Au ‘voir, Oncle Bruno

Very sad to hear about Bruno Latour’s passing on Sunday—though perhaps not exactly surprised, as I was aware he’d been wrestling with some form of cancer for a while.

I’m not a good enough philosopher or theorist to talk eloquently of his position in and influence upon various fields of knowledge, except to note that not many French theorists would get a write up in Teh Graun these days, nor tweets from the president of France commemorating his passing.

(Though of course the words “French theorist” signify somewhat differently now than they did a few decades ago…)

KOKUYO, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On the more personal level of influence, I discovered Latour’s work early in my PhD after hearing it referenced in passing in various places, sought out a copy of his Science in Action, and promptly had my mind blown. My formal social-theoretical training was pretty perfunctory, and my original education (abandoned in the mid-90s) was as an engineer; Latour’s early work managed to reconcile the more science-y and systems-oriented ways of thinking I’d been trained to as a young person with the gradually more socially-oriented perspectives I had picked up by osmosis through reading widely (and, one might reasonably say, indiscriminately) in the years after I turned on, tuned in and dropped out. The ideas were instinctive to me, even if the language at first was not… and the former pushed me through the latter, I suspect.

(I further suspect that the translations of his earlier work were not as good as the later ones, because it’s only in the later work that his dry, Gallic and dad-jokey sense of humour shows through… but then again, maybe it’s also that his writing became better able to express that side of his thought, as well as finding itself in an environment which was slightly more forgiving of academic writing that didn’t conform to the dogmatic passive-objective point-of-view which, somewhat ironically, was part of the scientific culture he was so engaged in understanding.)

The best tribute I can give to his thought is my use of it in my own work—and for various reasons, expediency and circumstance chief among them, that has not yet been as thorough or deep as I would have liked, though I’m not yet done trying. Far greater and more thorough thinkers will write about him in the weeks to come, and you should read them instead of me for that sort of stuff.

But I can offer a rather banal anecdote which I think speaks highly of the man as a man, rather than just simply as a scholar. About five years ago, my dear friend and colleague Anna Krzyzwozynska was putting on a one-day seminar at Sheffield on the sociology of soil (which is still her field, if you’ll excuse the pun I can never resist making), and rather boldly emailed Latour to invite him to speak, on the basis that a) you should try to get the people whose work is the biggest influence on your own, and b) the worst they can say is no (or, more likely, never reply). But he said yes, and turned up to this seminar, sitting politely and quietly through the early sessions before his little keynote at the end. I turned up for the afternoon, despite not really knowing much about soil, because how could I miss seeing Latour talk at my own university?

Arriving during the lunch break, as the couple of dozen delegates were spilling out of the lecture hall in the geography building and into the common room beyond it, where I had taken a seat to do a bit of writing before the afternoon session started. And who should wander out and sit down across the table from me but The Man Himself?

I am pleased in hindsight that the fanboy part of me that used to ramble incoherently at minor musicians trying to pack up their gear after gigs had been sufficiently suppressed by this stage in my life that I didn’t just begin blathering at the poor guy… but I’m also disappointed, in a way, that I didn’t try to engage him in a more grown-up form of conversation. In truth, I had no idea what I should say that wouldn’t seem banal or mawkish to someone whose work was shaping my own research so strongly. And so I said nothing, played it cool, left the guy in peace… which is why in the years since then my academic claim to a brush-with-fame has been that I once watched Bruno Latour slowly and thoughtfully consume a sandwich.

(I asked him to sign a copy of We Have Never Been Modern after he spoke, of course. Some fannish habits are unkillable.)

The point of this anecdote is exactly its emptiness, I suppose. That a thinker with the profile and influence of Bruno Latour should agree to come to a small seminar arranged by an (admittedly very promising) early-career researcher, and then just sit around quietly on his own until it was his time to speak, suggests to me a humbleness that is all too often lacking in academics of even a tenth of his stature. It’s a humbleness which I think can be found in his work, as well—a humbleness tempered with a persistence through which, despite the troll tactics and table thumping of the Alan Sokals of the world, the Science Wars were ultimately won by the constructivists.

Adieu, oncle Bruno, et allez-y doucement. Nous allons continuer le travail.



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