Tuesday, July 15, 2003

Reading:: The Pasteurization of France

Originally posted: Tue, 15 Jul 2003 21:48:48

The Pasteurization of France
by Bruno Latour

The first time I read The Pasteurization of France was in early 1999. I was finishing up my dissertation and decided to take a break from reading about activity theory to examine ANT. As it happened, I was called in to jury duty; I read most of the book while waiting for the proceedings to finish. (I ended up being called to serve on the jury, an interesting but frustrating experience that took up the rest of the day and could have taken longer.)

I think this book was the first I had read by Latour. In revisiting it, I find that I'm not quite as impressed by it as I had been previously. Don't get me wrong -- it's a strong book, it outlines key elements of Latour's argument (particularly translation, the key concept in the book), and it's an interesting read. But it doesn't have the breadth of most of his other books. At some point near the end of the first chapter, we concede his point, but he keeps hammering away at it, and that hammering tends to get in the way of the fascinating story he tells.

What struck me most about the book this time around was the prevalence of the war metaphor. Latour starts off by quoting Tolstoy's description of the battle of Tarutino in War and Peace, then uses it as a metaphor for Pasteur's battle against the microbes. That sets the tone for the rest of the book: the "cordon sanitaire" erected by the hygenists is compared many times to the Maginot Line; Pasteurians are described as enlisting allies; microbes, colonists, and physicians in turn "invade" others' space. No wonder people have tended to read Latour as being ruled by the narrative of war.

May I make a confession? I only skimmed the second half of the book, "Irreductions," which is laid out as a series of philisophical propositions. Parts of this section are striking, such as Latour's pseudoautobiographical account of his revelation that nothing can be reduced to anything else (pp.162-163) -- a revelation that occurs on the road from Dijon to Gray, just as Saul of Tarsus' conversion happened on the road to Damascus. Many of the propositions serve to clarify and define points of actor-network theory, so those were helpful too. But I tired of the seemingly endless list of propositions, most of which are better argued and illustrated elsewhere in Latour's writings.

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