Sunday, 26 October 2014

Bruno Latour: Imperialist?

    I recently saw a blogpost that took Bruno Latour and his disciples/fellow travellers to task for being colonialist ('An Indigenous Feminist’s take on the Ontological Turn: ‘ontology’ is just another word for colonialism'). Latour is celebrated in modern social/cultural anthropology for his absurd views on the nature of the world and the place of people in it. He has been mocked outside of the social sciences for decades by sceptics, philosophers, scientists, and rationalists because of his philosophy, if you can call it that, which amounts to little more than the denial of the existence of a single world outside of our heads and the ridiculous repercussions of this. Latour has spelled out his views in plenty of books and articles, and presumably because of the force of novelty and the Abilene paradox he continues to be listened to and lauded. Anthropologists seem to like the idea that anything goes.
File:Bruno Latour Gothenburg 2006 cropped.jpg
Bruno Latour. He seems like an alright bloke, I guess, but his ideas are madder than a bag of cut snakes.
    Latour is the foremost of those social scientists/continental philosophers who sprinkle the word 'ontology' around like it's black pepper but who have no clear idea as to what it means. He is indelibly associated with the word, and the word with him. While it's used in different (and some potentially useful) ways in social science, 'ontology' now tends to be used as a short hand for two things: a) denial of the existence of a single external reality and b) acceptance as true of whatever people believe to be true (these two things are linked, of course; if you believe that everything people believe to be true is true, even if people contradict one another, then there can't be a single world or a single truth).

    Not very helpful and, I might add, stupid. There is a world outside of our heads, there appears to be only one of it (in a certain sense), and we seem to be able to investigate it fairly well without indulging in this crazy relativism, wherein everything a community seems to believe is taken at face value as a true statement about the world. Latour routinely says absurd things, including a recent claim that the climate is sentient (and so are forests and IT security systems and corals and...). I don't know how he manages to get away with such things.

    So of course I'm somewhat on board with criticisms of Latour because he's a bullshit merchant and Chief Imaginary Tailor to Emperor Anthropology. The trouble is, the blogpost linked above attacks Latour for being a Eurocentric imperialist, claiming for himself and other 'ontological' types the 'discoveries' of indigenous Americans (and others). These discoveries include the idea that the climate is sentient.

   This quote gives some idea of the flavour of the criticism: is so important to think, deeply, about how the Ontological Turn–with its breathless ‘realisations’ that animals, the climate, water, ‘atmospheres’ and non-human presences like ancestors and spirits are sentient and possess agency, that ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, ‘human’ and ‘animal’ may not be so separate after all—is itself perpetuating the exploitation of Indigenous peoples.
    I'm not so interested in whether Latour is a colonialist or not - I'm rather more interested in the fact that the climate is not sentient and water doesn't possess agency. That's not how the world works, whether the claim is made by Anishinaabe people or Bruno Latour. If Inuit people believe the climate is sentient then this is an interesting thing to note, and it might be an important point in making sense of the ways of life of Eskimo-Aleut speakers (for example), but it probably shouldn't be thought of as an important discovery that Latour and other white academics are claiming for their own glory. It's not a discovery at all. It's just incorrect.

    I don't think traditional thought from any society - northern European, South Asian, indigenous American - is particularly useful in terms of actually understanding the world, frankly, and I don't think this is an imperialist position. It just seems to be the case. Belunese people did not emerge from a vagina in the earth seven generations ago, fascinating and wonderful as it is that such a belief exists. There is no such thing as Odin. There don't seem to be any demons, and sickness is caused primarily by germs, not an imbalance of the humours.
This lovely cumulonimbus cloud doesn't contain a single thought or intention, contrary to Kalidasa and, apparently, Bruno Latour. Wiki.

    The idea that the atmosphere has a mind and intentions like those of a human is to fundamentally misunderstand the atmosphere, humans, and the world in general. I'm okay with exploring how humans come to have agency - ie, consciousness, intentionality, and intention - using such devices as Dennett's intentional stance. But it's important to make clear, as Dennett (a real philosopher) does, that the intentional stance is merely a level of abstraction and not a statement about the actual nature of the world.

    I'm totally un-okay with the view that non-thinking things can think and operate in a similar way to people when they demonstably cannot. The fact that academics outside of ashrams are okay with such claims is an absurd situation, and those supporting the 'ontological turn', so-called, should hang their heads in shame.

    Indigenous Americans, and others, have had a significant impact on the world, and both pre- and post-Columbian native societies have given us all plenty of brilliant things, things so obviously important and superb that it would be silly to try to list them. It probably isn't a good idea to add to the list of genuine indigenous American achievements a pile of dubious ones, like the 'discovery' that non-sentient things can ratiocinate. Simply put: the best way to stop Eurocentrism and oppression of disadvantaged people around the world probably isn't to open your head up to supernaturalism and belief in the agency of inanimate objects.

    Incidentally, I've been contacted by a few academics and grad students who find this 'ontological turn' absolutely ridiculous but feel pressured into accepting it publicly for fear of losing favour in the academy. I won't name any names, for obvious reasons, so I suppose you'll have to take my word for it. I know that every time I write something like this, I feel like I'm being marked down on an academic scorecard somewhere (and you're probably aware that I'm not all that bothered by internet controversy). Anyway: never forget the moralising fairy tales of your youth.


  1. With such relativism, I always wonder what metasystem is used to conclude that all systems are correct.

    1. Well, once you've disregarded the idea of a single real world, there's no reason to bother with a metasystem justifying your claims. So I assume that's Latour's defence.

  2. We are taught Latour at a university in London as if he does NOT claim the agency of things. We are also required to answer essay questions like "Do spirits have agency?"

  3. So what does he say about climate change? That it's happening only in the world of the leftie pinkos?

  4. Begs the question if any of you actually have read any Latour... (Double click rears up ist ugly head!)

    1. Does it? I've actually read a fair bit of his published bits and bobs, but mostly the more recent (post-Reassembling the Social) stuff. If you actually see what his positions necessarily require instead of just glossing over them, you'll see how quickly it all descends into farcical solipsism. Totally uninteresting bargain-basement pseudo-philosophy.


You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.