On Bruno Latour

(I meant to post this a few weeks ago, then became distracted. A recently discovered article on art, science, and philosophy reminded me of this earlier intention, and made it seem even more relevant/interesting in the light of recent discussions.)

A few weeks ago, I mentioned the work of Bruno Latour as an alternative way of understanding the social from Bourriaud. Unlike the latter, Latour does not define sociology solely in terms of human relations. Latour, a sociologist of science, defines sociology as the “science of […] living together” (Reassembling the Social, p. 2). The social refers to modes of cohabitation, and this cohabitation is not simply between humans, but all the things, all the objects, of the world (all of which can be considered actors or what he calls actants). As Latour says, “we should not limit in advance the sort of beings populating the social world” (ibid., p. 16). They may be human, they may not. For example, to use a scientific example, a particular social group would consist not simply of the scientists banded together to conduct a certain kind of research. It would also include the instruments that allow them to conduct their research. It would also include the microbes or other organisms that is their object of inquiry, and so on. Whatever brings together a social group, and whatever helps to sustain it, is part of the group. In the same way that any object or thing – human or otherwise, animate or otherwise – can work to disrupt, to dissolve, a social formation. The social itself, Latour argues, has to be understood as a “type of connection,” a practice of relations, and it is always in process since, as Latour puts it, “things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied” (ibid., pp. 5 and 12)

Latour goes further. Instead of presuming the social as an explanatory ground for the convergence of a number of entities or actants, the social, he argues, needs to be understood as the result of a particular assembly or assemblage of (heterogeneous) parts (ibid., p. 8). The social is not given; it is constituted, it is in the process of constitution. It is thus necessary to follow the actors who form a group – the parts of the social group and not the social as an abstract whole – to show how their actions allow a particular social formation to sustain itself. Each group needs individuals who work to articulate the dimensions of this social formation, and this includes the sociologists who come to study this particular social assemblage (ibid., pp. 29-32). Moreover, in the type of sociology proposed by Latour there would always be a recognition of the role played by the sociologist in affirming a particular social formation: “any study of any group by any social scientist is part and parcel of what makes the group exist, last, decay, or disappear” (ibid., p. 33). The sociologist is not simply, and objectively, studying a social group. We are not talking about two stable, objective entities encountering one another from a distance. Rather, the sociological study of a group becomes a part of what gives the group a shape or definition; it becomes a part of the historical coming-into-being of a collective formation. The study of a social assemblage can thus be said to be immanent to the social group under analysis.

Latour’s actor-network theory (or ANT) has some obvious resonance with Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of the assemblage, except that the ontological ground of ANT is not Latour’s primary concern whereas it is Deleuze’s ontological claims that lead him to argue for understanding all entities – large and small – in terms of assemblages. (This is the real challenge of Deleuze’s philosophy: we can’t dismiss or bracket out questions of ontology; everything is derived from an ontological claim about the nature of being and existence.)

***

The latest issue of E-flux contains a marvelous, brief essay by Latour on “Some Experiments in Art and Politics.” You can find it here. Latour talks about the relation between networks and spheres/envelopes that resonates with our recent discussion of smooth and striated spaces and Riemannian manifolds. In this context, see his discussion of Tomas Saraceno’s artwork entitled Galaxies Forming Along Filaments, a sculptural piece that, according to Latour, is organized as a “heterarchy”: there are local hierarchies but no global one. The larger structure (or “composition,” as Latour puts it) is heterogeneous. Here we might recall the way modern science complicates classical science by demonstrating that what is locally true does not necessarily hold for the global context.

The final section of Latour’s article describes an event that he organized at the Pompidou Centre in June 2010: a reenactment or restaging of the debate, or non-debate, between Henri Bergson and Albert Einstein in 1922. By restaging it, Latour wishes to see if the outcome might be changed – and in a way that could be of relevance to philosophers, scientists and artists alike.

S I-G

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One Response to “On Bruno Latour”

  1. immanentterrainsp11 Says:

    “Ordinary people, mere social actors, average citizens, believe that they are free and that they can modify their desires, their motives and their rational strategies at will… But fortunately, social scientists are standing guard, and they denounce, and debunk and ridicule this naive belief in the freedom of the human subject and society. This time they use the… indisputable results of the sciences to show how (they) determine, inform, and mold the soft and pliable wills of the poor humans… All the sciences (natural and social) are now mobilized to turn the humans into so many puppets manipulated by objective forces – which only the natural or social scientists happen to know.”
    – Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, pg 52-53

    I just thought I would add this quote both as an elaboration of Latour’s stance on the social/ sciences and as an example of his wit.

    Stephanie

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