text by:
Michael J. Golec

Michael J. Golec is Associate Professor of Art and Design History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Golec’s scholarship focuses on histories and theories of typography, visual communications design, technical images, and data visualization.  In addition to contributing numerous chapters and essays to edited books, he is the author of Brillo Box Archive: Aesthetics, Design, and Art (2008) and co-editor of and contributor to Relearning from Las Vegas (2009).  Golec has published articles and reviews in Design and Culture, the Journal of Design History, Design Issues, Senses and Society, Cultural Critique, American Quarterly, Home Cultures, Visible Language, and Zeitschrift für Ästhetik und Allgemeine Kunstwissenschaft.  He has lectured and given talks at numerous cultural and academic institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, Hagley Museum and Library, Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago), Chicago History Museum, Princeton University, Tulane University, University of Texas (Austin), University of Illinois (Chicago), Illinois Institute of Technology, Cooper Union, School of Visual Arts, Parsons School of Design, Royal College of Art, London, and Institut für Architekturwissenschaften, Technische Universität, Vienna.

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The French sociologist and philosopher Bruno Latour prefers a kayak to a bridge. When confronted by a river, he opts to float with the current, passing along two opposite banks. Latour could build a bridge, thereby bringing together—bridging—the body of water’s two opposing sides. But he goes with the flow, allowing the two landmasses to remain in his periphery, thus facing no particular side—no autonomous realm. The allegory of the river, bridge, and kayak all appear as a thought experiment in his first Spinoza Lecture, which Latour delivered in 2005 at the University of Amsterdam. Appropriately enough, the lecture was entitled “Nature at the Crossroads: The Bifurcation of Nature and its End” (later published in 2008 under the title What is the Style of Matters of Concern?). Latour is always trying to avoid bifurcations, thus his choice to remain in the middle. But does a floating Latour occupy a realm of ambivalence or a third realm?

In his first Spinoza Lecture, Latour takes up an already well-rehearsed theme that has occupied his thought, and that has contributed to, if not inspiring him to produce his immense body of work. Bifurcation has been a consistent theme since the 1993 publication of his We Have Never Been Modern. In his anthropology of the modern and of modernity, Latour proposes that the “social” and the “natural” are, what he identifies in his touchstone text as, two dominant poles of an ontology of the modern. Two realms, each with their own regulatory regime; one ontology. For the modern project to fully realize its work of purification the two realms must remain separate, according to Latour. Modernity maintains the borders of the two realms, but there are innumerable instances of unacknowledged—but no less real—crossings and breaches. This posits the possibility of the mutual absorption of the social and the natural. Latour and his fellow Actor-Network Theorists, often refer to this as the hybrid realm of the socio-technical, which describes a distinguishing concept of Actor-Network-Theory (ANT).

As if to revisit an instance of the socio-technical in Amsterdam circa 2005—a city of canals, bridges, and boats—Latour asks his audience to “imagine” constructing a bridge over a river. “Let’s say that one bank of this river is the ‘social’ and the other...is the ‘natural.’” The river divides the realm of the social from the realm of the natural. Each realm faces the other across the river. In Amsterdam, Latour’s imaginary bridge would allow one to cross over from the “social” bank to the “nature” bank, and vice versa. Here, to make a case for the socio-technical, he draws on his audience’s real experiences with crossings. Very quickly, however, Latour abandons bridge construction, and the concept of crossing. And, and with his shift, he very well may be abandoning the concept of the socio-technical. After all, the neologism’s “dash” maintains a bifurcation. The downside of the bridge concept (and the “dash” separating the “socio” from the “technical”), for Latour, is that crossings drag one realm into the other, thereby socializing the natural and naturalizing the social. This is not a case of mutual absorption. A bridge maintains the modern project’s bifurcation of the social and the natural, a situation that, as Latour observes, does a disservice to both sides. Instead of a bridge, he offers his audience an opportunity to take up a kayak and follow the waterway. He asks, “{W}hat will happen if, instead of trying to bridge the distance between word {society} and worlds {nature}, we were trying to move sideways along the various elements that appear to go in the same direction?” What might transpire, he speculates, is that the two opposites would take on new meaning, and that words and world will “mingle,” and multiply in many “interesting connections.”


Despite the bridge’s seemingly unsuccessful suturing of two opposing sides of the modern dichotomy, Latour has been known to appreciate bridges, if only for their exemplary presence in analytic and interpretive procedures. Indeed, it may have been an account of a bridge that led Latour, and the ANT cohort, to insert a “dash” between the sociotechnical. (Indeed, Latour has commented that the only thing he finds useful in the appellation Actor-Network-Theory are the two “dashes.”) On several occasions, he has written admiringly of Michael Baxandall’s “The Historical Object: Benjamin Baker’s Forth Bridge,” a chapter from the art historian’s 1985 book Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of Pictures. In a footnote to his 1988 article, “Mixing Humans and Non-Humans Together,” Latour (using the nom de plume Jack Johnson) declares: “To the shame of our trade {ANT}, it is an art historian...who offers the most precise description of a technical artifact (a Scottish Iron Bridge) and who shows in most detail the basic distinctions between delegated actors which remain silent (black-boxed) and the rich series of mediators who remain present....” In “Where are the Missing Masses?” Latour writes, “A remarkable essay on how to describe artifacts—an iron bridge compared to a Picasso portrait—is offered by Baxandall (1985).” And in “Mixing Humans and Non Humans Together,” Latour states, “For the most articulate distinction between techniques (namely the bridge over the Firth of Forth) and art (Picasso’s portraits) see Baxandall....” Finally, Baxandall’s chapter on the Forth Bridge introduces two key themes that remain crucial to Latour’s ontology of assemblage and alliance, a definitive statement of which he makes in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, from 2005. Here, yet another footnote: “A beautiful example of the connecting ability of arguments is provided by Michael Baxandall....” Firstly, Baxandall’s work represents, for Latour, a template for a rigorous approach to tracing connections, which constitute collectives. In Latour’s writings, these tracings have variously taken the form of “programs of action,” “scripts” (a term he gratefully borrows from his colleague Madeleine Akrich), “statements,” and “prepositions.” Where he veers closest to Baxandall is when, in an interview with the historian John Tresch, he refers to his project as an attempt to “ontologize speech act theory.” And, secondly, Baxandall introduces a modality for Latour to observe the bifurcating nature of the modern project—the social and the natural.

Taking an ideographic approach to his interpretation of Benjamin Baker’s cantilevered Forth Bridge for the crossing at Queensferry, Baxandall develops an analysis of an “inventive act.” In order to provide an account of the inventive act, he devises a three-part schema that is made up of concepts related to initial charge and subsequent brief, material resources, and the bridge design. His goal, as he explains, is to bring all three—concept, material, and design—together in “an active relation to each other.” By allowing the interpenetration of these three schematic elements, Baxandall’s bridge analysis, however methodologically “shaky,” retrieves an intention. As he observes, “What we are faced with is simply the task of organizing, in relation to a complex form, a number of heterogeneous circumstances that appear to have had a part in the designer’s conception.” A crucial factor in Baxandall’s approach is to begin with the “finished deposit of an activity,” and to follow, step-by-step, the things done in order to do a certain thing —here, “Bridge!”

Baxandall’s critical achievement is, in no small part, a result of his not starting his investigation with the generalizations of a nomological approach to explain the production of the Forth Bridge. This would require that, following from the physical sciences, he appeals to general laws pertaining to 1880s Victorian era economics, class relations, rise of managerial control, etc.—the social—or pertaining to geology, mineralogy, climate, etc.—the natural. Starting an inquiry with context, according to Baxandall, inherently leads to the problem of having to choose between the social or the natural. Then, proceeding within the constraints of one or the other frame, one develops an argument for how and why the Forth Bridge is a manifestation of either general law. He is fully aware, however, that the bridge exists at the intersection of these heterogenous elements that “alloy” or intermix the social and the natural into, what Latour later refers to as, hybrids. Importantly, it is Baker who alloys, and Baxandall’s retrospective inquiry enunciatively re-enacts the engineer’s purposeful “work on circumstances.” Here he outlines, step-by-step, a periphrastic pattern of intention that, amongst other factors, includes the Inchgarvie Islet in the Forth, side-wind problems, the Siemens open hearth, and Baker’s “functional expressionism.”


Baxandall uses both “intention” and “invention” to describe the engineer’s conception of the bridge, and to trace the subsequent work of deploying multiple factors to complete the Forth Bridge. He never uses terms like “socio-technical,” “hybrid,” “assemblage,” or “collective” to describe the production of the Forth Bridge. Nevertheless, read after Latour, Baxandall’s analysis can be understood as anticipating Latour and ANT, even though his emphasis is on human intention would at first seem to contradict ANT’s ostensible rejection of the concept. Latour, however, does not explicitly take-up Baxandall’s emphasis on intentionality. Indeed, in “Mixing Humans and Non-Humans Together” he mistakenly cites Baxandall’s Patterns of Invention (sic.) rather than Patterns of Intention. His interest is in the collectives that form “invention” or “innovation.” Nevertheless, Latour does not dismiss intentionality outright. Rather, he assumes human intentional acts that deploy human and nonhuman mediators (even when mistaken, misguided, or otherwise infelicitous). The goal of an intentional act, according to Latour, is to construct a durable collective that is maintained through ingenuity and practical means. For Latour, patterns of intention/invention are traceable as “programs of action” as the becomings of hotel and “Berliner” keys, seatbelts, speed bumps, or, even, bridges. Importantly, tracing the path of innovation begins, as it does with Baxandall, with the technological artifact, and not with a first inquiry into the engineer’s design department. Working retrospectively, the mutual absorption of the social and the natural is ascertained through an account of the felicitous connections and infelicitous misfires made along the way. This means that inventing or getting something done intentionally cannot do without the varied mechanisms and systems that must be in place before arriving at a starting point. Then again, one might start with a misfire as much as a connection.

It is helpful, if not necessary, to further expand programs of action to observe that where we find interconnections, we likewise find intensifications of meaning and significance. This observation follows not only from Latour, but also from Baxandall. Where the latter states that one can account for the meaning of the Forth Bridge through an enunciative reenactment of resolute work on circumstances, the former makes the case for deriving meaning from a program of action. As Latour proposed in his address to the 2008 Design History Society conference in Cornwall (the theme was “Networks of Design”), to consider an artifact in terms of its design is to conceive of it as an intermingling of all manner of durable connections. “The artefact {sic.} is composed of writing all the way down!” By “writing,” Latour means an enumeration of all assemblies that constitute a program of action or an intention/invention. Meaning is, as he details, derived from instances where a designed artifact confronts and overcomes a series of challenges in the form of anti-programs. Tracing the overcoming of these challenges—step-by-step—reveals a circuitous path of a concatenation of innovations.

To trace the circuitous path of an innovation, Latour (with the aid of Philippe Maugin and Geneviève Teil) developed a coding system that tracks various gaps and bifurcations, and crossings and overcomings of a program of action. The coding system resembles Baxandall’s list of the causal features that make up his account of the Forth Bridge. Where Latour et. al. differ is in their production of a “socio-technical graph” to map crossings at bifurcations, where the program of action threatens to split off due to an encounter with an anti-program. The inclusion of encounters of programs with anti-programs is likely a result of Latour’s earliest scholarly activities. As he recounts in the 2010 article “Coming Out as a Philosopher,” his work on his PhD exposed him to a method of biblical exegesis (what he refers to as a network of translations) based on the theologian Rudolf Bultmann’s radical exegesis. Bultmann’s innovation was a hermeneutical method of disassembly and reduction that reduced biblical authenticity to as few sources as possible. Latour inverted Bultmann’s method, developing an additive technique of assemblage. Anticipating his later modality of the program of action, Latour pursued lengthy chains of “continuous inventions” to analyze the veridical conditions of the Gospels. And, as with his socio-technical graph, he likewise took to recording and analyzing instances of continuity and discontinuity.


Latour expresses his ambivalence regarding bridges in his 2013 publication An Inquiry into Modes of Experience (AIME), and its accompanying digital platform (AIME-platform). AIME is a thirty-year in the making extension of Latour’s ontology of the modern and of modernity; it is a pr0ject that endeavors to exceed the limits of ANT. On the one hand, “crossing” is a key term in the AIME project, allowing Latour and his team to interrogate the truth regimes of all the “modes of existence” (there are twelve modes in total) and to contrast “different types of veridiction,” but to not reduce the veridical to a single mode. “Bridging” and “bridge,” on the other hand, rarely appears in AIME and on the AIME-platform. (This is an immense project, which, due to the nature of this essay, prohibits a more in-depth report.) In the first case, the term bridging is used to indicate the overcoming of an abyss between what the “Moderns say from what they do.” As Latour outlines in We Have Never Been Modern, claims made by the moderns to have separated the world into two distinct realms—the social and the natural—are not, and never have been, verified in their actions. It is his position that a form of life is the culmination of crisscrossing paths that, through the work of translation, make up multiple networks of hybrids. We have never been modern, because, as Latour argues, we have never not been hybrid. Both the purifying distinctions made by moderns and their real actions constitute a twofold bifurcation that is inherent to an ontology of the modern and modernity. In the second case, Latour gives up the bridge, as he did earlier in his Amsterdam Lecture. Citing the Ordinary Language Philosopher J.L. Austin, Latour proposes: “[I]nstead of a bridge between words and world, the speech act describes an unknown journey, described neither by linguistics nor by logic, between an ensemble of antecedent and posterior conditions only a small part of which consists of words and all of which may fail to be chained together.” (Latour quoted in Miles Ogborn’s 2020 article, “Uttering Geographies: Speech Acts, Felicity Conditions and Modes of Existence.” Ogborn’s article is a thorough account of Latour and speech act theory.) His preference for the “unknown journey” is reminiscent of his kayak thought experiment. Opting to drift forward, as opposed to crossing back-and-forth, as Latour proposes to his audience in Amsterdam, allows one to become entangled with the world in “surprising ways.” Released from the “obsessive questions of bridge building,” the kayaking offers an opportunity to engage in, what William James calls, “pure experience.”

In Amsterdam, it would seem that Austin’s supposed bridgeless speech-act theory places Latour in his imagined kayak. (Recall that by the time his AIME research was published Latour had been working on this project for some thirty years, and, in one form or another, Austin has been present since his earliest work in innovation.) It is not the case that the bridge entirely disappears, however. It certainly is the case that, for Austin, there always exists the possibility of a disconnection—or an infelicitous crossing—in regard to speech acts. By 2013, Latour takes this aspect of uncertainty to mean that tracing connections or crossings will only result in the asymmetrical accounts that he has rejected since We Have New Been Modern. Yet, the performative character of ordinary language, what Austin refers to as the “illocutionary act,” is judged felicitous or infelicitous based on the relationship of an utterance to its citational context. Understood along these lines, speech acts do not speak for themselves, nor do they act on their own. Neither does an imagined act of crossing a bridge or of floating in a kayak constitute felicitous or infelicitous results on their own. No doubt, both imagined acts do something in that each is intentionally meant, but the performative force of either act, as Austin says of an utterance in his posthumously published How to Do Things with Words from 1962, is in its “uptake,” “taking effect,” and/or “inviting a response.”

I raise this issue, because I detect something of a contradiction in his lecture in Amsterdam, where Latour makes the distinction between the two acts. He claims that, unlike bridge builders, “practitioners of kayaking” are free from reference to “somewhere else.” In other words, the kayaker’s autonomy would seem to preclude intention/invention, innovation, and meaning, since to judge the kayaker’s performance as felicitous or infelicitous would require reference to “somewhere else.” What seems even more surprising, however, is Latour’s distinction between the bridge builder and the practitioner of kayaking. For either act to mean something (or to not mean anything at all) requires that both bridge builder and the practitioner of kayaking assemble equipment in an endeavor to do something. As Latour admits to his audience in Amsterdam, “What counts is your ability to equip yourself with the right paraphernalia so that you can go down the river without drowning yourself.” Of course, you can equip yourself with the wrong paraphernalia, and end up tossed about—perhaps even drowning yourself. In his Cornwall lecture for the Design History Society, in the same year, Latour observes a similar scene where he describes the necessity of equipping oneself with a “space suit before getting out of the space shuttle...you are completely ready to artificially engineer and design in obsessive detail which is necessary to survive.” Survival is already “somewhere else:” and equipment makes the difference between a safe return to the shuttle or a calamitous drifting off into space, as it does to the kayaker preparing to navigate the river ahead.


A well-equipped floating Latour in his kayak observes bridges from the river, noting their various states of fulfilling their programs of action (or not). Some fixed span bridges may facilitate easy crossings between the realm of the social and the realm of the natural. Others that are double span, draw bridges may do the same, but when engaged in one of their intended programs of action—drawing upward to allow tall boats to pass below—impedes crossing. These are just two examples (there are many more) of what could result in Latour observing distinct program of actions and antiprograms of action for every bridge along the river. And in each passing he opens a new black box to reveal a nearly inexhaustible list of connections and disconnections, each of which is loaded with conventionality and creativity, and with implicit and explicit intentions/inventions, and innovations. Here an “unknown journey” entails confronting the instability of meaning. For each case, Latour is not merely looking at socio- technical artifacts, such as bridges, and their intended uses, but also at what realities they are embedded in (“various elements that appear to go in the same direction”). Following the river, a well-equipped floating Latour traces an invisible line that intersects the span of each bridge that attempts to join the two realms of the social and the natural. As he remarks in We Have Never Been Modern, “In the middle, where nothing is supposed to be happening, there is almost everything.” By not trying to avoid bifurcations, and by observing their proliferation, a well- equipped floating Latour occupies a third realm of “almost everything.”

© Ch-6