Entertainment & Humor

16 pages

Bruno Latour and the anthropology of the moderns

of 16
All materials on our website are shared by users. If you have any questions about copyright issues, please report us to resolve them. We are always happy to assist you.
Bruno Latour and the anthropology of the moderns
  Bruno Latour and the anthropology of the moderns 1 Imagine the brainwashing in store for a provincial, bourgeois Catholic with an advanced degree inphilosophy who  󿬁 nds himself transported into the cauldron of neo-colonial Africa, with a wifeand child, no less! In the Abidjan of 1973 – 75, I discovered all at once the most predatory formsof capitalism, the methods of ethnography, and the puzzles of anthropology. And one puzzlingquestion in particular that has never left me: why do we use the ideas of modernity, themodernizing frontier, the contrast between modern and premodern, before we even apply tothose who call themselves civilizers the same methods of investigation that we apply to the ‘ others ’ –  those whom we claim, if not to civilize entirely, then at least to modernize a little?  … . 2 Bruno Latour is a hybrid thinker whose work lies at the intersection of anthropology,sociology and philosophy. As the above epigraph suggests, his work may be read as onesustained effort to make the tribe of   ‘ The Moderns ’  the object of anthropological analysis:an in-depth ethnography of their modes of truth production, their institutions andexperiences. Questioning what is usually taken for granted in one ’ s own society is of course a common outcome of the tension exerted by  󿬁 eldwork. Few thinkers,however, have been so rigorous and insistent in meticulously dissecting what holdstogether the modern collectives that make up our everyday modes of existence. Tryingto think the world anew  –  provoking something like that African  ‘ brainwash ’  in the mindof his readers  –  pretty much summarizes Latour ’ s intellectual project. In contemporarysocial theory, his radical revisions of how social existence should be studied  –  and hencehis new understanding of what the social sciences ought to be like  –  have been applaudedand occasionally rejected. But, as one sociologist put it, they have by now become  ‘ anobligatory reference for many working in the social sciences ’  (Harris 2005: 163). If thatis indeed a fair assessment, then we must conclude that anthropologists have remainedsomewhat muted about his work. Clearly, there are some rooms in the building of anthropology where his works have been picked up and debated. Anthropologists 1 This special issue results from a workshop entitled  ‘ Thinking with Latour ’  convened byDavid Berliner and Mattijs Van de Port during the 2012 EASA conference in Paris.Special thanks are due to our paper givers, Valentina Bonifacio, Ebru Kayaalp, JeremyLecomte, Roger Sansi and Ehler Voss, whose contributions made this panel anexceptional arena to discuss their engagement with Latour. 2 http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/ 󿬁 les/downloads/126-KARSENTI-AIME-BIO-GB..pdf  Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale  (2013)  0 , 0 1 – 13. © 2013 European Association of Social Anthropologists.  1 doi:10.1111/1469-8676.12051 DAVID BERLINER, LAURENT LEGRAINAND MATTIJS VAN DE PORT Journal Code Article ID Dispatch: 23.09.13 CE:S O C A 1 2 0 5 1 No. of Pages: 13 ME: 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647  who have been pushing for an  ‘ ontological turn ’  (Viveiros de Castro 2009; Strathern2005 [1991]; Henare  et al  . 2007) seriously engage with Latour, having found in him astrong ally to postulate the existence of multiple worlds and to put into question whatWesterners consider to be real. Similarly, his pragmatic sociology has inspired the workof anthropologists dealing with material culture (Buchli 1999; Vokes 2007; Holbraad2011), urban life (Janse  Q1 n 2012), religion (Keane 2007; Piette 2011; Sansi-Roca, 2007;Chau 2012), science (Houdart 2008; Keck 2010; Candea 2010), bodies (Lock 2001;Mol 2002), virtuality (Hine 2000) and the environment (Desc  Q2 ola 2013; Kohn 2007).Moreover, in the corridors of anthropology departments we ’ ve registered an overallcuriosity as to what  ‘ this Latour character is all about ’ . Yet, for all of this interest, he iscertainly not an obligatory reference in anthropology (in comparison, for instance,Bourdieu has reached the status of what might well be called a hegemonic  󿬁 gure). Weventure to say that for most anthropologists, the  󿬁 gure of Latour is not too far removedfrom the way Latour imagined his public pro 󿬁 le to be  ‘ that adherent of a  “ socialconstruction ”  according to which  “ everything is equal ” , objective science and magic,superstition and  󿬂 ying saucers ’ . 3 Anthropology ’ s reluctance to engage with the workof Bruno Latour is surprising. However one wishes to engage with his provocativeinterventions in the study of social life and being, the disruptions he brings about inreceived ways of thinking the social, or in common understandings of the condition of modernity, are always challenging. His writings are a constant invitation to re 󿬂 ect onand reconsider one ’ s theoretical positions, and they seek to open a space for a creativereshuf  󿬂 ing of one ’ s thoughts. It is in that spirit of opening up new avenues for the studyof social life that this special issue presents a number of articles that exemplify what maycome out of the encounter between anthropologists and the work of Bruno Latour.***Latour has expressed his love for anthropology in no uncertain terms. In hiswritings, he often points to anthropology as the exemplary discipline within the socialsciences. In fact, he frequently identi 󿬁 es himself as an anthropologist. Published in1991, the French srcinal of his famous study  We Have Never Been Modern  (1993)came with the subtitle  Essai d  ’  anthropologie symétrique . Similarly, his latest book,  An Inquiry into Modes of Existence  (2013a) is speci 󿬁 ed as  An anthropology of theModerns  in its subtitle. He praises the  ‘ science of being-as- other  ’  for its ethnographicmethod and holistic ambitions; for its questioning and relativising of the categories of thought and ontological premises of the Moderns; and for its keen attention to thespeci 󿬁 cities of the local and the situational. Faced with the tendency among anthropol-ogists to question the scienti 󿬁 c calibre of their own endeavours, Latour exclaimed  ‘ noone has acknowledged that anthropology is already one of the most advanced, produc-tive and scienti 󿬁 c of all the disciplines  –  natural or social ’  (1996a: 5). And elsewhere weread:  ‘ Anthropologists had to deal with pre-moderns and were not requested as muchto imitate natural sciences. [  … ] If, as I claim,  “ we have never been modern ” , sociologycould  󿬁 nally become as good as anthropology ’  (2005: 41). Anthropologists, so heintimates, are well equipped to derail the truth claims of the Moderns. They haveeverything to join his project to  ‘ add realism to science ’  (Latour 1999: 3). All they needto do, really, is to become more radically anthropological. This is the point whereLatour is most critical of anthropologists. He criticises ethnographers for not being 3 http://www.bruno-latour.fr 2  DAVID BERLINER  ET AL. ©  2013  European Association of Social Anthropologists. 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647  ethnographical enough: instead of contenting themselves to describe a given situationin terms of the local metaphysics, they keep returning to their privileged modes of understanding, claiming to be able to unearth realities that the locals themselves cannotgrasp. In a similar vein, he argues that the relativist stance of anthropologists is notrelativistic enough  –  he recently urged researchers to achieve a posture that he terms relationism  (2013a). If anthropologists can be praised for acknowledging differentontologies and the plurality of knowledge systems, most of them fail to question afundamental asymmetry between these different ontologies and knowledge systems.For example, most anthropologists would subscribe to the idea that everywhere inthe world the concept of nature is somehow constructed, and that we are no exception:we are all too eager to deconstruct the version of the  ‘ natural ’  that gets displayed incommercial ads, in the brochures of the tourist industry or the marketing of organicfood products. These are representations of nature, we will argue, a commercial trick.Few anthropologists, however, are ready to give up on the idea that with science, we –  unlike the non-moderns  –  hold the key that gives us access to nature  as it really is .And it is exactly  this  claim of the Moderns that Latour wants to tackle.Latour is critical of those anthropologists who  ‘ return from the tropics ’  and start tostudy their own society. In the exotic setting, he says, they dedicate themselves to thelaudable ambition to study beliefs, practices, objects and occurrences in their inextrica-ble relatedness. Yet this dedication, he observes, evaporates the moment anthropolo-gists start to study their own society. Instead of studying that which is at the heart of the expanding empires of the Moderns  –  industrial technologies, economisation,development, scienti 󿬁 c reasoning, and so on  –  the anthropologist at home studies themost peripheral aspects of modern societies  – ‘ communal festivals, belief in astrology, 󿬁 rst communion meals ’ . 4 Given Latour ’ s courtship of anthropology  –  not to mention his exhortations toanthropologists to be more radically and assertively  anthropological   –  one wonderswhy the latter have been somewhat reluctant to requite his love of the discipline.Although we can only speculate about this, some thoughts are worth considering.For one, Latour is a radical thinker. As stated, he asks his readers to give up on deeplyheld convictions as to what a science of the social is. Indeed, he offers not simplyanother theory but, rather, a kind of alternative ontological order in which few thingsremain untouched. Given such grand revisions, it is dif  󿬁 cult to do a  ‘ bit of Latour ’  ortake on Latour  ‘ à-la-carte ’ . In a way, one has to convert oneself to his perspective,throw one ’ s ideas overboard and  – ‘ born again ’ –  start thinking from scratch. Onealso has to become acquainted with a new Latourian vocabulary that has come intobeing over the years. Terms such as  ‘ actant ’ ,  ‘ nonhuman ’ ,  ‘ mediation ’ ,  ‘ blackboxing ’ , ‘ double-click ’ ,  ‘ factish ’ ,  ‘ hybrid ’ ,  ‘ inscription ’  and  ‘ mode d  ’  existence ’  take on veryspeci 󿬁 c meanings in the work of Latour, which adds to the somewhat sectariancharacter of   ‘ the Latourian school ’ . Tellingly, his book  Reassembling the Social   isset up as a kind of   ‘ how-to-do-proper-ActorNetworkTheory-manual ’ , completewith explicit do ’ s and don ’ t ’ s for anyone wishing to join the movement. In  AnInquiry into Modes of Existence  (2013a), Latour goes one step further and inviteshis readers to take an active part in his research programme. Surely, this latest bookcan be read as an attempt to de-singularise his work and to train scholars to doLatourian researches without becoming ever so many clones of Latour. It remains 4 http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/ 󿬁 les/downloads/126-KARSENTI-AIME-BIO-GB..pdf  BRUNO LATOUR AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE MODERNS  3 ©  2013  European Association of Social Anthropologists. 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647  to be seen, however, whether scholars  –  many of whom  ‘ modernes angoissés ’ , anxiousModerns, who are not ready to give up on the good old ways of doing research  –  willappropriate such radical thinking to pursue their own scienti 󿬁 c agendas.This invitation to give up on the old ways and start thinking anew, some mightwant to add, does not come with an in-depth consideration of what anthropologistshave actually been doing and arguing. Latour is not the kind of scholar who beginshis inquiries with a thorough survey of the existing scholarship in anthropology onhis topic. Apart from a few names who appear and re-appear in his texts (Viveiros deCastro, Descola, Sahlins), the work of anthropologists is not really recognised anddiscussed, while generally speaking, he rarely cites sources other than Tarde, Gar 󿬁 nkel,Whitehead, James, Souriau, Serres and Stengers. For example, one of his key ideas is torethink the excessive ambitions of universalism and, in the same way, to provincialiseour Western/Modern  ‘ factishes ’  (Latour 2009a, for instance). Albeit with a differenttwist, these questions have been debated for a while by American (Abu-Lughod1991, among many others) and British anthropologists (Strathern 1988). Yet thesediscussions do not  󿬁 gure in his oeuvre. Likewise, while debates about the power of things are central to Latour ’ s theories, anthropologists such as Igor Kopytoff (1986),Alfred Gell (1998), Daniel Miller (2005), Tim Ingold (2011) and archaeologists likeIan Hodder (2012) have long discussed them. Apart from the methods of ethnographyand the few whose works are currently focused on the study of diverse ontologies,most of Latour ’ s references srcinate outside the discipline. That is not bad in itself (quite the contrary), but it makes reading Latour more dif  󿬁 cult.Last but not least, the discipline of anthropology he invokes very much re 󿬂 ectsclassical French  ethnologie , which has been criticised for quite a while now.Anthropology is no longer exclusively interested in local savages and so-called  ‘ archaicaspects of modern societies ’ . The development of anthropology  at home  has legitimatedscholars ’  interests in these nearby worlds (an anthropology looking  ‘ into ourselves forwhat we have so long plundered in others ’ , as Georges Perec describes it so eloquentlyin  L ’  infra-ordinaire  (1989)) long before Latour ’ s research among scientists in the USA.With some exaggeration, one might say that the anthropologist that appears in his workis a generic  󿬁 gure, moulded to  󿬁 t the Latourian project, heir to what could be termed aCollège de France ethnology, but not a concrete, contemporary individual researcher. Thisrelative neglect of anthropological research may well rest behind the often-heard remark, ‘ Latour is merely proposing what we anthropologists have been doing all along ’ .Whatever the grounds for the anthropological reservations  vis-à-vis  Latour maybe, this special issue seeks to bring to the fore that anthropologists have every reasonto study his work, as he directs our attention to new ways of thinking about societyand the constitution of modernity. In the remainder of this introduction, we willbrie 󿬂 y introduce Bruno Latour and present some of the core intuitions underlyinghis project, before assessing to what extent and in what ways his perspective opensup new vistas for the anthropological study of human ways of being.***Thedif  󿬁 culttaskofintroducinga proli 󿬁 cwriterandexplorativethinkersuchasBrunoLatour is facilitated by a biographical note that can be found on his website, 5 which hequali 󿬁 es as  ‘ [the recounting of] the chaotic emergence of a systematic argument whose 5 http://www.bruno-latour.fr 4  DAVID BERLINER  ET AL. ©  2013  European Association of Social Anthropologists. 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647  persistence over more than thirty years is astonishing even to me ’ . We will take themain facts from this source, but urge those who are interested to read the full story to visitthe website.Born in 1947 in Beaune, France, Latour studied theology and philosophy at theUniversity of Dijon from 1966 to 1973. He remembers himself as  ‘ a militant Catholicstudent ’ . His thesis  – ‘ a bit of Derrida and Lévi-Strauss plus a large dose of Deleuze ’ – pondered the work of Charles Péguy, a Catholic socialist poet and essayist and wasdefended in 1985. As indicated in the opening epigraph of this introduction, anthro-pology came fully to his attention when he started to teach in the technical  Lycée  inAbidjan, Ivory Coast. The confrontation with the  󿬂 agrant asymmetry of   ‘ Whitesanthropologising the Blacks ’ , yet avoiding to anthropologise themselves in an equallyradical manner, was crucial for Latour ’ s future research agenda as well as for thedirection of his theoretical interventions.His ambition to anthropologise the Moderns inspired him to carry out ethnographical 󿬁 eldwork in a scienti 󿬁 c laboratory in San Diego, which resulted in his famous mono-graph  Laboratory Life  (1986), written in collaboration with Steve Woolgar. The workreportshowscienti 󿬁 cfactsarenotsimplyoutthere,waitingtobediscoveredandregistered,but come into being in the myriad, everyday exchanges between laborants, scientists,microbes, animals, knowledges, texts and instruments that are present in the laboratory.Back in France, after what he describes as an exhilarating experience with thebaboons of Shirley Strum in Kenya, he pursued this project of grasping what  is by following the different actors that come together in any given situation. Newempirical research resulted in the brilliant  Pasteurization of France  (1988) in whichhe put to the test his method and his conception of networks, associations andtranslations.  Irreduction , a book within the book, summed up and tied togetherthese conceptions in a sort of philosophical manifesto, an extremely dense text, asopaque as any radical philosopher could write. Indeed, Latour is increasingly givenover to the writing of theoretical treatises (although these times in crystal clearwritings), such as  Science in Action  (1987),  We Have Never Been Modern  (1993), Pandora ’  s Hope  (1999),  Reassembling the Social   (2005),  On the Modern Cult of  Factish Gods  (2009a) and  An Inquiry into Modes of Existence  (2013a). In addition,his bibliography now covers a wide range of research  󿬁 elds, including the arts(Latour and Weibel 2002), religion (2002, 2009a), law (2009b) and political ecology(2004). And yet, underlying these multiple  󿬁 elds and foci are some core intuitionsabout the making up of collectives, these human and non-human assemblages thatsocial theory had not been able to perceive, let alone trace and absorb.  ‘ I know of no other author ’ , he writes about himself,  ‘ who has so stubbornly pursued the sameresearch project for twenty- 󿬁 ve years, day after day, while  󿬁 lling up the same  󿬁 lesin response to the same sets of questions ’ . And indeed, for those familiar withLatour, his work is an on-going reinvention of the same line of questioning reality,each new text being a repetition by transformation.***Bruno Latour ’ s core intuitions move against a general mode of Western/Modernthinking, which he calls the Modern Constitution. He suggests that the Moderns (i.e. thosewho love to think about themselves as being part of the  ‘ modern world ’ ) have longentrenched themselves in this epistemological position, from which they seek to conquerall of reality. The Modern Constitution is guided by a particular metaphysics that leads BRUNO LATOUR AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF THE MODERNS  5 ©  2013  European Association of Social Anthropologists. 1234567891011121314151617181920212223242526272829303132333435363738394041424344454647
Related Documents
View more...
We Need Your Support
Thank you for visiting our website and your interest in our free products and services. We are nonprofit website to share and download documents. To the running of this website, we need your help to support us.

Thanks to everyone for your continued support.

No, Thanks