Bruno Latour’s Pasteurization of France revisited

1984 — »There are more of us than we thought.«

Bruno Latour’s »Pasteurization of France« revisited

By Frédérique Aït-Touati

–> DE

Bruno Latours »The pasteurization of France«


The war metaphor for pandemics is nothing new, and in point of fact it has little to do with the use of armed force to surveil the population or the closure of borders. In France the metaphor came into being in connection with the hygiene movement of the nineteenth century and in the wake of the French defeat at the hands of Prussia in 1870. The »war« against microbes initially represented a powerful movement that united medicine, research, education, and massive public investments. In 1984 Bruno Latour published his seminal work Les Microbes. Guerre et Paix (War and Peace of Microbes). Therein we learn how the appearance of a to-date unknown being on the scientific, political, and societal stage led to radical transformations of existential conditions in Europe within a period of only a few years.

It is the story of a battle, a merciless war against an invisible scourge. Power relations, trials and tribulations, deceit, combats, victories, duels, diatribes, alliances, territorial control. War and Peace of Microbes is an epic. (…) The book tells of the discovery of microbes as an advancing and inescapable actant that aims to destroy humanity: »[Here are the] actors. Are they human or nonhuman? Nonhuman. What do they want? Evil. What do they do? They lie in wait. Since when? Since the beginning of time. What has happened? An event: they have become visible. What has made them visible? Science, another actor, which must in turn be recorded and defined by its performances.« (10) Actors on a stage. The theater metaphor is no coincidence here. It helps one to understand how this book stages its subject matter and thereby implants the notion of the »nonhuman« in the intellectual circles of the 1980s.

In order to better gauge the emergence of these new actors—the microbes—we must, as Latour proposes, delve a bit deeper into history. The main political, social, and medical topic of the 1870s was the regeneration of France: It needed strong people. One could no longer exploit the poor, unhappy, and sick people in the cities. Hygiene is the primary concern of the nineteenth century. It is a battle fought on many fronts. But Latour does not discuss this historiographical premise; he picks up on the topic and expands upon it. The book explains how the hygiene movement exhausted itself in a century-long fight against an enemy that remained invisible because it could not be localized and was dependent on too many causes. Hygienists of the time claimed to be »acting on food, urbanism, sexuality, education, the army. Nothing that is human is alien to them.« (21) And this is their main problem. Despite its size and ambitions, the hygiene movement »remained weak, like an army trying to defend a long frontier by spreading its forces thin. There was no way of concentrating the movement’s forces at a few points only.« (22) For this reason, bacteriology, which provided a concise localization of the point of infection, proved an essential ally for a hygiene movement already on the rise. First off: The strength of the Pasteurians is that they accounted for the interests of the hygiene movement and »translated« them.

The second step of the analysis: How can we explain the readiness and enthusiasm with which the hygienists accepted Pasteur’s arguments? Far from the myth of Pasteur as a lone fighter against the darkness of obscurantism, Latour describes the unanimous reception of his discoveries, which spread rapidly due to the sheer size of the social hygiene movement. Only a few opponents attempted »to put up any kind of a fight against Pasteur’s medical coup d’état« and criticized—not without reason—»hasty generalizations«. (29) But Pasteur triumphed because he »was already the spokesman, the figurehead, and the amplifier of an immense social movement that passionately wanted Pasteur to be right and therefore made sure that all his laboratory work proceeded with a ›haste‹ and a ›widespread application‹ that were truly ›prodigious‹«. (30) As the hygiene movement found an anchor point in bacteriology and Pasteurism, it could concentrate its energy on a few specific points and effectively combat the breath-taking morbidity of the cities as well as epidemics that had beset livestock on the countryside. It is easy to understand why the hygiene movement disseminated the discoveries of the Pasteurians so quickly: They now facilitated the rapid imposition of sanitary measures and techniques targeted at finally detectable enemies, namely the microbes. In the Annales de l’Institut Pasteur »there is talk of cheese, beer, and wine, but also of enzymes and nitrogen, and of the sources of the Seine, which contained bacteria, and of phagocytes and precipitins, and of the wounds of tubercular or diphtheria patients in the Children’s Hospital, and of the mosquitos on the Pontine Marshes or of rat fleas in Madagascar.« (102) This extraordinary heterogeneity of their objects of study distinguished the Pasteurians from other disciplines. They took inspiration from hygiene, medicine, sociology, anthropology, industry, chemistry, and zoology, while pursuing the actors they are interested in, the microbes, without respite.

What do microbes do? They deviate, they interrupt and defeat the purpose of human activities, cause death where trade, life, love, or animal husbandry are expected. In short, they enter a world which we thought was reserved only for humans and force us to be aware of invisible, unpredictable nonhuman beings, which respect no code of conduct, no social or national borders. »There are not only ›social‹ relations, relations between man and man. Society is not made up just of men, for everywhere microbes intervene and act. We are in the presence not just of an Eskimo and an anthropologist, a father and his child, a midwife and her client, a prostitute and her client, a pilgrim and his God, not forgetting Mohammed his prophet. In all these relations, these one-on-one confrontations, these duels, these contracts, other agents are present, acting, exchanging their contracts, imposing their aims, and redefining the social bond in a different way. Cholera is no respecter of Mecca, but it enters the intestine of the hadji; the gas bacillus has nothing against the woman in childbirth, but it requires that she die.« (35) These new agents force society to reconfigure itself: »In order to act effectively between men—that is, to go to Mecca, to survive in the Congo, to bring fine, healthy children to birth, to get manly regiments—we have to ›make room‹ for microbes.« (36) The great surprise of Pasteurism was to bring millions of other actors to the world stage, which »act, pursue aims unknown to us, and use us to prosper«. Hence, the Pasteurians and their hygiene-driven allies had to reinvent social relations in order to accommodate the microbes, just as the scientific anthropologist had to reinvent his discipline in order to create space for nonhuman beings: »There are more of us than we thought.« (35) In this text Latour develops a methodological principle that is central to his work: »At this point it is crucial to treat nature and society symmetrically and to suspend our belief in a distinction between natural and social actors. Without this symmetry it is impossible to grasp that there is a history of nonhuman as well as human actors.« (260) Microbes are actors that force us to »reorganize society in a different way«, (35) to abandon an anthropocentric perspective, and to make place for those invisible actors that systematically deviate from what we considered to be simple paths: »If we wish […] to obtain relations that nothing will divert—we must divert the microbes so that they will no longer intervene in relations everywhere. […] At the cost of setting up new professions, institutions, laboratories, and skills at all points, we will obtain properly separated channels of microbes, on the one hand, and of pilgrims, beer, milk, wine, schoolchildren, and soldiers, on the other.« (39) It is all of these well-channeled currents that COVID-19 now mocks, and it is all of our human currents that it successfully interrupted in a matter of a few days. In the absence of a vaccine, the only chance of countering this malfunction resided in stopping these flows, these currents, this exchange.

In this battle against an enemy, which could eventually be identified, the laboratory plays a decisive role. The general principle is simple; it is the principle of every victory: One must guide the opponent to the territory that one has under control. The true contribution of the Pasteurians is that they transferred the diseases to the only domain under their command: the laboratory. The Pasteurian laboratory is set up to make invisible actors perceptible by offering them an optimal developmental milieu where there is no competition with other living beings. It is a »theater of proof« (93) in the primary sense of the word »theater«, a space of visibility. (…) But, above all, it is a space in which the microbes are exposed and thus finally visible. »Give me a laboratory and I shall raise the world.« (90) This title of an article by Latour, which was published a year before Les Microbes, summarizes his analysis of the laboratory as a site of the reversal of forces: The phenomena of research are reduced in scale to the point that they are under control; the human dominates the nonhuman because he/she isolates it, cultivates it, and thereby can measure it. Furthermore, the laboratory is a space for the simplification and visualization of problems: Regardless of the scale of the phenomena, they always end in easy-to-read transcriptions, which are discussed by a few people who have »an eye for it«. The laboratory makes it possible to take an element out of the real world and plant it in a new yet beneficial milieu, where nothing else interferes with our view. This seminal analysis of the laboratory is revisited and generalized in Irréductions (Irreductions), the philosophical treatise that advances and expands upon the first part of the Pasteur book. In his study of the laboratory as Archimedes’ lever, Latour transforms it into a political space where scientists can make laboratory objects commensurate with objects of the world and then manage to set the world in motion by manipulating the laboratory objects. (…)

The laboratory is a »theater of proof«, which is also a theater of practical tests, a trial of strength that the research organisms are subjected to. At the famous station of Pouilly-le-Fort, the Pasteurians insert their laboratory, their equipment, their protocol into the environment they are researching. The laboratory learns much from the practice, from which it borrows a number of elements and reproduces them under new conditions. Pouilly-le-Fort lies between the Parisian laboratory and the Burgundian fields that the farmers know, and it is the place where the phenomenon of the Archimedean lever comes into play. The facility must be similar enough to its counterpart in Paris in order to ensure the control and supervision of microbes through vaccination, and sufficiently different so that Pasteur cannot be accused of working with »laboratory microbes«. (106) If the laboratory in Rue d’Ulm was constructed »to make these invisible agents visible«, (63) then the farmstead in Pouilly-le-Fort was the public, spectacular, and dazzling stage on which the unprecedented domination of the finally unmasked »invisible enemy« was put in the spotlight. If one can speak of Pasteur’s »genius« with Latour, then it is because he is a director of this theater of proof: Pasteur invents and dramatizes experiments in order to »force« as many people as possible to surrender to the evidence of his spectacular demonstrations, which is based on a few extremely simple opposites: presence/absence, before/after, alive/dead, purity/impurity. (…) Transferring the laboratory to the Burgundian landscape, to Pouilly-le-Fort where the anthrax epidemic was raging, was a decisive factor, too: as the site of the experimentum crucis where the validity of Pasteur’s hypotheses were put to the test; but then the return to Rue d’Ulm to distribute vaccines and new pasteurization practices.

Why War and Peace? The reference to Tolstoy is not by accident. Tolstoy’s War and Peace runs through the complete book as a narrative red thread, and frames the portrayal of the scientific-historical episode that Latour pursues here: War and Peace of Microbesis both a history book as well as a discours de la méthode, a manifesto for a new type of scientific history and scientific sociology. Above all, it is a radical rejection of all forms of reductionism: of grand macro-historical narratives, of the explanation of scientific history through revolutions, of epistemological breaks, of great men. Hence, the choice for a figure, Pasteur, and a precise event, the discovery of microbes, in order to argue a fortiori »the least controversial episode in the history of the sciences«. (9) Indeed, Pasteur appears to be the perfect example of »a convincing scientific manner, free of compromise, tinkering, and controversy«. (8) Latour does not deconstruct the figure. He takes a different approach, presents Pasteur’s moves, his networks, his allies, and uses them to tell a completely different story than one of a lone scientist. Indeed, the reference to Tolstoy provides a model to criticize the »great man«, (13) be it Napoleon or the »great genius« (15) that regenerated France. Tolstoy refused to see historical reason in Napoleon. He denounced the claim of a world turned upside-down, that one man alone can move mountains. Latour follows Tolstoy explicitly, and unfolds the alliances, maneuvers, violent coups, lucky shots, and poker winnings, which gradually consolidated Pasteur’s position. Against the heroism that ascribes tremendous revolutions to a single man, Latour consorts with Tolstoy and shows how the crowd can move a mountain when one man alone cannot. The crowd we are speaking about here are those who came together in the convergence of two movements previously deemed discrete: Pasteurians on the one side and the hygiene movement »translated« by them on the other. (…) It is about restoring the significance, role, and efficacy of the multitude, contrary to the cliché image of the great scientist who transforms society alone in his laboratory with the sole power of his mind. »If the whole of Europe transformed its conditions of existence at the end of the last century, we should not attribute the efficacy of this extraordinary leap forward to the great genius of a single man. Yet we can understand how he followed that movement, accompanied it, sometimes preceded it, and then was offered sole responsibility for it.« (15) Latour rejects the prevailing historical explanations, which build upon the figure of the great genius, and replaces them with forces and actors. As the speaker and enhancer of an already existing movement, Pasteur successfully grasped the interests of a great majority of his contemporaries and established a theater of proof that made his successes spectacular. In this historical analysis of power the main idea was to dissect Pasteur into the multitude of forces that made him possible: the hygienists, the military doctors, the patients, the farmers, the germs, the imperial regime. There is no contradiction in breaching Pasteur’s power while acknowledging his ingenuity at the same time. In it we must rethink our understanding of power. Power is not a mysterious reservoir which great men draw upon, it is the result of local connections between many actors. (…)

First published in French by AOC in March 2020:


Bruno Latours »The pasteurization of France«