Latour’s diplomatic metalanguage is a form of pluralised dialectics, as is post-structuralist thought in general. Deleuze, for example, is willing to look favorably on Hegel’s dialectics on the condition that movement is given primacy over negativity. Zizek’s recent ontological treatise LESS THAN NOTHING, with its valorisation of mediation and its non-negative negativity, comes close to satisfying Deleuze’s requirement, and could even serve as an ontological underpinning to Latour’s AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, given that Latour needs to include his idea of “plasma” to make his system more complete.
One should not identify dialectics with negation and critique, but rather with dissolving fixed and separate categories and putting things in movement. The three dialectical phases that characterise the work of the poststructuralist philosophers (Derrida, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, but also Rorty, Stiegler, Feyerabend, Laruelle, and Zizek) are not the classical triad of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis (these are only a special case, an instantiation of a much more general set of movements). I would name them deconstruct and dissolve, pluralize and set in movement, and share and democratically assemble.
For all his repeated condemnation of “critique” Latour is a master of critical rhetoric, and AIME could justly be called a treatise of ontological critique. The critique of critique is a trope from the 70s (i.e. from one of Latour’s major intellectually formative periods) which still has some steam in it, but it is still only a preliminary step towards pluralism. Michel Foucault, for example, cannot be limited to the role of the critical intellectual, which he explicitly denounced, and Deleuze does a good job in his FOUCAULT of laying out the three positive ontologies present in Foucault’s work. Retrospectively viewed in Latour’s terms Foucault’s research can be seen as passing from one mode to another, sketching out their grammars. Of course his modes do not correspond closely to Latour’s, but then Latour is giving revisionary descriptions of consensually recognisable modes.
In my mapping of intellectual influences, I do not mean to say that philosopher X (say Deleuze) said it all before Y (say Latour). My worry is that Latour is busily going about making the preceding generation unreadable by obliterating both its larger problematic and his own. Latour forces us to separate out problematic and agenda. His problematic is poststructuralist, as he begrudgingly admits and as John Law very clearly proclaims. In that, his thought is in progress compared to all the so-called “postmodern” critics that seek hegemony in the humanities.
Latour’s agenda is not clear to me, but I see it as in part conceptually regressive. If Latour borrows concepts from his poststructuralist predecessors but attributes them to William James, this could be construed as a way of saying that James is the real source of their supposed innovations, a way of redressing the historical record. It may however be a way of neutralising criticism. I do not see in Latour’s work any engagement with the analyses of empiricism that have been made over the last 60 years, clustered around the notion of theory-ladenness. In its place, I see a strawman critique of Lockean empiricism. This serves to hide the many places where Latour makes naive empiricist remarks and gives to his project an aura of sophistication that is often unmerited, as he employs all the right words, but often attaches simpler meanings to them.