A Locus of Care
Some Memories of the Life and Work of Bruno Latour (1947-2022)
Down in the crypt of the basilica of Saint-Maximin-La-Sainte-Baume, in the South of France, there is an exquisitely rare object. It is a skull, behind a wall of glass, and it is described by two separate and very different labels. The one label tells you it comes from a woman in her fifties, likely born in the eastern Mediterranean in the early first century CE. The other label tells you it is the skull of Mary Magdalene. Legends of her late-life migration to Southern Gaul had already been circulating for some time when the discovery of her skeletal remains in Saint-Maximin was announced in 1279, and the basilica was subsequently built up around this gravesite. In the fourteenth century the Genoese Dominican author Jacobus de Voragine tells the full story of Mary Magdalene’s shipwreck off the coast of Marseille, and of her subsequent long career of miracle-working throughout Provence. Europe was made Christian not just by real-time conversion, but also a great deal of retroactive inscription of Biblical personages, apostles, and early Church Fathers into the ancient history of what was not yet a well-delineated cultural-geographical sphere.
In 2017 my spouse and I were standing and looking at the skull behind the glass. I was inspecting the two labels, and thinking about the ironies of the contrasting accounts they presented, when, behind us, we heard a voice: Ah, c’est bien, ils nous donnent un choix, the voice said. We turned around, and saw that it belonged to Bruno Latour.
“It’s nice, they give us a choice.” With this simple, gentle affirmation, our beloved old master, so often derided in the Anglosphere for his role in landing us in the current “post-truth” desert, seemed to sublate all the irony of the contrasting accounts of the skull’s origins, into something that was, well, true — and not only true, but good: a good and true method for navigating the perilous terrain on which the truth-claims of these only purportedly non-overlapping magisteria have done their best to coexist for the past five centuries or so. It is not just a matter of giving everybody what they want, letting each person choose one label, but rather giving all of us both labels. It is not as if one descends into post-truth the minute one chooses to vibe with de Voragine and to represent before the mind the miraculous transit of Mary Magdalene, and in fact we might reasonably fear that a world totally cleansed of such representations would be a sick and impoverished one indeed, with a terribly inadequate idea of truth and what it must involve.
It was not such a surprise to find Bruno in the crypt — we had been at the same wedding outside of town the day before, and there is not much else to see during one’s free time but the basilica. At the celebration he recited a touching poem of his own composition for the young couple, and smoked his cigar and played a multigenerational match of croquet. I have never been much of a Latourian, philosophically speaking. There are considerable portions of his work I don’t understand at all, and he often took what at first looked to me like shared interests off in directions that gave me little to work with — he dissolved G. W. Leibniz, for instance, into the work of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century French social theorists, such as Maurice Halbwachs and most of all Gabriel Tarde, who took up the concept of “monad” as if it had only to do with individual human beings in society rather than an all-subtending foundation for a metaphysics of nature. But there are a few texts of his that I teach every year, and a few key ideas of his I always carry with me when I’m doing my own thinking and writing. My Latour is idiosyncratic, pieced together from a selective reading of a vast body of work. But I think I have good reason to characterize him, as I have done in opening here, as a “philosopher of choice”.
If we had had the sad task of writing an elegy for Bruno Latour in, say, 1985, he would indeed have been principally distinguished for his role in the emergence of “science and technology studies” as a distinct subdisciplinary tendency in Anglophone academia (although he was consistently based in France, most of his early impact was in England and the United States). This tendency generally took the scientific discovery of new truths to be largely narrative, and took all the other stuff that goes on in the course of scientific discovery —competition, infighting, networks, ideology— to be just as relevant to our understanding of what science is as are the discoveries on which the scientists themselves would invariably prefer that we focus.
Latour’s role in shaping this tendency was immense, beginning with 1979’s Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts, co-written with Steve Woolgar. A number of subsequent milestones of science studies would follow over the next decade, notably Peter Galison’s 1987 book, How Experiments End, which built upon the key Latourian idea of the possibility of taking scientific practice itself as an object of study, deploying essentially the same tools of observation and analysis as if one were studying, say, artists (who were the model, let us not forget, for William Whewell’s coinage of the term “scientist” in the 1830s). Latour always had fun with this “arroseur arrosé” twist, watching the people whose job it was to watch the world. His delight is surely at its most visible in the inherently comical predicament of his work on primatology: turning his eye, like Donna Haraway before him, on the human beings who watch the apes and monkeys who, in turn, it is hoped, will reveal something new about being human.
Now, on a certain facile reading of the work undertaken within this scholarly tendency, to turn to practices and networks and away from scientific discovery is at the same time to retreat from the idea that the truth about the world is discoverable. Admittedly, some of the participants in this tendency encouraged such a facile reading, mostly because it gave an appearance of radicalism — that is, the kind of radicalism that can help to advance an academic career. Be that as it may, you would nonetheless be hard pressed to find anyone in this movement prepared to state outright that the results of scientific research, to the extent that they are the by-products of specific cultural practices, ipso facto do not exist. Even Andrew Pickering, whose 1984 book, Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics, I take to be the boldest contribution to the movement I am describing, was always careful to explain that the way we talk about quarks is the result of a specific history of technology that required all sorts of non-scientific circumstances to obtain in order even to make sense at all, rather than saying that the subatomic particles themselves are discursively produced.
Latour, in any case, certainly understood that construction is not the same thing as deconstruction, that to explain the social dimensions of a given object of our scientific ontology is not to explain that object away. In this light, Latour’s much-discussed 2004 article, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”, easily appears not so much as a road-to-Damascus moment, or as a radical conversion away from everything he had promoted before, but rather simply as a refinement, an honest update to a general and consistent approach in light of lessons learned from a changing world. He begins the essay with a reflection on climate-change denial, and moves quickly to what seems to him a new epidemic of conspiracy thinking among ordinary people — in this case the villagers in the region of his family’s vineyards (whose Domaine Latour wine he both proudly and ironically served at parties at his home in Paris):
The smoke of the event [September 11] has not yet finished settling before dozens of conspiracy theories begin revising the official account, adding even more ruins to the ruins, adding even more smoke to the smoke. What has become of critique when my neighbor in the little Bourbonnais village where I live looks down on me as someone hopelessly naïve because I believe that the United States had been attacked by terrorists? Remember the good old days when university professors could look down on unsophisticated folks because those hillbillies naïvely believed in church, motherhood, and apple pie? Things have changed a lot, at least in my village. I am now the one who naïvely believes in some facts because I am educated, while the other guys are too unsophisticated to be gullible.
He has the nagging feeling, moreover, that he himself may have played at least some small part in bringing about the cultural conditions for such a reversal:
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show ‘the lack of scientific certainty’ inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a ‘primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?
It seems to me implausible that academic theory could bear much of the responsibility for the cynical manipulations to which we are all exposed today. You can’t have it both ways; academia cannot be both destructive and impotent, and I think it’s pretty obvious that it’s impotent, an arrière-garde after-echo of other material and economic forces that it barely even notices until long after they’ve taken shape. It likewise seems implausible to me to suppose that there is anything phylogenetically “postmodern” about, say, the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, which features panoramas of cavemen living side-by-side with dinosaurs, just as the Bible, properly interpreted, dictates (it all makes sense if you read “dinosaur” as “dragon”). Operations like this one have indeed taken advantage of the ambient wisdom according to which truth is an assertion of power, and therefore seeing to it that “your truth” prevails is simply a matter of getting an institutional footing in places like schools and museums (or their carefully staged simulacra). But still, it is not so hard to see why, around 2004, it could easily have seemed to an honest and lucid theorist such as Latour that this was a very good moment indeed to take a break from warning about the danger of premature naturalization of what an institutionally elite class of people uses its power to anoint as “facts”, and instead to start to think, but really hard, about how facts and values might be brought together again, or perhaps not again, but for the first time, in such a way as to contribute to human flourishing.
This then is where we start to see the full significance of the second part of the 2004 article’s title: “From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern”. Latour is one of the few philosophers who succeeds at using etymology to illuminate, rather than to obfuscate — very much unlike Martin Heidegger, even when he is offering an explicitly Heideggerian analysis of a word that famously preoccupied his German predecessor. The word Ding, namely, is in the first instance simply the German word for “thing”, as well as being an obvious cognate to the English word. But it is also the word for what we might translate as “council” or “assembly” in the context of ancient Germanic tribal confederations. This meaning of the word is still used in the official name of the Icelandic parliament: the Alþingi. There is an Old Slavic equivalent in вече/véče (“assembly”), cognate to the modern Russian вещь/veshch’ (“thing”); and indeed the Germanic and Slavic terms are fairly close to the Latin res publica, which of course means “republic”, but also, more literally, “the public thing”.
If we take this etymology seriously, as Latour wants to do, we are left with the surprising realization that “things” are, in their original and most archaic sense, political. What we now take as things in the most normal sense, “everyday things”, things that have Dinglichkeit, do not represent some totally disconnected usage of the term, in Latour’s view, but rather are an extension of what we mean, or what the Germanic tribes meant, when we, or they, talk, or talked, about “things”. That is, a thing is a sort of coming together, not just any coming together, but one that is of particular salience for a society in its efforts to chart its course into the future. Some things are assemblies of people, while others are assemblages of material parts. Some things have spatiotemporally cohesive parts (e.g., tables), but others do not (e.g., cutlery sets). Some things might result from several different natural processes (e.g., Uluru), and come to be valued as things by nothing more than the mental representations of human beings who have rearranged none of the relevant parts constituting the material dimension of the thing. What is similar in all of these cases is that the entities in question are “matters of concern”. Some of them are also “matters of fact”: unlike Uluru, tables and cutlery sets are things that had to be “made” (facta) in order to become objects of concern. But some things can be matters of fact and fail to be matters of concern, or, to put it differently, we can fail to be concerned about them — e.g., plastic milk jugs in the ocean, which were made just like any other human artefact, but were then cast off and, at least for a while, ignored.
So, wherever you have a thing, you have a locus of care (or, if you will, a matter of concern). This is something conceptually distinct from an artefact, or from an object. In fact, Latour thinks, in order to get away from all the confusion into which the notion of “objectivity” has led us (a notion that really only takes hold as a dogma in the late nineteenth century, according to Daston and Galison in their celebrated genealogy of the concept, to which Latour provided the preface in its French translation), it might be better to retrain our focus on “things”. And it is in light of this retraining effort, I think, that his twenty-first-century shift to ecology and the climate crisis takes on a particular appeal. It was, recall, only in the mid-twentieth century that we got the first photographic images of our planet as the iconic “pale blue dot” that we all know, and love, today. Arguably, it is at this moment that the Earth itself became a thing, that is, came to be cognized and valued as a suitable locus of our care and solicitude, rather than simply, so to speak, the transcendent ground of our existence. This is the moment, also, when Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which so influenced Latour’s thinking, became conceivable — it is not that no one in antiquity or later had ever suggested the world is an organic whole, but what was meant by “world”, for, e.g., the Stoics, was the cosmos, and not any particular life-supporting sphere within it. In a sense Latour’s late-career emphasis on matters of concern, or, if you will, on “truth as care”, is a continuation of the early-career work for which he was admonished as a partisan of the “post-truth” tendency. But his later work is at least somewhat less playful, more urgent, and in tone it is a universe away from the perceived cynicism of the golden age of constructionist science studies. He is speaking now not in the vein of irony, but of love.
I am on record saying that, whatever else your complaints might be, the idea that human social life is constituted by narrativity (“postmodernism”) is by far preferable to whatever it is we’re stuck with now — this strange new hyperrealism about our social identities and this return to an almost medieval appeal to authority in the admonition to “trust the science”. Latour spent his career warning against premature and ungrounded use of this admonition, began to worry when his warning was misheard as a simple negation —“Don’t trust the science!”—, and spent the latter part of his career working through the full implications of our current crisis of trust.
Bruno Latour was honest and generous, and I don’t think there’s any question he took up that was not, for him, a true matter of concern. He was one of our era’s best guides between the eternal Scylla and Charybdis of dogmatism and skepticism. I am convinced that his comment about the skull in the crypt provides a key to his whole way of thinking. We have a choice — that’s what it all comes down to. Constructionism was never a matter of “just saying whatever”, and science can never be simply a matter of reading the dictates of the natural world off of our instruments, or out of our data, like a new sort of Divine Law. We have a choice as to how read the world, and it’s going to take all of our human ability, and perhaps some superhuman luck or grace as well, to read it for our own good.
Don’t forget to listen to the latest episode of my podcast, “What Is X?” featuring the legendary founding editor of The London Review of Breakfasts, Seb Emina, talking about Breakfast, and what it is. The motivating idea behind this podcast is that any notion, however familiar or mundane, begins to appear a lot stranger the longer you look at it… this includes Breakfast.
There is an exhibit at the Frye Museum in Seattle that is opening today (October 15): The Third, Meaning: ESTAR(SER). I can’t be at the opening, but I had some hand in ‘building the world’ on which the exhibit is based, and if I were anywhere near Seattle I would be joining Graham Burnett and Joanna Fiduccia for this big day. After the opening, the show will remain for a good several months, so there’s plenty of time. And if you see the show, and like it, remember to order our book, In Search of the Third Bird, which Ben Lerner has called “big strange wonderful”.
This is wonderful stuff; the concept of premature naturalization of scientific findings (or 'findings") is particularly relevant in my field, where the legitimacy of public health epidemiologists among nutrition and metabolism practitioners was undermined by the premature naturalization of two hypotheses - "eating fat causes obesity and diabetes" and "eating saturated fat causes heart disease".
I've watched many of the people who pushed back as these errors became exposed by the progress of science squander the goodwill (which they certainly earned by helping thousands regain their health) by becoming outspoken "skeptics", or self-appointed experts in scientific fields well out of their expertise and experience - mRNA vaccines, ivermectin, immunology, infectious disease epidemiology - during the Covid epidemic. I've wondered why so many of these influential figures jumped off that cliff instead of sticking to and being protective of their most valid knowledge and their most important roles - after all type 2 diabetes will still be here and dangerous long after Covid is gone or insignificant. Certainly the experts made errors, but they weren't of the order that would automatically make an opposing view correct, and it had taken decades of careful work to expose the errors in nutrition.
At any rate premature naturalization of scientific theories can have disastrous real-world effects, both on public health directly, and on the credibility of scientific expertise once errors are exposed - which will itself have disastrous effects in the next emergency.
Boy cries wolf, has a few laughs, if only.
Thanks for this! I've always wanted to understand Latour better. This post was a great start!