Gaia and the Path of the Earth: Lovelock, Illich, Latour (Part 3)

Gaia and the Path of the Earth: Lovelock, Illich, Latour (Part 3)
Published: Jan 09, 2022
The concluding part of a three-part essay . . . on making sense of a debate between major thinkers on the value of James Lovelock’s hypothesis, as proposed by philosopher and Illich biographer David Cayley.

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David Teniers, the Younger (1610–1690), The Alchemist, ca. 1643–45. Oil on panel, 20 1/8 x 28 in (51 x 71 cm). Herzog Anton Ulrich Museum, Braunschweig. [o]


Having now introduced Latour and Illich, let me now take my final step and try to understand what their views say to each other.

It is Illich’s contention that systems are inherently totalizing. First, they integrate all their elements in a whole which conditions every part. Second, because of this internal consistency, they eliminate otherness; there are no breaks, discontinuities or inherently unknowable features within the system that can be bridged only by hope, prayer or imagination – the system is all of a piece. And, finally, systems have no outside; all thought or action in relation to a system becomes part of that system – the system continuously transforms transcendence into immanence, outside into inside, absence into presence. So, system, for Illich, is the ultimate monism – the terminus of what Charles Taylor calls the “direct access society” in which each part is immediate to the whole.1 People who may not even know their neighbours’ names worry about the planet. The scale on which a human life is even possible is destroyed. “As long as you think of the world as a whole,” Illich says, “the time for human beings is over.”2 Gaia, in Lovelock’s rendition, signifies this predicament for Illich. It is the system of systems, the summit of the vast architecture of abstractions by which the world – local, individual, incomplete – has been replaced.


The sciences “show the path of the earth,” says Latour says, but they never show it unambiguously or incontestably.


Latour challenges this view in various ways. First of all, he interprets Lovelock’s Gaia as the emblem of a living world – diverse, inventive, every changing – not as the dictation of a Master Steersman who has slipped without much friction into the place of Nature (which had been the place of God). Gaia, Latour says, is anti-systemic – a muddle constantly sorting itself out without “frame…goal…[or] direction.” Second, Latour’s sees Gaia as a source of otherness and not its denial. Nature as Gaia is “finally secular.” Being without frame, we can gain no synoptic view of it; being without goal, we cannot confidently predict its future; and being without direction, we can impose no plot or historical narrative on it. It is an “order [without] hierarchy” on which we can impose no “technological or religious model.” This more or less defines otherness, if we take the other, in Illich’s sense, as what we depend on but can’t control, predict or fully understand.

Gaia also generates otherness in a second sense. Gaia as a living, responsive world, deprived finally of the theological echoes that resounded in Nature, generates disagreement. The world that God has given us – first as his creatures and then, in the scientific era, as his surrogates – comes with a set of implicit and sometimes explicit instructions. An emergent, finally secular world which makes itself up as it goes along does not explain itself in the same way. The sciences “show the path of the earth,” says Latour, but they never show it unambiguously or incontestably. That is the very significance of the debates over climate science for Latour. The “coalition of earth sciences” who have made the case for climate change have done so in a way that Latour finds ingenious, admirable and persuasive. But they have been able to do so only by supplementing empirical observations with models built on more questionable assumptions, and this has left weak points in their argument – “obvious fragility,” as Latour says – which opponents have been able to attack and exploit. Latour has called these controversies a gift insofar as they require the sciences to stop posing as the virginal priests of Nature and enter political discussion with all their strengths and weaknesses showing. This idea of Latour’s that, after Nature is secularized and Science defrocked and disaggregated, “politics can begin again” implies fundamental disagreement: the reemergence of peoples whose ways of life rest on different foundations and can no longer be plotted on a single axis measuring their degree of modernization or development. All the gifts and all the liabilities that Illich imputes to the other are in play. There is no system which dissolves differences but rather an anti -system which amplifies them.

The third, final and, for me, most surprising way in which Latour challenges Illich’s account of Gaia as the very paradigm of disembodied systems thinking is by making Gaia, as post-Nature, the key to the very revival of Christianity that Illich himself sought. Latour, as we have seen, sees in the totalized concept of Nature a deprivation of freedom and spontaneity – continuous and continuing creation immobilized within a rigid and reified framework of law and petrified theology. The Incarnation, in this preoccupied and predetermined order, is banished to a supernatural realm – Latour’s “vanishing point far from all flesh” where it exerts a purely “spiritual” leverage on human affairs. Shatter monolithic Nature and return the sciences to their full, fallible humanity, Latour says, and the Incarnation might “recapture its momentum” and resume its proper vocation: to move hand to hand or “neighbor to neighbor” without plan or preordination in an unfinished creation.


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Lucy, Charles (1814-73). Milton Meeting Galileo. 1870. 127in x 107in. [o]


It became clear to me reading Latour's Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime and thinking back on earlier works, that his political proposals resemble Illich’s much more closely than I had previously thought. In Tools for Conviviality (1973), Illich spelled out what he called the “three formidable obstacles” standing in the way of “recovery” – by which he meant a way of life in balance with its surroundings.3 The first was “the delusion about science” which has removed science from the realm of personal knowledge and turned it into a “spectral production agency” turning out certified knowledge which ultimately overwhelms and paralyzes “the social and political imagination.” People come to think that they are governed by knowledge which is of a different kind than their own – a finished knowledge from which all traces of its fabrication have been erased, like Marx’s “commodity fetish” which takes on “a life of [its] own” as an “autonomous figure” stripped of all vestige of the labour that went into it.4 Illich wanted to demystify scientific knowledge. This has also been Latour’s purpose. He has offered an account of scientific knowledge production in which everything that goes into producing and sustaining this knowledge remains visible and accountable. He has shown that most scientific facts are not the unmediated disclosures of genius by the product of complex and ingenious craftsmanship. And he has tried to deprive science of its epistemological privilege in order to return it to the common and entirely political world in which we must decide together what to do.

This similarity goes further, I think. Illich wrote Tools for Conviviality in order to restore the balance between what people can do for themselves and what is done for them by their institutions and advanced technologies. He proposed a set of criteria by which tools that people can use for what he called convivial purposes can be distinguished from those tools which, in effect, use people – tools that are too big, too complex, too destructive or too expensive to be controlled. And he insisted that the control of tools was a political decision – not a scientific or a religious one. Latour’s attempt to “bring the sciences into democracy” has had no other purpose. He has believed that the sciences “show the path of the earth” – a point I’ll come to in a minute – but he has also argued that the “modern constitution” has deprived people of exactly the same principle or criterion which Illich was seeking in Tools for Conviviality. By segregating Nature from Society, and science from politics, modernity allowed the unregulated production of what Latour calls hybrids – those uncanny creations of techno-science that fuse nature and society and appear as nobody’s doing. Science discovers nature; politics governs society; but nuclear missiles, antibiotic resistant bacteria, and melting glaciers come out of nowhere, admitted by a secret, unwatched door which the constitution doesn’t recognize. The point of recognizing the florid creativity of science, for Latour, is to be able to regulate it – “to replace,” he says, “the clandestine proliferation of hybrids but their regulated and commonly agreed upon production” in the interests of “moderation” and “slowing down.”5 This does not seem very different from Illich’s ambition “to find the roof of technological characteristics under which a society wants to live and be happy.”6 So I think, in summary, that there is broad agreement between Latour and Illich – both on the need to dispel the mists and quieten the choruses of angels around the throne of Science, and on the need to bring techno-science within the purview of politics.

The surprise of Facing Gaia, as I’ve said, was to find Latour so seemingly close to Illich on “the dynamic of the Incarnation.” In the interviews I published after his death as The Rivers North of the Future, Illich sketched a vision of “modernity as an extension of Church history.”7 He argued that the reformed Church of the second millennium, and then a whole array of modern inheritors, had taken salvation into human hands in order to better manage it. Modernity, he said, could only be fully understood as a corruption or perversion of Christian vocation, whereby a supremely free and unpredictable calling was brought under administration. The alternative which he preached, until formal proceedings against him by the Holy Office made him withdraw from Church service, was de-clericalization of priesthood and de-bureaucratization of mission. Latour’s account of the “beings of religion,” as intermittent and unbiddable, assorts well with Illich’s vision of a reformed church. So does his sense of the Incarnation as a personal encounter and not a theological “vanishing point” far from earthly existence. There are many other congruences. Latour points to the common etymological roots of humility and humus and urges living awareness of this link, so that humility becomes a relation to the earth and not just the placation of an always potentially jealous god. Illich is the author of a “Declaration on Soil” that laments the absence of soil from Western philosophy and praises the bonds which tie us to the earth.8 Latour praises the critical work of his friend, German philosopher Peter Sloterdyck on what the latter calls spherology – the prevalence in Western iconography of transparent, traversable spheres, tending always to the imagination of a total visibility and total spatialization.9 Illich speaks of “the long drawn out martyrdom of the image,” as more and more of what cannot be seen was brought to virtual visibility. Both want to disable the myth of progress, deprive time’s arrow of its confident direction, and reestablish the dignity, authority, and fecundity of the past. Both imagine a revived role for religion, once it renounces its claim to worldly authority.


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Vermeer, Johannes. The Astronomer. 1668, oil on canvas. 51cm x 45 cm / 20in x 18in. Musée du Louvre, Paris. [o]


There is also common ground in Illich and Latour’s interpretation of the figure of Gaia. In the concluding chapter of Deschooling Society, in an essay called “The Rise of Epimethean Man,” Illich wrote about Gaia, as follows:

From immemorial time, the Earth Goddess had been worshipped on the slope of Mount Parnassus which was the center and navel of the Earth. There, at Delphi (from delphys, the womb), slept Gaia, the sister of Chaos and Eros. Her son, Python the dragon, guarded her moonlit and dewy dreams, until Apollo, the Sun God, the architect of Troy, rose from the east, slew the dragon, and became the owner of Gaia’s cave. His priests took over her temple. They employed a local maiden, sat her on a tripod over Earth’s smoking navel, and made her drowsy with fumes. Then they rhymed her ecstatic utterances into hexameters of self-fulfilling prophecies. From all over the Peloponnesus men brought their problems to Apollo’s sanctuary. The oracle was consulted on social options, such as measures to be taken to stop a plague or a famine, to choose the right constitution for Sparta or the propitious sites for cities which later became Byzantium and Chalcedon. The never-erring arrow became Apollo’s symbol. Everything about him became purposeful and useful.10

According to Illich, when people worshipped Gaia, they “trusted in the delphos of the earth” and in “the interpretation of dreams and images.” When the priests of Apollo took over, instrumental rationality put Gaia’s dreams into service. There was “a transition from a world in which dreams were interpreted to a world in which oracles were made.” Illich supplemented this passage in an interview he recorded with his friend Jean Marie Domenach for French public television in 1972 – an interview that took place in a garden in front of a statue of Pandora, a figure whom Illich took to be derived from Gaia, though in a much reduced status, the Greeks having become by the time Pandora was imagined “moral and misogynous patriarchs.11 Illich tells Domenach that the myth of Gaia in its original form is “the best story about the corruption of man.” “In today’s world,” he continues, “if we don’t turn back to Pandora/Ge, who lived, and I believe still lives, in her cave at Delphos, if we don’t regain our ability to recognize the dream language she can interpret, we are condemned. The world cannot survive.” This is a very strong statement, but not an isolated one. In Gender, Illich wrote about the attenuation that took place in image of Mary during Church history. Mary “shed the aura of myth that had been borrowed from the goddess and the strong theological epithets with which the Church fathers had adorned her [e.g. theotokos, the God-bearer].” She became “a model for ‘woman’…the conscience of genderless man.”12 These hints at goddess worship and Mariolatry were not developed but they remain evocative.

Illich’s statement to Domenach that human survival depends on our ability to interpret “the dream language” in which the earth speaks to us seems to come particularly close to Latour’s version of Gaia. Dreams are chaotic and unconscious products of the mind. Order and meaning may emerge from this chaos, but dreams in their raw state frequently flout the principles of temporal sequence, hierarchy of significance, identity, and narrative consistency that prevail in the conscious mind. Latour’s Gaia, in a similar way, is beyond the reach of rational understanding. It lacks hierarchy and has neither “frame... goal…[nor] direction.” It possesses “neither parts nor whole” and so cannot be imagined as any sort of super-organism. Unlike Nature which manifested order even when it overawed and overpowered humanity, Gaia is not a fixed or predictable order but more of an on-going improvisation in which one order dissolves kaleidoscopically into another. In both accounts – Illich’s dreaming goddess, Latour’s alarming “intruder” on modernity’s fantasies – human pretensions are punctured. Both preach a return to earth and a rejection of images of humanity as “Atlas, Earth Gardener, Steward [or] Master Engineer” – the expressions are Latour’s who repudiates them because they imply, wrongly, that we are “alone in the command post” but they could as easily be Illich’s.13 In both cases humility is the key note. Latour wants to revive religion as the spirit that makes us alert and aware that there are things which we “must not neglect.”14 Illich too feared negligence, telling me once that his motto was “I fear the Lord is passing me by.”15


“Stop it with the appeal to science,” he said impatiently on one such occasion. “What the difference between that kind of science and religion is, I don’t know."


Do all these agreements suggest that Illich would have recanted his critique of the scientific version of Gaia, had he only known of Latour’s interpretation? I doubt it because major differences remain. The first concerns nature. “My roots are in natural law,” Illich once told an interviewer. “I have grown up in that tradition. I just cannot shed the certainty that the norms with which we ought to live correspond to our insight into what we are.”16 He repeated variations on this statement many times. Once he told me that he understood himself best when he supposed the world to be resting in God’s hand “as you can see on any Romanic or Gothic apse.”17 He said he was proud to belong to a church that “could still say, “It’s against nature,” even if the Church sometimes trivialized this denunciation by applying it to the wrong objects.18 He staked much of his argument in Tools for Conviviality on the restoration of “natural” balances and scales. This seems to say clearly enough that the world is a created order from which we can derive norms. Latour, on the other hand, hinges his whole program on the abolition of nature and its replacement by a de-moralized, de-divinized, “finally secular” alternative. The opposition here seems stark, except that each man means something entirely different by Nature. Nature for Latour is an almost entirely malign concept – a concept that replaces an active, inventive world by an inert and passive creature of Law, and that hides both the profuse creativity of science and its political responsibility for its creations behind the myth that politics belongs entirely to a separate domain called Society. Nature, for Illich, is the spontaneous, living, speaking world bought to its ultimate refinement in the doctrine of contingency in which the world appears as “pure gift,” and every time, place and creature speaks of the overflowing creative spirit that sustains it in existence from moment to moment.19

These two accounts are not easily compared. But it appears, at first glance, that Illich, rather than opposing Latour, is part of that reanimation of tradition that Latour hopes will occur once the dead hand of the “modern constitution” is lifted. Illich characterizes the transition from the medieval to the modern world as follows: “Things no longer are what they are because they correspond to God’s will but because God has laid into what we now call nature the laws by which they evolve.”20 The second half of this description, in which God, in effect, disappears into law-like nature, is pretty much identical with Latour’s account of the crossed-out God and Nature-as-automaton. If all we know or need of God is to be found in Nature, then God has become, as Illich’s says, “redundant.” Illich spoke always of the living God – the God with whose will we “correspond” – and, like Pascal contrasting “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” with “the God of the philosophers,”21 he was always scornful of any merely supposed or deduced God – “To hell with God as a hypothesis,” as he once roundly declared.22 Latour is interested in what comes after Nature, in its modern sense, Illich is concerned with what is before it.

As I’ve said, Illich more than once declined to discuss Lovelock’s Gaia with me. “Stop it with [the] appeal to science,” he said impatiently on one such occasion. “What the difference between that kind of science and religion is, I don’t know.” This summary dismissal of a large swath of contemporary reality is of a piece with many other statements that he made in the last twenty years of his life. When the Dallas Institute for the Humanities invited him, in 1984, to reflect on the artificial lake that the city was then considering creating, he told his auditors that the “recycled toilet flush” with which this sparkling new urban amenity was to be filled could never become “the water of dreams.”23 His hypothesis was that planning and processing beyond a certain intensity deprives water of its imaginative resonance and leaves behind only H2O. When I asked him later if that ruled out baptism, since the water which Christ “sanctified…to the mystical washing away of sin” was clearly something more than mere H2O, he at first denied it, but later said he was not so sure.24 “I wonder,” he said, “if God might have to redeem us by fire because we have done away with water.”25 On another occasion, speaking about the contemporary body as an internalized “ideological construct” rather than a lived experience, he told me that he had come to the conclusion that “when the angel Gabriel told that girl in the town of Nazareth that God wanted to be in her belly, he pointed to a body which has gone from the world in which I live.”26 Illich had warned in Tools for Conviviality that, if limits were not set to institutional hubris, humanity would find itself “totally enclosed within [its own] artificial creation, with no exit.”27 He gave many evidences in later life that he thought this total enclosure had occurred and the world had indeed been swallowed up by this new human creation and “disappeared.” This thought has no more poignant index than the claim that the Incarnation has become inaccessible because it pertains to a different body than the iatrogenic “construct” in which most now walk around.


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Rembrandt. The Anatomy Lesson. 1632, oil on canvas, 216.5 cm × 169.5 cm / 85.2 in × 66.7 in. Mauritshuis museum.


This apocalyptic strain in the later Illich can sometimes obscure the equally significant and equally emphatic non-apocalyptic strain.28 These elements in his thought are in my opinion complementary, which doesn’t mean that they are not contradictory. The world is made of contradiction. Complementarity is the disposition to acknowledge this character and dance with it, as I believe Illich did. But the unwary reader might easily form the idea that Illich in the first half of his career made a constructive critique of modern institutions with a view to reining them in and reinstituting the human comedy within its proper limits, and then, in the second half, despaired of all reform in an Age of Systems so suffocating that it seemed to point only to the end of the world. It was as a student of Illich trying to come to terms with this complementary contradiction that I rejoiced in Latour’s claim that the time of the end has been reached and is, at the same time, unreachable, and that this contradiction must be endured and sustained, not resolved or overcome. A lot depends here on how religious language is used and understood – the point that Voegelin made long ago when he began to try to disentangle time and eternity, earth and heaven, historical experience and symbols of faith. Illich and Latour are also aligned within this project, but it can be hard to see because of their radically different emphases.

Let me take a single issue in order to try and make this clearer: the status of science. Illich made the overcoming of the “delusion about science” one of the keystones of his early work. When he saw that this delusion was only intensifying in a cybernetic science that could no longer distinguish the world from its models of the world, he seemed to say, more or less, that science is over. (In 1992, we get, for example, “…science in America has become fundable research, and in Germany its tasks for which civil service positions can be created. I mean stop it with that appeal to science.”29). Latour on the other hand has been admiring of climate science and its painstaking effort to show “the path of the earth.” He has staked everything on a re-vision of the sciences. Only when the sciences are seen in their true light, he says, will politics “begin again.” You might say that he has tried to imagine the sciences as they would be if Illich’s “delusion” did not obtain. These are, I think, complementary positions that can learn from each other.

Illich says: “As long as you think about the world as a whole, the time for human beings is over.” This has been my watchword in the discussion of climate change that is now well into its third decade. The worldwide civilization whose seed was Western modernity is unsustainable. Men like John Ruskin and William Morris knew that in the 19th century. Mahatma Gandhi knew it in the 1920’s when he wrote in Young India that if a society as populous as India ever took to industrialization in the style of Britain “it would strip the world bare like locusts.”30 Fritz Schumacher knew it when he published Small Is Beautiful in 1973. All cultures and civilization that have emphasized reciprocity with some donating source have known it. And all have known that human encroachment isn’t just bad for the biosphere, it also bad for human beings for whom the path to wisdom has always gone through humility (humus) and the observance of due measure and due respect for what we have not made and cannot replace. The climate change discussion, on the other hand, has mostly been about how far the biosphere can safely be pushed. It has been about management, often on a scale that is inherently corrupting to human beings. “Managing planet earth” and “saving the planet” are examples of expressions that evince this corruption – these phrases are uttered frequently and without blush, but they can only imply either tyranny or hubris or both. So there’s a terrible paradox involved: addressing climate change as a question of mitigation and not of repentance reinforces the habits of thought that produce climate change in the first place. We don’t ask: what is good? We ask only: what can we get away with without changing? Illich helped me to recognize this predicament. And since, if we lived as we should, climate change would take care of itself, I didn’t see the need for a specific politics of climate change apart from the more general aim of re-inhabitation, limits to growth, etc.

A second point, related to the first, is that knowledge of something as vast and imponderable as “the climate” can never be certain. Given the number of guesstimated assumptions that must go into a model of the climate, it should not be a surprise that these models sometimes misfire. This then leads to conflict and misunderstanding. Claiming too much for science generates a reactionary anti-science faction that admits far too little. What gets lost is any recognition that there are limits to knowledge. What Wendell Berry calls “the way of ignorance” – the habit of acting in the light of all that we do not and cannot know – becomes unthinkable.31 The failures of scientific management – from Thalidomide to the collapse of the Canadian cod fishery – tend to be forgotten. Perceived ‘anti-science” evokes a credulous “trust in science.” Instead of seeking solid moral grounds on which to stand and on which to act, we pursue the divisive will of the wisp of “scientific” assurance.


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Blake, William (1757–1827). The Sun in His Wrath. 1820. Watercolor, over traces of black chalk. [o]


Enter Bruno Latour. Instead of claiming that climate science is bullet-proof – rejected only by yahoos, “deplorables,” and deniers – he admits that the science has its frailties and vulnerabilities and he praises “the gift” of the climate skeptics. Instead of asking all to bow unquestioningly to “the science,” he suggests that the sciences must enter the political arena prepared to argue their case on the same terms as everyone else argues, and not as a privileged disclosure from a higher sphere. Instead of portraying Gaia as a unified and intelligible system that might conceivably be subject to management, he portrays it as an improvised and incomprehensibly complex assemblage, with none of the coherence, neat categories and clear lines of authority formerly evident in Nature – the dancer and the dance now indistinguishable.

Latour sees Gaia as grounds for humility, not glorification. It is first of all not one, as Nature is, but an aggregate of diverse agencies engaged in continuous accommodation and adjustment to one another. This provides a basis for a dramatic reduction in human self-importance – we are no longer “alone in the command post” – and the foundation for a new pluralism. This pluralism is of two kinds. First, it enlarges politics to include all the non-humans who are both part of and subject to what was formerly Society. (Oceans and forests belong at the table alongside France and Kazakhstan, as Latour and his friends tried to demonstrate at a “Theater of Negotiations” they staged in 2015, just before the Paris Climate Summit. At this gathering, the usual suspects were joined at the table by “Indigenous Peoples.” “endangered species” and various other natural forms and non-national groups. Territory was defined “not as a two-dimensional segment of a map but as something on which an entity depends for its subsistence, something that can be made explicit or visualized, something that an entity is prepared to defend.”) Second, it accepts humanity itself as incommensurably and irreducibly diverse and no longer to be ranked on a single scale or confined in a single story. This leads to his sense that newly defined peoples, or collectives, must make their allegiances explicit and seek a new modus vivendi through peace-oriented diplomacy.

And this is where Latour again comes so unexpectedly close to Illich. The campaigns Illich conducted between the 1960’s and the early 1980’s – against development, radical monopoly, and the myth of scarcity – all turned ultimately on his view that these things were consequences of the perverse institutionalization of the Gospel in the Latin Christian Church. Freedom was the essence of this Gospel – it is “for freedom,” Paul writes to the Galatians, that “Christ has set us free”32 – but the very universality of this grant of freedom soon urged an unprecedented sense of mission and a universal institution into which all should be enrolled. Previous societies had stood aloof from “the others” around them. “Only during late antiquity, with the Western European Church,” Illich wrote, “did the alien become someone in need, someone to be brought in. This view of the alien as a burden has become constitutive for Western society; without this universal mission to the world outside, what we call the West could not have come to be.”33 Behind this sense of universal mission lay the idea that the truth which had been shown in Christ could be possessed, contained, administered and ultimately realized in history so long as all kept their feet on the one path. Illich wanted to break this spell and put an end to the disastrous conflation of the earthly with the heavenly city that lies at the root of Western modernity and the world-wide predicament it has now generated. He wanted those who had been “brought in” to be let out again. This was in the interest of bringing human societies back within human bounds – “the roof under which all can live” – but also in the interest of renewing Christianity. Latour’s aim seems to be just the same. His vision of politics “begun again,” freed from the inhibiting supervision of that “disinterested third party”34 – God, Science, Nature, Progress, etc. – that stood always above it seems very close to Illich’s attempt to end “the war on subsistence” and create a renaissance of diverse vernacular styles.35 So does Latour’s vision of “the power of conversion of the Incarnation” pulled back into the human world from its theological ‘vanishing point” and allowed once again to move hand to hand and “neighbour to neighbour.”

Illich relished the role of the man of the past. “I’ve increasingly been certain, as I’ve grown older,” he said, “that it’s good to be very consciously a remainder of the past, one who still survives from another time one through whom roots still go far back, and not necessarily examined roots.”36 This stance, in a man as superbly attuned to his times as Illich, had its uses. He made the past vividly present for many people. (This is another point in common with Latour whose We Have Never Been Modern argues that we should stop patronizing our ancestors, reorient time’s arrow and supplement progress with regress.) But Illich could also carry this stance to a fault, as I believe he did, when he told me “stop it with that appeal to science” because Jim Lovelock had discovered nothing that religion didn’t already know. Lovelock, I continue to be believe, did discover something – about how our unstable atmosphere is stabilized, about how clouds are made, about how land creatures get the iodine they need, and, ultimately, about the kind of world that we live in – a world that makes itself and will in time re-make itself without us, should we render it uninhabitable for creatures like us.


It is still science and still grappling with a predicament concerning that synoptically-perceived “world as a whole” that signalled to Illich that “the time for human beings is over.”


I cannot, finally, answer the question of whether Illich rejected Lovelock’s findings on theological grounds. Nor have I space in this already overlong essay to examine the theological implications of Lovelock’s hypothesis. I can say that Illich’s claim that a theory of planetary self-regulation is disembodying and “inimical to what earth is” doesn’t say anything about whether the theory can be judged true on the basis of the evidence presented for it. I will leave moot the question of whether a God who holds the world in his hands could conceivably hold a world as indifferent to humanity as the one Lovelock pictures. But what I do want to point out is that Latour has answered many of Illich’s practical objections to the Gaia theory, such as that it is abstract, other-denying, and earth-denying. He has also challenged Illich’s claim that science is over, with a vision of science disaggregated and brought to earth. One of Latour’s reviewers, John Tresch, puts it very succinctly: “Rather than a view from nowhere of a pre-assembled Nature, objectivity can be recognized in the quantity and rich variety of mediations that establish and maintain robust chains of reference. Scientists must foreground the instruments, institutions, and relationships that form the sciences’ lifeblood; they strengthen their power by realistically presenting their limitations.”37 This is science on the other side of “the delusion about science” that Illich deplored in Tools for Conviviality, but it is still science and still grappling with a predicament concerning that synoptically-perceived “world as a whole” that signalled to Illich that “the time for human beings is over.” All of Illich’s reservations retain their force with me. The question I would like to leave hanging at the end is whether Latour’s revision of Gaia has opened a way forward which respects Illich’s reservations.

A final point: Illich is an anti-idolator, and the idol he singled out for particular attention in his last years was life. Life, in its contemporary meaning, is the work of human hands, something we are constantly constructing – in law – wrongful life – medicine – saving life – commerce – adding life, etc. The idol obscures the true God, and it’s having persuasively borrowed one of the names of God – “I am Life” – makes it, for Illich, “the most dangerous idol the Church had had to face in her history.” His denunciation of Gaia rests on the idea that Gaia is one of the emblems of this idol. Latour, on the other hand, has come to the conclusion that anti-idolatry is an infinite regress and leads to a situation in which endless sterile denunciation gets in the way of constructive work. “When one begins with iconoclasm,” he says in Facing Gaia, “one never ends.”38 In his Inquiry into Modes of Existence, he expands this thought, “The Golden Calf has no sooner been cast down, than the Tabernacle with its sculpted Cherubim is put up. Polyeucte has just destroyed Zeus’s temple and someone is already erecting an altar on the same spot with the relics of St. Polyeucte.” Each anti-idol becomes a new idol in turn. Latour thinks that iconoclasm, or anti-idolatry, is one of the main tributaries of modern critique and produces in the end a somewhat fanatical spirit. Critique does the work of purification and separation mandated by the modern constitution, but its horror of mixtures hides the “metamorphic zone” in which our world is actually made. His proposal is to substitute what he calls composition for critique, as the engine of intellectual culture. “Critique is past,” Latour says. “We are in such a situation of intellectual ruins, that the question has now become one of composition… Composition means you have to take up all the tasks of assembling disjointed parts, so to speak, from the ground up.”39

Their positions seem to be opposite. And yet I think they are, once again, quite close to one another. Illich’s defence of the varieties of subsistence, against prescribed forms of development and modernization, was in many ways a defence of composition – of people’s right and competence to assemble the elements of their lives and livelihoods as they see fit. Latour, for his part, is a formidable critic and anti-idolator – remember his resounding, “There is no such thing as science,” from his Irreduction of the Sciences – but he has taken the plurality of truth and the plurality of religions seriously, and that has made him aware of the tasks of diplomacy, peace-making and negotiation in a way that rules out the endless denunciations by which the true God eternally trounces his rivals. Different emphases obscure complementary positions. In the 1980’s widespread misunderstanding of Illich’s book Gender largely lost him the ear of the social movements of the time. Latour’s Facing Gaia seems to me to re-opens a possibility of dialogue. If I am right and there is such an opening then Latour’s “This contradiction must not be overcome” seems to be a promising saying to emblazon over its entrance. ≈ç


REFERENCES [Repeated Illich titles are abbreviated]

1  Charles Taylor. A Secular Age. Harvard, 2007, p. 207 ff.
2  Cayley, David, ed. Ivan Illich in Conversation [IIC]. House of Anansi, 1992, p. 281
3  Illich, Ivan. Tools for Conviviality [TC]. Harper & Row, 1973, p 91 ff.
4  Marx, Karl. Capital. Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, 1990, p. 165
5  Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern, Harvard, 1993, p. 142
6  Illich, Ivan. The Powerless Church and Other Selected Writings, 1955-1985. Penn State, 2018, p.165
7  Illich, Ivan; Cayley, David. The Rivers North of the Future. [RNF] House of Anansi, 2005, p. 169
9  Peter Sloterdjck, Bubbles: Sphere Volume I: Microspherology, Semiotext(e), 2011; Globes: Spheres Volume II, Semiotext(e), 2014; Foams: Spheres Volume III: Plural Spherology, Semiotext(e), 2016
10  Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society. Penguin Education, 1973 (first edition 1971), p. 107.
12  Ivan Illich. Gender. Pantheon, 1982, p. 158.
13  Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime [FG]. Polity, 2017, p. 283.
14  John Tresch quotes this in his review of Facing Gaia on the Public Books site - I can’t find it in the text, but I’m sure it’s there, as Latour has said this before.
15  RNF, op. cit., p. 97
16  This interview, which I have in typescript, was recorded by his friend Douglas Lummis in the early 1980’s, but, so far as I know, never published.
17  IIC, p. 114
18  Ibid., p. 101
19  RNF, p.65
20  Ibid., p. 68
21  The text of Blaise Pascal’s so-called “Memorial” is quoted in full here, along with a reflection by Romano Guardini, who was one of Illich’s teachers:
22  IIC, p. 277
23  Illich, Ivan. H2O and the Waters of Forgetfulness. Heyday, 1985.
24  Quote from the order for “The Ministration of Holy Baptism to Children,” The Book Common Prayer, Anglican Church of Canada, 1962, p. 522.
25  IIC, p. 298, n. 201
26  RNF, p. 210
27  TC, p. 54
28  This point is argued at length in the chapter called Apocalypse in my new book Ivan Illich: An Intellectual Journey (Penn State Press, 2021).
29  IIC, p. 288
30  Gandhi, M.K. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol. 38. Delhi: Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, 1953, p. 243.
31  Wendell Berry. The Way of Ignorance. Shoemaker and Hoard, 2005.
32  Galatians 5:1.
33  Illich, Ivan. Shadow Work. Marion Boyars, 1980, p. 18.
34  FG, p. 247.
35  See the essay called “The War Against Subsistence” in Shadow Work, op. cit.
36  IIC, p. 101.
38  FG, op, cit., p. 176.
39  How To Think About Science is available as a transcript or audio from Ideas, a radio program of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation —…, p. 44.


Read part 1 and part 2 of this three-part essay.



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.




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