In Memoriam: The Continuing Relevance of Bruno Latour to Socio-Legal Studies

By Caoimhe Ring, University of Bristol Law School

Gabriela Lesniewska on Unsplash.


“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.”

― Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis (Schocken Books 1948, trans. Willa Muir)

What can Socio-Legal Studies learn from the termite hill? From the microbes in Louis Pasteur’s petri dish? Or the dust on the files of the Conseil d’État? All of it, the late Bruno Latour tells us, are informants carrying clues about the processes which make up what we call society or culture. These things—from pipettes to armchairs, to mice and files—can be considered equally as participants in social action. At this suggestion, many Socio-Legal scholars recoil. The common riposte is that objects do not feel like the typical subjects of our research; the décor does not share the drama with the actors. Even if they are not reducible to such tendencies, Socio-Legal questions carry attendant humanist impulses; a commitment to human dignity and the complexity of the human condition. The constructivist paradigm places a primacy on methods which centre human agency, such as being in the field and on face-to-face methods precisely because we seek to explicate the social dimensions of law. Objects, however, are more than the ‘scenery and stage props for the spate of human action’ (Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life 1956, p.13). Amidst the climate crisis, it has never been timelier to review Latour’s contributions to challenge the Western, capitalist human exceptionalism implicit in the canon of Socio-Legal Studies.

Bruno Latour, who passed away on 9 October 2022, was a philosopher, sociologist and anthropologist known for his role in the ‘science wars’ and as a progenitor of Actor Network Theory. A common thread throughout his work is an insistence on how the non-human occupies an equal and mutually constitutive agency as its human counterparts. One must ‘make room’ for the microbe, acknowledging that the germ only revealed itself to Pasteur when it was given a congenial environment. Latour contends one must follow the ‘Ariadne’s thread’ that links together humans and the non-human as confederates in the discovery of bacteriology: The Pasteurization of France. But if there is one thing we can remember from Latour, it is that to regard the non-human is not to escape humanist tendencies: it is to sincerely describe our interrelation with the material world. More presciently, it is key to our continued survival.

Latour’s most widespread contribution is his deconstruction of the artificial boundaries drawn between Nature and Culture in modernity. He reveals the unstable ontology of this dichotomy through hybrids which straddle this divide, demonstrating the enmeshment of Nature/Culture. For instance, the ozone layer is a natural phenomenon but one which is thinned by everyday human consumption as it releases carbon dioxide. In this context, Latour made his most provocative statement: we have never been moderns—we have never lived in a world captured by a modern constitution which pits Nature against Culture. In a time of climate collapse, what are we if not modern? Where are we?

Latour tells us that we are those placed within the ‘critical zone’, a three-kilometre band on the surface of the Earth in which we contend to survive the climate crisis: Down to Earth. He calls for a reconfiguration of our relationship to Nature, drawing on scientist James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, whereby the Earth is one living organism composed of multiple, reciprocally linked processes. Facing Gaia is an ontological position which acknowledges this interconnectedness. Now, in Latour’s words, ‘we are back to Earth’: Facing Gaia. We must accept our confined existence in the critical zone and desist in the pursuit of infinite exteriors and unending resources we have sought out since the time of Galileo.

So what can Socio-Legal Studies learn from the termite hill? The answer lies in Latour’s final book, After Lockdown, where he took on a new guise to explain what it means to be back to Earth: the termite. Transformed by ‘lockdown’ like Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa in The Metamorphosis, the termite moves in small, confined paths. Accepting the Kyoto Prize in 2021, Latour discussed how humanity’s tragic experiences of virality and confinement over the pandemic helps us to understand our interconnectedness. The termite, much like Donna Haraway’s spider, the Pimoa Cthulhu, conveys the smallness of our shared terrestrial occupancy in the climate crisis, or what she calls the ‘Chthulucene’. Now is an age that calls for weaving, for making kin between humans, things, and non-humans. To ask what we may learn from the termite hill is a sociological question about what it means to regard the décor along with the actors.  Challenging human exceptionalism in Socio-Legal Studies during the eco-crisis comes with re-examining the assumptions that guide who we view as our subjects, and what makes others objects. In the new climatic regime, how we choose to acknowledge our bonds with the non-human is also a question about survival. It is to consider ourselves; for what is humanity without the termite?


Originally published on the Frontiers Socio-Legal Studies blog (University of Oxford) on the 1st of February 2023

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