Bruno Latour, the preeminent sociologist, original anthropologist, and highly influential thinker, dies aged 75. This is devastating news and an enormous loss.
If there is a scholar whose tremendous contribution would be simply impossible to describe in a short blog post — this would be Latour’s. Even the Holberg Prize‘s – the most important award in humanities and social sciences – citation sounds unforgivably plain: “Latour has undertaken an ambitious analysis and reinterpretation of modernity, challenging the most fundamental categories such as the distinction between modern and pre-modern, nature and society, human and non-human”. Latour’s scholarly life reflects, and embodies, an inexhaustible, noble fountain of groundbreaking knowledge, pioneering research and intellectual inspiration. Some of his outstanding, iconoclastic, and already classical books are listed, however, below.
As a young PhD student I had a unique opportunity to introduce myself and briefly talk to Professor Latour beneath the gilded ceilings of the historical Paris Stock Exchange, at the gala reception of the 2009 SASE conference. This was, and will be, an rare encounter to remember.
In February 2014, Latour gave the Royal Academy Lecture in the Humanities and Social Sciences at the Royal Library of Denmark titled “On some of the affects of capitalism”. I hereby combined several key excerpts from this discerning and thought-provoking lecture, which in a nutshell represent Latour’s enlightening insights into topics our community focuses on, following the path Latour also paved — the political economy of capitalism and the sociology of economics.
“If the world were a bank, they would have already bailed it out”. Such is the slogan painted by Greenpeace militants in one of their recent campaigns. It says a lot about our level of intellectual corruption that we don’t find such a line simply funny but tragically realistic. It has the same bleak degree of realism as Frederick Jameson’s famous quip that: “Nowadays it seems easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism!”.
If you call the world, I mean the world we all live in, “first nature” and capitalism our “second nature” — in the sense of that to which we are fully habituated and which has been totally naturalized — then what those sentences are saying is that the second nature is more solid, less transitory, less perishable than the first. No wonder: the transcendent world of beyond has always been more durable than the poor world of below. But what is new is that this world of beyond is not that of salvation and eternity, but that of economic matters. As Karl Marx would have said, the realm of transcendence has been fully appropriated by banks! Through an unexpected turn of phrase, the world of economy, far from representing a sturdy down to earth materialism, a sound appetite for worldly goods and solid matters of fact, is now final and absolute. How mistaken we were; apparently it is the laws of capitalism that Jesus had in mind when he warned his disciples: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt 24-35). […]
What is there, in this second nature, that generates such a lack of sensitivity to the worldly conditions of our existence? This is the problem we have to tackle.
I will take capitalism to mean not a thing in the world, but a certain way of being affected when trying to think through this strange mixture of miseries and luxuries we encounter when trying to come to terms with the dizzying interplays of “goods” and “bads”. Capitalism is a concept invented to help absorb this odd mixture of enthusiasm for the cornucopia of riches that has lifted billions of people out of abject poverty and the indignation, rage and fury in response to the miseries visited on billions of other people. Especially troubling to me is the feeling of helplessness that is associated with any discussion of economics and that I have so much trouble reconciling with what I consider science’s and politics’ main effects, these being the opening of new possibilities and the provision of margins to maneuver […].
Is there an alternative? It appears that the solution will not come from dialectics with capitalists “digging their own grave” but from the first nature. It is ironic to think that so much saliva has been spent to save higher values from the risk of commodification when the question should rather have been to bring this whole enterprise down to earth. But which Earth? How to resist the transcendence of capitalism parading as immanence?
Let me phrase a possible alternative as a set of theses, and you will forgive me for listing eleven of them, using as a template the most famous list offered by Marx’s critique of Feuerbach. For obvious reasons I will start from the last one, namely the 11th thesis:
Thesis 11: Economists have hitherto only changed the world in various ways, the point is now to interpret it.
Thesis 1: Economics and its associated retinue of skills and trades — accounting, marketing, design, merchandizing, business training, organization studies, management — do not make up a science that would be studying a material world, but a set of disciplines in charge of extracting from the social and natural world another world that would have remained transcendent without this violent act of performation.
Thesis 2: Economics, as a discipline, has helped format local forms of “market organizations” which are entirely mundane, makeshift affairs depending so much on culture, law, and geography that they should not, in any circumstances, be transformed into a “system” and especially not into a “natural” system. The word “law” in the “laws of economics” should be understood as in “civil laws”, that is as a highly revisable affair in the hands of a polity. Not as a law of a transcendent world in the hands of an invisible deity.
Thesis 3: To be radical a “radical critique” of an unfair, destructive and unsustainable “system” should abstain from falling into the trap of fighting a system. It is because it is not transcendent and because it obeys no superior laws that any “market organization” may spread and it is for the same reasons that it may be amended, modified, corrupted, reformed or reorganized. To be radical a critique should follow the exact same paths through which the extension of standards, templates or metrological chains occurs. As soon as it jumps to another superior level, it ceases to be radical — that is, close to the roots of the problem.
Thesis 4: If it is true that the word “economy” and the word “liberty” have been linked throughout history, then this liberty should be expanded — yes, radically expanded — to all the devices, experiments, instruments, voting mechanisms, shares and stocks that constitute the makeshift, artificial and constantly reengineered armamentarium of the economy. Liberalism means “not letting anything go, not letting anything pass”.
Thesis 5: To be radical, that is, to be liberal, an interpretation of the working of economics and its “market organizations” should be of this Earth. No transcendent power, neither God nor Mammon, is at work in the economy. If it is true that economics inherits from the old “oeconomia” of the Greek Fathers, that is, the “dispensatio” by God the Creator, then it should inherit also all the qualities of such a providential plan, namely the suspension of fate, of slavery and domination and receive all the promises of salvation. It is blasphemous to use Providence to mean that the inflexible power of fate has been once again imposed upon the human race after it has been delivered from poverty.
Thesis 6: The transcendence of a world of beyond has been displaced in this world of below to the point that the spatial and time coordinates have been radically subverted. Space has become indifferent to place, soil and localities. Friends, commensals and allies have been treated as utter strangers. Future and past have been aligned on a sort of “inclined plane” as if the future was nothing but the repayment of the debts contracted in the past. Thus, transcendence has been turned into utopia. Hence the brutalism associated with so much modernization.
Thesis 7: There is a deep contradiction in the unleashing of the boundless possibilities of science and technology and, on the other hand, in the constant use, throughout the history of economic thought, of the “models of nature”. Newtonian physics, natural history, Darwinism, thermodynamics, cybernetics, immunology, computer, brain sciences—dozens of disciplines have each in turn been used as models for how economic forces are supposed to function. And each in turn has used economic theory to develop their concepts, to the point where “natural economics” has become an oxymoron. But if first and second nature have constantly exchanged their concepts, so far it has always been to render the necessities of economic fate even more indisputable. Ecologizing economics cannot mean a new appeal to nature to make sure than even more people are absent from the automatic working of the “cycles of nature”. On the contrary, such ecologizing is a way to repopulate the scene that has been emptied.
Thesis 8: The wide expansion of the reach of “market organizations” along metrological chains has created a global domain of transcendent reality — second nature — that is now clashing with another mundane, immanent globe, that of planet Earth, namely Gaia, that is different from nature since it has its own historicity, reactivity, maybe sensitivity, and certainly power. The new fight between the two globes defines our time. Back to Earth your Earthlings!
Thesis 9: There is nothing native, aboriginal, eternal, natural, transcendent in the habits that have been framed during the few centuries “market organizations” have exercised their global reach. No feature of Homo oeconomicusis very old: its subjectivity, its calculative skills, its cognitive abilities, its sets of passions and interests are recent historical creations just as much as the “goods” they are supposed to buy, to sell and to enjoy, and just as much as the vast urban and industrial infrastructure in which they have learned to survive. What has been made so quickly can be unmade just as quickly. What has been designed may be redesigned. There is not fate in the vast landscape of inequalities we associate with the economy and their unequal distribution of “goods” and “bads”, only a slowly built set of irreversibilities. Now that historicity has shifted from the stage to the backstage of human action — namely, from second to first nature — activists should ally themselves with the globe against the global.
Thesis 10: What is true in Jameson’s sentence is that there is something infinite in capitalism in the technical sense of having no limit in time and space and also no end in the sense of a goal or a “telos”. As Marx had demonstrated long ago, capitalism is unlimited because of the cycle that defines its extension (MAM). A form of life that cannot think its end — either in space or in time — does not deserve to be respected any more than a human who does not consider itself as mortal. It is in that sense that the apocalyptic tone used to salute the reemergence of first nature should be welcomed. It helps thinking that the end of capitalism is much more realistic than the end of the world.
I hope you will have forgiven the emphatic tone with which I have delivered those 11 theses. I simply wanted to emphasize the new twist recent history has put on Valery’s famous sentence: “We civilizations now know ourselves mortal”: “We nature, or rather Gaia, now know ourselves mortal”. There is something deeply unsettling in Jameson’s quip. But now that historicity has moved to first nature, there is a chance, probably a very small one, to be a civilization again, that is, a state of affairs that cultivates its own finitude.
The other solution, unfortunately the most probable, is that capitalism in its hyper- or more exactly terminally- modern form takes Jameson’s argument literally and decides that the passing and transitory Earth should be entirely mastered through geoengineering in the most hubristic form of domination. In this case, since indeed the world does not possess the qualification for being a bank, “they will not bail it out.”
Latour, Bruno. 2014. “On Some of the Affects of Capitalism.” The Royal Academy Lecture in the Humanities and Social Science, the Royal Library, Copenhagen.
— Latour, Bruno and Steve Voolgar.1979. Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton University Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action, How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society. Harvard University Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 1991. We Have Never Been Modern. Harvard University Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 1996. Aramis or the Love of Technology. Harvard University Press
— Latour, Bruno. 2002. The Making of Law: An Ethnography of the Conseil d’Etat. Polity Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 2005. Reassembling the Social – An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford University Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 2013. An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns. Harvard University Press
— Latour, Bruno. 2018. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime. Polity Press.
— Latour, Bruno. 2021. After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis. Polity Press.