BADIOU, LATOUR, STIEGLER: Figures of Submission or Conceptual Personae?

This post is an attempt to elaborate on Stiegler’s critical take on Latour.

Latour is a master of misdirection. He does not really acknowledge, but only does occasional lipservice to, the sources of his ideas in the preceding generation of epistemologists, sociologists of science, and Continental philosophers. This failure to acknowledge is not a sign of freedom from boring and meaningless academic rituals, it has as a consequence that he repeats insights from the past, and in truncated form. He gestures towards Souriau and Whitehead because they can be “inherited” vaguely, outside any contemporary problematic and critical context.

Latour is conservative because his emphasis is on the description and demarcation of modes of existence as they are, and not as with Deleuze and Guattari on their invention and transformation. Thus although I am favorable to Latour’s AIME project, and I find his books and articles very stimulating, after reading them I find myself feeling a little disappointed and frustrated.

Of course Latour is free to take an interest in whatever he wishes, but I don’t think that Stiegler is lamenting that Latour doesn’t like his own particular hobbyhorses. He is indicating important lacunae in Latour’s system in terms of the genesis, the legitimation, and the transformation of the modes of existence he describes (Husserl, Derrida) and also of the desiring or libidinal economy that subtends them (Freud, Lyotard).

The reference to Husserl and Freud, or more generally to phenomenology and psychoanalysis, is not an invocation of extrinsic bodies of doctrine: Stiegler’s Freud for example constitutes a much more open and supple toolkit than is the case for Badiou, who needs to demarcate and detach his own modes of existence (or truth-procedures) and enshrines a relatively untransformed notion of psychoanalysis in a separate mode of existence. This move is extremely conceptually conservative, and I think that Latour represents very much an advance on Badiou’s analysis, but that something important is lost.

So I think Stiegler’s references are not so much acts of submission to historical figures or to constituted bodies of doctrine as conceptual shorthand for a set of questions and problems and critical engagements that Latour is avoiding. In particular, Stiegler is actively re-reading and re-thinking thinkers such as Lyotard, Deleuze and Guattari, Foucault, and Derrida because he finds that despite the conceptual advances of this generation they represent also a degree of failure in not helping us think adequately the transformations in the economy and in digital technologies that are impacting our lives and requiring of us a new orientation in our existences.

Once again Badiou too has talked quite a lot about this question of how to orient our lives as being central to philosophy, and makes the problem of orientation at least as important as that of description. Here I think that Badiou goes further than Latour.

I have limited my remarks here to Stiegler, Badiou, and Latour and tried to show that they are in part at least engaging with a common problematic field, and that a critical conversation is possible between their positions. Stiegler at least is trying to open up a space for discussion, and even, for reasoned disagreement. For example,n his on-line class this year Stiegler is giving a reading of Plato’s REPUBLIC and regularly refers to Badiou’s ideas sometimes favorably and sometimes critically.

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