A CLOSE READING IS A DETERRITORIALISING READING: a Deleuzian response to Latour

In a recent talk Bruno Latour replies to criticisms concerning the closed nature of the digital platform associated with his book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. Proceeding by means of a play on words that exists in English but not in French he argues that a close (rapproché) reading requires closure (fermeture). In his book, a close reading is a closed reading. He explained the constraining protocol that must be followed in submitting a contribution to the site built around the book and justified this rather slow and fastidious and often frustrating procedure in terms of the need to foster a community of co-inquirers engaged in a long-term experiment in “close” reading and to avoid “the horrible things that happen on blogs”. This is the path to hermeneutical “depth”. Sure of the value of his experiment Latour edicts: Contibute, don’t comment.

The comparison with fellow pragmatist and pluralist Gilles Deleuze is interesting as I often think of Deleuze and Parnet’s DIALOGUES II in relation to AIME, and of Deleuze’s oft expressed desire to construct a pop-philosophy – which I think expresses part of Latour’s ambition for the diplomatic negotiations opened up by the AIME project. Deleuze’s difficult books show that “pop-philosophy” does not mean a demagogical anti-intellectual hostility to theory or concepts or erudition. Pop-philosophy is the same as pragmatic philosophy, a thought that has an immediate appeal to readers who find something useful for their lives and thinking. But it must also have enough conceptual backbone to make it a real contribution to philosophy and not just opinionating or free-associating or “commenting” on a theme. Latour’s indications of the underpinnings of the AIME project and of his own interventions are welcome reminders that he and his team are not just spouting opinions off the top of their head, but articulating clearly a long path of collective experimentation.

Deleuze and Guattari propose “deterritorialising” to express the fact that interpreting is re-appropriating, and involves suspending the implicit limitations that a given context can place on words and expressions that are then capable of resonating on many different levels and in many different contexts. This is not a case of giving words arbitrarily just any meaning, but of freeing them from their stereotypic acceptions in the discourse of the One (including the One of academic scholarship and collective closure). So a “strong” reading as a deterritorialising reading captures what I admire in many thinkers who creatively engage with the tradition. This is in fact Latour’s own practice, whose readings of James and Whitehead, or even Greimas, do not respect the hermeneutical closure of the interpretive schools that have grown up azround them, but take them off in surprising directions.

Deleuze and Guattari often condemn the same sort of superficial commentary that Latour wishes to avoid, but they call for a relation to the outside, not closure. Their slogan is “Don’t interpret, use!” Closure is the opposite of what is needed if you are being anthropological, and even more so if you are being diplomatic. Further, the appeal to take up a Gaiatic perspective and to collectively confront the problem of climate change requires more than just diplomacy, it requires the adhesion of the people of Gaia, it requires democracy. This is why Deleuze and Guattari call for a relation to the outside, against the hegemony of special groups and against closure. To use a distinction that is dear to Latour (and also to Deleuze and Guattari): there is too much hegemonic “competence” as against hermeneutic performance in Latour’s appeal to rigid protocols and to closure. To be sure, some closure is necessary to avoid chaos and superficial bickering. But more generally closure is a result, it is not the condition of a fecund inquiry, including an inquiry (close reading) into a book called INQUIRY.

 

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