Science Fiction Studies

#98 = Volume 33, Part 1 = March 2006

Roger Luckhurst

Bruno Latour’s Scientifiction: Networks, Assemblages, and Tangled Objects

Bruno Latour, professor at the École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris, has been a controversial figure in science and technology studies for twenty-five years. His work has hovered on the edges of critical theory in the humanities, but has never quite been subsumed into that generic French “theory” that Anglo-American academies tend to construct. Instead, he has helped refashion STS in France and America, and the influence of his Science in Action (1987) made him an important figure in the so-called Science Wars of the 1990s. A particular methodology, “Actor-Network Theory” (ANT), has been extracted from this early work, although Latour himself has until recently been reluctant to use these terms. Since his attack on the philosophical premises of (scientific) modernity in We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Latour’s work has developed wider ambitions. He has articulated his project as aiming “to visit successively and to document the different truth production sites that make up our civilisation” (Crease 18). Having focused on the construction of truth in science and technology and on the sociology of science, he has recently moved rapidly through philosophy, law, religion, art (co-curating the exhibition Iconoclash in 2002), and academic critique.1 This is a reflection of his multi-disciplinary training—he has always combined participant-observation anthropology with the sociology and philosophy of science, blending empirical case studies with contentious reformulations of method.

But this mix is also a mark of his desire to shake up the fixed grids of disciplines formed in the university by a “modern settlement” in which he no longer believes. Instead, Latour pursues new and surprising assemblages of knowledge, in part because he insists that the world is not safely divided between society and science, politics and nature, subjects and objects, social constructions and reality, but rather is populated increasingly by strange hybrids—what he variously calls “risky attachments” or “tangled objects” (Politics 22)—that cut across these divides and demand new ways of thinking. A witty and elegant stylist, Latour has proposed that “the hybrid genre that I have designed for a hybrid task is what I call scientifiction” (Aramis ix). He rather delightfully has no awareness that this was Hugo Gernsback’s original coinage, in 1929, for what became science fiction, but then he has little to say directly about the genre, which he passingly dismisses as “inadequate” for his method (Aramis viii). Nevertheless, this short introduction will explore how Latour’s work can open a number of productive fronts for sf scholarship, transvaluing generic knowledge in general, but also proving particularly helpful in theorizing recent hybrid genre fictions.

Of ANTs and Men. In the early part of his career, Latour’s central aim, in common with other historians and sociologists of science, was to use various strategies to resituate science and technology in their perceived relations to the social world. Science, as formulated slowly in the West by the scientific revolutions from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries, was rarely interested in its own history except as a record of error progressively excluded from the production of truth. Social factors only ever appear in these traditional scientific accounts to explain error. False religious belief, smuggled into a leaky and amateurish laboratory, produce incorrect objects like telepathy or ESP; false ideological biases create instances like Lysenkoism. Once these social intrusions are excluded, falsehood is eliminated and the proper path to truth is regained. Good science is therefore beyond any social influences. This divide of social and technical knowledge produces, for Latour, a damaging political configuration. The social practice of Western democracy is always limited by an absolute out­side—Nature—to which only the scientific expert has privileged access, and whose facts are beyond dispute. One can have as many different cultural accounts as one likes, but this multiculturalism is only ever flotsam on the sea of mononaturalism. The overlaid binaries of social/scientific, political/natural, subject/object, value/fact work, Latour claims, “to render ordinary, political life impotent through the threat of incontestable Nature” (Politics 10).                

Latour developed three early strategies to contest this modern scientific constitution. The first derived from anthropology. His first book, Laboratory Life (a collaboration with Steve Woolgar [1979]), was the product of two years of participant-observation in an American laboratory. Reversing the usual direction of the anthropologist from center to margin, and directing the scientific gaze at science itself, Latour absorbed himself in the “tribe” of laboratory scientists to collect fieldwork on the “routinely occurring minutiae” of everyday laboratory behavior (Lab Life 27).2 The material collected contested the image of the laboratory as a sterile, inhuman place, showing that the practice of science “widely regarded by outsiders as well organised, logical, and coherent, in fact consists of a disordered array of observations with which scientists struggle to produce order” (Lab Life 36). Some of Latour’s central claims emerged from this work. The laboratory is a place saturated with the social and political, and the technical cannot be artificially divorced from these concerns, at least in the process of doing science. The divide is instituted later, for instance in the retrospective reconstruction of laboratory practice in the scientific research paper. Those incontestable scientific facts or essences are not waiting to be uncovered, but are the end result of long and laborious procedures that are messy and confusing.                

Yet Latour’s point is misunderstood if he is seen as merely arguing for the social construction of science. He develops a critique of semioticians who uphold an absolute divide between world and word, reality and language. Latour argues that the laboratory is a “configuration of machines” (Lab Life 65), a multiple, overlapping set of tracking devices that transcribe and translate material substances into grids, graphs, logbooks, codings, diagrams, equations, and language. The cultural relativist might say that the objective reality referred to is an end product of these transcriptions, but Latour will later develop the point that in this complex array of inscription of the real into signification, “we never detect the rupture between things and signs and we never face the imposition of arbitrary and discrete signs on shapeless and continuous matter” (Pandora’s Hope 56). Latour wants to challenge the rejection of social and cultural factors in science, but he is equally concerned to reject facile accounts that reduce everything in science to social construction or matters of representation and interpretation. For Latour, this merely reverses the polarity of the insidious object/subject divide, and his later work aims to think about a new dispensation that cuts across this, by talking about alliances of humans and nonhumans (see next section, below).

Latour continues to use the methods of fieldwork, suggesting that it can open multiple fronts of critique in addition to “la tradition philosophique des commen­taires de texts” (Monde Pluriel 6; “the philosophical tradition of textual commentary”). The second strategy of contestation comes from the history of science. Scientific practice is often presentist, proceeding by the erasure of incorrect assumptions, rival hypotheses, and wrong turns. A general tactic to resocialize science has been to recover the social of history of truth (to use Steven Shapin’s phrase). This historicist tactic looks at exemplary instances of the institutional and ideological formation of scientific naturalism, scientific controversies (treating “winners” and “losers” symmetrically), or instances of lost or abandoned theories. Latour borrowed much of the method of the English historians and sociologists of science sometimes called the Edinburgh School, and published The Pasteurization of France in 1988.3 In this study, Louis Pasteur’s genius is analytically decomposed: he is no longer the heroic discoverer of the microbial transmission of disease against unenlightened rivals in the mid-nineteenth century, but is the master of strategically combining his laboratory findings with a vast array of different elements and interests that stretch far beyond his closed vacuum flasks. In order for his theory to win out, Pasteur binds together a set of interests that include farmers, army doctors, Louis Bonaparte, hygienists, newspapers, French nationalism, the bureaucrats of the Second Empire, cows, industrialists, popular and specialist journals, transport experts, and the French Academy, as well as the microbes themselves. This sort of sociological history of science has become very familiar (it has partly dislodged the heroic, internalist scientific biography, for instance). Yet the apparently chaotic listing of Pasteur’s interests, breaching all apparent categorization or ordering, has become Latour’s signature device. Elsewhere, he lists some of the interests at play in the crisis around the outbreak of “mad cow disease” in Europe, including the European Union, the beef market, prions in the laboratory, politicians, vegetarians, public confidence, farmers, and Nobel prize-winning French scientists. “Does this list sound heterogeneous?” Latour asks. “Too bad—it is indeed this power to establish a hierarchy among incommensurable positions for which the collective must now take responsibility” (Politics 113). This listing is the mark of Latour’s third strategy to contest the modern scientific settlement: the actor-network.                

The Pasteurisation of France is the book-length concrete example that enacted the theory worked out in Latour’s most important early book, Science in Action (1987). In this, Latour traces how a scientist might succeed enough to make a proposition into a “black box,” a statement fixed as an uncontested scientific fact, with any history of contest or controversy in its production completely erased. He starts with the small—the rhetoric of the scientific paper—and builds a model that incorporates more and more elements: the laboratory, colleagues, funders from industry, government, or the military, machines, technology transfers, other sciences, the educated public, the uneducated public, the press, and so on. As before, the aim is to show that science is thoroughly socialized and produced through “heterogeneous chains of association”: “We are never confronted with science, technology, and society, but with a gamut of weaker and stronger associations” (Science in Action 100-101). Although this deliberately intermixes elements, Latour is careful to argue that a successful statement also needs to form a disciplinary structure, a policed realm of experts and expertise, an inside and an outside. He does not break down the conditions for rigorous scientific knowledge; however, inverting received wisdom, he claims that “the harder, the purer the science is inside, the further outside the scientists have to go” (Science in Action 156). There is no such thing as “pure” science, because these are the laboratories that have to seek the most funding, the most governmental and industrial support. Big technoscience only survives by connecting itself to the state and the military: “technoscience is part of a war machine and should be studied as such” (Science in Action 172). Science is therefore successful not to the degree that it isolates itself from society, but to the degree that it creates networks and multiplies connections, and to the extent that it can be assessed by “the number of points linked, the strength and length of the linkage, the nature of the obstacles” (Science in Action 201). The starkest symbol of Latour’s rejection of asocial theories of science is how he presents the equation or formula: the purest, compressed statement of incontestable and unchanging fact to some, the equation is for Latour a knot, something that succeeds because it is so well connected, tightly binding together as it does the maximum heterogeneous elements into a single enunciation.                

The network is figured by Latour through metaphors of knots and loops. One of his most lucid expositions of what elements need to be addressed when considering any scientific concept (a term he often replaces with “knot”) is a passage in Pandora’s Hope (1999). Building on the assertion that “[t]he truth of what scientists say no longer comes from their breaking away from society, conventions, mediations, connections, but from the safety provided by the circulating references that cascade through a great number of transformations and translations” (Pandora 97), Latour lists the five minimal loops that need to be traced: first, mobilization of the world, which is the complex, variegated set of processes for transporting objects from the real world into scientific discourse; second, autonomization, which is the way a discipline moves from amateur to professional, forming its own criteria and expertise for scientific knowledge along the way; third, alliances, which reverse autonomy since here diverse, extra-scientific interests are “enrolled” in the support of a particular science (kings in cartography, industrialists in chemistry, the military in atomic physics, and so on); fourth, public representation, since “scientists who had to travel the world to make it mobile, to convince colleagues to lay siege to ministers and boards of directors, now have to take care of their relations with another outside world of civilians: reporters, pundits, and the man and woman in the street” (Pandora 105); finally, the knot of the scientific concept itself, harder to study yet part of this topology because it is “a very tight knot at the centre of a net” (Pandora 106).                

These ideas helped form Actor-Network Theory. This is not solely identified with Latour, and its origins are often ascribed to a joint paper Latour wrote with Michel Callon in 1981, entitled “Unscrewing the Big Leviathan.” ANT has since been taken up by some English sociologists, such as John Law, who sees its value in the productive tension between the centered actor and the decentered network, enabling the critic to move across different scales of explanation.4 Subsuming Latour into the familiar post-structuralism of Lyotard and Deleuze/Guattari, Law regards ANT as “a semiotic machine for waging war on essential differences” (7). Latour has been rather more circumspect: he has registered his suspicion of the terms Actor (he prefers the term actant, since this might also include nonhumans), Network (which risks becoming a dead metaphor, a static topology or grid rather than something dynamically forged by science in process), and Theory (which Latour claims to avoid as it would constrain his ethnomethodology of following actors in each fresh situation). He even suspects the hyphen between Actor-Network as fixing a binary between individual agency and systemic forces that he wished to displace (see “On Recalling ANT”). Latour has not been able to kill off the term—a lesson perhaps that a single actor cannot necessarily control the network—and has more recently embraced it fully, publishing Reassembling the Social (2005), his first introductory exposition of ANT. For Latour the “main tenet” of ANT “is that the actors themselves make everything, including their own frames, their own theories, their own contexts, their own metaphysics” (“On Using ANT” 67).                

All of Latour’s work in Science in Action and beyond might seem an aggressive, counter-intuitive sociological theory of science, intent on dethroning scientific legitimacy. In fact Latour claims it is a form of almost naïve realism: as his comments about ANT suggest, he claims he has imposed nothing, but has merely followed scientific actors themselves, tracking how they behave, and the connections and networks that they create. Embedded in all of Latour’s work is a strong critique of sociological and critical schools that seek “social explanations” of science. Latour does not wish to fashion explanations that decode what his actors do. He is opposed to the attempt to demystify or expose “real” conditions as a Marxist might, and distances himself from sociologies that have the arrogant belief that they can explain the actors any better than the actors themselves. For Latour, the social as a term of explanation needs to be rethought: it is not a sort of ether that invisibly permeates everything else as a hidden context, but is the result of the associations or links that bind together scientific, political, cultural, economic, and other practices. He appeals to a “sociology of associations” to replace all critical sociologies that use predetermined categories for determining social groups. Each social object is a specific set of associations that produces its own terms of analysis.                

This approach has the pragmatist’s air of the distrust of any system, and indeed Latour has more than once appealed to the work of William James to support his own position. Yet pragmatism can often be a faux-naïf stance, designed to disable critics. Latour’s work has undoubtedly become more explicitly political, and he has taken aim at the political conservatism inherent in the ideological construct of Science wielded in the Science Wars of the 1990s. In Politics of Nature (2004), Latour wants to liberate the practice of the (lower case, plural) sciences from the ideological stranglehold of (capitalized, singular) Science. This will accomplish nothing less than the revitalization of democracy, and may even solve the clash of fundamentalisms between East and West, as explored in his reaction to the events of September 11, War of the Worlds (2002).

This peace-making desire is perhaps a response to Donna Haraway’s observation that Latour’s method and view of scientific practice in Science in Action was insistently war-like: science works by strenuous battles to “win” controversies and outflank rivals, to marshal armies, and so on. The heroic, masculinist narrative of science was being unwittingly repeated by Latour: “The story told is told by the same story” (Modest_Witness 34). This is acute: after all, the French title of Latour’s book on Pasteur might have been more literally translated as The Microbes: War and Peace. Yet Latour’s irenic turnin the 1990s is attributable not just to Haraway’s critique, but also to the influence of the French philosopher and historian of science Michel Serres, who in a book-length interview with Latour spoke of working “in a spirit of pacifism” against the contest of the faculties (Serres 32). Finally, though, his turn to the political was driven by the challenge Latour mounted in We Have Never Been Modern to the war set up between subjects and objects by the modern settlement. Let’s now turn to this important polemical intervention.

The Modern Settlement and Latour’s Nonmodernism. From his early books, we already have a sense that Latour regards the scientific revolutions of the seventeenth century as a very particular organization of the world. This is formulated as the modern constitution or settlement in We Have Never Been Modern, a separation of Nature and Culture into two distinct ontologies; according to Latour, modernity works obsessively at “purification,” the categorizing of the world according to a binary that sorts humans from nonhumans, subjects from objects. A politics emerges from this dispensation that is inflexible and often violent: nature is to be dominated; other cultures, refusing to accept the disciplining of the progressive, linear time of modernity, are regarded as objects, sunk in nature. Savages and superstitions mix the social and the natural indiscriminately; science progressively separates these spheres. “Modernisation consists in continually exiting from an obscure age that mingled the needs of society with scientific truth in order to enter into a new age that will finally distinguish clearly what belongs to atemporal nature and what comes from humans” (We Have Never 71).                

For Latour, this modern constitution has always operated imperfectly: it is involved in a “double creation of a social context and a nature that escapes that very context” (16), and yet regards Nature (the guarantor of scientific truth) as pre-given and extra-discursive. If Nature and Culture are co-produced, however, they are in constant contact and dialogue, conducting endless translations and mediations. The fury of purification is driven by a secret history of miscegenation, of the intermixing of categories. We have never been modern. Latour argues that this realization has been thrust on us by recent developments that confront us with a rapid proliferation of hybrid objects that confound modern categories. Are ozone holes, global warming, AIDS, epidemics of obesity and allergy, hospital superbugs, Asian bird flu, and mad cow disease the product of natural or cultural, human or nonhuman, processes? They cannot be “sorted”—categorized or resolved—in any straightforward way. Indeed, in the case of global warming, the passage to black-boxed fact is continually frustrated and scientific argument inextricably intermingled with political, industrial, ecological, and myriad other interests. We have moved from “matters of fact” to “matters of concern,” situating the practice of science in wider networks and longer chains of association.

This transition has been discussed by some critics as the passage from an era of Science to one of Research, a move from autonomy to the imbrication of science, culture, and economy: “all these domains had become so ‘internally’ heterogeneous and ‘externally’ interdependent, even transgressive, that they had ceased to be distinctive and distinguishable” (Nowotny et al. 1). Latour sees it as the recognition of the very hybridity that was always induced by the modern settlement. Hybrid objects “have no clear boundaries, no sharp separation between their own hard kernel and their environment,” he expands in Politics of Nature: “They first appear as matters of concern, as new entities that provoke perplexity and thus speech in those who gather around them, and argue over them” (Politics 24, 66). He suggests we need a re-formulation of the binaries that recognizes this increasingly populous excluded middle, a space in which we need to grasp the “nonseparability of quasi-objects and quasi-subjects” (We Have Never 139). This would in turn produce a new constitution and therefore a new politics: “It is time, perhaps, to speak of democracy again, but of a democracy extended to things themselves” (We Have Never 141).

Latour’s polemic appeared at the time when many critical accounts of modernity were being produced under the umbrella of postmodernism. Some of his formulations might look postmodern—perhaps most obviously the idea that abandoning the linear time of modernity will open up multiple, co-existent times.5Yet Latour is scathing about the postmodern turn. Whether it is Jean-François Lyotard’s collapse of metanarratives into the “petits récits” of incommensurable language games or Jürgen Habermas’s argument against the postmoderns for a return to separate spheres of knowledge, Latour considers these as desperate rearguard actions to maintain the purification that dominated the modern settlement. The modish Jean Baudrillard exemplifies for Latour a pointless picking over the ruins of the modern, incapable of conceiving any other dispensation and sunk in nihilism. In this decadent phase, Latour worries that critique has collapsed into extreme relativism or conspiracy theory (“Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” 228). He sees this as sharing much with a regressive anti-modern view that is prepared to annihilate all the virtues of the Enlightenment along with its vices.

Instead, Latour declares himself a nonmodernist: “We can keep the Enlightenment without modernity” (We Have Never 135). This stance crucially involves making the subject/object divide far more porous, and rethinking and extending modern humanism, which has sorted according “to a small number of powers, leaving the rest of the world with nothing but simple mute forces” (We Have Never 138). The constitution needs to be reconfigured so that humans and nonhumans are networked together in a new kind of collective. This collective has been envisioned by Latour in Politics of Nature, where “democracy can only be conceived if it can freely traverse the border between science and politics, in order to add a series of new voices to the discussion … the voices of nonhumans” (69). That compulsive need of the moderns to purify is not simply dissolved (it is still helpful to have these categories), but the nonmodernist values acts of linkage, association, and heterogeneous assemblage:

We shall always go from the mixed to the still more mixed, from the complicated to the still more complicated.… We no longer expect from the future that it will emancipate us from all our attachments; on the contrary, we expect that it will attach us with tighter bonds to the more numerous crowds of aliens who have become fully-fledged members of the collective. (Politics 191)

This is the mature vision of Latour’s later work.

Criticism of Latour’s work is often tied to methodological questions in the sociology of science. The key objection is termed by Simon Schaffer “the heresy of hylozoism, an attribution of purpose, will and life to inanimate matter, and of human interests to the nonhuman” (182). David Bloor has similarly objected, in much harsher terms, to Latour’s transgression of the foundational philosophical axioms of modern sociology (see also Elam). Latour’s defense ranges from the disarmingly honest (he suggests to one group of interviewers that his philosophical apparatus is really “not very deep” [Crease 19]), to the more serious view that Bloor’s sociology quintessentially belongs to the modern settlement itself, relying as it does on the strict Kantian divorce of subjective and objective worlds that Latour is specifically trying to unravel (“For David Bloor”). It is of course a provocation to talk about the “interests” or “voices” of nonhumans, and it is in total conflict with the hermeneutics that still dominate critique. Yet perhaps readers of SFS are less traumatized by this move than the philosophers of STS. Not only are we more familiar with interdisciplinary formulations of post-humanism (for instance, in Donna Haraway’s recent attempts to articulate a “companion species” kinship as part of a wider critique of modernity: see her “Cyborgs to Companion Species”), but also because the fantasmatic work of sf has been consistently bound up with imagining the interests of the nonhuman, and has been fascinated with the production of those hybrid forms the modern settlement would deem monstrous.

Implications for SF. I hope that this brief survey of Latour’s work has already begun to spark potential ways of reading sf, even as his work veers across both the forms of critique and the modern/postmodern paradigm that has tended to dominate sf criticism in recent times. Here, I just want to sketch out the ways in which I think Latour can enable new directions in sf scholarship.

First, it is obvious that there cannot be a Latourian theory that can be abstracted and subsequently applied to sf, like all those theoretical canning factories that process the raw material of sf and turn it into the product of a particular school. Instead, sf can be thought of as a link that can be tied into many different kinds of chains of association or networks of influence, sometimes in surprising or unpredictable ways. This is how it appears in Latour’s own Aramis, his “scientifictional” study of a revolutionary transport project for Paris that failed in the 1980s. As Mark Bould and Sherryl Vint explore later in this issue, Aramis is presented in a cacophony of voices: political, industrial, financial, and technological interest groups are cited directly, interspersed with a dialogue between a cynical professor and a naïve STS student; this cacophony is in turn cut across by fragments of a theory of technology, along with lengthy citations from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley’s proto-sf text helps Latour imagine the way in which large technoscientific projects are stitched together with improvised elements, which can then escape designed intentions and develop their own “nonhuman” actions. This mythic structure was also in the minds of many different participants in the Aramis case: it was formative, rather than secondary or reflective. Sf might appear like this in other stories: for example, in the oft-told way that the genre contributed formatively to the military-scientific-industrial production of the nuclear bomb. H.G. Wells’s The World Set Free (1914) was one of the important links in Leo Szilárd’s ardent political campaigning for an American atomic program; Wells was then hooked into a very different (and in the end weaker) network of resources for the atomic scientists lobbying to stop first-use of the bomb, and then for world government after first-use.

We might also think in Latourian ways about the weird networks of connections that produce science-fictional religions—one of the more striking phenomena associated with the genre since 1945. Hubbard’s Dianetics took resources from experimental psychology, the discourse of the American engineer, space-opera plots, and John W. Campbell’s messianic belief in the socially transformative potential of sf. The Raelian group similarly binds together genetics and cloning with an eschatology borrowed from Arthur C. Clarke. These networks of association might be weak, thinly populated, and definitively marginal, but Latour allows us to read how these bizarrely heterogeneous formations operate. The complex socio-politico-scientific embeddedness of sf could be considerably clarified by Latour’s approach to networks and assemblages, chains of weaker and stronger association that cut across science, technology, and society.

Second, and consequently, the dynamic topology of the network does something to displace the static topographies of center and margin or high and low. It is not necessarily useful to dissolve these categories entirely (there is a certain rigidity to the economics of genre publishing, after all), but they might be regarded as less finally determining for sf. Instead, the genre might be seen to intermix more dynamically, making weaker or stronger associations across the matrix of cultural power. Sometimes sf becomes a privileged lens through which a lot of social processes can be translated for the wider culture—as in cyberpunk in the 1980s (just at the time when sf writers such as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle successfully connected into the circuits of the New Right Reagan administration). At other times sf remains marginal, decoupled from mainstream cultural formations and with few kudos. This marginality can of course sometimes generate genuine subcultural energy (as in the American political satires of the 1950s or the writings of the British Boom in the 1990s, for instance).

This approach would also be interested in the hybridizations of different genres that Gary Wolfe has called “the postgenre fantastic” or “genre implosion”—the mixes of Gothic, thriller, detective fiction, fantasy, and sf that have proliferated in recent years. Sf criticism has been somewhat obsessed with purification, with the kind of sorting and rigid categorization Latour argues is typical of the modern settlement. Criticism, instead, might be much more interested in cross-fertilizations between genre and mainstream writing and might judge generic transgressions less punitively. If we read the history of sf as nonmodernists, it might then appear that the genre has never been modern—that it was never a pure form and has produced little except “hybrid” writings (a position I tried to argue in my book Science Fiction). This may involve dispensing with some of the subcultural ressentiment that still attends the genre. Purism is isolationism, which means fewer connections and therefore weaker cultural influence.

Third, Latour’s sense that we live a world of proliferating hybrids might actually help us read recent sf. Several instances spring to mind. China Miéville’s New Weird is a fusion of English Gothic, dark fantasy, and sf traditions, and his fictions are frequently organized around spectacular set-pieces of hybrid creatures that cut across received categorizations. The ichthyscaphoi in Iron Council (2004) is “a mongrel of whale-shark distended by bio-thaumaturgy to be cathedral-sized, varicellate shelled, metal pipework thicker than a man in ganglia protruberant like prolapsed veins, boat-sized fins swinging on oiled hinges, a dorsal row of chimneys smoking whitely” (454). This clatter of adjectival over-determination is Miéville’s principal strategy, and reads very much like one of Latour’s lists of heterogeneous elements, combining human, animal, and machine. A similar fascination with hybrid beings and transformed modes of categorization informs Justina Robson’s Natural History (2003).

Yet reading sf by means of Latour does not privilege those hybrid forms usually associated with softer sf. Indeed, Latour’s insistent focus on the social and political connections of science and technology also means he is illuminating in reading much harder sf traditions. An exemplary text in this regard might be Paul McAuley’s White Devils (2004), which is typical of certain trends in many ways. The generic location of McAuley’s novel is extremely difficult to determine: it continues the author’s move from space opera to crossover technothriller. It is a breathless and kinetic low entertainment, but one studded with contemplative passages that resonate with Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) and Wells’s Island of Doctor Moreau (1896),and it contains the exorbitant violence of the John Webster revenge tragedy from which it takes its name. McAuley also slices through the distinction between “hard” and “soft” sf. White Devils is undoubtedly hard sf: it is the kind of book that wants to teach the reader the distinction between mitochondrial and genomic DNA, and its imaginary sciences are extrapolated from current biotech research. Yet it is also fascinated with subjectivity and traumatic breaches of human identity, the kind of material long identified with soft sf. The hybridization of these traditions refuses to continue a long factional war—but refuses, in Latourian terms, precisely because of the production of new hybrids that require a reconfiguration of the subject/object or human/nonhuman divide.

White Devils explicitly thematizes how Science has given way to an era of Research, presenting a messy and confused world where the laboratory is inextricably mixed with politics, aid agencies, and “open-source late-stage capitalism” (141). The pure scientist is described as a “relict species.… You exist in a marginal environment. Always you must struggle for funds, scraps of endowments, sponsorship, and always you must work harder for less and less.… The nineteenth-century culture of science’s Golden Age … was destroyed” (314). McAuley’s Africa has become a site for heavily capitalized illicit research, released from any regulation or ethics. It has resulted in the proliferation of hybrid objects and new actants that cannot easily be sorted according to the modern settlement. The pandemic of the “plastic disease,” for example, results from gene manipulation, so that insects transport material originally designed to make hydrocarbons in plants: “in the last stages of the disease, the victims are turned into grotesque living statues, paralysed by hard, knotty strings and lumps of polymer under their skin and muscles” (24). The inability to distinguish human and nonhuman is what drives the thriller plot, these terms regularly and feverishly inverting. Are the white devils human or genetic reconstructions of pre-human hominids? What happens when researchers actively seek to dethrone human priority, cloning extinct rivals? One protagonist tracking down the white devil “atrocities” is discovered to be less human than thought, and the terrain of the Democratic Republic of Congo is full of monstrosities. Yet the monsters at the core of the tale prove more human than some of their pursuers. In this, there is another revision of the sensibility that sustained Conrad or Wells: in a world of hybrids, there can be no monsters. Although Istvan Csicsery-Ronay has argued for a postmodern grotesque, where “anomalous deviations … are norms” (72), it may be that the horror of transgression that has powered the Gothic and the Grotesque would have to be wholly reconceived once the modern obsession with sorting, categorizing, and purifying has been displaced.

Another set of texts that virtually enact Latour’s insistence on networks and tangled objects is Kim Stanley Robinson’s ongoing series about the science and politics of global warming, which so far includes Forty Signs of Rain (2004) and Fifty Degrees Below (2005). Latour has used global warming as an instance where “matters of concern” supersede “matters of fact.” Robinson’s books stage the disputes over evidence of climate change and the attempts of scientific researchers, political advisors, laboratory workers, funding bureaucrats, senators, mathematic modelers, displaced Tibetans, traumatized sociobiologists, and others to persuade a Republican government to acknowledge the crisis in the midst of extreme weather events. What heterogeneous alliance can be forged against the hegemonic bloc of rapacious capital? The strategy of forming alliances and networks that cut across diverse and heterogeneous sites is explicitly worked out in the novels; the pleasingly odd central character begins as a reductive sociobiologist, but develops an understanding of the politics of science that values the need for “impure” connections, making diverse and surprising links. With work like this from so-called “hard” sf (one might further include Gregory Benford or Greg Bear as writers modeling the associative networks of science), the modern dispensation that sustained the distinction between hard and soft within the genre may be largely superseded, as the social and the scientific find themselves continually imbricated. Thinking about their work through Latour would demand this supersession as a redundant dispensation of the modern constitution.

It may be, then, that Latour’s work is useful not only as yet another critical resource to overlay onto fiction but also as a useful guide to articulating the hybridity of recent sf. It links sf into a network of associations that registers a transformation of scientific authority in the contemporary world, helping to explain why sf has become such a vital node in the collective for thinking through our contemporary matters of anxious concern.

                1. For law, see La Fabrique; for religion, see Jubiler; for art, see Latour and Peter, Iconoclash; for recent commentary on critique, see “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?”
                2. Latour trained first as an anthropologist, doing fieldwork in the Ivory Coast. He has spoken about the influence of Marc Augé on the attempt to create a “symmetrical anthropology”—that is, one that does not presume superiority of West over East or observer over observed, and that can employ anthropological method reversibly (see Latour, Un Monde Pluriel).
                3. Work from the Edinburgh School (now long dispersed) includes that of Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer. Latour has translated a number of works of English sociology and history of science into French, but has ongoing methodological disputes with a number of English counterparts, most recently with David Bloor: see Bloor’s “Anti-Latour” and Latour’s reply, “For David Bloor.” A helpful starting point is Schaffer’s lengthy review of Latour’s Pasteurisation of France.
                4. John Law also runs the Actor Network Resource website; see <http://www.lancs.>.
                5. In fact, this borrows heavily from Michel Serres’s arguments for a multi-temporality that confounds conventional historiography: “An object, a circumstance, is polychronic, multitemporal, and reveals a time that is gathered together, with multiple pleats” (Serres and Latour 60). For Serres, this is part of a simultaneity of widely distributed historical resources that entirely refuse any of the kinds of ruptural narrative usually associated with postmodern­ism. For more conceptual links between Serres and Latour, see Laura Salisbury’s essay in this issue.

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