REDUCTIONISM AND PERFORMATIVE ILLUSION IN BRUNO LATOUR’S “EMPIRICAL” METAPHYSICS

Bruno Latour’s book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE presents itself as containing not just a theory of and an appeal to empirical metaphysics, but as an actual example of such a practice. Empiricism is closely linked to the notion of testability, or what Latour calls, no doubt following his translators, “trials”. However the very possibility of being exposed to such tests is severely limited by both the scenography of his book and the technical arrangements accompanying it.  For example, an acceptable “contribution” to his website is one that does not constitute a test of its theoretical structure but rather one that proposes an extension of its applications with a minimum of modification of the rest. The performative status of the project is conveyed in empirical rhetoric, but the actual practice is that of normal science immunised from criticism.

The performative illusion is maintained that the book is based on an ethnographic inquiry, and that the AIME site is the continuation of that inquiry by fellow ethnographers. However, there is no actual ethnography in the book, this is just an englobing pedagogical metaphor to present the metaphysics of the modes of existence as if they were the result of empirical research. This pseudo-performativity is doubly dubious as it maintains at the phantasmatic level the scientistic ideal, only now the candidate for reducing philosophy’s pretentions to scientific truth is the science of reflexive sociology or ethnography. Thus

1) the performative ideology of the text as “empirical” metaphysics is false, and

2) the basis for this performative ideology is a sociological invalidation of philosophy by ethnographic reductionism

Similar confusion can be found in the englobing metaphor of diplomacy, presented as a quasi-fact when all that we have is a diplomatic scenography with no real partners. The test that a real diplomatic situation could have provided is scrupulously avoided, in favour of rhetorical appeals and in-group attempts at consensus. The final conference showed that there were serious rifts inside the team on the status of nature and on the political vision associated with the project. The “chargés d’affaires” to whom the project was presented did not validate it, but provided deep-reaching criticism on its form, intention, possible impact, and content. Yet we see no trace of trying to explicitly deal with the critiques provoked by this “trial” in Latour’s subsequent pronouncements. Once again, a rhetoric of empiricism veils a dogmatic practice.

The diplomatic metaphor legitimates the promotion of experts in each domain held to be relevant to the modes, or to the project as a whole, into politically empowered negotiators. Thus reductionism and élitism are elevated under cover of an egalitarian ideology that does not go so far as an attempt at instaurating democracy.

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