The Theory of Society

I was arguing against Systems Theory today (a necessary evil when you live in Germany) which prompted the thought of searching for the conjunction of Bruno Latour and Niklas Luhmann. That led me to this gem.

It turns out that they met each other for a debate in 1996 in Bielefeld and Latour DESTROYED his opponent (full article).

Luhmann, as expected, failed to engage with the theme of the conference, Science and Technology Studies and didn’t come out of his bubble. The same bubble that he has managed to trap most of the German humanities in.

[Luhmann] only managed to address the theme of the conference—science and its sociological study—with half a sentence where he curtly asserted that science is an autopoietic subsystem of modern society.

An autopoietic subsystem, my ass. Latour quickly riposted into a frontal assault at the entirety of Luhmann-ism.

No, according to Latour, this theory didn’t have anything to offer to him and neither he concluded any of those gathered there. A quick perusal of the conference program should have sufficed to ascertain that the empirically obsessed STSers could not recover their objects in this theory. This may be bemoaned from the high vantage point of the Theory of Society as poor, theoretically “flat” sociology, nonetheless, Latour replied, this empirical Zoology of STS gives an account of this society as it is and not how it may appear from the distance of the chilling heights of systems theory.
Latour clarified that fundamentally, systems theory represents everything that he and his colleagues in science studies have been battling for 20 years—yes, really battle and not just criticize. The purification of science, the simplification of the social by a demarcation with its environment, Luhmann’s work as the embodiment of the “cognitive turn” in epistemology—for Latour these were the old buzzwords that had to miss what’s special about science: its materiality. And in doing so of course also what’s specific for modern society, the large technological networks.

Latour battling ‘the purification of science [and] the simplification of the social’, a true hero of science and society.

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