Latour and the non-space and non-time of Modernity (part 2 of 3)

See my first post on the topic here.

Latour’s appropriation of the concept of utopia is quite different from what I described in my previous post.

Latour understands utopia to be a representation of a certain spatial conditioning effect that is imposed upon the human subject by the epistemological regime of Modernity. Unlike the social theorists mentioned in my previous post, then, Latour dismisses the possibility of utopia functioning as a resource by which alternative futures might be mapped and by which constructive political forces might be motivated. On the contrary, he shows how the discourse of utopia, wherever it is found in the contemporary West, refers to a territory that has already been mapped out for its inhabitants and thus contains within itself no internal dynamic for change. The idea of utopia does not facilitate a social imaginary in which a different configuration of human existence to the one currently being lived might be thought and through which progressive action to achieve it might be unleashed. Instead, it functions to neutralize all thought of an alternative future, thereby de-animating the associative ‘political’ forces that would be required to bring it about. For Latour, utopia is therefore subservient to the teleology of Modernity, whose end is always to abridge and curtail the generative complexity of the ‘political’ movements of plural actors in favour of an account of the world that is imposed upon it ‘from above.

Latour’s description of utopia in this negative sense develops out of his analysis of globalization, which he interprets as a vehicle for the epistemology of Modernity in general.

What is globalization? It is a logic of commerce and exchange that promises a large and unambiguous net gain for everyone. Because globalization allows different kinds of producers and consumers to inter-connect across borders, so the celebratory narrative goes, all would ultimately enjoy the benefits of progress and growth that globalized economic and trade networks would facilitate.

For Latour, however, that narrative is idealized, its promise of some kind of integrated wealth distribution being ultimately unrealizable. This is because, far from mobilizing associative forces, globalization has in fact already defined territories within which its various stakeholders must operate, thereby foreclosing the possibility that these same stakeholders will define any other future for themselves than the one they are currently experiencing. For all its expanded borders, globalization imprisons us all within a territory. Globalization thus imposes a utopia upon those who live within its reach, in the negative sense that I defined in my previous post.

In order to illustrate why globalization functions in this way, I will consider some of the expressions of utopia that Latour identifies and describes in our contemporary globalized world.

The 1% of Global Elites

The first is the utopia of the global elites, the 1% who are able to profit from the wealth generated by globalized networks of capital flow. Whilst their rhetoric has warmly embraced the concept of globalization as an opportunity for the material benefit of the whole, this minority section of society was really leveraging globalization for its own end and had no will to see greater wealth and resource distribution to the majority. For these elites, globalization was a utopia that only they would be inhabiting in the end. The self-interested and exclusionary utopic vision of these global elites was exposed by the global recession of 2008–2009 and by the retrenchment of capital flow that followed, when the myth of the progressive spread of wealth to the whole was suddenly and brutally revealed as hollow. Latour makes this point in a recent article on the future of the European project, where he observes that “si la mondialisation était une utopie—elle était réservée à ceux qui avaient abandonné jusqu’à l’idée de faire monde commun avec les masses” (my translation: “if globalization were a utopia—it was one reserved for those who had abandoned the idea of making a common world with the masses”).

The Fragmented Remainder of hte 99%

But there is also a second utopia. This is the utopia of the fragmented remainder. After the recession of 2008–2009, having realised that the project of globalization would not be serving their interests in the way that had been rhetorically mooted, those who were not global elites found themselves regressing to an alternative vision of utopia, which would be a space that this time they themselves would occupy and call their own, and in which they would not be beholden to the global elites as previously. This was the utopia of the nation-state, with the protections that are implied by its clearly-defined and firmly-policed borders. As Latour puts it in that same article, the utopias of the fragmented majority are the various spaces of “ceux qui fuient à rebours vers la protection, elle tout à fait imaginaire, assurée par les frontières nationales ou ethniques” (my translation, “those who flee backwards towards the completely imaginary protection offered by national and ethnic borders”). Latour proposes this second utopia as an explanation for the populism that has surfaced in contemporary British (post-Brexit), European and Trumpian politics, which is characterised by its promise to uphold the identities of those who are threatened by globalizing trends precisely by returning to or re-instating a narrower definition of what constitutes a valid social community, often couched in terms of nationally- or ethnically-based identity markers and anti-immigration policy platforms.

Donald Trump

But in both cases—the minority utopia of the globalizing elites and the populist, border-orientated utopia of the fragmented majority who have been left behind—these utopias symbolize singular, monistic and defensive occupations of a territory, where the impetus to include or to represent the interests of other actors, those who are not yet incorporated into the territory, is diminished and sometimes even halted entirely. In other words, Latour identifies globalization as a generator of utopias that (A) are already fully realized in the present; (B) are premised on a gesture of exclusion of new entrants into the utopian territory that has been established; and therefore (C) cannot be vehicles for the sort of future-orientated, associative politics that is envisaged by the social theorists described above, and that Latour himself encodes in his concept of nonmodernity. In this way, Latour offers a revisionist critique of the contemporary project of globalization.

Latour advances one additional, but very important, point about the utopias that have arisen in the contemporary globalized world: they must actually be understood as non-spaces, in the sense that those who inhabit them find themselves removed and dislocated from the concrete space of this world in which ‘political’ existence can take place. Hence, as Latour puts it in his recent text, to invest in “l’utopie de la Modernization” (whichever version of utopia is in view) means that “l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible” (my translation: “access to the earthly has been made impossible”). When he refers to “le terrestre” (or, in other formulations, to “the Earth” or to that which is “Earthbound”), Latour is describing how the utopias of globalized Modernity cause human beings to be dislocated from their attachments to this world as if they were finding themselves dislocated from physical existence on the planet Earth itself and elevated to a realm located somewhere else. Perhaps this accounts for trends in the genre of ‘utopian’ writing itself, whose internal geography, it seems to me, has had to become more and more fantastical over time as it has begun to exhaust or exceed the boundaries of this Earth (think of Hollywood). Whereas for the Renaissance utopias the exoticism of the New World sufficed, the genre has since then found itself increasingly having to explore other or parallel worlds in various modes of avant-garde, symbolic or science-fiction writing.

Utopia must therefore be understood “au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part”. Or, as Latour put it in a lecture delivered in 2009:

For me, the whole history of the Moderns offers up a most radical utopia in the etymological sense: the Moderns have no place, no topos, no locus to sit and stay.

The idea of the planet Earth as the literal, physical site (Latour sometimes refers to the “soil” that lies “under our feet” to render the image as clearly as possible) on which human existence must be elementarily grounded is a hugely powerful one in his recent work. Its opposite or negation, namely, human existence as that which has become displaced or dislocated from its situatedness on Earth, is a good description of Modernity and of the gesture of transcendence that lies at its heart and that functions as its operating principle. This idea has already been encountered in this chapter in the idiom of “le point de vue de Sirius”, which is the cosmo-eccentric vantage-point from which Modernity artificially fixes the movements of actors in the space of the ‘down below’.

This same utopic space, and its implications for what might be called ‘Earthbound’ existence, is also explored by Carl Schmitt, with delicate irony, in the foreword to a book he wrote in the context of the post-war political situation in Europe, published in 1950, entitled The Nomos of the Earth.


In this very interesting text, Schmitt provides an idiosyncratic historical analysis of European political order. His argument is that, even though there have evidently been many regional conflicts and wars between European countries, a state of general stability has nevertheless been maintained within the European mainland over many centuries because of a particular spatial configuration that he calls a “nomos”. His argument is that this (relatively) stable order was made possible by the fact that extra-European territory was available in the New World and elsewhere for “discovery, occupation and expansion” by the primary European powers. This provided an ‘outside’ that guaranteed a flow of (relatively) stable political forces ‘inside’ Europe. At the time of writing, however, with evidence of the chaos of post-war disintegration all around him, Schmitt diagnoses this particular spatial ordering as rapidly coming to an end. Pondering the possible shape and form of a new nomos, he ruefully suggests that it would require some “fantastic parallel” to the previous one, such as could only be conceived “if men on their way to the moon discovered a new and hitherto unknown planet that could be exploited freely and utilized effectively to relieve their struggles on Earth”. In other words, Schmitt acknowledges that European political order (and, by implication, the nomos of the entire world) had been premised on a utopic ideology in which a new space, situated somewhere else, always had to be found. Since that new space was no longer available in the twentieth-century (short of rapid progress in technologies by which humans might be able to colonise other planets!), a perpetuation of that same nomos was no longer feasible. Instead, for Schmitt, a process of de-utopianization must take place: “human thinking again must be directed to the elemental orders of its terrestrial being here and now”, he writes in the Foreword, so as to re-conceive “the normative order of the earth”.

The analysis, and critique, of utopic space as being, literally, a space of ‘no-where’, is a unifying feature of all Schmitt’s post-war writing. For example, in a 1955 radio broadcast entitled ‘Dialogue on New Space’, Schmitt contrasts two modes of understanding of space that correspond exactly with what I have described above. The first is embodied in dramatic terms by the character of ‘MacFuture’, whose understands the maintenance of post-war global order in terms of American cultural and economic exceptionalism, and the possibility of forms of technological progress that would enable advanced nation-states to move beyond the restrictions imposed upon them by their own boundaries. This character is therefore an advocate for the utopia of globalization. The second understanding of space is voiced in dramatic terms by Schmitt’s own mouthpiece, a character called ‘Altmann’, who advocates instead for an associative mode of politics that takes place in the concrete space of this world, and not in a utopia that abridges or curtails this activity by situating actors in a ‘nowhere’ of transcendence: “the new spaces, out of which this new call comes, must therefore be found upon our Earth, and not outside in the cosmos”, as this character prophetically announces.


Latour and the Secular

The argument I have been advancing on this blog has centred on the claim that religious categories are essential to Latour’s philosophical project. Modernity, notwithstanding its claims, is ‘religious’ because it leverages categories of transcendence to secure its political hegemony over minority collectives in the world. Modernity is always making a move upwards to the transcendent, and then using what it finds there to secure its own epistemology as unified, de-animated, indisputable, and so on. This is where it gets its understanding of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’, ‘the Economy’, and so on. The movement up and down is associated with the being of ‘the crossed-out God of Modernity’.

Latour’s analysis of Modernity as ‘religious’ can be applied to our contemporary situation, and in particular to our cherished ideology of secularism. This is the ideology that Latour claims has become ubiquitous in what he loosely describes as ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’.  Latour considers the phenomenon of ‘Western’ secularism as failing according to its own definition.

Evidently, a full consideration of how the term ‘secularism’ is understood and appropriated, let alone how it has come to determine the self-identity of those inhabiting ‘the West’, is beyond the scope of this blog post. To begin with, I am going to borrow a definition provided by Graham Ward in his 2014 article ‘The Myth of Secularism’. Ward understands secularism as a post-Enlightenment ideology and social ‘habitus’. Its distinctive feature is to propose itself as a neutral scenography that is able to guarantee the emancipation and flourishing of all human ideologies precisely because it is neutral with regard to those ideologies itself. Thus, Ward proposes the following definition:

Secularism as a norm, as the natural default position prior to individual life choices, as the eternal condition upon which constructive choices can be made

For Latour, this neutrality is precisely what cannot be predicated of secularism. This is because he understands secularism to be an expression of Modernity and therefore an inheritor of the structure of religion that Modernity encodes.

This enables Latour to make the apparently paradoxical claim that Western society is characterised above all by ‘religious fundamentalism’. With this term, he is not referring to some kind of regressive or recursive adherence to a particular religious creed or tradition. Nor is he referring to the so-called ‘return of religion’ in contemporary French philosophy as has been exhaustively documented in recent studies by McCaffery and Lambert, whose programme can be better understood as an attempt to reform secularism by means of a secular critique of religion, and as such representing ‘a more profound post-secular phenomenon’. Rather, Latour is referring to the way in which the political, cultural and economic existence of Western society is characterised by its immanentisation of the category of transcendence, such that the decisions and choices its subjects make do not arise from processes of progressive composition that take place within this framework of this world. In other words, Latour is criticising Western society for possessing an irreducible belief system. Whatever its claims to secular neutrality, then, Latour’s analysis arraigns the West for being guilty of re-inscribing a discourse that its own adherents would suppose had passed away with the most hegemonic and dogmatic forms of fundamentalist religion of the past.

By means of this insight, in a series of recent articles Latour has proposed a controversial connection between the contemporary (European) secular state and non-state actors engaged in violent religious extremism and even Jihad-inspired terrorism. For example, in a newspaper opinion piece written in response to the Charlie Hebdo massacres that took place in Paris in January 2015, published in Le Monde, he argues that the fundamental ideology of those criminals was ultimately the same, albeit in perniciously mutated form, as the one espoused and promoted by the secular ideology they were seeking to destroy:

It comes from those who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough.

The hegemony over interpretation of truth claimed by the Jihadists is a function of political religion. But Latour’s startling claim is that an identical movement is enacted within the secular West as well. Both claim access to transcendence as warrant of their actions, in one case citing ‘fi sabilillah’ (‘the cause of Allah’), in the other case citing the being of ‘the crossed-out God’, or its theistic reduction in the form of the laws of ‘Nature’, ‘Society’ or ‘the Economy’. And both wield this as an instrument of political sovereignty, demanding the total obedience of citizens to diktat of this metaphysical paymaster. Thus, with regard to the Jihadists, Latour can propose that ‘behind their archaic appearance they must be understood above all as fanatical modernizers’. And correspondingly, with regard to Western secular society, he can propose that ‘like the most extremist zealots of Jerusalem and Ramallah’ its adherents are in fact nothing but ‘political fundamentalists’ (Latour, 2015, Thou Shallt Not Freeze-Frame, p.35). There is an uncomfortable synergy between the structures that lie behind both dogmatic ideologies, even if this issues in radically different forms of world-view and behavior.

Latour’s diagnosis of secularism as ‘fundamentalism’ can be fruitfully applied to recent debates in France concerning the function of ‘laïcité’ and the ‘mode of management’ that the French state is entitled to pursue in its guise as neutral arbitrator of the boundaries of religion in public life, with the vexed issue of the display of religious symbols being one prominent case-study. These debates were accelerated by the publication of the report of the Stasi Commission of 2003 and the controversy that ensued from it. Latour’s analysis would suggest that the secular French state, or indeed any state apparatus, cannot function as neutral arbitrator of religion, since secularism is itself inflected as a religious ideology. Indeed, as Ward points out in the article mentioned above, in the case of the policy of ‘laïcité’ being pursued by the French state this contradiction is apparent even in a narrowly-defined legal sense, since to enshrine ‘laïcité’ in legislation and to enforce it as law upon the population is simultaneously to enact a gesture of political sovereignty that is characteristic of political religion. Latour has been prominently involved in debates about ‘laïcité’ that have taken place in France over the last two years. However, this involvement is not knee-jerk: as I have shown, it originates in core philosophical principles that he established from the very earliest part of his career.

In summary, my claim is that Latour offers a radical critique of what constitutes the secular. His work demonstrates that secularism as an ideology does not represent a neutral scenography upon whose canvas an authentically political society can be constructed. Secularism as an ideology, and indeed the so-called secular state as it is promoted and celebrated within Western liberal democracy, is better understood as an expression of political religion and hence as a vehicle of religious ‘fundamentalism’. Failure to appreciate this results in a flawed deployment of Latour’s ideas. This error can be seen in a recent attempt to apply Latour’s work for the analysis of contemporary politics, which makes the assumption that it is aiming to shore up or re-institute the authority of the existing secular state, rather than to provide a radical critique of the concept of ‘secularism’ to which it is bound: Tsouvalis (2016), ‘Latour’s Object-Orientated Politics for a Post-Political Age’.

Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

I have posted bits of this before, but if you’re interested here’s a short essay on Latour’s reading of Emile Durkheim’s 1912 text in social theory, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. 

Latour as a Reader of Emile Durkheim

Latour is a great reader of other texts, a fact that is sometimes neglected. Durkheim has always served in his corpus as a negative exemplar: Latour always contrasts his understanding of the ‘social’ with the Durkheimian idea of the ‘social fact’ as a value or norm which is general over the whole of a given society and independent of its individual manifestations. Here, we find him critiquing, but also re-appropriating, Durkheimian sociology of religion in relation to his own concept of ‘religion as a mode of existence’. The Dieu-Société gives way to ‘the beings of REL’. Latour’s original review (in French) can be found here.

If you’re struggling with the link above, I’ve also loaded it onto my academia page.


Latour and Voegelin’s Political Religion, part 2

See the previous post here.

For Voegelin, all human experience, including the ‘sacred symbols’ through which that experience is mediated for any given generation, is structured as an ‘ordering-towards’. For most political collectives in history, this has taken the form of ordering-towards a transcendent being. The profile of such societies has thus been hierarchical, with their internal relations of power—whether social, cultural, racial or economic—being taken as emanating from a transcendent source and cascading downwards. Human societies have thus functioned according to the principle of ‘the divinization of the worldly order of dominion’ (The Political Religions, p.44). For Voegelin, the nature of the supreme being is less significant than the basic fact of the orientation towards transcendence; hence, the mystery cults of the Greek world and the corpus mysticum of Christianity are equivalent symbols in this regard.


Voegelin’s argument, however, is that in the modern period this ordering-towards transcendence has found itself re-conditioned as an ‘inner-worldly’ phenomenon, with the consequence that internal relations of power, aping what they have replaced, now take the form of a hierarchy emanating from a non-transcendent being—one whose surrogate authority can easily be usurped by a human individual, party or credo. ‘There is no longer any sacral permeation from the highest source’, Voegelin writes, and in its place the immanent political order ‘[…] has itself become an original sacral substance’ (The Political Religions, p.59). This transposition is the essence of what he calls ‘political religion’. It is instantiated above all in the form of the modern state, which imports from religion ‘the world-transcendent God as the ultimate condition and origin of its own existence’(The Political Religions, p.28). For Voegelin, then, contemporary political collectives derive their authority from ‘a realm of religious order’: their existence and persistence can only be understood by ‘taking into account the religious forces inherent in its society and the symbols through which these are expressed’ (The Political Religions, p.31).

In his 1938 work, Voegelin employs his concept of political religion primarily for a diagnosis of the fascist mass movements that were contemporary to that time, the common feature of which consists in the ability of their political leaderships to leverage religio-ecstatic obligations over the people in the guise of a ‘unio mystica’ between the two. Elsewhere he extends his diagnosis to ideological regimes of different kinds, including Marxist ones. However, the concept is highly consonant with Latour’s description of the ‘crossed-out God’ as an instrument of political sovereignty, for at least two reasons.

The first reason derives from an analysis of the genealogy of political religions. For Voegelin, these regimes emerge following shifts in the definition of what constitutes the rational, shifts that are associated in turn with the development of the modern scientific method. Wherever science promises an understanding of the world in positivistic terms, that is, ‘as an inventory of existential facts about all stages and as knowledge of its essential and causal contexts’ (The Political Religions, pp.59–60), then the ordering principle of human existence is shifted away from symbols of transcendent religiosity and towards an inner-worldly, immanent definition: ‘the methods of science as the sole forms to study the contents of the world’ become ‘the sole generally obligatory basis of man’s attitude towards the world’(The Political Religions, p.60). It is no surprise, then, that Voegelin identifies the seventeenth-century – and Hobbes in particular – as a turning point in this regard, since this was the period in which the modern scientific method become the ruling paradigm for man’s understanding of the world and his relation to it. Voegelin understands this moment as representing a lapse and a misdirection in the trajectory of human existence: from this point onwards, politics becomes vulnerable to annexation by those declaring themselves to be gate-keepers of the scientific method and thus guardians of the (putative) apodictic certainty that method promises to supply to those who wield it. Through its appropriation of ‘scientism’, then, political religion declares itself to be sole mediator of access to the ‘realissimum’. For Voegelin, the genealogy of political religions thus turns on a shift in the definition of what constitutes the rational: first, political religion forecloses the space of the polis in which rational meaning might be defined through collective human experience, and then, second, it establishes itself as demiurgic fashioner of an order that alone constitutes the real and that, as a consequence, is sacrosanct. As Voegelin puts it:

It [political religion] disregards the rules for examining experiences reasonably, it refuses rational discourse; and the spirit that adopts this assertion will change from being a discussion partner to being an adherent of another order. (The Political Religions, p.29)

In short, for Voegelin, political religion maintains its hegemony over the polis to the extent that it is able to appropriate a discourse of rationality for its own ends. This is precisely what Latour understands is taking place in Religion according to Modernity (not, religion as a mode of existence). In both cases this is a quasi-religious gesture, since it consists of the instrumentalization of transcendent authority claims and their subsequent imposition over the collective space of the polis.

But Voegelin’s work is useful for a second reason also: its description of the effect of political religion upon its subjects. For Voegelin, the potential for the individualization and personalization of the human subject, including one’s ability to act freely, is progressively lost under regimes of political religion. The argument is easy to trace: if, as we have seen, the claim of political religion is to represent ‘the only true reality, from which a stream of reality is allowed to flow back to the people’, then it follows that its subjects will be invited to do nothing more than ‘blend into a suprapersonal realissimum’ (The Political Religions, p.15) As Voegelin puts it, faced with the reality of the modern state, the requirement leveraged upon individuals is ‘to sink down into the impersonal nothingness of their instrumentality’. His focus in the 1938 text is on the ‘technical’ means by which this integration takes place: this of course was indicative of the highly technologized propaganda machine that was being developed at that time under the aegis of National Socialism. But Voegelin’s analysis is consonant with Latour’s depiction of the human subject under the regime of Modernity. For in the same way, the ‘crossed-out God’ enables the Modern regime to instrumentalize its human subjects, not as free actors able to engage in trials with other actors, but in the guise of ‘poor wretches’ who are ‘dominated’ from above (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, p.421) – a hegemonic politics.

In his most recent work, Latour has explicitly taken up some of the concepts and terminology of Voegelin’s political theory in order to describe the quasi-religious procedure by which the transcendent is immanentized within the Modern regime as an instrument of political sovereignty. His point is to draw attention to this procedure as the imposition of a transcendent meta-logic, resulting in a form of religion that has lost touch with its own rational definition, which he thinks instead must always be a function of an immanent, processual, contingent and dynamic logistics.

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’ (Latour, Face a Gaia, 2015).

My translation, ‘the whole paradox of modernization is that it has lost sight, more and more every time, of contact with the mundane, with the material: it no longer sees in the here-below anything other than another world that has been merely immanentized’.

The Religion that is promoted by the Moderns thus lends itself to be wielded as a tool of instrumentalization and hegemony. For Latour, this is precisely what is instantiated in the form of the ‘crossed-out God’.

Voegelin’s concept of ‘political religion’ is thus much more useful for an analysis of religion within Modernity than, for example, Carl Schmitt’s concept of ‘political theology’. From the later, Latour would do better to focus on ‘political romanticism’.


Complete series of notes on Latour’s ‘Face à Gaïa’

Here is a list of the various chapters of Face à Gaïa (2015) that I have covered in note-form over recent weeks. Please remember, these are only notes – the rest is up to you! Whilst we wait for the English translation by Catherine Porter, I hope these will prove helpful.

Notes on Face à Gaïa (Lecture 8)

Continuing my posts on Latour’s Face à Gaïa.


Lecture 8: Comment gouverner des territoires (naturels) en lutte ?


The value of simulations:

  • Embodied, practical simulations are useful because they are able to represent and re-enact the compositional processes of science, art and politics: ‘compliquer les modèles du monde et y impliquer ceux qu’ils concernent pour ensuite composer, voilà qui me semble une définition commune aux sciences, aux arts et à la politique’.
  • Within a simulation each actor represents something, but the important thing is that this has to be made explicit (in the same way as Assmann’s translation tables).

In other words, simulations enact the ‘figuration’ of as broad an array of agencies as possible.

The MakeItWork simulation


  • This simulation focused and tried to represent non-conventional ways of occupying space: ‘les diverses manières d’occuper des territoires’.
  • This allowed the simulation to bring into the negotiating room (the ‘interior’) unconventional actors: ‘aux Amandiers, les organisateurs ont décidé de placer toutes les parties à l’intérieur pour qu’il n’y ait plus d’extérieur, et pour qu’on voie les parties prenantes exercer leurs pressions toutes ensemble. Que chacun se batte sous ses propres couleurs’.
  • Once in the room, all these actors were required to work together by ‘showing their hand’ and being ‘explicit’ (cf. Sloterdjik, expliciter) about how they were working: ‘s’opposer aux autres en explicitant sur quel territoire elles se trouvent’.
  • Emergence could certainly take place, but only by explicit (not en douce) operations within the room: ‘elle [une partie] n’aura pas à agir en douce, elle devra se présenter et dire quels sont ses intérêts, quels sont ses buts de guerre, qui sont ses amis et ses ennemis, bref où elle se trouve, qu’est-ce qui permet de l’espacer des autres’.
  • Thus, the negotiation had a conflictual character: ‘alors que Hobbes devait inventer une politique après des décennies d’affreuses guerres civiles, le paradoxe des négociations sur le climat, c’est qu’il faut faire comprendre aux protagonistes qu’ils sont bel et bien en guerre, alors qu’ils se croient en situation de paix’.

Rejection of totality

The delegates gathered under the banner: ‘ni Dieu, ni Nature—et donc pas de Maître’. The ‘Maîtres’ (metaphysical principles) they were rejecting included the following:

  • The nation-state.
  • A ‘world government’ that could decide for all.
  • A single, unified concept of ‘Nature’ that could decide all the debates.
  • The unifying power of capitalism in the guise of the ‘Economy’.
  • Indeed, this also meant that they had to reject ‘Gaia’ (at least, Gaia understood as an overarching actor): ‘de ne pas prendre Gaïa pour un Système unifié’.

Another way of saying this is that the simulation was premised on the redundancy of the figure of the ‘Globe’ (as demonstrated in earlier chapters): ‘nous retrouvons ici la figure du Globe dont nous avons appris, conférence après conférence, à quel point elle était non seulement impossible, mais moralement, religieusement, scientifiquement et politiquement délétère’.

Thus, the task was to find an alternative way of representing the actors of this world than that of Totality (the globe): ‘pour retrouver le monde commun—et peut-être aussi le sens (du) commun—, la solution n’est pas de faire appel à la Totalité, qui de toutes façons n’existe pas, mais d’apprendre à représenter différemment le territoire auquel on appartient’.

Politics from above/ politics from below

The simulation allowed two types of politics to come to light:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’: politics defers upwards to an operation of scale, ‘en faisant appel à un principe supérieur commun, à l’État de la Nature’; however, this serves only to ‘dépolitise toute la négociation devenue simple application de règles de distribution’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’: this enacts the opposite movement, ‘en traitant toutes les parties prenantes à égale niveau de souveraineté’, granting to all entities the right to ‘prendre parti’; this is what alone provides a true and proper politics.

Defintions of space as ‘utopia’ and ‘topos’

In terms of the two forms of politics above:

  1. To defer ‘upwards’ is to defer to a utopia; its movement is ‘utopique, au sens étymologique de ce qui est nulle part’.
  2. To defer ‘downwards’ is to reterritorialise oneself; its movement ‘consiste à se donner un sol’.


The sort of politics that defers ‘upwards’ is a politics of ‘externalisation’, which refers to the bracketing out of agencies, and thus is ‘synonyme exacte’ of ‘la negligence calculée’ that has already been defined (via Serres) as the essence of irreligion.

The utopia/ achronia of the Modern understanding of the natural world

By understanding the things of the natural world according to ‘the laws of nature’, the Moderns assume that these things will work always and forever in the same way.

In doing so, they denude them of the right to act in space and time:

Le problème des questions écologiques, pour employer un terme désuet, c’est qu’elles semblent parler d’objets qui ont été téléchargés dans l’utopie aussi bien que dans l’uchronie. Ni l’eau, ni le sol, ni l’air, ni les vivants, ne sont dans le temps et dans l’espace de ceux qui en font le cadre de leur action.

And, in addition, they impose upon them an operation of scale that comes from the ‘exterior’:

Elles ne peuvent être dictées de l’extérieur simplement parce qu’elles auraient été
‘déterminées objectivement par les Lois de la Nature’.

Planetary boundaries and critical zones

These two terms indicate the sense that we should not be trying to escape to another planet as a means of understanding this one.


The disciplines that Latour suggests instead are ‘geo’ ones, starting with the ‘géo-traçante’; these are ‘cette activité de pistage de l’espace, de parcours des lopins et de traçage de lignes’.


By contrast, 2D maps are the opposite: they limit our ability to visualize new configurations of human and nonhuman agencies, compelling us instead to stick with old forms of representation that (in fact) are not very representative at all, and over which wars are too easily fought:

C’est aussi parce que nous sommes limités à l’imaginaire de ces cartes en deux dimensions, aux frontières délimitées, qui sont bien utiles, comme on le sait, pour ‘faire la guerre’[1] mais fort insuffisantes si l’on veut s’y retrouver dans la géopolitique des territoires en lutte.

So the way of representing the world would be via a ‘geo’-map of some sort, ‘une chose comme une carte géologique avec sa vision en trois dimensions, ses couches multiples encastrées les unes dans les autres, ses dislocations, ses ruptures, ses reptations, toute cette complexité que les géologues ont su maîtriser pour l’histoire longue des sols et des roches, mais dont l’infortunée géopolitique reste dépourvue’.

The future of the nation-state

In reorganizing the distribution of powers the simulation showed what a true politics (in the sense of a nomos) would look like vis-à-vis the nation-state:

  • The nation-state no longer has the political privilege of violence.
  • Politics must now shift to new configurations, including those incorporating Gaia: ‘comment conserver ‘le monopole de la violence physique légitime’ quand il s’agit de la violence géohistorique du climat?

Quelle avancée si l’on pouvait enfin passer des États régnant sans contre-pouvoir sur un sol délimité par des frontières, à un ordre constitutionnel enfin doté du système complexe de contre-pouvoirs exercé par les autres délégations—ces fameux ‘checks and balances’ tant célébrés par les Humains, mais que les Terrestres en sont encore à rechercher?.

Gaian politics

This new form of politics coalesces around Gaia (it is here that differences with the Schmittian politics become most apparent):

  • Gaia does not mimic the old function of the nation-state: ‘contrairement à la Nature, Gaïa ne fait pas irruption pour régner à la place de tous les États forcés de se soumettre à ses lois, mais comme ce qui exige que la souveraineté soit partagée’.
  • Gaia forces us into new political configurations that need defending and justifying: ‘comme Gaïa ne sont ni extérieures, ni indiscutables, elles ne peuvent pas rester indifférente à la politique’.

Nature as religion

The construct ‘Nature’ acted as a religion, insofar as it demanded allegiance as a ‘cult’: ‘tandis que la Nature pouvait régner sur les humains comme un pouvoir religieux auquel il fallait rendre un culte paradoxal, civique et séculier […]’.

Gaia is not religion

By contrast, the state of Gaia is not religious:

  • For example, here is a basic statement: ‘Gaïa ordonnent seulement de partager le pouvoir comme des pouvoirs profanes et non pas religieux’.
  • Thus, we are not moving (in Comptean fashion) from ‘metaphysical God’ to ‘Nature’ to ‘Gaia’: ‘Il est inutile d’espérer une nouvelle translatio imperii qui irait de Dieu à la Nature, puis de la Nature à Gaïa. Aucune ‘loi des trois états’ n’est ici à l’œuvre’.
  • Gaia is strictly limited by this earth: ‘Gaïa se contentent de rappeler les traditions plus modestes d’un corps politique qui reconnaît enfin dans la Terre ce par quoi ce corps assemblé accepte solennellement d’être définitivement borné’.
  • To reintroduce the old ‘God’ of metaphyiscs is to forestall Gaian politics: ‘si vous en faites une divinité totale, vous suranimez et vous dépolitisez tout aussi sûrement’; ‘nous réalisons que nous sommes convoqués par un pouvoir qui est pleinement politique

Whatever [REL] is, then, it must not be religious where Gaia is not.

However, Gaian politics will depend on religion

Having said that, the extent to which we might embrace Gaian politics depends very much on the way in which we inherit religion and which religion it is that we inherit: ‘l’issue de ce combat dépend forcément de la façon dont nous nous rendrons capables d’hériter de la religion’. To put it in more general terms: ‘autour de ces questions passablement obscures de la fin, des buts, de la finitude, de l’infini, du sens, de l’absurde, et ainsi de suite, il y a toujours la question religieuse’.

  1. Secularisation is counter-religious

As we’ve seen before, Latour thinks that ‘secularisation’ is actually a counter-religious function: ‘ce qu’on appelle ‘sécularisation’ n’a fait que reprendre le trait principal des contre-religions—vivre dans la fin des temps—, mais en décalant cette fin des temps dans l’utopie de la modernisation, on comprend que l’accès au terrestre sera rendu impossible’.

  • It lives in ‘the end times’.
  • Thus it functions as a utopia.

Thus it has no immanence/ earth-boundedness

2. The overthrow of the secular cannot come via politics or science alone

The overthrow of the secular cannot be a function of politics or science alone: it must tackle this issue of the counter-religious origin: ‘même si nous parvenions à redonner une place aux sciences et à dynamiser de nouveau la politique, il n’en resterait pas moins que ceux qui ont hérité du modernisme—c’est-à-dire, aujourd’hui, la planète entière dans ce qu’elle a de globalisé ou de mondialisé—se situent dans un temps impossible, celui qui les a pour toujours arraché au passé et lancé dans un futur sans avenir’.

3. Religion must be an element in the new world

This is because religion is also a key component in the progressive composition of the common world, just like politics and science. Thus, the new world will come: ‘en acceptant la finitude : celle de la politique, celle des sciences, mais aussi celle des religions’.

  • This subverts the usual sociological comment that we must ‘leave religions behind us’ in order to make progress.
  • Religion is thus a ‘poison’ (in the guise of ‘counter-religion’), but also and crucially it is the ‘counter-poison’ also.

4. Religion must engage with the other modes to engage this new world

Another way of putting this is that religion is one of the three ingredients in the new common world that must be composed: ‘autrement dit, pouvons nous enchaîner trois humiliations en cascade, celle des sciences, de la politique et de la religion, au lieu de cet amalgame mortifère qui en a mélangé les vertus, mais n’a réussi qu’à nous empoisonner’.

Thus, ‘la religion en se limitant, apprenne à conspirer avec les sciences et la politique, pour redonner un sens à la notion de limite’.

End times

The final appeal of the book is to inhabit apocalypse, not utopia, which means switching from the ‘end of time’ to the ‘time of the end’:

Pouvons-nous réapprendre à vivre dans le temps de la fin, sans pour autant basculer dans l’utopie, celle qui nous a téléchargé dans l’au-delà, aussi bien que celle qui nous a fait manquer l’ici-bas?

The new world

The new world, the common world, that Latour wishes to invoke, then, is a rupture within space-time, not a rupture in space-time (this world seized differently, not another world):

Avant d’être enflée dans de grandioses scènes cosmiques à grand budget, la rupture radicale de l’eschatologie doit être d’abord reconnue dans une tonalité plus légère, plus humble et plus économe. La fin du temps n’est pas le Globe Final qui encercle tous les autres globes, la réponse finale au sens de l’existence; c’est plutôt une nouvelle différence, une nouvelle ligne, tracée à l’intérieur de toutes les autres lignes, qui les traverse partout, et qui donne un autre sens à tous les événements, c’est-à-dire un but, une présence finale et radicale, un achèvement. Non pas un autre monde, mais ce même monde saisi d’une façon radicalement nouvelle.

The wrong way to grasp the apocalypse

What Latour is seeking to avoid, then, is an understanding of these great theological themes as a flight into transcendence and out of this world. In other words, these themes as given by the old ST:

  • Eschaton: as ‘echappée hors du temps, en saut dans l’éternité, dans ce qui ne connaît pas de temps’.
  • Incarnation: as ‘altérée en fuite loin de toute chair vers le royaume désincarné du domaine spirituel du lointain’.
  • Salvation: as ‘tout ce que pour quoi, selon leur propre récit, leur propre Dieu avait fait mourir son propre Fils, à savoir la Terre de Sa Création’.

The Holy Spirit

It is difficult to know exactly what this means, but the (metaphorical?) appeal is finally made to the Holy Spirit as that which can renew the world, but only if it is working in the framework of a Gaian politics, not in the old politics of Nature: ‘le Saint Esprit peut ‘renouveler la surface de la Terre’, mais Il est impuissant quand on le confronte à la Nature sans visage’.

Bad theology

Theology goes wrong not when it addresses its theological themes (God, etc), but when it addresses them according to ‘Nature’, that is, in the guise of ‘Religion One’:

Comme il est étrange que les théologiens qui combattent le matérialisme, aient mis si longtemps à comprendre que ce sont eux qui ont construit, à travers les siècles, un véritable Culte de la Nature, c’est- à-dire la recherche d’une entité extérieure, immuable, universelle et indiscutable, par contraste avec le récit changeant, local, intriqué et discutable que nous autres Terriens habitons. Pour sauver le trésor de la Foi, ils l’avaient abandonné à l’Éternité.

Laudato Si


Latour was nearly in despair in seeing an understanding of religion in this way until he came across the encyclical:

  • It re-unites politics, science, religion (cf. chapter 6, where Toulmin had argued that 1610 saw their separation): ‘en rattachant enfin l’écologie avec la politique et sans mépriser pour autant les sciences’.
  • It enacts the new mode of conversion, which is not towards separation but rather towards composition: ‘serait-ce possible, me disais-je en lisant l’appel du Pape François à la conversion, que l’intrusion du Gaïa puisse nous rendre proches de tous les dieux?’.

The future

All is open, everything to play for.

New world

The new world that is to be found will not be via ‘expansion’ (Columbus, etc), but by ‘intensity’ (understanding better the earth we live on, not finding a new one): ‘il s’agit toujours de l’espace, de la terre, de découverte, mais c’est la découverte d’une Terre nouvelle considérée, si je peux dire, dans son intensité et non plus dans son extension’.












[1]   This is an allusion to the celebrated essay: Yves Lacoste, ‘La géographie, ça sert, d’abord, à faire la guerre’, 1982 (fn. 283).