Latour at Berkeley

As previously mentioned, Bruno Latour came to Berkeley to give a talk. I was psyched. So I left work early, but hit more traffic than expected and got to the auditorium just at 6:30 when the pre-talk movie was starting. And the place was standing room only. 150 seat auditorium, all seats filled, for a guy that I’ve been calling an obscure French philosopher, but is apparently a total rock star philosopher. By the time of the actual talk at 7:30, all of the aisles were filled with people and there were dozens of people in the back of the room crowded in to hear him speak. It was cool, if unexpected.

The movie was a walk through of his recent art show Making Things Public, which takes the ideas he covers in The Politics of Nature and explores artistic representations of them. I just did a quick pass through, and the exhibition website appears to do a good job of covering the exhibition ideas concisely, so go read that if you’re interested.

The talk itself also covered some of his ideas from the book. He’s very concerned with the idea of “representation”, of determining whether representations are accurate or legitimate, because his collectives can not exhibit due process without good representations, or spokespersons. He bounced around a lot and covered a variety of different topics, but I didn’t feel the talk cohered well as a whole. But there were some fascinating tidbits:

  • In his book he mentions (and I quote) how the eight thousand people who die in car accidents each year are not represented, and are forgotten by the collective French public. In the talk (and in this article) he describes how the French Ministry of Transportation is now representing those deaths, with stark black silhouettes posted at the site of each death as a reminder of their passing. I don’t know if it’s art or politics or what, but I love this idea. Make the invisible visible.
  • He talks about how the space shuttle Columbia went from being an “object” (a self-contained entity with all of its properties inherent in itself) before it crashed, to a “thing” (a massive conglomeration of people, processes, organizations and physical objects all connected through the Shuttle) after the crash. Only after the crash did we as the public choose to acknowledge this whole network necessary to launch the Shuttle, because now we questioned whether the bureaucracy (or the people at NASA) had made the right decisions. I thought it was a great point that the public believes in a “modern” “object-oriented” viewpoint until it needs to find somebody to blame, and then the object is no longer singular and isolated.
  • He mentioned how he hoped that Colin Powell’s testimony at the UN about WMDs (“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”) would once and for all destroy the idea of “facts”. There are only representations, and the question is whether the representations are accurate and legitimate or not.
  • Along those lines, he pointed out that “facts” can not be disputed, since “facts” are seen as the statement of eternal truths, a bias which Powell sought to take advantage of by declaring his statements as facts. When we see the world as being made up of representations and spokespersons, it opens up the discussion, for we can dispute the legitimacy of spokespersons. We can demonstrate that the statements being made are not a good representation of the collection of things behind the statements (in this case, the CIA reports, etc.)
  • Afterwards, a gentleman accosted Latour and asked how he could call Powell’s testimony a lie when there was no such thing as a “matter of fact”. The gentleman was very adamant on this point, and argued it far past where I thought was polite, but whatever. I was impressed with Latour’s response though – he has been thinking for so long in this fashion that he no longer even comprehends the notion of a fact so he kept on returning to the idea of Powell being a poor spokesperson by unfaithfully representing the forces he was marshalling. Latour pointed out that if Powell had merely said “These are the data we have, and these are the conclusions we draw”, that would have been perfectly legitimate; it was only by giving the conclusions the sacred status of “facts” that was unacceptable.
  • Speaking of Latour’s viewpoint, he brought up a funny example during the Q&A when somebody asked him to give an example of an “object”, something that existed only in itself. And Latour said that he and his co-curator had tried to come up with something like that for the exhibition and failed, because anything either of them thought of could also be seen as an object of study, which entails bringing in a whole network of experts, etc. Even something as quotidian as a rock arouses the interest of geologists, who can use the composition of the rock to tell a story of the forces that acted on the rock, etc.

Wow. I had more material than I thought. Even though I thought the talk was disjointed, it was great to see Latour work his way through some examples, because you can clearly see how he has fully assimilated these ideas and incorporated them into how he thinks. I’m still working on that.

Afterwards, I was a geek fan-boy and got my copy of Politics of Nature signed. I told him I was a huge fan of his work, and that he should think about how he can use the idea of collectives to represent the self as well as assemblages, since that’s an idea that interests me. He said they’d thought about it for the show, but dropped it, but he was interested in thinking about it some more. So that was cool. I should have gotten his email address to follow up. Oh well. Okay, I just looked it up. Off to write him.

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