Best comment S. Zito “The press takes Trump literally but not seriously supporters take him seriously but not literally.”
— AIME (@AIMEproject) 10 novembre 2016
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 cited above when interpreted in terms of AIME’s categories would be that the serious press took Trump in a mono-modal way as a simple object of information (DC) or of factual reporting (REF) but not as a real political player (POL) and not as symbolising a collective individuation (psychogenesis), vision or mood (MET). They judged him in terms of logos rather than of pathos.
The statement above was retweeted by Latour. It is very interesting when viewed in terms of his own categories, and is also flattering for Trump’s supporters. The “supporters” on this analysis are not the literal-minded Trumpians who endorse his aims, attitudes, and utterances, but rather 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. As Michael Moore says, if you voted Trump to thumb your nose at the political establishment it made you feel good for a day or two, but then you realise that you are stuck with him as president.
Note: this sort of crossing of modes is not as well explored or analysed 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 now 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. Despite Latour’s disclaimers and denunciations his system of modes of veridiction, which distinguishes political truth from referential or factual truth, can be seen as a legitimation of Trumps post-factual strategies and of the endorsement they received from the polls.
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 implicitly to reply to the question: what is the mode of existence of democratic voting? by implying that it is MET (pathos), or in other words that it concerns the beings and truths of metamorphosis rather than the beings and truths of politics. The problem is that the vote inaugurates a new sub-regime of political enunciation, even more detached from factual truth, 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? How does AIME with Latour as its mouthpiece in fact intervene in the media and what is the status, and the effects, of the interventions?
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 actual vote, including the people who abstained, a case of 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. Its politics is based on the diplomacy of experts rather than the democracy of participants, which is why it has nothing but platitudes and reprimands to contribute to the analysis of the situation.
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”.
Further there is the reflexive argument that Latour’s own pronouncements fall under the same dichotomy, when he is not being careful and scholarly.
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, participated in a reading group, blogged on the book from the beginning, corresponded with Latour, 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 own participation belongs to Latour’s de-literalised empiricism 2.0. The problem is that Latour himself slides from one empiricism to the other, from systematic literalism (matters of fact) to pragmatic engagement (matters of concern) and back, 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.
Note: this post is meant as a follow-up to my reaction to a form of “Latour-bashing” that I often see on facebook not only from supporters of OOO, SR and Laruelle, but also from those of Badiou and Zizek, and as a defence of Latour’s pluralist style of thinking, as opposed to the peculiarly one-dimensional style he adopts in his interventions in the press.
So despite my critical remarks I am here reprising Latour’s AIME project (in my own way).