by Adam Robbert
Do we really have to spend another century alternating violently between constructivism and realism, between artificiality and authenticity? Science deserves better than naive worship and naive contempt. Its regime of invisibility is as uplifting as that of religion and art. The subtlety of its traces requires a new form of care and attention, a form of spirituality.
- Bruno Latour
In his latest work On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods Bruno Latour has returned to themes familiar to anyone who has followed his work, namely that of the unstable relationship between real facts and constructed knowledge. Latour’s willingness to question the relationship between creative composition and objective discovery is surely a large factor in the difficulties his readers have in assigning to him the position of either the critical friend of scientific practice, or, alternately, the guerilla-relativist hiding in between the entangled wires of microscopes and scientists ready to ambush the world with yet another account of the “social construction of science.”
I have no strong biographical information on Latour the man, but what we do know is that his family belongs to a lineage of french wine makers, to which he is heir. Perhaps by following the metaphor of his own familial trade one can grasp better the work of Latour the theorist. I would like to focus on his musings in and around the term iconoclash (which points to the moment of uncertainty when one cannot determine the extent to which an object has been fabricated) to illustrate both some the of the insights in Latour’s newer work as well as to illustrate how Latour might actually be following in the lineage of his own wine making tradition, albeit in his own philosophical way. Where the wine maker must start with land, labour, vine and, branch, Latour starts with labs, scientists, microscopes and cells. In each the task is the same: to initiate a process whereby one set of real objects becomes another set of real, though qualitatively different, objects.
For Latour, the production of scientific facts cannot be different than the production of wine from the grape. But this is problematic for many reasons that are not directly obvious. “The more the human hand can be seen as having worked on an image,” Latour writes, “the weaker is the image’s claim to offer truth” (p. 71). When one looks at the production of facts versus the production of wine, a clear objection is immediately raised: “scientific facts are precisely that which is not constructed!” Indeed, if we engage a simple reading of science we are left with one of two anemic responses that most are familiar with:
- Scientific methods produce for us the only reliable knowledge not tainted by any human perspective
- Scientific knowledge is a socially produced practice like any other and therefore is situated historically, perspectivally and subjectively.
Latour eschews both options. If we are stuck in this binary, Latour tells us, it amounts to a catastrophic double bind with no satisfying solution. Latour writes “Now they have to choose between two contradictory demands: is this made by your own hands, in which case it is worthless; or is this objective, true, transcendent, in which case you cannot have possibly made it” (p.78). With this statement Latour delivers us a central problem with the dogmatic interpretations of science offered above. Science, on the one hand, requires labor, work, technique, technology, capital, resources and institutions- all of which must be provided by the hands of human beings! To do science is precisely to engage in empiricism and rationality, both of which decidedly require the presence of meddling humans. It seems then, if one suggests that objectivity is that which is free of human interpretation or engineering and we accept the fact that all along the way science is a constructive process performed by an entangled mess of scientists, technicians, beaurocrats and international treaties we have an incommensurable problem: science, strictly speaking, cannot exist! Clearly this is not the case.
The scientific method is repeatable and applicable despite this inherent contradiction, why? Because scientific fact production is more like wine making than discovering some extra-terrestrial dimension to things not tainted by human interference. Thus when Latour looks at a single isolated neuron, it does not reveal itself as a neuron once the necessary subjective cleansing is performed. Rather, it is through a long process of mediation and translation that composes for us the image of the neuron (and lets be clear, the only neuron anyone has ever seen is an image of a neuron).
What started with a lab rat, to use Latour’s own example, was after being properly prepared through execution, dissection, separation, the application of micro-syringes and electrodes and amplified by television monitors collectively transformed into an object within which a neuron could be discerned.
I cannot through soft-focus or any meditative technique abstract the reality of any single neuron in any other way than through this complex process of technodistillation. Thus a question such as “Is the brain’s activity reducible to neuronal firing?” can only be answered by saying “Yes, provided that you understand that the neuron in question was only brought into focus by the work of human hands.”
Returning to our original conundrum then, how can we say that what is objective is that which is without human interference, when every piece of objective knowledge ever gained has been composed by human hands? Hopefully the reader can see why this is different from any form of dogmatic relativism. If for example we follow through in our task as imaginary wine makers and are able to produce a fine bottle of Cabernet, then this transformation -this production of a new entity- is not simply for us as humans, but the newly produced object (the bottle of wine) immediately begins to spin off in its own set of objective relations. The wine has a composition which will have effects on other, nonhuman entities. The wine is real but it is also a production, but once produced, it is a real object not just for us but for any other object it comes into contact with. Lets go back to the neuron.
If you say to me “Consciousness is fully explained by the firing of neurons” I would say “Fair enough, but could you provide me with further clarification on how neurons become consciousness?” To which our fictitious scientist must say something like “It appears to be an emergent property, an aggregate effect of billions of neurons working in parallel” to which I could respond “So consciousness and neurons are not identical” to which our scientist friend would have to agree “Yes, neurons are different than consciousness, but consciousness would be be impossible without neurons.” Agreed, wine would not be possible without grapes, they are an essential ingredient to making wine, just as neurons appear to be an essential ingredient in human consciousness. But then again so are vineyards, good soil, favorable weather patterns, profitable market conditions, fuel costs, my interpersonal relationships and of course, how much of the wine I myself have been drinking whilst making a new batch. Are neurons and grapes the same way? I think so.
Neurons are like a grape plucked from the branch of a much larger tree that drops its roots into the soil and is itself one gnarled and twisted tree amongst a whole vineyard of entangled leaves, solar rays, bark, soil, tractors and micro-organisms. It is true that without the grape I could never make wine, but it is also true that the preparation involved in making the wine and the conditions for its production -none of which is inside the grape- are also indespensible in making wine. As with wine, so with scientific facts. They are real, but constructed. They are objective, but situated. I conclude with some last thoughts from Latour: “With no hand what will you do? With no image, to what truth will you have access? With no instrument, what science will instruct you?” (p. 79) Science is an objective process of increasing refinement towards the production of certain kinds of entities. Scientific practices are, as Latour tells us, “…our best source of objectivity and certainty, yet they are artificial, indirect, and multilayered” (p.114).
These are just some initial responses to Latour’s new musings, he has many more on art and religion in the same volume, many of which left me stunned this morning. If I feel like I can add anything to his work, I might write about them later, otherwise I strongly recommend you check it out for yourself.