Schaffer on Latour December 7, 2009Posted by Will Thomas in Schaffer Oeuvre.
Tags: Bruno Latour, Harry Collins, Jan Golinski, Louis Pasteur, Robert Koch, Simon Schaffer, Steven Yearley
Some of Simon Schaffer’s more interesting pieces are his essay reviews, which we ought to discuss more often in this series. The most important, though, is the confrontational “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Bruno Latour,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science 22 (1991): 174-192, a review of The Pasteurization of France. Schaffer discusses Latour and this piece in this video (approx. from 28:15 to 35:30):
The discussion in the video, and the one it segues into about the characteristics of science studies/history of science, provide an unusually explicit discussion about what scholarship should be like, and it’s useful to have it, because I disagree with it. Schaffer cites Latour’s arrival with a bottle of his family’s best wine to work out their positions as a testament to Latour’s personal qualities as a scholar: Latour takes the time and effort to reconcile differences rather than engage in petty infighting. Nevertheless, the tensions brought up in “Eighteenth Brumaire” are extremely interesting, and I view it as unfortunate that the dispute was apparently resolved socially in private, rather than intellectually in public. (If I’m missing some crucial source, as usual please correct me in comments; to my knowledge Jan Golinski comes closest.)
Schaffer acknowledges that their positions were never fully resolved, comparing the product of the tensions between their points of view to the interference fringes produced by overlapping light sources. He goes on to discuss how our field is highly unusual in its ability to support perspectives arising from different disciplinary backgrounds.
Yet, I tend to view the persistence of unresolved perspectives as a weakness. It is important to note that the products of unresolved intellectual tensions can exist only in the minds of those scholars who resolve the differences between perspectives on their own. Such individuals constitute a fairly narrow group that Chris Donohue has called a “court of understanding” (see also my discussion of “perspective layering” last February). Without an explicit and widely acknowledged resolution, the productive effects—if indeed they exist—are necessarily private, or at least excessively limited. Audiences are divided into the elite “court” and non-elite spectators who may not even be aware that two tiers of conversation exist, mistaking a non-rigorous outline of the high-level conversation for the real thing. (See also my take on Daston’s appraisal of the “microhistory” trend a couple months ago.) This is an ironic outcome, since Schaffer makes a point of lauding Latour for his commitment to “honesty and rigor,” and to making work public, as through gallery exhibits.
Coming back to the piece at hand, most discussions of “Eighteenth Brumaire” that I’ve heard take the dispute simply to be about whether or not non-humans can have “agency”, since Latour gives microbes a role to play in the rise of Louis Pasteur (see this blog’s previous discussion of Pasteurization here). This makes it difficult to see Latour’s approach as much more than a too-clever-by-half joke compared to more sober historiography, and one’s response to Latour is thus determined by whether or not one is willing to humor Latour’s eccentricities for whatever salubrious qualities they might have (he is just another perspective to be judiciously layered).
Schaffer did indeed criticize Latour for endowing microbes with agency, but it is important to note his argument’s place within programmatic disputes between different schools of sociology, each of which view the utility of history differently. In “Eighteenth Brumaire” Schaffer was specifically asserting the tenets of Harry Collins’ “Bath School” against Latour’s “French School” as more appropriate to historical understanding. It is useful here to know that Collins’ sociology of calibration had played a major role in the argument in 1985’s Leviathan and the Air-Pump, and Schaffer’s 1989 piece “Glass Works” was essentially a demonstration of its utility in generating new historical analysis.
The sociology of calibration is not as trivial as it sounds, because for Schaffer its “regressive” mode of analysis spoke to the crucial issue of what social means established the credibility that determined which experiments done by which experimenters with which instruments produced valid forms of knowledge, and in whose eyes. Asking such questions, it turned out that historians could indeed find answers, and for Schaffer this was a major innovation in historiographical craft. He took Latour’s Pasteurization to threaten this innovation.
Schaffer noted the importance of the “ideal reader” in Pasteurization: a spectator viewing the unfolding of Pasteur’s rise to prominence through the pages of certain journals without having any intellectual way of knowing whether any of the actors were in some way “right”. By charting authorities invoked—including that of the microbes’ positive response to experiments—Latour offered a way of offering a sort of play-by-play in a language that doesn’t frame historical development in terms of the progress of, and resistance to, those we might suppose deserved to win out.
Latour, Collins, and Schaffer could all agree that the presumption of victory for those who were “right” hamstrung historical inquiry by denying that those who were “right” had to do work to see their views accepted—correctness somehow spoke for itself in such accounts. In their view, looking forward in time to find out who won, and thus privilege the narratives of certain historical actors, was to commit an analytical heresy; call it the Whiggish heresy.
The crucial point of dispute was that Latour allowed, by granting agency to microbes, that being in some sense correct could be a valuable asset in asserting one’s position. This position was intolerable to Schaffer, who argued (with Collins and Steven Yearley) that Latour was himself committing a specific form of Whiggish heresy called “hylozoism”, allowing nature to settle human disputes. For Schaffer, hylozoism, like grosser forms of Whiggism, hamstrung historical inquiry by short-circuiting the need to establish why evidence was considered credible in disputes: “Protagonists in dispute must win assent for … material technologies. Hylozoism suggests that the microbes’ antics can explain these decisions. Sociology of knowledge reckons that it is the combination of practices and conventions which prompt them, and these strategies get credit through culture. Only when credibility is established will any story about the microbes make sense” (190, my emphasis).
But this misunderstands Latour’s project in two ways. First, it misses the fact that Latour seeks a universal language of description, not a means of explanation. Second, Latour’s descriptions are actualistic: they are play-by-play in real-time. Latour’s actualistic descriptions do not look forward to find out what happened, but they also do not look backward to establish sufficient conditions. Where Collins’ and Schaffer’s projects—like a philosophical account—would look backward to identify a set of conditions that establish why people, institutions, instruments, and experiments were considered credible, for Latour’s purposes it was only important that they had credibility.
For Latour, such description could grow or shrink to encompass any frame of inquiry. A historian could expand the scope of inquiry to a multi-national account, or delve into Pasteur’s laboratory notebooks, and just chart more alliances of people, instruments, objects, and so forth. On the other hand, for Schaffer, there was always a proper frame of inquiry: the failure to look to crucial challenges to Pasteur, especially that of the German Robert Koch, was an essential weakness in Latour’s account of the rise of Pasteur: Latour “can explain this shift in loyalty [of the Revue Scientifique] by reference to Pasteur’s experiments alone, and the good behaviour of microbes, because he deliberately omits their most potent enemies” (188, Schaffer’s emphasis).
The differences here hinge on the analyst’s sense of their own function. For Schaffer the historian, to provide a sufficient (and thus legitimate) account of the rise of Pasteur, one had to understand how Pasteur defeated the potentially fatal challenge of Koch, which itself could only be understood by going back in time before the acceptance of Pasteur’s arguments and investigating the sources of credibility that made that acceptance possible. Investigation through time was essential to Schaffer’s enterprise. But for Latour, the main task was to describe or simulate the subjective experience of the contemporary spectator who had no such investigatory inclinations or resources, just as most people today experience the use of knowledge in society on a day-to-day basis.
The differences between Schaffer and Latour were programmatic, and each approach could have its own uses for the historian and sociologist alike, when used to accomplish method-appropriate tasks. For the sake of enhancing the rigor of our work, these differences should have been fought out, articulated, and re-articulated in view of everyone. They should not have been buried along with the hatchets in a private ceremony over a bottle of good wine.