Introduction + Chapter 1: A Few Criticisms

Author: Philip Conway

Given the cursory and familiar nature of the opening chapters I don’t have a great deal to add just yet in terms of commentary but I do have one major criticism.  It concerns the definition of ‘The Moderns’ – perhaps the central plank of Latour’s political-philosophical platform.

Latour initially defines ‘the Moderns’ very precisely.  In fact I think this is perhaps the clearest statement of what he means by ‘modern’ to date:

“The ‘we’ of [We Have Never Been Modern] did not designate a specific people or a particular geography, but rather all those who expect Science to keep a radical distance from Politics. All those people, no matter where they were born [emphasis added], who feel themselves pushed by time’s arrow in such a way that behind them lies an archaic past unhappily combining Facts and Values, and before them lies a more or less radiant future in which the distinction between Facts and Values will finally be sharp and clear.” (8)

(This all requires a degree of prior knowledge of Latour’s work but, given that, it is exceptionally precise.)  According to this statement ‘Modern’ cannot be taken as a synonym for Western, Northern, economically developed, etc.  The Moderns are a “population of variable geometry that is in search of itself” (8).  Modernism is a philosophical, ontological and perhaps ideological condition, not an artefact of geography.  This much is crystal clear.

The problem is that Latour fails to abide by his own definition.  As soon as he adopts his terminology of ‘diplomacy’ I lose any clear sense of who the ‘we’ is meant to be – or, indeed, the ‘them.’  He repeatedly conflates Modern with Western and European.  E.g.:

“[T]he West (Europe, at least, unquestionably) is finally in a situation of relative weakness.  No more question of hubris; no more question of repentance. … ‘Occidentals’ will have to be made present in a completely different way, first to themselves, and then to the others. … [I]t is a matter of making ‘diplomatic representations’ in order to renegotiate the new frontiers of self and other.” (17)

On this evidence how are Moderns not a geographically circumscribed people?  How is their geometry ‘variable’?  All of that seems to go out of the window as soon as Latour tries to lever his abstract philosophy into a more concrete political argument.  If ‘Modern’ is not equivalent to ‘European’ or ‘Western’ then why is it Europe/the West that must ‘make representations’ to those geopolitical others that are rising in power and thereby putting Europe/the West in a position of relative weakness?

‘Modern’ can only be legitimately conflated with ‘European’ if (a) all Moderns are Europeans and (b) all Europeans are Moderns.  Neither of these things appear to be true – nor does Latour claim that they are exactly but he frequently presumes it.

Who are these ‘others’ that ‘we’ are meant to be negotiating with?  This language seems to me to be extremely politically naive.  The elites of ‘other,’ non-Western societies are usually very wealthy, privileged and are often Western educated.  Like the monarchs and aristocrats of early modern Europe they have more in common with their fellow transnational elites than they do with their ‘own’ people.  How is a Western Modern meant to ‘negotiate’ with the representatives of the ‘others’ when these representatives are just non-Western Moderns.

It may possibly be true that Chinese or Indian scientists and engineers have different concepts of science, objectivity and progress than European ones (and given their countries’ relative rise in power their concepts may start to be impressed upon Europeans rather than vice versa; the Occident and Orient may, like the Earth’s magnetic field, begin to flip) but given that vast numbers of them are being trained in European and North American universities this is most definitely not something that can be simply asserted – it’s a completely open question.  Are non-Western engineers and scientists (not to mention bureaucrats and politicians) really not ‘modern’?  Are their attitudes towards facts and values so very alien?  And if they are modern then who is making representations to whom?  Surely it must then be the middle classes/elites of these countries making representations to the lower classes/peasants?  And if that’s the case why speak in terms of nationally and geographically bounded groups at all?

We already have ‘capitalism with Asian values,’ why not ‘modernism with Asian values’ – a fusion of values?  It’s no less plausible.  In fact has this not already arrived, hand in hand with capitalism?  For all the talk of empiricism Latour simply assumes that the ‘others’ have radically different values.  This is problematic not just in the present but also in the past.  Science has never been a purely European phenomenon.  What about its Arabic, Indian and Chinese roots?  Are the ‘others’ only now discovering ‘Modern values’?  I find this to be entirely implausible.

And what of Europe itself?  Perhaps as a British person it is easy for me to doubt whether Europe is a meaningful entity – our political climate tends to be rather sceptical of ‘the Continent.’  However, Latour not only assumes that ‘Europe’ is a meaningful entity but makes it the master signifier for the ‘us’ that he wishes to summon as a public through the ‘issue’ of his project.  He takes Europe to be more or less given and established; an obvious and uncontentious referent.  In his essay ‘Reflections on Etienne Souriau’s Les différents modes d’existence  Latour uses the phrase “European ontology” to describe his modes project:

“… the project of philosophical anthropology that I pursue entertains the idea, which one must admit is pretty crazy, of a ‘European ontology’. It is as if we said to other cultures (though we know they are no longer cultures), if we said to the ‘former others’: ‘Here are the contrasts we thought we were able to figure out in the course of our history, which was supposed to be the history of modernization. Now it’s your turn, you others, to define the contrasts that you have extracted, and the values to which you are so attached that without them you too would die.’” (16)

The circumscription of the project as peculiarly ‘European’ seems to derive from a kind of post-colonialist desire to avoid universalism and ‘speaking for the Other’ (he regularly mentions the politicising effect his fieldwork in Africa during the 1960s had on him, e.g. p.8).  Latour doesn’t want to imply that his modes are being handed down from on high, explaining away the lives and times of all people, everywhere.  So, he calls it a ‘European ontology’ in order to hem it in and limit it.  As a European he feels qualified to identify the ontology pertaining to Europeans but not to anyone else.  Fair enough.  However, that decision is utterly inconsistent with his claim that Moderns are not a people and are not geographically delimited – not ‘defined by their birth.’

Despite the pretension to ‘empiricism,’ all of these claims vis-à-vis who’s modern and who’s not are simply stated as fact without any apparent awareness that evidentiary justification might be necessary.  It seems to me that Latour is so desperate to avoid ‘speaking for the other’ that he actually does speak for the other by exoticising it, by ignoring the ways in which non-Europeans (a) are often quite like Europeans, (b) have often spent time being living and being educated in Europe and (c) have, in one way or another, contributed to those institutions broadly claimed to be ‘European.’  In other words, Europeans and non-Europeans have a shared history as well as a shared future.

This ‘us’ is as questionable as the ‘them’ – so who is meant to be ‘negotiating,’ and how?

Okay, of course Latour doesn’t mean ‘negotiate’ literally.  He doesn’t mean that Cameron, Merkel, Hollande, etc. need to sit down with Xi Jinping, Mukherjee, Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, etc. and hash out what the acceptable philosophical positions for the world will be, henceforth!  This ‘conversation’ is much broader, longer term and more abstract than anything like that.  But Latour has previously held up literally diplomatic endeavours such as the Kyoto Protocol as evidence of this coming ecological politics (e.g. WHNBM, Politics of Nature and particularly his essay ‘War of the Worlds, What About Peace?’).  And, despite the complexity, fuzziness and informality of this ‘negotiation,’ it still appears that it must necessarily be a negotiation between elites.  Just because it isn’t going to be a formal, literal diplomatic endeavour like some giant 21st Century Congress of Westphalia doesn’t mean that the conversation can conceivably be anything other than an elite-to-elite dialogue.  How much negotiation can occur between the common people of, say, Britain and Saudi Arabia?  Even if we don’t take ‘negotiation’ too literally it’s difficult to see what kind of conceptual interlocution these populations can have – it must occur via political, scientific, corporate and religious representatives (and so we’re back to the fact of elites).

This discursive elitism clearly presupposes and thus requires a concept of class, not necessarily in a Marxist sense but some concept of class – and of plutocracy.  The exclusively geopolitical (and, dare I say it, rather modernist) concepts that Latour hijacks in order to narrate his grand, epic tale of ‘Moderns vs. Others’ aren’t fit for purpose.  The social fissures that fall along modern/non-modern lines are as likely to be defined by class and level of education as by ‘culture’ or nationality.

Class, elites, actual political structures – these are subjects that Latour has studiously avoided throughout his career but that come back to haunt him as soon as he tries to turn his philosophy loose in the real, concrete world.  All in all, Latour’s philosophy seems to be politically hamstrung from the start.  Its flat, un-nuanced, two-dimensional naivety with regard to the structures of political life as they actually exist around the world is at odds with the concepts he places at the very heart of his project.

Of course, I could be made to eat my words as later chapters develop the argument but I doubt it.  As I said before, this book is very much a continuation of Latour’s previous work and this has been a major weak point since at least We Have Been Modern.

I must say that I have enjoyed the book so far and I find much of it to be exciting, thought provoking and agreeable – however, it also has some serious problems right at its heart.


39 responses to “Introduction + Chapter 1: A Few Criticisms

  1. This may help us clarify the term “modern” as Latour wants us to understand how he is using it:
    From the definitions on the modes of existence site
    The adjective remains deliberately vague in terms of its content as well as in its historical and spatial extension. Ultimately, it is up to this inquiry to define, once values have been made explicit and established, what such a term might mean. In the perspective introduced by (Latour, 1991), the term refers to a kind of Master Narrative that tells the story of an emancipation based on the distinction between Reason and Illusion and which is to be found in space and time via amodernization front, distinguishing in all collectives an archaic past and an emancipated future. The problem is that this definition is precisely “what the Moderns have never been” … thus we define Moderns as those who have a different history to the one they insist upon so vigorously. This alternative history, so difficult to take into account, is to be found in the term ecology, itself terribly vague. The intention, thus, is to force a contrast between two terms: modernize-ecologize. The term “modern” is defined by contrast and becomes fairly precise as soon as we look into the difficulties of constructivism and the forms of the iconoclash: a Modern is one who believes that others believe while he knows how to distinguish between what is built and what is true. A Modern is one who does not confuse figurative language with the order of the world. In particular, a Modern is one for whom these distinctions are not relative but absolute. This is why “others” are absolutely other, because they are unaware that their gods have been constructed and because they confuse the order of the world with their ways of speaking.

  2. The key point for me is this:”a Modern is one who believes that others believe while he knows how to distinguish between what is built and what is true.”
    So a Modern, for Latour, believes in the modern contract or an absolute wall between Science and Politics.

    • Thanks for the quotation, Steven. That helps a lot. I think it reinforces my point that, on a technical level, Latour’s definition is quite clear and precise (albeit open ended and subject to revision). However, I still think that he doesn’t abide by his own definition in his rhetoric.

      I have, in the course of my professional and social life, met students from places like India and Sri Lanka who are as enthusiastically and chauvinistically Modern (in precisely the way that Latour describes) as anyone I’ve ever met – maybe even more so. And I’ve met many British people in my life who couldn’t be described as Modern at all – in Latour’s sense or any other. How can this be squared with the notion of a ‘European ontology’?

      I don’t think that it can. This doesn’t necessarily invalidate the more substantial parts of Latour’s argument but it does mean that we should be very wary of Latour’s geopolitical terminology when he ‘narrates grandly.’

    • Maybe Philip’s criticism could be approached in a different way by asking a question: how do the Modern’s current modes of existence relate to their diverse historical modes of existence?

      I am willing to grant that Latour’s “we” really is geographically unbounded. The “we” is set apart from the pre-modern “they” only by virtue of how we talk about ourselves. On page 66-67, Latour (seeming to follow Heidegger here by situating his inquiry within the Greek logos) attempts to redefine the desire for rationality as the desire to “speak well” about ourselves, in public, for all to hear.

      This passage suggested to me that Latour is understanding history, like Heidegger, as the way that we chose to appropriate historical possibilities, and understand our own projects in terms of historical exemplars. It follows then that we Moderns ARE only “Western” or “Occidental” or “European” by virtue of our own choice to speak about ourselves as such, tell the story of the development of “Western science” as OUR history, understand Aristotle or Bacon as distinctively Western figures etc. etc.

      Latour repeatedly states that one of his main concerns is to understand the gap between how the Moderns speak about themselves (and their history) and how they experience themselves. Steven’s point that “west” and “east” are domains connected by networks shows how Latour’s proposed vocabulary helps us recognize that the way that we speak about east and west and the way that we experience east/west are separated by a strange gap. This gap is Latour’s starting point.

      • I think that’s a possible interpretation but a touch too generous. I don’t see much in Latour’s use of these terms that indicates this level of nuance! Maybe I’m not reading closely or intelligently enough but I just don’t see that kind of subtlety at work here.

        It’s possible that Moderns make themselves into Westerns/Occidents through the performance of their Modern values and, therefore, as they cease to think that they are Modern they will also cease to be Western/Occidental. That makes sense. But I don’t think that’s what Latour actually says.

        Of course it could be my failing rather than his.

  3. I think you are right to raise the question of the situation of enunciation of a book that purpots to describe the felicity conditions of the various modes of existence that it examines. Latour’s discourse seems to allude to a possible scientific status, by the constant reference to an “anthropology of the Moderns”, yet much of what he says is philosophically informed. The lack of clarity over the object of the inquiry and over the potential audience for its results adds to the puzzlement over the status of his discourse.

    In the conclusion Latour states: “Thus while I have spoken all along of an inquiry and even of a questionnaire, it is not in the mode of knowledge that I claim to be working. The term “inquiry” has to be taken in a plurimodal sense whose object is to preserve the diversity of modes. Can we call this approach “empirical philosophy”? I am not sure, given how indifferent philosophy has become to the tasks of description. Experimental metaphysics? Cosmopolitics? Comparative anthropology? Practical ontology? … To situate this reprise of the rationalist adventure, but to mark clearly that it will not take place under the auspices of Double Click, I have entrusted it to the term diplomacy”.

    So it is not in the mode of knowledge, yet empirical. In the beginning of the book Latour appeals to his status as a practitioner of science studies, and we know he has published books on a case study of technology and of law. His book on religious enunciation REJOICING is not based on a case study but on his own (experiential? philosophical?) impressions of what such utterance is all about. “Plurimodal”, including the mode of knowledge but not limited to it, seems an apt description, but so does “meta-modal”, if we want to capture the idea that it is not political diplomacy that is at play, but ontological diplomacy.

    • That’s an interesting point. What’s the difference between political and ontological diplomacy? Well, both kinds of diplomacy operate in the absence of a sovereign who can decide. That’s the key philosophical point for Latour – in the ‘anarchy’ of international politics there is no authority that can be straightforwardly appealed to, thus there is only war and diplomacy – violence and negotiation. In anarchy one cannot simply pass down an order to be followed or send up a request for an order to be passed down; things must be discussed, fought over and resolved *laterally*. So it must be in the absence of a Nature that can decide ontological questions by its metaphysical singularity and its scientific legibility.

      Both ontological and political diplomacy are processes of either violence or negotiation with no higher ‘court of appeal’ – that’s why the term ‘diplomacy’ is being applied to both – that’s the commonality. And the *difference* is that political diplomacy operates in the absence of a geopolitical sovereign and ontological diplomacy operates in the absence of an ontopolitical sovereign. Moreover, both involve different institutions and different networks, etc.

      But then, once again, in the way he develops his argument rhetorically, Latour obscures these differences by invoking ‘Europe,’ the ‘decline of the West, rise of the East’ argument (and in previous texts Kyoto, the War on Terror), etc., thus binding his kind of diplomacy to the other kind. He muddies the conceptual water over and over. He extends his concept of Modern beyond the technical definition and, in clear contravention of his own concepts, applies it to geographically defined populations. He does it again by implying that the Modern/non-Modern ontological disagreements are a matter of actual, institutionalised, intercivilisational conflict rather than a more abstract, non-specific kind of philosophical or ideological disagreement.

      Why does he do this? Well, I think he does it to it make his own brand of ‘diplomacy’ seem earthly, vital, profound and serious – not just a philosophical exercise but something intrinsic to the very fabric of global History and political actuality. And this would be perfectly fine were it not for the fact that he doesn’t do the conceptual work required to justify these claims. He writes rhetorical cheques that, in my view, his concepts can’t cash.

      I think that the geopolitical aspect of Latour’s argument can be summarised thus:

      1. The West is declining relative to the East
      2. Moderns are predominantly Western
      3. Therefore, Western values are going to be displaced by Eastern values; Westerners can no longer take their values for granted
      4. Therefore, Western Moderns need to recognise their values as values in order to defend them
      5. The modes project allows them to do that

      The first three of those claims are entirely disputable but Latour seems to take them as given.

      Getting the Moderns to recognise their values *as values* and allowing them to defend themselves without falling back on the bountiful falsities of fact/value absolutism is an entirely sensible and worthwhile project. However, the way Latour tries to tie his ontopolitics it into actual geopolitics is clumsy, confused and confusing. He would do better to avoid mentioning things like ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’ and leave up to his readers to work out who is Modern and who isn’t.

      Were we to rewrite the above argument without the East/West distinction it could look like this:

      1. Modern values are under threat and in decline
      2. Therefore, Moderns need to recognise their values as values in order to defend them
      3. The modes project allows them to do that

      This is a much simpler argument that presupposes less and is much more justifiable. It still begs questions as to whether Modern values really are in decline but it leaves the question of what values we are talking about and who holds them open and doesn’t confuse matters with geopolitical concepts that serve no purpose other than to make the whole debate seem more concrete, serious and politically profound than it actually is.

      • is the modes to defend the modern/ the west or to defang it?

      • @jbrahins – I think, from Latour’s point of view, We Have Never Been Modern was the defanging, critical move and this is the defensive, constructive move. According to Latour’s narrative the Moderns are being defanged by history itself so why kick them while they’re down? Of course the process of defence requires leeching out some of the modernist poison from the values in question but that’s all part of the defence.

  4. What if we were to abandon thinking in terms of domains altogether and only think in terms of networks, would this help resolve the objection of conflating geopolitics with ontopolitics? In other words the old terms of West vs. East no longer serve us.
    Moderns are a network of allies with one set of beliefs (bifurcation of subject/object , nature/culture, human/non-human) and Latour aims to generate a collective of allies who challenge these beliefs and the consequences of these beliefs. Latour’s rhetorical allusions are just that, intended to remind us how we use to think when we still thought we were Modern. If Latour himself lapses into the modernist habit of thinking on occasion it shows how difficult it is to break free of this habit.

    • Yes, I think that’s a fair assessment. It’s very difficult to break out of habits of thinking, particularly when they are the standard of an epoch! He’s only human, after all.

  5. Despite an effort to locate and free us from category mistakes, Latour himself is mixing philosophical considerations and empirical claims in a confusing way. The result is a vagueness or “muddiness” that complcates his argument and gives an illusion of concreteness. There emerges from all this an impression of authority, yet the bibliography to support his claims is lacking. There is an attempt to exploit the trust the reader may have in Latour’s revisioning of science and have it accorded to claims about other domains, institutions, and modes of existence. The objections that the text envisions come from naive straw men who are trapped in the snares of subject-object, the bifurcation nature-society, the impossible quest for unmediated certainty, or of double-click literalism. There is so much renaming that one has trouble formulating objections that have not been rendered impossible by the new terminology. An interesting case is the fate of the word “transcendence”, which becomes split in two: there is a “bad” transcendence and a “good” transcendence, which is defined so as to be synonymous with immanence (“immanence, for AIME, is synonymous with good transcendence”). This is in line with a return to a more consensual (“diplomatic”) posture and an attempt to avoid “provocation”, at least at the level of terminology. Already Latour had renamed his position from “social constructivism” to “constructivism”. Now we have him renouncing constructivism in favour of compositionism, and the return of values, institutions, and even (“good”) transcendence. There are no boudaries between domains, but one may not mix different modes of existence, under penalty of “category mistake”. Yet one may ask: are all such crossings sterile errors? If this ontology is diachronic, with modes of existence evolving, mutating, coming into being and disappearing, can such crossings sometimes be productive? The terminology of category mistakes, though necessary for eliminating “bad” mixtures, may eliminate too much (what about the possibility of “good” mixtures and tend towards stasis. Once we have our map of values and modes that characterise us are we just going to agree to be different from our others, or are we going to swap and mix with them? It is strange to police the proliferation of hybrids at the object level with the stern warnings against categorial confusion at the meta-level.

    • Yes, the question of category mistakes is an interesting one too. Latour implores us to avoid them, to weed them out lest they harm or destroy the fragile modes. But are they necessarily ‘mistakes’? Giving them this name is a value judgement that isn’t warranted by the ontology itself. As surely as modes must evolve over time they must also come into existence and perish – such is life.

      Latour isn’t just providing the Moderns with the means by which they can defend their values – he is defending those values himself. He says this explicitly in the introduction with regard to science. He’s said the same thing of politics in the past and his defensive stance with regard to religion is, I think, self-evident. Latour is the ‘former Modern’ (dare I say ‘post-modern?!’) par excellence.

      Latour’s writing style is fascinating. He is a congenitally unreliable narrator – always has been. His style is self-consciously earnest and forthright but it can also be quite misleading. He always has an agenda and he doesn’t really hide that fact but his meaning rarely presents itself on the surface. His writing is always performative; he’s always building alliances, arraying allies – ever the diplomat.

      None of that is bad or wrong but it does mean that we have to be critically aware of what he is doing because it is, essentially, a process of manipulating us as readers.

      • great question – are they mistakes? i think latour’s use of “category mistake” might be read as irony – it is accepting a frame for the purposes of destabilizing it, so as to make visible its project.

  6. This phrase came to me, he is waging peace.

  7. I think that there is a slippage from experience to value in his presentation of his project. The idea that each mode of existence embodies a “value” that can be isolated out is already a rhetorical reduction. Then he gives the value thus located a new content (“new account”). So the defence of the values of the moderns is a strange tension of conservative and revisionary moves.

  8. The heavy artillery he uses in his campaign is the attribution of “category mistake”. He directs his salvos (scorn) against anyone speaking “off key” that is, not speaking ln tune with his modes of existence.

  9. Terence,didn’t the question of value arise for Latour when he realized that ANT could not address questions of value so he began the Inquiry? He discovers/asserts that each mode has its values or felicity conditions.I’m not sure if they are just “rhetorical reductions”.

  10. I don’t think values are the same as felicity conditions, which are the criteria that some value has been respected or attained, or not. However I do think reducing science to the value of “objectivity” as he does in the introduction, or religion to conversion, is a dubious move. The rhetorical part is persuasively re-defining while giving the appearance of simply re-stating, the reduction part is that something is lost. Wanting us to give up the “belief in beliefs” in favour of a belief in values seems little gain, but tends towards denying any cognitive dimension to values. There is also the inter-textual aspect. Latour relies heavily on a fuzzy set of allusions to previous French philosophers. In particular much of his pluralism has a Deleuzian ring, just as his declaration of the end of the modernist master narrative of Emancipation is a Lyotardian concept. In Deleuze’s terms value is always a term for the conformist codification of practices and of modes of existence, and it is rather singular evaluations that allow us to construct our modes of existence without succombing to transcendence in the sense of a higher objective court of appeal. Latour seems to be trying to revamp the terminology to produce more conservative conclusions than such thinkers worked towards; There is a whole strand of re-defining the terms of his predecessors rather than confronting them that goes in the same direction; His re-defining of “deconstruction” into purely negative critical thought is an important example. His wiping out of two generations of predecessors is of a piece with his considering only straw man objectors. Noone wants to be a dualist still believing in subect-object or the bifurcation of Nature and Society, noone wants to believe in the unmediated access to the real or in the uniitary autonomous subject. But the victory over (i.e. the deconstruction of) these concepts in favour of (it was not just negative) multiplicities of heterogeneous elements arranged in immanent networks – this was not Latour’s contribution but that of his immediate predecessors. So I think that looking very warily at a seemingly innocent word such as “value” is important to understand Latour’s project in a wider intellectual context than that which he himself indicates explicitly. An unreliable narrator of the necessity of trust is not to be taken at face value.

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  12. Whilst I don’t disagree with anything you say Terence, I like to first try to understand a text,as closely as possible, in the way the thinker who wrote it understood it. This being said I’d like to quote what Latour says about his use of the term “value” in his key terms on the AIME website.”Value is thus meant in the simple sense of “that which we hold dear””. He goes on to say,
    “In the inquiry, then, we will always distinguish between value and the account given of that value,…”
    I wonder how it would play out here if we attempt to practice to the same distinction?

  13. If we attempt to practice using the same distinction?

  14. I agree with Steven here. I have been wondering, and this will come up more acutely in chapter 5, to what extent Latour’s attempt to “speak diplomatically” has the continental/analytic divide in mind. I think he is taking care to speak in ordinary language so that those not versed in the French continental tradition are not alienated from his work.

    • I think the book so far is highly consistent with his writing to date. It’s maybe a little less technical and it takes things a little slower than some of his more specifically academic texts but there’s no big difference that I can see. This is just how he writes.

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  16. My question is in a different direction, but maybe you all will have thoughts – Latour talks of the work done to make discontinuous legal and other systems continuous, or appear or feel or work continuously. I find this description confusing: 1) he sees them as discontinuous and the work in the forging of continuity? 2) why not the inverse? 3) Why is the discontinuity obvious to latour? why accept it as the given to be explored?

    in my work with pentecostals, the project is to make conversion, speaking in tongues etc. into something discontinuous. it is difficult for them, takes lots of energy.

    • That’s a good point. I’ve written on this in the past with respect to international politics, again. Latour usually assumes that disconnection is an a priori given and that disconnection is the remarkable, outstanding result of work that must be followed. However, disconnection also must often be produced.

      A border guard creates excludes (i.e. disconnects) political aliens from his network by forming tight border connections, the two things go together. A tax lawyer actively creates legal disconnection in order to exploit gaps in the political/legal/territorial order to help her client evade tax. And so on.

      I don’t know if any of his later modes deal with disconnection more specifically but that’s definitely something I want to think more about.

  17. Thank you Phillip for getting our discussion launched!
    And thanks also to all who have responded thus far.

    I will pick up on the issues of 1) Latour’s apparent avoidance of issues like “class, elites, and actual political structures” and 2) the precision/imprecision of Latour’s use of the term Moderns.

    On the issue that Latour avoids issues such as class, elites, and actual political structures it seems more plausible to me that he does deal with them (or intends to) in ways which do not translate well or at all into these sorts of categories. It just seems unlikely to me that someone interested in and serious about doing an anthropology of moderns (or those that have never been) would or could completely avoid such topics. Perhaps part of it is the tremendous effort Latour has had to go through to make the case for the agency of nonhuman others — just making those claims seems to have required a huge amount of work.

    For Latour’s mode of thinking wouldn’t class need to be thought of as a doing and less a ‘thing’ (a verb, rather than noun)? If so, then wouldn’t class be performed as the action passing through, say, particular occupations, access to and use of particular monetary instruments (bank accounts, credit cards or the lack thereof), education, etc (no doubt a much longer list is needed to trace a NET for ‘class’). Similarly, it is hard to see how stable ‘things’ like elite/’common people’ can work on Latour’s terms — which is not the same things as saying he studiously avoids them. I am elite — or perhaps, some of the action that is me does elitism — in contrast to many others, sure: I have a PhD, a very well paying job, a home. etc. I’m in the stratosphere compared with many of the people I do research with in Mexico, Bangladesh, and Peru. Yet my passes make me ‘common’ in comparison to, say, the CEO of Apple or, in another form of elite/common, compared to a neuroscientist I am a neophyte of brain research — or compared to even a terrible plumber I’m a ‘common man’ when it comes to shower repair. So ‘eliteness’, ‘commoness’, or ‘classness’ shifts from NET to NET.

    With respect to actual political structures, I think at least part of the issue is not that Latour avoids them but that in his work he studiously refuses to accept ‘power’ as an explicans. No explanation of dictatorship, oligarchy, kelptochracy, rebel group, corporation, organization, or , president, mass movement, corporation, or neghbourhood vigilante is permitted to use ‘power’ to explain its operation, effective or otherwise. Power is an explicandum. And to explain it, a Latourian analysis has to demonstrate how it operates, through what specific mechanisms those agglomerations of people and things are able to reproduce and expand themselves (or how they fail). As such, one doesn’t find political structures, but books of law, the guns to enforce them, the orders on paper to ‘send in the tanks’, or to “make the economy scream” .

    As to Latour’s apparent violation of the precision of his own definition of Moderns, I wonder if the violation has more to do with writing to a highly variable audience, some of whom (perhaps many) are encountering Latour for the first time in AIME? In thinking about this point, I’m reminded about the diversity present in this reading group. Thinking off the top of my head about our introductions to one another I remember therapists, religious studies scholars, designers and technologists, PhD students in several different disciplines, philosophers … That;s an incredible mixture. Where else would one find it? Perhaps in the ‘pews’ if we all shared the same religion. Perhaps huddled over a legal text if we all shared the same jurisdiction. Maybe over a phone book if we all lived in the same city…. My point is that, Latour’s imprecision with his use of Modern might be about drawing in an audience for whom that category and its cognates are still apparently self-evident and true. If AIME is someone’s first engagement with Latour, it might be rather hard to capture and hold his or her interest in this weighty interim report. Perhaps some looser chit chat is an opening gambit …

    • Thanks for the comments!

      On the last point, I don’t think this has anything to do with Latour tailoring his message to his audience, as diverse as it is. This book so far seems to me to be highly consistent in style, tone and substance with his previous works. Plus he’s used these same geopolitical tropes many times in the past so it’s not something that he’s just come up with.

      Long story short, I think you’re being much too generous to Latour! Yes, of course he hasn’t looked at subjects such as ‘class’ in his work because he’s been busy with other things. That’s fair enough, I wouldn’t criticise him for that. But then he hasn’t done any work on international politics either and yet he’s more than happy to throw around terms like ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ like they’re plain, simple and unproblematic. That’s the problem.

      My point vis-à-vis ‘class’ was that if Latour wants to locate his ‘trans-Modern’ ontological conversation as a concrete process that is actually ongoing in the world *beyond* the networks within which his own texts circulate (and this seems to be what he’s claiming) then his free and uncritical use of these geopolitical concepts is both inadequate and counterproductive. His use of these terms contradicts rather than reinforces his own argument. So why does he do it?

      It seems to me that Latour isn’t satisfied with simply appearing to conduct an intellectual debate; he wants to make it seem like he has his finger on the pulse of history and that the process of ‘realising that we were never Modern’ is actually happening, generally, far beyond the university departments, art exhibitions and certain corners of the blogosphere within which his own thoughts propagate. He claims that the world-historical phenomenon that his texts merely *iterate* is *provoked* by Gaia and the ecological crisis. According to Latour, it is not he himself that is teaching the world that we have never been modern, it is the world, Gaia, *itself* that is teaching us this lesson. For Latour, this ‘conversation’ is a concrete historical process that extends far beyond his own discussions of it.

      But is it? Maybe. The problem is that he doesn’t have the inclination to actually provide any reasoning or evidence for any of this, he merely asserts it by bluntly invoking master signifiers such as ‘Europe’ and ‘the West’ to make it seem like he’s done his homework. He makes it seem like international political events like Kyoto, the war on terror or the relative economic decline of Europe compared to eastern countries tie into his narrative – and I don’t think that they do.

      Even if we are generous enough to imagine that when Latour says ‘Europe’ he really means something like ‘that jumbled assemblage of fields, roads, rocks, parliaments, legal agreements, fibre optic cables, traditions, songs, regulatory agencies, arms depots, etc. that form “Europe”‘ that doesn’t absolve him of my main criticism, which is that it makes no sense to see the Moderns *as Latour defines them* as coterminous with any geographical entity, whether that entity is conceived in a network-like fashion or not. A network-ised ‘Europe’ or ‘West’ can be no more coextensive with the Moderns, as Latour defines them, than a non-network-ised version – that is unless we redefine these terms to mean something completely different.

      And if we’re willing to be that generous with Latour’s use of ‘Europe’ why not be equally charitable with my use of the term ‘class’? Of course categorisations like ‘elites/common people’ aren’t stable or universal but does that invalidate them? Class worlds are held in place by networks – weapons, palaces, schools, bank accounts, sex, marriage, ceremonies, patriarchal norms, etc. – and there are all kinds of disruptive and reinforcing dynamics at play within this social milieu. Yes, any individual can be elite in one situation and non-elite in another, depending on the local attachments in question. However, we are talking about a very specific situation here: the situation of Latour’s ‘trans-Modern’ ontological/political conversation.

      To be attached to this trans-Modern ‘debate of values’ (however concrete or abstract we imagine this conversation to be) requires connections to a complex of networks – economic, political, educational. I claim that most people, wherever they are situated on the skin of the planet, are *not* connected to these networks. Therefore, it makes no sense to use geographical concepts to group participants – such attributions are arbitrary. ‘Class’ may not be an ideal term but it’s a much more useful descriptor for these attached/non-attached groups than ‘Europe’ or ‘the West’ since it doesn’t discriminate on a geographical basis but does highlight the fact that these connections are distributed unequally.

      Wherever there are wealthy, Western educated people there are Moderns – that’s my empirical claim. Such people exist all over the world and have done for some time. Perhaps such persons are more highly concentrated in Europe than elsewhere in the world but that’s irrelevant. The whole lexicon of Europe/the West versus the East/the Rest, etc. is simply archaic. The distribution of the relevant connections has far more to do with wealth and education than with geographical location per se. Therefore, it is a matter of class – something that can be quite straightforwardly articulated in actor-network terms.

  18. Adding to the comments made by Josh above, I would like to say how encouraged I have been by the emergence of diplomacy in our collective reading. It seems to me that in this most recent text Latour is more explicit in the challenge he poses to the established canons of reading. Indeed, to assume we are simply readers dispensing judgement within established categories of rectitude risks missing the point entirely. Perhaps we are in a sense slowly and painfully becoming the phenomenon, writing by adding, offering one more extension, difference, etc. If we only have the categories of philosophy and empiricism within which to read/write we may miss the inventiveness of this inquiry into modes of existence.

    • I think you’re right. As harsh as some of my criticisms have been I’d like to see them as being a positive contribution to the intertextual web, not a subtraction from it.

  19. Having finished the introduction and chapter 1, I’m just getting started, just enough to have some background before reading through the comments to catch up. Thanks to all for interesting comments and keeping this discussion going.

    I subscribe to the comment about the value of trying initially to understand a text as the author understands it, while recognizing that one can only arrive at such an understanding by distinguishing it from other possible understandings, some of which may prove to be the basis of critique, so critique is always in the background.

    My initial premise is that AIME is a sequel to WHNBM (We Have Never Been Modern). The framework I bring to try to understand AIME is one I derive from this earlier book, particularly its notion of “hybrid,” which is prominent there and which subsequently, it seems to me, Latour has engaged in analyzing in more complex ways.

    In my reading of WHNBM the hybrid is both the mark of continuity explaining why “we have never been modern” and the best way to understand modernity’s misunderstanding of its premodern/modern distinction.

    For an initial example of a hybrid, take the linkage at the beginning of OEDIPUS REX between the plague (nonhuman) and the murder of Laius (human). The negative side of this human/nonhuman hybrid is that it is bad science: this murder didn’t cause the plague. The positive side is the recognition that the human and the nonhuman involve one another deeply. This positive side fostered wariness about human/nonhuman interactions.

    Modernity focused on the negative side, labeling such hybrids premodern and “enlightening” us about the lack of scientific understanding among the premoderns. This is the good side of modernity. We don’t want to give up modern science.

    But with this enlightenment, wariness about human/nonhuman interactions also disappeared: humans could do with the nonhuman what they pleased without worrying about it. This is the bad side of modernity. As a result, hybrids proliferated like never before. This discussion we are having, for example, depends on the electricity produced through multiple human/nonhuman hybrids at our diverse locations. These hybrids differ from that in OEDIPUS REX but if anything they are more truly hybrids because in them human and nonhuman are truly involved with one another. As the ecological crisis is revealing, humans and nonhumans now penetrate one another like never before. Moderns thought they were different because of their enlightened science but they were “never modern” because, like their predecessors, they produced hybrids. The important difference is that their predecessors produced relatively few hybrids whereas they produced hybrids with reckless abandon (WHNBM 12). In the light of this difference, the moderns don’t look as good as they used to, not even to themselves.

    The fundamental problem Latour addresses, I take it, is how to keep the good side of modernity while revising the bad side to enable us to address the ecological crisis.

    In WHNBM, Latour used the term “constitution” (1) to sketch a modern constitution that explains how moderns got themselves into the ecological crisis and (2) to revise this constitution to suggest how it may be possible to get out of it.

    My first impression, based on what I’ve heard about AIME and what I’ve now read, is that Latour is now deepening his analysis of (1) by adding the complexity of multiple values, all of which are produced/reproduced in complex networks. This analysis, glancing ahead at the book’s final paragraph, seems to be designed as a warning (“if Gaia is against us, then not much is permitted any longer”; “our lack of adequate preparation for the civilization to come”). Work on (2) seems to be the logical next step.

    If it turns out that the book is indeed focused on (1) more or less to the exclusion of (2), I guess I’ll be disappointed.

    One might say, though, that network analysis is itself a contribution to (2) insofar as it maps “modern” activity in terms that are ecological, or at least on the slope toward ecology. In this sense, network analysis may prepare the way for figuring out the reconfigured networks needed to become more “adequate” to the future.

  20. Pingback: HOW TO READ LATOUR (2): Against Straight Reading | AGENT SWARM

  21. Even Derrida recognizes that what he calls “doubling commentary” has a place in critical reading, albeit not a final place (Grammatology 158). I’m comfortable with that. He also stresses that good “doubling commentary” is not easy to come by.

  22. William Blake was in favour of “two-fold vision” and like Derrida he did not think it was final. But unlike Derrida and in the company of Deleuze and Lyotard and Klossowski and many others including Latour, he thought it was a useful transitional step towards a more plural vision. He called double-click “single vision”, and prayed: ” May God us keep From Single vision & Newtons sleep.”

  23. Dear Mr. Philip,

    I haven’t read all the commentaries that follows yours, but, as far as I understand, the fact that the elites of ‘non-western’ countries also share a ‘western background’ only confirms the broadness of the notion of ‘moderns’ evoked on his Introduction. Modernity (or its version ‘in progress’, modernization) indeed pretends to be everywhere, but it seems to me undeniable that its ‘copyrights’, so to say, are euro-american. The ‘others’ evoked by the author look more like the classical ones anthropologists have been dedicating their studies for more then a century, that is, the formerly so-called ‘primitives’. If Latour, almost two decades ago had affirmed “We Have Never Been Primitives”, would his title have caused so much frisson? By the way, have europeans ever been primitive?

  24. I’ve just finished reading all the comments about the first chapter. Latour’s project seems at least in terms of participation already quite successful! I’ll quickly comment on a few issues in bullet points.

    – The definition of the moderns on page 8 is nice and clear. The part added by Steven Gans from the AIME website fits well with it. I do agree with Philip C. that Latour’s use of “West” and “Europe” is problematic. Even the kind interpretation by Iepawsky doesn’t give a good explanation of why Latour is using “West” and “Europe.” Pragmatic? Sure, but still wrong. Yet, at the same time I don’t see this as a major issue in Latours work. Philip might be right that Latour is talking about things he doesn’t know enough about and in this way makes naive and simplistic comments. It doesn’t necessary withhold political scientists of doing the work in the Latourian empirical style. The discussion about class is a good example. The performative and liquid aspect of class might be a perfect study for the political scientists in here! I don’t want to jump to much ahead, but ca. p. 137-9 Latour does offer a useful category of politics.

    – The major problem with Latour so far are the modes and their category mistakes. Domains, no borders and yet we can somehow make category mistakes… I don’t follow jbrahim’s remark that these category mistakes might be ironic. Quite the opposite, they seem pretty essential to me! First of all, the constant attention for these category mistakes seem like a good indicator that he isn’t joking. Secondly, can we have modes of existence without category mistakes? Does it make any sense to divide different domains with their own conceptions of truth etc when there is no penalty in violating the divisions? I’m aware that these domains are exactly what the book is about. But there is a disturbing tension between his critique of the categories of the moderns and his own alternatives. Luckily his moderns are crazy caricatures fighting for their borders, otherwise the similarity with Latour’s own ideas would be too apparent!

    – Philip and jbrahims made a good remark on Latour’s assumption in which discontinuity is always given and continuity is a product. A break, stop, rupture, … can be a product as well.

  25. I would like to add that I agree with Terence about reading texts. You read them with all you’ve got. But at this moment I (and I assume many others) don’t have the range of knowledge like Terence to see all these nuances of re-defining ideas of other philosophers by Latour. So even though I agree with Terence, I can’t interpret the text in such a broad way as he can.

  26. Pingback: EMPIRICISM vs HERMENEUTICS (4): Pseudo-empiricity and authority by association | AGENT SWARM

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