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On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Science and Cultural Theory) Paperback – December 28, 2010
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the literature. . . . Latour can also be a sparkling writer, exploiting his licence as a foreigner to write English with flair and adventure. . . . I admire [Chapter 3] not only because of its brilliance and fresh insights but also because of the courage it must have taken to write it.” - Harry Collins, Metascience
the literature. . . . Latour can also be a sparkling writer, exploiting his licence as a foreigner to write English with flair and adventure. . . . I admire [Chapter 3] not only because of its brilliance and fresh insights but also because of the courage it must have taken to write it.”
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THE ENGLEWOOD REVIEW OF BOOKS - 24 June 2011 ]
As a graduate student in philosophy of science over a decade ago, I was deeply moved by the work of Bruno Latour, and particular his work (co-written with Steve Woolgar) Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts, which is a bold critique that drives at the heart of what science is. Although Latour has, in recent years, grown increasingly skeptical of social criticism, he remains one of the clearest and most sensible social philosophers of our age. Thus, I was intrigued by his newest work, a slim volume of three essays entitled On The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.
The book opens with the title essay, which is the longest and densest of the offerings here, delving deeply into Latour's work in Actor-Network Theory (ANT). There are some keen insights in this piece, but I want to focus on the book's remaining two essays which I think will be of more relevance to readers of The Englewood Review. Both of the latter essays in the book focus on images and their social role in science, art religion, etc. The first of these essays seeks to provide a robust definition for the term iconoclash, a word of Latour's own creation which refers to situations of image-breaking in which the breaking is such that "there is no way to know, without further inquiry, whether it is destructive or constructive." (68). Latour catalogs five types of approaches to images that span the spectrum from those who are against all images to those who "doubt the idol breakers as much as the icon worshippers" (89). Along this spectrum, Latour argues for the position of those who are against the freeze-framing of images, but not against images.Read more ›
Take a look at what he offers to try to place science on the level of other beliefs and to characterize it as a "modern cult." There's no careful discussion of the long history of scientific method or specific principles of empirically based discoveries, all of which are, of course, extensively written about in the works of scientists and philosophers of science. You must accept his characterizations of science in terms of "divinities," "fears," "transfears," "factishes." You should be impressed with his diagrams, which remind me of Lacan's old tricks of creative geometry. He doesn't stoop to basing his claims on evidence that is objective and tested. There's nothing here that compares to the kind of critique Thomas Kuhn advanced. By Latour's methods, we must be persuaded by faith in him and the persuasiveness of his rhetoric.
The rhetoric can be shockingly simplistic. There's the repeated use of "Whites" v. "Blacks". Rather than rely on empirical studies, he'll tell us "we have known this since Foucault" (p. 37) or "we have known since Deleuze's Anti-Oedipus" (p. 53). This is the logic of following prophets, of "trust me, we know."
Even more shocking are Latour's own reflections: "By reformulating the metamorphosis of these invisible entities in my own inadequate language, I neither claim to have understood ethnopsychiatry, nor to have theorized it.Read more ›