Dolls, Demons and DNA

Barbara Herrnstein Smith

  • On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods by Bruno Latour
    Duke, 157 pp, £12.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 0 8223 4825 2

Do scientific facts and entities such as microbes, neurons or the structure of DNA exist prior to their discovery, or are they the product of scientific activity? The answer – ‘prior, of course’ – would have seemed obvious a generation ago to most scientists, philosophers and other generally sensible people. That a different answer is possible, even preferable, owes much to the work of French sociologist-philosopher Bruno Latour.

Latour came into view in the 1980s as an uncommonly engaging as well as radical practitioner of the new discipline of science studies. The accounts of scientific facts and technological artefacts set out in his early books – Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, co-authored with the British sociologist Steve Woolgar (1979); Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (1987); The Pasteurisation of France (1988); and Aramis, or The Love of Technology (1996) – were lively and innovative. The views, themes and concepts he developed in his later works – We Have Never Been Modern (1993); Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies (1999); Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (2004); and Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory (2005) – have been taken up by scholars across the social sciences and humanities, many of them in fields far from the orbit of science studies.

In some quarters Latour’s ideas have proved unsettling, not to say infuriating. His statements, often in garbled versions, were targets of choice for science warriors throughout the 1990s and continue to be cited (and garbled) in popular writings as examples of ‘postmodernist’ thought at its wildest. But significant and no less unsettling alternatives to prevailing accounts of scientific knowledge had been developed earlier by other historians, sociologists and philosophers of science, notably Paul Feyerabend, Ludwik Fleck, Thomas Kuhn, Michel Foucault and David Bloor. If Latour’s work has caused particular distress, it is at least in part because of his flagrantly cosmopolitan style: witty, imaginative, literate and unrelentingly ironic. For some, all this spells something manifestly frivolous and naturally suspect. Others, including many not ordinarily drawn to treatises on science and technology, are attracted by Latour’s style into engaging with ideas they find illuminating and a mode of analysis they can use.

According to actor-network theory, the set of ideas with which Latour is most closely identified, the stability, reliability and seeming autonomy of scientific facts and entities are produced and sustained by networks of interacting agents – nonhuman as well as human, objects as well as organisms, operating outside as well as inside laboratories. The agents include, as one would expect, scientists and technicians, but also sick cattle, anxious farmers, greedy investors, clean petri dishes, sharp styluses and the brains of guillotined rats. To understand how science produces knowledge, we must study it on the wing, when the facts are still controversial and the entities still unstable, before they have been ‘black-boxed’ and the crucial processes of assembly, association and translation have been forgotten or obscured. Accounts of scientific knowledge in actor-network studies do not rest on the ‘rational reconstruction’ of individual scientists’ observations and inferences (a standard project in the philosophy of science) or the identification of external ‘social factors’ or underlying ‘social interests’ (the emphasis of much conventional sociology of science), but on an empirically detailed tracing of the interdependent activities of multiple heterogeneous agents. Thus The Pasteurisation of France reveals how the efforts of baffled hygienists, the effects of various micro-organisms, the differing resources and interests of bacteriologists and physicians, and the near defeat of the colonial enterprise by malaria (a ‘struggle’, Latour writes, ‘between the microparasites and the macroparasites’), came together in laboratories, clinics and jungle outposts to produce both the triumph of the microbe theory of disease and the attribution of that triumph to the genius of Louis Pasteur. Parallels to Tolstoy’s account of Kutuzov’s military triumph at Borodino are underlined by the book’s French title, Les Microbes: guerre et paix.

Latour has described his general project as the ‘comparative study of the various ways in which the central institutions of our cultures produce truth’. The scope of his investigations has broadened from science and technology to art, city planning, environmental politics and, in a recent book, law. Anthropologist, sociologist and philosopher of whatever he studies, he is also a scholar of language and rhetoric and, it now appears, a deft theologian.

In the title chapter of The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods, a translation of a long essay dating from 1996 (I should say here that I am one of the editors of the series in which the book is published), Latour argues that to be constructed – manmade, built, fabricated, put together from heterogeneous elements – is not to be unreal, illusory or false. Scientific facts, like technological artefacts, are constructed by humans, but both are nonetheless real in the sense of being – at least provisionally – stable and consequential. This much repeats the essentials of actor-network theory, but Latour’s important claim here is that the same can be said of religious beings: divinities and demons, icons and fetishes. The French noun le fait, he observes, ‘means both “what somebody has fabricated” (the manufactured thing) and “what nobody has fabricated” (the autonomous fact)’. This is not, he insists, a contradiction, but to understand why requires us to ‘abandon critical thought, forget notions of belief, magic, hypocrisy and autonomy’, and let go of ‘the stunning mastery that has made us Moderns and proud of it’. The logic is typical of Latour: if we grant, because we understand, the constructed nature of real scientific entities (‘facts’), then we should be prepared to understand, and accordingly to grant, the reality of constructed religious entities (‘fetishes’).

Gold Coast natives, scorned by Portuguese explorers and traders, maintained that certain crude dolls, made by their own hands, were gods. They had constructed something, Latour comments, ‘that went beyond them’. Is this not also true, he asks, of the entities constructed by scientists: Pasteur’s ‘ferment of lactic acid’ for instance, the existence of which emerges only through laboratory apparatus and tests? We moderns, no less than the supposedly primitive worshippers of fabricated gods, invest that which we have made (fait, fact, fétiche – the etymologies merge) with a power that goes beyond us. Remarking the similarities between the modes of existence of scientific facts and sacred beings is an example of the more general method Latour calls ‘symmetrical anthropology’: observing, describing and explaining Western beliefs and practices as if they were those of an exotic culture, without drawing familiar distinctions or assuming Western metaphysics. The method, which is a key feature of Latourian science studies (it corresponds to the symmetrical historiography that replaces triumphalist – Whiggish – history of science), can be seen as an effort to maintain scrupulous epistemic impartiality. But it also operates here as an elaborated instance of the argument known – especially in theological circles, as a rejoinder to derisive atheists – as tu quoque: ‘You, too! You, the supposedly enlightened ones, do just what you scorn us, the supposedly benighted ones, for doing.’

‘This is the advantage of symmetry,’ Latour writes. ‘By taking the most respected beings of a culture – our own – as examples, we can shed light on the most despised beings of another culture.’ The most respected beings here are well-established scientific entities such as genes or neurons. The most despised beings include African fetishes, voodoo demons and the Virgin as sighted at Lourdes, all dismissed by moderns though not all exactly ‘of another culture’. ‘All ask to exist,’ he continues, ‘none is caught in the choice – viewed (by Moderns) as a matter of good sense – between construction and reality, but each requires particular forms of existence whose list of specifications must be carefully drawn up.’ This last point is crucial. A scientific fact, like a fetish doll, acquires potency in a framework – or ‘network’ – of specific ideas, habits, material apparatus and professional skills, and the potency of a fact (what we may call its truth or reality), like that of a religious fetish, cannot survive outside its framework. Gods and facts are not autonomous: they are constructed. Not out of thin air, mere words or wishes, but by collectives using materials and instruments in the context of particular practices: these are what establish and sustain the truth and reality of gods and facts.

In registering similarities between scientific facts and religious fetishes, Latour is not seeking to demote science. What he does seek to unsettle is a set of powerful but dubious dichotomies central to Western thought: object as divided from subject; real as divided from fabricated; nature as divided from society; and knowledge as distinguished from (mere) belief. But in doing so he also – not, one may think, incidentally – elevates the practices and experiences of those who worship fetishes, fear demons and have visions of the Virgin. They are given epistemic dignity if not intellectual authority.

In granting reality to gods and other questionable beings, Latour does not claim that they are independent of culturally specific human experiences; but neither does he allow them to be explained as mere projections of these experiences. ‘There is,’ he insists, certainly exaggerating, ‘nothing psychological in any of this,’ and, later, ‘religion … has nothing to do with subjectivity.’ Latour’s rejection of standard understandings of subjects and objects as necessarily or properly distinct – he sees humans and non-human ‘quasi-objects’ as essentially entangled – makes possible his original but equivocal ontological formulations. ‘The construal “factish”,’ he writes, ‘authorises us to not take too seriously the ways in which subjects and objects are conventionally conjoined.’ The construal also allows us – and him – not to take too seriously the question of what can and cannot be called real. Many will raise their hands in horror at the blurring of that distinction. Latour’s artful finesses, however, may open the way to useful alternatives both to the array of more or less dubious views that some philosophers defend as ‘realism’ (roughly, the contention that various things, from rocks, tables and quarks to mathematical truths and moral obligations, exist altogether independent of anyone’s perceptions or descriptions of them) and also to the ‘anti-realist’ views, many of them maintained by nobody (notably, the claim that there is no external reality or that it’s all just discourse), often seen as required by a rejection of such realism.

In his second chapter, ‘What Is Iconoclash?’, Latour extends his analysis to art. Science, art and religion are all modes of image-making, he observes, but each involves ‘different patterns of belief, rage, enthusiasm, admiration, diffidence, fascination and suspicion’ with respect to representation. Scientific images, such as models, diagrams and satellite photographs, are representations of atoms, light and galaxies, but they are taken for the world itself. ‘And yet … it slowly becomes clearer that without huge and costly instruments, large groups of scientists, vast amounts of money, and long training, nothing would be visible in such images. It is because of so many mediations that they are able to be so objectively true.’ Contemporary art seeks to complicate our reaction to representations and make us aware of images’ status as images. This art is, at the same time, iconoclastic, smashing every traditional aspect of art: image, canvas, paint, colour, patron, museum and indeed our understanding of what it is to be an artist. Yet ‘the more art has become a synonym for the destruction of art, the more art has been produced, evaluated, talked about, bought and sold, and, yes, worshipped.’

Latour alludes here to ‘routine patterns of respect, wonder, diffidence, worship and confidence, which usually distinguish religious, scientific and artistic mediations’. His efforts to ‘redistribute’ these patterns are extended in the third and final chapter, in which he compares ‘religious speech-acts’ to what he calls ‘double-click communication’ (evidently the dream of unmediated reference). A double-click message would interest us because of its information content: its truth would consist in the presumed correspondence of that content to some state of affairs in the world. A religious speech-act, on the other hand (presumably a prayer, vow or ritual utterance; not an edict or encyclical), ‘transports’ not information but persons, and its truth is attested by the renewal of their confidence (Latour does not write ‘faith’) in the reality of something crucial – a sense of presence and futurity, closeness and temporal continuity. These contrasts are to some extent familiar from J.L. Austin’s speech-act theory, but Latour puts them in the service of an explicitly rhetorical as well as intellectual project: ‘to talk, nay to preach, religion … so as to obtain enough common experience that it can be analysed afterwards.’

The effects that religious talk has on a receptive audience are not, Latour insists, mysterious or transcendent. We are familiar with them from other quite mundane uses of language, notably ‘love talk’ – the charged questions posed and intense assurances exchanged between lovers. Clearly, he writes, it would be wrong to claim that such sentences as ‘I love you’ have no truth value just because they possess no informational content. ‘On the contrary … it is a very important matter – one to which we devote many nights and days – to decide whether they are truthful, faithful, deceitful, superficial or simply obscure and vague.’ Similarly, it is wrong, in seeking to understand the angel Gabriel’s salutation to the Virgin, to ask who Mary was, to wonder ‘whether or not she was really a Virgin’ or to investigate whether she was being impregnated with ‘spermatic rays’. In a bold flourish, he addresses his audience directly: ‘The only way to understand stories, such as that of the Annunciation, is to repeat them, that is, to utter again a Word that produces in the listener the same effect, namely one that impregnates with the gift of renewed presence. Here and now I am your Gabriel.’

Latour extends the point by turning to some vivid images from Christian iconography, including a trompe l’oeil painting of the face of Jesus on the Veronica cloth. We should not assess religious images by their fidelity to a presumed true original. Nor should we isolate (‘freeze-frame’) them from the flow of mediating representations that enable their truths to be realised (Latour’s revised understanding of the second commandment). Rather, we should continue and prolong the flow of images. Thus the story is told of Pope Gregory, who, during a celebration of the Mass, suddenly saw Christ on the altar in his real, not symbolic, flesh. The painter of the scene (somewhat ‘gory’, Latour acknowledges) continues ‘the miracle’ in a picture that enjoins viewers to remember what the liturgy, ‘this old mysterious text’, is really about.

Latour evidently seeks to evoke for his audiences the ways in which, through a chain of representations (old texts, old tales, old paintings, weekly sermons, daily Masses), religious language and images make the meaning of ‘distant things’, such as the Annunciation or the Passion, present and real to communicants. And in an arresting doubling of the point, he notes that in science as well, the existence and forms of ‘distant things’ are made real and true through chains of linked representations such as reports, charts, photographs and theories. Writing against mystery-mongering theology on the one hand and flat-footed empiricist epistemology on the other, Latour maintains that current views of the relation between religious belief and scientific knowledge amount to caricatures of both. ‘Belief is not a quasi-knowledge question plus a leap of faith to reach even further away; knowledge is not a quasi-belief question that would be answerable by looking at things close at hand.’ Rather, the leap of faith in religion aims ‘towards the present and the close: to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation.’ Conversely but comparably, knowledge in science ‘is not a direct grasp of the plain and visible … but an extraordinarily daring, complex and intricate confidence in chains of nested transformations of documents that, through many different types of proofs, lead away toward new types of visions, which force us to break away from the intuitions and prejudices of common sense.’ The inversions and parallels here are striking, as remote from the shallow scientism of some publicly visible anti-religionists as from the minimally informed anti-science grumbles of some scholars and defenders of religion. Here and throughout the book, sophisticated actor-network accounts of scientific knowledge are tied together with compelling explorations of religious experience to yield a singular, symmetrical anthropotheology.

Clearly ism-assignment doesn’t get one very far in understanding the substance or significance of Latour’s thought. ‘Postmodernist’, ‘realist’ and a number of other labels assigned to him are more or less manifestly inapt. If the term ‘postmodernism’ identifies anything at all, it is the contemporary effort to radicalise the scepticism of ‘modern’ – which is to say, Enlightenment – thinkers. But it is precisely the claim to enlightenment and the related imperative to disenchantment that Latour derides most strenuously in those he calls moderns and, not to his credit but consistent with his views in this regard, he has little but ill to say about the contemporary figures, such as Jean-François Lyotard and Jacques Derrida, whom he identifies as postmoderns. Latour’s account of the strictly contingent reality of scientific entities and the highly conditional but not merely subjective reality of demons and divinities puts him at odds not only with so-called scientific realism and various other realist ontologies, but also with any classic idealism. Latour identifies himself as a church-going Catholic and many of his tastes, intellectual and aesthetic, appear to follow suit: his appreciation of mediation, for example, or his aversion to iconoclasm. The accounts of truth regimes and reality effects that he has developed over the past thirty years, however, exceed his personal affiliations by a good measure and correspond to the claims of no recognisable metaphysical position.