From History to Herstory, in four stories

Conversation between Isabelle Stengers and Lieven De Cauter, based on a live interview on 15 February 2016 during the Burning Ice#9 festival at the Kaaitheater in Brussels. Text edited by Sarah Posman.
A Dutch translation appeared in nY #32.

1. Between two histories

“We live in strange times, a little as if we were suspended between two histories, both of which speak of a world become ‘global.’ One of them is familiar to us, it has the rhythm of news from the front in the great worldwide competition and has economic growth for its arrow of time. It has the clarity of evidence with regard to what it requires and promotes, but it is marked by a remarkable confusion as to its consequences. The other, by contrast, could be called distinct with regard to what is in the process of happening, but it is obscure with regard to what it requires, the response to give to what is in the process of happening.”i

I read this quote as addressing what I consider the most important philosophical question of our time: Can we fall out of history? Is that not the true face of post-history?ii Can you explain how we should understand the two histories and how they relate?

IS: When I had finished writing In Catastrophic Times the global economic crisis had just erupted. Never before had the extent to which we all live by the rhythm of the first history been so clear. But in addition to economic globalization, another global process is unfolding, which is that of climate change. The two events are related. The emission of greenhouse gasses, for example, is a clear link: the more our industries produce, the more that affects the climate. Yet as stories – histories are stories – they don’t seem to meet. I think we urgently need to stage such an encounter.

Unlike you, I wouldn’t use the term post-history for what is happening to our planet. It depends, of course, on how you define history. I understand the first history to which I refer in In Catastrophic Times as history, the familiar story of man looking up at the stars and wanting to conquer them. I’m not so sure that we will ever be able to escape from it. It may well kill us in the end, the game isn’t decided yet. The second history is one we need to start chronicling. It is not a tale of conquest, but, I hope, a multiplicity of interlocking stories. Let’s call it herstory. Where the first history is a unique story, the story of anthropos, the second implies the many stories of what I term Gaia. When I wrote the book I wasn’t aware of the fact that the anthropocene would become such a buzzword. The anthropocene, in fact, is another link between the two histories, but it is not the transformative encounter we need. Anthropocene-talk keeps ‘anthropos’ in the saddle and is not conducive to change.

LdC: You’re very critical of the term ‘anthropocene.’

IS: That’s right. Many peoples have nothing to do with the global destruction of what was called the Holocene, and which refers to an era with a quasi-stable climate. I have yet to meet this anthropos who claims to take in charge the Earth. I have only every met people who take themselves for anthropos. Anthropos is a western creation. Anthropocene is a name for the first history: his story.


2. Gaia

“Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects. The intrusion of this type of transcendence, which I am calling Gaia, makes a major unknown, which is here to stay, exist at the heart of our lives.”


LDC: Why this very stubborn, almost incongruous if not polemical choice for the word ‘Gaia’?

IS: It is not a neutral word, that’s for sure. My initial title for In Catastrophic Times was L’intrusion de Gaia (The Intrusion of Gaia), but the publisher was afraid the book would be taken for some kind of New Age product. ‘Catastrophe’ was commercially safer. For people acquainted with climate change studies, however, ‘Gaia’ is not an odd term at all. It comes from James Lovelock. He’s the first who understood that what we take for granted as our planet is the result of an assemblage. The ocean, the soil, the atmosphere with oxygen in it, living beings, everything that is needed for our life is the product of an interdependent story, of interlocking co-evolutions. Lovelock took it as a stable assemblage, but I always considered it as a ‘ticklish assemblage’ because as a past co-worker of Ilya Prigogine, with whom I wrote La Nouvelle Alliance (Order out of Chaos), I could never agree to a stable picture of Gaia – it ignores the non-linear character of the coupling which holds the assemblage together. What I did not anticipate, however, was that the ticklish character of Gaia would amount to such an urgent problem. The over-emission of greenhouse gasses is de-stabilizing what had been stable since about the time humans exist. That’s why I use the phrase an unprecedented form of transcendence. The power of the assemblage Gaia is what we depend upon, it’s not something we have power over. Even if anthropos has had the power to trigger the instability, the assemblage is beyond his control. Are you familiar with the story of the apprentice-sorcerer? He could trigger but not cure the catastrophe. Triggering is not causing. Anthropos claims to be the cause but if there is a cause it is the ticklishness of the assemblage which transcends us all. Gaia unsettles our desire to conquer and faces us with an unprecedented or forgotten transcendence.

The name Gaia, which is the name of a Greek goddess, is also an apt reminder of a time when we related to our environment differently. It refers to a goddess from the time before the gods and goddesses of the polis made their appearance. Those could be bribed and prayed to, they almost had a human subjectivity. Gaia, by contrast, is a goddess close to the elements and natural forces. The ancient Greek peasants were honouring and placating Gaia, not to bribe her, but to show her their respect. That need to respectfully pay attention to what surrounds us is what has been forgotten.

Another thing I would like to say in relation to the phrase ‘ticklish assemblage’ is that we shouldn’t think of it as a crisis. A crisis is thought to be transitory. Now that Gaia has been awoken and offended, her unstable ways are here to stay. So the second history we were just talking about will have to be many stories if we want to be able to deal with her. The future, if there is one, will have to be one in which we are willing to compose with Gaia on many different levels.iii We should realize that we are not free to ignore her power as a threatening participant in our stories and enterprises. Addressing this type of transcendent force is something we have to re-learn. The first history, of course, has its own transcendent force, capitalism, but it’s impossible to compose with capitalism.

LDC: Yes, exactly. I used the term transcendental capitalism ages ago and everyone thought I was a fool, but I’m convinced that we need to take capitalism’s transcendental character seriously if we want to know how to deal with its realities.

IS: The law of the market has become all-powerful at the end of the last century, more powerful even than the laws of nature, whatever you may want to understand by those. We are told that we have no choice but to obey the market. We’re also, however, reckoning with a second transcendent force. Gaia is an intrusion in our stories about the first transcendence, which come down to conquest tales; we want to know more, make more, possess more. The difference between the two is twofold. First, capitalism is irresponsible. It couldn’t care less for and is not equipped to deal with the consequences. Gaia is not irresponsible, because irresponsibility means that you can foresee the consequences yet claim that they should not matter. Gaia, rather, is implacable, like a tornado that goes its way, indifferent to the ruins it produces.iv Second, it is impossible to compose with capitalism. If the last thirty years have shown us anything, it’s that. People believed that reform was possible, that some kind of human face of capitalism could be summoned. By now we know better. So we’re caught in a polar transcendence. And what you see, of course, is that the proponents of the first history are trying to dissimulate Gaia’s intrusion. The name for that dissimulation, as far as I’m concerned, is the Anthropocene.

LDC: I’m intrigued by the power you grant names. What do you make of the concepts tipping point, ecomodernism, accelerationism and the singularity? They seem to hold an appeal for young thinkers and artists in particular.

IS: So does the Anthropocene. It’s a very popular concept among artists. Artists have made it into what it is.

LDC: They did so with the best intentions, I think.

IS: But what do good intentions account for in a time of bêtise?

LDC: Could you explain what you mean by bêtise, which is a concept you propose in In Catastrophic Times?

IS: It has proven very hard to translate ‘la bêtise.’ Stupidity, which is the term we use in the English translation of the book, is related to stupour, a state of sleepy insensibility. It’s not an ideal translation since la bêtise is very active. I wouldn’t call it devilish, but it certainly likes to destroy, to dismember any recalcitrant formulation of the problems we face. If you want to know what it feels like, try having a discussion with a neoliberal economist. La bêtise is always on the side of power, or at least it believes it is responsible for you, like a shepherd leading an unruly, illusion-prone flock. There’s a lot of bêtise around in universities.

I would very much like to find an apt translation. It needs to be something that expresses the active destruction of the imagination. It will sneer at everyone thinking that another world is possible. It will demand you to define that world and if you fall into the trap, smother your ‘irrational’ hope.

LDC: How does bêtise relate to another fascinating concept of yours, ‘les petites mains’ of capitalism, which you introduce in Capitalist Sorcery?

IS: There is a correlation but capitalists themselves are not the prime agents of la bêtise, which operates on the level of the state, which is responsible for us as a flock. Those who feel responsible for us are bêtes, because they are in some measure sincere. Even when they know that they’re telling lies, they see their lies as noble necessities.

In Capitalist Sorcery one of the problems was how to distance ourselves from this often-repeated charge that we are guilty, all part of the system. To some extent, that’s true, of course, but it’s not a very interesting truth. What was important to Philippe Pignarre and me in writing the book, was the question of how to understand those who are not in power, but who have been recruited in order to maintain the stability of the system and to discourage any idea that works towards a different future. They are ‘les petites mains.’ They’re almost like an army of efficient plumbers, blocking any leak as they occur. As soon as what Deleuze and Guattari call a ligne de fuite opens up, they’re on it to make it disappear.v In fact, this relates to an old story that nested itself in my head. I sometimes feel like Donna Haraway’s bag lady; I collect stories and they pop up at any point. So there once was a government functionary who took great pride in going round the houses of the unemployed to check whether there weren’t two toothbrushes in the bathroom. That, of course, would mean they were committing social fraud by cheating on the benefits system. The woman was so convinced of her duty that when the interviewer tried to get her to reflect on what she was doing, she got all tense and felt personally attacked. For a petite main, the very idea that another world might be possible is not only an illusion. It is intolerable, a matter of personal suffering – her soul had been captured. You find them everywhere; they may be journalists or teachers.

LDC: That reminds me of the way in which the spirit of managerialism has made a blazing entrance in universities and art schools. What you see is, indeed, that people identify with its fake vocabulary to an amazing extent. Marketing and managerialism have spread the capitalist ideology everywhere. What, then, to make of ‘tipping point’: empty rhetoric or interesting idea?

IS: It’s hard to think about tipping points in general. Tipping points depend on the process they are tipping. Where climate is concerned, a tipping point is usually bad news. It’s a point of no return; as in the case when a process triggered by greenhouse gasses starts to amplify by itself. That means the climate has irreversibly changed. There have been such tipping points in the past, which coincided with a high episode of decimation from which it took Gaia millions of years to recover. And by recover I don’t mean return to an original condition. Gaia recovered as a changed assemblage.

LDC: You’re now thinking of the extinction of dinosaurs, those kinds of events?

IS: Yes, but there have been several. We may well be in the sixth decimation episode right now. Tipping points don’t have to be negative, but the positive ones tend to be missed more often than actualized. Take the protest against the Notre Dames des Landes airport, in France, for instance. If, just after the COP 21, François Hollande had decided against the airport, that might have been a tipping point for the political discourse about climate change. But it’s usually history that creates the tipping points, and they tend to be for the worst. Herstory has not been creating any.

LDC: Shouldn’t we build in some nuance in the history/herstory opposition? Margaret Thatcher and Ayan Rand, two of the most utopian thinkers of the entrepreneurial spirit, were female.

IS: I’m afraid you’re missing the point, Lieven. I’m talking about Gaia here, not Thatcher. Thatcher is very much a part of history. The role of women in history is yet to be.

LDC: Point taken. Let’s continue thinking about the future. How should we feel about the tipping point of Artificial Intelligence, the idea that AI may soon become an intelligence not only independent of but also much better than human intelligence? This is what is usually meant by the concept of ‘the singularity’.vi

IS: The tipping point in relation to ‘the singularity’ is a tipping point without dynamics because we don’t know what human intelligence is. I am not intelligent in and by myself. I am made intelligent by the environment that makes me think. So this whole idea of calculating when we will finally reach ‘the singularity’ is nonsense. It’s propaganda.

LDC: I couldn’t agree more, it’s not only propaganda but also a form of theology, or myth-making.

IS: That’s right. And it’s bad theology, bad myth-making. It’s cheap. If you’re into theology, I suggest you read science fiction. At least there you get a good story. Read David Brin’s Existence. You may find hope there.


3. The GMO-event

“If the GMO affair was an event it is because there was an effective apprenticeship, producing questions that made both scientific experts and State officials stutter, that sometimes even made politicians think, as if a world of problems that they had never posed was becoming visible to them. What is proper to every event is that it brings the future that will inherit from it into communication with a past narrated differently.”


LDC: I think the term ‘event’ is completely to the point. Before Barbara Van Dyck was fired from Leuven University in 2011, I didn’t know there was a GMO test-field in Wetteren. All of a sudden, however, a whole assemblage became visible and it made us think. The assemblage brought together the university, the privatization of knowledge, the privatization of seeds, the criminalization of activism… For me all of that unfolded only a couple of years ago, but you labeled GMO-activism an event in 2004 or even earlier.

IS: I was involved in a protest too. I wasn’t fired, but I was among those prosecuted for the first Belgian decontamination of a field near Namur in 2000. The 21st century has really changed me. I’m a daughter of the GMO-event. It has fed me, not with information but with affect – it has affected me. The knowledge that it produced was cross-fertilizing: Marxists became interested in agriculture and the exchange of seeds among peasants. Even scientists became involved. I say ‘even’ because many scientists have become des petites mains, enthralled by competitive innovation. The GMO-event gives me hope because it won’t just disappear. It has created a new unity among people; not the unity of mobilization in which one person speaks for many, but a manifold struggle. The GMO-event was the prototype of the kind of struggle and creation of knowledge and relation by paying attention to our world, which to me should be told by the many stories of herstory.

LDC: In Flanders the Wetteren-event had many effects and has changed the political landscape. I think we could call it a tipping point. It will never be possible now to stealthily introduce GMO’s in Flanders as the corporations had hoped.

IS: Yes, the many reasons to oppose produced some kind of heterogeneous consistency. Different people and projects needed each other. Their different stories now cannot be disentangled whereas what we call progress separated them. And because of that we live in a different world. The history of agriculture, for example, used to be told in rationalizing terms as the story of the progress of agriculture. Suddenly, however, that clean progress narrative became entangled with the industrialization of agriculture and privatization and land grab. The idea of agro-ecology has taken root because of the GMO-event, and because it goes back to a time when many peoples practiced it, it has brought into view an alternative history. Its history is that of a heterogeneity of practices. Progress is becoming fuzzier and what was destroyed in the name of progress is able to resurface.

LDC: Can those new narratives be told within the walls of our academic institutions?

IS: Maybe. At the start of my career I was immersed in science. I loved thinking and writing with scientists and I loved the praxis of science because they worked in a collective. It was a collective intelligence at work. Our current economy of knowledge, however, has destroyed such collectives. Each scientist has to succeed for him or herself. He or she has to serve innovation and not a particular collective, interdependent project. A vital issue for me is that of civilizing science. Can we make it stop serving what it calls progress? Can we develop a more inclusive collective intelligence? I think an important first step is slowing down. Present-day scientists are trained not to ask questions outside of their field. Wasting time is considered a capital sin. They are serving ‘the advance of knowledge.’ They are the brain and they cannot be disturbed by the body, which is sluggish and slow. Fast science is like fast food: it fuels the rat-race. The GMO event showed me a collective science like the one I think science should return to by slowing down. I think that the future of composition needs science but it does not need the kind of scientists we have today.


4. Cosmopolitics and the commons

“First of all, a political ecology requires a ‘putting into politics’ of science, but this does not mean […] a reduction of sciences to politics or a ‘politisation’ that would contaminate their ‘neutrality’.”

“The cosmopolitical slowing down demands to think with our own imaginative, political and scientific resources, that the sense of urgency is part of the test that is given to us […] to become capable of composing with Gaia.”

“We who are the inheritors of a destruction, the children of those who, being expropriated of their commons, have been the prey not only of exploitation but also of the abstractions that made them into whoevers, we have to experiment with what is likely to recreate […] or to regenerate the capacity to think and act together.”


LDC: You’ve written 7 books under the ‘cosmopolitics’ umbrella, but what cosmopolitics means, is not so easy to understand.

IS: No, that’s right. All the more so since it has now become a travelling concept. Cosmopolitics was first associated with a slowing down of the kind of politics we inherited from the Greeks, in which humans, or more precisely citizens, argue about the present and make plans for the future. Slowing down means the necessity to argue in the presence of those who are absent, or of those who have no recognized voice and who will be affected by our decisions. The power of argumentation must be affected by hesitation, must falter in order to give room to a wider imagination. But the term cosmopolitics is now widely associated with the idea of more-than-humans, of the impossibility to separate any being from its world, or of its participation in the ‘worlding’ of the world, as Donna Haraway puts it. Worlds are at stake when ‘we’ decide. Anthropologists, together with indigenous peoples, ask us to forget about the Greeks and consider the many worlds, which colonialism and capitalism sought to destroy. The point is not so much to unite them in some kind of global peace, but to create the possibility that they relate to each other in non-destructive ways. That is the unknown of the cosmos, and the problem we need to address. Cosmopolitics means that the political struggle has to take into consideration the devastation that proceeded in the name of progress.

One of the worlds that got destroyed in the name of progress, for example, was marked by the burning of the witches. It was the first eradication in the spirit of colonialism, but on European ground. It came to matter to me through the work of the American writer, neo-Pagan witch and activist Starhawk. When she writes that the smoke of the ‘burning times’ is still in our nostrils, I understand that witch hunters are still among us, that we face a choice – either to side with them and consider the case closed, or to recognize their suspicious gaze or the flat derisive dismissal they launch at anything that challenges the closure. The recognition that we think under surveillance gives a strange experience of freedom.

Another world that got eradicated in about the same epoch is that of the commons. Historically, ‘the commons’ refer to pieces of land shared by a community. After their ‘enclosure’ under the rule of private property, they were characterized in terms of a ‘free access’ resource, which led to the destruction of the resource – proprietors would only take care of what they actually owned. The historical commons were self-governed. The concern to use the resource without abusing it so that it could be passed on was one shared by the entire community. The idea has recently made a come-back when programmers denounced the intellectual property rights which threaten their community as enclosures.vii  People in IT understood much better than scientists that the new knowledge economy would kill their craft, their collective intelligence.

The eradication of the old commons and the hunting of the witches are two faces of the destruction of the peasant communities in the name of progress, that is, of the birth of both the ‘citizen’ and the ‘homo œconomicus’ as twin figures of the modern individuality. The state and the market, differently put, have screwed us over by smothering the capacity of a cooperative intelligence. The contemporary resurgence of the commons may be a very important part of herstory, of the reclaiming of our capacity to reworld our devastated worlds, including the academia.

Reclaiming involves retrieving what we were separated from. Think of it as a Nietzschean move: the priests separated us from our own force. Yet reclaiming is not an aggressive ‘taking back,’ it also involves healing, recovering from the separation. Reinventing the commons is a way of reclaiming. We have to recover from individualism and from the typical story that individualism has liberated us from the stifling social control that characterized communities of the past. Retelling the past, telling herstories, implies we alter the myth that wants us to believe we should be so lucky to no longer live together.


i Each of the four quotes or stories is taken from In Catastrophic Times.

ii De Cauter refers to his text ‘Afterthoughts on posthistory’, in his book Entropic Empire. He had turned the impossible question – ‘Can we fall out of history?’ – into an installation with video and light screens in the foyer of the Kaaitheater, which formed the context of this conversation. The monumental slogan ‘PESSIMISM IN THEORY OPTIMISM IN PRACTICE’, which can still be seen in the foyer of the Kaaitheater, is what remains of this installation. The project was called ‘Welcome to posthistory. A work i/on progress’.

iii  ‘To compose with Gaia’ is an expression that is recurrent in Stengers’ recent writings. It means to find a relationship with or an attitude towards the complex and fragile but also extremely violent ‘ecosystem’ (which is a nonlinear assemblage) that surrounds us; to establish a sort of peace pact with it. That ecosystem is totally anonymous and indifferent, that is why Stengers in the trace of Lovelock refers to it as Gaia, a goddess without form, from the time before the (Olympian) Gods. Bruno Latour, in a very erudite and ambitious book that expands on Stengers’ insights, calls this ‘facing Gaia’. See: Bruno Latour, Face à Gaia, Huit conferences sur le nouveau régime climatique, La découverte, 2015.

iv  There is no New Age religious mysticism or a hidden benevolent subjectivity in the cosmos in Stengers’ version of ‘animism’ (See ‘Reclaiming Animism’: Gaia is beyond or rather before all ethics, and capitalism, which is man-made and -steered, only appears as a natural force. A capitalist crisis, or any crisis, even climate change, is not an ‘act of God’ but cynical, irresponsible behavior. Think of the oil lobby sponsoring climate change deniers. This opposition between Capitalism and the Climate is very well exposed in a more journalistic vein by Naomi Klein in her book This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate. Originally we wanted to include a Skype conversation with Klein in our evening.

v In his notes on the translation of A Thousand Plateaus by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Brian Massumi writes that ‘fuite covers not only the act of fleeing or eluding but also flowing, leaking and disappearing into the distance (the vanishing point in a painting is a point de fuite). It has no relation to flying.

vi  De Cauter refers here to a cyberpantheist cultbook: The Singularity is Near. When Humans Transcend Biology by cyber guru, Ray Kurtweil. See:

As marginal this sort of cyber-mysticism might appear, it also helps us understand the unformulated premises of mainstream technophilia, the uncritical acceptance and embrace of innovation.

vii  Facebook is such an enclosure, it makes money out of our relations and messages. It should be a common platform, like Wikipedia. The fake news on it shows how destructive this can be, also in political terms.