What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press [to Climategate] was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).from An attempt at writing a "Compositionist Manifesto" (pdf)
And, in the first chapter of his book Pandora's Hope, he pokes fun at those who seem to doubt that he believes in reality:
Has reality truly become something that people have to believe in, I wondered, the answer to a serious question asked in a hushed and embarrased tone? Is reality something like God, the topic of a confession reached after a long and initimate discussion? Are there people on earth who don't believe in reality? ... I could not get over the strangeness of the question...If science studies has achieved anything, I thought, surely it has added reality to science, not withdrawn any from it. Instead of the stuffed scientists hanging on the walls of the armchair philosophers of science of the past, we have portrayed lively characters, immersed in their laboratories, full of passion, loaded with instruments, steeped in know-how, closely connected to a larger and more vibrant milieu.I am kind of smitten with Latour lately, not sure why. He seems to have gone from anthropological studies of science that gleefully undermined naive notions of realism, to philosophizing on a much grander scale, where he attempts to undo the whole structure of modernity and undo mistakes that he traces all the way back to Socrates. And for a French philosopher, he's engaging, and usually quite comprehensible, although sometimes the abstractions veer off into the ether. Unlike many cultural theorists, it seems like he's trying to be clear rather than obfuscatory; he even includes a helpful glossary of his technical terms in the back pages of Pandora's Hope. But I can't quite figure out if he is useful, if these radical reconceptualizations have any implications or applications to how science and/or democracy is done.
One of his goals (as far as I understand it) is extending politics all the way down to the supposedly inanimate world of objects. Or more precisely (and this is exactly the kind of subtlety that confuses his critics), he wants to reveal the existing politics that inhere in our view of nature and society and the relations between them. Science, as it is while it is being constructed, is a set of networks that connect people, institutions, representations, and objects. These networks are often in political contention until one emerges as the victor and we now have Sicentific Knowledge with a capital letter. The connection to objects (aka "nature" or "reality") is crucial, of course, and it distinguishes science from mere politics. Social construction of science is not culture making up arbitrary stories; it's a way to let nature speak, to enter into discourse and society.
But Latour goes beyond this. He's not willing to let science take the role of spokesman for nature (which reduces nature itself to an inarticulate and lifeless thing), but wants nature and objects to not only speak for themselves, but act for themselves. Hence his idea of actants to describe the various human and non-human entities that form networks of knowledge and influence. The BRAF gene (eg) is just as much an actor, with goals and interests of its own, as the scientists to work to uncover its functions.
This sounds a bit crazy, but less so on reflection. From the strict materialist viewpoint, there are no actors and actions, just a seamless web of strictly deterministic causality. The stories we tell about each other involving selves, beliefs, intentions, choices, and actions, are just so many useful fictions imposed over this clockwork reality. Given that, why is it any less legitimate to extend these stories to what we normally think of as the inanimate?
For the record, these issues have been obsessing me for awhile. A section of my long-ago dissertation (ostensibly about educational programming environments) dealt with the conceptual underpinnings of animacy and its role in computation. I've moved on professionally to other things but the ideas won't leave me alone, hence this blog.