LATOUR ON INVISIBLE ENTITIES: Relativist Tolerance of Superstition or Ontological Pluralism?

Discussing “pluralism” or the “pluralist” in general can be in itself a conceptually regressive gesture, creating the danger of conflating the pluralist with the relativist, or confusing pluralism with social constructionism. As these latter positions are relatively easy to refute, such conflations and confusions have a strategic rhetorical advantage: one can seem by hard-hitting arguments to refute a whole gamut of positions and to be in the theoretical avant-garde, without giving oneself the trouble to work through any really existing specific pluralist elaborations in detail. One may bray loudly about our fallibility and the need and importance of empirical tests to ensure our agreement with the real, without ever having confronted a real pluralist position to test one’s arguments. As one has talked about noone in particular specific quotations contradicting the stereotyped analysis can be ignored, declared irrelavant, interpreted as saying the opposite of what they do indeed say, etc.

Let us examine how Latour deals with the problem of superstition in his ontological treatise AN ENQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. The general framework of the book is materialist in the sense that the various modes of existence are embedded in material networks, and  that Latour regards the various relations that define and constitute these modes of existence as themselves material, existing with the same degree of material reality as the elements that are related. Latour poses a basic ontological principle that what is generated within and transits along these networks is not reducible to them. To take an epistemological example, knowledge is produced inside the material networks of reference but cannot be identified with them. To identify knowledge and its networks (i.e., in the case of science, laboratories, instruments, inscriptions, scientists themselves, and computer simulations, etc.) would be to commint a category mistake (naive reductionism). To separate off knowledge as existing in some other non-material realm would be another category mistake (Platonist idealism). The same can be said for the other “modes of existence” that Latour describes, on the principle that if all is material networks, what is produced and transits in these networks can be qualitatively very different.

It is important to note that these distinctions have nothing to do with “belief”, but with an empirical and conceptual analysis of the various material networks. For Latour the people occupying a certain domain of practices may be totally mistaken not only in particular beliefs, but also globally in the type of existence that they attribute to the entities they deal with. For Latour there is no question of ontological tolerance being extended to every worldview, some are just plain wrong. This is the realist principle underlying his ontology. For example, fundamentalist Christians, in Latour’s terms, are mistaken, they get the world wrong. The same can be said (and Latour says it often) about climate change denialists (they are wrong about science, they are wrong about climate change, the politics that they advocate would have disastrous consequences). Latour’s pluralism is no wishy-washy tolerant relativism, but a doctrine of combat.

Over and over again Latour emphasis the fallibility of our beliefs and the need for objective tests. When he talks about “interpretive keys” characterising each mode of existence, this is not beautiful soul relativism proclaiming “to each his belief”. The key is a criterion that ensures that the claims and the practices can be put to the test, to be validated or rejected as compatible with the ongoing engagement with reality that each mode embodies. The keys and the networks are the criteria that ensure that we are not infallible, each in his or her own world, and that we are not reducible to our system of beliefs.

In Chapter 7 Latour applies this ontological pluralism to the “irrational superstitions” that are thought to characterise traditional societies. Enlightened modernity and its view of reason has been self-consciously constituted in terms of a battle against the superstitious belief in invisible beings and occult powers. The previous chapters of AN ENQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE have shown that the Moderns are mistaken about the nature and composition of the visible world. For Latour there is no single“visible world”, the very idea is the result of a category mistake. Visibility is constructed and maintained in diverse material networks, and means different things in different contexts, mobilising different equipment and standards.

According to Latour, we are not as homogeneously reasonable as we suppose. A suspicious symptom from our history is the overwhelming violence that has accompanied the spread of Reason in the world, a sign that we are anxious and frightened about the entities that we nonetheless assert to be devoid of existence.The accusation made by the moderns against other cultures is that of their “irrationality” in their attribution of real existence to invisible beings. Not existing in the objective world, these beings in the eyes of the moderns can only be projections of the human psyche, the true locus of their existence. The only mode of existence that they can have is that of illusions and phantasms. These beings can only be explained in terms of the psychology of the inner world of subjectivity.

Applying his method Latour must search for material networks that are psychogenic, i.e. engaged in the production and maintenance of psyches and subjectivities. The moderns that we are may have no positive institution for welcoming invisible beings, but we have an abundance of psycho-techniques and psycho-entertainment to stimulate, care for, or amuse ourselves. Our naïve, folk-psychology, belief is that we do not produce our psyches but rather that we possess them. The self is supposed to be autonomous, independent of networks for its existence. There is no meaning in the external world that is not projected by means of our internal representations.

In this ontological investigation into spirits, subjectivities and psychic entities, traditional psychoanalysis cannot help us: according to Latour what is “repressed” is not just a part of the inner psyche that we project onto the outside world, confusing inner representations with outer entities. More fundamentally, what defines us is the ontological repression of the psychogenic networks that endow us with a psyche.

Our error is to attempt to think outside networks, to pay attention only to the “visible” products and to forget the invisible infrastructures. In consequence, we no longer know how (or where) to situate the subject and its “contents”. Certainly not inside, as interiority is not a given, it is manufactured. Our problem is one of attention, we do not notice the networks that engender the psyche. So we must return to the “original experience” of this mode of existence: emotion. Emotion is a form of crisis and transit, where our interiority is in the grip of what feels like an outside force. It invades us, takes possession of us for a certain time and carries us away, transforming our reactions, and then leaves us changed for better or worse.

The modern self is a contradictory relation between the belief in an autonomous authentic indvidual subject alone in an objective world devoid of meaning, and the swarm of entities that are actually necessary to its fabrication and continual modifications. Caught in the repressive process of avoidance of these outside forces and of denial of their existence, the moderns have produced a vast array of therapeutic arrangements authorising their acknowledgement as inner facts susceptible to various forms of manipulation.

Latour affirms that an ethnopsychiatric approach to therapeutic situations gives us the best insight into the existence of these invisible beings and into the skill needed in dealing with them. We already have such a skill constructed over our many contacts with these invisible beings. We know how to deviate and deflect their forces to other targets and gain their energy for going on in life. These beings can transform us, alientaing or inspring us in uncanny ways. They metamorphose themselves too, so this is why they are “invisible”, they do not have the persistence of the beings of reproduction, they do not belong to their régime of visibility and of stability. They do not inhabit the same networks. But they are real nonetheless.

Thus in Latour’s system and in Tobie Nathan’s practice these invisible beings are quite real, although perhaps not in the way that those who consciously believe in their existence may suppose. Their scope is not just therapeutic but ontological, foregrounding by means of their own proprties of metamorphosis and invisibility the alteration that characterises the form of ontological pluralism that Latour advocates, which he calls “being-as-other”.

Latour acknowledges the existence of  invisible beings, of forces, powers, divinities and demons that do not take us as unified persons; he emphasises the importance of psychic processes, of incorporeal metamorphoses, transformations, transmutations and becomings that oblige us to take being as alteration and repetition as difference. This is the language of affects and intensities that was developped by both Deleuze and Lyotard, but Latour does not give them ontological primacy, as Deleuze and Lyotard did at a certain moment. They constitute one mode of existence amongs many, and the pluriverse does not repose on this mode alone. Latour also breaks away the jargon-filled Freudo-Marxist conceptual field that complicated this ontology and burdened it with a heavy-handed academic style. By renewing our theoretical vocabulary and references Latour has freed us from antiquated connotations and other dogmatic residues of the last century’s philosophical combats.

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One Response to LATOUR ON INVISIBLE ENTITIES: Relativist Tolerance of Superstition or Ontological Pluralism?

  1. ‘Latour also breaks away the jargon-filled Freudo-Marxist conceptual field that complicated this ontology and burdened it with a heavy-handed academic style.’But Latour has burdened with another kind of heavy-handed style. You say it much clearer than he does, Terence! Thanks for this.


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