LATOUR’S MODES AND DOMAINS: a political distinction

Latour’s “felicity conditions” for the various enunciative modes of existence that he isolates are conformist: they are the criteria determining whether some already constituted value has been respected or attained, or not. Treating science as being faithful to the value of “objectivity” as Latour does in the introduction, or religion as being bound to the value of conversion as he does in Chapter 11, is a reductive and conservative move. Indeed, the very idea that each mode of existence embodies a specific “value” that can be isolated out is a conservative reduction.  It is conservative because it consists in giving a new account of the values, practices and experiences underlying a specific mode of existence, aimed at preserving the practices and simply re-stating those values and experiences. It is also reductive in that something of the complexity of those practices and experiences is lost. Wanting us to give up the belief in beliefs in favour of a belief in values seems to involve little conceptual gain, but tends towards denying any political and cognitive dimension to values.

A comparison with Paul Feyerabend’s ideas on traditions is useful here. For Feyerabend modernity is just another “tradition” on a plane of equality with any other tradition: it has no valid claim to superiority over the others. A tradition is an evolving and self-correcting collective process whose contents are heterogeneous and ambiguous, and whose borders are fuzzy. In a tradition, which is somewhere between a “mode” and a “domain” in Latour’s sense, there are varying degrees of sophistication and abstraction, corresponding to the various sub-groups and their party-lines contained within that tradition.

Latour is at great pains to distinguish the mode from the domain in the case of religion, yet viewed in Feyerabend’s terms this amounts to giving legitimacy and primacy to one sub-group, and thus to one interpretation or one party-line, of a tradition over the others. The distinction is more one of political ontology than of the strangely idealised enunciative ontology that Latour is elaborating. For Deleuze, as for Feyerabend, each tradition contains and is constituted by, and in reaction to, a set of more or less developped counter-traditions.

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