Wednesday, June 1, 2016

On Gaia & Process Thought (two new books from French Whiteheadians)

I am excited to eventually read two recently published books by French Whiteheadians - both of which are currently only available in French. Thanks largely to the important work of Isabelle Stengers in Thinking With Whitehead, Whitehead seems to be on the rise in some corners of continental philosophy, particularly among those conversant with speculative realism, the new materialism, object oriented ontology, affect theory, the philosophy of Deleuze, and so on. My own view is that the recent turn to Whitehead has much to do with an increasing recognition that too much Western philosophy has been anthropocentric and ontologically dualistic. Whitehead's speculative cosmology provides a helpful way beyond these problems by extending genuine reality, value, and agency to the nonhuman (I have written about this here). In the descriptions of both books listed below, these revolts against anthropocentrism and ontological dualisms are in full view.

The first book that I want to highlight is Facing Gaia, written by Bruno Latour and based on his Gifford Lectures. It should be available in English next year. You can watch his original Gifford lectures here, although the published book apparently includes significant revisions.

The second book is The Lure of the Possible (my translation), written by Didier Debaise. It is a relatively short book that apparently involves a very clear reading of Whitehead's metaphysics, as well as a unique interpretation of eternal objects (always a tricky aspect of Whitehead, as I've written about before). You can watch a lecture from Debaise on Whitehead here.

While studying for my French exams, I translated the publisher's descriptions of both books. It should go without saying that these are not "official" translations (the original texts are linked below). But perhaps some readers will find my humble translation efforts useful for getting a sense of what these books are about.

Facing Gaia (by Bruno Latour)

"James Lovelock has not had much luck with the Gaia hypothesis. By naming with this old Greek myth the fragile and complex system through which living phenomena modify the Earth, some have believed that he spoke of a unique organism, a giant thermostat, or even a divine Providence. Nothing was further from his intention. Gaia is not the Globe, it is not Mother Earth, and it is not a pagan goddess. But neither is it Nature as we have imagined it since the 17th century: that which serves as counterpart to the human subject, constituting the background of our actions.

Now, because of the unexpected consequences of human history, what we have grouped together under the name of “Nature” is leaving the background and rising into view. The air, oceans, glaciers, climate, soil – all that we have made unstable – interact with us. We have entered geohistory. This is the Anthropocene epoch – with the risk of a war of all against all.

The former Nature is disappearing and giving way to a being that is highly unpredictable. Far from being stable and reassuring, this being seems to be constituted by a series of feedback loops in endless upheaval. Gaia is the name that suits it best.

By exploring the thousand faces of Gaia, we can unfold all that the notion of Nature had confused: an ethics, a politics, a strange conception of the sciences, and above all, an economics and even a theology."

The Lure of the Possible: The Recovery of Whitehead (by Didier Debaise)

"By beginning with a recovery of a few updated propositions from the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947), this essay intends to highlight the conditions of another way of thinking about nature. It takes a pluralistic approach that integrates the multiplicity of ways of being in nature, which are so many ways of experiencing, of feeling, of making sense, and of giving importance to things.

We have entered a new time of nature. Indeed, what remains of the boundaries that modern thought tried to establish between the living and the inert, between the subjective and the natural order, between appearance and reality, between values and facts, between consciousness and animal life? What relevance could the great dualisms that have presided in the modern invention of nature still have?

New stories and new cosmologies have become necessary so that we can rearticulate what hitherto has been separated. This book attempts to present these directly, in the work of William James and A.N. Whitehead, through a pluralistic approach to nature. What would happen if we were to attribute subjectivity to all beings – humans and nonhumans? Why would we not make aesthetics, in the manner of feeling, the stuff of all existence? And what if the sense of importance and of value was no longer the prerogative of human souls?"