Bruno Latour’s Work and the Parliament of Things
Note to the reader:
Dear Parliament-colleagues and general reader,
Hereby a short introduction to, and summary of Bruno Latour’s work, and of course notably his theory of the Parliament of Things – a bit of extra background info which might be of use in our research. I’ve started out with a summary of We Have Never Been Modern (1991), the work in which he puts forward the theory of the Parliament of Things. Furthermore, I’ve included a bit about his Actor-Network Theory (Reassembling the Social, 2005), which is a theory about the agency of objects. Lastly, I made a short list of useful links.
I think this overview can be used as a helpful instrument – please don’t consider it a directive of any kind, and feel free to do whatever you want with it. Also, if you want to make any additions, please do so! The full texts can be found in pdf by just googling author + title + pdf.
We Have Never Been Modern and the Parliament of Things
In We Have Never Been Modern (1991) Bruno Latour criticizes the distinction between nature and society. He states that our sciences emphasize the subject-object and nature-culture dichotomies, whereas in actuality, phenomenons often cross these lines. As an example, he mentions the hole in the ozone layer, and the different ways the sciences should look at it: ‘Can anyone imagine a study that would treat the ozone hole as simultaneously naturalized, sociologized and deconstucted?’ (6). With this mentioning of the hole in the ozone layer (as well as, among other things, computer chips, Monsanto, and aids) he gives an example of things or phenomena that are not merely objects, but that are hybrids between nature and culture.
With regards to the title of this work, Latour argues that this dualism between subject and object is a ‘modern’ mode of classification, and that this modern mode does not actually correspond with the practical ways in which we live. Thus, this modern dualism actually has never existed: we have never been modern.
‘Modernity is often defined in terms of humanism, either as a way of saluting the birth of ‘man’ or as a way of announcing his death. But this habit itself is modern, because (…) [i]t overlooks the simultaneous birth of ‘nonhumanity’ – things, or objects, or beasts (…)’ (13)
In this chapter, the question at hand is about the constitution. ‘Who is to write the full constitution?’, Latour asks (14). For political constitutions, this is normally done by jurists and Founding Fathers; for the nature of things, this is the task of scientists. But, if we want to include hybrids as well, who is going to write the complete constitution?
Latour calls this complete constitution the ‘Constitution’ with a capital C, to distinguish it from the political one. It defines ‘humans and nonhumans, their properties and their relations, their abilities and their groupings’ (14).
Hobbes & Boyle
When discussing the separation between science and politics, Latour uses the dispute between Robert Boyle and Thomas Hobbes as an example. Boyle can be seen as the founder of modern science – he developed the methodology in which scientists observe a phenomenon produced artificially in a laboratory (in Boyle’s case, the workings of a vacuum pump, in our case, for example, CERN).
Hobbes, on the other hand, rejected this manner of analysis, and focused on theorizing social and political order in terms of human conflicts and agreements. ‘Boyle and Hobbes, then, jointly constructed the program for purifying the discourses of nature and society – expunging from each the traces of the other’ (Pickering). This distinction between science and politics is not just typical for ‘modernity’, but actually defines it, as Latour argues: ‘they are inventing our modern world, a world in which the representation of things through the intermediary of the laboratory is forever dissociated from the representation of citizens through the intermediary of the social contract’ (Latour 27).
Latour established that the modern constitution ‘invents a separation between scientific power charged with representing things and the political power charged with representing subjects’ (29). However, he states we should not think that subjects are far removed from things. Even though Hobbes and Boyle create this distinction, they still speak about the same things: God, the politics of the King of England, nature, mathematics, and spirits and angels, to name a few. It becomes clear that in practice, this separation between science and politics, and nature and culture, does not hold. As Latour states:
Here lies the entire modern paradox. If we consider hybrids, we are dealing only with mixtures of nature and culture; if we consider the work of purification, we confront a total separation between nature and culture.’ (30)
The paradox of modernity, thus, is that we divided the world into two groups –
nature (science) and culture (politics) – but at the same time, in our daily lives, we constantly deal with hybrids between these two groups. But this division renders ‘the work of mediation that assembles hybrids invisible, unthinkable, unrepresentable’ (35). As Latour succinctly puts it: ‘the modern constitution allows the expanded proliferation of the hybrids whose existence, whose very possibility, it denies’ (35).
We Have Never Been Modern
‘Modernity has never begun’, Latour argues. Instead, he calls himself a ‘nonmodern’: ‘A nonmodern is anyone who takes simultaneously into account the moderns’ Constitution and the population of hybrids that that Constitution rejects and allows to proliferate’ (47). He states that hybrids – also called monsters, cyborgs, tricksters – are ‘just about everything; they compose not only our own collectives but also the others, illegitimately called premodern’ (47). So only minor changes separate our era from the periods that were before, Latour states.
In this part, Latour discusses the action that has to be undertaken to acknowledge the existence and the importance of hybrids:
When the only thing at stake was the emergence of a few vacuum pumps, they could still be subsumed under two classes, that of natural laws and that of political representations; but when we find ourselves invaded by frozen embryos, expert systems, digital machines, sensor-equipped robots, hybrid corn, data banks, psychotropic drugs, whales outfitted with radar sounding devices, gene synthesizers, audience analyzers, and so on, when our daily newspapers display all these monsters on page after page, and when none of these chimera can be properly on the object side or on the subject side, or even in between, something has to be done. (50)
Latour calls for the need to outline a space that encompasses both the practice of purification as well as that of mediation. ‘By deploying both dimensions at once, we may be able to accomodate the hybrids and give them a place, a name, a home, a philosophy, an ontology and, I hope, a new constitution’ (51).
Latour tries to locate the position of hybrids, quasi-objects and quasi-subjects by first problematizing the status of the social scientist. He argues that the social scientist, on the one hand, shows that ‘the power of gods, the objectivity of money, the attraction of fashion (…)’ have no intrinsic value, but ‘offer only a surface for the projection of our social needs and interests’ (52). To become a social scientist, Latour states, ‘is to realize that the inner properties of objects do not count, that they are mere receptacles for human categories’ (52).
On the other hand, social scientists also debunk the belief in the freedom of the human subject: they show how the ‘nature of things (…) determines, informs and moulds’ humans (53). So, Latour states that the social scientist ‘see[s] double’:
In the first denunciation, objects count for nothing; they are just there to be used as the white screens on to which society projects its cinema. But in the second, they are so powerful that they shape the human society, while the social construction of the sciences that have produced them remains invisible. (53)
The solution to these contradictory beliefs is dualism, much to Latour’s disapproval. The nature pole is divided into ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ parts, the same partition is made for the subject/society pole. ‘Dualism may be a poor solution, but it provided 99 per cent of the social sciences’ critical repertoire’ (54).
Latour, instead, states objects are society’s co-producters. ‘Is not society built literally – not metaphorically – of gods, machines, sciences, arts and styles?’ (54). He argues we should not focus too much on dialectics, as dialectics foreground the existing dichotomies; instead, he focuses on quasi-objects.
Quasi-objects are in between and below the two poles (…) [and] are much more social, much more fabricated, much more collective than the ‘hard’ parts of nature (…), [yet] they are much more real, nonhuman and objective than those shapeless screens on which society (…) needed to be ‘projected’. (55)
By focusing on the two poles rather than on that what is in between, ‘science studies have forced everyone to rethink anew the role of objects in the construction of collectives, thus challenging philosophy’ (55).
In this chapter, Latour treats the function of anthropology and the role it might be able to play, as well as the concepts of symmetry and asymmetry. If anthropology is to become symmetrical, ‘the anthropologist has to position himself at the median point where he can follow the attribution of both nonhuman and human properties’ (96).
To analyse this new field of study, anthropology should ‘come home from the tropics’, as Latour puts it. In the paragraph aptly titled ‘There Are No Cultures’, he states that anthropology, firstly, should use the same terms to explain truths and errors; secondly, it should study the production of humans and nonhumans simultaneously; and finally, it should refrain from making any a priori declarations as to what might distinguish Westerners from Others (103).
Furthermore, Latour foregrounds the concept of symmetry, by which he means a symmetry of humans and non-human entities, in which the latter have the same agency as humans do.
The Nonmodern Constitution
So far, Latour has ‘simply reestablished symmetry between the two branches of government, that of things – called science and technology – and that of human beings’, as he puts it (138). In this section, he describes the differences between the modern Constitution and the nonmodern Constitution. This nonmodern Constitution, then, is part of an ‘enlarged democracy’, in which hybrids have a place.
The Parliament of Things
‘We want the meticulous sorting of quasi-objects to become possible – no longer unofficially and under the table, but officially and in broad daylight’, Latour opens his section on the Parliament of Things (142). He states that, even though the division between human and nonhuman might have been necessary in order to ‘increase mobilization and lengthen some networks’, it has now become ‘superfluous, immoral and – to put it bluntly – anti-Constitutional’ (142). He remarks we should ‘take up the two representations and the double doubt about the faithfulness of the representatives’ – so that in this way, we will define the Parliament of Things:
In its confines, the continuity of the collective is reconfigured (…). Natures are present, but with their representatives, scientists who speak in their name. Societies are present, but with the objects that have been serving as their ballast from time immemorial. Let one of the representatives talk, for instance, about the ozone hole, another represent the Monsanto chemical industry, a third the workers of the same chemical industry, another the voters of New Hampshire, a fifth the meteorology of the polar regions, let still another speak in the name of the State; what does it matter, so long as they are all talking about the same thing, about a quasi-object they have all created, the object-discourse-nature-society whose new properties astound us all and whose network extends from my refrigerator to the Antarctic by way of chemistry, law, the State, the economy, and satellites. (144)
About the construction of this Parliament, Latour states we do not have to start from scratch, but we can use what we already have. ‘Half of our politics is constructed in science and technology. The other half of Nature is constructed in societies’ (142). According to Latour, we can connect these two realms together again, ‘and the political task can begin’ (142).
Latour argues we should give rights to nonhumans, to quasi-objects, to hybrids. ‘We scarcely have much choice’, he states, because ‘neither Nature nor the Others will become modern. It is up to us to change our ways of changing’ (145). In conclusion, with regards to the creation of the Parliament, Latour ends with the following remark on the Parliament: ‘I have done my job as philosopher and constituent by gathering together the scattered themes of a comparative anthropology. Others will be able to convene the Parliament of Things’ (145).
Some Notes on Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory
In 2005 Latour wrote Reassembling the Social, in which he emphasizes the agency of objects once more. In this work, he argues that the social sciences should change, and particularly sociology. He also analyses the use of the word ‘social’ and its contexts. Latour proposes five characteristics that social sciences should focus on in order to alter sociology:
- Objects too have agency: anything that modifies a state of affairs, acts
Things however, do not become actors, but actants. An actor takes action; an actant puts action in motion. It leaves a trace. ‘If action is limited to what intentional, meaningful humans do, it is hard to see how a hammer, a basket (…), or a tag could act (…)’, but we should focus on those things that make a difference ‘in the course of some other agent’s action’ (72). A speedbump, for example, makes a driver slow down, and is thus an actant.
- Action is overtaken: action depends on multiple actors
We are never alone in carrying out a course of action. ‘At [a] school’s open-house party, you wonder why all the parents look eerily familiar: same clothes, same jewels, same ways of articulating words, same ambitions for their kids. What makes all of us do the same thing at the same time?’ Latour argues that action is taken-up and shared with the masses, ‘it is mysteriously carried out and at the same time distributed to others’ (45).
- There is no group, only group formation: society is not what holds us together, rather, it is what is being held
Groups are constantly being made and unmade. ‘Relating to one group or another is an on-going process made up of uncertain, fragile, controversial, and ever-shifting ties’ (28).
- Matters of Fact versus Matters of Concern: a fact is not ahistorical
A fact is the end product of a process. ‘[I]t’s already difficult to show that the social is an artifact (…), it is even trickier to show that “Nature”, conceived as the gathering of all non-social matters of fact, should be dispensed with as well’ (109), Latour states. He argues that the social sciences should instead focus on ‘matters of concern’: ‘the mapping of scientific controversies about matters of concern should allow us to renew from top to bottom the very scene of empiricism – and hence the divide between “natural” and “social”’ (115).
- Writing down risky accounts: do not try to shift from description to explanation
‘The idea is simply to bring into the foreground the very making of reports’ (122). This point is about the methodology of a study and how we represent our discoveries: what is a good textual account? (124). Latour then goes on to define a good textual account as ‘one that traces a network’, by which he means ‘a string of actions in which each participant is treated as a full-blown mediator’ (128). He adds: ‘all the actors do something and don’t just sit there’ (128).
Works Cited and Interesting Links
Latour, B. We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press 1991.
Latour, B. Reassembling the Social. An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2005.
How Better Register the Agency of Things: Semiotics: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/562 (Yale Tanner Lecture 26th of March 2014)
How Better Register the Agency of Things: Ontology: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/563 (Yale Tanner Lecture 27th of March 2014)
Latour, B. “Will Non-Humans Be Saved? An Argument in Ecotheology.” The Henry Myers Lecture, 2008. http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/113-JRAI-PUBLISHED-GB.pdf
Latour, B. “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik.” http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/downloads/96-MTP-DING.pdf