Philip Conway has set the reading and discussion of Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE off to a fine start. For the moment the discussion has centered on a certain vagueness and conceptual tension in Latour’s use of the term “Moderns”, and of what role his appeal to a notion of “values” plays in his project: preliminary survey to open up the field of inquiry or rhetorical reduction to serve the purposes of his own agenda. The question is thus posed of how we may best read this book, and Latour’s work in general.
Style and vocabulary are important to Latour’s message, as are argumentative and rhetorical strategy. This implies that we do not read Latour through the literalism and the narrow rationalism of “double-click” spectacles. Double-click is the name for a mode (of discourse and of existence) that reduces existence to information treated as unmediated and transparent access to reality. In opposition to the claim of double-click rationality to be the only trustworthy access to reality, since it takes itself to be the only mode of existence, Latour argues that there are in fact many modes of existence. Each of these modes generates its own information and subjects it to multiple transformations, and each embodies different values. The rise to hegemony of double-click rationality corresponds to what Max Weber called the process of rationalization, which brought with it the reduction of the many modes of existence to one, and thus the “disenchantement” of the world.
(Note: Latour lays out fifteen modes of existence and of “veridiction”, but unlike Badiou and his magic number of four “truth-procedures” Latour is open to the possibility of adding others. In this regard we can see Badiou as still practicing a priori philosophy, where Latour true to his word is intent on practicing an empirical metaphysics).
One can note that Latour’s choice of theoretical vocabulary is voluntarily simple, and one motive for this choice is the desire to avoid the misleading associations and connotations that adhere to the more technical words of the philosophical tradition. However, I agree with Deleuze that it is often the books that make the choice of a non-technical vocabulary that are the most difficult. We have seen in the last post that Latour’s use of the word “modern” conceals many problems, as does his choice of the word “values”, and I have argued that his text on his own account must not be taken at face-value (“face-value) is another name for double-click, the omnipresent enemy of the recognition of the plurality of modes).
I think that this creates a situation that is a challenge for any consequent pluralism. Latour’s book is written not as just a monist double-click treatise about a pluralism of modes of existence but as itself an enactment of such pluralism, and is to be read accordingly. Its aim is, after the double-click disenchantment of the world, to reenchant the world by investing it with a polytheism of values. It requires that we read it with polytheistic awareness. Certainly we can and must read it for information, but we must also be awake to its strategies and conjunctural alliances. We must appreciate its fictioning of beings and of conceptual personae, and we must approach it with religious care to respond to the living spirit underlying its potentially dead letter. We must relate to it in terms of the psychic construction, or individuation, that it exemplifies and renders possible.
This polytheism of reading is in line with my own approach to understanding and interpretation. I personally don’t believe in direct access to a text (or to anything else), nor does Latour. I read a text with everything I’ve got. Certainly it is important to take note of the vocabulary and of the distinctions foregrounded by the author, but I argue that they must be read against this polytheistic background.