LATOUR, DELEUZE, ALTHUSSER: a note on intellectual sources

In Bruno Latour’s “WE HAVE NEVER BEEN MODERN” (1991) we find the following passage, criticising the concept of a centered totality:

“The defence of marginality presupposes the existence of a totalitarian centre. But if the centre and its totality are illusions, acclaim for the margins is somewhat ridiculous” (124).

It is interesting to note that this concept of the centered totality was criticised well before Latour’s book, by Althusser, in FOR MARX (1965):

“The Hegelian totality presupposes an original, primary essence that lies behind the complex appearance that it has produced by externalization in history; hence it is a structure with a center. The Marxist totality, however, is never separable in this way
from the elements that constitute it, as each is the condition of existence of all the other…. hence it has no center…. it is a decentered structure” (FOR MARX 254-255).

Althusser returns to this critique of the centered totality in READING CAPITAL (1965) where he criticises the centered totality as an expressive totality and proposes a notion of structural causality and overdetermination of the base by the superstructure. The idea is of a decentered stucture containing elements in heterogeneous phases, and “determined” only in the last instance.

Did Latour read Althusser? Did he read READING CAPITAL? Could the concept of a de-centered structure have come to him much later, from his work on science or technology or perhaps from his work on ecology?

An answer is provided by Latour himself in an article entitled “Réponse aux objections”, (Reply to objections) published in 2001 in Revue du MAUSS 2001/1 (no 17), where he tries to correct erroneous views about his intellectual development. Speaking about the origins of his intellectual project, after he arrived in Abidjian in 1973 Latour tells us that he joined a reading group around ANTI-OEDIPUS:

“je découvre les sciences humaines dans le cadre de l’ORSTOM-sciences humaines où
je trouve d’excellents maîtres et collègues … Nous lisons en groupe l’Anti-Œdipe de
Deleuze et Guattari …(j’avais d’ailleurs organisé un autre groupe de lecture sur Lire le
Capital !”.
(“I discovered the human sciences inside the human sciences division of the ORSTOM institute, where I found excellent teachers and colleagues … In a group we read the ANTI-OEDIPUS by Deleuze and Guattari … I also organised another reading group for READING CAPITAL”).

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One Response to LATOUR, DELEUZE, ALTHUSSER: a note on intellectual sources

  1. Tim Howles says:

    At the end of BL’s fifth (I think?) Gifford Lecture, he is asked by an audience member (David Bloor, no less) why he doesn’t simply name and shame ‘capitalism’ as the enemy that is responsible for accelerating climate change. He replies by citing the observation of Marxist thinker Dipesh Chakrabarty, who admitted that had Soviet-style socialism won the day in the 20th century the situation for the anthropocene would have been worse – not better – than it is now, because that system would have resulted in a net increase in consumption (fewer capitalists, of course, but a more even distribution of global wealth = more overall consumption of resources). The redistribution of agencies that BL calls for, then, as an antidote to the cataclysm we are facing, will certainly not look like an Althusserian/ Marxist ‘decentred structure’, any more than it will look like the distribution of agencies commanded by neoliberal Capitalism. In other words, I don’t think the inspiration for BL’s ‘decentred structure’ could have come from Althusser (although your bibliographic note is of course apt and great detective work). Good job.


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