Without Mediation, No Access: Comments on Chapter 3

Author: Adam Robbert

Had Bruno Latour his own academy the inscription above the door might read “Without Mediation, No Access.” To new students of the academy the statement would appear paradoxical, even obscure. If to “mediate” is to come between, to intervene from the middle, isn’t mediation, then, that which must be in the way of access rather than its condition? Isn’t the goal of knowledge to remove all mediation so as to gain a form of direct access to the things themselves? The students would shake their heads, disappointed with the ambiguous nature of the engraving. The initiates, however, would offer a different, more complex, reading: Mediation separates, yes, but it also joins; mediation is the medium of exchange and communication, the linking element that builds a new bridge; it provides the conditions by which access becomes possible. To “access” itself means to come in close; to not just approach something, but to approach it in a particular way, to create an entrance by means of the bridge. What’s more, the initiates would be aware that bridges do not appear ready-made; they must be constructed though meticulous labor and with precise materials so as to connect each new entity that seeks to gain access to the others in the circuit. Worse still, the initiates would also know that bridges do not last forever; they must be continually maintained and reproduced; the access they provide is not granted for all time and for all places, but only to those places and those times connected by the right bridges. The cosmos, the initiates would understand, is a vast archipelago of different beings that can only access one another when the right mediators are in place, and then only insofar as the mediations can be stabilized over time.

In a “Perilous Change of Correspondence,” the third chapter of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour takes us through the issue of correspondence, or “what we can expect from the world and what we can anticipate of knowledge” (71). In a broad sense, Latour wants to investigate the relationship between reality and truth, rationality and irrationality, or mind (“intellectus”) and world (“res”), but without appeal to the common dichotomy between “knowing minds” and “known things.” More specifically, he is interested in what makes the world knowable; in other words, what transformations and intermediaries make the world available to knowledge.

The question of correspondence begins “with what is most difficult, the question of science” (70). This question centers the gap between the theory of Science and the practice of the sciences—a troublesome abyss familiar to all students of science studies. In step with his earlier works, Latour uses a specific example to deploy his concepts; in this case, a hike through Mont Aiguille serves as the foil for Latour’s account. One way to approach this post would be to give a succinct summary of the concepts Latour describes in Chapter 3, but in a sense this would undermine much of what Latour is trying to get at vis-a-vis his description of knowledge as a “mode of existence.”

What do I mean by this? Imagine the following scene: You’ve studiously completed your reading for this week and you’re eager to see what others have to say. You hop online and navigate to our WordPress site and begin to read this post. Next, imagine that instead of a response to the chapter, you find the chapter itself copied word for word and pasted into the entry. It’s a complete, perfect reproduction of the chapter itself—even the typography and formatting are identical to the book. Literally all  the information from the chapter is now in this week’s post. What would be a better representation of this weeks reading than an exact replica of it? Well, in a sense, anything would be better. Think about just how useless, unhelpful, and uninteresting such an approach would be. By providing no meaningful mediation, by making the text and the commentary on the text completely continuous and identical, I have offered no rendering of interest. The text remains as opaque as ever. I would have better served the group by leaving the whole page blank.

One way of reading chapter 3 would be to say that knowledge never aims at a perfect representation of a thing, but rather at ways of attaching to a thing via one or more of its particular attributes. 

The point is that knowledge production—scientific or otherwise—looks nothing like this attempt at complete representation when investigated closely. From Latour’s perspective, responding to a passage of text is not very different from the tools he uses to navigate Mont Aiguille. In both cases discontinuities—if they are not already present—must be introduced between maps and territories, or between a text and a response to a text, in order for meaningful relationships to form. The gap between both allows for a new and specific kind of alignment to occur—one that actually takes us somewhere worth going. The alignment made possible between the map and the territory is predicated upon the fact that the map does not resemble too closely the territory just as my account of a text depends on my not reproducing it completely. In other words, “correspondence” is not so much about accurate representations as it is about reference, or better yet chains of reference.

Reference, unlike representation, depends on the difference between a map and its terrain, rather than their mutual identity. A map works precisely to the extent that it serves a mediating function bridging the hiker to a certain set of features of Mont Aiguille. A map that looked exactly like the terrain, down to every minute detail, would be just as hard to navigate as the terrain itself. A text works the same way: If a table of contents reproduced the entire text you would not have a table of contents, but two identical and equally unnavigable texts. Chains of reference introduce discontinuities and thereby establish relationships between different modes of existence. The features of different modes are all real, but not continuously so. The networks between modes are made of many different kinds of entities—signs, symbols, documents, maps, signposts, trails, peaks, valleys, and satellites in the case of Mont Aiguille—but it is the discontinuity between these entities that gives the network its overall coherence. A perfect representation, an exact coincidence of knowledge of a thing and the thing itself, would be completely useless in terms of building a meaningful relation between the two beings connected.

For Latour the goal of knowledge is not to represent but to build and trace chains of reference.

Now, if it is true that discontinuity maintains coherence by allowing for alignment and relationship, then we are faced with a new problem: How does any one entity, always a compound of discontinuous agents, ever manage to maintain itself qua itself? More troublesome, how does the entity stay itself as it moves between chains of reference? Here Latour is interested in another gap, another hiatus, that allows us to understand the endurance of a formal set of relations that give an entity its consistency. Thus in addition to the gap between the knowledge of a thing and the thing described, there is also the gap between the thing as it is right now and as it will be in the future—i.e., the thing at t, t+1, t+2, t+3, etc. In the first gap we want to “place ourselves in a position that will allow us to celebrate Mont Aiguille and the map of Mont Aiguille simultaneously, without having to forget either one, and without having to reduce one to the other” (88). While in the second we are interested in the network “in which a mountain makes its way in order to maintain itself in existence” (88).

The two gaps introduce to two new modes of existence: “reproduction” [REP] and “reference” [REF]. Each come with helpful definitions. [REP] is “the name for the mode of existence through which any entity whatsoever crosses through the hiatus of its repetition” (91-91) while [REF] is “the establishment of chains defined by the hiatus between two forms of different natures whose felicity condition consists in the discovery of a constant that is maintained across these successive abysses” (92). Taken together [REP] and [REF] suggest that entities require means of subsistence that allow them to remain themselves (“immutability”) whilst at the same time acknowledging that they are always on the move (“mobile”), breaking in and out of new relations. A crucial point to underscore here is that it’s not just humans forging references and intermediaries, but nonhumans—including non living ones—as well. Latour writes, “the world is articulated, knowledge as well” (88). (BTW: This echoes almost word for word what Latour wrote in Pandora’s Hope: “we speak truthfully because the world itself is articulated, not the other way around” [296]). I think the image Latour is inviting can be all too easily glossed over, and it’s worth dwelling on for a moment: In this understanding the cosmos is itself already articulated; humans are among the articulations of a cosmos already populated by a multitude of other beings. I find this image rich and exciting. What about you?

A few closing remarks.

Hopefully this short response to Chapter 3 has introduced some discontinuity between myself and the text that will allow a meaningful opening for discussion to emerge. In addition to the topics raised above—and the many I did not include in my response—I would be interested in prompting discussion on the following two points should readers feel so inclined.

First, I am interested in hearing what people think about Latour’s shift to metaphysics. To my mind this move has been percolating in Latour’s work for well over a decade (e.g., in Pandora’s Hope and Politics of Nature). Given the more pervasive “ontological turn” now moving through the humanities and social sciences, I am wondering: What’s at stake here? Are we making progress through this move? What do we stand to gain or lose by shifting to such an abstract mode of thought? I have my own opinions, but I am interested in hearing yours.

Second, while I appreciate Latour’s effort to re-think knowledge outside of the “knowing mind” and “known thing” dichotomy I wonder if there isn’t a whole domain missing here; namely, the real importance of a specifically human domain of minds. It’s a long standing gripe I have with Latour’s work: For all the attention paid to diverse assemblages of humans and nonhumans there seems to be little attention paid to the ecology of ideas, concepts, world views, and affects etc. that play a huge role in human decision making. In Chapter 3 Latour mentions the importance of “thought collectives,” but he doesn’t really pursue the importance of these ecologies of mind to my satisfaction. While other actors are treated as carefully constructed, contingent, and historical assemblages, the emergence of particular human subject positions seems to be missing entirely. Am alone in this feeling? Thoughts and discussion are welcome.


21 responses to “Without Mediation, No Access: Comments on Chapter 3

  1. Pingback: Without Mediation, No Access | Knowledge Ecology

  2. Thanks for this helpful map of chapter 3. I felt so many resonances in this chapter with the metaphysics of Gilles Deleuze, and of course, Whitehead. Like Deleuze in ‘Bergsonism,’ Latour wants to disamalgamate two distinct modes of existence from a poorly forged and badly analyzed composite. Deleuze’s target was the composite of space-time, which lead Science to confuse intellection with intuition, and in that way to spatialize time and flatten dureé. Latour focuses on a different composite in ch. 3 (space-time is broken open in ch. 4), that composite which is perhaps the more basic category mistake of double click “Science” (Whitehead’s “scientific materialism”). Science forges a poor composite between distinct modes of existence, reference and reproduction, as if the material world itself were maid of pure “knowability,” as if facts could speak for themselves, as if the mind had “free, indisputable, and immediate access to pure, untransformed information” (93). As Latour argues, the old epistemic theory of correspondence between mind and world, knowledge as “adequatio rei et intellectus,” produces, not simply a poorly forged composite, but an outright forgery. (Sometimes it is still helpful to draw attention to parts of the original text:) “If by bad luck this ideal of total freedom from costs served as the standard for judging between truth and falsity, then everything would become untruthful, including the sciences…If you make the absence of any mediation, leap, or hiatus pass the one and only test of truth, then everyone, scientists, engineers, priests, sages, artists, businessmen, cooks, not to mention politicians, judges, or moralists, you all become manipulators and cheaters, because your hands are dirtied by the operations you have carried out to maintain in working order the networks that give direction to your practices…You will be caught with your hand in the till; you will have lied about it” (94). Science holds itself in theory to a standard it cannot possibly meet in practice. The production of true knowledge depends on the construction and maintenance of ever-wandering chains of reference, since “reason [must] pay for the means of its extension in networks.”

    So why is the ontological turn in contemporary humanities and social sciences important? Because double click Science attempts to hide its own metaphysical wagers from view, claiming to be objective and parsimonious in theory while in practice it has always been proliferating new subjects capable of knowing new objects (e.g., reductionism increases the number of agencies known to be at work in a process, etc.). Like Deleuze and Whitehead before him, Latour is trying to provide the knowledge brought forth in the powerful networks of modern science with a more properly formed composite between logos and cosmos, one which respects the inescapability of mediation, whether its the mediation required for a scientist to access a natural process [REF], or the mediation required for a natural process to remain itself [REP].

    • Thanks for the comments, Matt. I often feel that Latour leaves us guessing (intentionally?) when it comes to deciphering the influence of his philosophical predecessors. Incidentally, he does mention Deleuze and many others in relation to his work in the new Figure/Ground interview with him: http://figureground.org/interview-with-bruno-latour/

      • Latour is polite, but I don’t think he leaves us guessing. He doesn’t like Deleuze. Of course, Latour and other francophone theorists have all read Deleuze, since he was super trendy in France (and more recently taking over Derrida’s role as super trendy philosopher for anglophones). That’s why Latour says that Deleuze is “in his bones.” The paragraph in the Figure/Ground interview seems pretty clear: Latour doesn’t think Deleuze is particularly helpful for his empirical inquiry and doesn’t see AIME as a Deleuzean project. Latour made very similar points about a decade ago in an interview in Chasing Technoscience: He doesn’t think Deleuze is empirically useful, he thinks Deleuze has an exaggerated conception of philosophy (and an exaggerated critique of religion), and he doesn’t think Deleuze is even a good writer. I posted a little snippet from that interview here: http://becomingintegral.com/2013/02/26/contra-deleuze-latours-disputes/
        It might (perhaps) also be worth considering Graham Harman’s point that Deleuze and Bergson undermine the irreducibility of objects (actors), whereas folks like Whitehead and Latour don’t. Serres, Souriau, and Sloterdijk all seem to be more relevant influences for AIME.

  3. Adam, thanks.

    Let me respond to your two points at the end from the standpoint of one of the examples you discuss, namely, the “network” in which Mont Aiguille “makes its way in order to maintain itself in existence.”

    Your first point is about the current metaphysical turn. I leave aside the question of the value of the turn in general to focus on one issue in Graham Harman’s OOO, namely, that it is a panpsychism, not that that is what Harman set out to write but that that is an unavoidable implication of OOO. As I understand it, Harman’s own views on this issue have evolved since it first came up and continue to do so.

    Anyway, I wondered if something comparable is surfacing in Latour when I read about Mont Aiguelle as a “network.” In the previous chapter, Latour indicates NET is also PRE (62), and I associate PRE (interpretive keys) with the human, so I was expecting some consideration about whether this Mont Aiguille NET is also a PRE, a distinctive interpretive key. Maybe I missed something but I didn’t see any such consideration. Maybe this will be cleared up later, or maybe Latour is skirting by a panpsychic implication that makes him uncomfortable. This may be something that can only be resolved with very careful reading.

    Turning to your second point, maybe Latour’s minimalistic depiction of the human mind, by diminishing the difference between human and nonhuman, would facilitate gravitating toward panpsychism, intentional or not.

    Just a few initial responses—

    BTW, an important text for ecocritics is Aldo Leopold’s “Thinking Like a Mountain,” so they probably would like the Mont Aiguille example.


    • Thanks for your comments, Bob.

      In response to your first question re: panpsychism, I think you’re right to say the [NET], [PRE], and [REF] modes (especially [PRE] and [REF]) bring us very close to a kind of panpsychism. However, I think if we really put it under the microscope this is not what Latour is arguing for. Rather, I think [PRE] and [REF] point to something more general of which “mind” is but one example. To say that all modes of [PRE] are mind-like would be to close down the empirical diversity of modes of reference and preposition, and would thus return us to a place where certain kinds of subjects are instated as starting points instead of outcomes. Remember, one aim here is to rid ourselves of using the language of subjects and objects as starting points all together. If knowing minds (“subjects”) are no longer starting points than I think panpsychism is out the window.

      (However, to connect this to your statement about Harman’s OOP, Latour may allow for something like what Harman calls “polypsychism”— a-not-quite-panpsychism. We’ll have to pay attention to how this develops).

      On the point about Mont Aiguille: I agree that there is certainly overlap between this section in AIME and Leopold’s “thinking like a mountain”, but I would still want to say that what thinking and mountains have in common is something more basic than a “mind-like” phenomenon—again for the reasons I note above. Hopefully we’ll be able to dig into these questions further as we move along; they are certainly central issues for my own inquiries, so I appreciate you for bringing them up.

    • Latour is an adherent of ‘distributed cognition’ (he cites Edwin Hutchins’ Cognition in the Wild quite often). Accordingly, for him, mind is not ‘all in the head’ but is extended into the world, it runs through all the techniques and social complexes that we live through. However, that doesn’t make all things ‘mind-like’. Mind is more than brains and ideas but that doesn’t mean that mind exists without brains and ideas. I find nothing in Latour’s work to imply pan-psychism per se.

      I’d be wary of reading too much into Harman’s articulation of Latour’s ideas. They’re actually pretty different. In fact I think that Harman misrepresents Latour in his books and essays in some respects. Harman’s Latour is really a foil for Harman’s own philosophy, not an especially accurate iteration of what Latour writes himself.

      The extent to which Latour is interested metaphysics in Harman’s sense is actually pretty limited. Latour is always talking about assemblages that involve humans, albeit never ‘naked’ humans apart from other things. Although he very clearly argues (in the next chapter) that the REP mode applies to all things, regardless I see no particular reason to de-humanise or metaphysically generalise *all* of the modes. Harman does that for Latour’s actor-network ontology but with limited scholarly warrant.

      I think it’ll become clearer in the coming chapters which modes are human-centred and which are generalisable. I know that REF is but there are a few others that are meant to be properly ‘metaphysical’ while the rest are more specific and limited. After all, Latour calls this a ‘European metaphysics’ and limits most of the modes to ‘the West’. If he can’t even generalise them to all of humanity he can hardly generalise them to all of existence. Not all of them, anyway.

      • Adam Robbert

        Thanks for these comments, Philip. There’s much to parse in the discussion and I agree with much of what you’re saying here. A few quick responses:

        — Distributed cognition seems a given within this framework (as I suggested above as well). Can you pass along the citation for Hutchins? I would love to follow up on that source re: question #2 in my post. We can also say that distributed cognition has no necessary connection to panpsychism.

        — The question of generalizability is an interesting one. I see no reason why reference, reproduction, preposition, and articulation shouldn’t be generalized beyond the human; these seem like genuine metaphysical categories. Law, religion, politics, and science seem less likely candidates for generalizability (though Latour’s earlier work on cosmopolitics complicates this reading a bit). Hopefully we’ll gain more clarity on this as we move forward.

        — Now, if reference, reproduction, preposition, and articulation apply to an entity like Mont Aiguille we may not be in a full-blown panpsychism (again, for reason I already noted above), but we’re certainly not in any kind of normal materialist paradigm either. When Mont Aiguille is featured as an entity of this kind it seems to give quite a bit of support to Harman’s reading of Latour, so I disagree with you there (even as I also disagree with Harman’s critique of Latour—but that’s a whole other topic).

      • Thinking about this some more I think a very important question is the status of William James and ‘radical empiricism’ in aime. The way that Latour uses ‘experience’ in this text is very much consistent with James’ use but (and this is backed up by investigating the ‘James’ and ‘Radical Empiricism’ vocabulary entries on the aime website/e-book).

        To a degree the affinities between Latour’s work and James’ are clear. Radical empiricism means that relations are accepted to be experienced as well as isolated things, which traditional empiricism limits itself to. This means that there is no need for an outside force to create the relations (such as prepositions) between things, they are as directly experienced and thus as real as things themselves – no need for ‘mind’ to come in as a totally external entity and add in the relations that the experience was otherwise lacking. No need for ‘mind’ as a distinct ontological category at all, then (it is enveloped within experience, which is both primary and self-sufficient). This is foundational to the whole aime enterprise.

        Furthermore, radical empiricism insists that everything that is experienced is taken seriously, accepted as real and accorded a place within the ontological scheme. It is, therefore, an essentially ‘diplomatic’ philosophy that dispenses with modernist epistemological preconditions for what counts as ‘real’ experience. Everything experienced is real enough to have a seat at the table. Again, foundational to aime.

        However, radical empiricism doesn’t automatically or straightforwardly co-operate with aime by any means. James talks about ‘the universe of human experience’ and it seems that ‘experience’ is (a) particular to human beings (these ideas emerge out of his Principles of Psychology) and (b) radically abstracted from the rest of existence (it is a world, indeed a universe, unto itself). James has none of Latour’s (for want of a better term) pseudo-materialist analyses of mediators and intermediaries; he has no equivalent of the network metaphor, no claim or even interest in ‘realism,’ etc. James’ ‘universe of experience’ seems to sit very much within the tradition of philosophy that rents the human apart from the rest. He is no Whitehead, for sure.

        In other words, James’ work concerns human experience as something isolated from the rest of existence (which is hardly even spoken of), while Latour’s empiricism has to interface with everything else somehow – and intimately. Where, when and how does ‘experience’ end and the rest of the world begin? Without making such a distinction it’s difficult to see how Latour can arrive at the REP mode or be the ‘realist’ he is claiming to be. Or, perhaps, it is a different kind of reality and an a different kind of experience…

        For James, experience is not ‘all in the head’ – i.e. it isn’t individual or atomic – but can flow between persons. If I describe to you a sunset that I saw last Tuesday then that experience flows from that point in time, via my recollection and my words into your own experience. You experience it less perfectly and more disjointedly than I do but something of the sunset flows between us. It is straightforward to add, after ANT, how this flow is mediated by the technological apparatus of servers, fibre optic cables, etc. However, are these technical mediators merely bobbing along in the flow of experience or are they part of it? Are they solid – like the locks, lifts and walls of a canal – or are they liquid, flowing along as part and parcel of the experiential substance, like a dye dissolving into the flow?

        If it is the former then there must be some difference between experience and non-experience and this should be specified. If it is the latter then Latour could be called a ‘pan-experientialist.’ This term has been used to describe Whitehead’s metaphysics and I prefer it to ‘pan-psychist’. I don’t see how non-human things could, in Latour’s world, be said to have the properties of *mind* per se but given this link to James and Latour’s other commitments I can see how one could argue that things are part of the flow of *’experience’*.

        I am tending towards believing the former – that mediating things are solid rather than liquid, as per the metaphor above – channelling rather than flowing alongside. There is some ambiguity there, though.

        By the way, the book I referred to above was this one:

      • Adam Robbert

        Thanks for passing on the reference, Philip. I like the connections you’re building between Latour and James, too. However, I think James has a few more tricks up his sleeve than you give him credit for. Take for example this passage from a A Pluralistic Universe:

        “Radical empiricism takes conjunctive relations at their face-value, holding them to be as real as the terms united by them. The world it represents as a collection, some parts of which are conjunctively and others disjunctively related. Two parts, themselves disjoined, may nevertheless hang together by intermediaries with which they are severally connected, and the whole world eventually may hang together similarly, inasmuch as some path of conjunctive transition by which to pass from one of its parts to another may always be discernible. Such determinately various hanging-together may be called concatenated union, to distinguish it from the ‘through-and-through’ type of union, ‘each in all and all in each’ (union of total conflux„ as one might call it), which monistic systems hold to obtain when things are taken in their absolute reality. In a concatenated world a partial conflux often is experienced.” (140)

        Insofar as James is describing the nature of relations and individuals, this strikes me as a distinctly ontological passage, as opposed to merely one about human psychology. It also invokes many of the same arguments (and uses similar language) that Latour deploys in Chapter 3: disjoined parts must brought together (“concatenated”) through intermediaries, intermediaries render a partial rather than total (i.e. direct) experience, etc.

        For James, space, time, change, and activity, are all part of what he means be “experience”—all four are components of the structure of experience, and this structure is certainly not limited to humans, nor is this account meant to be an abstraction from the rest of existence, so I disagree with your reading there. (If you’re look for a good resource on this topic I recommend the chapter on radical empiricism and a pluralistic universe in G.E. Myers excellent book on James).

        However, you are completely right to say that James doesn’t offer anything like a systematic metaphysics (like Whitehead) nor a detailed anthropology (like Latour), and there doesn’t seem to be any accounting for technology at all, so AIME has quite a lot to offer in that regard.

      • You might be right about that, Adam. I just read James’ essay ‘A World of Pure Experience’ and that is perhaps a more psychological iteration of these ideas. What an essay though. Wow. I’ve been a big James fan since I first read him for a class about five years ago, back in the ol’ student days. I read that essay before but I don’t think I really appreciated it. I have A Pluralistic Universe on my book shelf. I’ll have to get it out and have a read of it again. That’s certainly a more ontologically oriented argument, for sure.

        I suppose I can rephrase my criticism thus: it’s not clear how far Latour goes along James’ path or how far he wanders off from it. It’s clear that he picks up where James left off (and Latour admits as much himself). Indeed, aime can be read as an extension of radical empiricism with Souriau, Whitehead, Serres, etc. all mixed in. But how far should we allow ‘experience’ to extend? Is it a general metaphysical principle – i.e. all things and their relations are involved in flows of experience (in which case we have pan-experientialism)? I still struggle to believe that it can be taken that far. If we don’t go that far then what is the relationship between experience and, for example, technical mediators?

        Take the fibre optic cables that, along with many other things, are silently, diligently facilitating this conversation. Are these part of the flow of experience? Perhaps they are *now that I am thinking about them*. However, if I am blissfully unaware of them then how do they enter the flow? They are involved, for sure, but they are not *experienced*. They underpin the experience but are not necessarily part of it.

        This is where Latour goes way beyond James – in so massively expanding the array of mediators involved in any experiential process. In the essay I just read James of course discusses a material entity – the Memorial Hall – and describes the flow of experience leading from his imaginative impression of it to the thing itself. But the hall itself is very much part of the experience – it is, indeed, the thing experienced. What about the silent mediators that allowed James to navigate his way there without ever being experienced per se?

        If we accept this narrower, non-metaphysical version then we have something less than pan-experientialism. Experience is prodigious, promiscuous and widely extended – perhaps it is not ‘human’ per se but has all kinds of ingredients mixed in – but it is not general in the sense that it could describe all flows and all relations. To go back to my canal metaphor, the cables are the walls and the locks, not the water itself – that is unless I draw them into the experience so that they participate in the assemblage variously as underpinning network object and element of experience.

        It seems to me that the shift from experienced to unexperienced mediators is kind of a shift in modes in its own right, but perhaps that will become clearer later on in the book. As it stands at present just what Latour means by ‘experience’ isn’t entirely clear.

  4. Nice summary and a very interesting chapter. There’s lots to comment on but this part stood out for me:

    “Beer yeasts were in no way prepared to become the experimental material through which the “yeastists” in Bordeaux made them capable of making themselves known. These yeasts had been making grapes ferment as long as there have been grapes, and producing grape must as long as there have been farmers, but they had never before caused brains to ferment, or contributed to the writing of blog posts and articles.” (89)

    The thing that popped into my mind when I read this was Latour’s infamous claim that Ramses II couldn’t have died from tuberculosis because that wasn’t discovered until 1882. In ‘The Prince and the Wolf’ Latour admits that this is one of the things that ‘have gotten him into trouble’ over the years.

    On the face of it he has reversed his opinion. It is no longer nonsensical to retrospectively recognise the history of things; to backdate beyond present, actual networks. This is no longer an illegitimate anachronism but a fair, realistic attribution of history. So fair as to be almost unremarkable.

    A bit further along Latour goes on to say that “object and subject are then no longer the causes but only the consequences of the extension of such chains and, in a way, their products.” I.e. object and subject only exist in relation to an epistemic process, an instantiation of the REF mode, that produces both. Object and subject are not the ontological basis of knowledge but are the products of it (contra everyone from Hegel to Heidegger who keep subject/object as the basis of knowledge but tie them up in a knot, make them dialectical, mutually constituted, etc.).

    This must mean, then, that the yeasts prior to documentation in articles and blogposts or tuberculosis prior to discovery in Koch’s lab were not *’objects’*. Yeast and tuberculosis only became ‘objects’ once they became known (REF), however that doesn’t mean that they did not previous *exist* (REP).

    Not all existents are objects.

    So, what Latour should really have written in that essay years ago was that Ramses II was not killed by the object tuberculosis per se; however, he was killed by a pre-objective, precursive variant of the entity. We can make this attribution retrospectively by passing through the (trusted) institution of science. The transcendent, ‘Double Click’ claim that ‘the statement ‘Ramses II died from tuberculosis’ is true because it mirrors reality’ is false. However, if the conditions of veridiction of REF have been satisfied then it is no longer improper to make this claim ‘irreduced,’ from within the relevant networks.

    There are some interesting consequences of this theory. The death of Ramses was not an object/subject relation. The first humans who learned to boil water or brew alcohol to kill the bacteria in the water – that was not a subject/object relation in this specific, epistemic sense. The knowledge that boiling water makes it safe to drink was surely knowledge held by subjects but not subjects in relation to the specific bacteria that would later be dominated, individuated and named but in relation to a generic object of sickness and impurity. The sickness and impurity was the object that became known in this instance. We can retrospectively say that this evil impurity was ‘really’ bacteria X, Y and Z, however we can only do this via another REF institution entirely – namely, science. We can go anywhere so long as we specify our paths and pay our dues. Nowhere is off limits anymore – not even the past.

    Latour is narrating his modal project as a solution to the problems of the moderns. However, it is quite clear that it is also very much a solution to his own past problems! It is a way of reconciling and marrying the realism he claims to have always been seeking with the anti-realist, somewhat Kantian proclivities to which he has always been inclined.

    Perhaps Latour recognises the modern within himself. This isn’t just a manifesto, it’s therapy!

    • I think this is right on, Philip. In addition to the Ramses II example, it also reminds me of the discussion of Pasteur and lactic acid in Pandora’s Hope and elsewhere. I think Latour finally has the language on this right—it was perhaps too ambiguous in his earlier texts.

      My only question would be whether or not only humans make subject/object distinctions are if this isn’t also a more basic mode of valuation (as, for example, we might find more explicitly in someone like Whitehead).

      If other living critters (including bacteria and other microbes) can take things as “objects” then I think this would give Latour’s ontological argument some strong empirical support.

  5. Question regarding the status of my “self” In ch.3.
    Is the ongoing networking/collecting/linking that is my”self” in its process of continuing in existence [REP] and my self observation [REF]? If so what would a map of my “self” look like? How do my Facebook and Linkedin profiles as well as my AIME reading group connections figure in?

    • Great questions, Steve. In my understanding, yes: [REP] refers to the moment to moment activities that maintain you AS you. Certainly these include a number of physical and metabolic processes, but also networks of signs, symbols, and other *intangible* resources as well. Your existence is not a given once and for all, but something that needs to be repeated and maintained throughout your whole life.

      My second question above re: the status of human minds is exactly on this question of what [REF] is for human beings. My sense is that “self observation” is not really the right language—the self that observes itself is an outcome, and not the starting points that [REF] and [REP] refer to. What this means I don’t yet have a good answer for, but thanks for framing the question in this way; it’s helped bring me closer to a better description!

      I think there’s a sort of “extended mind” hypothesis operating here, which would help figure in social media profiles into our accounts of mind, but I still don’t know what the specific similarities/differences are between extended minds and Latour’s arguments in Chapter 3.

  6. Or does the [REP]-[REF] distinction breakdown in regard to the Self?

    • You mean that acts of reference can also be acts of reproduction (and vice versa)? I’m sure that’s true of many situations, not just the self.

      I suppose the difference is the interpretive key being employed. Everything relates back to that since that is what judges the success of any translation. Presumably multiple keys can be employed all at once.

    • Another thought: I don’t think it’s the case that the [REF] – [REP] distinction breaks down at any point, but rather that both may be mutually constitutive (i.e., [REP] is impossible without [REF] and vice-versa, but the two remain distinct).

  7. One question about REP–

    In Latour’s use of the term “reproduction,” is anything being lost in translation? As he uses the term, it seems to me, it is more readily applicable to the animate than the inanimate, but Latour extends it to the inanimate without seeming to feel any need to explain or clarify the extension.

    That is what prompts my question.


    • You shouldn’t understand it as like biological reproduction, as in child-bearing. Or at least not literally and narrowly. REP is very much a metaphysical principle that applies to everything, animate and inanimate. In the next chapter Latour draws a distinction between living and non-living beings but each participate in the REP mode, regardless. He’s drawing on Alfred North Whitehead’s metaphysics in this part.

      The etymology dictionary describes ‘reproduction’ as the “act of forming again”. So, really Latour is just expanding a meaning that was previously contracted. All things have to re-form themselves from one moment to the next in order to persist. This is the key point in both Latour’s metaphysics and Whitehead’s (even if Whitehead uses different terminology). Nothing persists ‘under its own steam,’ nothing’s existence is assured, there are no substances.

      The fact that he uses a word that’s usually associated with something more specific to describe something general – well, you’d better get used to that! That’s how he gets all his technical terms, by taking everyday words and stretching them.

  8. Because of the term “act,” I’m not sure “act of forming again” solves the problem. Obviously “act” can be defined in many ways, but I’m wary of definitions that do little more than offer verbal solutions.

    Also, I don’t see why eliminating “knowing mind” as a “starting point” eliminates panpsychism, which it seems to me can “start” with much less.

    In any case, there is obviously still a long way to go. I’m just airing questions I have going forward not conclusions about the book.


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