LATOUR ON AGENCY (3): Deconstruction moving from competence to performance

From the preceding video: 6m44 to 10m36

“The interest of this extremely classical semiotic definition is that it permits us to establish a distinction, which responds a little to the definiion of general culture. This does not make an opposition between the sciences and the humanities, or rather it makes a difference, it nuances the difference considerably because one can rather define the humanities as the inverse problem, that is to say we start from elements that we think are endowed with competences, and by a process that can be called “deconstruction”, “critique”, “exegesis”, whatever, we try to bring them back to performances.

If for example we do a study of, I don’t know … of  capitalism, we won’t start out from its performances. We will believe, we will have the impression that the word “capitalism” transports a host of attributes, and that from the word, or the concept, or the substance of capitalism we can deduce a whole series of attributes. But as soon as Fernand Braudel gets hold of the word “capitalism” he begins by replacing that apparent competence with a series of trials, and in this case archival trials, trials that belong to historical science, and replaces this term which seemed obvious, that is from which we could draw a certain number of consequences,  by a series of performances, and perhaps not at all come back to the word “capitalism” at the end. As you know for Braudel the word “capitalism” is first of all an element that is anti-market, for example. So its the opposite, first you start from an element that you thought you knew well, and you arrive at a situation of novelty, of discovery. That, basically, in history starting from the 13th Century if there is a force against the market, more exactly against the markets, as Braudel describes them in his great work that you all certainly know,… capitalism is their enemy.

You will notice there that there we are in a situation that is the same as the hydrophile cotton, but inversed. That is to say that in one case, which is above all the case of the natural sciences, called “natural” – but I will be changing the meaning soon, we do not know, we are not familiar with the phenomena in question, so we must bring the phenomena back to very elementary performances. Globally speaking, in the humanities we start from elements that are apparently well-known, like domination, schools, Grandes Ecoles, etc. [To one of the other speakers] You gave a very good example with technocracy earlier. No we don’t know technocracies, and if you begin to undo…, if you say technocracy then that means there are technicians in power. Unluckily, we don’t even have any technicians in power. What term did you use? Culturocracy. There you are, an example. he belongs to the humanities and it’s a labour of deconstruction, of undoing, and of saying: the term “technocracy”, everyone believes that it means…That’s the sort of thing that one learns in the old General Culture at Sciences Po, that is to line up a series of clichés, one after another, that have no sort of meaning, or on the contrary to transform these terms by bringing them back to the world of attributes, of properties, of performances, which, and there is the difference, all depend on a trial. For contrary to a substance, that is to say to a competence, performances all depend on a trial. You have to carry it out. And so when our preceding orator says: look if they were technocrats that would mean that they were technicians with degrees and professional training, but not at all, they are rather trained in General Culture. I suppose that he has behind him a whole set of trials that permit him to transform a term that we think we know well into a term that we don’t know”. Bruno Latour: Contre la Culture Générale.

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