Author: John W. Wright, Point Loma Nazarene University
So far in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour has thickened a program found in much of his previous writings. He has combined the philosophical categories developed in We Have Never Been Modern (1993) with his ethnographic method developed with Steve Woolgar in Laboratory Life (1979). The program, however, begins to shift in chapter 5. Latour now introduces concerns recorded in “Irreductions” (1993): “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (The Pasteurization of France, p. 158). He slowly builds conduits to circulate us within veridiction conditions for a pluralistic ontology of modes of existence.Latour begins the chapter with his continued polemic against “the Moderns.” Latour notes how the moderns create and attempt to purify of dichotomous domains:
dualism has its charms, but it takes the anthropologist only a few months of fieldwork to notice that dichotomies do not have, among the Moderns in any case, the extraordinary explanatory virtue that the anthropology of remote cultures so readily attributes to them. The raw and the cooked, nature and culture, words and things, the sacred and the profane, the real and the constructed, the abstract and the concrete, the savage and the civilized, and even the dualism of the modern and the premodern, do not seem to get our investigator very far. It might almost make us doubt the ultimate light that such plays of contrast are supposed to shed when they are applied to the ‘others’ (p. 146).
Latour exploits one of these bifurcations, the dichotomy between “Science” and “Politics” to advance his cause.
Ironically, while recognizing the necessity of diplomacy and allies to make reality more enduring, Latour puts forth his “ethnography of the Moderns” as the work of a single, heroic field ethnologist. He bends his sexder (the hybrid of the modern dichotomy of “sex” and “gender”) through the real fictional character of his female ethnographer. Latour does not stand alone to wage battle against the battle between the modernist and the postmodernists. Other allies could help him – and us – to deepen the conduits of his analysis of the “modern constitution” and its project of purification. Louis Dupré in his Passage to Modernity: An Essay in the Hermeneutics of Nature and Culture (1993) writes, “in this book I intend to investigate the origins, the process, and the effects of this double breakup: the one between the transcendent constituent and its cosmic-human counterpart, and the one between the person and cosmos (now understood in the narrower sense of physical nature)” (p. 3). Charles Taylor in his A Secular Age (2007) has analyzed the same dichotomy in terms that approach Latour’s language: “the pure face-off between ‘religion’ and ‘science’ is a chimaera, or rather, an ideological construct. In reality, there is a struggle between thinkers with complex, many-levelled agendas, which is why the real story seems so confused and untidy in life of the ideal confrontation” (p. 332). Alasdair MacIntyre speaks of two opposing traditions within the modern: the “genealogical” and the “encyclopaedic” in his Gifford Lectures published as Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (1990) – a dichotomy that enlarges his earlier typology of the “manager” and the “therapist” (see Macintyre, After Virtue, Third Edition, 2007). Robert Bellah et al. expand this dichotomy in his social anthropological analysis of American life into two distinct realms: the rational, objective domain of the “managerial” and the subjective, meaning domain of the “therapeutic.” (see Bellah et al, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, First edition with a new preface in 2007). Latour has allies in other networks for the construction of reality so that “experience will have become expressible” (p. 149) – the telos or end of Latour’s project. While none of these thinkers have developed the distinct program of modes of existence, their analysis and constructive projects perhaps remain for others to construct conduits between their work and Latour’s.
Perhaps most pertinently for this chapter, Latour could find a profound ally in Talal Asad. In Asad’s Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam (1993) conducts an anthropology of the modern through Kant’s essay “What is Enlightenment”? He concludes, “A crucial part of the liberal tradition to which Kant contributed is the distinction between two quite separate conceptual realms: one in which unquestioned obedience to authority prevails (the juridical definitions upheld by the state); the other consisting of rational argument and exchange, in which authority has no place (the omnicompetence of criticism). Kant therefore proposes both a sociological limit (the literate, scholarly minority to whom the privilege of public criticism belongs) and a political one (the conditions in which one must refrain from open criticism)” (p. 204).
Latour frames chapter 5 in this distinction between “Science” (“the literate, scholarly minority to whom the privilege of public criticism belongs”) and “Politics” (“the conditions in which one must refrain from open criticism”). The problem arises from what Latour polemically designates “straight talk” – the conviction that humans “could maintain from one paragraph to the next a path that would pass from necessity to necessity, through simple DISPLACEMENT, without ever jumping through any operation of TRANSLATION . . . They would speak straightforwardly, with no detours, about what is patently obvious, under the heading of ‘common sense’” (p. 125).
Straight talk, the referential language of “science” stands opposed to the “crooked talk” of politics. “Science” differentiates itself from “politics” to bring “politics” in line with “scientific reality’s” direct reference to the world as it really is and has been and will be in order to close off debate – a political trump card for pure rationality to close off the corrupted realm of the political. As Latour notes, “the claim of straight talk [is] that it obeys the movement of knowledge, but for polemical reasons, battlefield reasons” (p. 126). Latour’s ethnologist scribbles in her notebook: “‘The moderns are those who have kidnapped Science to solve a problem of closure in public debates’” (p. 129). Or more in rhetoric of Latour’s own literary persona: “Against the dangers of Politics, Reason must be able to serve as a counterweight; otherwise, they threaten, all hell will break loose” (p. 130). What Latour does not explore is the romantic, genealogical, postmodern inversion of this claim: “against the danger of Reason, politics must be able to serve as a counterweight; otherwise, the postmoderns threaten, all hell will break loose.” The realms remain the same; the threat remains the same; the battle line remains the same; one has only snuck over the battle line from one camp to the other. Fortunately, for Latour and for us, “frontal opposition doesn’t impress us any more than factitious confusion does” (p. 131).
Latour exploits the incoherence of the political reason for scientific “straight talk” to advance the cause of “science” for “political ends.” He refuses to join forces in the battle. Scientific reference has its own mode of existence with its own conditions of veridiction. He begins his move from the ethnography of “the Moderns” to an ontology of “modes of existence.” The networks of reference constructed by various scientists do not compete with existence of the networks of political for existence, nor does each give “different perspectives of the same world.” Domains have no existence for competition with another. Domains lose their territorial stability and borders and transmogrify into nonreductive modes of existence: “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else.” Nor do the scientific networks of referential networks stand hermetically sealed against the networks of political networks: crossings constantly occur between the holes of the nets of each network: “nothing prevents us from substituting the CROSSING between two modes of veridiction for the great battle between demonstration and rhetoric” (p. 131-2). Latour gestures toward a new pluralistic ontology of modes of existence, an ontology of networks rather than domains, a realist world of irreduction in which truths and falsities occur within different conditions of truthful speech dependent upon the mode of existence of which one speaks:
The investigator now knows the three criteria by which one can recognize a mode of existence. First, thanks to a category mistake: she feels vaguely, in the beginning, and then more and more precisely, that she is missing something, that she isn’t getting what is said in the right tonality, that she hasn’t preceded it with the right PREPOSITION. Alerted by this feeling that she has blundered, she understands that she must look second, to see if there is some type of discontinuity, some HIATUS that would account for a particular type of continuity and that would thereby trace a TRAJECTORY, its own particular PASS. Finally, she knows that she has to find out whether there are FELICITY AND INFELICITY CONDITIONS that would make it possible to say of a mode of existence in its own idiom under what conditions it is truthful or deceitful. (p. 132)
Politics has its own mode of existence, distinct (though not separate) from the referential mode of existence built from the networks that constitute the laboratory. For Latour, politics has a different mode of existence, a mode of existence spoken by the word “autonomy”:
Through its capacity to obtain unity from a multitude, a unified will from a sum or recriminations; and then through another capacity, its ability to pass, by just as dizzying a series of discontintuities, from provisional unity to the implementation of decisions, to the obedience of those who had been uttering recriminations, despite the continual transformation that this multitude imposed on the injunctions while resisting through every possible means. . . . this is the price of autonomy. This continual renewal of REPRISE of a movement that cannot rely definitively on anything is probably the most characteristic feature of political speech: the obligation to start everything all over again gives political speech perhaps the most demanding of all felicity conditions, and it explains the choice of the adjective ‘crooked.’ . . . it is indeed a matter of ceaselessly retracing one’s steps in a movement of envelopment that always has to be begun again in order to sketch the moving form of a group endowed with its own will and capable of simultaneous freedom and obedience – something that the word AUTONOMY captures perfectly. (p. 134)
Unlike the pitched battle between “truth is power” (i.e. politically constituted) and “truth is objectively referential” (i.e. achieved by a universal human scientific rationality), Latour speaks of the truths of perduring existence through constructed networks held together, for humans, by natural speech.
Make no mistake, Latour does not advocate a relativism of the relativist in which truth becomes a perspective on a common withdrawn “reality.” It now becomes “possible to replace a false opposition (the one between Reason and Rhetoric) by recognizing a crossing between two forms of veridication, each of which misunderstands the other by translating it into its own terms” (p. 136). To justify his position Latour goes to the philosophy of natural language:
To tell the truth—to the the truths – natural language lacks for nothing. This is to draw the positive conclusion where Wittgenstein, obsessed by his critique of rationalism, drew only the negative. One can perfectly well ask language to speak ‘with rigor,’ but without asking it for all that to pretend to progress from necessity to necessity by laying down a string of identical entities. . . . the only rigor that matters to us is learning to speak in the right tonality, to speak well – shorthand for ‘speaking well in the agora to someone about something that concerns him.’ (p. 139)
The dichotomy between “language” and “reality” in which language mediates or gives access to a ‘reality’ out there, dissipates. Language participates in reality. Unlike the dichotomy suggested between sticks and stones and words given in the saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me,” words, amplified with sufficient force may institute the same or worse physiological damage on a human being than a stick or stone. Sound waves bounce off ceilings into ears; formed marks on a page interact through corneas to stimulate optic nerves. Language flows, bounces, retreats, increases volume, whispers, repeats. As Latour speaks through the traces on a page, translated into this cyber paper, “The operation of turning to reality in and through language can now take place in two phases: by finding space again, and thus room to breathe. Because in order to speak, we have to have air in our lungs” (p. 141).
It seems to me that what Latour has written so far through his book reaches a hinge point on pp. 141-143. He has circulated the words and the reader to a crossing between ethnography and philosophy. He does not move from an ethnographic domain to its “philosophical implications” nor translate “ethnographic description” into a philosophical domain. He stands at an intersection of networks and describes the conditions in which his two different modes of existence, the referential and the political, may cross without reduction of one to the other, yet without constructing distinct domains within or perspectives on the same “reality.” Perhaps at this point we should let Latour’s words do their work by physical re-placement rather than by commentary:
Let us note first of all that with the notion and even the connotations of the word “network” we have gained room and space where we can collect values without merely mouthing the words. If we get into the habit of speaking of trajectories and passes that are limited and specific to each occasion for the paths of persistence [REP], chains of reference [REF], law [LAW], or political autonomy [POL], the landscape spread out before the observer is already entirely different from the one that obliged him to believe himself surrounded on all sides by an ‘eternal material world’ that would have invaded the entire space and that would have forced all the other values to retreat little by little. But to go where? Into the mind? Into the brain? Into language? Into symbolic? No one knew. It was a black hole. Stifling. Suffocating. . . .
From this point on, observers no longer find themselves facing a world that is full, continuous, without interstices, accessible to disinterested knowledge endowed with the mysterious capacity to go ‘everywhere’ through thought. . . . we have become able to discern that narrow conduits of the production of equipped and rectified knowledge as so many slender veins that are added to other conduits and conducts along which, for example, existents can run the risk of existing. These networks are more numerous that those of references, but they are no less localizable, narrow, limited in their kind, and, too, a sketch of their features – this is the essential point – reveals as many empty places as peaks and troughs. The stubborn determination of things to keep on existing does not saturate this landscape any more than knowledge could. . . .
Once we have accompanied knowledge [REF] in its networks – finally giving it the means to go as far as it wishes, but always provided that it pays the price of its installation and its extension – and above all, once we have accompanied the beings of the world in the conduits where they find the consecution of their antecedents and their consequents [REP], neither knowledge nor beings can fill in the landscape with empty padding. . .
The networks have in fact relocalized the DOMAINS. . . .
What matters in all these somewhat awkward metaphors is the attention they allow us to pay to materiality rather than to words, and to the empty space rather than the full ones. And they allow us in particular to feel the unfettered circulation of one value no longer has the ability to make another one completely disappear by disqualifying it from the outset on the pretext that there is ‘no place’ for it to go. The one can no longer derealize the other a priori. They can all start circulating side by side. . . .
To move forward in this inquiry, we need an ontological pluralism that was scarcely possible before, since the only permissible pluralism had to be sought perhaps in language, in culture, in representations, but certainly not in things, which were entirely caught up in that strange concern for forming the external world on the basis of an essentially argumentative matter. . . .
We are going to be able to restore to discussion the task of bearing, for each case, its reality test. . . . we shall no longer be able, a priori, without any test whatsoever, to discredit entire classes of beings on the pretext that they have no ‘material existence,’ since it is matter itself, as we have understood, that is terribly lacking in material existence! It is in the public square and before those who are primarily concerned by it that we have to run the risk of saying: ‘This exists, that does not exist.’
Latour, “the Prince of Networks,” gives us a realistic ontology that refuses the modern dichotomy of humans/culture/social construction versus science/nature/facts. The battlefield deflates with no enemy now to fight. Swords are turned into plough shares. Turf wars end as domains dissolve. We are left with the necessity of therapies of language – language that also allows “things” to speak – because speech itself is a thing.
Latour thus embraces a good, deeper relativism of irreductive networks over a bad pluralism of human perspectives on an inert or a linguistic pragmaticism of a constantly withdrawing reality. One referential, scientific, universal rational truth no longer may rule supreme as the Ring of Power and in darkness bind all others to itself. Nor does truth dissipate into constantly deferred arrivals that never come until the working out of the dialectical end of history and the last man. Latour clarifies:
Our method thus does not imply asserting that ‘everything is true,’ ‘that everything is equal to everything else,’ that all the versions of existence, the back as well as the good, the factitious along with the true, ought to cohabit without our worrying any longer about sorting them out, as is suggested by the popular version of relativism. . . . It implies only that the sorting out will have to take place, from now on, on a level playing field, contingent on precise tests, and we shall no longer able to endow ourselves with the astonishing facility of asserting that these particular beings exist for sure while those others are, at best, mere ‘ways of speaking.’ We see why the expression ‘to each his own (truth)’ not only has the relativist tonality people often grant it; it also implies the daunting requirement of knowing how to speak of each mode in its own language and according to its own principle of veridiction (p. 143).
Veridiction – the articulation of the conditions of truthful speech within a particular mode of existence – now become the crucial task to determine truth and falsity of a claimed mode of existence. As the chapter closes a mere ethnographic analysis of “the moderns,” it opens into an account that must, before proceeding, interrogate a final modern dichotomy: the bifurcation between construction and truth.
Latour rightly says, “It takes time to learn to talk” (p. 149). The truthfulness of modes of existence depend upon the construction of the conditions of truthful speech. Shaped by modern and postmodern dichotomies in the reductive battle of domains, a long period of linguistic therapy awaits us to speak well within the crossing of networks within a non-contradictory, realistic pluralism of modes of existence. I’m sure that this summary, already much too long, stutters deeply along the way.
One closing question. If I may allow my commitments to classical Thomistic language about God and all things related to God to surface for a moment (a language not foreign to Latour in his study under Henri de Lubac, if I understand correctly, and his initial work on Peguy and Bultmann – see his recently translated, Rejoicing: The Torments of Religious Speech, 2013). John Milbank of the University of Nottingham, after all, circulated me into Latour’s work. I wonder if we might complement Latour’s analysis of different modes of existence with different conditions of veridiction with a simultaneous language of intensities of participation in reality. To suggest a great modern heresy, Is there a hierarchy of modes of existence that permit humans to participate more deeply in the real, even with the holes, the fluidity, the circulation of the networks, that never can fill in the holes? Are there certain interstices where crossing of modes of existence participate more deeply, intensely through a confluence and ordering of conditions of veridiction? May one move beyond a listing of modes of existence into a fluid, shifting, but nonetheless deepening natural language of participation so that experience may be articulated more thoroughly through a constant ordering and reordering of these modes of existence in their crossings with each other? Is it perhaps even necessary to do so?
Perhaps nostalgia has overwhelmed me. I sometimes think so myself. As Latour’s ethnography of the moderns, repeating insights also found in networks into which I have been pulled, moves into a pluralistic ontology of modes of existence, it at least is the question that pursues me. After all, while modes is plural, existence remains singular. His work so far emphasizes the plurality of the modes; yet the singularity of existence itself haunts his project, the presence of an absence, a silence that perhaps shouts. Perhaps the theological dimension of Latour’s work, as seen in Rejoicing, does not represent an incidental idiosyncrasy of his person, but fundamentally defines the networks of his program.