Bruno Latour

The Right Fit

on how the spacesuit was made.

Spaceman © Ed Emshwiller, courtesy of the Emshwiller family
Nicholas de Monchaux
Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

The MIT Press, March 2011. 380 pp.

Not long ago, I spent an afternoon inside Biosphere II, a 3.14-acre vivarium designed as an experimental “self-contained” ecosystem. Biosphere II hosted two missions — the second aborted in 1994 — in which scientists lived in the dome for a period of two years and six months respectively, in the end learning more about the effects of voluntary human confinement than ecology. The ambitiously named structure (Earth being Biosphere I) was repurposed as a kind of laboratory and tourist attraction. Best known today as the inspiration for the Pauly Shore movie Biodome, the destination offers guided tours of thinly conceived ecosystems: a salty, brackish pond with a wave machine stands in for the ocean; huge vents cut into the site’s floor supply an arid desert with a warm breeze. Most impressive are the building’s soccer-field-sized “lungs”: structures outfitted with rubber diaphragms that stretch to accommodate the expansion and contraction of internal air over the course of an Arizona day. Today, Biosphere II is mostly compelling as a thought experiment — one that you can walk around in. It seems unlikely that the simulated ocean will yield particularly useful experimental data, but as an art project or a philosophical provocation, it’s pretty powerful. What does it mean to build a whole world? One inside of another? Standing in a constructed desert gazing through glass at a larger, surrounding desert, it’s easy to start thinking about insides and outsides, about the membranes that at once separate atmospheres and contain them.

Spacesuit, architect Nicholas de Monchaux’s wonderful material history, is mostly about these membranes. The book begins with that iconic photograph of Buzz Aldrin’s figure against the surface of the moon — along with a simple question: “Why is this spacesuit soft?” For an answer, de Monchaux finds it necessary to look as far back as 1783, pulling in examples from fields as far-flung as computer simulation, psychopharmacology, haute couture, and the work of Gil Scott-Heron.

De Monchaux has constructed Spacesuit (maybe slightly too cleverly) as a series of layers, each corresponding to the 21 layers that comprised the A7L space suit of the Apollo missions. The author revels in finding curious details from the material history of the world, and Spacesuit bursts with dinner-party fodder: Did you know that the U.S. government’s documentation of the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests created a worldwide film shortage? Or that the Apollo mission’s computer-backup system was crafted into a binary pattern that was then physically woven into ropes? And that only seamstresses could be called upon to do this work properly?

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The perfect symmetry between the dismantling of the wall of shame and the end of limitless Nature is invisible only to the rich Western democracies. The various manifestations of socialism destroyed both their peoples and their ecosystems, whereas the powers of the North and the West have been able to save their peoples and some of their countrysides by destroying the rest of the world and reducing its peoples to abject poverty. Hence a double tragedy: the former socialist societies think they can solve both their problems by imitating the West; the West thinks it has escaped both problems and believes it has lessons for others even as it leaves the Earth and its people to die. The West thinks it is the sole possessor of the clever trick that will allow it to keep on winning indefinitely, whereas it has perhaps already lost everything.
—  Bruno Latour - We Have Never Been Modern (1994).
The modern empirical scientific method is sometimes described as a process of “torturing nature to reveal her secrets”—a phrase often wrongly attributed to Francis Bacon. But a much better account is the one proposed by Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers, who say that scientists work by negotiating with nonhuman entities, and by entering into alliances with them. Scientists do not get very far by treating the things they are interested in as mute and inert objects to be dissected. They do much better when they are somehow able to collaborate with the very entities that they seek to observe and explain. Alfred North Whitehead, a major inspiration for both Latour and Stengers, notes that if the “rigid … Baconian method of induction” had been “consistently pursued,” it “would have left science where it found it.” Nothing new would ever have been discovered. Whitehead insists that science needs not just empirical observation and induction, but also “the play of a free imagination, controlled by the requirements of coherence and logic.” That is to say, a certain degree of speculation is always necessary in scientific research. This speculation has to be “controlled” in some manner; it cannot be altogether arbitrary and unbounded. But without speculation, science is caught in a rut. It cannot stretch beyond the given, immediate facts in order to provide a plausible explanation for these facts.

Steven Shaviro - ARSENIC DREAMS

The speculative process described by Whitehead is roughly similar to what Charles Sanders Peirce calls “abduction.” For Peirce, abduction stands in contrast to—and supplements—both deduction and induction. Deduction starts with conditions that are already given, and traces out a chain of logical consequences for those conditions. Induction, for its part, generalizes on the basis of an already given set of particular observations. According to Peirce, neither deduction nor induction can actually suggest anything new. Abduction, in contrast, makes a sort of leap into novelty. It shifts registers, suggesting a higher-order explanation for the circumstances with which it is concerned. The NASA scientists were working by abduction when they proposed that GFAJ-1 bacteria were able to survive in Mono Lake because they had found a way to substitute arsenic for phosphorus. In this particular instance, the scientists turned out to be wrong. But the greater lesson here is that we can never dispense with abduction or speculation. Science is often praised for having—as other human disciplines do not—an intrinsic self-correcting mechanism. But without engaging in abduction or speculation, science would not have anything to self-correct in the first place.

Back before the departmental boundaries of universities were perhaps so rigidly laid out, chemist Charles Sanders Peirce moved on to become a philosopher, writing manuscripts studied to this day on formal logic and semiotics (the study of how meaning is constructed through ‘signs’, 'icons’, and 'symbols’).

I’d advise others to be wary of this very seductive writing style - Shaviro is a “cultural critic” writing about biochemistry, making sweeping gestures to contemporary neuroscience and coining new words like 'metalevel’, ending with a vague point on climate change. Nevertheless, as he would say, “speculative extrapolation” is crucial for creative thought in both sciences and arts.

So the idol-smasher is doubly mad: not only has he deprived himself of the secret to produce transcendent objects, but he continues producing them even though this production has become absolutely forbidden […] Not only does he hesitate between infinite power and infinite weakness, infinite creative freedom and infinite dependence in the hand of his Creator, but he also constantly alternates between the denial of the mediators and their necessary presence.
—  Bruno Latour, What Is Iconoclash? Or Is There a World Beyond the Image Wars? (2001) [x]
The expression ‘anthropomorphic’ considerably underestimates our humanity. We should be talking about morphism. Morphism is the place where technomorphisms, zoomorphisms, phusimorphisms, ideomorphisms, theomorphisms, sociomorphisms, psychomorphisms, all come together. Their alliances and their exchanges, taken together, are what define the anthropos. A weaver of morphisms—isn’t that enough of a definition?
—  Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), 137.

By Bruno Latour

“Geologists are beginning to use the term ANTHROPOCENE to designate the era of Earth’s history that extends from the scientific and industrial revolutions to the present day. These geologists see humanity as a force of the same amplitude as volcanoes or even plate tectonics. It is now before GAIA that we are summoned to appear: Gaia, the odd, doubly composite figure made up of science and mythology, used by certain specialists to designate the Earth that surrounds us and that we surround, the truly global Globe that threatens us even as we threaten it.

If I wanted to dramatize – perhaps overdramatize – the ambiance of my investigative project, I would say that it seeks to register the aftershocks of the MODERNIZATION FRONT just as the confrontation with Gaia appears imminent.

At all events, we shall not cure the Moderns of their attachment to their cherished theme, the modernization front, if we do not offer them an alternate narrative… After all, the Moderns have cities who are often quite beautiful; they are city-dwellers, citizens, they call themselves (and are sometimes called) “civilized”.

Why would we not have the right to propose to them a form of habitation that is more comfortable and convenient and that takes into account both their past and their future – a more sustainable habitat, in a way? Why would they not be at ease there? Why would they wander in the permanent utopia that has for so long made them beings without hearth or home – and has driven them for that very reason to inflict fire and bloodshed on the planet?

After all these years of wandering in the desert, do they have hope of reaching not the Promised Land but Earth itself, quite simply, the only one they have, at once underfoot and all around them, the aptly named Gaia?”

“An Inquiry into Modes of Existence: An Anthropology of the Moderns”
Download e-book at Library Genesis.

[T]he practice of doing critique involves close encounters with another person’s way of thinking, with their intellectual commitments and even the temperament and personal idiosyncrasies that animate their writing style. […] Judith Butler and Bruno Latour have specifically acknowledged that one of the most pressing issues in political analysis today … is the question of critique – how to engage others more generously through interconnection; how to avoid the more murderous maneuvers of dialectical reasoning that negate another’s position as wrong in order to affirm our own position as right – as the one (and only) position.
—  Vicki Kirby, Quantum Anthropologies (82-83)
The postmodern condition has recently sought to juxtapose these three great resources of the modern critique - nature, society and discourse - without even trying to connect them. If they are kept distinct, and if all three are separate from the work of hybridization, the image of the modern world they give is indeed terrifying: a nature and a technology that are absolutely sleek; a society made up solely of false consciousness, simulacra and illusions; a discourse consisting only in meaning effects detached from everything; and this whole world of appearances keeps afloat other disconnected elements of networks that can be combined haphazardly by collage from all places and all times. Enough, indeed, to make one contemplate jumping off a cliff.
—  Bruno Latour (1994) - We Have Never Been Modern
If the opposite of being a body is dead [and] there is no life apart from the body … [then] to have a body is to learn to be affected, meaning ‘effectuated,’ moved, put into motion by other entities, humans or nonhumans. If you are not engaged in this learning, you become insensitive, dumb, you drop dead.
—  Bruno Latour, “How to Talk About the Body?” (205)

Bruno Latour’s fashion can be likened to a black box. Each component of this, and every outfit, depends on a complex network of associations and factors in order to be experienced fully as the thing that it is. As it happens, this one associates to stylishness.

The scarf, dynamic in motion in this photo, is dynamic in matching bursts of colour. The red matches the spectacles, without which Latour would not be able to see his outfit in all its majesty, or the people who would acknowledge it. The gold matches his jacket’s trim. Every piece is connected, an actor, whether subject or object, in the fundamentally important networks of fashion and style that pervade everyday life.

…the problem with buildings is that they look desperately static. It seems almost impossible to grasp them as movement, as flight, as a series of transformations. Everybody knows—and especially architects, of course—that a building is not a static object but a moving project, and that even once it is has been built, it ages, it is transformed by its users, modified by all of what happens inside and outside, and that it will pass or be renovated, adulterated and transformed beyond recognition.

The static view of buildings is a professional hazard of drawing them too well.

This should not be the case, since the 3D-CAD rendering of a project is so utterly unrealistic. Where do you place the angry clients and their sometimes conflicting demands? Where do you insert the legal and city planning constraints? Where do you locate the budgeting and the different budget options? Where do you put the logistics of the many successive trades? Where do you situate the subtle evaluation of skilled versus unskilled practitioners? Where do you archive the many successive models that you had to modify so as to absorb the continuous demands of so many conflicting stakeholders—users, communities of neighbors, preservationists, clients, representatives of the government and city authorities?

What is a context in flight? It is made of the many dimensions that impinge at every stage on the development of a project: “context” is this little word that sums up all the various elements that have been bombarding the project from the beginning—fashions spread by critiques in architectural magazines, clichés that are burned into the minds of some clients, customs entrenched into zoning laws, types that have been taught in art and design schools by professors, visual habits that make neighbors rise against new visual habits in formation, etc. And of course, every new project modifies all the elements that try to contextualize it, and provokes contex- tual mutations, just like a Takamatsu machine. In this sense, a building project resembles much more a complex ecology than it does a static object in Euclidian space.

—  Latour, Bruno, and Albena Yaneva. “Give me a gun and I will make all buildings move: An ANT’s view of architecture.” Explorations in architecture: Teaching, design, research (2008): 80-89.
If science is based not on ideas but on a practice, if it is located not outside but inside the transparent chamber of the air pump, and if it takes place within the private space of the experimental community,then how does it reach ‘everywhere’? How does it become as universal as 'Boyle’s laws’ or 'Newton’s laws’? The answer is that it never become universal - not, at least, in the epistemologists’ terms! Its network is extended and stabilized. […] No science can exit from the network of its practice. The weight of air is indeed always a universal, but a universal in a network.
—  Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, P.24
The body is […] what leaves a dynamic trajectory by which we learn to register and become sensitive to what the world is made of. Such is the great virtue of this definition: there is no sense in defining the body directly, but only in rendering the body sensitive to what these other elements are. By focusing on the body, one is immediately – or rather, mediately – directed to what the body has become aware of.
—  Bruno Latour, “How to Talk About the Body?” in Body & Society 10 (2-3), 206