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Environment and Planning D: Society and Space2012, volume 30, pages 000000

doi:10.1068/d3005int

An aesthetics of proof: a conversation between Bruno Latour and Francis Halsall on art and inquiry
Interviewer: Francis Halsall National College of Art and Design, Thomas Street, Dublin 8, Ireland; e-mail: halsallf@ncad.ie Bruno Latour is regarded widely as one of the most important thinkers of contemporary times. The implications of his thoughtmost notably his actor-network theory, his analyses of the history of modernity, and the historical construction of nature and scientific factsextend far beyond the boundaries of sociology, anthropology and the history of science, where his thought is primarily located. Through publications like Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1986 with Steve Woolgar) and We Have Never Been Modern (1993) he was positioned as a figure central to the theoretical reception of postmodernism. Recently philosophers like Graham Harman, associated with speculative realism, have claimed that Latour is also a key figure in metaphysicsa title he has long sought but rarely received (2009, page 5). Latours connection with the art world extends far beyond the undoubted influence he has had on several generations of practitioners. For example, he has curated two major international exhibitions (and supporting catalogues by MIT Press): Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (2002) and Making Things Public: The Atmospheres of Democracy (2005 with Peter Weibel), both at ZKM in Karlsruhe. More recently he has created a new experimental research program (with Valrie Pihet) in art and politics [Sciences Po cole des Arts Politiques (SPEAP)]. This research program is discussed below alongside Latours views on political art, aesthetics, metaphysics and his use of metaphor as an aesthetics of proof. The conversation began with two quotes which exemplify Latours arguments about the inseparability of culture and nature. These arguments have significant implications for contemporary art practice. The first is from a recent talk: Cultures used to shape the Earth symbolically; now they do it for good. Furthermore, the very notion of culture went away along with that of nature. Post natural, yes, but also post cultural (Latour, 2012). The second is from We Have Never Been Modern: It is the peculiar trait of Westerners that they have imposed, by their official Constitution, the total separation of humans and nonhumansthe Internal Great Divideand have thereby artificially created the scandal of the others . How can one not establish a radical difference between universal Nature and relative culture? But the very notion of culture is an artefact created by bracketing Nature off. Culturesdifferent or universal do not exist, any more than Nature does. There are only naturescultures, and these offer the only possible basis for comparison. As soon as we take practices of mediation as well as practices of purification into account, we discover that the moderns do not
This is an editorialized version of a conversation that took place at The Science Gallery, Dublin (20February 2012) on the occasion of Bruno Latour being made an Honorary Member of The Science Gallerys Leonardo group. Many thanks to Laura Smith, for the initial transcription, and Fionn Kidney at The Science Gallery.

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separate humans from nonhumans any more than the others totally superimpose signs and things (1993, page 104). The opening question was: what does that mean for art and artists today? Bruno Latour (BL): Oh thats interesting. Well, everything that gets away from the symbolic, I guess, is useful for artists because it means we are engaged more in research, and we are not merely adding either symbolic or aesthetic elements to something else which would be this weird stuff of which the world is really made of. So I think that the anthropological status quo which has been changed recentlywhereby you had one universal nature, so to speak, and multiple culturesis pretty much replicated in the art world. Of course this also happens in design in the idea of function and formwhich is the traditional waywith one function, many forms, the same function can be many forms. And of course this is replicated in the science and art divide. So I think that everything that breaks down this divide of labor between one universal nature (mono-naturalism) and multiculturalism is useful for artists, because it means that when we are in the multiplicity of interpretation we can be in science as well as in art. This was part of a former divide. The divide itselfthe bifurcation of nature to use a more philosophical termhas itself been largely erased, although not yet in the head, but in practice by the ecological crisis, so to speak. Francis Halsall (FH): Does this mean, then, that actually the figure of the artist disappears as a separate and special kind of figure? The history of modernism in art is the history of the autonomy of art through separating it out from real life and by the bracketing-off of artistic activity and aesthetic experience. But you seem to be advocating the end of this autonomy and the alignment of art with other practices. Does this mean the figure of the artist will no longer exist as a separate type of entity? BL: The autonomy of everybody is disappearing, the autonomy of scientists as well as artists. So it is the idea of autonomy which is disappearing. But on the contrary the skills and competences that are necessary for an artist are becoming much more, so to speak, respectable, and this is because art is connected now as much to research as well as science. So there is a loss of autonomy in the sense that we are not interested in something which is just artistic, but we would be very much interested in something which would use skills in design and art in order to reopen possibilities which had been closed down by the divide between art and science. So, in the program Ive created called SPEAP(1) we call it political art, which is a subset of these same questions. We think that if politics is the art of the possible, as the saying goes, then we need political art to open this up, this possible or to multiply this possibility. So the appearance of an avant-garde, autonomous artist expressing a deep insight without inquiries, without knowledge of the world, with no connection with science, that is certainly out. But now everybody, everywhere in art is doing research. My metaphor is that the laboratory is everywhere and actually the connection of the artist to science is much from science with art. For instance, we find that in people applying to the SPEAP program there are many more
(1)

Founded on initiative of Bruno Latour at Sciences Po in 2010, and inspired by the pragmatist tradition (Dewey, James, Lippmann and others), SPEAP is a multidisciplinary programme for scientific, artistic and pedagogical experimentation. Here, young professionals from a wide variety of backgrounds bring their knowledge and methods to bear on concrete societal and political issues, put their convictions to the test through exchange, inquiry, workshops, real-world issues, and think through the consequences of their interventions. SPEAPs aim is to collectively observe, explain, and explore together ways of creating a shared public space as well as new modes of expression for political, economic, ecological and/or scientific questions that are necessarily controversial available at http://www.bruno-latour.fr

d3005int An aesthetics of proof

artists interested in talking with social scientists and philosophers thanthere are philosophers who are aware that its in the art world where resources are often possible. FH: Ill quote you again, It is largely for this reason that we have resurrected this rather out of fashion term of Political Arts for the new programme we have created to train professional artists and scientists to the triple tack of scientific, political and artistic representation (2012). There is something that strikes me about this which youve already begun to mention. This concerns the newly emergent character that is the artist researcher; that is, the artist whose practice is research. In part their emergence is coupled with an instrumentalizationof artisticpractice through ways in which academic institutions are funded through logics ofresearch. In Britain at least this is also claimed to be part of The Bologna Process. This is seen in doctoral research in particular. Im involved with artists who are doing PhDs, and what I find is that it rarely, if ever, makes them better artists and it rarely makes them better researchers. It can become a very instrumentalized process. I wonder how what youre proposing is different? How are artists able to be researchers in a meaningful way that keeps the practice open, interesting, and vital? BL: In France it has really been a very, very long time since the separation between the art school and doctoral level studies. So the fact of resurrecting this connection in architecture, art school, dance is in my view extremely positive, because in the art school we are living with a very small sort of source of philosophers, and I mean basically a little bit of Baudrillard and Bourdieu endlessly rehashed with a very, very narrow definition of what the social was. So everything that opens up the connection with social sciences and philosophy and the sciences is I think very good. Now will it produce great artists? I dont think anyone knows how to produce great artists anymore, and most of the art schools anyway dont produce great artists, they produce masses of artists. We need to find a very good connection with research. I take research in a different sense and use the term inquiry in the John Dewey sense of the word. So inquiry is what is common to [these activities] no matter if it comes from politics (which is even more difficult), from science, or from art. It doesnt mean that the skills are the same, but it means the inquiry is the necessary business for the free. Then the question is to open up the task of representation in the very, very large sense of the word. This is what we did with Making Things Public, the exhibition I did at ZKM in 2005 which is in part the origin of the school. The school is a sort of offshoot to Making Things Public. It was the same sort of spirit. FH: My next question relates to your debate at the LSE with Graham Harman [published as The Prince and the Wolf, Harman, Latour, Erdlyi (2011)]. Thereas in Prince of Networks he reads you somewhat against the grain of your reception as a sociologist and historian of science: that is, in a philosophical tradition of metaphysics. Another of Harmans claims for his own work is that aesthetics may be a branch of metaphysics and that aesthetics may be a first philosophy. How, then, does this relate to what youve been talking about concerning the relationship between artistic practices and forms of philosophical inquiry? BL: Yes, very much so. This is a pragmatist tendency. The metaphysics associated with this is slightly different from pragmatism itself, but, yes, it is the same argument. That is, we dont know what the world is made of. There are many ways of producing the inquiry and the experience, but when it comes to rendering sensible what we are, the experience of living with so many different entities, then it doesnt really matter if you come from art or from science. In the very specific domain of political art it is actually opening up not so much the natural sciences but the social sciences. The social sciences have an amazingly narrow

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definition of what is in the world; there is a very small list of inhabitants. I mean for them there are no objects, no animals (or very little), so its only the humans. But they are naked humans, often even just heads, sometimes with a body but not with clothes on or without internal organs. I mean it is a very limited set of entities which nonetheless populate the social sciences; especially economics. So every time you get into an issue and you want to multiply the entities which are in it, it is very difficult to do so without artists. But I dont mean artists as free spirits or who express themselves; and it is not about the artist just packaging or designing the discoveries made by others, which is of course instrumentalization and a very great narrowing of what is good in art. So what we have in the school, and Making Things Public was also such an example, is that basically you take different domains like the social sciences, natural sciences, or art schools, or dance, or video and you propose an issue for which none of these disciplines actually has the tools off the shelf to deal with. And thats what makes the inquiry necessary, because you have to make it up because the novelty of a situation is too great. So I dont think its interesting to [specifically] connect art and science, because it never works. I mean instead to precisely do something else, which is to say: look, we have a theme and we dont know how to handle it; what do you offer? And when people come from design, from dance, and so on what counts is their collaboration, because then you see that you can learn more about social sciences from a dancer or musicologist or musician doing the inquiry with a sociologist. Thats because of the numbers of things they make you sensitive to. Thats why I think its a very pragmatic experience of running these shows or this program because it has to be done practically. FH: If I read it correctly, your analysis of modernity is an analysis of a split that comes about through the project of (post-Kantian) transcendental philosophy, which proposes a split between the mind and the world. Would that be a fair reading of your position? BL: Oh yes, there is a split in theory, but in practice something entirely different goes on. FH: That then raises some very interesting issues that relate to what youre saying about the role of art in inquiry. It seems that a lot of peoples understanding of art practices is also completely and utterly underwritten by that idea of there being such a split. BL: But it is a double split that never worked. This is why it is so difficult to account for experience, which is the problem the pragmatists had when they tried to desperately begin to follow experience as a source of knowledge. And it is very difficult to do this in the modernist framework because finally we are supposed to make the distinction between art and science. To do so you have to observe the difference between nature and cultures, nature in the singular, cultures in the plural, which breaks down. So that is the problem for modernism: that we have difficulty in accounting for our own experience. FH: Perhaps another split that we might consider is the split between the human and the nonhuman. BL: Well it is a big one, yes. Its amazingly strange. Even the numbers of nonhumans we cohabit with and live in. For example, just look at the number of nonhumans living in our stomach which are more numerous than our own cells. And of course a traditional way to deal with these was to naturalize them. But thats not a good solution either, because if you naturalize them you make everything which is interesting in the nonhumanwhich is to be different from an objectdisappear. So this is what is being moved on very decisively by the ecological crises, because we are

d3005int An aesthetics of proof

never going back to nature, so to speak, and it is not naturalization which is the key issue. Again art is important to maintain the nonnatural; to maintain the artificial, constructed, the historical, and anthropological nature (if I can use the word nature), or essence lets say, of the nonhuman. So this is again why you cannot do this without art, because it requires a large care for a multiplicity of agencies and that is something which artists are often very good at. The scientists are pretty good at the mixture of the two as well, and this is what keeps the two agencies open to one another. FH: I was reading recently God and Golem Inc. by Norbert Weiner, and he says something that reminded me of your work, and lets remember that hes writing this in the fifties. He says that the implications of new understandings of complexity (which relate in part to your theorizing of networks) is that we need to come up with another word for life because life might be an anthropomorphism of complexity. Following on from that: whats your position in relation to how life might be defined, in cybernetic terms or perhaps otherwise? BL: Cybernetics was a great moment in trying to get over human/nonhuman distinctions, but it was strongly directed towards a strange definition of the artefact and very strange politics of controlbut of course the whole cybernetic movement is important. It is actually coming back with Gaia, which is also a cybernetic metaphor in many ways, with groups without central control. So cybernetics was a great postmodern movement, so to speak. There is lots of interesting work there, but there is no great agency in these accounts. FH: The issue of agency is important. In your recent discussions on Gaia it seems that if there was any form of agency in relation to your account of what we might call a democracy of objects or thing politics then that agency would have to come from us understanding ourselves as thoroughly embedded in sorts of network. Is it as if we are like ants or other elements in complex systems? BL: Well, systems and networks have a different sort of feel. System [when it appeared] was a great [historical] moment in trying to reorganize multiplicity. I mean, to order the masses of new stuff [that is, the novelty of modernity] one comes up with the idea that you could actually connect boxes and then link them up in a system. In sociology we see this with Luhmann [and his systems theory]. Networks are very, very different metaphors, where I mean by metaphor an aesthetics of proof. The multiplicity of connections in a network, that is, the heterogeneity of a connection, is vastly greater than in a system. And then you have a third aesthetics which is the one that Peter Sloterdijk introduced around forms like spheres, bubbles, envelopes (and so on) which is a third way of looking at [the same issue.] Every one has its advantage and disadvantage of course. So Im greatly interested in Thomas Saraceno. This is an artist who managed to figure out the networks and the spheres connection together, and its quite interesting. Sphere in his work is a densely connected network, so he managed to visualize the two metaphors together. Hes a very interesting artist; a bit in the line of Olafur Elliason, another ecological artist. FH: My next question is a bit more abstract, but I hope [it] is a sensible one. It is: is there a basic unit or fundamental unit or regulatory principle in your thought (such as, for example, autoposesis in systems theory, emergence in cybernetic theory, or essence and substance in some philosophical traditions)? BL: In terms of metaphysics you mean? FH: Exactly.

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BL: The basic unit is what I call modes of existence (which are derived from Alfred North Whitehead basically, and which Graham Harman has objected to.) These modes of existence can be modulated in many different modes. One of them is actor/network as a result of a sort of infinite connectiveness. But in the terms of metaphysics, if we were interested in primary forces, like physicists are, then I would say that the five primary forces would be, in this view, the modes of existence, because they are the types of connectiveness which are themselves establishing relations in specific ways. Thats what Im working on now because thats a long-term project. FH: Am I right in thinking that theres fourteen of them, is it fourteen? BL: Yes, there are fourteen of them, maybe fifteen. I mean it can be an infinite number. I have fixed the numbers to get an image of the modernist project which has enough color and is not too schematic and not too poor. So my new project is a sequel to We Have Never Been Modern in a way, the positive version of this book which was written in 1991! So its quite late, but while I was writing We Have Never Been Modern I was already doing the other one so it is part of the overall project. FH: What forms do these modes take then? This is not substance [in Aristotelian terms]. And youre not talking about essence; you have consistently rejected the phenomenological project. BL: Well, if you take speech act theory and you attempt to make a metaphysics out of it you get to modes of existence. That is the question of how many ways there are to listen, to send away, or to extend. [] Austin, of course, was interested in language, and his ways of breaking them down was completely makeshiftprobably like mine actually, but its a different type. But if you say no, it is not a problem of language but is a problem about being, then you get an idea as to what it is that modes of existence are. This, then, is about relations. Relations are in the world. Relations are not what the mind adds to world, which has no relationsthis is the big mistake of the empiricists. The pragmatists said, no, no, relations are in the world; the important question then is, how many ways are there relations in the world? So this is where a project that superficially looked like speech act theory becomes a metaphysics. The question of this metaphysics becomes that of how many ways there are for relations to establish connections in the world. In a very specific tradition, which is our European tradition (which is not universal), we (the modern) have elicited and selected a particular type of connectiveness which we have found very important to value. But this means that [the project of identifying all the different modes of existence] is a difficult project. Its a local and historical metaphysics (I dont know if that exists!). Or a local ontology perhaps. FH: Does this mean that metaphysics is not limited to humans. That is, do stones and cars and the stock market and other things also have a metaphysics? BL: Yes, of course, and a very important one. Especially the stock market. But we have a precise difficulty in analyzing them, because we dont take them metaphysically seriously. But the modes of existence which are conflated into economics are especially troubling, because they are built out of very interesting modes of existence. They are built out of a sort of complete mythology of a second nature, as if it were material, which is called The Economy and which would then be studied by a science called economics. This had enormously deleterious effects, and, in fact, I didnt know that when I was writing We Have Never Been Modern. Its not only the question of science which becomes separated in modernity (I mean that is a small detail); the big issue is the economy and that is what has been extended globally.

d3005int An aesthetics of proof

So in the book I have just finished, which is a big project on the modes of existence, one of these is economics which is, of course, the most important. FH: Are economic ones the most important modes of existence because they have the most consequence for human life? BL: Well, not only human but nonhuman as well. They are the ones that have been universalized most. I mean there are places in the world where there is no science, there are places in the world with no (or very little) technology, but there are no places in the world where there is no economy. I mean this in the sense of the economy of what is formed or formatted by economy. There is an amazing book by Tim Mitchell on Carbon Democracy (2011), which is just out, which is an amazing history of the incredibly recent history of the economy as a thing that didnt exist before the 1950s. Before then, I believe, there was no economy. There was a political economy, but that is something entirely different. The economy as a sort of natural set of ever expanding things studied by a science called economics is a very recent occurrence, and it has amazingly spread everywhere. So if you look at modernity in terms of the ability to universalize something, its not science or the sciences that is significant as this only interests a few million people, but economics because that has such an amazing extension. FH: I know you have been critical of [Jrgen] Habermas in places, not least because his ideas are underwritten by a human-centric notion of human reason; but what youve just said does sound very like Habermas. It sounds like a critique of the instrumentalization of a life-world to an economic system. I think it would be easy to misunderstand you as saying the economic system is a totalizing system and has made everything else subordinate to it, whereas it seems that your position is much more nuanced and complex than that. BL: I really did very little about it actually in terms of hiding the complexity of what is required to give up the attachment to things. Economics has been extremely successful; now this doesnt meanand you probably allude to thisthat economy is embedded into society, because this would mean accepting too many things. First, it accepts the existence of society which is never apparent. Second, it buys hook, line, and sinker the fact that economics would describe something which we call economies. But it is not the case. Economics produces or generates around its centers of calculation and methods of valuing and formatting those valuations which define the economy. The economy is generated by economics. That sort of revelation is very important and in ways it is more important than the work done in the history of science, because again few people are bothered or affected by the philosophy of science but everyone is actually the victim of the religion of economics, especially Ireland. FH: This sounds like a revisiting of another of your arguments, which I read you as saying that the human subject was also created by a certain moment in European thinking. This moment was the emergence of a particular understanding of the public sphere and a particular understanding of the human subject in that sphere. This actually brings forth the human rather than the human preexisting the event of the Enlightenment. BL: Well, the Enlightenment subjectthere are some very nice things about it! But now that it is surrounded by Gaia it is a different subject. It was great to have a subject foregrounded in front of a background, which was itself sort of nicely there like a sort of portrait, like a garden outside of a window and which had a deep inner life. Whereas now we have the same subjectwhich is still interestingbut it is now surrounded by artificial envelopes, like [inflatable balloons] which need inflated air in order to be maintained in existence.

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So a foregrounded subject was a very nice shapeI mean, of course, it is very respectable and very beautiful but it cannot carry on its shoulder the burden of the earth; I mean, its not adapted to the anthropocene time. I mean this is a very different period. Now of course no one has the answer to what it would look like; that is a subject carrying the earthI mean no one has any idea about that. Ha ha! A journalist this morning was giving me a quote from [President] Obamas campaign. Obama is accused of putting the earth above humans. So this is a very practical dispute and so apparently Rick Santorum believes the subject has to be the centre and he is a Catholic, which is odd because in Catholicism the subject is not that either because the subject is under God. So what is the similarity between the subject under God or under Gaia? And what is the connection between Gaia and God? It is a very complicated issue. FH: Complicated indeed. This talk of God brings us to an interesting end perhaps. Descartes, famously, needed God to complete his modern philosophical system and to reconcile mind (res cogitans) and matter (res extensa). Is this perhaps why Harman has called you a secular occasionalist? BL: Well . An occasionalist, yes. But no, no. Im not secular.
References Harman G, 2009 Prince of Networks, Bruno Latour and Metaphyics, (Re. Press, Melbourne) Harman G, Latour B, Erdlyi P, 2011 The Prince and the Wolf (Zero Books, Alresford, Hants) Latour B, 1993 We Have Never Been Modern translated by C Porter (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA) Latour B, 2002 Iconoclash: Beyond the Image Wars in Science, Religion and Art (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA) Latour B, 2012, Waiting for Gaia: composing the common world through arts and politics, alecture at the French Institute, London, November 2011 for the launch of the Sciences Poprogram in arts and politics) http://www.bruno-latour.fr/ Latour, B, Weibel P (Eds), 2005 Making Things Public: The Atmospheres of Democracy (MIT Press, Cambridge) Latour B, Woolgar S, 1986 Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ) Mitchell T, 2011 Carbon Democracy (Verso, London)

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