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Adieu, Bruno Latour!

By Barbara Arisi and Jean Segata

In order to celebrate the mes de los muertos (month of the dead), we write this obituary. We pay homage to one of the authors that inspired our anthropological knowledge, our ethnography, and our methodology practice. Bruno Latour was an important source for a generation of anthropologists trained in Brazilian academia. We went to our respective fields (in Barbara’s case to the Amazon forest and in Jean’s case to veterinary clinics and pet lovers’ households) looking for “assemblages”: how did the people assemble their own lived cosmologies? What kind of “actors” and “actants” compose such specific “associations”?

We read carefully the titles Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts and We have never been Modern. In the first book, Latour (and his co-author Steve Woolgar) describes how he spent two years as a French participant observer in a North American laboratory and the scientists’ focus on “purifying”, in trying to keep elements apart from each other. This gave rise to his interest in studying why the modernity project was never accomplished, but rather created “hybrids” and “controversies”. All these new concepts helped us and many other anthropologists to think about contemporary complexities, describing reality in a “Latourian way”, showing these assemblages.

Latour went on practicing anthropology, and his way of observing scientists in their “science/magic making” brought innovation to the way anthropology could be made. His books are an important contribution to the field of Science and Technology Studies (STS). In terms of methodology, Latour’s creativity brought us new concepts to conceptualize the contemporary world, and to pay closer attention to the way people and “actants” create their own “assemblages”.

We went on in our study group, the two of us plus our colleague Marco Aurélio Silva and our teacher Oscar Calavia Saez, reading Reassembling the Social, published in English in 2005. It provoked us to try to follow our “natives” in their own paths assembling their lived worlds. As a serious turn, Segata went on following the cats and dogs in their networks with pet lovers and found out how humans and non-humans intertwined themselves in sophisticated webs that included X-ray machines and other unexpected actors. Arisi followed the Matis in their networks that included animals, disembodied forces, and gringos, like South Korean and British filmmakers in socioeconomic webs. The “thick description” made our thesis examples of Latourian anthropology, and we became researchers interested in finding new research objects. Latour’s books influenced our will to keep on researching controversies in different settings. After becoming a university lecturer, Jean went on studying the Zika virus and in recent years he coordinates a national network of ethnographers studying the Covid pandemic spread among meat industry workers, for example. Barbara moved from indigenous Amazonians to Dutch people dealing with plastic and organic waste. We kept on reading Latour for new inspiration on his way of observing and describing how humans and non-humans (be them viruses, plastic recycling machinery, compost worms, etc.) were creating each other in the processes of networking.

Apart from renewing methods and anthropological topics, Latour also participated in the group of scholars that made popular open debates about the Anthropocene. Some of his latest books pointed to some possible new paths for the environmental movement and for academia to strive in a more democratic way. A prolific writer, he offered two new books on this subject: Pandora’s box (1999) and later Politics of Nature – How to bring the sciences into democracy (2004). Both books start a kind of diplomatic environmentalist turn in his work. He focused on how “controversies” (to use another concept coined by him) could get out of a dead debate in academia and have an impact on the lives of Gaia (planet Earth as a single organism composed of several [living] components).

The reflections about possible futures and about the planetary environmental crisis got more space in Latour’s thought and he wrote about them in Facing Gaia, eight lectures on the new climatic regime (2017), and in his last published title Down to Earth, Politics in the New Climatic Regime (2018).

Bruno Latour died on October 9th, Barbara’s birthday. We will miss him and we are glad we have his provocative books as part of his legacy.  We want to keep on working with Latour’s ideas, teaching about his creative concepts, and trying to follow him and our dear Guarani indigenous people who take the Anthropocene as not being the end, but always as a possibility for a new beginning.

Indigenous peoples in Latin America fight against the end of their world on an everyday basis.  The Anthropocene is present. Different rain cycles and droughts are impacting slowly when compared to the quick life-threatening and toxic effects of mercury and river pollution brought by gold mining. All these life-threatening impacts are received by Davi Kopenawa, Yanomami leader and intellectual, as a logical result of non-indigenous people’s greed and their actions of not caring for the forest and its natural life cycles. The indigenous people’s representatives have been present in many global arenas denouncing natural extractive exploitation and pollution. So, following people like Gregorio Mirabal, president of the COICA – Coordinadora de las Organizaciones Indigenas de la Cuenca Amazónica (the world’s biggest indigenous political association), we wish to jump from Latour’s provocation of “facing Gaia” to “seeding Gaia”, as the indigenous people teach us to do. We all can contribute to change from running in a fast and destructive way to a  seeding one, with more respect and love, in the short time we live on the surface of our beautiful planet Earth.

Barbara Arisi is visiting researcher at VU Amsterdam. Jean Segata is associate professor at the Department of Anthropology of Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Sul

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