1 Agency at the time of the Anthropocene New Literary History Vol. 45, pp. 1-18, 2014 Et pourtant la Terre s émeut Michel Serres, Le contrat naturel How are we supposed to react when faced with a piece of news like this one from Le Monde on Tuesday, May 7, 2013: At Mauna Loa, on Friday May 3, the concentration of CO 2 was reaching ppm? How can we absorb the odd novelty of the headline: The amount of CO 2 in the air is the highest it has been for more than 2.5 million years the threshold of 400 ppm of CO 2, the main agent of global warming, is going to be crossed this year? Such an extension of both the span of deep history and the impact of our own collective action is made even more troubling by the subtitle in the same article, which quietly states: The maximum permissible CO 2 limit was crossed just before So not only do we have to swallow the news that our very recent development has modified a state of affairs that is vastly older that the very existence of the human race (a diagram in the article reminds us that the oldest human tools are comparatively very recent!), but we have also to absorb the disturbing fact that the drama has been completed and that the main revolutionary event is behind us, since we have already crossed a few of the nine planetary boundaries considered by some scientists as the ultimate barrier not to overstep! 1 I think that it is easy for us to agree that, in modernism, people are not equipped with the mental and emotional repertoire to deal with such a vast scale of events; that they have difficulty submitting to such a rapid acceleration for which, in addition, they are supposed to feel responsible while, in the meantime, this call for action has none of the traits of their older revolutionary dreams. How can we
2 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 2 simultaneously be part of such a long history, have such an important influence, and yet be so late in realizing what has happened and so utterly impotent in our attempts to fix it? What I find amazing in such a piece of news is first, the number of scientific disciplines involved in producing the set of figures that the journalist uses from climatology to paleontology and second, the historical drama in which those sciences are, from now on, so deeply entangled. It is impossible to read such a statement as an objective fact contemplated coldly from a distant place, as was supposed to be the case, in earlier times, when dealing with information coming from the natural sciences. There is no distant place anymore. And along with distance, objectivity is gone as well; or at least, an older notion of objectivity that was unable to take into account the active subject of history. No wonder that climatosceptics are denying the reliability of all those facts that they now put in scare quotes. In a way they are right, not because all those disciplines are not producing any objects able to resist objections (that's where objectivity really comes from), but because the very notion of objectivity has been totally subverted by the presence of humans in the phenomena to be described and in the politics of tackling them. 2 While the older problem of science studies was to understand the active role of scientists in the construction of facts, a new problem arises: how to understand the active role of human agency not only in the construction of facts, but also in the very existence of the phenomena those facts are trying to document? The many important nuances between facts, news, stories, alarms, warnings, norms, and duties are all mixed up. This is why it is so important to try to clarify a few of them anew. Especially when we are trying to understand how we could shift from economics to ecology, given the old connection between those two disciplines and the scientific world view. At the beginning of the 1990s, just at the time when the dangerous CO 2 threshold had been unwittingly crossed, the French philosopher Michel Serres, in a daring and idiosyncratic book called The Natural Contract, offered, among many innovative ideas, a fictional reenactment of Galileo s most famous quote: Eppur si muove!. In the potted history of science that we all learned at school, after having been forbidden by the Holy Inquisition to teach anything publically about the movement of the Earth, Galileo is supposed to have mumbled and yet it moves. This episode is what Serres calls
3 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 3 the first trial: a prophetic scientist pitted against all the authorities of the time, stating silently the objective fact that will later destroy these authorities. But now, according to Serres, we are witnessing a second trial: in front of all the assembled powers, another scientist or rather an assembly of equally prophetic scientists is condemned to remain silent by all those who are in denial about the behavior of the Earth, and he mumbles the same Eppur si muove by giving it a different and rather terrifying new spin: and yet the Earth is moved. (The French is even more telling: Et pourtant la Terre se meut versus et pourtant la Terre s émeut!). Serres writes: Science won all the rights three centuries ago now, by appealing to the Earth, which responded by moving. So the prophet became king. In our turn, we are appealing to an absent authority, when we cry, like Galileo, but before the court of his successors, former prophets turned kings: "the Earth is moved." The immemorial, fixed Earth, which provided the conditions and foundations of our lives, is moving, the fundamental Earth is trembling. 3 In an academic setting, I don t need to review those new emotions with which the Earth is now agitated in addition to its usual motions. Not only does it turn around the Sun (that much we knew) but it is agitated through the highly complex workings of many enmeshed living organisms the whole of which is either called "Earth system science, or more radically, Gaia. 4 Gaia, a very ticklish sort of goddess. Four centuries after those of astronomy, facts of geology have become news, so much so that a piece of information about Charles David Keeling s data at Mauna Loa has shifted from the science and technology section of the newspaper to a new section reserved for the damning tragedies of the Earth. 5 We all agree that, far from being a Galilean body stripped of any other movements than those of billiard balls, the Earth has now taken back all the characteristics of a full-fledged actor. Indeed, as Dipesh Chakrabarty has proposed, it has become once again an agent of history, or rather, an agent of what I have proposed to call our common geostory. 6 The problem becomes for all of us in philosophy, science or literature, how do we tell such a story. We should not be surprised that a new form of agency it is moved is just as surprising to the established powers as the old one it is moving. If the Inquisition was shocked at the news that the Earth was nothing more than a billiard ball spinning endlessly in the vast universe (remember the scene where Bertolt Brecht has the monks and cardinals ridicule Galileo s heliocentrism by whirling aimlessly in a room of the Vatican), 7 the new
4 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 4 Inquisition (now economic rather than religious) is shocked to learn that the Earth has become has become again! an active, local, limited, sensitive, fragile, quaking, and easily tickled envelope. We would need a new Bertolt Brecht to depict how, on talk shows and on Fox News, so many people (for instance, the Koch Brothers, many physicists, a lot of intellectuals, a great many politicians from left and right and alas quite a few cardinals and pastors) are now ridiculing the discovery of the new also very old agitated and sensitive Earth, to the point of being in denial about this large body of science. In order to portray the first new Earth as one falling body among all the other falling bodies of the universe, Galileo had to put aside all notions of climate, agitation, and metamorphosis (apart from tides); to discover the second new Earth, climatologists are bringing the climate back in and returning the Earth to its sublunar, corrupted, and agitated condition. Galileo s Earth could spin, but it had no tipping points, 8 no planetary boundaries. As Michael Hulme has said, this is what it means to talk again not about the weather, but about the climate as a new form of discourse. 9 The European prescientific vision of the Earth saw it as a cesspool of decay, death, and corruption from which our ancestors, their eyes fixed toward the incorruptible spheres of suns, stars and God, had a tiny chance of escaping solely through prayer, contemplation and knowledge; today, in a sort of counter Copernican revolution, it is science that is forcing our eyes to turn toward the Earth considered, once again, as a cesspool of conflict, decay, war, pollution, and corruption. This time, however, there is no prayer, and no chance of escaping to anywhere else. After having moved from the closed cosmos to the infinite universe, 10 we have to move back from the infinite universe to the closed cosmos except this time there is no order, no God, no hierarchy, no authority, and thus literally no cosmos, a word that means a handsome and well composed arrangement. Let s give this new situation its Greek name, that of kakosmos. What a drama we have been through: from cosmos to the universe and then, from the universe to the kakosmos! Enough of a move to make us feel queasier than poor Mrs. Sarti in Brecht s play. Even though we have to continue fighting those who are in denial, I propose that we let them alone for a moment and seize this opportunity to advance our common cosmopolitics. 11 What I want to explore in this paper is what sort of agency this new Earth should be granted. Two other insights
5 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 5 from Serres will render my goal clearer. Just before the passage I quoted, he reverses the distribution of subject and object, understood here in their legal sense. (The Natural Contract is first of all a piece of legal philosophy). For, as of today, the Earth is quaking anew: not because it shifts and moves in its restless, wise orbit, not because it is changing, from its deep plates to its envelope of air, but because it is being transformed by our doing. Nature acted as a reference point for ancient law and for modern science because it had no subject: objectivity in the legal sense, as in the scientific sense, emanated from a space without man, which did not depend on us and on which we depended de jure and de facto. Yet henceforth it depends so much on us that it is shaking and that we too are worried by this deviation from expected equilibria. We are disturbing the Earth and making it quake! Now it has a subject once again. 12 Although the book does not invoke the name of Gaia and was written before the label anthropocene became so widespread, it is clear that it points to the same complete subversion of the respective positions of subject and object. Since the scientific revolution, the objectivity of a world without humans had offered a solid ground for a sort of undisputed jus naturalism if not for religion and morality, at least for science and law. At the time of the counter Copernican revolution, when we turn toward the former solid ground of natural law, what do we find? The traces of our action are visible everywhere! And not in the older way that the Male Western Subject dominated the wild and savage world of nature through His courageous, violent, sometimes hubristic, dream of control. No, this time, we encounter, just as in the old pre-scientific and non-modern myths, 13 an agent which gains its name of subject because he or she might be subjected to the vagaries, bad humor, emotions, reactions, and even revenge of another agent, who also gains its quality of subject because it is also subjected to his or her action. It is in this radical sense that humans are no longer submitted to the diktats of objective nature, since what comes to them is also an intensively subjective form of action. To be a subject is not to act autonomously in front of an objective background, but to share agency with other subjects that have also lost their autonomy. It is because we are now confronted with those subjects or rather quasi-subjects that we have to shift away from dreams of mastery as well as from the threat of being fully naturalized. 14 Kant without bifurcation between object and subject; Hegel without Absolute Spirit; Marx without dialectics. But it is also in another
6 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 6 radical sense that the Earth is no longer "objective"; it cannot be put at a distance and emptied of all Its humans. Human action is visible everywhere in the construction of knowledge as well as in the production of the phenomena those sciences are called to register. What seems impossible, however, in Serres s solution is the quaint idea of establishing a new social compact with all those quasi-subjects. Not that the idea of a contract is odd (contrary to many critiques of his proposition), but because in a quarter of the century, things have become so urgent and violent that the somewhat pacific project of a contract among parties seems unreachable. War is infinitely more likely than contract. Or else we will have to appeal to another body of codes, from civil law to penal law. Words such as symbiosis, harmony, agreement, accord, all those ideals of deep ecology smack of an earlier, less benighted time. Since then everything has taken a turn for the worse. The best we can hope for is to stick to a new sort of jus gentium that would protect us against one another and against what James Lovelock has called the revenge of Gaia. 15 As Isabelle Stengers puts it, now the task is rather to try to protect us. 16 The new subjects subjected to the vagaries of their own interconnected collisions are not trying to negotiate contracts, but to engage in a sort of parley much more primitive than the market place or the court of law. No time for commerce. No time for solemn oaths. Contrary to Hobbes s scheme, the state of nature seems to have a dangerous tendency to follow, and not to precede or to accompany, the time of the civil compact. In twenty-three years, the state of civilization has regressed so much that Serres s stopgap solution brings to mind a strange form of nostalgia: yes, at the time, it was still possible to dream of making a contract with nature. But Gaia is another subject altogether maybe also a different sovereign. 17 So, to profit from Serres insight freed from his legal solution, we have to dig a bit deeper and detect how the different types of entities mobilized in geostory might be able to swap the various traits that define their agencies. Trait is precisely the technical word taken from law, geopolitics, science, architecture, and geometry that Serres uses to designate this trading zone between former objects and former subjects. "Moreover the word trait, in French, like draft in English, means both the material bond and the basic stroke of writing: dot and long mark, a binary alphabet. A written contract obligates and ties those who write their name, or an X, below its clauses. ( ) Now the first
7 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 7 great scientific system, Newton's, is linked together by attraction: there's the same word again, the same trait, the same notion. The great planetary bodies grasp or comprehend one another and are bound by a law, to be sure, but a law that is the spitting image of a contract, in the primary meaning of a set of cords. The slightest movement of any one planet has immediate effects on all the others, whose reactions act unhindered on the first. Through this set of constraints, the Earth comprehends, in a way, the point of view of the other bodies since it must reverberate with the events of the whole system." 18 How extraordinary to claim that the best example of a contractual bond is Newton s law of gravitation! How can you drag Newton s attraction into an anthropocentric argument about points of view and comprehension? There is nobody there to see and to interpret anything. Is this not just the type of slippage from one language game to another that has made Serres s anthropology of science so open to criticism and, more generally, that have subjected the humanities to so much scorn? The problem, of course, is to do justice to this sentence without taking it simply as a clever metaphor. To move on we have to go slowly enough to clearly understand the conditions under which it could be rendered more than an image. Thanks to a magnificent paper by Simon Schaffer, 19 we first have to remember that Newton himself had to generate out of his own culture a set of traits for the new agent that came to be known as attraction. To be sure, it was not anthropomorphic, but rather angelo-morphic! To combat Cartesian tourbillons, Newton had to think of an agent able to transport action at a distance instantaneously. At the time, there was no character available to him that could be entrusted with the transportation of instantaneous movement, except angels Hundreds of pages of angelology later, Newton could progressively clip their wings and transform this new agent into a force. A purely objective force? Maybe, but still powered, from behind, by thousands of years of meditation on an angelic instant messaging system. Purity is not what science is made of: behind the force, the wings of angels are still invisibly flapping. As the whole history of science and Serres himself for a large part of his earlier work has often shown, it is difficult to follow the emergence of scientific concepts without taking into account the vast cultural background that allows scientists to first animate them, and then, but only later, to deanimate them. Although the official philosophy of science takes the latter
8 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 8 movement as the only important and rational one, just the opposite is true: animation is the essential phenomenon; de-animation a superficial, ancillary, polemical, and more often than not vindicatory one. 20 One of the main puzzles of Western history is not that there are people who still believe in animism, but the rather naive belief that many still have in a de-animated world of mere stuff; just at the moment when they themselves multiply the agencies with which they are more deeply entangled every day. The more we move in geostory, the more this belief seems difficult to understand. There are at least two ways, one from semiotics and the other from ontology, to direct our attention to the common ground of agency before we let it bifurcate into what is animated and what is de-animated. Let s try semiotics first. In novels, readers have no difficulty in detecting the great number of contradictory actions with which characters are simultaneously endowed. Witness, for instance, in this famous passage of Tolstoy s War and Peace, Prince Kutuzov s decision to finally get into action: The Cossack's report, confirmed by horse patrols who were sent out, was the final proof that events had matured. The tightly coiled spring was released, the clock began to whirr and the chimes to play. Despite all his supposed power, his intellect, his experience, and his knowledge of men, Kutuzov having taken into consideration the Cossack's report, a note from Bennigsen who sent personal reports to the Emperor, the wishes he supposed the Emperor to hold, and the fact that all the generals expressed the same wish could no longer check the inevitable movement, and gave the order to do what he regarded as useless and harmful gave his approval, that is, to the accomplished fact. 21 If we are here miles away from the idea of a supreme commander mastering his decisions as a rational subject, neither is the accomplished fact forcing Kutuzov as if he were a passive object. In spite of the first agricultural metaphor ( events have matured ) followed by a second mechanical one ( the clock began to play ), many other elements have to be taken into account: a highly doubtful dispatch from a Cossack, the plot against him by his own aide-de-camp, the gentle pressure of his generals as well as his own tentative interpretation of the Emperor s wishes. If, in the end, the movement is inevitable, the supreme commander, even though he regards it as useless and harmful, gave the order and gave his approval. (As readers of the novel will
9 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 9 remember, Kutuzov, in the remainder of the passage, will do everything to delay the engagement, which nonetheless he will win in the end because he has succeeded in doing next to nothing against the agitated marches and counter-marches of Napoleon s Great Army!) If we tend to find this non-decision by a supreme commander so realistic, it is precisely because the author mixes up all the traits that could allow us to distinguish objects and subjects accomplished facts and inevitable movement on the one hand and, on the other, power, intellect, experience and knowledge. Great novels disseminate the sources of actions in a way that the official philosophy available at their time is unable to follow. There is here a more general lesson to be drawn. What makes the Moderns so puzzling for an anthropologist is that there is never any resemblance in the traits attributed to objectivity and subjectivity and the reality of their distribution. This is what allowed me to say that we have never been modern. 22 At the time of the anthropocene, with its utter confusion between objects and subjects, it is probable that the reading of Tolstoy would do a great deal of good for the geo-engineers portrayed in Clive Hamilton s frightening new book in which he reviews the many schemes to save the planet, each crazier than the next. 23 Given that those who believe they will be in command those whom Hamilton calls Earthmasters will never control things better than Kutuzov, if we give them the Earth, what mess they ll make of it! You might object that novelists are paid to fathom the folds of the human soul, and that it is no wonder they are able to complicate what philosophers would instead prefer to clarify. And it is true that in Kutuzov s example, there is no agent that would count as a real natural force. In spite of the mechanical metaphors, we remain among humans. But let me take now an example from a bestseller with the very modernist title: The Control of Nature. 25 McPhee s document is a remarkable set of stories about how heroic humans are dealing with invincible natural agents water, landslides and volcanoes. What interest me here are the two literal trade-offs between, on one side, two rivers, the Mississippi and the Atchafalaya, and on the other, those two competing rivers and a human agency, the US Corps of Engineers. The situation MacPhee describes is the following: if the Mississippi continues flowing east of New Orleans, it is thanks to a single work of art, upstream at a small bend of the river, that protects the giant flow from its capture by the much smaller, but unfortunately much lower, river bed of the Atchafalaya. If this dam were to be breached (the threat recurs every year),
10 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 10 the whole of the Mississippi would end up many kilometers west of New Orleans, causing massive floods and interrupting a large part of the US economy's transport infrastructure. Needless to say that the Corps of Engineers has not heeded Mark Twain s classically retro-modern admonition: One who knows the Mississippi will promptly aver not aloud but to himself that ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, Go here, or Go there, and make it obey; ( ) the Commission might as well bully the comets in their courses and undertake to make them behave, as try to bully the Mississippi into right and reasonable conduct. 26 On the contrary, the Corps has gone to amazing extremes to fix the Mississippi in its course and to help it resist capture by the other river. Only by letting part of the flow go through the dam are they able to finesse this threat, while worrying that severe flooding might wipe the whole structure away. No matter how fascinating the situation is, I cannot dwell on it for too long, any more than I have the time to follow the tours and detours of War and Peace. I just want to draw attention to the swapping of traits in a portion of McPhee s narrative: The Corps was not in a political or moral position to kill the Atchafalaya. It had to feed it water. By the principles of nature, the more the Atchafalaya was given, the more it would want to take, because it was the steeper stream. The more it was given, the deeper it would make its bed. The difference in level between the Atchafalaya and the Mississippi would continue to increase, magnifying the conditions for capture. The Corps would have to deal with that. The Corps would have to build something that could give the Atchafalaya a portion of the Mississippi and at the same time prevent it from taking all. 27 The expression by the principles of nature does not withdraw agency from the conflicts that McPhee stages between the two rivers, any more than in Tolstoy s account the release of the tightly coiled spring is able to mop up all the will out of Kutuzov s decision. On the contrary, the connection between a smaller but deeper river and a much wider but higher one is what provides the goals of the two protagonists, what gives them a vector, what justifies the
11 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 11 word kill and capture for the steeper and thus more dangerous actor. To have goals is one essential part of what it is to be an agent. In spite of the official obsession with withdrawing goals from physical actors, it is, in practice impossible. Instead of always pointing out the danger of anthropomorphizing natural entities, we should be just as wary of avoiding the oddity of phusimorphizing them, that is, of giving them the shape of objects defined only by their causal antecedents. Especially in this case, where a trade-off is being activated through a structure built to feed water to the Atchafalaya as a way to prevent it from taking all. We should read this passage as an exemplification of Serres argument on how to be bound by and bound with former natural agents ( the Earth comprehends, in a way, the point of view of the other bodies ), but also as a direct warning against what engineering could mean: on the former side of the subject, there is no mastery; on the side of the object, no possible de-animation. As one of the engineers says, the question of when the Atchafalaya will end up capturing the whole river is not if, but when. He quietly and modestly states: So far we have been able to alleviate those problems. Alleviate is a good verb that Kutuzov would have understood just as well! Yes, one could say, but journalists are journalists, mere storytellers, just like novelists; you know how they are: they always feel obliged to add some action to what, in essence, should be devoid of any form of will, goal, target, or obsession. Even when they are interested in science and nature, they can t help but add drama to what has no drama whatsoever. Anthropomorphism is for them the only way to tell stories and to sell their newspapers. Were they to write objectively about purely objective natural forces, their stories would be much less dramatic. The concatenation of causes and consequences and that s what the real material world is made up does not trigger any dramatic effect, because, precisely and that s the beauty of it the consequences are already there in the cause: no suspense to expect, no sudden transformation, no metamorphosis, no ambiguity. Time flows from past to present. Is this not what rationalism is all about? Such at least is the conventional view of the ways in which scientific accounts should be written; a convention that is maintained in classrooms and boardrooms, even though it can be disproved by the most cursory reading of any scientific article. Consider the beginning of this paper from my former colleagues at the Salk Institute: The ability of the body to adapt to stressful stimuli and the role of stress maladaptation in human diseases has been intensively
12 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 12 investigated. Corticotropin releasing factor (CRF) (1), a 41-residue peptide, and its three paralogous peptides, urocortin (Ucn) 1, 2, and 3, play important and diverse roles in coordinating endocrine, autonomic, metabolic, and behavioral responses to stress (2, 3). CRF family peptides and their receptors are also implicated in the modulation of additional central nervous system functions including appetite, addiction, hearing, and neurogenesis and act peripherally within the endocrine, cardiovascular, reproductive, gastrointestinal, and immune systems (4, 5). CRF and related ligands initially act by binding to their Gprotein-coupled receptors (GPCRs). 28 Once you factor in the acronyms and replace the passive forms (a stylistic obligation of the genre) with the action of the scientists who do indeed investigate, here you have actants first CRF and later in the paper the receptor for CRF that have all the animation of the Mississippi and all the complexities of Kutuzov s decision so much so that the CRF receptor has eluded the ingenuity of this team for half a century! For an inanimate object, to be implicated in appetite, addiction, hearing, and neurogenesis and to act peripherally within the endocrine, cardiovascular, reproductive, gastrointestinal, and immune systems, that s quite a lot of animation. As I discovered many years ago in this very same laboratory at Salk, what makes scientific accounts so well suited for a semiotic study is that there is no other way to define the characters of the agents they mobilize but via the actions through which they have to be slowly captured. Contrary to generals like Kutuzov and rivers like the Mississippi, their competences that is, what they are is defined long after their performances that is, what they do. The reason is that the dumbest of reader is able to imagine, no matter how vaguely, what is a Russian marshal or the Mississippi river by using his or her prior knowledge. But that s not the case for CRF. Since there is no prior knowledge, every trait has to be generated from some experiment. The CRF receptor has been a name of actions long before being, as they say, characterized ; at which point competences begin to precede and no longer to follow performances. This is why the official version of writing objectively seems so much out of date, especially at the time when an objective account such as at Mauna Loa, on Friday May 3, the concentration of CO 2 in the atmosphere was reaching ppm has not only become a piece of news, not only a story, not only a drama, but also the plot of a tragedy. And a tragedy that is so
13 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 13 much more tragic than all the earlier plays, since it seems now very plausible that human actors may arrive too late on the stage to have any remedial role Through a complete reversal of Western philosophy s most cherished trope, human societies have resigned themselves to playing the role of the dumb object, while nature has unexpectedly taken on that of the active subject! Such is the frightening meaning of global warming : through a surprising inversion of background and foreground, it is human history that has become frozen and natural history that is taking on a frenetic pace. But Gaia is not the same character as nature, and that is why we might have to supplement the result of semiotics with an ontological proposition. What semiotics designates as the source of all the transformations visible in texts is what I have called morphisms, or better x-morphisms ; the "x" standing for the first part of all those compound words like anthropo-, angelo-, phusi-, bio- and ideo-morphisms. What really counts at first is not the prefix but the word morph that means form or shape. The point is that the shape of a human subject like Kutuzov or the Corps of engineers is not better known beforehand than the shape of a river, of an angel, of a body, or of a brain releasing factor. This is why it makes no sense to accuse novelists or scientists or engineers of committing the sin of anthropomorphism when they attribute agencies to what should have none. It is just the opposite: if they have to deal with all sorts of contradictory morphisms, it is because they try to explore the shape of those unknown actants. Before those actants are provided with a style or a genre, that is, before they become well-recognized actors, they have, if I dare say it, to be brewed, mashed, and concocted in the same pot. Even the most respectable entities characters in novels, scientific concepts, technical artifacts, natural features are all born out of the same witches caldron because, literally, that is where all of the shape-changers reside. Now the ontological proposition I d like to make is that what semiotics designates as a common trading zone that is, morphism is a property of the world itself and not only a feature of the language about the world. Even though it is always difficult to keep the point in focus, semiotics (at least in the hands of people like Pierce or Greimas), has never been limited to discourse, to language, to text, or to fiction. Meaning is a property of all agents in as much as they keep having agency; this is true of Kutuzov, of the Mississippi, as well as of the CRF-receptor. For all agents, acting means having their existence, their subsistence, come from the future to the present;
14 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 14 they act as long as they run the risk of bridging the gap of existence or else they disappear altogether. In other words, existence and meaning are synonymous. As long as they act, agents have meaning. This is why such meaning may be continued, pursued, captured, translated, morphed into speech. Which does not mean that every thing in the world is a matter of discourse, but rather that any possibility for discourse is due to the presence of agents in search of their existence. Story-telling is not just a property of human language, but one of the many consequences of being thrown in a world that is, by itself, fully articulated and active. It is easy to see why it will be utterly impossible to tell our common geostory without, all of us novelists, generals, engineers, scientists, politicians, activists, and citizens getting closer and closer within such a common trading zone. This is why a novelist like Richard Powers has been able to draw so much narrative efficacy from the inner workings of scientific texts: everything in the new entities that make up the frontier of research articles is action and suspense. 29 In the real world time flows from the future to the present, and that s what excites scientists as well as readers of Powers novels. (Textbook style is another genre altogether, thanks to which the de-animated view of the world, wrongly called the scientific world view, has been given some credence). 30 The reason why such a point is always lost is because of a long history during which the scientific world view has reversed this order, inventing the idea of a material world in which the agency of all the entities making up the world has been made to vanish. A zombie atmosphere, in which the official version of the natural world has shrunk all the agents that the scientific and engineering professions keep multiplying, comes from such a reversion: nothing happens any more since the agent is supposed to be simply caused by its predecessor. All the action has been put in the antecedent. The consequent could just as well not be there at all. As we say in French: il n est là que pour faire de la figuration ; to play the extra. You may still list the succession of items one after the other, but their eventfulness has disappeared. (Do you remember learning the facts of science at school? If you were often so bored, that s why!). The great paradox of the scientific world view is to have succeeded in withdrawing historicity from the world. And with it, of course, the inner narrativity that is part and parcel of being in the world or, as Donna Haraway prefers to say, with the world. 31
15 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 15 In what way does such a proposition a speculative one, I agree help in dealing with Gaia? Why does it seem so important to shift our attention away from the domains of nature and society toward the common source of agency, this metamorphic zone where we are able to detect actants before they become actors; where metaphors precede the two sets of connotations that will be connected; where metamorphosis is taken as a phenomenon that is antecedent to all the shapes that will be given to agents? The first reason is that it will allow us to put aside the strange idea that those who speak of Earth as a living organism are leaning toward some backward type of animism. The criticism has been leveled against James Lovelock, as if he had wrongly added a spurious layer of animation to the real world of inanimate matter. 32 If my reading of his work is correct, Lovelock has done exactly the opposite: he has refused to de-animate many of the connections between entangled agents that make up the sublunar domain of Gaia. And also, but this is more disputable, he has refused to sum up all those agents in the technical master metaphor of a single cybernetic system. The Earth is neither nature, nor a machine. It is not that we should try to puff some spiritual dimension into its stern and solid stuff as so many romantic thinkers and Nature-philosophers had tried to do but rather that we should abstain from de-animating the agencies that we encounter at each step. Geo-physiology as well as geo-morphology, geo-physics, geo-graphy, geo-politics should not eliminate any of the sources of agency including those generated by former humans, those I call Earthbound if they want to converge toward a common geostory. Between matter and materiality, then, we have to choose. One is a belated and polemical act of de-animation (in effect a limited literary genre); the other is a risky, highly problematic, and on the whole beautiful inter-capture (Deleuze s term) 33 between the historicity of agents and the narrativity of the accounts we, speaking and writing humans, provide of them. Matter is produced by letting time flow from the past to the present via a strange definition of causality; materiality is produced by letting time flow from the future to the present, with a realistic definition of the many occasions through which agencies are being discovered. The paradox of the present situation is that this point is much more obvious to many scientists than it is for most other people. No writer, no journalist, no novelist, will have dared to register as much activity in the Earth system as, for instance, Peter Westbroek in his book with the telling title Life as a Geological Force: Dynamics of the Earth. 34 How far we are from Galileo s moons!).
16 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 16 The second reason why it is so important to detect this metamorphic zone is political. Traditionally, politics need to endow its citizens with some capacity of speech, some degree of autonomy, and some degree of liberty. But it also needs to associate these citizens with their matters of concern, with their things, their circumfusa and the various domains inside which they have traced the limits of their existence their nomos. Politics needs a common world that has to be progressively composed. 36 Such composition is what is required by the definition of cosmopolitics. But it is clear that such a process of composition is made impossible if what is to be composed is divided into two domains, one that is inanimate and has no agency, and one which is animated and concentrates all the agencies. It s such a division between the realm of necessity and the realm of liberty to use Kant s expression that has made politics impossible, opening it very early on to its absorption by The Economy. It s also what accounts for our utter impotence when confronted with the ecological threat: either we agitate ourselves as traditional political agents longing for freedom but such a liberty has no connection with a world of matter or we decide to submit to the realm of material necessity but such a material world has nothing in it that looks even vaguely like the freedom or autonomy of olden times. Either the margins of actions have no consequence in the material world, or there is no freedom left in the material world for engaging with it in any politically recognizable fashion. 37 If the various threads of geostory could ally themselves with new sources of activity and dynamism, we would be free from the older modernist distinction between nature and society, but also from all the dialectical efforts to reconcile those two distinct domains. Ecological thought has suffered just as much from attempts to recombine the two artifacts of nature and society as from the older more violent history that forced the two realms that of necessity and that of freedom to bifurcate. Even the establishment of a contract implies that there are two parties to the deal: nature and humanity. And nothing is changed when the two parties that are forcefully unified are both understood as parts of nature. Not because this would mark a too cruel objectification of humans, but because such a naturalization, the imposition of such a scientific world view would not do justice to any of the agents of geostory: volcano, Mississippi river, plate tectonics, microbes, or CRF-receptor just as much as generals, engineers, novelists, ethicists, or politicians. Neither the extension of politics to nature, nor of nature to politics, helps in any way to move out of the impasse in which modernism has dug itself so deeply.
17 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 17 The point of living in the epoch of the anthropocene is that all agents share the same shape-changing destiny. A destiny that cannot be followed, documented, told, and represented by using any of the older traits associated with subjectivity or objectivity. Far from trying to reconcile or combine nature and society, the task, the crucial political task, is on the contrary to distribute agency as far and in as differentiated a way as possible until, that is, we have thoroughly lost any relation between those two concepts of object and subject that are of no interest any more except patrimonial. I am afraid that we are condemned by the history of philosophy to the same migration as Ulysses when, at the end of the Iliad, he is condemned by Neptune to move on with a boat paddle on his shoulder until, so the oracle has said, he encounters people from a nation so ignorant of nautical matters that they will ask him: what is this grain shovel that you carry with you! The funny thing is that we don t have to travel long and far to encounter people who cannot comprehend the meaning of the object/subject paddle we carry on our shoulder: the whole of ethnography; 38 most science; most of literature Living with a world that has not been previously de-animated will make a big difference for the Earthbound. When they speak, when they tell stories, when they assemble together around matters of concern, that is, around things understood as what gather them urgently because they also divide them, the speech of the Earthbound will no longer have to alternate wildly as was the case for Humans and their facts between the exact transcription of the world or an arbitrary sign unconnected from its referent. Their statements will draw what they are bound to, in ways that will no longer be incompatible with the usual complications of political discourse. Conversely, no one will be surprised to find their decisions entangled with former forces of nature that will have taken on a totally different tenor now that they appear as one of the many new forms that sovereignty has taken. Forces will not enter the political arena as what stops the discussions but as what feeds them. The prefix geo in geostory does not stand for the return to nature, but for the return of object and subject back to the ground the metamorphic zone they had both believed it possible to escape: one by de-animation, the other by over-animation. Only then, will the Earthbound have a chance to articulate their speech in a way that will be compatible with the articulation of Gaia. The old metaphor of a Political Body might take on a new lease on life, if it is another name for living with Gaia. Bruno Latour, Sciences Po, Paris
18 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 18 Lecture prepared for the Holberg Prize Symposium 2013: From Economics to Ecology, Bergen, June 4 th 2013 under the title How to Speak the Language of Gaia?. I thank Mary Jacobus for having organized this symposium and Michael Flower for correcting the English. This work has benefited from the ERC grant An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence, 2010 N Rockström, Johan. "A Safe Operating Space for Humanity." Nature September 2009 (2009) and a vigourous critique in The Planetary Boundaries Hypothesis, A Review of the Evidence 2 Szerszynski, Bronislaw. Nature Technology and the Sacred. London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2005 ; Northcott, Michael S. A Political Theology of Climate Change. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract (Translated by E. Macarthur and W. Paulson). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, p Lovelock, James. Homage to Gaia. The Life on an Independent Scientist. Oxford: Oxford University Press, Keeling, Charles D. "Rewards and Penalties of Recording the Earth." Annual Review of Energy and Environment 23 (1998): Chakrabarty, Auteur Dipesh. "The Climate of History: Four Theses." Critical Enquiry 35.Winter (2009): Brecht, Bertold. Life of Galileo. Harmondsworth: Penguin, Pearce, Fred. With Speed and Violene. Why Scientists Fear Tipping Points in Climate Change. Boston: Beacon Press, Hulme, Auteur Mike. Why We Disagree About Climate Change. Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Koyré, Alexandre. From the Closed-World to the Infinite Universe. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, Stengers, Isabelle. Cosmopolitics I (Translated by Robert Bononno ). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Serres, Michel. The Natural Contract (Translated by E. Macarthur and W. Paulson). Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1995.p Kohn, Eduardo. How Forests Think: Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human Berkeley: University of California Press, Latour, Bruno. An Inquiry into Modes of Existence. An Anthropology of the Moderns (Translated by Catherine Porter). Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, Lovelock, James. The Revenge of Gaia: Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity. New York: Basic Books, Print. 16 Stengers, Isabelle. Au Temps Des Catastrophes. Résister À La Barbarie Qui Vient. Paris:
19 128- Agency-Holberg Prize Lecture- NLH 19 Les Empêcheurs, Latour, Bruno. Facing Gaia. Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature. Being the Gifford Lectures on Natural Religion. (Http://Www.Bruno- Latour.Fr/Sites/Default/Files/Downloads/Gifford-Six-Lectures_1.Pdf) Serres, ibidem Simon Schaffer, Newton on the beach: The information order of Principia mathematica. History ofscience 47 (2009): Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-Than- Human World. New York: Vintage Books, Leo Tolstoy War and Peace (Translated by Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky), London: Vintage Books, 2008 p. xx 22 Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern (Translated by Cathy Porter). Trans. Porter, Catherine. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, Hamilton, Clive. Earthmasters. The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering. New Haven: Yale University Press, McPhee, John. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, (Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi) 27 McPhee, John. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, CR Grace et al. Structure of the N-terminal domain of a type B1 G protein-coupled receptor in complex with a peptide ligand ( PNAS March 20, 2007 vol. 104 no Powers, Richard. The Gold Bug Variations. New York: William Morrow and C, 1991 ; The Echo Maker. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, Bastide, Françoise. Una Notte Con Saturno. Scritti Semiotici Sul Discorso Scientifico. (Trad. Roberto Pellerey). Roma: Meltemi, Haraway, Donna J. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, Schneider, Stephen H., et al. Scientists Debate Gaia. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, Parr, Adrian. The Deleuze Dictionary Revised Edition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, Westbroek, Peter. Life as a Geological Force: Dynamics of the Earth. New York: Norton, Latour, Bruno, and Peter Weibel, eds. Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, Yack, Bernard. The Longing for Total Revolution: Philosophic Sources of Social Discontent from Rousseau to Marx and Nietzsche. Berkeley: University of California Press, Descola, Philippe. Beyond Nature and Culture (Translated by Janet Lloyd with a Foreword by Marshall Sahlins). Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2013.
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