Interview with Bruno Latour, thinker and social anthropologist.

Bruno Latour is one of France's most innovative, provocative and stimulating thinkers and social anthropologists. Given French Cartesian orthodoxy, it is not surprising that he is more appreciated in the Anglo-Saxon world, where his books such as “We Have Never Been Modern” (1993) are better known than in his native France. Jon Thompson, the publisher and chief editor of Polity Press, London, described him as France's most original and interesting thinker and in 2007, Bruno Latour was listed as the 10th most-cited intellectual in the humanities and social sciences by The Times Higher Education Guide.

Mr. Latour's seminal work has been in the field of Science and Technology Studies. With his “Actor Network Theory” he has advanced the notion that the objects of scientific study are socially constructed within the laboratory. Thus scientific activity is viewed as a system of beliefs, oral traditions and culturally specific practices, reconstructed, not as a procedure or as a set of principles but as a culture. Mr. Latour will be in India this week conducting workshops in New Delhi. In this exclusive interview with The Hindu's Vaiju Naravane in Paris, he discusses the new challenges facing humanity and of India's role in the climate debate.

I wish to start this interview with a discussion of one of your most famous books — “We Have Never Been Modern”. Could you explain what you meant by that? What made you write this book and where do you go now?

The Great Narrative of the Western definition of the world was based on a certain idea of Science and Technology and once we began, 30 or 40 years ago to study the practices of the making of science and technology, we realised that this definition could not sustain the old idea of western rationality taking, in a way the place of archaic attachment to the past.

The Great Narrative was based on the idea of Science which was largely mythical. Science has always been linked to the other cultures of the Western World, although it has always described itself as apart — separated from politics, values, religion and so on. But when you begin to work on a history of Science — Galileo, Newton, Pasteur, Einstein, Kantor or whoever, you find on the contrary, that things have never been severed, that there has always been a continuous re-connection with the rest of cultures and especially with the rest of politics.

So until the end of the 20th century the western Great Narrative was caught in a contradiction between its practice which was constant attachment between Science and Culture and its official description of itself as being rational, objective, separate, as being universal in that it operated everywhere in the same way. Now what is interesting from the Indian perspective is that the whole discourse about modernising or not modernising, about progressing or not progressing, between being archaic or not, was based on the baseline shibboleth provided by this idea of modernisation. Now if you change this baseline and if modernisation is not what has been going on in the so-called West, the “we” of We Have Never Been Modern, then it opens up many new conversations between the former modernising and the former modernised. And of course this fits very well with the large body of literature, mainly from India on post-colonial studies.

I would like to refer to a recent essay of yours in which you say and I quote: “… the meteorologists don't agree with the chemists; they are talking about cyclical fluctuations unrelated to human activity. … The horizons, the stakes, the time frames, the actors — none of these is commensurable and yet, there they are, caught up in the same story…” So what is going on in this debate over climate change and what happens to the role of governments?

On governments the question becomes complicated because we are now talking about the politics of Nature and that's a rather new quandary. Nature was not supposed to be part of anything — it was supposed to be out there. Not in the ancient tradition where there was no separation to begin with between Nature and society but now, when we have returned to a most interesting position, where Nature is back in politics. However, Nature is not able to unify the discussion so far because people are entering into controversies about Nature. And these controversies cannot be quashed by saying — you are not a scientist or you are not the government or from the West or whatever, and this is a very new arena for politics as well as for scientists and citizens. And that is the new area I am trying to map, so to speak. But no one has answers for that. No one has ever had to bring the climate into parliament! We are struggling collectively and India again is very important here because of its new role in Cancun and the climate debate.

In New Delhi you are holding talks with ecologists, engineers who develop digital technologies with social science applications and those engaged in both the climate change and globalisation debate from the emerging countries' point of view. Where do you think the meeting ground lies?

The responses have to be issue-specific, of course. But the first thing is to have a meeting ground which is defined neither by the need of Nature, as if Nature was able to exist universally and outside politics, nor by defining it only by market forces, although market forces have to be defined and organised as well. So it's more of a negative common ground, I would say. Do we agree that the problem cannot be solved by other than composing a common world? The composition of a common world would be the definition of politics.

You are one of France's most original, stimulating and provocative thinkers and yet, you are much better known and better appreciated outside France. Do you think this has to do with France's rigid Cartesian mindset and orthodoxy?

In France there is a specific reason. Science and Modernisation have been so entangled from the time of the French Revolution that it is difficult in here to reopen this question of universality, science, colonial expansion and so on without entering into many, many delicate and “hot” issues about identities. So the French identity has largely been based on a certain idea of Science and expansion and all these questions are now being debated and put into jeopardy. Everything here hinges on a certain idea of science and it's an idea of science that I am tackling and they don't like that too much! Of course there is the same discourse in India where attacking Science and Technology is considered reactionary and so forth. So the idea that there is no other alternative, that is, if you do not talk about Science and Technology in a “progress” mode, you are a reactionary is the same everywhere. In India, France or America, the same temptation is there. That is now changing because of the ecology crisis.

You have been working on the idea of eco-theology. Could you talk about that?

Given that we have to look for alternatives to the politics of Nature, I was interested in seeing if there is in the old tradition of Christian theology – I don't know enough about Indian tradition — about respect for Creation. Not about Nature but respect for Creation. And it happens that in the Orthodox Christian tradition of Central and Eastern Europe there is a large body of theological work around the question of Creation. My interest is that there is a disconnect between the science and the size of the threat that people mention about Nature, the planet and the climate and the emotion that this triggers. So we are supposed to be extremely frightened people, but despite that we appear to sleep pretty well. So either the threat is not that strong, or we have not built the kind of emotion we have built for war, for religious conflict and all sorts of other issues which make us very emotive.

Or that our fright is so great that it has numbed us …

That's also a very clear possibility and that's not a very good attitude either, nonetheless. That's why I'm interested in seeing and checking if there is in religious tradition where you fathom this question about emotion about Creation. And again, India is a very interesting place for that.