Summary of Introduction + Chapter 1

Author: Philip Conway

Greetings, tout le monde!

We’ve yet to establish a format for these posts.  What I’ve done here needn’t set a precedent for everyone else; I just hope that the following will be useful.  At the very least it’ll get us started.  I’ve written up a bullet point summary of the introduction and the first chapter – a melange of paraphrases and choice quotes.  Hopefully that’ll be enough to refresh people’s memories, provide an overview of the text and give us some jumping off points for conversation.  If I’ve missed something major or if you disagree with my interpretations then do let me know!

As these are the early, introductory pages and because we’ve not yet gotten our discussions going I don’t have much to add vis-à-vis commentary but I do have one critical remark to make about Latour’s definition of ‘The Moderns.’  That’ll come in a second post.

First, the summary. Introduction

1.         A (possibly fictional) anecdote about a scientist assailed by climate sceptics/cynics.  Instead of invoking the undisputable authority of singular Science, for which the scientist would be the kingly spokesperson, he rhetorically articulates the many objects and agencies that are enrolled in the practical institution of the sciences, which ‘manufacture objectivity’ through their complex entanglement in a trusted institution.  Latour claims that this scene couldn’t have occurred until recently – we are seeing an epochal shift in how science is understood (among other things).

2.         The traditional values and ontologies of ‘The Moderns’ are failing as they ‘bump up against’ Gaia and the ecological crisis.  The name ‘Moderns’ does “not designate a specific people or a particular geography, but rather all those who expect Science to keep a radical distance from Politics.” (8)  We need to recognise the inevitability of attachment and reject ‘the Modernisation Front’ and its fixation on emancipation through detachment, abdication, irresponsibility.

3.         This is the positive version of We Have Never Been Modern – asking ‘what, then, have we been?’ it picks up where that book left off.  The ‘values’ of the Moderns, instead of being rejected or criticised per se, are to be restated pluralistically, with their own peculiar kinds of experience and validation identified and specified.  This will clarify what the Moderns really ‘stand for’ and allow them to present themselves to their Others on an equal, negotiable basis.

4.         This ‘diplomatic’ task is essential because ‘The West,’ home of the Moderns, is gradually entering into a position of relative weakness compared to ‘The Rest,’ home of the Others (Latour doesn’t use precisely these terms but that seems to be the basic point).  Europeans are increasingly unable to assume the supremacy of their ideas and values, hence the necessity of recognising them as ideas and values (rather than unquestionable, given, transcendent truths) for the first time.

5.         In order to avoid the Category Mistakes of the Moderns we are given the concepts of Modes of Existence and Felicity/Infelicity Conditions.  Many of the tensions evident in the Modern situation “stem from the fact that the veracity of one mode is judged in terms of the conditions of veridiction of a different mode.” (17-18)  We need to “accept the pluralism of modes” (17) and their truth-making procedures.  This apparatus derives from speech act theory but is not limited to language.  The modes themselves are ontological, metaphysical – hence the need for a philosophical approach to understanding them – “the Moderns are the people of Ideas; their dialect is philosophy” (22).  Our primary subject matter is Being, not Representation.

6.         The ultimate goal is to provide an alternative Grand Narrative for the period of history normally called ‘Modern’ – to provide Moderns with an alternative means of self-description, one better suited to their predicament politically, philosophically and ecologically.  Ecology must displace Economics as our guiding, organising principle.

Chapter 1

1.         Another fictional character, an anthropologist this time.  Trying to understand the Moderns anthropologically, to resist Occidentalism by investigating ‘Courses of Action’ in order to discover value systems.  The problem of Domains (law, science, politics, etc.) – they are separate and distinct according to the theory of the Moderns but evidently interrelated and overlapping in practice.  Cartographic metaphors of domains and borders don’t work.  A change in topology is needed.

2.         Actor-networks.  Following the transversal connections between heterogeneous elements across domains.  Replacing the search for boundaries with building lists of connections ordered by their reported importance.  This method works well enough that the anthropologist may decide that the domains of science, law, religion, etc. are illusory and there are only associative networks – “elements of practice that are borrowed from all the old domains and redistributed in a different way each time.” (31)  (But she should not be so hasty…)

3.         The ANT method is liberating for the researcher and allows her the mobility to investigate and articulate diverse material elements in complex technical assemblages.  However, “we must be careful not to confuse what circulates once everything is in place with the setups involving the heterogeneous set of elements that allow circulation to occur.”  E.g. “gas pipelines are not made ‘of gas’ but rather of steel tubing, pumping stations, international treatises, Russian mafiosi, pylons anchored in the permafrost, frost-bitten technicians, Ukrainian politicians.” (32)  Technical networks are silent and routine, unless they break down.  Actor-networks are fragile and in flux, constantly maintained, always surprising – they are what keep the technical networks silent.

4.         A key definition containing a number of technical terms: ‘network’ “designates a series of associations revealed thanks to a trial – consisting in the surprises of the ethnographic investigation – that makes it possible to understand through what series of small discontinuities it is appropriate to pass in order to obtain a certain continuity of action.”  This is a principle of “free association” or “irreduction.”

5.         The anthropologist is ignorant of what she studies; she “discovers as she goes along what her informants already know.” (34)  (Ethnomethodology, Garfinkel, etc.)  Her informants are themselves engaged in network-building, network-extending, network-enrichment – they are already competent at what she is trying to understand.  The researcher learns from her informants by engaging, however clumsily, in the practices that the informants are already involved in.

6.         This is the first mode: Network [NET].  It is a mode for exploring “the entities required for the existence of another entity” (35).  Despite their aforementioned virtues, the limitation of networks is that they “do not qualify values.” (27)   They lose the specificity of what they articulate.  They allow the researcher to move freely and transversally across domains and to understand what constitutes and maintains these domains but the problem is that she ends up “saying almost the same thing about all of them: namely, that they are ‘composed in a heterogeneous fashion of unexpected elements revealed by the investigation.’”  All the surprises “becoming surprising in the same way.” (35)

7.         “There are no borders between domains” but nevertheless “there are real differences between domains.” (35)  How can these differences be understood without resorting to discredited cartographic metaphors?  She needs to “qualify” her values and to accord each their own, specific “tonality” (36) without inventing yet more sociological “castles in the air.” (37)  The notion of network requires a supplement.

8.         The case of Law (see also Latour’s book The Making of Law).   The key concept in law is that of ‘means.’  “‘Is there a legal means . . .?’; ‘this is not an adequate means’; ‘this means won’t get us anywhere’; ‘this means can take us in several different directions’; and so on.” (38)  This “mode of connection” is “completely specific”.  The legal connection is only evident to the trained eye – to the untrained eye there is only a confusing series of disconnections.  There is “a pass particular to law; something that leaps from one step to the next in the work of procedure or in the extraction of means.” (39)

9.         The legal pass is sui generis but comparable, e.g. to the scientific trajectory, which “is what allows a researcher to determine that, for example, between a yeast culture, a photograph, a table of figures, a diagram, an equation, a caption, a title, a summary, a paragraph, and an article, something is maintained despite the successive transformations, something that allows [the researcher] access to a remote phenomenon” (39) – i.e. proof.  Again, to the outsider the connection between these elements is not obvious and the procession of objects appears to be discontinuous.  The expert, the researcher, is that person who understands and can realise the connection at each point.  Both professions are characterised by this ability – to see continuity where others see only disconnection – but they do so in quite different ways.  To the scientist the law is disjointed and arbitrary – for the lawyer the same is true of science.

10.       “Thus any situation can be defined through a grasp of the [NET] type plus a particular relation between continuities and discontinuities.” (27)  The network is incomplete without an accompanying mode but the converse is also true.  NET crosses all borders, disrespects all boundaries, compiles all associations.  It is essentially empirical and casuist – it is different and hence must be constructed anew every time.  The tracing of a network reconstitutes the translations a being undergoes in order to persist in existence.  The other, domain-specific modes specify or ‘qualify’ how this happens – the particular ways in which this persistence is achieved; the “type of continuity specific to each instance.” (41-42)

11.       Next, the religious mode: Why are the Moderns’ self-understandings so removed from the actuality of their practices?  In the religious pass “we find a hiatus, an agonizing one during which a priest, a bishop, a reformer, a devout practitioner, a hermit, wonders whether the innovation he believes necessary is a faithful inspiration or an impious betrayal.” (43)  The Christian churches have agonised over this question of fidelity in propagation since their inception; “from the preaching of a certain Ioshua of Palestine (to limit ourselves to the example of Christianity) through the Reformation to the latest papal encyclicals, all the statements, all the rituals, all the theological elaborations bear on the touchstone that would make it possible to distinguish between fidelity and infidelity, tradition and treachery, reprise and schism.” (43-44)  This dis/connective ‘agony’ is the essence of religion.

12.       Of course, this core, this ‘shibboleth’ on its own cannot explain the entire institution.  The other assorted daily goings on – who’s got the communion wine? where are the prayer books? death to the heathen!, etc. – are best understood by the NET mode.  The religious mode concerns the ways in which the institution must be constantly transformed while remaining faithful to an originary truth, itself accessible only through continual transformation. (44)

13.       Religion is the quintessential value inasmuch as it highlights the complex tension between a value and the institutions that bear it – “sometimes they coincide, sometimes not at all; sometimes everything has to be reformed, at the risk of a scandalous transformation; sometimes the reforms turn out to consist in dangerous innovations or even betrayals.” (44)  It is most clear in the religious case but this is true of all the modes of the Moderns.

14.       The relationship between the modes is complex.  There is a synchronic separation between the modes at any one time and a diachronic evolution of the modes over time – and, to complicate matters further, the modes interact and interfere with the fluctuations of each other over time.  The deployment of one value by an institution affects the deployment of all other values.  The modes are fragile and one can be destroyed by the slightest mutation in another.

15.       At last our dogged, irrepressible anthropologist is satisfied (and a maybe a little bit conceited!).

16.       So beginneth the diplomatic endeavour…

I doubt that anyone familiar with Latour’s work will be especially surprised by the opening chapters.  Latour makes clear that he is picking up from where We Have Never Been Modern left off and he spends some time restating arguments made in that text, along with others.  The rhetorical tropes are well worn too – speaking through characters, being a ‘misunderstood realist,’ the ‘litanies,’ the little quips and asides – all classic Latour.  The concepts, too – actor-network, irreduction, modern as occident, the ethnomethodology, the Jamesian empiricism.  Some concepts are of more recent genesis though not actually unheard of – modes of existence, felicity conditions, diplomacy, Gaia, etc.  The legal mode was explained in the Making of Law book that I mentioned above.  All the Gaia stuff was covered extensively in the Gifford lectures.  The specific way in which he articulated Actor-Network Theory as a mode (rather than as a standalone method) was new but, again, not massively surprising given Latour’s recent publications.  This is the first time that all this material has been expounded in one place, however most of the ideas are already out there in some form.

Having said that, there are many interesting topics for discussion; to name but a few:

Institutions and trust

Politics and science, values and facts


The network mode

The legal mode

The scientific mode

The religious mode

Ontological pluralism and diplomacy

Modes as method

The ‘collective’ aspect of the inquiry

The website and its relation to the book

At this point I’ll leave it up to you lot to get things started on these or other topics!  In my next post I’ll look specifically at Latour’s definition of ‘the Moderns.’


3 responses to “Summary of Introduction + Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: HOW TO READ LATOUR: Polytheism of Values | AGENT SWARM

  2. Phillip ‘the ‘collective’ aspect of the inquiry’ intrigues me (as you put it) but I’ve come late (3 months late) and the room seems fairly quiet. Is it intimidating? The email suggesting a Q&A to help people deal with the complexity is suggestive. It is a great project and thanks for your summarising.

  3. But I see it is gradually becoming more crowded as the weeks progress.

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