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Meeting on Carl Schmitt's Nomos of the Earth - A Report

12 May 2015
filed under: events ressources report

Find below a report written by Bruno Latour on the meeting on Carl Schmitt's Nomos of the Earth:

AIME held a small, informal workshop connected with the simulation being organized at Sciences Po to offer an alternative to the COP21 meeting in December. The idea was to test whether some of the ideas developed by Carl Schmitt in the Nomos of the Earth could be used for sketching an alternative geopolitics. Especially, how could non-humans be represented as having political authority, and, of course, what could be the juridical definition of an entity like Gaia.

We were fortunate to benefit from a preview of the arguments on Schmitt and Space developed by Claudio Minca and Rory Rowan – geographers qua political scientists – in their book of the same title out soon with Routledge. We also had the benefit of the most unusual arguments developed by Michael Northcott, theologian from the School of Divinity at Edinburgh, in his book on the Political Theology of Climate. Northcott offers a close reading of the Nomos of the Earth and a highly original recasting of Schmitt's Christian version of how the sovereignty depends on a religious reading of history. In both cases, what was at stake was a rereading of the notion of space: space for Schmitt is not a geographical definition but a place-based territory (if we decide to contrast place based territory with space based territory).

Such a contrast was articulated very vigorously by Kenneth Olwig, an historian of geography from Denmark who has written extensively on the shift from place based – the older thing or ding – to space based territory – the more ''modern" idea of sovereign States.

But although everyone agreed that the shift from place to space was crucial, there was of course no consensus whatsoever on the usefulness of Schmitt to think the contemporary return from space back to place... Minca and Rowan were highly skeptical that Schmitt had even taken the Earth into account, if by Earth we mean anything like ecology. But the most frontal opposition came from Noah Feldman, constitutionalist and jurist from Harvard, who took the view that neither the mythological nor the Christian theology of Schmitt had any interest at all: Schmitt for him is, first of all, a jurist and his book, once cleaned from its superficial and rather dated mythological and Christian esoteric undertones, should have been called the Gesetz of the Earth and not the Nomos. Although such a distinction is of immense importance to Schmitt and what allows him to bring the Earth back, this, for Feldman reasoning as a jurist, is simply a decorative element.

Pierre-Yves Condé, jurist and historian of international laws, without disagreeing with Feldman, was not so sure that there exists such a distinction between Nomos and Gesetz, even in the examples given by Schmitt of a successful form of treaties. In his own exploration of which treaties actually worked in guaranteeing peace among the various parties, it seems clear to Condé that nation states are not the only one that Schmitt would consider. Breaking the space-based territoriality was after all his goal. Which makes Schmitt's conception of law a good candidate for absorbing ecological considerations after all.

Such an assessment was complicated, however, by the contribution of Joseph Koerner, an art historian also from Harvard, who has spent quite a long time, in a book soon to be completed attempting to understand Schmitt's obsession with Bosch's paintings, especially the Garden of Earthly Delights. In the seminar, Koerner pointed out that there is indeed an essential aspect of Schmitt's Nomos which is best captured in looking to – or rather being looked at! – a specific type of image, namely those that define the friend/enemy relation. In that sense, if ecology is also a search for redefining lines of conflicts and deciding on who is friend and who is enemy, Schmitt gives a crucial even though dangerous lesson in interpreting contrasting images of the Earth.

Bruno Karsenti, a philosopher from Paris, and Dorothea Heinz, doing a Master of Philosophy under his direction, offered yet another view based on a close reading of the Nomos of the Earth text. They argued that Schmitt was indeed directly relevant to the present problem because, in their view, Schmitt realized after the war that there has never been any real Nomos, even at the time of the European peace system, at least nothing able to withstand anything like a ''world order". Even though he had no idea of ecology and though it would be an anachronism to transpose such a problem to the end of the Second World War, there is a sense in which Schmitt was looking for a real Nomos that was neither a resurrection of the older Christian empire nor of the European multinational arrangement.

The seminar did not intend to answer such a vast problem but simply to test how much of this strange book could be pilfered for political ecology and especially for the representation of an alternative sovereignty to that of the nation states – a sovereignty so obviously ill-adjusted to ecological crisis. It is clear, after the day of exchanges, that historically the book is addressing totally different issues and that it would be a mistake to try to use it too directly in imagining Schmitt as Saint of ecology! But also, at least in the view of several of the participants, it was clear that because Schmitt as a jurist does not make the usual distinction between fact and value, what is and what ought to be, and because he takes seriously the fabrication of space in its relation with power, there is a way to repoliticise and rematerialise the question of land-grab – a question that has become essential to modern day politics.

Condé suggested that, if Gaia has no sovereignty, it might be interesting to resurrect the old Latin notion of majesty to define its highly original form of power. Now, we turn to the simulation in May to learn more on the practicality of representing non-human entities.

External links

The simulation of the climate conference in May 29-31, Théâtre des Amandiers, Nanterre

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