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Latour’s Pumpkin

April 17, 2012

“Have you ever noticed, at sociological conferences, political meetings, and bar palavers, the hand gestures people make when they invoke the ‘Big Picture’ into which they offer to replace what you have just said so that it ‘fits’ into such easy-to-grasp entities as ‘Late Capitalism’, ‘the ascent of civilization’, ‘the West’, ‘modernity’, ‘human history’, ‘Postcolonialism’, or ‘globalization’? Their hand gesture is never bigger than if they were stroking a pumpkin! I am at last going to show you the real size of the ‘social’ in all its grandeur: well, it is not that big. It is only made so by the grand gesture and by the professorial tone in which the ‘Big Picture’ is alluded to. If there is one thing that is not common sense, it would be to take even a reasonably sized pumpkin for the ‘whole of society’. Midnight has struck for that sort of social theory and the beautiful carriage has been transformed back into what it should always have remained: a member of the family Cucurbitaceae.”

— Bruno Latour, from Reassembling the Social

I think Latour is generally right about everything, but if not, at least he has a sense of humor.

Even those of us who do not haunt the sort of meetings he mentions have seen ‘Latour’s Pumpkin’, as this gesture should henceforth be known, and can be glad for having the incongruity of it pointed out, so that we may remember not to be too impressed by appeals to some Big Picture. Just think of a pumpkin! It’s just a damn pumpkin! It is not that Latour is against Big Pictures in general, he paints plenty of them himself (and has explicitly defended Grand Narratives), it is more that he rejects hierarchies of scale, in which the smaller is simply subsumed into the larger; and that for him nothing can just sit around being grandly enframing, he recognizes no ontological aristocracies. Things only gain their reality by getting off their asses and doing something — which may be why my own reality is so touch-and-go.

‘Latour’s Pumpkin’ may join ‘Latour Litany’ as an eponymaking phrase from Bruno. For an example of the latter, my sentence “The world has theories, thoughts, thunderstorms, thorium, thylacines (stuffed), thumb pianos, thick-waisted women and Thursdays in it, and none are the masters of any of the others, none more essentially lofty in its being, they all put their pants on one leg at at time (unless they sit on the edge of the bed and pull them on all at once, which is an even better method)”, conveys a Latourian meaning with a Latour Litany that I have helpfully alliterated for you, though that is not the usual practice. It is an intentionally disparate and random list used to emphasize the variety of things that are being treated on equal terms in an object-oriented philosophy. (The parenthetical remark is irrelevant but haven’t you thought it strange that the one-leg-at-a-time idiom neglects such an obvious alternative?)

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