Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hold me closer, tiny actor

You have indeed brought us to new territory, and in good Latourian fashion, by translating my little methodological concerns about how Latour relates to the rest of sociology into a much more interesting discussion about how Latour himself thinks. I really like your final formulation: "Bruno Latour is the thinker of scale: it's what makes him always on the edge of the qualitative and the qualitative … and also … able to pay minute attention to the long connections of processes that allow them to pass into each other." Everything that follows might be thought of as a gloss on that remark.

First of all, let me say that I understand better now what you were getting at by questioning my interest in interests. What you're intrigued by, if I understand you correctly, is that for Latour, interests are not just human/social — he rejects the sociological/scientistic vision that separates off our petty human manueverings, "the dynamics of social groups" as you put it, from what is really happening in nature. If everything has interests, in other words, then interest is no longer an anthropocentric concept: but there's still good reason to retain it, because it gets at how everything can interact, be associated or dissociated with each other. I think Latour can seem like a strange bedfellow for anti-correlationist philosophers like Meillassoux, because one of the immediately striking things about him is that he's always talking about things as if they were human: like he never gave up the animistic universe that supposedly got exterminated during the "disenchantment of the world." But Latour does this, I think you're implying, not to assert the primacy of the human but rather to assert the primacy of the social (which includes nonhumans) over the philosophical: as you put it so excellently in discussing BL's relationship to Derrida, "Latour is saying that nothing is singular (irreducible) because it always needs others … [T]he misunderstanding comes in to affirm the fact that a thing needs others."

So we come to measurement. Again, it could be confusing that Latour is so interested in this, because it seems like such a fundamentally human concept: only humans measure things. (Probably there are anthropologists out there who argue that chimpanzees or something have systems of measurement, but you know what I mean: strict, formalized measurements, the kind that requires counting and standardized tools.) But as with "translation," he wants to take "measurement" out of the realm of the human and turn it into an ontological principle, a way that objects relate to one another, and in fact even "need" each other (because one can't act without a sense of how big or small one is). This is the metaphysical part of Latour's project (which he and Harman have both called "empirical metaphysics"); the "empirical" part comes from his attention to the ways humans — and here he's a conventional sociologist — actually do scale and measure, which he sees as dependent on a prior measurement or adequation, and thus questionable. I hope what I'm saying will become clearer as you continue reading this post.
For Latour, interests arise out of actors measuring themselves against one another, scaling each other up or down. Here's how he puts it in Irreductions 1.3.1:

All entelechies may measure and be the measure of other entelechies … Nevertheless, certain forces constantly try to measure rather than be measured and to translate rather than be translated. They wish to act rather than be acted upon. They wish to be stronger than others.

I have said ‘certain’ rather than ‘all’ as in Nietzsche’s bellicose myth. Most actants are too far apart or too indifferent to rise to the challenge, too undisciplined or devious to follow for long those that speak in their name, and too happy and proud to take command of others. In this work I speak only of those weaknesses that want to increase their strength. The irreducible others have need of poets rather than philosophers. (167)

We can see that Latour is skittish about coming too close to Nietzsche's "will to power" here (and I notice that you also contrasted him with Nietzsche; care to elaborate on that?). Again, while we get this weirdly anthropocentric language ("they wish to act," "indifferent," "undisciplined," "devious," "happy," "proud"), what Latour is trying to say, I think, is that "will" is just one way of looking at what entelechies do. In fact, for Latour, only certain kinds of entelechies — scientific networks being, of course, the prime instance — possess this "will" to "measure rather than be measured" and "act rather than be acted upon." So this seemingly anthropocentric move, giving characters and physiognomies to nonhuman actants, works against another, more common anthropocentric move (associated with Nietzsche), of psychologizing the natural so that it has a "will to power" and a desire to destroy. (I have to say though, I don't know about Latour's chivalrous offer of the irreducible, strength-indifferent entities to the "poets": seems to me poets are as bellicose and power-willing as anyone. Cf. Harold Bloom, for starters.)
This brings us back to sociology, and the micro-macro issue you asked about, because there is another type of entelechy, besides science, that Latour sees as wanting to dominate and measure everything else, and that is what are sometimes referred to in sociology as "macro-actors": institutions, corporations, governments, etc. Contrary to your flattering assumption, I don't actually have a particularly good handle on the micro-macro question: I know it was a major disciplinary concern in the eighties, because sociologists of different traditions were worried that they couldn't even talk to each other, let alone synthesize their findings into some sort of grand synoptic picture of the social world. (Jeffrey Alexander et al's The Micro-Macro Link, published in 1987, would be the locus classicus for this debate, I believe.) As for whether "whether Latour indeed addresses it," he does so explicitly in a 1981 article coauthored by Michel Callon called "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them To Do So." There, he and Callon make an impassioned argument for a single methodology to describe micro- and macro-actors (which, they insist, should not be used synonymously with "individuals" and "institutions"). "Too often sociologists — just like politicians or the man in the street — change their framework of analysis depending on whether they are tackling a macro-actor or a micro-actor," Latour and Callon say. "…[N]o sociologists at present examine macro-actors and micro-actors using the same tools and the same arguments." In effect, they are reconceiving the micro-macro problem as a problem of measurement: it's not that there are different "levels" which demand different modes of analysis (as in physics), but that we need common "tools" and "arguments" in order to be able to pass from one kind of actor to another. And for these authors, the consequences of the assumption that there really are different levels of society in need of explanation are grievous:

It seems to us that sociologists are too often on the wrong foot. Either, believing that macro-actors really do exist, they anticipate the actors' strength by helping them to grow more vigorous [here, I believe, he's referring to Marxian, Weberian, and other "big systems" analysis]. Or else they deny their existence, once they really do exist, and will not even allow us the right to study them [referring to ethnomethodologists and symbolic interactionists]. These two alternate but symmetrical errors stem from the same presupposition: the acceptance as a given fact that actors can be of different or of equal size. As soon as we reject this presupposition, we are once again faced with Hobbes' paradox: no actor is bigger than another except by means of a transaction (a translation) which must be examined. (280-281)

For Latour and Callon, macro-actors are not at all things of an entirely different kind or size or even complexity than micro-actors: they are, rather, "micro-actors seated on top of many (leaky) black boxes" (286). In other words, they have made many assumptions and simplifications in order to attain dominance, and these can always be challenged. (They go on to illustrate this with a bravura, though rather depressing, example of how Renault undermined Electricity of France in the early 70s to keep them from developing a viable electric car.) The point is important methodologically but also politically, because it keeps us away from the despairing feeling (which Latour associates elsewhere — cf. Irreductions 1.4.6, 2.1.10, and Interlude VI — with Hegelianism and Marxism, and which I must admit I myself associate with Fredric Jameson) that there are vast systems and structures and forces of which we ourselves are only a tiny part: in other words, that there is a macro to our micro. But Callon and Latour are very emphatic here that the macro-actor is only a network of "devious" micro-actors, and that they are in many ways simpler and easier to study than micro-actors. In one of the most charming descriptions of technological modernity I've ever read, the authors state: "A tiny actor becomes a macro-actor, just like in the French nursery rhyme: 'The cat knocks over the pot, the pot knocks over the table, the table knocks over the room, the room knocks over the house, the house knocks over the street, the street knocks over Paris: Paris, Paris, Paris has fallen!'" (296). This rhyme is particularly apropos because, for Callon and Latour, it is the sociologist's role to step in early and say, "Wait a minute, how does a table knock over a room?" — thus arresting the whole process, or at least redirecting it.
I'm going to try to sum up, because this is getting too long. Entelechies can only scale each other up or down by enlisting an incredible number of micro-actors — and ANT seeks to follow these enlistments in order to question, and thus adjust, the scales. It's in this way that measurement is, for Latour, both an ontological fact — as he says in the passage you adduced last time: "What is neither reducible nor irreducible has to be tested, counted, and measured. There is no other way" (1.1.3) — and a revisable human practice.

Friday, October 30, 2009

It's either better, or...

...makes Latour sound like he has a cold. But then... maybe this is a new form of translation we've just discovered!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Everything may be bade to be

I will be back with a larger post on scale, but for now I just wanted to note an amazing typo in your most recent post:

Everything may be bade to be the measure of everything else.

I think "bade to be" might actually be better — more Latourian — than "made to be": everything can be solicited or persuaded, and everything can potentially say no.

Interest and scales

I'll address what you said and then try to take things in a new direction--or perhaps pose the problem a different way. I took a bit of an antagonistic position myself in my response to push you a bit, and perhaps thereby extract something like following sentence, which you did indeed say and actually I think is exactly right:

What he [BL] doesn't like about conflict sociology isn't the emphasis on interests, but the insistence that these interests are only of a few kinds, and that actors always seek to destroy, rather than enlist, those with different interests.

Or maybe even better,

It [interest] actually seems to be one of the few sociological concepts he wants to keep.

I think that's right--I just wanted to stress the fact that this concept does some extrasociological work as well. Mainly because I'm interested in who the hell Latour thinks he is--i.e. what is his actual relationship to the conceptual structures that he uses that come from so many different disciplines. I'm finding right now that it might be more handy just to stop looking for what he's inflecting and just see him as coming totally out of left field--like some mystic of old, who you really just have to take on his own terms.

Thus the stress on objects--not so much because I think objects are important (I might want to see what things look like from an object-oriented point of view, but I'm pretty far from thinking it is my point of view), but because I think for Latour that actually becomes the area where he becomes disconnected to all these other discourses (we might also say, more original). It's here that we have to take him on his own terms the most, and really think through what he's proposing. So while I think you're absolutely right to stress--in Pasteurization especially--the fact that there are a lot of human actors, and thus that Latour is indeed doing some sociological work (I think that's the brilliance of your posts, to actually read Latour against the grain and understand what is going on), I'm trying to see how even here he could be doing his own thing. It's really just a matter of emphasis--thus I wouldn't say we have two different interpretations so much as actually the same interpretation with a different emphasis. For me, this means really asking how attributing interests to microbes makes them have something different than interests--or makes us rethink (to use that stupid formula) interests otherwise--precisely because I agree that what we have here is, as you say, an extension of the concept of interest. When I said that there is a move away from interest, I just meant interest qua interest--doesn't the concept also have to change in itself when it's applied to microbes? If so, what is the work needed to do that? I think I saw it in terms of making interests more real, rather than just saying that "'interests,' for Latour, are 'reality' (or, at least, are real)." In other words, my question to you--and my question to Latour--was really what work the quotes and the copula does here, and whether that entailed some sort of othering of interest. For me, this is sufficient (or I would suggest could be sufficient) to explain what's going on, while you--following Latour (and it's brilliant of you to see that this is the function of his stress on misunderstanding, which has to be so forceful in this book)--have to use the notion that we're all speaking from different places to do it (in other words, in the double move I described, I'm sticking with the first--the decomposition of groups--without going on to the second--considering them as misunderstanding each other). Basically, we end up in the same place, but I'm trying to get there without stress on how we're all in different places--because I think what Latour is saying in this is more than we're just all in different places, but that we're real.

This brings me (finally--I promise I won't go that long any more in responding, since like you I think we shouldn't let the back and forth get too complicated) to the new issue I want to bring up, because this word "real" has to get understood in a new way for Latour. We find such an undrstanding in the opening gesture of "Irreductions," which is to say that nothing is reducible to anything else. It's this, I think, that strikes you as Derridian: the notion that we're all in different places, and thus misunderstanding each other from the get go (and understanding each other), is due to some notion that we're all singular. But, we have to actually go back to the whole phrase, because it's not just that nothing is reducible to anything else, it's that,

Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else (158; 1.1.1, my italics).

That "or irreducible" changes the game, and for me answers the Derrida question (at the end of your post on translation). Because Derrida wouldn't affirm the latter, I think--and furthermore he wouldn't do so in order to stress, as Latour does, the "by itself." In other words, Latour is saying that nothing is singular (irreducible) because it always needs others. Derrida would say everything is singular (irreducible) because it (a thing) needs others. Both, yes, say nothing is reducible to anything else. But such a statement comes from two different concerns. Latour is interested in saying that the misunderstanding comes in to affirm the fact that a thing needs others. While Derrida is interested in undercutting how a thing needs others precisely through misunderstanding--the mis- there still retains its sort of anxiety-ridden, dreary, Lacanian force (lack, lack, lack: it's interesting from this perspective that--getting behind this undercutting, as I'm saying--you have to contrast Latour to a Habermasian full-speech, just like Derrida: what's rightly interesting to the speculative realists/object-oriented philosophers is that, when you take Latour out of the sociological context and bring it towards that of ontology and philosophy, for the first time, you don't have to do this--i.e. talk about presence, absence, etc.).

This is why I became so antagonistic--I wanted to disarticulate that sort of misunderstanding from its force of undercutting. Because the consequences of this are big: it makes Latour a realist and Derrida something else (an idealist, I'd say--though that's another argument). For Latour, that a thing needs others only makes it more real (thus my comments about Marxism etc.), while for Derrida that a thing needs others makes it less real--while affirming, however, it's irreducibility/singularity (which you can pass off as real, as Martin Hägglund does--and people say this resembles the speculative realist position--but which I find sort of a stretch). I hope that makes things somewhat clearer: for Derrida the linkage to others becomes a sort of strategy to undercut the thing, while for Latour, it is precisely what needs to be explained, because it is itself the realest aspect of that thing (and within this position there will be disagreements--Harman takes issue with Latour precisely here, stressing that Latour's position is too "relational," but not at all in order to go in a Derridian--or Hägglundian--direction).

I may, however, have misunderstood your stress on Derrida, but that's where I imagined you were going. Whether it is or not, I think I've brought up something important and got us squarely in the middle of what "Irreductions" is trying to do. I want now to stress another thesis that comes directly after the first, because I see Latour positing it precisely in order to explain the issue at hand:

Everything may be bade [made, that is--MJ] to be the measure of everything else (158; 1.1.4).

This is, for me, and more than any remark about the misunderstanding of "interest" in the still intrasociological sense (if I can recall what I said earlier), where we end up explaining how misunderstandings take place. As I said, I agree that we can still understand this as an extension of interest, but you see now we're getting into the nitty gritty aspects of what that means--and the really Latourian aspect of this for me (or what makes him really original in my eyes) is that what involved is not so much the dynamics of social groups but reality (and I agree you can take this to affirm precisely what you're saying when you say "interests" are "reality"--I'm just working that out).

The thesis (or principle--or whatever), follows from 1.1.2, and is explained in 1.1.3 (which is only the assertion that there exists a relation of consequence between 1.1.1 and 1.1.2):

It is because nothing is, by itself, reducible or irreducible to anything else that there are only trials (of strength, of weakness). What is neither reducible nor irreducible has to be tested, counted, and measured. There is no other way (158; 1.1.3).

But saying that everything may be made to be the measure of everything else gives a thickness to 1.1.3, not only because it leads us to 1.1.5 and from there to reality ("Whatever resists trials is real"), but because it makes clear what is involved in so many scientific instances where interest is present and what is real: that is, the operation of reducing or enlarging something's scale. If I'm making all these connections right (and I'm not sure that I am), what we get where the bacteria has an interest is a situation where one thing is being made to be the measure of another thing, or, to put it in less abstract terms, where one thing is extending (usually we're concerned with extension, but of course it could go the other way around), through a process of generalization (or diminution, bathos), its influence--it's capability to interest (or be interested--Latour shuffles between the active and passive here significantly, something I was going to point out might resist the sociological version of interest--though maybe not Bourdieu's version). And this gives it its reality--through that amazing process of shaping via the trials of strength described in 1.1.6, which is so amazing to see in process: when the old anthrax is a disease and then becomes something that produces a certain substance and then, finally, when it grows, the "cause" of the disease or rather a microbe...

This is what makes the lab so unbelievably important--it is the way that we get from the macro- to the micro- with ease, because we're always concerned with the processes of giving reality a shape (looking at the front lines of the trials of strength--and also just as those trials or tests). The lab simply is, for Latour, a device for scaling--and I think this is, absolutely, his most solid and most fascinating suggestion. Because it understands that the way power is acquired is by this sort of ruse of generalizing (or weakening) forces (or modifying them actually, in reality). And so where there are interests, there is reality, because a sort of scaling operation will be going on--and maybe we are reading things differently because it's this mathematical signification of translation that I see as the primary one: one force will be scaling another, and that will be scaling another, all the way down (and up). Indeed, I'm interested in this because it does seem to solve the macro-micro problem which the notion of interest, when it is not understood that it "is reality" as you say, does seem to introduce. You have much more background in this issue than I am--and I'd like to hear generally 1) what the macro-micro problem is for you and 2) whether Latour indeed addresses it.

To wrap things up, I think I will go so far as to say that Bruno Latour is the thinker of scale: it's what makes him always on the edge of the qualitative and the qualitative (like Nietzsche, not reducing them to a dialectic), and also (unlike Nietzsche) able to pay minute attention to the long connections of processes that allow them to pass into each other. It's also what makes him, for me, different than a Derrida, who is constantly interested in the Blanchot-like task of trying to find a measure without measure (as he and J.L. Nancy constantly say). I hope, here, that I've made all the connections clear--and perhaps also brought us into new territory.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Latour and New Historicism

I take your point that, in my first post, I ignored what is surely the most obvious thing to strike almost any reader of Guerre et Paix des microbes: that it discusses nonhuman actors (the microbes) on the same plane, and using the same analytic terms, as it does human ones (the Pasteurians, the hygienists, the physicians, et al). Partly it may be that I’m already used to this bizarre trademark move of Latour’s from his other texts, and I was in fact struck by the fact that, in G&P, he mostly does talk about human agents, with the great exception of the microbes. Leaving aside the possibility that he just hadn’t fully developed his theory of actants yet, I think Latour stays away from multiplying nonhuman actors in this book because he wants to make a strong case for how novel it was for Pasteur to introduce the microbes into political discussions in late nineteenth-century France. In other words, if he focused on how many other actants there are that somebody might have introduced, he would fail to make as strong a case for the effectiveness of the Pasteurian strategy.

(And by the way, I absolutely agree that “this perfect case of Pasteur and his microbes sometimes ends up passing over into an allegory for Latour's irreductions.” There are plenty of times when terms BL uses to discuss Pasteur could equally well apply to himself. E.g. this passage, on Pasteur’s movements: “Wherever we expect him to pursue the development of a science in which he will have some success, Pasteur chooses not to pursue this fundamental research but to step sideways in order to confront some difficult problem that interests more people than the one he has just abandoned… [But at the same time] he was faithful to a single problem, that of distinguishing the agents involved” (69); and a page later, when he speaks of “the transversal strategy that seemed to become ever more imperious as he reached the end of his course … to work on the whole of society” (70). The parallels with Latour's own course through the academic disciplines should speak for itself.)

If you don’t mind, I’d like to delay the discussion of Latour’s role vis-à-vis sociology — and also vis-à-vis Marxism which, I’d like to remind us, is historically partly coextensive with sociology: i.e. there have been many Marxian sociologists, and Marx is frequently taught in sociology departments — until we have a little more evidence; certainly by the time we get to Reassembling the Social I think his views w/r/t various different sociological schools will be clear. I promise I’m not dodging your question, which is actually very close to my own “interests” — just buying myself some time.

Instead, I’ll pick up on your fruitful parenthesis about Latour’s use of narratives — even fictional ones — and the New Historicism. You’re quite right that Latour is “trying to admit new sorts of groups” into sociology, although one could equally say that he’s trying to disqualify others, or at least ignore them (he’s noticeably uninterested in classes, for instance). You say “it's only a narrative that will recover these other ‘groups’” and, a little later (and even better) “we narrativize to reactivate certain groups.” This is exactly right, and what’s going on in Pasteurization does seem very close at times to the New Historicism (or, more accurately probably, to Foucault, whose work lies behind all New Historicist practice). You said that “these new groups are people like the hygienists, who disappear from the accounts of power, the narratives of conflict.” First, a slight caveat: according to Latour, the hygienists weren’t missing from “the accounts of power,” they were recorded as consequences of Pasteur’s discovery: Pasteur discovers microbes, and society is changed by the gradual repercussions of this epochal discovery (what Latour elsewhere criticizes as the “diffusion” model). So Latour is not adding anything to the record, the way New Historicists do, he’s just adjusting relations between objects, granting more autonomy to the hygienists than some previous historians have: “Where would the hygienist movement have gone without Pasteur and his followers? In its own direction. Without the microbe, without vaccine, even without the doctrine of contagion or the variation in virulence, everything that was done could have been done: cleaning up the towns; digging drains; demanding running water, light, air, and heat” (23).

But even if Latour were talking about some group whose role in the Pasteur story had been totally overlooked, I would say he still operates differently from the New Historicists. If the New Historicists (and not only them) would say Let’s recover forgotten actors, then Latour could say, Let’s invent or discover new actors/actants [is there a difference between these? I’m still not sure I’ve got a handle on the distinction] and see if we can extend the networks that we already master by doing so. Even if the narrativizing practices are basically the same, it seems to me that the gesture is still different. Latour is at once less “political” (less interested in politics, or ideology) than the NHs, and more political, in that he is actively constructing new polities of things whereas the NHs just look for more political explanations of what we already know existed. Again, whereas the NHs' supposedly radical recoveries show how things were more firmly fixed than we thought, how literature or culture has been determined from the outset by ideology or power relations, Latour's speculations about networks actually change things a lot more, but they're also more fragile and contingent: easier to argue with. (One of the most effective, but also most frustrating, aspects of grand Foucauldian concepts like epistème, dispositif, etc., is how difficult they are to alter or contradict.)

This difference is totally consonant with what I wanted to say about Latour’s swerve away from traditional sociology: the New Historicists are in fact more “sociological” than Latour in their desire to dig up new “social facts” that previous archaeologists had somehow missed, to make the historical record fuller and more factual than it used to be. Fuller, but less interested (and often, I'd venture to say, less interesting). To me, it seems like giving interests to more actors is precisely what historians and sociologists don’t do: rather, they believe there are just a few interests (economic, neurological, or cultural) and that these determine how all the smaller actors act. So when you say “we see that the sort of move away from ‘interest’ that you describe so well is done precisely to move away from a position that would have to give ‘interests’ to things,” I think we may actually be interpreting differently: I read BL as saying that things, like people, do have interests, in that they start from positions of inequivalence and are translated by other things (such as, but not only, humans). Again, I’m not sure I’m with you when you say that

perhaps we can see the move away from "interest" that you describe as a consequence, not of some opposition to interests held in common, but as an opposition to giving microbes "interests" rather than what they really need — reality.

Because “interests,” for Latour, are “reality” (or, at least, are real): they’re what lie between actors at punctiform instants, making them want to move. So I don’t see a “move away from ‘interest’” at all: rather, I see an extension of it, to things as well as people. The important feature, though, is that, as I quoted last time, “common interests are in the long term necessarily divergent” (65), and all the more so, I would think, when you extend the notions of “community” and “politics” to encompass nature and technology as well as human beings.

I feel like I might confuse the issue by going on, but I just want to make clear that I don't think Latour, at least in this early work, does away with the sociological understanding of the world as "interests." On the contrary, it actually seems to be one of the few sociological concepts he wants to keep (see his disparaging remarks, passim, on "legitimacy," "prestige," "power," etc.). What he doesn't like about conflict sociology isn't the emphasis on interests, but the insistence that these interests are only of a few kinds, and that actors always seek to destroy, rather than enlist, those with different interests. That's my sense of things right now, at any rate: I'm sure this will all become much clearer as we read on.

Remember the objects!

Okay, I've got my coffee and am ready to go. I'll write a response to your excellent first post, and another on scale and time in Irreductions. I'll make my apology for being so late in responding by way of remarking that it's interesting to refer to "Irreductions" as a separate book as we do (and it's not only us): after finishing it (after getting through Science in Action), I went back to reread parts of "War and Peace of Microbes," because I saw the former as something like an illustration of the latter. I saw it as this, rather than as an attempt to summarize or build/extract principles up out of the more detailed analysis (as Latour does in his other works). In other words, I found rereading "War and Peace" much more fascinating after reading "Irreductions," and saw why Latour so often refers to the essays as "Part 1" and "Part 2," rather than by their names. They're really interconnected, and this makes the book a much better introduction to Latour, I think, than any other--Science in Action, while clear, doesn't have the right stuff (too many particular examples/narratives), and We Have Never Been Modern is, for me, too much to take at first (I'll write more about this next week). That said, I'd actually advise people who pick this up to read the second part--"Irreductions"--first, because, like I said, you'll find everything there thickened or deepened then by the first part of the analysis.

But of course that doesn't make "War and Peace" (it's fun to shorten it this way and induce that confusion between Latour and Tolstoy, for the reasons you noted--and I might note here something I think I'm going to return to often, which is the strategy of deliberate ambiguity that Latour uses to get at his networks) a mere example, even if I am indeed interested in to what extent this perfect case of Pasteur and his microbes sometimes ends up passing over into an allegory for Latour's irreductions. Turning to your points, let me just say that we should remember the objects--here the microbes--and that Latour is constantly trying to produce some form of analysis that will not only be more adequate than sociology but will also grasp a level that irrupts when it gets applied to science. Or, since this can end up as an empty slogan ("Remember the objects!" like one would the Alamo), and actually discount the brilliance of what you're doing--which is reading Latour both against the grain and with it, in order to modify something like interest, or grasp it in a new way--I would say it's good to remember that as much as Latour is trying to decompose groups through that double move of 1) converting them into actants (which then have to be taken as a whole or as a network of smaller actors) and 2) considering them as misunderstanding each other (as you outline perfectly), he's also trying to admit new sorts of groups.

Before we get to things, these new groups are people like the hygienists, who disappear from the accounts of power, the narratives of conflict (we get something very close to a new historicist effort of recovery in Latour--and indeed also something like the "immanent" reading that Jameson convincingly describes them doing). Latour even goes so far as to claim it's handy to get fictional:

Even at the cost of a fiction, it is crucial to rediscover, at least in imagination, the crowds moving the mountain, so that we can understand later how the Pasteurians came to be their spokesmen and where regarded as the "cause" of the movement (23).

Given everything that Latour claims and will go on to claim philosophically--about retracing networks--that's a real risk he's taking. But it's necessary to try and make what is a description (a term he uses a little too often) into something more like a narrative (I'm trying to find his article "Fact and Fiction Writing," which might illumine this issue--I do hope we get into the immense problem of the status of fiction in Latour). For it's only a narrative that will recover these other "groups." And this, I think, is crucial for understanding where he's disagreeing not just with some types of sociology, but sociology as a whole. In fact, I'd actually argue he's closer to the Marxists on this particular point (though obviously farther from them in pretty much every respect), since Marxists aren't only out to describe things (Durkheim's famous review of Labriola misunderstands, and yet also understands, this precise point). And while I'm at it, I might say that Latour is also close to Marxists when they say, not just that real social interests are held in common, but that they are in truth held in common, or rather become more social to the extent that they become more real. That avoids the problem you sketched out a bit (insofar as it turns away converts "common" back into "social"), but it also inflects it down a line where, I think, a Marxist actually has room to possibly use something like Latour (let's extend networks) against what you're saying (i.e. that Latour has the Frankfurt School in his sights)--though he wouldn't get very far, of course, and is probably only saying something that sociology already says better (with the caveat that sociology in Latour's view still describes).

So, we narrativize to reactivate certain groups. But while Marxism does this (I'm claiming--and it perhaps only does this by becoming ambiguous, by giving us less knowledge--but this isn't something foreign to Latour either) it still only concerns itself with the same objects as sociology, and so this is the only similarity they have. And here's where we go beyond the people and towards objects. And this is where things really get interesting, because we see that the sort of move away from "interest" that you describe so well is done precisely to move away from a position that would have to give "interests" to things. Such a position we find in Pasteur's little note about what the bacillus wants:

"Urine is an excellent culture medium for the bacillus; if the urine is pure and the bacillus pure, the latter will multiply promptly" (82, my emphases).

Latour describes the significance of something here being excellent for the bacillus:

For the first time in the history of the world (a solemn tone is not out of place here), the researchers at the Rue d'Ulm were to offer these still ill-defined agents an environment entirely adapted to their wishes (82).

And while Latour wants to recognize this as what is really going on here--he wants to tak seriously the fact that scientists actually talk like this about their cultures etc. and are indeed actually describing what the objects themselves find "excellent"--he also realizes that we can have a better language for it than "their wishes." So, in short, I'm claiming that perhaps we can see the move away from "interest" that you describe as a consequence, not of some opposition to interests held in common, but as an opposition to giving microbes "interests" rather than what they really need--reality.

Of course, it's also an opposition to a notion of interests held in common--you're exactly right about that. I'm just trying to track down the right origin of Latour's move here (though as he says it's probably wrong to do that). Where you're most definitely right is in emphasizing how, for Latour, "we cannot all be in the same place," or how we're all in different places and don't have any common position. Latour surely introduces this to describe social groups better. But again, we also, I think, have to say that this might have been introduced to describe how we don't stand in the same place as nature. Interests are what are between us there, too, and they're not just equally divergent, they're equally irrelevant (or, as you say, relevant only in terms of how they are translated). Such a picture indeed makes Latour the thinker of situations where--as you so nicely put it--there is that "temporary sense that 'everybody wins,'" and I think you are very right for tracing that sort of sociological theme in him. But he's also the thinker of situations where that "everybody" is made up of objects--and that makes things absolutely fascinating and absolutely weird. I myself am still trying to get a handle on it--so take this post not so much as a rejoinder (though I would like to see you respond to Latour's criticism's of sociology) as an inflection of what you said by someone who is himself trying to get familiar with that object-oriented viewpoint, saying to himself, even if it ends up sometimes as an empty slogan, "Remember the objects!"

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Translation, or How Everybody Wins

Yesterday I finished Latour's magisterial case study of The Pasteurization of France. (I'll be doing a separate post on Irreductions, its more "philosophical" counterpart, and probably a couple of follow-up notes on Pasteurization this week as well.) The title's a somewhat dry English translation of Pasteur: Guerre et Paix des microbes — which is better, both because it creates a closer link with Tolstoy's War and Peace (which Latour uses as a working model for his vision of how the Pasteurian victory over the microbes was accomplished), and because it introduces a theme that is clearly important to Latour. Namely, how essential are agonistic and adversarial metaphors to a sociological understanding of reality? Much of Latour's later work will be built around the theme of war and peace, as even some of his titles (like "War of the Worlds — What About Peace?" and "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?") attest. Clearly Latour finds it difficult to do without the language of war and confrontation — Pasteurization of France is chock-a-block with military metaphors — but he also looks for ways to resist or deflect this violent language (see, he's got me doing it too).

It seems to me that, in Pasteurization, Latour is trying to do an end run around what Randall Collins has called "the conflict tradition" (metonymically, and roughly: Marx, Weber and Talcott Parsons) via semiotics, and in particular the notion of "translation." BL uses this word very frequently in both Pasteurization and Irreductions and it does a tremendous amount of work for him, but seems not to lean on it so heavily in his later work. And I think part of the reason he jettisons "translation" (along with much else of his semiotic vocabulary) is that it's too redolent of linguistics, and brings him too close to the 80s-era discourse of deconstruction. (Mike, I'm sure you're more sensitive to these tropes than I am, so please, let me know what you think of this idea.) Here's how Latour glosses "translation" in a useful footnote on page 253:

The notion of translation has been developed by M. Callon (1986), M. Callon, J. Law and A. Rip, eds. (1986) and B. Latour (1987) and applied to the study of science and technology in order to fuse the notions of interest and research program in a more subtle way. First, translation means drift, betrayal, ambiguity … It thus means that we are starting from an inequivalence between interests or language games and that the aim of the translation is to render two propositions equivalent. Second, translation has a strategic meaning. It defines a stronghold established in such a way that, whatever people do and wherever they go, they have to pass through a contender's position and to help him further his own interests. Third, it has a linguistic sense, so that one's version of the language game translates all the others, replacing them all with "whatever you wish, this is what you really mean."

While conflict sociology tends to see agents pitting their respective interests against another, and thus inevitably producing "winners" and "losers," "haves" and "have-nots," this semiotic sociology is more interested in how interests are converted, how we arrive at a local, temporary sense that "everybody wins." For this to take place, there doesn't necessarily need to be communication — no Habermasian transcendental chitchat need take place; but there does need to be mutual awareness of one another's respective positions. And here we see why "translation," in its most familiar literary sense, might be a good metaphor: a translator doesn't (necessarily) talk to the author she is translating; rather, she reads, reads about, thinks about, takes cognizance of that author and his interests, and finds a way to bring those interests to a new place. Inevitably, there will be "drift" and "betrayal" along the way: by the time the author is translated, he will no longer be saying exactly what he once said. But he has not been defeated, or destroyed, or even (necessarily) deconstructed: he has just been moved.

So, in Latour's account of the Pasteurians and hygienists against the physicians, who were notoriously reluctant to accept bacteriology because it obviated their usual methods and, by emphasizing prevention over cure, threatened to put them out of business, we don't see the doctors holding out against innovation until they are finally ground down, or have a change of heart, and have to give in: instead, we see how their interests are translated, around 1895, by the development of sera which could be inoculated by doctors in their offices, thus finally giving them a crucial role in the bacteriological campaign (129). In so doing, their position has been rendered (partially) equivalent to the Pasteurians; they have "passed through" the Pasteurians' stronghold, thus furthering the bacteriological agenda; and they have been made to speak differently, even mean differently, while still maintaining a continuity of interests ("whatever you wish, this is what you really mean"). Translation in all three senses.

"Translation" thus allows Latour to keep the concept of "interests" in play without letting it take over his analysis completely. Another revealing footnote on page 260 makes clear that when he speaks of “interests” he is not referring to the “interest theory” of David Bloor and Barry Barnes; he's also, implicitly, I think, repudiating the Frankfurt School and Bourdieu. Citing Callon again, Latour states that “‘Interest’ means simply what is placed ‘in between’ some actor and its achievements. I do not suppose that these interests are stable or that groups can be endowed with explicit goals … Interests cannot explain science and society: they are what will be explained once the experiment is over” (260). In other words, "interests" are not what there really are, with all of the rest of society an epiphenomenon of these primary interests (class struggle, struggle for various forms of capital, etc.). Rather, interests are temporary obstacles between one position and another, which are frequently translated in order to bring us to a new place.

Lest this all sound too nicey-nicey, like we all always end up getting everything we want, it should be remembered that "[t]ranslation is by definition always a misunderstanding, since common interests are in the long term necessarily divergent” (65). This caveat explicitly contradicts the essential Marxian view, held by everyone from Marx himself to Adorno to Habermas to Jameson, that real social interests are in fact held in common. (See Habermas' Knowledge and Human Interests for the most extensive unfolding of this position, and Raymond Geuss' Idea of a Critical Theory for a good critique of it.) But the idea that interests are ultimately shared makes no sense for Latour, because we cannot all actually be occupying the same place, and interests are what is in between us. This is where I intuitively feel that Latour is actually close to Derrida, but I'll resist the urge to work out why — perhaps Mike has some thoughts on this subject. At any rate, the coffee's running low, and my interest is flagging.

Saturday, October 17, 2009


This seems like a useful exercise. I will hopefully get more directed and succinct as we move on to the actual texts, but here's a provisional attempt at self-definition.

I would say our common ground is an interest in academic literary criticism and its history, and also in the ways that literary criticism has been inflected, affected and contested by various other disciplines and styles of thinking and writing. For you, that means primarily philosophy (and, within philosophy, phenomenology and deconstruction); for me, so far, it means sociology and history. And I think both of us are attracted to Latour (correct me if I’m wrong) not just as a theorist to absorb for our own use, but as someone who might help us get a purchase on what actually happens when literary criticism interacts with other disciplines and traditions in this way. In other words, Latour offers us something on a meta-theoretical level: he tries to explain the way science and technology secure allies and translate interests from other fields in order to create some new, solid and durable “reality.” And over the course of time literary criticism has also found new allies, and translated interests, and had its interests translated in return. So Latour might help us understand how this has happened, and how it might continue to happen in the future. (Perhaps this is what you mean by “taking criticism in a new direction”; the question is whether Latour’s work can provide that direction or just help us describe it.)

But other theories — like, say, Foucault’s — could help us understand interdisciplinarity, and still others — like Jameson’s — could help us understand the effect of social environment on criticism. What Latour adds is this interest in solidity and durability — a practical emphasis we’d be less likely to find in, say, Foucault or the New Historicists, who do sometimes speak as if it were only human beliefs and ideologies that kept reality in place (making them “correlationists,” to use Quentin Meillassoux’s term, I hope correctly).* So it seems to me that Latour’s method would be most useful to describe those critical movements and tendencies that have themselves been most durable and influential: e.g., Aristotelianism, the New Criticism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, etc. Latour allows us to think that these movements might be durable for a reason — that is, there is indeed some reality to them — without us necessarily having to choose one superior reality to explain all the others.

What I am hoping for from Latour is a way of reading sociologically — “externally,” in your terms — without falling into materialist reductionism on one side or correlationist idealism on the other. That is, I don’t want to see things like value judgments or interpretations as mere reflections of social conditions, but I also don’t want to see them as free acts of subjectivity that heroically transcend their historical context. I want to see how critics and schools of criticism have interacted, and why some triumph over others, without reaching for the familiar explanations derived from Kant and Marx. In other words, I don't feel like I need Latour to help me construct interpretations or make judgments, but I may need him to help me see why some judgments and interpretations have lasted, while others have fallen by the wayside.

Also, I must admit that I’m seduced by Latour’s prose style: so straightforward and so rhetorically ambitious at the same time, and with such great examples (many of which I hope to catalogue here). I can’t help but hope a little of that mojo will rub off on me.

*This interest in durability is also found in Pierre Bourdieu, my own previous theoretical hero, but he attributes everything lasting to the habitus: a durable set of dispositions inculcated in the body. This, not some "reality," is what leads us to view the world in the same way over and over again, as well as accounting for the incredible homogeneity among class fractions. All of which makes him, I would say, a realist w/r/t the physical world (the body is indisputably there, and gets impressed upon/marked up by powerful forces) and something like a correlationist w/r/t the social world (the world is nothing but will and representation). He accepts, in other words, the Enlightenment split between nature and society that Latour does away with in We Have Never Been Modern: he just doesn’t have anything much to say about the “natural” side. But we can return to this issue later, maybe.

Where I'm coming from

I thought it would be good to go over where I'm coming from and what I hope, generally, to get out of reading Latour and the others on our reading list.

Like you, Evan, I'm coming from literary criticism. I have a bit of background in philosophy but I'm mostly out to look for what can be useful for interpretation. This includes certain aspects intrinsic to interpretation like techniques or methods, but also extrinsic ones (if I can displace the old New Critical distinction, and use it not to apply to poems but to interpretation itself) like where to situate the critical act.

I generally like to work on the intrinsic, or reform interpretation and criticism from the inside. So I have a tendency to think the situation of the critic in terms of the act of criticism. In this, I follow Derrida, who, as you know, is important to me. But I also recognize a limit to this approach--and see Derrida as fraught when it comes to situating reading. In fact, I'd go so far as to say he is interesting to me as the culmination of a tradition of attempts to reform interpretation from the inside, from within--among other things. So I turn to Latour (and sociology and historicism in general, but here Latour) for a different take on where interpretation takes place. It is his achievement, I think, to try and find a new axis along which interpretation can happen, that thereby pushes it in a new direction intrinsically. I agree with him--what I have read of him already--fundamentally that criticism has to take a new turn in which it "adds reality to the object," as he says.

This might take certain aspects of what he is doing and push it back into the old disciplines, yes (what he complains about at the beginning of We Have Never Been Modern). But I think the project of taking criticism in a new direction has to proceed slowly, or rather through many changes in very diverse practices which we often do not perceive--and not the quick adoption of a new "theory" in literary theory's sense of this word (to which Latour's work assuredly does not amount), which ends up preserving all the old practices. In short, while I might be looking more for the possible effects of Latour's work on how we conceive criticism (and not so much at the work itself, as it were--though of course I'll take issue with it on its own terms), I'm definitely not looking for anything like Latourian literary criticism. I am looking for the right ways to "add reality to the object." And different ways--a task which entails looking at the history of criticism (and the alternative histories critics envisioned that directed their critical work), as well as reading Latour back through the long tradition of criticism.

Regarding Speculative Realism (of course, too simple a label for many diverse and interesting thoughts), I'd say similar things, though in general my interests tend just to be philosophical. My philosophical background has been in philosophy of mind and phenomenology, and am primarily interested in the new movement as it grows out of and contests the phenomenological tradition. Latour is interesting to me too from that perspective, via Harman. Of course I see this as related to (but distinct from) my first reason for reading him.

I mentioned that I have read some Latour before, but not as much as you, Evan. Just a few essays and We Have Never Been Modern. So I'm excited to go through the whole list. I'm more familiar with Harman's work, though it has been a while since I've read Tool Being and I had to read Prince of Networks too quickly during the summer.

Friday, October 16, 2009


This is the blog of our little Latour and Speculative Realism reading group. We'll be reading The Pasteurization of France, Science in Action, We Have Never Been Modern, Aramis or the Love of Technology, Pandora's Hope, The Politics of Nature, Reassembling the Social, and many more essays and books by Latour. We will also be looking at the work of Graham Harman, reading Tool-Being, Guerrilla Metaphysics, Prince of Networks, and several of his essays. If we have time, we will read some phenomenologists, read others (Byrant, Brassier, Hamilton Grant, Meillassoux) who have ties to the Speculative Realist movement, and read some Actor Network Theorists.