence—que les temps sont finis, que leur monde est terminé, qu’il faut qu’ils changent leur façon de vivre, ne peut entrainer qu’un sentiment de totale incompréhension puisque, pour eux, l’Apocalypse a déjà eu lieu. Ils sont déjà passés de l’autre côté.

Modernity and the Earth

What kind of Earth (space), then, are the Moderns inhabiting? A no-time/ no-space Earth, because the Earth is not allowed to act: ‘cette Terre n’a rien de terrestre, puisque ce qui est nié, justement, c’est qu’elle aie une histoire, une historicité, une rétroaction, des capacités, bref des puissances d’agir’.

The religious underpinning of Modernity

The faulty relationship of the Moderns to the Earth (as shown by their disinhibited reaction to climate change warnings) is religious in origin: ‘si la modernité n’était pas si profondément religieuse, l’appel à s’ajuster à la Terre serait facilement entendu’.

Voegelin and gnosticism

In attempting to describe the religious underpinning of Modernity, Voegelin uses the concept of ‘Gnosticism’ as a trope:

  • It is a vehicle for ‘la connaissance assurée’.
  • And yet, this certain knowledge is grounded in a non-worldly transcendence that causes them to despise this world and its materiality: ‘le mépris de la matière’. A mistrust, and even hatred, of this world (a lack of ‘care’) is thus characteristic of the Moderns.


What is the role of Christianity per se in this Gnostic disinhibition?

  • It is not that Christianity is intrinsically contra the earth, as was the criticism levelled at it by Lynn White: ‘s’il y a une origine historique à la crise écologique, ce n’est pas parce que la religion chrétienne aurait rendu méprisable le monde créé’.
  • Rather, it is more the case that Christianity has lost track of its original function in some way: ‘mais plutôt parce que la dite religion chrétienne a perdu, quelque part entre le 13ème et le 18ème siècle, sa vocation initiale en devenant gnostique, avant de passer le flambeau aux formes superficiellement irréligieuses de contre-religion’.
  • It then proceeded to a progressive reduction of its concern for the world, restricting itself to the salvation of the few, then the salvation of the soul, then only a form of morality, that is, retreat to the super-natural, and away from this world.

Thus, what is posited is a historical degradation of Christianity, rather than a intrinsic flaw.

By contrast, Christianity should be at the forefront of attempts to engage with this world:[2]défendant la matérialité injustement accusée contre la matière indûment spiritualisée’.

The third attractor

Instead of the contrast between ‘science’ and ‘religion’, or between ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’, Latour proposes instead a third way (this is what he subsequently termed ‘the third attractor’), which he calls ‘le terrestre’:

The ‘terrestre’ is the definition of progressive composition, which Latour here defines as ‘l’immanence libérée de l’immanentisation’.

The third attractor and religion

What is the relationship between the ‘terrestre’ and religion?

  • The third attractor will mean getting rid of ‘religion’ (Religion One), but not to the point where we become ‘secular’ by contrast: ‘si l’on y parvenait, on pourrait en finir avec le religieux, mais pas au sens de séculariser l’existence’.
  • *This is because the true essence of the ‘terrestre’ is in fact ‘religion’ (Religion Two): ‘au contraire, il s’agirait plutôt de réactiver ce que peut avoir d’actif et de fécond le thème ancien de la contre-religion : l’incertitude sur les fins’.


To appreciate that third attractor, we have to do away with the Modern idea of forward movement/ progress:

Pour retrouver l’histoire, il faut pouvoir s’extirper de ce thème étrange que l’histoire serait déjà finie, qu’il existerait une rupture totale et radicale qui aurait définitivement brûlé nos vaisseaux derrière nous. C’est le cliché bien connu de l’irrésistible ‘fuite en avant’’.[3]

The ‘rupture’ in the past can take a number of forms, corresponding to whether one wants to think of oneself as Scientific, Political or Religious: ‘peu importe que ce soit la Lumière de la Révélation, les Lumières de la Science, ou l’Éblouissement de la Révolution’.

The point is, however, that the Modern concept of ‘progress’ (guaranteed by a rupture):

  1. There is no going back: ‘il n’y a pas de retour en arrière possible’.
  2. Thus, the present is lost: ‘sans un moyen de regagner le présent’.

Nonmodernity and apocalypse

The only solution, and indeed the only way in which to engage the third attractor, is therefore to become apocalyptic: ‘nous positionner comme si nous étions à la Fin du Temps’.

Nature as God/ Gaia as God

As Latour’s cosmogram has shown, every collective must have a deity (deos) that authorizes it. His final point in this lecture is that ‘Gaia’ is a legitimate deity in this regard, when compared with the deity ‘Nature’:

  • The deity ‘Nature’ convoked as a metaphysical hegemon: ‘l’hypocrisie de l’invocation d’une Nature dont on cachait le fait qu’Elle était le nom d’une divinité’.
  • The deity ‘Gaia’ convokes according to the principle of hesitation, the immanent, progressive composition, etc. Gaia is not religious (Religion One), but she is religious (Religion Two): ‘Gaïa, nous le comprenons maintenant, est bien moins une figure religieuse que la Nature’.

The apocalyptic questio

And so the question to determine whether you are Modern or nonmodern becomes: ‘et vous, est-ce que vous vous placez avant, pendant ou après l’Apocalypse?’.

  • Before the apocalypse: this equates to some kind of naivity that Latour doesn’t think anyone in the world really inhabits: ‘par une chance incroyable, vous ayez encore échappé à toute forme de modernisation et donc que vous ignoriez la morsure de la contre-religion’.
  • After the apocalypse: this equates to Modern disinhibition, where no trumpet can rouse you from your belief that the apocalypse has already happened.
  • During the apocalypse: this is what interests Latour, such that ‘vous savez que vous n’échapperez pas au temps qui passe’.

The rational apocalypse

Thus, the apocalypse serves us by calling us back to rationality: ‘apocalypse est un appel à être enfin rationnel, à avoir les pieds sur terre’.


[1]   Lewis and Maslin, ‘Defining the Anthropocene’, Nature, 171–180 (12 March 2015).

[2]   Texts that Latour cites here are: Heléne Bastaire & Jean Bastaire, La terre de gloire, 2010; Christophe Boureux, Dieu est aussi jardinier, 2014 ; Michael S. Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change, 2013.

[3]   The phrase ‘fuite en avant’ comes from the Deborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro article in the ‘From the Closed World’ volume, entitled: ‘L’arrêt de monde’, 2014.

Latour and Deleuze’s Nietzsche

Latour frequently identifies the work of William James, Gabriel Tarde, Alfred North Whitehead and Étienne Souriau as the primary intellectual lineage of his ‘modes of existence’ project. However, by his own admission, his exposure to these thinkers came late in his career (see Terence’s blog for various tracings of this). At the time of his formulation of his irreductionist philosophy a different set of conceptual resources and philosophical milieu were available to him.

One key actor within this intellectual lineage (others would be Serres, Lyotard, Marc Auge) is Deleuze, or more particularly the Deleuzian Nietzsche. In his 1962 exposition, Deleuze argues that Nietzsche’s ontology is a monism of forces; it is the interaction of plural forces that forms the basis of the oneness of reality: ‘there is no quantity of reality, all reality is already a quantity of force’ (p.39, all references to the Tomlinson translation). In addition, these forces are affirmative, in the sense that each one expresses only itself, or, as Deleuze puts it, each one says ‘yes’ to itself. Rationality, then, is generated by the interaction of these forces: ‘we will never find the sense of something (of a human, a biological or even a physical phenomenon)’, writes Deleuze, ‘if we do not know the force which appropriates the thing, which exploits it, which takes possession of it or is expressed in it’ (ibid, p.3)—but only because each force furiously affirms its own value, its own being, in the moment of appropriation, exploitation, possession and expression. The polemical basis of Nietzsche’s work, for Deleuze, is directed at anything that would separate force from acting on its own basis, that is, from affirming itself (the primary culprit in this regard being Hegelian dialectic, which confuses this affirmation with a positivity of the real). Deleuze therefore argues that the many antagonistic metaphors in Nietzsche’s writing should be interpreted in light of his pluralist ontology, and not as indications of some sort of psychological aggressivity or inverted ressentiment.


The Deleuzian Nietzsche permeates the pages of Latour’s Irréductions. Fourteen of its one hundred and ninety maxims refer to Nietzsche directly or indirectly. Early reviews immediately noted the resonance, one critic describing it as ‘Latour’s Nietzschean theory of the political nature of all social life’. (Knorr-Cetina, 1985, ‘Germ Warfare’, p.581). Moreover, in his preface to a new edition of the text, published in French in 2001, Latour reiterates the Deleuzian-Nietzschean inflection of his ontology by clarifying a difference between ‘force’ and ‘power’ that he believes has been misunderstood up to then:

Or, c’est à une autre opposition que je m’attache ici: celle entre la force—qui suppose une composition progressive des ressources—et la puissance qui dissimule entièrement les multitudes qui la rendent effective. Il s’agit donc de passer des vertiges de la puissance à la simple et banale positivité des forces. (Latour. 2001, 1984, Pasteur: guerre et paix des microbes, suivi de Irréductions, from the Préface de la nouvelle edition, p.8)

Now, it’s a different opposition that I’m advancing here: one between ‘force’—which implies a progressive composition of resources—and ‘power’, which entirely obscures the multitudes that render it effective. Thus, it’s a matter of passing from the vertigo of power to the simple and banal positivity of forces. (my translation)

In fact, just as Latour’s ontology was first developed at the site of a neuroendocrinology laboratory, it is interesting to note that Nietzsche developed his theory of forces in conjunction with intensive dialogue with the life sciences of his own period (especially Wilhelm Roux’s developmental mechanics, with its idea of the struggle between body parts within an organism) and that Nietzsche himself functioned as an early ethnologist and philosophical visitor of the laboratory.

Latour’s thought is diplomatic, and even ‘ethical’, to the extent that it represents the agency of every one of these ‘forces’ in every event situation in the world. It is precisely this curious ‘ethics’ that he inherits from the Deleuzian Nietzsche. The connection with the mode of existence of [MOR] should be readily apparent.