Waiting for Gaia. Composing the Common World Through Arts and Politics PDF
by Adam Robbert
The PDF of Bruno Latour’s Waiting for Gaia paper is available HERE. Below is one of the paper’s extraordinary excerpts:
One of the reasons why we feel so powerless when asked to be concerned by ecological crisis, the reason why I, to begin with, feel so powerless, is because of the total disconnect between the range, nature, and scale of the phenomena and the set of emotions, habits of thoughts, and feelings that would be necessary to handle those crises—not even to act in response to them, but simply to give them more than a passing ear. So this essay will largely be about this disconnect and what to do about it.
Is there a way to bridge the distance between the scale of the phenomena we hear about and the tiny Umwelt inside which we witness, as if we were a fish inside its bowl, an ocean of catastrophes that are supposed to unfold? How are we to behave sensibly when there is no ground control station anywhere to which we could send the help message, “Houston, we have a problem”?
What is so strange about this abysmal distance between our little selfish human worries and the great questions of ecology is that it’s exactly what has been so valorised for so long in so many poems, sermons and edifying lectures about the wonders of nature. If those displays were so wonderful, it was just because of this disconnect: to feel powerless, overwhelmed, and totally dominated by the spectacle of “nature” is a large part of what we have come to appreciate, since at least the 19th century, as the sublime.
“In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap forever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.”
How we loved to feel small when encompassed by the magnificent forces of the Niagara Falls or the stunning immensity of the Arctic glaciers or the desolate and desiccated landscape of the Sahara. What a delicious thrill to set our size alongside that of galaxies! Small compared to Nature but, as far as morality is concerned, so much bigger than even Her grandest display of power! So many poems, so many meditations about the lack of commensurability between the everlasting forces of nature and the puny little humans claiming to know or to dominate Her.
So one could say, after all, that the disconnect has always been there and that it is the inner spring of the feeling for the sublime.
“The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark–now glittering–now, reflecting gloom–
Now lending splendor, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings”
But what has become of the sublime lately, now that we are invited to consider another disconnect, this time between, on one side, our gigantic actions as humans, I mean as collected humans, and, on the other side, our complete lack of a grasp on what we have collectively done?
Let us ponder a minute what is meant by the notion of “anthropocene”, this amazing lexical invention proposed by geologists to put a label on our present period. We realise that the sublime has evaporated as soon as we are no longer taken as those puny humans overpowered by “nature” but, on the contrary, as a collective giant that, in terms of terawatts, has scaled up so much that it has become the main geological force shaping the Earth.
What is so ironic with this anthropocene argument is that it comes just when vanguard philosophers were speaking of our time as that of the “posthuman”; and just at the time when other thinkers were proposing to call this same moment the ”end of history”. It seems that history as well as nature have more than one trick in their bag, since we are now witnessing the speeding up and scaling up of history not with a posthuman but rather with what should be called a post-natural twist! If it is true that the “anthropos” is able to shape the Earth literally (and not only metaphorically through its symbols), what we are now witnessing is anthropomorphism on steroids.