Why Does Latour the Postmodern Critic Still Matter? Raphael Sassower

It was sometime in the mid-1990s that I first met Bruno Latour in person. It was the annual 4S meeting, either in Seattle or Portland. It was a smallish room that held about thirty people. In walks a tall and handsome man, wearing jeans, buttoned-down shirt, and an elegant jacket, with the confidence of an actor on stage; he then smiles mischievously and pulls out his hotel key. He proceeds to deliver a semiotic analysis of hotel keys, the difference between the old-fashioned and bulky key one left with the desk in European hotels and the American credit-card size key that fits easily into one’s pocket. Before us stood a polished, brilliant, and dead-serious intellectual with the penchant for entertainment of a seasoned performer … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Tony Armstrong-Sly via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Sassower, Raphael. 2022. “Why Does Latour the Postmodern Critic Still Matter?” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (12): 1-9. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-7ol.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Articles in this dialogue:

❦ Sassower, Raphael. 2021. “Some are Still Locked Out after being Locked Down: Review of Bruno Latour, After Lockdown. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (12): 44-47.

❦ West, Mark D. 2021. “Gaia and COVID: A Review of Bruno Latour’s After Lockdown. Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 10 (12): 36-43.

❦ Sassower, Raphael. 2020. “There is Always Time for Critique.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 9 (7) 11-17.

This first encounter solidified in my mind the appeal of his style of thinking and writing that traverses in the French way  disciplinary boundaries with little regard or regret. As a young academic, I was inspired as much as impressed, and no matter my disagreements with some of his ideas, I remain convinced that there are few in the halls of the academy who match his disregard for institutional authorities and personal courage to say what’s on his mind, playing simultaneously the court jester and contrarian polemicist (e.g., Latour 2021); he therefore deserves critical engagement and not simply a eulogy.

Latour’s Self-Critical Mindset

Instead of recounting his published life in letters, summarizing minute changes of his views, his provocative interventions, or assessing his role in the broadly labeled Science Studies movement, I plan to focus here on one of his seminal essays that captures a moment of his self-critical mindset, the self-reflexivity sociologists of science expect of their minions, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Setting up and contextualizing the questions, “what has become of the critical spirit? Has it run out of steam?” within the discourse of war, Latour suggests that unlike “military experts” whose strategic and tactical agility considers past mistakes and prepares for future success, “we . . . in academia” have not been as “quick” to “prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets” (2004, 225). If critique has indeed “run out of steam,” academics have been asleep at their respective disciplinary wheels, unprepared for the “new.” The “critical spirit” is critical because it remains vigilant and is a spirit because by definition it is “an animating or vital principle held to give life to physical organisms” (Merriam Webster).

Have academics died while asleep at the wheel, losing any animating power and vitality when encountering new trends and voices in the academy? Vacillating between including himself in the academic “we” and distancing himself from other “intellectuals,” Latour transforms his questions into a lament: “It has been a long time, after all, since intellectuals were in the vanguard” (2004, 226). The very notion of “the avant-garde” seems to have dissipated, whether one looks for it among the proletariat or artists, according to him, such that now “we are still able to go through the motions of a critical avant-garde” but “the spirit is gone” (226).

One wonders if Latour’s lament is confined to Science Studies or extends to all disciplines in the academy, whether he distinguishes between academics and intellectuals, preferring one group to the other (with which he wants to associate himself) because of political or institutional reasons, or whether his distinction between “going through the motions” and the “critical spirit” is warranted, especially in the European milieu, where quite a few academics are viewed as public intellectuals who appear regularly in the media and have social media presence and following. “In these most depressing times,” continues Latour, he wants to “press, not to depress the reader but to press ahead, to redirect our meager capacities as fast as possible” (226).

Reminiscent of Wendy Brown’s subtitle “Critical Theory in Dark Times,” the reference to “depressing times” evokes simultaneously a hopeless sense of doom and gloom, a crisis of sorts, and a sense of urgency that Brown conjures to “[pass] a critical judgment and [provide] a formula for restorative action” (Brown 2005, 5). Perhaps it is the pressing temporality of the “critical spirit” Latour is after (without the reference to the ancient Greeks), one that demands at the very least intellectual action “as fast as possible.” The war metaphor is reframed in terms of the debates over “the lack of scientific certainty,” one that was presumed to be “inherent in the construction of facts” (Latour 2004, 227). Without denying the public’s thirst for certainty, scientific or other, Latour admits that over the years his intention was to “emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts” (italics in the original). What seems emancipatory from the perspective of the critical spirit of an anthropologist of science and his sociologist fellow-travelers is misunderstood by the public as “excessive distrust” in anything scientific, be it factual, methodological, explanatory, or predictive.

The reasonable appeal to “good American kids” (good in what sense?), that “are learning the hard way that facts are made up,” that “there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth,” that no matter how careful we speak that “we are always prisoners of language,” that, as feminists have taught us, “we always speak from a particular standpoint,” ends with a warning echoed in courts of laws about “fake science” and in Latour’s incantation an alarm about those “dangerous extremists” who are using “the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives” (227).

Drawing the Sword

There is no doubt that the critical attacks of the Science Studies folk was not only mocked in the so-called Science Wars (Ross 1996) but redeployed by clever lawyers defending corporate crimes by trying to shirk responsibility for these crimes (pollution, sickness, and death) under the rubric of uncertainty and the difference between causality and correlation (Proctor 1995). Was Latour “wrong,” as he says, “to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies?” If not wrong in the strong sense of criminality or morality, should he nonetheless “apologize for having been wrong” in the weak sense of being misguided “all along?” Unlike the Hegelian owl of Minerva spreading its wing only with the falling of the dusk, Latour suggests that perhaps he “should bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-search here” (2004, 227). Between “science wars” and “cancer wars,” we remain stuck in war metaphors and discursive battles.

The sword is drawn right away toward a relatively easy target, Jean Baudrillard, who has claimed in a published book that “the Twin Towers destroyed themselves under their own weight” and giving rise not only to “instant revisionism” but also to multiple conspiracy theories (228). If by “social construction” one means complete fabrication, then a reductionist attack on Baudrillard is fair game; but if it means much more than that, then of course this is the kind of cheap shot that weaponizes the dismissal of critique and plays into the hands of those he denounces for using “the very same argument of social construction.” Letting himself be “mean for a second,” Latour takes a swipe at Pierre Bourdieu as well, and insists that there is “something troublingly similar in the structure of the explanation” between the deconstruction of French poststructuralists and conspiracy theorists: they deploy a “first movement of disbelief”—the Cartesian-Baconian skeptical doubt—and then proceed with “the wheeling of causal explanations coming out of the deep dark below.” The constellation of “power, society, discourse” had “outlived [its] usefulness,” in his mind, “and deteriorated to the point of now feeding the most gullible sort of critique” (229-30).

From this recounting, it seems that the brilliance of the Foucauldian critique of power relations was safe in the hands of social constructivists, the warriors of the Science Studies club, but misused the minute it got into the hands of some reckless French poststructuralists who differ little from American conspiracy theorists. As he moves from war and weapons imagery to the political arena, Latour questions if perhaps what he has been witnessing in these “most depressing of times” is “a case of radicalism gone mad, as when a revolution swallows its progeny,” gesturing to the French Revolution without referencing it. Having strayed far afield from the academy, Latour brings us back to ask, “have we behaved like mad scientists who have let the virus of critique out of the confines of their laboratories and cannot do anything now to limit its deleterious effects” (230-1).

It is one thing to suggest that critique has metamorphized into a “gullible critique” unrecognized by academics and intellectuals, that is has been weaponized to undermine serious deliberations and concerns over the truth value of facts, and quite another thing to see it as a “virus” that must be confined to “laboratories” (especially ironic for someone who made his career by diligently observing laboratory work 1986, 1987). Unlike the Greek antecedents brought to life in Brown’s analysis of critical engagement as a means for restoring the public space, Latour’s critical spirit is safely ensconced within the insulated and institutionalized confines of the academy, where his repeated reference to the plural “us” and “we” is securely housed.

If the “criticism of criticism” seemed inward looking so far, an indictment against the Baudrillards and Bourdieus of the intellectual camp, there is a midcourse pivot to an outward looking critique of those who appropriate the discourse of Science Studies. Perhaps this is not an internal quibbling about what “we” have done wrong in the strong and weak sense, but what has been done to “us,” the sincere and hardworking academics that “we” are. With a linguistic flare too precious to paraphrase, I quote him:

If the dense moralist cigar-smoking reactionary bourgeois [he surely excludes Freud here, and thinks of Hollywood characters] can transform him- or herself into a free floating agnostic bohemian, moving opinions, capital and networks [a concept he successfully promoted] from one end of the planet to the other without attachment, why would he or she not be able to absorb the most sophisticated tools of deconstruction, social construction, discourse analysis, postmodernism, postology [The psychology behind social media posts, and the psychoanalysis of people who post] (231)?

It is one thing, Latour seems to say, for “reactionary bourgeois” to pretend to be an “agnostic bohemian” since we routinely tolerate such hypocrisy and perhaps fantasize about the ways in which it could actually “transform” them over time (the way Nietzsche suggests about those who pretend to be kind and eventually become kind by practice), and quite another thing to say that this hypocrisy differs little from the judicial weaponization of the “sophisticated tools” developed by Science Studies to question the authority of the scientific establishment. When courts of law were inundated by questions about scientific certainty and causality in relation to the cancerous effects of asbestos and tobacco, for example, and more recently in relation to climate change, pain, suffering, and lives were at stake.

The Critique of Critique

Readers of the perils of the critique of critique may not be surprised to learn that it can be misused, manipulated, misapplied, exploited, and mishandled, but they may still be shocked every time when such appropriation is blatant and cruel, when it intentionally misconstrues facts and takes out of context what are meant to be its corrective goals of restoring public confidence in its social and political institutions. It remains unclear if Latour agrees with this assessment when he says: “there is no greater intellectual crime than to address with the equipment of an older period the challenges of the present one” (231). Does he mean that the critical “equipment” (like military weapons) has to change given new “challenges” or that it is a misappropriation to use the tools of critique from one period to another, even when their sharp edges remain potent?

The lament about critique running “out of steam” morphs into a suggestion that it is not about critique as such, but about the specific critical tools used by “deconstruction, social construction, discourse analysis, postmodernism, postology.” Latour has been anything but silent about his adherence to and participation in the discursive “moves” of postmodernism. When interviewing Michel Serres, time and again he gives full expression to his own ambivalence about postmodernism, sounding like the court jester as much as the contrarian.

Calling postmodernism mockingly “a journalists’ term that philosophers have taken seriously” and suggesting that it is “an absurd theme,” he coyly concludes that “it’s nonetheless the chic, cultural era in which we find ourselves.” He attributes the label as being forced on the “we” to which he belongs: “We are no longer modern, they say, but postmodern.” Unlike Jean-François Lyotard who insisted on not historicizing the postmodern “condition” (1984/1979), Latour, who will later claim that “we” never were “moderns,” nonetheless concedes to the temporality imposed on the academy. But what does he think is this postmodernism?

For him, “Postmodernism is disappointed rationalism, combining the effects of rationalism and disappointment,” which is a brilliant dismissal of postmodernism as nothing but an affective reaction to the hegemony of Eurocentric rationalism that pervades his intellectual milieu, perhaps a way of refraining to engage with the principles that guide that “chic” movement (Serres 1995, 144). While seeming dismissive in one place, Latour cannot help his Science Studies self when giving full credence to all those intellectual movements that are attempting to overcome the limitations of modernity: “The philosophy of science in this century. . . has taken its time about replacing the knowing subject with a knowing collectivity” (163), the kind of “collectivity” that the Edinburgh Strong Program and Social Epistemology have taken pains to study not after the facts of science proper have been understood methodologically, but before, during, and after these scientific facts are being produced, disseminated, and communicated to a receptive, and perhaps anxious at times and at others complacent, public. Seeing postmodernists as “sad,” Latour argues that, switching now to his more ambivalent “we,” that “at the very moment when we believe we are so clever, so terribly modern, this is when we become postmodern” (153). The ”we” become “they” in one sentence: self-criticism and “soul searching” in one moment, and clever distancing at another. Heads, I win, tails, they lose.

Critical Spirit

Statements from Latour’s essay on critique like this one: “The question was never to get away from facts but closer to them, not fighting empiricism but, on the contrary, renewing empiricism,” (2004, 231; italics in the original) fit well with and promote the “critical spirit” of “deconstruction, social construction, discourse analysis, postmodernism, postology.” The postmodern ethos, at least in the Lyotardian sense, speaks of pluralities and multiplicities and welcomes modes of displacement rather than replacement. In this critical spirit, all of “us” are always already premodern, modern, and postmodern (1993/1991, 12), living simultaneously in all of these super-imposed temporalities a complex life that eschews metanarratives, conceptual binaries, and discursive hierarchies. In this sense, Latour has always been postmodern (and of course never simply “modern”): “Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?” (6; italics in the original). Whether invented singularly by him or not is less important than the ubiquitous deployment of “network” systems and theories among social scientists and Science Studies experts. The notion of simultaneity is just as informative for methodological purposes as it is for bridging conceptual frameworks that attempt, indeed, to get “closer” to facts rather than get “away” from them (as he claims in his essay from 2004).

Latour’s indignation at some of his French colleagues and contempt for conspiracy theorists is that they have run so far away from facts that they, these elusive facts, indeed seem in their texts to have been suspended in a sphere of disbelief without ever landing back on earth, as he says: “they remain suspended between belief and doubt, waiting for the end of the millennium” (1993/1991, 9). Realism, for him, may have changed a bit to focus on what he calls “matters of concern” and not only matters of fact, because “matters of fact are only very partial” and “very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affair” (2004, 231; italics in the original).

Invoking Donna Haraway, Latour continues to explain what postmodern distinction he sets in motion here: devising “another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import will no longer be to debunk but to protect and care” (232). What would protection and care of postmodern realism look like? What would it require so as not to be easily debunked and subverted by ideologues? And would the displacement of “matters of fact” with “matters of concern” suffice to anchor these “matters” in reality?

According to Latour, the postmodern critical realist, one can cling to the “miraculous appearance of matters of fact”; the shift from the premodern to the modern has, under the specter of postmodernism, been “thrown into doubt with the merging of matters of fact into highly complex, historically situated richly diverse matters of concern” (237). The modern “doubt” that was supposed to induce experimental and observational repeatability and testability seems to have been misunderstood once in the hands of postmodernists, who have taken it so far afield that its anchored realism was lost.

Latour offers an intervention: “we want to add reality to scientific objects, but, inevitably, through a sort of tragic bias, we seem always to be subtracting some bit from it” (237; italics in the original). This bit of added reality is essential, as far as he is concerned, because “many social scientists,” presumably not the “we” of the earlier sentence but the ”many” others, “they,” appear to “associate criticism with antifetishism,” presumably the fetishism of naïve empiricism. The desire to infuse objects with realism is subverted by the leaks these objects suffer, losing bits of reality ever so much. The “role of the critic” in this battle for the hearts and minds of the confused public is not only to expose “naïve believers” but also to expose the “projection of their wishes onto the material entity that does nothing at all by itself” (italics added).

Critical Barbarity

Switching to the language of psychoanalysis (another postmodern technique), Latour ascribes “fetishism,” “desire,” and “projection” to those he criticizes while maintaining an aloof neutrality or bird’s eye view of his own; is he the analyst or the analysand? For him, the “critical barbarians” in our midst obscure the three positions which they occupy at time separately and at others simultaneously: antifetishist “for everything you don’t believe in,” unrepentant positivist “for all the sciences you believe in,” and a realist “for what you really cherish” (240-1). Latour the diagnostician believes that “critical barbarity” or at least the ambiguity it breeds can be easily undone if one recognizes from the start that different appearances of critique and the “scientific objects” they address can be disentangled by consciously “retriev[ing] a realist attitude,” one that never devolves into a complete melting of “objects of some solidity” (242-3).

Sounding quite the postmodern analyst that he is, Latour insists that “matters of fact are a poor proxy of experience and of experimentation” and therefore end up trying to “represent” “a confusing bundle of polemics, of epistemology, or modern politics” rather than just what is “requested by a realist attitude” (245). Realism, naïve, strong, weak, or nuanced, endures no matter the onslaught of premoderns, moderns, or postmoderns. It’s not that we have “never been modern,” but that we have always been inadvertently and perhaps unconsciously but definitely simultaneously premodern, modern, and postmodern all along.

Despite his repeated dismissal of postmodernism, Latour cannot help himself implying, what some postmodernists have claimed all along, that the ontological question, what is postmodernism?, may rightfully be displaced by the epistemological question, what does postmodernism do? When Latour offers “relationism” as a way to overcome the modern insistence on epistemological separation and division, what he is arguing for is in fact a process of “relating the collectives that will no longer be targets for modernization” (1993/1991, 114). In this sense, then, I keep focusing on what Latour does in his writings than on what he says about them or the writings of others. Proposing a so-call Constitution, for example, that is distinguishable from the political ones, he stipulates that it should be written by anthropologists or ethnologists as an “anthropology of science,” as a way to study the sciences more fully and from multiples perspectives (25). He jettisons both Lyotard’s and Baudrillard’s efforts to shift the conversation from modernity to postmodernity, blaming them for leaving the intellectual discourse with “disconnected instants and groundless denunciations, since the postmoderns no longer believe in the reasons that would allow them to denounce and to become indignant” (46). His “network” constructions are modes of postmodern interventions, ways by which binaries are dispelled and classifications are reconfigured. Admitting that the postmodern condition “has recently sought to juxtapose these three great resources of the modern critique—nature, society, and discourse” (65) and recognizing the “folly of the modern insistence of separation, division, and pretense of contradictions or at least the incommensurability of these,” perhaps the postmodern faintly resemble the Latourian premoderns after all (99).

It appears that postmodernists “warrant examination and sorting” when consenting to reject “the idea of a coherent and homogeneous time,” on the one hand, and “retain[ing] the deconstructionists’ refusal of naturalization” on the other, so as to keep their “pronounced taste for reflexivity.” What does this mean? “Take away from the postmoderns their illusions about the moderns, and their vices become virtues—nonmodern virtues!” (134). If indeed we were never “modern,” and if in fact modernity’s divisions and classification were the harbinger of all the presumed contradictions that continue to confuse and plague us, would the postmoderns, however confused, irritating, and odious some their “attitudes” may seem to Latour, not offer some “steam” for his critique?

Time and again, Latour sounds the Jeremiad call from the desert for the destruction of the academic temple, but the closer one gets to the facticity of his many texts, the more it appears that he is a willing participant in the postmodern agenda and its various discursive technologies rather than an angry prophet or even a contrarian. He reminds his readers that “the critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles,” not what we would call nowadays a Trumpian circus barker labeling “fake news” anything with which one disagrees, but a careful collector of data, no matter the time and energy such assembly demands. The critic, in this rendering, appreciates that “if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution,” which is never the mindset of debunkers and propagandists whose coin of the realm is deliberate decontextualization, partial presentation, and hasty generalization. In short, “the direction of critique [is] not away but toward the gathering, the Thing,” whatever that “Thing” may turn out to be (2004, 246). The critical spirit advocated here identifies specific responsibilities for the critic, such as “mediating, assembling, gathering many more folds,” the ones traditionally associated with scientific knowledge (248).

But even here, with a clear postmodern mandate for the future of critique, we still sense a modernist binary Latour cannot escape: his favorite critics on the one hand and the critical barbarians for whom he shows nothing but contempt on the other, even when they may be simply misguided or poorly trained in his postmodern network theory. Perhaps Latour could have benefited from reading Brown into his own texts, after all. Her commitment to critique refuses the label of barbarians for disagreeable pseudo-critics, and remains focused on the process of critique itself as a fate intellectuals cannot escape. In her words:

Critique, whether immanent, transcendent, genealogical, or in yet some other form, is always a rereading and as such a reaffirmation of that which it engages. It does not, it cannot, reject or demean its object. Rather, as an act of reclamation, critique takes over the object for a different project than that to which it is currently tethered. Critical theory in dark times thus affirms the times, renders them differently, reclaims them for something other than the darkness. In this sense, critical theory in dark times is a singular practice of amor fati. (Brown 2005, 16).

The postmodern critic reaffirms, in Brown’s sense, the importance of scientific facts and the “solidity” of reality, trying, in Latour’s sense, to get “closer” to these facts. Neither the postmodern critic nor the critical theorist rejects their respective “objects.” No wonder that the postmodern critic is bound to feel guilty when in the name of critique so-called barbarians become dominant power-brokers of the intellectual enterprises to which academics also contribute.

Latour’s guilt resonates with me when he realizes that the “sure ground” of the critical commitment to come closer to the facts is not only “taken away from us by the worst possible fellows” but is redeployed “as an argument against the thing [critique] we cherish” (2004, 227). One is unclear if this is self-recrimination by the brave boy who could no longer keep his finger in the dike or the confession of a cavalier iconoclast that the insulated ivy tower has been breached by those less interested in the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Indeed, the answer to one of Latour’s opening questions, “should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals?”, is a resounding yes, as we are already at war whether we admit to it or not. With whom? Might it help to end the internal war if we stopped calling our adversaries “barbarians” and instead adopt Maimonides’ notion of the “perplexed” to describe those other critics? As for the external “barbarians,” does the “virus” they incubate infect only themselves and spare the inoculated academics who still believe in the restorative power of critique? Or, by contrast, has this “virus” defined the “post-truth” era?

Author Information:

Raphael Sassower, rsassowe@uccs.edu, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs.


Brown, Wendy. 2005.“Untimeliness and Punctuality: Critical Theory in Dark Times,” Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2021. After Lockdown: A Metamorphosis, translated by Julie Rose. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004): 225-248.

Latour, Bruno. 1993 [1991]. We Have Never Been Modern. Translated by Catherine Porter. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in Action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers Through Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Latour, Bruno and Steve Woolgar. 1986 [1979]. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Lyotard, Jean-François. 1984 [1979]. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Proctor, Robert N.  1995. Cancer Wars: How Politics Shapes What We Know & Don’t Know About Cancer. New York: Basic Books.

Ross, Andrew, ed. 1996. Science Wars. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Serres, Michel with Bruno Latour. 1995. [1990]. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time Translated by Roxanne Lapidus. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

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1 reply

  1. This is a touching and fascinating essay. Really, a work of art. I would add, there is no shame in an attitude of suspicion in a democracy, quite the opposite, that this is its foundational principle. We can insist we evade this, yet it is the key, if clumsy, to our preservation, even if a dressed for success Letour might not understand that. Or does. To use a folk saying, “how do you lead a pig?”. His merely apparent misunderstanding enriches us. Democracy is the only method we have against conspiracy and its only tool is conspiracy suspicion and proposed conspiracy theories. Welcome to life in the big city.

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