LATOUR’S (1991) DEBT TO ALTHUSSER (1965): correcting an oriented re-writing of intellectual history

I have often warned against the recent tendency to rewrite philosophical history so as to present the recent movements of OOO/SR as philosophy at last awakening from its dogmatic anti-realist slumber and turning at last away from postmodern dreams towards the real that had so long been neglected by our intellectual predecessors. This phantasm of the omnipresence of anti-realist critical thought is not just demonstrably false: none of the creative thinkers of poststructuralism (Althusser, Deleuze, Lyotard, Foucault, and Derrida) were anti-realist and their philosophies were constructed to combat such tendencies. One of the consequences of this phantasm is that our immediate philosophical past is forgotten or becomes unreadable when viewed through “new realist” spectacles. Another is that contemporary thinkers who maintain an informed and positive relation to that past become unreadable too, while thinkers who present concepts or slogans surreptitiously stolen from that past as if they were major steps forward allowing us to break forever from the dead hand of the erroneous past are taken at face value and held in high esteem.

I wish to discuss here a very interesting quote taken from Bruno Latour’s “WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN”, first published in French in 1991. It is cited in a recent article by Martin Goffeney praising the new realism and its break with the “humanist” past:

“The defence of marginality presupposes the existence of a totalitarian centre. But if the centre and its totality are illusions, acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous” (124).

This may seem a microscopic detail, but given Goffeney’s criticism of Alexander Galloway’s materialism in the same article, it is important to note that this concept of the centered totality that Latour criticises, was criticised well before him by Althusser, in FOR MARX (first published in French in 1965):

“The Hegelian totality presupposes an original, primary essence
that lies behind the complex appearance that it has produced by
externalization in history; hence it is a structure with a center. The Marxist totality, however, is never separable in this way from the elements that constitute it, as each is the condition of existence of all the other…. hence it has no center…. it is a decentered structure” (Althusser, FOR MARX 254-255).

Althusser returns to this critique of the centered totality in READING CAPITAL (first published in French in 1965) where he criticises the centered totality as an expressive totality and proposes a notion of structural causality and overdetermination of the base by the superstructure. The idea is of a decentered stucture or totality containing elements in heterogeneous phases, and “determined” only in the last instance. All this is lost on Harman and Goffeney, who repeat Latour’s text as if it were gospel.

One may reply: all this shows is a certain homology between Latour’s critique of centered totalities (1991) and Althusser’s (1965) similar critique? But homologies prove nothing, as Harman and Goffeney are quick to point out. Perhaps Latour had better things to do than to read one of the most influential philosophers of that period. Did Latour read Althusser? Did he read READING CAPITAL? Could the concept of a de-centered totality have come to him much later, from his work on science or technology or perhaps from his work on ecology?

An answer is provided by Latour himself in an article entitled “Réponse aux objections”, (Reply to objections) published in 2001, where he tries to correct erroneous views about his intellectual development. Speaking about the origins of his intellectual project, after he arrived in Abidjian in 1973 Latour tells us that he joined a reading group around ANTI-OEDIPUS:

” je découvre les sciences humaines dans le cadre de l’ORSTOM-sciences humaines où je trouve d’excellents maîtres et collègues …  Nous lisons en groupe l’Anti-Œdipe de Deleuze et Guattari …(j’avais d’ailleurs organisé un autre groupe de lecture sur Lire le Capital !”.

(I discover the human sciences inside the human sciences division of the ORSTOM institute, where I find excellent teachers and colleagues … In a group we read the ANTI-OEDIPUS by Deleuze and Guattari … I also organised another reading group for READING CAPITAL).

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2 Responses to LATOUR’S (1991) DEBT TO ALTHUSSER (1965): correcting an oriented re-writing of intellectual history

  1. Philip says:

    Perhaps Foucault, Derrida et al. were not anti-realist philosophers as such but their reception and utilisation in the anglophone world has fashioned them into anti-realists. Through the mouth, pens and keyboards of anglophones (and not only literature professors) on both sides of the Atlantic this is what they become. They are always radically abstracted from their French context and very differently understood as a result. The same thing is done to Latour himself today. In many respects his philosophy, despite all its talk about Europe and the West, is very peculiarly French – his politics, too. The preoccupation with Science as that which would apolitically administer the State just doesn’t resonate with the history of politics here in Britain in the same way that it does in France. Sure, technocracy is everywhere but it’s not the same. Even across the Channel here in Britain we have little idea of how strong the Rationalist tradition is in France. I think (and I am by no means an expert in French politics or philosophy!) that this disjuncture is where the whole ‘new realist’ thing gets much of its energy from – from the dehistoricising, decontextualising and, ultimately, depoliticising of French thought when it gets exported ‘overseas.’ Of course this kind of deformation in translation is inevitable but the fact it’s not even recognised as an interpretive problem tells a story.

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  2. “The universe is a sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
    Giordano Bruno

    It’s all perspectival, I guess, but the so-called ‘reality’ could be said to be constituted from competing ‘illusions’. At least, as social phenomena, appearances. The desire to realise, in the arenas of ‘presence’? The forms of ‘Realisation’?

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