Bruno Latour

I’ve long felt a bit ambivalent about Bruno Latour, and I feel all the more that way after reading his book Pandora’s Hope. (I’ve previously read We Have Never Been Modern, plus a good number of essays).
I like the way Latour focuses on the details of actual scientific practice, and how he uses these details to argue for a complex set of mediations and links in the course of which humans are bound together with nonhumans – a model that he cogently argues is far preferable to the common one that simply confronts a linguistic statement, or a mental model, with a state of affairs in the world, and asks whether the statement representationally corresponds with, or accurately points to, the state of affairs. Latour is right to say that this dualistic, correspondence theory of truth (or its inversion, the deconstructionist abyss of language that cannot reach out beyond itself to the world) ignores the way that things like scientific theories, statements, and models are themselves actions or events or performances in the world. Latour is not the first thinker to resituate language in the world in this way, but he is the one who has applied it to the understanding of science, and specifically scientific practice.
Latour thus cuts the Gordian knot of the dispute between realism (‘the facts of science exist independently of us’) and constructionism (scientific entities are “socially constructed”). He says that the fallacy shared by both sides to this dispute is to think that “constructed” and “real” are opposites, when in fact they go in tandem: the more something is “constructed” (socially or otherwise) the realer it is, because the more it is interconnected with other things, the more it operates with and upon, and affects, other things, and so on. This seems to me exactly right
(It’s also a point that is consonant with Ian Hacking’s arguments, in The Social Construction of What, about the use of the phrase “social construction.” Hacking shows how many different meanings this phrase has; he suggests that it really functions as a marker of difference. We say that gender is “socially constructed” in order to argue against claims that it is entirely “in the genes”; we do not say that a bridge is “socially constructed,” because nobody argues that the Golden Gate Bridge somehow arose by itself).
Nonetheless, I am enough of a realist that I am made uneasy when Latour says, for instance, that yeast did not cause lactic acid fermentation until 1864, when Pasteur established this action in the laboratory. I agree that Pasteur’s experiments did not just reveal an always-existing truth; since those experiments mobilized the yeast, made it interact with human interests, both by establishing new scientific doctrine, and by making the commercial exploitation of the fermentation process possible on a scale and in a manner that it was not before. In pragmatist terms, Pasteur’s experiments, and his theoretical extrapolation from those experiments, made it possible for us to predict and control the fermentation process, and the life history of yeast, for the first time.
But it still seems disingenuous to me for Latour to say that it was only after 1864 that the process took place, or (to put his point as precisely as possible) that it is only after 1864 that the process of fermentation by the action of yeast (rather than fermentation as a byproduct of organic decay, as was previously believed) can be said to have taken place before 1864. In one sense, Latour’s statement is a tautology; but I think that Latour is trying to pull a fast one, by using this tautology to insinuate a deeper meaning, according to which the change in the world that took place in 1864 affected something more than certain instrumental activities of human beings with yeast.
Latour says that he is simply including yeast as well as human beings in history, rather than seeing yeast as unchanging and ahistorical “in and of itself.” But this begs the question of how the actions of yeast in fact affected human beings well before Pasteur mobilized yeast into what Latour calls the “collective.”
Latour’s sleight-of-hand becomes a still more serious matter when he presents his grand view of science and politics. He wants to repeal what he calls the modern “settlement” that radically separated subject from object, as well as Truth from Opinion, Knowledge from Power, Right from Might. He cleverly suggests that the Platonic and Cartesian dictatorship of Reason shares common assumptions with the view of the Sophists, of Hobbes, and of Nietzsche, that would seek to deconstruct it. He suggests that both Socrates and his opponents, and more recently both the scientific rationalists and Nietzsche, both the positivists and Foucault, distrust the “people” or the “mob”, and disagree only on whether the violent imposition to reign in this “mob” should be that of a hypostasized Reason or that of a more naked Power.
It’s not that I would want to defend a renewed elitism against Latour’s populism here. But Latour idealizes what a fully engaged politics (as opposed to one governed from without by the forceful imposition of scientific reason) would actually be. He idealizes and sentimentalizes the civility and consensus of a “body politic” uninfected by the dictatorship of an abstract Reason. One can observe the intractability of many human disputes and political conflicts (having to do with such things as class and other forms of privilege, wealth, and prestige, or with the control of the regime of productivity and the distribution of whatever social surplus there may be) without believing, as Latour accuses defenders of rationalism from Socrates to Steven Weinberg of doing, that “scientific” objectivity is the one thing that saves humankind from descending into barbarity and a Hobbesian “war of all against all.” One can agree that the rage of modernist iconoclasm often produces the very dehumanizing phenomena that it claims to be waging war against, without sharing Latour’s piety towards “fetishes” and “icons.”
In making “modernism” and its “settlement” his enemy, Latour can’t help reproducing modernity’s own logic, in the form of an idealized depiction of that which preceded the modern. Although he rightly says that the unalienated “pre-modern” is nothing but a modernist fantasy, he himself reproduces the very same fantasy, in his picture of a world uninfected by modernism, as well as in his assertion that “we have never been modern,” that modernity has only given greater scope to nonmodern “mixtures” in practice, by refusing them admission into theory.
In short: we must add to Latour’s account the additional awareness that we have never not been modern, that we have never been free of modernist divisions and impositions.
(This is a more Derridean conclusion than I wanted to get to; I think the way out is to ask different sorts of questions, and indeed this is what Latour says we should do; but Latour doesn’t ask the right different questions. He doesn’t quite succeed in pointing the way to his self-confessed goal, a Whiteheadean account that does justice both to science and to other modes of human experience of the world).

2 Responses to “Bruno Latour”

  1. shaviro, latour, and the ‘science wars’

    Provisional post.

    Shaviro is blogging about the Science Wars–something I’ve only ever covered implicitly on this particular page–and particularly about Isabelle Stengers’ The Invention of Modern Science. Seems to be all good stuff. Also has a ni…