ON NOT TAKING LATOUR LITERALLY

I think this distinction between seriously and literally has more general import, and I am glad Bruno Latour reprises it here. In his recent semi-autobiographical piece “Life among Conceptual Characters” Latour describes his method as involving the repeated reciprocal passage from actants (concepts) to actors (characters) and back, citing Nietzsche’s THUS SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA as inspiration.

This distinction is very interesting for my ongoing analysis of Latour’s AIME project, as I take AIME seriously (as pluralism) but not literally (neither as empirically founded nor even foundable).

In AIME’s terms taking “literally” means in terms of the mode of existence DOUBLE CLICK (DC), or information without transformation. The opposite to literal in Latour’s system is double: metamorphic (MET) inside the modes and being-as-other,  the comprehension of being underwriting the modes. There is no single equivalent to “seriously”. It could mean “felicitously”, that is as appropriate to the relevant mode of existence, in this case politics (POL).

The meaning of the sentence when read in in terms of AIME’s categories would be that the press took Trump in a mono-modal way as a simple object of information (DC) or of factual reporting (REF) but not as a serious political player POL) and not as symbolising a collective individuation (psychogenesis), vision or mood (MET).

The statement above was retweeted by Latour. It is very interesting when viewed in terms of his own categories, and flattering for Trump’s supporters.

It means that the “supporters” on this analysis are not the literal-minded Trumpians who endorse his aims, attitudes and utterances, but those who consider Trump as a symbol of all that is not right in the political process, Trump himself included. That is to say that in this case we have a “crossing” between MET and POL trying to modify or to disrupt POL. Unfortunately this intervention from MET into POL becomes literalised and distorted by its inclusion into POL, whether it wants to or not.

Note: this sort of crossing of modes is not as well thought out as the distinction of the modes.

Prior to the vote this enthusiasm for a de-literalised Trump, for a symbolic Trump, could be assigned many meanings. But the voting process itself has literalised this symbolic engagement. A literal president has been elected. This points up a defect in Latour’s explication of POL. Latour’s AIME explains politics as belonging to a different truth-regime than referential speech (REF), thus dangerously opening the door to legitimating trumpery of all sorts.

Further, Latour’s analysis of all the modes, including POL, systematically privileges and empowers experts rather than participants. Strangely, Latour’s analysis of politics (POL) doesn’t cover voting. Latour’s tweet seems to reply to the question: what is the mode of existence of democratic voting? by saying that it is MET or in other words that it concerns the beings of metamorphosis rather than the beings of politics. The problem is that the vote inaugurates a new sub-regime of political enunciation (POL) at the same time that it installs a new literal president in office.

I think that Latour should take this occasion to reflect on what his AIME project taken as a metamorphic symbol in fact symbolises. A second question would be: what is the effect of AIME when it is taken literally (DC)? How does it intervene empirically in different modes? Does AIME too have a fundamentalist aspect or following?

A third question would be on the conflict between diplomacy and democracy within AIME. Hillary Clinton was selected in terms of the diplomatic negotiations within her party and its allies. But she was not democratically elected by the people. Is the vote, including the people who abstained, a metamorphic (non-literal) comment, a referential one, or a political one? What does this result show about AIME’s privileging of diplomatic forms of negotiation over democratic dialogue?

My worry is that even Latour has a literalised understanding of his own AIME project that sometimes dominates. I am not attacking the system, which I have repeatedly said is a “game-changer” in the field of Continental Philosophy and beyond, I am just doing my job as a philosopher, unpacking presuppositions and gaps in Latour’s statements, tracing his own literalism.

I have de-literalised Latour’s project from the beginning, which is one reason why I do not automatically endorse everything he says. I am not an official AIME member or follower, but a pluralist fellow-traveler. AIME itself is a battleground between metamorphism and literalism.

The “dichotomy” I am commenting is not mine, but one endorsed by Latour: seriously vs literally. My argument is pluralist. Latour’s AIME should have led him to see more modes of existence at work, and to see the terms of this dichotomy differently. In this post I have been talking about REF, MET, POL, DC and being as other.

Plus there is the reflexive argument that Latour himself falls under the same dichotomy when he is not being careful.

Practitioners of Latour’s methods have no “authority” on a conceptual question (and vice versa). That would be empiricism 1.0 or literalism. The whole question is the difference between “empiricism 1.0” (taking literally) and “empiricism 2.0” (taking seriously).

I am a participant in the AIME project in that I publicised it, blogged on the book from the beginning, made contributions to the site, contributed an article to the final catalogue, attended the final Assembly and was the interpreter for Clive Hamilton at that Assembly, and nevertheless was never a literal follower. So my participation belongs to Latour’s de-literalised empiricism 2.0. The problem is that Latour slides from one empiricism to the other, seemingly without noticing it (some of the time) or for rhetorical advantage.

Note: I am using “rhetorical” here ad hominem to suggest that Latour sometimes does not respect his own conceptual field.

My idea is that AIME’s fifteen categories gives us a rich instrument of analysis for all sorts of things, including the recent election, but that more modes than two must be taken into account. This post is meant as a follow-up to my reaction to what I think of as a form of “Latour-bashing” that I often see on facebook not only from supporters of OOO, SR and Laruelle, but also of Badiou and Zizek, and as a defence of Latour’s pluralist style of thinking, see: https://terenceblake.wordpress.com/2016/09/25/bruno-latour-irony-and-imagism/. So despite the critical surface at the beginning of my intervention I am here reprising the project (in my own way).

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13 Responses to ON NOT TAKING LATOUR LITERALLY

  1. There is something very amusing (in a happy way ) here. As if loving and hating at the same time. But for sure not feeling indifference.

    Well, all these are going on in France, the country of strong emotions and affaires. So it fits to the spirit of the country. (I liked the comment, forgive this little enjoyment)

    As for official AIME members or followers, I wonder if there are any. As an outsider I see people getting involved but were Latour to become a Cistercian monk who would keep talking AIMEse?

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  2. landzek says:

    Thanks that’s cool. I admit that discerning all of Latours modes what a been a little bit more involved undertaking on my part then I was really willing to undergo.

    Now that the trauma of the election is passing, that simple statement of Latour that you put amounts to the same conclusion I had come to, with a certain addition: I think that he was just doing whatever it took to win. I think that before he even announced his candidacy he who was already assessing the board so to speak, he was analyzing the playing field and looking for strategies in situations that would allow him to win. He’s a businessman. I’m thinking in business the ethics of business is closing the deal. It doesn’t really have anything to do with ethics or political correctness or anything. I think he spoke in a certain way which was legitimate so far is that he was just himself as a person maybe a little bit crass maybe a little bit insensitive, but I don’t think really racist or sexist in a particularly nasty way, but maybe just in a default way maybe just dinner ignorant or insomuch as that he has never really had to deal with ethically sensitive situations in his upper Stratham of New York wealthy White male life.

    But he was just speaking in a manner almost ironically, but he knew that it would touch upon serious believes within the populace of the United States.

    I think you are right in that he could be analyzed in a multitudinous of Waze within the 15 modes. But I think you are also right in so much that we were all duped; I was duped and particularly because I was taking his words seriously, as if they were really reflecting some sort of internal creature, as if he really is a racist and really is sexist and etc. perhaps he is at some level but I think it was more he was just doing and saying what was needed to close the deal.

    In this way traditional politics never does that; rather they are pier or want to appear that they’re being honest and straightforward but it is in this very straightforwardness or parents there of that allows them a duplicity in there being.

    I have to admit I think Donald was being more honest just inasmuch is that he is a businessman and he’s playing poker and he’s trying to win. I think most people are offended at this kind of straightforward attachment to principles, in this case the principles of doing business and closing the deal.

    His ethics are founded probably only in that maxim. Whereas most peoples ethics are caught up in a humanist kind of righteousness or the ethics of just what people experience and deal with around them so far is having a job losing a job having money being able to afford food etc.

    It seems to be a certain dynamic involved in some sort of progressive or enlightenment rhetoric and then what we might consider the ignorant masses. It’s not that the masses are ignorant but that their honesty is just plain whether or not it’s racist or sexist or ignorant or not.

    In any case it seems that Trump trumped the system. Ironically.

    For the enlightened liberal progressive of which strangely enough I might be a part of, we stake upon the ambiguity of transcendent consciousness and the fickleness of intelligent being.

    It may well be that honesty is founded by narrowmindedness and simple religious posture. And that perhaps maybe be enlightened mind must take its place has Heidegger might describe, in its place of destitution, it’s a place that has been removed from real designations. This is why I say that were concerned with the long game because what Heidegger is talking about just didn’t take place over the 5060 some years of his life; very idea of exit stencil is him it’s process can be seen to be playing out over to 300 years.

    It may be that the enlightened spirit needs to take on more honest tactics of manipulation because it’s type of honesty is easily taken advantage of in the ambiguity that arises and straightforward proposition.

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  3. landzek says:

    (sorry the Voice dictation doesn’t always transcribe the words correctly). Lol. I hope you could still get what I’m saying.

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  4. Pingback: In Not Taking Trump and Latour Literally.   – Constructive Undoing

  5. Philip says:

    I think it’s quite right to say that not all Trump supporters took him “literally.” This was the point of his style of swaggering, smug humourishness (I decline to say “humour” per se) – it let people indulge in its affective atmosphere while not really taking it seriously. It’s ironic, but not really, but seriously… Of course, many have taken it completely seriously (there is a hardcore that has no sense of irony whatsoever). However, the point is that it can be a joke and serious at the same time. This may be the recklessly infantalising effect of politics-as-entertainment. It is a politics impervious to “facts” and positively reinforced by its opponents’ attempts at shaming it. I think that this is the as-yet unlearned lesson from Brexit, this election, seemingly everything that is going on at the moment: that shaming the shameful is an inadequate political strategy.

    Bringing this to the question of modes, I am not clear (perhaps I’m misunderstanding) why distinguishing POL and REF opens the door to Trump-style politics. The distinction says nothing of how the crossing should be handled. It opens the question of the crossing.

    Second, I’m not sure that the articulation of POL necessarily privileges “experts.” My interpretation would be that a factory foreman on a soapbox calling for a strike is as political in this sense as a presidential candidate’s propaganda, and so on. There is a nice quote from Leibniz that says “he who speaks in public must bear to be contradicted in public,” which is obviously sexist in terms of its pronouns but I think it parallels this to some degree. Political speech can be discerned by its particular form of risk-taking. This conception certainly does diverge from the old maxim that “everything is political” but this does not make it elitist. It’s everywhere even if it isn’t everything.

    The crossing with MET I agree is crucial. Trump does not so much enact the political circle as Latour describes it as create this steaming fog of feelgood affect for a narrow but intensely enthusiastic tranche of the population. I think it’s worth reminding ourselves that the larger part of Trump’s support derived simply from him being the Republican candidate – but it’s what put him over the top that we need to understand.

    Regarding the empiricism (or lack thereof), my understanding of AIME tends to follow from a modification of Whitehead’s methodological maxim: “Speculative Philosophy is the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” In AIME it is not so much the logic of the logician that is at stake. However, it clearly shares an aspect of the relationship between experience and conceptualisation. The main point of departure, in terms of its methodology, was to expand via digital mediation the possible meaning of “our experience.” That said, of course it was always Latour’s experience and concepts mediating these mediators. Diplomatic therefore never meant horizontal or anarchic (as indeed diplomacy-proper has never meant).

    Regarding the relationship of DC to everything else, LAW is a crucial case – as we have seen in the UK in the last couple of weeks with the Brexit ideologues suddenly trying to cut through the very principles of Parliamentary sovereignty that they were claiming to defend. However, thinking on this some more I wonder whether we should not understand DC simply as a “baddie” – if it is there in the scheme, it must do something more.

    It seems to me that DC should stand for not only “double-click” but also “decision.” Decision is unavoidable but it presupposes mediation – a chain of transformations that make the cut possible (and necessary). The dangerous and destructive fantasy is that decision can simply decide, can slash and burn and “get to the point” without the careful work of mediation working not just *for* it but *with* it. It is not, therefore, DC as such that is the problem but rather the specific conditions of its relationship to mediators it cuts through.

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  6. Pingback: The Unbearable Smugness of Being Enlightened. – Constructive Undoing

  7. terenceblake says:

    This post is a “meta-” comment as I have nothing to say about the actual election. Distinguishing DC and REF from POL as different truth-regimes is dangerous because Latour says that the politician should not be held to the criteria of literal truth or factual truth, but to another regime of truth entirely.

    On the vote as metamorphic comment (MET) I was thinking of the idea that people could see in Trump a symbol of protest against the established course of political proces and its established actors. Like throwing a spanner in the works, without “agreeing” with the spanner.

    I once proposed that we need either to posit a mode of existence for protestation PROT, or to include PROT within each mode as a second pole along with EXP for expert. It is only afterwards that Latour began to talk about registering the protestation of experience (i.e. of expert opinion). Protestation is not mentioned in the book. The modes are considered to be bi-polar (experience and experts) but the experience is that of the experts. The analyses of science (REF) and of religion (REL) are clear examples of this.

    Double Click is cut and paste, for me it is a pseudo-mode under-written by being-as-being and denying alterity. Decision belongs to every mode but is more thematised in politics and morality, which presuppose a before and after, and so a cut without a paste of the same. DC presupposes that there is no real cut as we paste the same thing elsewhere. Another name for DC is commensuration.

    It is evident that the “empiricism” of AIME is a “fiction”, as shows the framing fable of the visiting anthropologist who just happens to analyse our society in a way that conforms to Latour’s prejudices. The example of religion is enough to show that the empiricity is heavily biased.

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    • Philip says:

      “Distinguishing DC and REF from POL as different truth-regimes is dangerous because Latour says that the politician should not be held to the criteria of literal truth or factual truth, but to another regime of truth entirely.”

      This only follows if the *practice* of politics is understood or encouraged to be mono-modal. This is why I pointed out the opening chapter “Trusting Institutions Again?” which clearly raises the problem of science and politics and the travesty of conflating the two (the conflation undermines both science and politics). The point, I think, is that politics cannot and should not be reduced to referential knowledge (or vice versa), not that the two things should be separated or that the crossing should be ignored. That, however, may be a fault of the naming system as the domain and the mode may be distinguished in theory but this can easily get overlooked.

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      • terenceblake says:

        The whole point of Latour’s quote is that Trump’s supporters took him “seriously”, i.e. politically, and not “literally”. That is they were not moved by refutations of his affirmations. This implies that his opposition were unable to fight him politically (POL) and made the mistake of thinking that critique on the terrain of factual truth would be enough. There is a particular danger of immunization against critique that comes with the distinction of POL and REF. But to distinguish is not to separate. As I have always indicated what is given empirically is mixtures of crossings, and the democratic vote is an example of that. I do not think that the battle over the facts should be set aside as irrelevant, it is always necessary. But the specificity of POL implies that this is not enough, that more is needed.

        Despite Latour’s acceptance of this point, I still think that he shares in part the same error as the liberal élite in underestimating and undervaluing the protestation, which is not so much against expertise (REF) as against experts (crossing REF-POL). Politicians are not cognitive experts nor can they draw legitimation from their expertise.

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  8. dmf says:

    been thinking that we need an as-if poetic mode of dwelling, a sort of pragmatist’s version of perspicuous-re-minders, proto-types not arche-types, if only Hillman had something akin to Jane Bennett’s strategic animism in mind when he told us to stick to the images, than Jung’s injunction to dream the dream on isn’t Self-ish but more like Haraway stringing together images/figures/modes as patho-logoi, and we can read genealogists not as archae-ologists but as bricoleurs/assemblers of familial-resemblances

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  9. dmf says:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04gd7dz
    “But aversion to laïcité is now widespread among banlieue and Muslim young, and it would seem that integration on the scale advocated by its supporters hasn’t happened. By common consent, French secularism has hidden the country’s real and growing race and culture divisions – some argue it’s exacerbated them.”

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