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I need your help in setting up the ultimate bracket: Picking the ideal seminar speaker

This came in the departmental email awhile ago:

The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, Alliance (Columbia University, École Polytechnique, Sciences Po, and Panthéon-Sorbonne University), The Center for Science and Society, and The Faculty of Arts and Sciences are proud to present
You are invited to apply for a seminar led by Professor Bruno Latour on Tuesday, September 23, 12-3pm. Twenty-five graduate students from throughout the university will be selected to participate in this single seminar given by Prof. Latour. Students will organize themselves into a reading group to meet once or twice in early September for discussion of Prof. Latour’s work. They will then meet to continue this discussion with a small group of faculty on September 15, 12-2pm. Students and a few faculty will meet with Prof. Latour on September 23. A reading list will be distributed in advance.
If you are interested in this 3-4 session seminar (attendance at all 3-4 sessions is mandatory), please send
Your School:
Your Department:
Year you began your terminal degree at Columbia:
Thesis or Dissertation title or topic:
Name of main advisor:
In one short, concise paragraph tell us what major themes/keywords from Latour’s work are most relevant to your own work, and why you would benefit from this seminar. Please submit this information via the site
The due date for applications is August 11 and successful applicants will be notified in mid-August.

This is the first time I’ve heard of a speaker who’s so important that you have to apply to attend his seminar! And, don’t forget, “attendance at all 3-4 sessions is mandatory.”

At this point you’re probably wondering what exactly is it that Bruno Latour does. Don’t worry—I googled him for you. Here’s the description of his most recent book, “An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence”:

The result of a twenty five years inquiry, it offers a positive version to the question raised, only negatively, with the publication, in 1991, of ”We have never been modern”: if ”we” have never been modern, then what have ”we” been? From what sort of values should ”we” inherit? In order to answer this question, a research protocol has been developed that is very different from the actor-network theory. The question is no longer only to define ”associations” and to follow networks in order to redefine the notion of ”society” and ”social” (as in ”Reassembling the Social”) but to follow the different types of connectors that provide those networks with their specific tonalities. Those modes of extension, or modes of existence, account for the many differences between law, science, politics, and so on. This systematic effort for building a new philosophical anthropology offers a completely different view of what the ”Moderns” have been and thus a very different basis for opening a comparative anthropology with the other collectives – at the time when they all have to cope with ecological crisis. Thanks to a European research council grant (2011-2014) the printed book will be associated with a very original purpose built digital platform allowing for the inquiry summed up in the book to be pursued and modified by interested readers who will act as co-inquirers and co-authors of the final results. With this major book, readers will finally understand what has led to so many apparently disconnected topics and see how the symmetric anthropology begun forty years ago can come to fruition.

Huh? I wonder if this is what they mean by “one short, concise paragraph” . . .

Update: We just got an announcement in the mail. The due date has been extended a second time, this time to Aug 18. This seems like a good sign, if fewer Columbia grad students than expected wanted to jump through the hoops to participate in this seminar.

The ultimate bracket

But I’m getting a bit off topic. What really got me interested in this was the idea of a speaker who is so important, so much in demand, that you have to fill out an application just to be in the same small room with him. Not to mention the labor involved by whoever is screening the applications (assuming, that is, that more than 25 people actually apply).

So here’s the question: who would be the ultimate seminar speaker—the one person who you could only get to speak in a limited-access venue? I’m not asking for the most popular speaker, or the most relevant, or the best speaker, or the deepest, or even the coolest, but rather some combination of the above.

I thought the best way for us to work this out would be via a single-elimination bracket, March Madness style. Which is why I’ve exercised the ultimate in patience and scheduled this post for January, 2015—nearly half a year after I wrote it!

So who’s the ultimate seminar speaker? Of course there’s an endless list of possibilities, ranging from celebrity academics (Paul Krugman, etc.) to cult figures of the past (Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, etc.) to actual rock stars (from Elvis on down). But to narrow things down I’ve chosen a list of 64 for us to work through.

My list includes eight current or historical figures from each of the following eight categories:
– Philosophers
– Religious Leaders
– Authors
– Artists
– Founders of Religions
– Cult Figures
– Comedians
– Modern French Intellectuals.

All these categories seem to be possible choices to reach the sort of general-interest intellectual community that is implied by the Latour announcement.

I’ve purposely not included any statisticians or indeed any academics (with the exception of Bruno Latour himself) because I don’t want to turn this competition into a mudfest.

I’ll give the list in a moment, along with the seedings, but first let me explain where I need help. I’m sure one of you has access to a computer program that makes one of those pretty brackets—you know what I’m talking about, four little trees of 16 teams each, all meeting in the middle. I want my potential seminar speakers set up in such a bracket which I can then post on this website and which we can go through, one pairing at a time.

With 64 speakers, we’ll need 63 matches to come to a winner. We can do one a day starting on February 3, so that the final bout will come on April 6, the final day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

So here’s what I need from one of you: a full bracket with all 64 seminar speakers, displayed in that pretty “bracket” form, and with the speakers from the different categories all mixed up. It would be pretty boring to have all the artists against all the artists, all the religious leaders against all the religious leaders, etc. Instead, each group of 8 in the bracket should include one from each of the 8 occupational categories, and it should also include one #1 seed, one #2 seed, one #3 seed, one #4 seed, and 4 unseeded people, with the seedings set up as is standard: each seeded speaker is matched against an unseeded person, then the pairings are set up so that, if the seeds advance, #1 faces #4, and #2 faces #3.

Send me the bracket, I’ll post it on the blog, and we’ll go from there, once a day starting on 3 Feb. It will be fun, and the results won’t be obvious. These sorts of matchup can be highly nontransitive because we are implicitly comparing people on many different dimensions.

The 64

– Philosophers:
Plato (seeded 1 in group)
Alan Turing (seeded 2)
Aristotle (3)
Friedrich Nietzsche (4)
Thomas Hobbes
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Bertrand Russell
Karl Popper

– Religious Leaders:
Mohandas Gandhi (1)
Martin Luther King (2)
Henry David Thoreau (3)
Mother Teresa (4)
Al Sharpton
Phyllis Schlafly
Yoko Ono

– Authors:
William Shakespeare (1)
Miguel de Cervantes (2)
James Joyce (3)
Mark Twain (4)
Jane Austen
John Updike
Raymond Carver
Leo Tolstoy

– Artists:
Leonardo da Vinci (1)
Rembrandt van Rijn (2)
Vincent van Gogh (3)
Marcel Duchamp (4)
Thomas Kinkade
Grandma Moses
Barbara Kruger
The guy who did Piss Christ

– Founders of Religions:
Jesus (1)
Mohammad (2)
Buddha (3)
Abraham (4)
L. Ron Hubbard
Mary Baker Eddy
Sigmund Freud
Karl Marx

– Cult Figures:
John Waters (1)
Philip K. Dick (2)
Ed Wood (3)
Judy Garland (4)
Sun Myung Moon
Charles Manson
Joan Crawford
Stanley Kubrick

– Comedians:
Richard Pryor (1)
George Carlin (2)
Chris Rock (3)
Larry David (4)
Alan Bennett
Stewart Lee
Ed McMahon
Henny Youngman

– Modern French Intellectuals:
Albert Camus (1)
Simone de Beauvoir (2)
Bernard-Henry Levy (3)
Claude Levi-Strauss (4)
Raymond Aron
Jacques Derrida
Jean Baudrillard
Bruno Latour

I don’t know how far Bruno Latour will go in this competition, but at least he’s in the running. May the best man (or woman) win!

And here it is (courtesy of Paul Davidson):



  1. Harold Brooks says:

    Single elimination or double elimination?

    Based on the announcement, I thought Latour might end up in the Comedians part of the bracket.

  2. This seems to have been accidentally misclassified under Sociology. Did you mean Zombies, Andrew?

  3. Fulya says:

    Bruno Latour got famous with his earlier work, and that is the main source of his fame. FYI.

    I think this book is quite interesting, but perhaps not everyone would agree.

    Latour soon turned into a very popular figure and is treated like a star among cultural studies scholars/students.

  4. Keith O'Rourke says:

    As you have not listed CS Peirce under Philosophers I will have no choice but to boycott.

    Also Michel Foucault was not under Modern French Intellectuals list.

    In 1982 he agreed to give a seminar in a series I was organising (for the Toronto Semiotic Summer conference) on the condition that I agree to not try to talk to him, though I think I would have been allowed to attend the seminar. (The seminar series was cancelled due to poor enrolment.)

  5. Oliver says:

    As only the 41st Best Stand Up Ever, Stewart Lee is a bit of a wildcard entry…

  6. Gregor says:

    I think Banksy would do quite well were he in the Artists category.

  7. Robin Morris says:

    No scientists? Could we at least sneak Newton in as a “natural philosopher”?

    • Andrew says:


      I dunno, I think Newton would give a pretty boring presentation. His slides would be in Latin, he’d use mathematical notation he made up himself that nobody could follow, and he’d probably spend half the time talking about how he didn’t get enough credit for inventing calculus. And all that’s assuming he doesn’t start talking about his research into alchemy.

      If we’re getting scientists to come to this seminar, my vote would be for disgraced primatologist Marc Hauser. Sure, you can’t trust his data, but I bet he has lots of great stories to tell.

      In any case, when limiting ourselves to 64 potential speakers, we’re ruling out lots and lots of wonderful alternatives.

    • Martha says:

      I’m disappointed by the omission of of Darwin, Einstein, and Feynman.

  8. Where are the Jazz and Latin Jazz Musicians?

    Miles Davis
    John Coltrane
    Bill Evans
    Art Blakey
    Earl Hines
    Luis Armstrong
    Tito Puente
    Ray Barreto


  9. Manoel Galdino says:

    What about sportists? Pele, Michael Jordan etc.

    Even though I like Marx, It was really funny to see him as founder of a religion!

  10. You got me with Ono and Bono, but of all those on the list, my paragraph’s on Mark Twain to deliver the best seminar.

  11. Terry Auld says:

    If this is the same Bruno Latour who made an ass of himself over correcting Einstein on the theory of special relativity, you should open a comedian group in which he would be perfect, along with the other French comedians who masquerade as deep thinkers.

    • Daniel Gotthardt says:

      To quote Alan Sokal: “What matters is never the origin of an idea, but its content; intellectual laziness and posturing deserve to be criticized, wherever they come from. To be sure, the postmodernist/poststructuralist gibberish that is now hegemonic in some sectors of the American academy is in part of French origin; but my compatriots have long ago given it a home-grown flavor that faithfully reflects our own national obsessions. The targets of my parody are thus eminent French and American intellectuals, without discrimination on the basis of national origin.” (

      • Terry Auld says:

        I’m well aware that there are postmodernist poseurs from other countries, including my own (New Zealand), but it just strikes me that the French are the worst of them and probably the source of the contagion and thus deserving of special ridicule.

        • Aaron James, in “Assholes: A Theory”, even has a separate category called le smug asshole, especially reserved for the French “public intellectual”. A prime example in the book is Bernard-Henri L\’evy, but another is Gustave Flaubert (OK, not a public intellectual, but still), his assholitude confirmed by this statement (quoted in the book): “Woman is a vulgar animal from whom man has created an excessively beautiful ideal”.

  12. Pete R says:

    Been a happy and assiduous lurker here for several year, but I have to express my puzzlement at seeing the OP concerning Bruno Latour accompanied by a photo of Jean Baudrillard.

  13. […] 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 […]

  14. […] For instance, there’s a serious discussion of Bruno Latour, whom Andrew Gelman for one frequently mocks, and not without reason. I don’t think Godfrey-Smith should’ve mocked or omitted Latour and […]

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