10:25 p.m. 6.Sep.99

Infamous Diagrams
Eugene Thacker on Bruno Latour

This morning the well-respected sociologist of science Bruno Latour delivered an articulate mapping of the complexities within the relationships between the domains of representing nature and representing culture. Latour expressly used the term "representative" in its political sense to talk about the ways in which different agents - both human and non-human - act upon and make sense of the world.

Latour suggested that, during the modern period (which reaches a high point for him during the 17th and 18th century with experimental science), there existed a "bifurcation" between, on the one hand, activities working upon things (germs, plants, natural elements), and activities working upon society (govermental organization, legislation, human rights, and so forth). While the aim of the former was to generate scientific "facts," the aim of the latter was to delegate "meaning" or value. In fact, Latour suggests that modern experimental science (cf. his book on Pasteur, _The Pasteurization of France_) gauged its legitimacy by its distance from the social. During this period the domain of the political thus became farther and farther detached from the technical and epistemological activity of the sciences.

Latour suggested that not only did this bifurcation fail, especially in contemporary contexts such as the biodiversity and biotech, but, this "modern" worldview (scientists work upon things and produce fact, politicians delegate meaning within society) has in fact never existed. Latour was explicit in stating that this does not mean that science is simply a social construction, but he was also equally explicit in suggesting that what we have are not hard divisions, but networks and complex relationships.

Because contemporary issues such as stem cell research, genetic cloning, genetic patenting, and many others combine scientific technique, scientific information, institutions, govermental bodies, media and news reports, medical patients, and of course cells and biologies, for Latour the modern worldview is no longer tenable.

Given this, Latour presented a rough outline of what he elsewhere called an "actor-network" theory (cf. _We Have Never Been Modern_). In short, this alternative mapping invokes not only the human agencies involved in the process of science (researchers, institutions, etc.), but it also attempts to take into account "nonhumans" - the cells, technologies, analytical systems, environments, and apparatus of scientific practice. These nonhumans do not have the same kind of agency which human subjects have, but, Latour proposes, they are not simply inert, transparent tools either, but intricately involved in the process of producing scientific fact.

Lastly, Latour suggested that what is needed to address the current issues in the lifesciences, is not only dialogue or education, but a layering of different kinds of activity in common arenas. This means that scientists should not simply be barred from the activity of value-making or meaning-making, because their work is integrated deep within society. It also means that politicians (theorists, activists, officials, etc.) should not assume their exclusion from the knowledges and practices of science. The areas we call "science," "politics," "ethics," and "art" require, for Latour, a hybrid overlapping of activity, producing not a society, but what he called a "collective."

And yes, there were many of his infamous diagrams.