The Critical Zone of Science and Politics: An Interview with Bruno Latour
By Steve PaulsonFebruary 23, 2018
Latour first made his name nearly 40 years ago by chastising scientists for their hubris and naïveté. He helped launch the discipline of science and technology studies (STS), arguing that the social dimensions of how scientists work can’t be separated from the truth claims they make. As a result, Latour was accused of undermining the credibility of science. His critics lumped him into the same camp as postmodern relativists — a label he denies. Still, he wonders if his earlier efforts to question the authority of scientists led unwittingly to climate change skepticism. As he pondered in a 2003 article, “Was I wrong to participate in the invention of the field known as science studies? […] Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not?”
Latour then waded into cultural debates about modernity. Declaring (in the title of a celebrated 1991 volume) “we have never been modern,” he claimed that it was wrong to believe that human culture had ever really separated from the nonhuman world. More recently, Latour has plunged into the fight against climate change and the larger intellectual project of the Anthropocene. And he’s done this by embracing the Gaia theory advanced in the 1970s by maverick British scientist James Lovelock. In 2013, Latour gave the Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, which he turned into Facing Gaia.
At times, harkening back to his days as a PhD student in theology, Latour invokes the language of religion to warn about an impending “apocalypse.” What’s not commonly known about Latour is that he is a practicing Catholic who reads the Bible devotedly — not exactly the image of a man famous for questioning universal truths.
Now 70, Latour recently retired from his job running the Sciences Po Medialab in Paris, but he shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to his ongoing scientific investigations, he has written plays and is collaborating on various projects that bring together science and art. In one ongoing project, he’s considering whether the life of Lovelock could be fodder for a play in the same way that Brecht once wrote about Galileo.
I met Latour in October 2017 in Chicago, where he was teaching a workshop and giving a series of lectures. Our interview ranged widely over his life and interests. We talked about environmental politics in the age of Trump, his abiding fascination with religion, and his experience growing up in a family of renowned wine growers. After decades of academic jousting with the scientific community, Latour has emerged as something of an éminence grise. Now scientists are asking him to help make their case for the validity of climate change research. The irony is hard to miss.
STEVE PAULSON: Facing Gaia has positioned you prominently among scholars and intellectuals speaking out about climate change. Has this issue been a longtime concern of yours?
BRUNO LATOUR: I’ve been interested in the politics of nature for 30 years. I’m not a naturalist. I don’t follow bugs and spiders and animals. I’m not like many other people who got into this cause because of their interest in nature. My interest is in the way science works. I’ve read Lovelock very carefully for many years, and when debates about the Anthropocene became common in intellectual circles, I was surprised that Lovelock and [Lynn] Margulis’s argument was not being discussed by philosophers and even not very much by ecologists.
I think a lot of scientists wonder if the Gaia theory is real science or some kind of pseudoscience.
They hesitate when they are coming from biology, but not when they come from earth systems science. Lovelock has been very instrumental in the development of this discipline. It’s the people who are interested in biology and ethology who are most suspicious of Lovelock because he arrived during the dawning of the New Age movement. That was to his detriment, but in fact the theory is extremely important and interesting.
Many people who aren’t scientists have adopted Lovelock’s idea of Gaia as a way of thinking that the Earth is alive.
Yes, but that’s a big misunderstanding precisely because for Lovelock the Earth is not itself an organism. That would not be so interesting scientifically but would be terrible politically. It would resurrect all sorts of natural theology arguments and ideas about the cosmic universe. My interpretation of Gaia, which is based on a close reading of Lovelock and also a lot of interactions with scientists, is about the chemistry of the Earth’s surface being modified or transformed by the activity of lifeforms. It’s like a termite mound. The termite mound is dead, but it’s only there because of the activity of the termites. And so with the gases in the atmosphere. It’s like a biofilm. It’s just the skin of the Earth. That’s why it’s so interesting.
My aim is to contribute to a precise definition of Gaia as a political entity. Of course, this is a very difficult thing to do. What sort of entity are we dealing with? Does it impose sovereignty on nation-states? And then there is a very interesting connection between Gaia and the Anthropocene, which is one small moment in the history of Gaia but is of course very important for us as a species.
Is the Anthropocene a useful concept? Does it help us understand this historic period in a way we hadn’t really before?
Unlike many of my colleagues in the humanities and social sciences, I think the Anthropocene is very useful. It’s basically an alternative to the idea of modernity. I’ve worked a lot on the question of modernism. People never really understood what I was saying. I was just arguing that humans and nonhumans are now mixing together more and more intimately. The questions of responsibility and environmental ethics are completely transformed by the notion of the Anthropocene because of the scale of human intervention in earth systems science.
Is the Anthropocene a scientific problem or a problem of culture? How does it shape our understanding of words like “nature” and “culture”?
I’m from a domain that doesn’t make a strong distinction between science and the rest of culture. It’s very difficult to understand what is human. We don’t know what the human part of the Anthropocene is. But it is also a massive scientific problem given the enormous complexity of earth systems science. There are an infinite number of things to learn and we are just at the beginning. I mean, it’s like discovering America. We are at the time of Columbus and all the rest has still to be discovered. It’s also an enormous moral problem. What is the responsibility of rich people and especially people of my generation? The scientists I work with are always talking about their deep responsibility to their grandchildren. It’s also a big philosophical problem because scientific statements are constantly being disputed and turned into controversies. So it’s hard for scientists to live with that.
Well, you’ve questioned the very idea of how we define “scientific facts.” And earlier in your career you raised all kinds of questions about the authority of scientists. Yet you’re now saying we need science to help us explain and respond to climate change.
[Laughs.] That’s funny you ask this question because I’m now back to the sociology of science that I was doing 40 years ago. But the times have changed completely. So when I published Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts back in 1979, I was showing all the things necessary to be actively engaged in science, and some scientists were very shocked because they said I was debunking science by showing what it needs as a social institution.
When you studied what scientists were actually doing in the laboratory, wasn’t that often different from what they said they were doing?
Yes. I was showing that science needs a lot of support to exist and to be objective, which is exactly what I’m arguing now. That hasn’t changed. But 40 years ago, when I said science needs many things other than the facts themselves, people said I was debunking science.
What support does science need?
Support by scientists, institutions, the academy, journals, peers, instruments, money — all of these real-world ecosystems, so to speak, necessary for producing objective facts. Science depends on them just like you depend on the oxygen in this room. It’s very simple. And it was very simple 40 years ago, but at the time science was supposed to be true just by itself. It was mysterious, like the Immaculate Conception.
Was part of your project to knock the scientists off their pedestal?
Yes, a little bit because I was young, but my goal mainly was just to give a scientific view of science.
You’re really talking about a sociology of science.
Yeah, I’m still doing it. Now, the problem is completely different because scientists ask us for support because they are being attacked by very powerful people who are trying to throw doubt on their epistemology and accusing them of being political lobbyists.
But I have to point out the irony here. Forty years ago, a lot of scientists were angry at you. They claimed you were saying that science is relativistic and that there’s no such thing as a scientific fact. Now, some scientists are asking for your help to show that climate change is real science.
Well, the irony is to do the same thing and to be accused of two different things. [Laughs.] It means the times have changed. The current climate skepticism is not the normal thing that’s happened in the history of science. It has completely taken scientists by surprise. Suddenly they were being attacked by other scientists paid by a very powerful industry, not because their policy prescriptions were wrong but because the science was supposedly wrong. So their defense of science as something like the Immaculate Conception didn’t work. Suddenly they looked around and said, we need the institutions and the peer review, all those social processes I had been focusing on as essential to the scientific project.
Why would scientists come to people like you — sociologists of science — for help?
We are showing that science is absolutely part of the culture and that our culture is now engaged almost in a war against science itself. Now that the United States has abandoned the Paris Climate Agreement, we clearly are dealing with questions of war and peace. Mr. Trump basically declared war on Europe and the rest of the world by saying, “We in the United States don’t have climate change. You have climate change, but not us.” That’s geopolitical war. It’s tragic, but it actually clarifies that geopolitics is now organized by this question of climate change. What do you do when your ally is saying, “Go to hell!” That’s a completely new situation. There was something called Western solidarity before and the French and Europeans were looking at the United States as an ally. And the military is very interested in these questions. I’m now discussing the climate question with people in the French Ministry of Defense.
Why is the military interested?
The issue is central to migration patterns and all sorts of thinking about energy resources and use. Before Trump, it was still not clear that climate change was a central geopolitical issue. Now it’s clear. In fact, we could have solved the problem years ago with something equivalent to the effort put into the Manhattan Project during World War II.
So if we had confronted this problem decades ago — if we had reorganized our industrial system — we would not have climate change?
Yes. The historian [Naomi] Oreskes says that even in 1980 we could have done it.
You’re talking about getting rid of the fossil fuel economy.
Yeah, decarbonize it. It’s very simple. I mean, it’s nowhere near as difficult as war. Of course, every year that passes, it’s becoming more complicated. And the tragedy is compounded by what has been called the “sixth extinction” [the human-caused wiping out of flora and fauna around the world].
I want to step back for a moment and talk about your background. Sometimes you’re described as a sociologist, or an anthropologist, or a philosopher. How would you describe yourself?
I am not very disciplined, I guess. I’m at heart a philosopher but I’ve been accepted as an anthropologist by anthropologists because I work on modernity, and now modernity is turning into the Anthropocene question. So work I had done many years ago — saying we have never been modern — is now being vindicated. Everyone agrees we will never modernize the planet. Something else is happening. It’s called the Anthropocene. And despite the fact that no sociologist really recognized me as one of them, I’m a sociologist.
Didn’t you actually get your PhD in theology?
Yes. I’m very interested in the philosophy of religion — actually, in biblical exegesis, which is a classic question of learning how to read texts. Philosophy and theology have a common overlap here.
Did you have a religious upbringing?
I’m Catholic, which is a very important aspect of my interest in texts. I am also very sensitive to the misuses of religion. I have a very good ear for when religious views get transported into politics. So I’m careful not to confuse politics and religion.
It’s one thing to study religion and know how to interpret the Bible, and quite another to be a religious practitioner. Do you go to church?
Yes, I go to church. But religion is even less understood than science, and I have to say that’s discouraging. People transform religion into ideologies, into belief, and it really has nothing to do with belief. I don’t believe in belief as a category. Belief in God is not the right category. I was raised in the [Rudolf] Bultmann tradition of exegesis, and belief is a misreading of how the text is supposed to affect you. I mean, do you believe in the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception? Not for one minute, if you ask me. But if you ask what produced this belief, then I could point to the moment in the history of the Church when it was important to produce this interpretation.
Why do you go to church? Why is that meaningful to you?
Because the Church, in spite of all its limitations and the slow transformation of religion into belief and identity, is still active in many ways. It is words — the Logos, the Spirit — that transform the life of those you address. This is something I want to cherish, but it’s very different from believing.
In terms of information, the content of the Bible is very limited. But you need to push aside a certain definition of religion, which unfortunately is now dominant almost everywhere. It’s also happening in the sphere of politics, which has been replaced by issues of identity — again, by belief. “I believe in this and I don’t want to dispute it. It’s indisputable.” So a country like the United States now links political belief and religious belief. You cannot do politics with these feelings.
What you’re saying about religion reminds me of William James. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, he wrote about actual religious experience rather than belief and called himself a “radical empiricist.” Does that resonate with you?
James felt and captured something about the originality of this mode of existence. “Nothing except the experience but no less than an experience.” This is a great line by James and I completely agree with him. I’m a Jamesian.
Do you favor a particular metaphysical system?
I’m trying to free religion from metaphysics because it didn’t do any good. And it’s very clear in the case of ecology that the abandonment by so many religious people of any sort of interest in the cosmic dimensions of their own practice has led to an indifference toward the issue of climate change. There is an apocalyptic dimension to all this, especially in this country. Americans consider themselves as being already saved. What is the expression — “City on a Hill”? And now we have the real apocalypse, which is largely not recognized by religious people, so this sort of ecological question does not frighten them. They feel protected. There’s a famous moment when one of your congressmen cited Genesis for the promise that God will not send another flood.
We’ve been talking about your personal history, and there’s another intriguing part of your family background. You come from a family of wine growers. The Burgundy wines of Louis Latour are sold all over the world. Did you grow up in the vineyards?
Yes. It’s the only business of my fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers.
Did you work out in the fields yourself?
No, I was always terrible, I couldn’t do what I was supposed to do, so I shifted to philosophy. I have an older brother who took over the business, so they didn’t need me. But the wine business is very interesting. It’s globalized now. Burgundy has been globalized since the Romans, of course. I don’t know if the idea of a multiplicity of disciplines comes from that historical fact — because you have to be interested in the commercial business and also in the very complex chemistry of the soil.
And I’m guessing you still enjoy a fine bottle of wine.
Yes, I’m proud of it. Our Burgundy is supposed to be the best. My father was always surprised that people in other countries produce wine. He couldn’t understand why there was wine in Australia or California or Chile. It seemed to him a waste of time. I only drink our wine, in fact. Not Bordeaux — just Burgundy! I’m not a relativist, you see. [Laughs.]
You mentioned the soil, which is a key element of the wine business. You seem to be very interested in soil. On your Facebook page, there’s a picture of you digging in the dirt.
Yes, because no one understands Gaia, I decided to turn to another concept, the notion of a “critical zone.” Now I’m joining with scientists in geochemistry, hydrology, and soil science who study the science of critical zones. It’s an accumulation of different types of sciences working together to render the complexity of these thin layers. I’m trying to find a way to handle the complexity of this critical zone.
Your background is in philosophy and science, but you’re also involved in various art projects and you’re writing a play about Brecht. Why are you so interested in art?
I’m interested in art for the same reason I’m interested in science — it’s a way to handle the fact that we have landed in a completely different world than we thought we were moving toward. We need art now for the same reason that we needed art in the 16th century, when we learned about the discovery of America, which changed everything — music, theater, poetry, literature. We don’t have the mental equipment, the sensory equipment, to handle the ecological mutation going on today. You cannot expect the social sciences to learn how to handle the ecological crisis. How do you cope with telling your grandchildren that you were born in 1947 and had an enormously good time — that you profited from globalization and the process that has led to the sixth extinction. How do you tell this to your grandchildren? If you say, “Well, I had a good life, too bad for you,” you are a moral wreck. So how do you handle this situation? This is fodder for art.
You’re talking about activating a certain part of our imaginations that may be hidden from us.
Yes, and if you need new attitudes and feelings, you can’t rely on a bunch of moral philosophers to give you that, even though it’s very useful to have moral philosophers. You need artists, you need playwrights, you need visual art. There’s a very big turn in visual art toward soil, for example. It is everywhere in art shows. I’ve visited four or five exhibitions where soil has become a central aspect of inspiration. You can read the scientific literature, but you also need to become sensitive to the meanings of land — not just as physical landscape but as terroir. All of that is a reason to work with artists.
You recently retired from your university, but you still seem to be very active. Has retirement been a big change for you?
My wife would tell you that it hasn’t changed much. But it does change the fact that I’m emeritus, which is a sort of zombie life for an academic. I don’t have to manage my lab and that’s a great relief. I was the head of a lab and the head of my school for almost 10 years, so now I’m freed from all that. But for the rest, I’m going to work more. I’m going back to fieldwork, trying to figure out what a critical zone could mean for science and for politics. And I keep giving the keynote talks at scientific meetings, which is very amusing after being accused of being a critic of science for so many years. [Laughs.]
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science (2010).
Steve Paulson is the executive producer of Wisconsin Public Radio’s nationally syndicated show To the Best of Our Knowledge. He’s the author of Atoms and Eden: Conversations on Religion and Science.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Steve Paulson interviews author Amitav Ghosh on contemporary fiction’s failure to grapple with climate change.
Bruno Latour on the election of Donald Trump and the coming ecological crisis.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!