MY LOVE OF BRUNO LATOUR was ignited by my reading of Reassembling the Social (2005). I had worked my way through the usual roster of French theory; what a revelation to encounter a French thinker who made me laugh out loud, whose joviality, generosity, and curiosity about the world radiated from the page. The book billed itself, innocuously enough, as an “introduction to actor-network-theory,” but its challenge to the received ideas of academic thought—about society, agency, the relations between persons and things—was ruthless and devastating. Meanwhile, Latour’s eloquent descriptions of the most ordinary objects—door keys and seat belts—are justly celebrated. Like Robert Walser, the reclusive Swiss modernist about whom I’m currently writing, he brought the humblest things to life. To do actor-network theory (ANT) was not to look down at the world from a haughty distance, but to trudge along the ground like an ant, pausing to marvel at the diverse organisms hidden amongst blades of grass.
This is not to suggest, however, that Latour was a modest or restricted thinker. He vaulted from one topic to another; science studies and climate change, of course, but also the making of law; the force of religious speech; the lessons of a failed Parisian transport system; streetscapes and architecture; economics and politics. The most generative concept for my own thinking was attachment. “We need no longer distinguish between the restrained and the liberated,” he writes, “but instead between the well and the poorly attached.” As conceived by Latour, attachment was not a psychological concept but rather an ontological condition. While critical theory was drawn to a language of detaching, defamiliarizing, and disrupting, he called for practices of composing, connecting, and caring for. Thanks to Latour, I felt emboldened to make a case for being hooked to works of art and to theorize literature as a bonding agent connecting us to authors, characters, genres, other readers, and the dazzle of an exquisitely formed sentence.
I was lucky enough to publish some key Latourian essays while I was editor of New Literary History, including “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’” (2010) and “Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene” (2014). My co-editor Stephen Muecke and I also cooked up a special issue on “Latour and the Humanities” that became a book. Essays by Patrice Maniglier and Francis Halsall speak to Latour’s importance for art criticism, not least because of the art exhibitions he helped to design. In my own field of literary studies—still largely in the thrall of the linguistic turn—his impact has been more muted, and the premises of actor-network-theory are often misunderstood. Yet the massive wave of mourning that has greeted his death testifies to his remarkable impact on disciplines that range from architecture to zoology, as well as to the qualities I experienced in my too-brief meetings with him: an extraordinary warmth and kindness and a searing intelligence animated by a persisting sense of wonder.
Rita Felski is John Stewart Bryan Professor at the University of Virginia. Her most recent book is Hooked: Art and Attachment (2020, University of Chicago Press).