Bruno Latour: The Delusions of Modernity

The philosophical legacy of Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour against modernity

Bruno Latour, a leading French intellectual who died on October 9, posed a major challenge to modern philosophy’s key assumption: the existence of a distinction between the human subject and the world. His radical alternative suggestion of seeing the world as a collection of actors interacting with each other offered a new framework for understanding science, politics, and the environmental crisis, writes philosopher and Bruno Latour’s intellectual biographer, Graham Harman.

 

With the death of Bruno Latour from cancer on October 9, the world lost a prominent and paradoxical figure whose deepest contributions are not yet well understood. In one sense it would be absurd to call him “unappreciated,” given his receipt of the 2013 Holberg Prize and 2021 Kyoto Prize, his nearly 300,000 citations by other scholars, and his vast global network of admirers and co-workers. But like so many pivotal intellectuals, Latour was a peg who never quite fit the most prestigious holes. Blocked by enemies from potential appointments at Princeton and the Collège de France, he spent most of his career at the School of Mines in Paris before a late move to Sciences Po in the same city.

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A practicing Catholic who moved with ease in the de rigueur atheism of contemporary thought, Latour eventually developed a system of thought that was basically secular in spirit despite the place reserved for religion near its core. Scolded by American science warriors as the “social constructionist” he never quite was, in France he was struck on the opposite flank by the disciples of Pierre Bourdieu, who viewed his fascination with non-human actors as a form of reactionary realism.

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The reason for Latour's relative lack of success with philosophy readers so far is also the reason for his inevitable future importance in the field: the blow he strikes against the central assumption of modern philosophy.

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Tweeting the news of Latour’s passing, French President Emmanuel Macron rightly noted that Latour was recognized abroad before it happened at home. Indeed, despite pronounced French elements in his personality and lifestyle, Latour was in many ways more typically Anglo-Saxon, and some of his most important books appeared first in English. But perhaps the greatest paradox of his career was the contrast between his iconic status in the social sciences and his still minimal impact in philosophy, a field where his hopes of influence were generally thwarted. When we invited him in 2003 to speak to the philosophers at the American University in Cairo, he remarked that it was only the second time he had addressed a Department of Philosophy. I doubt that the number increased by much over the remaining nineteen years of his life.

 

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Latour’s innovation –foreshadowed by his intellectual ancestor Alfred North Whitehead– is to treat all entities equally as “actors,” analyzing them in terms of the effects they have on other actors.

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Yet the reason for his relative lack of success with philosophy readers so far is also the reason for his inevitable future importance in the field: the blow he strikes against the central assumption of modern philosophy. The default Western assumption for the past four centuries is that the universe consists of two basic kinds of things: (1) human thought, and (2) everything else. In his early classic We Have Never Been Modern (1991 in French, 1993 in English) Latour tried to demonstrate that modernity as a whole revolves around the purported opposition between impossibly pure forms of these two poles. On one side we have culture, values, and freedom while on the other we have nature, facts, and necessity. Multiple strategies exist to deal with this predicament: social constructionists reduce science to power-plays; neurophilosophers counter by reducing thought to the secretions of the brain; others introduce the human body as a third term supposedly able to bridge the gap. What none of them question is the strangely implausible assumption that thought deserves to be placed in one basket of the cosmos with everything else packed together in a second.

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Latour’s innovation –foreshadowed by his intellectual ancestor Alfred North Whitehead– is to treat all entities equally as “actors,” analyzing them in terms of the effects they have on other actors. Non-human entities (speed bumps, garbage cans, trains, neuropeptides, box-cutters) play a prominent role in Latour’s philosophy, as do “hybrids” whose human and non-human ingredients are nearly impossible to distinguish. As a social scientist, the key to his method is to introduce specific local actors in place of such abstractions as “Society,” “Science,” or “Capital.” As a philosopher, he defends the equivalent position: that all interactions between actors are on exactly the same footing so that the single interplay between thought and world (modern philosophy’s obsession) becomes just one relation among trillions of others. At most, one might question whether Latour truly accounted for cases in which all humans are absent. Unlike Whitehead, he was not a philosopher of nature but of science, and for Latour human observers are always somewhere on the scene.

 

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In an era when scientific discourse is generally assumed to be the gold standard of truth, Latour’s book argues that politics, law, and even religion form parallel realms with their own standards of veridiction.

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It has become a cliché to speak of the “early” and “late” phases of any given philosopher; Heidegger and Wittgenstein are two of the more over-analyzed cases. Latour also has an early phase and a late one, but with an unusual twist: his two periods were largely simultaneous. As early as 1987, Latour had grown weary of his trademark insight that every situation consists of a network of heterogeneous actors involving both human and non-human elements. Although this outlook is still fresh enough to be far from exhausted, Latour was increasingly interested in the way that certain zones of reality fold in on themselves and exclude other modes of discourse. After a quarter-century of labor, this led to the publication of his late masterwork An Enquiry Into Modes of Existence, in which two overarching modes (network and preposition) govern twelve others, grouped into four families of three. In an era when scientific discourse is generally assumed to be the gold standard of truth, Latour’s book argues that politics, law, and even religion form parallel realms with their own standards of veridiction. Economic reason, that powerful modern companion of the sciences, is decomposed into a prior threefold of attachment, organization, and morality, belying all attempts to cast Latour as a “neo-liberal.” Alongside these we have the anti-Bergsonian ontological mode known as reproduction, which insists that reality must be constantly recreated at every instant. We also encounter such familiar –though welcome– guests as technology and fiction, and the dark outlier metamorphosis, which mixes aspects of shamanism and psychology. Modes has inspired puzzlement no less than enthusiasm, and it is safe to say that the history of its interpretation has hardly begun. In practice, even during the post-Modes period both Latour and his followers conducted most daily business in the earlier language of actor-network theory.

 

A closing word is in order about Latour as a political theorist, since here too he has innovations to offer. The most severe critiques of Latour have come from the political Left, as might be expected given his suspicion toward “capitalism” as a category of analysis. In his capacity as a French and European citizen, Latour’s political opinions were rarely colourful: in our years of conversation he was reliably somewhere between the center-left and the center, and was always more public intellectual than activist. More intriguing were the theoretical underpinnings of his politics, which cut against the grain of modernity here as in every area he touched. It could be said that the modern conflict between Left and Right boils down to a basic disagreement over whether human nature is good (or at least improvable) or evil (or at least unimprovable).

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The latter years of Latour’s career were largely filled with efforts to develop a climate politics that could be something more than ineffectual protest or a stale call for revolution.

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 In their recent best-seller The Dawn of Everything, David Graeber and David Wengrow criticized this modern alternative, but simply replaced it with the notion that human nature is naturally experimental and imaginative. However refreshing their approach, it is ultimately just another theory of human nature, one that fails to account sufficiently for the non-human component of politics: ranging from the oft-discussed constraints of geography and resources to such recently studied elements as documents, microbes, nutrition, and pets. But only with the climate crisis do non-human political actors first approach their golden age, to such an extent that a new theoretical tradition will be needed to grasp their workings.

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The latter years of Latour’s career, from Facing Gaia (2015) to After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis (2021) were largely filled with efforts to develop a climate politics that could be something more than ineffectual protest or a stale call for revolution. Although the life of this ingenious and gregarious thinker has ended, the loose threads of his work will increasingly guide us in his direction, just as the art of his countryman Paul Cézanne set the agenda for a rising generation of painters.

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Jim Balter 12 October 2022

"neurophilosophers counter by reducing thought to the secretions of the brain; others introduce the human body as a third term supposedly able to bridge the gap. What none of them question is the strangely implausible assumption that thought deserves to be placed in one basket of the cosmos with everything else packed together in a second."

This is obviously not true.

Alice Bramboise 12 October 2022

Bruno Latour is probably the most famous French philosopher in the English-speaking world, more so than in his native France. It may have to do with his ideas which seem to clash with the culture of France, less than with the Anglo-Saxon world.
His revolutionary ideas have yet to really cross to the mainstream consciousness of the age.
Regards
Alice Bramboise
Fleuriste France