March 4, 2021

Facing Gaia: Latour (and Battistoni on Latour)

The earth is undergoing a Mutation, not a Crisis; in the midst of a speedy, planetary regime shift (video explainer by Oonsie Biggs). He goes further though to state that “you might expect us to feel that we had shifted from a mere ecological crisis into what should instead be called a profound mutation in our relation to the world.” Except we (we?) do not seem to have done so, or even noticed that we should.

Gaia– not an engineer but an artifact, the evidence of forces and actions.

At 98, James Lovelock is a very old man. His thinking is all the more important in that it avoids the academic, and he was the first to theorize what in ecology and Earth sciences is called the “Gaia” hypothesis, which I can provisionally summarize at this stage of my inquiry: the Earth is a totality of living beings and materials that were made together, that cannot live apart, and from which humans can’t extract themselves.

At first glance there is nothing simpler than the Gaia hypothesis: living things do not reside in an environment, they fashion it. What we call the environment is the result of living things’ extensions; their successful inventions and apprenticeships. This is not proof that the Earth is “living,” but rather that everything we experience on Earth is the unforeseen, secondary, and involuntary effect of the action of living organisms. This goes for the atmosphere, the soils, and the chemical composition of the oceans. We see it in termite mounds and beaver dams, which are not living in themselves, but without living organisms there would be no mounds or dams. So, the Gaia idea does not involve adding a soul to the terrestrial globe, or intentionality to living things, but it does recognize the prodigious ingenuity in the way living things fashion their own worlds.

…with the Gaia theory one can grasp the “power to act” of all the jumbled-up organisms without immediately integrating them into a unity that is superior to them and which they obey.

despite the word “system,” Gaia doesn’t act in a systematic fashion, or at least it isn’t a unified system. Lenton has shown that the regulation can be very strong or very lax, depending on the scales of space and time. The homeostatis of an organism and the more erratic regulation of the climate are not of the same type. The Earth is not an organism. Unlike all living things, it lives off itself in a way, through continuous recycling with very little help from external matter (apart, of course, from solar energy). One cannot even say that Gaia is synonymous with the globe or the natural world because, after all, living things, even after several billion years of evolution, only are in charge of a thin skin of the Earth, a sort of biofilm, what the researchers with whom I am working at the moment call “critical zones.”

Latour article in LA Review of Books, 2018

Alyssa Battistoni, in Material World, reflects on on Latour’s recent work and his shift toward politics:
Having lost faith in the long-promised world of prosperity, and recognizing that the planet cannot support all of us, elites have deregulated the economy and dismantled the welfare state while lavishly funding the denial of climate change.”  Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement devastatingly describes the false promise of world-wide fossil-fueled prosperity)

On a Ghosh-related epic story note: I just listened to a great podcast by Marie Mutsuki Mockett (Thirteen to One, New Stories for an Age of Disaster) at Emergence Magazine; it’s about Japan’s lost words for “nature” (only one being left: Shizen), and what (Shinto) animism offers us as a way of connecting, with attention on the giant earth-quaking catfish Ōnamazu…

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Recalls the Myth of the Giant Catfish Ōnamazu ‹  Literary Hub

Battistoni goes on to write that
On this planet, what we humans do matters immensely…
what we do affects what everything else does. We are constantly manipulating our environment, but so too are the earthworms in the soil, the plankton in the sea. Without them we would not only not have, say, trees and dolphins—we would not have an atmosphere or oceans at all.

Gaia, that is, muddles our very notion of what the environment is. The air is not just a medium that surrounds us—it is literally made by living beings, ourselves included. From this view, seeing the Earth as a collection of “natural resources,” as inert matter, is absurd. All the world is reactions: chemical, biological, geophysical. It is preposterous to think you could take millions of tons of long-buried dead matter, burn it, and leave the rest of the world as it is. What have we undergone in the past few decades but the realization that we share the world with a set of previously ignored actors—the untold carbon molecules invisibly and gradually accumulating without so much as a peep?

If the Earth is reacting to what we do all the time, Latour argues, we must figure out how to react to it in turn rather than fruitlessly attempting to control it. We must figure out how to conduct our collective lives in a way that represents all these agents. This, he thinks, means reimagining what we expect from politics. 

To face the Terrestrial we must rework our politics. Latour disdains the traditional poles of left and right: “You have never been a leftist? That doesn’t matter, neither have I, but, like you, I am radically Terrestrial!” 

As Latour sees it, the “social question” that has animated traditional left politics has prioritized class antagonism in relation to ostensibly material issues, but the world of the Terrestrial has increasingly fallen out of the picture. Environmentalists, by contrast, have long claimed that focusing politics around the Earth disrupts familiar ideological categories—claiming “neither left nor right, but in front”; not red but green; and so on.

…why should we have to pick either the social question or the climate crisis? According to Latour, we don’t. “We don’t have to choose between workers’ wages and the fate of some little birds,” he admonishes, “but between two types of worlds in which there are both workers’ salaries and little birds, but associated differently in the two contexts.”

who today doesn’t want to live in a world where workers’ salaries and little birds coexist happily? Teamsters and turtles joined up against the WTO two decades ago; “green jobs” have long been the watchword of the environmental movement. But simply insisting that social and ecological politics don’t have to be at odds is only the first step, and by far the easiest one. Figuring out how exactly they should be associated has been considerably harder; harder still has been getting to this other world where we don’t have to choose. Today’s climate activists will not defeat the corporations who tell us it’s either jobs or a habitable planet by lecturing them on the bifurcations of modernity.

Marxist materialists’ “definition of the material world was so abstract, so ideal, not to say idealistic, that they have never had a firm grip on this new reality,” Latour argues—and he has a point. (Feminists like Shulamith Firestone similarly argued that Marxism had not gone far enough in its material analysis, failing to consider how bodies shaped the division of labor.) 

At some point, though, the thrill of realizing you live in a material world wears off. Though we are living in an age whose politics validates Latour’s analysis, the era of his theoretical dominance has passed. In light of the 2008 financial crisis and its long aftermath, Latour can seem a bit frivolous. Microbes? In this economy?

Being more material than thou simply can’t explain it all. Marxists have typically followed not science but capitalism in action, and capitalism cannot survive without abstracting away from the materially real world. For example, capitalism does not care much for territory. Giovanni Arrighi rewrote Marx’s famous M-C-M1 (money is exchanged for commodities in order to get more money) as M-T-M1: territory is only an intermediate link between capital and more capital. Capital grabs land when it needs to, and abandons it just as quickly.

Schmitt’s fundamental question: who is your friend, and who is your enemy? And like Schmitt, Latour believes that politics goes all the way down—that there is no foundation of truth or right on which to ultimately rest one’s appeals. 

Latour often sounds like is Chantal Mouffe, another thinker who has sought to revive Schmitt for a post-Marxist left. Since the 1980s, Mouffe has sought to describe a political subject that can replace the Marxist proletariat, suggesting that left collectives must be radically democratic and “anti-essentialist,” forged out of disparate social concerns rather than a taken-for-granted universalism (“workers of the world, unite!”). Latour, in turn, imagines collectives so non-essentialist that they can include nonhumans, and pays a surprising amount of attention to the process by which they might be composed. What Latour has in recent years called “compositionism*” aims to rebuild a common world that has been almost demolished. It is a project that “takes up the task of searching for universality but without believing that this universality is already there, waiting to be unveiled and discovered.”

What he offers, then, is not a program (“no political lie is more brazen than proposing a program”) but a method. Radical humility is called for, he argues: no one has faced climate change before; no society has ever existed alongside 9 billion other people who share a planet and a world. We must start not from a position of certainty but by describing the world differently: by describing where we live, with who, and what we need to live there. By looking at the world anew, perhaps we can begin to see it in common.

Latour has always liked description as method. As an epistemology, the approach is proudly naïve and radically democratic. Why would intellectuals think they know more about a factory or a laboratory than the people who work there? Why not take what they say at face value, if not that alone? It’s also not a bad way of doing politics in a populist moment. So Latour wants to start simply by asking questions. “What do you want? What are you capable of? With whom are you prepared to cohabit? Who can threaten you?” Who, and what, do you need to survive—and who, and what, needs you? Who is your friend, and who is your enemy?

The obvious problem is that we may not like the answers. 

*Note on compositionism:
(Even though the word “composition” is a bit too long and windy, what is nice is that it underlines that things have to be put together (Latin 474 new literary history componere) while retaining their heterogeneity. Also, it is connected with composure; it has clear roots in art, painting, music, theater, dance, and thus is associated with choreography and scenography; it is not too far from “compromise” and “compromising,” retaining a certain diplomatic and prudential flavor. Speaking of flavor, it carries with it the pungent but ecologically correct smell of “compost,” itself due to the active “de-composition” of many invisible agents . . . .