Bruno Latour

Kai Eriksson

Posted on May 14 2018

A prominent French philosopher, anthropologist and sociologist; one of the main figures behind the reorganisation of science studies.

 

 

1947 Born 22 June in Beaune, France.
1973

Latour’s interest in anthropology sparks off in Africa in the city of Abidjan where he undertakes fieldwork. He studies the factors responsible for the fact that managerial positions are not filled with Ivoirians but by Westeners instead.

1975

Undertakes an ethnographic study of a neuroendocrinology research laboratory at the Salk Institute of Biological Research in La Jolla, California. 

1979

This study results in the publication of Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, written with Steve WoolgarLatour and Woolgar argue that material objects are of major importance in the construction of scientific facts.

1982

Starts working as a professor at the Centre de sociologie de l'Innovation at the Ecole nationale supérieure des mines in Paris.

1985

Around this year the Center for the Sociology of Innovation becomes the institutional basis of actor-network theory. The books Science in Action, Pandora’s Hope and Reassembling the Social all handle Latour’s actor-network theory.

1988

"Mixing Humans with Non-Humans: Sociology of a Door-Closer" is published (with Jim Johnson).

1999

Pandora's Hope is published. It consists of essays and case studies focusing on the construction of scientific knowledge.

2005

Reassembling the Social is published. In this book, Latour reassesses the actor-network theory.

2006

Becomes a professor at Sciences Po Paris.

2013

Is awarded the Holberg Memorial Prize.

2017

Retires from several university activities.

 

Bruno Latour and Michel Callon have reorganized science studies through concepts of translation and actor network. Yet here we will examine Latour’s idea of circulating reference.

 

We will do this in view of the conception of noise so as to introduce Michel Serres’s views on communication, since these latter have been strong influences on Latour.

 

 

Communication and Noise

  

Norbert Wiener conceived communication as a kind of game played by communicative parties (whether humans or machines) against noise.

 

Noise represented a danger that constantly threatened to submerge communication: once unleashed, noise meant the inevitable death of communication.

 

Thus:

 

  • Communicative parties have to form an alliance against noise.

 

Michel Serres subsequently elaborated Wiener’s idea about communication as a game in which noise is excluded by common decision. 

 

This exclusion protected meaningful communication from misunderstanding and interference. It was precisely the shared code that set the boundaries of communication by excluding what endlessly threatened to submerge it.

 

The common form was protected at the expense of individual and idiosyncratic.

 

The mechanism of exclusion eliminates all that could not be shared. In other words, the “irrational” part of communication: noise.

 

Thus the form of communication was set as primary and noise as the source of its interference. Yet communication cannot dispense with noise, because the latter constitutes the empirical part of it (Serres).

 

Why?

 

Although in communication message replaces noise, noise is an integral part of message itself.

 

  • Noise is not only the source of disorder but also the material part of communication. It is thus absolutely necessary for communication.

 

  • Yet, in order to make a shared meaning possible, a remarkable part of this noise has to be excluded. Communication has to be given a form in order to be distinguished from noise.

  

 

Noise also designates an indefinable area, in which things are indistinguishable. This area never comes itself to the sphere of communication, although it is the precondition for all communication.

 

Communication is about becoming exposed to what cannot be shared, to what can never come common to all, and which therefore continuously threatens to swamp it. This is why successful communication necessarily implies the exclusion of noise.

 

But because noise is part of communication itself, it cannot be completely removed. To be successful, communication has to find a balance between noise and a common form.

 

Serres has pointed out that formalisation is a process through which one moves from noise to consensus, or from contention to agreement. It is therefore the optimal eliminating of noise, not its total obliteration.

 

Yet it dissolves the connection to its origin, since from the point of view of a common form its individual origin is not meaningful.

  

What is common cannot be recognized without excluding the very empirical material in which it is based.

 

What is at issue is the inseparable mutual connection between the general (what is common) and the individual (what is specific).

 

 

Circulating Reference

 

Latour has argued about the traditional division between subject and object throughout his work. The term circulating reference arranges this division into a series of reference points.

 

In between subject and object, or between words and things, there is no longer a yawning gap but rather a series of interlinked transformations.

 

For instance, scientific research progressively creates linguistic representation out of the material basis it investigates. At the same time the particular becomes general, the concrete abstract.

 

In this process, what is lost in “the real”, in other words in the empirical multiplicity, is gained in the conceptualization of the problem, its universalization, as it were.

 

Moreover, there is no longer any gap or break between the empirical fact and the text dealing with it, as the tradition is inclined to see it.

 

“The real” does not change into a text by one sudden leap, but instead by a whole series of interconnected instruments, methods, and measurement and classification systems, step by step.

 

 

Latour shows that there is an unbroken series of interrelated elements between words and things. It is also possible, in principle, to follow this series in whichever direction, since the referent circulates in this continuous series through a set of transformations.

 

The idea of circulating reference is an excellent example of the process of formalization brought up by Serres. In it one proceeds from the particular to what is common by excluding what cannot be shared by all.

 

By moving from the concrete towards the general through a number of different levels of abstraction, in other words by eliminating the empirical, science as the common form that everyone can share becomes possible (Serres).

 

Latour, however, makes explicit that abstraction is possible only if the referential relationship with noise remains unbroken.

  

Where this leads us:

 

  • The question about correspondence between language and the world is not pertinent, because there is no gap between them but rather a consecutiveness of successive levels of transformation.

 

  • The idea about communication and its conditions as two distinct dimensions or planes is equally misleading. Instead the circulating reference directs one’s attention to their mutual constitution.

 

The term should be conceived in the light of its neighbour concept, the actor network. At issue is the wholeness which gathers together both human (for instance classification systems and scientific papers, i.e. words) and nonhuman (soils and microbes, i.e. things).

 

What is crucial is that the term sets the connection between these as continuous and unbroken: things flow into words through a network of transformations, and by following this development words can, again in principle, be traced back to things.

  

At issue is, then, the demarcation between the empirical (the realm of singularities) and the general (a common form). Traditionally, as is known, these have had the tendency to invalidate each other.

 

  

 

Criticism

 

This relates to the development in which we find ourselves today: the utmost complexity or sheer impossibility to locate straightforward lines of demarcation between communication and noise, society and technology, or inside and outside.

 

  • Latour analyzes interlinked chains of reference structures as the very place in which what is particular and what is common link up and communicate.
 
  • Secondly, the movements or mechanisms studied are not located in any transcendental domain but are instead constituted immanently.

     

    Given this, however, there seems ultimately to be a strong tendency in Latour to equate noise with democracy, and communication with either science or theory.

     

    In other words, while retaining the original stereotypes of democracy and science, they seem simply to add that they breach the boundary dividing them the more they try to maintain it.

     

    In this way, science retains its communicative authority by the cacophony of voices it fails to exclude. What characterizes science is the failing attempt to retain its unity.

     

     

     

    Diiple recommends

     

    • Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society,1987
    • We Have Never Been Modern,1993
    • Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies,1999
    • Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, 2004
    • Reassembling the Social: an Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, 2005
    • An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: an Anthropology of the Moderns, 2013

     

     

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