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.