Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Birth of Gaia

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My friend Matt Segall has written an excellent and insightful response to my post on Bruno Latour and Richard Tarnas. I particularly appreciate his coinage (I presume) of the “misenchantment” of modernity, the perversion and emptying of the seemingly intrinsic human need for imaginal numinosity characteristic of corporate propaganda and reality television, which has come in many cases to act as a poor replacement for the Weberian enchantment characteristic of premodernity. This coinage reminds me of William James’ point, articulated in The Will to Believe, The Varieties of Religious Experience, and Pragmatism in various inflections, that disbelief (or disenchantment) is still a kind of belief (or enchantment), as it defines itself in relation to what it disbelieves (or disenchants). We cannot escape enchantment just as we cannot escape belief, for even the characteristic postmodern “incredulity towards metanarratives” is itself a purely negative, deconstructive metanarrative, paradoxically narrating itself as the moment when such narrativizing is finally overcome.

Before diving into the meat of the conversation, there are a few issues I’d like to clarify in response to things that Matt said:

First, I don’t see technology in itself as disenchanting (or misenchanting), though technologically mediated activity often has a disenchanting effect. I think technology in itself is neutral, neither enchanting nor disenchanting, but much like psychedelics (literally “mind-manifesting”), technologies can act as non-specific amplifiers of psyche, both individual and collective. For instance, the choice of whether simply to turn off our devices at regular intervals and engage with the world in a relatively unmediated way or not is one that premodern people never had to make, but that we’re confronted with every single day. Of course, primal humans probably faced a similar choice during the emergence of language and fire, perhaps the original promethean technologies of our species: Speak and let our more intuitive preverbal capacities atrophy? Use fire and lose our night vision or become afraid of the dark? But as we increasingly integrate technologies into our daily experience, the potential for both great achievement and great tragedy concomitantly increases. This dual quality can be seen in the paradigmatic figure of Einstein, who unlocked profound mysteries of the physical cosmos, but at the same time made possible the atomic bomb. As it is said, with great power comes great responsibility.

Second, I don’t think modernity succeeded in purifying science of politics, but I think it was partially the attempt to do so that made us modern, so we should certainly move beyond that naïve attempt at scientific purification, but not try to claim that it never occurred, or less obtusely, that it did not play a significant, even necessary role in our cultural development.

Third, it’s not that Latour’s style is simply too academic or difficult (Process and Reality and The Phenomenology of Spirit are two of my favorite texts), but rather that Latour performs a certain style of academic discourse among others that I find less concerned with clear communication than with asserting rhetorical authority and controlling the discursive centers of academic power. I’m not sure if this is what Matt meant, but I wouldn’t say that Latour is “top down” and Tarnas is “middle up” because I don’t think the rhetorical mode practiced by Latour and his milieu is hierarchically more valuable or more profound than that practiced by more popularly oriented academics like Tarnas. Rather, to employ Latour’s concept, I see academic power as a horizontal network of relations, though differing from Latour, it seems to me that there are central nodes and margins of that network determined by the number of connections and the intensity of influence of those connections. To my mind, Latour’s discursive milieu often barricades itself in the centers of institutional power (based on money and influence) by speaking in such a way that non-specialists are denied access. In my experience, even the specialists in that particular milieu are generally speaking to one another in more or less impressionistic reflections of one another’s language rather than attempting fully to understand one another’s arguments and then respond logically to those arguments as we’re doing here. I’m a big proponent of bringing affective modes of cognizance into academic discourse, but the style in question seems to perform this integration in a one-sided way: on one hand, “poststructuralist” discourse (the boundaries of which Latour is admittedly pushing) uses the affective potency of language to assert intellectual dominance over an often anxious audience, which is affect in service to mentality; on the other hand, the “new paradigm” rhetorical style generally employs rationality in service to the expression of affective knowledge, so that intuitive understanding is given form and clarity. As I see it, the ideal rhetorical mode would integrate these two opposite, seemingly incommensurable approaches, asserting both intellectual and affective authority through both clarity of thought and rhetorical sophistication.

Finally, I also want to acknowledge that anxiety can be extremely productive. As Jean Gebser writes: “Anxiety is always the first sign that a mutation is coming to the end of its expressive and effective possibilities, causing new powers to accumulate which, because they are thwarted, create a ‘narrows’ or constriction. At the culmination point of anxiety these powers liberate themselves, and this liberation is always synonymous with a new mutation. In this sense, anxiety is the great birth-giver” (The Ever-Present Origin, 134). It seems to me that Gebser is defining a threshold (like a birth canal) into a radically novel mode of thought, and that Tarnas has staked his claim just beyond that threshold, inviting culture through the door, while Latour is located at the vanguard of the academic mainstream’s “center of gravity,” which is hesitantly lumbering, behemoth that it is, towards the threshold while often facing back towards its past with a mixture of disgust, bemusement, and longing for lost certainties. I see both Tarnas and Latour as playing vital roles in this epochal drama, and it seems to me that our job as theorists who trace the intersection of these two paradigm defining thinkers is, through the kind of dialogue we’re engaging in here, to bring these two modes of thought (so close to one another yet so far) into increasing resonance, to continually transpose and translate from one to the other until the two respective verbal systems, concentrated around different affective cores, consummate their courtship to produce an emergent third mode that completely integrates the two vocabularies.

Since I wrote my earlier post, I’ve had the opportunity to watch Latour’s first Gifford Lecture, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Latour is a profoundly engaging speaker, both in his rhetorical mastery and in his nuanced performativity (his often cantorial vocal phrasing, the flair with which he checks his watch, his sly smile). I’m particularly interested in his appropriation of the “Gaia” figure, who until now has been largely animated by a certain discursive sector roughly definable as “integral ecologists” based on the work of James Lovelock. Latour exemplifies a rather different stream of thought, and his employment of Gaia marks, as far as I know, her grand entry into the main streams of philosophical discourse. It seems to me that Latour’s gesture towards the emerging paradigm (for which I prefer the term “integrative” because it integrates disparate modes, though none of the current terms for this stream of thought are unproblematic) is a highly significant moment of “phase transition” in academia’s trajectory, and thus the trajectory of the larger culture for which academia is something like a secular priesthood. As I noted before, this seems to me an instance of Whitehead’s “slightest change of tone which yet makes all the difference.”

The affective anxiety that struck me when I read We Have Never Been Modern does not seem as evident in Latour’s first Gifford Lecture. He appears to be a man joyfully entranced by his fluency with language (even though he is speaking in heavily-accented English, his first language French), which is entrancing to witness. However, the sense I get from the questions posed by the audience and the apparently inadequate summaries of the presenter, is that no one in the room seems to understand precisely what Latour is saying. There seems to be a mixture of reverence and bafflement, the feeling that they should understand what he is saying, but his meaning remains difficult to locate. Where Tarnas takes the onus of communicating to his readers on his own shoulders, it seems to me that Latour shifts that burden decisively to the audience, and I’m not sure the audience is up to the task of rendering Latour’s ideas accessibly coherent. But, in all honesty, I’m not sure that’s what Latour is after. I don’t think he necessarily wants to be completely understood, but rather he seems to be oriented more towards the incitement of novel linguistic forms: “We are so new that we have no sort of common tools to absorb the fact that we live in a geostorical time,” as he says in answer to a question from the audience

As far as the content of the first lecture, in his discussion of “translation tables” between different collective productions of “divinities,” it sounds like what he’s looking for are the archetypal agencies that transcend particular cultural manifestation. The archetypes, as articulated by Tarnas and James Hillman, seem coextensive with the multiplication of agency that Latour articulates. Archetypes have often gotten a bad name in the circles in which Latour runs because they are perceived as essentializing certain qualities like “the feminine” or “the heroic.” However, in the most sophisticated definitions, archetypes are simply implicit potentialities for meaning that inform all aspects of experience. Put this way, it is not so controversial to say that the actual is a concretion of the potential underlying cosmic structure, so perhaps this section of Latour’s lecture will help to lay another stone in the bridge between, very roughly, the postmodern and the integral.

At the very end of the lecture, Latour claims that Gaia is not “nature” or “religion,” but something else, “another Earth” that does not participate in these categories:

The people who are assembled under Gaia will not resemble either those who used to invoke Nature, nor those who say that they worship a deity with all the trappings of religion. None of the four main attributes we reviewed so far seem to be part of Gaia. . . . Gaia is most probably another Earth, another Globe, invoked by another people, as foreign to what used to be called nature and natural scientists as from what used to be called religion. How to address It or Her respectfully? This is what we will have to discover.

This seems to me a more subtle kind of opting out than the one Latour performs in We Have Never Been Modern, as it seeks to birth a new mode of thought by rejecting or side-stepping the old categories rather than integrating those categories in a higher order synthesis. It seems to me that this dismissal of all precedent in favor of radical novelty is only one step away from the inclusion of all precedent as the constitution of radical novelty. Rather than reject the categories of “nature” and “religion” in favor of something as yet undefined, I would suggest that perhaps the novelty Latour is seeking can be found in the dialectical embrace of nature and religion by a higher order Gaian entity. It seems to me that Latour is even closer in this lecture to the participatory, integrative mode that Tarnas exemplifies than he was in Modern, but there’s still a gap, a leap that remains to be taken, a conversion that needs to occur. Because Latour’s language is evocatively unlocatable, it’s less a conceptual shift that is apparently required than an affective shift. It seems that “nature” and “religion” are the progenitors of this new Gaian dispensation towards which Latour gestures, but instead of rejecting “Mother Nature” and “God the Father,” I would suggest that the only way to produce a birth is precisely through the reproduction of the parents. The child, Gaia, is a fundamentally new entity, but also a fulfillment, by means of a punctuated evolutionary hieros gamos, of the two seemingly incommensurable entities that constitute it. If my reading is correct, Latour asks us to reject mother and father, but he does not seem to acknowledge that, in order to reject the parents, one must first have been born of them. Thus, I agree with Latour that this figure of Gaia can exceed the explanatory scope of either nature or religion, but I think it’s also vitally important to honor the role that these conceptual entities have played in their own self-overcoming. In order to address Gaia respectfully, we must also treat her parents with respect.

Ultimately, my primary criterion for judging a theorist is whether his or her theory is compatible with my deeply considered beliefs, particularly those constellated around archetypal cosmology. I think James, Bergson, and Whitehead would all be open to the archetypal cosmological perspective at the very least, and we know Jung practiced it. From what I know of Latour, it’s hard to see how he would be open to it, though I’d love to be proven wrong. In the end, I appreciate Latour enough to spend many hours reading him, watching him, and debating about him, which is something I can say of relatively few thinkers.

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One response to “Bruno Latour, Richard Tarnas, and the Birth of Gaia

  1. Pingback: More on Latour and Tarnas – Networks, Technology, and the Transformation of Western Culture | Footnotes 2 Plato

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