CRITIQUE AND DIPLOMACY, STRATEGY AND ALLUSION: The case of Bruno Latour

“Where do you criticize from? Don’t you see that criticizing is still knowing, knowing better? That the critical relation still falls within the sphere of knowledge. of “realization”
and thus of the assumption of power? Critique must be drifted out of. Better still: Drifting is in itself the end of all critique. The desire underlying and informing institutions composes
set-ups which are energetic investments in the body, in language.” (Lyotard, 1972, cited from DRIFTWORKS, Semiotext(e), 1984).

“Lawrence criticised French literature for being incurably intellectual, ideological and idealist, essentially critical, critical of life rather than creative of life…We can only assemble among assemblages” (DIALOGUES, 49-50 & 53, published in French in 1977).

I read Latour with many French texts resonating in my mind, texts from the period just before and just after May ’68. There are many such texts dating from this epoch and later that seem to have formed the pre-individual conceptual soup from which Latour draws to elaborate his own process of intellectual individuation. One line in those texts was the critique of critique as the triumph of negativity and conformism disguised as perspicuity and lucidity, of intellectual laziness disguised as sophistication, of meta-discourse and abstraction to avoid engaging with life and concrete experience. Critique though necessary was seen as insufficient, and destructive of thought and life if given primacy. What was needed was creative life, seen as an empirical concrete art of composition and assemblage. It is interesting to note that Feyerabend was talking in much the same vein at much the same time, criticising Popper’s critical rationalism for the primacy it gave to critique.

For me Latour’s works emerge from this creative soup of ideas and yet he does not easily acknowledge this source. Words, concepts, images that he seems to present as his own derive from this background. The question for me is why does he not acknowledge his predecessors. On his own theory of mediation this influence is inevitable and to “multiply the mediators” is supposed to strengthen a position rather than weaken it. Sometimes I think that Latour is a machiavellic master manipulator, a cunning diplomat deploying a rhetorical strategy to become a Great French Philosopher; sometimes I think that he is a master of the allusiveness that is necessary to enrich one’s style with enough transindividual vibrancy to really be able to say something both contentful and new. In this latter case he is not striving to become a role, he just simply is a great philosopher (French being irrelevant here, though an important part of his singularity as such a philosopher).

I do not know how to resolve my dilemma, which comes from having read many texts that he has surely read and hearing their resonances in his own words. This combines with other worries about the explicit content of his views that I find I both approve and feel dissatisfied with, that I summarise by saying “he doesn’t go far enough”. In many ways I find he is an advance on Badiou with his quadruple truth procedures, so what am I worrying about? The answer to that will have to wait for another time.

So I feel somehow that I must reply to Philip of Circling Squares because he seems to be criticising me, despite the fact that I agree with nearly everything he says and have said similar things in various blog posts. I think he is right about what he calls “fieldwork” and I share his desire for philosophers to indulge in more “empirical research” conceived broadly. My quibble is that sometimes Latour slides between this more general sense, where a philosopher like Deleuze can be considered to do (conceptual, affective, perceptual, political, and yes why not? religious) fieldwork and a more limited sense in which Latour has done fieldwork but not Deleuze, Badiou, Lyotard and Serres. My quarrel is with the diplomatic caricature of himself that Latour secretes, consciously or not, and that interferes with the part of his message that I like and wish to help publicise.

 

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5 Responses to CRITIQUE AND DIPLOMACY, STRATEGY AND ALLUSION: The case of Bruno Latour

  1. Samuel says:

    Maybe Latour’s latest initiative of arts+politics is his attempt to “do”, creatively engage with life:
    Have you come across it? http://blogs.sciences-po.fr/speap-eng/the-program/

    Like this

  2. Philip says:

    Hi Terence, thanks for clarifying. Sorry if I misunderstood or misrepresented what you were saying. Hopefully the tone was not too objectionable. When I wrote “I’m not being fair I’m being polemical” I meant it! I was dimly aware that your Feyerabendian predilections might actually chime with some of what I was saying, the post I referred to just seemed to be saying something different. My mistake.

    I completely agree with the portrayal of Latour as a wily, Machiavellian diplomat. As I wrote in a follow-up post, he always has to be read as a scheming polemicist rather than a scholarly essayist; everything’s performative with him. A key element of his performance is his citation — or non-citation — of influences. This rhetorical style can be a little annoying at times but it does seem to be intrinsic to his thought — practicing what he preaches, essentially. Bah, philosophers!

    Like this

  3. Pingback: BBT vs OOO | AGENT SWARM

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