Felix Stalder on Mon, 6 Mar 2000 20:29:23 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] Latour's Pandora's Hope (review)

Beyond constructivism: towards a realistic realism

Latour, Bruno (1999). Pandora's Hope. Essays on the Reality of Science
Studies. Cambridge, MA; London, UK: Harvard University Press ISBN
0-674-65331-1 $19.95

Pandora's Hope is an extension and update of Bruno Latour's two most
important books, Science in Action (1987) and We Have Never Been Modern
(1993). In this collection of essays Latour revisits the relationship
between humans, natural and artefactual objects. His tone of voice is at
times slightly annoyed. A certain frustration seems to have arisen from
having to defend himself over and over against allegations of being a
constructivist. Over the course of the essays Latour lays out very strong
arguments why these allegations are unjustified but, nevertheless, why
humans have never been, and never will be, separated from their creations.
For anyone interested in rethinking our relationship to natural or
technological objects, this book is essential reading.

"Do you believe in reality?" A fellow scientist confronted Latour with this
question in an attempt to situate him, and by extension science studies and
actor-network theory (ANT) in general, in the unfolding "science wars".
These wars, unfruitful as all wars, have raged with increased ferocity ever
since Alan Sokal's (in)famous 1996 parody-a deliberately meaningless text
masked as advanced post-modern science critique-in a respectable cultural
studies journal, thus seemingly exposing the nonsense of current social
analysis of science.

The question is quite a challenge. Answering "Yes, I believe in reality"
would place Latour in the camp of modern science (realism), which claims to
discover facts that are "out there", in an objective reality untainted by
social activity. Answering "No, I do not believe in reality" would not only
sound odd, but also put him in the camp of social constructivism and
postmodernism (relativism), which maintain that what appears as reality or
as scientific fact is merely a more or less arbitrary construction that,
for whatever reason, needs to be deconstructed. Taking up the challenge to
formulate an alternative position to both modernist realism and
postmodernist relativism is an enormous project. The way Latour measures up
to this task will to establish him firmly as one of the most original
thinkers on the status of science and technology at the turn of this

Latour calls this alternative a "realistic realism" and offers a qualified
yes regarding his belief in reality. Explicating his qualification is the
goal of this book. Following Latour's argument, the realist's and the
relativist's view of our relationship to the world rest on a shared but
erroneous assumption: an absolute ontological gap separates language from
the world. Both modern and postmodern science presume a gap between the
cognitive subject-a "brain-in-a-vat", as Latour calls it-and the outside
world. Once this gap is accepted, the question boils down to "is it
possible to build a reliable bridge across this gap?" "Yes", says the
realist, "science is that bridge". "No", says the relativist, "science is
just another language game". And Mr. Latour says: "There is no gap!"

In search of this gap, or rather to show us that there is no such gap in
the first place, Latour returns to his origins as an anthropologist of
science. This time he does not follow scientists through the laboratories
at  the Salk Institute in San Diego (Latour, 1979), but ventures with a
group of botanists, biologists, and soil scientists into the rain forest of
Boa Vista (Brazil). The vexing question they try to settle concerns the
course of the boundary between the forest and the savanna. In which
direction does this boundary move? Is the forest advancing or retreating?
The inspection of the field produces seemingly inconclusive evidence. The
question can only be settled through a scientific inquiry which accurately
but selectively represents the forest and the savanna in such a way that
specific relationships become visible. They would otherwise remain hidden
in the mesh of the innumerable relationships that make up reality. Looking
solely at the end points of the scientific practice-the Brazilian rain
forest on one side and the scientific paper in a Parisian office on the
other side-the connection between the world (the thick rain forest) and the
word (the thin report) seems thin and the gap literally thousands of
kilometers wide. However, this a highly incomplete or overly purified view
of the relationship between the two. What is missing are the numerous steps
of translation that allow references to travel this distance in many small
steps, each fairly unproblematic, at least from the ontological
perspective. The translators at work are ontological hybrids in the sense
that they are simultaneously object, that is belonging to the world, and
concept, that is belonging to the word. One of the many hybrid mediators at
work in the field is the "pedocomparator." This scientific tool is a wooden
frame full of small square cardboard boxes. With a cover the frame can be
transformed into a suitcase, so that it can be carried away without mixing
up its contents. One step in the work process of the scientists consists of
filling these boxes with soil from spots that are marked on a map. The
pedocomparator with its contents can be described as a hybrid entity. It is
at the same time an object-a wooden box full of earth--and a scientific
concept, an abstraction of the continuous soil variations in discrete bits
of information, packed, ordered, and precisely numbered in a suitcase. In
this way, the forest is made mobile. In each step that lies between the
untamed rain  forest and the final research report, a similar translation
happens. In numerous steps references are being extracted from the rain
forest and translated into scientific language. As with the pedocomparator,
each translation process covers only a small distance. What has been
regarded as an ontological gap that needs to be leaped in order to get from
the world to the word turns out to be a series of translation processes
involving entities that stand on both sides of this gap, and if a simple
wooden box can bridge the gap, then it cannot be that vast!

What does this have to do with technology? Just as the question "Do you
believe in reality?" is the litmus test in a sterile controversy between
realists and constructivists, so is the question "Do you believe that
technology acts?" for another controversy. One side of this debate is
populated by those who see technology as developing along a trajectory and
unfolding its subsequent impact as it diffuses through society. The other
side is staffed by social constructivists  who maintain that technologies
simply mirror the interests of powerful social actors, that technologies
are nothing but tools for, or carriers of,  the social. Again, Latour
answers the question with a qualified yes.

This qualification distributes action across chains of human and non-human
entities. The ability to act-to effect something, somewhere-is not
understood as residing inside the actant, but as something that emerges out
of the relationships in which the actant is immersed. What is inherent in
each actor is a "sub-program" for action: certain things that it can do
when inserted in a larger chain of actants. To illustrate the idea of a
sub-program, Latour pits the two slogans of the controversy over gun
control against one another--"Guns kill people" vs. "Guns do not kill
people, people kill people". He concludes that neither guns nor people kill
people, but what is acting are "collective[s]-defined as an exchange of
human and non-human properties inside a corporate body" (p.193). The gun as
well as the gun-owner have the potential for various actions: a gun can act
as a collector's item, hunting gear, a murder weapon or a substitute for a
hammer. These potentials are its sub-programs. A sub-program is not an
arbitrary projection onto the artifact. A rifle will indeed resist being
used as a toothbrush. However, artifacts routinely turn out to be capable
of doing much more than what is intended by those who create them. The
complexity of the real world setting in which the artifacts become situated
can, perhaps, never be fully considered. The result: unintended

Combined, actants translate each other's sub-programs into actions. Out of
potentials, action emerges. But this action is not simply the gun added to
the human,  in the sense that 6+1=7. If this were the case, it would be
possible to answer the initial question-does technology act?-with a
straight yes or no, depending on whether we believe the gun to be the 6 or
the 1 in the equation. But the translation performed by each actor's
sub-program on the other's sub-program creates a new entity. "A corporate
body is what we and our artifacts have become. We are an object
institution" (p.192).

The gap between the object (nature, technology) and the subject (the
"brain-in-the-vat") is a deeply political one, as Latour stresses
throughout this book. It sets up a false alternative: Right or Might.
Scientific truth or mob rule. The presumed gap isolates scientific and
engineering elites from the rest of society. The political effect of the
divide between scientific facts and social knowledge is to discipline the
body politic with something that is outside its reach, something that it
cannot talk about because it has been ontologically separated from it.
Science, Latour argues, has been deeply politicized by putting it above
politics. Examples of scientific debates that might be settled if they
weren't politicized by being put "above politics" include smoking-induced
cancer, the depletion of the ozone layer, and mad cow disease. These
scientific debates have been artificially kept open in order to render
impossible any political action against these problems and those who profit
from them.

The closest Latour comes to formulating an alternative politic is to
propose to "socialize...nonhumans to bear upon the human collective"
(p.296). This means understanding and considering the ways in which
non-humans are mobilized in order to mold humans into specific political
arrangements. This plan rests on taking seriously the sociality of the
material and the materiality of the social. This would provide an antidote
to the political impotence which has been created by excluding half of the
constituency of the body politic: namely, non-humans.

But as much as Latour stresses the political nature of this gap, the book's
main argument is philosophical: an investigation of the relation between
ontology (how the world is) and epistemology (how we come to know about
it). It is an attempt to lay out a non-modern constitution to replace the
(post)modernist worldview which, at the end of the 20th century, appears to
be increasingly incapable to deal with its own achievements. The practice
to be inspired by this new constitution remains vague. A passing reference
to Ulrich Beck's notion of a risk society (Beck 1995) is all that is
offered. Extending this to new socio-technical collectives, one might
speculate that Latour would favor participatory design strategies because
they have the potential to grasp the various dimensions of technology more
fully. However, Latour has not yet really dealt  with the more practical
ramifications of his constitution.

At least one problem which has plagued actor-network theory for a long
time, particularly when applied to socio-technical collectives, remains to
be solved, and continues to impede a political practice around
technologies. The problem is the definition of action. If action,
distributed along a chain of humans and non-humans, is not qualified more
richly than as effecting something somewhere, then intentionality,
accountability, and responsibility for this action are equally distributed
along the same chain. Latour makes this point very clear:

"Purposeful action and intentionality may not be properties of objects, but
they are also not properties of humans either. They are properties of
institutions [collectives of humans and non-humans], apparatuses, or what
Foucault called dispositifs." (p.192)

Conceptualizing agency as a distributed effect is a very powerful
analytical strategy  but politically difficult because of the immanent
danger of equalizing humans and machines to the point where responsibility
and accountability for action vanishes. To overcome this problem, says Lucy
Suchman (1999), we need "to develop a discourse that recognizes the deep
mutual constitution of humans and artifacts without losing their

In this bold book Latour lays out the basic arguments for why it is
possible, and necessary, to bypass the dead-end debate between realists and
relativists. Extending this basis and reworking some of its more
problematic aspects is likely to keep the growing community of ANT inspired
researchers busy for the years to come.

Beck, U. (1995). Ecological Politics in an Age of Risk (translated by Amos
Weisz). Cambridge: Polity Press

Latour, B. (1987). Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and
Engineers Through Society. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

Latour, B. (1993). We Have Never Been Modern (translated by Catherine
Porter). New York, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf

Sokal, A. D. (1996). Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative
Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity. Social Text (spring/summer), No. 46/47 pp.

Suchman, L. (1999)  Human/Machine Reconsidered.  Presented at the
conference Sociality/Materiality, Brunel University, UK, September 9-11,

[copyright disclaimer: this review will appear in The Information Society
(http://www.slis.indiana.edu/TIS ) and is copyrighted accordingly.]

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