AMBIVALENCE ABOUT LATOUR’S INQUIRY

Comment on a post published on Installing (Social) Order:

I still feel very ambivalent about the book. When I first read it I had in the back of my mind the various pluralists that he does not cite very favorable (including Deleuze and Feyerabend, but also Wittgenstein, Lyotard, and Rorty). The book did not come off well from such a comparison: not so innovative, misrepresenting its predecessors, far more speculative than its empiricist rhetoric would have us believe, idiosyncratic where it makes claims to generality, ontologically evasive. I had a second more favorable reaction when i saw the book attacked from a naturalist position, that seemed dogmatic and naive. Now I feel simply ambivalent, waiting to see if a more satisfying account emerges from Latour’s digital encounters.

I regret that the order of the book is “pedagogical”, starting from science, and getting to religion only two thirds of the way through the book, in Chapter 11. The autobiographical account makes it clear that the inquiry began with the religious mode, and then the philosophical (curiously not a mode) before moving on to the scientific mode. Giving priority to the pedagogical order over the biographical means that he does not include his own path of individuation inside his system, hiding its singularity under the generalising mask. The ethnographic fable goes in the same direction: if God is dead (ethnographically) then the religious mode has no place in his system construed as descriptive rather than normative.

Ousting Greimas and Garfinkel and reformulating the same sorts of ideas in terms of James and Whitehead seems to constitute both a substantive change and a mere pragmatic translation of results discovered via semiotics. So we have again the same careful effacement of Latour’s own personal context of discovery in favor of a more impersonal context of justification. But this is precisely what his previous science studies and ANT books taught us to be suspicious of.

One of the key tools of ANT, the concept of “translation”, is now severely limited by the notion of incommensurable felicity conditions. One ontological mode cannot be translated into another, despite the constant translations occurring in the various corresponding domains. The modes seem to have been speculatively selected and abstracted from the empirical domains, and so to oscillate between a normative status of constitutive criteria and a partisan description (very clear in the case of religion). Such modes, if approached more empirically, are rather one of a number of rival interpretative traditions inside each domain.

Latour’s critique of the grand bifurcation of Nature into subject and object is in danger of being replaced by a “plurifurcation”, undoing the perspective of pluralism by regrouping the elements of the networks traversing domains into speculatively purified modes. These divergent modes should be used as heuristic devices to sensitize us to plurality, rather than ontologising them into dogmatic instruments for containing and constraining such plurality.

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3 Responses to AMBIVALENCE ABOUT LATOUR’S INQUIRY

  1. Hello Terence, I am planning to read the book this summer, as I promised to write a review article on Latour – reading your post and the article where you posted it as a comment make me still more hesitant to begin than it’s voluminosity and longwinding ‘contents’ pages already do… 🙂

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  2. terenceblake says:

    Hello Angela, I think the book is well worth reading, and is a very useful antidote against reductionisms of various sorts, including scientism and naturalism. My reservation is not so much about his achievement, which is considerable, but about his own evaluation of that achievement, which is misleading..

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  3. Thanks for the encouragement Terence! I got your point, and it goes into the same direction as my feelings about the later works of Latour. The experience of this one still awaits me, though.

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