In this issue, Cameron Tonkinwise, Professor of Design Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, reflects on the “annoyingly prolific” production of Bruno Latour and its significance for designers. With his unique cleverness, Latour drew attention to the narrative – even promotional – abilities needed to advance a scientific idea, he reflected on the morality we delegate to things, and thus invited us to take those things seriously.
Bruno Latour reenacting 1864 Pasteur’s lecture on spontaneous generation in 1999. Still from video.
Very Clever Latour
I was only in the same room as Bruno Latour once, when he was at The New School in New York City to introduce a new degree program that he had recently launched, one that explored how “art is the politics of making that which is necessary possible.”1 But I read everything he produced as it appeared in the latter half of his career. He was annoyingly prolific, and not just at writing books and articles. He staged exhibitions and performances and collaborated widely on experimental projects involving applied research; and increasingly used his international fame to platform the politics of tackling climate change. His background was not under-privileged, and for that he was initially shunned by the French academic hierarchy.2 But in the end, while a charismatic front person for all these ventures, it was apparent from social media mourning, that his tendency – in ways that seem to be too rare for people of his stature – was always toward generosity and curiosity.
Not only were his texts entertaining, but also ‘clever,’ a word that means etymologically the capacity to chop things up and put them together again in novel ways. Latour did not impress with encyclopedic scholarship, and was no poet, but always managed to approach his topics by assembling surprising insights. His texts often involve a kind of playing around, and this was something that annoyed a lot of ‘serious’ people. Latour is often disparaged as a joker, if not a joke. But there is something important in these tactics, as well as in what they were meant to highlight. To put it crudely, both the form and the content of Latour’s work concern Design – which is why more designers should read more of him.
Latour never really engaged directly with Design in any comprehensive way. His focus was more Science and Technology, and then Politics and Religion. He did collaborate with visual communication designers on ‘controversy mapping’ amongst other projects, and with exhibition and stage designers, also in relation to urban design.The most explicit engagement Latour had with non-architectural design was when he was invited to give a keynote address at the Design History Society conference, though his reference point is primarily that of his friend Peter Sloterdijk, the prominent German philosopher who teaches at a Design School.
Nevertheless, I believe Latour has very important things to say about design, even when he does not directly engage with design, and while those things are important for non-designers, they might be crucial for designers.
Latour began his academic career as a philosopher but became an anthropologist. His approach was criticized as ‘descriptivist’, meaning that he was always calling for “more details”3 as researchers “follow the actants,” that is, documenting the material artefacts that are linked up during the process being researched. There is already an important point here.
Bruno Latour discussing a gravimeter with scientist Jacques Hinderer in the Vosges Mountains in 2018. Photo by Luca Locatelli for The New York Times.
To shed light on this point, consider how hard managing designers is, because it is just difficult to see what they are doing. Peer into their studios and they appear to be doodling, staring out windows, moving a cursor with tiny movements of a mouse, or else chatting incoherently with colleagues while gesturing at some mess on a wall or on a table. Somehow, out of all this mark-making and paper-pushing, wholly new things get specified and then made, things that enable people to live and work differently. Futures seem to get magically composed out the mundane material acts of designers.
Latour first achieved academic fame for his descriptions of the somewhat similar situation at work in the material practices of scientists. Science pursues Truth, but when you “follow the actants” of “laboratory life” all you see are everyday activities: cleaning and maintaining equipment, attending meetings, labelling specimens and writing up notes, etc. Latour, and his co-author Steve Woolgar, showed how those things, in the sense of both stuff and activities, enabled a network that resulted in “coming to know” something new, some new fact or even ‘law of nature.’
The analysis was read as a deconstruction of Science, when it was rather merely an account of its construction. What was missing from the way people read those “Studies of Science” was seeing that constructing as a type of designing. If I design something, I have made it up, invented it; but then once manufactured, once bought and incorporated into a user’s everyday life, that design has become real; it has become something that that person can rely on, something that can be taken as matter of fact, a Law – at least until the product breaks. Scientific knowledge is something that is designed; there are routines – “‘trials of strength’” Latour called them at one point – behind its development that ensure that that knowledge can be relied upon to do what it was designed to do – until some future breakdown.
The constructing dimension of ‘social constructivism’ can sound like a simple, instrumental exercise. If we think of it instead as a kind of designing, we can pay attention to how strategic and persistent you need to be to get something accepted. Next to the actual objective of realizing something, a secondary goal emerges that consists in having what is being developed speak for itself, stand up on its own. Latour’s history of Pasteur, for example, foregrounded not just the technical, laboratory side of his work, but Pasteur’s extensive performatively promotional work. Pasteur was incessantly ‘networking,’ in the contemporary sense of meeting people who could be allies and supporters. Much of Pasteur’s life involved designing touring demonstrations of what he was discovering, finding ways of giving voice to bacteria so that they could assert their presence, teaching people about their life cycles, capacities and weaknesses.
Latour did not just describe this in his history of Pasteur, but re-enacted Pasteur’s ‘performances,’ and then did likewise for his own insights into ecological political processes. He availed himself of every kind of means to convince people of what he was finding: a new genre of conceptual diagrams produced on unwieldy word processing tools; books in multiple typefaces, each representing a different perspective on the development of a technology; large scale exhibitions. In this sense, Latour modelled that every researcher needs to be also be a designer, designing not just their research processes, but also their research sharing processes, the distinction between the former and the latter actually being a conceptual mistake.
The philosophy that Latour extrapolated from this description of the material (net)work that scientists undertake to design knowledge into existence, is typically clever, in the sense of reflexive. (It should be remembered that this early work on studying science scientifically [at least in the sociological sense], was necessarily reflexive, something that those involved in this nascent community of ‘Sociology of Scientific Knowledge,’ had a lot of fun with, playing at in-jokes to bond against the disparagement by both scientists and sociologists.4
To have a ‘modern’ commitment to ‘scientific rationality’ is to be materialist. But to worry that describing the prosaic activities of scientists designing knowledge into existence would threaten the sanctity of Science, suggested that being ‘modern’ actually requires a kind of faith in transubstantiation, in the capacity of scientists to have epiphanies about Truths that were completely distinct from those everyday practices. It is crucial for designers to realise that they are also involved in this kind of conundrum.
Bruno Latour presenting Making Things Public, the exhibition he co-curated with Peter Weibel at ZKM in 2005.
Consider one of Latour’s most instructive pieces about design, originally published with the subtitle “A Sociology of a Door-Closer.” Latour makes clear the stakes of the article at the outset: “The most liberal sociologist often discriminates against nonhumans. Ready to study the most bizarre, exotic or convoluted social behavior, he or she balks at nuclear plants, robots or pills.” Half-jokingly, the article is authored under a pragmatically North American pseudonym – Jim Johnson, of the “Columbus School of Mines,” – rather than under the name of someone whose family runs a famous French winery. The argument of the article is clearer when expanded into a book chapter entitled “Where are the Missing Masses?” That phrase refers to the idea that there is not enough observable matter to explain how the universe holds itself gravitationally together. Latour suggests that sociology is similar; there must be some dark matter beyond conventional social phenomena – ideas, values, meanings, etc – holding society together. Those missing things are in fact: things, designed artifacts doing social work.
The article begins with a silly pun, a note on a university meeting room door that read: “The Groom is On Strike, For God’s Sake, Keep the Door Closed.” Latour explains that the “‘groom’ is Frenglish for [both] an automated door-closer or butler.’” The note draws attention to a core edict for Latour concerning how social researchers should think about designed products: “every time you want to know what a nonhuman [such as a thing like a door-closer] does, simply imagine what other humans or other nonhumans would have to do were this nonhuman not present.” This is a kind of ‘reverse engineering’ of the design process. Some in our societies value being draught- or noise-free, or feeling secure in certain places, enough to make a job of ensuring that doors are closed behind those that enter them (by people who often forget to do so, because they are distracted by the room they’ve entered, or were raised in places without doors). Others who value such things, might also value meaningful employment, and so try to replace a door-person with some kind of door-closer. The designer briefed with this task will research and/or imagine different kinds of users, use cases and wider contexts, in order to identify all the things that the door needs to do; and then finds ways to get the door do all those things a door-person would do.
What is significant here is not just that technologies can be understood as substitutes for human labour (or extractions of labour power into more commodifiable forms that capitalists can more easily control). It is not just about functional requirements. What motivates and guides the process is making the door more humane. The difference between design and engineering would be evident in the nature of the ‘crit’ involved in the former. At issue is not just what the door can do, but how it does those things, with what qualities. Designers would judge whether the door was being ‘rude’ by having the capacity to close, but too quickly, oblivious of those who move more slowly; or whether the door was discriminating against the less strong by requiring too much force to open (to charge the compressed air door-closer). Designers make things come to life so that they can play an acceptable part in society. This is why Latour was fond of the formulation “technology is society made durable” that any particular designed artifact is an instance of “delegated morality.” We make decisions as a community about how we want to live and then design things that can help hold those decisions in place.
This last point is the one that annoyed many people, especially those who were more into ‘having heard about’ than ‘having actually read’ Latour. The animism that emerges from his accounts of the social work of things is considered evidence that he was merely a joker. Taking Latour seriously means acknowledging the ‘agency’ of non-humans – and not just living things, but any thing, even, or especially, products that we humans had assembled. Machines, but even just non-mechanical objects, act; they are actants acting on us, making us act in particular ways. To many this seemed ridiculous, the sort of thing only a French theorist would say.
But the people who should not find this animism silly, are designers, since designers are the ones who give things those interactive qualities, who put that ‘knowledge’ of how to dynamically nudge humans, with the peril that this activity implies, into things. Latour is making clear that the essence of designing is Interaction Design, giving the forms to things that will influence, direct and prompt people to use those things in certain ways. The difference between a thing that can be used for a certain action, and a thing that invites, suggests, even demands, that it be used for those actions – in other words, a thing that has some agency over what it aims to have done with it – is design. Designing a tool – a garment, a piece of furniture, an environment, the screen of a digital app, etc – is a process of making things alive to the quirks of humans, and to what it takes to help humans into particular kinds of activities. This is not a total power; it is not coercive. But it is a force, one that can make our built environments more careful, more full of care.
Screenshot from Paris: Invisible City, a “sociological web opera” written by Bruno Latour in 2004.
Faith in Design
This is the serious side to Latour’s work. While he can be clever, often too ‘cute,’ in the way he tries to alert non-design disciplines to the reality of design, the overall objective is a matter of conviction. Latour cared deeply about the worlds we sustain with the design practices underlying our scientific research and technological developments. It should have been no surprise that Latour would become a climate crisis activist. (And it should also have been no surprise that Latour remained a practicing Catholic, someone who could give a descriptivist account of the material composition of a religion without feeling that that would undermine the force of the experience so composed.)5
Latour was no saint and there are robust critiques of the work: a failure to adequately account for the role of human labour in the composition of networks, attending more to design than to the making, and then focusing more on the agency of the made than on those made to do something; a consequent downplaying of formal politics, in a way that risked boosting neoliberalism, as it encourages micropolitics rather than conventional political organizing against class or institutional power;6 an occasional exoticism that appropriates the idea of “becoming Indigenous.7
Nevertheless, no one has more amusingly opened up other disciplines to the serious social power that designers tap into when determining how politely or rudely a door will close. And in turn, no one has more cleverly shown designers that such design decisions are also parts of networks that hold in place unsustainable ways of being modern, and that designers can and must use their diverse ways of designing to redirect how our societies are organized.
Other Worlds is a shapeshifting journal for design research, criticism and transformation. Other Worlds (OW) aims at making the social, political, cultural and technical complexities surrounding design practices legible and, thus, mutable.
OW hosts articles, interviews, short essays and all the cultural production that doesn’t fit neither the fast-paced, volatile design media promotional machine nor the necessarily slow and lengthy process of scholarly publishing. In this way, we hope to address urgent issues, without sacrificing rigour and depth.
OW is maintained by the Center for Other Worlds (COW), at Lusófona University, Portugal. COW focuses on the development of perspectives that aren’t dominant nor imposed by the design discipline, through criticism, speculation and collaboration with various disciplines such as curating, architecture, visual arts, ecology and political theory, having in design an unifying element but rejecting hierarchies between them.
Editorial Board: Silvio Lorusso (editor), Luiza Prado, Francisco Laranjo, Luís Alegre, Rita Carvalho, Patrícia Cativo, Hugo Barata
More information can be found here.
For a description of the Master en Arts Politiques, see https://www.artandeducation.net/schoolwatch/58047/reassembling-art-pedagogy-pragmatism-inquiry-and-climate-change-at-sciencespo-experimentation-in-arts-and-politics. ↩
A good example: Malcolm Ashmore’s The Reflexive Thesis: Wrighting Sociology of Scientific Knowledge, Chicago University Press, 1989. ↩
See David Chandler and Julien Reid’s comments on Latour in their wider ranging critique, Becoming Indigenous: Governing Imaginaries in the Anthropocene. ↩