Sunday, February 28, 2010


We're taking a detour here. Anticipating the discussion of Meillassoux in Prince of Networks, we're going to focus now on After Finitude. There's still a LOT of the first part of Prince of Networks that we want to get to (I personally want to do several more posts like the one on the dissenter), so expect posts on that to pop up every once and a while in between Meillassoux posts. And we'll be coming back to part two of PoN at some point for a really extensive discussion. Hopefully, we'll then turn that into a launchpad and/or counterpoint to our next wave of reading, which will be all the various realist and speculative thinkers I mentioned a while ago.

Turning to Meillassoux, let me just say that there's a lot in this book I want to cover--not just the ancestrality problem. In that spirit, I'll go over the ancestrality problem soon, when I can be very clear about it all and talk about it in as basic a way as possible, but in my next post (not this one) I'll be turning to that first objection of the correlationist "semiotic character" on page 18-20, and Meillassoux's counterargument--which centers around the difference between the ancestral and the ancient or distant (something I didn't give enough attention in skimming through the book a while ago).

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Latour at Princeton

So Latour is speaking in a couple hours at Princeton in our great department of Architecture. It's an event in a series that is basically an extension of Alejandro Zaera-Polo's really amazing-sounding seminar on the building-envelope (usually thought of as just the facade, but you can see how the hyphen broaches new questions that might be taken up by Latour and the other great architects he will be talking with), which is going on right now (and in which Latour is being read). The session today will be on "Attachments" (click here for the poster). Unfortunately, with the snow, I won't be able to get down to Betts Auditorium. It's okay though, since Evan saw Latour a few days ago at UCLA and will have an account of that soon. But it would have been great to see him on this topic, and especially here, since the visible spread of his work throughout the University can be shoved in the face of the IAS, just across Alexander Street, whose members denied him a position in 1990.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Dissent and Tennis

To pick up and expand on Mike's excellent post about Latour's dissenter:

What makes the dissenter seem like a critic is that the doubts are so active that everything comes into question: everything and anything is in doubt, because the dissenter actually just wants to prove the Professor wrong no matter what. What's crucial is that this isn't the critical desire: at no point does he want to transcend reality. The dissenter calls into question because he genuinely believes something else is real--in fact that something like the whole state of things is different. But this "state" is finite, and can be wrapped around a specific space--the lab and each object we encounter in it. It is only because of this (or the fact that he has no allies and confronts only in this space--it is the same thing) that each of his doubts attains the status of an "effort at modification," and he can genuinely be a part of a trial of strength.

This is very well put and I agree with all of it except that I think you're wrong to suggest that criticism wants to "transcend reality": as Latour understands it (and I'm basing this in part on remarks he made at a lecture I attended at UCLA the other day, about which more later) criticism actually wants to expose transcendence, to bring us back to reality by unmasking or debunking whatever makes a false claim on the real. But you're exactly right about what the dissenter is doing, and how that's different from critique: rather than obliterating the other side, either by transcending it or accusing it of false transcendence, he's shifting everything around: moving the goalposts, as they say in the UK.

There is a lot of mileage to be gotten out of the paradox of being against critique, but I think sometimes the whole opposition to critique and criticism comes off as a mere impatience with being detained or delayed. We want to make our points, elaborate our arguments, enter them in the register of posterity, and then maybe sit back and wait for them to be critiqued, or modified, or Aufhebung. It's a kind of back-projection of the history of ideas, or philosophy: if philosophy is a grand succession of important ideas, then we want to take our place in that history, and we'll accept being critiqued as the price of membership. But Latour's early work shows us once and for all that even in science, supposedly the most positive, accumulative, successive intellectual enterprise of them all, this never happens: our precious projects are scrutinized, criticized, picked apart, shoved around, manhandled at every turn!

One of the cherished beliefs of critique, especially immanent critique, is that it can fully grasp its opponent's or predecessor's positions prior to negating them. Let's call this the tennis match view of philosophy: you serve, I return. But the kinds of criticisms Latour sees as really mattering — and it's probably better to call them skepticisms or dissensions than criticisms — all happen prior to the moment of something like a definite position becoming established, as if we had people asking, Why are you putting the net there? or Why use that kind of ball? or Why play tennis in the first place? These seemingly irrelevant and counterproductive questions detour, redirect what we're doing, make us have to say it in another way; and we have to make this adjustment, or modification, in order to continue talking about something real. What Latour dislikes about criticism is not that (like skepticism or dissension) it disrupts things: that's good! What he hates about "criticism" specifically is that it thinks it destroys things, or "overcomes" them, that it magically eliminates its enemy and reveals a real world, as if the thing it redirected never existed, or doesn't continue to exist. That won't get anyone (except maybe a few impressionable and demoralized graduate students) to play their chosen game differently, let alone to play a different game entirely.

This is why I think (as I think Mike does too?) that the dissenter is sort of a hero for Latour (although a quixotic one), and an obvious analogue for the science studies researcher in the laboratory. It's also why I'm coming to think that Latour, whatever he and Harman say, should not really be considered a philosopher, or at least not one philosopher among others. (I'll try to expand on this intuition in a future post, which I promise I'll get to eventually, on Latour's UCLA lecture, "The Compositionist Manifesto.")

Sunday, February 21, 2010

It is a boring but great book

‘’(you'll remember, Paul, you and I recently agreed the first volume of Being and Event is a bit boring, and I'm increasingly interested in what we agreed about).’’

I just wanted to add some words since I really do feel like I have not been blogging here enough.

I suppose in the same way that Latour is both entertaining and a good thinker Badiou is both a bad writer and a good thinker. I guess the real problem would be to encounter a bad thinker who writes well. Philosophy, I think, tends to operate somewhere around the limits of boredom. Sometimes philosophers buck the trend. I suspect very few people are bored when reading Harman’s books (except when he has to talk about Heidegger but we can safely blame Heidegger for this). I do suspect that many people find reading through Being and Event a kind of chore – that is many readers will feel that they must read Badiou to keep up [one read’s Badiou after all…] even if, and here philosophy is a rather odd discipline, one finds the entire process terribly mundane. And all this for a discipline where you might not even get a proper grasp on what is happening in a text until you re-read it [that is re-read something you already know is boring!]. And then there is the math. Math! So what I think we agreed on was something more than that it is ‘merely’ boring, to link us up with Heidegger, since to call a book of philosophy boring is never enough to dismiss it - which is why Harman does not end PoN once he has convinced us that Latour is entertaining and the heavy lifting comes in showing Latour's metaphysical bona fides.

I remember coming across Hegel’s section on death and the negative (in the PofS) for the first time [the famous tarrying with the negative section]. I will never be able to articulate just how intense that moment of reading was for me, but not 3 minutes before coming across this section I was probably yawning and thinking about my next cup of coffee.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Dissenter

I had actually forgotten about the incident of the Professor and his dissenter in the crucial pages on trials of strength in Science in Action. I was happy to see Harman reconstruct it (interestingly, Harman capitalizes "dissenter," perhaps to make it a more interesting fight between him and the Professor--unless in the French it is capitalized--while Latour refers to him alternately as "the dissenter" and provocatively as "his dissenter"--meaning the Professor's). He does so for two reasons. First, he wants to give us some flavor of Latour, which is, indeed, something that is hard to convey without ending up sounding like you are describing yet another "French intellectual" (and perhaps Bourdieu's analysis conveys this, in a different way--I'd have to look at it). Harman does this throughout the book by pointing to his "wit," but he here accomplishes it, interestingly, by saying that, in these pages, Latour is not at all "boring" (PoN, 43). The more I think about it, this is a fascinating way to categorize philosophical work, and we use it probably more than we think (you'll remember, Paul, you and I recently agreed the first volume of Being and Event is a bit boring, and I'm increasingly interested in what we agreed about). But Latour isn't just entertaining or not boring: in fact, "there have always been too many boring philosophers, and we are fortunate that Latour is not among them" (43, my italics). That's even more fascinating, if we give this judgment the weight I want to give it (we don't have to bring in Heidegger's extensive--and a bit boring, now that I think about it--analysis of boredom, but it couldn't hurt). Then again, it could be just a matter of personal taste: I assume from his remarks in Guerrilla Metaphysics about Derrida (to the effect of "this isn't a good way to write and moreover I don't get why people salivate over this overwrought language"--the latter being a sentiment I share) that Harman thinks much of recent continental philosophy too could have been much more entertaining than it actually is and was, and, well, I'm betting that puts him in a small group (when so many seem to move towards it because they see this boring stuff as the incarnation of energetic, entertaining philosophy). Then again, he could be referring to lots of Anglo- philosophy, which he criticizes for its repetitiveness later in the book (I'll look at that when we get there). Here too though this sentiment or preference seems to animate Harman's work and even his positions (philosophy has this wonderful way of being author-centered, such that even personal opinions can seem to perform the philosophy if they are taken seriously enough--something Harman himself is attuned to if we look at his presentation of Latour's background early in PoN and his emphasis on moments of personal inspiration, p. 13), so while I don't want to wade in something so personal as taste, I do think it could be relevant to this issue of boredom and we should note it.

The other reason Harman gives us such a long reconstruction of this section of Science in Action is that he wants "to do some justice to the meticulous detail of Latour’s empirical accounts of laboratory life, which must otherwise be excluded from a metaphysical book like this one" (PoN, 37). He particularly wants to show how Latour can actually reconstruct every single thing the Professor does in his lab in order to combat the suspicions of his dissenter, and how Latour can show how at each point the forces are changing, amassing against the dissenter with the recruitment of more and more allies: "What the story shows is that the Dissenter can continue to dispute ad infinitum, but only at the cost of growing isolation and perhaps even mental illness (and here I do not jest)" (PoN, 37). Now, there's an interesting thing here in this figure. After the dissenter exits the lab Latour remarks:

This exit is not the same as the semiotic character [the figure Latour brilliantly isolates as the made-up or semi-made-up "contrary position" in a scientific paper, who comes to pose a counterargument that you have anticipated and refute]. This time it is for good. The dissenter tried to disassociate the Professor from his endorphin, and he failed. Why did he fail? Because the endorphin constructed in the Professor's lab resisted all his efforts at modification (Science in Action, 77).

Harman cues us to this fact: in Latour, reality is what resists. This is what makes the incident more determinative or final ("this time it is for good") than in the lab paper where the semiotic character is defeated. More reality is generated here, set in place. But what is also fascinating is the last sentence--to which Harman's great emphasis on the length of this account of Latour's brought me (I wouldn't have noticed it, or would have only accounted for it abstractly): the fact that the skeptical efforts of the Professor's dissenter are also "efforts at modification." I know what is at stake in a trial of strength is reality, but I guess I never thought that this would be the way that even the skeptic or cynic could be accounted for from the Latourian point of view. Perhaps this is because (weirdly) I feel we could insist that the dissenter is a critical figure, trying to transcend reality, though neither Latour nor Harman says this. The reason they don't say this is because the dissenter precisely isn't a critic: it is the reality of each thing that is at issue. As Harman says, "The Dissenter may be a loathsome pest, but he does have a point: anything can be challenged" (44). What is important to realize is that this is all there is to his point--or perhaps that this is only his point. Remember he was "an extreme case" of the radical 1% that actually would get into the lab and challenge a claim: "as one of the estimated 1% of readers who actively doubt this claim, the Dissenter appears at the laboratory to speak with the Professor in person" (39)

What makes the dissenter seem like a critic is that the doubts are so active that everything comes into question: everything and anything is in doubt, because the dissenter actually just wants to prove the Professor wrong no matter what. What's crucial is that this isn't the critical desire: at no point does he want to transcend reality. The dissenter calls into question because he genuinely believes something else is real--in fact that something like the whole state of things is different. But this "state" is finite, and can be wrapped around a specific space--the lab and each object we encounter in it. It is only because of this (or the fact that he has no allies and confronts only in this space--it is the same thing) that each of his doubts attains the status of an "effort at modification," and he can genuinely be a part of a trial of strength. My takeaway is that this is important to note when we jump from something like the dissenter or skeptic to the critic quite quickly. Latour in his essay on criticism realizes that for the latter position, something else is at stake than just reality in the here and now, as it were.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Immanence again

I've been talking a lot about Latour and immanence here, but now I'd just like to heed the remark of Harman at the beginning of Prince of Networks:

It would certainly be fruitful to consider Latour’s similarities and differences with fellow non-analytic/non-continental (i.e., basically non-Kantian) thinkers such as Alfred North Whitehead, Henri Bergson, William James, Gilles Deleuze, Michel Serres, Gilbert Simondon, Gabriel Tarde, Etienne Souriau, and Latour’s own friend Isabelle Stengers. But when this emerging ‘School X’ is promoted under such misleading titles as ‘process philosophy’ or ‘philosophy of immanence,’ the result is a false sense of beatnik brotherhood (PoN, 6).

Why is it false?

[T]here is a major family quarrel underway on this list over a highly classical problem: the isolation and interbleeding of individual things. On one side are figures like Bergson and Deleuze, for whom a generalized becoming precedes any crystallization into specific entities. On the other side we find authors such as Whitehead and Latour, for whom entities are so highly definite that they vanish instantly with the slightest change in their properties. For the first group, substance is too determinate to be real; for the second, it is too indeterminate to be real (PoN, 6).

That last sentence especially is like breath of fresh air: suddenly, just by reappearing, substance is freed from its conflation with so many operative terms that we find in post-Heideggerian France. In all that talk about identity, difference, and sameness, substance is smuggled in or rather subordinated to the play of those other terms (I'd add, especially in Deleuze). And as we get clear and a bit "classical" about all this, then, what comes out of this are objects and a question about whether certain stances vis-a-vis substance either help or hinder the emergence of objects (though that is not the only way one can see whether a philosophical position is object-oriented).

And at the same time, immanence gets complicated and we have to bracket the term--or really start to find out what we mean by it. I intend to do the latter here as we go through all this, but for now I just wanted to quote this nice bit, which also serves as a sort of setup for PoN--something like the most immediate area or debate that Harman sees his work plopping down into.

One more comment on what Harman seems to be doing with Latour versus what Latour, in "Coming Out" seems to be saying about himself--which will reply a bit to what you were saying, Evan, last time. I don't think there is a conflict or anything (and you're not saying that), but there are interesting sorts of considerations that emerge whenever we take philosophically a thinker who might be doing something else than philosophy. Or, rather, doing say 10 different things besides philosophy--as is the case with Latour and actually with many many people that philosophers are willing to consider having philosophical import: taking someone philosophically involves stating whatever they are doing in philosophical terms first and foremost, or reading into what they say something like a clear position on either established or emerging philosophical issues, and this means massively excluding the other direction in which their work goes. Deleuze was a master of this, and also tried in a sort of unprecedented way to keep the exclusion to a minimum--in what amounted to an effort (and this was the effort of critical theory as well) to expand the extremely, extremely, extremely small canon of philosophical texts. But my point is that this exclusionary operation is also an operation involved in all such philosophical consideration (broadly considered, philosophy that interprets/takes up thinkers), and it justifies itself by pointing to the increasing specificity about the problems it reveals to have always been rumbling underneath (or, as the philosopher might claim, at the heart of) whatever the thinker is saying and wherever he or she is going.

In Harman, this move has the added benefit (remember, exclusion isn't always wrong) of revealing a problem to be there where we didn't even think it was--as I've said above. The ultimate interpretive question for us would be whether we want to then take this as a (I was going to say mere, though I don't wish to demean--as should be clear from all this, I want to instead produce a healthy ambivalence not reducible to skepticism... I'll just say local) contribution to philosophy, or as something that really has all sorts of wide-ranging effects upon how we or anybody else considers Latour. Obviously we don't have to choose, but something like this choice informs our reading a bit, when we suddenly see even Latour's more philosophical statements put in a more metaphysical language, like this:

Unlike a substance, an actant is not distinct from its qualities, since for Latour this would imply an indefensible featureless lump lying beneath its tangible properties (PoN, 17).

It's a great statement--but how did it come to be? Part of the answer is that this is just of the genre metaphysics: it is doubtful that Latour would actually be bothered if what he did "implied" such a lump, though he metaphysician might be (and Harman is--rightly so--whenever Latour does something that indeed implies this). But now the question is--what constitutes that genre? What produces it? What allows it to transcode the work of Latour in this way, such that it attributes a properly metaphysical consequence (to be avoided) to a proposition Latour, even at his most explicit ("I use 'actor,' 'agent,' or 'actant,' without making any assumptions about who they may be or what properties they are endowed with" Pasteurization, note 11), only can somewhat hazily imply in this way (not because the proposition isn't philosophical in precisely this way, but because the proposition would also have to do at least 10 more things besides this)?  (By the way, you'd be mistaken--though again you'd be extremely philosophical--to draw from this some notion that we are considering Harman's statements as mere "discourse." What is in question is not the "status" of Harman's work in that sense: I can discuss metaphysics as a genre without implying it is therefore a discourse or even a text--though some years ago we might have argued explicitly that. But we're beyond that point: sorry literature- and theory-bashers.) This is just to say that we have to weigh the import of the resurgence of metaphysics that we find in Harman's work--or actually just ask how it is revived or even whether it is a revival (what were we doing before?)--in order to understand a bit what we're doing to Latour when we begin to take him (or watch him take himself) in this philosophical way.

Then again all this might not be as much fun to weigh as the other resurgence (or first appearance?) in Harman, which is that of the object. But it seems to me we can focus this question by also asking to what extent we need metaphysics (and not just an object-friendly thinker like Latour, who we can interpret metaphysically) to make the object appear. This is a bit backwards, I know, and is symptomatic of a reader who is more confident in talking about what philosophy does than actually doing philosophy, but hey, that's me--and besides I think it really does open up a sort of weird and interesting view on all this, where we do possibly have something to contribute.

Thursday, February 11, 2010


Philosophers trying to give retrospective accounts of their careers usually do one of two things: either they claim it's all been one big project all along, motivated by one basic idea or set of ideas; or they mark off phases of development where they got interested in something new. But Latour does neither! Instead he tells a story sort of like Descartes' in Discourse on Method, of doggedly trying to follow a single method (which, he reminds us in Reassembling the Social, means "travel") and the sorts of people he's encountered by using this method, and the ways he's pissed them off, forcing him to explain himself. In other words, he says that he has been trying to do one thing all along, but he has been continually waylaid by people confused by his method. The thing he's been trying to do, apparently, is "philosophy." And "Coming Out as a Philosopher," as I read it, is his explanation of everything he's found it necessary to accomplish before beginning to do philosophy.

To summarize quickly for those who haven't read it: in "Coming Out as a Philosopher," Latour claims to have adapted his method of following chains of translations from the Biblical scholar Rudolf Bultmann. He then started using this method, originally developed for exegesis of scripture, on the inscriptions of science and technology. The intention behind this wasn't to debunk or refute science — it just endeavored to show how science constructed itself as real through a long process of trasnlation, with the hope of being able to use the method to show how regimes of enunciation other than science do the same (and thus ultimately refute positivism or naturalism: there's nothing special about science or nature's reality; it's knitted together very well, but so are other modes of existence). This, on Latour's account, is what he was doing in Laboratory Life and Science in Action.

The plan, apparently, was to do this first for science and technology, and then move on to other modes of enunciation (law, religion, etc.). Science, as I understand it, really has no priority for Latour: he's not a philosopher of science, he's a philosopher with an intense interest in scientific method (again like Descartes). But, before he could keep traveling along his merry methodical way... lots of people objected! The science wars broke out! Scientists assumed he was using "society" in order to debunk science/nature (in other words, they accused me of being a social constructionist/anti-realist). So he had to prove he wasn't, not by genuflecting to science and reassuring everyone that it actually is real after all, but by showing "sociology" and "society" to be as ad hoc and constructed as science and nature are. (Fast-forward a little to Reassembling the Social; but this is also what he's doing in early articles like "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan.") And this move, of course, pissed off sociologists (Bourdieu, among others) — although thus far Latour doesn't seem to care too much about that.

OK, well and good. But, at the same time, even as Latour engaged in what are basically high-level methodological debates with scientists (both social and natural), he got an idea for a second project, one which would help explain why everyone got so angry at him to begin with. This is his "anthropology of the moderns" — initiated with We Have Never Been Modern and ultimately including stuff like Iconoclash and some chapters of Pandora's Hope. This is not Latour arguing with anybody (despite the rhetorical pointedness of his style) but rather providing narratives of why there are so many people around who want to argue with him. (And if he engages with philosophers in WHNBM, it's probably because philosophers are the champion arguers in our societies and they influence intellectuals more generally, not because he's really trying to intervene in philosophy.) As opposed to stuff like Science in Action and Reassembling the Social, which are both basically how-to books for social scientists and say nothing about what exists but just about how existence is constructed, We Have Never Been Modern is, if not an anthropology or an ontology, at least a proposal for one. It's asking: how did we get to a place where we think that "science" and "society" are the only things that are real?

In "Coming Out as a Philosopher," all of this previous work — We Have Never Been Modern included, which one might have thought was his "coming out" party back in 1991 — appears as just so much ground-clearing, or preparatory work, for what Latour has in fact really wanted to do all along: use this method of following the actors and so on to describe other regimes of enunciation besides "science" and "society," and thus reveal those other modes of existence that the scientists and the sociologists have claimed don't really exist. And that's what he is now promising to do. We move, as it were, from method to modes: all this time Latour's basically been arguing that a single method can be applied to everything that exists, but he has applied it only to "science" and "society"; now he's finally doing the more properly philosophical work of saying what there is that methods can be applied to.

So, to sum up, as Latour sees it he's had three major intellectual projects going more or less simultaneously:

1. A methodology for "following" the construction of truth via chains of translations
2. An anthropology of the moderns (or, Why does everybody insist on arguing with me?)

3. A secret philosophical system, which he's going to unveil in his next book
(An Inquiry into the Modes of Existence)

I'm going to stop there, though I want to talk about how Harman sees what Latour is doing; that will involve looking a little bit at his essay on "The Importance of Bruno Latour for Philosophy" and Prince of Networks. Harman makes the rather different claim that Latour has been doing philosophy all along. My rather broad question is: does it make a difference to how we read Latour — and in particular to how we read him vis-à-vis speculative realism — if we see all the work published up to this point as preliminary to philosophy, versus reading it as philosophy? Or does this not really make a difference at all?

On the active voice in philosophy

Can I just jump in here real quick and say holy shit, how wonderful is it to actually encounter philosophers who use the active voice?

I think we've been loving this about Latour's more philosophical ramblings and in part talking about it as his mojo (it's really why I love Irreductions). But if we don't get explicit about the things that bring about this mojo, we're just going to be talking in general about mojos everywhere. There's a lot to mojo, yes--I mean we're talking about style, basically, which is never reducible to mere grammar. But the wonderful thing about style (at least for us, who know how to talk about it) is that you can build it up out of these elements, as much as you might also try to capture it all at once with rhetorical terms (I feel mojo for us means something like the old rhetorical term energia--but taken technically that term also doesn't quite do).

So now that we're heading into Harman, another thinker with mojo, I just want to actually state that the active voice contributes to the charm.

There are other thinkers who use it too, of course. Deleuze comes to mind. But the passive voice dominates a lot of recent philosophy.

Part of this is Heidegger's fault--though it is probably not good to assign blame in this way, since no one person can cause any real change in the use of grammar (and I'll qualify things in a second). I don't mind Heidegger's jargon so much as the structure of sentences like these:

Yet that which is last in the order of the way things are connected in their foundations existentially and ontologically, is regarded ontically and factically as that which is first and closest to us (B&T, ¶44, p.268 in M&R translation).

I did indeed just pick this at random, by the way--I basically opened a book of Heidegger and there it was. You can open up to a page of Heidegger, though, and most of the thing will be in the passive voice:

[In] what does the humanness of man consist? In lies in his essence. But whence and how is the essence of man determined? Marx demands that the "human man" be recognized and acknowledged. This he finds in the "community." "Communal" man is, for him, "natural" man. In the "community" the "nature" of man, that is, all of his "natural needs" (food, clothing, reproduction, economic subsistence) are equably guaranteed. Christians see the humanness of man, the humanity of homo, in his delimitation from deity. He is a Christian man as "God's child," who in Christ  hears and accepts the claim of the Father on him. Man is not of this world, inasmuch as "world," thought theoretically and platonically, is only a passing passage on to the beyond (Letter on Humanism).

Now, to be fair, Heidegger is never wholly passive--I imagine only really hardcore Heideggerians or maybe Derrida can actually pull that off. And his whole general project restores transitivity to the even passive uses of "is"--as Levinas once nicely put it. And on top of that, there are some really striking moments (the tool-analysis is one of them) where we get Heidegger's active voice:

The kind of being which belongs to such concernful dealings is not one into which we need to put ourselves first. This is the way in which everyday Dasein always is: when I open the door, for instance, I use the latch. The achieving of phenomenological access to the entities which we encounter, consists rather in thrusting aside our interpretive tendencies, which keep thrusting themselves upon us and running along with us... (B&T, ¶15, p. 96)

That's still not quite as active as it could be--and it is built up in such an unbelievable way (as in the later work, where jugs are jugging etc.) that we might still have recourse to Adorno's jargon book. But then again anything with Heidegger and his language is fraught.

What's more important is that I also be fair in general by qualifying all this scorn for the passive.  I'd actually go so far in the opposite direction as to say--and I think I've said this to you on occasion, Evan, as I say it to everybody--precise use of the passive voice (not lazy use, as you'll find in this post) can be invaluable at times, especially in philosophy. Here it often becomes a very essential tool for writing, as it keeps the verb's metaphoricity to a minimum (not to mention its ability to imply causality). The sentence then relates concepts quite clearly.

But, of course, if you start to use the active voice, you quickly understand concepts get even clearer when you are concrete, when you risk causal implications and make something in the sentence do something rather than be assigned something (this is also why Hegel is, at times, amazing to read). Of course, teachers of writing often prohibit the passive voice for this reason: you actually have to think hard about the structure of the sentence with the active voice.

And Latour, who establishes or reestablishes that unbelievable link between rhetoric and realism, seems to understand precisely this. Harman too. I'm making my way towards intimating that the active voice has something to do intrinsically with OOP, of course, where clarity is suddenly defined precisely in terms of the ability to convey that concreteness.

Everybody knows this already though. What they're mistaken in thinking is that this might be something different than what was done long ago in the "language-centered" era of "critique." We can't just rest content with the notion that a philosophy's use of language reflects that philosophy--that the connection I'm drawing here is fully explainable in terms of what the philosophy says even about rhetoric itself. Talking about the active voice (or using rhetorical terms to try and get at it) shows other reasons can validly explain the thing.

This is important to underscore when a certain type of current continental philosophy doesn't claim to care anymore about a dream of some continental (mostly French) philosophy in the middle to late part of the 20th century: that you could change the general form and structure of philosophy by trying to talk about something other than what "there is." The strain I'm referring to interprets precisely this dream to be a statement about the nature of reality, about what there is and how what there is is there. Now, this isn't so much a misinterpretation (as partisans of the older schools would say) as a judgment--and a complex and nuanced one at that. It states that not only were the dreams impractical--if it just said that it would be missing the point--but also the whole effort of dreaming to produce practical effects was weird in the first place. And the judgment is correct, in some sense: what is constantly being bashed as the "language-centered" aspect of a certain continental philosophy of the past is actuality its incredible hope that by merely changing the way we speak, by being wary of "there is," the whole manner of philosophy would change in turn. To believe this, you have to believe that style mattered, that it had practical effects on the ground, over and above believing what Heidegger said about being and the the structure of "there is." Now, for a whole host of reasons, I think it's actually important to remember how the situation would support such a weird position. And it's important not to forget that Deleuze, who is currently being championed as a realist against the "language-centered" philosophies of old, held this position most tenaciously and extremely.

My only point here is that if we are willing to recognize a certain active-voiced turn in philosophy--if I've not so much convinced you of that as restated something that you want to believe about the relation of what the philosophy says to the way it says that--well then we have to ask whether something similar to the "language-centered" era is going on here. This doesn't invalidate anything or undercut anything about the philosophies in question--it just makes us wonder a bit about how philosophy works, how it constitutes its relationship to expression, how it continues to dream.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Part of the weirdness of Latour, it seems to me, is that he can get away with saying something like this, in "Coming Out as a Philosopher" (his Unseld-Prize acceptance speech):

I have carefully hidden my big project under a screen of apparently disparate types of studies. [...] I have not dispersed myself at all: it is just that, throughout my career, I have simply rather disingenuously [simply rather disingenuously!!-mj] hidden [disingenuously hidden!!-mj] my real intentions.

And then the next moment he can say something like this, about his notion of irreduction as it was featured in the "immutable mobiles" of his work on the Salk institute:

The great surprise came when I had to learn, quite bitterly, that what I had taken as a rather innocent method to study the truth condition of science (exactly as I had taken positively the exegetic method to study the different truth conditions of religious enunciation), was immediately taken by my readers as a debunking of the claims of scientific reason to objectivity.

One moment he's constructing a big system underneath all his microvariations (finding different modes) and then in the next he's coming up with those very microvariations and finding himself assaulted by all sorts of people thinking they have figured that big system out. So its not so much a conflict between what Latour thought he was doing and what he was being accused of, and at the same time it isn't a conflict between what Latour thought he was doing and what he actually was doing (philosophy):

This complete disconnect between what I thought I was doing (a realist description of the scientific networks’ ability to produce objectivity) and what I was accused of doing (a debunking of science’s claim to reach the natural objective world of matters of fact), soon became for me, instead of the irritating misunderstanding it was at first, a fantastic opportunity to study what in the meantime I had defined as a “symmetric anthropology of the moderns.”

The conflict, or conflicting element, is in the fact that others are somehow responsible for misinterpreting him (even if they are here pardoned) when what he was doing was indeed something different than what he thought it was.

Obviously, anyone of Latour's stature interested in sociology has to be fascinated at how this happens--how even when he's not knowing what he's up to he stumbles into conflicts. And all autobiographical accounts wonder at this sort of phenomenon. But my point here is that I'd pay serious money for a Bourdieuvian account of all this, which I think would be just so much clearer. Latour seems never to quite gather things around him in a definite way--and not in a way that backs up what his philosophy is all about. Everything seems like a murky sort of self-reflexivity, one that doesn't even create a real good mess. Even though we're really intensely conscious of how and where we're being perceived:

Please, don’t tell any one, especially in England, or the United States, that such is my overall life project and that I am in effect, a philosopher,--worst of all a philosopher with a system —and now, thanks to you, a philosopher with laurels around his head!

It is a joke, yes, haha, but there are other passages here which say the same thing more seriously (like the passage on Aramis not being translated in German that I just quoted in my last post--and other small little phrases). Maybe I'm not loving the flux as much as I should, or giving enough credit to Latour for writing an intellectual genealogy in only a few pages, to be given in a short acceptance speech. And I don't mean to read the philosopher against his own philosophy--Deleuze was great at showing how dumb this was (see the knockdown "Letter to a Harsh Critic," in Negotiations). But it's only my intention to show that Latour seems to do this himself, and comes up with a weird "coming out" project that probably should strike us as involving a certain type of self-reflexivity that might pale in comparison to the "critical" one.

I don't mean for that to be a final judgment or anything: I mean mostly to provoke some discussion of the role of reflexivity in Latour as compared with Bourdieu (as a way of replying to your amazing Bourdieu posts, but also harking back to some of my earlier comments about Latour being even more praxis oriented than the theorizer of practice). Obviously, with correlationism at least challenged here, things change a bit. And again, it's not really clear how much we should read Latour's conclusions into every one of his statements--that's a particularly philosophical (I wouldn't say "critical," like the philosophers are doing) thing to do (assuming you always have to be consistent, even in your inconsistency, and somehow perform your system), and we shouldn't put so much weight upon it. But Latour's small work still makes us wonder what his autobiography would look like, and wonder if Bourdieu's Sketch of a Self-Analysis does this better.

Actually, let me just add I'd probably, really, want nothing so extreme as either of these thinkers as far as autobiographies go...

Producing philosophy

So, we're going even slower than promised. But bear with us. I'm going to give very basic narrative of what happens in Latour's acceptance speech for the Unseld prize, "Coming Out as a Philosopher," and what Harman is up to in the short piece "The Importance of Bruno Latour for Philosophy." Let's see what happens.

Basically, we get the sense that Latour realized early on his mode of approach required us to go past its mere application to draw some weird philosophical conclusions. What's interesting is that, reading his works, you would think he would draw these conclusions in order to stay true to the method--that's what "empirical metaphysics" means to us, no? But now, with this essay, something is different: we get the sense that the method was indeed one sort of way of drawing these conclusions--and that it was constructed on the basis of the philosophical axioms rather than the other way around.

But we're also understanding that this allows us to be more precise about what we were trying to stay true to in the method, the approach. These are the modes, which seem to well up in the different ways the method or way of approach is applied.

What I think Harman would say, on the basis of his essay (which doesn't respond directly to this shift in Latour's work), is that these modes are grounded in something else that happens by way of the method, which is that a focus is turned upon objects. What we're true to in the way we're approaching, investigating, constructing networks, messing things up, is staying true to objects, not giving a damn for Kant.

Eventurally, Harman can make sense of Latour's modes. I wonder whether Latour though can actually make sense of OOP in its current form.

Meanwhile, what happened to the method? Once it crystallizes into ANT, is it then a little more disposable? Or does it become more necessary than ever? I particularly liked the sense that we were staying true to a method and what the latter produced in going beyond it and seeing what metaphysics it implied. Now, what happens to the method? I feel a little bit like Latour himself:

I have to mention here, as a parenthesis, that I am somewhat disappointed that none of my fieldwork books are translated into German, especially ARAMIS, OR THE LOVE OF TECHNOLOGY, my favourite work to this day, which might give German readers the idea of me as a philosopher writing essays, thus very French!, but not of what I also wish to be, that is, an empirical philosopher treating philosophical questions through precise ethnographic inquiries— the same is true of my work LA FABRIQUE DU DROIT a study of one of the French supreme courts I take as my most elaborate field work.

Now, of course I know the fieldwork is still there--but I am trying to interpret in a strong way what exactly it means to come out as a philosopher or really begin to emphasize the philosophical aspects in what Latour is doing. In some way, I think this also means that Latour just can't be what he wants to be. He's too good at what he does, which is that fieldwork--at least that's my sense of him. I'd rather have Harman talk about Latour, in other words, than Latour himself.

And this is what is interesting about Harman--he seems to understand how you can really get more out of Latour if you read him with a knowledge of philosophy (even better, with a knowledge of metaphysics). I just want to pause a moment and show how that might be something completely different than what Latour himself does, which is try and make his work produce philosophy, or be philosophy.