Bruno Latour in Brazil

Image: Şahin Sezer Dincer


A European intellectual who managed to display the imperial ethos of science and the role that science played in the building of Western empires

"Nesseur de l'écologie, de la modernité ou de la religion, Bruno Latour était un esprit humaniste et pluriel, reconnu dans le monde entier avant de l'être en France. Sa réflexion del, ses écrits del, continueront de nous inspirer de nouveaux rapports au monde. Reconnaissance of the Nation ” (@Emmanuel Macron, officiel du gouvernement – ​​France, twitter, October 9, 2022).

French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted on the day of Bruno Latour's death: "A humanist and plural spirit that was recognized around the world before it was recognized in France." But isn't Bruno Latour's recognition late and still limited in Brazil as well?

In the first place, it is plausible to consider the “denunciation” that Bruno Latour makes of the stratifications in the construction of scientific knowledge of interest especially to those who carry out research in our country. Bruno Latour undoes the image of the field of scientific research as a flat, open and transparent space of pure truths configured in meetings of rational consensus away from politics. Hierarchies, authorities and scales isolate and stigmatize entire collectives “inside” and “outside” the sciences.[I]

Almost insurmountable are the inequalities for participation in the construction of scientific knowledge. Putting a scientific proposition into circulation or creating a scientific controversy depends decisively on the ability to enlist and keep enlisted by your side people and things or equipment. This ability is concentrated in very few hands. This inequality in the capacities to do science and technology is visible nationally and internationally. The ability to discuss a scientific fact, open a controversy, put a proposition into circulation as a candidate for theory or scientific fact, publish an article, all this depends decisively on where you are institutionally.

The process of proposition and stabilization (creation, production) of scientific knowledge takes place through successive tests of strength (“reality tests”) whose costs increase with each round of controversy and confirmation. To be able to stay in the game and not simply leave, one must be part of important laboratories, centers of calculation, and diffusers of public understanding of science, all carefully and hierarchically guarded institutions.

A scientific knowledge gains stability by bringing together and keeping under control people and things, equipment, materials, and also institutions. “It is … Galileo was quite mistaken when he intended to oppose rhetoric and science by placing, on the one hand, a host (a thousand Demosthenes and a thousand Aristotle) ​​and, on the other, a single 'common man' who might 'grasp the truth'”. (LATOUR, 1987/1997:102)

Of special interest to Brazil, Bruno Latour “denounces” that stratification is visible not only within the same country, but that it is also visible across countries. This means, he stresses, that some countries (rich, developed, advanced, capitalized, competitive, sovereign, autonomous, from the first world) enlist and others (poor, underdeveloped, backward, undercapitalized, unproductive, subaltern, dependent, Brazil) are enlisted.

For researchers from countries like Brazil, the importance of “denouncing” stratifications in the production of scientific knowledge and how they happen could not be greater: “the country that has a small scientific system can believe in the facts, buy the patents , import knowledge, export personnel and resources, but cannot question, disagree or discuss and be taken seriously. With regard to the construction of facts, such a country does not have autonomy” (Latour, 1987/1997, p.274-275).

Secondly, Bruno Latour goes far beyond verifying the stratifications in the construction of scientific knowledge that I called “denounces”. Perhaps even more relevant, it also shows new epistemological directions that can be decisive for researchers who face difficulties in dignifying untranslated knowledge for the colossal structure of knowledge of the (modern) western sciences. This knowledge, such as that originating from the native peoples of the Americas or Africa, is classified by Western sciences as belief, or fiction and ∕ or fraud.[ii]

Bruno Latour shows, however, that, once historically and analyzed in detail (ethnographically), the conceptions, theories and even the scientific facts of that colossal structure are not configured in the absence of politics (without force supporting them) and also embody the impurities of the “world of humans-among-themselves”.

This is not the place to explore at length these new epistemological directions proposed by Bruno Latour. As an example, I will use Bruno Latour's appreciation of the “scientific article” to show where his proposals can lead us. Bruno Latour “denounces” the stabilized general view, even in academic circles, that the scientific article expresses a pure and crystalline truth, something that “is there” in the “world of things-in-themselves”, in Nature, something reached by a scientific method that separates it from the “world of humans-among-themselves”. In this dominant view, the scientific article is a work of presenting a truth without any rhetorical effort to convince the reader.[iii]

Studying ethnographically the production of scientific articles in laboratories and calculation centers, however, Bruno Latour shows that his authors enlist allies, refer positively or negatively to previous texts, ignore dissenters that they do not feel able to face, consider the situations in that may be taken as a reference by later texts, defend and fortify themselves, adopt positioning tactics, stack elements creating inductions, stage framings, in short, all the techniques of the old rhetoric, aiming finally to capture the reader presenting them. a tiled bed, without pores, of course, which leaves him isolated and with no way out. "The strength of rhetoric is to make the dissenter feel alone." (LATOUR, 1987/1997:76)

Bruno Latour makes us see that a scientific article purposely closes all options to deny it. Either you ignore him or you go into a laboratory to submit him to “tests of strength”, something not accessible to most, as we have seen that he himself “denounces”. Latour shows that the scientific article is a work of persuasion and not a presentation of glittering truths previously given in an isolatable and incorruptible reality that would be nature.

Bruno Latour shows that when a subject goes from a bar conversation to a scientific article, the number of allies and opponents (things and humans) involved does not decrease, but increases drastically. “Discrediting (the scientific article) will not only mean fighting courageously against a large mass of references, but also unraveling the endless ties that tie instruments, figures and texts to one another”. (LATOUR, 1987/1997:84) Who is poor, underdeveloped, backward, undercapitalized, unproductive, subaltern, dependent, Brazilian, is disarmed before a scientific article, has no way to disagree and not follow this literary piece that uses a rhetoric so strong that it produces a text from which one cannot escape, under penalty of detaching oneself from reality. “Great is the power of this rhetoric capable of driving anyone who disagrees with it mad” (LATOUR, 1987/1997:99).

Although European and privileged white, as he himself recognizes, Bruno Latour envisions alliances with and among the subordinate classes of this world and takes a stand against the white supremacy so accepted by a large part of the Brazilian mixed-race elite who, intriguingly, see themselves as white. Bruno Latour's thought is, above all, radically subversive: what could be more liberating from the established order than claiming “We were never modern!” among Europeans themselves? (LATOUR, 1991/1994).

Bruno Latour is liberating even for sovereigns in the Euro-American empire, advising them to “abandon the idea of ​​framing everything in economic terms”. This is a particularly difficult truth for the sovereigns of an empire that can no longer tolerate either the diseases of its production and consumption systems or the remedies for them, but does not want to renounce its way of existence.[iv] Bruno Latour suggests that “[what] we need is not just to modify the production system, but to get out of it completely. We should remember that this idea of ​​framing everything in terms of economics is a novelty in human history. The pandemic has shown us that economics is a very narrow and limited way of organizing life and deciding who is important and who is not. … If I could change one thing, it would be to leave the production system and build a political ecology instead”. (Bruno Latour, interview with Jonathan Watts, The Guardian, 06/06/2020).[v]

I emphasize that the work of Bruno Latour envisages, above all, alliances for and between the subordinate classes of the Euro-American empire. What is science today? Where is it made? How and who does it? With whom, for whom and for what? What could be more subversive than proposing a radical change not only in the understanding of how scientific knowledge is produced and accumulated, but also in the Euro-American way of existence itself? It is by constructing their own answers to the above questions that the subalternized peoples of Brazil will be able to approach Euro-American sovereigns without renouncing their own sovereignties.

In Bruno Latour, subalterns can search and find what can be read as “denunciations” of how Euro-American sovereigns have perhaps exported more than they followed their own modern convictions. In his “denounces” he indicates how, with the expedient of “reason always supporting force and force always supporting reason”, the concepts, theories, and practices of the technosciences of the empire seduced and subjugated the subordinates of this world, making them choose paths that do not favor them and make them waste efforts. It remains for the subordinate classes to take advantage of the “denunciations”, continuing the opportunities they open up.

Bruno Latour stands out as a European intellectual who managed to exhibit the imperial ethos of science and the role that science played in the construction of Western empires, “the modern invincibility”. The conservatism and voluntary confinement of a (large?) part of the Brazilian intelligentsia is revealed to be precisely the point chosen to attack it: “Bruno Latour went back and changed what he thought about scientific knowledge!” – is the shallow accusation of those who want to cover the sun with a sieve, insisting on the idealized view of science as a work that transcends the human by discovering objects without history, objects that have always been there in an incorruptible nature to which science has access (transcendent ). It is really revealing to see this Brazilian case of the colonized seen in the colonizer and the oppressed who fears the weakening (relativization) of the oppressor. If the use of the humanization of Science by the “right” provokes horror, the reaction cannot be to continue believing that Science transcends the human. Remember that the opposite of relativism is absolutism, not realism. The weakening is not of scientific knowledge, which has always depended on politics, strength and continuous work to assert itself. Modern science is weakened as absolute truth, as truth above humans. (DA COSTA MARQUES, 2022).

*Ivan da Costa Marques He is a professor at the Graduate Program in the History of Sciences and Techniques and Epistemology (HCTE) at UFRJ. Author, among other books, of Brazil and market opening (Counterpoint).

Modified version of the one published in the Bruno Latour dossier of the Chilean digital magazine barbarism.


DA COSTA MARQUES, I. Technology, Science and Militant Activism in Bruno Latour In: KLEBA, JB;CRUZ, CC, Et al (Ed.). Engineering and other engaged technical practices – Vol 3: Interdisciplinary and Decolonial Dialogues. Campina Grande, PB: EDUEPB, 2022. p. 395-436.

LATOUR, b. Science in Action – How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Translation (REVISION), ICB e. J.D. PA São Paulo: UNESP, 1987/1997. 439 p..

LATOUR, b. We Were Never Modern – Symmetrical Anthropology Essay. Translation COSTA, CI d. 1st ed. Rio de Janeiro: Editora 34, 1991/1994. 152 p.

LATOUR, b. Reassembling the social – an introduction to Actor-Network theory. Salvador, BA and Bauru, SP (Brazil): Edulba (BA) and Edusc (SP), 2012. 400 p.

LATOUR, B. Bruno Latour: 'Trump and Thunberg inhabit different planets – his has no limits, hers trembles'. TODD, A. : The Guardian 2020 (Jun 6).


[I] I write “'inside' and 'outside' (the field of scientific research) for reasons of economy of the text, avoiding entering into the questioning of the “notion of context” present in the texts. Science Studies, especially in actor-network theory. See “On the Difficulty of Being an ANT: Interlude in the Form of Dialogue” in (LATOUR, 2012).

[ii] It is worth mentioning that this (de)classification overflows from the epistemological references for society in general, including for economic circuits. To cite an example, the knowledge of the native peoples of the Amazon about plants cannot be remunerated, but the active principle isolated in a molecule is knowledge capable of being remunerated in the form of a medicine (a molecule).

[iii] See (LATOUR, 1987/1997:Chapter I “Literature”, pag. 39-104).

[iv] The British newspaper The Guardian described Bruno Latour as "a showman of difficult truths". (LATOUR, 2020 (Jun 6)).

[v] Accessed on 13/10/2022.

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