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LectureHop: Bruno Latour and the Global Paradox

LectureHopper Mark Hay sat in on Thursday’s presentation by noted sociologist Bruno Latour at the Heyman Center for the Humanities. He sends Bwog this dispatch from the event, a lively discussion of identity, ideology, and globalization.

For those who have never hunkered down for an event in the Kraft Center’s Rennert Hall, a few words may be in order on the venue chosen for the Heyman Center lecture. Relatively new and just off the main campus, Rennert is pristine, sterile, brisk, and matter-of-fact. The hall is too big to be cozy but below the threshold of massive; it carries a spirit of inclusion, but it ultimately limits itself to rabid specialization.

Such was the venue and such was the lecture: Bruno Latour, the acclaimed French sociologist, anthropologist, and theorist, attracted a mass of bushy-bearded, bespectacled, and blustery-haired social scientists of all ages.

Despite the crowd’s rather homogeneous composition, Latour clearly intended to present his ideas to as wide an array as possible. His train of thought was clear and his theories were relevant, concise, and informative. Indeed, the ease with which Latour could communicate his ideas even to an ignoramus of my stature may be behind his ascendency to a professorship and vice presidency at the Paris Institute of Political Studies. Of course, his stature in the field lends him great credibility as well: Latour helped in the 1980s to develop actor-network theory, an approach to sociology that now dominates the field.

After an introduction by Columbia sociology professor David Stark, Latour began his lecture with a reference to Sloterdijk’s paradox, a proposition that argues recent globalization has actually narrowed the average person’s perspective. This paradox was the subject of a 2004 sociological conference organized by Latour in Venice, where he and several top sociological theorists tried to hammer out new ways of viewing the globe realistically and practically.

Ultimately, Latour and his peers reached a brief and elegant conclusion. The view of the Western world in recent history, Latour proposes, has revolved around a modernization theory. This theory posits the existence of an arrow of time that moves society toward an ideal, true nature and away from multiple cultural values and vantages. This in turn leads to the concept of archaic “them” societies and the progressive, Western “us.” Eventually all societies will muddle forward and converge on a Western modernization path. The problem as Latour sees it, though, is that the West has never been modern, and that this is interpretation of history lies opposite to the truth. He fears the West’s intertwining of values and facts will increase with each year, creating a sociological connection between man, artifact and idea.

Latour phrased his solution casually: the West should blast away its classifications of fact versus value since fact encompasses certainty, uncertainty, values, and hierarchy. Moreover, Latour proposes that we shift scientists, politicians and economists away from camps of either pure fact or pure value and into a new system that incorporates both fact and value. This new system should acknowledge the complex bonks between scientists and society, multiple paths towards modernization, and multiple forms of nature and fact. The theory also calls for the trashing of the “them-us” duality and the increase of diplomacy.

Certain elements of this rhetoric do not sound as extreme as they must have when Latour in 1991 claimed “we have never been modern,” or even when he proclaimed his new model in 2004 against the backdrop of a Bush administration leading the world in denial of environmental damage and the advance of the “them-us” duality. Certainly Latour has felt the stress; he quips lightly about his critics and looks visibly worn, perhaps the result of his tireless crusade to have his theories acknowledged within both academic and popular circles.

Whatever the case, I am happy to have stumbled down into the den of social sciences for one evening. I can only hope that I have not done injustice in conveying the brunt of Latour’s powerful lecture on observation, critique, and, possibly, acceptance.

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  • apex says:

    @apex As a non-sociologist, I found Latour’s talk pretty fascinating and approachable, and wish he had expanded on the perplexity-constitution, institution-hierarchy ideas.

    “He fears the West’s intertwining of values and facts will increase with each year, creating a sociological connection between man, artifact and idea. ”

    Oh and hey, I don’t think Latour was fearing this at all — I think he sees it as an eventual consequence, not necessarily something negative. Also, it reminded me of one of McLuhan’s general assertions that technology modifies human cognition, rendering the ‘guns don’t kill people; people kill people’ argument a false opposition..

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