SITUATING LATOUR’S ENUNCIATIONS: Meta-language or Newspeak

Bruno Latour’s book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE purports to describe the felicity conditions of a plurality of modes of existence and of their corresponding modes of veridiction.  So it is reasonable to raise the question of the situation of enunciation instituted  in the book, and of the status of Latour’s own speech acts. In the passage from certainty to trust the enunciative modality changes:

« But when one has to appeal to trust, the interlocutory situation is entirely different: one has to share the concern for a fragile and delicate institution, encumbered with terribly material and mundane elements— oil lobbies, peer evaluation, the constraints of model-making, typos in thousand-page-long reports, research contracts, computer bugs, and so on » (3).

Latour’s own discourse seems to allude to a possible scientific status, by the constant evocation of an “anthropology of the Moderns”, yet much of what he says is philosophical in form and content, containing idiosyncratic speculation whose evidential support is not readily apparent . The lack of clarity over the object of the inquiry (the « Moderns » and their « values ») and over the potential audience for its results adds to the puzzlement over the status of his discourse. In the conclusion Latour states:

“Thus while I have spoken all along of an inquiry and even of a questionnaire, it is not in the mode of knowledge that I claim to be working. The term “inquiry” has to be taken in a plurimodal sense whose object is to preserve the diversity of modes. Can we call this approach “empirical philosophy”? I am not sure, given how indifferent philosophy has become to the tasks of description. Experimental metaphysics? Cosmopolitics? Comparative anthropology? Practical ontology? … To situate this reprise of the rationalist adventure, but to mark clearly that it will not take place under the auspices of Double Click, I have entrusted it to the term diplomacy”.

So it is not in the mode of knowledge, yet empirical. In the beginning of the book Latour appeals to his status as a practitioner of science studies, and we know he has published books on a case study of technology and of law. His book on religious enunciation REJOICING is not based on a case study but on his own (experiential? philosophical?) impressions of what such utterance is all about. “Plurimodal”, including the mode of knowledge but not limited to it, seems an apt description, but so does “meta-modal”, if we want to capture the idea that it is not political diplomacy that is at play, but ontological diplomacy. The scene of this diplomacy is vague too: the investigator must show diplomacy with her informers and strive to obtain their assent for her redescriptions of their practices and institutions, diplomacy again in the negotiations between the different modes of existence, and yet again in the negotiations between the Moderns and the « others ».

Despite an effort to locate and free us from category mistakes when one mode of existence is confused with or impinges on another, Latour himself mixes philosophical considerations and empirical claims in a confusing way. The result is a vagueness or “muddiness” that complcates his argument and gives an illusion of concreteness. There emerges from all this an impression of authority, yet the bibliography to support his claims is lacking. There is an attempt to exploit the trust the reader may have in Latour’s previous work on revisioning of science and have it accorded to claims about other domains, institutions, and modes of existence where no such work is cited. The objections that the text envisions come from naive straw men who are trapped in the snares of subject-object, the bifurcation nature-society, the impossible quest for unmediated certainty, or of double-click literalism. There is so much renaming that one has trouble formulating objections that have not been rendered impossible by the new terminology. An interesting case is the fate of the word “transcendence”, which becomes split in two: there is a “bad” transcendence and a “good” transcendence, which is defined so as to be synonymous with immanence (“immanence, for AIME, is synonymous with good transcendence”). This is in line with a return to a more consensual (“diplomatic”) posture and an attempt to avoid “provocation”, at least at the level of terminology. Already Latour had renamed his position from “social constructivism” to “constructivism”. Now we have him renouncing constructivism in favour of compositionism, and the return of values, institutions, and even (“good”) transcendence. There are no boudaries between domains, but one may not mix different modes of existence, under penalty of “category mistake”. Yet one may ask: are all such crossings sterile errors? If this ontology is diachronic, with modes of existence evolving, mutating, coming into being and disappearing, can such crossings sometimes be productive? The terminology of category mistakes, though necessary for eliminating “bad” mixtures, may eliminate too much (what about the possibility of “good” mixtures and tend towards stasis. Once we have our map of values and modes that characterise us are we just going to agree to be different from our others, or are we going to swap and mix with them? It is strange to police the proliferation of hybrids at the object level with the stern warnings against categorial confusion at the meta-level.

On the question of « Values », I think that Latour effectuates an illegitimate transition at the beginning of the book from experience to value in his presentation of his project.  Then he gives the value thus located a new content (“new account”). So the defence of the values of the moderns is a strange tension of conservative and revisionary moves.

Latour’s « felicity conditions » are to be distinguished from the values he posits, being rather the criteria determining that some value has been respected or attained, or not. Reducing science to the value of “objectivity” as Latour does in the introduction, or religion to conversion, is a dubious move.The idea that each mode of existence embodies a “value” that can be isolated out is a rhetorical reduction.  It is rhetorical because it consists in persuasively re-defining the experience underlying a mode of existence while giving the appearance of simply re-stating that experience; it is a reduction in that something of the complexity of that experience is lost. Wanting us to give up the “belief in beliefs” in favour of a belief in values seems little gain, but tends towards denying any cognitive dimension to values. There is also the inter-textual aspect. Latour relies heavily on a fuzzy set of allusions to previous French philosophers. In particular much of his pluralism has a Deleuzian ring, just as his declaration of the end of the modernist master narrative of Emancipation is a Lyotardian concept. In Deleuze’s terms value is always a term for the conformist codification of practices and of modes of existence, and it is rather singular evaluations that allow us to construct our modes of existence without succombing to transcendence in the sense of a higher objective court of appeal. Latour seems to be trying to revamp the terminology to produce more conservative conclusions than such thinkers worked towards; There is a whole strand of re-defining the terms of his predecessors rather than confronting them that goes in the same direction; His re-defining of “deconstruction” into purely negative critical thought is an important example. His wiping out of two generations of predecessors is of a piece with his considering only straw man objectors. Noone wants to be a dualist still believing in subect-object or the bifurcation of Nature and Society, noone wants to believe in the unmediated access to the real or in the uniitary autonomous subject. But the victory over (i.e. the deconstruction of) these concepts in favour of (it was not just negative) multiplicities of heterogeneous elements arranged in immanent networks – this was not Latour’s contribution but that of his immediate predecessors. So I think that looking very warily at a seemingly innocent word such as “value” is important to understand Latour’s project in a wider intellectual context than that which he himself indicates explicitly. An unreliable narrator of the necessity of trust is not to be taken at face value.

Note: I am indebted to the discussion with Philip Conway and Steven Gans for helping me to clarify my ideas on the nature of Latour’s venture.

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