I’m a big fan of Bruno Latour’s early work, from Laboratory Life to Science in Action and The Pasteurization of France, along with his co-authored essays with Callon. They’re fantastic entry points into science studies in general, and actor-network theory in particular with its sometimes confusing ontological language of actants and networks and enrolling and objects with agency and all that. Latour’s later work diverges (evolves?) a bit from this starting point and takes up much more the question of politics, and democracy. These themes are present in Pasteurization for sure, but they become much more central in the 1990s and 2000s. On first reading some of these pieces, I didn’t quite get it. Why the sudden fascination with democratic decision-making, with hybrid fora, and all that?
I just read a short, clear essay that does the best job of any of Latour’s recent work at explaining his position and why it matters, “From Multiculturalism to Multinaturalism: What Rules of Method for the New Socio-Scientific Experiments?” (2011) The essay rehashes some of Latour’s claims from earlier books, and nicely summarizes his antimodernist position. Here’s a nice, juicy quote on how to tell if you are a modernist, a postmodernist, or a non-modernist:
Those who dream of separating facts and values even farther are what I called “modernists.” For them, there exists an arrow of time, a thrust forward, that clearly distinguishes the past from the future: “Yesterday,” they say, “we were still mixing things up, ends and means, science and ideology, things and people, but tomorrow for sure we will separate facts and values even more sharply; we won’t confuse the way the world really is and the way it should be any more; others were confused by this in the ancient past, but we won’t be confused in the future.” Pass the test, make the experiment, and ask yourself, right now, if you feel that the arrow of time flows in this way for you. If so, you are a modernist. Nothing wrong with that! You are in good company. But if you hesitate, you are a “postmodernist.” And if, in the depths of your heart, you are convinced that, if yesterday things were a bit confused and entangled, and that tomorrow facts and values, humans and non-humans, will be even more entangled than yesterday, then you have stopped being modern. You have entered a different world, or, more exactly, you have stopped believing that you are in a different world from the rest of humanity. (6)
Latour goes on to draw out consequences for this attempt to “disinvent modernity”. In particular, analogizing between taxes and innovation:
“No innovation without representation.” In the same way that the benevolent monarchies of the past imagined they could tax us for our own good without us having a say in their budget because they alone were enlightened enough to understand, in the same way, the new enlightened elite have been telling us for too long that there is only one best way for the innovation they have devised, and that we should simply follow them for our own good. (15)
In other words, since we live in an ordinary world, one where humans and non-humans, facts and value are all tangled up, we can’t rely on technical, scientific or business elites to make decisions for us about what the right path forward is. Latour trumpets a version of the precautionary principle, the latest fad in decision-making under uncertainty. This principle is not simply one that urges caution or inaction in the fact of unknowns – that would be an impossible rule, since the future is always uncertain. Rather, the precautionary principle calls for “experimentation, invention, exploration, and of course risk-taking…. For all our actions we consider risk-taking and precaution-taking as synonymous: the more risk we take, the more careful we are. … Care and caution go together with risk-taking.” (12-13)
I buy it. But I do wonder how it interacts with another excellent Latour essay, “Why has critique run out of steam?” and the “new” problem in science studies: what to do about Tobacco science, climate skepticism, and the like. What do we do when the process of scientific consensus formation has worked the way it’s supposed to, but governments and major institutions remain inert. I see how the call to risk-taking, to acting under uncertainty but with care, runs directly against the “wait and see” defense of climate skeptics (for example). But I still wonder if we really have as much to struggle against in terms of the overall legitimacy of experts to make decisions for us as we used to. But, then again, Latour is very much speaking to Europe here and excludes the US explicitly. Hmm..