The NYU Department of French Literature, Thought and Culture notes in sadness the passing of Bruno Latour, one of the great innovative French thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries, whose impact on the course of French theory, ecocriticism, cultural history, politics, environmental humanities and philosophy is beyond measure. We affirm our admiration and ongoing critical engagement with his work at this time of loss, with posts from colleagues Phillip John Usher, Jeanne Etelain and our former Visiting Professor Martin Crowley (Cambridge University).
In Memoriam: Bruno Latour
It is with a great sadness that we learn of the death of Bruno Latour today. In English, we say that it is a “huge loss”: not only do we have the feeling of losing a thinker who helps us to understand ourselves a little better, to understand our world, our past and our present, but this feeling is coupled with the more worrying one of losing a compass so precious for the future to address the catastrophes that we are facing and will continue to face. Bruno Latour died when he was perhaps most needed, and it is his thought, although it is the most current possible, that we must inherit.
Whatever some may say about his political proposals or institutional choices, he is one of the most radical thinkers of our time. As some comrades remind us, he knew how to go beyond our big assumptions about modernity to examine more closely what it really is about and look in detail all the tiny modes of existence that populate it. He systematically symmetrized the ethnologist’s gaze—his very own when his was doing fieldwork in Ivory Coast—and offers us perhaps the most complete anthropology of modernity that exists to this day, starting with the analysis of the sciences and techniques of which the moderns are so proud.
From these works, he was the first to perceive that the stake of modernity resided entirely in the question of the terrestrial, the way in which we create and perpetuate (and endanger) our own conditions of existence. It seems impossible to say something about modernity and the planet, and even less about their close relationship, without referring to his work. If, as Patrice Maniglier tells us, our present epoch is Latourian, the immense task that falls to us now is to thoroughly revisit his “oeuvre” and to seize the “chantier” that he has bequeathed us.
All my condolences go to his family and his close friends, some of whom I am lucky enough to have in common. I cannot imagine the depth of their sorrow today. For that was Bruno Latour too: the formation of collective attachments that inspired a new generation of intellectuals, artists, and activists.
Bruno Latour died today at the age of 75. The headlines of the newspapers and media sites that relay this devastating news in real time refer to him as a “sociologist” (Le Figaro), a “philosopher” (L’Obs), a “thinker of the new climactic regime” (Le Monde), and by various other titles. Most articles then proceed by qualifying the headline: “The philosopher, sociologist, and anthropologist Bruno Latour…” (France Info). Latour was all of these things — and he was all of them at the same time. From his earlier work on laboratory life to his books and theater collaborations with Frédérique Aït-Touati that, over the last decade or so, took up the notion of critical zones and the urgent question of climate change in the Anthropocene it was a methodological imperative for France’s most brilliant thinker of his generation to work across and between disciplines. As he wrote in various texts, “D’abord, décrire…” (“First of all, describe…”). And the more carefully he described, the more the rules of specific disciplines were upended. He described microbes, transport systems, religion, technology, economics, modernity, scientific practices, maps, the Earth’s crust, Paris, and much more, constantly refusing those neat separations by which most disciplines grapple with complexity. Each of Latour’s works, in their careful description of a given reality or problem, showed up the blind spots that result from modern thought’s thriving on dualities. Latour, perhaps the first and certainly the most important post-critical thinker, taught all of us how to think better about the interconnections between humans and nonhumans, nature and culture, science and politics… It is difficult to overstate the impact that Latour’s work has had — and will continue to have — on thinkers, writers, artists and indeed on humanity as it faces ecological catastrophe and possibly extinction. Latour was not only brilliant; he was also a generous thinker who liked to think with others, as his numerous collaborations confirm. When I sent him a copy of my own Exterranean, a book about extraction in early modern Europe and its ties to contemporary eco-thought, he emailed me two weeks later, clearly having read the book, to comment on “the twist in history that makes us so close to the 16th [century] while the 20th sounds extraterrestrial!”. It was a privilege and a joy to welcome Latour to New York in 2018, as part of NYU’s French Natures conference, during which Latour delivered the US première of his lecture-performance Inside (available here). The fact that Latour had been sick makes news of his death no easier. He was to return to New York in October 2022, for a reprise of Inside and the US première of its two sequels, Moving Earths and Viral, gathered together as The Terrestrial Trilogy. I already have my ticket for October 28, but clearly that is a ticket I shall not use — it now sits on my bookshelf as a small monument to one of the greatest thinkers of our times.
If many academic disciplines and funding bodies have spent the past three decades championing the value of ‘interdisciplinary’ work, Bruno Latour spent the last fifty years showing just what it means to do such work with the rigor it requires. Ahead of his time, certainly – but largely because his own conception of the possibilities and responsibilities of committed scholarship may claim with some justification to have shaped a greater range of academic and artistic thought and practice than any other during this time. For Latour, ‘interdisciplinarity’ was less an option than a necessity: in his understanding, everything happens in the inter. In-between: in the exchanges, negotiations, conflicts, and metamorphoses that ceaselessly form and transform the relation of each to all. The poles into which European ‘modernity’ imagined it could tidy the tangle of the world – subject and object, culture and nature – were a foolish fantasy of purification; and the more ‘the Moderns’ tried to purify, the more entangled they became. The whole, as Latour would put it, is always smaller than the sum of the parts. However fantastical and self-defeating this purification, Latour never lost sight of the violence with which it was pursued, notably in the guise of colonial and neo-colonial extractivism: this may go some way toward explaining why he responded with such insight, determination, and creativity to the climate crisis. Invoking Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock’s figure of Gaia, and the latter-day announcement of the ‘Anthropocene’, he advocated for an ‘earthbound’ politics that might – at last – allow peaceful cohabitation between Earthlings of all kinds. This advocacy was perhaps the strongest expression of his conviction that scientists, scholars, artists, and activists would do well to understand their role as essentially that of translator, mediating the encounters between these diverse beings and amplifying their respective claims to a viable existence. Latour also thought of this role as quintessentially that of the politician, or the diplomat, seeking a good outcome to what he repeatedly called ‘peace talks’, through the exercise of patient, attentive, ‘curved speech’. There was, for Latour, no more vital art than that of diplomacy, especially in times as troubled as these. With his death, the world has lost not only a great thinker, but its pre-eminent diplomat.