Wednesday, December 30, 2009

macro-physics! - Latour and plasma

I wanted to respond off-the-cuff because Mike, in his usual sharp manner, raises exactly the thematic concerns that have been bothering me lately. My concerns are currently circulating around intentionality, Harmanesque broad intentionality at that, transcendentalism/autonomy/subjecthood, and arising from Harman’s response to my reading of the vicarious causation essay the possibility of a hermeneutics of objects. All this has been buttressed for me by an attempt to engage with Žižek which has more or less confirmed to me that Žižek most clearly represents all that object oriented thinking rejects. So I must admit it is a little bitter-sweet to discover that Latour has already beaten me to the punch (at least in extending the range of hermeneutics) with the following quote:
“Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself.”

Mike is right to wager that I’d find myself at odds with this, but this all depends on how Latour is using the word hermeneutics. If it is meant, and I suspect this is not the case, that Latour means the art of interpretation is a ‘property’ (and this is an awkward use of the word property) of the world then we might be treading in dangerous waters - from the charge of anthropocentricism to the Kantian limitation that one is here speaking about something beyond the phenomenal realm of experience. It is more likely that Latour means to draw out the classical (and indeed sacred...another subtle Latourian theme) meaning of hermeneutics as ἑρμηνεύω or translate. Re-working the quote along these lines one could then state that ‘Translation is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself.” This line would, in turn, be classically Latourian – perhaps even mundanely so.

Moving to the conceptual I find it difficult to understand what hermeneutics as a property of the world could possibly mean. This remains, at least for me, the leap of faith moment from the phenomeno[al]logical onto some immanent plane that I admit I cannot yet picture (and ought we to picture it or not?). Latour in his paper on philosophy admits that he harbours a secret desire to piece together a philosophical system and Harman has already argued that something metaphysical is in place in Latour. Mike notes that one of the strengths of Latour is precisely his willingness to admit metaphysical consequences into his work. If the plasma is anything to go by Latour is deeply metaphysical.

The plasma, as Mike points out, is something entailed by Latourian analysis (if I have him right here). Since ANT works on the premise of networks across an immanent or flat plane then one is left with the metaphysical problem that not all actors are always active (perhaps literally or perhaps they are not active in the phenomenal realm of experience – hence the transcendent aspect) and if this is the case one must deduce something like a plasma in order to account for this fact [arising from the ANT mode of analysis (entailed by it as such)]. This Mike sees as a kind of deficiency in the general mode of micro-analysis, the natural home of ANT and the social sciences generally, and opens up the necessary for a macro-analysis (macro-physics!). Of course this all smacks of metaphysical broadening, abstraction and associated un-Latourian nastiness and not the good old messiness we seek.
Yet the plasma is simply that which is “...not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified” which is not a radically new improvement upon the Hegelian ‘for us’ schema (the plasma is that which is not yet for self-consciousness but will be at some point in the sweep of things) or, alas, Heideggerian equipmental usage (the plasma is the background of things not yet in use). Yet we do have some ways to opt-out here: we can consider the unformatted as having Harmanesque lives of their own, with their own intentionality that is available, at some points but not always, for some human disclosure. The necessity of the plasma also nicely ties in with Harman’s real objects which are logically entailed by his analysis rather than encountered in (phenomenal) experience.

Of course this all works at a deeply conceptual (even metaphysical level) and I suspect that despite this being the natural territory of the philosopher it might require a Heideggerian leap on the part of the social scientist.

Updates and plasma

It should be clear already from the little hiatus in posting that we're taking a little break for the holidays. We'll resume in earnest in a couple weeks--finishing up some Latour concerns, and then moving on to Graham Harman and Ray Brassier, and a couple others--though some sporadic thoughts might pop up here in the meantime.

One of those is the following, and I'll also just use it to also welcome Paul to the blog. On page 245 of Reassembling the Social, Latour says the following:

Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself.

I wonder if this has any relation to what Paul is working on. I suspect he'd be at odds with what Latour means by this, since it appears in his discussion of "plasma"--the problematic notion I have been trying to see as required by (or, since I think ANT isn't doomed by this small point, merely as a consequence of) the "immanence" of Latourian analysis with respect to its networks (Latour has a long passage at the end of WHNBM asserting immanence--in the sense it is being used there--is also transcendent, but I think that actually only confirms my point). Latour needs plasma not just metphysically but because his mode of analysis requires it (as is only fitting for a mode of analysis that--refreshingly--isn't afraid to draw tough metaphysical conclusions from what it is doing). It is a name not just for the "unformatted" but also for the "unaccountable" that can nevertheless be counted by the micro-level ANT analysis:

I call this background plasma, namely that which is not yet formatted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metrological chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified [...] This does not mean that the solid architecture of society is crumbling behind, that the Great Leviathan has feet of clay, but that society and the Leviathan circulate inside such narrow canals that in order to be activated they have to rely on an unaccounted number of ingredients coming from the plasma around them. So far I have insisted too much on continuity, which is achieved through traceable connections that have always to be considered against a much vaster backdrop of discontinuities (244-45).

The plasma is the name for the nature of the background against which the agents that ANT traces emerge. Latour has acted as if networks go everywhere through their continuity, as if "everything is connected" and waiting for ANT to discover it. It is because he wants to avoid the "all-connectedness" that Latour introduces this backdrop of discontinuities. But in a strange way, Latour also specifies the nature of that background to be what ensures the fluidity--the possible breakup--of any punctuated actor. It is its nature to be small and micro-, however vast its unformattedness--and this is what really makes it plasma.

I'll get into this in more detail in another post, but Latour is saying all this because he wants to try and stop the tendency to search elsewhere for big, undefined powers which will explain a particular event--even (or perhaps especially) when it is necessary to look elsewhere to show the backdrop against which your analysis takes place. That is, even when you are doing something like ANT, and refusing to attribute causes to "the social," even then "action doesn't add up," as Latour nicely puts it (243). So the question revolves around how, if network doesn't touch everything, it still has massive holes such that it doesn't account for everything (and in fact, this is in part what allows actors to emerge into your account, besides the fact they are in the network). So plasma is the solution to the question about the nature of these holes:

If it is true, as ANT claims, that the social landscape possesses such a flat ‘networky’ topography and that the ingredients making up society travel inside tiny conduits, what is in between the meshes of such a circuitry? (242).

And supposedly plasma allows us to stop referring to these outsides on this level--on the level of what provides the immense background for our network:

Once we recognize the extent of this plasma, we may relocate to the right place the two opposite intuitions of positivist and interpretative sociologies: yes, we have to turn our attention to the outside to make sense of any course of action; and yes, there is an indefinite flexibility in the interpretations of those courses. But the outside is not made of social stuff—just the opposite—and interpretation is not a characteristic of individualized human agents—just the opposite.

To interpret some behavior we have to add something, but this does not mean that we have to look for a social framework. Of course, sociologists were right to look for some ‘outside’, except this one does not resemble at all what they expected since it is entirely devoid of any trace of calibrated social inhabitant. They were right to look for ‘something hidden behind’, but it’s neither behind nor especially hidden. It’s in between and not made of social stuff. It is not hidden, simply unknown. It resembles a vast hinterland providing the resources for every single course of action to be fulfilled, much like the countryside for an urban dweller, much like the missing masses for a cosmologist trying to balance out the weight of the universe.

To interpret some behavior we have indeed to be prepared for many different versions, but this doesn’t mean that we have to turn to local interactions. At many points in this book I have criticized phenomenologists, and perhaps also humanists, for believing that face-to-face interactions, individual agents, and purposeful persons provided a more realist and lively locus than what they called the vain abstractions of society. Although they were right in insisting on uncertainties, they have misplaced their sources. It’s not that purposeful humans, intentional persons, and individual souls are the only interpretative agents in a world of matters of fact devoid of any meaning by itself. What is meant by interpretations, flexibility, and fluidity is simply a way to register the vast outside to which every course of action has to appeal in order to be carried out. This is not true for just human actions, but for every activity. Hermeneutics is not a privilege of humans but, so to speak, a property of the world itself. The world is not a solid continent of facts sprinkled by a few lakes of uncertainties, but a vast ocean of uncertainties speckled by a few islands of calibrated and stabilized forms (244-45).

I've quoted so much (and in there is the quote I started with) because I don't want to explicate it all in full now, but just situate the little remark that I thought would bear upon some of Paul's concerns and, in a different way, I knew would bear upon mine.

And now just one more sporadic thought: Sartre and Latour. I'm reading Sartre's excellent Critique of Dialectical Reason and it strikes me that some notions of collectivity explored there might have something to do with what Latour is getting at. I know OOO and Sartre can be brought together because of the work of Eleanor Kaufman, whose forthcoming book on the incorporeal (the topic of her Gauss Seminar lectures in the Spring of 2009, which I was lucky enough to get off my lazy ass, go over to the East Pyne building, and see) should make that clear (and for the record I think she ends up more on the OOO side of things, interestingly, than the SR side of things... even with her use of Deleuze... She does this by seriously correcting the overemphasis on Merleau-Ponty in recent years--who is always too easily appropriated by Heideggerians, or too easily made into a target by postmodern theory like Irigaray or Derrida--by bringing back Sartre's weird phenomenology in all the right ways...). But then there is the notion of the collective--whose "seriality" in the Critique might have less to do with what Latour is getting at on the face of it, but perhaps in a deeper way makes his position (trying to find some sort of "group" of different composition than in either classical Marxism or in sociology) close to Latour in an interesting way:

[...T]he dependence of the worker who comes to sell his labor power cannot under any circumstance signify that this worker has fallen into an abstract existence. Quite the contrary, the reality of the market, no matter how inexorable its laws may be, and even in its concrete appearance, rests on the reality of alienated individuals and on their separation. It is necessary to take up the study of collectives again from the beginning and to demonstrate that these objects, far from being characterized by the direct unity of a consensus, represent perspectives of flight. This is because, upon the basis of given conditions, the direct relations between persons depend upon other particular relations, and these on still others, and so on in succession, because there is an objective constraint in concrete relations. It is not the presence of others but their absence which establishes this constraint; it is not their union but their separation. For us the reality of the collective object rests on recurrence. It demonstrates that the totalisation is never achieved and that the totality exists at best only in the form of a detotalised totality. As such these collectives exist. They are revealed immediately in action and in perception. In each one of them we shall always find a concrete materiality (a movement, the head office, a building, a word, etc.) which supports and manifests a flight which eats it away. I need only open my window: I see a church, a bank, a cafe – three collectives. This thousand-franc bill is another; still another is the newspaper I have just bought... (Preface, "The Problem of Mediations").

It's not really a matter of reconciling (it's interesting how much philosophical time is spent doing that) than recognizing the significance of Latour's contribution to notions of not just the being of objects (I included the above because a desire to include them--though with an obviously completely different ontological assumption than anything in Latour--is there) but also the shape of group action. And while I think Latour goes precisely in the opposite direction as Latour (never towards totalization--this is why he must force an immanence instead) I just wanted to register that--I know you Evan have been feeling this perhaps more than I have.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Parekhization of Los Angeles

Sitting in my old hometown, reading in the paper about the dirty water in my new hometown, I'm struck by how closely this situation resembles that of nineteenth-century Paris. Here the list of actants includes Dr. Pankaj Parekh, the Environmental Protection Agency, bromates, residents of Silver Lake (right near where I live), arsenic, manganese, Gambia and Liberia (where Parekh got his start), little plastic balls (similar to those McDonald's uses in their playpits!), thirty-year-old safety regulations, perchlorate ("an unregulated rocket fuel additive"), trichloroethylene ("a degreaser used in manufacturing"), perchloroethylene ("a dry-cleaning solvent"), military contractors, private water suppliers, the National Cancer Institute, and the Mulch and Soil Council ("'This could have a chilling effect on gardening'"). (How's that for a litany?) All saying different things, all wanting something slightly different, all connected to one another at some points but not at others. Only a Louis can save us now.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Some first thoughts

At some stage I hope to have something to say on the whole issue of technics from the Heidegger-Stiegler-McLuhan-Latour angle but it seems at the moment something quite difficult and therefore to be wholeheartedly avoided in the dark month of December.

As an introductory note I work broadly within the post-Kantian German philosophical tradition on topics like the ancestral, deep time, space/place, objects, technics, and more and more ‘nature’. I exist in the orbit of object oriented ontology but call my own position an unorthodox phenomenological realism which just means I disown the Husserlian move toward transcendental idealism.

Since I don’t have a strong background in theory, sociology, or much else besides philosophy Latour came to me via the Harman route. I suppose one problem with this mediation is that to me Latour was never pre-philosophical. I look through his work with a philosophical lens slightly miffed by all the in-house chatter about the social sciences and hoping to find Latour with his metaphysics on show somewhere, anywhere. So I suppose one theme of my reading will be: is Latour a metaphysician or not? A second concern will be the extent to which Latour fits into the philosophy of technics (in my own tetrad of thinkers of technics outlined above). Finally I’d like to investigate the weird public space that inhabits Latour’s work in all its gory immanence, promised plasma and Catholic grandness. How deep is Latour’s work? That is more or less what I want to find out.

At this stage I have only fully read ‘We Have Never Been Modern’ and it was not what I expected. My reaction was and remains negative. I want to get to the heart of why WHNBM remains to me a badly argued book. I especially want to do this because I’m immensely enjoying ‘Aramis’. WHNBM is a slightly weird book in that it draws on strange implements to illuminate its message and I think this has the effect of frustrating the reader (quite simply what happening and why is he using such weird examples...maybe he has an easier book etc). Cynics will argue that I was horrified by his section on Heidegger but even here it’s just a short polemical blast without much gain. So I’ll have to leave WHNBM outside in the cold like a dog that’s just chewed up the sofa.

What struck me about the reading of Heidegger in WHNBM is how deeply it related to the later Heidegger ignoring more basic affinities such as the material interconnections one finds in ‘Reassembling the Social.’ I suppose for Latour it is always a question of does this thinker obscure rather than brighten up the basic encounter with things? In Heidegger the ontological difference becomes a giant mediating distance between reader and the things rather than, as is often presumed, one enters the referential totality via an identification of the ‘existence’ of the ontological difference. Accepting that Latour is a fast-paced thinker, almost intent on bypassing every formal rule presented to him, Heidegger can only be a barrier and certainly Heidegger rarely teaches by example (the lectern example is used by both Heidegger and in a broader sense Latour in RAS) whereas Latour argues by example(s): this happens, then this happens, and now do you see how the plane of reality functions? No, let’s keep going...ever put on your seatbelt and notice that... etc.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Latour and McLuhan

With all the object-oriented fun going on at the DAC conference (as Grant has informed me: an interesting invocation of Harman via Katherine Hayles [author of How We Became Posthuman, which--Grant again informs me--is really good], whose turn to psychology and attention after this and her use of Latour was, for me, quite welcome), I thought I'd finally get to the post on Latour and McLuhan that I have been promising for some time. I see them as opposed, though not entirely opposed, via this remark from a great article (in Theory, Culture and Society) "Morality and Technology: The End of the Means:"

We readily understand how the notion of ‘technical mediation’ is rather inadequate to encompass this triple folding of places, times and agents. The term mediation always runs the risk that its message could be inverted and that one could turn whatever makes it impossible to transfer a meaning, a cause or a force into precisely what merely carries a force, a cause or a meaning. If we are not careful, we would reduce technologies to the role of instruments that ‘merely’ give a more durable shape to schemes, forms, and relations which are already present in another form and in other materials. To return to an example which has been very useful to me: traffic calming devices are not ‘sleeping policemen’ simply made of concrete instead of flesh and bone. If I consider calming devices as mediators properly speaking, it is precisely because they are not simple intermediaries which fulfil a function. What they exactly do, what they suggest, no one knows, and that is why their introduction in the countryside or in towns, initiated for the innocent sake of function, always ends up inaugurating a complicated history, overflowing with disputes, to the point of ending up either at the State Council or at the hospital. We never tame technologies, not because we lack sufficiently powerful masters, not because technologies, once they have become ‘autonomous’, function according to their own impulse, not because, as Heidegger claims, they are the forgetting of Being in the form of mastery, but because they are a true form of mediation. Far from ignoring being-as-being in favour of pure domination, of pure hailing, the mediation of technology experiments with what must be called being-as-another (250).

This obviously brings back the language of otherness which I thought Latour had done some good in dropping--but that's because morality (not ethics, interestingly, and somewhat refreshingly--since we've been getting mired in more and more ethical literary criticism over the past decade or so) is the focus of the essay: Latour wants to square what he's up to with some of these considerations, and also show how technology isn't simply amoral or moral. This, let me just note, is a very McLuhan-like thing to do:

In accepting an honorary degree from the University of Notre Dame a few years ago, General David Sarnoff made this statement: "We are too prone to make technological instruments the scapegoats for the sins of those who wield them. The products of modern science are not in themselves good or bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value." That is the voice of the current somnambulism. Suppose we were to say, "Apple pie is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value." Or, "The smallpox virus is in itself neither good nor bad; it is the way it is used that determines its value." Again, "Firearms are in themselves neither good nor bad; it is the way they are used that determines their value." That is, if the slugs reach the right people firearms are good. If the TV tube fires the right ammunition at the right people it is good. I am not being perverse. There is simply nothing in the Sarnoff statement that will bear scrutiny, for it ignores the nature of the medium, of any and all media, in the true Narcissus style of one hypnotized by the amputation and extension of his own being in a new technical form. General Sarnoff went on to explain his attitude to the technology of print, saying that it was true that print caused much trash to circulate, but it had also disseminated the Bible and the thoughts of seers and philosophers. It has never occurred to General Sarnoff that any technology could do anything but add itself on to what we already are.

This, of course, is McLuhan in the unbelievably weird classic "The Medium is the Message" (in Understanding Media, p. 11). Where, then, does Latour intervene? Latour wants to say this notion of media is too focused on use, on technical extension of human power. This has, in the past, been the way to make a straight line right to that old bogey "technological determinism." Latour doesn't do this, but he, like others who are equally willing to point out that "that's not what McLuhan is saying" doesn't spell out any reason why this straight line is drawn too quickly (another acceleration there). In fact, Latour goes quite some way in saying that the medium can become a cause, a force in itself--as you see above. Latour might be innovative, though, on this point in redrawing the lines of this old determinism-or-not squabble, not unlike Raymond Williams, whose consideration of McLuhan in the excellent Television: Technology and Cultural Form focuses less on determinism at the level of the instrument than on the level of society and the ability for the medium to be a social medium (which sounds a lot like Latour, and actually is in many surprising ways one can find in Williams' theory of communication--where the individual speaks fully socially only if the others/allies can step into his place, in a sort of relay fashion--but also proceeds along more Marxist lines that Latour,
of course, would wish to avoid).

But perhaps the reason why McLuhan isn't a technological determinist can be seen better, and in a more detailed fashion, if we drop all this, and bring ourselves to the history of media studies as recounted by our own Mark Hansen (in another issue of Theory, Culture, and Society)--a field that Latour seems to not be as familiar with as the sociology of technology (and in the above assuming, as I've tried to draw attention to before, that this field is either on board with his project or can just be integrated into it). There Hansen rightly points out the two main tensions in this field: technical evolution conceived formally (as technical history) and the more embodied sort of conception of technology as prosthetics or augmentations. The former would make us leap into the area of the non-human and technical directly, it seems, while the former have to deal more with use. The determinist McLuhan is seen in terms of the former (which aligns him with Kittler, the biggest and most sophisticated proponent of such historical technics), though non-determinist McLuhan is the latter. It's more like the formal move (medium is the message) that McLuhan continually makes to argue his position and clear out some space for his work is at odds--fundamentally--with where he wants to go and indeed is focused upon (and which is more profitably investigated by media studies people rather than communications scientists).

Now, Latour, in my mind, is really determined to address only one of these traditions, and just strikes out in the other direction himself. He addresses the first tradition (history/evolution of technology) and moves more towards the user-aspect of technology. But he does the latter not so much by focusing on use itself than changing the ontology of the technical object, and this actually makes his contribution fall more in the former category! We can see this in Aramis, where the real enemy is Darwin crudely seen in technology. This I think means, for all his spiel on use above, that Latour is most opposed to the sort of Leroi-Gourhanian project which is at the heart of Bernard Stiegler--and which might be said to be the poststructuralist extention of the Kittler dynamic (which Kittler himself might be able to be rescued from)--and the Latourian intervention is welcome here (I think Grant comes to some similar conclusion in his post on Stiegler). Technical objects don't evolve like this, or interrupt our evolution in this negative way only. They, gaining and losing degrees of reality, form collectives with us, and bolster our humanity (considered as a morphism or, to impose my language again, morephism). But this leaves the realm of actual use--actual dynamics, which tend to be investigations of a feel, and remain more affective than anything in Latour--a little more empty than embodied media-studies of the non-determinist/formal McLuhanian type, at least for me: it rather makes the more basic ontological point which is opposed to that one which Stiegler (and perhaps also Martin Hägglund) might make.

So despite what he says above, I think Latour's more on the side of McLuhan than we might think, but interested in making an point about technical evolution which makes him think he's opposed to the McLuhan tradition--when he's more opposed to something like Kittler. As media studies takes over Kittler and brings him back to the more embodied McLuhan area (as it has been over the last decade), they end up near Latour... however, they don't share his ontology, I think, nor do they really need to in order to make their work, well, work. And so one has to ask the question that I brought up last time: does one need the Latour ontology in order to bring about the transformation beyond the modern? In a similar way, this is like asking whether sociology of science (producing books like The Leviathan and the Air Pump) needs his Constitution. It's certainly the logical next step, and produces really only a making explicit what is already there (though I wonder whether it produces only this): the use of media as an intermediary. Whether media studies should follow Latour in taking it (and ANT, as I noticed, via a nice link on Levi Bryant's blog, that this person has), in order to address Kittler and the Stiegler-ian, poststructuralist, posthuman tendency, is a question, since this might be the only truly modernizing (or rather postmodernizing) aspect of the media studies project which is less advanced, as it were, than Latour: the analysis of using technology in Latour for me remains less sophisticated than what goes on in media studies--while of course Aramis remains a bit more brilliant, losing all those Foucauldian discourse-dependent aspects we find in Kittler. Perhaps, though, instead of Latour, Harman remains an option (and he's interested in restoring phenomenological feeling or a feel, let's just note, to our experience of objects, without the carnality of earlier philosophies and indeed phenomenologies, as well as the pseudo-phenomenology of philosophies of the virtual), and we could reconstruct the interactions of technical objects with themselves, and reproduce a posthuman history on that (related, but perhaps more precise) basis.

Intention is not structured like a language...

...or, why I'm obsessed with this problem of what I call "immanence." It's cause I think it might be what produces, in a more general way than the ontological issues themselves, a big, big hangup for people when they hit SR and, having been so hit over the head with Derrida and the anti-phenomenological tradition, can't understand how you can actually work beyond correlationism: how do you designate an object and not be epistemologically (as it were) bound up with that designation? It's important to register that Meillassoux is also one of these people. In short, how can you talk about the state of an object without imposing, through the language you're using to describe it, the form of your intention? We can use Kripke to solve this, and Harman has recourse to him. But he also has recourse to other arguments (some negative like the Kripke one--there's a great strange one I'm not recalling now--and some involving a restructuring of intentionality itself), which are just sound--and once you hear them, you see what a weird inversion Continental Philosophy has taken prior to OOP, such that Harman comes along and sets it back on its feet. The problem (the inversion) is we've so thoroughly bound up intentionality with the structure of naming (focused it is on presence and absence of a referent), say, and thereby language, that we have reached the point where it seems as if the reverse relation holds, and each time you use language you intend (and then, only then, through language!), and somehow push this intention onto what you're saying (thus, we end up at Badiou and his odd way of circumventing this, which I see a really negative rather than rich in an object-oriented way--though the negative has serious merit to it, I think). Maybe this is the wrong way to get at the problem, but, regardless it's Latour too that ends up having an unsatisfactory approach at times to the issue, despite his own realist tendencies and indeed post-correlational (probably a really bad term for it) thought, something like the Deleuzian approach (plasma!). So I'm trying to track the tendencies regarding this in a wider frame (of course, less rigorous) than perhaps the SR people would do, with the help of Jameson and his ambivalence regarding anti-substantialist work, setting the stage for Harman. Maybe I'm going in the wrong direction: I'll get more detailed about it soon and we'll see (it's a matter of what language/structuralism did for anti-phenomenological philosophy here), but here I just wanted to mark certain things before we really get there.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Movie Break

I've been very much enjoying the sections in Reassembling the Social (harking back to "Where are the Missing Masses?" and its seat belts and door closers) where Latour calls attention to the literal "framing" of the social world by material things by describing what it would be like if those things didn't exist. E.g., on page 194-195 where he talks about how lecturing would be impossible without an architect having designed a lecture hall for that purpose: "Fathom for one minute all that allows you to interact with your students without being interfered with too much by the noise of the street or the crowds outside in the corridor waiting to be let in for another class. If you doubt the transporting power of all those humble mediators in making this a local place, open the doors and the windows and see if you can still teach anything … [I]f you are not thoroughly 'framed' by other agencies brought silently on the scene, neither you nor your students can even concentrate for a minute on what is being 'locally' achieved. In other words, what would happen if inter-subjectivity was obtained for good by removing, one after another, all traces of inter-objectivity?"

It's a funny fantasy Latour entertains from time to time: what if all of the objects we take for granted suddenly disappeared, or stopped working, and we were back at the baboon stage of having only social tools — i.e. our bodies, and what we can manage to incorporate within them — at our disposal? What would happen to the (supposedly purely human) social world then? It's sort of his version of a dystopic vision, I guess (which makes it an interesting counterbalance to our recent discussion of utopia). Anyway, just want to mark it, and say that it reminds me of this scene from, of all things, Kentucky Fried Movie:

And one more, demonstrating even more vividly the fragility of the technological frameworks we tend to take for granted:

rotating kitchen from Zeger Reyers on Vimeo.

Playing catch-up

One of the great extended metaphors in Reassembling the Social is travel. I'll just highlight this by picking some of the great quotes from the introduction, but it runs through the book because Latour is constantly focused on asking sociologists how far they can go if they just suspend the social as an adjective, as glue, as the explanation, ending point, determining instance, or what have you. This tends to pitch the book at the right level, in a way that I find very refreshing and something unlike the rest of Latour's work.

The argument is bare bones and basic, gets its power from its very simple layout, and uses really simple language. Its exposition of the somewhat complicated concepts underlying ANT and Latour's work as a whole takes place through steady qualification, by multiplying more and more simple descriptions. Latour avoids pronouncing, as he does even in that loose work Aramis: he rarely says "collectives aren't this, they're this, this and this..." unless he has first said "here's how we can go about doing the analysis, but here's another way, and look how this object suddenly came to the fore. Now what do we do here, how do we get a handle on this?" That's not the best description, and all his other rhetorical moves are there, but the change I think is somewhat clear here. Most importantly, though, these descriptions give us the sense of what it's like to use the concepts. Make a list, say, of the things you find at the center of the conflict you're reading about in the news, and you'll see that they take a certain shape (if I remember right, this was around like pg. 30ish, talking about groups). Now, compare this to what we might be tempted to do: translate them all into a set of approved players, or rather determinants (this will come back in what I'm going to say below). But see how we end up with a much more rich vocabulary if we just admit these people who describe the conflict for us are indeed describing the real conflict too? ...In this sort of exercise, we get the feel for what's involved more than anything: it's this that I think Latour is trying hardest to give us in this book, and I think he succeeds.

So travel becomes one way to do this: he fundamentally wants the sociologist to go where the actors are, to get out of the office and move:

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 (23).

And it's in these terms that he states the more far reaching gambit behind ANT I alluded to above:

If physicists at the beginning of the previous century were able to do away with the common sense solution of an absolutely rigid and indefinitely plastic ether, can sociologists discover new traveling possibilities by abandoning the notion of a social substance as a ‘superfluous hypothesis’? (12)

And it's in these sensuous terms that the whole task needs to be envisioned:

In some ways this book resembles a travel guide through a terrain that is at once completely banal—it’s nothing but the social world we are used to—and completely exotic—we will have to learn how to slow down at each step. If earnest scholars do not find it dignifying to compare an introduction of a science to a travel guide, be they kindly reminded that ‘where to travel’ and ‘what is worth seeing there’ is nothing but a way of saying in plain English what is usually said under the pompous Greek name of ‘method’ or, even worse, ‘methodology’. The advantage of a travel book approach over a ‘discourse on method’ is that it cannot be confused with the territory on which it simply overlays. A guide can be put to use as well as forgotten, placed in a backpack, stained with grease and coffee, scribbled all over, its pages torn apart to light a fire under a barbecue. In brief, it offers suggestion rather than imposing itself on the reader (17).

What's amazing about all of this is not so much that it provides us vivid imagery (anthropological in origin--remember where Latour started), or even a good analogy (as he goes on to say somewhere, these things break down because ANT gets more complicated). Rather, it's that this restores some thickness to methodology, which in sociology--from what I hear--gets unbelievably abstract. In other words, he deploys some morephisms (what's the grease of sociology? how does it smell?), if I can use my term, to try and morph and shape the whole task of method itself and then revalue (revamp, he says early on) sociology, so it becomes, as he wants to call it, associology.

But with travel comes speed, tempo, which rightly you just insisted upon and showed in a reading of Koch--which, let me just say here, is brilliant: you get so inside the feeling of reading "One Train," as well as Koch's poetry generally, and if anyone is reading this whose not in Lit, you should check Evan's post out (here's another link to it) because it's an excellent example of how our reading takes place alongside doing all this more philosophical stuff, and adds to the latter rather than produces, as philosophers often say it does, some sort of making-literature of the philosophical on the one hand, or imbuing philosophy with some sort of social-critical valence that limits it (more on this mistaken association of literary criticism with critique in a sec, as if the political upshot of our work lie in its method--what we do is more like analysis and has been called such.)

Now, what's crucial to me is that you're marking, with this word, something Latour is constantly talking about: the tendency, when referring to some social cause of phenomena (let's table the issue of the composition of the social for now, though of course Latour says we have to go right to it) to speed up and go to the established categories to explain that phenomena. It's not so much that the categories are wrong (though they are--but this is why I tabled that for now) as Latour is pointing out this urge to explain in general is wrong. Why explain when we really don't know what we need to explain? The whole task of freeing the object, liberating it, giving it autonomy is precisely in recognizing what's going on with that "what." In the last post, you put it like this: "we want to get there," by which you mean the reason behind the what, "so badly that we forget to trace the network that could eventually lead us there." Rather, for Latour, "we shouldn't expect to get there so fast."

I want to throw in one thing though, which really struck me while reading this book, and doesn't throw a wrench in what you are saying or what I am saying about this as just inflect it nicely, make it even a bit more forceful. It's that, for the associologist, while we're not expecting to get there so fast, we're already out there, traveling, in the sense we've already seen. In fact, this is the case for the regular sociologist too, from Latour's perspective. And while we're not trying to get there fast, we're still getting there--as I think you are indeed saying. The problem, in other words, is not just in our wanting to get there: it is in forgetting something more global, like we're all on the way where we want to go anyway.

There is another wrinkle or fold: in getting wherever we're going, in traveling, we're also playing catch up! It's not like we're making great strides ahead of our object--we're behind it, trying to get to it. This is why we think we can get there quickly by speeding up hugely. It's because we're always also speeding up behind the object. Latour puts it like this:

If the sociology of the social works fine with what has been already assembled, it does not work so well to collect anew the participants in what is not—not yet—a sort of social realm. A more extreme way of relating the two schools is to borrow a somewhat tricky parallel from the history of physics and to say that the sociology of the social remains ‘pre-relativist’, while our sociology has to be fully ‘relativist’. In most ordinary cases, for instance situations that change slowly, the pre-relativist framework is perfectly fine and any fixed frame of reference can register action without too much deformation. But as soon as things accelerate, innovations proliferate, and entities are multiplied, one then has an absolutist framework generating data that becomes hopelessly messed up. This is when a relativistic solution has to be devised in order to remain able to move between frames of reference and to regain some sort of commensurability between traces coming from frames traveling at very different speeds and acceleration. Since relativity theory is a well-known example of a major shift in our mental apparatus triggered by very basic questions, it can be used as a nice parallel for the ways in which the sociology of associations reverses and generalizes the sociology of the social (12, my italics).

Part of this is recognizing that the ANT analysis is also causing things to speed up. But Latour puts it all even more simply here:

Using a slogan from ANT, you have ‘to follow the actors themselves’, that is try to catch up with their often wild innovations in order to learn from them what the collective existence has become in their hands, which methods they have elaborated to make it fit together, which accounts could best define the new associations that they have been forced to establish (12).

So the point is not so much that slowing down creates more rigor--as I tried to say earlier. Because we're out there after whatever we are after, we're trying to catch up to its innovativeness. So ANT tries to weird tactic of trying to speed up behind it--like everyone else is doing--by slowing down. In other words, as I said last time, slowing down is a type of acceleration too. And this is because--and you know this from Bourdieu, what's more important than the analysis is the object: all the reflexiveness in the world won't change the fact that we're tracking something that is still developing and won't be immediately changed by our particular beef with it, whatever that is--the pseudo-politics that Latour thinks sociologists feel themselves participating in doesn't really do anything (and I think Bourdieu has some similar sense--though perhaps Latour wouldn't think they share this in common). If I point out what is wrong with the object, it can still put me in that embarrassing situation where it actually might even account for what I say and make me contradict myself--that this is embarrassing, that it occurs at all in this manner, shows us it's in the lead, calling the shots.

And this is why Latour calls it reassembling: we go through and compose things again, after they're already made, because our slowness is another version of that sort of acceleration after the object, playing catch-up, collecting what it has left behind or tracing the extent and spread of all the dust it kicked up (which means that what I'm calling an object isn't one thing, of course--I'm oversimplifying, and indeed this sort of rhetoric is deceptive because it dissolves the network: nevertheless it is useful because the objects of the other accelerating disciplines like sociology are often one single thing which they want to explain, so I'm just making a contrast). This registered, the whole slowness of ANT then seems to me to get qualified: it is not rigor that's involved so much as an accounting for how we're already all playing catch up. This recognition undoes the assumption that we can only catch up by going faster in terms of overgeneralizing--as you said. Sometimes the turtle wins the race--maybe that's the whole lesson of Bruno Latour, provided that we understand the slowness as a modulation of running towards the finish, and not as any sort of pre-existent temperament.

Latour doesn't always use the term in this way, and it's probably because the object isn't singular in the sense that I said in the parenthesis above. And slowness has also always meant rigor, and it's good for an analysis to sound rigorous and difficult and philosophical (though I really see no necessary reason for this other than politics of the type Latour describes so well), so he uses it that way too. There's a nice combination of the travel and the acceleration morephisms in this quote:

As we are going to see, there is as much difference in the two uses of the word ‘social’ as there is between learning how to drive on an already existing freeway and exploring for the first time the bumpy territory in which a road has been planned against the wishes of many local communities (18).

And then there's this, which leads into the quote you used in the Koch post:

There’s no question that ANT prefers to travel slowly, on small roads, on foot, and by paying the full cost of any displacement out of its own pocket (22-3).

But I like my way of putting it, because it's less insistent on rigor and morality in this way (though Latour would like to have them all connected, as he likes to make everything connected, and as all philosophers--or their groupies (Latour might be his own groupie!)--like to make things connected since old, with their token aesthetics, etc.). So now, in closing, let me just ask how my way of thinking about it makes sense of one situation.

In the study of literature, how does the adoption of this Latourian acceleration/deceleration position look? Or what does it overcome? I'm tempted to address this because you said in the last post the following:

[B]ut don't we [humanities people, but also literary people] also tend to run toward the social "framework" way too fast, precisely because we're afraid of getting mired in the local...?"

Now, in poetry, the new acceleration would take the form of some notion that the production of poetry or literature is primary, and that we can bring ourselves closer to that primariness--not in some aesthetic sense like it's always been done, so that we "appreciate" the poems like the poet does (which does for many people qualify as knowledge of the primary). What would be overcome is a sort of distance between the analyst and production (and I think you can get this much from Bourdieu already--I think I'm just saying what you said to me once in conversation a while ago). And what would happen is that we would understand the dynamics of production, such that as we get closer to it, the complexities of this process end up more complicated, such that the poet might indeed then need us to tell him about it... and the situation of subservience is actually undone, rather than embarrassingly made evident as unidirectional (and it might be this lack of embarrassment that Latour might give us on top of what Bourdieu might). As you get closer to the primary process (to use an overdetermined term--ack!) subservience dissolves, and does more than if you assert your autonomy, your criticality (there's the word) as an analyst. But this is also only because everyone's accelerating (and the embarrassment goes away for this reason--i.e. Bourdieu might not give us this), catching up with the object.

In sociology, though, the situation seems different and worse, and Latour has to overcome a lot to impose his vision there. They catch up quick by using those big terms, by setting up the units that qualify and excluding others. And Latour shows you what the change would involve.

I draw the distinction because I think our references to the framework, as you put it, might accelerate, but accelerate perhaps in a different way--though that's only my sense of things. Certainly we can learn the lesson from Latour that acceleration is going on, and that changes the whole dynamic of how we think of these references in general. But using my understanding of this--and I think Latour's--we might qualify things, or make acceleration a wider, deeper category.

For in postmodern, identity-politics stuff that we deal with in literature (which I don't mean to knock in its entirety and I am quite suspicious of saying is just wrong as an approach in toto, as people occasionally are tempted to do, and indeed philosophers or people who don't like our discipline in general tend to do ["literary," again, is a bad term there]: from the get go I insist on trying to think pragmatically about bullshit work done by idiots and good stuff, which I find is usually harder to object to)... in the postmodern, identity-politics stuff that we deal with, I imagine I have a bit of a different sense of you here of what goes on, because I don't think their references to what goes on in society are at all really akin to the sociological ones that Latour is talking about. So in a way I think they skip the sociological problems of acceleration which involve, as Latour says, issues about disqualifying actors because they don't fit into the right boxes, the limited technical sociological vocabulary in which we need to dissolve all the richness of the play of the world. Nevertheless, this sort of postmodern/identity aspect of things is critical. So there is some sort of problem with this position. But I think it's of this sort: Latour I think describes someone overseeing the sociologist at work, and then finding out what categories they are using, and then using those--that overseer is the critical theorist, for me (though it probably is the poor philosopher of science for Latour). The critical theorist, who generalizes about social frameworks, is not so much in the position of trying to refer to social groups, as actually qualify whatever activity they are looking at as a social group which can be recognized by the sociologists. That's why identity politics, PoCo criticism, etc. seems to me to be aligned with what Latour calls postmodernity: they move all the settled categories around in infinite play more than they actually refer to society by way of these things. Does that make sense? Certainly the Marxists refer to society--but they're only the problem insofar as they remain the only real alternative to the postmodern politicization that goes on, and they're usually getting hammered by the latter. Maybe they're a problem because they remain an ideal form of politicizing for a lot of people, and so maybe its here that the associological intervention would be particularly useful--but that still seems abstract, on a really abstract level. And you're not really referring to these guys anyway, as you say the following after the already quoted:

[W]e're afraid of getting mired in the local (i.e. the textual — remember the self-conscious concern in the 70s, which overlaps with deconstruction, to get "beyond formalism").

It's those deconstructive dudes, or the anti-hermeneutic/anti-Formalist Foucauldians who are the problem, and I see a wide gap between what they're up to and Marxism.

But my main difference, I think, is that I don't see any sort of fear of getting mired in the local qua the textual--we do that all too much! Unless I misunderstood you there (what is the id of the id est? More psychoanalysis--ack! I mean what is "the textual?" The local? Are you saying we're afraid of text?), and you're saying exactly what I'd be willing to say, which is that we're afraid of getting mired in the local of the sociological, in some way, of the social text, and use their categories too much as theoretical shorthand. Latour would help this situation, in a way, because he'd allow us not to want to refer to sociology, to get more technically sociological, in our effort to try and relate things to "the social" or "the political." But this is different than saying that he'd actually help us to refer to society differently than we already do, since the postmodern people aren't doing it--but rather engaged in something like a deconstruction of sociological categories by way of showing exceptions to those categories apply. That's how "the social" is used, I think--it's a different substance altogether than the one in sociology, though perhaps for Latour just as vague, because it is something bigger than even what their categories address... it's like a meta-society of the included and the excluded. Obviously, the more Bourdieuvian analyses or sociology and literature type investigations are not of a part of this--but I wouldn't entirely group them together with the theorists of the anti-formalist type and which make up many of the identity politics crowd, at least in terms of the trajectory of their work--because they deploy a coherent system, rather than try and knock at the sociologists.

This is a bit over-complicated, but I thought maybe there's some distinctions to be made here. Regardless, I'll stop here, after I add that this shows the problem of a general association of literary criticism with what Latour calls critique. The latter is much more socially oriented, yes. But when it is picked up in literature it quickly becomes postmodern, I feel, rather than sociological. It's in this sense that Marxism and even Adorno is wonderful, if you think there is something wrong with the identity politics/postmodern model--and in this sense they (Marxists) actually align with the sociologists, I feel. This is because of the sorts of in-house dynamics, which I feel don't map well to the conflicts between the disciplines in general: literary criticism has its own sorts of trajectories because we all end up tagging these disciplines alongside literary: I'm a sociologist of literature, not a pure sociologist. But that's my sense. And as for critique in general, then, it's the postmodern aspect of Latour's beef with critique (in "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam" and elsewhere: generally, the postmodern tendency to treat society as symbols or codes or texts) that I see bearing on the social-critique people in literature, not the beef with critique in general--though the general move (against Kantian looking for conditions of possibility) might have resonance everywhere (since it is, I feel, so very vague).

But I'll stop there, and play catch-up with my email or something!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Getting Nowhere Fast

I believe we've agreed to let our Great Utopia Debate rest for a little while and move on to other things, but I just wanted to briefly mark another significant appearance of Erewhon in Latour's corpus, on pages 166-167 of Reassembling the Social:

As we have already witnessed on many occasions, there is often a wide gap between the correct intuitions of social sciences and the odd solutions they provide. This is once again the case: they have tended to confuse the projection of the Phantom Public with the pre-eminence of society. It's true that both have only a virtual existence but not in the same way. The first is a constant appeal to resume the impossible feat of politics, while the second is nothing but a way to dissimulate the task of composition by doing as if it was already completed: society is there, above our heads. So, when inquirers begin to look away from local sites because obviously the key of the interactions is not to be found there — which is true enough — they believe they have to turn their attention toward the "framework" inside of which interactions are supposed to be nested — and here things go terribly wrong. Starting with the right impulse — let's get away from local interactions! — they end up, to borrow from Samuel Butler's famous title, in Erewhon.

Could we substitute "humanities" for "social sciences" here, I wonder? Maybe that's a little hasty, but don't we also tend to run toward the social "framework" way too fast, precisely because we're afraid of getting mired in the local (i.e. the textual — remember the self-conscious concern in the 70s, which overlaps with deconstruction, to get "beyond formalism")? But notice that the problem is not so much the direction, or the movement, towards utopia but the speed of the travel, something you acknowledge at the beginning of your last and post. It's not that it's bad to connect the social to something more than the empirical, to possible worlds or political change; that it's our job to do this is a "correct intuition," and something worth saving, Latour says. It's that we want to get there so badly that we forget to trace the network that could eventually lead us there. It's not necessarily that we shouldn't want to get to utopia/Erewhon/nowhere, then: it's that we shouldn't expect to get there so fast.

Always low prices

It's a small price to pay, but it's still the wrong price, and that makes me question the economy--though, of course, you're right to get skeptical about such "accelerations" (great word) to the general. The benefit of ANT as Latour uses it is for me--if I can add something to your great post on this, or rephrase it a bit--not so much in that it makes us slow down in these instances and get more specific about what we're referring to (though it does that), but also allows us to think in a non-accelerating mode generally, where we are no longer tempted to specify the determining instance, as if that would knock the argument down. Or, to use your language (and video game collection--awesome), it allows us to get off the elevator entirely--and not just take the stairs, but, say, fly out the window if we want to get to another floor. In that spirit, I'll revisit what I said in the utopia posts, and actually bring in the article/introduction to Pandora's Hope, "Do You Believe in Reality?"

First, clarification. "It’s hard for me to see optimism as inseparable from utopia." I knew putting it that way would get me in trouble--it was a dumb and unclear way to write (certainly philosophical terrain, there!). I simply meant it is hard for me to see utopainism in the same way that BL sees it. And this I said was as optimism. In other words, I was saying that utopia is, at its core, optimism--for BL. For me, they're more separable (in a way I'll get to in a sec).

Now, my point is that Latour can use this utopia-optimism connection or co-implication (the latter word being what I should have used instead of "inseparability") to both critique utopia as a representation (as you succinctly put it) and also salvage utopia by offering an alternative to optimism--which I called realism. It really isn't a stretch here, I think, to "blur[] realism as a philosophical position together with realism as a political style or strategy," as you said, since I think this the point of everything Latour is doing, no--as long as we agree that the blurring produces a transformation akin to the one I said happens with rhetoric: producing a new rhetoric by rejecting "the" (modern, postmodern) political as constitutive of politics, or by seeing politicians (finally!) as political. And from this, I try to extract a sort of pragmatism, which I think is perhaps just another more dignified way to characterize that sort of "stupidity" I was getting at earlier--Latour's motivation to keep himself from being intelligent, as he puts it occasionally--and showing that it ironically (and laudably) remains something like the impractical element of a realism, but in a new way (so we have something like the realism-pragmatism of a Putnam inverted). So I don't think that's entirely a digression so much as a (badly connected) statement of Latour's version of utopianism and what I like about it, that ends up setting the scene for what follows.

Now, I don't mean this to be a knockdown argument, despite what I say at the end (more on this in a sec). I am just tying things together, trying to show how Latour is able to cut across all the very settled distinctions and come up with something new. One could say, though, that I'm precisely undoing his composition of the collective, his symmetry, either to show how it works or to critique (a vague, vague word here--I'll be returning to this in post on steamy critique) it. So when I return to utopia, and say that there are many types of utopia, perhaps, and some of them are not necessarily optimistic, you say that: "It seems to me he’s fully on board with both of them — and would maybe even refuse to accept your distinction and argue they’re basically the same thing." I think that's right, but it's really a question of how such a move is possible. I'm not saying the existence of many utopias is really something that isn't accounted for in Latour: you can't argue against him on that front, ever, since he doesn't reduce (and I have to say, as an intellectual exercise, it's wonderful to try and think of the person you're writing about as never reducing anything, but adding more always--but more on that in conclusion). I'm arguing that this refusal of a distinction--everybody in the Aramis!--takes a certain direction, and I'm tracing that direction. The direction is towards lending a "purity of the feeling or the love" to utopia, that, I say, "seems suspicious--and less utopian, since utopia is always much more tinged with fear or boredom about its realization." By this I don't mean that utopia is a more complicated thing than Latour makes it out to be, and that this invalidates what he has to say tout court, but that Latour is proceeding to characterize utopia in a specific way--and in a way that basically is asymmetrical.

It's important to recall that symmetry isn't between the humanities and the sciences, but between objects and society. And I think it's Latour here that forgets this, ultimately, in some way, because he doesn't make the utopian into more of a social thing than it supposedly is, but instead proceeds to invest it with sociality from the fact of its being studied by the humanities, as I argue.

This isn't really anyone's fault--it is studied by the humanities after all. Nevertheless, the connection seems a bit more external than usual. Perhaps, though, one should shift terminology and say that it isn't entirely a knock at the humanities that is going on here. Maybe that's an acceleration, saying that Latour really has that object in mind (represented) when he's talking about utopia. But then why are you, and him, so quick to agree with me here?

...Yes, I agree, it [BL's anti-Copernican revolution] does go against much of the humanities as they are currently constituted and rationalized. (Somebody who knocks out Kant, Hegel and Heidegger all at one go isn't leaving much left to prop up the philosophical aspirations of our English and Comp. Lit. departments.) But I don't think it follows from this that Latour is anti-humanities, any more than the introduction of objects into actor-network theory makes him an anti-humanist, and the fact that he wants to enlist the humanities doesn't mean he sees them only as a means and not an end. It just means he's refusing to see the humanities as what they so often agree to see themselves as: the opposite of technology, the opposite of science.

I'd agree with the end of this. Though I don't think I ever called Latour an anti-humanist or anti-humanities. I take this sort of putting me in a particular box (pro-anti, which in my first post I tried to show broke down in a great way in Latour and in your discussion of him), however, as symptomatic of what is going on. For I also take your statement here (well put: elsewhere Latour speaks of the end of the means) to mean that there's something going against the humanities and how they think of themselves in what Latour says (ultimately) about reinvesting technology with love, or, as you put it, "by praising them [the humanities] only for their role in making things happen, for motivating action." But how did we agree that the motivating of action is of a certain type--the type of recalling us to the passions, say, such that we can show how technology is invested with love? Observation? Hardly, though Latour's approach actually (unlike so many other approaches) allows that to happen. Making it into a matter of "what they often" (often does a lot of work here, as it does in Latour in instances where the humanities comes up--that's my point in a nutshell I guess) "see themselves as." It's a matter of locating the box before it's opened or closed, as it were. Latour has a lot to say about this in Reassembling the Social, but I think the process is a lot more negative than perhaps he would like to admit (and he admits it is negative, at stages), at least when it comes to the humanities. I see Law and the more sociologically-oriented people correcting this, though they sacrifice many of the metaphysical payoffs of Latour that I praised earlier. But it's a matter of tracing how this happens--that's all I'm up to.

So perhaps it would be better, then, to say that there isn't so much a knock at the humanities going on (and that's all it is, nothing wholly anti-humanities... or at least it's only anti- in the way that he is anti-science which we once discussed, which also means being pro it... maybe you are referencing that) when this sort of utopian characterization is occurring, so much as a notion that utopia and other such objects that we study don't fiddle with its objects in the way the sciences do--a characterization that, it seems to me, is just "agreed upon" in too many ways--ways that the sciences are not entirely "agreed upon," mostly because Latour works with them in more detail (and there's nothing wrong about that!: like I said, Latour's approach makes possible the opening up of the humanities box in such a way that the location of it in Latour can be shifted!). That's really, I guess, what underlies a lot of that connection between the preface and the discussion of utopia and optimism, and why I want to register the many sorts of utopias: it's just that the "basically they're all the same" is moving towards a particular notion of sameness--I'm not saying they're each to be respected in their wonderful own uniqueness, or that, indeed, they aren't all basically the same. It's that there are more means--more morephisms to it all (and I think Latour might like this point of view, in the end). I should have quoted "Do You Believe in Reality?" (here I finally get to it) which was in the back of my mind here when I say that to him, its the sciences that tinker, fiddle. Latour says the following:

If anything, and here we can be rightly accused of a slight lack of asymmetry "science students" [Latour uses the perforative term scientists give to the science studies people at conferences] fight the humanists who are trying to invent a human world purged of nonhumans much more than we combat the epistemologist who are trying to purify the sciences of any contamination by the social (Pandora's Hope, 18-19).

So far, so good. I for one am totally fine with that. But then, Latour asks why this is so:

Why? Because scientists spend only a fraction of their time purifying their sciences and, frankly, do not give a damn about the philosophers of science coming to their rescue, while the humanist spend all their time on and take very seriously the as of freeing the human subjects from the dangers of objectification and reification. Good scientists enlist in the science wars only in their spare time or when they are retired or have run out of grant money, but the others are up in arms day and night and even get granting agencies to join in their battle. This is what makes us so angry about the suspicion of our scientist colleagues. They don't seem to be able to differentiate friends from foes anymore (19).

Again, we end up in the pro-anti pit, and I'm not quite sure how we really got there. It's true, scientists don't purify their sciences. And it's definitely true that philosophers of science as well as sociologists (the word reification tips me off to this as the other object here) free things from objectification. But there's the underlying sense of some sort of inductive-deductive divide going on beneath the purification-hybridization divide, or an empirical-critical divide that I find weird. It's not that the language of purification isn't to be taken seriously--in fact, I like that Latour is as precise as possible here--it's just the addition of that "fraction of their time" seems to align things in a particular way. This way is such that when we get to the more soft humanities, say, this seems to make the only option some sort of full on meaningless critical purification from an aesthetic level, or, if we do spend time hybridizing, postmodernism: which Latour admits hybridizes, but works on the completely wrong plane, and so doesn't touch objects at all.

In short, there's an engagement with the object in the sciences that is a sort of fiddling, a shaping, which there isn't over where utopia is studied. And there's something true to that--certainly the account of postmodernism is correct in its general thrust. But see how abstract we're getting? Meanwhile, this all thoroughly justifies "a slight lack of asymmetry." The symmetry itself justifies, here, its asymmetry. That's probably right, you gotta bring the asymmetry in line with the symmetry to begin with--but that presupposes some sort of asymmetry to begin with, some sense that we all agree to think about things in this way, and what if, what if, that weren't the case always? Sociology is our hope here: it can show we agree differently, perhaps, in a way that allows us to fiddle. Or that the asymmetry Latour talks about is not immanent to the asymmetry that is actually at work... granted we do see with him some asymmetry, some "two-culture" divide which can be profitably see in terms of his more rigorous Great Divide. Mainly, it's interesting to see the "two-cultures" divided up so thoroughly in Latour between the natural sciences and the social sciences, when for Snow (originator of the odious phrase), it meant between scientists and poets--that might be what's at the heart of my "critique" as you call it.

One more point in closing, though, implicit way back in my first point above about acceleration. We can work in Latour's spirit, but it doesn't have to entail adopting Latour's position. I think you'll agree that the only way to really read someone is to read generously, or sympathetically (to use an older vocabulary), but the problem with Latour (and what I've been calling philosophies of immanence--Deleuze and Derrida too) is that one can get pulled into his whole system by way of this, through just this sort of move (what I've called locating the black box--and which gets refined very very nicely in Reassembling the Social, though I'd say nothing really changes there as far as what I'm saying and as far as I can see). The point I'm making clumsily is that while we might agree about non-acceleration (getting off the elevator), this in turn can into way to lump others into groups that do accelerate too quickly--which is why I'm trying to distance deceleration from a position that sees in it something like rigor (from this standpoint, deceleration is acceleration in a different way). But this is of course because Latour draws the right consequences from all this, in a way people more inclined to just treat his ideas generously (humanities readers especially, and who are much more content with a Derrida or even Deleuze) might miss--and it is with this that I think you are rightly trying to sympathize with: the fact that such a spirit requires the adoption of serious metaphysical and methodological assumptions, which others might not share. But then we can pass from this move--which, again, I think is made in the most logical way, and I really agree with Harman (and you, I think) that it's the best, most challenging aspect of Latour, a sort of "put up or shut up"-ness that we actually rarely see--to something like the sense that this symmetry (for that's what the metaphysical consequence is) is the limit or (better) horizon to which we and others are always striving towards, even if we don't strive towards it (symmetry as conclusion and as method, or what we stick to). Put more bluntly, it's the sort of move that allows us to be asymmetrical at the same time as we try to be symmetrical, in the way that Latour admits he is above. The utopia post was my way of mapping this asymmetry--not so much its possibility as its structure or trajectory.

Why? Because that "grouping" it's what I see also in Latour's statements about "materialist materialism" or "realist realism," which are playful but also radically operating according to the logic of the "we never have been:" I, Bruno Latour, am more of a realist than all the realists because I have never been a realist in their sense, for example. Utopia works the same way: I am a utopian in the sense that no one has ever been. That is the sense in which I used the phrase "real utopia" at the end of my post--I should have marked it more clearly, and I was going to go back and do it (as well as add the "Do You Believe" comment) but I had to run down to Princeton yesterday: what I was parodically proposing was a utopian utopia, and opposing to Latour's realist utopia, or another sort of utopian utopia, which all other utopias have, by being utopias, never been. Modernity, to take the hugest example of this, is a weird thing, for Latour, is it not? I am a modern nonmodern, producing a critique that will undo the whole system (I'll dig around for that quote and stick it here, though I'll be returning to it in my post on "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?"). Quite abstract, not unlike the sense that the humanities spend all their time purifying.

Now, what's great about Latour, as I've said here, is that this isn't the final state of the game. He, unlike all other philosophers of immanence--and I can't underscore how huge this is--allows us to get more specific (and even gets us excited about it, by saying that the prices of doing so will be low!), and so that's why I'm not, here, defending the humanities from the big bad anti-humanities Latour.

What I'm really after here, I guess, is symmetry. For me it's weird how it can merge, somewhat inevitably, with that presupposed asymmetry which Latour knows (one accuses him of it "rightly," he said) he's operating with. And for me that brings back all the big problems of representation within this non-representational system: how is it really working there? What's in Latour's head? I think you too work this way, and that's why we have a bit more sophisticated sense of how to use Latour.

But I'll close by just saying something I cut from that last utopia post, which I was going to end with. Latour says:

I have sought to offer humanists a detailed analysis of a technology sufficiently magnificent and spiritual to convince them that the machines by which they are surrounded are cultural objects worthy of their attention and respect (viii).

I said a lot about this, but then, at the end, I stressed that Latour goes on to be symmetrical as usual, and then said the following:

You once remarked (I continued) that his obsession with symmetry is surprising, given that Latour is all about the asymmetrical and hybrid. But I'll close by saying that I think he has to maintain this symmetry in order to undo the asymmetries according to the sort of self-cancelling non-modern/modern perspective that he inhabits in WHNBM… and so occasionally we can actually note asymmetries that escape.

And I left it on the symmetry in the preface, immediately following the quote on the humanists:

I have sought to show technicians that they cannot even conceive of a technological object without taking into account the mass of human beings with all their passions and politics and pitiful calculations, and that by becoming good sociologists and good humanists they can become better engineers and better-informed decisionmakers (viii).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Latour and Utopia: A Response

First off, I'd just like to commend you on the scope and daring of your double post on Latour and Utopia. In what follows I'm going to put myself into the role of Latour's defender against your charges, partly because I believe you're being a bit unfair and partly because I just think it'll make things more interesting. But I'd like to stress that I think it's a very intelligent immanent critique and my main goal in responding to it is not to refute it but simply to understand it better.

To save a little time, I'll skip to the excellent summary you give at the top of the second of your two posts, detailing why you think I think Latour is "utopian," at least in a certain sense:

Latour loves technology not as a completely open possibility that is in reality only a black box onto which we project our desires, but as an open box, actually existing technology … such that all the stress is laid upon both "could" and "exist" in the above quote … [H]e's like a utopian about the present, not about the future.

This is a fair extrapolation from my sketchy remark, in my original post on Aramis, that Latour may be a more utopian thinker than he at first appears — as is your characterization of Latour as a "utopian realist," though this perhaps risks blurring realism as a philosophical position together with realism as a political style or strategy. Still, what you seem to be suggesting, and if you are I agree, is that Latour is interested in utopia, and affirms it, as a motive for action (to invoke that old utopian humanist Kenneth Burke for a moment): he doesn't care about utopia as representation, as the cloud cover that reflects the light of our consciousness back at us, but he does care about it, maybe even privileges it, as a generator of action or interests (which, you'll recall, is where we began). You go off on an interesting digression on this is as a kind of "utopian pragmatism," presumably in contrast to the more Hegelian utopianism of someone like Jameson, but I want to table the issue of pragmatism for now (it seems as though Latour sometimes embraces this label, sometimes distances himself from it: in this way it lines up with "actor-network theory" and "realism" quite nicely). I also would just agree with your remarks about "the general sanity of Latour's politics" and your application of his ideas to the Copenhagen talks, and accept your recapitulation of my remarks about the links between 60s utopian thinking and Latour's love of technology. Thus far, I think, we're basically in agreement about Latour's position. In fact, I'm not sure I see a problem until you introduce "the problem":

Here's the problem, though. Essentially, Latour wants to take something of this utopianism, the aspect that wasn't (according to him) technocratic, and keep it as the love, or refigure love with it in mind. And he wants to do so as much as he reforms utopianism into realist-utopianism, making it clear that the technocrat ironically cannot have love for technology. But we then see Latour confuse utopianism proper and something like 1960's optimism, which I'd align with that arrogance--or rather, theoretical expansiveness--of the Levi-Strauss type… Now, optimism/expansiveness and utopia certainly ran together in the sense that the 60's was truly the great age of modern utopias, total visions of not only different social structures or ways of doing things, but also nonce sorts of solutions that would make the world indeed, do better, go faster, see clearly, etc. … But ultimately, as you can see from many of my parentheses, it's hard for me to see in the optimism something completely inseparable from utopia--to the point that is really is utopia's core.

First, a point of clarification. I want to make sure I’m understanding you right (and I apologize, as always, for my slowness on philosophical terrain). Are you saying that Latour is confusing the historical moment of utopian “optimism” (associated with the historical past, i.e. the 60s) with the concept of utopianism itself (always oriented toward the future or, in your reading of Latour, toward the present)? Or are you yourself (consciously) conflating utopia and optimism? In other words, on the most mundane sentence-parsing level, do you mean “it’s hard for me to see optimism as inseparable from utopia,” i.e. you don’t agree that they are inseparable, or “it’s hard for me to see anything in the optimism that could be separated from utopia,” i.e. for you they can’t be separated either? Are you agreeing or disagreeing with what you see as Latour’s confusion of optimism and utopia?

I still don't get it when you move from there into your very useful and interesting distinction between different kinds of utopia:

[F]or me, there are many different types of utopianism. There would be the literary/aesthetic utopia on the one hand, which can't wait to fiddle with the technology, and then the more social-planning type of utopianism that is found in the human sciences--the less humanist and more functionalist/formal Corbu sort of attitude … Latour lumps together all these utopias (as everyone else does), omitting a lot of the more creative aspects, and thereby sees a certain flat treatment of technology as symptomatic of all of them (it's in the same way that Marxism--here now alongside Latour!--often condemns utopias and utopian thinking).

You're probably right that people too often collapse these two forms of utopia together, and maybe Latour is guilty of this as well. But where in Aramis do you see Latour critiquing, or condemning, either literary/aesthetic or social-planning utopias? It seems to me he’s fully on board with both of them — and would maybe even refuse to accept your distinction and argue they’re basically the same thing (see all the talk about “composing the collective” in the second half of Reassembling the Social).

Where we part company, I think, is in assessing Latour's attitude toward the humanities, which I think you read as much more hostile and "patronizing" than I do. You say:

we get a sense that it is the humanities that both want to plan through utopia or critique through it, and aren't really interested in the technology which will bring it about, as well as feel feelings purely, and so instead of getting interested in technology, [we humanists] get interested in the feelings that come from utopia.

I certainly know the attitude you're talking about, but I'm not at all sure it's Latour's. Indeed, I’m not quite sure where you’re getting the idea that Latour is criticizing the humanities. The general tone of Aramis, perhaps more than any of his other books, is one of rapprochement between the humanities (poetry, fiction, history, religion, et al.) and the sciences. Certainly I agree with you if what you’re saying is that Latour/Norbert is trying to recruit humanists to the same side as the technology that they customarily leave to technocrats (who, BL shows brilliantly, don’t understand it any better than the humanists do). And this entails attacking certain positions and ideas that it would be easy to identify with humanism, or the humanities, tout court. But I really don't think it's tenable to paint Latour as having any animus toward the humanities, even if he gets annoyed with some of their rhetoric and their pretensions to autonomy.

Yet it's clear you do think Latour is making such a critique, or at least reflecting some of its ideological aspects, and I want to know more about why you think so. You quote him as saying (in, N.B., one of the few statements in the book he attributes directly to himself, without overt "shifting," quoting, or personification):

I have sought to offer humanists a detailed analysis of a technology sufficiently magnificent and spiritual to convince them that the machines by which they are surrounded are cultural objects worthy of their attention and respect (viii).

And then you comment:

There is the sense that this dissolution produces something like the investment of the non-utopian with the utopian, or the present with all the great impulse (read, pathos, drama, anything but fact) behind the utopian. But doesn't that presume that the utopian is primarily optimism? That grandness of scale? The sort of wide-ranging judgment or ability to pronounce (this is good, this is bad, what feeling!), that is is so quick to turn around upon the sciences, become pessimistic, and say (Heidegger is our hero, after all, as Latour continually remarks) that science doesn't think?

But again, I'm not sure I understand your distinction you want to preserve (or not preserve?) between “utopia” and “optimism,” if it’s not a distinction between utopia as abstract concept and optimism as concrete historical particular (e.g., the optimism of the 60s). You may have just ascended to a Hegelian level that my intellectual elevator doesn’t go up to. But I want to try to get there, even if I have to take the stairs!

And speaking of elevation, you finish with a discussion of

the real status of the concept of utopia in [Aramis] (elevated and denigrated at the same time, just like the humanities) … [U]topia is something to be entertained insofar as it is allied with optimism, or with the sorts of invention that produces great ideas--Norbert with similar elevation/denigration uses the word "genius" about the initial formulator of the idea of continuous transport--but one can't really take utopian optimism seriously unless one becomes a realist and applies it to the "present"--and thereby teaches the humanities (as well as the sciences, but at least they tinker with things, unlike media studies) a lesson. In other words, all I'm saying is that a real (and not realist) utopian vision might be unthinkable from such a perspective--the perspective that would use "utopia" in the following sense: "An object that is merely technological is a utopia, as remote as the world of Erewhon" (viii).

So, my question for you is, what is a real utopian vision? What is the reality that the humanities lay claim to, or at least have in their sights, that Latour is missing? I understand you as saying that you think Latour "elevates and denigrates" utopianism, poetry, genius — and, by extension, the work of the humanities — by praising them only for their role in making things happen, for motivating action, and not as things in themselves. Though he doesn't stress it, he may be as anti-Kantian in this, his inaesthetic devotion to teleology, as he is in his refusal of the Copernican Revolution — and yes, I agree, it does go against much of the humanities as they are currently constituted and rationalized. (Somebody who knocks out Kant, Hegel and Heidegger all at one go isn't leaving much left to prop up the philosophical aspirations of our English and Comp. Lit. departments.) But I don't think it follows from this that Latour is anti-humanities, any more than the introduction of objects into actor-network theory makes him an anti-humanist, and the fact that he wants to enlist the humanities doesn't mean he sees them only as a means and not an end. It just means he's refusing to see the humanities as what they so often agree to see themselves as: the opposite of technology, the opposite of science. (And, as Latour often points out, it's a very unequal opposite, much less socially respected, much less widely believed in, much less handsomely funded, than the hegemonic sciences.) And if that means he also has to deflate our discipline's pretensions to being a "real utopia" — precisely in order to show us how we can be a part of the realist utopian work of "composing the collective" — then I think he thinks it's a small price to pay.