Latour, Gaia and “Big Modernity”

Today, Bruno Latour is set to give his fourth talk (of six) for the Gifford Lectures. There are some interesting commentaries on the earlier talks linked to here. The whole set of talks are leading in and out of a consideration of James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis.” That hypothesis, that the world is a sort of super organism that self-organizes the conditions for life, was recently criticized by Tim Morton in two sequential posts titled “Against Lovelock” available here and here.

Morton critiques what he sees as “Big Modernity” in the thought of Lovelock because he interprets the Gaia Hypothesis as entrapped by a way of thinking where, when we run into explanatory difficulties, then we appeal to some greater and grander scheme – something that is more real and which actually underpins things. So Gaia is a way to think of something “more real” about the evolution of the earth. And, when we imagine ourselves to have pushed Gaia off balance (i.e. if we feed positive feedback loops that will lead to runaway climate increases by suppressing natural negative feedbacks) then we will need something bigger and grander that can create negative feedback loops to control it (maybe geo-engineering). Morton’s critique shares some similarities with those leveled at Gaia initially by feminists, who saw it as a sort of motherhood metaphor where the Earth has its own housekeeping service that will correct for man’s mismanagement.

Now, from what Latour said last week, he sees a more charitable interpretation of Gaia available in Lovelock’s writing. It is one that does not collapse all of the Earth’s systems into a holistic account. So Gaia is not just Big Modernity. Rather, Latour has been gesturing towards the idea that Gaia presents a way to understand the distributed agency of Earth’s systems (i.e. the climate, water, biogeochemical cycles) without an appeal to the idea of a singular organism coordinating the whole earth as a sort of individual entity. So Gaia, qua organism, just is a distributed sort of thing.

Today’s talk will be on the paradox of the “global” so perhaps it will shed more light on this. Here is the abstract, the lecture streams live at 12:30EST:

“The paradox of what is called “globalization” is that there is no “global globe” to hold the multitude of concerns that have to be assembled to replace the “politics of nature” of former periods. What are the instruments —always local and partial— that are sensitive enough to Gaia’s components for the limited technical and emotional apparatus of assembled humans?”


  1. […] Jeremy Schmidt sets up a contrast between different readings of James Lovelock’s work here. […]

  2. […] here to download them). I’ve already posted a few thoughts on the earlier lectures (here, here, and here, for […]

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