Bruno Latour’s recent (Feb,2013) Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh deserve to be more widely viewed than they have been. Indeed, if history is any guide, they probably will be, eventually. Already I have heard about an upcoming workshop organized around the lecture series, and a book based on the series is forthcoming. Past luminaries of these lectures, which were established to ‘promote and diffuse the study of natural theology in the widest sense of the term’ have included some of the most influential thinkers (and books) of the last century, including William James (1900-1902, The Varieties of Religious Experience), Henri Bergson (1913-14, The Problem of Personality), Hannah Arendt (1976, Life of the Mind), and, with particular significance for Latour, Alfred North Whitehead (1927-28, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology).
This last work, still notoriously troublesome despite its various revisions since Whitehead delivered it in Edinburgh almost a century ago, echoes throughout Latour’s six lectures. Latour speaks; Whitehead stands at his shoulder. It is clear that Professor Latour enjoyed following in ‘his philosopher’s’ footsteps. The key themes of the lectures circle around the implications of living in a new epoch in which humans are significantly affecting the earth’s ecosystem: the anthropocene. The abstract for the series as a whole reads:
Facing Gaia. A New Inquiry into Natural Religion.
There could be no better theme for a lecture series on natural religion than that of Gaia, this puzzling figure that has emerged recently in public discourse from Earth science as well as from many activist and spiritual movements. The problem is that the expression of ”natural religion” is somewhat of a pleonasm, since Western definitions of nature borrow so much from theology. The set of lectures attempts to decipher the face of Gaia in order to redistribute the notions that have been packed too tightly into the composite notion of ”natural religion”.
Politics, science and religion are brought into dialogue, via a sustained contemplation of Gaia, rather than nature. What this shift calls for above all is a (political) shift from matters of fact to matters of concern, which is, in itself, a Whiteheadian shift. The draft text of the lectures is available here (pdf), but the published book is on the way. The remaining five lectures are below the fold. I have only recently finished viewing them all and I am not ready to offer a critique just yet. I may have to read (and re-read) the notes or the book that emerges to fully grasp what Latour is saying. His project is vast, and requires, demands, serious attention. These lectures are a good place to begin.
The abstract for the first lecture is:
Once Out of Nature – natural religion as a pleonasm
The set of questions around the two words “natural religion” implies that only the second word is a coded and thus a disputed category, the first one being taken for granted and uncoded. But if it can be shown that the very notion of nature is a theological construct, we might be able to shift the problem somewhat: the question becomes not to save or resurrect “natural religion”, but to dispose of it by offering at last a ”secular” version of nature and of the natural sciences.
They get better as they go on. Persevere. And enjoy!
2: A Shift in Agency – with apologies to David Hume
Once nature and the natural sciences are fully ”secularized”, it becomes possible to revisit also the category of the supernatural. Then, a different landscape opens which can be navigated through an attention to agencies and their composition. Such a freedom of movement allows the use of the rich anthropological literature to compare the ways different “collectives” manage to assemble and totalize different sets of agencies.
3. The Puzzling Face of a Secular Gaia
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).
4. The Anthropocene and the Destruction of the Image of the Globe
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?
5. War of the Worlds: Humans against Earthbound
In the absence of any Providence to settle matters of concern — and thus of nature, its barely disguised substitute — no peaceful resolution of Gaian conflicts can be expected. The recognition of a state of war and the designation of enmity is indispensable if a state of diplomacy is later to be reached. Under the pressure of so many apocalyptic injunctions, what is a Gaian political theology?
6. Inside the ‘Planetary Boundaries’: Gaia’s Estate
Although the resources of “paganism”, New Age cults, renewed themes of Christian incarnation, and process theology offer rich mythological insights, it is not clear whether they are at the scale and sensitivity needed to face Gaia. A search for collective rituals should begin with works of art and experiments able to explore in sufficient detail the scientific and political composition of the common world.