IS LATOUR A CLOSET LARUELLIAN?: non-modern philosophy as non-philosophy

Latour has famously claimed that we have never been modern, and has unsparingly criticised the postmoderns for their practice of critique, showing that he actively embraces both paradox and performative contradiction. His own name for his style of thinking is « non-modern ». Given his desire to get away from all philosophy based on the dualist principles generated by the « bifurcation of nature » and to create a new type of thinking that he calls « empirical philosophy », one may wonder if Latour is practicing, knowingly or not, a form of « non-philosophy » in the sense that François Laruelle has given that term. His declarations that he is in no way attached to a particular theoretical vocabulary or set of references, but considers his metalanguage « disposable », go in the same sense.

Latour’s theoretical formulations show a huge degree of liberty when it comes to locating the basic conceptual matrix of his work. Different versions of the same article make use of different theoretical vocabularies to do similar work. In a paper on overcoming the opposition between realism and constructivism he declares that it is the reading of Whitehead that permitted him to overcome this opposition: « Before reading Whitehead, I could not extricate myself from this dilemma » (13). Here Latour is referring to an event in his personal intellectual history, reading Whitehead, which was necessary for him to arrive at a solution.

However, the original French version does not contain this sentence, but a slightly different one: « Avant Whitehead, nous ne pouvions nous sortir de ce dilemme » (10) . « Before Whitehead, we couldn’t get out of this dilemma. » Here there is no reference to Latour’s reading but to intellectual history. Whitehead is said to have created the conditions for leaving the dichotomy behind. Latour may have found the solution directly in Whitehead or in a later thinker, the biographical question is left open.

Strangely, an earlier account of the same work does not mention Whitehead at all, but attributes the role of guide to exiting the dichotomy to the semiotician Greimas: « This freedom in selecting actors and redistributing properties among them is crucial to understanding scientific practice, and, to my knowledge, no other discipline possesses that freedom. All the others have to start from a « natural » division between human and
nonhuman properties » (3). My conclusion is not however that the « real » debt is to Greimas and that the more recent references to Whitehead are a mere pedagogical or diplomatic device. Nor do I conclude that Greimas allowed him to get close to an insight that only the decisive influence of Whitehead crystallised into a « real » solution. That would be a pre-Latourian naïveté. Latour himself provides the more appropriate conclusion:

There are mediators all the way down, and adding sources will only add more mediations, none of them being reducible to mere « document »or »information. »

Deleuze, Greimas, Derrida, Whitehead, Sloterdijk, etc. are all « mediators » permitting Latour to express his ideas now from one angle now from another, first to this public and then to the next. In a recent interview Latour seems to chalk all this theoretical nomadism down to the « normal wearing out of concepts »: « The problem – this is why we must keep changing our words – is that it is not because we have used these words that they [i.e. the objects] are there. The words have to be renewed so that the phenomenon that they designate is foregrounded anew » (128, my translation).

This lexical and conceptual liberty may be seen as opportunistic or cynical, a Machiavellian strategy to win over possible allies by speaking to them in the terms least likely to provoke rejection but rather to favorise adhesion. Yet one need not interpret Latour’s mobility in such negative terms. This practice of refreshing the vocabulary and working with a disposable metalanguage has much in common with the liberty of thought that Katerina Kolozova attributes to the influence of Laruelle’s non-philosophy:

« Laruelle provides me with conceptual or methodological possibilities of producing theoretical work without adherence to any philosophical legacy in particular, and to do so without being arbitrary or voluntaristic. His non-standard philosophy enables one to take recourse to conceptual material derived from philosophy without the endorsement of the explanatory frame a philosophical school or authority creates for the concepts produced within it » (interview with Liam Jones in Figure/Ground, here).

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5 commentaires pour IS LATOUR A CLOSET LARUELLIAN?: non-modern philosophy as non-philosophy

  1. Philip Conway dit :

    This is how I’ve always understood Latour’s foundational dictum in Irreductions (copied from an old post):

    “1.1.1 Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.
    • I will call this the ‘principle of irreducibility,’ but it is a prince that does not govern since that would be a self-contradiction”

    1. Nothing is reducible to anything else.
    To exist is to differ. If A is entirely reducible to B then A and B cannot meaningfully be said to be separate entities, they are one and the same. If any thing were to be reduced to any other thing then only the other thing would exist, by definition. Reality exceeds knowledge not just in fact (‘alas we are merely flawed humans’) but in principle. Indeed, this principle of ‘excess’ applies to any form of relation, not just knowledge.

    2. Nothing is irreducible to anything else.
    Nothing is beyond relation, there are no hermetically sealed spheres separating things that cannot possibly touch. Anything can be brought to bear on anything else. No two things are sufficiently enemies that they cannot become allied. Reality is promiscuous. There are no dualities, no lines that cannot be crossed; there are only pluralities, many lines that can be crossed if you can summon strong enough allies. Furthermore, to ally, to join, to relate is to reduce. For X to form an alliance with Y each must reduce the other to some degree; they must simplify each other. They must do this because they are irreducible to each other! It is *because* that one is irreducible to the other that, in order to relate, they must translate and simplify one another.

    3. Nothing is reducible or irreducible *by itself*.
    And things must *be brought* to bear. Nothing can persist by itself; it’s only through complex tangles of (vicarious) relations that anything can happen. Every thing is a swarm, every event is a cascade. Reality is a chaotic, raucous, poly-dimensional game of dominoes.

    4. This is a prince(iple) that does not govern.
    This is principle 1.1.1 of Latour’s thesis. It kickstarts the discourse but the axioms that follow from it do not ‘follow from it’ in the sense that they can be deduced from it or that they already exist in it ‘in potentia’. This contrasts to classical metaphysics, e.g. Spinoza, Descartes, where everything is supposed to be deducible from the first principle. Furthermore, however, I think this also means that this thesis doesn’t reproduce, replicate or represent the ‘heart of reality’; this axiom isn’t the source code from which the universe is pieced together. *That* would be a contradiction since it would reduce reality to words. No, what this axiom does is put something new out into the world, a new semantic creature that can form new alliances, perform new assemblages, etc. Thus it demonstrates its metaphysical truth by performative alliance building, not by summing up in words something that exists ‘out there’ behind appearances.

    Not unlike some of Laruelle’s conclusions vis-a-vis philosophies being things. (Not that I’m especially familiar with Laruelle, just judging by the simplified, introductory versions that I’ve read.)


  2. Well, there is only one problem to Latour’s style/approach – that it makes criticism of his writings very difficult, and this (criticism) is a traditional (modern or postmodern) instrument for philosophical discussion that I would not want to do without.


  3. terenceblake dit :

    IRREDUCTIONS for me is a transcription of the Deleuzian and Foucauldian Nietzsche reworked ever so slightly by Greimasian semiotics. The idea of applying semiotics not just to texts but to things is a Nietschean inspired idea, as for Nietzsche all things as will to power interpret and evalue the world. Given that he already had the idea of different régimes of veridiction before beginning the fieldwork for LABORATORY LIFE, I think the basic ideas were in place for his AIME project. Remember that IRREDUCTIONS came out in 1984, but that Lyotard had already accomplished his own semiotic turn culminating in 1983 with the publication of LE DIFFEREND. Lyotard’s project was to define the felicity conditions for the political phrase, and also for the scientific and the ethical.

    At that time everyone (Deleuze, Guattari, Lyotard, Foucault, Edgar Morin, Kostas Axelos and many others) had abandoned the subject-object bifurcation and epistemologies of demarcation, everyone was into semiotics and enunciative linguistics, everyone was into positivity beyond « critique ». When i arrived in Paris in 1980 you cannot imagine the profusion of mindblowing books that I ran across in any bookshop. This, unfortunately for me, was the tail end of a period of creative effervescence that slowly died down over the next 10 years. I am not saying that Latour has done nothing new, but I think that he is best understood against this background that he tends to downplay.

    As to criticising his writings I think one must not let oneself be intimidated and accept his pronouncements as an invitation to a pragmatic and artistic critique, with all the freedom that this can entail. His own « laboratory » is far more philosophical than empirical and we are free to examine his conceptual characters and the stories he tells with them, and to point out weaknesses and implausibilities in the narrative, as well as inelegant stylistic manoeuvres. I am an inheritor of that period too, and I can mobilise my own conceptual characters. I can say « Yes, that refutes Richard Dawkins and Stephen Hawking’s ideas on science and philosophy, but what would Feyerabend say? How do these ideas hold up against those who are not bungling bifurcationists? »


  4. Nicholas dit :

    Reblogged this on Installing (Social) Order and commented:
    Is Latour in the closet?



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