Facing Gaia

Over the weekend, I squeezed in a couple of hours to finish reading Bruno Latour’s Facing Gaia. As readers of this blog know, I have a soft spot for Latour and have used various (mis)readings of his ideas in several articles and papers of the last few years. Facing Gaia demonstrates Latour’s willingness to creatively complicate the simplistic assumptions that so often shape our view of the world, but to do so with humor and style. The eight lectures published in this book, for all their seriousness of purpose, are fun.

If I were slightly more ambitious as a teacher, one could easily teach a class based on Latour’s book. First, each lecture can stand on its own, and each lecture begs to be unpacked, explored, and even tests both in terms of the historical situations that Latour invokes as well as the epistemological (and post-epistemological) and scientific theories that shape his ideas. I don’t have the chops to do this, but I sincerely hope someone does somewhere. 

I won’t review the book here, but offer a few of the more useful points as a little list:

1. Gaia. Latour looks to revive or invigorate the James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia in the service of the current climate crisis. In Latour’s hands, Gaia bridges the gap between nature and culture, religion and science, human and non-human agents and embodies – quite literally – the seething mass of forces, agents, and perhaps even idea(l)s that forms the system in which human life exists.  

2. Science and Religion. Among the more intriguing aspect of Latour’s book is his playing about with Jan Assman’s idea of religion. Assman, is an Egyptologist and I’ve read only a tiny of bit of his work. He argues that the “Mosaic Division” transformed religion from being open to translation, syncretism, and combination to exclusive, incommensurate, and incompatible. Latour follows Assman in calling these “counter-religions” which like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, demand an exclusive claim to an individual’s world view. I’ve tended to call this view of religion and the world “totalizing.”  Science, for Latour, is another example of a “counter-religion” that is similarly totalizing in its scope. This view of science, however, makes it distinctly incapable of understanding Gaia because it sees the Earth as the manifestation of certain abstract concepts rather than a generative space that is constantly forcing humans and non-humans to respond to myriad, often-contradictory, stimuli. This is not replacing one totalizing view, science, with another, Gaiaology (or whatever), but demonstrating that in a world where an incommensurate view of existence prevails, the only possible recourse for change is a kind of total war.

3. War. Latour invokes Carl Schmitt (and like most people who haven’t read much Schmitt, this makes me nervous). He looks to Schmitt’s view of war which is outside the potential for existing forms of arbitration and which requires a completely new form of peace for resolution. For Latour, our relationship with the Earth as established by science permits a kind of resolution within existing structure of knowledge and “diplomacy.” The system of causality is known and outcomes are predictable within this system. In other words, victory can be known. Gaia, however, will not allow such an easy victory because the system does not offer a single point of predictable resolution. Any new peace within Gaia must be negotiated anew according to new expectations, new conditions, and without the comfort of new rules. The kind of total war for human existence, at least as understood by Latour, cannot be won and the peace must be created on Gaia’s terms.

4. Modernity and Apocalypse. Latour considers why it is that humanity is so reluctant to see Gaia and to understand the crisis. Latour once again evokes counter-religions and notes that the exclusivity and incommensurability of counter-religion (and, by extension, modern science) has placed us all in an apocalyptic era at the end of time. As a result, our ability to recognize, anticipate, and affect change has been compromised by views of the world that located us outside of time, at the end of history, and at the culmination of human experience. A different future is inconceivable because we have already made sense of the world. 

5. Agency and Sovereignty. Latour concludes his work by arguing that only an expanded view of agency – the kind of multitudinous agency embodied by Gaia – will allow humanity to undermine the concept of sovereignty that has so far impaired our ability to understand our place within the Anthropocene era. The Anthropocene, in this context, is not simply an era fundamentally shaped or defined by human actions. After all, within Gaia every era receives its shape from more than a single agent. The Anthropocene, for Latour, represents a construction of reality whose very modern, counter-religious rules accelerates the demise of group who constructed it. The Anthropocene is not a recognition of primacy or supremacy of human agency, but the understanding of its limits. The humanity that came to thrive in the Holocene era will not endure the Anthropocene.    


  1. I was checking if you had mentioned Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s “The Mushroom at the end of the world : on the possibility of life in capitalist ruins”; Princeton, NJ : Princeton University Press, 2017. ©2015 here. “Facing Gaia” is on my reading list, but maybe I should write a review of Tsing first. It is sort of a cross-over between your summary of Facing Gaia and your Bakken project.


    1. Oh, cool! I don’t know Tsing’s work, but now it’s on my list!


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