BRUNO LATOUR’S AIME TO PLEASE: THE FUNDAMENTAL PERFORMATIVE CONTRADICTION

The term “Anthropocene” is a scientific denomination, and so belongs to the mode of scientific knowledge, or “REF” in Latour’s terminology. It’s political exploitation by Latour is a violation of the incommensurability of the modes. Used in this way the term is an operator of excessive unity, and so anti-AIME (the same is true for “Gaia”).

In principle AIME prizes alteration, metamorphosis, and multiplicity, but in practice it is full of operators of excessive, or hegemonic, unity. They are all linked to the ideological function of Latour’s instrumentalising AIME for extra-AIME purposes. I argue that we must distinguish ontological AIME from ideological AIME. Ontological AIME, the object of the book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE, is at least ideally a Popperian metaphysical research programme, proceeding by bold speculation and open to strong criticism, to probing tests and to heuristic transformation. Ideological AIME, the object of most of Latour’s talks, articles, and of the @AIMEproject twitter feed, is a Kuhnian normal science, rigidly policing the party-line and excluding or passing over in silence any strong disagreement.

Latour’s “Anthropocene” is an ideological construct. He tries to give us the impression that his use of this term in his more political exhortations isbased on and  supported by the ontological project, but refined AIME (the ontological project) forbids such composites. The ideological exploitation of the Anthropocene imposes excessive unity on a plurality of modes, blithely violating the incommensurability of their felicity conditions.

Latour is not speaking as a scientist but as a cultural commentator when he talks of the Anthropocene. He seems to presuppose that scientists are in essence spontaneously pluralist, inherently attuned to multiplicity. This is just the sort of credulity with respect to science that ANT is supposed to have defused. Althusser warned that scientists are in fact spontaneously idealist, and the Science Wars gave a very good illustration of that.

Badiou, in his recently published HEIDEGGER seminar, talks about the opposition between aggravation and pacification. Philosophy aggravates, communication and commerce pacify. AIME is torn between an intellectual ethic of aggravation and one of pacification. The tendency to pacification is an imposition of excessive unity, a hegemonic move promoting, enforcing and validating one particular perspective, the triumph of a party-line disguised as peace. The tendency to aggravate involves refusal of consensus and rupture with the reigning doxa.

If we examine the various components of the AIME project in this light we can see that Latour’s book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE has conceptually revisionary pretentions: it aims to aggravate. However, the twitter feed functions according to a quite different set of values: it announces and validates, communicates and pacifies. The digital platform is somewhere between the two, accepting contributions but excluding polemic, a one-sided compromise: it may aggravate a little, but it pacifies too much.

This is the fundamental performative contradiction of AIME. It prizes multiplicity and metamorphosis but it produces uniformity and stasis. It talks about “experience”, but wants us to bow down before expertise and to “trust” not our own path and judgement, but the authority of experts. Refined AIME is ontological inquiry, pluralist and diachronic, demagogic AIME is ideological party-line, static and unitary: institutions, experts and diplomacy (as against exchange, citizens, and democracy). I have done all I can to encourage the pluralist diachronic strand in AIME, but it is bent on reducing itself to a handful of slogans about Gaia, the Anthropocene, and “diplomacy”.

The biggest single factor propulsing this ideological turn in AIME is the absence of dialectical exchange. Despite talking a lot about multiple points of view,  AIME has no place for controversies. There is no polemical function on the digital platform: this lack of polemic constructs excessive unity. Unfortunately, the very definition of a contribution to the AIME platform actively inhibits alteration and creativity and favours repetition and consensus. The twitter feed could have compensated for the lack of dialogue and for the excessive unity of the platform, but alas it has not functioned that way.

Inquiring about the modes is different to inquiring with, and by means of, the modes (inquiry in the making). As Latour puts a lot of emphasis on prepositions, one can say: the problem with AIME is that there is too much “about” and not enough “with”. hermeneutics and diplomacy, the principal values of AIME, are demi-mesures, ultimately giving primacy to repetition over creativity. If AIME is in love with multiplicity and alteration it should metamorphose, not perennise, itself.

Note: I talk about the omnipresence of plurality and diachrony, and about the stupidity of monist synchronic metaphysics here: IS ONTOLOGY MAKING US STUPID?.

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11 Responses to BRUNO LATOUR’S AIME TO PLEASE: THE FUNDAMENTAL PERFORMATIVE CONTRADICTION

  1. landzek says:

    It seems the post post modern paradigm is ‘living in contradiction’

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  2. Philip says:

    “The term “Anthropocene” is a scientific denomination, and so belongs to the mode of scientific knowledge, or “REF” in Latour’s terminology.”

    I don’t think that’s fair. ‘Anthropocene’ is a multi-modal term if ever there was one. This is an interesting video on the point:

    John Tresch in conversation with Jan Zalasiewicz. The latter is very insistent upon the necessity of sticking to a strictly scientific (and, more specifically, geological) vocabulary within the context of his debates with other geologists. There is a very precise mode of discourse that cannot be seen to be influenced by political or moral concerns in any way. For the geologist, it all ultimately comes back to the stratigraphic record itself. That is king. However, Zalasiewicz at no point attempts to push away or close down political or moral iterations of ‘Anthropocene.’ Indeed, he seems to have many sympathies with these readings.

    The distinction of modalities here is an institutional necessity but it does not follow that ‘Anthropocene’ begins and ends with science.

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    • terenceblake says:

      “Anthropocene” is a multi-modal term, that is the problem.

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    • terenceblake says:

      I have no sympathy with the idea that “the distinction of modalities here is an institutional necessity”. In AIME the distinction between modalities is an ontological necessity. Latour holds others to this necessity while violating it all the time himself in his talks and articles. I personally do not accept the idea that any word intrinsically belongs to “science”. However, Latour’s double standard is philosophically unacceptable.

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      • Philip says:

        I think the institution that Latour is constructing also insists upon the distinction of the modes. There is an insistence for distinction that derives from philosophy just as there is one that derives from science. The project can be understood as a kind of ‘taking stock’ of our collective modes of being. For that reason the different modes must be distinguished clearly. However, this distinction certainly presupposes abstraction. I suppose one could ask whether these abstractions are ‘real’ in a Platonic sense. Is there some ‘place’ where they exist in their purity or is their purification a constructive move made for philosophical and political reasons? I think it is the latter (this would chime with Stengers’ reading of Whitehead regarding abstraction).

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  3. Philip says:

    Regarding the broader point concerning incommensurability, when writing my recent article, I thought long and hard about how to describe the relationship of Latour’s modes to one another. I settled on the term ‘interimplicatedness’—ugly but precise. The context: “[Latour’s] works must be read ‘anthropologically’ – that is to say, in cognisance of the interimplicatedness of every typological strand of ‘the social’ taken altogether [that is, all of the modes].”

    ‘Interdependent’ would be too strong, ‘interrelated’ too bland. Implication seems to me to be the correct choice. To transform one mode is to transform the others. They are not vacuum sealed. However, the question does persist with regards to their purity.

    If a mode is akin to a particular kind of rhythm, vibration or tone and if the ‘crossing’ of modes can result in harmonics and disharmonics then are we to expect a pure harmony (a perfect sine wave) when we overlay modal events of the same kind? Or is there a necessary degree of modulation (a resonant disharmony) between any two existents, even at a strictly ontological level? The latter seems a more palatable. There is, therefore, a question of plurality within modes of existence as well as between them.

    To put it another way, if we overlay two existential waveforms on one another and if we then discover subtle disharmonics in evidence, this indicates the historicity of these abstract categories. To paraphrase Nietzsche, only that which has no history can be identified. This intra-modal plurality was not the concern of the Inquiry; nevertheless, it is something that seems to follow from the principal concepts upon which the project was constructed.

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    • terenceblake says:

      I am glad that you talk of “the institution that Latour is constructing” as this confirms my diagnostic that in practice Latour favours the instituted over the metamorphic, despite what he says. Latour does not really “take stock” of our modes of being, as he imposes his own prejudices and preferences. His modes are not independently existing abstractions, but political extractions from much more diverse assemblages. Thus the problem of accounting for interaction and interimplication is created by Latour’s method. In the empirical situation of domains and traditions the transversal encounters and exchanges already exist.

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  4. If I may say something here (you people know much more than me ) it is that to my ears Latour sounds as Homer singing Iliad while at the same time instituting a certain way of experiencing life (which of course was not his sole invention). Though we people are various it is also true that some people somehow manage (if “succesful”) to somehow explode their sensibility and make it normative for others too (it reminds me of the inflationary stage in cosmology with freezes a distribution of radiation and projects it around the universe). Does this not happen like this with Descartes?

    My feeling about the modes is that each mode in MOE exists as a figure on a background of other modes. I also connect it with Latour’s insistence on the importance of the crossings of modes. Relative to the intra-modal plurality I think that for the modes to have a usefulness this should be way less than the inter-modal variability. How can such variabilities be measured and compaired? (I do not know) (Actually I still am not happy with the notion of modes, in the sense of understanding them and feeling well about their specifications)

    I agree with Terrence that it is very difficult, especially for people who are not philosophically well trained, to move along the learning path in AIME, without a better support. I see that Latour does make a BIG effort towards supporting learning but since AIME is addressed to a “general public” it makes very clear the problem: how to teach a very demanding knowledge which however might be faulty in different ways. I know that I have to understand something transformative (which makes me a student) and yet I also know that I am to assess its efficiency (which makes me a judge). Normally this seems to need a community where issues are debated (this is what I understand Terrence saying when speaking about polemical functions). On the other hand if this is obvious to me it should be obvious to Latour so I say maybe I do not see the whole picture.

    Finally I have a question which is a question stemming from the whole AIME as well: When you argue on these issues do you (Terence and Philip) just base your judgements on empirical grounds (I mean socially shareable empirical things)? Don’t you convene with your inner heart? (I do not know how to express it well). With your intuitions? This is a sense of “I” that I guess is basic in many traditions ( common in the monotheistic ones but even in Zen don’t they say that it is required:great doubt, great faith, great determination?). Where is this “determined I” in AIME? I am not so happy with a collection of semi-subjects. Even if I accept letting go to some degree to the distinction of subject and object there somehow is a willing to orient along particular ways.

    My feeling is this: there is a Greimas square between “determination origintating by me” and “me pushed and pulled by different beings” which somehow presents the ambuiguity we feel about ourselves and our will. (Yet this bings me in [FIC] although [PRE] is closer to express an act of willing and [HAB] of persistency in willing) I am perplexed .
    There is though in MOE something of the Aborigines described by Chadwick sininging their ways through Australia. how does one “argue” in this case?

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  5. terenceblake says:

    How does one “argue” with another’s dream? The argument must come from the dreaming, as no dream is final and deeper dreams can succeed them. Philosophy is part of a collectivec dream, and both attracts people and stifles them. Latour’s dream is one of both keeping philosophy and making it closer to experience.He wants to be both within and outside philosophy at the same time. Many people have dreamed this, Latour is not the first nor is he the last. I would like to share his dream with others, but I cannot except in parts. So it is all dream and intuition and affect from the very beginning for me. For me the “I” is multiple on a background of emptiness, and maybe it is so for Latour, with his multiple modes (for the modes are just as much in us as outside) on a background of being-as-other. But my Zen heart protests and says: why so much attachment to form? I am no judge, and certainly not of AIME, I am inside without being a member. Must I acquiesce and silence my heart (be as you say a “semi-subject”), or else be banished to the outside? I do not accept this hard and fast alternative, things are fuzzier and more ambiguous for me.

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  6. What you describe brings in my mind Legitimate Peripheral Participation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legitimate_peripheral_participation) . However AIME is not an established community of practice. It might aspire to become such. It is “under construction” and yet it wants to “be” . Maybe “it” perceives our uncomited (“not being a member”) participation a danger in its effort to exist. As if we are foraging entities comming to “decompose” it, so it tries to build borders. However if the borders become too tight it will suffocate. (How difficult it is to have a living organism or a compay surviving in the turmoil of competition! And here there is an effort for a novel kind of company)

    Part of the novelty is that indeed, to a certain degree, it must have managed to have some kind of “inner group” of participants that are diverse (it is not clear to me how far this has been achieved). I do not get the same feel for the other Philosophers (LAruel, Badieu) that you mention. They seem much more “purely philosophical” with no accompanying broader community of practice that cuts across disciplines. Latour at least tries to engage diverse others (I mean economists, physicists, moralists, technologists), to get beyond himself. In my understanding AIME looks like a possible institution that could produce “normative discourse”: it is as if it is trying to teach us live and feel and think our (or yours? I being a semi-modern) life differently. This means clash with other possible proposals (some of these clashes could be softened through negotiations), which is not a very pluralistic feature but I feel the stength of the argument (though most probably I have a poor understanding of pluralism)

    From my point of view, coming from more “apllied” disciplines I experience a practical sense in what Latour tries: we need to somehow find a way to go on together. Your emphasis on pluralism makes me wonder: how won’t we end up in Babel? For example if we don’t manage to change our living experience of the Economy will it not be that “the paycheck” will be the closure of all discussion?

    PS Why is it that Larouel and Badieu do not do something similar with AIME (reaching out to practitioners)? In your opinion is it more a feature of their non-philosophy or philosophy or is it just a practical issue having to do with having or not the appropriate managerial skills or coming with a good EU proposal?

    PS2 “(for the modes are just as much in us as outside)” I too think that this is crucial in understanding MOE and part of the difficulty of engaging with it

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  7. terenceblake says:

    On the contrary, I think that AIME would like to see potential contributors as legitimate peripheral participators, but I think of myself as a fellow-traveller, navigating pluralism in my own vessel. Applying the criterion of pluralism (which is just one criterion, there are many: digitality, democracy, religiosity, etc.) I find that AIME has much to say for it, but could go even further.

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