Philip of CIRCLING SQUARES has posted a good article unpacking what it could mean to say that AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE is plurimodal, or, as I have been arguing, polytheistic. This notion of a polylogic writing embodying a polytheism of values is a natural outgrowth of science studies when the discipline becomes reflexive, and thus aware of its own epistemological and ontological prejudices. Latour speaks of the realisation that science studies was potentially imposing a new reductionism: scientifically explaining everything in terms of heterogeneous networks in no way challenges the scientistic image of thought specific to the Moderns and amounts to yet another bid for hegemony within the sciences, this time in favour of sociology. Reflexivity requires that one account for one’s own viewpoint in the same terms that one uses to account for the viewpoints one studies.
Science studies as itself a science belongs to the mode of reference, and runs the risk of effecing the singularity of its objects of study by the imposition of its referential grill. Yet referentiality implies contingency: at each joint in the chain there is a hiatus whereby the mode of linkage can be different from the preceeding one. Such bifurcations can seem to be resolved quite naturally, yet the choice of the path embodies particular acts of valuation that can differ qualitatively from preceding acts or reproduce them. Thus within the proliferation of the networks valuations are omnipresent.
The task that Latour’s project attempts to accomplish is that of the sketching out of a typology of the principle values, each of which can be regarded as a mode of linkage and consequently a mode of assembling or of gathering. Such a mode is noetic and semiotic, it embodies a certain understanding of being, and a régime of enunciation for expressing this understanding; It is also « machinic », in that it gathers in its singular reticulations a specific type of existence and set of entities.
One may usefully compare Latour’s typological project with that of Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly in ALL THINGS SHINING. This book also presents a typology of what it calls « understandings of being » and « modes of gathering ». These modes are described in terms of a pedagogical order of historical succession, but Dreyfus and Kelly emphasise that all the modes are present in our contemporary Western societies. Thus they talk the Homeric gods as beings of metamorphosis (however their proposed grammar of this mode is different from Latour’s). They discuss the religious mode in terms of the agape of the early Christians and its ontotheological perversion, that they illustrate with the conclusion of Dante’s PARADISO. They analyse the rise of the Modernist dichotomy of Subject and Object in relation to Descartes’ cogito and Kant’s concept of autonomy. They conclude with the polytheism of multiple « attunements » (Latour says « interpretative keys ») and « moods » (for Latour, « values ») that can be found in MOBY-DICK.
The point of this comparison is not just that we have in ALL THINGS SHINING a similar instance of a plurimodal ontology, but that in some ways ATS complements AIME. Latour talks of the « diplomacy » necessary to assemble the plurality of modes, without the hegemony of one of them, in a collective space, yet on the individual level we are faced with a blank in his system. Are we all supposed to self-identify with the image of the diplomat in the incessant wandering from one mode to another that our daily life comprises? Dreyfus and Kelly propose the concept of « metapoiesis » to designate the skilful attunement to and passage between multiple modes.
Despite Latour’s fable of the ethnographic investigatress who sets out on a voyage of exploration to discover the values of the Moderns there is no explicit account of individuation in his ontological treatise. The investigatress’s voyage is not a transformative one, her journey is not philosophical. This is why Latour remarks at the beginning that ethnography is not enough, and that he needs philosophy to « forge a metalanguage » approriate to the plurality of experience and its modes. I agree with Philip Conway, that philosophy is a transformative journey, and as such involves multiple conversion (and « de-conversion ») experiences. This is one reason I find Latour’s account of conversion to be dogmatic, monistic and regressive. Conversion is not limited to the religious régime of enunciation, not even within Latour’s book itself. AIME embodies and incites us to several other types of conversion:
1) the empiricist conversion towards experience outside reductionist blinkers, in all its variety and relational richness (cf. Deleuze and Guattari on the empiricist conversion in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?: « it may be that believing in this world, in this life, becomes our most difficult task, or the task of a mode of existence still to be discovered on our plane of
immanence today. This is the empiricist conversion », page 75).
2) the pluralist conversion towards the diversity of incommensurable modes, each with its interpretative key
3) the spiritual (or noetic) conversion towards modes of subjectivation outside the modernist bifurcation of Subject and object.
Latour’s notion of « religious conversion » is a bastard concept conflating the religious domain, which is only one of the domains where conversions may occur, with the mode of conversion, which he pains to describe in adequate terms because he is unwilling to release it from its religious emprisonment. To that extent Latour has not been able fully to free himself from ontotheology. To conclude with Deleuze and Guattari:
« There is not the slightest reason for thinking that modes of existence need transcendent
values by which they could be compared, selected, and judged relative to one another. On the contrary, there are only immanent criteria ». (WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY?, 74).