Saturday, February 20, 2010
Posted by Michael
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.