Presidential Lecture Series
Bruno Latour
Latour on...
Humanities at Stanford

"In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law - this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly."

(We Have Never Been Modern, p. 5)

... his early work in anthropology

"I am from the typical French provincial bourgeoisie, from Burgundy where my family has produced wine for generations, and my only ambition is that people would say "I read a Latour 1992" with the same pleasure as they would say "I drank a Latour 1992"! I have still a long way to go, as you see. (By the way, do not confuse Chateau-Latour, which is a Bordeaux vineyard, with Louis Latour, which is a grower in Burgundy.) I am not from the Ecole Normale; this is important to mention. I was educated in Dijon and I am from the provinces, but it is true I have been brought up in the same French tradition-the tradition of being idiosyncratic. I was trained in philosophy and Biblical exegesis, and then I went to Africa for my military service--a sort of French Peace Corps--and there I discovered the social sciences and was trained in anthropology the proper way (by doing it). And then, because I wanted to go to the States to see the opposite part of the world, I decided to do an anthropology of science. From the beginning I felt my interest in philosophy, theology, and anthropology was the same thing--that is, I was trying to account for the various ways in which truth is built, so in that sense my current work on the theory of enunciation is an old interest, grounded in theology and philosophy."

From: T. Hugh Crawford, "An Interview with Bruno Latour," Configurations 1 (1993): 247-268. Interview conducted in October, 1990.
URL: ( Pp. 249-50.

... and his metamorphosis into an anthropologist of science

"In early October 1975, one of us entered Professor Guillemin's laboratory for a two-year study of the Salk Institute. Professor Latour's knowledge of science was non-existent; his mastery of English was very poor; and he was completely unaware of the existence of the social studies of science. Apart from (or perhaps even because of) this last feature, he was thus in the classic position of the ethnographer sent to a completely foreign environment. Since the question has often been asked, it is useful to begin with a few words about how he got to the Salk Institute in the first place. While in the Ivory Coast, as a researcher in the sociology of development with the French research institution ORSTOM, he had been asked to explain why it was so difficult for black executives to adapt to modern industrial life (Latour, 1973). He found a vast literature on African philosophy and in comparative anthropology. Right from the start, however, it seemed that features were attributed a little too quickly to the African 'mind,' and that these could be more simply explained by social factors. For example, the young boys in technical schools were accused by their white teachers of being unable to "see in three dimensions." This was regarded as a serious deficiency. It turned out, however, that the school system (an exact replica of the French system) introduced engineering drawing to its pupils before they did any practical work on engines. . . . Stimulated by interaction with remarkable anthropologists like Marc Augi and other colleagues at ORSTOM, a rudimentary research programme took shape. What would happen to the Great Divide between scientific and prescientific reasoning if the same field methods used to study Ivory Coast fawners were applied to first-rate scientists? Two years before, the would-be anthropologist of Science had met Professor Guillemin (like him, a native of Burgundy). Guillemin praised the openness of the Salk Institute and had invited him to carry out an epistemological study of his laboratory, providing he secured his own source of funding."

From: Laboratory Life, pp. 273-74

... the social scientist in the laboratory

"When an outside observer first expresses interest in the activities of working scientists, he can expect one of a variety of different reactions. If he is a fellow professional scientist working in a different field, or if is a student working towards final admission into the scientific profession, the outsider will usually find that his interest is easily accommodated. Barring any circumstances involving extreme secrecy competition between the parties, scientists can react to expressions of interests by adopting a teaching role. Outsiders can thus be told the basic principles of scientific work in a field which is relatively strange to them. However, for outsiders who are completely ignorant of science and do not aspire to join the ranks of professional scientists, the situation is rather different. The most naive (and perhaps least common) reaction is that nonscientific outsiders simply have no business probing the activities of science. More commonly, although working scientists realize that a variety of nonscientific outsiders, such historians, philosophers, and sociologists can and do have professional interests in science, the precise point of their questions and observations is a source of some bewilderment. This is understandable in that working scientists do not normally possess more than outline knowledge of the principles, theories, methods, and issues at stake within disciplines other than their own. An observer who declares himself to be an 'anthropologist of science' must be a source of particular consternation."

From: Laboratory Life, pp. 19

... and the observer's breakthrough

"At this point, the observer felt that the laboratory was by no means quite as confusing as he had first thought. It seemed that there might be an essential similarity between the inscription capabilities of apparatus, the manic passion for marking, coding, and filing, and the literary skills of writing, persuasion, and discussion. Thus, the observer could even make sense of such obscure activities as a technician grinding the brains of rats, by realizing that the eventual end product of such activity might be a highly valued diagram. Even the most complicated jumble of figures might eventually end up as part of some argument between 'doctors.' For the observer, then, the laboratory began to take on the appearance of a system of literary inscription."

From: Laboratory Life, pp. 51-52.

... from inscription to politics

"4.3.3. We do not think. We do not have ideas (2.5.4). Rather, there is the action of writing, an action which involves working with inscriptions that have been extracted; an action that is practiced through talking to other people who likewise write, inscribe, talk, and live in similarly unusual places; an action that convinces or fails to convince with inscriptions which are made to speak, to write, and to be read (3.1.0, 3.1.9). . . . If it were possible to explain 'science' in terms of 'politics,' there would be no sciences, since they are developed precisely in order to find other allies, new resources, and fresh troops.

This is why the sociology of science is so congenitally weak. Auguste Comte, the father of scientism and sociology, has invented a fancy system of double-entry bookkeeping. Science is not politics. It is politics by other means. But people object that 'science does not reduce to power.' It offers other means. But it will be objected again that 'by their nature, these means cannot be foreseen.' Precisely. If they were foreseeable, they would already have been used by an opposing power. What could be better than a fresh form of power that no one knows how to use? Call up the reserves! Homage to Shapin and Schaffer."

From: The Pasteurization of France, pp. 218, 228-29.

...the situation of the Moderns

"Perhaps the modern framework could have held up a little while longer if its very development had not established a short circuit between Nature on the one hand and human masses on the other. So long as Nature was remote and under control, it still vaguely resembled rhe constitutional pole of tradition, and science could still be seen as a mere intermediary to uncover it. Nature seemed to be held in reserve, transcendent, inexhaustiblle, distant enough. But where are we to classify the ozone hole story, or global warming or deforestation? Where are we to put these hybrids? Are they human? Human because they are our work. Are they natural? Natural because they are not our doing. Are they local or global? Both. As for the human masses that have been made to multiply as a result of the virtues and vices of medicine and economics, they are no easier to situate. In what world are these multitudes to be housed? Are we in the realm of biology, sociology, natural history, ethics, sociobiology? This is our own doing, yet the laws of demography and economics are infinitely beyond us. Is the demographic time bomb local or global? Both. Thus, the two constitutional guarantees of the moderns - the universal laws of things, and the inalienable rights of subjects - can no longer be recognized either on the side of Nature or on the side of the Social. The destiny of the starving multitudes and the fate of our poor planet are connected by the same Gordian knot that no Alexander will ever again manage to sever."

From: We Have Never Been Modern, p. 50.

... the modernist view of time and history

"Modern temporality has nothing 'Judaeo-Christian' about it and, fortunately, nothing durable either. It is a projection of the Middle Kingdom on to a line transformed into an arrow by the brutal separation between what has no history but emerges nevertheless in history - the things of nature - and what never leaves history - the labours and passion of humans. The asymmetry between nature and culture then becomes an asymmetry between past and future. The past was the confusion of things and men; the future is what will no longer confuse tbem. Modernization consists in continually exiting from an obscure age that minded the needs of society with scientific truth, in order to enter into a new age that will finally distinguish clearly what belongs to atemporal nature and what comes from humans, what depends on things and what belongs to signs. Modern temporality arises from a superposition of the difference between past and future with another difference, so much more important, between mediation and purification."

From: We Have Never Been Modern, p. 71.


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