This year at the American Anthropological Association 2014 Meeting, Bruno Latour was invited to deliver the distinguished lecture. Entitled “Anthropology at the Time of the Anthropocene,” Latour discusses the rise in the term anthropocene to describe our current stage of natural history. Although the term makes reference to how “human” (anthro) our current age may be, Latour jests that this term was introduced by geologists, not social scientists. In the anthropocene, it is humans that play the defining role in our geological historical moment.
The assumption, Latour notes, is that human agency is the prime source of action that shapes the physical world. Humans are responsible for climate change, for pollution, for altering the literal, natural fabric of our world. Yet we know that not all humans have the same impact on our environment. As Latour quips, there is not “One Human” who is responsible for the changes we see in our climate or environment. We are simultaneously assessing human power as a plural, collective entity, as well as using this concept to suggest that the blame for global change does not fall evenly across all humans. As anthropologists and cultural theorists, we know how fragile human agency can be when we divide it amongst many contending social and cultural groups.
Is there another way to think about human action that does not problematically configure humans as both collective and individual, acting but not universally accountable for all human actions? Latour posits that rather than focusing solely on agency, with a strong emphasis on human intention and purpose when committing action, we could think instead about animation, or what forces–human and non-human– are in motion in a given social space. To do so, we can no longer assume that the human agent is a colloquial be-all-end-all.
How does this assertion speak to medical anthropology, social medicine, and medical humanities? At first, we might raise our brows at the discussions of geography, environment, and most of all the suspicion surrounding the primacy of human agency. Decentralizing the human agent, we might say, is perhaps the least humanistic approach to the study of human experience. Indeed, medicine is the care of humans by humans!
However, our human ability to question our own power and position in the universe, amidst other natural and non-human forces, is a mark of our species. Whether through philosophy, religion, or social science, humans have a proclivity for ruminating about our place in the material, corporal world. We crave knowledge about what sets us apart from non-human things, and how we are sometimes reliant on them. For scholars of medicine, such inquiries about our relationships with the physical universe is key. We consider the place of non-human agents in disease and care. We ask: why do physicians rely on certain tools? Why do patients see stethoscopes, thermometers, and scalpels as making a clinician legitimate in his or her practice? How are medical traditions made unique by their tools and pharmaceutical formulas? Could the layout of a hospital or clinic itself alter the way care is given?
In an age where technology permeates developed and developing societies, Latour’s suggestion to destabilize human agency is productive when considering medicine as a cultural object. We must think not only of ourselves, but the physical environments we live in and the material objects and devices we cannot seem to live without.
Many scholars understandably resist Latour’s idea that non-humans could have some primitive agency. Yet even if we do not assign agency to non-human tools, things, and environments, thinking seriously about their role in sociocultural systems is informative. Medicine is a lively site of exchange between patients and physicians, as well as practitioners and devices, patients and new medical innovations, and the built environments which house them. As Latour invites us to do, we should pause to consider humans within the midst of a rich material world around us that– like humanity itself– is constantly in motion.
Julia Balacko is a second-year PhD student in medical anthropology at Case Western Reserve University. She holds an MA in Humanities from the University of Chicago. Her research focuses on the culture of human anatomy and dissection in Western medical traditions, as well as public access to anatomical and pathological specimens.
Note on the presenter:
Bruno Latour is professor at the Sciences Po Paris in Paris, France. A central theorist in STS (science and technology studies), he is the author of We Have Never Been Modern (1991), Science in Action (1987) and Laboratory Life (1979).
You can read the full text of Latour’s lecture here: http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/139-AAA-Washington.pdf