July 22, 2009

Oration for Bruno Latour

In our most recent graduation ceremony (16th July), I provided the Oration for the award of an Honorary Doctor of Laws to Bruno Latour. The full text is below and there you will find some links to our most pronounced disagreements. Those who know me well will realize that I hold in highest esteem those whose ideas persistently bother me -- and frankly most of what passes for intellectual life today is little more than eyewash and mosquito bites. With that in mind, here is the Oration:

It is a great honour and pleasure to present Bruno Latour for an honorary doctorate at Warwick. We are suited to him, and he to us. Warwick is the strongest general-purpose university in the United Kingdom that is anchored in the social sciences. We have a reputation for adventurousness not only across disciplinary boundaries but also across the boundary that separates academia from the rest of the world. Latour the person embodies these qualities as well. He regularly ranks among the ten most highly cited social scientists in the world yet his influence extends to business, policy, humanities and art. As someone whose teaching career has transpired in professional schools – first in engineering and now in politics – he was never inclined to think in narrowly disciplinary terms. Now speaking at a personal level, Latour is most responsible for making the field with which I am closely associated, science and technology studies, one of the most exciting academic endeavours of the last half-century. But to give the full measure of Latour’s significance – and if I may be forgiven some prophecy -- future historians will find Latour a most instructive figure to study as they try to make sense of the deep changes that are currently taking place in our attitudes towards science, modernity and even the primacy of the human on the planet. It would be fair to say that Latour offers grounds for taking all of these objects of concern down a peg.

If this sounds a bit heavy, well, in reality it is. However, Latour delivers his potentially disconcerting messages with a lightness of touch and wit that can at once provoke, entertain and educate. In Hong Kong in 2002 Latour and I debated whether a strong distinction between the human and the non-human is needed for social scientific purposes. In keeping with his writing on the topic, Latour argued against the proposition. Nevertheless, he managed to endear himself to the audience because, as my fellow sociologist Beverley Skeggs put it at the time, he stumbles upon these insights with the air of Inspector Clouseau. You can judge for yourself, and I certainly recommend his many books as vehicles for recreating the experience. But call me old-fashioned – or even downright modernist – but contra Latour I still believe that the social sciences need to retain the idea of the ‘human’, especially if we are to remain rightful heirs of the ‘moral sciences’. But that debate can be continued on another occasion.

I have been always drawn, however critically, to Latour’s trajectory from my graduate student days, nearly thirty years ago. I began very impressed with his landmark ethnography of the scientific laboratory, Laboratory Life. It has been one of the five most formative works in my own intellectual development. Here was a philosopher who endeavoured to make sense of scientists in their native habitat as an anthropologist might a native tribe, namely, by leaving his prejudices at the doorstep and observing very carefully what they actually say and do. The irony, of course, is that since in this case the ‘natives’ were scientists, the ‘prejudices’ that Latour had to abandon concerned their being massively superior – not inferior – to himself in rationality and objectivity.

Sharing Latour’s background in philosophy, I knew exactly what he was driving at: Many philosophers – but not only them – presume that the rigour associated with both popular and technical scientific rhetoric implies something extraordinary about scientists’ relationship to reality. Latour’s quite straightforward empirical conclusion was that these words have force only if they are backed up with indefinitely extended networks of people, places and things. The interesting question then is how do those networks get forged and remain durable. The fancy scientific words themselves don’t necessarily pick up anything special happening in the laboratory, which, truth to be told, looks more like a loosely managed factory than a sacred crucible of knowledge production.

Perhaps you can see why the knee-jerk response of many scientists was to regard Latour as ‘anti-science’. It was a complete misunderstanding. Yes, in a sense Latour wanted to cut scientists down to size, but it was for their own – and society’s – good. Scientists cannot possibly live up to the hype that would have them save the world with their superior knowledge – at least given science’s very chequered track record in the 20th century. However, a more modest conception of science whose success depends on more than mere ideas and words but on others willing to act on the basis of what scientists say and do has done an exemplary job of, so to speak, ‘domesticating’ science as a public policy concern. Quite deservedly Latour has been duly recognized in France for this achievement, which continues to exert considerable influence in state-funded ‘public understanding of science’ initiatives in this country and elsewhere.

As you can imagine from even in this short address, Latour has never been one to shy away from controversy, sometimes quite heated and unfair. But even if you end up disagreeing with much of what he says, Latour more than deserves this honorary degree for consistently exhibiting a quality that is all too lacking in today’s academic culture: grace under fire. He is always more civilised than his opponents, always instructive, and sometimes even right.

* * * * *

Now here's a nice picture of the two of us in a death grip as we descend to Hades together!

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