Last weekend I called my dad to take some news. Over the years our relationship has been built on sharing readings and inspirations. He especially guided me in readings good literature. We also sometimes take a glance at our productions for critical corrections. This is how, while he read in some of my papers, passages relating to the work of Bruno Latour, a question came up regularly:“Do you have articles of references to better understand Latour?”.
My answer was often the same: “I don’t know”.
I have read several books and articles from him, but understanding the entirety of his work is still out of my reach. But still, I advised him to read “We have never been modern”, so that he could understand some contributions to anthropology. Also, I warned him that reading our French intellectual is an exercise sometimes “masochistic”. It must be said, even in French, it is sometimes not very pleasant to read (even annoying). But why sometimes I have been upset while reading him? Maybe it’s my problem, then you got me ahhh.
This last Sunday, our dear Bruno came back to our discussions:
-”So you wrote me that Bruno Latour passed away, right?”
-”Do you have articles to discover him?”
What followed was bad explanations. You surely know, Latour, it’s quite complicated to sum-up and I will let it to more acknowledged people than I am. But afterwards, maybe I could try to explain what I get until now without big ambitions.
Before starting if you are a student, I think the best overview of the Actor-Network Theory is the article from John Law:
- John Law (1992) ‘Notes on the Theory of the Actor-Network: Ordering, Strategy and Heterogeneity’, Systems Practice, 5 (1992), 379-93.
There is also the book “Sociologie de la traduction, textes fondateurs” in which I really appreciated the articles of Callon and Akrich.
- Some Elements of a Sociology of Translation: Domestication of the Scallops and the Fishermen ofSt Brieuc Bay
- The de-scription of technical objects
Now, I will talk about my own understanding of Latour as a freshly graduated student. I, therefore, do not know all of his work in details, which is consistent. On the other hand, I think I have an idea of its contribution to the theories in the social sciences, which are regularly classified in the field of S.T.S (Science and Technology Studies).
Bruno Latour did something quite revolutionary at that time, he studied practices around science(s) and technology(ies). You get it? From this perspective, science(s), and technologies are not value-free but embedded in complex social-technical interactions that he calls “networks” ( not in his book:A laboratory life, as far as I remember).
So to sum-up quickly, in A laboratory life, Bruno Latour decided to do, an anthropological investigation (interviews, observing of rituals, artifacts, semantics etc.) of life in a laboratory, to follow the “production of scientific facts” .You maybe knew it, but Latour was also initially a student of philosophy. I was happy to point out that Latour was a reader of Bachelard while following a different purpose.
Bachelard seeks to define the best principles for science. To do so then, he read a lot of previous scientific writings. He then point out the mistakes of his unfortunate predecessors and try to analyses what are their sources. Quite often obstacles to a relevant scientific knowledge are of a psychic nature. Thus, to counter this, the scientist should justify (reflect) why he/she is using a method, an approach instead of another one. In this endeavors, scientists will have to tackle a lot of psychic obstacles, habits, wrong intuitions, beliefs that are often not conscious.
This is why from Bachelard, science is an abstraction, the fact does not speak for(by?) itself: there is a step of translation from reality, the “abstraction”.Because the abstraction (tool, law, theory etc.) will neglect a part of reality, it will only show an aspect of the reality and constructs the scientific phenomenon (science is a “phenomenotechnic”). The scientist will have to justify the relevance of the method-problem relation.
While Bachelard has a normative agenda, Latour is more descriptive. The last, directly borrow the concept of “phenomenotechnic” to say that sciences are practices. They come with a similar vision of reality, which is complex, fuzzy and chaotic. The human spirit will try to make some order from this state. This is why, I also believe that abstraction in Bachelard is more or less the equivalent of translation in Latour. But the two writers ask then different questions:
- Bachelard: Is the translation of the reality done, is the most relevant ?
- Latour: How scientists translate reality?
Latour doesn’t mind about the best way to do science, he wants to describe how science is done in practices.
While reading “We have never been modern”, Latour criticises classical anthropology ( with the”ontological cut”, the great division between nature and culture) for promoting a flat ontology. From him, in reality, technologies, humans, nature, the social: nothing is above or determined by others from the start.
Let me try to explain it with comparison. For instance, from Durkheim (holism), it is the social that determines the rest. Another example: Freud gives primacy to biological dimorphism.
Latour then claims that his theory is a non-theory. For him, humans and non-humans interact. It is rather the characteristic of an individual’s network that will determine the nature of the power relations between humans and non-humans (and possible combinations), mediation, and betrayals (I know it’s conceptual but it’s his vocabulary).
If you want to dig in more, I suggest reading the article: The whole is always smaller than its parts: a digital test of Gabriel Tardes’ monads. In this article, you will have a good insight or the A.N.T difference from other approaches in social sciences. After having developed this approach, Latour et al. realized that it fits rather well with Gabriel Tarde (the concept of imitation is close to that of translation. And his monad-based approach also relativises the cut between nature and culture.
I hope this little text will be helpful for beginners like me. I haven’t discovered everything about him, yet, it will probably take me years, maybe a lifetime or more.
Of course, it is not a question of being in full agreement with Bruno Latour. Nevertheless, I think that even his opponents can recognise that M.Latour was an important figure in our intellectual landscape in which, they are becoming shyer and shyer. I believe that what should also be kept from him, for the scientists,to slow down the pace reading, producing too much articles, and take some time to read philosophy, to reflect, and to try to link it with the world surrounding us.
Thank you Bruno for your work