Bruno Latour and Peter Sloterdijk (I)


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I was born a Sloterdijkian. When, thirty years ago, I was preparing the proofs of Laboratory Life, I had included in the pictures, to the disgust of my scientist informants, a black-and-white photograph of the air-conditioned machinery of the Salk Institute in which I had done my fieldwork. “What does this has to do with our science?” they asked, to which I could only reply: “Everything.” Without knowing it, I had always been a “spherologist,” as I discovered about twenty years later when I became familiar with Peter Sloterdijk’s work in another locally situated, air-conditioned place: his school in Karlsruhe, which was separated by no more than one courtyard from the Center for Art and Media, where I twice had the great chance to experiment with installations and exhibitions—what, with Peter Weibel, we call a Gedanke Austellung or “thought exhibition,” the equivalent in art of a “thought experiment” in science.

We are assembled tonight for another thought experiment, namely to imagine on what conditions the world, at the time of globalization, could be made habitable—all of those contemporary metaphors have become important: sustainable, durable, breathable, livable—and also to explore what would be the ideal program, curriculum, or school to train its architects and designers (and “design” is taken here in the largest sense of the word, since as we know from Peter, “Dasein ist design”).

Peter and I have proposed to introduce, each in our own way, two sets of concepts, one coming from spheres and the other from networks. And let me say at the beginning that I have to agree with Peter that what is usually called networks is an “anemic” conjunction of two intersecting lines that are even less plausible than the vast global space of no space that it pretends to replace. Fortunately my own notion of network, or rather of actor-network, has borrowed more from Leibniz and Diderot than from the Internet, and in a way, one could say that Peter’s spheres and my networks are two ways of describing monads: Once God is taken out of Leibniz’s monads, there are not many other ways for them but to become, on the one hand, spheres and, on the other, networks. I’d like to test those two concepts to see whether they begin to lead us to some testable conclusion—a thought experiment, remember, is indeed an experiment that, even though impractical, should be able to discriminate between arguments. Spheres and networks might not have much in common, but they have both been elaborated against the same sort of enemy: an ancient and constantly deeper apparent divide between nature and society.

Peter asks his master Heidegger the rather mischievous questions: “When you say Dasein is thrown into the world, where is it thrown? What’s the temperature there, the color of the walls, the material that has been chosen, the technology for disposing of refuse, the cost of the air-conditioning, and so on?”Here the apparently deep philosophical ontology of “Being qua Being” takes a rather di(erent turn. Suddenly we realize that it is the “pro-found question” of Being that has been too superficially considered: Dasein has no clothes, no habitat, no biology, no hormones, no atmosphere around it, no medication, no viable transportation system even to reach his Hütte in the Black Forest. Dasein is thrown into the world but is so naked that it doesn’t stand much chance of survival.

When you begin to ask these naughty questions, the respective relations between depth and superficiality are suddenly reversed: There is not the slightest chance of understanding Being once it has been cut off from the vast numbers of apparently trifling and superficial little beings that make it exist from moment to moment—what Peter came to call its “life supports.”

In one stroke, the philosopher’s quest for “Being as such” looks like an antiquated research program. As sociologist/ psychologist Gabriel Tarde had anticipated a century ago, philosophers had chosen the wrong verb: “To be” has led them nowhere except to a melodramatic quandary of identity versus nothingness. The right verb should have been “to have,” because then, as Tarde says, no one can sever the two-way connections between the “having” and the “had.” (It is hard to imagine an audience finding tragic a Hamlet who would ponder, “To have or not to have, that is the question.”)

The same reversal of depth and superficiality was achieved when science studies began to “embed” the practice of science—until then construed as the most implausible and most mysterious achievements of a disembodied set of invisible brains in the vat —into larger, more visible, more costly, more localized, and vastly more realistic vats, namely laboratories or better, networks of connected laboratories. Once the little shock of realizing that science, which until then had been able to meander freely through the vast expanses of time and space without paying any special price or even being embodied in any specific human, came to be suddenly restricted and circumscribed to tiny, fragile, and costly networks of practices to which it could not escape except by paying the full cost of its material extension—once this shock had been absorbed, it became quickly clear that science had found a much safer and more sustainable ground. Objectivity too had found its life supports; it had been reimplanted into plausible ecosystems. The truth conditions that episte-mologists had looked for in vain inside logic had finally been situated in highly specific truth factories. Now I beg you to consider the two moves at once because, taken in isolation, they produce the worst possible solution: If you understand what Peter did to Dasein in abandoning Heidegger and philosophy more generally (because he reconnected the naked human with its life supports), it means that you have confused the plug in of life supports with the invasion of “nature.”

It is as if he had said: “Enough phenomenology. Let’s naturalize the whole goddamn human by using the most recent results of the hard sciences: neurology, biology, chemistry, physics, technology, you name them!” Conversely, if you think that by situating Science with a capital S inside the tiny loci of disseminated laboratories, we, the science students, have made it hostage of human vagaries, it means that you have confused our enterprise with an appeal to “society,” as if we had been saying “enough belief in the objective view from nowhere. Let’s deconstruct science and make it a narrative among narrative inside a flow of narratives.”


(part 2)

(part 3)


A lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. February 17, 2009, immediately after a lecture by Peter Sloterdijk. Published in Harvard Design Magazine 30, Spring/Summer 2009 [A .pdf of the whole article can be downloded here].



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Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

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