Reassembling Latour

This post was originally published in 2006 on the Alphapsy blog

A review of "Reassembling the Social", by Bruno Latour, a handbook that sums up 25 years of controversial research. Still provocative, Latour happily acknowledges the "wreckage" (sic) of the 'Social Studies of Science' program, and debunks (among other trends in the social sciences) social constructivism. For the more naturalistically inclined, this is an opportunity to see his work in a new light.

(this picture was found on a John Hopkins U. website which does not exist anymore)






Bruno Latour is a Woody Allen in reverse : a science-studies superstar in the US, his influence in his own country is feeble. The copy of his new book I read was in French ("Changer de Société ~ Refaire de la Sociologie" which means "Changing Society ~ Making the social sciences work again". What's the "~" here for? don't ask.). Many english-speaking readers of Latour think that he writes dismally, but this french version, though a little contrived, is jargon-free, witty and (yes !) often clear, precise and devoid of useless rhetoric. Clearly, this book aims at being the authoritative handbook on Actor-Network Theory, and it chiefly adresses the latourian student who is just about to go on fieldwork. This pedagogical stance is one of the many novelties of this book.

But Latour can't resist the lure of polemics. The target is classical sociology as it was shaped by Durkheim. In the beginning of the twentieth century, a foundational debate raged between sociologists Emile Durkheim and Gabriel Tarde. Tarde advocated what today we would call individualism, or more accurately, cultural atomism : culture, Tarde said, is nowhere to be found outside the interactions and devices that link peple together. Society is not a force that would act upon individual psyches, it is made by them and through them. Durkheim, on the other hand, defended the use of abstractions (such as social pressure) to account for individual behavior. Tarde lost the debate, and since then, his followers have had to put up with an irritating style of thinking, in which anything (gender, science, economy, etc.) is deemed to be explained when something "social" has been found nearby. In contrast, the followers of Tarde (today, their most famous representatives are Dan Sperber and Latour himself) view society not as a satisfying explanation, but rather as something that asks for an explanation.

Latour masterly vindicates the legacy of Tarde, with a violence that, even by Latourian standards, is unusual ; perhaps he resents having been for so many years the scapegoat of those who oppose social constructionism, and vents away his anger by debunking the fashionable sociologisms for which he unwittingly stood during the Sokal Affair. Latour's critique of socio-babble is far from new (see for example Ian Hacking's “The Social construction of What?”), but is refreshing to hear from such a prominent figure. Of course, it takes more than that to unfreeze an entire academical field, especially in France, but it might contribute to the rise of a sensible ontology in the social sciences.

Now what do we do?

This polemical brio has its downside, though. The book (at least its american version), is sold as a practical introduction to Actor-Network Theory ; you would expect it to show the principal theoretical commitments of the theory, what it buys you, what you can do with it, what methods it implements, and what counts as a good paper in ANT. Indeed that is what the author is trying to do, but all it comes down to is a set of obvious precepts : do your homework, write correctly, take notes, take the actors seriously and leave your prejudices aside. This is more telling about the state of the art in the social sciences than speaking in favour of ANT. So much for the meths.

As for the theory, Latour struggles to dismiss the impression that ANT can accommodate any kind of social study, provided that it abstains from attributing causal power to abstract entities such as Society, Mind or Nature. “The messy practice of giving a messy account of a messy world” is the most precise definition of ANT ever given in the book ; the two pages Latour devotes to the key notion of “network” are obscure : you learn that the word “network” can mean a whole lot of things, that none of its current meanings is really accurate ; then you are referred to Le Rêve de d'Alembert, by Denis Diderot, in which the word “network” is employed to designate the inner workings of the body of a fainting duchess. Latour's wits and elegant non sequiturs are delightful, but they're not the kind of things that would satisfy a young social scientist in search of a paradigm. The middle chapter depicting an imaginary interview on the nature of ANT between a dismissive Latour and a perplexed student, is particularly distressing.

the human mind: still absent

The book is chiefly directed at cultural sociologists, so that it should not come as a surprise that nature and the human mind get the lesser part of Latour's attention. But he spends a few pages struggling with the idea of active human minds that would be the cause of behavior, and hence, of social behavior. Latour's view is both unsurprising and unsettling. First : nature still does not exist, and the human mind is an abstraction, brought about through the use of various technical and institutional devices (no surprise here). But human individuals nonetheless possess a behavioral repertoire for interacting with their conspecifics. These interactions are what Latour calls “social n°3”, as opposed to “social n°1” (which stands for norms, institutions and other Big Beasts à la Durkheim) and “social n°2” (which is the social as studied by ANT). That's where it gets weird : Latour flatly asserts that the behavioral repertoire of “social n°3” is the same in “ants, wolves, monkeys, apes [“les singes”], and humans”. Coming from a regular sociobiology-basher, this is surprising to say the least. Don't human possess something like language, for example ?

This does not trouble Latour, as he thinks that type 3 social relationships can easily be overlooked in favor of type 2. The argument is the following : individual minds need some form of interface in order to interact with their surroundings, be it technical, institutional or whatever. Likewise, n°3 interactions need some external medium or manifestation to sustain themselves. Therefore, it is sensible to disregard individual minds and type 3 interactions, in the case of humans, whose type 2 culture is much more developped than that of animals.

The problem consists in tracing the limit of type 2 culture ; is language part of our natural repertoire for social interaction, as so many researchers think? Is technical interaction with one's environment human-specific? Are social mediations for actions that rare in the animal kingdom (even Latour doubts it) ? Are the interfaces between our mind and the world so important? Latour takes the example of a puppet-master playing with a puppet, and feeling that the puppet somewhat escapes his own will and manipulates his own fingers. There, in a very latourian way, he argues that, although you can't really say that the puppet manipulates the puppet-master's finger, you can't either claims that the puppet-master's move are all there is to it. Instead, “something happens” between the puppet and its master. The puppet's master's mind and intentions are deemed uninteresting.

Did Latour ever manipulate a puppet ? Incidentally I did, very regularly, and I saw how you can get the impression Latour alludes to. It is but a classic ideomotor effect, such as the ones Wolfgang Prinz studies. The same thing happens when spiritists make tables turn : you misattribute a very small move coming from yourself to the table, and then you are carried away by this seemingly unvoluntary move.

“Changer de Société”

Since 1999 at least, Latour ambitions to be a figure of the european political left ; as the french title (“Changer de Société” means to change society, not in the sense of modifying the current society, but of adopting an altogether different one – as in “changing clothes”) promises, he wants ANT to become a lever of political change. Latour vehemently argues against the scientific and political agenda of Pierre Bourdieu and his followers ; they needed a ready-made science in order to justify their political positions, which lead them to embrace the cumbersome concepts of power, class, opression, etc. These concepts have been oversold to the point of vacuity, and their use, Latour argues, can only hinder political progress. There is much to be said in favor of this view ; however, Latour fails to provide one single example of a societal change brought about through the use of his theories, or even to suggest what such a change might consist in. Latour falls short of fulfilling the promises of his beautiful 1999 book Politics of Nature, in which he gives a sketch of a change in constitution that would give the natural sciences a greater political influence, without releasing them from public control.

It is as though Bruno Latour meant to write 3 books : a brilliant, polemical one in which he attacks sociological explanations, one in which he tries to establish Actor-Network Theory as a Normal Science (with very limited success), and at last a tract advertising for the political benefits of his theory. He crammed all these books into one, that fills you with both enthusiasm and frustration.

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