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Albert Camus (1) vs. Bruno Latour

Yesterday‘s winner: Thomas Kinkade. It was a tough call. Duchamp is far more impressive both as an artist and as an intellectual, but, as Jonathan put it in the very first comment in the thread:

Duchamp has nothing to teach in an academic seminar: epater les bourgeois, reconceptualize art in a time of technological change, the escalation of thought over technique, these are exactly the dominant paradigm in academia for the last 100 years . . . since Duchamp, come to think of it.

On the other hand, the celebration of bourgeois virtues, the unapologetic focus on the market model, the escalation of the evocation of sentiment over the placement of work in historic context, that’s a seminar so in-your-face as to raise the strong possibility of fisticuffs and the occupation of campus buildings. Kincade’s in the house.

The occupation of campus buildings—that’s not gonna happen. But, yes, Duchamp is a victim of his own intellectual success.

The best argument in favor of Duchamp came from Evan: “Ol’ Kinkade’s buildings ain’t up to code, if they’re conflagrated, they’re bound to explode. I like my stairs like I like my chess, with descendant nudes: Kinkade’s worlds seem full of prudes.” That was pretty good but I still gotta give the edge to the Official Painter of Light.

Here’s the positive case for Kinkade, from Wikipedia via commenter Ellie:

Among other similar transgressions – he pissed on a Pooh Bear at Disneyland, repeatedly screamed “Codpiece!!!” at Sigfried & Roy during a show, and (allegedly) ultimately met his demise — all under the influence of far too much alcohol. He also accused as selling his product under the umbrella of Christianity in order to drive sales among the gullible religious.

Where Duchamp and Dadaism introduce the idea of modern life itself as a form of art, Kinkade lives a life in direct conflict with his art.

With Kinkade we get a crowd of visitors coming from the econ dept and the b-school, a possibly newsworthy pissing event, and a painted house that resembles “a trap designed to attract Hansel and Gretel” (as Joan Didion put it).

Hmmm . . . now I’m wishing we had Joan Didion in the bracket. I guess we’ll have to wait till next year. Joan won’t fit in the “New Jersey politicians” or the “Fabulous wits” categories. But I think she’d fit in the “Cool people” category. Unseeded, I’m afraid—after all, this category will also have to include James Dean, Henry Winkler, etc.—but, still, she’d be a formidable contender.

And now, today, the contest you’ve all been waiting for. That’s right, Brrrrrrrrruno Latour himself! But Bruno got a tough draw: he’s up against Albert Camus, the #1 seed in the “Modern French intellectuals” category.

The existentialist vs. the social constructionist. Camus got the street cred, but Bruno’s got the chutzpah. Who’s it gonna be?

I know very little about either of these guys, so I’m hoping some of you expert commenters can help me out!

P.S. As always, here’s the background, and here are the rules.


  1. Johannes says:

    Know nothing about Latour but Camus would be interesting: the academic endeavour in general and its daily hassles in particular entail a lot of absurdity – quite akin to the task of sisyphe. How to get through this and be happy and satisfied would be a valuable lesson.

  2. Kyle C says:

    I’m afraid you couldn’t get Camus to stay anywhere he couldn’t smoke.

  3. Gavin L says:

    Admittedly I don’t know a lot about Latour, but, Camus’ thoughts got people to think about and question basic assumptions and beliefs about the human condition. If you are looking for the best seminar speaker, you can not do better than one that causes you to re-assess fundamental beliefs and assumptions.

  4. Jonathan (another one) says:

    Latour needs to win at least one round just to justify the tournament. If I had to come up with some justification, it would be that Camus would best appreciate the irony of being pitted against the least well-known person in the entire tournaent in the very first round and still losing.

  5. Nick says:

    Like almost everybody else I have no idea who Bruno Latour is. I guess the best argument in favor of him is that the whole “must see” speaker idea came from him, so he really must be something! Of course, even if he isn’t, just think of the exclusivity of attending his seminar! You will be the envy of your friends and coworkers! And because they will never have the chance to see him themselves they will be none the wiser. He’s the ideal seminar speaker because he is “the ideal seminar speaker.”

    Tough to out-absurd the absurdity of this situation. Camus might as well be non-fiction. Maybe an upset here?

  6. David Blankley says:

    Latour could tell us all about the Semiotics of Bayesian vs. Frequentist Approaches in literature.
    Camus would tell us about the absurdity of such a topic.

    Seems like a pick’em depending on your mood.

  7. Conor says:

    Latour, because I don’t know of another academic who has so openly and viciously critiqued his own work. I would vote Camus only if his talk was focused on The Cure’s “Killing an Arab”.

  8. John Mashey says:

    Strangely, I know of Latour, having read Alan Sokal’s note Professor Latour’s Philosophical Mystifications.

    I actually got compared to Latour once, much to my amusement:

    In Bottling Up Global Warming Skepticism, Peter Wood, Pres. National Association of Scholars, a very nontechnical, but strongly ideological write:

    “Mashey’s crusade brings to mind an article published in the journal Critical Inquiry back in 2004 by French social theorist Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.” Latour, who had been a key intellectual force in efforts to undermine the authority of modern science first by insisting that science is “socially constructed,” and later by deploying the obsessive obscurantism of “ethnomethodology,” had come to the abrupt realization that by undermining the authority of science, he had inadvertently helped those who were skeptical of global warming. Since he knew (on what authority?) that man-made global warming was a scientific fact, it now struck him as crucial to combat “excessive distrust of good matters of fact.”’

    CHE published a rebuttal, coincidentally relevant because the plagiarism/plagiarists have been mentioned by Andrew on occasion.

    ‘”Wood devoted 60% of his piece to American showman P. T. Barnum. He dismissed that as “vacant thoughts,” and shifted to the Science profile, vaguely referenced. In a radical departure from standards of academic integrity, he called Mashey’s reports of serious plagiarism, also known as research misconduct, as “flyspecking.” He tried to conflate Mashey, Mann, and the field of climate science with Barnum and Bruno Latour. Wood wrote strong opinions with little basis, often erred on simple facts, and displayed no apparent expertise in the scientific discipline he was criticizing. How did this happen here?”‘

    For more, I recommend A House Built on Sand: Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science, especially Harvard physicist John Huth’s chapter “Latour’s Relativity.”

  9. Keith O'Rourke says:

    I am going to vote for Bruno.

    “Do you see now why it feels so good to be a critical mind?” asks Latour: no matter which position you take, “You’re always right!”

    Hey, I would vote for anyone who leaves social constructionism and makes it almost all the way to Peirce (well to William James, who at his worst far too close to social constructionism but at his best much closer to Peirce.)

    But also the link is interesting, in that actantial analysis had steps and rules that were suposed to be followed (to constrain no matter which position you take).

  10. Xi'an says:

    Camus could explain what were his plans for his future trilogy, what he was thinking when he crashed in this car accident, how his thoughts on “French Algeria” had evolved over the years. Latour could just deconstruct the notion of seminars, with dire consequences. Camus, any time.

  11. Christian Hennig says:

    Latour is a pioneer in observing scientists and doing some kind of social science about science. Much of this is quite enlightening to read. He also has to offer views on objectivity and subjectivity that may have some connection to work that somebody quite important to this blog is currently doing with me. ;-) (I’d have probably explored these connections better had I known earlier that Latour will spark this tournament.)
    I’d be quite delighted to see Latour, no joke.

  12. Shecky R says:

    Camus died too young and too tragically, so we need to hear more from him (…before Thoreau whips his butt).

  13. lurker says:

    I’d really like to see a Camus novel on academia, perhaps featuring various graduate students, postdocs, and faculty members all struggling with the absurdities of the peer review process and how little their choices matter. Maybe while the entire campus is being hounded by a funds-cutting state legislature.

  14. I’m sorry but I have to demand a recount on Duchamp vs Kincaid. The clear winner was Bob Ross!

  15. Person says:

    Camus might give an exception with his smoking rule to such an important speech (If it is on a blog it is of utmost importance) and would have some pretty good information. Latour, on the other hand… Well, do you want to go to a seminar in which you have to write an essay showing why you should go and listen the amazing Bruno Latour speek? I personally, would go with Camus.

  16. jrc says:

    Latour could remind us all that we are people working within a set of power relations, but honestly, academics are reminded of that all the time. And even if they don’t want to believe that their work is based on a metaphysics that is presupposed but never proven, and that their relationship to The Truth is tenuous at best, deep down they understand that they are people working within a system (just listen to a senior professor talk to a graduate student about choosing a research topic and how to get a paper published).

    But Camus could remind us that we are people living in this world, and that this world is messy, and hard, and full of human beings struggling to find meaning in the “monstrous facelessness***” of the darkness from which we came and into which we shall recede.

    “But what does it mean, the plague? It’s life, that’s all.” I’ll take Camus on the Use and Misuse of Science for Life over Latour on Physicists are from Mars, Sociologists are from Venus.

    ***Cormac McCarthy, unforgivably not on the list. Quote context (because it is in the spirit of Camus on Science – or at least the Camus I’m pitching here):

    “I spoke with bitterness about my life, and said that I would take my own part against the slander of oblivion and against the monstrous facelessness of it, and that I would stand a stone in the very void where all would read my name. Of that vanity, I recant all.”

  17. John Mashey says:

    By the way, I vote for Latour, so that Andrew could experience what he missed :-)

  18. JL FOULLEY says:

    Regarding “That’s right, Brrrrrrrrruno Latour himself!”
    The picture shown by clicking on “himself” in
    is not Bruno Latour’s one but that of Jean Baudrillard, another philosopher. May be it would have been more appropriate to oppose Latour to Baudrillard than Latour to Camus. Usually Camus is contrasted with Sartre, philosophy of absurd vs existentialism.

  19. Nick says:

    +1. Sad that Sokal himself didn’t even make the bracket.

  20. John Mashey says:

    Since by posting Latour’s lecture, Andrew showed that he didn’t really miss it, I retroactively change my vote to Camus.

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