Bruno Latour’s Question: Are There Things We Shouldn’t Deconstruct?

In his essay, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern” (2003), historian of science Bruno Latour (b. 1947) worries that the intellectual atmosphere in the humanities—in which many scholars, including him, have too often abandoned traditional assumptions about critical thinking for the hermeneutics of suspicion—has been appropriated by the far right and is now threatening the planet.

Exhibit A for Latour is global warming, citing the following quote in the New York Times from March of 2003:

Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that ‘the scientific debate is closing against us.’ His advice however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete.

‘Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,’ he writes, ‘their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.’

In response to this, Latour does some soul-searching:

Do you see why I’m worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show “‘the lack of scientific certainty'” inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a ‘primary issue.’ But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? . . .

[E]ntire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of the field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good?

Latour is also troubled by the resonances between academic critical theorists and Internet purveyors of conspiracy theories, such as those who claim the CIA is responsible for 9-11, not Islamic extremists:

In both cases, you have to learn to become suspicious of everything people say because of course we all know that they live in the thralls of a complete illusio of their real motives. Then, after disbelief has struck and an explanation is requested for what is really going on, in both cases again it is the same appeal to powerful agents hidden in the dark acting always consistently, continuously, relentlessly. Of course, we in the academy like to use more elevated causes—society, discourse, knowledge-slash-power, fields of forces, empires, capitalism—while conspiricists like to portray a miserable bunch of greedy people with dark intents, but I find something troublingly similar in the structure of explanation, in the first movement of disbelief and, then, in the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below. . . . Of course conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless. In spite of all the deformations, it is easy to recognize, still burnt in the steel, our trademark: Made in Criticalland.

Part of the problem here, in Latour’s estimation, is that contemporary academics in the humanities have taught their students how to bypass traditional appeals to critical thinking and evidence, and instead simply double-bind every person who makes a statement of belief that they don’t like. The double-bind is accomplished by attributing belief to one of two forms of false consciousness: either misapplied determinism or misapplied free will. To misapply either of these, it is triumphantly declared, makes one a naive idolater or fetishist.

For example, let’s say that a person expresses the belief that biology, not culture, largely determines male-female gender differences, and you don’t agree. To set your opponent in a double bind, remind the person that the belief is actually a form of idolatry or fetishism, a projection of his or her own power onto an actually inert object: that nature does not speak, we speak; that no is makes an ought; that there are no “devils” that make us do things; that biology is not destiny. The power, you assure the person, is really in his or her own hands.  If this doesn’t discredit the credibility or upend the confidence of the person making the claim, then you can move to Plan B: deploying determinism in a form that you actually agree with. In other words, you can tell the person that his or her belief in biologically determined gender differences is actually a product of false consciousness—a result, not of his or her own free choice of belief and self-professed reasons, but of growing up in a culture where stereotypical gender differences are reinforced everywhere and treated as natural:

This time it is the poor bloke, again taken aback, whose behavior is now ‘explained’ by the powerful effects of indisputable matters of fact: ‘You, ordinary fetishists, believe you are free but, in reality, you are acted on by forces you are not conscious of. Look at them, look, you blind idiot’ (and here you insert whichever pet facts the social scientists fancy to work with, taking them from economic infrastructure, fields of discourse, social domination, race, class, and gender, maybe throwing in some neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, whatever, provided they act as indisputable facts whose origin, fabrication, mode of development are left unexamined).

Is there a way out of this sort of double-binding that still retains the legitimate insights derived from practicing postmodern critical theory? Latour thinks so, pointing to philosopher Martin Heidegger’s jug:

[A]ll his writing aims to make as sharp a distinction as possible between, on the one hand, objects, Gegenstand, and, on the other, the celebrated Thing. The handmade jug can be a thing, while the industrially made can of Coke remains an object. While the latter is abandoned to the empty mastery of science and technology, only the former, cradled in the respectful idiom of art, craftsmanship, and poetry, could deploy and gather its rich set of connections.

What Latour is suggesting is that the jug’s nature is whole or organic (a self-contained system readily apprehended by the synthetic intuition). As such, it should be treated as something more than a mere object (a cog in some larger system). The jug is, rather, like a star with gravity, capable of getting people and objects to enter into orbit around it.

But Latour resists Heidegger’s implication that an organic whole needs to be idealized on the “small is beautiful” human-scale (that is, as something fashioned by a single laborer’s hands, like a jug). Rather, scientific theories like evolution by natural selection and global warming by human-generated carbon-dioxide, though established by complicated appeals to evidence and argumentation, should nevertheless be treated as achievements of discovery by the human mind (as a jug’s organic unity is discovered on the potter’s wheel). Therefore, like a jug deserving its status as Thing (something in need of no meta-explanation beyond itself, and which draws people and objects into its own orbit of explanation), so science’s discoveries should also be treated. And so Latour writes:

What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to talk about the object of science and technology, the Gegenstand, as if it had the rich and complicated qualities of the celebrated Thing?

Though not mentioned by Latour, the poet Wallace Stevens’ short poem, “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919), suggests an answer:

I placed a jar in Tennessee,

And round it was, upon a hill.

It made the slovenly wilderness

Surround that hill.


The wilderness rose up to it,

And sprawled around, no longer wild.

The jar was round upon the ground

And tall and of a port in air.


It took dominion everywhere.

The jar was gray and bare.

It did not give of bird or bush,

Like nothing else in Tennessee.

In other words, people and objects gather around the Thing; they do not deconstruct it. Latour’s appeal is to Archimedes:

Archimedes spoke for a whole tradition when he exclaimed: “Give me one fixed point and I will move the Earth,” but am I not speaking for another, much less prestigious but maybe as respectable tradition, if I exclaim in turn “Give me one matter of concern and I will show you the whole earth and heavens that have to be gathered to hold it firmly in place”? For me it makes no sense to reserve the realist vocabulary for the first one only. The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and postivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile, and thus in great need of care and caution. I am aware that to get at the heart of this argument one would have to renew also what it means to be a constructivist, but I have said enough to indicate the direction of critique, not away but toward the gathering, the Thing.


  • The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (Second Edition, 2010). Latour’s essay starts on page 2282.
  • The Norton Anthology of Modern and Contemporary Poetry (Third Edition, 2003). Stevens’ poem is on page 246.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Bruno Latour’s Question: Are There Things We Shouldn’t Deconstruct?

  1. @oddhack says:

    Very interesting stuff, thank you! Latour was making the point about the freedom/determinism double bind as far back as We Have Never Been Modern (and possibly earlier). I think the “matters of concern” idea is a vital one for a new politics.

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