Monday, November 30, 2009


It's interesting that there are so many fables in Latour--especially in Pandora's Hope, though We Have Never Been Modern is indeed one big fable. "Do You Believe in Reality?" sketches out the problem of skepticism over the years along these fabular lines, and "A Politics Freed from Science" sketches out in mythical terms the relation of politics to science and scientists:

By unwinding the adventures of Reason, we can imagine how it was before it turned into an unlivable chimera, a monstrous Big Animal whose unrest horrifies the masters even today. Needless to say, this is an attempt at archaeology-fiction: the invention of a mythical time when political truth-saying would have been fully understood, a world that was later lost through the accumulation of mistakes and degeneration (237).

The essay in other words seeks to see how reason worked in politics (through a reading of the Gorgias) in order to politicize science--since scientists would make politics external to science precisely by claiming reason isn't political. Reason, in other words, is not expert knowledge.

In true Nietzschian fashion (I am tagging this as I go: someday we can return to all these #Nietzsche-s), there's a lot of Socrates-bashing along these lines:

To see a political project through, with the crowd, for the crowd, in spite of the crowd, is so stunningly difficult that Socrates flees from it. But instead of conceding defeat and acknowledging the specificity of politics, he destroys the means of practicing it, in a sort of scorched-earth policy the blackened wreckage of which is still visible today. And the torch that set the public buildings ablaze is said to be that of Reason! (239)

The utterly non-Nietzschian thing here is that this does not describe war, but rather the state of peace and politics (which is why, by the way, Latour refuses to see the science wars as a war, and not as a political crisis for the sciences, which I think is an unbelievably brilliant move, killing off the "two cultures" bullshit--which, remember, is C.P. Snow's depressingly British, moralistic formulation--for good). Nietzsche was, after all, quite apolitical--unless you stretch him or modify him (sorry, Nietzschians).

Regardless, Latour goes on to outline a political reason that "cannot possibly be the object of professional knowledge" (239), and reconstructing the original Body Politic by "simply taking positively the long list of negative remarks of Plato" (237). What's really interesting is that this all involves a reversal of the role of rhetoric (which, however, does not land him in an English department dripping with postmodern extensions of Sapir-Whorf)--something evident of course from Science in Action onward but something we haven't quite really remarked upon yet (except in terms of fiction). Socrates makes politics into rhetoric, and then his whole philosophical effort turns around deciding "what sort of knowledge rhetoric is" (239). Latour turns this around not by celebrating rhetoric and mobilizing it against Socrates' knowledge (a la Derrida in Dissemination--and everywhere else). Rather, he thinks rhetoric is first and foremost political, and therefore its relationship to knowledge (Socrates' focus) has less weight than its ability to shape reality:

The nonprofessional nature of the knowledge of the people by the people turning the whole into an ordered cosmos and not a "disorderly shambles" [Latour quotes Plato] becomes, through a subtle shift, the right of a few rhetoricians to win over real experts if they know nothing (240).

Latour is fine with this, even though that shift is the shift of the Gorgias as a whole, i.e. a shift made by Plato following Socrates, and altering the remarks of Callicles--Latour's hero--and others. He's so fine, he goes on to say the following, in an unbelievably refreshing reconsideration of Sophism, which does not just valorize it (Derrida again), but also makes the Sophist's point differently:

What the Sophists meant was that no expert can win in the public agora because of the specific conditions of felicity that reign there (240).

But then comes Socrates, who changes this around by divorcing rhetoric from the political:

After Socrates' translation, this sensible argument becomes the following absurd one: any expert will be defeated by an ignorant person who knows only rhetoric (240).

You have to read the whole thing to see how great this argument is, but one thing I want to take away from it all is that rhetoric is returned out of language to the sphere of politics. When so much literary theory is based on the linguistic turn itself, this makes possible some notion that language, after all, is not that primary, and that perhaps theory can be something other than the assertion of the primacy of language or language-substitutes (traces)--with the corollary that if language isn't primary all of theory collapses (as some theorists now feel, as they come under attack from Latour-like realists). Nor does this mean that we have to return to some notion of reference, as pro-theory people (who see it developing along a suspiciously straight line) might assume, and which leads me to think that perhaps most theory (this is the entire aim of de Man's work) is not even an effort to deal with the primacy of language so much as the effort to keep the referent suspended (something structuralist poetics did much better than any Foucauldian theory of discourses)… and that maybe a new consideration of the role of language is actually made possible by this Latourian position, beyond postmodernism.

Anyway, rhetoric is returned to politics, and thereby reason is never allowed to become apolitical, in this vast sort of alternate history Latour sketches out by reading the Gorgias against its author and main protagonist. And this fable, this counter-dialectic (in all senses), shows both the real state of politics and the real role of reason, by narrating how a specialized form of it "was kidnapped for a political purpose it could not possibly fulfill," (258), and turned, now, into the banner under which anti-political politics of science can mobilize.

In other words, the fable ends up as policy. But how did this happen? Like in "Do You Believe in Reality?" and We Have Never Been Modern, these fables--which suspiciously look like histories of ideas--are turned into those powers or punctuations (as Law calls them) which need to be undone by ANT. I guess Latour is thinking that as long as he's dealing with powers (with Constitutions), he might as well explicitly mark his own narratives as accounts of powers, not forces--that way they can be analyzed by ANT when the time comes. In other words, these fables (which so often deal with big terms--like realism, materialism, research, science, critique) shouldn't be taken as networks themselves, but power-sketches, organizations of the punctuations--a nice inversion of the task of real rhetoric, which would then be ANT itself, coming along to undo and make specific all of the fabular.

But that's not the whole story. For in the case of something like Aramis, or Pasteur--which, while they are novelized (or at least the story of the first is), are also case studies (and Aramis is indeed a true fiction, as Latour says in his intro)--we have something like these fables not working only in this sort of punctuated sphere. They are, rather, narratives that easily slip into ANT itself. How? Precisely through what you were noting a long time ago, Evan, and I too noticed: allegory--the weird way that pasteurization and now even the Aramis project itself works exactly like a network, before ANT gets to it and messes it up (shows it to be much larger, etc.).

Now, my question here about the fables--which is, in a way, a sort of basic question of how to take these sort of more general essays and works by Latour (like WHNBM itself)--is not just one of trying to figure out what plane Latour is working on, the punctuated plane or the plane of the network itself. I'll leave it to Reassembling the Social to try and work on this more precisely, make it more specific. I'll also be putting up little entries that actually work out this concept of punctuation (or the operative shift from powers to forces and back again, which indeed ANT can account for--I think it is its most interesting concept).

Rather, I'm trying also to weigh what Latour's way of looking at things is concretely giving us in terms of ways into problems via his particular concepts. On this point, I think it is important to pay attention to the phenomenology of reading Latour, as it were--or what I'd prefer to call just the feeling of the concepts at work here. As we move into philosophical characterizations of Latour, through Harman, we are inevitably going to be more focused on the system itself, the coherence of the concepts and their interrelatedness: this (metaphysics) is all right, but its also not where we're at home, as literary critics. Where we're at home is, I think, in this sphere of feeling… feeling the contours as it were, of the notions, testing them out, using them, touching them in a way that philosophy--if you'll pardon my turning a conflict of the faculties into a conflict of the senses--can only try and get at by seeing (or characterizing as "aesthetic"), however much it tries to become pragmatic or turn the philosopher himself into a phronemos. This no doubt gives us a bit of an edge (which a more rhetorically minded philosophy like Harman's is itself somewhat regaining) in seeing these concepts as somewhat useless insofar as they are not also seen to relate to this experience of deploying them somewhat against the grain, or applying them to new cases or areas in which they might not (if you just viewed them in terms of system) really be seen as pertinent (in the semiological/structuralist sense of this word that I love--though pertinence also constitutes scientificity for Greimas and these same semiologists, let's not forget).

In short, this sort of (literary critical--and I stress both of these words as we move into essays on critique, though perhaps we might describe literary criticism more as analysis and reading, and thereby evade much of the anti-critical talk) sense of how concepts work allows us to see how they at times don't work, or work according to tendencies that are somewhat weird. Here--just to bring this all to a conclusion--we get the odd resemblance of these fables to something like a history of ideas… which is something that, if you view it in the terms of the philosophy/theory itself, you won't be able to see--since you'd rather be making sense of this precisely in terms of that system (ANT).

What I'm saying is that there is something in Latour--in this allegory-fable connection--that seems like it's too familiar for a system that claims to do what it is claiming to do. This, I'll say again, is something typical of philosophies of immanence, but doesn't just reduce to something like an incongruity between the "doctrine" and the "performance," which is then quickly made into a (bogus) refutation. It is an aspect of the way that Latour is opening up problems, and I just want to mark it here… as my sort of contribution to an account of how reading Latour feels (phenomenology of reading Latour).

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Curved minds

Graham Harman says, in response to my last post: "I’m never convinced by the notion of Latour as a devious strategizer or rhetorician." Fair enough: it's a bit too Sokalian, and makes him sound too much like a sophist (in the colloquial, derogatory sense). But I happened to come across a passage just now in Latour's article "What If We Talked Politics A Little?" (2003) that obliquely addresses this very issue (I love it when that happens):

We have to be careful here so as not to draw the hasty conclusion that it is enough to be devious in order to utter political talk accurately. Unquestionably, politics is imposture; we are well aware that the virtue of autonomy can be secured only at the price of a fundamental vice, betrayal, both there and back; we acknowledged that lying — as opposed to the supposedly easy truth of faithful transfer of information — is an integral part of the work of composition; we know that expecting a spokesperson to "tell the truth," to be "authentic," amounts to killing the process of transubstantiation. However, this does not, for all that, mean that to be a good politician it is enough to lie, to be a phoney. That would be too easy. The Prince of Twisted Words would simply have replaced the White Knight of Transparency … One can walk skew, think curved, cut across, be sly, without necessarily drawing the political circle. It is not because they all differ equally from the straight line that all acts of envelopment are similar. "Curved minds" are clearly distinct from one another, even if they are all an object of ridicule for "straight minds." (153)

So perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that Latour is devious, but always in the service of enveloping something, of drawing a political circle, of catching something in his net. And in this he's not far off from the devious politicians who, as he sees it, are always so despised.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Phenomenology of Reading Latour

As per your suggestion a little while ago, here are some scattered notes on what it's like (for me) to read Latour.

I'll start by jumping off from something you wrote to me (in an e-mail): "he actually is quite a great article-writer... usually I find that you can oppose article-writers to book-writers, but he's great at both!" I think this is true, although I've got to say that so far I give a slight edge to his books: Latour is such an ambitious theorist, always wanting to lay down the maximum bet and shake things up as much as possible (sometimes at the risk of caricaturing others' positions, as you point out in your most recent post), that I think he does better with a little room to stretch out and indulge his theatrics, rather than being forced, for reasons of space, to keep one line of argument going from beginning to end. Another way of putting it would be to say that, like Norbert in Aramis, Latour's method is to make as much of a mess as possible, and then see what's required in order to clean it up — an approach that seems crazy until you realize how closely it reflects the socio-logic of how actors actually make sense of the world. So I guess what I'm saying is that in the articles he sometimes doesn't have enough time to make a mess and clean it up.

You also mention that reading Latour gets you "talking more in terms of strategy rather than about ideas": "Something about how you get a little more frank and unashamed while reading this stuff has to be communicated to people..." Again, I totally agree, and this is something I get from Bourdieu as well: the sense of non-stop devious strategizing (which in Bourdieu, of course, is also thematized) is, once you get used to it, actually very useful as a model, a manner you can imitate, at least to a certain extent, to make your own arguments (which obviously don't need to be the same kinds as the ones Bourdieu or Latour make).

But Latour is such a rhetorical writer that it can even be slightly off-putting, not to mention confusing, because he's also got such a rhetorical view of life. (In this, he's like Nietzsche, who keeps coming up, which perhaps shouldn't be so surprising: as I recall reading somewhere — maybe Harman's book? — he's one of Latour's biggest unacknowledged influences.) In other words, Latour is always trying to convince you that everything in the world is trying to convince everything else: as if reality is in fact made up of innumerable little Bruno Latours. He pays nearly everything the compliment of assuming it's as clever as he is. (He does make some exceptions, usually for other sociologists.) I realize this sense on my part contradicts some of what you said towards the end of your last post about BL's positive valuation of a certain kind of "stupidity," or "forgetting," that goes along with being on the inside of a network. If we're on the inside, and we can just forget what we're doing and sort of go limp, then there's no real need to strategize and rhetoricize all the time. We don't really need "the logic of practice" to explain how anything happens. And there does seem to be a general shift in Latour's work away from a Bourdieusian assumption that everything is infinitely clever (which we find in Pasteurization of France and Science in Action) towards an assumption that everything is kind of stupidly enthusiastic.

But this is rather vague, so I'll finish with a specific passage that I think illustrates many of the hallmarks of Latour's style pretty well. It's from "Where are the Missing Masses?" (1992), which I believe we both read a couple of weeks ago:

The most interesting (and saddest) lesson of the note posted on the door at La Villette is that people are not circumspect, disciplined, and watchful, especially not French drivers doing 180 kilometers an hour on a freeway a rainy Sunday morning when the speed limit is 130 (I inscribe the legal limit in this article because this is about the only place where you could see it printed in black and white; no one else seems to bother, except the mourning families). Well, that is exactly the point of the note: "The groom is on strike, for God's sake, keep the door closed." In our societies there are two systems of appeal: nonhuman and superhuman — that is, machines and gods. This note indicates how desperate its anonymous frozen authors were (I have never been able to trace and honor them as they deserved). They first relied on the inner morality and common sense of humans; this failed, the door was always left open. Then they appealed to what we technologists consider the supreme court of appeal, that is, to a nonhuman who regularly and conveniently does the job in place of unfaithful humans; to our shame, we must confess that it also failed after a while, the door was again left open. How poignant their line of thought! They moved up and backward to the oldest and firmest court of appeal there is, there was, and ever will be. If human and nonhuman have failed, certainly God will not deceive them.

What's going on in this passage? Let's taxonomize:

1. Humor. This is probably one of the first things that strikes readers of Latour: he's very funny, and not afraid to make jokes about pretty much anything, at any point of his argument. (Graham Harman says somewhere that he initially got interested in Latour because he was the only funny person in Continental philosophy.) Here the jokes are at the expense of French drivers (they don't obey the speed limit), the authors of the note ("How poignant their line of thought!" — treating them as if they themselves weren't making a joke), and Latour himself as a scholar (he regrets being unable to properly cite the authors of the note). And the improbably specific details ("French drivers doing 180 kilometers an hour on a freeway a rainy Sunday morning when the speed limit is 130," and then, a little later in the sentence, "the mourning families") are also funny.

2. Symmetry. These kinds of parallel constructions are so characteristic of Latour as to be almost an obsession: "In our societies there are two systems of appeal: nonhuman and superhuman…"; "They first relied on the inner morality and common sense of humans… Then they appealed to what we technologists consider the supreme court of appeal…" One of the odd things about Latour is that, for a thinker so committed to asymmetries and hybrids and quasi-objects, he divvies up and juxtaposes and dichotomizes like Derrida never gave dualisms a bad name. Often his symmetrical formulations are ironic, i.e. he's caricaturing what some other person or group thinks (the moderns, the epistemologists, the technologists, et al.), but he's still clearly addicted to them. And I should say, I don't think this is a problem; that is, I don't think he's really a dualistic thinker, or at least not at all a rigid or limited one. In Latour these pairs ("epistemological couples," in Bachelard's parlance) are always getting pulled apart and recombined and mapped on to others (and not simply reversed, as in dialectic). But stop him at nearly any point and he's always working with a clear-cut distinction.

3. Sacred/theological language. This is another persistent verbal habit of Latour's: it pops up as early as Irreductions and plays a big role in the rhetorical vocabularies of both We Have Never Been Modern and Aramis. One way to deal with this would be simply to read it under the heading of (1), that is, as a joke — and sometimes Latour does use sacred language as a joke, or for merely hyperbolic or blasphemous effect. But knowing that he's a practicing Catholic puts an interesting spin on his continual recourse to a religious idiom. I don't quite know what to say about it here, but I'd just like to add a little more to the passage I quoted above:

I am ashamed to say that when I crossed the hallway this February day, the door was open. Do not accuse God, though, because the note did not make a direct appeal; God is not accessible without mediators — the anonymous authors knew their catechisms well — so instead of asking for a direct miracle (God holding the door firmly closed or doing so through the mediation of an angel, as has happened on several occasions, for instance when St. Peter was delivered from his prison) they appealed to the respect for God in human hearts. This was their mistake. In our secular times, this is no longer enough. (167)

Who is Latour reassuring here? On one level he seems to still be joking: who would possibly think to "accuse God" of leaving a door open? And again, he's hyperbolically specific: that "as has happened on several occasions, for instance when St. Peter was delivered from his prison" is obviously an unnecessary flourish, and a bit of a goof on Latour's own multidisciplinary scholarly authority (oh, you're a theologian now?). But even without knowing anything about Latour's own beliefs, the last three sentences are charged with a sort of melancholy resignation: "instead of asking for a direct miracle … they appealed to the respect for God in human hearts. This was their mistake. In our secular times, this is no longer enough." Of course, the whole point of Latour's article is that much of what we think of as autonomous human morality is in fact preordained by clever engineers, who make it practically impossible not to wear a safety belt, or exceed the speed limit on a residential street, or leave a door open. As you'd expect from him, he seems for the most part to see this as a good thing, as well as a technological marvel, and he would like sociologists, technologists, and moralists all to see that what they talk about is so densely intertwined. But that final caveat — "In our secular times, this is no longer enough" — suggests a somewhat darker (almost Heideggerian?) picture of the "missing masses," a sort of nostalgia for a (probably imaginary) past in which humans really did make moral decisions, in which autonomy was real and society did not make so many of the crucial choices for human beings ahead of time.

Of course, I could be way over-reading (an occupational hazard), and Latour's "secular times" is just total sarcasm: he does cast doubt on the very idea of secularization in We Have Never Been Modern and numerous other places. But it's the sort of troubling ambiguity that he opens up, again and again, through his use of sacred language, and also, for different reasons and to a different degree, through his use of the language of politics.

But I'll stop here, having made a mess and not cleaned it up. Suffice it to say that the more one thinks about Latour's style, the more fascinating a rhetorical case study it becomes. And I haven't gotten to his own writings on style (of matters of concern and so on). I'm sure this is a subject we'll both have a lot more to say about as we go on.

Morephisms: or, forget otherness!

I promise a more substantial post on Aramis, replying to your great presentation. But I want now to begin our consideration of Latour's many essays (which we'll be doing this week) and consider Latour's interesting reading of Rick Powers and great reading of Alan Turing, "Powers of the Facsimile: a Turing Test on Science and Literature," because it really has to do with this issue of stupidity/forgetting as I see it--through an interesting detour through the distinction construction/deconstruction which I consider fundamental (because it brings out the difference between a logic of moreness and a logic of alterity), and which this essay picks up.

Now, Latour basically is interested in "Powers of the Facsimile" to make the case for Richard Powers as the novelist of Latour's realism--a realist novelist in a new sense, a novelist of matters of concern, not just matters of fact (which an inadequate Zola-esque realism would, instead, deal with).

Unfortunately, in one of those weird over-polemical moments in Latour, Latour makes it out as if no literary critic has ever really seen this in Powers--or in fact in novels generally... indeed that literary critics don't have the right tools at all to see this. He is considering in particular the inability for reviewers of Powers' work (who magically turn into literary critics and then into all literary criticism) to see that Powers is not just writing about science in literature, but also showing how matters of science become research, and how it is full of objects of concern. This problem allegedly focuses itself in Powers' use of characters, who develop only insofar as they are channels for these matters, and it is here that actually the reviewers (and/or critics) miss the realism the most:

Reviewers often accuse Powers of being a “brainy” writer whose characterization suffers from an obsession with putting semiotic legs on mere ideas and facts drawn from science and technology. But one of the main problems explored by his novels is exactly the problem of the progressive emergence of individuals: Powers asks what it is for a character to exist at all, when so much of existence depends upon the things one is attached to – the most important connection being to the biological basis of life itself, which is the theme of The Gold Bug Variations (1991). By accusing Powers of simply “clothing ideas with flesh,” critics imply that they know what it is to be an idea, what it is to be a character, what it is to possess a “realistic” psychology, what it is to play the role of a “fact” on the stage of the narrative, what it is to be an episode in a narrative, whereas all of those features are explicitly and relentlessly questioned by the novels they are reviewing … It’s as if critics believe that Agatha Christie has provided the definitive realistic view of the world … or that “water boils at 100° Celsius” is the paramount example of a scientific statement"... But Powers takes science and technology much more “realistically.” Consider, for instance, the strand of Plowing the Dark that takes place in a Bill Gates-like digital factory, and is entirely devoted to exploring what it takes to produce a realistic-looking image out of calculations, and whether this is an intelligent idea or, on the contrary, a dangerous sin … meanwhile, in the other intertwined plot, a young English teacher has to survive for months after being kidnapped in Lebanon by an Islamic terrorist group. So, as usual, what critics see as a weakness – “M. Powers, why do you give us so many ideas when we want flesh and blood characters?” – is actually the subject of the novel: “what will happen to you if you dare to produce flesh and blood realistic characters out of ideas, signs, symbols, calculations, you reckless makers of facsimiles?” And in parallel: “What will happen to you if you are kidnapped, blindfolded, and left for months without any signs, symbols, pixels, images?” In addition, the very objection that critics raise about Powers’s characters (“are they brains with legs?”) is actually the argument that divides most of the characters in the novel, since the protagonists argue amongst themselves about whether or not the calculated image is really just calculation, or something else that escapes calculation.
-"Powers of the Facsimile," 94-95

I don't bring this up because we're literary critics so much as to note the supposition--sometimes occuring in Latour--that other disciplines just don't get at what Latour is doing, or only do so inadequately. Here, it is as if literary critics have never read and understood Greimas, or have never considered characters as shady sorts of complexes rather than full on psychologies. Meanwhile the problems of plot brought up by Wayne Booth, and the masterful consideration of Defoe by Ian Watt, as antiquated perhaps and theoretically unsophisticated (unscientific--in Greimas' sense) as they are, both deal with such issues. So it's this sort of position Latour can always inhabit--at one moment he recognizes all sorts of good things in various other disciplines can be integrated into his project, and at another he can say that because they're modern, or because what they do doesn't presuppose the entire shift that focusing on nature-cultures brings about, what Latour is getting at is wholly new.

This doesn't seem to me to be a big deal--except that it seems typically philosophical, which is something I don't usually expect from Latour since what he's up to usually appears so very different in its form. I'll put differently: Ultimately, what reviewers I think object to in Powers is his taking his de-priveliging of character in the psychological, anthropomorphic sense to the nth degree. However, when Powers does this full-on, in his recent The Echo Maker, he precisely gets the National Book Association award and is a finalist for the Pulitzer... so go figure. Meanwhile narratology has long picked up this issue of the over-anthropomorphization of characters, even when they're made into actants. So, the situation is complicated. Latour comes along and oversimplifies it--as anyone who confronted such a situation would. But he also does so in a typically philosophical way: he wants to presume we all read like 19th century readers of Dickens, or present-day readers of Harry Potter, in order to demystify that fact. This leaves us with the sense that, yet again, we're getting an essay on the "aesthetic dimension" of a philosophy, or the review of a piece which best exemplifies this work--a task which has to say all the considerations before it appears take the function of art in the wrong way.

Regardless, we begin to see the connection between taking things as mattes of concern and understanding characters as less anthropomorphic. It is first and foremost a change in the role of the human in general, along the lines Latour sketches at the end of We Have Never Been Modern: anthropomorphism is just one sort of morphism. However, we must also apply this back to other things--and here is where Latour does something interesting. For he's outlining how, concretely, we can begin to treat things as matters of concern by refusing to confine them in one sort of morphism--like we have done with the human:

What is constant in RP [Richard Powers], and so important for our investigation, is the morphism structure that he employs and that the above passage [of Powers'] instantiates pretty well. I call (x)-morphism the matrix of transformative metaphors where (x) can be replaced by all sort of particular instances, or layers of discourse: anthropo-, techno-, ideo-, psycho-, logo- morphisms, etc. For instance, in the example of the reading of Yeats’s poem [in a scene in Powers], words are compared to gadgets, to toys, to machines, to factories (a technomorphism) which is also crossed with a biomorphism (the evolutionary theory implied by “female mammal’s” reproductive success) and a phusimorphism (expenditure of energy). Now, bad writers – of novels as well as of academic articles – take those morphisms to be stable, so that when they do anthropomorphism they take what they believe we know about humans – a sort of Simenon’s or Agatha Christie’s typical psychology – and bring it to bear on, for instance, a robot (most science fiction never goes further than this sort of “animation,” or projection trick).
-"Powers of..." 7

I've been reading some SF lately and I don't really find the last comment convincing (it seems to me another polemical instance), but the point in general is great. Because these morphisms as Latour says in his more recent work on ANT, extend reality to the matters of fact. And this is something different than presupposing a whole change in our Constitution in order to get at these matters (something less local, or more totalizing). It is showing how our various descriptions of events can begin to pull out the shape of a thing from its hard, objective edges, make it pliable, in a more discrete and particular act--turn it into silly putty. I think Latour goes on to say that this is the virtue of the best literature in general--and that smacks of the aesthetic approach mentioned before. But this smaller point, I think, we can extract from the general presentation and really appreciate--largely because both you and I know more concretely how metaphoric language in particular has a tendency to do this. That is (just to sum up) I think Latour's point is not based on the viability of the aesthetics he's outlining in this paper, so much as his real familiarity with what happens in the shaping process in trials of strength... and we literary critics too have some familiarity with something like that, in a way that can't so easily be rejected by Latour or chalked up to our having some wrong Constitution and thus wrong aesthetics.

So, morphisms extend reality to matters of fact, making them into matters of concern--over and above any sort of explicit adoption of a modern Constitution (though they imply this adoption, or work to bring it about). Latour goes on to say that this is also present in the best writing on science and technology (and here he's on much surer footing--you can tell in the essay itself). He reads the fascinating Alan Turing's famous "Computing Machinery" essay, familiar to students of philosophy of mind in particular--though Latour would, just like he did with literary reviewers critics, say they haven't read it for its morphisms either (and thus haven't really read it). In this, he's a bit more correct--but because philosophers proceed in a very different way than literary critics--and I can speak confidently here since I have some (but perhaps only some) familiarity in philosophy of mind. In the various classes, the issues Turing brings up get presented to you in snippets--perhaps in Jaegwon Kim's great summaries in his excellent overview/intro Philosophy of Mind. Then, if you're interested (as I was), you actually pick up "Computing Machinery,"--and are completely blown away at just how much is cut out. This isn't anything bad, really--philosophy proceeds by reducing and refining problems and explanations, Occam's razor-like (even the SR people, who try to resist this, do it--it's just how things proceed). But it cuts out all the morphisms, which end up making the computer, the mind, pianos, piles of neutrons, and all sorts of things come together in amazing ways to bring out the reality of the confrontation between mind and this technology, or the functions involved in both (not able to be reduced, now, to any sort of functionalism):

The whole question of what an automaton is, what it means to generate something – a later obsession of Turing in his work on “biomorphs” –, what it means to produce an idea, what it means to probe agency and its limits, are all explored in one single paragraph that goes from the machine in general, to the piano, then to the atomic pile, then to the human mind, then to animals, then to the computer… Lady Lovelace thinks that agencies can be mobilized like the finger-keys of a piano although, even for the piano this is no simple feat as any pianist knows: you inject an input, it does something, and then “drop[s] into quiescence.” But this is not the sort of agency that Turing’s machine have, he argues: it is more like that of an atomic pile.
-"Powers of..." 18

So, in short, this sort of writing, or this sort of way of putting these problems, extends reality to the objects. I might play on words here and say that not only are these morphisms, but that they are morephisms: they give more reality to things, or turn objects into things (or are the objects becoming things).

This is important, and brings me to that sort of detour/distinction I mentioned earlier. For in the middle of the essay, Latour says the following about Powers:

Am I wrong in thinking that such a parsing of competences, layers after layers, competence after competence, is unheard of in literature? Instead of giving us a despairing feel for the infinite distance between words and things, Powers gives us – gives me at least – an incredible confidence in the capacity of description: if someone is able to make us see engineers making us feel the turning of the knob in a drawer of a non-existent reproduction of the existing painting by the no longer existing painter of a no longer existing hotel room in Arles [...], then every thing can be carried in language! All the usual resources of criticism, fiction, and illusion which usually go into chic commentaries of Escher-like ‘abyme’ effects, are here all telescoped by Powers to provide more reality, not less. Constructivism is made to be the exact opposite of deconstruction while, at the same time, using many of the same resources. But the way they are nested in one another is entirely different. “Telescoped” is actually a good metaphor: the more elements nested the better the view, whereas in the logic of critical deconstruction the more elements the more delayed the grasp should be. That is the major difference between deconstruction and what I have called elsewhere the promise of constructivism.
-"Powers of..." 12-13

I tried early on to characterize the difference between deconstruction and Latour in these terms. But I also have tried to say that the difference is one between this insistence on more, and this insistence on the delayed-grasp. Or, rather, I've insisted really on the distinction between more and other--and Latour's innovation (which someone like Harman picks up on) being in allowing us to pass beyond the logics of the latter (logics of otherness).

But now, I just want to be as clear as possible about this, because deconstruction is often seen as an proposing an ontology open to otherness (in the manner of Lacan, perhaps), but also of always more otherness, of infinite otherness: the other, in Derrida, is never simply an other (as it might be in Levinas), but always more other than any other. The other is always more other than an other. Thus, we see how the more (to reify this concept in order to compare it to the other), is actually already addressed by deconstruction. But, as Latour points out quite clearly here, it is still subordinated to a logic of otherness, which turns it into moreness that doesn't add, but undermines (along the lines I outlined early on). Latour allows us to break out of this and finally liberate moreness from otherness, and--moreover--understand all the relationships that were previously thought in terms of otherness (my relation to another person, or to a thing, say) in terms of this new moreness (I have allies, and they give me more reality; or I relate to things, and we form a more-real collective). Harman, I think, will get even more sophisticated about how this moreness needs to work, as it were, but for now, I just want to emphasize that finally we can get rid of that agonizing logic of alterity that weighs over so much theory in the humanities. And perhaps this might allow us to restore some sort of real concreteness to alterity itself--though I don't think Latour would like to look back here--in the way that the Lacanians do through some of the most dire and drastic measures (mathemes, etc.). If morphism is suddenly something that adds reality to the thing, language in particular is in the service of making things more real--and no longer do we have to really keep saying literature undermines, overturns, undoes, etc. etc., as some theorists (de Man, etc. etc.) would have liked us to believe (but their readings themselves--and their familiarity with this shaping which I mentioned above--we can see could never really bring about).

And this brings me back, in closing, to your last post. I should have been more clear in my original post to which you responded, that stupidity all connects to reinvesting our understanding of technology with love/passion, as you nicely pointed out in your post--and thus that I am really less "worried" about stupidity/forgetfulness as I might have sounded (my point is less about whether Latour is advocating it than whether it is a way to characterize our relation to networks). But I do think you were able to draw the ethical line clearer than I did as regarded the uses to which stupidity/forgetfulness is put, when you say the following:

So it's not that Latour likes, or advocates, forgetting or stupidity (which, unless I'm misreading you, is something you're a bit worried about). But he does think that forgetting and stupidity are so inevitable, omnipresent, and equally shared that it's just not a good rhetorical strategy to accuse others of it. There's clearly an ethical dimension to this way of looking at arguments...

You insist rightly on the difference between stupidity qua being swept up in a network (stupidity as limitation of our abilities, the finitude of the network, as enthusiasm, as the unreasonable reason of scientific research/discovery) and stupidity qua thinking of technology/discovery "as the historians of technologists do," or thinking it is less omnipresent than it is, precisely in order to disconnect science from politics (or design/dreams from the possible worlds that the thing is designed for), in turn to reconnect them in a shoddy oily way. The former attitude is seeing stupidity as the basis for relationships in collectives--that is, as something different than familiarity, something less rational and much more forgetful because it is also excited (thus I used Forest Gump). Thus it is something like a virtue in the investigator--a way to (paradoxically) characterize his knowledge of the network: no longer is a researcher closer to the work on the basis of how familar he is with it, or how close he is to the primary sources, native informants, etc. etc.. Familiarity is replaced with forgetting: out knowledge of the networks is better insofar as it is stupid and excited--crying, full of passion like the passion of the scientists we follow. Thus at the end of Aramis, Norbert doesn't retreat to his other sociologists--as if the subjects he studied didn't matter--but returns to them, not without some just stupid, unexplainable fondness.

In short, stupidity or forgetfulness is a way to characterize the relationships between the actors in a different way than through "misunderstandings"--mostly because the latter involves something like the undermining, through its sort of inevitability. "Misunderstanding" is right, but it needs to move over a little towards this excited sort of state in order to add reality. I was thinking of this because after reading Latour for a while, you see the sorts of critiques that you mention (Gray, etc.) as of even less worth than the accusations of the people involved in the projects. In other words, these critiques, which do not at all add reality to the object, but take it away, don't just refuse to add reality in some sort of intellectual sense... they really don't have any active stake in the object that they are dealing with. But this sort active stake is not really--we see now--one of having more or less familiarity or knowledge of the network (a sort of "being-in" the group involved), but of being stupid in the right way, of not knowing--of misunderstanding, yes, but in a sort of forgetful way that adds more shapes, that has more morphisms, rather than less.

This, ultimately, is the basis of a rejection of shoddy critique--I'd say. And I'm claiming here that it involves, perhaps, less a problem in critique as such (as many of the SR people think it does, and which gets directed towards literature, among other humanities department, perhaps more than it needs to be) than with the logic of otherness which makes us think of moreness on the basis of its sort of undermining project... and which the morephisms of Latour can replace. This is just a hunch, but it's how I'd address a lot of what is going on. Forget the other!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Can't Stop, Won't Stop

I wanted to call attention to two recent texts I've read on the internet (both found via Graham Harman) that your "forgetting/stupidity" post put me in mind of. The first is a blog post which has created a bit of a furor in the SR community, comparing Harman's mode of philosophizing to a Ponzi scheme, essentially claiming that it's just playing on people's willingness to invest in a new philosophical movement without regard for "securing the assets," as it were (i.e. making sure the philosophy on offer is coherent). And the other is this review of Hardt and Negri's Commonwealth and Žižek's First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by the conservative political philosopher John Gray in the Independent, in which he basically claims that their critique of capitalism and proposed return to "the communist hypothesis" is itself conditioned by the decline of historical memory under late capitalism, because they've clearly forgotten all about totalitarianism. (How's that for dialectic?)

I just wanted to point out that both are good examples of what Norbert in Aramis derides as "crude sociology." In both cases, the authors produce a dense, oily substance that has its uses, but that is perhaps too effective, not specific or refined enough, for the particular critical purpose they're using it for. That is, do we need SR to reflect the structure of financialization in order to criticize its philosophical claims as excessive? Do we need contemporary communism to have literally "forgotten history" in order to disagree with its visions of what is to be done? As Latour would surely point out, these are perfectly symmetrical strategies taken up by the right and by the left. It's not ideology, or stupidity, that's clouding anybody's judgment here: if anything, it's the knee-jerk habit of accusing one's opponent of being blinded by ideology, or being stupid, or having "forgotten history." And it is assuming, as Norbert steadfastly refuses to assume, that you yourself could have "done better."

So it's not that Latour likes, or advocates, forgetting or stupidity (which, unless I'm misreading you, is something you're a bit worried about). But he does think that forgetting and stupidity are so inevitable, omnipresent, and equally shared that it's just not a good rhetorical strategy to accuse others of it. There's clearly an ethical dimension to this way of looking at arguments, and it may help account for Latour's differences and similarities with Nietzsche (a fascinating topic which I hope we can talk about more at some point), who does actually think that, under certain circumstances, forgetting history is a good thing.

Friday, November 20, 2009


It just struck me, looking over some articles and reflecting on Aramis, that indeed there it is better to start with Latour as a sociologist rather than as something else... as a philosopher (which is pretty much how I started grasping him), say, or as what I want to consider now: Latour as historian. Obviously history has a lot to do with the the ANT-Science-Studies-Latour project in general. But ultimately--as you, Evan, have reminded me in the past--the use of the black box is there to close off certain historical avenues and keep the field being investigated tightly bound to the movements and relationships of the actual actors (by opening other closed boxes others only peeped into). But in this sort of arrangement, you do end up with something more sociological, ultimately, than any history--don't you? Early on in Aramis, Latour says the following, as Aramis' network is being reconstructed (or constructed):

Our interviewees no longer even manage to recall who might have come up with the dream of PRT. They can't tell you what institutions were behind its development.[...] Of course, a historian of technology outght to work back toward that origin and replace it with groups, interests, intentions, events, opinions. [...] She would reposition Aramis "in its historical framework;" she would etermine its place in the entire history of guided-transportation-systems. She would go further and further back in time. But then she would lose sight of Aramis, that particular event, that fiction seeking to come true. Since every study has to limit its scope, why not encompass it within the boundaries proposed by the interviewees themselves?
-Aramis, 18-19

But there's also some connection here, I'd like to suggest, between something Latour says in the introduction to Pandora's Hope:

"But is science cumulative?" he continued with some anxiety, as if he did not want to be won over too fast.
"I guess so," I replied, "although I am less positive on this one, since the sciences also forget so much, so much of their past and so much of their bygone research programs [...]"

-"Do You Believe In Reality?" 1-2.

Don't we hear what Latour is saying in Aramis in another key? The lost networks can't in other words, be thought in any way as something like lost history. The "forgetting" here is not the same thing as the "forgetting of history," with all its sort of massive, catastrophic weight. This is what I find weirdest in Latour--the sort of realigning of affects that focusing on networks allows us. I'm going to come back to this in another post replying to your wonderful review of Aramis and its stress on the passions of research--something Latour, in a little two page blurb "From the World of Science to the World of Research," and at the end of Aramis itself ("The whole thing should have been a research project," 287) makes clear should be distinguished from the passion for science (though both, of course, are wrapped up in problems of the nonexistent modernity).

For now, I just wanted to note how forgetting here takes a sort of different form. In a Nietzschian way, it becomes both easier and harder to forget--essentially because its not so taboo. Obviously, this is nowhere near the sort of total, extremely active forgetting we have in Nietzsche--but fundamentally forgetting, even ignorance for Latour becomes... okay, because we're concerned only with action at a distance. So back in Aramis, something like the ignorant non-questioning merges with a more practical it-being-out-of-the-question:

For all of them [researchers], PRTs are beyond discussion: everyone wanted them; they had to be developed. There is no disagreement on this point. No engineer leaves open the possibility of mechanical uncoupling of cars. It's out of the question.
-Aramis, 19.

And somehow this has to be matched by a counter-stupidity that is just as okay. I was preparing another post, and I came across this quote I had forgotten:

"Always assume people are right, even if you have to stretch the point a bit. A simple rule, my dear pupil, when you're studying a project. You put yourself at the peak of enthusiasm, at the apex, the point when the thing is irresistible, when what you really want, yourself, is to take out your checkbook so you can, I don't know…"
"Buy a share in the Chunnel?"
"That's it, or even shares in the Concorde."
"Even in La Villette?"
"Which one, the first scandal or the second?"
"The second."
"Oh, the La Villette museum. I don't know; it's a disaster, after all, why not, it had to be tried. Never say it's stupid. Say: if I were in their shoes, I'd have done the same thing."

-Aramis, 36.

The pupil tests Norbert, and we're off having a different (I guess one could say, differently stupid [if you take this in the best sense] willing-to-forget) regard for history--which brings me back to my first point:

"Even in that business of the sniffer planes?"
"Of course, silly boy, you would have bought into it, and not because you're naive; on the contrary, precisely because you're a clever fellow. It's like the Galileo affair. You have to get inside it until you're sure: that one is guilty; he should be exiled, and even, yes, even fried a little, the tips of his toes at least. Otherwise, if you thick differently, you're a little snot. You play the sly one at the expense of history. You play the wise old owl."

-Aramis, 36-7.

That brings me round to innovation and utopia... two topics that will take up your last post.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Everybody's Autonomy

I've now delayed my post on Aramis for so long that I'm beginning to feel like the RATP. (Rim shot!)

Anyway, I doubt that I can do justice to such a strange and provocative book in one entry, so I will just offer some scattered comments, and we can go on from there. First, I want to do a little ad hoc taxonomy of its structure, which Latour actually makes pretty easy: certainly the differentiation between sections and subsections is much clearer than any of the divisions within the Aramis project itself. To wit, the elements of Aramis (the text) are:
1. the tale of Norbert (a sociologist and obvious stand-in for Latour, possibly named for Norbert Wiener) and the narrator (a young engineer doing an internship);
2. interviews with engineers and administrators involved in various stages of the Aramis project;
3. documents pertaining to the case;
4. speculative interludes on the nature of technological projects, many of them explicating or applying concepts that crop up in other ANT literature;
5. prosopopoeiae written in the voice of Aramis, the unfinished train line, itself (and occasionally other entities as well)
To make my life a little simpler I'm not going to deal with (4) or (5) at all right now, even though those are some of the richer passages in the text, and may be some of the most interesting to return to once we get into Harman and speculative realism. Please feel free to adduce some of those passages in your response: it's not at all that I'm not interested in them, it's just that I feel they are marked off as properly separate from the "story" of Aramis, which is what I want to start with.

Towards the end of the book, Norbert says:

I'd actually like to do a book in which there's no metalanguage, no master language, where you wouldn't know which is the strongest, the sociological theory or the documents or the interviews or the literature or the fiction, where all these genres and regimes would be at the same level, each one interpreting the others without anybody being able to say which is judging what. (298)

Is Aramis that book? I'm not sure that it is, completely. Certainly the narrative passages aspire to that state, and Latour brilliantly realizes it by making extended use of the dialogue form in the conversations between Norbert and the unnamed engineer. (I know Latour doesn't like this word, but the look is truly, and literally, "dialectical.") And as Norbert never tires of pointing out, the explanations offered by the various interviewees are very nearly as sophisticated and convincing as any of those advanced by the sociologists, making the text as a whole a true contest between "genres and regimes … each one interpreting the others." (Of course this is what Actor Network Theory would claim is always going on; it's just that usually Latour doesn't sacrifice the "friendly tour guide" persona of his first person voice. This movement into dialogism makes for a much more disturbing, chaotic text.) But in the speculative passages (4), he pushes back against these tendencies, marshaling all of the conceptual forces of ANT against the actors — which is why these sections, though full of great insights and formulations in themselves, ultimately don't seem so convincing as a "refined sociology" of Aramis.

But perhaps that's the point. In one way, Aramis is yet another handbook, yet another methodological tract, like Science in Action or Reassembling the Social. Yet instead of showing how perfectly ANT (or science studies or refined sociology or whatever Latour wants to call his method) accounts for the phenomena it's supposed to account for, Aramis takes the somewhat perverse tack of showing how confused the sociologist can get by his objects. Ultimately this is the moral of the book: one must love research, which entails loving its cul de sacs, breakdowns, and unexpected branchings as much as its eureka moments and positive successes. This is the error the actors make, that Norbert chides them for in his big Hercule Poirot speech in the epilogue:
“Oh, you do love science! … But you still don’t love research. Its uncertainties, its whirlwinds, its mixed character, its setbacks, its negotiations, its compromises — you turn all that over to politicians, journalists, union leaders, sociologists, writers, and literary critics: to me and people like me. Research, for you, is the tub of the Danaides: it’s discussion leading nowhere, it’s a dancer in a tutu, it’s democracy. But technological research is the exact opposite of science, the exact opposite of technology.” (291)

A great moment, one that actually moved me a little (I have a thing about research). And one that connects in a pleasing way to the two other themes in Aramis that I wanted to mention: utopia and autonomy.

One interesting motif in the book is the frequent allusion to 60s utopianism, often by the interviewees: e.g., M. Liévin: “‘It was fashionable at the time — Personal Rapid Transit, PRT. Everyone was excited about it … around the sixties. The Kennedy era. Private cars were on the way out — that’s what everyone was saying’” (15); or, later, M. Henne: “‘Before 1975, there was a period of innovation — new cities, all sorts of wild gimmicks. After 1975, it was all over; security was the only thing that counted…’” (47); or M. Cohen: “‘It’s also a question of the times, you know. I have trouble imagining an industrialist today who’d say, ‘We don’t have a medium-distance ultrasound link-up? Okay, let’s go for it — we’ll invent one. There’s no motor on the market? Never mind, we’ll develop one.’ And it was all like that. Today, everybody sticks to his own job. People don’t take so many risks’” (54); or M. Girard: “‘I went back upstream, as it were, back to the somewhat utopian thinking of the 1960s … we need something like cars that join together, trains that split apart’” (136); or M. Coquelot: “‘It’s a project from the culture of the Sixties, transporting people in a private Escape instead of in public conveyances… Now, obviously, we’re culturally out of phase…’” (155). In Latour's multi-layered allegory, one thing Aramis seems to stand for is the intellectual confidence, even arrogance, of France in the 1960s — a theme that is echoed, in another key, by Norbert's frequent references to figures like Sartre, Foucault, and Lévi-Strauss. What's so interesting about this nostalgic theme, however, is that it shows how 60s utopianism — which one often associates with an anti-technological stance, like the one Norbert attributes to Habermas on page 280 — in fact pervaded the sphere of technology and engineering itself.

This qualifies in an interesting way what some people have seen as Latour's technocratism, his own "love of technology," which is suspect to many intellectuals (chiefly Heideggerians, but not only them). Because what Latour loves above all is the technology that could exist, and the social interactions that (can) help to bring it about. He's not an apologist for the neoliberal order or the effects that technological culture has had, but he does insist on the reality of the networks that science and technology have created, and the possibility of using them to different ends than the ones they are currently used for. From this standpoint, he looks like quite a utopian thinker himself. And while Norbert, like Latour, is reluctant to attribute the failure of Aramis to leviathan-sized macro-actors ("Are you going to accuse the social system? Capitalism? Napoleonic France? Sinful man, while you’re at it?," 197), there is more than a tinge of pathos in the fact that an innovation that would have helped solve ecological as well as transportational problems was scuttled by technocratic management. And while many of the explanations given by the actors are as good as any a sociologist could come up with, some are a lot less enlightened — e.g. M. Chalvan: “‘Cars belong to individuals; everyone looks out for them. But Aramis would have been collective property. The first time anything went wrong, people would have blown the whole thing up’” (71): a rare appearance of straight-up ideology in Latour’s work. [Cf. also "The Fear of Mob Rule" in "Do You Believe In Reality?"]
Which brings me to the second question, the question of autonomy. This is not a concept that I would normally associate with Latour, given that his network ontology seems to make the question of autonomy not even really worth asking: if everything — human and nonhuman — is constantly negotiating with everything else, as Irreductions would have us think, then in what sense could autonomy even matter? If human minds aren't privileged, if Kant was wrong, then autonomy is pretty much a non-issue, right? But Aramis proves to be (among many other things, of course) a sustained meditation on autonomy, although it gets in through the weird allegorical back door (or "hidden staircase," as Norbert likes to say) of the operation of the Aramis cars themselves.

From quite early on, we are encouraged to think of the Aramis system as akin to the networks that Latour, in his other work, sees everywhere: M. Soulas, president of the RATP, says: “‘It wasn’t a line like a subway, but more like a bloodstream: it was supposed to irrigate, like veins and arteries. Obviously the idea doesn’t make sense if the system becomes a linear circuit — that is, if it ceases to be a network’” (9). But one of the big questions becomes, how does one keep the elements circulating within this network from destroying one another other, or the passengers they carry? The enormous technological difficulties of programming the cars to be autonomous and ensuring that the system is fail-safe is one of the major challenges faced by the Aramis team: “‘The big challenge with Aramis is that the cars are autonomous; they don’t touch each other, yet they work together as if they were part of a train. They have nonmaterial couplings — nothing but calculations. So you can imagine how autonomous they are. Every car has to know who it is…’” (54) Everyone has to know who they are, and where others are; they don't touch each other, yet they work together as if they were part of a greater whole. This is the social, as Latour sees it, and autonomy turns out to be a more important concept for it than I had previously thought. In one of the book's wilder passages, he transposes this concern for autonomy into a theological register in another odd prosopopeia, a dialogue between a Catholic priest and someone named "Lamoureux" who compares the Aramis cars to Leibnizian monads: “…they’ll be connected by a vinculum substantiale. Nothing material will link them together to keep them on the right path. They’ll have to make independent decisions, check themselves, connect and disconnect, in conformity with the laws of the world system to be sure, but freely, without touching each other and without being the slaves of any automated mechanisms…’” (63-64)

But it isn't Latour alone imposing this anthropomorphic autonomy on Aramis: the actors themselves do it constantly as well. The social scientists who conduct a study of the project's public image conclude that “Aramis has to be perceived as the prelude to a new philosophy of transportation, addressed to responsible adults” (186). [One might argue that it's the autonomy of the riders that's in question here, but as in other areas of social life, one has to grant the autonomy of others — in this case, train cars — as well as maintaining and asserting one's own.] The engineers in charge of Phase 3B describe the fixed sectors of traditional guided-transportation systems as being “‘like a cop who takes away all the flexibility from trains and subways in exchange for a considerable margin of security'" and “‘MATRA comes up with a radical solution … It involves doing without the sacrosanct fixed sectors, in exchange for increased intelligence on the part of the cars’” (208, my emphasis). Maybe Latour owes more to la pensée '68 than we thought! The great social struggles of the (long) 60s, the quests for civil liberties and freedom from police surveillance and oppression, are recapitulated in the attempt to imagine a true transportation network, one that requires a radical — and perhaps impossible — degree of intelligence and autonomy on the part of its constituent actors.

I'll leave it here, having barely scratched the surface of this marvelous, hilarious, frustrating, unpredictable book. I welcome your thoughts, whether or not they're a direct response to what I've written here. Let's see if we can link up and act as a train.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Evil Twins

(Note: I've added a conclusion).

I've been trying to find something like the anti-Latour lately, his arch-nemesis. There's good reason to believe it's Mike Davis.

That is, at least on the sort of public-intellectual level--where this bears on politics. We've already established the more scholarly anti-Latours: Foucault and (I'll add here) Carlo Ginzburg, Weber, maybe adding Jameson. But as these discussions tend to focus more on what results from method, though you've already brought this into the question of politics by talking about the despairing focus on "the system" and indeed the "conflict" view of history.

Here, however, I want to just focus on the bare-bones, flat-out, public-intellectual political statements (the whole incendiary work of the necessary condemnations, expressions of solidarity, warnings etc. etc.), of the nature of that closing remark in "Irreductions:"

I will not yield to them; I will not believe in "the sciences" beforehand; and neither, afterwards, will I despair of knowledge when one of the relationships of force to which the laboratories have contributed explodes above France ("Irreductions," 4.7.11; 236).

I want to contrast the sort of sentiment behind this remark (for it still remains too philosophical) with Davis' political statements in Ecology of Fear. Davis' position is, I think, laudable and somewhat similar to that of Latour's: he's focused on how the environmental community-action groups throughout Southern California have lost their focus by 1) splitting up and losing their allies in the pursuit of 2) holier-than-thou all-out ecological defense against the perversity of growth as such. What slips through this approach is the particularly Southern Californian urban growth-technique of sprawl, which overflows into nature so long as the development companies assure the people and the local governments (through a truly cynical process) that X acres of hillside--that is, the nice-looking but tract-housing-resistant parts of the land--will be "preserved" as "open-space" (the old attempt by business interests to secure the commons in 18th century England and 19th century Russia has now turned into its opposite: they now dole out free communal space in order to dissolve any commons). Sprawl takes these local battles and uses them against any larger anti-development movement, because the pro-environment people are always also against larger government intervention (who they see as providing worse-quality housing solutions)--they'd rather retain the populist position than actually oppose the forces involved.

This sort of impasse, Davis argues, has been resolved symbolically by imagining Los Angeles as a disaster-city. Always about to fall into the ocean, or burn up in flames, or be invaded by the Japanese (in WWII and after), LA and its environs is thought and managed as a site of the apocalypse: disaster, whether sprawl or nukes
(see the picture of a great sci-fi novel Davis references, and which I contrast to the Latour quote above), will have to come sometime--underneath the sheen there is the molten lava ready to erupt again out of La Brea, and there's no way to avoid this. Fatalism is dialed up and made into an aesthetic. Impasse is made only into the motion of tectonic plates.

Of course, on the more scholarly level, Davis' position here might also be that other Southern California resident's--namely that of Adorno. And so perhaps the opposite of Politics of Nature is really Minima Moralia. But I want to stick with Davis because he's more consciously Benjaminian or Simmel- or Ginzburg-like--that is, he digs up more and more bits of culture in order to do this, producing his little semi-convincing microhistories and registers of the symbolic. Here we return to the methodological level--which I think Adorno even in Minima Moralia can't quite duplicate, always pulled away from the particular as he is into the more abstract and principled level (thus he thinks all disaster really on the basis of one event--the Holocaust--and this in terms of an ultimate ethical injustice made concrete).

Regardless, everything reaches a climax in Davis' chapter on the Malibu fires. He here contrasts the handling of these fires--immense spending in order to save a few rich-people's homes, which are built basically as tinderboxes and placed in the most vulnerable locations--to the handling of inner city fires, which are actually (if not as frequent) much more damaging (in terms of lives, not property). The discrepancy is appalling. But Davis links this to that sort of fatalism: no one asks the state to come in and say people can't build their houses in the middle of chaparral on a hard-to-reach hill overlooking Zuma. People just give in and see it as destined to happen, because the politics are too complex.

Now, it's Davis' solution that seems absolutely anti-Latourian to me. For it isn't to analyze all the relationships and forces once more, and bring us back from this symbolic level to the actual impasses. It isn't to offer new strategies, however many political problems Davis isolates and however many recommendations Davis makes. It is, in a final chapter, to "move beyond Blade Runner," the arche-dystopia of LA, which, in the light of all this dispersed disaster, now looks a bit foolish. It isn't megacorporations that destroy LA, it is large corporations working in small but constant ways to make resistance weary, to grind it down in dispersed conflicts over land se, all the while working the politicians. The danger isn't that LA will become Bangkok, overcommercial and overindustrialized, but that Southern California as a whole will become Orange County--over-residential.

In short, the solution is to imagine a more accurate dystopian future. Latour would most definitely laugh at this: it's redolent of the scare-tactics of the Bush administration (terror level orange!), which really just were there to keep us complacent in the present. My point? Latour's remark about the nuke has to be taken against such a background, a background where the only solutions people have regarding the politics of nature (where weird sorts of eco-human relationships like the ozone hole proliferate) are dystopian or utopian (but only the latter in, again, a negative sense--and not many have the guts anymore even to think of these). It isn't a fatalism that characterizes this comment about a particular relationship of force--I think--but a need to provoke precisely a closer analysis that brings us back to the most immediate and non-symbolic problems. The problem, for Latour, is never going to be solved by linking the imagination to the present in the way Davis does: imagining a better dystopia doesn't do anything. It just expends energy in trying to attribute powers to forces, to say that impasses are due to groups with irreconcilable interests. As you have shown, Evan--this is the upshot of the emphasis on misunderstanding in Latour--people are always understanding each other in Latour. There's too much understanding, never too little.

So we don't need to go looking for all the bits of reality that show us, really, how the situation gives us a different dystopia than the one we really are imagining, in the way my parenthesis above argues for a linkage to the 18 Century battle over the commons. I meant that as a sort of illustration (maybe in a sort of Zizekian manner), but some might take it as a real causal attribution: what we're seeing on the hillsides of California just is the actual inverse of a process that happened earlier in the very same system or network. For Latour, this is as implausible as it is for me--who should really just be trying to give some thickness to the phenomenon in such gestures (Zizek- or Jameson- or Sartre-like). But such attribution makes up most of Davis' book. Davis = point out new symbolic locations to find violence that is political, to solidify the connection between politics and the symbolic; posit solutions that are better linkages between those two levels. Latour = follow networks to produce analyses of real locations, pare down the amount of symbols on the presupposition that everything is from the start political and so doesn't need my "revealing" of it as political to be, indeed, political. Visibility then becomes freed from this hermeneutic revealing--and we rethink what all the traditional political rhetoric of openness, of things being in plain sight, can now actually mean.

I'll conclude things here, with a question that really all this opens up: Doesn't this really provide a new, and better, critique of the Cultural Studies-type enterprise, of which the urban studies sort of extension (as if interpretive schools were little phone-lines and we can stand at the switchboard, linking them all or disconnecting them at whim) is the basis of the more sophisticated aspects of Davis' work? At recent conferences, we've seen the critique put in terms of Jonathan Culler's new book, The Literary in Theory: namely, that such multiplication of interpretation forgets the objects that we should be actually interpreting. It's intriguing that this theoretical problem then gets read on to Cultural Studies, as if it were just another symptom of the fate of High Theory--a classic de Manian move of which we should be extremely suspect (since theory only seems to expand in force when, as I've said before, it is a quite limited and frail adventure). Latour offers us a way out: it's all multiplication of interpretation that is the problem--insofar as this happens where there isn't a network. The Davis project is at fault not only because it involves "the comfortable old pursuits of image-counting and thematics" (Jameson, speaking not of this school of criticism but of all criticism in 1979, though I find it as relevant today--"Modernism and Its Repressed"), but also because these methodological failures are indeed comfortable and old. Interpretation doesn't do anything new, doesn't give us any new connections, when it tries to simply multiply them before checking whether they are real or not. Or rather, by multiplying them precisely to show that all the problems can lie on an ideological level, comfortably welded to an infrastructure that will change with the changes in representations. Latour isn't against imagining new aesthetics--that's clear. He's just against the sort of co-optation of that artistic function by critics, which makes the latter think that if we imagine better dystopias, we're actually getting somewhere. One could say he posits an absolute difference between the aesthetic and critical act, restoring to the former its creative function, and lancing off any of its sort of negative valences that come from the out-of-steam latter. He might then have little to say about satires (unless by the scope of their vision they give us interesting new networks--perhaps Swift then falls in there, or the satiric aspects of More). However, he certainly has a lot more to say about why literature and art doesn't have to merely represent or symptomatize some sort of imaginary in order to be effective.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The virtue of networks

I'm going to drop the meta-critique that I've been developing over the last week, especially as we'll be getting into Aramis, which is just so freaking awesome that it'd be a shame to read what I've been saying recently into it. But I hoped merely to show, especially in my last post, that We Have Never Been Modern is so expansive, despite its quite manageable size, that "it made me do it," as we like to say. This is because the argument--again, more than in "Irreductions," surprisingly--really does make a case for a different practice of scholarship in general, and is so totalizing and productive of closure that it proves the correctness of the saying that "the totality is not what we end at, but what we begin with" (i.e. it ends up negating itself insofar as its wholeness imposes itself upon us). You say in your last post, rightly (I'd say, with Jameson, whose saying that was--sorry to keep annoying you by trying to reconcile you guys), that we don't always have to do this (see his handy "Three Names of the Dialectic," or even the older "Architecture and Ideology"--where the description is a bit thicker--which argues such closure also needs to be supplemented with the local insights, springing up like some weird fungus on the big structure). In other words, we can take the small bits (the transformation of the notion of the black-box) too. But I'd still say that the aim of the book is to provide some grand alternative to interdisciplinarity by a brilliant destruction of the idea of "humanism"--the keystone that gives most current debates about the conflict of the faculties their, indeed, conflicting (but also stupidly irresolvable) shape.

Or rather than "destruction," some sort of process by which the idea is just made irrelevant (ladder-kicking). And this is where your nice discussion of the black-box comes in. For you supplement my too-temporal account with an incisive sense of its functionality, which obviously comes from an increasing skill in deploying the concept (or rather just using, since the other Foucauldian word seems to avoid any handiness and skill and indeed some sense of direction in a characteristic way: what I like about Latour is always his counter-emphasis, despite his rhetoric of war and force, on tinkering when it comes time to describe this sort of phenomenon--which is so much more bodily or rather [if I can tinker with that other word of his I'm finding so helpful] shapely).

What I like in what you said is the emphasis on not razors but boxes--the sort of redefinition of simplicity in unproblematic, un-angsty terms (unlike Occam). There's something to be said for the role of affect (qua affect) in Latour along these lines (and you've mentioned it in your posts), for he keeps railing against that perverse modern tendency to try and shore up despair as a sort of comfort that allows you to stay inactive (Jameson rails against irony in a similar way in Archaeologies and indeed throughout Postmodernism). Regardless, it's this redefinition of simplicity (as "proliferative simplicity," as you say) that brings me to the virtue of the network I wanted to get to last time.

Your comment on what the black-box opens up is extremely helpful here:

It seems to me that the black box has great possibilities for historicist work. Because it does away, once and for all, with the “archaeological” metaphors that Foucault et al. espouse. The working assumption, for the New Historicists (and also, I think, Jameson), is always that the actors knew more — even if only unconsciously — than we do; and in order to understand them, we need to reconstruct that knowledge. So we’re always playing catch-up; and this is part of why it’s so easy to criticize, even dismiss, historicist work: well, if you just knew a bit more about X then your interpretation would be better. Your failure to take Y into account invalidates your whole argument. You don’t seem to have realized that Z is a condition of everything you say.

But we can say, with Latour: yes, the actors knew lots of things we didn’t, consciously or unconsciously; but much of what they knew took the form of black boxes which they never thought, or perhaps were unable, to open.

That's perfect--and nicely puts a finger on that bullshit that sometimes passes for argument in English departments. Or rather, not argument, but as you say, whole methodological presuppositions that we'd rather keep in place and not question in order to score a small point and undermines the reality of the thing we're trying to get at rather than (to use the one phrase I've praised in Latour from the get-go) adds to the reality of it.

For if we can say, yes, let's just open their black boxes, but not say that this involves descending into some unconscious--if we can say "we don’t need the black boxes in the same way the actors did," the whole tenor of the work changes and we're more concerned with the connections the the thing we're dealing with makes. These connections, though, are not abstract--though we can always black box whatever we need to. The fun of the black box, as you say (and it does sound like a toy when I mention it this way--I'm tinkering again), is that we can actually get rid of this "abstract" and "concrete" dialectical language (it's this that actually is at the heart of progressivism: the dialectic is simply a machine for generating that return to the point at which you started, but with a fuller sense of what's going on). There are no abstract facts, just boxed ones. So boxing is, as you stress (and I didn't), easy--not fraught with some sense that it involves a subtraction from what we can get out of the thing, a loss. The loss is registered differently: as you rightly say, "we can always skip some steps."

The network that gets generated then unproblematically maps out the area in question, by first and foremost always reducing the number of potential ("powerful") actors (making the actors actual, "forceful"). That's perhaps a better way of putting the sense that Latour is getting at the real. But of course it doesn't stop there: the reduction of the amount of potential actors when seen in a situation allows for the multiplication of actual ones along different and perhaps unexpected lines. I'd stress that it doesn't have to be so unexpected, really, since the work of analysis isn't about revealing anything new anymore. Or at least the new isn't defined as something radically other, which gives the sense of progression (and that confusing situation where sometimes, as literary scholars, we somehow have to also make the case at some point that our interpretation is like a discovery).

The weird thing is that suddenly we're left with a situation where "make connections!" becomes the same thing as "always simplify!" And Latour asks us why that should ever have made us feel guilty. That's the virtue of the network notion of things, where in Heidegger (if I can just fold this back into what I was trying to get at towards the end of the last post), such connections are tortuously made by unfolding a more primary original term (leaving us with so much revealing and derevealing and light and darkness that we're just quite tired of standing anywhere near the clearing). I've been somewhat hesitant to affirm the sort of notion that just following these things gives you an adequate analysis (this seemed too close to Derrida to me, who is neat to read when he does this but ultimately doesn't give you any better sense of what the situation he's describing is about--it's usually just a fun ride). But you're right to try and make me remember in the last post that Latour isn't just following some preestablished sort of text: there's a subtle selection operation involving opening and closing boxes, but without the anxiety of loss, in order to construct networks (deconstruction becomes construction, he says in WHNBM) which we can then follow... and that's important. It indeed brings us back to the virtues in the structural narratology of Propp (that Greimas made more precise): we can summarize episodes and look at how they function, either by opening them up or by linking them to something else--we can close and distant read at the same time, as it were. Too often this is seen as a sort of "classifying" project in analyses of structuralism. Rather, it's closer to the "structuralist activity" that Barthes described--giving a better, fuller account by identifying relevant units of whatever size (which a regular analysis in terms of regular categories would miss). It's not out of place here to recall the "mono-individual" of Lévi-Strauss, an individual that is his own species, and the sense that categorization involves degrees of semiotic force, rather than anything so static as a label. It's in a similar way that the notion of degrees of reality works together with ANT to describe a situation, perhaps. Maybe we should read "identify units" for "follow," wherever Latour talks about "following the networks" (your incisive remarks about the differences between Latour and New Historicism here are relevant--identify new actors, don't rummage through the trashcan of history only to say you discovered something new!).

Maybe just to frame another question in closing, recalling my remarks above about experience: in general, the anxiety-producing aspect of the paradoxical modern stance is nice because it personalizes such response or knowledge--it shows that moving from the position of subjective knowledge to the objective involves a sort of process where the individual point (my reading) must be socially ratified (Kant). Marxism and Latour would critique this, but not in the same way--the former would keep things tied to experience to depersonalize individual knowledge (class consciousness and claims that we never encounter an unread artwork--cf. Political Unconscious, "metacommentary," etc.), while the latter would... well, what? Against this backdrop (which includes affect) where do Latour's experiences come in here? I imagine that once you start from the social science position, where all knowledge is already out there as positive, and doesn't so much involve the paradoxes of subjectivity (as experienced--these paradoxes are accounted for, not without massive effort of course, through the procedures and the conceptual framework, the view of sociology and its understanding of dynamics), then there's no need to depersonalize the individual, to show that this sort of marking of the subjective as subjective is pointless, since what's at work is a social process in which your contribution is only a description of the ratifying itself. You just plug yourself into the process of the ongoing description of reality. From the standpoint of the analyst, then, there's less of a problem of viewpoint (as there is in reading, where I have to have my take on things), so then when we can begin to critique sociology in the way Latour does, we don't have to reconnect it with experience--especially by ramming the description/criticism through that one-way time of modernity's historicism (Jameson). This paradoxically makes anecdote equally easy and simple and un-angsty to enter into... this is just a sketch of a problem, but I thought it might be neat to begin to think about such areas, since Aramis is so amazing in this respect, but also because Latour is always there with his paper (WHNBM), or getting into his car, conversing with laser printers, and walking through doors ("Where are the Missing Masses")--and indeed the anthropology of the sciences (talk about problems of viewpoint! the observer hidden behind all that lab equipment) is really the origin of the work...