On Trains and Transcendence

Bruno Latour, 1947-2022

The world, then, has lost one of its lights. Bruno Latour has gone. We don’t exactly know where he has gone, though his ideas remain with us. On my journey this weekend to Asia, I had with me, by chance, his We Have Always Been Modern, along with Steven Nadler’s excellent commentary on Spinoza’s Tractatus, each in its own way considering the ethereal soup within which we find ourselves, churning and spinning and scrambling around to try and make sense of it all. In truth I am only at the beginning of Latour’s work, which I was pleased to begin given he had been still alive and working. Perhaps I could write to him. I couldn’t write to Spinoza, or Deleuze – but maybe Latour would answer my questions. Now I just have to find the answers in his work, like with all the others.

Our modern ontology requires that we categorise our subjects, and Latour was labelled a philosopher of science. More than that, however, he deconstructed science, and laid bare its components. Science searches for truth, as does philosophy, and in that sense he was himself a scientist, though not one any official scientist might recognise. Albert Einstein might have been sympathetic – as he described it ‘[s]cience without epistemology is—insofar as it is thinkable at all—primitive and muddled.’

Latour’s work in its deconstruction of ontological categories questioned the separation of politics and nature, of science and philosophy, and of things in themselves. It echoed Spinoza’s substance, his monism, as he considered the true relationships of our world and our being. He translated it back for us into accessible and relatable projects – like the Aramis train project – which still haunts my thinking about systems and structures and cities that we build to make our lives easier. Even in that phrase – to make our lives easier – there are smuggled myriad preconceptions: that life has an agreed purpose, or function; we are externally structuring and contextualising those lives; we are agreed together (who is this we of which you speak?).

Within the present, the current, the living, the extant, there is some commonality, at least in space and time. And while Latour rarely strayed too far into the theological, one suspects he imagined a connection with the infinite, albeit beyond our ken. Whether he is aware of it or not, whatever that might mean, he is there now: transferred, transmuted, or transcended.

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