Bruno Latour

Bruno Latour is now professor at Sciences Po Paris where he is also the vice-president for research of that school. He was trained first as a philosopher and then an anthropologist. From 1982 to 2006, he has been professor at the Centre de sociologie de l'Innovation at the Ecole nationale supérieure des mines in Paris and, for various periods, visiting professor at UCSD, at the London School of Economics and in the history of science department of Harvard University. He is widely famous for his Actor Network Theory.


On the 31st of October, Latour visited RETHINK to give a lecture on the field of nature and politics. Download Latour's slides from the lecture here (ppt, 25mb).

"It's Development, Stupid!" or: How to Modernize Modernization

The modern idea of separating the real from the mere subjective, facts from values, nature from culture hides, according to Bruno Latour, an opposite truth: that man and nature are getting more and more entangled. In relation to the environmental debate Latour argues that this entanglement must be the starting point for future action – a retreat to the nostalgic idea of untouched nature will not truly encounter the problem. The following is an excerpt from Latour’s contribution to the unpublished book of essays, “Postenvironmentalism”, where Latour comments on the book “Break Through – From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” by T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenger.

… The history of modernism is full of paradoxes—I have reviewed many of them in my career—but this one, by the sheer size of its contradiction and the depth to which it eats into contemporary minds is really stunning. In order to size it up, I will follow what T. Nordhaus and M. Shellenberger´s (N&S) book Break Through - From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility manages so well, namely to relate four elements: a stifling belief in the existence of Nature to be protected; a particular conception of Science; a limited gamut of emotions in politics; and finally the direction these give to the arrow of time.

The present situation may be viewed as a consequence of drawing two completely opposite lessons from the same events depending on our definition of modernism. The thrusting-forward arrow of time (“Progress” in the traditional great narrative) and its resulting emotions (juvenile enthusiasm, indifference to the past, risk taking, frontier spirit, optimism) were associated with a very peculiar idea of modernity which may be summarized in one sentence: “Tomorrow, we will be able to separate more accurately what the world is really like from the subjective illusions we used to entertain about it.” As I have shown elsewhere,* the very movement forward of the arrow of time and the frontier spirit associated with it (the modernizing front) was due to a certain conception of knowledge: “Tomorrow, we will be able to differentiate clearly what in the past was still mixed up, namely facts and values, and this because of our confidence in Science.” In such a conception, Science (capital S) is the shibboleth that defines the right direction of the arrow of time because it, and it only, is able to cut into two well separated parts what had remained in the past hopelessly confused: a morass of ideology, emotions and values on the one hand, and, on the other, stark and naked matters of fact. Indeed, the very notion of the past as an archaic and dangerous confusion comes directly from giving Science such a role. A modernist, in this great narrative, is the one who expects from Science the revelation that Nature will finally be visible through the veils of subjectivity—and subjection—that had hidden it to our ancestors. Even if this mental attitude were utterly mistaken, nothing can be understood of the modernist spirit and energy, if one does recognize the beauty and strength of such a view: this picture of the future is so attractive, especially when put against such a repellent past, that it makes one wish to run forward to break all the shackles of ancient existence. Emancipation is the word. Either ecological concerns must manage to be at least as powerful as this modernizing urge or they will repeatedly fail.

And yet, this history of modernism can also be described through a completely different great narrative, so different that there is no way for a modernist mind to reconcile oneself with it—and this is where the paradox lies. Science, technology, markets, etc. have amplified, for at least the last two centuries, not only the scale at which humans and nonhumans are connecting with one another in larger and larger assemblies, but also the intimacy with which such connections are made. Whereas at the time of ploughs we could only scratch the surface of the soil, we can now begin to fold ourselves into the molecular machinery of soil bacteria. While three centuries back we could only dream, like Cyrano de Bergerac, of traveling to the Moon, we now run robots on Mars and entertain vast arrays of satellites to picture our own Earth. While in the past, my Gallic ancestors were afraid of nothing except that the “sky will fall on their heads,” metaphorically speaking, we are now afraid quite literally that the climate could destroy us.

Notice what I am not saying here: I am not saying that the second narrative recovers the “bads” while the first recover the “goods”, that the second is dystopic while the other has always been utopian. No, what distinguishes the second is that we constantly move from a superficial to a deeper interpretation of what it is to be entangled. What, in the first narrative, was taken as the proof of an increasing human mastery and an advance toward greater emancipation, could also be redescribed, not as the dialectical opposite but as an entirely different phenomenon, namely, a continuous movement toward a greater and greater level of attachments of things and people at an ever expanding scale and at an ever increasing degree of intimacy. Emancipation or attachment, two great narratives for the same history.

Everyday in our newspapers we read about more entanglements of science, morality, religion, law, technology, finance and politics, never about less. If you had any doubt, it is enough to read about President Bush’s connection with stem cells and religion, or about the latest Nobel Peace Prize given to the Panel on Climate Change! Depending on which great narrative you follow, the same development of science, technology and markets may be seen as the proof of the modernist emancipation or as the source of larger and more intimate connections between humans, laws, organizations, finance, architecture, ways of life. Emancipation yes, but also, something else, more and more attachments. And, sure enough, everything depends on how you understand the mechanisms by which knowledge is produced. If you envision a future in which there will be less and less of these imbroglios, you are a modernist. But if you brace yourself for a future in which there will be always be more of these imbroglios, mixing many more heterogeneous actors, at a greater and greater scale and at an ever tinier level of intimacy requiring even more detailed care, then you are…what?

That’s the problem: no one can say what you are! The problem is that those attachments have no room whatsoever in the great narrative with which we used to celebrate scientific and technological developments. We have produced what we cannot describe. Modern? Not anymore. Postmodern? Hmmm, almost as bad. “Postenvironmentalist,” then? Horrible and even more depressing.

Everything happens as if modernists were unable to reconcile their idea of Science and Nature—which, remember, according to their narrative, is supposed to be farther and farther removed, as time passes, from law, subjectivity, politics and religion—with the alternative reality that the connections of science and technologies are more pressing everyday, more confusing, requiring even more intervention, more assemblies, more scrutiny, more stewardship. For instance, those who wish to protect natural ecosystems, learn to their stupefaction that they have to work harder and harder—that is, to intervene even more, at always greater level of details, with ever more subtle care—to keep it “natural enough” for Nature-intoxicated tourists to remain happy. The official appearance of natural preserves “untouched by human hands” is contradicted by the proliferation of wildlife outside parks.**  Actually these parks offer a nice simile for the philosophical contradiction I am outlining here: like the parks themselves, Nature, this sacrosanct Nature whose laws should remain “untouched by human values,” needs our constant care, our undivided attention, our costly instruments, our hundreds of thousands of scientists, our huge institutions, our careful funding. We had Nature, we had nurture, but we don’t know what it would mean for Nature itself to be nurtured. The problem is, we don’t know how to deal with this gigantic cognitive dissonance: everywhere attachments and yet no other option than emancipation. We seem to be stuck…  

… The word “environmentalism” thus designates this turning point of history when the unwanted consequences are suddenly considered as such a monstrosity that the only logical step appears to be to abstain and to repent: “We should not have committed so many crimes, now we should be good and limit ourselves.” Or at least this is what people feel and thought before the breakthrough, at the time when there was still an “environment.” But what is the breakthrough itself then? If I am right, the breakthrough consists in no longer seeing a contradiction between the spirit of emancipation and their catastrophic outcomes, but to take it as the normal duty of continuing to take care for the unwanted consequences all the way, even if this means going ever further and further down into the imbroglios. Environmentalists say: “From now on we should limit ourselves,” postenvironmentalists exclaim: “From now on, we should stop flagellating ourselves and take up explicitly and seriously what we have been doing all along at an ever increasing scale, namely, intervening, acting, wanting, caring.” In one case, the return of unexpected consequences appears as a scandal (which it is for the modernist myth of mastery); in the other, they are part and parcel of any action. Rightly, the authors link their definition to the great American political philosophy of pragmatism, a tradition that has been unjustly forgotten during late modernism but that is much better adapted to the new ecological crisis than any present competitor.*** And it should come as no surprise to see that if pragmatism is so much better at politics, it is also because it possessed a radically different theory of science and technology. Again, political epistemology should play a crucial role here: change your ideas of science and you change all the ideas about the past, the future and what you have to do about the world…



* Latour, Bruno. Pandora's Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999.

** Mauz, Isabelle. Gens, Cornes et crocs (Préface de Raphael Larrère). Paris: Editions de l'INRA, 2005.; Western, David, R. Michael Wright, and Shirley Strum, eds. Natural Connections. Perspectives in Community-Based Conservation. Washington DC: Island Press, 1994.

*** I am using the word “unexpected consequence” in the sense of an author that N&S like as much as I do, namely John Dewey. The Public and Its Problems. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1927 1954 even though I differ in their interpretations of what are the pragmata of the pragmatists.


This article is also published in the RETHINK exhibition catalogue which can be purchased at one of the four museums or at the Alexandra Institute. For mail order, please contact Lene Mortensen, bGVuZS5oLm1vcnRlbnNlbkBhbGV4YW5kcmEuZGs=.