I’ve just come off of a week long visit with Bruno Latour. He came to Rice as the “NEH Distinguished Visiting Scholar” and gave a public lecture, three seminars, screened a video about his recent art exhibit and participated in three classes (two in anthropology, one in architecture), in addition to dinners, lunches, talks with undergraduates and graduate students, trips to the mall, and a tour of Houston. In short, we got our money’s worth. It reconfirmed for me my sense that Latour is a gentleman and a fantastic teacher; his curiosity is boundless, as is his ability to converse, in depth, with an astonishing range of people–from scientists to lawyers to evangelicals to architects to philosophers to American historians to undergraduates to the wine buyers at Specs (The World’s Largest Liquor Store, about which Bruno said of its immense and varied selection from all over the world “Now I understand relativism. You know, you aren’t supposed to be that open-minded”). The only people he seemed unable to connect with were the French, which is not entirely ironic. He is a fantastic teacher– better at clarfying his ideas in person than in print–and incredibly patient with questions and the inevitable attacks that come based on his reputation (one colleague asked if he felt responsible for the Holocaust– I think this was meant to be “provocative” rather than puerile).
It also reconfirmed my sense that, to put it “provocatively”, science studies is anthropology. Certainly this does not mean that I think all anthropology should be about science and technology; but it does mean that, I think, that science studies has produced the possibility (and perhaps only the possibility) for bringing social theory out of the 19th century and into the 21st through a careful engagement with the forms of actually existing rationality in the world today. And I mean that :). Latour’s empirical sensitivity (he always had his notebook or his palm pilot out), and his constant curiosity are what drives his philosophy–and not the reverse. In this, I see him as the consummate fieldworker–someone for whom the constant, shocking, unpredictable flow of events is experienced as such, as wonders and as changes, and not as a constant test of his theories–theories which he is happy to abandon if the changing world so demands it.
Of course, I speak from having had a kind of privileged access to Latour, if only for a week. Certainly the industry that has grown up around him, the texts that people read in classes, and the ways in which his work is introduced, narrated and critiqued look quite different from what I describe. In this, I think he shares something with Bateson, who was by all accounts an extraordinary personal communicator, pedagogue and interlocutor–something only barely recognizable in his texts. The public Latour, whether you know it as the hero of Science Studies or the villain of the science wars,
has little to do with the real thing. Nonetheless, I was confirmed in my sense that there is something special about the approach that science studies offers to anthropology, and to take it out of the domain of science per se, I would suggest that it is the re-institution of pragmatism as a basis for progress in anthropology–and I should qualify that I am thinking primarily of social-cultural anthro, less of the other three+ fields.
The claim that “science studies is anthropology” thus has less to do with this polemical set of debates–probably most visible to anthropologists in We Have Never been Modern–than it does with Latour as a pragmatist. He is perhaps the only pragmatist in France, and this might explain his disdain for the French. He did not, for instance, have very nice things to say about Baudrillard, Ranciere, or especially Badiou– though Deleuze and Derrida were both spared his ire. By contrast, for Latour, James, Dewey and Whitehead carry the day–with a tincture of the obscure in French philosophy (Etienne Souriau and Gilbert Simondon) and the controversial Carl Schmitt. This commitment to pragmatism grows directly from his commitment to a radically empirical philosophy–an experience based approach (Dewey’s Essays in Experimental Logic and James’ Radical Empiricism would be the core texts here) in which it is precisely the changing worlds of science, technology, economics, law, religion, love that provide the impetus for philosophy, and not philosophy which analyzes and makes sense of these “surface” phenomena. I believe he referred to Kant as a “catastrophe” if that helps clarify his position.
It is from this radical empiricist perspective that I think science studies is anthropology/anthropology is science studies. Certainly when I teach a science studies class to graduate students in anthropology, I do not approach it as a sub-field of anthropology–I approach it as a method–one that is equally as useful in the study of Native American politics as it is Human Stem Cells. This is precisely because of the kinds of entanglements that permeate the contemporary world: Native Americans are bound to be tied up in debates about technology just as stem cells are inevitably entangled with theological concerns. In this respect, the Rice graduate students helpfully confirmed this when they introduced themselves to Bruno. With each student he became more flustered (read: delighted in a self-deprecating way) that even the most traditional-sounding projects (ethnomusicology and turkish wedding customs) had learned to encounter their objects through science studies (and not just because I told them to do it, though there is that). What all these projects had in common was a developed sense of openness to the field–a concern for finding the emergent and for inserting onself inside changing practices that have a rich, technical vocabulary and process. What drives all of them is the question of, in Latour’s terminology from I. Stengers, “cosmopolitics”–the collective, progressive creation of a common world. How will native americans and religious bio-ethicists find ways to create, occupy and share a common world? Pluralism, not relativism. Rather than becoming concerned with this or that culture, this or that “logic” this or that story of origins, Latour wants to understand the way people are dealing with entanglements that have resulted from both the crimes and the successes of “modernity”.
Of course, the term “modernity” tends to get in the way-and this is where I think most students and anthropologists abandon him. There is the question of definitions of “modernity” course, but that’s a red herring. Then there is the question of whether or not we have ever been modern, and what that means– but I think the interesting point of Latour’s emphasis on this word is simply that we live in a world in which fact and value are increasingly more confused, entangled and wrapped up together–not less, and for everyone on the planet, not just “the West”. This doesn’t mean that fact and value aren’t distinguished; indeed that happens every day, in all kinds of ways, and not only in the ways that philosophers, scientists, political theorists or ethicists say that it should. The fact of this entanglement is what makes “modernity” problematic for Latour: it suggests that either in the past, or in the present fact and value were or are not entangled. It’s a straw man argument in many ways, precisely because Latour wants us to stop arguing about the proper conditions for, or critique of modernity, and start looking at (and cherishing) the experience of people engaged in distinguishing facts and values every day: lawyers, theologians, economists, politicians, engineers–to say nothing of gypsies or Brahmins or sufi mystics– all have extremely rich tools for doing so.
The question of “cosmopolitics” thus is more than just cosmopolitanism, and more than just a question of the contradictions of global society: it directs our attention towards the absence of a common world. It points at the need for finding new ways to bring these diverse, cherished traditions of distinguishing fact and value into a common sphere that allows for a politics beyond the politics we have now. Like Dewey he is asking for “a kind of knowledge and insight which does not yet exist.” The task is not to describe it in its absence (which would be “the height of absurdity”) but to start to indicate the conditions for bringing it into existence.
Dewey, John, The Public and it’s Problems, Swallow Press 1954  p. 166. About which I have more to say, e.g. here.