Franklin Carmichael, 'Snow Clouds' (inset of detail), 1938.
Bruno Latour is certainly a “well-known” thinker, but, in our intellectually factionalized time, that only means he stands in the top tier of one club while in the neighbouring club he is barely thought of as anything more than a vague reputation. I learned this the hard way in 2007-2008 when I presented an ambitious 24-part radio series on the movement to reconceptualize modern sciences of which I take Latour to be a paragon.1 Subsequent discussions of the subject,1 both on Ideas and CBC Radio generally, made me realize that the prevailing image of “Science” as an immaculate and unequivocal oracle, speaking in the mighty voice of Nature, had barely been touched by my work. So, having learned my lesson, let me begin by making a sketch of what I think Latour, with others, has accomplished. Latour’s first book, Laboratory Life (1979), with Steve Woolgar, carried on the task that the pioneering microbiologist Ludwik Fleck had begun in the 1930’s with his book The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Up to the time when Latour and Woolgar wrote, with a few prescient exceptions like Fleck, the history and philosophy of science had been written in a largely theoretical register. It was a field concerned with what scientists thought that they were doing and what they said that they were doing, and not with what close observation might have shown that they were actually doing. “We hadn’t been to look,” was historian Simon Shaffer’s pithy summary of the situation on the ground.2 Styling themselves as anthropologists in the presence of something radically foreign, rather than as familiars who already know what science is, Latour and Woolgar “went to look,” reporting on the goings on in the neuroscience laboratory of Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California during the sequencing of a previously undescribed neurohormone. What they, and many other similarly motivated anthropologists showed, was, first of all, the sheer artisanal skill involved in laboratory work, and second, the elaborate and contingent character of the many and far-flung networks that are involved in discovering, stabilizing and sustaining a scientific fact.
Notable at the moment is the COVID-19 virus, a perfect example of what Latour calls a “hybrid.”
In later works Latour would spell out what he first began to notice in Guillemin’s laboratory. Particularly important to me was a set of propositions entitled “Irreduction of ‘the Sciences’” with which he concludes his wittily entitled historical case study The Pasteurization of France.3 By his word “irreduction,” he refused to abridge the “ramshackle” edifices constituting the various sciences, or to boil them down to an essence called Science. (4.3.1) There are sciences, but “Science,” he said bluntly, “does not exist.” It is only “a name pasted on to certain sections of certain networks,” networks that are in themselves “tenuous, fragile and sparse.” (Networks here can refer to institutions, but also to practices, pathways of communication and shared understandings.) They take on the appearance of omnipresence only as an effect of “exaggeration.” (4.2.6). Exaggerations hide the veritable and mundane modes of operation of the various sciences from us “because when a series of locations has been mastered and joined together in a network, it is possible to move from one place to another without noticing the work that links them together.” (4.4.3) Not noticing the work that keeps a network functioning, we are able to suppose that what is contained, supported and extended by the network is in fact universal. “When people say that knowledge is universally true,” says Latour, “we must understand that it is like railroads, which are found everywhere in the world but only to a limited extent. To shift to claiming that locomotives cans move beyond their narrow and expensive rails is another matter.” (18.104.22.168) Sciences can know, in other words, exactly what they are organized, equipped and financed to know – which is a lot but much less than the everything that is promised by abstract and general words – exaggerations – like law, nature, truth etc.
Latour is a thorough-going pragmatist; and, as it has become clearer that he is as much a philosopher as a sociologist, it has been easier to appreciate how much he stands in the formally Pragmatist tradition of William James and John Dewey, as well as in the distinct but related lineage of Alfred North Whitehead. For example, in his Irreduction, he challenges an imaginary interlocutor to prove to him that “this substance which works so well in Paris is equally good in the suburbs of Timbuktu.” Why bother, replies his interlocutor, since a “universal law” is known to obtain. Yes, says Latour, but I don’t want to believe it. I want to see it. Ah, says the other, then “just wait until I have built a laboratory, and I’ll prove it to you,” (22.214.171.124). This illustrates the principle that “nothing escapes from a network.” Not all would agree. Perhaps the “substance” works even in places where there are no laboratories to prove it and even where the very concept may be unintelligible. Isn’t the atomic weight of gold always 79 even where no apparatus exists to prove it? (This is Charles Taylor and Hubert Dreyfus’s example in their Retrieving Realism, where their target is Richard Rorty’s claim, more or less identical to Latour’s, that there is no reality independent of our knowledge of it.4) But, however this old debate is settled, I find Latour’s attention to the actual practice of science[s] invaluable, and widely applicable. It happened, for instance, that when I was first reading Irreduction, I stepped out for a walk and was passed by a van from a Toronto television station with the word EVERYWHERE emblazoned on its side in bold letters. Television stations also claim knowledge which far exceeds the reach of their vehicles, cameras, and work routines. Though the van was manifestly there in the street beside me and nowhere else, it could claim to be everywhere by virtue of its knowledge. Knowing the universal laws by which news can be identified, the station’s eye was effectively all-seeing, despite the modest appearance and restricted ambit of its rather small van.
Latour went on to spell out the political implication of the revised and more humble view of the sciences which he proposed – first in We Have Never Been Modern (English, 1993). There he described what he called the modern “constitution.” The term usually has a political reference, and Latour certainly wanted to retain this reference, while at the same drawing attention to the way in which our knowledge of the world is “constituted” in the first place. This modern knowledge constitution, he said, involved a series of clarifying separations, or “purifications.” The primary division segregated nature from society. In a second move God was set at a safe distance from the world – “crossed-out,” as Latour said, and denied any active part in the affairs of people or nature. Nature would be the province of the sciences and would speak through them in a clear, indisputable and unconstrained voice, so that the facts on the ground would virtually, as we say, speak for themselves. Society alone would be the province of politics. Latour has many witty pages on the illicit commerce that has always taken place between these two supposedly distinct realms – hence his title, We Have Never Been Modern – but his main point is that this distinction has now been utterly overwhelmed by the hybridization of nature and society. Climate change is a sufficient example. It is neither a social phenomenon with natural causes nor a natural phenomenon with social causes, but a predicament in which the two are inextricably and indistinguishably mixed. Moreover, it is also a result of this pretended separation, since humans could never have taxed nature to the extent we have without the fiction of standing apart from it as subjects facing an object. (This drawing apart of subjects and objects is another of Latour’s modern separations or purifications.)
Tom Thomson (1877-1917). Study for "Northern River” 1914-1915, gouache, brush and ink over graphite on illustration board, 30.0 x 26.7 cm. Art Gallery of Ontario.
The modern constitution is now defunct, Latour says, belied by the countless hybridizations of Nature and Society that surround us. But sunk capital and intellectual inertia together sustain its existence. Even critical thought, Latour says, continues to stop and show its passport at the old, approved boundaries. Critique “demystifies” and purifies – it puts things back in their proper categories. Any attempt to make a social phenomenon appear as a natural one is denounced as an illicit “naturalization.” Any incursion of nature on society will be rejected as a limitation on freedom. What is not faced, either among the moderns or the post-moderns, is the fact that the realities that make our world are generated in the intermediate zone – the “metamorphic zone,” Latour says – where nature and society meet and exchange properties, as they are continually networked, mediated and translated into one another. Notable at the moment is the COVID-19 virus, a perfect example of what Latour calls a “hybrid.” It is an entirely natural object, which is also an entirely social object, its physical existence fostered by contemporary socio-technical conditions, its meaning determined in the stew of anxiety and opportunity comprising politics, media and the “health professions.”
My sketch necessarily simplifies and omits, but the next book I want to mention is 2004’s The Politics of Nature (first French edition, 1999), an essay on “how to bring the sciences into democracy.” Latour’s argument there was that politics in modernity had been disabled – “render[ed] impotent” – by the creation of an “incontestable nature.”5 Nature’s authority was expressed through science which brought forward matters of fact, “risk free objects” scrubbed clean of any trace of their artificial origin. Politics was left to bob in the wake of the sciences, responsible for managing the world of opinion, but with no jurisdiction over the scientifically produced creations and discoveries which sprang out of Nature like the armed men, in the old Greek story, who jumped up from the furrows when Cadmus sowed the dragon’s teeth. Science filled the world with hybrids – imbroglios in which humans and non-humans were hopelessly entangled – artificial intelligence and genetic engineering, transformed landscapes and a changing climate – but these new kinds of things were represented in politics only, so to speak, after the fact. Scientists remained the vestal virgins of Nature even as they filled the world with uncanny objects that could have found no place in the cosmograms of earlier societies. Politics belonged to society, science to nature.
Latour’s proposal for “bringing the sciences into democracy” involved recognizing that scientists are the de facto representatives of the various non-humans that they have introduced into society. The modern constitution portrays these non-humans as objects – the only position it has available for whatever is not a speaking human subject – but they are in fact social actors or actants [in literary theory, a person, creature, or object playing any of a set of active roles in a narrative], as Latour sometimes says. The microbes that Pasteur “made public” have had a profound influence on society – the actions taken against them are a primary reason why the human population has now almost reached 8 billion. And, as humans have acted on them, they have re-acted, mutating and adapting and forcing society to adapt in turn. Things that have no voice still speak. The ravaged wetland that once absorbed spring runoff speaks, often without anyone hearing, as a downstream flood. Microbial antibiotic resistance transforms agriculture and health care. But these matters have no political representation, so long as the sciences believe that their standing, authority and integrity rest on their having nothing to do with politics. The difficulty that this poses ought to have been on glaring display during the current pandemic, when manifestly political decisions with profound social consequences have been regularly dressed up as scientific mandates, but no one notices so long as the modern constitution continues to keep any intercourse between science and politics out of sight and out of mind.
Representing non-humans in domains long-defended as exclusively social is a task that turns on the two primary meanings we give to the word represent itself. Representation is first of all a question of knowledge. It speaks of the shape and form we give to things, the way we picture or conceive the things of the world. The modern constitution, according to Latour, provides us with a map that is now profoundly at variance with the territory it supposedly pictures. This discrepancy has been brought into clear relief by science studies. By actually going to look, these new anthropologists of the sciences have shown that the practice of the sciences is quite different than what is claimed by the prevailing myth. According to this cover story science is the servant of nature – the immaculate oracle through which nature makes itself known. This is a misrepresentation and must now change, Latour says, if we are to have any understanding at all of how our world is being made and remade from day to day. But representation has a second sense which refers to the ways in which political assemblies are constituted. This is currently understood as an entirely social matter. The entire biosphere may have been thrown into question, but only humans may deliberate about the matter. This too must change in order to give voice to the many non-humans that now comprise society as surely as we do. How are all the objects – that have turned out to be subjects – to speak? How is their, so far, unaccounted for agency to be recognized? Who speaks for the forests and oceans, glaciers and wetlands, microbes and cloned sheep? Latour’s answer is that the sciences which know them will have to speak for them. But for this to happen the inherently political character of scientific knowledge will first have to be faced. I don’t mean political here in the narrow, prejudicial sense in which the word is taken to refer to knowledge coloured by interest, but in the larger more generous sense in which politics concerns the way in which we make a world together.
J.E.H. MacDonald (1873-1932), Mount Lefroy. 1932, oil on canvas, 53.7 x 67.1 cm. [o]
What Latour calls science studies goes by various names: science, technology and society; social studies of science; history and philosophy of science. Work done under these various auspices over the last fifty odd years, and in a few cases like Fleck’s earlier, has shown a practice utterly unlike the idealized picture provided by the modern constitution. But this new style of academic study has faced staunch and continuous resistance. The frequently used expression “trust in science” sums up this reaction. The position taken by this resistance movement, baldly stated, is as follows: 1) Democracy, progress, and social concord all rest on science; 2) Without science social existence will degenerate into an always potentially violent war of opinion; 3) Trust in science must therefore be preserved and enhanced at all costs; 4) A view of science as plural, fallible, and political can only undermine this trust and should therefore be rejected. During the 1990’s, “back-to-basics” partisans of trust in science initiated a sub-set of the culture wars that came to be called the science wars, though it was, in fact, little more than a skirmish, and few, in my experience, have ever heard of it. It began when physicist Alan Sokal tricked the journal Social Text into accepting and publishing an article he called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” The essay was a satirical pastiche of currently fashionable styles, consisting mostly of artfully contrived but, in the end, only faintly plausible balderdash, but the magazine’s editors fell for it. This then allowed Sokal to make large claims in which he tarred the entire science studies movement with the same brush. A few polemical books followed, one by Sokal himself, with Jean Bricmont, called Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals’ Abuse of Science. Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s The Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrel with Science argued in the same vein. A few lectures were cancelled; a few science studies scholars were denied academic posts; and then the whole thing died down. Writing about the affair in 2009, I said optimistically that it looked to me in retrospect like “a last ditch effort to save the credit of an obsolete image of science.”6 Today I’m not so sure. Too often, during the current pandemic, “science” has been used as a shibboleth to divide the sheep from the goats, the enlightened folks from the “hardcore, anti-mask wackosphere,” as one newspaper columnist recently put it, without much regard at all for legitimately scientific findings.7 (This columnist, for example, seemed either unaware or uninterested in the fact that no randomized trial has ever shown that masks of the kind currently in use reduce viral transmission.8)
Facing Gaia — to come at last to the text I want to consider — began with an imagined scene that Latour says had preoccupied him for some time before he wrote his lectures. In this scene, a figure retreats from a frightening apparition, running backwards with her eyes fixed on the feared object, and then, at last, turns around to find that something even more frightening is facing her. (His vision eventually became a dance piece created with Stephanie Ganachaud called The Angel of Geohistory). Latour understands this haunting image as a parable of the modern condition. The modern constitution was put in place, he says, in order to hold at bay the troubles threatening Europe as a result of the “wars of religion” that followed the Reformation. (Some argue that these were actually wars of state-building under religious guise – notably William Cavanaugh, building on the work of Charles Tilly – but that’s beside my purpose in this writing.9) The Christianity that had once united Europe now divided it. War had become endemic and vicious – some of the German lands lost up to half their people during the 30 Years War of the early 16th century. The program that resulted — Latour’s modern constitution — did three things. First it forced God into retirement – He would continue to reign only ceremonially and without effect as what Latour calls “the crossed-out God.” Second a strong state would be established – a “mortal God, as Hobbes called his Leviathan – able to confine religious passion within private bounds. And, finally, knowledge would be put on the firm and uncontestable footing that we today call science. Modernity broke decisively with the past, and, at the same, time kept its eyes fixed on this past, from which it now believed itself to be utterly different, in order to prevent any resurgence of the dangers lurking there. Meanwhile, new dangers accumulated, unnoticed at first, and unaccounted for, concealed by the constitution which safely segregated nature from society and kept the hybrids with which science and technology were remaking society out of view. Only now have we suddenly turned around and found ourselves, as Latour says, “facing Gaia,” and not only facing her, but also having to deal with her in what is rapidly becoming a seriously bad mood.
This Gaia which now confronts us is nothing like Illich’s imagination of a disembodied and highly cerebral system “inimical to what earth is.” In fact, Latour interprets Lovelock’s Gaia theory in a way almost opposite to Illich’s version. Whether Latour’s interpretation agrees with Lovelock’s own is something I’ll leave moot here. I’ve seen no response from the now 101-year old scientist to Latour’s lectures. But, in any case, it is Latour’s opinion that Lovelock is trying to describe something so new and so different that he often “struggles for language” when expounding his own theory.10 Lovelock, for example, quite commonly uses the word system with reference to Gaia, but Latour claims that “[Lovelock’s] version of the earth system is anti-systemic.”11 (What could be closer to the edge of language than an anti-systemic system?) The difficulty, according to Latour, is the temptation to think of Gaia as a superorganism or a superordinate whole, or, in cybernetic language, a commanding steersman. (When Nobert Weiner named the infant science of cybernetics in 1948, he derived the name from the ancient Greek word kybernētēs for the pilot or steersman of a ship.) But Gaia, he says, is an assemblage in which “there are neither parts nor whole.” It is “not an organism. And we cannot apply to it any technological or religious model. It may have an order but it has no hierarchy.” It has “no frame, no goal, no direction.” It is “chaotic” – indeed “more chaotic than either economists or evolutionary biologists are able to imagine.” “There is only one Gaia,” he quotes from Philip Conway’s Back Down to Earth, “but Gaia is not one.”
Gaia, to this way of thinking, is an ensemble without being a whole in the usual sense of a unity which precedes its parts as their organizing principle or transcends them as their coordinator. Perhaps this is what some people mean by a self-organizing system – perhaps it’s what Lovelock is stumbling towards even when he speaks of “the system” in seemingly conventional holistic terms – but Latour prefers to stress all the ways in which Gaia cannot be represented by machine metaphors – even cybernetic ones – or with reference to anthropomorphic divinities – even Gaia, William Golding’s beguiling name, is, in his view something of a Trojan Horse with its belly full of unwanted associations. Lovelock, according to Latour, is trying “to follow the connections without being holistic.” What this amounts to is that Gaia is a network or an assemblage in the sense that Latour has been developing throughout his work, and, with others, in the development of what he and these colleagues have called Actor/Network Theory.12
Latour argues that Lovelock’s hypothesis represents a crucial modulation of the theory of evolution.
The essential idea is that society is made or composed by patient and persistent acts of assembly. The networks that result last only so long as they are maintained and are comprised always of diverse beings, some human, some not, some animate, some not. Behind a robust and durable scientific fact, for example, stands an astonishing array of actors – from the physical infrastructure of the lab where it was made to the energy grid that powered the lab; from the financial institutions that supplied the money to the administrative machinery that kept the lab afloat; from the knowledge networks that disseminated the finding to the habits of mind that make “matters of fact” intelligible in the first place. But once such a fact enters the world as a “scientific discovery” that has descended on some genius from the “Heaven of Ideas,”13 this messy background begins to be erased and forgotten. Abstractions displace and disguise the networks. Science explains scientific discovery; Society explains social creation. Latour develops the point at length in his Reassembling the Social where he shows how sociology, instead of explaining how society is made, instead treats “the social” as, in effect, its own cause. “[Sociology] begins where is should end,” he says, “and assumes what it should explain.”14
Nature is another such abstraction – an assumed unity which then becomes an explanation for that unity, according to the principle of what A.N. Whitehead called “the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness” – “mistaking the abstract for the concrete . . . the occasion of great confusion in philosophy.”15 By this means, nature is endowed with an independent existence – a crucial plank of the modern constitution. Although we live within Nature without distinction from it, and although we constantly mobilize nature in our construction of Society, Nature is given the character, when convenient, of a “disinterested third party,” able to settle disputes and protect the scientists who shelter from the dirty work of politics in Nature’s bosom.16 Politics is made “subservient to science.” The creative and constructive side of science is disguised as the discovery and disclosure of preexistent laws. Many of the functions of the “crossed-out God” are reinvested in this Nature which stands above and beyond us. A civilization that has already begun to extract and exploit “natural resources” as never before becomes able to hide this rapacity by always reverting to transcendent nature at the crucial moment. “This concept of ‘nature’,” Latour writes, “now appears as a truncated, simplified exaggeratedly moralistic, excessively polemical and prematurely political version of the world.”17
Gaia must now replace Nature, according to Latour. For him, Lovelock’s discovery is as momentous as the new image of the heavens disclosed by Galileo’s telescope. Galileo confirmed what Copernicus had demonstrated – the earth moves. Lovelock has shown that the earth is moved – it is not the unchanging object that Galileo “launched…into movement in the infinite universe”18 but an ever shifting and only partially stabilized collaboration between the elements that compose it. The human impacts constituting the Anthropocene now make this undeniable. What was true all along according to Lovelock – that living things produce their own environment – now stares us in the face when, like Latour’s dancer, we turn around. A living world which we partly comprise and partly make is not an independent nature in which we can find solace, shelter or authority. It is time, Latour argues, for an account of nature that is, at last, “secular.” We must abandon, he says, the “under-animated” law-like clockwork bequeathed us by classical science, but also avoid the compensation of an “over-animated” nature that might result from taking the Gaia metaphor too seriously and succumbing to the post-modern avidity for a new sacred. For him the best word to comprehend “the multiplicity of existents” and “the multiplicity of ways they have of existing” is world – a word we have always used to summarize the whole without subdivision – nature and culture are equally world.
Latour argues that Lovelock’s hypothesis represents a crucial modulation of the theory of evolution. According to the common understanding of Darwin’s theory, Nature “selects” the creatures who will prosper and leave descendants according to their “fitness,” or the degree to which they are adapted to a pre-existing “environment.” This understanding produces what Latour calls the “primal scene” of evolutionary theory - a “bounded organism” living in an “environment” that acts as arbiter of its fitness. But, according to Lovelock, there is no such limit to the organism because it is always and at the same time producing the environment to which it is also subject. The atmosphere, to take the example with which Lovelock began, is not a stable environment but a continuing creation – exhaled by some even as it is being inhaled by others. “We are the atmosphere,” Latour says. The reason why Gaia produces such a critical supplement to the theory of evolution, for him, is that it shows the earth to be a more chaotic, less easily modelled “system” than many had supposed. As a dance in which organism and environment are “tightly coupled,” and one cannot easily “know the dancer from the dance”19 the invitation to participate speaks louder than the commonly heard desideratum to control, manage or save.
Lawren S. Harris (1885–1970), Algonquin Park, 1918–1922, graphite on paper, 18.2 x 21.2 cm, McMichael Canadian Art Collection. [o]
What has brought us face to face with Gaia, according to Latour, is “the new climatic regime” – the accumulating evidence that human activities are appreciably altering earth’s atmosphere. But Latour’s version of what climate science has achieved remains in keeping with both his vision of a world in flux and his view of scientific knowledge as precarious and provisional. It is important to him, first of all, that the picture we now have of a changing climate has not been produced by a “prestigious” science, like, let’s say, particle physics with its multi-billion dollar accelerators, but by a “coalition” of more workaday “earth sciences.” These sciences have made no “earth shaking discovery” but rather have proceeded by “the weaving together of thousands of tiny facts, reworked through modelling into a tissue of proofs that draw their robustness from the multiplicity of data each piece of which remains obviously fragile.”20 This obvious fragility is important to Latour because he thinks that the challenge that the “climate skeptics” have posed to these individually vulnerable data is salutary and amounts to a “gift” – a “blessing in disguise” as my old aunt used to say. He has argued throughout his career, as we have seen, that a prime reason for the invention of Nature was to depoliticize science. It was under this cover that science was able, again and again, to change the world, without ever having to acknowledge the utterly political character of this intervention. Microbes, artificial fertilizers and atomic bombs could be brought, with immense, unforeseeable political consequences, on to the world stage as if Nature Herself had disclosed and imposed these things through her transparent scientific intermediaries. Many scientists believe, Latour says, that their only integrity, succour and safety lie in Nature. Science, they think, can only retain and deserve its authority so long as this authority is seen to be entirely disinterested and to rest on Nature alone. The result, Latour claims, is that climate scientists, for the most part, engage in political controversy with “their hands tied behind their backs.”21 “The science,” as one often hears, will speak for itself.
The climate skeptics have no such scruple. Not only have they seized the high ground by claiming the virtue of skepticism – a hallmark of Enlightenment – but they have also fought with the unrestrained polemical vigour that the scientists have denied themselves. This is what Latour calls their gift – they have shown the sciences how to fight. Latour has long argued that the sciences must stop hiding behind Nature and enter the political fray – they must come “into democracy,” as he said in The Politics of Nature. Now with the end of God-haunted Nature, or at least with its pluralization, “politics can begin again,”22 and the sciences must take part. Under the modern constitution, science was covertly authorized to change the world while at the same time constituting itself as the authority before which the political, the controversial, the merely human must bow and give way. Science was the great exception by which modernity distinguished itself definitively and forever from all other times, place and peoples. The field of Science Studies, according to Latour, has now shown that science is continuous with other human constructions. Its networks may be unusually long, its effects unusually powerful, but it extends no farther than these networks can carry it. It is not universal, and it is not the voice of a displaced God called Nature. The sciences are therefore obliged to argue their case rather than to claim that it is beneath their dignity as sciences to enter into vulgar contests of opinion. They must stake their claim in the political arena and reveal the grounds on which their claim rests. These grounds, according to Latour, are persuasive and compelling but they are not beyond argument.
Latour has always imagined a new politics, constructed beyond the fictions of Nature and Society, and including all those beings who are now at stake as a result of the “ecological mutation” which modernity has brought about. He calls the parties who will participate in this politics “collectives” in recognition that they are not just societies but worlds in which places, histories, techniques and the many non-human beings a given group mobilizes also play a defining part. These collectives, he insists, each rest on a distinct and different foundation. This is a corollary of never having been modern. Once we abandon universality, and the coordinating role universals like Nature, Society and Science have played in constructing modernity’s uniqueness, we can see that we are not all living in one time or one space or one set of scientific laws. Politics must therefore begin again on the basis of difference. The different “peoples” who will become perceptible once we stop arranging everything along the arrow of time implied by terms like development or modernization will have to introduce themselves to one another and practice the arts of diplomacy at the boundaries that join and divide them. Each people will have to disclose “what supreme authorities convoke them, on what lands they believe they are localized, in what time period they situate themselves and according to what cosmograms – or cosmologies – they have distributed their agencies.”23
In trying to define this new politics Latour calls on Carl Schmitt, a German jurist who served the Nazi party during the 1930’s but who has been found indispensable by later political theorists nonetheless. In his book The Concept of the Political (1932), Schmitt supposed that politics is defined by what he called the friend/enemy distinction. For Schmitt if something was true, as for him Christianity was true, a decision was demanded in favour of that truth – a decision which would inevitably reveal enemies as well as friends. According to Schmitt, liberalism had not faced this hard truth, preferring postponement, equivocation and endless indecisive talk. Arguably, it was his preoccupation with these failings that blinded him to the evil of National Socialism, but Latour still feels there is something in Schmitt’s idea, and, using the long spoon enjoined on those who sup with the devil, he tries to extract it. There are real indissoluble differences in the world, Latour says. This is an unavoidable consequences of withdrawing science’s epistemological privilege and dismantling the framework of universality this privilege underwrites. Latour’s “peoples,” each convoked by different gods, appealing to different histories, and living in different times, have no common denominator. What he takes from Schmitt is the idea that there can be no peace without prior recognition of a possible state of war, no friend without an enemy. A decision is demanded of contemporary people – that is the nub of the “new climatic regime” for Latour – but there is no agreement on how to make it or the grounds on which it should be made. At the moment all parties hope to prevail by calling their opponents insulting names. What this epidemic incivility indicates is that they have not in fact recognized genuine enemies – people standing on different moral foundations – but just assumed that the others have somehow stupidly failed to adopt the correct view. Latour’s proposal, if I understand him well, is that the opponent can only become a friend if he/she is first respected as an enemy. (And perhaps the injunction in the Sermon on the Mount to “love” the enemy says the same.24). Relinquishing the modern framework allows one to see that differences are real and not just the result of incomplete modernization. And only this acknowledgement can produce the delicate diplomacy that will be required to harmonize these differences.
Franklin Carmichael (1890-1945), 'Snow Clouds' (detail), 1938, oil on masonite, 96 x 121.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. [o]
Latour has long recognized that the modern constitution is a displaced theology. Only with Lovelock’s chaotic and indifferent Gaia, he says, do we reach an account of nature which is “finally secular.”25 But, in Facing Gaia, he goes much further into theological analysis than he has in the past, summoning to his aid another surprising ally, political philosopher Eric Voegelin. Voegelin argued in his influential book The New Science of Politics (1952) that modernity is a betrayed and transposed Christianity. The book’s argument is that Christianity, in its original form, was too spiritual, too arid, and too other-worldly – in short, too difficult – to ever become a popular religion because most people simply lacked “the spiritual stamina for the heroic adventure of the soul that is Christianity.”26 And yet it did become a popular religion. It did so, according to Voegekin, by rendering spiritual and ascetic ends into practical techniques and achievable worldly goals. He called this reduced and operationalized Christianity Gnosticism, in recognition of the evil twin that had been there all along, ready to turn spiritual wisdom into practicable knowledge (gnosis). He finds a culmination of this movement in the work of Joachim of Flores (1135-1202), a visionary Italian monk whose writings applied the Trinity to history and declared that, at the beginning of the second Christian millennium, the Age of the Son was about to give way to the Age of the Spirit. (The Age of the Father, corresponding roughly with what Christians call the Old Testament, had preceded the Age of the Son in Joachim’s scheme.) In Voegelin’s terms, “a symbol of faith” had been made into an object of historical experience – a fateful philosophical fallacy in Voegelin’s view because history, being incomplete, can never be an object of experience.27 The eschaton, the final, or ultimate things, had been mapped onto history. Voegelin calls this “immanentizing the eschaton” – what can properly be grasped only in symbols, because it is inherently transcendent, has been rendered palpable and present. Many revolutions and New Ages will follow, but Joachim’s visions set the pattern by which the end of history was brought within history.
What this means to Latour is that, once the eschaton has been historicized or immanentized, the end is, in a sense, already behind us. As part of history, it has already happened – and therefore we can’t recognize it or react to it intelligently when it suddenly looms ahead of us as vexed Gaia. His Angel of Geohistory dance/parable reenacts this predicament. For the moderns, Latour says, history began to come to an end a long time ago. Modernity is already an “immanentized heaven” and, as such, lacks an “accessible earth.” We may be on the brink of creating an unliveable environment for much of earth’s existing population, but we can’t conceptualize this end because it doesn’t fit the scheme in which the end has already been installed in history as infinite progress. How could we go back?
Latour’s answer, already given thirty years ago, is: abandon the belief that we are or ever have been modern – the belief that we have magically instituted an unending progress – the belief that time can be told in a sequence of which we are the culmination. We must return to the condition which we, in fact, have never left (except in the undeniably powerful and consequential fantasy by which we appeared to bring heaven to earth in the first place.). Once, says Latour, paraphrasing Voegelin, “immanence and transcendence, the passage of time and the time of the end, the terrestrial city and the celestial city, were in a relation of mutual revelation.” Then came what Voegelin calls the fall into Gnosticism. Heaven came to earth; eternity nested in time. Religion, “so fragile, so unsure of itself,”28 was given more solid footings. We became modern. The perfected society we were making blocked access to the earth. Now we must once again become, in Latour’s word, earth-bound. And this can only be done by first releasing heaven from our grasp and letting it return to its proper place – out of our reach.
“The new climatic regime,” in Latour’s estimate, confronts us with a potential end, but we have brought this situation about by being a civilization whose religion has always preached that time tends inexorably towards its end. We must, therefore, he says, recognize that, “The end times have come but that time is lasting.”29 A series of similar paradoxes follows. “The end has been reached,” he says, “and it is unreachable.” “We are saved and we are not.” And, finally, “‘The end time has come,’ yes, but it goes on. And this prolongation gives decision the same lacunary, incomplete, fragile, mortal character it had before the end time came. This contradiction must not be overcome.”30 (my italics). This last sentence, I believe, is a key to the whole work. Heaven and earth, time and eternity stand in opposition – neither can be dissolved in the other without a catastrophic loss of consistency. (This is what Latour means when he says that an “immanentized” heaven destroys access to the earth.). This opposition can be conceived as harmony, complementarity or contradiction. But Western philosophy, since the time of Aristotle, has upheld the principle (or law) of non-contradiction.31 The reachable cannot be unreachable, whatever ends cannot continue etc. Contradiction must be resolved – absorbed dialectically into a higher unity, circumvented by the scholastic principle, “When you meet a contradiction, make a distinction,” or otherwise ironed out. Latour makes the scandalous suggestion that a contradiction should be recognized as unsurpassable and allowed to stand.
Those who think that they have left religion behind instead become prey to its more debased forms and drink its poison without antidote.
Latour has written in many of his books against what he sometimes has called “totalization.”32 A limited, compassable, local thing when totalized becomes an infinite, abstract, universal thing with holistic or transcendent properties that saturate its parts. To take a homely example, the little news van that so impressed me by its claim to be “everywhere,” at the same moment that it was passing me in the street, was attempting a totalization. To mistake a network, which can be painstakingly traced out and followed, for a global or universal system that exceeds any grasp is a totalization. In the case I’ve been discussing, Latour is trying to insure that the idea of the end or the time of the end is not deprived of its provisional and unfinished character – its fragility and mortality, he says. The point of Voegelin’s analysis of the Gnostic heresy which infiltrated medieval Christianity is that religious symbols were introduced into history as if they were perceptible and achievable goals – that Age of the Spirit which has ended by ruining earthly existence for so many. The end must haunt us without our ever thinking of a definitive end. William Blake in his descriptive notes on his etching “A Vision of the Last Judgment” says that, “Whenever any Individual Reject Error and Embraces Truth, a Last Judgment passes upon that Individual.” “Vision,” he says, “…is a Representation of what Eternally Exists.”33 In this way, a last judgment can occur repeatedly. Latour is talking of a recurring end, an end that can guide us, haunt us, instruct us, but which we can never specify or pin down without it turning against us as one more intimidating and discouraging totalization.
Latour has always been hospitable to religion as a mode of experience. Earlier I quoted his counsel against the illusion that religion can ever be “left behind.” Established religions, he says, have long since produced their own “antidote.”34 Those who think that they have left religion behind instead become prey to its more debased forms and drink its poison without antidote. I first began to suspect that Latour was, and is a Christian writer, though of an extremely subtle and tactful kind, while I was reading The Politics of Nature. I began to hear Gospel accents in statements like, “Weakness, it seems to me, may lead further than strength.”35 And a little further on, “The smallest can become the largest,” which he backs up by quoting Jesus’ saying, “It was the stone rejected by the builders which became the keystone.”36 His An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013) makes his openness to religious experience more explicit:
It would not be of much use to say that religious beings are ‘only words,’ since the words in question transport beings that convert, resuscitate and even save persons. Thus they are truly beings; there’s really no reason to doubt this. They come from outside, they grip us, dwell in us; we address them, pray to them, beseech them.
By granting them their own ontological status, we can already advance quite far in our respect for experience. We shall no longer have to deny thousands of years of testimony, we shall no longer need to assert sanctimoniously that all the prophets, all the martyrs, all the exegetes, all the faithful have ‘deceived themselves’ in ‘mistaking’ for real beings what were ‘in fact nothing but’ words or brain waves – representations in any case. Fortunately, investigators no longer have to commit such reductions (not to say such sins!), since we finally benefit from a sufficiently emptied-out universe to make room not only for the invisible bearers of psyches but also for the pathways of alteration – we can even call them networks – that allow the procession of angels to proceed on their way.37
Religion here is treated just as the sciences have been treated in earlier writings – as a mode of experience with its own distinct character and its own very specific requirements. There is nothing, he says, “behind religion.” There is no higher court in which religious beings can or should prove themselves to us, no test by which we can ascertain what or who they “really” are. Indeed the heart of religion – as “all testimony agrees” and Scripture again and again attests – is the unending effort to discern what can never be finally or definitively discerned:
All testimony agrees on this point: the appearance of [the] beings [of religion] depends on an interpretation so delicate that one lives constantly at risk and in fear of lying about them; and, in lying, mistaking them for another – for a demon, a sensory illusion, an emotion, a foundation. Fear of committing a category mistake is what keeps the faithful in suspense. Not once in the Scriptures, do we find traces of someone who was called who could say he was sure, really sure, that the beings of the Word were there and that he had really understood what they wanted of him. Except for the sinners. This is even the criterion of truth, the most decisive shibboleth: the faithful tremble at the idea of being mistaken, while infidels do not. Exactly the chiasmus that the transmigration of religion into fundamentalism has lost, replacing it by a differentiation – as impossible as it is absolute – between those who believe and those who do not.38
F.H. Varley (1881-1969), Dead Tree, Garibaldi Park, 1927, oil, 30.3 x 38.1 cm. McMichael Canadian Art Collection. [o]
The emphasis on discernment, vigilance and humility here may help to clarify the paradoxes I cited earlier concerning the end which has arrived but which continues, which has been reached but is unreachable, etc. The peculiar property of the beings of religion is that they are “ways of speaking.” In religion, he says, language “flows.” It does not “refer.” And this flowing speech must be constantly “renewed,” Latour says, because this “Logos cannot rely on any substance to ensure continuity in being.”39 Religious beings are, by nature, “intermittent,” and “neither their appearance or their disappearance can be controlled.”
One can neither deceive them nor deflect them nor enter into any sort of transaction with them. What matters to them apparently is that no one ever be exactly assured of their presence: one must go through the process again and again to be confident that one has seen them, sensed them, prayed to them…the initiative comes from them…They are never mistaken about us, even if we constantly risk being mistaken about them; they never take us “for another”, but they invite us to live in another – totally different – way. This is what is called, accurately enough, a “conversion.”40
Religion for Latour is a “mode of existence” as are science and politics (though the last is often unjustly scorned by those in the grip of the modern delusion that the truth of science outshines and belittles politics’ grubby transactions.) These three modes must be kept distinct, in Latour’s view, because their virtues become poisons when these modes are confused. To try to extricate them from one another is one of the main purposes of Latour’s lectures. With a proper understanding of religion he hopes to do four things. The first is to expose the illusion that religion can be overcome or “left behind,” which, as we have seen already, only exposes people to more debased religions while depriving them of the interpretive resources already accumulated within established religious traditions. The second is to undo what Jan Assman in his influential book Moses the Egyptian called “the Mosaic distinction,” or the unprecedented idea that appeared first within Judaism that there is one true religion which renders all others false, one true God who invalidates all others. This monotheism, in Latour’s view still haunts modernity as the “crossed-out God” whose properties have been transposed onto Nature and prevents “the peoples” in their religious variety from ever meeting on an equal footing. The third is to allow us to see the sciences for the precious but precarious practices that they are by scrubbing the vestiges of theology from their self-portrait. And finally – the biggest surprise in Facing Gaia for me – he hopes to restore Christianity to its proper vocation.
It was Christianity’s fate, he argues, to misunderstand and misapprehend the Incarnation – the idea that God has taken flesh and become present and available to us in and through one another. What should have been taken as pertaining to this world, as a radically new way of understanding it, instead was taken as indicating another “supernatural” dimension, in which and for which we are “saved.” “The Incarnation,” he writes, “has been changed into a vanishing point far from all flesh, pointing to the disembedded realm of remote spiritual domains.”41 Christianity, he says was “led astray” as “generations of priests, pastors and preachers…have mistreat[ed] the Holy Gospels in order to add above nature a domain of the supernatural.” The eventual result of this estrangement from what should have been the most earthly of doctrines – the Word made flesh – has been that “the faithful [were made] to disdain the path of the sciences at the very moment when the sciences were showing the path of the earth more clearly than the column of smoke that led the Hebrews into the desert.” (my italics) That the sciences ultimately “show the path of the earth” is an absolutely crucial point here, and one that might easily be overlooked by those who have misread Latour’s radical re-description of science as an expression of enmity rather than of, as I think it is, profound respect.
Latour’s view that Christianity ought to have remained earthbound does not lead him to reject the idea of Creation. Creation might have functioned, he says, as “an alternative to Nature,” if it had retained the character of an imaginative vision of a living earth. If this had happened, it might have allowed “the power of conversion of the Incarnation [to] extend little by little, I ought to say neighbour by neighbour, to the entire cosmos.” Instead Creation became the prototype of Nature – the inert, obedient, law-like petrification of a mighty will.
As I’ve been stressing, Nature, in Latour’s view, is displaced theology. Gaia, as he understands it, is the overcoming of this outmoded and mistaken theology. Gaia, at last, “offers a secular, worldly, terrestrial figure” – an image of a world instinct with immanent powers, not bound by the dictate of a designer or the predictions of a plan. With Gaia as the image of nature – an image neither over-animated as in paganism nor under-animated as in Christian natural theology – the Incarnation can return to earth. “The dynamic of the Incarnation,” he says, referring to that movement “from neighbor to neighbour” of which he just spoke, “can recapture its momentum in a space freed from the limits of nature.” And this way of thinking, he argues, has been a potential of Christianity all along. In support of this view he quotes the apostle Paul’s statement in his letter to the Romans that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.42 “This shows,” he writes, “that the creation has not been completed, and that it therefore must be completed, step by step, soul by soul, agent by agent.”43 Gaia rescues Christianity from an abstract God and an abstract nature – that God whom William Blake called Urizen (a pun more perceptible when the name is read aloud as “your reason”):
LO, a Shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! unknown, unprolific,
Self-clos’d, all-repelling. What Demon
Hath form’d this abominable Void,
This soul-shudd’ring Vacuum? Some said
It is Urizen. But unknown, abstracted,
Brooding, secret, the dark Power hid.44 ≈ç
2 How To Think About Science, is available in a transcript from the radio program Ideas, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/how-to-think-about-science-part-1-24-1.2953274
3 Latour, Bruno. The Pasteurization of France. Harvard, 1988, p. 212 ff. Latour’s “Irreduction” is presented in numbered propositions. I will avoid further footnotes by supplying the number I am quoting in my text.
4 Dreyfus, Hubert; Taylor, Charles. Retrieving Realism. Harvard, 2015, Chapter 7.
5 Latour, Bruno. The Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy. Harvard, 2004, p. 10.
6 Ideas on the Nature of Science, op. cit., p. 15.
7 Selley, Chris. “If tests are unwanted then provinces should return,” National Post, Feb. 12, ‘21.
8 See, for example, https://ocla.ca/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Rancourt-Masks-dont-work-rev…
9 Cavanaugh, William. The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Religious Violence, Oxford, 2004’ and Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States 990-1990, Basil Blackwell, 1990
10 Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Polity, 2017, p. 95.
11 Ibid., p. 97.
12 Latour presents Actor/Network and argues its potential to transform sociology for the better in Reassembling the Social (Oxford, 2005).
13 Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard, 1993, p. 79.
14 Reassembling the Social, p. 8.
15 Whitehead, A.N. Science and the Modern World. Mentor, 1948/1925, p. 52.
16 Facing Gaia, p. 46.
17 Ibid., p. 63.
18 Ibid., p. 86.
19 “How can we know the dancer from the dance?” is the concluding line of William Butler Yeats’ poem “Among School Children.”
20 Facing Gaia, p. 31.
21 Ibid., p. 28.
22 Ibid., p. 143.
23 Ibid., p. 223.
24 Matthew 5:44.
25 Facing Gaia, p. 86; Latour’s terminology is problematic at this point because secular is one of those terms that takes its meaning from the modern constitution. Secular implies a space cleansed of religion, but to pretend to “leave religion behind,” Latour says elsewhere, is only to bring along the worst of religion and “leave aside the antidote that they have also been able to develop.” (p. 286) If there is no prudent exit from religion, there is no “finally secular.” Despite this incoherence, it is clear enough that what he means by “finally secular” is the end of a specific theology.
26 Voegelin, Eric. The New Science of Politics. Chicago, 1952, p. 121.
27 Ibid., p. 120.
28 Facing Gaia, p. 198.
29 Ibid., p, 175.
30 Ibid., p. 178.
32 See, for example, We Have Never Been Modern, op. cit., pp. 125-127.
33 The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake. Anchor Books, 1988, p. 560. 554.
34 Facing Gaia, p. 285.
35 The Politics of Nature, op. cit., p. 6.
36 Ibid., p. 22. Matthew 21:42.
37 Latour, Bruno, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Harvard, 2013, p. 308.
38 Ibid., p. 310.
39 Ibid., p. 306.
40 Ibid., p.309.
41 Facing Gaia, p. 286; subsequent quotes, until noted, same page.
42 Romans 8:22.
43 Ibid., p. 287.
44 Collected Poetry and Prose of William Blake, op. cit., p. 70
DAVID CAYLEY has worked as a writer and broadcaster from 1981-2012, on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio program, Ideas, where he has written and presented more than 250 radio programs. The scope of his subjects is vast, verging between ‘How to Think About Science’, ‘William Blake: Prophet of a New Age,’ ‘The Earth is Not an Ecosystem,’ ‘Prison and Its Alternatives,’ and ’Markets and Society: The Life and Thought of Karl Polyani’. He lives in Toronto. View David's website.