Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 December 2003
Issue No. 668
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Return of the reality principle

Graham Harman* discusses how French philosopher Bruno Latour, lecturing this week at the American University in Cairo, rejects the Kantian tradition putting the human being at the centre of philosophy and, instead, calls for an absolute democracy of objects

This week, the American University in Cairo welcomes Bruno Latour as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Philosophy. Latour teaches at the Center for the Sociology of Innovation at the School of Mines in Paris. Along with his renowned versatility as a sociologist, anthropologist, and historian of science and technology, Latour has emerged as perhaps the most original philosopher in Europe today. His visit to AUC marks the first presentation of his ideas to an Egyptian audience.

In recent decades the intellectual world has felt the impact of the major figures of French postmodernism, as Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida have become household names. All of these figures, but especially Lacan and Derrida, show the notable influence of the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, who exploded into prominence in 1927 with his masterwork Being and Time. In many respects, the work of Heidegger might be viewed as the continuation of an even earlier and greater philosophical upheaval in Germany: the so-called "Copernican Revolution" of Immanuel Kant. In 1781, Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason, in which the traditional forms of metaphysics received a devastating blow whose effects are still felt today. Whereas the great classical philosophers freely discussed such metaphysical topics as the structure of space and time, the nature of the soul, and the essential and accidental qualities of objects, Kant called a halt to this sort of philosophy with a famously radical step. In Kant's view, philosophy is impossible if it attempts to discuss things as they are in themselves; therefore, it is necessary to limit ourselves to discussing the modes of human access to the world. Since none of us can step beyond the boundaries set by the nature of human cognition, philosophy must become more modest, confining itself to a theory of the nature and limits of human experience. One result of this revolution has been the abandonment of direct claims about reality itself in favor of new obsessions with language, logic, sense-perception, moods, or the interpretation of texts -- obsessions defining the work of nearly every key philosopher of the past two centuries. Since Kant, philosophers either have held to a single privileged gap between humans and an incompletely knowable world, or have insisted outright that there is only a play of appearances and no things in themselves at all. But whichever way the domino is flipped, in both cases it is the human being that stands at the center of philosophy.

Latour rejects this tradition completely, which gives his philosophy a startling and paradoxical air. While Lacan and Derrida faithfully echo the breakthroughs of post-Kantian philosophy, Latour invokes a vastly different set of allies, including such unorthodox figures as Michel Serres, Gilles Deleuze, Isabelle Stengers, Peter Sloterdijk, and the obscure French thinkers Gabriel Tarde and Etienne Souriau. Yet his most important model is probably the shy but daring British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, whose best work dates from the same period as Heidegger's. It was Whitehead who made the first frontal challenge to the Kantian tradition, encouraging a return to the intellectual gamblers of seventeenth century philosophy, with their fearless attempts to define the nature of God, time, the soul, and physical matter. Latour's own brand of metaphysics is much earthier than Whitehead's, avoiding cosmological speculation in favor of detailed studies of judicial systems, laboratory experiments, and subway networks. But Latour is united with Whitehead in their shared vision that all forms of reality should be treated equally. Philosophers should speak not just about human existence, but also about viruses, trees, armies, rumors, planets, computers, and monkeys. All of these things are actors in the drama of the world, and all are locked in constant negotiations or exchanges of force -- humans included. This is the famous "actor- network theory" so widely associated with Latour's name.

Latour was born in 1947 in Beaune near Dijon, to the well-known Louis Latour family of wine producers. After a rigorous classical education, he followed his national service obligations to the Ivory Coast. While there, he reflected on the virtues of anthropology, which has shown itself better equipped than philosophy to treat numerous dimensions of reality on an equal footing -- art, language, religion, agriculture, jurisprudence, superstition, and military affairs. Later, he came under the influence of the so-called Edinburgh School of the Sociology of Science, notorious for its "Strong Program" arguing for the social construction of reality. While gradually breaking free of this influence, Latour co-authored his first book with colleague Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life (1979), which examines in detail the process of scientific discovery in the laboratory. The original subtitle of the book, "The Social Construction of Scientific Facts", was later shortened to "The Construction of Scientific Facts", and not for reasons of brevity: the new subtitle, by subtly denying that society constructs facts any more than nature does, already signals the birth of Latour's independent position.

This position becomes fully evident in Latour's classic 1984 book on the medical breakthroughs of Louis Pasteur, translated into English as The Pasteurization of France. This book gives us both a new style of writing the history of science and a new way of analyzing the formation of truth. While preparing this book, the tireless Latour not only studied Pasteur's own writings exhaustively, but researched the major medical literature of France from 1870 to 1919, trying to measure the progress of the Pasteurian revolution in biology. On the one hand, Latour was forced to reject the usual picture of Pasteur as a mighty superhero of knowledge who brought light for the first time to mobs of ignorant French doctors. If Pasteur was able to show the connection between germs and disease, he did this not by pulling away a curtain and pointing to a previously hidden absolute truth. Instead, he had to set into motion numerous actors and form often complicated connections between them, making interfaces between the nineteenth century hygiene movement, factory owners tired of diseased workers, rabid dogs, academic journals, tissue samples, flasks, and beakers. Each of these objects contributed in its own way to supporting or resisting Pasteur's theories. The role of microbes in disease was not a shining isolated fact unveiled forever in an instant, but had to be established by what Latour calls "trials of strength", carefully weighing the various elements that spoke both for and against the hypothesis. But on the other hand, Latour was also compelled to reject any social constructionist account of Pasteur's breakthroughs. After all, children are sickened by microbes and not by arbitrary social forces, while the harsh resistance of Pasteur's fellow scientists was not just the corrupt sophistry of mediocre thugs, but simply a different manner of assessing the trials of strength between real objects. In this way the reality principle, which tends to vanish entirely for the social constructionists of Edinburgh, asserts itself at the very heart of Latour's book. Already, we see him walking the third path between traditional realism and social constructionism, the alternate route for which he has become famous.

Latour ends his detailed work on Pasteur with a short philosophical treatise called "Irreductions", surely the most important appendix to any philosophical book of the 1980's. This treatise shows the heavy influence of Nietzsche, not only in its aphoristic style, but in its content as well. The meaning of "irreduction" is that no object is inherently either reducible or irreducible to any other. All entities, whether natural or artificial, human or nonhuman, jostle for position in the same universe, resisting or crumbling or yielding to each other. All forces are on an equal philosophical footing, whether they be scientific facts, physical blows, governmental edicts, occult superstitions, or newspaper editorials. Although each of these entities may have stronger or weaker claims to truth, these claims can only be sorted out through trials of strength in which objective evidence plays a prominent but not exclusive role, along with rhetoric, custom, and sometimes even brute force -- reminiscent of Aristotle's middle ground between Plato and the Sophists. By denying that any particular zone of reality has inherent privilege over the others, Latour extends the postmodern critique of metaphysics. But in a deeper sense, he revives metaphysics by stepping beyond the human sphere into the world as a whole, allowing philosophers to talk not just about human cognition, but also about atoms, factories, nuclear warheads, or perfume.

In 1991, Latour published a book that is often regarded as a kind of manifesto: We Have Never Been Modern (recently translated into Arabic). This book is probably the best introduction to his philosophy, concise and lucid enough to be read in a couple of days. According to Latour, modernity aspires to undertake a double purifying movement: scientific fact is to be purified of any contaminating social biases, while social reality is to be interpreted as the arbitrary production of human decision-makers. Hence the wild swings of modern intellectuals between arrogant hard-core realism and social constructionist sophistry. This mutual quarantine separating society from nature is essentially the same division made by Kant between a structured but limited world of appearances and an elusive underground of absolute things in themselves. But this division is thrown into doubt by the rampant spread of hybrids, objects that are not easily classified as nature or culture. These hybrids are everywhere: Latour notes that a single debate on contraceptives will bring into play "the Pope, French bishops, Monsanto, the fallopian tubes, and some Texas fundamentalists," all of them stepping forward to make various claims for and against the pill in question. The Greenhouse Effect is a Frankenstein's monster pieced together from scientific data and the edicts of world congresses. What we have is neither pure nature nor pure society, but a motley Parliament of Things. And although advanced societies tend to produce hybrid objects in the most obvious ways, hybrids have really always been with us. The universe is not split into two distinct zones, as Kant would have it, but into millions of actors who resist and beckon one another. We have never been modern -- that is to say, we have never been in the position to make a final, radical cut between nature and society. There is no special historical moment when humans pass from naive belief to critical enlightenment, but always just a rearrangement of the chain of objects and forces. And since we have never been modern, there is no absolute gap between the supposed "modern" and "nonmodern" societies.

As might be expected, Latour's middle course has been attacked from both extremes. In the eyes of the Edinburgh School, Latour is now a sellout to old- fashioned naive realism, as expressed most colourfully in David Bloor's 1999 article "Anti-Latour". Meanwhile, many in the hard sciences view Latour as just another French debunker of reality, as seen from Alan Sokal's puzzling inclusion of his work in the infamous 1996 "Social Text" hoax. Yet Latour's explicit position is that neither physical facts nor social forces nor textual discourses make up the whole of reality. His philosophy calls for an absolute democracy of objects.

Among Latour's recent works, Pandora's Hope (1999) and The Politics of Nature (forthcoming in English) are the most complete statements of his new philosophical position. In 2002 he was lured into a new career as art curator, resulting in the successful "Iconoclash" show in Karlsruhe, Germany. Latour's visit offers the Cairene community a rare opportunity to hear an important philosopher whose work is still in its prime phase of development.

For lecture details see Listings

* The writer is assistant professor of philosophy at the American University in Cairo.

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