Charles Taylor or Bruno Latour? Philosophical and Theological Anthropology

A couple of interesting lectures that contrast with each other at several key points. And, more generally, an increasingly interesting turn to theology:


Expect Latour’s book on the Anthropocene late 2014

Latour Gaia 2014

This title is going to be coming out with Polity, expected late 2014 but I won’t be surprised if its early 2015. The book will no doubt be updated from the Gifford Lectures, but it will be interesting to see how/if Latour has altered his views.

Anthropocene roundup: Latour, Grinspoon, and more…

A bit more grist for the Anthropocene mill…

Latour has a new article out on agency in the Anthropocene here. Working at a university I’m never quite sure what is behind a paywall, so if you want a copy feel free to email.

A number of other items/articles out lately too. This one is about how the determination of the Anthropocene is likely to be made – safest bet likely still nuclear radiation/fallout around 1950. A second is about taking “ownership” of the Anthropocene, primarily with respect to food. A third is on Anthropocene research questions for the Arctic. And finally, here is a post on the Anthropocene at the recent EGU.

Also, Dr. Grinspoon’s lecture on Terra Sapiens has a new subtitle regarding the human chapter in the history of the Earth.

Approaches to the Anthropocene: a conversation with Latour and Descola

A recent talk at UBC, with a nice introduction:

Short remarks on Latour’s final two lectures

I watched the final two of Latour’s Gifford Lectures, which are helpfully arranged and available here. On Latour’s site you can also just download the pdf notes for all of the talks (Or click here to download them). I’ve already posted a few thoughts on the earlier lectures (here, here, and here, for instance).

These last two lectures were also interesting, particularly because Latour’s attempt to ‘face Gaia’ in the Anthropocene leads him to cherry-pick from Carl Schmitt a notion of politics as contests between enemies. I’m not convinced this is all that ecological. Schmitt’s idea that politics originates from the possibility of annihilation, of there being no over-arching set of rules for adjudicating between genuine combatants, is not one I find compelling. It is itself a very modernist idea to think that genuine political possibility proceeds from this basis; and it is odd that Latour does not consider how cooperative exercises are required for contests to happen at all. Call me old fashion, but abandoning to either ‘competition’ or ‘cooperation’ is not an easy fit with ecology. Both happen.

Latour did make a very interesting set of statements about how we may have tried to unite ‘humans’ too quickly under a common banner, and that part of dealing with the Anthropocene will be to step back from globalized ideas of humanity. This isn’t going to sit well with anybody who thinks that self-constituting individuals are what underlie the sovereignty of self-governing societies. Latour didn’t push the line very far on this issue; but he should. It would be a good way to decolonize ideas about autonomy, rationality and so forth. It would also confront some of the incongruity between the Anthropocene and liberalism. On this last topic, an interesting paper by Andrew Dobson came out in Environmental Values yesterday on whether liberalism depends on resource abundance.

Latour’s 4th lecture

A couple of thoughtful commentaries on Latour’s lecture yesterday over at Rain on Arrakis and Agent Swarm.

My favorite part of the talk was actually the question period. One questioner granted virtually every point Latour made but then repositioned it all as an outworking of Christian Theology (Latour keeps pitching his arguments as ‘political theology’ so the line of reasoning isn’t a total appropriation). He suggested we have entered the Christo-scene.

What made the question interesting is that the questioner worked from passages in the Pauline book of Romans, which often mixes ideas of creation, an expanded notion of a Christ-centric self and time. So it provides a non-secular counterpart to Latour’s ideas of a universe, a distributed notion of agency and accelerated time (the Anthropocene). And this is where Latour has tripped up – the acceleration of time – because that is exactly what a secular theory cannot hold in its back pocket. Time must be bound to things, but its rate mustn’t be cordoned to us unless it is also the case that there is something unique about our agency, which is something Latour keeps on denying – or at least trying to work without.

These claims about temporal acceleration are something that most theories of the Anthropocene have yet to deal with carefully enough. Latour gestured towards his response yesterday by referencing Sloterdijk’s work on space. The idea being that you can think in “Earth time” (i.e. through cycles and loops that crescendo and relax in relation to multiple agents acting amidst each other) once you have a secular understanding of the space of the world. It will be interesting to see whether, or if, he follows through on this.

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?”

Third Gifford Lecture by Latour today

If you’ve not been following the Gifford Lecture series by Bruno Latour this year, the third of six lectures will be today at 12:30EST. It can be live streamed here.

The first two lectures are summarized here by Franklin Ginn, a geographer at Edinburgh. All of the abstracts are also available here, but here is that for today’s talk:

“In spite of its reputation, Gaia is not half science and half religion. It offers a much more enigmatic set of features that redistribute agencies in all possible ways (as does this most enigmatic term “anthropocene”). Thus, it is far from clear what it means to “face Gaia”. It might require us to envisage it very differently from the various divinities of the past (including those derived from nature).”

If you are familiar with Latour’s work then you will be able to set right into this lecture as the last two worked towards thinking about Gaia without the concept of nature and without the standard account of religion where there is some entity that acts as the ultimate referee. For Latour, as you might expect, the whole idea of what ‘acts’ is broadly dispersed.

The last lecture Latour took umbrage with Hume. But I think this was a bit of a strawman, since the later common sense philosophers (i.e. Reid) are the ones who offer something actually different than the sort of epistemology that Latour critiques as modern. This is because these philosophers get caught up with the body itself, not as a whole, but as a system of interlinked and self-organizing organs: the nose, the eyes, touch, and so on.

Anyhow, despite that quibble I’m looking forward to today’s lecture.

Latour’s: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence – first bits of English translation

The first English bits of Latour’s new work is out online if you follow the links at this site: An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: Introduction and Chapter 1.