For Work / Against Work
Debates on the centrality of work

"The Symmetry Between Bruno Latour and Martin Heidegger: The Technique of Turning a Police Officer into a Speed Bump"

by Riis, Søren (2008)


In spite of Bruno Latour's explicit critique of Martin Heidegger's conception of technology, he and Heidegger implicitly think very similarly. When looked at carefully, Latour's examination of technical mediation stands out as a detailed reflection of Heidegger's studies. In Pandora's Hope, Latour (1999) dedicates a whole essay to exposing Heidegger's misconception of technology. 1 However, at the end of this polemic, Latour in fact unfolds and actualizes Heidegger's argument. What Latour considers fictitious, antiquated and pessimistic in Heidegger's writings on technology comes alive in a different and more accessible way in his own writings. This profound and previously unrevealed relationship between Latour and Heidegger makes it possible to reinterprete the ideas of both in a way that has crucial importance for Science and Technology Studies (STS). In order to carry out this kind of comparative philosophy or `theoretical fieldwork', one has to pay close attention to their basic conceptions and not be led astray by different ways of naming them.

Key Passage

According to Latour, the notion of ‘symmetry’ means that we are supposed to look beyond both interpretations and pay attention to a third agent who has entered the scene and left the others behind: ‘the citizen weapon’ or ‘the weapon-citizen’). By speaking of the symmetry between these two hybrid actors, Latour implies that it neither makes sense to assert that technology subordinates the will of humans nor to assert the opposite. He holds that it is only within a field of interference between ‘humans’ and ‘non-humans’ that life unfolds in relation to technology. With this analysis, Latour describes his first definition of technical mediation, ‘interference’, and, at the same time, he takes a first step towards repudiating Heidegger’s concept of technology. Anticipating a critique of the first meaning of technical mediation, Latour introduces the second one: ‘combination’. With it, he responds to the possible objection that there is a basic asymmetry within his field of interference: although humans and non-humans are inseparable, humans are the source of action in relation to non-humans (Latour, 1999: 180). Latour rejects this objection as short-sighted and also incorrect: he stresses that a production process in which, for example, workers at a factory make computer chips, covers over a whole series of human actions and tools in different combinations. A single worker does not make a computer chip. In a long and complicated labour process an individual worker combines different tools and links up with the work of other people. Generalizing this to all complex technologies, Latour (1999: 182) rejects as misleading such expressions as: ‘man flies’. It is the ‘man-airplane’ that flies. In this way Latour again arrives at his principle of symmetry – which states the impossibility of separating human from non-human actions. (p.286)


Heidegger, Latour, Technology


Technology, On Heidegger

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