Fortun—From Latour to Late Industrialism

From Latour to Late Industrialism

by, Kim Fortun

[Fortun, Kim. 2014. “From Latour to Late Industrialism.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 4 (1): 309–29.]


In “late industrialism” disasters are everywhere, eminent, and normal

Critique of Latour and AIME

  • even though we ‘have never been modern’ modernist technologies exist and have left a real mess, what she calls “soiled grounds.” AIME elides this reality with its use of a “controlled vocabulary,” and the assumptions that entities end at their edges (chemical plants only produce chemicals, etc). AIME fails to recognize its own externalities as well as those of global capitalism (sludge that breaks out of the places where its “supposed to be”)


I situate Latour’s latest project—An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME)—in the context of late industrialism and query both its conceptual underpinnings and the design of its digital platform. I argue that Latour’s semiotics (and associated conceptions of both networks and ontologies) are functionalist in a way that mimics industrial logic, discounting both the production of hierarchical differentiation within a given system, and the system’s externalizations. The approach thus underestimates the toxicity of its vitalism.

Annotation Summary for: Fortun – Latour and Late Industrialism

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Soiled grounds”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In Latour’s terms, industrial order has been fueled by a Modern ontology that splits Nature from Culture, Object from Subject, and Knowledge from Value, mo- bilizing an intensive interagentivity that has produced industrial society.”

Page 1, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Modern ontology (conceived in this way) works by maintaining binaries and boundaries: humans and nature are conceived as distinct, the sludge sludge pond, out of the rivers, air, and human bodies.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In what I call late industrialism, the levee has broken, retention walls have failed.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “In late industrialism, as I’ve conceptualized it, disasters are everywhere, eminent and normal”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “emergent from tight coupling between natural, technical, po- litical-economic, social, and discursive systems, all of which are aging, often over- wrought, ossified, and politicized.”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “systems, all of which are aging, often over-wrought, ossified, and politicized. Deteriorating industrial infrastructure, land-scapes dotted with toxic waste ponds, climate instability, incredible imbrication of commercial interest in knowledge production, in legal decisions, in governance at all scales—this is late industrialism. The threat of terrorism legitimates suspensions of law, and pervasive surveillance. But not everything is on the radar. ”

Page 2, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Industrial operations, water quality, toxic chemicals—surveillance of these is minimal at best; they are almost completely undisciplined, often under the cover of law.4”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Latour published steadily in this period. The time is late indus-trial. Latour’s early work seems remarkably unscathed by this. Since the mid-2000s, however, Latour has taken a noteworthy environmental turn From one angle, then, it looks as though Latour, of late, may be on to late indus- trialism. But I have questions about his approach, concern that he will—concretely and theoretically—miss the forest for the trees.5”

Page 4, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Foundational for me—the soiled grounds—is the complicated fact that even if we have never really been modern, we still have a modernist mess on our hands, a concrete mess, produced (in part) by what could be called a industrial theory of meaning and value, an industrial language ideology.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “I think in terms of language ideology to account for habits of mind, language,building, and regulation in industrial order that privilege production, products, property, and boundaries—in a way that systematically discounts transboundary migration It assumes that things are what they are intended to be—that they are their essence—and nothing more: Chemical plants produce chemical productsfor use (and sale), without polluting emissions. Pesticides kill insects, but pose no harm to other bodies and ecologies.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Industrial logic can’t make environ-mental sense. But it leaves a mess.”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Both Latour’s book (2011d) and the supporting digital platform are titled “An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME).” Can his approach, and the structure he is building for the digital platform, help us grapple with the mess? Where is Latour in late industrialism?”

Page 5, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The Latour effect”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Science, through Latour, was made vernacular and thus accessible to ethno- graphic study.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Nature, through Latour, was made cultural and agentive, and thus an ethno- graphic actor. Here, too, however, critical differences are still glossed.”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Inquiries into Modes of Existence”

Page 6, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Latour offers us a powerful idea: the world—materiality—is not merely ap- prehended by cultural actors, it is also made by them, through material networks of”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “mediators and habits. The world is not merely rendered meaningful, after the fact, it is produced as real through meaning. The notion of the Anthropocene draws thisout with great force.8 ”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “But it is a functionalist semiotics, with little history, paradox, harsh conflicts of interest or possibilities for play.”

Page 7, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Despite gesturing toward something other than Modern, there is little room for thinking through the con- crete, for what often resists and disturbs abstraction.”

Page 7, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Subalterns, as theorized by Gramsci and later by Spivak, Bhabha, and other postcolonial theorists, are people in structural positions produced by dominant systems, yet unacknowledged, even disavowed, by those systems.”

Page 7, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Subalterns,”

Page 8, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “AIME project ( The project aspires to provide a systematic way of accounting for various ontological templates used by those who have never been modern, opening up a middle ground for diplomatic negotiations that aren’t undermined in advance by the two hypotheses of universality and multiplicity.”

Page 8, Underline (Magenta): Content: “A controlled vocabulary is a list of terms that have been enumerated explicitly. This list is controlled by and is available from a controlled vocabulary registration authority.”

Page 8, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “controlled vocabulary”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “My point here is not that there is a failure of comprehensiveness. These elisions seem to me constitutional, a product of how Latour’s system works.13 ”

Page 9, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Conceptually and by digital design, the”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “project short-circuits attention to both its own externalities and those of the globalsystem it seeks to mend. This, in turn, enables the project’s investment in building something new, without a need to attend to what I have called soiled grounds”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “A density of nodes and interconnections, the site is nonetheless as perfectly ordered as any Modern system.”

Page 10, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Toxic vitalism”

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Evidence of harm to humans, ecosystems, and atmospheric systems caused by industrial chemicals has grown and solidified in recent decades. This can’t be de- nied, so it just isn’t addressed. The strategy is one of disavowal.”

Page 11, Underline (Magenta): Content: “Disavowal (Verleugnung), as we have learned to think about it through Freud ([1927] 1961), involves rejecting the reality of a perception because of its potentially traumatic associations. It is not that the reality in question is not known or is erased; it is denied.”

Page 11, Highlight (Yellow): Content: “Disavowal”

Page 11, Note (Orange): Fair comparison?

Page 11, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “It is an essential part of the ACC’s public relations strategy—a key corporate tactic in late industrialism.18”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Without a hint of irony, Baytown pro-motes itself as the town “where oil and water really do mix.” In Baytown, Bayer Corporation proudly provides science curricula to public schools Can AIME work in these conditions? Can diplomacy work out the differences and interests in play? I fear not.”

Page 12, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “To some extent, Latour and the AIME project replay the resolute positivity of the ACC, disavowing bad actors, conflicts of interest, and an array of externalities produced by the ontologogies they work to characterize.”

Page 13, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “New media, new pathways”

Page 14, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The figure to think with, it seems to me, is not Latour’s diplomat, but the teacher—more agitator than peacemaker, more animator than activist, enabling articulations and movements that could not have happened before.22 I cast the teacher as ideal figure in keeping with traditions of critical (feminist, labor, postcolonial-oriented) pedagogy that hold the teacher responsible for creat-ing what can be called internal unrest, which unsettles the systems students inhabit and are in training to build and steward.23 Teaching in this vein encourages what can be called a recursive engagement with history, returning to history again and ”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “again, weighing its determinations and marginalizations, aware that every remem- brance is itself ideological (White 1973), in turn understanding the present as made through a conflation of different scales and types of systems (technical, social, bio- physical, political-economic, cultural, and discursive), always weighted (and often soiled) by history.24”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The outcomes are not always positive. The combined and cu- mulative effect could be called toxic vitalism.25”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Ethnography, I have found, can help draw out how nested systems work and harm; ethnography can also loop, returning to the systems studied to dislodge what I think of as discur- sive risks—habits of language (which undergird habits of building, producing, and regulating)—that we have learned to be indifferent or injurious.”

Page 15, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The ethnographer then becomes a teacher, not as a master with corrections in hand, but as one who unsettles the systems studied so that they gain a capacity for transformation.”

Page 16, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “Space to breathe?”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “imagine the complexity and controversy swirling around the studies that aspire to bring a crossnational, comparative picture of asthma into view, or that strive to show how climate change will likely exacerbate respiratory diseases34”

Page 17, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “The motivations and ambitions of the AIME project are thus to be applauded. In reaching for a new order of things, it is good to think”

Page 18, Highlight (Cyan): Content: “with, and I have appreciated the opportunity to do so. I have questions about the approach, however, and concerns that it can’t give us more room to breathe until it better attends to soiled states, the toxicity of vitalism, and the possibility of a future that can’t possibly be calculated now.37”

Page 19, Underline (Red): Content: “Freud, Sigmund. [1927] 1961. Fetishism. In Standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud, Vol. 21, 147–57. Edited by James Strachey et al. London: The Hogarth Press and the Institute of Psychoanalysis.”

Page 19, Underline (Red): Content: “Latour, Bruno. 1987. Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through soci- ety. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 1988. The pasteurization of France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

———. 1993. We have never been modern. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ———. 2004. Politics of nature: How to bring the sciences into democracy. Cam- bridge, MA: Harvard University Press

———. 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———. 2010. “The year in climate controversy.” Artforum International 49 (4): 228–29. ———. 2011a. “Politics of nature: East and West perspectives.” Ethics & Global Poli- tics 4 (1): 71–80. view/6373/7965.”

———. 2011b.  “Waiting  for  Gaia:  Composing  the  common  world  through  art  and  poli-tics.” A lecture at the French Institute for the launching of SPEAP in London, November.

———. 2011c. “The proliferation of hybrids.” In The new media and technocultures reader, edited by Seth Giddings and Martin Lister, 105–9. New York: Routledge.

———. 2011d.  An  inquiry  into  modes  of  existence.  Cambridge,  MA:  Harvard  University Press.

———. 2013. “Another way to compose the common world.” Presented in “The ontologicalturn in French philosophical anthropology,” an executive session of the AAA Annual Meeting, Chicago, November 23. ”

Page 20, Underline (Red): Content: “Latour, Bruno, with Steven Woolgar. 1979. Laboratory life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.”

Page 20, Underline (Red): Content: “Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. 1987. In other worlds: Essays in cultural politics. London: Methuen.

———. 1993. Outside in the teaching machine. New York: Routledge.

———. 1999. A critique of postcolonial reason: Toward a history of the vanishing present.Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Calcutta: Seagull Press.”


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