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” ). 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.