Panel 22

Reassembling the social: Bruno Latour’s legacy in contemporary anthropology

Panel 22 / Quarto Convegno Nazionale SIAC “Il ritorno del sociale”, Sapienza Università di Roma, 21-22-23 settembre 2023

Proponenti: Giovanni Fava (Università Ca’ Foscari di Venezia), Nicola Manghi (EHESS)


Bruno Latour has been one of the most eclectic and unclassifiable thinkers of our time. Capable of influencing the most disparate fields of study and practices, Bruno Latour has transformed the intellectual landscape he has crossed like few others. Nowadays, his contributions represent a privileged point of access to contemporary issues. This is true in particular for anthropology: from the ethnography of laboratories developed in his early works, to the “anthropology of the moderns”, from his reflections on non-human agency to his interest in ecological issues, his research path has contributed to the theoretical development of anthropology and ethnography. This panel aims to exploit the heritage that Latour leaves to anthropology both by analyzing the moments of his reflection more explicitly linked to the discipline and its tools, and by exhibiting the effectiveness of the notions he helped to define: “non-human”, “agency”, “collective”, “Gaia”. The aim of the panel is to assess Latour’s legacy at the light of the question of the “social” in the anthropological and ethnological fields.

The topics we would like to consider in this panel are:
Analysis and structure of the social dimension from the perspective of ANT;
Applicability of the Latourian conception of the social at the ethnographic work;
Social dimension and non-human anthropologies;
The relationship between agency, social dimension and ecology;
Criticism of the Latourian conception of the social.

Keywords: Bruno Latour, social, ANT, ecology, agency

Lingue accettate: Italiano / English / Français


Sessione I

Sabato 23/9/2023, ore 9.00-10.45, aula Supino Martini, Terzo piano

Viola Di Tullio ( (IUSS Pavia – Luiss Guido Carli, Roma), Planting hybrids. An anthropological essay on plant exclusion and the new social

No longer mere ‘things’, not yet active subjects: throughout Western philosophical history, plants have always been excluded from any kind of moral consideration, being constructed as objects, resources at the service of man. In Latour, on the contrary, nature escapes the fixed and background scene to which it has been relegated to become an “assemblage”, a place of interaction between subjects (not only humans) who co-construct shared realities. Through the Latourian concept of agency and hybrid, this paper wants to reflect on an alternative understanding of plants and the role they have in human experience and in ethnographic fieldwork. How can we give a democratic voice to these hybrids that swarm the contemporary world? Understanding plants as actants and hybrids promote an ecological interdependency and “interresponsibility” between humans and plants. This perspective opens ontological, phenomenological, and epistemological questions that challenge alternative views of sociality. Recognizing the agency of plants and including them in the social realm entails an expansion of perspectives that offer new approaches to generative politics, bringing attention to the reciprocal acknowledging of beings and the recognition of mutual concerns. These reflections are central to rethinking new possibilities of a more democratic co-existence between humans, plants, forests and ecosystems in the Anthropocene.

Alvise Mattozzi ( (Politecnico di Torino), Il ritorno del collettivo. Gli artefatti come attori sociali: un dialogo metodologico tra Studi Sociali della Scienza e della Tecnologia e Antropologia

Riprendendo alcune delle questioni poste nel mio articolo del 2020 “Describing Artifacts. What Design and Anthropology Share, but Design Anthropology Disregards,” pubblicato in Antropologia 7, riguardo i “material culture studies” anglofoni, la “technologie culturelle” francofona e la svolta ontologica, la presentazione intende approfondire quale può essere il contributo di Bruno Latour e di suoi sodali, in particolare, Madeleine Akrich, ad una antropologia che intende rendere conto degli artefatti in quanto attori sociali. Come cercherò di chiarire, il contributo di Latour e Akrich è innanzitutto metodologico, riguarda cioè una riflessione sui metodi da usare per descrivere-analizzare il ruolo sociale degli artefatti. Tale contributo però, si appoggia, e al contempo permette di articolare, una riflessione epistemologica – intesa qui come riflessione sulle categorie utilizzate nell’impresa descrittiva – che a sua volta si appoggia, e al contempo permette di articolare, una metafisica (o ontologia), ed è stato messo alla prova empiricamente. Proprio per la specificità della epistemologia e metafisica assunte e investigate da Latour, e dall’Actor-Network Theory (ANT) più in generale, il contributo di Latour allo studio degli artefatti si distingue ed entra parzialmente in conflitto con gli altri citati – cosa che spesso ha generato malintesi e difficoltà di dialogo tra ANT e antropologia. L’intervento intende esplorare la possibilità di superare tali malintesi e difficoltà.

Francisco Gustavo Pazzarelli ( (CONICET-Universidad Nacional de Córdoba, Argentina / Universidad Complutense de Madrid, Spain), Pachamama faces Gaia

This presentation confronts the indigenous reflections on Pachamama in the highlands of Jujuy (Andes of Argentina) with the discussions concerning Gaia, promoted by the work of Bruno Latour. Pachamama is often identified by anthropology as a “Mother” or “Mother Earth”: she is one of the “non-human beings” (sometimes the most important one) to whom food offerings are annually made to ensure the continuity of life in the world. Based on a long-term ethnographic work, on domestic and ritual contexts where people relate to Pachamama, the aim of this presentation is to highlight the need for an exhaustive consideration of the different aspects, virtually possible, of Pachamama. We will suggest that the presence of Pachamama can be better described as a spectral force irreducible to any maternal idea, not necessarily aligned with the telos of any life and even capable of being reclaimed by a multitude of agents (with a multitude of intentions, even “non-ecological” ones). Pachamama, then, recovers some of the multiplicities noted by Latour on the original conception of Gaia, showing an alternative indigenous reflection, but also challenging the environmental discourses that suggest a pachamamic way out to the ongoing ecological crisis.

Valentina Acquafedda ( (Università di Urbino), Latour’s unrealised legacy: the concept of the critical zones

The paper aims to investigate the concept of ‘critical zones’, which has become increasingly central to Latour’s work (Latour 2014) and culminated in 2020 in the book Critical zones. The science and politics of landing on Earth, edited with Peter Webel. It is a catalogue of performances by artists and writers portraying the disorientation of a world facing climate change, which takes place from May 2020 to February 2021, but at the same time it is also more than that, “a handbook for practising landing in the future” (Völckers et al. 2020). This work and the French scholar’s discussion on ‘critical zones’ has so far had little place in Latour’s review, aside from a few rare exceptions (Provenzale 2021). However, it illustrates once again how one of his greatest legacies is his ability to collaborate in a structured manner with other disciplines, a choice that the urgency of the climate crisis makes inevitable and not deferrable. Indeed, the polyphonic work explores, from the positioning of different disciplines, the various and multiple meanings not of the soil in general (Ingold 2010), but of that specific thin layer of the Earth’s crust teeming with life to which, as a species out of the air (VanAken 2020) we are tied and in which all the chemical, physical, geological and biological processes that sustain the ecosystems of the land take place. It was some scientists at the beginning of XXI century who defined this mix of soil, rocks, water and living organisms as a ‘critical zone’, given both the importance and precariousness of its condition, being exposed to the phenomena of pollution, land mismanagement and the climate crisis, which has also strongly revived interest in such liminal surface (IPCC 2019). Although it still remains a terra incognita, the critical zone has been an object of action for several experts and practitioners for a very long time, upon which discourses and policy have been built and reified, especially in the case of soil erosion in Africa (McCann 1999; 2005; Crummey 2018). And in some areas of the Ethiopian highlands, it became evident during my ethnographic research how soil conservation practices have more political value in maintaining status quo and power relations in land management than being transformative and decisive for the agriculture of rural communities. Therefore, critical zones, ontologically and semantically, become opportunity for Latour and us with him, to revive and obtain new inspiration for his educational project (Swillens et al. 2020), to contribute to outlining a new earthly politics and with it a new climate regime that can primarily start from new questions to which new answers can be found.

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