Author: Terence Blake
The movement of deconstruction of the split between subject and object allied to the pluralisation of ontologies continues. We must now apply this ontological pluralism to the irrational superstitions that are thought to characterise traditional societies. Modernity has been constituted in terms of a battle against the superstitious belief in invisible beings and occult powers. The previous chapters have shown that the Moderns are mistaken about the nature and composition of the visible world. For Latour there is no “visible world”, the very idea is the result of a category mistake. A suspicious symptom from our history is the overwhelming violence that has accompanied the spread of Reason in the world, a sign that we are anxious and frightened about what we nonetheless assert to be devoid of existence.The accusation made by the moderns against other cultures is that of their “irrationality” in their attribution of objective existence to invisible beings. Not existing in the objective world, these beings can only be projections of the human psyche, the true locus of their existence. The only mode of existence that they can have is that of illusions and phantasms. These beings can only be explained in terms of the psychology of the inner world of subjectivity.
Applying our method we must search for material networks that are psychogenic, i.e. engaged in the production of psyches and subjectivities. We may have no positive institution for welcoming invisible beings, but we have an abundance of psycho-techniques and psycho-entertainment to stimulate, care for, or amuse ourselves. Our naïve, folk-psychology, belief is that we do not produce our psyches but rather we possess them. The self is autonomous, independent of networks for its existence. There is no meaning in the external world that is not projected by means of our internal representations. Here, psychoanalysis cannot help us: what is “repressed” is not a part of the psyche that we project, confusing our inner representations with outer entities, but rather the psychogenic networks that endow us with a psyche.
Our error is to attempt to think outside networks, to pay attention only to the “visible” products and to forget the invisible infrastructures. In consequence, we no longer know how (or where) to situate the subject. Certainly not inside, as interiority is not a given, it is manufactured. Our problem is one of attention, we do not notice the networks that engender the psyche. So we must return to the “original experience” of this mode of existence: emotion. Emotion is a form of crisis and transit, where our interiority is in the grip of what feels like an outside force. It invades us, takes possession of us for a certain time and carries us away, transforming our reactions, and then leaves us changed for better or worse.
The modern self is a contradictory relation between the autonomous authentic indvidual subject alone in an objective world devoid of meaning, and the swarm of entities necessary to its fabrication and continual modifications. Caught in a process of avoidance of these outside forces and of denial of their existence, the moderns have produced a vast array of therapeutic arrangements permitting their acknowledgement as inner facts susceptible to various forms of manipulation.
Latour affirms that an ethnopsychiatric approach to therapeutic situations gives us the best insight into the existence of these invisible beings and into the skill needed in dealing with them. We have such a skill constructed over our many contacts with these invisible beings. We know how to deviate and deflect their forces to other targets and gain their energy for going on in life. These beings can transform us, alientaing or inspring us in uncanny ways. They metamorphose themselves too, so this is why they are “invisible”, they do not have the persistence of the beings of reproduction, they do not belong to their régime of visibility and of stability. Thus their scope is not just therapeutic but ontological, foregrounding by means of their own proprties of metamorphosis and invisibility the alteration that characterises being-as-other.
1) ONTOLOGY: Latour’s ontology of forces guided by the goal of a maximum of transformation is close to the Nietzschean ontology of IRREDUCTIONS. Forces, powers, divinities and demons that do not take us as unified persons; metamorphoses, transformations, transmutations and becomings that oblige us to take being as alteration and repetition as difference. This is the language of affects and intensities that was developped by both Deleuze and Lyotard and that was abandonned by both as being too “metaphysical” in the sense of not paying enough attention to the régimes of enunciation.
Latour takes the same semiotic turn as his predecessors but gives it even more importance. He acknowledges the existence of these invisible beings but he does not give them primacy, as Deleuze and Lyotard did at a certain moment. They constitute one mode of existence amongs many, and the pluriverse does not repose on this mode. Latour also subtracts the jargon-filled Freudo-Marxist conceptual field that complicated this ontology and burdened it with a heavy-handed academic style. By renewing our theoretical vocabulary and references Latour has freed us from antiquated connotations and other dogmatic residues of the last century’s philosophical combats.
Yet I would argue that something is lost too. By covering his tracks and disguising if not his influences but his resonances with the preceding generation he makes them less readable and less comprehensible. At the same time he takes even further a movement that Bernard Stiegler regrets in these post-60s thinkers: the abandon of the word (and concept) “ideology”. This abandon, for whatever refined epistemological and ontological reasons, has left us unarmed in the ideological struggle against neoliberalism.
2) EMOTION: Latour’s phenomenology of the “original experience” that characterises the existence of these invisible forces is rather vague and incomplete, which is perhaps understandable in a book that includes sketches 14 other modes of existence. But it is also one-sided and more than a little arbitrary, emphasising the negative.
As modern subjects we are characterised mainly by the sad affects of anxiety, fear, loneliness and disenchantment in a world devoid of meaning. In our fight against the invisible beings we are once again described negatively in terms of our avoidance of them and denial of their existence, and our violence in disparaging and eradicating their cults in the traditions of the Others.
Latour’s general description of emotions is neutral. He talks of forces that affect us from outside, invade, possess, transform, pass through, and exit. Yet most of his descriptions list negative emotions that require “defensive” words and rituals to protect us against possesssion or devoration. For Latour we need a “skill” to deflect the possession and to benefit from the energy it can transmit. He does allude to the positive experiences of inspiration and romantic passion (but not to “love”, which is reserved for the religious mode), but still finds them dangerous.
A comparison with Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Kelly’s ALL THINGS SHINING may illuminate things here. They too reject the subject-object bifurcation and describe the modern autonomous self in a meaningless world as an illusion based on the denial of ontological agency to emotions (or “moods” in their terminology). Yet more often they describe positive emotions such as joy, wonder, gratitude, love alongside the more negative passions of anger and violence. So the “skill” that they invoke (called by them “metapoiesis“) is not just apotropaic or deflective, it is also peritropaic or inflective. We can allow ourself to be taken up by some emotions, and deflect or walk away from others. We can rise as one in a stadium in enthusiasm at an astonishing exploit, and we can walk away from the hate possessing a racist rally. Latour does not exclude this, but his emphasis is more negative.
3) THERAPY: Latour cites therapeutic arrangements as enclaves that permit a half-hearted acknowledgement of emotions as outside forces participating in the construction of psyches. For him a more ontologically satisfying model is found in the ethnopsychiatry of Tobie Nathan. Other examples can be found: post-jungian analyst James Hillman emphasised that therapy is the place of “soul-making” or the engendering of psyche, and Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis proposed the idea of the production of subjectivity. It is regrettable that here as elsewhere Latour feels obliged to overdramatise the novelty of his ideas, as if only he and Toby Nathan and a handful of others had managed to elaborate a non-personalistic vision of the psyche and of its fabrication and transformations.
Latour tends to envisage emotions as fairly short-term alterations of subjectivity (except in the case of possession, which may last longer, or “devoration”, which sounds rather permanent), where other thinkers are much more open. Once again, he reserves the more long-term transformations of subjectivity for the religious mode, calling them by a different name, “conversions”. I see no reason for this particular bifurcation (between the beings of metamorphosis and those of religion), and I think it contaminates his phenomenology of the mode of metamorphosis.