Latour, speaking of the reductionisms of critical thought ( We Have Never Been Modern ): “The critics have developed three distinct approaches to talking about our world: naturalization, socialization and deconstruction. Let us use E.O. Wilson, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jacques Derrida — a bit unfairly — as emblematic of these three tacks. When the first speaks of naturalized phenomena, then societies, subjects, and all forms of discourse vanish. When the second speaks of fields of power, then science, technology, texts, and the contents of activities disappear. When the third speaks of truth effects, then to believe in the real existence of brain neurons or power plays would betray enormous naivete. Each of these forms of criticism is powerful in itself but impossible to combine with the anyone imagine a study that would treat the hole as simultaneously naturalized, sociologized and deconstructed.”

When he reflects on his own research in the sociology of science, however, he concludes that “they are neither objective nor social, nor are they effects of discourse, even though they are real, and collective, and discursive.” More fully, “the scientific facts indeed constructed, but they cannot be reduced to the social dimension because this dimension is populated by objects mobilized to Yes, those objects are real but they look so much like social actors that they cannot be reduced to the reality invented by the philosophers of science. The agent of this double construction — science with society and society with - emerges out of a set of practices that the notion of deconstruction grasps as badly as possible. The ozone is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society?”

One of the crucial moves here is to reintroduce “objects” and “things” into social and political thought, where, Latour thinks, they have been ignored for centuries. Once that’s done, once we put social and political life in a landscape filled with natural things and tools, it’s no longer possible to think Nature and Society are neatly bounded off.

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart