Interview with Bruno Latour from Figure/Ground

Original Available here

© Bruno Latour and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Latour was interviewed by Andrew Iliadis on September 24th, 2013

Bruno Latour is Professor at Sciences Po. Dr. Latour is a leading figure in sociology, anthropology, and science and technology studies, and he is the author of numerous books, including Laboratory LifeWe Have Never Been Modern, and Reassembling the Social. He holds many honorary doctorates and in 2012 he was awarded the Legion of Honour. In 2013, he gave the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh and in the same year he was awarded the Holberg Prize. His latest research project is an anthropology of the Moderns and includes a book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Harvard), as well as an interactive research website,

Your latest book, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, turns once again to the notion of the modern. I’ve heard you say this book is a positive approach. Can you explain what you mean in terms of positive and negative, and how this is a shift from your previous study?

We Have Never Been Modern was a sort of cleaning operation because of the negation in the title – we have never been modern – and it sort of tried to clarify a lot of things around this idea that there was a modernizing front, so to speak, that would explain the history of the world and the history of the planet. It tried to show that if you follow the arguments which have been developed in science studies, most of the arguments around modernization actually are based on the strange idea of an increasing distinction between science and politics, which is disproven by every single event and every single example in the history of science and technology. So it shows that there is no question that has a situation which is clarified by using the words “modern” and “non-modern” and “postmodern,” and that it’s better maybe to leave these labels aside. Now, of course, a cleaning operation is one thing, but then there’s something else later, which is to say, “okay, if we have never been modern, then what has happened?” What is this “we” and what are the components of the history which we have sort of inhabited under the wrong labels, if I can say that. A new experiment, the Inquiry into Modes of Existence is positive compared to the negative version which I gave twenty years ago.

The book is subtitled “An Anthropology of the Moderns” and there is an accompanying research website. Could you explain what you intend for the site and the information that will be gathered?

The size of the enterprise is, of course, ridiculously big because the idea is to do something which is rarely done, that is, to try to attack simultaneously many of the components that are the inheritance of the so-called modern, a category which itself needs to be, as I just said, rethought. So, there is the size of the enterprise but also the necessity of doing it as one project and not in separate chunks, because, first, people are more and more sort of disciplined and working along very, very small little chunks of anthropology which is, of course, good for the quality of the data, but sometimes you forget the big picture, so to speak. I couldn’t do that myself, so I just started – I’ve quite a long investment in this project for more than twenty-five years now – and I thought it could invent, using new digital techniques, a sort of collaborative effort. Not in the sense of outsourcing – not a wiki, though this could have been a solution – but more focused on collective enterprise. So this is why there is a paper book, plus a website, plus people who are monitoring, five people who would be moderators, plus a community, which we hope will exist, of people interested in becoming co-inquirer of that project at the end of a year – we have one more year to go – and of course it will continue afterward, but for one more year organized with money to do so. We hope that the documentation and the sharing of experiences along those lines which have been developed in the book will be increased. And, of course, lots of new versions of what I’ve said will be available, and that will allow us, probably in July, to rewrite a better account of many of the issues which are developed in the book in a more sketchy form.

Have you moved beyond actor-network theory to modes of existence?

Well, actually, the two projects developed in parallel but in effect they appear to be sort of two steps, one being the actor-network argument and the other one the modes of existence argument, but in fact you cannot do one without the other. Without the actor-network theory, the notion of association and the deployment of the variety and the heterogeneity of the associations, it’s impossible to hear or to listen or to register what the modes are. So, the two modes which are now given an acronym, [NET] and [PRE], or preposition, work together, so to speak, to open up a field of inquiry. The problem is that it’s pretty difficult to see that there is an anthropology of the modern that is feasible, because the uncertainty of what the moderns are attached with is too great. Do we defend science in the sort of mystical and politicized idea of many philosophers of science, or science as practice and action, and it’s completely different; same thing for politics, same thing for law, and of course, for economics. So, you need tools to just see that it’s possible to do anthropology of the modern, and in that sense actor-network theory has done its job, but it cannot do the job just by itself. It needs to be complimented. One is the networks and the other one is the connectors, so to speak, of these networks. If you want, one gives the association and the other one gives the color of these associations. That’s one metaphor that might explain the connection between the two.

The phrase “modes of existence” has been used by Gilbert Simondon and Étienne Souriau. When did you first encounter their work, and what was it that first drew you to them?

Simondon is, in France at least, pretty well-known, I mean if you look at the bookshelf for philosophy of technics, philosophy of technology – there are not that many books – and so I read Simondon many years ago. He’s part of a sort of normal literature on technics, and when I began to study technology myself as an actor-network person, of course Simondon was in the back of my mind. Much later, that is about ten years ago I discovered Souriau who is totally unknown in France. I mean he used to be known, but not by my generation, and I learned of him from, as I did many things, Isabelle Stengers’ work. We republished his book in French, and that’s a radical book, it’s actually a very interesting book but it’s perfectly obscure. My version of it is a highly clarified and probably simplified version of Souriau, but he gave me the courage to move on and attempt this impossible exercise.

You talk about information as Double Click in the Inquiry. What does it mean to “resist” Double Click?

Obviously, when you get a piece of information you know that it has been transformed pretty much, framed, selected, and that it’s the result of a long work of decision, of mediation, to use our term, and once it arrives as information it has been the result of a pretty great number of transformations. And that’s obvious about the media, everyone knows that. I mean, you would be a complete nitwit to believe that what you see on the screen is exactly what it is. For media we have a culture of resisting the idea of information without transformation, which is Double Click. Now, of course, we probably have that as well for law; everyone knows that when you get a legal statement there is a long series of highly technical decisions and transformations behind it. We have to transport this culture of simultaneous doubt and belief and confidence and trust, and all the other modes, including of course science, which is usually the place where you say, well, here there is no interference and no transformation whatsoever because we are talking about information which is not transformed, which of course is a complete absurdity when you study the practice of science. So, funnily enough, there is no subject and no topic where the notion of Double Click information actually obtains, and yet we constantly act as if there was a sort of baseline giving information without transformation and that it was a shibboleth that was judging all of the other types of knowledge, practice, experience, that we have. So there’s a strange hesitation when we get into information. One of them is a highly skilled practice of doubting and trust, trusting and doubting those transformations, and on the other hand a very naïve idea that it would be better if there was no transformation, and that’s the sort of hesitation we always have when we talk about information. It could be better if there was no transformation, we say, on the one hand, but on the other, if there was no transformation there would be no information, and I think we hesitate on that. This hesitation, actually, is a particular characteristic of the modern as well.

Technology seems to play an important role in the new book.

One of the goals is to give back a respect for technology, technics as we say in France, but this is only a small part of the whole sort of overview.

Deleuze also seems to be important to the project. Do you still read him?

Yes, of course Deleuze plays quite a big role in the Inquiry because he himself, I mean with Guattari, inWhat is Philosophy?, actually does something which is not unconnected with what I tried with the three modes, it depends how you count. I think actually in this book he quotes Souriau, if I’m not mistaken, especially what he says about fiction is quite interesting and used in the Inquiry quite a lot. But apart from that, I would say no because it’s more metaphysics and the anthropology project is much more empirically based. So I don’t think it connects so well with what Delezue has done. Again, Deleuze is a philosopher. This is not completely a philosophical enterprise. It’s a mixture of philosophy and anthropology. There are lots of words which are similar. I mean in the notes which are now available on the site you will find Deleuze pretty often, but I don’t think it’s now a Deleuzean project. Of course Deleuze is in my bones, so to speak, but I think it’s a very different project now.

How would you describe politics in the Inquiry?

It depends because there are so many different ways of talking about politics. In the Inquiry, one of the general features is we gain a status for politics as a full-fledged mode, which has its own felicity condition and its own very, very specific type of rationality and to respect this rationality which looks from the outside as devious, so to speak; Machiavellian, as it is often said. And that’s pretty important because the idea of standpoint politics, that is, that politics is about expressing values, is clearly paralyzing politics everywhere but especially in the US. So one of the aims of the project is to try to render people sensitive again to the originality of political modes of existence. So that is what the political in the terms of AIME, in the terms of the Inquiry, looks like. Now of course politics as an institution is something else entirely.

Is interdisciplinary study possible in the university?

Well, I’ve been a dean for five years so I’ve tried to do a little bit of that but I’m not terribly confident that the university is still a relevant innovator for these things. I think the university is certainly something that has to be reinvented but how to do it I have no idea.

You use the concept of diplomacy in the new work. Why diplomacy?

I borrowed it from Isabelle Stengers’ work, in Cosmopolitics, because it sort of gives an idea of what it is to reenter into in all these questions of anthropology, without having only knowledge as a horizon. This is a disputed thing, of course, but I think it’s useful because it gives another sort of tonality which is more adjusted to the postcolonial and sort of post-ethnocentric, if this exists, view of anthropology, which is more like building a common ground  which does not exist yet at all. Not only at the level of politics but also at the level of ontology, and that’s a disputed thing, of course, it’s a much disputed problem for anthropologists. We will discuss that in Chicago next month. But I think it’s quite an interesting word when you begin to reopen the many ways there are to re-approach the question of ontologies. To do that on the horizon of knowledge is probably not exactly the way to do it. So that’s why diplomacy is there, to say, okay, the whole question of comparison, of building the common world, of building common ground has to be carefully reopened, so to speak.

Speaking of ontology, what are your thoughts on object-oriented ontology, in computers and philosophy?

Computer ontology is something different because it’s a question of nomenclature, of naming things, which is of course a very interesting field, technically. Object-oriented philosophy is philosophy, and it’s an interesting movement but it is not contributing much to field work, and I’m interested in concepts only if they allow us to do something different to register field work. So far I am not aware of empirical field studies which have been influenced or at least clearly influenced by this philosophical movement. But that might come, and it will be probably good.

What are you currently working on? What is the next step?

I’m full speed in the contributing part of the Inquiry, because now the website is out and next week we will have a contribution column, so we will see how people can actually not only read the book and the footnotes but also begin to provide some of the feedback and some of the other documentation that we are interested in, so this is a lot of work for another year. I am also very much engaged in big data for social sciences with another project. I’m also doing a play on Gaia and working on the Gifford Lectures and so I’m pretty busy.

Can you talk about your interest in art and how you see it next to philosophy and politics?

I don’t think you can make a lot of distinction nowadays between the vast amounts of innovation there is in art forms, also in the digital, and in the social sciences. I’ve always considered that this was the same problem in different mediums, if you want. So, while to give the Gifford Lectures is an intellectual enterprise, and to write a play on Gaia, to put it on stage, is of course a different genre, the intellectual problems and the concepts which have to be elaborated are not very different. For me, it’s the same thing. That’s why I built a little program in art and politics in my school, and that’s why I did the exhibition and many other things. I’m not an artist and I don’t claim to be but I think that many of the interesting ways of exploring philosophy now is done in collaboration with science on one side, of course, and with art on the other. I don’t find that philosophy, at least in Europe, as a field can lead to the sharing of experience that I’m interested in. Figure/Ground, by the way, is a good way to talk about Gaia and the play because we define the play, which is going to be premiered this week, as exactly an inversion of figure/ground; what was in the ground is now on the stage, so to speak. So it’s a good metaphor for what’s happened. Everything which was in the ground is now a figure. Everything which was background is now foreground.

*This interview took place while Dr. Latour was in Canada, staying at the Peter Wall Institute for the bi-annual Wall Exchange lecture. Special thanks to Nicola Johnson.

© Bruno Latour and Figure/Ground Communications. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Bruno Latour and Figure/Ground Communications with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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