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The world was his laboratory
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One man alone can do very little. This was a precept held by Bruno Latour, among the most inventive and influential philosophers of postwar Europe. Latour did for science something similar to what Tolstoy, one of his heroes, did for history—namely, reveal that its landmark theories and discoveries, like epochal wars and revolutions, far from being the work of a few great men, were actually the product of careful coordination between an abundance of human and non-human actors. “A crowd may move a mountain; a single man cannot,” Latour wrote in The Pasteurization of France (1984), his unconventional study of Louis Pasteur. “If, therefore, we say of a man that he has moved a mountain, it is because he has been credited with (or has appropriated) the work of the crowd that he claimed to command but that he also followed.”
It was not lost on Latour, a generous, inveterate collaborator, that his own success could be partially explained by his ability to put his philosophy into practice. His characterization of Pasteur—“playing on all of the professions he is always ahead of them, moving each of them by the combined force of others”—came to double as canny self-portraiture. Part of Latour’s genius was to absorb and synthesize disparate schools of thought—and to extend their grip on the world. He worked across genres (Nietzschean aphorisms, scientific articles, epistemological policiers), media (political surveys, one-act plays, web operas), and milieux (recent collaborators included curators, geologists, and clergy), enacting the very dissolution of disciplines that he championed.
In 2017, I emailed Latour to ask if he would be open to letting me follow him around “in action” for a magazine profile.1The idea was that I would observe him observing a group of climate scientists at a laboratory in the Vosges mountains. As it turned out, his fieldwork was not confined to their research alone. Spending time with Latour, I was often reminded of Norbert, the amiable self-parody from his book Aramis, Or The Love of Technology, who goes about the city interviewing staplers, ATMs, speed bumps, and door knobs. With his flat cap and trench coat, Latour was like a detective at a crime scene, asking questions about mundane objects, snapping pictures with his phone, and scrawling endless notes, often on his iPad. (He jokingly referred to his graphomania as “a disease, really.”) Yet unlike Inspector Maigret—or most academics of his stature, even—he enjoyed being surprised more than being right.
Often it seemed as though there was nothing too trivial to escape his notice. During our two weeks together, in which I followed him to countless meetings and events across France (including a “puppet think-tank” at an international puppetry festival in Strasbourg), Latour was repulsed by the “soulless” façade of a history department that shared its premises with a dog food manufacturer, fascinated by the design of the stairs at a Catholic publishing house, contemptuous of a new mall (“a horror story in the middle of Paris”), unimpressed by the wallabies in the “pathetic zoo” at the Jardin des Plantes, bowled over by a sedimentary rock in Alsace-Lorraine, and astonished at the diminutive size of a boulevard named after Charles de Gaulle. When something piqued his interest—and something often did—his mouth hung open to release a little salvo of “Ahs.”
Latour, who was born in Burgundy in 1947, liked to note that his lifespan coincided with the Great Acceleration, the post-1950 explosion in fossil fuel consumption. Although he shied away from psychological explanations, which he dismissed as reductive, he recognized that his interest in environmental questions had a personal dimension. In his later work he fretted over why his generation had so readily adopted an unsustainable ideology of boundless growth and progress. It is not difficult to see Latour, who grew up among the vineyards of his wealthy Catholic family’s celebrated Maison Louis Latour Domaine, as the original for the modern subject he critiqued.
His early career followed a path trodden by earlier French intellectuals. As Sartre had done before him, Latour placed first in the agrégation de philosophie, the country’s famously exacting national exam. In 1973, he headed to the colonies—or, in his case, the former colony of the Ivory Coast—an experience that led him to reflect on the assumptions held by the metropole. It was in Abidjan, where he conducted his first fieldwork, that Latour realized that while he had been raised to see himself as a sort of brain in a vat, he was actually interested in “concrete, practical things.” Around this time, he applied for a Fulbright Fellowship, telling the official who interviewed him at the American Embassy in Abidjan that his proposal to study scientists at the Salk Institute in San Diego would “change everything.”
He was not wrong. In 1979, with his co-author Steve Woolgar, Latour published the results of his California fieldwork as Laboratory Life, a mock-heroic ethnography that showed how sociologists could uncover the maneuvers by which inklings and hunches were transmuted into truths. One of his most engaging and well-argued books, it remains a foundational text in the emerging field of Science and Technology Studies, or STS.2
When Latour returned to Paris, he struggled to establish himself among the intellectual elite. He called on Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel De Certeau, and Jean Baudrillard, none of whom seemed particularly interested in his pioneering work on science. Pierre Bourdieu had published one of Latour’s first papers in his journal, but when they met in person it did not go well. The son of a postal worker from southern France, Bourdieu expounded on the difficulties of being Bourdieu, telling Latour that his aristocratic background meant he would never amount to anything. “This guy is a complete madman,” Latour recalled thinking. Not long after, Bourdieu wrote Latour a letter that said he would never publish him again. The man from Burgundy had become a sociologically certified danger.3
It was a role he played to perfection. An irreverent figure who cited William James and Alfred North Whitehead, Latour appeared to threaten the Republic’s prevailing rationalist mood. If his flirtation with social constructivism left him with few allies among mainstream sociologists, he managed to alienate those still on his side when, in the 1980s, he began to develop and proselytize on behalf of Actor-Network Theory, an alternative approach to sociological research.
From his studies of the laboratory, Latour had seen how “actors”—things or people like diagrams, cell cultures, or principal investigators—could acquire enormous power because of the connections, or “networks,” they enrolled in their cause. With several STS colleagues, Latour developed a methodology to “follow the actors.” In his study on Pasteur, for example, he attributed the Great Man’s ability to move mountains—that is, his success at inaugurating a vaccination movement that transformed 19th-century European society—not to his superior cognitive powers, but to a shrewd collaboration between microbes, social reformers, agricultural stewards, and medical professionals.4
As a field devoted to studying the construction of reliable knowledge, the sociology of science has always been caught up in reflexive debates about how its own knowledge is produced. In this respect, Latour was particularly well-cast as the “Pope who all the time produces heresy,” as his close friend the Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers once put it. He embraced his Catholic background and later wrote about religion, which only augmented his reputation, among secular French intellectuals, as a kind of anti-scientific wild man.
At the height of the so-called Science Wars, in the mid-1990s, many saw the field of STS—or, just as often, what they’d heard about it—as a menace. Richard Rorty once described Latour as “the bête noire of science worshippers.” He had intended the title as an honorific, but it also summed up the suspicion, perhaps most vividly expressed by the biologist Paul R. Gross and the mathematician Norman Levitt in their 1994 polemic against postmodernism, Higher Superstition, that Latour was little more than “a Panurgian imp, come to catch all those solemn scientists with their pants down.” The titles of papers like “A Relativistic Account of Einstein’s Relativity” or “Do Scientific Objects Have a History? Pasteur and Whitehead in a Bath of Lactic Acid,” the latter of which was translated by Lydia Davis, did little to help his case.
In a typically reflexive turn, Latour began to examine how this hostile misunderstanding between “the two cultures” had come about. In 2004, he published “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?,” which posed the question of whether his early work on “the social construction of facts” had unwittingly laid the groundwork for dangerous anti-scientific thinking—in particular, climate change denial. “We want to add reality to scientific objects, but, inevitably, through a sort of tragic bias, we seem always to be subtracting some bit from it,” he wrote. “Like a clumsy waiter setting plates on a slanted table, every nice dish slides down and crashes on the ground.” Latour emerges in the essay as the kind of regretful character to whom Kazuo Ishiguro might be drawn—a man who, late in life, comes to realize that he has unwittingly served the enemy, and, with a somewhat exaggerated show of remorse, attempts to control the perception of his legacy. Propulsive, light-footed, and often very funny, it is the essay for which he seems to be most well-known on American college campuses, perhaps because of the seductive, if misleading, portrait it presents of the influence of French theory.
Later, Latour argued—correctly, I believe—that climate deniers had seized the tools not of postmodern critics but of the most naïve positivists (i.e., the facts are not yet certain enough) to launch their attack on scientific reality. In the final phase of his career, as global temperatures soared, he devoted himself to the climate crisis.5 With his knack for ferrying knowledge between networks, he published polemics, curated art exhibits, acted in plays, surveyed French villagers, and co-authored papers in scientific journals. Some of Latour’s critics dismissed these activities as a kind of penance, an effort to rebuild faith in the knowledge he once appeared to regard with skepticism. Latour maintained that it was not him who had evolved but the world. As he wrote in Facing Gaia, published in 2017:
Although certain scientist friends believe that I have stopped being a “relativist” and have started “believing” in the “facts” about the climate, it is on the contrary because I have never thought that “facts” were objects of belief, and because, ever since Laboratory Life, I have described the institution that makes it possible to ensure their validity in place of the epistemology that claimed to defend them, that I feel better armed today to help researchers protect themselves from the attacks of negationists. It is not I who have changed, but those who, finding themselves suddenly attacked, have understood to what extent their epistemology was protecting them badly.
Facts, in Latour’s view, don’t exist “out there,” waiting to be discovered or understood. They are the hard-won products of scientific work, the result of a long and often contentious process of collecting data, negotiating controversy, and translating the consensus into papers that are read, judged, and, if all goes smoothly, replicated by scores of other scientists. “The fate of a statement depends on others’ behavior,” he wrote in Science In Action (1987), a sort of Machiavellian manual for knowledge production.
You may have written the definitive paper proving that the earth is hollow and that the moon is made of green cheese but this paper will not become definitive if others do not take it up and use it as a matter of fact later on. You need them to make your paper a decisive one. If they laugh at you, if they are indifferent, if they shrug it off, that is the end of your paper. A statement is thus always in jeopardy, much like the ball in a game of rugby.
People used to be scandalized by the way Latour characterized the scientific method as a form of public relations, reliant on its powers of persuasion as much as on the truths it revealed. It feels strange now to recall how, when I first encountered Latour’s work in 2013, vague charges of heresy still hovered around him, as though his books had been acquitted by a hung jury. But as the coronavirus began to make itself known across the world—that is, as journalists, myself included, began to translate the provisional research of scientists into fumbling warnings and proclamations—many of Latour’s once iconoclastic ideas came to seem merely descriptive, like common sense. “We would all be in a much better situation,” Latour once told scientists, if they stopped “pretending that the others are the ones engaged in politics and that you are engaged ‘only in science.’”
In the last two years, as Covid skeptics have emerged as a political constituency, public health officials have had to acknowledge that seemingly uncontroversial statements—that, say, vaccines prevent serious illness—will not be wholly persuasive on the strength of the data alone, in the absence of a robust public sphere. The pandemic, and its accompanying “infodemic,” made it impossible for scientists to hide behind the classical image of their discipline as a disinterested, Olympian pursuit. Today, on the internet, the messy work of building a scientific consensus unfolds almost in real time: Mask or no mask? Lab leak or wet market? Respiratory infection or pulmonary disease (or both)? These debates have revealed the scientific process to be as Latour always described it: protean, combative, and political all the way down.
It is difficult to overstate the contrast between Latour’s renown abroad and, until recently, his relative obscurity at home. When we discussed his Francophone reception, he seemed energized, even encouraged, by his own recitation of the charges against him. Over the decades Latour met with several presidents of the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, some of them his close friends. Each rejected him, he said, with the same sort of sentiment: “I’m sorry, Bruno, but I cannot impose your candidacy on my colleagues.” Most people wonder why academics continue to publish after they’ve reached 70, he once joked. It amused him to be considered a danger at his age.
Perhaps because he never took himself too seriously, Latour seemed condemned to court confusion wherever he went. Some of his essays spend so much time anticipating misreadings that after pages of explaining what they’re not doing, it’s easy to forget what it was they’d originally set out to do. His playful demeanor could make him just as difficult to read in person. Audiences sometimes reacted to his pronouncements with the good-natured smiles of tourists trying to follow a joke in a foreign language. “I’m not very intelligent,” he once told me, with droll self-deprecation. “I’m very provincial. I go to bed at ten. I never go to any sort of chic situation. And I keep finding interesting ideas.”
In a sense, Latour’s career was a matter of insisting that he meant most of the things he said, however unlikely they might sound. Still, he occasionally found himself “squashed” by the number of activities he’d thrown himself into. The CV he posted on his personal website was 112 pages long. His philosophical project didn’t lend itself to paraphrase, but one theme he returned to again and again was that reality, as we know it, is always vulnerable to a “full-scale battle of interpretations.”
No wonder he worked so tirelessly to make himself understood. According to his theory of knowledge, his ideas could not be said to fully exist unless he recruited other actors to instantiate them. You need them to make your paper a decisive one.
“Bruno Latour, the Post-Truth Philosopher, Mounts a Defense of Science,” The New York Times Magazine, October 25, 2018: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/25/magazine/bruno-latour-post-truth-philosopher-science.html ↩
The Nobel Prize-winning virologist Jonas Salk wrote in his introduction to the first edition that “even if we do not agree with the details of this book, or if we find it slightly uncomfortable or even painful in places, the present work seems to me to be a step in the right direction toward dissipating the mystery that is believed to surround our activity.” ↩
Given French theory’s preoccupation with power, the high-status rituals that produce its disproportionate horde of philosophers might come as a surprise. Even France’s most outré thinkers proceed through the nation’s most prestigious powerhouses of intellectual life. Latour was an exception. Until his appointment at Sciences Po in 2007, he taught at an engineering school that was not well known in the humanities. Latour and his friends attributed his excommunication partly to the animus of Bourdieu, who, until his death in 2002, was the gatekeeper of French sociology. ↩
Through his lab work, in other words, Pasteur made invisible germs visible and, as their preeminent spokesperson, he made them speak. That the conventional distinction between the natural and social world breaks down under scrutiny was one of the conclusions of Actor-Network Theory. Social constructivists portrayed scientists, in Latour’s words, as “clever manipulators,” and saw it as their job to reveal the hidden puppet strings of cultural ideology that animated scientific labor. Realists, meanwhile, regarded scientists as the messengers of nature’s universal truths. Latour believed that both camps were right—and that neither were. For Latour, non-human entities—cows, stars, doorknobs, rivers—possessed an agency all of their own. “If my solution appears wooly,” he once wrote, “readers should remember that I am attempting to redistribute the capacity of speech between humans and nonhumans: not a task that makes for a clear exposition!” ↩
The Anthropocene—a term proposed by scientists around the turn of the century to designate a new geological epoch, one in which human actions have become a dominant geological force—made Latour’s long-standing attention to ecological concerns appear highly prescient. In a literal sense, the Anthropocene seems to take a constructivist claim—that nature, as we experience it, is the product of human interactions—and elevate it to the status of a scientific fact. ↩
Classicist in Literature, Royalist in Politics, and Anglo-Catholic in Religion
Simply by writing what was closest to him, Updike began reporting from a great tectonic fault, the American “middle.”
“Raise your hand if you work in the tech industry,” Fred continues. Almost every hand in the room goes up.
Our programs could neither detect nor explain the combinations that led to the emergence of style.
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On Bruno Latour (1947–2022) | Online Only | n+1 | Ava Kofman – N+1
A Brooklyn Book Festival Bookends event