What is it like to be Bruno Latour?

When you and I wake up in the morning a series of unconscious microhabits of perception and appreciation take over. These habits structure our “common-sense” perception of the physical and the social worlds. In fact these habits dictate a specific partition of the everyday objects that we encounter into those that are “animate” (agents) and “inanimate” (non-agents). Within the subset of agents that we endow with “animacy” we distinguish those that have a resemblance to you and me (we use the term “humans” to refer to them) and those who do not. We treat the “humans” in a special way, for instance, by holding them responsible for their actions, getting mad at them if they do not acknowledge our existence but we have previously acknowledged theirs, saying “Hello” to some of them in the morning, etc. We also ascribe distinct powers and abilities to those humans (and maybe to those furry non-human agents whom we have grown close to).

The most important of these powers is called (by some humans) “agency.” That is the capacity to make things happen and to be the centers of a special sort of causation that is different from that which befalls non-human agents and non-agents in general (such as my lamp). This is our common-sense ontology.  Bruno Latour does not experience the world in this way. In Bruno’s experience, the world is not partitioned into a set of “animated” entities and a set of “non-animated” ones.  After much wrestling with previous habits of thought and experience (which Bruno imbibed from his upbringing in a Western household and his education at Western schools), Bruno has taught himself to perceive something that we usually do not notice (although I hasten to add, it is available for our perception only if we started to make an effort to notice): a bunch of those entities that the rest of the world does not ascribe that special property of “agency” to (because the rest of us continue to hold on to our species-centric habit of thought that dictates that that this capacity is only held by our human conspecifics), actually behave and affect the world in a manner that is indistinguishable from humans.  For instance, they act on humans, they make humans do things, they participate (in concert with humans some of the time; in fact humans can be observed to “recruit” these non-human agents and these “non-agents” for their own self-aggrandizement projects) in the creation of large socio-technical networks that are responsible for a lot of the “wonders” of modern civilization.

The important thing is that now Bruno is able to directly perceive (in an everyday unproblematic manner) that these “machines” and these “animals” are the source of as much agency (sometimes even more! ), than other humans. Bruno has gotten so good at practically deploying this new conceptual scheme (along with the radically new ontological partition of the world that it carries along with it) so as to transpose this newly acquired and newly mastered habits of perception and appreciation to discover evidence of the agentic capacities of those entities that were previously thought not to exercise it, in the history of Science and Politics.  He has even uncovered evidence of humans being aware of this evidence, but then he noted that they proceeded to hide this evidence by creating elaborate systems of ontology and metaphysics in which non-human agency was explicitly denied, and in which it was explicitly conceptualized as being an exclusive property of so-called “persons” (where persons is now a category restricted to humans) only. These “human” agents were now thought to reside in a special realm that these human apologists called “society.” This “society,”—these thinkers proposed—was organized by a specific set of properties and laws that were distinct from those that “governed” (the humans even used a metaphor from their own way of dealing with another! ) the “slice” of the world that was populated by those entities which “lacked” this agency (the humans called these latter “natural laws”).

Giddy with excitement at this discovery, Bruno even wrote a book in which he announced the entire cover-up to the rest of his human counterparts. But the basic point is as follows: When Bruno experiences the world directly, or when Bruno’s brain simulates this experience (e.g. when reading a historical account of the discovery of the germ theory of disease) he does not deploy our common-sense ontology. Instead he practically deploys a conceptual scheme that in many ways does “violence” to our common sense ontology by radically redrawing and liberally redistributing certain properties that we restrict to a smaller class of entities. Bruno is thus able to perceive the action of these “agents” both in the contemporary world and in past historical eras in a way that escape most of us. In fact, Bruno recommends that if you and I want to see the same things that he sees, and if you and I want to escape the limits of our highly restrictive “common-sense” ontology (in which such things as “society,” “persons,” “animals,” “natural laws,” etc. figure prominently) that we begin by (little by little) divesting ourselves of old habits of thought and perception and acquiring the new habits that he has worked so hard to master.

The epistemological payoff of doing this would be to see the world just as Bruno sees it: a world in which humans are just one of another class of agents and which agency is shared equally by a host set of entities that our common-sense ontology fails to ascribe agency to (and which we thus fail to perceive the everyday ways in which these alleged non-agents exercise a sort of “power” and “influence” on our own behavior and action). In this way Bruno recommends that the ontology specified in our common sense be reduced and displaced by that specified in what he now calls “actor-network theory.” But this is a terrible name, for this is not a “theory” but a viewpoint; a way of practically reconfiguring our perception of the social and natural worlds. In fact this last sentence just used categories from the old ontology for in Bruno’s world, the “master-frame” that divides the things of “nature” from “social” things (Goffman 1974) is no longer operative and no longer serves to structure our perception.

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  1. I liked this a lot up until the very end, where you call actor-network theory a “terrible name”. Theory really just means a point of view (it comes from the Greek theoria, θεωρία, meaning a viewpoint) so its a fine name from that standpoint, although “actor-network” may be a little bland for something so revolutionary.



    December 31, 2010 at 8:52 pm

  2. Omar: Nice post. Quick question.

    So, I haven’t meaningfully/deeply read Latour (though have managed to critique theories in the same family) — but, is there any sense in his theory of a “hierarchy” of agency? (If that makes sense.) In other words, lots of the “agencies” we experience are essentially derivative of humans. For example, we make choices about the type of agencies artifacts have, or choose/create artifacts based on agency. In other words, the agency of artifacts seems second-order (I suppose, depending on the situation), perhaps just an epiphenomenon of human actors (obviously, there’s an infinite regress problem here too). In short, the issue I have with the tools/artifacts-agency story is that it seems to ignore upstream choices. And, building on the above, I think we all recognize that our choices are affected/constrained/enabled by stuff/”artifacts”/material around us — but the specifics and analytics of this end up looking almost deterministic in most of the papers I’ve seen. So, theoretically, is there an articulation of which actors (human or not) — perhaps in given situations — have ‘privileged’ agency (and why)?



    December 31, 2010 at 10:28 pm

  3. I want to ask the same question as Teppo, but in different words: is there actually a theory of agency in Latour’s perspective? How do you know agency when you see it?

    I hated actor-network theory in grad school but have started to soften towards it in the last few years, in part because I take a similar view about the agency of organizational actors and the ascription of “intentionality” to these actors (IMHO, intentionality is a much more precise concept than agency). But in my view of the world (see here if you have any questions), not all entities are actors because not all entities have intentionality, and therefore you cannot assign agency to every entity. There is a difference between a toaster and a corporation.


    brayden king

    December 31, 2010 at 11:03 pm

  4. I wrote this while trying to come up with an example of how to apply to sociological an old discussion by Churchland (1979)—in reference to Physical theory—on how theories are not just a bunch of sentences with no ontological implications to which we simply assent “yay” or “nay”, but instead how converting to a theory could literally change the way that the world is perceived(e.g. learning a new theory literally reconfigures your brain).

    So, I say that I agree with your view that we could certainly come up with a “moderate” version of Latour, with degrees of agency, or with a Searle-type amendment differentiating between “intrinsic” (restricted to humans) and “derived” agency, but then radical epistemic effect that I point to above would not happen (e.g. the reader would not be able to simulate what is it like to be Bruno).

    I still think that the cool question is, whether the real Bruno really experiences the world like the ideal Bruno that I described above!



    December 31, 2010 at 11:08 pm

  5. There’s a brand of patent-medicine social science that consists of grand acts of dispelling an illusion that the salesman has himself foisted on the audience. It’s like watching the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz repeatedly pull the curtain in front of himself, then pull it back again, then invite Dorothy to marvel at his radicalism.

    On the other hand, people keep forgetting what they should already know, thereby creating real demand for the Wizard and his curtain. It’s annoying.

    On the third hand, the post (or Bruno) equivocates constantly between calling on us to give up the error-strewn deliverances of “common sense ontology”, on the one hand, and the misguided claims of certain forms of abstruse social theory known only to a small number of acolytes, on the other. Which is it? If the latter, where’s the revolution? If the former, where’s the accuracy? It seems to me that actual common sense freely — profligately — attributes agency in a positively animistic fashion to just about everything: the dog and the cat, fate, the car, every goddamn traffic light, my malevolently evil fucking printer why aren’t you doing what I am telling you, you stupid machine, the Market, the GPS lady, this stupid IKEA bookcase that does not want to be assembled, my magic smartphone I swear it knows more than I do, Santa, the Tooth Fairy, Lottery numbers, the Fed, and the Weather.



    December 31, 2010 at 11:10 pm

  6. I still think that the cool question is, whether the real Bruno really experiences the world like the ideal Bruno that I described above!

    But what have I here said, that reflections very refined and metaphysical have little or no influence upon us? This opinion I can scarce forbear retracting, and condemning from my present feeling and experience. The intense view of these manifold contradictions and imperfections in human reason has so wrought upon me, and heated my brain, that I am ready to reject all belief and reasoning, and can look upon no opinion even as more probable or likely than another. Where am I, or what? From what causes do I derive my existence, and to what condition shall I return? Whose favour shall I court, and whose anger must I dread? What beings surround me? and on whom have, I any influence, or who have any influence on me? I am confounded with all these questions, and begin to fancy myself in the most deplorable condition imaginable, invironed with the deepest darkness, and utterly deprived of the use of every member and faculty. Most fortunately it happens, that since reason is incapable of dispelling these clouds, nature herself suffices to that purpose, and cures me of this philosophical melancholy and delirium, either by relaxing this bent of mind, or by some avocation, and lively impression of my senses, which obliterate all these chimeras. I dine, I play a game of backgammon, I converse, and am merry with my friends; and when after three or four hours’ amusement, I would return to these speculations, they appear so cold, and strained, and ridiculous, that I cannot find in my heart to enter into them any farther.



    December 31, 2010 at 11:15 pm

  7. No theory. Another just-so story if you ask me.



    December 31, 2010 at 11:47 pm

  8. I haven’t read Latour, but has it occurred to him that agency may just be an illusion, even in humans? How would he deal with Schopenhauer’s refutation of free will?


    Benjamin Geer

    January 1, 2011 at 12:53 pm

  9. @teppo

    There’s no sense of hierarchy in Latour’s variant of ANT, since actants are nothing more than their external relations. A particularly powerful actants is simply another set of actants with their own relations enclosed in a black box, containing other black boxes, etc…, all the way down into infinity (see p36 of this).


    Naadir Jeewa

    January 1, 2011 at 4:59 pm

  10. I always thought its just a genre of writing. It may be difficult to distinguish ways of talking from ways of seeing the world, but I think novel ways of stating things has been glorified as something grand and philosophical.

    Is saying that large keychain is an agent that forces the keys to be left at the hotel counter that different from describing the characteristics of the keychain to draw attention and to provide incentives for the human to decide leave the keys at the counter?

    I guess Latour cannot be dismissed in some areas, like sociology of science, where he was (to my knowledge) at the forefront in conducting anthropological research. The insistence on wonky rhetoric and the reluctance to cite prior literature do not feel attractive to me.



    January 1, 2011 at 6:25 pm

  11. I found this rather amusing but have a couple (serious) comments.

    “I want to ask the same question as Teppo, but in different words: is there actually a theory of agency in Latour’s perspective? How do you know agency when you see it?”

    ANT has, essentially, only a bare-bones theory of agency. It is primarily concerned with drawing attention to all those things that make a difference. Its central methodological principle is basically this: that anything that makes a difference is an agent. As a result, Latour does not ask so much ‘how do you know agency when you see it?’ but argues, instead, that any difference that we see is the work of an agent.

    Its essentially a thermodynamic definition of agency designed to account for all the work that is needed to produce social order. It does not say that people and phones act in the same way. It does not say that phones have intentionality. Nor does it say that people even have free will. Its a rather limited principle, I think.

    “So, I haven’t meaningfully/deeply read Latour (though have managed to critique theories in the same family) — but, is there any sense in his theory of a “hierarchy” of agency? […] So, theoretically, is there an articulation of which actors (human or not) — perhaps in given situations — have ‘privileged’ agency (and why)?”

    Latour might be heading in something like this kind of direction. His ‘new’ project (one purportedly started in the 1980’s but only recently announced) is to account for different modes of existence. This seems to be something like an accounting of different ways in which actors, well, act. Presumably there is some kind of hierarchy involved but given the very little that has been published its hard to tell. I think its going to be something like ‘On Justification’ but more ontological. Time will tell.

    “I still think that the cool question is, whether the real Bruno really experiences the world like the ideal Bruno that I described above!”

    In ‘Irreductions’, the second half of ‘The Pasteurization of France’, Latour tells the story of how he come to see the world in this way. You may want to check it out, Omar, if only for fun! Its a tiny vignette that involves the countryside.



    January 1, 2011 at 8:31 pm

  12. “I liked this a lot up until the very end, where you call actor-network theory a “terrible name”.” Mtraven

    Actually, somewhere in this keynote Latour says something similar to what Omar says. The word “actor” and especially the word “network” are not especially enjoyed by Monsieur Latour.

    International Seminar on Network Theory Keynote – Bruno Latour



    January 1, 2011 at 8:47 pm

  13. In a late 90s dour mood Latour once proclaimed the four things wrong with actor-network theory were actor, network, theory, and perhaps most comically, the hyphen.



    January 9, 2011 at 2:57 pm

  14. Perhaps then it’s also worth mentioning that in Reassembling the Social (2005) Latour took that back: “Whereas at the time I criticized all the elements of this horrendous expression, including the hyphen, I will now defend all of them, including the hyphen!” (n. 9, p. 9) In fact in that book he introduced yet another hyphen, actor-network-theory, I presume to emphasize that ANT is not a theory of actor-networks but a research method that treats theories as belonging to specific actor-networks.



    January 11, 2011 at 9:18 pm

  15. Oh, to be French and flip-flop!

    But, more seriously, I tend to think the reversal in preference is largely a pragmatic move, i.e. tied to the realisation that one cannot ‘recall ANT’ as he had earlier tried to do. In any case, the reason for disliking the appellation ANT is still present in ‘Reassembling The Social’: that the terms ‘actor’ and ‘network’ imply some kind of engagement with the agency-structure debate. This is why the ‘Sociology of Translation’ – which there was an effort to popularize for a while – is a better name for what they theory started of as and, eventually, returned to.



    January 11, 2011 at 9:49 pm

  16. […] Lizardo recently posted a thought-provoking post “What it is like to be Bruno Latour” and this made for some interesting comments as […]


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