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6582569 Bruno Latour Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam

6582569 Bruno Latour Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam

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Critical Inquiry 
30 (Winter 2004)
2004 by The University of Chicago. 0093–1896/04/3002–0020$10.00.All rights reserved.
For GrahamHarman.Thistext waswrittenfor the Stanfordpresidentiallectureheld at thehumanitiescenter,7 Apr. 2003.I warmlythankHarvardhistoryof sciencedoctoralstudentsformanyideasexchangedon thosetopicsduringthissemester.
Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? FromMatters of Fact to Matters of Concern
Bruno Latour
Wars.Somanywars.Warsoutsideandwarsinside.Culturalwars,sciencewars, andwarsagainstterrorism.Warsagainstpovertyandwarsagainstthepoor. Wars against ignorance and wars out of ignorance. My question issimple: Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is itreally our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction? More iconoclasmtoiconoclasm?Whathasbecomeofthecriticalspirit?Hasitrunoutofsteam?Quite simply, my worry is that it might not be aiming at the righttarget.To remain in the metaphorical atmosphere of the time, military expertsconstantly revise their strategic doctrines, their contingencyplans,thesize,direction, andtechnologyoftheirprojectiles,theirsmartbombs,theirmis-siles; I wonder why we, we alone, would be saved from those sorts of revi-sions. It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academia, toprepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks,newtargets.Arewenotlikethosemechanicaltoysthatendlesslymakethesamegesturewheneverything else has changed around them? Would it not be rather terribleif we were still trainingyoungkids—yes,youngrecruits,youngcadets—forwars that are no longer possible, fighting enemies long gone, conqueringterritories that no longer exist, leaving them ill-equipped in the face of threatswehadnotanticipated,forwhichwearesothoroughlyunprepared?Generals have always been accused of being on the ready one war late—especially French generals, especially these days. Would it be so surprising,
226 Bruno Latour / Matters of Fact, Matters of Concern
On what happenedto the avant-gardeandcritiquegenerally,see
Iconoclash:Beyond the Image Wars in Science,Religion,and Art,
ed. BrunoLatourandPeterWeibel (Cambridge,Mass.,2002).Thisarticleis verymuchan explorationof what couldhappenbeyondthe imagewars.
New York Times,
15Mar.2003,p. A16.Luntzseemsto havebeen very successful;I readlaterin an editorialin the
Wall StreetJournal:
There is a betterway[than passinga law that restrictsbusiness],whichis to keepfightingonthe merits.Thereis no scientificconsensusthat greenhousegasescause the world’smodestglobalwarmingtrend,muchlesswhetherthat warmingwill do more harmthan good,orwhetherwe can even do anythingaboutit.Once Republicansconcedethat greenhousegasesmustbe controlled,it will onlybe amatterof time before theyend up endorsingmore economicallydamagingregulation.They couldalwaysstandon principleandattemptto educatethe public instead.[“A RepublicanKyoto,”
Wall StreetJournal,
8 Apr.2003,p. A14.]And the samepublicationcomplainsaboutthe “pathologicalrelation”of the “Arab streetwithtruth!
PaulR. and Anne H. Ehrlich,
Betrayalof Scienceand Reason:How Anti-Environmental RhetoricThreatensOur Future 
(Washington,D.C.,1997),p. 1.
after all, if intellectuals were also one war late, one critiquelate—especially French intellectuals, especially now? It has been a long time, after all, sinceintellectuals were in the vanguard. Indeed, it has been a long time sincethevery notion of the avant-garde—the proletariat, the artistic—passedaway,pushed aside by other forces, moved to the rear guard, or maybe lumpedwith the baggage train.
We are still able to go through the motions of acritical avant-garde, but is not the spirit gone?In these most depressing of times, these are some of the issues I want topress, not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meagercapacities as fast as possible. To prove my point, I have, not exactly facts,but rather tiny cues, nagging doubts, disturbingtelltalesigns.Whathasbe-come of critique, I wonder, when an editorial in the
New York Times 
con-tains the following quote?Most scientistsbelievethat[global]warmingis causedlargelyby man-made pollutantsthatrequire strictregulation.Mr. Luntz[a Republicanstrategist]seems to acknowledgeas much when he saysthat“thescien-tificdebateis closingagainstus.” His advice,however,is to emphasizethatthe evidenceis not complete.“Shouldthe publiccome to believethatthe scientificissuesare set-tled,”he writes,“theirviewsaboutglobalwarmingwillchangeaccord-ingly.Therefore,you need to continueto make the
lack of scientific certainty 
a primaryissue.
Fancy that? An artificially maintained scientific controversy to favor a“brownlash,” as Paul and Anne Ehrlich would say.
Bruno Latour
teaches sociology at the E´cole des Mines in Paris.
Critical Inquiry / Winter 2004 22
Themetaphorof shiftingsandwasused by neomodernistsin theircritiqueof sciencestudies;see
A House Built on Sand:ExposingPostmodernistMyths about Science,
ed.NorettaKoertge(Oxford,1998).The problemis that the authorsof thisbooklookedbackward,attemptingtoreenterthe solidrockcastleof modernism,and not forwardto what I call,forlackof a betterterm,nonmodernism.
Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in thepasttryingto show“‘
the lack ofscientificcertainty 
’”inherentintheconstructionoffacts.Itoomadeita“‘primaryissue.’”ButIdidnotexactlyaimatfoolingthe public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or didI?Afterall, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I’d like to believe that, on thecontrary,Iintendedto
thepublicfromprematurelynaturalizedobjectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken? Have things changed so fast?In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessiveconfidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as wehave learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive
of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! Whilewe spent years trying to detect the real prejudices hidden behind the ap-pearanceofobjectivestatements,dowenowhavetorevealtherealobjectiveand incontrovertible facts hiddenbehindthe
ofprejudices?Andyetentire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good Americankids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no suchthing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are alwaysprisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint,and so on, while dangerous extremists are usingthe verysameargumentof social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save ourlives.Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as sciencestudies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why doesit burnmytongue tosaythatglobalwarmingisafactwhetheryoulikeit or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weaponathand,naturalizedfactswhenitsuitsthemandsocialconstructionwhen it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along?Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and doabitofsoul-searchinghere:whatwerewereallyafterwhenweweresointenton showing the social construction of scientific facts? Nothingguarantees,after all, that we should be right all the time. There is no sure ground evenfor criticism.
Isn’t this what criticism intended to say: that there is nosureground anywhere? But what does it mean when this lack of sure ground istakenawayfromusbytheworstpossiblefellowsasanargumentagainstthethings we cherish?Artificially maintained controversies are not the only worrying sign.

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