The promises of constructivism
For Albena Yaneva, architect-watcher
What has gone so wrong? It first looked like a good idea: it was fun, it was original, it was enlightening to use the word "constructivism" to designate the work I was doing on science and technology. Laboratories indeed looked infinitely more interesting when described as so many construction sites than when portrayed as dark mastabas protecting mummified laws of nature. And the adjective "social" seemed at first rather well chosen, since I and my colleagues were bathing the venerable work of science into a hot tub of culture and society that aimed at making them young and lively again. And yet everything has gone awry. I had to withdraw the word "social" with shame—scrapping it in haste from the title of Laboratory Life like faces of Trotsky deleted from pictures of Red Square parades; as for the word "constructivism," it does not seem possible to salvage it from the furies triggered by the "science wars" nor from the detritus left by the passage of "deconstruction," this new Attila whose horse's hoofs leaves no grass behind. Everything I wanted to achieve, namely, to associate reality and construction into one single dynamic with one single term, has been wrecked like a badly designed aircraft. Times have changed: In order to show that one is not a dangerous outcast, it seems compulsory to swear a pledge of allegiance to "realism"—now meaning the opposite of constructivism. "You have to choose," roar the guardians of the temple. "Either you believe in reality or you cling to constructivism."
And yet saving constructivism is precisely what I wish to accomplish in this chapter: I want to deploy the promises hidden in this confusing concept, promises which are at once epistemological, moral, and political—perhaps religious as well. My point is that constructivism might be our only defense against fun-damentalism, defined as a tendency to deny the constructed and mediated characters of the entities whose public existence has nonetheless to be discussed. Negotiations toward a viable and peaceful common world are possible among constructivists, but radically impossible if fundamentalists are expected to show up at the diplomatic table—and religion is not the only domain for bigotry: nature can trigger zealots as well, so can markets, so can "deconstruction." Between war and peace stands a realistic definition of what a construction is—this, at least, is my argument.
WHAT IS WRONG WITH CONSTRUCTIVISM? EVERYTHING
To begin with, it might be useful to review everything that is wrong with the notion of construction. Then, once the list has been drawn, we might decide if this concept can be repaired or if it should be abandoned for good.
An Implausible Role for the Social
The first confusion is at once the most widespread and the easiest to redress. When people hear the word "construction," they substitute it with the expression "social construction," meaning that the construction is made of social stuff. In the same way as the houses built by the Three Little Pigs were either made of straw, of wood, or of stone, it is thought that the proponents of social construction are defining an ingredient, a material, a type of fabric to account for the fabrication of facts. And exactly in the same way as the Big Bad Wolf's blow could destroy the Pigs' houses built of straw and wood, but not the one built of stone, it seems that "social constructivists" have chosen a material so light that the slightest wind would dismantle it. The house of science, it will be argued, is made of solid walls of facts and not of a fragile scaffold of social ties. But such a theory of building is imputed to constructivists only by their enemies; I have never met a social constructivist who claimed that science was a house built on sand with walls made of air.
The word "social," no matter how vague—and Ian Hacking, to whom I will turn later, has nicely ranked the many variants of constructivism—does not designate a "kind of stuff" by comparison with other types of materials, but the process through which any thing, including matters of fact, has been built (Hacking 1999). Houses do not fall in place like pies from the sky, and facts are not brought by storks any more than are babies. The Three Little Pigs built houses of differing resistance, but they were all house builders, and besides, they worked together
or in competition with one another: it is this common and collective process to which "social construction" refers, not to the various materials from which things are made. Why call this process "social"? Simply because it is collective, requiring the complex collaboration of many trades and skills. As soon as the word "construction" succeeds in gaining some of the metaphoric weight of building, builders, workers, architects, masons, cranes, and concrete poured into forms held by scaffolds, it will be clear that it is not the solidity of the resulting construct that's in question, but rather the many heterogeneous ingredients, the long process, the many trades, the subtle coordination necessary to achieve such a result. The result itself is as solid as it gets.
Unfortunately, this first clarification does not solve anything and does not yet allow one to save the concept of construction from damnation. The reason is that if hard-core social constructivists who argue that things consist of or in social ties do not exist in science studies, there exist many people elsewhere—most of those reviewed by Hacking—who claim that society itself, its power relations, its violence, its norms, its laws, provide a framework, a structure, a solid basis, a foundation that is so durable, overpowering, and systematic that it could indeed resist the Big Bad Wolf's attempt to blow it down. The claim now is not that the house of facts is really made of the softer material of social ties, but that the soft and superficial links provided by laws, culture, media, beliefs, religions, politics, economics are "in reality" made of the harder stuff provided by the social frame of power relations. Such is the standard way for the social sciences and cultural studies to explain why any thing holds: Things do not stand upright because of the inner solidity of what they claim to be built with, but because their superficial facades are propped up by the solid steelwork of society. Law for instance has no solidity of its own, it merely adds "legitimacy" to the hidden strength of power. Left to their own devices, laws are no more than a fragile layer of paint, a coverup for domination.1 The same goes for religion. Ditto for popular culture, market relations, media, and, of course, for politics. Every thing is made of one and the same stuff: the overarching, indisputable, always already there, all-powerful society. Most of the cases reviewed by Hacking fall into this mode, where social constructivists proudly exclaim, "You naively believe that law, religion etc. hold by themselves, but I will show you how they are really made of social relations which are infinitely more solid, long-lasting, homogeneous and powerful than the dust and straw that hides their structure like a curtain, a varnish, a decoy." Those who pride themselves in being relativists are, most of the time, social realists.
That this type of "explanation" makes a sham of the very notion of constructivism, science studies was quick to discover—perhaps I should speak for myself here! First, how on earth could one invoke the more solid stuff of social relations to account for the solidity of the harder facts of nature? Are the facts
discovered by sociologists and economists so much stronger than the ones constructed by chemists, physicists, and geologists? How unlikely. The explanan-dum certainly does not match the explananda. More importantly, how could the homogeneous stuff of almighty "society" account for the bewildering variety of science and technology? Constructivism, at least in our little field of science and technology, led to a completely different program than the one repeated ad nauseam by critical sociology. Far from trying to explain the hard facts of science with the soft facts of social science, the goal became to understand how science and technology were providing some of the ingredients necessary to account for the very making and the very stability of society. This was the only way to give the word "construction" some of its original meaning, to highlight the collective process that ends up as solid constructs through the mobilization of heterogeneous crafts, ingredients, and coordination (Haraway 1999; Pickering 1995; Rheinberger 1997; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Latour 1999a).
The two things science studies did not need were to replace the fascinating site it was uncovering by an unconstructed, homogeneous, overarching, indisputable "society" and of course an unconstructed, already there, indisputable "nature." This is why science studies found itself fighting on two fronts: the first against critical sociology it wrongly appeared to descend from (as if it were merely extending social explanation coming from law and religion to science and technology); and the second against nature fundamentalists who wanted facts to pop up mysteriously from nowhere.2 If "social" means either the stuff out of which things of science are made—a position which, to the best of my knowledge, has never been defended by anyone—or the harder structure that explains the long-term solidity of scientific facades—as most people, including Hacking regarding what he calls "social kinds," still believe—it is better to abandon it altogether. This is also why, if I quickly deleted the adjective "social" from the title of my first book, I carefully kept the word "construction" since, thanks to science studies, most of the interesting connotations of the building metaphors were at last beginning to appear: history, solidity, multiplicity, uncertainty, heterogeneity, risk taking, fragility, etc. Obviously "social" did not refer to the stuff out of which other things were made—to be critically denounced—but to the associations of many different sources of relatively solid ingredients. The social sciences were becoming not the sciences of the social, but those of heterogeneous associations (Tarde 1999; Latour 2002a). Constructivism is like the word "Republic": the more adjectives you add—socialist, Islamic—the worse it becomes.
Miscasting Creators As Well As Creatures
Once "social" has been crossed out, the problem of construction, however, remains just as irritating as before. This time the reason has not to do with the
demise of critical sociology, the weakness of our own case studies, or the persistence of the "science wars," but rather with the inner mechanism of construction itself. The problem with constructivism is that no one could account for the building of anything, even the simplest shack, by using this metaphor as it has been popularized in social sciences. Nothing in it works: neither the role given to the builder or the maker, nor the role of the material being used; neither the solidity and durability of the result, nor its contingencies or necessity; neither its history nor its lack thereof. If any mason, any architect, any Little Pig were trying to build anything with the theory of action implied by constructivism, they would fail hopelessly to assemble any durable whole.
Let us measure the utter inadequacy of this notion—even if this seems to render its salvation even more hopeless. First to fail is the role attributed to the maker. Implied in constructivism is an agent which masters its own acts of making—I use a neutral term here because society, nature, fields of force, structure, as well as humans, can be asked to fulfill the role of master-builder in some account. When someone says, "This is a construction," it is implied: "It was built by some agency." But then by what sort of agency? If it is an all-powerful creator who has full command of what is produced out of nothing, this is certainly not a realistic account of the building of any real structure. Even if some architects see themselves as God, none would be foolish enough to believe they create ex nihilo (Yaneva 2002). On the contrary, architects' stories of their own achievements are full of little words to explain how they are "led to" a solution, "constrained" by other buildings, "limited" by other interests, "guided by the inner logic of the material," "forced to obey" the necessity of the place, "influenced" by the choices of their colleagues, "held up" by the state of the art, and so on (Koolhas and Mau 1995). No God is less a Creator than an architect, even the most innovative and daring one. To "become sensitive to the many constraints that lead to a rather autonomous scheme that begins to take over a sort of life of its own" is precisely what they will try to emphasize. But then, if we become attentive to humbler ways of speaking, this agency shifts from the all-powerful master to the many "things," "agents," "actants" with which they have to share the action.
And of course, the vocabulary of "making" will divert attention from the maker to the materials even more quickly if one considers engineers instead of architects—numbed by the aura of the "free" modernist artist. Learning how to become responsive to the unexpected qualities and virtualities of materials is how engineers will account for the chance encounter with practical solutions: they will never think of describing themselves as little kids molding reality at will.3 If there is one thing toward which "making" does not lead, it is to the concept of a human actor fully in command. This is the great paradox of the use of the word construction: it is used by critical sociology to show that things are not
simply and naturally there, that they are the product of some human or social ingenuity, but as soon as this metaphor of "making," "creating," or "constructing" barely begins to shine, then the maker, the creator, the constructor has to share its agency with a sea of actants over which they have neither control nor mastery. What is interesting in constructivism is exactly the opposite of what it first seems to imply: there is no maker, no master, no creator that could be said to dominate materials, or, at the very least, a new uncertainty is introduced as to what is to be built as well as to who is responsible for the emergence of the vir-tualities of the materials at hand. To use the word "constructivism" and to forget this uncertainty so constitutive of the very act of building is nonsense.
Second to fail is the conception of the material involved in the process of construction. If you think that builders were treated unrealistically, wait for the poor portrait usually given of matter—the two being obviously linked, as we will see. To exert a determinate and obstinate blind force, to be there as the mere support for human fanciful ingenuity, or simply to offer some "resistance" to human action, these are the only three roles given to things in the construc-tivists' scenarios. The first one gives material agencies the exact same implausible function given to the creator in the ex nihilo story, but in reverse: things command assent by their sheer force that simply has to be obeyed. The second saps any possibility of agency from things: they are left merely plastic, only able to retain an abundance of shapes offered by the rich, creative, and totally free human mind. The third conception of things differs from the former by simply adding some resistance for no other reason but to provide the creator with some surprise while he retains full power over matter—and it has to be a "he." To complete this sad inventory, one should add the comical role of being-there-just-to-prove-that-one-is-not-an-idealist role invented by Kant and replayed over and over again by philosophers all the way to David Bloor: things are there but play no role except that of mute guardians holding the sign, "We deny that we deny the existence of an outside reality" (Bloor 1999). Quite a function well worth hapless "things in themselves."
Any constructivists worth their salt should be ashamed to see that everywhere things have not been given their due: the first treats matter as master, the second as no more than wet sand in a sandbox, and the third as an occasion to feel one's own force being resisted. But with such theories of forces no one could succeed in accounting for even the simplest task: baking a cake, weaving a basket, sewing a button—not to mention erecting skyscrapers, discovering black holes, or passing new bills. And yet most debates on "realism" and "constructivism" never go further than the next child's toy box—to which, for good measure, one should add a few "mugs," "mats," "cats," and "black swans." Let us be serious: If the word constructivist has any sort of meaning, it is because it leads
us to agencies never falling into these silly and childish roles. Yes, they act, yes they order, yes they resist, yes, they are plastic, but what proved interesting are all the intermediary positions they are able to simultaneously occupy (Latour and Lemonnier 1994). The paradox is that critiques retain three or four points in trajectories for which artists, artisans, engineers, architects, house-persons, and even children in kindergarten have a rich and talented vocabulary. Certainly Gianbattista Vico never did build much with his hands, to believe that what he had made was for this reason fully and completely known. I have never met scientists at the bench who were content to choose between "realism" and "constructivism," except of course when giving science war pep talks. Show me one single artist who would denigrate the complex material he is shaping into form to the low point of "infinitely plastic" clay—certainly not potters (Geslin 1994). Show me one single programmer who would think in full command of the software she is writing. Have you ever seen a cook who could account for a cheese souffle by defining its delicate and crusty substance with the simple notions of "plasticity," "resistance" and "pure obedience to the forces of nature?"4
Everywhere, building, creating, constructing, laboring means to learn how to become sensitive to the contrary requirements, to the exigencies, to the pressures of conflicting agencies where none of them is really in command.5 Especially not the "maker" who spends nights and days trying to live up to his or her responsibility to what Etienne Souriau has magnificently called instauration, or I'oeuvre à faire (Souriau 1935, 1939). How come we account for construction, either from the side of the maker or from the side of the made, with a theory of action that any one of our own acts fully contradicts? Yes I know, the bad example comes from high above: the ex nihilo Creator playing with His dust, clay, and breath has given a bad name to all of us. But it is not because He was the first "social constructivist" inventing everything from the fancy of His own imagination that we have to follow His example. . . . Or maybe, when kicked out the Garden of Eden, we also lost the meaning of this Creation story. Not only would "we toil at the sweat of our brow" and "with pains give birth to children" but we would also be cursed with the impossibility of understanding what laboring and constructing and creating could mean. "Thou shall no longer grasp the meaning of God's agency." Will we live forever punished with the original sin of mistaking constructivism for "social" constructivism?
An Impossible Sentence: "The More Constructed The More Real"
To the Garden of Eden there is no trail back. It might be possible however to regain some of the lost powers of the original idiom of constructivism if only we could undo the curse that paralyzes our tongues every time we wish to use them. For that, it is not only necessary to delete the word "social," to redistribute agen-
ties and to add some uncertainty concerning what is doing the making, as I just did. In order to salvage the constructivist manners of speech, another even more difficult move is requested of us since we also have to be able to stick to practice in just the way the sophisticated versions of constructivism forbids us to do.
Any architect, mason, city pinner, tenant, in accounting for the reality of the building they designed, built, planned, or inhabit, will consider the amount of work done as one of the reasons why the building is well-designed, well-built, well-planned, or well-furnished. So, for them, working hard and having a building standing solidly and independently of their work is one and the same thing—provided it has been well-done. In their implicit accounting system, they have one credit column in which they enter their own work as well as the autonomous solidity of the building, and a debit column in which they enter what has been badly designed, planned, or built and what for this reason has been left dangerous, shaky, unfinished, ugly, inhabitable. How come then that they are asked by crooked con-structivists to keep another book; with an entirely different accounting practice? One in which all the items showing that the building stands solidly and independently are entered in the credit column while all the items tending to show that work has been done are noted in the debit column? Even Enron and Arthur Andersen would not dare massage their account books to that extent. And yet this is exactly what we do when we move from the practical language of construction to a theoretical one. We chat, we lie, we enter into shabby double-dealing. It is exactly such a betrayal of constructivism that science studies has contested. In the practical parlance of scientists at work, it is because they work and work well that facts are autonomous end stand independently of their (the scientists') own action (Latour 1996). And yet, as soon as they reflect back on what they have done—or as soon as they come under the influence of some sort of realist philosopher—they cook their book, doctor their accounts and begin to draw two opposite lines: one for the independent reality of the facts (the credit line) and another for the mundane, human, social, collective work they have done (the debit line)." Silly deal, first because the very word "fact" still retains traces of the other accounting system clumsily erased—"les faits sont faits"; second, because in manipulating this new account, scientists lose any chance of gaining credit for their own hard work which now goes into the debit column!; and third, because they deprive themselves of any authority to ask for grant money, since it seems, by reading their massaged ledgers, that they will know even better, faster, and truer if they were not working, if they had no instruments, no collective undertaking, no construction site. . . Independent reality stands alone and they are standing on the other side of a huge gap, unable to bridge it. But the fourth reason is really the one that exposes best the silliness of this double-dealing. The difference between good and bad science, well-designed and badly designed ex-
periments, well-fabricated and badly fabricated facts has disappeared, whereas it was exactly this crucial difference that the other accounting system captured so well—and the one to which all the attention of scientists at work has been directed: the difference between a good and a bad scientist (Stengers 1993, 1997).
If it is clear, in the case of architects, that the only real interesting choice is between good and bad construction and not between construction and autonomous reality, why is this not the case for scientists and facts? Because of two added features that seem to condemn the language of constructivism for good. When we say of a building that it stands on its own weight after the work of engineers, planners, architects, and masons, and because of their good work, we don't have to engage ourselves in a tricky metaphysical question: everyone will agree that, whatever its autonomy, the building was not there before. No matter how elegant, coherent, necessary, adjusted the shape of a house in a landscape might end up being, no matter how "necessary" it appears to be, no matter how pleasing to the eye, it does not provide the sort of necessity requested from matters of fact. It still has a source and origin in some architecture studio signaled by a marble or brass plaque fixed somewhere on the wall—like all of us have the mark of our navel on our belly to humble our dream of self-construction. But it is precisely this navel that irritates (with good reason) scientists and philosophers when they see the word "fabrication" used in relation to "facts"—even though they might be painfully aware of the word's damning etymology. The autonomy they strive for is that of a building which has always stood erect on its own weight no matter what work has been necessary to discover its exact location, to measure its height and to visit or inhabit its interior. Such a degree of certainty, such an occupation of time and space, such an unquestionable autonomy, solidity, and durability no idiom of construction or architectural metaphor can provide—even if we stick as closely as possible to the confusing practice of really building real buildings—since construction, by definition, leaves exactly these traces that should be erased. If the double-book accounting system can be exposed for architects and engineers, it does not seem possible to do the same when hard facts are in question: autonomy and labor indeed seem contradictory. Is this then the last breath of constructivism?
Probably, especially when, to add insult to injury, critical sociology seizes this most difficult of all metaphysical questions and trivializes it into a Q & A at the end of a course in Continental Theory 101: "Is constructed reality constructed or real?" Answer: "Both." Commented with a mildly blase smile: "Are we so naive as to think that we have to chose? Don't we know that even the maddest ideologies have real consequences? That we live in a world of our own construction and that it is no less real for that?"7 How I despise this little "both" that obtains so cheaply a veneer of depth that passes nonetheless for the ultimate
critical spirit. Never was critique less critical than when accepting as an obvious answer what should be, on the contrary, a source of utter bewilderment. "We" never build a world of "our own delusion" because there exists no such free creator in "us" and because there exists no material pliable enough to retain the marks of our playful ingenuity. "We" are never deluded by a "world of fancy" because there exists no force strong enough to transform us into the mere slaves of powerful illusions. On both accounts—as creations of our own imagination, or as what those creatures impose upon us in return—the critical spirit fails since it uses the least realistic definition possible of what it is to create, to construct, to be influenced, to be deluded. It transforms into a simple thing exactly what is most mysterious in the sharing of agencies with other actants, with aliens. The critical spirit slumbers just when it should be wide awake: no one was ever taken in by the return reality of a world of one's own making. Once again, constructivism is a victim of its own apparent friends, and the least probable version of what it is to "build a world of one's own" is used to render impossible any account of this very construction. This belief in naive belief is the only naive belief ever visible—only if you hold a Ph.D. in critical theory can you maintain this illusion against the constant disproof of practice.
So, in the end, things don't look very good. There seems to be no plausible way to say that because something has been constructed and well-constructed it is thus solid, durable, independent, autonomous, and necessary—even though this is what the manifold languages of practice obstinately belabor, and what science studies has tried to extract by staying as close to the bench as possible. The threat will be carried out, we will have to submit to the examination: "You have to choose: either it is real, or it is constructed," and if we dare answer "both" our own positive both will be confused with the weak, cheap, and blase negative answer of our worst enemies, i.e., our dear friends the critical sociologists... It seems that if deconstruction, more voraciously than termites, has been able to turn into dust all the claims to solidity, autonomy, durability, and necessity, it is because constructivism was too fragile a material to begin with. There seem to be no anti-termite treatments, no fumigation to protect constructivism against falling into ruins. Only what has not been constructed will stand the test of time.
A SCALE TO QUALIFY THE RIGHT AMOUNT OF CONSTRUCTIVISM
One solution would be to abstain from the word constructivism altogether.8 But that would leave the field to whom? Naturalists on the one hand, decon-structionists on the other. There would be a place in the sun only for those who link reality with the absence of labor, and those who have the front of using labor to debunk claims to existence, solidity, necessity, and durability. Science studies
will have no room for itself. A strange accounting system will render practice opaque to enquiry.
Fortunately, Ian Hacking has done good work on clarifying this most muddled topic in The Social Construction of What? Thanks to his attempt, I might succeed in offering a convincing inventory of what sentences such as "X should be taken as constructed," where X stand for "laws of nature," "divinities," "technologies," "political representations," "market organizations," "subjectivities," could mean. And we need such sentences to possess clear meaning since they designate all the ingredients which are up for grabs in the progressive definition of the common world—the name I now give to political process.9 Could the curse on the theory of action implied by the many metaphors of construction be lifted?
Hacking understood that the reason these disputes around the right mix of reality and construction trigger so much passion is that they are political: they seem to talk about epistemology but they are really about how we should go about living together. To classify the various schools of "social constructivists" (only a branch of this family, as I will show), he offers a scale that goes from stage 0 (X is given by nature), then to stage 1 (X could have been otherwise), then to stage 2 (X is bad), then to stage 3 (X should be overthrown) (Hacking 1999, 6). In this view "social constructivists" can be ordered from the most innocuous (things have not always been the way they are, they have a history) to the more radical (they should be changed). And all the brands are opposed to a stage —1, which Hacking implies but does not define: X is the way it is, period.
Although it is an important step forward to reveal the inherently political nature of the argument, Hacking's gradient is too asymmetric. If it nicely orders the different brands of "social constructivists," he says nothing of the politics of those who should be called "naturalists", namely those who need this implied stage -1, which allows for X to be there as a permanent fixture of nature. To be able to use Hacking's scheme, it seems fairer to also include the politics of those who use this indisputable necessity of nature to define the common world: it is already made and remains off limits for any political process. Once this is done, constructivists and realists are all engaged in what I call "political epistemology," namely the organization of the arenas in which the various candidates that claim to inhabit the same shared world—humans and non-humans—are represented in all the many meanings of the word. Thus, the debate should not be seen as what pits scholars who object to the politicization of nature against militants who politicize everything, including the facts of nature for their various radical goals. Rather, it allows different factions, parties, leagues, to make explicit and public how they are supposed to distribute what is disputable and indisputable, what is contingent and necessary, what should be kept and what should be changed. To use a traditional set of metaphors, political epistemology is not an
unfortunate distortion of good epistemology or good politics, but rather the necessary task of those who write a "Constitution" distributing powers in the various "branches" of this vast "government of things," looking for the best arrangement of "checks and balances" (Latour 1999b).
Once this common ground is recognized—once Hacking's asymmetric treatment of the various claims has been redressed—it might be possible to abandon, for a moment, the various labels given to the contending parties—realists, naturalists, constructivists, deconstructionists, etc.—to look instead at the list of guarantees they all wish to obtain from participants in the common world, although through different means. The list below appears to me to offer more generality, and maybe more clarity on ordering the sub-family of social constructivists, than the one offered by Hacking. It deals with his same "sticking points," but offers a different diplomatic opening.
First guarantee: once there, and no matter how it came about, discussion about X should stop for good. This is an essential assurance against endless controversies, heckling, superfluous doubts, excessive deconstruction. Such is one of the two meanings of the word "facts": once in place, reality should not be allowed to be disputed and should be used as the indisputable premise of other reasonings. This is the only way to assure a base of solid and stable facts to rest upon—if only to occasionally thumb a table in good spirit... If this leverage is taken out, it seems that discussion is no longer possible (Hacking 1999, 84). If a party named "constructivists" appears to be jeopardizing this essential guarantee, then "that means war," and it is no surprise that the other factions will try and exclude it from any "parliament" (Stengers 1998). What went so wrong in the earlier debates around "social construction" was that such a guarantee went ignored—or rather was confused with the equally important one just to follow.
Second guarantee: in spite of the indisputability insured by the former, a revision process should be maintained, an appeal of some sort, to make sure that new claimants—which the former established order had not been able to take into account—will be able to have their voices heard. And "voice," of course, is not limited to humans. This is exactly what the crowd reviewed by Hacking requires when they attack the "naturalized," indisputable, taken-for-granted stage 0. Only what has been made can be unmade or remade; such is an indispensable source of energy. If all the means of revision are taken away, if we are simply faced with the indisputable matters of facts which have always been the way they are, an essential guarantee has been jeopardized and that, too, "means war." New candidates to existence will be forbidden access to the common world. If a party called "naturalists" appears to forestall all discussions, all revisions, because they use the state of nature to shortcut due process in the name of "law and order," then it is not surprising that the other factions will try to exclude it from the parliament.
The delicate checks and balances of political epistemology require both guarantees, there is no due process without them. But the discussion does not stop at these two.
Third guarantee: the common world is to be composed progressively; it is not already there once and for all. This guarantee is totally muddled when transformed into an argument for contingency against necessity—and on that account Hacking falls into the trap (his "sticking point" #1). To prove that matters of facts have been "constructed," it is argued, one has simply to show that they are contingent, that they could have been otherwise, that they are not necessary.10 To disprove the constructivist account, it is counterargued, one has simply to show that there are no two ways for X to exist, only one. But such a debate is a profound misreading of the real argument in science studies, especially in the history of science. The point is not about demonstrating the existence of "alternative" physics, chemistry, or genetics, but about the impossibility of absorbing the world—in the singular—in one single chunk." The unified world is a thing of the future, not of the past. In the meantime we are all in what James calls the "pluriverse," and those—scientists, philosophers, activists, commoners of all sorts—who strive to make it one are taking risks and they could fail. Danger, contingency, uncertainty, does not qualify the result—which might well be Necessity herself—but the process through which "the" world becomes progressively shared as one same world. The opposition is not between contingency and necessity, but between those who want to order the world once and for all on the cheap pretext that it is already "one," so that they can subtract everything else from it, and those who are ready to pay the price of its progressive composition into one because they cannot subtract anything.
Fourth guarantee: humans and non-humans are engaged in a history that should render their separation impossible. Again, this feature of constructivism is deeply misread when seen as a debate between realism and nominalism (Hacking 1999, 80). Words and worlds do not represent two statues facing one another and marking the respective territories of two kingdoms—only to one of them will loyalty be sworn. Rather, words and worlds mark possible and not very interesting extremities, end points of a complex set of practices, mediations, instruments, forms of life, engagements, involvements through which new associations are generated. To imagine that a choice has to be made between statements and matters of fact would be like pitting the two banks of a riverbed against one another while ignoring the huge and powerful river that streams in between. If philosophy has only registered the choice between realism and nominalism, this has nothing to do with the way we all deal with the truth content of matters of facts, but with a precise political order that has requested a strict separation between humans and non-humans (de Libera 1996). As soon as the
political assembly is modified—and this is precisely what is registered by science studies—the guarantee is not to finally obtain a clear separation between words and worlds, nature and culture, facts and representation, but just the opposite: to ensure that there is no such separation.
Fifth guarantee: institutions assuring due process should be able to specify the quality of the "good common world" they have to monitor. As I have shown above, what is so crucial in the accounting proper to constructivism is to be able to differentiate good and bad construction—and not to be stuck forever in the absurd choice: is it or is it not constructed? Although the philosophical tradition has separated the moral question of the "good life" from the epistemological one of the "common world", it is just a question of which common world is best and how it can be shared as one which occupies the stage when the subtle discourse of practice is foregrounded.12 This is where the composition of the common world takes its meaning and what has been expressed from the Greeks onward by the word cosmos—by opposition to kakosmos.u The quest of the common world cannot even begin to be raised when an opposition is drawn between an "unconstructed" world already there, already unified, devoid of values, on the one hand, and a "constructed" motley of conflicting social or subjective value claims on the other. Simply to "be there" is not enough for matters of fact to be absorbed, associated, digested, rendered compatible with other conflicting claims: they have to be composed, they have to become instead states of affairs.14
The idea of my (very rough) list is that it should now be possible to compare propositions entering the common arena—the new public space—to check if they lead toward a strengthening or a weakening of those five guarantees taken together. My claim is that this list allows a much more efficient classification than the scoring system proposed by Hacking (1999,199).15 For lack of a better term (I'd like to introduce "compositionism," but it has no pedigree), I wish to retain the word "constructivism" for the propositions that foot the bill and either "naturalism" or "deconstruction" for those that fail to fulfill them—the former because it maximizes the first guarantee while being indifferent to the others, the latter because it sticks to the second and fifth guarantee but minimizes the others. I am prepared to abandon the term completely as long as a new one is used to describe the constitutional order that I have wished to describe with this embarrassing word. Any term will do as long as it can allow me to designate something which (a) has not always been around, (b) which is of humble origin, (c) which is composed of heterogeneous parts, (d) which was never fully under the control of its makers, (e) which could have failed to come into existence, (f) which now provides occasions as well as obligations, and (g) which needs for this reason to be protected and maintained if it is to continue to exist. Too many traits, I confess, for one poor little word—and one ending with this rather damning postfix "-ism."
IF ONLY CONSTRUCTIONISM AND DECONSTRUCTION COULD PART COMPANY
The reason why my solution will most probably fail is not only because its usage raises the red flag for science warriors (I still think that they can be reassured),16 but because of its much more dangerous association with deconstruction.17 Even though the prefix "de" should be enough to indicate that it goes exactly in the opposite direction, the critical spirit will always hold back its ironical head and exclaim with glee: "If X is constructed, then I can easily 'deconstruct' it to dust." The relation seems as inevitable as the ecological one between prey and predator. When the word "construction" is uttered, instead of immediately looking for which tools and resources would assure its upkeep and maybe even restore the built structure, the Big Bad Wolf chomps his deconstructionist jaws in eager anticipation. The reason is that critical minds share at least one thing with fundamentalists, their harsh enemies: they too believe that if something is built, that alone is a proof that it is so weak that it should be deconstructed until one reaches the ultimate ideal they all share, namely what has not been built at all by any human hand (Galison forthcoming; Koerner forthcoming; Mondzain forthcoming).
Deconstruction meanders down a steep slope that constructionism—or compositionism—tries to ascend by painful zigzags. How strange that these two movements get confused when their goals are so different. It is true that viewed from above and afar they look alike since they both greatly diverge from the straight line fundamentalists always dream to trace. Both insist on the inevitable tropism of mediations, on the power of all those intermediaries that make impossible any direct access to objectivity, truth, morality, divinities, or beauty. Resemblance stops there, however. Deconstruction goes downhill to avoid the peril of presence, compositionism goes uphill to try to catch as much presence as possible. One behaves as if the main danger was for words to carry too much meaning, the other fights to wring out as much reality as possible from the fragile mediators it has painfully assembled. The former meanders so much it is because it has to constantly delay saying something, while the other strives for rectitude and is diverted only by the extreme steepness of the slope it tries to ascend. One tries to flee as far as possible from the face of the God it wishes to erase, the other knows there is no face of God, and thus nothing is to be erased. A face is to be produced instead, to be painted and repainted through as many non-mimetic re-productions and representations as possible (Koerner forthcoming).
Deconstructionists behave much like those illustrious French generals who were always one war late: they fight an old battle against naivete, immediacy, naturalization, as if intellectuals still had to free the masses from too much belief. Have they not realized that critical minds have long died from an overdose of disbelief? The miniaturization of criticism, like that of computers, has cheapened
doubt so much that now everyone, with no effort, can doubt the strongest and most entrenched certainty, deconstruct the most solid and high-standing building at no cost—any box cutter will do. Why are they so slow to realize that the diffusion of conspiracy theory has taken the place of the "naive confidence in authority"; that this expanded, popularized, and cheap revisionism has pushed criticism to mutate into its exact opposite, which one could call "naive diffidence in authority" or "critical barbarity."18 By contrast, compositionists do not have to debunk belief, but rather to slowly produce confidence again. They don't see naivete as the ultimate sin, but as a refreshing virtue to be regained with great pain. They don't jump to their gun when the word "certainty" is uttered, since they know what price has to be paid to produce a little bit of this most precious ware.
To convince the critically minded that constructivism means our only slow and progressive access to objectivity, morality, civil peace, and piety, and that, for this reason, all the subtle mediations of practice should be protected and cherished instead of being debunked and slowly destroyed would require such a deep alteration in our intellectual ecology that it is hard to see how it would come about.19 And yet, this first move would be necessary if the next one, even more problematic, is to be attempted; namely, to convince fundamentalists that the idiom of constructivism might provide them with more solid and durable guarantees for preserving the values they all too quickly are ready to die for. How long will it be before the word "construction" does not sound either like an insult to be repaid in blood or like a confession of weakness inviting deconstruc-tion? How long will it be before the word is heard not as a war cry to take up arms or hammers, but as an appeal for the extension of care and caution, a request to raise again the question: "How can it be built better}"
To finish with a quiz (in the spirit of Ian Hacking's scoring system), I propose the following test:
When you hear that something you cherish is a "construction," your first reaction is (check the right circle):
O to take a gun
O to seize a hammer
O to erect a scaffold
Answer: If you checked the first, then you are a fundamentalist ready to annihilate those who appeal to the destruction of what remains strong only if it is un-constructed by human hands; if you checked the second, then you are a decon-structionist who sees construction as a proof of weakness in a building that should be pressed to ruins in order to give way to a better and firmer structure untouched by human hands; if you checked the third, then you are a construc-tivist, or, better, a compositionist engaged at once in the task of maintaining and nurturing those fragile habitations; if you ticked them all, then you are hopelessly muddled . . .
My English was kindly corrected by Duana Fullwiley. I also thank Isabelle Stengers and Graham Harman for their suggestions.
1.For such a standard account, see Bourdieu (1986). For a powerful and
2.In what follows I make no distinction between critical sociology and
3.Many rich examples can be found, for instance in Suchman (1987); MacKen-
4.Surface physics as it has been beautifully shown by Bensaude-Vincent
5.According to Jullien (1995) those thoughts would be much easier to
6.Still inspired—or rather contaminated—by the anti-fetishism of critical
7.For a typical example see Heinich (1993). For a "critique" of this
8.And delete the word "construction" from the subtile of Laboratory Life
9.The necessary link between constructivism and diplomacy is explored in
In technology studies, the same role is played by the tired old notion of
Hacking himself, in the beautiful last chapter 7 on dolomite, shows how,
Stages 2 and 3 of Hacking's list aims at this when they transform the
The conditions under which the fact/value distinction could be replaced by
To register the differences between two traditions of empiricism and the two
With which I am simply unable to grade myself although I am one of the
16. This is at least what I have attempted in Latour (1999b).
It is interesting to notice that there is one explicitly deconstructionist,
I don't think it is a coincidence that these two critical barbarities have
The exhibition Iconoclash was, in my view, such a small effort at a
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