BRUNO LATOUR AND HIS SHADOW: AIME’S deficit of democracy

I have written and published on my blog, on Scribd, and on, over a hundred pages summarising my reactions to the AIME project. I have analysed the philosophical status of the book, examined its philosophical sources, and discussed comparable projects carried out by other contemporary philosophers (notably Hubert Dreyfus and Bernard Stiegler), and I have concentrated on examining critically the accounts of the scientific, the metamorphic and the religious modes. I have received nothing at all in reply. One of its rewriters actually told me he was too busy rewriting the report to reply to objections, when the whole idea of the book and of its “rewrite”, so it is said, is to provoke and to take into consideration “protestations”. If that were true, the “rewrite” should try to respond to dissenting contributions or it is nothing but a lure. Or else it is just business as usual comprising well-known allies such as Isabelle Stengers, Kyle McGee, and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro as officially accepted “contradictors”. Plus a few sceptical academics with tenure and the right publications, to show that one is “open” after all.

There is something wrong with this whole lack of discussion, and I think that the AIME platform, its structure and functioning, are part of the problem. But I would claim more generally that the whole conception of the AIME project as diplomatic rather than democratic is responsible for certain technical choices and communicative attitudes.

I examine the AIME process from the point of view of a democratic pluralism, and I find the actual exchanges facilitated by their platform and dialogical behaviour too limited, constrained, filtered, and codified. In particular, the “rewriting” is a process that should take into account and respond to the various “protestations”. I think that this word is too reductive, giving hegemony to what should be just one side of a dialogue, where not all expression of other ideas should be reduced to protest)

The correct reply to AIME’s invocations of diplomacy is to say: prove to us now that you are diplomatic: don’t make us wait one or two years to see a “rewrite” that may or may not take into account our objections. We are sick of the attitude “don’t call me, I’ll call you” when we are addressed, if we are lucky enough to get a response, by a “diplomat” that we have certainly not elected and whose accountability is obscure.

I have done a lot of work on Bruno Latour over the last three years on my blog, and I have yet to see any “diplomatic” non-élitist, non-snob reaction from this population of Latourian workers. I must admit that I have chosen a polemical style for many of my comments, but I think the book is very interesting in its scope and in its analyses and the digital platform is a potentially very fruitful initiative.

In the past I was involved with the project around ALL THINGS SHINING by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. This book is in a very different style a pluralist treatise on modes of existence (called by them “modes of understanding of Being” and “modes of gathering). This project was not limited to the published book but included two series of podcast lectures, one by Hubert Dreyfus lecturing at the University of Berkeley and the other by Sean Kelly at Harvard. It was also associated with a blog ( The blog did not live up to expectations because of:

1) the rather hagiographic approach to the book, shutting its eyes to defects and lacks, not to mention outright inconsistencies, treating it as a work of genius beyond all but minor criticism.

2) the absence of any attempt to engage with the thought of other pluralist thinkers, the attitude that this was a unique and incomparable thought, an attitude that I have called “monological pluralism”.

So with reference to AIME my conclusions from that previous experience, which was very promising but which only half-succeeded, are:

1) the need for active encouragement to get in and deal critically with the text. This does not mean saying “we’re open to people who do a simlar sort of ethnographic inquiry on one of our modes or on a new one, let them provide the documentary material and we will examine it”. This in fact closes off discussion for many who do not have the resources and training for such an investigation. It also denies the highly philosophical nature of the text and discourages direct philosophical criticism, which should also be possible.

2) a serious attempt should be made to link this project with other pluralist thinkers such as Deleuze (he really gets a poor deal!), Lyotard, and Michel Serres, but also with Bernard Stiegler, François Laruelle, and Alain Badiou, William Connolly, Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly. The book is not a lonely milestone projecting out of a swamp of bungling bifurcators and I think this scenography counts against its ambition to flourish into a collective collaboration.

My own personal conclusion is that I find the book very interesting, very stimulating, but also very flawed. The same comment applies to the digital platform. I have done the best I can to widen the discussion and I will continue to do so. I am grateful the opportunity to participate in the collective elaboration, and I really hope that it goes beyond the level of a flashy gimmick but that it changes our way of doing philosophy. I have been doing everything I can to help it work.

I have contributed to the Modes of Existence site associated with Bruno Latour’s new book, but I find its protocol for acceptable “contributions” far too constraining, and there is no interactivity – neither between contributors and the AIME team nor between contributors. So the whole enterprise is quite frustrating, and there is a real a deficit of democracy. But there is no interlocutor to whom to address such complaints. Latour’s speeches just dismiss such critiques with an amused reference to the “terrible things that happen on blogs”, and entone a pious hymn to his 4 year experiment in close reading. I translate this as an experiment in digitally assisted teamwork, and I find nothing revolutionary except the scale.

Latour limits himself to describing the technological marvel of this digital experiment, but gives no concrete example of the discoveries it has led to as far as the philosophical content of the book is concerned, which confirms my suspicion that the digital platform itself is itself the message. Latour explicitly declares that he wants neither critique nor commentary, and told one questioner (a woman who complained about the inhumanity of the project in his presentation in contrast to his own very engaging humanity in presenting it): contribute, don’t comment. I fear this is a model of digital humanities as an array of mutually exclusive closed societies, juxtaposed without interacting (as interaction would be mere commentary).

Thus Bruno Latour’s AIME is no longer a project but a process, a performance converging towards a stabilised competence. The indicators of competence – technical jargon, one-dimensional historical timeline, academic diffusion – are increasing. AIME in passing from project to process is crystallising as party. I have come out in favour of the project. I support it. I am a fellow-traveller of the AIME process, I am not a member of the AIME party. Who represents me and people like me in the diplomatic negotiation? The question of scale has become important given the inequality of the participative roles: what diplomacy is possible between David and Goliath? On the AIME process the question arises: is diplomacy necessarily incorporation, engulfment? Can one be a dialogical partner without being engulfed?

Of course, some top-down organisation is necessary or some things won’t get started. Yet there is some incoherence between the stated goals and not just the means but also the implementation of these means in terms of old hierarchical habits. I think that the implicit attitude “let’s negotiate on my constrained, filtered, programmed terms” is not an invitation to real dialogue.

There are some possible dangers of the AIME process that are worrisome in terms of its stated aims. I speak of David and Goliath, that is to say a potential “MOOC-effect” of

(1) non-interactivity at the base level. The AIME project has organised the diplomatic exchange in terms of an espoused pluralism that does not clearly manifest itself at the micro-level.

(2) the individual being swamped in the ocean of large numbers. This is not necessarily a factor of suffering for the individual, but it may generate affective protest. The inquiry seeks to cultivate sensitivity to protest. Not all protest is suffering, but all affect is cognitive or veridictive (but not infallible, affect needs cultivation and potentially rectification).

(3) the existing hierarchies being strengthened rather than weakened by the process. There is a “predator” effect, where a big site assimilates small contributions but repels major criticisms.

4) a process of alienation or of disindividuation in which “negotiation” replaces dialogue. If one side of the negotiation has become a force of disindividuation there is no encounter. Just PR and power play.

(5) monistic pluralism: an auto-poietic pluralism that has no dialogue with other pluralisms (for example: Bernard Stiegler’s pharmakon project, Dreyfus and Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING project, François Laruelle’s non-philosophy project).

My aim is not to condemn the AIME project out of hand, but having said what I think is positive and worth pursuing, I wish to encourage it to go further in its ontological pluralism. I consider “diplomatic” pluralism to be a halfway house on the way to democratic pluralism.

AIME is still very much an ongoing process. In effect we must practice a “wait and see” policy, and we may see many improvements. In particular I would like to see a more open structure (AIME 2.0) and a wider dialogue. However, I am not satisfied with the process and with the necessity of waiting, and I think that this problem is partially inscribed in AIME’s basic concepts. The AIME team must decide whether they are elaborating a democratic anthropology of the moderns, or rather an aristocratic anthropology of academics. For example, the chapter on religion seems to orient us towards the idea that the modes are élitist extractions from the vulgar domains, as the image of religion proposed has nothing to do with that of the rank-and-file practitioners.

Latour’s “felicity conditions” for the various enunciative modes of existence that he isolates are in the last analysis conformist: they are the criteria for determining whether some already constituted value has been respected or attained, or not. Treating science as a mode charged with being faithful to the value of “objectivity” as Latour does in the introduction, or analysing 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 the values and experiences that they embody in more consensual terms. 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. The aim of Feyerabend’s democratic pluralism is to permit, facilitate, and encourage open exchanges on all levels, between individuals, collectives, and traditions. An individual is yet another democratic self-correcting and self-transforming tradition, a process of individuation. An open exchange is one in which there is no fixed framework of dialogue imposed by one partner, or dictated by some outside instance. The goal of such exchanges, from Feyerabend’s point of view, is the full development of the participants (individuals, groups, or traditions).

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 ambiguous and whose borders are fuzzy. In a tradition, which is somewhere between a “mode” and a “domain” in Latour’s sense, there are multiple values and 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.

Latour has replied to criticisms concerning the closed nature of the digital platform associated with his book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE by means of a play on words: he argues that a close reading requires closure, a close reading is a closed reading. He explains the severely constraining protocol that must be followed in submitting a contribution to the site built around the book and justifies the rather slow, fastidious and often frustrating procedure of contribution and validation 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.

In an interesting interview conducted by Brian Massumi and Erin Manning, Bruno Latour compares his own modes of existence project to the project elaborated by Deleuze and Guattari in WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? This book too sketches out a typology of modes of existence (philosophy, science, art). Latour’s difficulty with this alternative version is that Deleuze and Guattari do not include politics among their modes (or “planes”), but that they include philosophy:

“If you take Deleuze and Guattari in What is Philosophy, you find that politics is not
conceived as a singular mode. But you do find philosophy considered as such (this is difficult for me to understand, but this is another question). It would be interesting to use this same kind of approach to explore what is the proper being of the political. As they do for philosophy – in this case it’s the concept – and for science – where it’s the functive. We must define this proper being of the political” (page 10).

It is true that politics is not a separate mode for Deleuze and Guattari insofar as it concerns the informal element of force- and power-relations and of performance underlying all the modes. Latour’s modes are more an affair of competence, as it is necessary to respect the formal felicity conditions of each mode in order to avoid illegitimate crossings and interferences. Deleuze and Guattari’s typology is richer and more complex than one would gather from reading just WHAT IS PHILOSOPHY? This book is a sort of appendix to A THOUSAND PLATEAUS where Deleuze and Guattari discuss other modes of existence, including both literature and psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is subsumed with religion under the mode of “subjectivation”, that they also call “individuation”. Politics is further sub-divided into macro-politics and micro-politics, and is sometimes given an ontological dimension affirming that “before Being there is politics” (A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, 203).

Latour seems to acknowledge this complexity later in the interview, when Brian Massumi brings up the question of micro-politics:

“What concerns me about micropolitics is that it is always in rapport with the institution that would be invested in the politics of what we call “macro.” What we absolutely have to avoid is that the micro position itself against the political institution, when the real question
is how to deal with the political institution at all its levels. It’s a problem of political positioning – this time in the classic sense of the term as Deleuze uses it” (11).

Finally, the problem is not really that Deleuze and Guattari do not have a typology of modes that includes politics, but that their mapping of its conditions is different from his. The objection that micro-politics is by nature “against” the institution is a travesty of Deleuze and Guattari’s position, trying to criticise them in terms of a misunderstanding that they explicitly refute on many occasions. Micro-politics is precisely a matter of positioning at all levels, not just of the political institution but of all institutions and structures, including the various modes. Despite himself Latour is designating what is in fact a major problem in his typology: the consensual nature of his project. The need to have his fictive “informants” agree with and accept his re-descriptions as faithful accounts of their practices and values imposes a monist principle of convergence (in this case, of convergence of opinions) on a purportedly pluralist analysis.

Deleuze and Guattari avoid such a principle of convergence by a variety of pluralist procedures and concepts. One of the most important of these pluralising strategies is that in their analyses each time a mode is to be described the description includes both a macro-version and a micro-version within the same mode, in various degrees of fusion, alliance, or conflict. The macro-version tends towards formalisation, the codification of the felicity conditions and stabilisation of the objects, while the micro-version tends towards decoding and destabilisation, in the sense of greater fluidity within and between domains and institutions, rather than taking up an oppositional stance against the institution as Latour seems to think. In Deleuze and Guattari’s terms deterritorialisation, i.e. both what Latour calls “protestation” and “being-as-other”, comes first.

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