Reading the World

On the occasion of his trip to Zagreb and Belgrade in September 2017, Ante Jerić and Leonardo Kovačević made an interview with Bruno Latour.

Ante Jerić: You are commonly described as sociologist and anthropologist known for his pivotal contributions to the science and technology studies. In the last decade, as you half-jokingly mentioned yesterday during the lecture, you are also praised as a philosopher. Putting all these qualifications aside, while reading your work, I was occasionally tempted to think of you as a literary theorist. There are two reasons for such assertion: first, your work is full of examples taken from literature and, as you have written, “you consider literature to be an instrument both for apprehending social reality and for producing ‘good sociology’”; second, and more importantly, your thinking has been informed by the towering figures of narratology, such A. J. Greimas: some of your central categories, such as the actant, have been borrowed from the latter, and then changed and repurposed to account for the social world. Can you describe in more detail how Greimas’ work has helped you to develop and refine your ideas?

Bruno Latour: Although I recognize there are disciplinary boundaries, I tend to conceive my work as a laboratory where you need as many different instruments as it is possible. I have never really understood why you would limit yourself to the specific instrument that does only one thing. You need as many instruments as the problem you are interested requires. For me, the link with the literature started with the attention to the letter of the text, with the exegesis, more specifically, with the the biblical exegesis, very important part of literature. I was born, philosophically speaking, in the period of the linguistic turn when the interest in literature, from Derrida, Barthes to Deleuze himself, was omnipresent. So, when I began to think seriously, it was hard to miss the importance of text as such and the materiality of the text. That is something that is not understandable anywhere else except in France of that period. In America or England, for instance, people cannot focus on the text as such, as textuality, as writing. So, in attempt to make things more systematic, let us say there are, from the outset, three lines that connect me to literature: the first is cultural climate, so to speak; the second is exegesis; and the third is my encounter with the semiotics, with the Greimasian school in San Diego, through a man called Paolo Fabbri, one of the main figures of Greimasian semiotics. I immediately saw the usefulness of that set of technologies. Semiotics is a kind a toolbox that I applied to something which, at that point, had not really been studied with those tools – scientific texts. So, I made the connections between biblical exegesis, semiotics and scientific texts. Greimas is interesting because his work is not limited to texts, despite the fact that he himself had never really gotten out of field delimited by novels, stories and law. But there was nothing in semiotics as it was practiced at the time that would forbid its application to the matters of ontology. That fact enabled me to use his concepts and terminology. It was a really powerful vocabulary at the time, and it still is. The organon of Greimasian semiotics gives you immense freedom vis-à-vis the false realism of sociology and social theory. This advantage is completely uncomprehended by the social scientists because they believe that they do not write; they believe that they just describe the world. Most of my critique of the social sciences comes from literature.

Much later on, I got interested in another connection between literature and philosophy: philosophy itself is a way of writing. Abstraction and imagination are always elements of a certain style and I was interested in the philosophy as a medium. When in the PhD writing Workshop, which I have done for twenty years now, I am helping students to be attentive to the materiality of the text.

There is also my link with art. I realized that many of the problems we try to raise in the language of philosophy, in the specific medium of philosophy, you can find expressed in the other media – literature, theater, etc. So, I have established many connections with the people who are interested in this question.

I’ve been writing diaries since I was thirteen. Writing itself is thinking. You cannot think without writing, at least in our tradition. For us, thinking and writing are the same thing. In my latest book Facing Gaia, there are very important chapters dealing with literature, again, as an organon for beginning of understanding the agency of that what we regard as matter. I’ve spend a lot of time with Richard Powers, a great American novelist, discussing his book on forests. It was interesting to see how his characters could relate to trees which have agency and to compare his work with what I was doing in my own work. There is a common problem: how do we deal with agency? Semiotics can be helpful in addressing this problem.

Last year Rita Felski and Stephen Muecke edited a special issue of New Literary History dedicated to my work on these questions.

Leonardo Kovačević: Your relation to literature is interesting: you are constantly referring to narration and to certain novels but you have never shown an interest on literature itself. Does it have something to do with an intellectual tradition you were inscribed in, namely with the history and epistemology of science, which is in France profoundly marked by Bachelard?

BL: Bachelard stands as the opposite. He upholds one of the worst possible views according to which you have to distinguish, on the one side, literature as imagination from science on the other side. I have never believed in a single word written on that subject.

The reason why I’m interested in literature has nothing to do with literature – that might be true. That reason can be put through the following question: Do we have an alternative to narration? Is narration, a movement of which literature is just one instant, a better way to get to ontology than the one which Whitehead called a “simple localization”. For me, literature is important because, as I’ve shown in An Anthropology of the Moderns, the world itself is better captured by narration than it is by localization. There is something in the way of how novelists capture the world, the way of how anyone who tells stories capture the world – which is to say everybody – that gives us a firmer grip on the world. The world is better seized by narration. And who is describing narration? Semioticians. Semioticians are being completely excluded from the literate discourse, no one studies semiotics anymore except at Limoges which is a small city that has become a reservation for semioticians. But the fact remains that if you want a vocabulary, a toolbox which is not a predefined ontology, you cannot do better than Greimasian semiotics. So, you are right: it is not literaure as history, but literature as an instance of narrativity which enables one to grasp narrativity of the world, that interests me.

AJ: In the book “Science and the Modern World” Alfred N. Whithead, one of the philosophical masters you hold in high esteem, analyzed Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc” which opens with the verse: “The everlasting universe of things”. In “Facing Gaia”, a recent book of yours, you also take Shelley’s poem as a point of departure, but you take off in a completely different direction. You do not analyze it because you cannot accept adjective everlasting which serves as its presupposition. “We mustn’t count on this any longer!”, you say. It serves you to introduce the concept of the anthropocene. What is anthropocene and, if the concept warrants such a general and encompasing use, what makes it so pertinent in such diverse and usually hardly commensurable fields such as geology, anthropology, sociology and philosophy?

BL: Anthropocene is a disputed topic. It is usually hated by the postmodern, postcolonial and philosophers of other provenances for both good and bad reasons. The good reason is that it operates with a simplified definition of humanity that does not carry all of the baggage of historically and sociologically differentiated humanities. That is true. The bad reason is that they do not want to rely on the term taken from geology. The term has nothing to do with social sciences. It is an offer made by geologists to social scientists and social scientists do not know what to do with this gift. They say: “No, no no… we do not want this gift.” But it is a gift in the sense that it summarizes everything we have been doing in the science studies for the last forty years. There is not one single aspect of materiality which is not inter-shared, inter-modifed, inter-transformed by human industry at large. That is to say, on the completely different scale than the one which would be discernible for Whitehead, Marx, Aristotle or whoever else who spoke about the human society. The scale is the key thing: we are dealing with the Earth-system transformation, and not simply with the environment transformation. If you study human impact on the environment, you can go back to Lucy or, let us say, to the discovery of fire. But if you study anthropocene, if you are interested in the scale of phenomena and the originality of the Earth transformation, then you are dealing with a novelty that has to be recognized.

There are many disputes over the dating of the Anthropocene. For me, the most interesting date is a fairly recent one: 1945. It is a practical answer, it does not mean it will be a final answer, there may never be a final answer concerning the datation of the Anthropocene, but it is one which is useful for pinpointing – as a “golden spike” by which geologists mark transitions between different epochs.

The Anthropocene by definition links together human activity with geology. This is what Dipesh Chakrabarty calls geo-history (he attributes me the word, but I do not know who coined it). Geo-history or geo-story describes the process of combination of different elements – industry, technology, social values, etc. – to the point in which it is coming back at us in the shape of the new climate regime that was totally unexpected in the time of Shelley or even in the time of Whitehead. That is not to say there were no precursors to the study of the Anthropocene. There were precursors who pointed to the “revenge of Gaia”. The first ecologist where already there in the time of the First industrial revolution but their voices were silenced in the name of emancipation, in the name of advance, in the name of progress. They were ready to “pay the price of progress”. The precursors were pushed aside from the nineteenth century to  The Club of Rome (1973). Paying the price of progress continues to our days with the denial of the climate change by the present US government. Anthropocene is summarizing this long history of warning and denial all the way to the present days. It is a very useful term and those who say we should not use it because it is not a proper social science term are, in my view, completely mistaken.

LK: I would like to know how do you determine discipline of anthropology, which is from the philosophical point of view, particularly by Foucault and Althusser, proclaimed obsolete? Is it for you some sort of metascience or you take it in rather classical, ethnological sense?

BL: Anthropology is a discipline and it has a method – ethnography – which I’ve been learning and using; anthropologists have accepted me as one of their members.  Anthropology becomes even more importatnt in the Anthropocene; since we are changing the definition of human. So, I am not sure I understand your question: how could anyone claim that the anthropology has disappeared? Maybe you have alluded to Foucault and “the death of man”: it is bizzare, completely superficial reading in one moment of the structuralist history which we should not pay attention to. Anthropology as a discipline was threatened at one moment, at least in the United States, by the postmodern turn. But the paradigm has completely changed by now: anthropology is the only really active and fecund discipline in the social sciences. It is enormously productive. I am really surprised by your question: who would declare that the empirical discipline which has completely changed our view of the world has been wiped out? We wouldn’t know a thing without anthropology. Anthropology should be a hegemonic discipline and I am proud to be anthropologist.

AJ: With choosing to write about Gaia and not about, let us say, The Earth-System, you take a position regarding the value of the myth as a construction within which events can be identified and linked in a way that makes sense. What are your thoughts on the relationship between myth and science, their boundaries and, let us call it in that way, the division of labour between them?

BL: The division of labour works in time of peace. Times like these are hard to find. There is a beautiful sentence by Michel Serres: “There is no pure myth other than [that of] science purified of any myth.” People could say: “I am an Earth-system scientist, and I am not a specialist of Gaia. I’m talking about geology and not about anthropology” in the time of peace, when the difference between a scientific Gaia and a mythical Gaia would be clear and secure, but not in the time of complete disruption of the categories of social and natural, the time in which we are now.

There is a neat argument made by Baptiste Morizot, it can be find already in Lévi-Strauss, which claims that myth is the language necessary when things are changing very fast. In the times like these you immediately lose peacefulness, the division of labour, and you need other figures. I’m actually more interested in figures than in myths. Lovelock used the word Gaia just because it was suggested to him by his friend William Golding, the novelist, and the word actually disrupted some of his ideas. But I think it is very useful precisely because it is simultaneously mythical and scientific term. It captures spirit of the time. It is similar to “communism” in the nineteenth century which was also a figure, a word which was also condensing energy, affect, but also a lot of empirical description. We should not forget that many people who oppose Gaia call themselves geographers, geologist, geopoliticians without hesitation. Prefix -geo has been forgotten as a powerful metaphor, and Gaia is suddenly bringing back the energy, surprise and danger of living on Earth. Again, pseudoscientists do not understand this argument because they are living in the pre-scientific climate regime where the Earth is just a sort of surrounding activity. But, for the scientists it means a lot. They understand very well that the Earth-system science is different if you call the planet Gaia or if you call it a system.

AJ: One of your conceptual innovation was to introduce the concept of iconoclash in order to oppose it to iconoclasm. It was suggested as a response for the need of rethink our relationship with the images and as the new way of thinking before we decide what images we want to protect and what images we want to destroy. Why has your work made you realize that the image of the Globe has to be destroyed and why it has, in some way, incited your own iconoclastic gesture?

BL: Let us start with Iconoclash. It is also a figure. What does it mean to say “to suspend the iconoclastic gesture”? When I had proposed the term to Peter Weibel, he responded: “But I’ve always done iconoclastic exhibitions.” Then I told him: “No, no, Peter, it is not iconoclastic, it is about iconoclasm.” I remember him thinking for about twenty seconds, I could see his neurons functioning, after which he said: “Let’s do it.” And we did it. For me, this suspension of the iconoclastic gesture is the same as the one I wanted to achieve with the shift from the image of the Globe to the image of Gaia. It is about suspension of the hegemony of the image of Globe which makes it extremely difficult to apprehend the originality of the image of Gaia. I don’t know, maybe I am protecting myself here, but it was not an iconoclastic gesture against the image of the Globe. On the contrary, I wanted to say: “Look, there are many things you can do with the image of the Globe, with the cartographic imagination, localization, etc, but there are also many things you cannot do with it. And what you cannot do is to situate yourself within this new climate regime where you have to position yourself inside the cycles of Earth which is not a Globe.” I do not want to destroy the Globe. I want to insert it inside something other. The Globe is very important, you couldn’t have the GPS without the cartographic imagination. But, the cartographic imaginary is of no use if you want to situate yourself inside the geochemical cycles, inside Earth-system, inside Gaia.

AJ: I have probably misjudged your intention under the influence of your reading of Lars von Trier “Melancholia”. As I recall, you have interpreted the ending of the film as a kind of antipedagogy: Globe has to be destroyed so that the work of art, an aesthetic, can emerge, provided that we hear in the world aesthetic the old sense of capacity to perceive and to be concerned. Maybe we could juxtapose that ending with the ending of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Gravity” where the film’s heroine, upon surviving her ordeal in the orbit and landing to Earth, has to adjust herself to its gravity and to learn how to walk again. There is pedagogy there, a lesson which you expressed in “Facing Gaia” using philosophical vocabulary: we are living the reversal of the modern motto that served as the title of Koyre’s famous book “From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe“.

BL: This is one of the cases where I find connections between a philosophical question, history of the deep metaphors, a physicists’ ideology and the works of art –  a popular artwork like Gravity and the immensely important artwork like Melancholia. The scriptwriters of Gravity may have felt something interesting, formulated it in a naive and explicit terms and put it in the mouth of film’s protagonist, doctor Stone: “I hate space”. That sentence necessary signifies something of the spirit of our time. Melancholia has the same point, although the elaboration is of course infinitely more sophisticated.

The infinity of the universe is a figure that took a long time to sink in. When the physicists invented it in the Galilean times, they also relied on many things happening outside science, on the discovery of the new world, in the first place, and made connections between all sorts of news coming from different cultures. Koyré captured this sudden break into the infinite space in the very powerful myth, figure and slogan which became the title of his book. It seems that we have to leave that myth behind. That is one of the reasons why my friend Émilie Hache edited a book with the title which is a reversal of Koyré’s title: From the Closed Universe to the Infinite World.

We cannot absorb this complete transformation of nature without the help of all these different media. For me philosophy is not a metalinguistic analysis of all these media, but a medium among other media, which resonates with the others. This enables me to draw the line between good and bad philosophers, between speculation and theory. Good philosophy is speculative in the Whiteheadian sense; it is not theoretical.

LK: For the last ten years or more you have been trying to expand the idea of politics beyond “polis”, a city or state to a more “global” or even “cosmic” level. How to imagine this universalism and its subject and what is the relation of cosmopolitics to the process of globalisation?

BL: Cosmopolitism is the term which is linked originally with universalism. It was rejuvenated by Kant and later on by the people who were using it as a term which covered sort of basic list of criteria for human rights.

There were two possible uses of the world cosmos in terms of nature: first were in the service of naturalization of politics (the orders of nature make you to do things in politics) and the second served to separate politics from nature, so that it would not have anything to do with the natural environment. Most of the political philosophy was very inventive in terms of representation of humans to humans, but it has not been so inventive in terms of representation of humans to non-humans, of non-humans between themselves, and non-humans to humans. I have been hesitant to use the term cosmopolitcs because the word cosmos is never understood in a clear way. I also do not like to use term like “political ecology” because ecology sends people in the wrong direction, not to humans, not to the soil on which the humans actually reside. I tend to use the terms “politics of nature” or simply “politics” to talk about sovereignity, nationality, powers, counter-powers, that is to say, about all these elements which seem to the political philosophers as the expansion of politics, but which are actually paving way for the return to forgotten aspects of politics.

AJ & LK: Before we end, could you tell us what are you currently working on?

BL: I am working just on this very question. I am back to what I have started with: ethnography of scientists at work. This time outdoor scientists although they also have a laboratory life. Those geochemists or biogeochemists offer me a good grasp on Gaia at a much smaller scale than Earth-system science. I am also working on a new exhibition and hopefully on a new play. I also hope to invest more time in grandparenting…