Sunday, June 08, 2003

Reading:: Laboratory Life

Originally posted: Sun, 08 Jun 2003 09:26:19

Laboratory Life

by Bruno Latour, Steve Woolgar

I read most of this book when standing in line for tickets to The Matrix: Reloaded on opening night. My wife is ultra-line competitive and sent me to stand in line two hours early. Well, it worked -- I was first in line for the 9:30 showing. Plenty of people were there for the 9:00 showing, pretty much the folks you would expect. One young woman was wearing an authentic Trinity outfit that she probably bought from a bondage shop. So you can see why I bore down and read the book rather than make chitchat with the other people in line.

I keep talking about style in Latour's work, and in that sense this book is highly interesting because its style is almost conventional. That undoubtedly has to do something with the fact that it's Latour's first book and the fact that it was coauthored with Woolgar. Still, it's compelling partially because it is so audacious.

It also uses the term "social constructionism," a term that Latour rejects later because it has become associated with postmodernism. Latour is not postmodernist but amodernist -- that is, he sees us as continually interacting with each other and the world, collaboratively constructing selves, societies, facts, sciences, etc. in a web of interpretation. Yes, that sounds postmodernist. But he also brings in the principle of symmetry, that is, the point that nonhumans are actors just as much as humans are. In other words, we are not autonomous minds simply constructing reality -- or even society -- out of the yarns we spin. Our stories recruit other actors, including nonhuman actors, and those actors sometimes resist, disrupt, or commandeer our stories. For instance, it's not enough for Pasteur to tell a story about microbes to make them a reality -- the microbes must be compelled to take part in the story by, for instance, causing unsterilized material to forment while leaving sterilized material untouched. If they are unruly, if they are unconvinced by Pasteur's story, then Pasteur's story doesn't convince anyone else either.

Speaking of microbes as being "convinced" or "compelled" seems to lend them human qualities that they do not have. But Latour's aim is to use the same vocabulary for humans and nonhumans in order to call into question the deep assumptions we have about the divide between mind and reality, politics and science, etc. In other words, Latour is a monist. And he sounds very much like other monists here and especially in Science in Action, where his account of children learning language sounds a lot like externalists such as Thomas Kent or Donald Davidson. Similarly, his account of networks of humans and nonhumans, and his symmetrical treatment of them, sounds a lot like distributed cognitionists such as Edwin Hutchins and (to an extent) Donald Norman. When you read Latour, keep in mind the notion of monism and he sounds much less outrageous. It makes sense that he affirms his belief in reality, as he does in Pandora's Hope.

In any case, this book is a strong account of how a lab works, and I especially like the account of inscriptions making successive transformations as they circulate through the lab.

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