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Latour

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Authors
Ausch, Robert
Source
Mind, Culture & Activity; 2000, Vol. 7 Issue 4, p312-319, 8p



For many, Latour is someone who has found an eloquent way of saying what they have assumed all long: Science is really just a social construction. For others, Latour's work allows them to believe in a "real" world without limiting the force of their critique of the socio-political nature of scientific practice. Living in the West, it is hard to miss the economic privilege and cultural capital, to borrow a term from Pierre Bourdieu, accorded to knowledge produced by scientists. It makes sense, therefore, that these "postmodern" friends of mine would be attracted to Latour's refusal to grant scientists the exclusive right to speak for "nature" and to determine the value of their own work. Latour offers an elegant critique of science without reducing all of it to an effect of "capitalism" or "Eurocentrism." As much as Latour wishes it were otherwise, it is hard not to see his work as yet another "postmodern" or "deconstructionist" debunking of the enlightenment "metanarrative" that establishes the progressive nature of scientific knowledge as a consequence of its privileged methods. Over the past few years, Latour has consistently rejected this interpretation of his work. Although he would like to convince scientists otherwise, the consequence of taking his work seriously is to dethrone science from the special place it has established for itself.

The other attractive aspect of Latour's work is his refusal of the a priori ontological distinction between humans and nonhumans, particularly in relation to what both of these kinds of "actants" can do. Here, Latour takes up two other "metanarratives," those of humanism and naturalism, that generally operate symmetrically. Whereas "humanism" regards human beings as special because they have agency, intentionality, mentality, sociality, and so on, "naturalism" regards nonhumans to be neutral physical objects, or in the case of certain Marxisms, screens for humans to embody with their own "fetishes." The critique of humanism and naturalism is powerful. Both assume an a priori division between humans and things. This division is a product of practice, a sedimentation that comes to exist only after action is completed and that functions to articulate a particular version of nature and society. This version of "society" is made up only of humans (and perhaps the things or "artifacts" onto which they project their own meanings) and is contrasted with "nature," which is composed only of nonhumans (and, as Fanon would argue, the humans relegated to nature due to colonialism and racism). This is where Latour's critique is at its most forceful, setting the foundations of liberal systems of jurisprudence, politics, medicine, and science on their heads. What "postmodernist" could resist this?

...Although most of Latour's critics agreed with his rejection of the a priori ontological division between humans and things, some appeared not to integrate completely Latour's rejection of the analytic category "society." In other words, whereas most seemed to go along with Latour's thesis that there is no asocial and nonagentive nature "out there" and that this conception of "nature" is a consequence of practice, some could not necessarily accept the same for "society." It was difficult for some not to rely on an "underlying" or "surrounding" conception of society as they attempted to offer a thorough study of an interaction. Latour (1999) wrote Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies in part to clarify that his critique is symmetrical, applicable to both "nature" and "society."

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