Obituary written by Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, President of FNSP and Mathias Vicherat, Director of Sciences Po in the occasion of the death of Bruno Latour, Professor Emeritus at Sciences Po, former Dean of Research, and founder of the Medialab and the Master of Experimentation in Arts and Politics (SPEAP), on 9 October 2022, in his seventy-fifth year.
Sciences Po has lost a primus inter pares, a primus sine paribus, to use the title of a speech that Bruno Latour gave the day after Richard Descoings’ death*. We have also lost a dear friend, a great friend, who enlightened and enchanted our institution for over fifteen years.
Bruno Latour was one of the most highly regarded and well known French intellectuals abroad: his research, translated into many languages, has been influential worldwide. He was awarded seven honorary doctorates as well as the most prestigious academic prizes. This great philosopher is one of the most important figures in the sociology of science and technology, inspiring research in a wide variety of fields, from anthropology to management, marketing, theology, philosophy, design and the arts. His peers confirm, his is one of the most cited names in French and international research publications.
The general public discovered him more recently – at least in France – and, to quote the philosopher Patrice Maniglier, “it is to history that Latour owes this belated favour. It took nothing less than a cosmic event: global warming”. In recent years, magazines and newspapers, radio and television stations* competed to interview the “great thinker” Bruno Latour, who had understood the scale and significance of the global ecological mutation long before it became tragically obvious, engaging in a profound reflection on the challenges it engendered. Bruno Latour did not shy away from the limelight, but this was above all because he knew that it allowed him to reach a wider audience, a necessity for confronting the urgencies of the new climate regime.
Presented as unclassifiable, the scientific and intellectual work of Bruno Latour is above all original, powerful, abundant and inspiring. It takes the form of fieldwork, surveys, articles, books, online collaborative platforms, exhibitions and plays, mustering philosophy, the sociology of science and technology, anthropology, theology, the arts and political thinking on the environment, all of which he constantly mobilised, trading in the professor’s gown for the costume of an exhibition curator or actor with enthusiasm and delight. His body of work was entirely dominated by his passion for thinking and writing, the need to understand, and the desire to transmit learning.
Nothing predestined Bruno Latour to come to Sciences Po; nothing incited Sciences Po to recruit Bruno Latour. A philosopher by training, an anthropologist in the field, and a sociologist of science by profession, he did not belong, as he himself said – with a touch of provocation – to “any of the disciplines of Sciences Po”, and he viewed our institution with a hint of irreverence. However, this distance was bridged, first by Bruno Latour, who was won over and intrigued by Richard Descoings’ resilience and audacity, and then by Richard Descoings himself, who welcomed Latour from the École des Mines in 2006, rapidly (in 2007) entrusting him with research policy at Sciences Po – in other words, with the keys to the institution’s scientific orientation. After internationalising the educational offer and improving social inclusion, the time had come for a new intellectual moment. The encounter – a priori improbable – between these two visionary experimenters – the atypical intellectual and the iconoclastic high-level civil servant – developed into an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration, marked by enduring trust, respect and mutual support, even in the darkest hours of crisis and mourning. In addition to a pronounced taste for non-conformism, they shared the same political project, in the noble sense of the term, that of renewing the relationship between research and action to advance a cause – furnishing new generations with the instruments of science to meet contemporary challenges, to re-found universities and re-equip the disciplines to achieve this.
Bruno Latour’s encounter with Sciences Po was also that of a man who was mature but perpetually youthful, sharing his anger and indignation, curiosity and enthusiasm, indefatigable energy and indomitable will. Those who were lucky enough to attend Bruno Latour’s lectures will remember the presence of a brilliant speaker, the ease and charisma of a virtuoso orator, his tall stature dominating the stage of the Boutmy amphitheatre, his humour, his insatiable curiosity, his interest in different techniques, his liking for staging scenes, demonstrating and experimenting. Through political and theatrical performance, the students who participated in Copenhagen, what if it had happened differently? and Paris Climate 2015. Make it Work. were party to a life-size simulation of the COP negotiations. Students from the Undergraduate College and the Masters in Communication experienced using digital tools to map scientific controversies. Renewing politics through representation and creation is the artistic and scientific goal of the School of Political Arts, SPEAP. Surprising in all circumstances, Bruno Latour also revamped Sciences Po’s academic objectives, working with Hervé Crès, Dean of Academic Affairs, the academic community, and the entire generation of intellectuals, artists, and researchers that he trained or rallied to his endeavours – to advance pedagogy in the scientific humanities, the dual science and social science curriculum (his beloved “Scubes”), environmental studies, digital humanities (Medialab and Forccast), political and artistic humanities (art workshops, SPEAP) – all precursory elements that, ten years later, constitute the alpha and omega of the curricula of the so-called universities of excellence.
This encounter with Bruno Latour completed the transformation of the grande école Sciences Po into a research university, bringing the philosopher and the sociologist of science out of the laboratory and into the alleys of scientific policy and administration. Examining the je ne sais quoi that characterised Sciences Po in the historical depths of the École Libre des Sciences Politiques, in its governance, the variety of its teaching staff, the metamorphoses of its syllabi and the diversity of its offer, Bruno Latour delivered profound and incisive texts on the identity of our institution – “a monstrosity, a marvel, a chimera” – and on the idea of the university – “neither the university in the French sense, nor the university in the English sense, the abnormal university”. He dedicated his last major public speech to Sciences Po, delivered on 16 September at 1 Saint-Thomas, at the celebration of our hundred and fiftieth anniversary*. On that day,. he looked to the future one last time, resolutely forward-thinking, offering an authentic vision of university policy.
As Sciences Po’s Research Dean from 2007 to 2013, Bruno Latour, in conjunction with Associate Dean for Research, Cornelia Woll, laid the foundations and set about promoting the recruitment of top-notch permanent professors, selected and evaluated according to international standards. He also altered policy to bring teacher-researchers and researchers closer together, creating and rebuilding the collegial bodies where research policy is discussed (departments, research council, academic senate), providing research with the means (a call for projects financed from the Sciences Po budget and evaluated by a Scientific Advisory Board, SAB) and tools to obtain competitive funding (the Mission d’Appui aux Projets Scientifiques, MAPS), broadening disciplinary perimeters (Medialab for digital studies, the Earth Politics Center for environmental studies, SPEAP for political arts) to recast training and research, developing pedagogical methods inspired by anthropology, experimental sciences and the arts, and inviting the most famous intellectuals to Sciences Po.
Moreover, Bruno Latour conceptualised the tension at the heart of Sciences Po’s identity, a combination of core research and “political and media issues” and called for “the contradiction between the near and the far, between the immediately useful and the durably fertile, between what professionalises and what prepares for the unforeseeable” to be tackled. Thus, the “Sciences Po experience”, as imperfect or irritating as it may sometimes have seemed to him, remained in his view the most relevant and effective way to remedy the political impotence and indifference of societies in the face of global transformations and ecological catastrophe.
During the last year of his life, when he was very weak and aware that his days were numbered, Bruno Latour put all his energy, fame and means (he donated his Kyoto Prize money to us), into a project, which we shared and supported very actively: setting up a fund to recruit, at Sciences Po, post-doctoral students who are particularly advanced in the most fundamental aspects of research in political ecology, from various humanities and social science disciplines. We have now been able to raise the necessary funds to launch the first calls for applications.
This is how we intend to honour Bruno Latour’s memory, by continuing the work he began and following in his footsteps, as we did by implementing one of his 2019 recommendations: the creation of a new mandatory course on environmental transformations for all our undergraduate college students.
Bruno Latour’s last public appearance took place on Saturday 24 September at the Chaillot Theatre, celebrating the tenth anniversary of SPEAP, in the company of the academic team led by Frédérique Aït-Touati and many representatives of the twelve cohorts of students of this master’s degree that was so close to his heart. That evening, exhausted, he was beaming with happiness.
This is how we will remember him. An enchanting man who never stopped experimenting, questioning, challenging and renewing modes of thought and expression in philosophy, the humanities and social sciences. A fabulous Burgundian alchemist who transformed short-sighted, sterile, cautious and conventional thinking into gold. A powerful river of thought that was constantly overflowing,
fertilising and enriching everything around it.
Our warmest thoughts are with his wife, Chantal, his children, Chloé and Robinson, and his three grandchildren.
Laurence Bertrand Dorléac, Presidente of FNSP and Mathias Vicherat, Director of Sciences Po