HOW TO READ LATOUR: Polytheism of Values

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.

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11 commentaires pour HOW TO READ LATOUR: Polytheism of Values

  1. deidrenelms dit :

    The question of Latour’s relationship to Badiou is one that I would be interesting in continuing in more detail in the AIME reading group. In Badiou’s « Philosophy and Desire » he takes a similar stance as Latour on the linguistic turn, writing « My position is to break with these frameworks of thought, to find another philosophical style, a style other than interpretation, of logical grammatical analysis, or of polyvalence and language games- that is to rediscover a foundational style. » Here I see Badiou situating himself with regard to Heidegger, Carnap, and Wittgenstein. Latour and Badiou both want philosophy get over its embarrassment in announcing and admitting its desire for truth. At the same time, both want (in a more analytic strain of thinking) to clarify the concept of truth, a project which necessitates a clarification of scientific truth. Does Latour « rediscover a foundational style? » as Badiou encourages? How are their projects different, especially considering that they both consider their projects ontological?


  2. terenceblake dit :

    I think the parallel between Latour and Badiou is important to keep in mind as I think that it fruitfully illuminates both projects. One of the tasks with reading Latour is to re-establish a philosophical context without dragging his work back into a set of presuppositions that he is trying to escape. Philip Conway’s article demonstrated that Latour’s book is less empirical than advertised, but the comparison with Badiou shows that there is a fundamental difference. Badiou is still doing apriori philosophy and is incapable of expanding the number of truth procedures, while there is no reason inside his system not to envisage others. So Latour’s taking up the notions of ontology and of truth, but pluralising them is an empirical gesture. Latour’s system proposes much more of a diachronic ontology (Latour’s « being-as-other », including both alterity and alteration) from the very beginning, whereas Badiou’s ontology is synchronic at the level of Being with a diachronic addition in the notion of the event. So I don’t think Latour rediscovers a foundational style, rather he does everything to avoid such a thing.

    Badiou’s philosophy is foundational in a very classical sense, and I think his idea that « mathematics is ontology » is a regressive move. I think that despite his explicit claims Badiou’s difference with the later Wittgenstein is not so much that of the « linguistic turn » as of the diachronic turn or the abandon of the idea of foundations. For Wittgenstein mathematics is a constantly evolving patchwork, and set theory is not at all a foundation. Wittgenstein was also quite intent on separating religious experience from the type of existence investigated by the sciences, and on separating psychological experience from psychoanalysis, which he regarded as an invasive mythology. So Latour is far closer to Wittgenstein than he is to Badiou.


    • dmfant dit :

      that seems right to me, part of why I stress (via Wittgenstein) perspicuous presentations, aspect-dawnings, and familial resemblances.
      for an interesting flashback to the 60’s pipedream of worldwide systems-thinking see:


  3. deidrenelms dit :

    On some level though, it seems to me that Latour also might suggest that mathematics is ontology. It strikes me as significant that the title of his book is « an inquiry into modes of existence ». Mathematics is a mode of being. When we talk mathematically, referring to numbers, we refer to ‘beings’ of a certain kind. Not Platonic objects, but « existents » nonetheless- things about which we can say « there are x. » Latour situates these existents within networks, but it seems to me that he is still operating in an ontological framework (and I don’t mean this as criticism). On page 83 he writes « It is only when we have brought chains of reference into view that the metaphysical question can take on its full relief: what happens to existents themselves? »

    On another note though I think you’re right about the relationship between Badiou and the later Wittgenstein. I’m not sure about the Latour being closer to Wittgenstein.. I’ll have to keep reading.

    Aimé par 1 personne

  4. terenceblake dit :

    For Badiou mathematics is ontology, and there is no other: there is only one mode of existence. His is a pluralism of content, everything is multiplicity of multiplicities. Latour proposes a pluralism of modes of existence, and so ontology is itself multiple. The modes are perhaps a little like regional ontologies, only they do not exist as regions inside some totalising space but are qualitatively incommensurable. To that extent he is closer to Wittgenstein than to Badiou.


    • dmf dit :

      if you get a chance see what you think of the take here on “Innigkeit”


  5. cheryl gilge dit :

    Reblogged this on deleuzianexcursus and commented:
    I fully support this- and it reminds me of tactical reading ala de Certeau, as well as the ways in which Deleuze’s concepts change names but continue to function in a similar way. Straight reading misses the nuances of the explication… better to make a map, not a tracing.


  6. Ping : ON THE LIFE CYCLE OF LATOUR’S MODES OF EXISTENCE: emergence, extinction, attachment, conflation, stabilisation, re-absorption, and inclusion | AGENT SWARM


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