GAIA IS NOT BONDAGE: debriefing AIME

I attended the Final Evaluation Conference for Bruno Latour’s AIME project  (28-29 July 2014) with high hopes, and I found it very interesting. Yet I had a vague feeling of frustration and of disappointment. There was not enough dialogue, despite much goodwill and respect on all sides. It is now two weeks since that event, and I feel mentally paralysed whenever I want to write something to help me get clear on my ideas and feelings inspired by the experience of being an attentive member of the audience.

I think that one of the main blockages was the framing of the conference in terms of a diplomatic negotiation aimed at presenting and preserving the beings to which we are attached. I think this metaphor reduced the audience’s role to that of spectators and the delegates’ role  to one of conservatism, including conceptual conservatism. Attachments can change in a dialogue, or be completely re-conceived in a way that does not just aim at just description of practices, but also at transforming them.

Another blockage was the hijacking of the discussion by talk of Gaia. The book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE is just that, a treatise in empirical ontology, describing the 15 modes of existence that characterise the Moderns. There is much to be discussed about the general form of the project, its concepts and methodology, its similarities and differences with predecessors and contemporaries working on comparable projects, possible improvements and additions. This is not a book that teaches us about Gaia, but one written in the conviction that ecological concerns are now of paramount importance. The bulk of the book, however, is not at all about Gaia, but about the modes of existence and their crossings. There is much to be said about the analyses of the modes, but the discussion here was truncated.

A comparison could be made here with Jean-François Lyotard’s similar project. Lyotard proposed his own inquiry into modes of existence/modes of veridiction in his book THE DIFFEREND. He did not take Gaia as his theoretical horizon, but rather our Sun, Sol, and argued that we must eventually leave our solar system to survive the heat death of our Sun. Bruno Latour’s ideas would seem to be short-term in comparison. One of Latour’s weak points in his account of science is his idea that science concerns itself with “distant” objects, yet he gives us no standard for evaluating distance in this ontological sense. How distant is the Moon? Perhaps it is less distant than some may think. How distant is an angel? Perhaps more distant than Latour would like to admit. Gaia-centrism is no doubt a necessary corrective to the unbridled exploitation of the globe, but if left unchecked could discourage, or even prohibit, initiatives such as moon landings. This is why I do not like Latour’s term of “Earthbound”, as I find it too normative, and I prefer Earthling.

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7 Responses to GAIA IS NOT BONDAGE: debriefing AIME

  1. A long-term vision like Lyotard’s would seem that presuppose that humanity (or at least intelligences of the same ranking) are a permanent feature of the Universe. Nowadays, that feels like an optimistic stretch.

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    • terenceblake says:

      Not permanent, just potentially longer-lasting or farer-roving than Gaia. Lyotard is in fact not optimistic about humans as such, as he thinks that we are just provisional instantiations or bearers of a vector of complexification which may well come to a rapid end, or choose to proceed without us. My problem is with the prescriptive use of Gaia to limit our attention to Earthly matterns of concern, and to de-prioritise wider-ranging attention in a rather unselective way. This is one of my worries with Latour’s 6 Gifford Lectures, which can be seen beginning here: http://youtu.be/MC3E6vdQEzk. They are very interesting, and well worth watching.

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  2. Bill Benzon says:

    One of Latour’s weak points in his account of science is his idea that science concerns itself with “distant” objects, yet he gives us no standard for evaluating distance in this ontological sense.

    Hmmm… I wonder where his trope of ‘distance’ comes from. It’s a central one in literary studies. The so-called New Critics put so-called “close reading” on the methodological map post WWII. Eugenio Donato did and important 1975 review of Lévi-Strauss called “Lévi-Strauss and the Protocols of Distance.” Back in 2000 Franco Moretti coined the term “distant reading” for a different lit crit enterprise, one that has now come under the rubric of digital humanities. In a post, Distant Reading in Lévi-Strauss and Moretti, I have argued that what’s a state for both of them is better termed “objectification,” that distance is a bad and misleading trope. I’m wondering if the same is the case for Lyotard.

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  3. terenceblake says:

    Talk of “distant objects” is quite misleading for the sciences, and I think that it mixes together things best distinguished.

    Talking about Gaia and about caring for the Earth implies thinking of astronomy as a paradigmatic science. The rest of the sciences do not deal with distant objects, and the laws of syntax are neither near nor far.

    Talking of the long chains of mediation, equipment, tests and trials, collective correction of hypotheses and data implies thinking of unmediatede access as epistemological paradigm. This model of knowledge is false for all knowledge, and even religion implies long chains of mediation. In Catholicism we have the whole hierarchy of the Church and its nearly 2,000 year history.

    So “distance” cannot serve as a demarcation criterion between science and religion, nor between old science and new science.

    I think you are right to prefer “objectification” to “distance”.

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    • Bill Benzon says:

      Most interesting, Terry. As you know, I’ve just been blogging my way thought Morton’s Hyperobjects, which takes global warming as its paradigmatic hyperobject. Morton is nominally operating under the aegis of OOO, w/ Harman as his main reference point.

      In my penultimate post on the book I note some ambiguity over objects, in his/Harman’s technical sense, and objectification, which seems mostly bad. But I’ve also noted that the cumulative effect of his rhetoric, and almost his explicit statments in a place or two, is to make all objects into hyperobjects, and those hyperobjects/objects are much more interesting than Harman’s transcendentally withdrawn objects.

      All of which is to say, something interesting is going on here.

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