Tuesday, December 1, 2009

One Author May Hide Another: Kenneth Koch and Latour

Since we are now beginning to occupy ourselves with the literariness of Latour's theory — or, at least, its potential applications to literature — I thought I'd respond to your excellent posts on realism and fables with a few musings on a genre that, on first glance, might seem a less perfect match for Latour: that is, poetry. (BL himself laments that he doesn't know more about the subject here, though he did do his thesis on Saint-John Perse.) But speaking as a poetry scholar, I think ANT has great possibilities in this area, though as always one has to be careful about bringing things over from one discipline to another too quickly without making the necessary adjustments.

It may just be a personal thing, but one writer who keeps coming to mind as I read Latour is not a philosopher or a sociologist, or even a literary critic, but the poet Kenneth Koch (on whom I wrote my masters' thesis in 2002, and who I know you've written on as well). Some of this may be circumstantial: the two have a little bit of common ground in French classicism, and they have some enemies in common:
Latour's wicked mockery of critical intellectuals in essays like "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?" bring to mind Koch's Nietzsche-on-nitrous-oxide masterpiece "Fresh Air" (which memorably skewered the New Critic-approved academic poets of the 50s as "the men with their eyes on the myth / and the Missus and the midterms"). But the kinship is really more of a temperamental or even philosophical one, I think. One moment in Latour that really brought Koch to mind is this passage from his recent essay "Can We Have Our Materialism Back, Please?" (2007):

"What is so promising about extricating material materialism from its idealist counterpart … is that it accounts for the surprise and opacity that are so typical of techniques-as-things and that
techniques-as-objects, drawn in the res extensa mode, completely hide. The exploded-view principle of description makes it possible to overcome one of the main aspects of bringing an artifact into existence: opacity. In other words, it draws the object as if it were open to inspection and mastery while it hides the elementary mode of existence of technical artifacts … Parts hide one another; and when the artifact is completed the activity that fit them together disappears entirely. Mastery, prediction, clarity, and functionality are very local and tentative achievements that are not themselves obtained inside the digital or paper world of res extensa — even though it would be impossible to carry them forward without working upon and with technical drawings and models. But again, it is not the same thing to work upon a model — mathematical, analogical, digital — as it is for a technical assemblage to be a model. As every engineer knows, scaling up (or scaling down, in the case of miniaturization and industrialization) is a tough, surprising adventure filled with twists and detours. (141, my emphasis)

This passage is, of course, pretty interesting in itself, and maybe once we move into the more philosophically-oriented part of our reading we'll return to it in order to help us get clear on how a Latourian materialism differs from other forms. But for now, I'm just going to exploit a little verbal felicity for my own purposes. What caused the Koch/Latour connection to really click for me was that one line — "Parts hide one another" — which oddly echoes one of Koch's best and most representative poems, "One Train May Hide Another." (I encourage you to read the whole
thing before going on with this post; the link includes a recording of Koch reading aloud as well.) On one level, the similarity is simply fortuitous, but I think there's more to be gained by comparing them at greater length. Latour's passage is all about how reality resists, overflows, undermines and rubs up against the models that engineers use to depict and account for it: exactly the sort of thing he details at such extraordinary length in Aramis. Similarly, Koch's poem shows how reality resists the synoptic vision we believe we have of it at any given moment. Because "it is not the same thing to work upon a model … as it is for a technical assemblage to be a model," the things we model continue to surprise us the more time we spend with them, the more operations we try to perform with them. "Assemblage" is in fact a great word for the entities Koch enumerates in this poem (and many others): not exactly natural kinds, not exactly alogical disjecta or symbolic fragments, but always a gathering of things yoked together into what seems, at first, like just one thing.

The basic idea of Koch's poem, unfolded at comical length, is that a little time and contemplation inevitably multiplies the actors involved in any given encounter with an object (or, as Latour prefers to put it, a "thing"). The movement traced again and again and again in "One Train" is the same movement that the engineers encounter when they spend a little time with the thing they are trying to bring into existence a movement that, come to think of it, sounds surprisingly like the process of writing a poem: "In a poem, one line may hide another line, / As at a crossing, one train may hide another train." The poem itself, appropriately for a work about temporal succession, is paratactic: that is, it appears to lack a governing logic, to be just one thing after another. It makes its rapid transitions in a variety of ways: occasionally it proceeds from line to line, or idea to idea, via metaphor ("So always standing in front of something the other / As words stand in front of objects, feelings, and ideas"); sometimes by narrative metonymy (the mother hides her daughter, that daughter hides her own daughter, "[t]hey are in / A railway station and the daughter is holding a bag…"), sometimes by seemingly random disjunction ("One lilac may hide another and then a lot of lilacs and on the Appia Antica one tomb / May hide a number of other tombs"). As in social research as conceived by actor network theory, we must follow Koch as he wend his way through assemblages in order to grasp the poem's socio-logic: we can't simply impose a genre on it (even a very broad one, like "lyric") and then track its shifting fidelities or deviations from this model. Or rather, we could do this, but we would end up with the kind of bad criticism that so often reduces, rather than adds to, a poem's specific reality: for instance, a reading that finds "One Train May Hide Another" to be yet another exemplar of the instability of the speaking subject in postmodern poetics (how many more times is that particular res extensa — excuse me, res cogitans — model going to be imposed on contemporary poetry? Don't the poetics people know that even the literary theorists have moved on by now?)

But I digress. Some lines even bring Latour's work directly to mind, particularly (for some reason) 
The Pasteurization of France
: "in the laboratory / One invention may hide another invention," of
course, but also
"one person's reputation may hide / The reputation of another," which recalls how
the way Pasteur's name comes to stand for the whole hygienist movement; "One injustice may hide
another — one colonial may hide another" reminds me of the discussion of macroparasites
(colonialists) and microparasites (bacteria). Other lines just evoke the flavor of Latour generall
"one memory / Certainly hides another, that being what memory is all about, / The eternal reverse
succession of contemplated entities," for instance;
or "[o]ne idea may hide another: Life is simple /
Hide Life is incredibly complex," which is a pretty good two-line summary of the Latourian theory
of translation, as I understand it.
If "One Train…" has a moral (and Koch, for all his hijinks, is ultimately something of a
didactic poet), it is, I would suggest, the same one that governs Latour's "empirical
metaphysics": Koch, like Latour, recommends a kind of ethics of hesitation ("when you
read / Wait until you have read the next line — / Then it is safe to go on reading") that
supplies our one way of trying to get a handle on the dizzying multiplicity of the
gatherings we find in all material things, as well as in "the social" in general. To get a
thicker, denser, more accurate description of the things we have in view, we have to slow
ourselves down. As Latour puts it in
Reassembling the Social: "I want to break the habit
of linking the notions of 'society,' 'social factor,' and 'social explanation' with a sudden
acceleration in the description … When you wish to discover the new unexpected actors
that have more recently popped up and which are not yet bona fide members of 'society,'
you have to travel somewhere else and with very different kinds of gear … There's no
question ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full
cost of any displacement out of its own pocket" (22-23)
. "It can be important / To have
waited at least a moment to see what was already there": this could be the actor-network
theorist's, as well as the poet's, motto.