Protective measures: an exercise

Bruno Latour, Stephen Muecke (Translator)

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In late March 2020 Bruno Latour asked me to translate this piece, at the same time as letting me know that he was in hospital with COVID-19. This was distressing news, but he pulled through and hasn’t paused to reflect on the experience in writing, as far as I know, keeping busy with the exhibition and book, Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, which was published later in the year with MIT Press. This article, for which the literal translation of the title is
“What Protective Measures Can You Think of So We Don’t Go Back to the Precrisis Production Model?” (Latour 2020d), has been quite successful; twelve other translations listed on Latour’s site is a good indication. Such success may be
attributable to the practical way that it responds to the acute COVID-19 crisis, which it rightly points out is but a symptom of the more chronic global heating catastrophe. The article proposes a practical task, “taking advantage of the forced suspension of most activities to take stock of those we would like to see discontinued and those, on the contrary, that we would like to see developed.” This kind of exercise derives from the “ledgers of complaints” that Latour proposed in his 2018 Down to Earth (2018: 90–99) book and afterward developed with the consortium Où Atterrir. Latour’s pragmatism is itself a product of what I think is the most vital and interesting school of thought currently in the French-speaking world, one I would like to call the new French pragmatism. Latour has many intellectual companions and friends who may or may not agree to be identified with such a label, but many publish with the French series of books with the witty name of Les empêcheurs de penser en rond (in Paris’s La Découverte publishing house), a series of books that will “stop readers from thinking in circles.” The title is attributed to Isabelle Stengers, Latour’s Belgian colleague and friend, often cited in his work. In Brussels, Stengers, Viviane Despret, and Didier Debaise work together reviving and rereading American pragmatism, especially the work of Alfred North Whitehead, John Dewey, and William James, picking up on earlier interest that Gilles Deleuze had for the pragmatists. What does it mean to have a pragmatic line of thought, and, in particular, what does a pragmatic approach to planetsized problems mean? It means both being “radically empirical” (James) and “irreductionist” (Latour), that is, thought will not allow itself to stay within the circle of one discipline or one culture, allowing these perspectives to open onto ontological and disciplinary pluralism: sociology or psychology will never solve (and has never solved) a problem on its own, and thought that is happily confined to one culture is probably “turning in circles.” A new postcolonial “diplomacy” is called for, another concept Latour promotes for negotiation in that middle space between entrenched positions. This pragmatism is dedicated to close observation of situations from the midst of things (avoiding explanations that go from cause to effect in a linear telos) and avoiding larger transcendent categories, like “society.” Description comes first, without shortcuts to explanation; only then might theory be brought in as the description is elaborated, and only then if you need it. Description as an ever-expanding strategy for researching and writing is replicated in the gathering of allies willing to carry out this practical task that forces thought on them. I tried it myself, with a COVID-19- related Zoom meeting group that was convened by anthropologist Michael Taussig. The participants were happy to carry out the exercise and kept referring to it in subsequent meetings. This did not mean at all that they saw themselves as becoming Latourian, far from it. The whole point of a practical task is that it avoids the potential reductiveness and divisiveness of “isms.” Or as Wendy Brown (2020) puts it in a recent interview, “The occasion to rethink our order, to ask what it means to be more preoccupied with the health of the economy than the survival of the planet
and all forms of life on it” has to be “articulated and pursued as an active organizing principle.” She doesn’t spell out what that principle is, but it could well be what is expressed by her epithet: active organizing. This is one of the things Latour’s piece does: it gives a wide range of publics the occasion to think and to act with others.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)11-16
Number of pages6
JournalCultural Politics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2021


  • COVID-19
  • Restrictions
  • Suspension of activities
  • Latour, Bruno
  • Politics
  • International relations


Dive into the research topics of 'Protective measures: an exercise'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this