Conservatives and the Academic Left: Who’s to Blame (with a touch of Latour)

From Judith Warner’s article yesterday in the New York Times, “Fact-Free Science”:

Following the Sokal hoax, many on the academic left experienced some real embarrassment. But the genie was out of the bottle. And as the political zeitgeist shifted, attacking science became a sport of the radical right. “Some standard left arguments, combined with the left-populist distrust of ‘experts’ and ‘professionals’ and assorted high-and-mighty muckety-mucks who think they’re the boss of us, were fashioned by the right into a powerful device for delegitimating scientific research,” Michael Bérubé, a literature professor at Pennsylvania State University, said of this evolution recently in the journal Democracy. He quoted the disillusioned French theorist Bruno Latour, a pioneer of science studies who was horrified by the climate-change-denying machinations of the right: “Entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth . . . while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives.”

Clearly, anyone making such claims is without a sense of history: the right in the U.S. is certainly not taking its cues from supposed relativists in the humanities–-if only! (I mean that: who wouldn’t take even the worst sort of cultural relativism over the power relativism of the right wing?) But let’s narrow this to three points:

1. First off, let’s just say the right wing in the U.S. has long had antipathy to anything done in academia. It wasn’t invented yesterday, and certainly you’d really be an idiot to think somehow the left is to blame for the denial of evolution, which was not new even at the time of the John Scopes monkey trial. [Addendum: This is not to critique Bérubé, whose work I admire, but rather the reporting itself.] And the right’s ploy—so reminiscent of the old right wing claims that tobacco doesn’t kill, which meant refusing extra tobacco taxes as late as the mid-1990s—has been to deny the science of climate change in deference to big Coal and big Oil is not surprising.

2. The implication is that any questioning of the role of science in the interplay of knowledge and power is a dangerous relativism playing into the rightwing, which is something only Sokal could argue. First, it denies that post-Popperian phil of science even exists. Secondly, it conflates questioning the use of science for naturalizing societal norms with the facts of science. In other words, should one accept the devious role of psychiatry in the US, say, prior to 1960? (Forced sterilizations? Lobotomies anyone?) Why not? If the reason is that one doesn’t accept the use of supposed science, is one a relativist? If not, so we’re good pre-1960. Okay, is it not possible that occurs now under the banner of science? Isn’t it a good sign of what we used to call critical thinking to analyze concepts and ideas that have pernicious political effects? Or is this because such things happen only in the bad old days, and those doing science studies—including feminists, critical race theorists, among others—are just tools of the right wing?

3. Latour protests too much, mostly because his role within phil of science is not without merit tied to thinking of science as within larger continuum of power and assemblages. Thus he must always claim its some PhD programs teaching others to deny reality: does Latour himself argue there is “unmediated access to truth”? Well, let’s look at the book description from his aptly titled On the Modern Cult of Factish Gods (Duke U.P., 2011):

[Latour] redescribe[s] the Enlightenment idea of universal scientific truth, arguing that there are no facts separable from their fabrication. In this concise work, Latour delves into the “belief in naive belief,” the suggestion that fetishes, objects invested with mythical powers, are fabricated, and that “facts” are not. Mobilizing his work in the anthropology of science, he uses the notion of “factishes” to explore a way of respecting the objectivity of facts and the power of fetishes without forgetting that both are fabricated. While the fetish-worshipper knows perfectly well that fetishes are man-made, the Modern icon-breaker inevitably erects new icons. Yet Moderns sense no contradiction at the core of their work. Latour pursues his critique of critique, or the possibility of mediating between subject and object, or the fabricated and the real, through the notion of “iconoclash,” making productive comparisons between scientific practice and the worship of visual images and religious icons.

Well, what is the difference between arguing “no facts are separable from their fabrication” and those strange teachings of Ph.D. programs (the libel is always undefendable if one leaves out the name of the accused) “still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up…”? One wonders where they would hear such cataclysmic things from … or perhaps there’s a difference between “fabrication” and “making” of which I’m unaware…

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  1. No, there might not be a difference between “fabrication” and “making” (or “constructing” for that matter”, but there is a difference between “fabrication” and “making up” (which is what it says in the quote). The latter is a product of ideation initiated by a sovereign subject who thinks about “the world out there”, hence there is a gap between thinking and being (or making, or having). The former, however, denotes a transductive process of working with phenomena (not out there, hiding beyond the gap of language and thinking, but in front of you, made available through multiple tiny mediations of which language can be one and a microscopic lens can be another) who partially open themselves up to you in certain circumstances but never allow you to feel like you’re in complete control, always resisting and changing their position in worrying and obnoxious ways. this is what fabrication is about: mutual investment and resistance, then a temporary and provisional truce.

    kind regards,


  2. The difference between “making” or “fabrication” and “making up” is rhetorical. Your point, of course, is in line with Latour’s own views as well as his critique of those who would use the “social” as itself a nebulous agent. Thus his critique of social constructionism is largely on the problem of the “social” said to be the constructor. My point above, though, is that if one is going to write a book on the “fetish for facts,” one should not criticize without name (because that would mean actually engaging their work) those who somehow deny reality.

  3. There’s a sense in which the difference between “constructing” and “fabricating” and “making up” is rhetorical, perhaps, but a good portion of Latour’s work over the past decade or so has dealt with articulating this difference in pretty clear and precise ways (e.g., chapter 9 of Pandora’s Hope, “Thou shall not take the Lord’s name in vain…”, and the “Compositionist Manifesto”, besides the three essays in Cult of the Factish Gods). I think the issue he’s dealing with isn’t primarily the problem of the reification of the social (though that’s important, of course; he did devote one book to it), but rather the idea that fabricated being and natural being are mutually exclusive and that reality in the fullest sense only applies to the latter. It’s not (necessarily) that, as Niels said, we (“moderns”) take fabricated things to be the production of sovereign subjects – though that’s often the case – but more simply that we take them to be products while there are natural facts out there that just are. It’s not even really an exclusively modern perspective; you could trace it back at least to Aristotle.

    In short, I don’t think that (as you’ve said in a more recent post) it’s the case that Latour used to be a social constructivist, but now he’s become wary of that and taken a realist turn. Instead, the case he’s been making all along is that social constructivism and realism (or out-and-out scientism) are two sides of the same coin: they each assume an ontological distinction between the constructed and the given that is actually untenable.

  4. I agree, actually. I wasn’t saying Latour WAS a social constructivist. I was saying he was derided as one (incorrectly). And my further point was that I think his depiction of, say, Foucault, as one is a misreading…for many similar reasons it’s wrong to deride Latour as such.

  5. Ahh, I see your point… I thought the parallelism you wanted to point to between the fabrication of facts and the quip about saying that facts are “made up” was actually the opposite of what you meant. But your actual point is a good one – though there are places in Latour where he dials back the anti-“postmodern” rhetoric and acknowledges some affinity, and that’s worth noticing too.

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