In his penultimate book, After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis (2021), philosopher and ecological thinker Bruno Latour, who died at the age of 75, argued that humans should emulate termites – even if they live in mounds made of chewed earth and feces.
Termites should be our role models, Latour argued, because they aren’t devastating Earth, and none of them are Elon Musk insects looking to move to another planet. “It’s an escape,” Latour said. “But when you think in terms of the critical zone, you’re locked in, you can’t escape.” By this key term, “critical zone”, he meant a space between two and three kilometers thick “above and below the surface of the Earth”. But all discovered life is in it.
In this, Latour’s thinking betrayed the influence of his family, Burgundy winegrowers for generations. Its critical zone was, like the wine terroir, something to be cultivated rather than exploited to death. “What does it mean for politics if we are enclosed, and not in the infinite cosmology opened up by Galileo?” He asked. This means that we cannot just endlessly extract resources and dump our waste. In the critical zone, we must maintain what we have, because it is finite, local, at risk and subject to conflict.
The New York Times in 2018 described Latour as the most famous and least understood of French philosophers. This is no doubt because his work spanned many disciplines at a time when such cross-pollination was out of fashion. He was, Le Monde pointed out, also sometimes misunderstood in France, where his disparate interests deceived some into thinking his ideas were not coherent.
But his big idea, developed into more than 20 books, theatrical performances and art installations, and his 2013 Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh, titled Facing Gaia, weren’t so hard to grasp. We should realize that we are not the selfish individuals predicted by neo-liberal economic theory, but social beings living in interdependence with other forms of organic life, and that, like its favorite insects, we must recycle our waste from productive way and consume little.
His ideas were deeply influenced by British maverick scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that the Earth is a self-regulating organism. Latour’s feeling was that it is the critical area, rather than our entire planet, that should be the focus of human concern and care, in order to reverse the devastating impact of what he and others have called the Anthropocene the time when humanity became the equivalent of a geological force and presided over the sixth mass extinction.
Many artists and thinkers have found Latour’s thought inspiring. “He is adamantly against siled thinking, looking instead at interconnectedness and interweaving,” said artist Olafur Eliasson. Naturalist writer Robert Macfarlane found Latour’s notion of a “new climate regime” appealing, “in which social justice and ecological crisis must be recognized as aligned, and short-term interest must be subordinated to long-term survival”. Sociologist Richard Sennett described Latour simply as “the most creative intellectual of our generation”.
But this praise of Latour is recent. For many years he was treated as a typically irresponsible French theorist of postmodernity, outrageously claiming that science does not discover truths, but constructs them. He was one of the French philosophers charged with intellectual charlatanism in physicist Alan Sokal’s 1997 book Intellectual Impostures. Sokal accused Latour of being a pernicious relativist who believed that facts were social constructs. If Latour and his ilk believed that the laws of physics were social conventions, Sokal fumed, they would have to test their narrative by jumping from his 21st-floor apartment to wrap up the point. Latour refused to do so.
Latour denied being a relativist, but rather that he was drawing attention to the day-to-day workings of laboratory research. It was hardly a progression towards unveiling facts or truth, but a disorderly mass of observations, inconclusive results and incipient theories that were systematically erased when research results were presented as facts. What Sokal failed to understand, Latour explained, is that “facts only remain solid when they are supported by a common culture, by trustworthy institutions, by a more or less decent public life, by more or less reliable media”.
With the rise of alternative facts, he argued, whether or not a statement is believed depends much less on its veracity than on the terms of its “construction” – i.e. who makes it, to whom it is addressed and from which institutions it emerges and makes itself visible. Latour did not produce our post-truth era, but foresaw how it might arise.
Latour was born, the youngest of eight children, in Beaune in Burgundy, into a family of winegrowers since the 17th century. “Our Bordeaux is supposed to be the best,” he once said. “My father was always surprised that people from other countries produced wine. He didn’t understand why there was wine in Australia, California or Chile. It seemed to him a waste of time. I only drink our wine, actually. Not burgundy, just burgundy! I’m not a relativist, you see.
Little Bruno was encouraged to work in the vineyards. “I was always terrible,” he recalls his work in the fields. “So I moved on to philosophy.”
His older brother Louis was already trained to run the family business, so at 17 Bruno was sent to Saint-Louis de Gonzague, one of the most prestigious schools in Paris. It was there that the bourgeois Catholic fell in love with philosophy when he read Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy.
He went to the University of Dijon to study philosophy in 1966, developing views that would infuriate Sokal. He doubted from the start the self-image of scientists as logical and objective truth seekers. After graduating, he avoided military service by traveling to Côte d’Ivoire. In Abidjan, he completed his doctorate and taught philosophy in a technical school. There he conducted a study to find out why French companies had difficulty recruiting competent black executives in postcolonial Côte d’Ivoire. He found that black students only learned abstract theories and later were unable to understand technical drawings, this was attributed to pre-modern African mentalities. “It was clearly a racist situation,” he said, “that was hidden behind cognitive, pseudo-historical and cultural explanations.”
The experience of this study encouraged Latour to break with the positivist view of science as revealing universally valid truths about the world. This view was confirmed when he was invited by French biologist and future Nobel laureate Roger Guillemin to study in his laboratory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, California. The result of these observations was Latour’s first book, with British sociologist Steve Woolgar, Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts (1979), which argued that scientific knowledge is an embodied cultural practice that needs institutions, peers, journals, money and instruments. produce objective facts. “Some scientists were very shocked because they said I was demystifying science by showing what it needs as a social institution.” Latour’s opinions led him, to say the least, to take some interesting positions: he once argued, for example, that the pharaoh Ramses II could not have died of tuberculosis, since such a disease was not known at the time.
Latour took his ideas from the academy and collaborated for several decades with his wife, Chantal (née Drouet), musician and feminist activist whom he married in 1970, his daughter, Chloé, actress and director, and his son, Robinson, a writer and director, on a variety of performance-conferences that have toured Europe.
His most incendiary and compelling book was entitled Where to Land?, published in English translation as Down to Earth, in 2018. Latour asks us to imagine the captain of an airplane saying to his passengers: “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in a model holding… There’s nowhere to land right now. No lead available; no safe harbor. It was an allegory – migration crises, inequality and the environment are linked by a politics of denial: we finally have an environmental policy, but it’s a politics of denial – hence Brexit, Trump’s wall , Matteo Salvini’s refusal of Mediterranean refugees in Italy, the UK’s policy of shipping refugees to Rwanda.
Although ill with pancreatic cancer, Latour was active in his final months. Her latest book, Memo on the New Ecological Class, soon to be published in English and co-authored with Danish sociologist Nikolaj Schultz, posits that ecology is the new class war and implies that growth fetishists such as Liz Truss and Emmanuel Macron are on the wrong side. “They still believe in the idea of an old-fashioned modernized planet,” Latour said. They and their ilk should have learned the lesson that growth, pursued through gas, coal and oil, was what he called “treason.”
Latour was then, before the letter, a leader of the anti-growth coalition, but he hoped that humans could finally learn to live in harmony with the planet and with each other rather than seeing the two as commodities. ready to be exploited. He hoped, for example, that the recent pandemic, by forcing us to step back, would revolutionize the way we live, make us collaborate like termites with each other and with our environment. Liberating thoughts can travel as fast as Covid, he suggested. “The virus teaches us a lesson,” he said in an interview. “If you spread it from mouth to mouth, you can go viral in the world very quickly. This knowledge can empower us.
He is survived by his wife and children.