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.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in