EVALUING LATOUR’S AIME: diplomacy, originality, testability, digitality, democracy

DIPLOMACY

First let us get rid of a false criterion, that of diplomacy. Latour talks about diplomacy a lot in relation to AIME, and he gives it several incompatible meanings. However, despite the prevalence of this rhetoric there is not the slightest diplomacy in Latour’s work, all talk of it is metaphor and theatre. Latour represents noone but himself and his project, he certainly does does not speak in my name or in the name of my modernity. His modernity, including his religiosity, has been dead for over 60 years.

On the question of religion, I have no objection to Latour’s Catholocism. If this gives him the perspective and the strength to contest scientism I am all for it. However, I do object to Latour inscribing Catholocism, however refined, into the description of the Moderms, i.e. to his imposing Catholocism on us all. I find the idea that we are all ontologically Catholic to be ridiculous.

Latour’s poetic theology (thanks to Dirk Felleman for this term as applied to Latour) is very reminiscent of books on Wittgenstein and religion as a non-referential language game, which became popular in the sixties. Yet also in the sixties popularity grew for people like the beats, Alan Watts, the whole counter-culture, which had no equivalent in France. I think that in the English-speaking world the “refined” approach to religion often involves turning towards Eastern religions, but that this is far less so in France. I find Latour’s theology not poetic enough, and even Badiou makes a far better job of integrating poetry into his thinking.

ORIGINALITY

This is another illusion to be dispelled. Much of what Latour has to say about the Moderns is already to be found in Lyotard’s works of the early 80s, from JUST GAMING and THE POSTMODERN CONDITION to THE DIFFEREND. This is where Lyotard elaborates his ontology of phrases and of their various régimes (that Latour calls “modes”). Unlike Latour, Lyotard took seriously the critique that a tolerant pluralism of language games was in danger of merely repeating and legitimating the current state of capitalism, unless its was reworked by a more active political Idea. Lyotard proposed the Idea of justice to prevent the hegemony of any one language game forcing all the others to translate their phrases into its terms and to obey its grammar (Latour’s “felicity conditions”).

Latour gladly adopts the multiplicity and the heterogeneity of language games, and applies the principle of non-hegemony. An important difference is that Lyotard considered that capitalism was itself a language game that was trying to submit all others to its rule of maximising profit and thus was translating all values into quantifiable criteria. All trace of this idea is absent from Latour’s system, in its place there is: Gaia.

It is desolating to see how badly Latour treats Lyotard, when he deigns to mention him, while parasiting so much of his work. This was also the case with his treatment of Deleuze. However, the pressure of the contributions published on his site has given rise to a false impression of due acknowledgment of Deleuze, which was absent at first. This changing face of AIME, presented as a positive feature of the site, implies a corresponding flaw: the danger of digital humanities as digital parasitism. The AIME site can absorb and neutralise critique by pretending that it had always already replied to it.

Latour’s site is philosophical in content, it develops and articulates an ontology. It’s results are to evaluated principally in terms of philosophical criteria.  The site is a pharmakon, in Stiegler’s sense. It’s success is to be measured in terms of the impulse given to ontological research. Not in terms of its contribution to the edification of paradigmatic consensus and groupthink (thanks to   for this last point).

DIGITALITY

Latour claims that his AIME project represents an exemplary contribution to the digital humanities. The old methods of research and exposition are quickly becoming antiquated in the light of new technology. The demands of bringing education to a greater number and of making it more relevant are slowly making themselves felt. Latour talks a lot about “digital humanities” yet he consistently insults blogs. He repeats habits belonging to the academy that he is trying to escape or transform. For example, he replies only to articles published by professors. Despite his contempt for the terrible things that happen on blogs, his own AIME site is basically a heavily moderated blog, with the text of his book displayed in a searchable side bar. Latour’s site is no pedagogical model for the digital humanities, it is a thousand times more authoritarian than a university.

In contrast, I am totally digitally based, and so is my treatment of his book and project. I was one of the early adopters and of the early contributors to his site,  and an early reader of his book, which I bought when it first came out in French and then in English. I was an early commenter, both on my own blog and on a high quality blog devoted to his book and project: https://aimegroup.wordpress.com/ . I was an early, digitally based, reviewer of the book, and posted one of the first long reviews. All my articles are assemblages of posts that first published on my blog, AGENT SWARM, then gathered together, re-written and posted on my academia.edu page.

My contribution to the debate around Latour’s book has not been purely critical. Aside from the engagement with the book and a couple of contributions to the site, I defended Latour from Graham Harman’s annexing and “correcting” of his positions. Ialso defended Latour from Levi Bryant’s ill-informed criticism during the “pluralism wars”. I tried to correct Latour’s one-sided account of recent philosophical history.

So I have long been a fellow-traveller to @AIMEproject. Where is the place in Latour’s paradigm of the digital humanities for such work?

TESTABILITY

Packed amphitheaters, theatrics and Gaiatrics have nothing to do with confirming such an ontology. Theoretically Latour is a Popperian, he talks about the necessity for “trials” or Popperian tests. Practically Latour is a Kuhnian, he talks about the values of team work for research, a shared vocabulary and enduring commitment, and close reading. His model is normal science in Kuhn’s sense, where he provides the framing paradigm and calls for “contributions” i.e. for puzzle-solving activities that never question the fundamental assumptions of the paradigm.

Popper seeks bold speculative conjectures and equally bold attempts at refutation, Kuhn seeks to maintain the paradigm and to turn puzzles into confirmations. Critical discussion and the demand for testability are refutation-oriented. Packed amphitheaters, close teams, and modest contributions are confirmation-oriented. AIME’s digital platform allows only “contributions” i.e. confirming instances. There is no room for trials that end up disconfirming or profoundly modifying.

This is bound up with the basic rule for a contribution: no commentary, no critique, no discussion of the foundational hypotheses, just a dicussion that confirms or extends the paradigm and that provides a confirming document or reference as proof. In this way, all critique is discouraged, minor revisions are welcomed, but major trials are excluded. The time frame of the digital platform and the invisibility of a contribution before it is published precludes any authentic discussion. AIME is not a discussion platform but a director’s cut. Disconfirming instances and analyses are simply not published.

DEMOCRACY

My problem with AIME is not it’s supposed “relativism”. It is in fact a pluralist and realist project, that is why I defended it during the pluralism wars. Rather my problem is that even though it is pluralist, which is why I pay so much attention to it, it is not pluralist enough. Unfortunately its pluralism is incomplete, and this flaw is tied to its perpetuation of a closed and non-democratic academic habitus.

Latour likes to give the impression that all the critics of his project are monists and reductionists. This is not my case. My objections are intra-pluralistic. I am a fellow traveler with AIME in the struggle against scientism and other reductionisms. The big problem here is that Latour’s modes are élitist, whereas the domains he derives them from are, at least potentially, democratic. For example, REL is élitist, while religion is democratic i.e. “gnostic” in Latour’s terminology.

The only trial that Latour allows for his descriptions of modes is the intuition of the relevant experts. The only protest of experience that he allows is the protest of the experts. Authoritarian protest must be converted into acceptance, so Latour’s conceptual radicalism is finalised by his aim of obtaining expert consensus and consent. The modal authorities are defined as the only legitimate protestors.

In the case of religion, priests and pastors are defined as the relevant experts on REL, those who need to be convinced. Ordinary people who practice a religion must accept their judgement, or be regarded as “gnostics”. Only the experts can protest, the testimony of the gnostics (i.e. virtually everybody) is rejected as resulting from the “wrong” apocalypse.  Latour applies the same élitist grid that he uses for science (experts vs people, modes vs domains) to religion.

This anti-democratic élitism is written into the very terms of the system, for instance in the difference posited between mode and domain. Latour extracts an essence out of a domain in which people of many different types participate, and elevates this essence to the status of a “mode” of existence presided over by experts. Latour’s thought here is extremely bifurcationist: modes are bifurcated from domains, experts from citizens. Yet AIME is constantly shuttling back and forth between modes and domains. It could not get any interest without this constant exchange and interference, that it is obliged to see as confusion.

The distinction between a mode and its domain can only be local, temporary , and controversial. It cannot be decreed once and for all. In everyday life, domains interfere constantly in the modes and transform them, this is both legitimate and necessary, not only for progress but for the very content of the discourses and the practices in play.

Latour’s system is anti-empiricist, anti-Jamesian. Experience should not be just that of experts and their special interests and demands. The very naming of the modes is oriented towards already existing a priori requirements. Why is the scientific mode called REF, and the religious mode REL? Calling the scientific mode REF should be a democratic move, subsuming science under a more general category open to everybody. Who knows referentially for Latour? Just scientists or eveyone? Similarly, the psyche is taken from the exclusive hands of the experts (psychologists, psychiatrists, and psychoanalysts) and subsumed under a more general, and potentially democratic, category – MET, the beings of metamorphosis.

So why is the mode corresponding to religion called REL? Why isn’t religion subsumed in a more general and more democratic category? The religious mode is called REL because Latour has already decided in advance. He will do anything to have religion as a mode, this is not an empirical finding but an ideological requirement.  This ontological legitimation of religion goes with the abandon of all empirical description and the promotion of an élitist abstraction. To enter the religious mode you must go through a semiotic apocalypse, or stay outside as a secular gnostic. Thus REL is totally anti-democratic.

More generally, this shows the elitism of AIME: it is not an anthropology of all the moderns but only of certain privileged groups.

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One Response to EVALUING LATOUR’S AIME: diplomacy, originality, testability, digitality, democracy

  1. Although I am much more friendly to traditional religiosity than I guess you are, I have to say that me too feel like being called to participate in a project but then somehow my rights as a participant are extremely limited. I feel a little bit like being called to play the role of the “distributed computer” in a project that needs a lot of computing power (like the ones for finding galaxies through outresourcing computing power). But I am a human being! I deserve something better than that (even though I am not a philosopher, I do not know all these Frenchies you people feel at ease to mention- yet the call in AIME was an open call)

    On the other hand I see that there is a very strong political (in the current sense of the word) dimension in AIME. So I can allow some leaway with “good manners” and “justice” (at least as I understand them). I feel a little bit like watching Themistocles trying to push (by hook or by crook) his fellow Athenians and the rest of Greeks give the decisive battle with the Persians in the closed water around Salamis. But I do not feel comfortable.. Perhaps Latour is self-cosistent: he tries to push a political cycle but asks us not to judge it according to standards that come from other modes. But still…

    I would feel much better if spokemanship and ownership of AIME was more distributed, and more evenly distributed along the h-index landscape. Perhaps it is budgetary reasons too that made this difficult.
    As you see on the one hand I feel critical and on the other hand I value a lot AIME and this results to the above “back and forths”.

    Liked by 1 person

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